Anna Grayson and The Dragon's Lair

Too Big—Too Close

ONE

Ines Valeria didn’t exactly know where TJ’s family home was located, but from the information given to her by Boris Grayson, it was supposed to be in a remote section of South Texas near a wooded confluence of two rivers. After Apparating close enough to begin her search, she found all the expected markers: a set of menacing rapids, a shoreline of slime-covered rocks with an eerie capacity to emit a disturbing level of soundless resonance clearly meant to keep any traveling Muggles away, and a dead oak with the letter W branded into its trunk. After traversing the slippery path across the water, the Guardian found the likely big-tooth maples leaning over the colorless, drought-suffered grasses near a hardened trail. Wild marigolds were growing up through the jagged cracks, aping a path of yellow. After all the work to keep unwelcome guests away, the lines of color in an otherwise gray landscape enticed explorers with secrets that fastened themselves to the roads least traveled. Ines smiled. It reminded her of her home in Mexico.

Purple sage and prickly cactus crowded around rusted old machines that failed to break the hardened ground. The shore trees were naked of leaves, which seemed strange even in the month of January. Then she noticed the twisting vines growing out of the dirt surrounding their trunks and the Guardian frowned. The thick bands were wrapped tight around the trees like children hugging their mother’s legs. She knew those straggling vines well and it explained why there were no leaves in the branches above or, for that matter, why nothing was moving within its reach.

“That’s far enough, missy.”

Ines turned to find a very tan, young man in his mid-twenties standing next to a horse and holding a shotgun.

“Oh, hello. My name is Ines Valeria and I’m from…”

“The Ministry of Magic?” the man surmised, showing her the dangerous end of his weapon.

Ines smiled. “If that were true then you would also know that your Muggle weapon wouldn’t do you any good in a fight. For a witch would have other skills granted to her by the Creator to protect herself.”

“As would any wizard, ma’am,” the man replied, and that’s when she saw the wand strapped to the gun’s forestock.

“I take it from your knowledge of such things that you must be related to Tanya Joe Wangstaff?”

The man frowned. “Sister.”

“Then you would be Johnnie Ray?”

The man finally lowered his weapon.

“I have a message for your father from Boris Grayson.”

TWO

Professor Titan’s voice could be heard throughout the castle. “May I have your attention please? All students and academy staff must report to the Rotunda at six o’clock this evening for dinner. Chancellor Thordarson will be making an important announcement to all residents. Again, six o’clock this evening in the Rotunda. Thank you.”

“I wonder what that’s about,” Gwen said with a knowing smile. “Maybe he’s going to thank whoever it was that returned the ore to the museum yesterday.”

Anna smiled back. “Yeah… maybe; it’ll be nice to get some good news for a change.”

That night, the Rotunda was filled to capacity as the students debated what the expected announcement might contain. Still stinging over the expulsion of three of their fellow students, the Guardian table was very quiet. Finally, the side entrance opened and Chancellor Thordarson entered the room. Once again, he looked very somber as the students stood.

Thordarson was draped in simple robes of black that night, which lacked his customary embroidery reserved for public gatherings. He turned at the podium and then removed his dark sunglasses. He squinted up at the candles surrounding the union tables before him.

“Please… I beg you take your seats.”

After the rumble of sliding benches subsided, the Chancellor continued, “It is my unfortunate duty to deliver to you some very grave news. There has been another murder in the city of Spellsburg.”

There was a collective gasp from the students.

“Captain Hayman of the Crimson Guard has informed me that Mr. Chace Scroggs, the noted editor of the Spellsburg Seer, was found dead in the city this morning.” The Chancellor dipped his head. “God bless his soul.”

Several students turned at once to look at the Guardian table. Anna, stunned by this terrible news, was suddenly appalled to see their accusatory stare was immediately focused upon her. She could see it in their eyes, their suspicions hiding just under their flattened expressions. They were connecting her to the murder of a man who had written the most terrible things about her over the holiday. Anna’s face reddened as Professor Thordarson continued.

“While there’s no reason to believe our students might be at risk, the school’s Board of Governors and I have been in conference to determine the best ways in which to increase the security until these crimes in the city are resolved and the perpetrators brought to justice. Your parents have been informed of the situation and all students are now required to remain in the castle until further notice. In addition, no student will be allowed to travel within the castle without an escort. A Union Knight or a senior class member will travel with any groups of two or less.” He looked at all of them, his face a study of unwavering resolve.

“These are challenging times for us all. As your Chancellor, I will do all I can to insure your studies continue without interruption despite these tragic events. However, your safety must take precedence over everything else we do.” His gaze scanned over the tables. “You will be kept informed about any additional restrictions as they become necessary. In the meantime, please… remain diligent to your studies and of your surroundings at all times.”

He took another deep breath and then put his glasses on again. “On a happier note, I would like to thank the students who worked to return the Ore of Nouméa properly to the museum yesterday morning. Although it is still very trouble to know the circumstances surrounding why it was taken, I am gratified to see good reason has finally taken precedence and I have informed the Minister of France of this agreeable news.” He turned to motion to Professor Titan who was standing at the side entrance. Titan nodded and then swerved to leave the room.

Turning his attention to the students once more, Thordarson continued. “I know the Guardians of Castlewood have taken full responsibility for what happened at the museum two days ago, however it has come to my attention that several of you have aligned themselves with the notion that the expelled Guardians have been mistreated and… by some accounts… were made part of a larger plan to reduce their numbers within the school. While I cannot condone what was done at the museum, I am pleased so many of you are willing to stand on the side of fairness. As a result, no less than one hundred students have requested permission to reenter the Mirror of Enlightenment and, as a result, three students have been added to the Guardian Union this evening.”

The side entrance opened and three students entered the Rotunda all wearing Guardian robes. “We have Miss. Ann Marie Gauntlett, formally of the Artisan Union, Mr. George Sangster of the Server Union and Miss. Tamera Harlin of the Searcher Union.”

There was a loud cheer within the Rotunda as the three students joined their fellow Guardians at the purple union table. Once again, their number stood at fifty.

Thordarson smiled. “Classes tomorrow will begin at their normal time, so… for now — eat, be merry, and I pray you have a restful evening.”

The Chancellor left the podium and headed for the side entrance once again. He stopped to look back at the students now talking loudly among themselves, their worries and concerns for what was to come in the days ahead the topic of nearly every discussion. He looked at the Guardian table and could see the three new Guardians shaking hands within a surrounding mob of happy smiles, but Anna Grayson sat alone. Her head was down and she was staring into her lap. Even through the distance between them, the old wizard could see the academy’s first Guardian was crying.

THREE

That night, Eric Grayson was tossing in his bed. Although still asleep, the part of his mind that was supposed to be at rest was being invaded by the strangest sounds.

Click — Click — Click — Click.

Eric rolled over to face the wall as the sounds became louder.

Click — Click — CLICK—CLICK—CLICK—CLICKCLICKCLICKCLICKCLICK!

A white fog began to brighten the darkness in his dreams. He frowned and fell onto his back again, and each increasing breath turned into cloud as the temperature in the room began to plummet. The series of clicks now turned into a steady chatter.

CLICKCLICKCLICKCLICKCLICK!

The picture in his mind brightened again and Eric found himself sitting on the edge of a cliff overlooking a set of black, jagged rocks below him. Surveying his precipice of doom, he jerked back when he realized where he was, as the wind wailed in that familiar way that made his spine quiver. It was very cold, and that’s when he realized the chattering sound he was hearing was from his own teeth.

“Courage Grayson,” he said to himself, as he leaned forward again to look down. He saw a swirling veil of fog below him and then the howling wind began to change into that of a screaming woman. The cloudy swirls were transformed into a falling body draped in white that disappeared into the depths of nothingness. The cold wind blew into Eric’s face as terror suddenly gripped his heart. The fog began to clear and when it did, he could see the body of the woman lying upon the rocks below. The waves swept over her and he watched as its splayed limbs washed back and forth in a grotesque and wrongly twisted way. He tried to scream when a second wave crashed over the body again, rolling it over twice within the bloody foam. She finally tumbled over the edge and began to sink down into the dark water; a band of pallid light swallowed whole by the depths.

The wind sent a salty spray up the cliff wall, stinging Eric’s eyes where tears had formed and he forced them shut to end his pain and horror.

Haut les coeurs he whispered.

The nightmare finally ended and Eric’s mind immediately sought to retrieve a happier time. He rolled over in his sleep to face the wall again, as a woman’s voice spoke to him in the darkness.

I love you, Eric. I love you so much.

FOUR

The next morning, the door to Chancellor Thordarson’s office flew open without announcement and the old wizard looked up and smiled.

“Good evening, Minister, how very good to see you again.”

Helawena Barkelnap entered the office in a hurry and was followed closely by Professor Qwaad. She finally stood in front of Thordarson’s desk looking angry.

“I’m afraid the normal pleasantries must be cut short, Chancellor. I’ve come tonight on urgent Ministry business.”

Thordarson’s eyebrows lifted. “Really? Well… it must be important if the usual pleasantries between us should be set aside,” he replied calmly. “How can I help you, Minister?”

She leaned over his desk. “Is it true? Have more Guardians been joined?”

Thordarson leaned back and smiled. “Why… yes… that is true.”

The Minister looked astonished and then furious again. She pointed an angry finger. “This is all your doing, Elimar. You are the cause of this hooliganism!”

Thordarson’s expressed never changed. “Hooliganism, Minister? To what are you referring?”

“You know perfectly well what I’m talking about. I warned you back in September that these Guardians should not be allowed to study here at the school because I had every expectation they would cause trouble both here and in the city. And I was right!” she shouted, banging her fist on the desk. “And now you’ve gone and created more of them!”

“I created?” The Chancellor slowly stood. “Minister, as you well know, I haven’t the capability or the ambition to define for any student in what union they belong. That responsibility has always fallen to the students themselves and the Mirror of Enlightenment.”

The Minister straightened. “So you admit it — more students were allowed to reenter the mirror again?”

The Chancellor remained soothing. “Yes. It would seem that more than a hundred students felt the need to do so after witnessing firsthand the overreaction by the Crimson Guard toward the Guardians at the museum.” Thordarson smiled serenely. “I’m afraid the mayor’s ambitions in all of this… were rather transparent.”

“You sound sympathetic to those who would steal from the museum, Chancellor. I hope I’m wrong in my assumption that you are on the side of this… criminal behavior.”

“Indeed, that would be an incorrect assumption, madam. I have made it abundantly clear to the students that the action by the person or persons to remove the artifact from the museum’s care was a violation of our code of conduct here at the academy. And… I am sure the man you placed here without my permission can attest to that fact.” Thordarson pointed at Professor Qwaad standing behind her.

The Minister turned to look back at Qwaad who nodded.

“Be that as it may, Chancellor, your actions in allowing more Guardians into the school is without question a direct challenge to my stated request and expectations. How many more do we have to contend with now?”

“There are three new Guardians.”

“Three?” Barkelnap looked surprised. “Exactly the number expelled? And you say more than a hundred reentered the mirror?”

“That is correct.”

Thordarson was quick to notice it in the Minister’s face: the startling possibility of magic’s direct involvement in the actions involving the Guardians. The man quickly moved to take advantage of her lowered guard.

“Minister… surely you can see what’s happening as well as I. We are not the reason or the cause of this new emergence of the Guardians within the wizarding world. The Order of Merlin has been spawn again for the same reasons they came to us in the past.”

The Minister looked up at Thordarson and scowled.

“Merlin explained it himself centuries ago that the Guardians have always come in the most desperate times in wizard history to offer protection to all things magical in our warring world.”

The Minister’s face reddened. “WE ARE NOT AT WAR!!”

“No… but we soon will be, and judging from what I’ve already seen this year, I believe it must come sooner than I originally expected.” Thordarson reached out to Barkelnap pleadingly.

“Minister… I warn you again as I did last summer not to close your eyes to the most obvious of signs. I asked you to raise the alarm about You-Know-Who’s return. While we’ve delayed in this prudent action… it still isn’t too late.”

“And I repeat what I told you then: we have no more proof other than what Dumbledore and that idiot boy has told us.”

“I beg you… let us not wait to see Voldemort face to face before we act. Lookat the repeating signs of his malevolence and the examples where he’s delivered the same kind of malice in the past: the disappearances within the wizarding world, the unexplained weather patterns that have brought what seemingly would be the random destruction to England’s cities, the indiscriminate Muggle killings without account. These are the valued signs, Minister. The very same we saw more than a decade ago when Voldemort’s Death Eaters were on the move.

The Minister flinched at the name. “Rubbish! Cornelius Fudge has told me Dumbledore is off his rocker. He’s become nothing more than a prattling idiot. He’s a man nearly without reason and yet you trust him about something as important as this. Why — WHY?”

“Minister… when I met with Dumbledore last June, and I found him to be a man of great reason and concern for his students. He is not what Fudge would have you believe. Harry Potter’s was an eye witness to the Dark Lord’s rising, but this is not the only reasons I believe He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named has returned. The coming of the Guardians is just as significant. Surely you can see that.”

The Minister was red in the face. “If it were up to me, the Potter boy would be expelled from Hogwarts immediately. His lies are nothing but a pathetic and conspicuous act to make himself a hero.”

Thordarson shook his head. “You’re wrong Minister and I tell you this with all due sincerity: Harry Potter will someday be vindicated.”

Barkelnap waved him off dismissively, but as she turned away Thordarson gave Qwaad a fleeting look of significance.

Qwaad came forward to whisper into Barkelnap’s ear. “Perhaps, Minister, you should meet with Dumbledore yourself,” The Minister looked at him in surprise. “Despite what the newspapers are saying about both the Headmaster and the Potter boy’s mental state, my contacts in London have told me Fudge is applying a significant amount of control over the press right now. It’s become clear we cannot count on the Daily Prophet as an independent opinion about Dumbledore’s current state, but only as an extension of Fudge’s personal view.”

“Don’t tell me you’re starting to believe all this rubbish about You-Know-Who’s return as well, Barty?” The Minister scowled back at Thordarson. “Perhaps I’ve left you here too long and you’ve come under the Chancellor’s spell of challenged reason?”

Qwaad tried to mimic the appearance of one being injured. “Minister… I am always at your disposal,” he replied with a bow. His eyes looked up. “But you’ve always trusted my opinion in matters of importance like this in the past. I’m just trying to look out for your reputation… in case…”

“Stop it! Stop it right now! I don’t believe it.” She looked at the Chancellor again. “I want their names, Thordarson, the name of these new hooligans coming out of the mirror.”

An hour later, the Guardians were eating breakfast in the Rotunda when TJ stepped up to the table.

“Y’all gotta come out to the entryway. Y’ain’t gonna believe what’s goin’ on now.”

Anna looked at Gwen and the two got to their feet and followed TJ to the door. As they arrived at the castle entranceway, they could see several men rolling the Mirror of Enlightenment toward the front door.

“Where are they taking the mirror?” Sarah asked worriedly. Several other students and Guardians arrived at the scene and were immediately horrified.

“What’s going on? Where are you taking the Mirror of Enlightenment?”

Anna stepped in the block the men from existing. “Please, sir, what are you doing?”

“Anna Grayson!” yelled a woman’s voice from the top of the stairway. Anna looked up to find the Minister of Magic standing next to Chancellor Thordarson and Professors Titan and Qwaad. “I would suggest that you and your Guardian friends step away, right now!”

Anna was taken aback but immediately obeyed as the men continued rolling the mirror toward the door. The rest of the Guardians and students were whispering in surprise as the Minister slowly came down the marble staircase and then stepped forward to face Anna directly.

“How dare you get in the way of Ministry business… and what gall you have to do so while in my presence.”

Anna dropped her head. “I didn’t realize you were here, Minister. I meant no disrespect. I only wanted to know… why you’re removing the mirror.” She looked up at her aunt. “Why?”

“That’s no concern of yours, young lady.” The Minister looked around at the Guardians surrounding her and smirked. “It should suffice to know that I’ve decided it should be done.”

“You’ve decided?” Anna shot back. “So this wasn’t the school’s decision; it’s your doing. Why?”

“They’re doing it because of the new Guardians,” whispered a seventh year Defender behind her.

Anna frowned and then scowled back up at the Minister. “He’s right, isn’t he? You’re doing this to keep more Guardians from entering the school.”

Helawena Barkelnap tried to force a smile as she stepped forward. “My dear niece… I think it would be in your best interest… both now and in the future, if you left the Guardian Union and joined the Defenders.”

“Join the Defenders? Why would I do that?”

“Because… I believe it’s the very best place to be for an ambitious, young lady like yourself to be. Your Grandmother and I were both Defenders and… so were our parents. Not to worry, dear. I am sure that if you decided to move both your father and the Chancellor would support you.”

Anna looked up at the Chancellor who was still standing at the top of the staircase. The old wizard’s seemed impassive to the idea. He slowly raised his chin and that’s when she saw the slightest wink. Anna smiled.

“No thank you, ma’am. I arrived at this school a Guardian… and I’ll be a Guardian for the rest of my life.”

“No… sweetheart, that’s where you’re confused. You see, you didn’t arrive here a Guardian in the way you’ve been led to believe. The Mirror of Enlightenment has misinformed you. We have determined there is something wrong with the spells that control the mirror’s actions. That’s why we’re taking it away. We want to insure it receives the greatest care and….” she hesitated, as if to choose her words properly, “make sure it’s fixed properly.”

“Fixed! What are you talking about? There’s nothing at all wrong with the Mirror of Enlightenment. Just because you don’t like what it says doesn’t mean it’s broken. That’s ridiculous!”

“Your tone is trying my patience, young lady. Remember your father’s devotions,” the Minister replied harshly. She paused to force another smile.

“You must understand, my child, that you have only come to believe the legend of the Guardians because of this magical object, but I’m telling you now the mirror is flawed. Thus, it’s easy to see how you and the rest of the Guardians were simply confused and…”

Anna interrupted her. “I was born a Guardian!”

Suddenly, Anna could hear them once again; the voices of magic within the castle walls pouring themselves forward into her mind. They called out in unison by the hundreds, cheering and applauding in all the languages alive and dead to the wizarding world. There was a loud clang in the hallways throughout the castle as empty suits of armor hoisted a snapped salute, and those images made of marble standing and seated throughout the school raised a hand to their hearts. The voices were zooming in and out of Anna’s mind like a storm, a chorus of pride and song, and young Guardian closed her eyes and smiled into the ceilings in awed wonder before setting her focus upon Thordarson at the top of the stairs. Although nobody else in the entranceway could seem to hear them, it was clear the Chancellor of Castlewood could attest to their ballad of joy. He too was marveling at their response to Anna’s declaration, which was repeated over and over again in beautiful song all around them. He looked down at her and smiled broadly.

The Minister’s face fell. “Nonsense! You are no more born a Guardian than a Bowtruckle. You’re just muddled, child.”

A moment later, a frightened shriek and several screams could be heard outside as the men pushed the Mirror of Enlightenment through the entranceway door. A gust of hot wind suddenly blew the castle doors wide against their stops and several students could be seen running back and forth outside in a panic.

“What in the wizarding world…” the Minister mumbled, looking back at the Crimson Guards escorting her. They moved quickly to the doors with Anna and several others following close behind. They stepped onto the stone landing overlooking the courtyard where they saw dozens of students and even a few teachers running for cover. They were looking up and pointing into the sky.

“Oh dear,” Thordarson said worriedly, suddenly appearing by the Minister’s side.

The Minister looked up into the fog and tried to shield her eyes from the morning sun just cresting over the castle walls. “What is it? What are they screaming about?”

Just then a large metal object fell from the sky and crashed with a hideous clang in the center of the grassy courtyard. They all stepped forward to look closer and could see it was the flying jail used to arrest the Guardians at the museum. This time it was only a crushed and crumpled version of its original self, barely recognizable other than by its bared door, which was trampled and torn inside out. The monstrosity squeaked and trembled as it tried without success to unfurl its badly twisted wings.

“What in heaven’s name?” The Minister whispered, before a huge dragon suddenly crashed down upon one of the turrets to the side of the portcullis. It shook its massive head before screeching loudly down at the humans running below her. Without warning, a second dragon slammed down upon the turret opposite and large boulders tumbled like rain down from its top to land inside with a shuddering thud to block the gate.

“Wands!” The Minister cried out, as the students below continued to scream and run.

Only one student remained in the courtyard below. The young girl, staring in wide-eyed wonder at the howling creatures above her. It was Tanya Joe Wangstaff.

“Move, child! Run for your life now!” yelled one of the Crimson guards.

TJ slowed turned to look back at her fellow Guardians standing on the landing. She seemed dazed but unafraid. She smiled unexpectedly.

“Ain’t they… beautiful?” she said in wonderment.

Anna anxiously stepped forward. She tried to speak, but found her terror wouldn’t allow it. She tried to clear her throat.

“Yes… they’re ah… very pretty, TJ… but you might be a little too close. Why don’t you come over here and…” but before Anna could finish her thought, one of the dragons suddenly leapt down from the turret and slammed into the courtyard above the young girl and the entire castle seemed to wobble on its foundation in response.

Again, TJ didn’t move. She stared up in what seemed to be marveled amazement at the creature looming a full twenty feet above her. The creature slowly leaned down and growled ominously, its dripping fangs now just inches from the Guardian’s face.

“It’s going to strike!” said one of the guards, raising his wand to take aim.

“No! Don’t, you fool!” the Minister said, grabbing his hand. “She’s too close.”

“For the first time in a very long time, Minister, you and I are in full agreement,” Thordarson said fearfully. “Everybody please… stay exactly where you are. Make no sudden moves of any kind.”

The creature bumped and nudged the Guardian with her nose as it sniffed her over again and again. TJ’s eyes were closed tight and everybody could see she was visibly shaking with fear as the dragon turned its head sideways to inspect the back of her. It seemed to give some attention to the purple hash marks on the sleeves of her robes before rising up. It opened its mouth wide and then tilted back to bellow loudly. TJ was blown backward as the rest of the students covered their ears in pain and horror. The dragon unfurled its wings and then leapt into the air. With two mighty flaps, the creature rose high before swooping above the courtyard and then over the wall, knocking over three full rows of mortared stones with its great wings as it passed. Several hexes and spells were suddenly chasing after the beast as a number of Crimson Guards on doors flew in from out of nowhere to pursue her.

The remaining dragon crouching atop the portcullis tower screamed angrily as one of the hexes slammed into her chest. She leapt forward to unfold her enormous, bat-like wings and with three quick flaps she was heading for the castle landing and the crowd dove for cover as the beast’s claws reached down. There was a loud crash and the dragon rose up again to follow her sister over the wall with the Mirror of Enlightenment dangling below in her clutches.

Professor Thordarson was helping the Minister of Magic to her feet. “It would seem, Minister, we have an unlikely alliance of wills.” He looked into the sky. “Apparently, some magical creatures are in agreement with the Guardians that the mirror should not be taken. Surely now you can see the creation of the Guardians was not my doing?”

The Minister looked up to see Anna and a number of other students racing down to TJ who was still lying on her back in the grass. Barkelnap looked up at the sky around them for the missing Mirror of Enlightenment. “It doesn’t seem to matter now anyway, does it?”

“TJ! Are you all right?” Anna was helping her fellow Guardian to sit up.

“Too… close….” TJ said, trembling uncontrollably. She looked up at Anna, her face spattered in green and yellow colored goo. “Way… way too close…”

“Eeeww… she’s all covered in dragon spit,” Gwen moaned. She pulled out her wand. “Let’s get her cleaned up before it burns her.”

“Big… really big,” TJ mumbled slowly. “Way… too close.”

FIVE

Two days later, Eric was watching Anna closely. “Are you okay?”

Anna looked up at her brother and shrugged. “Yeah… I guess so. It’s just been pretty horrible in class these days with everybody eyeing me like I was some kind of secret killer.”

Eric was concerned for his sister. After the death of the newspaper’s editor, he had also overheard several conversations in the city about Anna becoming a suspect. John Dell and Captain Hayman were sitting across the table from them in Eric’s flat.

Hayman leaned in. “We’re doing all we can to find out who’s responsible for these murders, and I’ve been giving enough information to the mayor and the press to turn their attention away from you and all the students in the castle.”

“We really appreciate what you’re doing, John,” Eric replied. “So… do you have any real leads?”

Hayman’s face fell. “No… nothing more than before the holiday. We know now that Sidney Heidelbach was attacked in another location first before being killed nearer to the castle.”

“How does that help us?”

“We found some blood evidence at a second site, enough to confirm he was attacked soon after he left Anna and Trog that night. Anna was with the ogre for at least thirty minutes after she and Heidelbach parted ways, so she couldn’t have done it. It’s not enough to clear Anna of all suspicion, but it’s a start.”

“Why wouldn’t it be enough?” John asked. “Trog could tell everybody Anna was with him.”

Hayman shook his head. “Ogres are not trusted enough in the wizarding world to act as a witness.” John tried to argue back, but Hayman stopped him. “I’m not saying this kind of bigotry isn’t irrational … I’m just telling you how it is. If I went out and told everybody that Anna was with an ogre, even one entrusted by the Crimson Guard, it would only increase their suspicions.” He looked at Anna. “And it might incriminate Trog as well.”

John threw up his hands. “Of all the idiotic…”

“In the meantime, I wanted to bring us together tonight to set in place some additional security for you, Anna,” Hayman continued. He looked at John Dell and gave him an encouraging nod.

John sighed is frustration at the thought of Trog being untrusted and then set a wooden box in the center of the table between them. It was the same box Thordarson had given to him.

“Anna… this box contains some magical objects that will immediately bring help to you in the event you ever find it necessary.” John opened to the box to reveal a pair jade bracelets sitting in red velvet.

Anna reached in to remove one of the bracelets. Its color was a highly polished green with white swirls that seemed to tremble at her touch. “Oh, they’re very pretty, John. Where did you get them?”

“The Chancellor let me barrow them in my first year. They allowed me to visit my sick mother while I was at school.”

Anna’s expression feel.

“I know your mother passed away that year, John,” Eric replied, sadly. “Isn’t that right?”

John sniffed. “Yes. My mother was never a healthy woman, even before I came to Castlewood. In fact, I put off coming to school for nearly three years because I had to take care of her and Professor Thordarson would often come to visit us. He knew my mother when she was a student here at the school and because he was trying to talk me into coming to Castlewood despite my mother’s illness.” He let out a shuddered heave. “I refused to leave my mother’s side.

“Finally… my mother insisted that I go. She believed my magical studies would allow me to care of myself after she…" he stopped to sniff again, the pain of his mother’s memory still very painful for him to describe. “I agreed to go to school but quickly returned to her bedside within a month. She was very sick and her health had taken a very bad turn.”

Anna’s heart fell even as the voices within the jade bracelet began to sing to her.

“The next day the Chancellor showed up at our door to insist I return to my studies, but I refused. That’s when he gave me the bracelets. He put one on my mother’s wrist and the other…” John removed the remaining bracelet from the box and, being that it was far too small to fit on his wrist, he slid it onto the middle finger of his right hand. He stroked the jade lovingly, as if listening for mother’s voice to call to him. He cooed something under his breath as he turned the object on his finger again and again.

Anna gave her brother a significant look.

“What do the bracelets do, JD?” Eric asked him, setting a supporting hand on his friend’s shoulder.

John seemed to catch himself. “Oh… sorry.” He sniffed again. “I guess the best way to explain it is to show you.” He stood quickly and the room seemed to shrink in fear of his size. “When I’m out of sight, I want you to take hold of the bracelet and ask that I come to you. It might take you a while to get it to work, so I’ll go and take a walk outside.”

Anna frowned suspiciously. “Okay… so I concentrate… and then ask that you come to me?”

“Hold the bracelet tight… that seems to help,” John explained, as he opened the door and left the room. Eric and Hayman looked amused as they listened to the staircase groan under John’s heavy footfalls thudding down the steps.

Anna was already clutching the bracelet on her wrist with her eyes closed and listening to the chanting voices within her mind.

You wait for the other, call to him.

Through all the distance in the world created, call to him.

Summon with your voice, as if always within your reach, call to him.

Where the sun touches the sea and the heavens the earth, call to him.

Within the darkness, the sunrise, noontime and twilight, call to him

Come to me, oh come to me, do come to me.

Anna’s eyes were still closed as she smiled and her lips parted to whisper, “John… please… do come to me.”

From under the door to the hallway, there was a flash of light and then another flash to Anna’s right. Suddenly, John Dell was standing tall in the room once more. He looked surprised as he looked down at her and then he smiled.

“Well… that didn’t take you very long. I didn’t even make it to the bottom of the steps!”

Anna’s eyes were wide with shock. She looked at Eric and Hayman and the two men immediately laughed.

“By goodness… a port key? The bracelets are a port key?” Eric said in amazement.

“Yes,” John Dell said, smiling back at them. “They allowed me to leave the plateau and go to my mother if ever she needed me. If ever…” his voice stumbled.

Eric stood. “I’m sorry about your mother, John. I know those were very difficult times for you.”

John sniffed and looked down at his friend. “The Chancellor is a very great man. His gift will allow me to go to Anna if ever we’re apart and she finds herself in danger.” He looked down at Anna and forced a smile. “And I will do all I can to protect you.”

The room was silent as the four of them fell into their own thoughts. Finally, it was Hayman who said, “Anna… I hope you understand what John is offering you. You must promise… never to knowingly put yourself in danger by trading caution for carelessness. Doing so unthinkingly would put more than yourself at risk.”

Anna slowly stood. “I… don’t know what to say, John,” she whispered gratefully, and then reached out and hugged the man around his very large middle. “Thank you.”


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