Anna Grayson and The Dragon's Lair

Fifty-One

ONE

“Tweet-tweet-tweet…”

“What’s he saying?”

“I don’t know…I can’t hear anything over that obsessive whistling?”

“Tweet-tweet-tweet…”

“Sarasil — would you please… shut it!

“Tweet-tweet-tweet… Camptown ladies sing this song, do-da, do-da,”

“Please, Sarasil, be quiet!”

“Camptown racetrack five miles long, Oh, diddley-do-da day!”

“Tarson, can you please make him stop?” whispered one of the portraits to another, while a figure in a third picture tried to lean forward again to listen through Mister Grayson’s office door.

“Going to run all night…”

“Sarasil… if you don’t be quiet, I’m going to tell Boris to send you down to the basement again,” grumbled a deep and angry voice from one of the paintings.

“Going to run all day…”

“For a year, this time!”

“Baaaaak-bak-bak-bak…”

“Facing… the wall…”

“Wooo-woooo-woooo…”

“…with no frame…”

“Chirp-chirp-chirp… tweet-tweet-tweet… tweedle-dee-tweedle-dumb…oh-go-suck-your-thumb. Bet my money on the bobtail nag…”

“…stuffed in a box in the deepest catacombs of the vault!” roared the portrait of Tarson Grayson.

At last there was silence and all of the portraits in the hallway outside Mister Grayson’s Ministry office gave a sigh in relief.

“Finally!” said the painting leaning toward the office door again. They could barely hear two voices coming from the next room.

“He’s telling Dumbledore something about… about… a horcrux!” There was a collective gasp in the hallway from several of the portraits.

“Beg the Saints preserve us!”

“What else is he saying?” All the portraits leaned toward the door again to listen.

Inside the office, Boris Grayson was talking to a figure, blooming from within a blue flame over a granite bowl. The head of Albus Dumbledore was leaning in over Mister Grayson’s desk.

“Are you sure about this, Boris? Are you absolutely convinced of the validity of this information?”

“Yes, Headmaster. Anna said the fractured soul within the Hall of Wonders told her there were several other horcruxes containing separate pieces of Voldemort’s soul.”

The master of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry sighed ominously. “I had suspected this might be true.”

Mister Grayson was surprised. “You… suspected this, sir? But how could you have possibly known?”

The image within the flames of Dumbledore seemed transported in thought. “Two years ago, I believe one of these horcruxes was destroyed by one of our students here at the school.”

Mister Grayson fell back into his chair, stunned beyond words. Finally, he leaned forward again. “Sir… does this mean… Voldemort can’t be…”

“Cannot be destroyed?” Dumbledore interrupted him understandably. “Yes… it would seem so. Unless, of course, every horcrux he’s created is destroyed first. The question is… how many would Voldemort have made?” observed the Headmaster, reciting his own worried thoughts aloud. The wizard placed his wand to his own bearded head and then began to pull a long, delicate strand of thought from his troubled mind. He studied it closely for a moment, dangling wispily from the end of his wand, and then turned to place it in another bowl behind him.

“Thank you, Boris. I am most appreciative of this information, and will do my best to confirm its weight on the matters at hand.”

The Headmaster forward again. “Listen to me now very closely. It is most important that you never repeat this information to anybody again. Do you understand?”

Mister Grayson seemed taken aback. “Yes, sir… of course.”

“Not to any member of the Order of the Phoenix… not to Elimar… or even to a member of your own family.”

“I understand, Headmaster.”

“Good. It would be most grievous to our cause if the Dark Lord were to find out we have this knowledge. Can you also insure Anna never repeats what she’s told you to anybody else?”

“I will, sir.”

“It is vital Anna understand the danger in repeating this to anybody. If she were to be overheard…”

“Sir, please, I understand. Anna will be sworn to secrecy.”

“Excellent.” There was a slight pause. “The usual manner of communication is no longer safe here at Hogwarts, Boris. From now on, all such communiqués will have to be sent using the most secure methods we’ve discussed. This matter regarding your Minister assigning somebody from her office to watch over the Guardians is indeed troubling. I am sure Hogwarts will also have to endure a number of similar changes this year as well. I’m afraid these are going to be very difficult times for the Order, very difficult indeed.”

The old wizard looked up at Mister Grayson again. “We are also agreed, then; Minerva will continue to mentor Anna moving forward?”

“Both Anna and I are in agreement, Professor. Our family would be honored to have Professor McGonagall sharing her time with us. Please pass on my thanks to her for her assistance in this matter.”

Dumbledore smiled. “Very good. It’s my understanding that Minerva has already sent Anna a letter, warning her to keep a low profile when it comes to her abilities as an Animagus. I think this is wise advice. We should do everything we can to avoid bringing more Ministry attention to the Guardians.” He looked at Mister Grayson inquiringly. “And how is Anna holding up in all of this, Boris?”

Mister Grayson’s expression looked troubled. “She fronts a brave face, but I know what happened at Drogo will stay with her for the rest of her life. I… I blame myself for not revealing the truth about her mother long before now. This, together with the added pressure from the Ministry, is troubling to me.” He sighed. “And… I cannot hide my concerns for Anna’s safety in Spellsburg.”

Dumbledore looked sympathetic. “I understand your concerns, and when it comes to Spellsburg, I believe them well placed. I understand you’ve made arrangements for her brother to live in Spellsburg this coming year. Although I know how difficult that decision must have been for both yourself and your son, I believe it to be correct and most prudent. The Ministry will be watching him very closely as well, however. Our contacts within the Order have notified us your Minister has already reached out to the Mayor of Spellsburg about Eric Grayson’s return. I take it you understand the significance of this exchange?”

Mister Grayson nodded. “Yes, I do. Eric and I have already discussed the matter at length and his priorities while living in Spellsburg. He knows who he can trust if he thinks he needs help. Fortunately for us, the security on the plateau is at an all-time high due to the escape of the other prisoner at Drogo. Although it’s distressing to know the Crimson Guard hasn’t caught the man yet, at least the extra security will work to our advantage until they do. I’ve already sent Eric ahead to prepare for the arrival of my other children. He will be studying to become a beast and creature healer at Castlewood.”

“A highly noble profession, indeed,” Dumbledore replied meaningfully. “I am very pleased with your planning and precautions, Boris. I believe you’ve done all you can to insure Anna’s safety.” The old wizard leaned forward again. “And as for your decision not to tell Anna about her mother, it might surprise you to know that I have always agreed with your judgment on this matter. Professor Thordarson and I have debated the issue many times over the past several years.”

Mister Grayson was surprised. “Have you?”

“Yes. Ever since you first told me about the attack on your wife several years ago, and the subsequent turn in her condition, I have watched in admiration your strength to remain loyal to Victoria’s memory. I know you loved her dearly, and I know too how difficult it must have been for you to place her into Saint Drogo’s care.”

Dumbledore sighed. “Boris… I understand the heavy weight and burden these decisions can place on the mind, and how we seek to protect those we love from the most terrible truths in life. I too have had to choose between keeping a secret for the sake of devotion and revealing the dreadful truth behind its meaning. Regrettably, you and I will always question the timing of our decisions, but we should never question our motives. It is not a sin to protect those we love… even at times… from the truth.”

Mister Grayson still looked worried. “I… appreciate your wise advice, Professor. You have given me much to consider on the matter.” He looked up again at the wizard within the blue flames. “I heard about your dismissal from the gamot, sir. I regret what they’ve done to you. Can nothing be done to reinstate you to this meaningful post?”

Dumbledore smiled. “A trivial matter in light of the other things facing us… and, I will admit, not entirely unexpected. In fact, I’m rather looking forward to setting aside those duties for a while. All of that bickering and debate… a coup of chickens before the feast.” The two men smiled at each other.

“Take care, Boris, and remember what I said concerning our future correspondence. I will continue to pray for your safety and that of your family.”

“Thank you, Professor, and I yours. I hope you have a good year at Hogwarts.”

Professor Dumbledore nodded happily and then disappeared with a soft pop.

Mister Grayson leaned back in his chair thinking about his wife. Was she safe? Was she in the service of Voldemort again? Does Victoria ever think about her family? Did she ever think about him… and the life they once shared so happily together?

Mister Grayson turned his chair to look up at the portrait on the wall behind him. “I somehow hope you know… how much I still love you, my darling.”

TWO

Anna and her chestnut stallion Apollo were riding alone through the forest of the Grayson estate. Although the inner motives for her evening gallop were rather grim, she couldn’t help smiling at the glorious feeling of the wind whipping through her hair in perfect cadence to her mount’s thumping hooves. She had spent a lot of time riding during her summer holiday away from Castlewood, and although flying on Swooper over the Shadowed Forest was still invading her nightly dreams, her time spent with Apollo had been glorious. She couldn’t believe it was almost time to go back to school. She was going to miss her favorite steed.

They turned onto a thin path she knew well and ducked low through the hanging branches. Finally, they came upon a small stone building pushed into the side of the hill. As always, Anna could see the dim lights through the outer cracks in the walls. The altar candles inside the estate chapel were burning within, representing the hope always present even in the darkest of places. She slid down her saddle to the mossy ground and pulled her purple heart from her robes.

“Alomomora,” she whispered, pointing at the hasp. The lock fell from the latch and Anna removed it from its rusted loop. She slid the bolt back and pushed the door open. Immediately Anna could hear them whispering in her mind as she entered the quiet space, the many voices of magic responding to her close proximity. They were always the same, a mixture of surprised excitement and concern.

“What is happening in the world, Sithmaith?”

“Has the chaos begun?”

“Where is the first battle to commence?”

On and on they whispered to her, hungry for knowledge and for news from the outside world. It always seemed so strange to Anna that this consciousness would be present itself to her in this way. The voices were like separate pieces of the same body, each containing a small portion of the way of things, but few knowing enough to understand its meaning. She began to understand how the most powerful magical objects seemed to know the most about what was happening, but the rest of the whispers were just fragments of lingering magic, seeking the larger body for knowledge. Anna had come to believe when enough of these fragments sensed the rise of danger, they would eventually act upon the threat together. Anna was sure the growing power of Voldemort, together with the rise of those forces working against him, must have seemed like the coming of a hurricane to this consciousness the wizards of the world called magic.

To protect itself, magic had created a champion, a herald of warning and defense. The Sithmaith was meant to safeguard magic from this coming battle, and then stop it by whatever means necessary from destroying everything in its chaotic path. Anna was meant to be that protector, a Guardian in the oldest traditions of wizard history where Merlin himself was once seated.

Anna couldn’t know if her role as a Guardian was created because of her natural willingness to accept magic’s cause, or because she was best suited to be changed into what was needed for its protection. Or perhaps it was as Dumbledore surmised… because her mother and father were on opposite sides of the battle. In the end, she began to realize these reasons really didn’t matter to her. She had completely consented to her role as the protector of the magical gifts in the world around her. She would be the leader this consciousness was seeking and do their bidding with a trusting heart. But she also understood being a good leader meant inspiring a great deal of confidence where magic existed and sought her company. She understood her role in things very well.

“The world is safe, my friends. All is well,” she assured the voices whispering around her.

“All is well…”

“All is well…”

“All is well…”

“I have come seeking your help. I am looking for a friend.”

The individual whispers seemed to coalesce into one. “How may we help you, Sithmaith?”

Anna smiled. “The ally you sent to me is missing. The ghost of Leola Grayson has been captured and placed a prisoner in some kind of vessel. You brought the ally to help me and she has become my armor and my shield. I have to find her.”

The whispers began to rise again and Anna was disheartened to hear what seemed like a surprised response to her request. It had been the same everywhere she went in search for the vessel containing the essence of Leola Grayson. She immediately knew this wasn’t the right place to find her. Anna sat down in the pews, frustrated and frightened.

“Where could she be? I’ve searched everywhere for her. I’ve looked throughout the house, the grounds and the gardens, the forest and the cliffs. I’ve even checked the family vault.” She looked up to the cross above the altar. “Where is she? Please… help me find her.”

The whispers began to invade her prayer. “The magic used to capture the murdered one is extremely powerful, Guardian, and beyond our reach here where you stand now. But we do hear the faint whispers within the darkness, a longing to be free, but also… something more…”

Anna looked up again, hope invading her troubled mind. “What is it? What do you hear?”

There was a pause and then the whispers were as one again, “The ally is here, somewhere very close, but…”

“But…what?” Anna quickly stood. “Tell me… please.”

“We sense… hopelessness. She believes she will never be found. Oh… the despair. She believes she has failed to protect you. What is left of the ally… is crying.”

“You can hear her? Can you at least point the way?”

“We cannot, Sithmaith. Her voice is weak and beyond the reach of those with you now. You must find others, those closer to where she is hidden.”

“But where? And how will I continue the search for her? I’m supposed to go to Castlewood tomorrow. If Leola is here, I won’t be able to look for her until my return.”

There was a long silence while Anna held her breath. Leola must be outside the house somewhere, she thought to herself. The magic in the chapel was the only source of information of use to her so far. They could actually hear Leola crying. That could only mean she was still somewhere on the grounds.

“You will require assistance — somebody to continue the search while you are away.”

Once again Anna was surprised. “But nobody knows Leola has returned, but me and my friends Gwendolyn Reese and Sarah Bell. Who could I depend on to search for her while I’m at Castlewood?”

“There is another. Someone close by — who is also aware of Leola Grayson’s return.”

Anna was stunned. “What?” Her mind suddenly dashed about, running through all the names of those close to her: Tencha, Dowla, Damon, she looked up. “Eric? But Eric is in Spellsburg, it couldn’t be him.” Her eyes widened in horror. “Daddy?”

“No, Sithmaith, your father has no knowledge of Leola’s return.”

Anna was suddenly relieved. She still had not told her father about Leola’s murder at the hands of Victoria Grayson.

“Who, then?”

“Leola Grayson revealed herself to another Guardian soon after your joining last year.”

“Another… WHAT?” Anna turned on the spot in disbelief. “There’s… another Guardian somewhere close by, one that I don’t know about?”

“So it would seem.”

“Who is it?”

“This Guardian can assist you in your search for the ally.”

“Who is it? Tell me!”

“Go and search out the other…”

“Hold on, don’t go… I demand you stay and tell me who it is!” There was no reply.

Five minutes later, Anna was galloping recklessly through the woods toward the stables. Another Guardian was here she didn’t know about? How could that be? Who was it? And why would Leola reveal herself to this person without telling her? She dipped her head once more as she broke into a final clearing; the stables were just ahead. She could see Mr. Porchdow, the estate’s stable master, waving a lit wand toward her. Anna skidded to a stop in front of him.

“Out a little late tonight, missy. You know your father doesn’t like you out after dark.”

Anna jumped down from her saddle. “Yes — I know, Sam… sorry about that. I got held up.” She whipped out her wand, pointed it at her saddle, and quickly muttered the appropriate charm. The saddle unbuckled itself and rose up.

“Hey… you’re getting pretty good with that wand of yours,” Samuel observed with a grin. Anna was barely listening.

“Sorry, Sam, but I can’t talk right now. I have to get back to the house as quick as possible. I have something really important I have to do,” Anna replied, sitting the saddle in its proper place. She was thinking about her family. This unknown Guardian had to be one of her siblings, and she thought she knew who it might be. The twins had already been through the Mirror of Enlightenment a second time while still at Castlewood. That only left Damon. On her ride back from the chapel, it suddenly occurred to her that Damon had always been reluctant to reenter the mirror again. She remembered the occasion the year before, when the news came to them about Leola’s attack on her father. It was then that the twins revealed they had already reentered the mirror and were confirmed to be Searchers. When pressed to enter the mirror himself, Damon would only say he would think about it. Anna’s mind was racing. Would Leola Grayson reveal herself to her youngest son, to Damon?

“Kids today… always in a rush,” Samuel remarked, watching Anna grab her bucket of grooming brushes.

“Here — here… let me do that. You’ll never do the thing right in such a rush. You get back to the house and take care of your business.”

Anna didn’t hesitate. “Oh — thank you, Sam.” She handed him the bucket and turned to give Apollo a kiss on the nose. “Sorry, boy, but I have to go. I’ll see you again over the Christmas holiday, okay?” She gave her horse a lump of sugar and headed out the door.

“Thanks again, Sam. See you in December!”

“Have a good trip, Anna. And be careful on the path back to the house. There’s a new moon out tonight and very dark. Not a fit night for man or ghost.”

Anna froze on the spot and then slowly turned. She could see Samuel reaching into his bucket to retrieve one of the coarse-haired brushes and then heard him cooing softly to Apollo as he began to swipe over the horse’s coat. Anna reentered the stable again, not exactly sure what she wanted to say. Samuel looked up and frowned.

“You still here? Thought you’d be halfway up the hill by now. Forget something?” he asked, continuing his work.

Anna stepped behind him. “Sam… what did you mean when you said, ‘Not a fit night for man or ghost’?”

Samuel glanced up at her again and frowned, still brushing Apollo’s coat. “What? Did I say that?” He finally stopped and banged his brushes together to clear them. “Just a figure of speech, I guess. Listen… if you’re gonna hang around, I’d just as soon give these back to you.”

Anna jerked a quick smile. “Sam… can I ask you something?”

“Sure!” replied the grinning stable master, returning to Apollo’s back.

“Have you seen any… ah… any new ghosts anywhere on the property?”

Samuel stopped again and straightened. “Are you serious?”

“I am, Sam. Have you? Please… it’s very important that I know the truth.”

Still frowning, Samuel dropped his brushes back into the bucket, wiped his dirty hands on his apron, and then turned to study her. “No… can’t say as I have. You know Cookie wouldn’t allow a new ghost to hang around here.” He tilted his head to look at her, again. “Why? Have you seen anything unusual? If so, we’d better tell your father about it right away. The last time Cookie fell off on the job, Mister Grayson was attacked.”

“So you haven’t seen anything unusual? No new ghosts anywhere on the property?” Anna asked him again.

“I already told you I haven’t. You?”

Anna looked away. “No… nothing unusual…” she lied.

Samuel studied her again. “Well then… just a poor choice of words on my part. Sorry about that,” he said, his friendly grin returning again. He reached in and grabbed his brushes once more.

“I’d better finish this before the little woman starts yelling at me about being late for dinner.” The man’s stare fell behind her. “Speak of the devil… how long have you been there?” Anna turned around to find Mrs. Porchdow standing at the sable door. The normally jovial Edith Porchdow looked strangely somber.

“Your supper is getting cold, old man. Am I to presume I’m eating alone tonight?” said the woman in an aggravated tone of voice.

“Just cleaning up the last of it now, dear. I’ll be in shortly,” Mr. Porchdow replied, now brushing Apollo a little more hurriedly.

“It was my fault, Edith. I should have been back from my ride much earlier,” Anna tried to explain.

Mrs. Porchdow cupped her hands and smiled. “I’ll walk you back to the forest’s edge while Samuel finishes his chores,” she offered kindly, motioning her out the stable door behind her. She quickly looked back at her husband. “A little more pace is in order, Samuel. I’m not reheating your supper.”

“Dang-blast-it, woman, I’m working as fast as I can! Leave me be!”

Mrs. Porchdow turned with Anna outside. They walked together toward the entrance to the woods and as they entered the line of trees guarding the path up the hill, Anna was surprised to see Mrs. Porchdow follow her in.

“I heard you talking to Samuel in the sables, Anna. I wanted to speak to you about it alone and out of sight of the house.” The woman stopped. “What were you asking my husband just now?”

Anna stared at the woman and frowned. “Oh… I was just asking Sam if… if he had seen any new ghosts on the property.”

Mrs. Porchdow turned to continue walking up the hill and Anna to follow her. She didn’t seem surprised by Anna’s words.

“Does this mean you have seen something unexpected on the grounds yourself?”

Anna frowned. “I didn’t say that; I was just curious if anybody else had seen anything.”

Mrs. Porchdow glanced back at her as she continued along. “You have to admit though, it’s an interesting thing to ask,” the woman commented, “especially in these troubled times. You know better than anybody how these woods can create the occasional oddities. Sometimes it might be the moon playing tricks in the shadows, or the reflection of water in the trees, the old growth moaning in the wind.” She stopped abruptly and looked up. “Sometimes, the sound they make can almost sizzle… like an echoed warning.”

Anna’s eyes widened. “It’s you! You’ve seen her, haven’t you?”

The woman slowly turned. “Seen whom, my dear? One must be cautious when asking about such things.”

Anna was sure the woman knew; the expressionless look on her face did not match her inquiring tone. Her descriptions of sizzling warnings were dead on. Throwing her remaining caution aside, Anna stepped closer and then whispered, “Leola.”

The woman smiled broadly and suddenly grabbed Anna’s hands in hers. “Oh — thank God you said the name first. Yes, dear, I too have seen my old friend, walking in these very woods. So she has revealed herself to you as well. Oh… this is wonderful! She made me promise not to tell anybody she was back, but I’ve longed to share this secret with somebody,” the woman rambled on. Mrs. Porchdow began to sob as she reached down to hug Anna tight.

As they separated again, Anna looked up at her. “You’re a Guardian?”

The woman frowned. “A what? No… of course not, dear. Why would you ask me…?”

“Because I was told Leola Grayson had revealed herself to one other, to another Guardian like me.”

“I… don’t know who could have told you such a thing. I have no knowledge of this… this Guardian you speak of.” She quickly changed the subject. “Tell me… when was the last time you saw Leola? I’ve been looking for her for days now, but she seems to have disappeared entirely.”

Anna took a deep breath, “I know where she is, or at least I know what’s happened to her, but it’s going to take some time to explain. Where can we go to talk?”

They returned to the Porchdow garden house where Edith sent her husband on an errand to insure they wouldn’t be overheard. After sending a quick owl to her father to explain she would be late for dinner, Anna sat to explain nearly everything she knew. She told Mrs. Porchdow about her first year at Castlewood, how magic had revealed itself to her and how it moved to bring about the Guardians of old because of Voldemort’s imminent return. She cautiously left out the parts regarding Leola’s murder and the fact that her mother Victoria was still alive. Finally, Anna told Mrs. Porchdow about the ally being held a prisoner somewhere on the estate. Anna took nearly an hour to explain all of this and Mrs. Porchdow looked shaken as she finally stood to make the tea. After using her wand to bring the kettle to boil, she turned to face Anna again.

“So… you’re saying these Guardians, counting yourself, number about fifty?”

“Fifty-one now, counting you,” Anna corrected her.

“I don’t understand. How could I be a Guardian? I’m well beyond my time at Castlewood.”

“I don’t think that matters anymore. My brother Eric is still a Guardian and he’s already graduated. What really matters, I think, is who you are inside.”

Mrs. Porchdow frowned. “And… what exactly would that be?”

“Well… I can only tell you what I know from those who became Guardians last year. They all seem to have their own personality: Some are very forthright and aggressive, but they usually inspire others with a gentle heart. Others are always kind, but they can be just as convincing in their own way. There is, however, something common I’ve seen in all of them.”

“What’s that?”

“They don’t like seeing the things of magic mistreated or abused.”

Mrs. Porchdow sat at the table again and handed Anna a cup of tea. “I don’t understand, dear.”

“Well… all of the Guardians of Castlewood come from different parts of the country, so you would think they wouldn’t agree on much of anything. But when it comes to protecting the things of magic, there is an amazing union of togetherness I’ve witnessed several times. They don’t like seeing magical creatures hurt or abused, and they barely tolerate the ways in which magical objects are used within the castle. In fact, I even witnessed one Guardian hiding a magical crystal before incantations class last semester when she thought the instructor intended to use it during a demonstration. And don’t even get me started when it comes to protecting the house elves.”

Mrs. Porchdow smirked. “Mr. Porchdow would say you’ve just described me to a tee.” She looked wonderingly up at the ceiling. “Me… a Guardian? I… I don’t know what to say.” She looked down at Anna again and seemed to catch herself from a brief moment of pride. “So why do you think Leola was attacked?”

“I don’t know. I can only guess it was because somebody tried to enter the grounds again and she moved to protect us. It must have taken a very powerful spell to entrap her within some kind of object.”

“Something — powerfully — evil,” Mrs. Porchdow agreed.

Anna leaned in. “Edith… why do you think Leola revealed herself to you?”

The woman leaned back in her chair to think. “I don’t know. I can only surmise it was because we were very good friends in our day. The moment she first entered the house as its mistress, I fell in love with her. She was so wonderful and funny, and she dearly loved your father and Victoria.” Anna cringed.

“In those days, of course, your mother Victoria lived in the Jennings’ estate on the other side of the property. There were many garden parties and so much singing and laughter. Leola and I worked for hours together, preparing the gardens for the festivities she was always planning. And then, quick as a flash, she would change out of her dirty, blackened clothes, and into her finest gowns to play the stately hostess.” She stopped short and dropped her head; Anna could see her eyes beginning to tear. “I miss her dearly.”

Anna came forward in her chair. “I need you to continue the search for Leola while I’m away at Castlewood. We have to find out where she is and destroy the vessel holding her prisoner.”

The woman shook her head, looking at Anna worriedly. “That won’t be easy. The vessel could be just about anything, an object, a building, even one of the wild animals living on this estate or beyond.” She suddenly stopped, as if disappointed in her own negative attitude. Her stare became rigid. “But Guardian or not, this old witch still has a few tricks up her sleeve.” She reached out and gently patted Anna’s hand. “We’ll find her, dear, and we’ll set her free in short-order.”

Anna smiled and then offered something more. “If you need any help in your search, go to the old, stone chapel and… ah… meditate out loud a little.” Mrs. Porchdow frowned curiously. “Trust me,” Anna continued, “it’ll help you more than you think.”

Just then the door to the cottage opened and Mr. Porchdow was back.

“Hidi-Ho, ladies! You gals still yakkin’?” he asked them, sitting a large basket of apples down on the table. “Still don’t know why you sent me out for these Grannys, woman. We still have two sacks full in the basement.”

Mrs. Porchdow smiled. “You didn’t complain when you were eatin’ the last pie I made for you!”

Mr. Porchdow stopped to think. “Oh-yeah,” he cooed longingly. He looked at Anna. “She does make a handsome pie, that wife of mine. Have some?”

Anna started to rise. “No thanks, Sam. I haven’t had my dinner yet and I’m already late. I guess I should be going.”

“Okay… but before you go runnin’ off again, I’ve got something for you,” the man said, rubbing his hands together eagerly before opening the front door again. “I was going to send it to you after you left, but I can’t wait for you to see it. It’s just outside here.”

“What are you up to now, old man,” hollered his wife as Samuel stepped out onto the porch.

“Hold on — hold on, you’ll see.” He disappeared for a moment and then returned quickly with something large under his arm.

“Here it is. All finished up just the way you asked, Anna.” He flipped the large object over and set it down on the kitchen table.

“What in blue-blazes is that?” asked Mrs. Porchdow in amazement.

“Why… it’s a flying door, of course. Best one I’ve ever carved; made special just to Anna’s specifications.”

Anna looked in astonishment at the door sitting upon the table. It was made of solid oak, which was carved to a point at the top, like it was meant to fit in a church archway. The center of the door was slightly raised and left roughened by a pair of very experienced hands. The edging, however, was carved with intricately woven branches and leaves, set in a dark brown finish.

“Take a look at the underside,” he said, flipping the door over.

Anna gasped. “Oh it’s beautiful, Sam… absolutely gorgeous. I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said, running her hands down its smoothly finished bottom. In the center of the door was the Guardian crest. Its shield, facing dragons, and gleaming sword were set upon a purple background.

“Figured you wouldn’t mind my taking a little artistic liberty,” he added, pointing down at the beautifully detailed carvings within the shield. “But I thought when you go speeding around that slalom course, there shouldn’t be any question about who’s going to win the race. I sealed the bottom with Ashwinder Wax; that’ll make it tougher’in steel. And the hover charm I’ve put on it will make it easy to carry, despite its weight.”

Anna reached out and hugged him. “Oh Sam, it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. When I asked you to help me build one, I didn’t mean you should go to all this trouble.”

“So you like it? Think it’ll suit ya?”

Anna’s eyes flashed. “Is it fast?”

The man frowned. “Well… I don’t rightly know. I went all day yesterday trying to stand on the blasted thing, but it’s as wily as a fox at the horn.” Anna smiled eagerly.

“What in God’s name are those?” Mrs. Porchdow asked, pointing at one of three vertical pieces of wood sticking up at the back. They looked like the fins of a shark.

“Turners! Or so Anna tells me,” Mr. Porchdow replied distrustfully.

“Skegs,” Anna said, correcting him, looking down one of the fin’s edges for straightness. “They help you turn and maneuver better.”

“Well… maybe so on one of them doors you take to the ocean, but I’m not so sure how they’re gonna to work in the air,” the stable master countered. “It’s too dark for flying now; you’ll have to tell me how it performs for’ya when you get to Castlewood.”


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