Back to Castlewood
The steel, gray sky was cold and gloomy, and the wind felt wet as the great ship, the Allegheny Pride, creaked and moaned through the mist. Anna was alone, leaning against the railing and overlooking the green ocean stretching hundreds of miles in front of her. She wrapped her arms tight around her body; the cold and salty spray made her shiver. As the ship leaned back and slowly fell back down, Anna was thinking about her father. He was alone again.
Now that Eric had decided to continue his studies in Spellsburg, there was no one left to deflect their father’s isolation. Although the master of the Grayson estate would never complain, the thought of his loneliness saddened Anna more than not seeing him again until the Christmas holiday. She remembered taking her place in the line before leaving that morning and, for the first time in her life, she thought her father looked tired and, dare she admit it - old. His advice to Tencha and Dowla, now standing in their seventh-year robes, was missing its usual air of warning that always came when they where about to travel out of his reach, and his words to Damon were lacking their standard level of stealthy admonition, which always spooled her brother’s arrogance for a short period of time following their departure. His questions and advice to Anna were much more calculated…What was it he said?
“Anna… the last time you were in this line I asked you the question, ‘What is the most important strength we as a family possess?’ Do you remember what you said?”
Anna cast her memory back, and then, “Our faith and love,” she replied cautiously.
He smiled. “That’s right. You said these were gifts from God.” His face seemed to dissolve into disquieted concern. “But there is another strength that our family, including myself, rarely takes advantage… and that would be patience.” Anna frowned as her father stepped closer to explain.
“I believe your patience will be tested this year, Anna, as never before in the past.”
“I don’t understand, father.”
“I have come to believe the Ministry will eventually move to dissolve the Guardian Union.” From the corner of her eye, Anna could see Damon and the twins looking over at them. She stared back at her father in utter disbelief.
“Surely not, Daddy; they wouldn’t.”
Mister Grayson held up a halting hand. “And when that time comes, I want you to think about these words: ‘A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles. It is true that in the meantime we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war and long oppressions of enormous public debt. If the game runs sometimes against us at home, we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost, for this is a game where principles are at stake.’”
Anna knew his words well. “Thomas Jefferson?” Her father nodded as Anna continued, “‘People who expect to be ignorant and free expect what never was and never will be.’”
Her father finally smiled. “Your Muggle schooling was always first rate. Do you understand what President Jefferson meant by these words?”
Anna thought for a moment. “It means the Ministry has lost touch with the people it hopes to govern, but we can’t let that fact stop us from doing what is right.”
Mister Grayson leaned in to kiss Anna on the cheek. “You’re absolutely right, but we all have a job to do in reaching that goal. Your job is to remain patient… until the effort working to change the hearts and minds of those in the Ministry has a chance to take hold. Can I depend on you to remain tolerant and keep your patience in the days to come?”
Anna took a deep breath. “Yes… father, of course.”
Anna looked out across the infinite ocean in front of her again. What will it take to make people believe Voldemort was back? How many people will have to die before the Ministry understands what they’re up against? Why was the Minister of Magic so close-minded about Voldemort’s return? She looked down at the purple embroidery on her arm; two strips for a second year student at Castlewood Academy. The words of her father were repeated their warning in her head, ‘Your job is to remain patient.’
She thought about her mother. Where was she right now? Was she with Voldemort? And who was controlling her actions? Was it the evil one, or could Victoria Grayson gather the strength necessary to fight for her own identity? Either way, Anna knew her mother was in very serious danger. If the evil one was in control, who knows what Voldemort would have her doing next. Perhaps it was this piece of her mother’s fractured mind that had reentered the Grayson property and was confronted by the ally. But if Victoria was strong enough to push the Dark Lord’s servant aside then what would Voldemort do to her in retaliation? The thought of it made Anna shudder.
She thought about her mother’s kaleidoscope. The horde of the Verosapt could tell her what her mother was doing. This information would satisfy Anna’s need to know about her mother, but this was unimportant to the Order of the Phoenix. She could tell her father exactly where Voldemort was hiding or where some of his horcruxes were kept. She sighed ominously. Her father had warned her not to tell anybody of Voldemort’s horcruxes, but if the Verosapt could tell us where they were hidden… then again… what of Leola Grayson? What if Mrs. Porchdow couldn’t locate the vessel keeping her ally a prisoner?
The young Guardian sighed; she would have to forego her ambitions to find out what Voldemort and her mother were doing and use the one question to the Verosapt given to her on her birthday to find and free Leola.
Anna looked down again at her Guardian colors. Would there be any new Guardians after the upcoming joining? Shecertainly hoped so; she was going to need all the help she could get this year.
A moment later, a great horned owl landed on the railing next to her. He peered up at her, clicking his beak madly and stretching out a single scaled foot. Attached was a small scroll with familiar green ink printed on its edges. Anna carefully removed the scroll and watched as the bird was swept away by the cold wind. It was a letter from the Transfiguration teacher at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Professor McGonagall.
The Headmaster of Hogwarts has informed me we are to carry on with our correspondences in the upcoming school year so as to build upon your training we discussed when last we were together. I have agreed to continue to be your mentor with the following understandings: First, you will write to me on a weekly basis to report on the exercises that I have prescribed for you, together with any and all side effects pertinent to your assignments. Secondly, by purposeful intension or happenstance, you are not to disclose your abilities to anyone, and there will be no more dalliances of the sort described to me by Professor Dumbledore akin to your last trip into the Shadowed Forest. You will follow my training to the letter and without question. If you are in agreement to these terms, I would be most satisfied to continue with your instruction.
I feel it necessary to remind you both the Ministry and the Wizarding community in general have traditionally mistrusted the wizards and wizards blessed with your abilities. As such, any purposeful violation of our agreement could very well result in your having to go through the Ministry’s registration process and, thus, make your gifts known to all. This would be contrary to our advice and your father’s wishes during these most difficult and troubled times.
I hope this letter finds you and your family well, and I look forward to your reply and consent.
Yours Very Sincerely, Professor Minerva McGonagall
Deputy Head Mistress, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry
Anna looked up from the letter and frowned. “No more dalliances into the Shadowed Forest? Hmmm…” What did Dumbledore tell McGonagall? She balled up the parchment and dropped it into the ocean below her.
“Not to worry, Professor, I don’t think I’ll be going to Drogo again for quite a while.”
“There you are,” sang a voice behind her. Anna turned and smiled. Her two best friends, Gwendolyn Reese and Sarah Bell, were walking toward her.
“You two get your owls off okay?” Anna asked them.
“Yeah… mom and dad should be pacified until I hit the dock,” Gwen replied wearily. She was still wearing her summer clothes, a pair of tight fitting jeans and a blue top that matched the laces in her sneakers. Her hair was pulled back in a girlish ponytail, which didn’t stop several boys standing to the side from ogling her.
Sarah Bell looked like she had grown several inches in the months they were apart, and Anna could already see her roommate’s puerile looks giving way to the beautiful young woman she would soon become. In fact, now that Anna was seeing her two friends standing side by side, she became conscious of the fact that Sarah looked a lot like Gwen. With her silky blond hair flowing beautifully down upon her shoulders and guardian robes, she could have passed for Gwen’s younger sister. She was carrying a very long and stiff looking bag against one shoulder.
“What’s in the bag, Sarah?” Anna asked her roommate, pointing at the strange object sticking into the air.
“Not-ah-ah,” Gwen hissed, glaring back at Sarah challengingly. “Not a word… that was the bargain, remember?”
“I didn’t say anything,” Sarah replied, smiling coyly.
Gwen looked over at Anna. “Sarah here is trying to pull a dose of Muggle rubbish over our eyes. She says she’s brought them to use for her sport this year at Castlewood,” Gwen smirked, pointing at the long black bag resting over Sarah’s shoulder. “We have a sickle bet she’s lying.”
Anna smiled. “So… you gonna tell me what’s in the bag?”
Gwen looked again at Sarah. “She says they’re used for… skying.” Gwen shot a look of disbelief back at Anna, testing Sarah’s story for the truth.
“Skying? What’s that?” Anna said with a frown.
“Huh! I knew you were lying,” Gwen yelped, pointing an accusing finger back at Sarah. “All that stuff about strapping boards to your feet and sliding down a mountain of snow — pay up!”
“Oh… you mean skiing!” Anna said correctly, and she watched amusedly as Gwen’s face quickly dropped. “Are you bringing skis to Spellsburg?”
Sarah Bell beamed. “Our Muggle Studies teacher, Professor Bots, gave me permission to bring them before we left for the summer holiday. He said he would give me extra credit this year if I give a skiing demonstration to the school.” She turned to look at Gwen. “I told you last year my family lived on a ski hill. They’re ski instructors.”
“Yeah… well…” Gwen stumbled uncertainly, “but you never said what that really meant, did you?” She looked over at Anna. “Don’t tell me she’s serious? Muggles actually strap sticks on their feet to slide around in the snow?”
Anna giggled. “Fraid so. I’ve always wanted to try it.”
Gwen’s face quickly hardened. “Well you can count me out! Of all the silly things.”
Sarah stepped forward and stuck out her hand. “Yeah… well, silly or not — pay up!”
Gwen smirked as she handed over the silver before looking back at Anna. “I think I liked her better when she was shy.”
“Let’s find a cabin below deck,” Anna suggested. “I have something I want to show you.”
The three headed down a steep staircase and stopped in a hallway filled with passing students. They could hear loud complaining in front and saw a gruff looking first-year girl shoving others to the side as she came toward them.
“Move out of the way!” the girl bellowed to a third-year boy in front of Gwen who quickly moved aside looking annoyed by the girl’s rudeness. “Stand aside,” the girl barked at Gwen without bothering to look at her.
“Plenty of room for everybody, you know,” Gwen answered back irritated. The girl tried to shove her way past. “Hey… you don’t have to push.” The girl didn’t reply as she shoved Sarah to the other side to get by her.
“Hey, watch out,” Anna said angrily, barely recovering from toppling over her roommate.
“Move, then!” the girl demanded, peering up through her short blonde hair and bangs that covered most of her face,
Anna stiffened as the girl tried to push past her again. “You’re going to hurt somebody. If you haven’t noticed, it’s kind of tight through here.”
The girl finally glared up at her through a curtain of yellow hair. “Then get out of my way.”
“What’s your problem?”
“I said move!”
“You know… most first-year eggs carry a bit more respectful for the other students around them,” Gwen growled. “You might want to go back the way you came and look for your manners.”
The girl wheeled around and glared heatedly at Gwen. “Fine!” she answered gruffly, and then without warning she almost bowled through Gwen to retreat in the direction opposite.
Recovering quickly, Gwen was incensed. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
The girl didn’t answer as she continued to shove her way past those in front of her again. Gwen turned to look back at Anna and Sarah.
“I hope she runs into a seventh-year Laborer along the way.”
Anna nodded angrily and then motioned for them to follow. They finally found an open cabin and filed in.
“What’s up?” Gwen asked her curiously.
“Sit down. I’ve been keeping a subscription to The Spellsburg Seer over the holiday. Have you been reading it?”
“Over the summer? What are you, nuts?” Gwen replied, surprised that anybody would read a newspaper while on vacation. She looked over at Sarah and shrugged. Anna unrolled her copy of the Seer and showed them the headline.
ESCAPED PRISONER AT DROGO STILL AT LARGE
The paper contained the pictures of two men on the front page: One depicted four guards dragging one man away kicking and screaming after receiving his sentence from the Wizard Gamot. The subject in the other picture was of an older man, looking serenely back at them from his photo.
Gwen took the paper from Anna and began to read aloud. “The Ministry of Magic today released another public statement concerning the escaped Drogo prisoner, Reginald Carter. Mr. Carter, Prisoner number A03031990A, has spent the last five years in Saint Drogo Hospital for Incurable Lost Causes for a number of violent crimes in the United States and Canada. The press release yesterday has confirmed that during his escape, Carter also killed another prisoner, Mr. Arief Sugianto, who was serving a life sentence in Drogo for multiple murders.”
Gwen looked up, “Sugianto? Hey… we’ve heard that name before somewhere, haven’t we?”
Anna leaned in. “Yes, we have. Do you remember that newspaper article Dowla gave to me last year about Saint Drogo castle… in exchange for the hopscotch rules?”
“Sugianto was mentioned in that article. It said he spent the last forty years in Drogo for killing his family.”
Gwen eyes widened. “Oh yeah… but it wasn’t for just killing them,” she added, her face screwed up in disgust, “it said he ate them.”
“That’s right… and more than a hundred other Muggles too,” Anna finished as Sarah let out a muffled yelp of surprise. Anna and Gwen looked over at her and then realized Sarah wasn’t with them the day they discovered Drogo’s location.
“Sorry, Sarah. I should have warned you this was pretty heavy stuff.”
“So… this guy, Carter, he killed Sugianto? Gwen asked. “Well… while it’s not a pleasant thought to know they haven’t caught the guy yet, as far as Sugianto goes, there’s no loss there, ay?”
“It would seem the Ministry agrees with you; read on.”
Gwen looked down at the paper again and read, “The Ministry has yet to explain exactly how Carter could have escaped from the most secure hospital prison in the world, or how this prisoner could have gotten into another locked cell to murder Mr. Sugianto. According to the spokesman for the Ministry Authority, Detective Lieutenant Farren Doyle, ‘The priority of the Ministry today is the capture of Carter. When he’s back in Ministry hands, we will ascertain exactly how he gained access to Mr. Sugianto’s cell and why he thought it necessary to murder him. This office can assure the public the Ministry is doing all it can to find this man as quickly as possible. We have a good idea of his general location in a very remote part of the country surrounding the prison. There is no chance whatsoever of this fugitive ever coming into contact with the general population.’
“Unfortunately,” Gwen continued, “these statements came as little comfort to those demanding to know exactly where the Office of Wizard Law Enforcement was focusing its search for the escaped prisoner.”
Gwen let the newspaper fall to the table. “But the area surrounding the prison… that would be the Shadowed Forest,” she said in a concerned voice.
“Yeah… and Spellsburg too,” Anna added, worriedly. “I don’t know how the Ministry can possibly say this guy wouldn’t come into contact with the public when one of the biggest Wizarding cities in the world is just a few miles away from Drogo.”
“But… the Crimson Guard is in the city,” Sarah said, looking positively horror struck at the thought of an escaped murderer being so close to the school. “The man wouldn’t go to Spellsburg, would he?”
“I don’t know about that,” Gwen observed. “There’s no way off that mountain except through the plateau and the tramcars down to the ships. If I were Carter, Spellsburg is the first place I’d go. He’d have no other way to escape but to try and steal down to the docks. That is, of course, if something in the Shadowed Forest hasn’t already eaten him.”
“Yeah, but the Crimson Guards at Drogo are going to know there’s a chance he’ll go to Spellsburg, wouldn’t they?” Anna added quickly. “My father told me we’re going to find the security within the city extremely high. Everybody in and out is being monitored closely and their IDs checked. He said the Ministry Authority is doing the same thing in other parts of the Wizarding world as well, so they don’t tip the public off to where Drogo might be.”
Sarah picked up the newspaper and looked at the photographs on the front page. “Is that Carter?” she asked, pointing at the smiling man staring back at her.
Anna leaned over. “No, that’s the prisoner who was killed, Sugianto. Carter is the other one screaming his fool head off.”
“Oh my…” Sarah whispered watching the Crimson Guards dragging the kicking man from the courtroom.
Gwen looked at the picture of Sugianto and swallowed hard. “In my opinion, it’s the quiet ones you should fear the most,” she said, pointing down at the grinning picture. “Look at that man’s eyes. He could be your next door neighbor and you’d never know he was really a murderer.”
“Could we change the subject, please,” Sarah said, turning away from the paper.
“What’s the problem? The man’s dead,” Gwen said with a grin. “It’s Carter we need to be worried about. Gosh… I hope the Ministry catches him soon.”
Sarah ignored Gwen as she reached over to cup Anna’s hand across the table between them.
“Has there been any word… about… your mother?” she asked cautiously. Gwen looked surprised by Sarah’s question and then looked over to Anna with obvious concern.
“No… not yet. My father thinks…” Anna hesitated, “she might be with Voldemort.”
Gwen and Sarah were stunned.
“What? No way,” Gwen said. “Why would she go back to him after everything he did to her? You told us on the way home how he…” she stopped, waited a few seconds, and then cautiously leaned in, “…how he tortured her. Why would she return to him after that?”
There was a pause as Anna tried to find the right words. “Because the evil one inside her is stronger than my mother, that’s why.” She looked up at her friends and they could see the pain Anna was struggling to control.
“No… I don’t believe that, Anna,” Gwen refused, supportively. “Your mother is much stronger than this other personality. She proved that when she tried to warn you about… the other… while you were in Drogo, remember? You told us how she argued with You-Know-Who’s servant, right? She wouldn’t go back to him now, not after all he’s done.”
Anna shook her head. “There’s another reason I believe she’s with him,” and she told them about her trip to the Ministry, her visit to the Hall of Wonders, and how she found the horcrux containing the soul of the condemned man RufusMalissifa. After explaining what a horcrux was, she found her friends staring back at her in appalled shock.
“My God,” Sarah whimpered, covering her mouth. “He put his own soul… into the cup?”
Gwen was scowling disbelievingly. “I’ve never heard of such a thing. And… you have to murder somebody to do this? That is so sick.”
Adhering to her father’s insistence she never reveal the terrible revelation that Voldemort had created several horcruxes, Anna told them about the vessel holding Leola Grayson and her belief it was probably her mother who had imprisoned the ally. When she finished telling them about Mrs. Porchdow being Guardian, Gwen couldn’t contain herself any longer.
“Edith Porchdow… your gardener? That Edith Porchdow?” Gwen asked in disbelief. “Wow… that’s incredible. And you think she’ll be able to find your stepmother?”
The question surprised Anna. She had never thought of Leola Grayson as a stepmother, but after rolling this inspiration around in her head, she found she actually liked the idea.
“I don’t know,” Anna finally answered, “but she has to be found. I’ve got to find a way to free her and then find out who imprisoned her.” She finally leaned back. “I owe her that much for saving my life at Drogo. She was probably trying to protect my family again when she was attacked.”
The three of them sat quietly together, Sarah and Gwen slowing digesting this new information until they could hear the captain on the upper deck shouting orders to the crew.
Sarah finally spoke. “Hey, I forget to tell you… I received an owl from Hogwarts over the summer.” She reached down to dig into the bag sitting next to her.
“An owl from Hogwarts?” Anna answered in surprise. “From whom?”
“Well — not from the school, actually, but from one of its students. Ah… here it is.” She removed a scroll of parchment from her bag.
“It’s from a girl named Hermione Granger. She’ll be starting her fifth-year at Hogwarts.”
“Why would a fifth-year at Hogwarts write to you?” Gwen asked, incredulously.
“Because I made a donation to S.P.E.W. Hermione Granger is the President of the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare at Hogwarts. There was a funny little article about it in the newspaper last year, and well… I thought the writer was rather rude about this group in the story. I don’t understand why. It seemed like a worthy cause to me… protecting elf’s rights in the Wizarding world.”
Anna thought about Gabby and Widwick back at home, and how Damon constantly abused them. “What a great idea,” she said enthusiastically. “It’s about time somebody stuck up for the elves. Well… besides us, I mean.”
“So… what does this Granger say in the letter?” Gwen asked.
Sarah Bell unrolled the scroll to read:
Thank you very much for your generous contribution to S.P.E.W. I have enclosed a copy of our new charter and our goals, which include the following: To secure house elves fair wages and working conditions, change the wizarding law regarding non-wand use, and work to include a house elf in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. I believe we’ve had a very good first year as a society. We’ve been able to increase our ranks and, most importantly, increase public awareness for the need of increased protection of elfish rights. It’s a good start, but we still have so much to do. We appreciate your very generous donation of 1 galleon, which will be used for additional flyers and materials for making clothes here at Hogwarts to set the elves free. I will be sending the minutes from our next meeting to you so you may see the good work made possible by your donation.
On behalf of all the elves everywhere in the Wizarding world, thank you again for your generosity. I hope you wear your S.P.E.W. badge proudly as so many others do here at Hogwarts.
Yours very truly,
Hermione Granger/President of S.P.E.W.
Sarah held up a silver badge with the letters: S.P.E.W stamped upon it.
“SPEW?” Gwen said, disbelievingly. “Does that say — SPEW?”
Sarah looked at the badge again. “No… it’s S.P.E.W.”
“Yeah… and that spells SPEW. Geez — you would’ve thought this Granger would have put a little more thought into the name.”
“Well I think it’s brilliant, Sarah,” Anna said. “I’ll send my galleon off when we get to Castlewood.”
“It’s only two sickles to join; I just added a bit more, because… well… it is for the elves.”
“And does it really say Harry Potter is also a member of SPEW?” Gwen said, grabbing the parchment again and glaring down at the bottom suspiciously. “Well… I’ll… be.” She looked up. “He is. Well that cuts it; I’m not giving anything to SPEW now.”
“Why not?” Anna and Sarah said together.
“Because Harry Potter cost me two galleons last year when he won the Triwizard Tournament. I thought that handsome Cedric Diggory was a shoe in to win the whole thing for sure,” she said, falling back with a huff. “I guess good looks didn’t count for anything with those stupid judges.” She looked up. “What?” Anna and Sarah were laughing hysterically.
Anna looked at her roommate. “So how is your mother doing, Sarah? Is everything alright at home?”
Sarah looked at her and smiled. “Yeah… she’s fine. I little embarrassed by the whole affair, but she’s doing okay.”
Gwen frowned. “What’s going on?”
Anna looked up and then over to Sarah again. It was obvious she was seeking permission to tell Gwen something important.
Sarah shrugged and Anna leaned over to Gwen. “Sarah’s mother was arrested over the summer.”
“Arrested!” Gwen looked over at Sarah. “Arrested for what?”
Sarah smiled. “She was protesting the logging on the other side of the our ski hill.”
“Logging? What’s that?”
“It’s a business where they cut down trees to make lumber.”
Gwen frowned. “And that’s bad?”
“Not normally, but my mother and father believe that if it’s done incorrectly… it can harm the environment.”
“And they arrested your mother for believing that?” Gwen asked her.
“Well… no… she wasn’t’ arrested because of what she believes… it was because…” Sarah hesitated and Anna smiled.
“Tell her,” Anna said and then she looked over at Gwen. “I think it’s brilliant.”
Sarah smiled again. “They took my mother to jail because she chained herself to a tree.”
Gwen was surprised. “SHE WHAT?”
“To keep them from cutting it down,” Sarah added quickly. “It was the only thing she could think to do to stop the cutting.”
Gwen’s jaw dropped. “And did it work?”
Sarah smiled again. “Yes… it did. They couldn’t cut the tree down with my mother chained around the trunk, so they began cutting down all the trees around her.”
“Oh my God!” Gwen yelped.
“Yeah… it was quite a scene. It even made the evening news on TV and it inspired others to join her. The next day there were a dozen others chained to trees all over the side of the mountain. Eventually, the local sheriff had to cut their chains and arrested them and my mom spent the next week in jail, but then a judge ruled that all the cutting should stop until the protester’s concerns could be heard in a public forum.”
Gwen fell back. “Wow,” she said impressed.
“I think her mother was very brave,” Anna added quickly, putting an arm proudly around Sarah’s shoulder for moral support.
Sarah looked up and smiled. “Me too!”
Gwen looked over at Anna and grinned. “I wonder if Muggles can become Guardians too.”
There was a quick rap at the cabin door, and they could see a pretty girl with dark, long-braided hair waving at them. Anna motioned her to come in and Tanya Joe Wangstaff quickly stepped inside.
“Hey — y’all, mind some comp’ny?” She looked a little frantic.
“Hey, TJ. No — it’s okay… the more Guardians, the better. How was your summer?”
“Sal-right — was good see’n the folks again.” She hurriedly closed the door to just a crack to peek out and, without looking back at them, she said, “You?”
“Great,” Anna replied, motioning to an open seat next to her.
Gwen frowned. “What are you up to?”
“Cookin’ on the front burner t’day,” the girl replied with an evil grin. She then quickly closed the door and lifted to peak out its porthole into the hallway outside.
“You hiding from somebody?” Gwen asked her suspiciously. They watched TJ duck down as a set of approaching steps thundered past their door.
“Shhh! Little miss nasty-pants is on the warpath again,” she whispered, putting a finger to her lips to silence them.
“Who is it?” Sarah whispered.
TJ looked back at them and scowled. “Dunning!”
The three girls at the table looked at each other and then groaned.
“Debbie Dunning?” Gwen asked her.
“O’course — Debbie Dunning. Who else would I be jawin’ about? Oo-wee! She’s hotter’n a burnin’ stump. Givin’ out detentions like they was candy.”
“Why — what happened?”
TJ turned and then sat down next to Anna. “Someone lit her up - set ‘da bottom of her robes afire when she wasn’t lookin’.”
“Oh, my God,” Sarah said frightfully. “Is she okay?”
“Is she okay?” Gwen scoffed back angrily. “The better question would be — is she crispy yet? Everyone hates that girl.”
TJ giggled. “That explains the herd of seventh-year boys I saw hidin’ all the water. I tell ya — lotta folks out there were prayin’ for a fannin’ wind — that’s fer sure. Ol’ double-D was screamin’ her fool head off. Sake’s alive — she’s got mouth enough for ten row of teeth.”
They all laughed.
“So who was it that set her on fire?” Anna asked her in a low voice. TJ smiled coyly and Anna immediately took the hint. “You!?”
“No way,” Gwen said disbelievingly, staring over at TJ with renewed respect growing by the second. The girl said nothing, which told the rest all they needed to know.
“Oh — my God! Way to go Texas!” Gwen sang out happily, punching TJ in the shoulder.
Anna was already giving TJ a high-five.
“But what if Debbie finds out it was you? She could get you expelled,” Sarah added worriedly.
“Pwah… that girl couldn't fin’er own butt with a flashlight in each hand!”
Once again, the cabin was filled with raucous laughter.
Soon the great ship was exiting the green fog of Neptune’s Veil and splashing down to the happy applause of all its passengers. After bouncing down the gangway and piling into an empty cable car, the three girls were soon winding their way up the forest covered mountain slopes and heading for the plateau.
After clearing the final mountain, the car finally dipped into the fog-incased valley where they knew the wizard city of Spellsburg was hidden. Moments later, the immense plateau fell into view, and they all gasped in surprise at the newly completed Guardian Hall set before them. The stone of the walls looked new and polished to a perfect and dazing white against the warm sun. Purple Guardian flags waved merrily in the brisk wind between the merlons and embrasures. Anna looked at Gwen and Sarah, and the three of them smiled triumphantly at seeing their new home.
A short time later, the girls were walking through the streets of Spellsburg and basking in the warm reception given to them by the city’s residents. The weather was bright and clear, and the sun shone a dazzling blue on the cobbled stones winding their way lazily from the tram station and up the steep hill toward the castle. Gwen and Sarah stopped to look at the robes within the Wompum Emporium as Anna continued up the street alone. She finally stepped into Ms. Rigger’s Sporting Goods to check out the latest flying doors.
The bell tinkled as Anna strolled in wide eyed and looking at the vast array of Quidditch and Slalom supplies, including the latest international standards for doors and brooms. Anna gazed in wonder at the placard below a door christened the Neptune Ott-Six, which was hovering above its display stand surrounded by a fence-like set of bumpers. Anna set a single finger upon the surface of the door and immediately felt it vibrate under her touch. She could tell the door was feather light and would be about as nimble and quick as a hummingbird under its rider’s feet. Anna smiled and then immediately tilted her head down to look at the underside. She was surprised at how similar the surface of the wood looked compared to what Mr. Porchdow had recently constructed for her. It was smooth and seemed to sparkle from the hidden magic mixed with its fine array of varnished resins and lacquers. And then something caught her eye on the underside that made her grin. She could see two channels that tapered gently into the smooth wood from the tip to the back and two small but very distinct set of fins protruding from the channels nearest the tail. Anna straightened to read from the framed placard.
The Neptune Ott-Six international standard flying door represents the very best from the Valerio family, the same artisan and searcher wizards that brought you Neptune models three and four. The Ott-Six brings into play the very best in quality, precision handling and speed. Selected by this year’s international Swift Slalom teams in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, the Ott-Six is made from the finest hardwoods and potioned lacquers, resulting in the highest quality for those who know their racing doors. Zero to 120 miles an hour in four-point-seven seconds flat, this door has been safely tested to five Gs at full speed and a high-banked radius of fifty-two feet, almost halving all previous models to date. The stamp-down air braking system stops the door consistently in forty-two feet, without the typical vapor trails or sparks seen with other competitive models. But the newest innovation for the Ott-Six is called the pinna. It is believed these two fin-like protrusions on the bottom of the door are what give this model its precision turns, even at high Gs, by virtually eliminating both high speed yaw and side-skate through the air. According to a Valerio company spokesperson, ‘The Neptune Ott-Six is the finest racing door ever created by sorcery, and represents a full five years of testing and developmental improvements. We look forward to seeing these doors sweeping all the metals in this year’s international slalom competition.’
“Holy…smoke…” Anna whistled enviously. She ducked down again and smiled as she ran a finger along one of the protruding fins. “Pinnas, huh? And Samuel said he didn’t think it would help,” she boasted satisfactorily, thinking about the new door he had built to her specifications.
And then, without warning, Anna’s senses were sent razor sharp, forced acute in the most aggressive and provocative way. Looking around warily, she could feel something familiar that hadn’t touched her mind in almost a year at Castlewood. Somebody was watching her. But it wasn’t the ally as she had initially hoped. She could hear the faintest heartbeat coming through the wall on the other side of the store. She carefully looked around, searching for a pair of eyes that might be watching from some unseen window or crack. She couldn’t pinpoint their exact location.
She turned and leisurely headed for the door, which chimed lightly again as she entered the sidewalk outside. She immediately turned right and jogged a couple of steps to the end of the building and then turned into a narrowed alleyway. She glared knowingly down the street and at the stack of wooden crates piled against the walls both left and right.
“Hello? Is there anybody there?” Anna called out cautiously, looking back only to insure she had a clear path of escape behind her. She stepped into the alley; her sharpened attention focused on the many hiding places before her. There were too many to guarantee her safety.
“I know you were watching me… what do you want?” she said, stepping forward to peak around some of the crates. There was a sound of something small breaking, and then the patting of tiny rodent feet scampering to get away. And then, from out of the shadows, there came a soft and wheezing voice that seemed to ooze from out of the darkness.
“Do not fear me, Guardian.”
Anna froze, looking carefully into the gloom and then back again to the safety of the street behind her. Her mind reached out, seeking the ally’s familiar presence she so desperately wanted to believe was close at hand. She wasn’t there. Whoever was speaking to her now was not Leola Grayson. This person was very much alive; she could hear his heart beating with a quickened rhythm of excitement.
“Who is it?” Anna challenged the gloom. “What do you want?”
She waited for what seemed like an eternity before the voice spoke again.
“I have a message for you,” said the stranger. “I bring love and good tidings… from your mother.”
Anna’s heart almost stopped as the words from the stranger sent her mind reeling. And then, realizing she might have waited too long to reply, she immediately stepped forward again.
“Do not come any closer, young one. I am… not well,” said the strange voice. His words were almost cut short by the rasp-filled thud of a cough. The voice of what seemed to Anna to be that of a very old man tried to clear itself of whatever disease might be hampering it before weakly continuing. “I have been cursed, child. It would be better for you if you did not see my face in its current state and light. It would be…”
“Did you say something about my mother?” Anna interrupted rudely. The man’s breath was ragged and deeply hindered, but Anna could hear his heart was strong.
“Yes,” he continued, “I bring word from your mother, Victoria Grayson.”
Anna stepped forward quickly again, and from the corner of her eye she saw something move back.
“Stop!” the stranger protested. A sore stab of pain seemed to embrace his warning. Anna could now see something against the stone of the wall behind a stack of crates in front of her. She could just see the reflection of a man leaning in from the panes of dirty, mullion glass of the adjoining shop.
“Please,” the man pleaded, “I beg you; do not to come any nearer. It would be unhealthy for you to see me directly. The magic of my curse is very old, but the pain of it is passed to those who would gaze upon my face.”
Anna shuddered. “Who has done this foul thing to you, sir,” Anna asked, leaning away from the wall to see the man’s reflection better. She could hear his sickly, rattled breath as he moved forward again, and she could now see the head of a hooded man. Anna gasped at the profiled face coming into view in the glass. His hair was a long, matted and gray, his face bone white, and he had what looked like a blindfold covering his eyes. “What happened to your eyes?” Anna asked him quickly. The man let out a whispered shriek of surprise and then fell out of sight again.
“Do not look upon me, I say. I am unclean. For your own safety, I beg you, let me deliver your mother’s message and then leave before you are infected with the Dark Lord’s curse as well.”
Once again, Anna’s heart was ceased in fright. She was immediately torn between finding out more about Voldemort and the message the man had come to deliver from her mother. She immediately knew which she wanted more. “Where is my mother? Is she safe? Have you seen her?”
There was another rattled heave, and then, “She is a prisoner of the Dark Lord,” he said, sorrowfully. “In his evil clutches… she is captive.”
Anna almost fell back. “No!” she whispered.
The voice continued. “But Victoria is strong and, using her power of the night, she was able to set me free.”
Anna’s heart lifted. “But if she freed you… why can’t she free herself?”
“She soon will,” the voice replied, “and using her vampiric gifts, she will quickly go into hiding. But He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has a servant that shares Victoria’s mind. This other is very powerful and it has taken all of Victoria’s strength to hold the evil one back before she can give her plan of escape away entirely.”
“You said my mother had a message?” Anna asked pleadingly. “She wanted to tell me something?”
Anna could hear the man’s breathing fail him and he coughed again before regaining his strength to speak.
“Yes…” said the nearly choked voice. “Victoria wanted you to know there is a plot to destroy you while you are here at Castlewood. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named knows of your existence and the power you used to set Victoria free from Drogo Prison.”
Anna’s eyes widened. “He knows… about me?” The horrified thought of it made her tremble.
“Yes, he knows, child. Your mother was hard-pressed to explain her escape without the Dark Lord’s help. But the other one sharing her body was more than willing to give him the information about you. He knows… what you are.” The tone of the man’s voice was foreboding. She heard him take another rattled breath and then, quite clearly, he said, “Victoria is coming to Spellsburg.”
The weight of these words suddenly made Anna’s knees buckle. “No!” she said without thinking. “She can’t come here, she wouldn’t!”
“She would… to protect her child from the Dark Lord’s evil plan, she most certainly will.”
“But if she comes back to Spellsburg, she’ll be caught and sent back to Drogo. Or worse… they might kill her!” Anna was beginning to panic.
“Victoria Grayson understands the risks to herself, but she will not allow this plot to destroy her only child. She wanted me to tell you… she will be watching those sent to harm you.”
“She can’t come here.”
Anna looked up in surprise; there were new voices invading the alleyway somewhere behind the stranger.
“I must go!”
“No, wait! You must tell me more about his plot and how I can contact my mother if she comes here.”
“I have delivered my message and all I know, child. All but one…”
“Yes?” Anna replied hopefully.
“Your mother said…” his breathing thumped again. “… she loves you.”
A burning eruption of emotion suddenly filled Anna’s chest. She found it hard to swallow and speak, as the approaching voices came closer.
“Farewell, Guardian…” came the hidden voice again, “I have repaid your mother’s kindness to me by delivering her message. Now… I must go.”
“No, wait! Please… I need to know more.” Throwing her remaining caution aside, Anna came forward and around the boxes hiding the man and ran head long into three boys who had come into the alleyway from the opposite direction.
The collision knocked Anna to the ground.
“Oops… sorry about that,” said one of the boys, reaching down to help Anna to her feet again. Scrambling up, Anna wheeled about to look again for the hidden stranger, but nobody was there. Disappointed, she slowly turned away.
Anna did a double take at the boy standing beside her and recognized him immediately.
“Oh — hello, Stephan, sorry… I… didn’t see you coming.” Stephan Durkin, Gwen’s boyfriend from the year before, was staring back at her. Anna looked around again.
“Did you… see anybody passing you going the other way in the alley?”
The boy looked at his two Defender friends, who shrugged.
“No… we didn’t see anybody,” Stephan replied. “Was somebody bothering you?”
“No — no, I thought the man might have needed some help, that’s all,” she lied convincingly.
“Hey… there you are,” a voice called from the top of the alley and Anna turned to find Gwen and Sarah approaching her. Gwen suddenly stopped when she saw the Durkin boy standing next to Anna.
“Oh… hello, Stephan,” she said in a rather callous tone of voice. “How are you?”
“I’m… ah… okay,” the boy replied somewhat nervously. “You have a good summer?”
Anna could see Gwen trying to force a polite smile. “It was fine… you?”
“Fine… fine. Well…” he turned to Anna again. “It was nice seeing you all again. I’ll… ah… see you around.” He turned to walk away and then quickly jogged forward to catch up to his two friends.
Anna turned to Gwen. “Well… that was a bit icy for two lovebirds, wasn’t it?” she said, surprised.
“Old news,” Gwen replied with a bored expression. “We broke up over the summer.”
“Oh…? Why’s that?”
Gwen leaned in. “Well… there was this new boy that I met in London over the holiday. Oh… I wish you could have met him, Anna. He’s tall, very handsome of course, and he’s…”
“Are you telling me you dumped Stephan for another boy you met over the summer?”
Gwen looked somewhat embarrassed. “Well, first of all… you know how it is with long distance relationships… they never seem to work out.”
Anna smiled. “You were only apart for two months!”
“But you didn’t meet Paul. Oh… he was so cute. He’s a fifth year at Hogwarts.
“And how did Stephan take the news? He must have been hurt.”
“Well… yeah, he was a little, I suppose. I guess that explains the cold reception, ay?”
Anna lifted an eyebrow. “You think?”
Gwen shrugged. “Come on… I don’t want to talk about old boyfriends. It’s cold in this alley. Let’s get out of here.” Anna looked carefully around again and then followed her friends back to the street.
As the three girls headed up the cobbled way, Anna tried to recount everything that had just happened in the alleyway. But before she could tell them about the old man, a familiar voice rang out.
She turned to find her brother jogging toward them.
Soon brother and sister were hugging in the center of the street.
“I know it’s only been a couple of weeks, but it’s great seeing you again,” Anna said, stepping back to look at her brother properly. “What’s this?” she said, rubbing the stubble of unshaven whiskers lying neatly groomed under her brother’s chin. “Don’t tell me you’re growing a beard?”
Eric smiled. “I thought I’d try and look a bit more distinguished this year.” He turned his head to show his profile. “So what do you think?”
Anna frowned. “I don’t like it. It makes you look older.”
“Exactly what I was going for, thank you.”
“But why would you want to look older?”
Eric gave her a stealthy look. “Now that’s a little secret I’ll be keeping as a surprise for later.”
Anna frowned suspiciously at her brother. “Well I think I prefer the cute, baby-face you left back at home.”
“Hold on,” Gwen interrupted. “I think it looks positively dreamy.”
Eric smiled and then straightened, setting his fists into his hips as he stuck out his chin. “You really think so?”
“Uh-huh,” Gwen moaned.
“Well then… just for that, I’m going to hug you too.” And Eric reached down and wrapped his arms around Anna’s best friend. Anna watched amusedly as Gwen winked at Anna over Eric’s shoulder and melted into her brother’s arms, rolling up her eyes and dropping her jaw in imitated ecstasy.
“All right — all right, that’s enough…” Anna said, pushing the two apart. “If you’re not careful, Eric, she’ll pass out on you and I’ll have to carry her up to the castle.”
Eric grinned as he turned to Sarah Bell. “Hello, Sarah,” he said, reaching out to shake the girl’s hand. “It’s good to see you again. You ready for another year at Castlewood?”
“Oh, yes — absolutely!” Sarah quipped, moving her skis to her other shoulder.
Eric frowned at the long bag she was carrying. “What’s in the package?”
Gwen rolled her eyes as she looped her arm into Eric’s and turned them toward the castle.
“Don’t ask… you wouldn’t believe it if she told you.”