The Dragon’s Lair
Anna slowly opened her eyes to a magnificent blue sky. She smiled as a small cloud, a wisp of feathery white, moved across her field of vision and the beautiful vastness beyond. It must be very windy up there, she thought, as a cold breeze caressed her face and brought a sudden smell of freshness that swept her mind back home again. She rolled her head to the left and a line of pines stood unmoved against the wind, a rank of snow-covered soldiers seemingly guarding the forest behind them; a beautiful legion of green. She rolled her head to the right and felt the unexpected sharpness of rubble crewing its way through the back of her skull. The stone on which she was lying continued another ten feet, an ugly, contrasting plate of blackness that ended in a jagged line. She frowned as the painful grit under her head clicked and clacked in response to her movements.
And then something very big was suddenly there and just as quickly gone and Anna’s eyes widened in startled surprise. It had sailed straight through her line of sight just beyond that jagged line; a mass of bat-like flesh.
A second later she heard something reminiscent of the Allegheny Pride unfurling its sails and Anna swallowed hard as her heart began to hammer against her chest. Fear froze her to the spot; she didn’t want whatever it was to take notice if she stirred. And then she heard it, the dreadful screech of something she knew all too well and forced her body bolt upright in response.
The black rock in which she was sitting was actually a cliff’s edge and she could hear several sails moving through the air somewhere over its jagged rim. Anna’s head snapped around to look back at the trees. Their hailing shadows were like an island across a swarming sea, but she turned anyway and began to slowly crawl toward their promise of safety. The sharp, glasslike rubble under her hands and knees were torturous as she moved forward, but Anna stopped caring when she heard the flapping sounds behind her getting louder.
“Oh my God…” she whispered to herself, crawling faster, “They’re wings… dragon’s wings!”
There was another long and hideous shriek above her and Anna fell prostrate to the ground to cover her head. The thing screeched again and then another beastly cry howled loud enough to shatter her skull from within. She covered the sides of her head in pain and bowed herself into a ball, but her eyes snapped open immediately when she felt the wind of something very large passing over her. The gust from the thing sucked her backward, dragging her body painfully across the sharp rubble toward the cliff once more. Panicking, Anna leapt to her feet and ran for the trees, but it was too late.
The ground beneath Anna seemed to lift her off her feet and into the air as something enormous landed behind her on the cliff’s edge. She fell on her front and covered her head again, unable to see or breathe as the dust and gravel swirled all around her. She could hear something breathing heavily, a deep sucking sound fused within a snarl. She found her mind racing to the safest place she could remember in which to hide, to that place under her bed when she was playing with Gabby, but another hollow draw pulled her back to reality and made her shudder. It sounded like her alley struggling to speak, like hissing steam through old pipes.
There was another large thud, a heavy footfall coming closer, and Anna’s eyes widened. The thing stopped, but its breathing was much closer now; hot against her back. The smell of it pushed its way through her nose and deep into her brain. It settled itself there like some unwanted intruder taking residence. Summoning what courage she had left, Anna finally turned to look back in astonished wonder.
“Oh… my… God.”
The Vipertooth stood fifteen feet above her, but its unfurled wings were twice that side to side. The beast seemed to glow in the sunlight, a bright copper color under a set of broken horns. It slowly circled Anna, lowering its head almost curiously, as if to examine every inch of her courage. Still on her hands and knees, the Guardian turned to follow the beast, keeping the thing in front of her always. She fumbled in the pockets of her tattered robes for her wand. It wasn’t there and it was too late before she realized the dragon was now standing between her foolishness and the forest beyond; her only hope of escape was suddenly blocked.
Expecting death’s fangs at any moment, Anna was surprised when the dragon turned, almost reluctantly, and then flapped over to where the trees met the rocks nearest the cliff’s edge. She noticed a freshly made nest of toppled logs and mud sitting there. The great beast folded her wings and then stepped into the nest to sniff at its bottom. Anna could hear the thing cooing at something unseen. The Guardian frowned as she slowly stood. Still thinking she might make a dash for the trees, her ambitions were suddenly set aside when she heard the great beast cooing again and then changed its tone to something resembling a whimper.
Anna slowly lifted onto her toes to try and look in, but couldn’t see what the dragon was licking below her. She took two small steps forward and then rose to look in again. The nest had been lined with thick evergreens and flattened moss and a single egg came into view beneath the creature, reflecting the sun like some precious metal. Anna listened as the dragon cooed again and then turned the egg with its broad snout to find a crack in its shell, a nasty wound that oozed an iridescent, green slime.
Anna dropped onto her heels again, her eyes widening in understanding. She stared up at the dragon once more, trying with all her strength to ignore the mental pictures racing through her head of a man being ripped to pieces in the streets of Spellsburg. The mother turned the egg over again and again, and then lifted the fleshy part of her belly to finally lay over it. She carefully lowered herself down, before a series of cracking sounds made the dragon jerk up and scream in frustration. Anna unconsciously stepped forward and found herself reaching out in surprised sympathy. It was obvious the egg was badly damaged, too far gone perhaps even for one whose love for it was bigger than a house. The creature bent over to nuzzle the object of her affection before resting her head on the side of the nest in obvious disappointment. To Anna’s amazement… she could hear the thing beginning to whimper once more.
“Well… I suppose if you were going to eat me… you would have done so already,” Anna whispered to the beast, and before she knew what she was doing the Guardian was standing right next the nest looking in. She peered up at the mother once more and could see her eyes watching her almost indifferently from their corners. She looked completely defeated.
Anna wondered. She looked around and then cautiously turned to head for the forest. The dragon raised her head to glare at her and the Guardian immediately turned in response.
“I’ll be right back… I promise,” she said, raising her hands as if to calm the creature. Its scaly brow furrowed as she spied Anna’s movements intently.
“Where the heck would I go anyway,” the Guardian whispered, as she turned to the woods again.
Anna stepped into the forest and began looking around under all the branches. She searched in the places where it was light was strong enough to see, but where only the sun’s shadows reached the forest floor. She finally found what she was looking for and began tearing at the blanket of moss growing over the rocks and roots. She pulled up thick carpets of the stuff, which she stacked in a pile as she worked. A few minutes later, she was back with the mother and layering the moss into the bottom of the nest.
Anna peered up at the mother as she worked. “I must be crazy,” she muttered, as she moved around the edge to pull and tug at the new matting. “I won’t even tell you what Gwen and Eric would say if they saw me doing this.”
When she was satisfied with her work, Anna looked up at the looming mother once more. “I’m just going to move it over a bit, okay?” she told the beast, trying with great difficulty to keep her fear in check. She took a deep breath and then carefully rolled the egg onto the new moss. The beast watched Anna intently until the Guardian finally stepped back.
“There now.” She looked up and tried to smile. “Well go on… give it another try?”
The Vipertooth looked down to survey Anna’s work and then slowly tried to settle herself once more. Anna held her breath, listening intently for anything giving way. All was quiet and she smiled in response up at the mother.
“There you go,” she whispered guardedly. “You just needed a little more cushion is all.” She looked around them again. “I can plainly see how those men were able to steal your egg though. You’ve built your nest too close to the edge of the forest.”
The great beast sniffed at the moss under her and then raised her head to bark loudly up at the open sky. Anna grinned again.
Several other dragons could be heard barking in reply all around them and Anna carefully stepped to the edge of the cliff to look down. A wisp of fog was moving through the gap blocking her view and she squinted hard to push her focus through. And then, quite unexpectedly, a breeze swept the fog aside and Guardian gasped in wonder. A deep chasm appeared within the expanse below her; an abyss deeper than the oceans’ depths fell away in a blurry haze of nothingness and in the air between them soared dozens of dragons. She watched them rising up and down in the thermals below, turning with the grace of angels as their bodies gleamed in the winter sun.
Another cloud of fog spilled into the gap and the Guardian walked along the edge in search for another opening in which to see. A second dragon dropped over the edge from out of the forest and Anna smiled as it looked back to bark at her. The fog cleared once more, enough for the sun to brighten the chasm below, and she watched the dragon pitch up and then land against the wall of the cliff opposite. Holding fast with the claws and the hooks embedded in its wings, it crawled to the right and finally dropped down upon a ledge where another nest sat cradled in a corner protected from the wind. The Guardian could see two more eggs in its bottom shining like gold in the sun.
There were nests all along the edges and corners down in the rocks as far as the eye could see and several barking mothers nestled within them. Anna looked across the chasm and then to a great mountain in the distance wreathed in a circle of clouds and dozens of dragons soaring around its peak. And then something happened that Anna would remember from that moment on and for the rest of her life. The edge of the morning sun suddenly spilled over the edge of the earth in the far off distance and its golden beams of light brightened the entire mountain and the stage of rocks surrounding the cliffs. The sunrise created the most beautiful array of colors everywhere. The blues of the morning were instantly filtered away, reversing the cold, and as the sunbeams hit Anna full in the chest it snatched her breath away. The rising thermals traveling up the cliff walls were suddenly warm and inspiring to the spirit and the green of the forest abruptly brightened in a pallet of luminescence that Anna would see nowhere else in the world. It brought with it the perfumes of the earth, a mixture of wood and flowers and life, and it came into the Guardian’s mind that if magic had a smell - this would be how one would experience it. To her, it was like the hand of God moving across that wonderful place to consecrate its beauty with his blessings end to end. The Dragon’s all around her felt the warmth of the morning sun as well and they welcomed its return with a chorus of howls and happy barking. Anna’s vision began to blur and she suddenly found her eyes full of tears.
Turning to look back at the dragon cooing down at her egg again, Anna had to admit, “It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen in my life.” Another dragon flew overhead and rolled over to dive into the abyss and in that moment of marveled wonder, the most obvious conclusion finally came to her.
“The Cliffs of Knowtor!” she whispered in surprise. She stepped closer to the edge and her smile widened as she watched the dragon disappear into the fog and several howls sounded in reply once more at the glory of the morning.
“The Dragon’s Lair.”
It was nearly dark when a robed man stepped out of the tram house and onto the streets of Spellsburg.
Boris Grayson looked around and found this son racing toward him. He reached out and the two of embraced.
“Eric. I take it there’s been no word?”
Eric pushed back. “Not yet, father, but the Chancellor and the Crimson Guard are still out looking for her. Dowla looks like she’s going to be fine; she’s awake now and being questioned by Lieutenant Mantos about what happened in the city. Damon and Tencha are with her.” The two turned together toward the castle and Eric heard his father sigh.
“Thank God, for Dowla’s recovery… but I had hoped you would bring better news about Anna.”
Eric stopped again. “I’m convinced they’re doing everything they can, father.”
His reply seemed distracted and Mister Grayson could see his son looked exhausted and close to the breaking point. He watched his manner closely, remembering that to interpret Eric’s mental state one had to be mindful of his deportment and gestures. Mister Grayson could see Eric’s hands were shaking uncontrollably as he wrapped himself within his robes.
Mister Grayson put an arm around Eric’s shoulder as they continued to walk toward the Castle. “Have faith. I’m sure Anna will be fine.”
This statement surprised Eric and he turned to his father to astonishment. “How can you be sure, father? I can barely contain my greatest fears… and now with it getting dark…” He could feel his father’s grip tighten on his shoulder as if to bolster his courage. “My God… what are we going to do?”
Mister Grayson tried to smile. “I have it on good authority from Widwick that the dragons would never hurt the first Guardian of Castlewood.”
“Widwick?” Eric looked confused. “And his word is enough to set your mind at ease?”
His father looked up to the heavens and then turned his gaze toward the castle once more. “Strangely enough… somehow… it does.”
The two of them turned to find the Major of Spellsburg standing there. There was a Spellsburg guard and another man that only Mister Grayson recognized standing next to him.
“Mayor Prower?” Eric replied in surprise. He noticed the mayor didn’t acknowledge him at all as he stared intently at his father.
“Hello, Ulric. It’s good to see you again,” Mister Grayson answered flatly. He looked at the other man. He was fairly young, with straight black hair and holding a clipboard. “Hello Gillian; you’re a fair distance from home tonight. I take it that if you’re here… we should soon expect to see the Minister as well?”
Eric was surprised again. “The Minister? Barkelnap is on her way to Spellsburg?”
Mister Grayson nodded. “I expect that if she’s not here already, she soon will be.” he looked back at the man standing next to the mayor again. “Eric, I don’t know that you’ve ever met Gillian Munt, personal secretary to the Minister of Magic.”
The young man remained stoic. “Minister Barkelnap will be arriving in the morning, Director. She’s obviously very distressed about the news concerning the death of her niece.”
“Death!” Eric blurted out. “Nobody said Anna was dead! We don’t know that yet!”
The young man seemed taken aback. “I… ah… just assumed, given the circumstances…” he looked over at the mayor. It was obvious that the Mayor of Spellsburg had already come to the same grisly conclusion.
Prower stepped forward. “I’m very sorry, Boris. I know the two of us haven’t seen eye to eye on many things recently, but I hope you know I’m sincerely sorry about what happened. I had the watch out waiting for this last ship to arrive tonight with the hope that you would be aboard. I wanted to make sure you knew the city is here to support you during this…” he hesitated, “difficult time.”
Mister Grayson nodded and then stepped forward. He reached out to shake the mayor’s hand. “I appreciate your support, my friend, but as Eric said… we’re not giving up that Anna is alright. In fact… I’m fairly certain she’ll be found very soon.”
Prower smiled earnestly. “Of course, Boris, of course. We’re all praying for her safe return to our city and your family.”
A few minutes later, Mister Grayson and Eric were crossing over the castle drawbridge. Eric looked back one last time to insure the mayor and his entourage was no longer following them.
“Father, before we go inside, I need to speak to you about the ongoing investigation by the Crimson Guard.
Eric reached out to stop his father. “They’re investigating why Tencha, Dowla and Anna were in the city before sunup this morning.”
Mister Grayson frowned at his son. “Gregory Dunning again?” Eric nodded. “What now? Can’t this wait until after I’ve seen Dowla?” He turned to head through the portcullis. “Dunning’s ongoing battle with our family is low on my list of priorities right now.”
Eric stopped him again. “You’re going to want to hear this, father.”
Frowning again, Mister Grayson turned and then gripped the railing overlooking the moat. “All right, what’s Dunning up to now?”
“It was inevitable that Dunning would begin asking questions about why the girls were outside the castle grounds so early this morning and on their way, presumably, to my flat.”
“You’ve already told me this through the Floo network.” He looked up longingly at the castle again. “You said they were on their way to see you when they ran into the smugglers being chased by the dragons. What of it?”
“The thing is, father, I didn’t send for them. They were not on the streets by my doing.”
His father glared back at him. “But you said Dowla received a note from you…”
“That’s what Tencha told Lieutenant Mantos… but that note didn’t come from me, father.”
“That’s right, and as a result… it sounds as if the twins have lied about why they were out. So now Dunning is trying to connect the actions of these smugglers to our family directly.”
“By what logic would he do that? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“It would if there was other evidence to connect them.”
“What evidence? Eric, what are you saying?”
“Dunning’s sister, Debbie Dunning was given a tip yesterday that somebody in the castle would be meeting with the smugglers to take possession of some illegal goods coming out of the Shadowed Forest.”
“A tip? From whom?”
“The girl didn’t know. Apparently she didn’t get a real good look at the man; she could only describe him vaguely as somebody in a hooded robe and…” Eric hesitated.
Eric heaved again and then looked into his father’s eyes. “She said his face was covered in wrappings or some kind of bandages.”
Mister Grayson’s eyes widened. “My God… ”
Boris Grayson turned again to gaze out at the moat, his mind racing once more.
“As you know, father, we’ve already heard from this man once before. It was the same man who tried to warn Anna away from the Vollucross stables months ago… when she found the body of Michael Wendell.”
Mister Grayson looked at Eric again. “We’ve always suspected this so-called cursed man might have been trying to set Anna up for that murder. It could have been Voldemort’s doing… but this doesn’t make any sense. Other than this ambiguous description of the informant… the two occurrences seem so unrelated.”
“Other than the fact that it puts Anna back in trouble again with the authorities,” Eric replied. “I think Dunning has convinced Mantos of our culpability in all of this… given this so-called informant. Father… Tom Mantos is a good man, but this really looks bad for us.”
Mister Grayson shook his head. “I appreciate you telling me this before entering the castle. My surprise at these questions wouldn’t do our family any good. We have to inspire the confidence that comes with being above any direct accusations. Or worse… any indirect assertions Dunning is famous for providing. For now, I need to see your sister.”
Eric nodded and then led the way through the entranceway and into the castle.
All of the Guardians of Castlewood were inside the Academy Chapel and in silent prayer. Gwen and Sarah Bell were kneeling, staring up at the altar and at the plain wooden cross set in the back. They could hear several sniffs and somebody sobbing somewhere behind them.
Gwen leaned over to Sarah and whispered, “I wish they would stop that stupid crying. No one said Anna was dead yet.”
Sarah thought she sounded angry. “What time is her father supposed to arrive?” she whispered back.
“Anytime now; I think Eric went down to the station house to meet Mister Grayson and take him up to the hospital floor.
Soft weeping could be heard behind them once again.
“Ah-right… that’s enough!” a loud voice finally barked. Gwen and Sarah turned to look back and could see Tanya Joe wagging a threatening finger at a wet-faced first year. “What in blue-blazes are you blubbering on about anyway? It’s time you put’a stopper in it, girl!”
“Thank you…” Nox sang out from the back.
The girl looked up at her in surprise. “But Anna was…” she sniffed, “carried off by… by…” she sniffed again, unable to continue.
“So what! That don’t mean squat from possums!” TJ snapped back and Gwen smiled. “How many times has Anna Grayson been in a fix and found a way outta it? Huh? How many times?”
“Too many to count,” replied Isabel Lang to the side. “We can’t give up hope now.”
TJ looked around at the others. “If I catch anybody throwin’ dirt on Anna Grayson before we know what’s-what, we’ll be having words ‘down our wands! Anna’s got more heart than’a two-ton Brahma bull.”
The girl looked up at TJ, smiled cautiously, and then nodded.
“Good… now slide over ‘for I crack’ya head fer actin’ crazy.” TJ knelt beside the girl and put an arm around her shoulder. “I hear ya cluckin’ like that again… I’m gonna set’cha on’a nest.”
Sarah smiled up at Gwen. “Leave it to TJ to make everyone feel better… even at a time like this.”
The chapel fell silent once again.
“What else do you remember?”
Mantos was standing over Dowla with a quill and a piece of parchment.
“Like I said, I was holding the egg with the hope it might force the dragon to drop my sister. I remember the dragon swooping down from the top of the roof and then…” Dowla looked up at her father and her face began to crumble. Mister Grayson immediately leaned in to take his daughter into his arms.
“I tried, daddy! I did everything I could…” Dowla sobbed miserably.
“Yes, of course... I know you did, sweetheart. Both you and Tencha were very, very brave.” He looked up at Tencha who was crying into her hands. He reached out to her. “We haven’t given up yet. I firmly believe your sister is still alive.”
“Oh… but daddy… you didn’t see it,” Dowla cried. “It was monstrous… and Anna… she was so small and being thrown about. We should have done more... we should have…”
“Other than giving up your own life, you could not have done more,” Damon commented stoically.
Tencha sat on the bed next to her father and he pulled her close.
“Damon is right. You did all you could,” Eric added.
Dunning broke in. “Getting back to his note you said you received from your brother to meet him at his flat this morning. Do any of you still have that parchment?” The lieutenant looked distrustingly at Tencha.
“No… I don’t. The letter was delivered by owl with an incendiary charm placed upon it. It burst into flames immediately after I read it,” Tencha replied. Mantos looked at Dowla and she nodded.
“And what about Anna’s copy? Did she also claim it was destroyed?” Dunning asked them.
“Claim?” Damon yelped. “If my sisters say the message was charmed to incinerate, then that’s what happened.”
“Yes… of course.” Dunning turned to stare at Eric and sneered. “And what about you? Are you still holding to your statement earlier tonight… that you never wrote these notes?”
Eric frowned. “You mean the statement you wrangled out of me in a moment of terror before I entered the hospital floor?”
“Please, Eric,” Mantos broke in. “We’re just looking to make sense out of what we know.”
“Is all of this questioning really necessary right now? Now — when we’re all so worried about Anna?” Tencha asked them
“All the more reason to get to the bottom of why you were out of the castle before light,” Dunning snapped back. “We have one man dead, two criminals in custody for theft and Anna Grayson who most likely is…”
“Is… in good spirits and proper heath,” said a familiar voice from across the room.
They all turned to find the Chancellor of Castlewood Academy standing at the entrance to the hospital floor. He smiled and turned to the side to reveal Anna standing behind him.
“Anna!” Eric and Tencha yelped together.
Mister Grayson stood when he saw his youngest daughter enter the room smiling. She looked tousled, her robes torn, ruffled and disheveled, but her smile seemed to brighten the entire floor when she saw her family. She ran forward and immediately fell into her father’s waiting arms.
“My dear, sweet child… thank God you’re safe.”
“I’m fine, daddy. Really… I’m all right.”
“Margaret… although Miss Grayson seems to be in good spirit, could I tear you away from your other duties to confirm our best assumptions regarding her health are well-founded?” the Chancellor said, smiling.
Doctor Pearl was still wiping her tears of joy from her eyes when she suddenly straightened and then bustled forward. “Right away, Chancellor.”
Anna looked them. “Oh no; really… I’m fine. Can’t I stay with my family and…”
“Not another word, young lady,” Pearl said, sharply. “I can already see some rather nasty scratches I’ll want to take a closer look at.” She pointed her toward the back of the room. “If you please, young lady… I believe you know the drill.”
Anna looked at her father. “But daddy…”
“Let Margaret check you out,” he answered her. “We’re not going anywhere and we’ll be right here waiting for you when she’s satisfied.” He reached out to hug his daughter again, but Thordarson stepped forward.
“Given what you’ve all had to endure today, I completely understand your relief and wanting to be close to Anna, but I think it best to limit any physical contact right now. Her robes, you see, are spattered with what I’ve concluded to be Vipertooth venom. One of our guards has already received some rather nasty burns on his hands in his attempts to sooth her after her experience on Cliffs of Knowtor.”
“The Cliffs of Knowtor…?” several in the room whispered in surprise.
The Chancellor motioned to somebody in the hallway and then stepped aside once again as Trog bowed low to come through the doorway. He was draped in tattered Crimson robes, some of which were torn away and wrapped haphazardly around his hands. His mask was barely covered the top of his head.
Anna smiled and then looked up at her father. “It was Trog who found me at the Dragon’s Lair, daddy. Although the dragons didn’t hurt me, I would have taken me a month to find my way back to Spellsburg without him.”
Captain Hayman was standing by Trog’s side. “Our search parties found them about five miles to the east. Apparently, Trog knew exactly where to find the Lair after Anna was taken and immediately headed off to rescue her.”
Mister Grayson was clearly taken aback by his emotions, but came forward to stand in front of the enormous ogre. “Sir… my family and I are deeply indebted to you for your courage and your concern for my daughter.” He stuck out his hand in gratitude.
Trog jerked back his wrapped hands in surprise. “The venom. It burns, it does.”
Mister Grayson smiled. “I’ll take that chance, my friend.” He took Trog’s massive hand in his and shook it vigorously.
Trog tried to smile. “I should have stopped the dragons from taking the first Guardian. It was my fault, it was.”
“Nonsense, my good ogre,” Thordarson chimed in. “As powerful and magical a being as you are, you are still no match for two nesting Vipertooth. The city’s entire guard would have been hard pressed to stop what happened.”
“I agree, Trog,” Mister Grayson replied. “But I am most grateful to you for bringing Anna back to us.”
The ogre finally smiled and nodded. He seemed relieved Anna’s father wasn’t angry with him.
“Good. Now then, let’s have one of our healers take a look at your hands while Doctor Pearl looks after Anna.” The chancellor motioned Trog forward.
“Right you are,” Pearl agreed, turning her attention again to Anna. She lifted her wand high. “But first – let’s get those sputum -laden robes off of you before they burn you more.
“Accio-Gloves!” A set of dragon-skinned gloves whooshed forward from out of a closet.”
“You won’t have to worry about that, Margaret.”
Pearl frowned at Thordarson as the Chancellor explained. “You see… the venom doesn’t seem to affect Anna at all.” He smiled as he looked over at Mister Grayson. “It would seem she has a uniquely impressive immunity to the poison.”
Anna looked confused and everybody else was surprised as Pearl quickly shuttled her away.
Thordarson came forward again. “In the meantime, Eric… could I ask you to head down to the Castlewood Chapel and give the Guardians there the good news about your sister’s safe return? They’ve been in something of a vigil all day.”
Eric smiled, enthusiastically. “Right away, Professor. I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to hear the good news.”