Where Dragons Roam
The news of Michael Wendell’s murder hit the city of Spellsburg like a bomb. Reporters from the Spellsburg Seer were in full force at Vollucross stadium, looking to get any details they could on the dreadful case. Lieutenant Mantos was in charge of finding the murderer and his Crimson Guards could be seen scouring the fields outside the stables, steadily marching shoulder to shoulder in long rows looking for clues, but the only thing suspicious they could find outside the stalls was a moldy piece of garment beneath one of the bleachers. The most striking clues were discovered at the scene of the crime inside the stables. There, an injured Threstral and a purple heart wand was found next to Michael’s’ mutilated body, and the owner of that wand was now sitting in Lieutenant Dunning’s dungeon office trying to explain what had happened.
“I’m tired, Eric. Can I leave now?”
“No you cannot, Miss Grayson,” an indignant Lieutenant Dunning replied angrily. “What part of this investigation can’t you understand? You were found at the scene of a murder. Your own wand was found next to the body.”
“Lieutenant Dunning, please…” Eric interrupted. “My sister’s had quite a shock. There’s no reason to continue yelling at her. She’ll answer all your questions… just…please; a little less animosity would be appreciated.” Eric sat down in a chair next to his sister and put his arm around her. “Go ahead, Anna… continue.”
Anna looked at Eric and he could see she was on the verge of tears again. Visibly shaking, Anna took a deep breath. “Like I said, I went to the stables to check on Swooper and that’s when I found him all bloody and hurt, and then I found Michael’s body buried in the straw next to him. That’s all I know.”
“Oh — I think you know much more than that, Miss Grayson,” Dunning interrupted again. “I already have a statement from the stable master, saying that he saw you running toward the stalls. He also said he witnessed you drawing your wand before you entered the stable building. It would seem you were expecting trouble before you got to those stalls.” Dunning came around to look at Anna directly. “Why were you running into the stables?
Anna looked at Eric. She could see his troubled expression, his wanting to know the truth.
“Because I was told Swooper might be in danger.” Anna replied meekly.
“You were told the Threstral was in danger? By whom?” Dunning snapped back angrily.
“Gregory, give the girl a chance to explain,” Captain Hayman interrupted, standing next to Dunning’s desk. “Go on, Anna, who told you this? We have to know.”
Anna heaved a rattled breath again. “I don’t know who he was. It was a man hiding under the bleachers. He said he was there to warn me and to stay away from the stables.”
“Warn you? Warn you about what, Anna?” Eric said worriedly.
Anna looked at her brother. She knew the next words she spoke would be met with skepticism.
“He said… Voldemort was out to get me.”
Eric Grayson almost fell out of his chair in shock. His first reaction was to argue against what Anna had just said, but he found his memory immediately traveling back to the conversation he had had with their father on the deck of the BB5 after his graduation the previous year. Speaking of Voldemort, his father said, “Anna could be seen as a danger to him.” The message from Anna’s stranger would be the first confirmation of their father’s worst fear.
“He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named… is out to get you? YOU?” Dunning’s retort was full of seething disbelief.
Anna looked up at Dunning and instantly became angry. “No… I mean… VOLDEMORT!”
“What idiotic rubbish is this?” Dunning smirked, looking back at Hayman.
“Anna… given what we know now, do you think this man you saw in the bleachers could have killed Wendell before he spoke to you?” Hayman asked.
“No… I don’t. He was trying to warn me to stay away from the stables.”
“Why? Because he thought there was somebody there that might be a danger to you?”
“Then this man might also know who it was that killed Michael Wendell. Would you agree?”
Anna looked at Hayman and then to her brother. “I… guess so.”
Dunning couldn’t contain his anger any longer. “Oh — for the love of… this is ridiculous. Of all the lies and cover ups — this would be the most obscene.”
“Captain! This girl was found with the body!” Dunning yelled out, pointing angrily at Anna. “Her wand was found right next to the murdered man!”
“I told you, I dropped my wand when I fell over him,” Anna snapped back.
“She had blood on her hands!”
“Swooper’s blood! It was Swooper’s blood!”
Dunning spun on his heels and then grabbed two pieces of parchment from off his desk.
“An owl delivered these reports just ten minutes ago from Lieutenant Mantos who’s been searching Michael Wendell’s apartment in the city. They found two men there who were friends to the victim. Apparently, they were looking for Michael when the guards arrived and interrogated them. According to this report, both men say they personally witnessed an argument between you and Wendell just a few weeks ago where you apparently told the victim… and I quote… to ‘Drop-dead.’” Dunning looked up from the report. “Interesting… because apparently, that’s exactly what you helped to facilitate.” Dunning returned to his report with an angry snap of the paper, “You also said, ‘if you ever put your hands on me again you’ll regret it.’”
Eric turned to his sister. “Anna… is this true? Did you see Michael Wendell again before today?”
Anna nodded. “Yes… I saw him the day I told you I saw the limping-man in the city.”
“So what happened?” Dunning cut in. “Did Wendell corner you in the stables, tried to get fresh with you, and so you cut his throat?”
“No!” Anna yelled back. She looked at Eric. “Eric… I didn’t. You know I didn’t.”
“Of course I know, Anna. Of course.”
There was a knock at the door of the office.
“Come!” Dunning shouted.
The door swung open and a guard stepped inside.
“Captain — I have the preliminary report you requested on the murder in the stables.” The guard held a scroll out and Dunning snatched it away. He tapped it with his wand and unrolled the parchment. He read through the report and then dropped a surprised gaze down at Anna. He then handed the report to the captain and then turned away.
Captain Hayman quickly scanned through the report. “Our tests show the blood found on Anna’s hands belonged to the Threstral.”
“That’s what I said,” Anna shot back.
“Now this is interesting,” Hayman continued.
“What’s interesting, John?” Eric said, standing to look at him.
“It says here that Wendell’s throat wasn’t cut, but was torn out… by some unknown creature and…”
“And…?” Eric stepped forward, “…and… what?”
“And most of his blood was missing from his body.”
Anna’s eyes widened in horror and the three other men standing in the room looked at one another, each believing they knew something the others did not.
“Anna, you’re free to go,” Hayman said, almost remorsefully.
“Captain Hayman — NO! Certainly not!” Dunning yelled. “She’s our only suspect! You can’t let her go. She should be locked in a cell until our full report is complete.”
“Gregory… you know as well as I that Anna could not have done this. There was a knife found in Wendell’s hand. We have confirmed through blood tests this was the weapon used to stab the Threstral. The man’s body was absent of blood, but there wasn’t any blood found in the stall other than what belonged to the thorse.”
“But…” Dunning began to argue, “…a simple Scourgifying spell…”
“The body had been moved to the stall after the man was killed. Anna could not have entered when first seen by the stable master, killed Wendell in the matter in which he was found, and then cleaned up both herself and the stall in the time it took Mr. Kingston to find her.”
“No…Captain, don’t do this; you can’t let her go. Where is justice here? She knows more than what she’s telling us; I know it!”
“We will concentrate our search for the man Anna said she saw under the bleachers. Mantos’s men found a piece of clothing where Anna said this man tried to warn her away from the stables. We will continue our search there.”
“John…” Dunning pleaded, “…no! She was involved; I know…”
“Lieutenant Dunning!” Hayman snapped back. “That’s enough!” He turned to Eric and Anna. “Miss Grayson… you’re free to go. But I would ask that you make yourself available if any further questions become necessary, and you are not to leave the plateau without my permission. An owl has been sent to your father regarding this matter. I would expect he will be contacting you shortly.”
Anna stood. “What about Swooper? His injuries…”
“Were not very serious,” Hayman assured her. “The Threstral is already on his feet again and under the care of the Vollucross Steward, Doctor Pearl.”
“I want to see him,” she said, looking hopefully at her brother.
“Absolutely not!” Dunning yelped. He looked at Captain Hayman. “She should be banned from the area until our investigation and search are completed.”
The captain nodded. “He’s right, Anna. Let Mantos finish his work first. When he’s satisfied he’s completed his investigation, then you can return. For now, it’s best you stay clear of the stables and the stadium.”
“I agree, Anna,” Eric said worriedly. “You shouldn’t be anywhere near that place right now.”
Anna and Eric left the dungeon office to the sound of Dunning arguing with Captain Hayman through the closed door.
“Dunning still has it in for me,” Anna moaned.
Eric looked at her in surprise. “Why would you say that? Dunning’s memory was wiped clean after his demotion. He shouldn’t be carrying any residual hostility against you now.” Anna looked at him with a patronizing frown. Eric was surprised again. “What? You don’t think he still knows what happened at Drogo?” her brother asked her, disbelievingly.
Anna looked around them carefully. “Yes… he does. He still knows everything. I’m sure of it.”
Eric was shocked. “Why would you say such a thing?”
“Because he called me into his office when it came time to give me my security pass. During my interview, he made it clear to me… his memory was still in tact.”
“Did he actually say that?”
“Of course not. But you know how Dunning can twist a phrase to get his point across when he wants to. He was asking a lot of question about…” she looked cautiously around them again and then whispered, “Victoria Grayson.”
“That’s right. He asked me if she was well… and whether I knew if she was planning to come to Spellsburg again.”
Anna was shaking her head when the door to Dunning’s office opened again and Captain Hayman stepped out.
“Oh — Eric, Anna, I’m glad you’re still here. Can I have a word with the two of you in private, please?”
The Graysons looked at each other, nodded, and then followed Hayman into another office where he quickly closed the door behind them. It took the captain a while to finally find the right words to explain his troubled thoughts. He finally turned to Anna.
“Anna, I know about your mother. I know about Victoria Grayson.”
Anna was stunned. “You… you do?”
“Yes… I do. I know the two of you already know this, but the Captain of the Guard is in charge of the Crimson squads in Spellsburg and Castlewood, and also those stationed in Drogo. When I took Dunning’s post, I was fully informed of Drogo’s existence in the Shadowed Forest by Chancellor Thordarson. He also informed me he told you about his role as the hospital’s leading Healer and Secret Keeper. So I know I don’t have to explain his knowledge of Drogo to you.” Anna nodded as Hayman turned to stare at the fireplace left burning in the room.
“Thordarson told me about your mother’s case,” the captain hesitated, “not all of it, mind you; doctor-patient privilege forbids my knowing all of the medical details, just the facts necessary for the purposes of security.” He turned to her again. “I know it was because of you’re mother’s escape that Dunning lost the captaincy.”
Anna held her breath, wondering if the captain’s next sentence was to accuse her of Victoria’s escape, but he didn’t.
“I also know your mother … is a vampire.” Anna could hear his words were interwoven with both immense worry and heart-felt sympathy. “And… I know the cause of her condition… was You-Know-Who’s doing.” He hesitated again before turning to look down into the sputtering fire under the mantel. “Anna, I too have lost family at the hands of this fiend and his Death Eaters. So I hope you’ll believe me when I tell you how truly sorry I am about what’s happened to your family and to your mother.”
Anna could feel the burning sensation of tears brewing in her eyes as she whispered, “Thank you, Captain.”
Eric stepped forward and reached out to his friend in sympathy. “John… I had no idea. Who did you lose?”
Hayman looked at Eric and swallowed hard. “He had both of my parents killed in my first year at Castlewood. My father was an Auror.” He slowly turned away to look into the fire again. “My mother… just got in the way.”
“Oh my God,” Anna moaned.
Hayman suddenly turned to her. “I need you to tell me the truth, Anna. Do you think it possible Victoria Grayson could have done this — could have killed Michael Wendell?”
Anna shifted her stare to her brother, who was only glancingly looking at her. She wasn’t surprised by Hayman’s question. In fact, her first thought after Dunning said the blood had been drained from a ripped throat forced her to admit this frightful possibility.
“I don’t know, Captain. I guess… it’s possible. I didn’t want to say anything in front of Dunning, but the man I saw under the bleachers said… that my mother had returned to the plateau.”
“What?” Eric yelped.
Anna looked at her brother. “He said she was hiding somewhere in the Shadowed Forest.”
“I don’t understand, Anna. Why would your mother come back here and risk being caught again?” Hayman asked her.
Anna hesitated before answering. “Because she believes Voldemort has sent somebody after me. The man said Victoria was being held a prisoner by the Dark Lord, but she had escaped,” and she told them what the cursed man said about her mother helping him to escape, and how she had sent him ahead to warn Anna of Voldemort’s plan.
Eric looked horrified. “That might explain why Mantos didn’t find any blood in the stall. Victoria might have attacked Wendell after witnessing his fight with Anna.”
Anna was surprised. The thought of her mother being so close to her in the city made her tremble.
“No… I don’t think that’s what happened here,” Hayman replied. “The body was definitely moved into the stall after Wendell was killed. Our investigation has confirmed that much up to now.”
“But… who hurt Swooper, then,” Anna retorted. “Dunning said Michael had the knife that was used to hurt my horse.”
“Now that’s an interesting question,” Hayman answered. “We know Michael was killed somewhere else and then moved to the stall. I think it improbable that the body was hidden there for any other reason than to implicate you. Perhaps whoever it was had to put the horse down to get the body in there, or to create a motive for you attacking Wendell in the first place. I don’t know”
Eric frowned. “But if the body was used to frame Anna, then that would clear Victoria, wouldn’t it? I mean… Victoria Grayson wouldn’t travel all this way to protect Anna and then try and frame her.”
“That’s true, unless Wendell was put in the stall as a warning to others not to harm Anna. If Wendell’s body had been found anywhere else, it would have been difficult to show it had anything to do with your sister.”
Hayman reached over and removed Anna’s security badge from her robes.
“What are you doing?” she protested.
“You are restricted to the castle unless you have my permission and an escort.”
Anna looked to her brother for support. “Eric… please. I can’t be locked up in the castle for the rest of the year. I have Vollucross practice; the first race is next week.”
Eric looked at Hayman and then to his sister. “Anna, I think this is for the best until we can figure things out,” he said, sympathetically.
“An escort will be assigned to you if you need to go outside the castle grounds and I know just who to call,” Haman added, walking over to open the door. “Until then… it’s back to the Guardian Hall with you, Miss Grayson.”
Being locked inside the castle turned out to be somewhat of a blessing for Anna. When the news of Michael Wendell’s murder was printed in the local newspapers, the town of Spellsburg was a swarming buzz of whispered rumors. If the murder had taken place on Castlewood grounds, it might have been easier to control the flow of information, but being that the body was found a public place made it easy for reporters from the Spellsburg Seer to turn what should have been a solemn event into a wild circus of big-top proportions. The reporters were everywhere, looking for information on Wendell, and it wasn’t long before Anna’s name started to appear in the newspapers as the leading suspect in the investigation. Reporters, eager for news, had even gone to chasing Gwen and Sarah Bell whenever they crossed the drawbridge.
Perhaps it was this continuous harassment of Sarah Bell on the reporter’s part that caused Anna’s roommate to fly off the handle uncharacteristically at another four-year student who was trying to probe her for information about how Anna was holding up to the stress. Sarah’s sudden outbursts were generally followed by long periods of private brooding in their dorm room.
Anna was concerned about her friend. Although it would have been easy to assume the problems with Michael Wendell’s murder might have been overflowing onto her roommate and her character was simply yielding to the pressure, but somehow Anna knew that wasn’t the case. Sarah was irritable and moody and, sometimes, completely absent of care and normal sympathies toward those around her. Anna tried to reach out to her, to understand what was troubling her roommate, but Sarah would only say she was tired and having a lot of problems sleeping at night. When Anna suggested that she might seek the help of Doctor Pearl for a sleeping draft, Sarah reaction was both surprising and rather disturbing.
Her glare darkened as she whispered something under her breath that sounded almost menacing to Anna. “I will tell you when I need your help… Sithmaith.”
Sarah had never called her Sithmaith before and, looking back several months later, Anna would realize this should have been a warning to her. But as time passed, Anna’s own difficulties in dealing with the newspaper headlines kept her from pursuing whatever was causing Sarah Bell to act so strangely.
However, in the middle of the night some days later, Anna started to worry there might be something seriously wrong with her roommate.
It started as a dream for Anna and she remembered walking through a dense forest alone and all of the voices of magic speaking into her mind.
“Beware of the little one,” they kept saying over and over again.
“Who are you talking about?” Anna answered back worriedly.
“She is not what she seems… beware!”
“Who?” Anna yelled back, adding her voice to her pleading. Suddenly Anna froze; there was the faint crack of something walking toward her from out of the darkness behind her.
Anna whipped out her wand. “Who’s there?”
The shadow of somebody small was just visible between the trees, and although Anna couldn’t make out her face, the moonlight behind the spy made her think it was someone familiar.
“She is not to be trusted… she is corrupt,” the voices warned.
Anna’s eyes suddenly fly open and she quickly realized she had been awakened by the sound of mumbling voice behind her. She turned over to look and found the same shadowed figure sitting next to her on the bed. Anna bolted upright in fright and pushed open the curtains to allow what little moonlight was available to enter the room. She found Sarah Bell sitting next to her on the bed.
“Sarah? What’s the matter? Are you okay?”
While it was odd enough to find Sarah staring at her while she slept, stranger still was the eerie look Anna saw in the girl’s eyes. If asked to describe it, she would have said it was a look of malevolence, and… yes… the disturbing appearance of wrath. Sarah didn’t respond to say what was wrong. She stood and slowly returned to her own bed where she immediately went back asleep.
The next morning, Sarah didn’t seem to remember anything from the night before and then, as quickly as Sarah’s foul mood had arrived it was suddenly gone; replaced again by the shy, but always cheerful companion that Anna had grown to love. Anna’s concern for Sarah was temporarily set aside the next night when they heard a heavy knock at their door and on the other side Anna found a note.
You are hereby granted permission to leave the castle grounds at exactly eight o’clock tomorrow morning where a guard will be waiting to escort you to Vollucross Stadium for your first race. This temporary lifting of your restrictions will continue only while in direct line of sight of your escort. Any deviation from the chosen route set by your guard will cause the immediate suspension of your riding privileges. You should know it was only due to the Vollucross Steward’s private intervention on your behalf that you are being allowed to reenter the arena area. Doctor Pearl thinks highly of your personal code of conduct and she has assured me that you will honor these rules set aside for your personal safety. It’s to your honor that I demand your complete and absolute adherence to the instructions given to you by your escort. Enjoy your day. Respectively, John Hayman. Captain of the Crimson Guard.
“Thank you, Doctor Pearl,” Anna whispered gratefully as she crumbled the parchment in her hands.
At seven-fifty nine the next morning, Anna was waiting by the Castlewood entranceway for her escort to arrive. She hadn’t thought that much about what Captain Hayman had said about knowing just who to call to be her escort, and she would later wonder why she didn’t know immediately.
The morning air was crisp and cold, even for the month of November, and the sky was bright blue and void of clouds. As Anna waited outside the immense door, she looked up and wondered what the winds would be like at five hundred feet. Wrapping her arms about her shoulders, she turned and suddenly found her vision completely red.
“You should be wearing a warmer cloak, you should,” said a familiar voice.
Anna looked up and gasped. Towering more than eight feet above her, was a crimson-cloaked guard wearing a silken mask.
“Trog!” Anna squealed, throwing herself around his massive body. His bulk felt like a pile of bricks as she struggled to put her arms around the giant’s middle.
“Miss Anna should not be outside the castle without her escort, she shouldn’t,” Trog said derisively.
Anna pushed back to look up at him and grinned. She could she his emerald eyes wrinkling their edges in the way they always did when the creature smiled.
“I was just outside the door,” Anna explained.
“You are to follow my instructions without question, you are,” Trog said, importantly. “I am your escort, I am. You will follow me.”
“Yes, sir,” Anna answered, releasing him to stand straight.
“Very good. Go, we must. Stay to the schedule, you will.”
And so the two of them set off together, a sight to behold to be sure; the young girl in purple robes and bright red hair, following the towering guard in Crimson robes through the inner courtyard and out portcullis. Anna smiled as she watched the students walking in front of them eagerly move to get out of Trog’s way. A massive presence moving down the walk, Trog rolled like a diesel engine who’s social skills did not include diverting from his chosen path despite those who failed to clear his way. On more than one occasion, several students were bumped to the side and nearly flattened under Trog’s massive boots.
“Hold on… you’re going too fast,” Anna complained, as she jogged to keep up.
Trog stopped and turned. “You are to keep close to your escort, you are.”
“Well I’m trying… but I can’t walk that fast.”
Trog looked down at her and frowned. “Shall I carry you?” he said, cocking his head worriedly.
“No… you don’t have to carry me. I can walk on my own. Just slow down a little so I can keep up.”
As the two of them crossed over the drawbridge, Anna could see she was in trouble. A number of reporters were waiting for them as she stepped onto the city street.
“Anna! Anna Grayson… did you kill Michael Wendell?” a reporter yelled out loudly. Using his wand like a microphone, as he pointed it at her to wait for a response.
Anna was taken aback by the directness of the question, but she didn’t have time to answer before another reporter shouted, “Miss Grayson — is it true that you were just protecting yourself from Wendell’s attacks?”
“What? No… of course not!” Anna blurted out in reply. The crowd of reporters rushed in to surround her.
“No you didn’t kill him, or no you weren’t trying to protect yourself?” yelled a third reporter.
“You will stay back, you will!” bellowed Trog angrily. “I am her escort, I am. You will move back!” And with one massive swipe of his arm, Trog forcibly moved the crowd out of Anna’s path.
“Come!” he said, directing Anna forward with one gigantic hand pressing into her back.
The crowd followed the two of them through the city, shouting questions about Michael Wendell, how Anna had found the body, and the injury to her Threstral. On and on they yelled, through the city gates and across the plateau toward Vollucross Stadium.
“No more questions,” Troy bellowed irritably, as they turned toward the stadium gates.
“The public has a right to know why she killed him!” shouted one obsessive reporter who had moved to block their path again.
Without answering, Trog unknowingly bumped passed the man, leaving him and his photographer sprawled in a heap on the grass. Standing again, the reporter looked livid.
“Guard! Who do you report to? You can’t treat a member of the press this way. What is your name? And why are you wearing a mask?” The man raised a wand. “Reserperio!”
At once, the silken mask covering Trog’s face flew off and the crowd let out a collective gasp in response. At first, the giant tried to cover his face with his gloved hands, before bending over and then falling to his knees to look for his fallen mask. He began groping at the ground with one hand while trying to hide the features of his face with the other. He found Anna’s feet blocking his way. His head tilted up to look at her, and he could see she was holding his mask, which looked like a tablecloth in her small hands. He moved again to hide his face, while his green eyes peered out from between his massive, sausage-like fingers.
Anna smiled and then reached out to gently take hold of his fingers covering his face, and she could see his eyes widen in surprise as she moved to pry then away. His hands tighten and then relaxed, finally succumbing to her long and wanting wish to see him. Anna gently moved his hands away from his rocky face and she could hear the crowd gasping behind her again.
Trog’s features were a study of nature itself. His cheeks and forehead looked like dark pebbles set within a mud-colored face. Moss-like fur covered the parts of his face where a man’s beard might be, which was gathered together close to his chin with a wrapped twig. His ears, just protruding knobs of bone sticking out from the sides of his head, were gently set back to where his neck joined his baldhead. But… oh… his eyes. For a creature such as this, living in the Shadowed Forest his whole life, Anna could see the entire world and all its beauty in his green, gem-like eyes. Anna placed her hand upon the thing’s face and he closed his eyes at her gentle touch.
“Not — pretty, it is not,” Trog said, in a rumble of a whisper.
“I think,” Anna replied, moving closer to place her other hand upon his cheek, “you’re absolutely beautiful.” And to Trog’s great surprise, Anna Grayson reached around as far as she could to hug his massive head against her chest, and the creature hugged her back with all the gentleness he could muster given his great size.
“My God… it’s an ogre!” yelled one of the reporters. “What’s a dirty ogre doing in Crimson robes?” There were several flashes from their cameras that seemed to break the quite moment Anna had hoped to share for hours in the giant’s enormous embrace.
“Miss Grayson… did you have this monster kill Michael Wendell for you?” yelled the reporter who had used a wand to remove Trog’s mask.
Anna and Trog pushed themselves apart and the ogre could see the surprised disgust in her reaction to the reporter’s question. His rocky expression hardened. The ogre took the mask from Anna’s hand and then began to rise, and she could feel the ground beneath her grown at the ogre’s concentrated weight. He turned to face the reporter and could see the wand he had used to remove his cover still wagging in his hand.
Trog moved quickly, so fast in fact that there was little doubt it was magical. First he was beside Anna and then he was not. In the blink of an eye, he was standing before the reporter and already reaching down at him. The shocked man had just enough time to raise his wand and stab its point into Trog’s palm, where it was summarily crushed into dust within his brick-like grip.
“Nice, you are not!” Trog grumbled ominously, and before the man could let out a shout of protest the ogre bent down nose to nose with the wizard. Anna thought the man looked like a small child gaping fearfully into the face of a mountain. “You should learn to respect what you do not understand, you should,” Trog said reproachfully. He then he opened his mouth… and sneered at the man. The reporter could see what looked like a wall of tusks bigger than his entire head, lying in odd rows cracked and broken. He shuddered when he saw the smaller bones of something eaten earlier that morning protruding from between his teeth.
The man gulped. “My… ah… apologies…sir,” he whimpered timidly.
Trog slowly rose before him, and Anna watched the man’s eyes follow the ogre up like a boy witnessing with awed wonder the building of some hideous storm. Trog raised the mask again and then dropped it down over his face to cover his head. He then turned to Anna once more.
The two walked alone the rest of the way to the stadium, the crowd of reporters without courage to follow.
“Trog… why do you wear that mask all the time? You don’t have to, you know; not around me, anyway.”
The giant looked down at her and wrinkled his eyes again. “Captain Dunning made it a part of my uniform, he did. Troy must be covered entirely.”
“But Dunning isn’t the Captain of the Guard anymore. Hayman is Captain now.”
“Hay-man is good to Trog, he is. He gives Trog the duty again. He knows Trog can be useful, he can. Trog helped set the very first stone in the Guardian Hall, he did,” he stiffened proudly as he walked, and Anna smiled. He paused for a moment, and then, “Most wizards do not like Trog — because he is different, he is. It is best I stay covered when not in the forest, it is.”
After seeing the reaction to Trog’s presence in the city, it might have been easy for Anna to agree. “But you don’t have to hide yourself around me, Trog. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the way you look.” She could hear a half gasp, like a sucking wind through old pipes, and then a clunking guffaw that Anna took for laughter beneath his mask.
“The lady ogres in the forest like Troy, too, they do,” he said with another clunk.
Anna stopped to look at him. “There are lady ogres… in the forest?”
“Oh yes… there are three. They live on different mountains, they do. Keeps them from fighting, it does.”
“They… they fight each other… why?”
“Violent, they are. They do not like to share their lands.”
Anna turned to continue forward. “Well I’ll bet you’re big enough to make them stop fighting.”
This time Trog stopped. “Oh-no! They are much bigger than Trog, they are. Much bigger!”
Anna stared at him. “Bigger? Bigger… than you?”
“Half again so, they are,” Trog explained, raising a huge hand above his head as if to show her how big.
“And mean during the rut, they are. Grow horns as big as dragons, they do,” he said, this time raising both hands over his head to show her.
“Oh — my — gosh, they sound absolutely terrifying,” Anna said in amazed wonder.
“No… beautiful, they are… with their beards and horns,” Trog signed, in apparent rapture.
They continued talking about the creatures of the Shadowed Forest all the way to Vollucross Stadium and Anna was amazed at Trog’s knowledge of everything around them. Finally, they saw a line of people trying to enter the stadium gates, and Trog lead Anna around to the gap on the forest side of the stables.
The moment Anna entered Swooper’s stall, remorse moved to overwhelm her. Knowing Michael Wendell’s body was put there to frame her for his murder made her feel terribly insecure again. But these feelings were short-lived when saw the black threstral moving about excitedly at the sound of the rumble in the stands above him.
“Swooper!” Anna yelped happily, rushing forward to hug her horse. She couldn’t believe he looked so strong after all the blood she had found on him after the attack.
“He’s as strong as he is stubborn, that one,” announced a voice behind her and Anna turned to find the Castlewood stable master, Mr. Kingston, smiling back at her.
“Oh… Jeremiah! Thank you so much for taking care of him.” Anna’s face fell as she looked over her mount’s neck. “His injuries… were they…?”
“No… not serious. He was on his feet again ten minutes after you left him. Stronger than an ox and twice at obstinate, that Thorse.”
Swooper grunted disapprovingly.
“Well it’s true,” the man replied angrily, but then he smiled again and suddenly looked excited. “Nothing like a good race to burn his mulish heart.”
Anna looked into Swooper’s deep blue eyes; he looked perfect, strong, and ready for action. “Are you ready to fly today, big boy?” she asked him anxiously, and Swooper bellowed excitedly in reply.
An hour later, the riders and their mounts were zooming around the arena, waiting for the whistle that would sound the beginning of the first race. Professor Bots had his wand to his throat to magnify his voice over the excited throng who were on their feet and clapping wildly in anticipation.
“Good luck and God’s speed to our riders and their mounts,” Bots bellowed happily. “AND SO IT BEGINS!
There was a loud blast of a whistle and the flying horses dipped their wings and shot toward the gap, through the stadium breach, and over the cool, green forests below them. As she always did, and thanks to her mount’s amazing sprinting speed, Lannete Cobstone immediately took the lead into the first tree-lined gap in the woods followed closely by two riders and then Anna with four others. Anna looked back at the stadium behind them and smiled as she watched the skies over its stone walls darken and the Vollucross Hemisphere begin to brighten over the spectator’s heads. She could still hear the roar of the crowd as she fell into the first turn.
Swooper was in brilliant form. Perhaps it had been the loving care Doctor Pearl and Mr. Kingston had given to his recovery, or the fact that he had been cooped up in his stall for far too long. Whatever the reason, Swooper was using a vast amount of energy, as he zipped immediately by one of the other horses in front of him in a sweeping loop that even took Anna completely by surprise. With her heels anchored tight against his pegs, Anna swore she could hear the crowd screaming their delight in the stadium miles behind them. Swooper straightened and then leveled once more behind another rider, and Anna could feel her mount’s massive body tense for another pass.
“Save some strength for the end, boy,” Anna warned him as they banked a hard left into another turn and then right once again. Swooper glided through the turns easily, and Anna could tell by the sharp jerks at her reins that the Threstral had much more to give.
Left, right, right again; the trees to the side looked like a green blur of paint. Right, down, up, left; Swooper zipped through the gaps, flapping hard between the bends. On each left turn, Anna could feel an extra hard pull of Swooper’s wings, which closed the gap between themselves and other rider ahead. Soon they were right on the other horse’s tail, matching its every move through the trees.
They finally flew into a wide, open area and saw the first green pole and its rings waiting near a triangular flag in its center.
Lannete Cobstone was already snapping her captured ring on her saddle clip and heading into the gap in the woods again.
My gosh… Lannete is fast today, Anna thought as she and the rider in front circled the pole.
CLANG! CLANG! Anna turned sharply and sped into the woods again.
Right, left, left, right, right again; Swooper was pressing hard. Again, on each left turn, Swooper was closing and Anna could see why. The horse in front of them was wide in his turns. Every time they banked left, Anna could see them slipping wide to the right. She smiled broadly as she leaned down.
“You’re more a fox than a charging steed, Swooper; I see it now. We’ll close in on the next turn and then catch them on the first left bank. There was a jerk in reply at the reins. They swept right in a tight ninety-degree turn and Anna saw the next left coming.
“Now, Swooper! Go — go — go!”
Her mount closed the gap in less than a second and dove under the other horse’s hooves into the turn. Once there, they waited for the slide. It happened right on queue, and Swooper filled the widening gap to pass. They rose and banked right to cut off any chance of the other rider’s recovery. It was a brilliant pass, and Anna gave every bit of the credit to Swooper’s experience and determination as they moved to chase Lannete once again.
Anna saw the horse in front of them disappear through a gap of blue in the trees when a dark shadow suddenly flew over their heads to block out the sun. Anna looked up and was stunned, amazed, and immediately fearful by what she saw. She looked ahead just as Swooper breached the gap of blue and exploded into the open air over the crystal lake.
“Down, Swooper…. get down!” Anna leaned over the horse’s black mane to push his head forward. The frightened tone of Anna’s voice was all Swooper needed to know something was terribly wrong; he immediately obeyed.
They dove together toward the water below them as Anna looked up, searching frantically for Lannete Cobstone. She could see the girl peering under her arm back at her and frowning at Anna’s unexplainable plunge toward the water.
Anna began waving frantically at her. “Get down! Down! Get down to the water!” She could see the girl didn’t understand. She didn’t realize she was in danger. Lannete smiled and began whipping the sides of her horse with the reins to increase her distance as she headed for the pole in the middle of the lake.
“No!” Anna yelled fearfully, pulling hard on the reins to level. She turned her attention to the skies above then again.
Anna could hear Lannete taking the second ring, but she didn’t care. She was searching the sky everywhere around them for what she had seen flying over the woods.
“We have to warn her, Swooper. Try and cut her off!”
They began to rise, this time veering directly into Lannete’s oncoming path.
Lannete had just affixed the second ring to the back of her saddle when she looked up to see Anna heading directly at her. She screamed and pushed down to avoid crashing into them. Anna immediately banked over to follow her down.
“Are you insane?” Cobstone screamed. “You could have killed us both! You’re way off course, Grayson!”
“Get down! Get down to the water, NOW!” Anna yelled back, motioning frantically below them.
Anna finally screamed the only word she knew would to explain her actions.
She could tell by the look on Lannete’s face that the girl understood her, but her disbelief delayed her response.
“I said…” but it was too late. A second later it happened. A massive streak of copper scales shot past Anna and Swooper and smashed into the other horse’s wing carrying Lannete Cobstone. There was a horrible crack and a scream of pain as a dragon, three times the size of Swooper, spread its wings to recover from its killing dive.
Lannete and her horse tumbled over and over toward the water below them and Anna screamed helplessly as she watched them fall.
“Oh, my God. NO!”
She could see the mount and its rider separating as they fell and just before Lannete and Peppercorn hit the water, a second dragon intercepted them. It caught the horse by the neck in its massive jaws and then arched upward to the open sky with Lannete dangling by her harness beneath them.
Lannete’s screams could be heard getting louder as they rose toward them again and Anna watched helplessly as they passed. The dragon gave a violent and jerking twist, and there was a horrible crack that silenced Peppercorn’s painful cries of suffering forever.
A moment later, Anna felt her heart stop when she saw Lannete’s harness rip and give way with a sharp snap. Freed from her dead mount, the girl began to tumble toward the water again. Anna immediately dove with no hope of catching the girl or slowing her fall. She could see the other dragon diving too and Anna could feel her anger rising to match the beast. No matter what it took, she meant to stop this creature from killing the other rider.
The wind was rushing passed them like a storm as they dove, the air battered and buffeting Anna’s arm as she raised and then pointed her wand down at the space between the creature and the falling girl.
“Diffindo!” Anna screamed, sending a bolt of red light down at them. The spell just missed the dragon’s head as it moved in to snatch Lannete out of the air. The creature spread its wings and rotated back with a loud and angry screech as Lannete hit the water.
Anna moved her arm away in time to see the beast rising again. It was flapping angrily as it refocused its attention upon her.
“Oh — my God! Swooper, we have to get out of here.” She quickly looked around. “We have to get to the forest!” She reined around and lashed at the horse’s sides. “GO — SWOOPER! GO — GO — GO!”
Her mount obeyed, reaching forward with his great wings and pulling back hard to increase their pace. They were almost at Swooper’s top speed when the dragon shot over their heads and then rolled to block their way in front of them. Swooper screamed as his wings shot forward together to stop in front of the Vipertooth glaring angrily at them from across the open sky between them. The second dragon rose up from beneath them to block their way back. Anna turned to face the other with her wand drawn, her arm was shaking as she thrust it forward.
The great beast stared at her with large yellow eyes, and Anna could see its mind working as it flapped in place. It was trying to decide at what angle in which to take them down. In that fear-filled moment, Anna might have thought its copper color and black horns almost beautiful against the morning sky if she hadn’t been so terrified. The tiles of overlapping scales covering their bodies gleamed like freshly minted pennies from the bridge of their noses right down to their hooked thumbs atop their bat-like wings. The dragon behind her growled and then opened its mouth to screech angrily at her. Anna could see a string of horseflesh hanging grotesquely from his mouth.
“Say back!” Anna yelled, thrusting her wand forward at the beast behind them before swinging it around again to point at the other in front.
Seconds passed like hours as they stared at each other, the dragons and Swooper flapping anxiously to remain aloft, as the beast in front bellowed again. Anna frowned. She was immediately taken by the fact that neither was making a move to kill them, but the tension was starting to get to Swooper. Seeing death staring hungrily at him was pressing her mount to dive, to flee, but Anna held his reins tight.
“Please… Swooper,” she whispered softly, “don’t make any sudden moves. Don’t flee.”
Anna looked into the dragon’s eyes and felt her gaze fall into the great beast’s mind. She could feel its rage, its seething desire to attack them, but something was holding it back. Comprehension slowly came to Anna. There was a reason for death’s delay and it certainly wasn’t due to any fear the dragons might have possessed of her wand. No… it was something deeper, more basic than fear. The creature was simply trying to decide if this human girl was really its enemy. Anna slowly tilted her wand back and then carefully moved to slide it back into her robes. Then she let go of the reins and held out her hands. Still looking into the creature’s eyes, Anna could sense the anger she saw a moment before beginning to slide away, displaced for the sake of something even more astonishing. It made Anna smile and swell with pride.
“Sister…” Anna whispered, “I am not your enemy. I don’t know what has angered you, but I understand it’s not without cause.” She reached out to them. “Let me help you. I want to understand what brought you here. Why have you left your nesting grounds?”
The creature fell back and then let out an angry roar.
“Let me help you, sister. Let me…”
A streak of red light suddenly smashed into the top of one of the dragon’s wings. The creature let out a scream of pain and Anna looked up to see several Crimson Guards zooming in like a swarm of angry hornets on doors and brooms, firing hexes at the two dragons as they approached.
“No! Don’t!” Anna yelled as her mount turned and dove to get away from the incoming curses streaking in like colored lightening all around them. The dragons followed her down, one on each side as they headed for the water. Anna looked over at the dragon and screamed, “You must go! Get back to the forest! Go before the guards kill you! Go!”
Immediately, the dragons rotated their shoulders back and pulled away, one left and the other right, they headed off across the open lake. Anna watched as one of them looked back at her. It howled and shook its enormous head before rising to cross the line of trees perched high upon the cliff’s edge.
“Guardian, are you all right? Are you injured?” asked one of the guards moving in to hover beside her.
“Please… don’t hurt them,” Anna yelled back.
The guard seemed temporarily surprised. “We have no intention of giving chase. That would be foolish. We have rescued the other rider from the lake and the rest of the racers are being escorted back to Vollucross Stadium. Your race today is finished, Guardian. You will follow us.”
Anna nodded, reined Swooper around, and then took the lead across the top of the forest. They flew in a straight line back to the stadium, and when they reentered the arena Anna was met with unexpected applause and loud cheering. She glided down to the soft grass where she found Eric, Doctor Pearl, Trog, and… somebody unexpected.
Sure enough, standing and waiting for her in the center of the field was Mister Grayson. He was reaching out to her with a look of strained relief.
“Anna! Are you all right?”
Anna jumped down and fell into her father’s waiting arms. “Oh Daddy….” She quickly pushed away. “Did you see what happened? Did you see the dragons?”
Her father gave Eric a look of utter bewilderment and then smirked. “Kind of hard to miss them, sweetheart.”
The crowd was still cheering loudly when Anna felt somebody tap her on the shoulder. She turned to find Lannete Cobstone standing here. Wet and still shivering under a blanket, the girl looked like she had been crying. Without saying a word, Lannete reached out to hug Anna.
“Are you okay?” Anna whispered into to her ear.
“Yeah, I’m all right… thanks to you.” She pulled back and sniffed. “If you hadn’t used your wand to stop that dragon, I’m sure I’d be dead right now. My horse…” Lannete’s voice stumbled as her face scrunched up. She was trying with all her strength to hold back her tears.
“I know,” Anna replied mournfully. “I can’t believe it — Peppercorn. I’m so sorry, Lannete.” The girl covered her face and Anna reached out to hug her again. “I’m so sorry.”
“But why did the dragons do it? Why did they attack us? We’ve never had any problems with dragons over the Shadowed Forest before now. Where did they come from and why did they kill my mount?”
Anna didn’t know what to say. She only hugged the girl tighter as the crowd continued to applaud around them.
“Why are they cheering?” Anna asked, looking around angrily at the stands.
“They are cheering for you, my dear,” Doctor Pearl replied kindly.
“Me? But… why? Didn’t they see what happened? Why would they…?”
“Because of your marvelous display of courage, my dear. Not only did you save Miss Cobstone’s life, but we also saw you facing down those two beasts. Your actions were both enormously stupid… and insanely brave.”
Mister Grayson stepped in to take Anna’s hand. “Or… perhaps… just a little more understanding of the dragon’s nature?” he whispered, questioningly. He kissed her on the forehead. “I’ve very proud of you, Anna.”
“Well… whatever made the dragons attack the riders is going to cause a lot of trouble in the city of Spellsburg for a while,” Eric said, pointing to the gap in the stadium and the Shadowed Forest beyond. They all turned and were amazed to see at least a dozen dragons flying over the forest in the distance.
“It doesn’t look like the dragons are going away anytime soon.”