Anna Grayson and The Dragon's Lair

The Scent of Things Small

ONE

As Anna burst through the thick clouds and into a bright morning sun, she couldn’t believe it had been two whole months since her last ride on the Vollucross steed with sapphire blue eyes. Although she was enjoying her first ride of the season on Swooper immensely, the memories of her last ride were weighing heavy on her mind. It might have been the last thing she had ever done if not for her alley. Anna’s life should have ended in the dungeons of Drogo prison that night, but she was saved from a horrific death at the hands of her vampire mother by Leola Grayson. And now her ally was in trouble, held a prisoner in a vessel somewhere on the Grayson estate more than two thousand miles away. She prayed Mrs. Porchdow would find her.

Anna’s mind returned to her lasting nightmares of that dark and musty dungeon room. She could see the stone bed levered out of the wall, the rags for blankets, and the smell of rotting flesh. Breaking into Drogo had nearly been her doom, but she survived thanks to her ally. But there was something deliberately pulling at her consciousness that troubled her more - more than just finding Leola Grayson, and all at once Anna again felt a great sense of shame. In was in that moment after her mother’s escape, while she lay bleeding to death on the dungeon floor, she had somehow found the strength to continue on, and it was that found reason for living that she continued to harbor her lingering thoughts of self-doubt, dishonor and humiliation.

In that moment, when her death was nearly secure, when she had willingly accepted its presence so near her, that she found a rage so deep, so penetrating, that even the Lethifold was pushed aside by it. All of what was left of her had been focused in on just one person, somebody who up to that time she had trusted with her life, who had taught her everything she knew about the world around her, but in the end… had betrayed her utterly. How could her father have lied to her for all of those years? Anna knew it was her need to confront him that had given her the strength she needed to survive that night, and as she rode through the sky she closed her eyes and bowed her head for the guilt those lasting feelings brought to her.

Perhaps it was the meeting she had with the Minister of Magic that had once again brought out her lasting feelings of betrayal toward her father and all of his secrets regarding her mother’s death. Minister Barkelnap made it clear that she had not forgiven her father to the level Anna tried to portray at the time, but despite all the logical reasons her father used to explain why her mother’s past was kept a secret from her, Anna still felt her lasting anger growing warm even as the cold wind around them worked to cool her blood.

But Anna also knew something more that forced to set aside all of her residual anger toward her father and his many sins of omission. Deep down, Anna knew who it was that was really responsible for everything that had happened to her family and to her mother, and she could feel her rage rising like black magma out of her stomach by that truth. It was always the same when she thought about him, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the Dark Lord. Although she knew at the time her ability to fight on after her mother had nearly killed her was the anger she felt toward her father, that anger had now been passed on to the evil calling himself Voldemort. Voldemort was back, and she wanted him to suffer in the ways he had made her mother suffer. She wanted him to pay for what he’d done to her family. He deserved death for these sins, and some day…despite all the theoretical detachments due her role as the first Guardian in more than fifteen centuries, Anna knew beyond any doubt that she would somehow play some part in the devil’s end. Yes, she had something the Minister of Magic did not – she knew Voldemort was back, and thus she also knew the sisters of vengeance, revenge and retribution would someday earn their moment in the sun.

Anna took a deep breath and then gave a left touch to the reins, which Swooper ignored with a jerk back through his bridle.

“Don’t tell me you’re still angry with me?” she said, looking down at him from the side. He turned his head to look away from her.

“Come on… I said I was sorry,” she pleaded. “It wasn’t my fault it took me two days to come and see you. The whole city is locked down tight. Until they catch Reggie Carter again it’s going to be difficult to move around as we please. It took me the whole day yesterday just to get my security papers.” Anna paused to frown. “That wicked Gregory Dunning is looking for any excuse he can to make trouble for the Graysons again.”

Anna remembered her encounter with Dunning the previous day in his dungeon office. After knocking lightly on the metal door with the heavy iron ring, she heard a voice on the other side.

“Enter!”

“Excuse me… ah… Lieutenant Dunning? One of the guards here said you wanted to see me?”

Anna was poking her head just inside the heavy metal door; she was reluctant to enter the office fully.

“Dunning looked up. “Ah… yes… Miss Grayson. Do come in,” he said almost kindly. Anna tried to smile; she was hoping the Chancellor’s efforts to wipe Dunning’s memory two months earlier had given her a clean slate with the ex-Captain of the Guard.

She cautiously stepped into the gloom of the room, lit only by the glow of a single candle sitting upon the corner of his desk. Hunched over the parchment in front of him, Anna thought the light gave the Lieutenant the look of Ebenezer Scrooge. She reluctantly nodded as he pointed to an empty chair across from his desk.

Anna noticed a set of chains wrapped around the arms of the chair and they rattled ominously as she sat. Anna tried to sound upbeat. “I was just here to pick up my security pass to Spellsburg.”

Dunning did not speak immediately, choosing instead to sit across and stare at her. After what seemed an hour, Dunning finally replied. “And what makes you believe you’re entitled to a security pass outside the castle grounds?”

Anna was surprised. It hadn’t occurred to her that she would be denied a pass for any reason.

“I… ah… well… I hope to fly for my Hall’s Vollucross team again, so I’ll need to practice. And my brother Eric is living in the city, so I’d like to visit with him as much as possible. And then there’s…” She suddenly halted. The smirk on Dunning’s face told her she hadn’t touched upon anything in his mind that would grant her a pass. Anna frowned. “I didn’t realize the students could be refused a pass,” she finished challengingly.

The sneer that greeted her was quick. “Of course you can be denied. This is an important matter of plateau security. Any student who has been deemed as a risk to the town or the school, for example, will be denied immediately.”

Anna was surprised. “But I’m not a risk to anybody.”

Dunning looked like a man with a lot he was unwilling to say, his contempt obvious in his response.

“I’ll be the judge of that, Miss Grayson,” he replied angrily. He took out a piece of parchment to write. “Where exactly does your bother live in the city?”

“He…” She halted again. “Is that information really necessary for you to know?”

“No, it is not.”

“Then why are you asking...?”

“Because you came here looking for a security pass. If you don’t want the pass, then you can leave now without answering any of my questions.”

Anna fumed. “Eric is staying at a placed called The Bloody Blotter on Leth Alley.”

Dunning smirked as he wrote. “I should think the Graysons could afford nicer accommodations more suitable to the amenities you’ve grown accustom.”

Anna tried to remain calm, immediately reverting to her father’s coaching and high speech. “Fortunately, my brother is not so shallow as to demand such trappings,” she snarled back.

Dunning gave out a soft humph as he continued to write. He finally stopped and looked up. “And… the rest of your clan? How are they getting along since their arrival on the plateau?”

“The rest of my family…” Anna replied, incredulously, “…is getting along just fine, thank you.”

Dunning smiled. “And your father? I would think the Ministry is keeping Director Grayson very busy these days.”

Anna was stunned. Dunning had never been interested in her father’s work.

“His duties usually do, of course,” she answered with a frown. “Why do you ask?”

Dunning ignored the question as he looked down to write again. And then, without looking up, he said, “And your mother?”

Anna couldn’t help letting out a sharp gasp of shocked surprise, which didn’t go unnoticed. Dunning’s eyes lifted and the two found themselves glaring at each other like two lions across a fresh kill.

He remembers, Anna thought quickly. But her father said the Lieutenant’s memory had been wiped clean of Victoria Grayson, of Drogo entirely, and his suspicions of Anna’s involvement with her escape. She stared at the man and watched his mouth curl a wicked smile. He still knows everything.

It was more than the way he looked; it was in his eyes. And then it dawned on her: This was why she was sitting there in his office. It had nothing to do with security; that was just a pretext for what he was doing now. He wanted to see her shocked expression when she realized he still knew her deepest secrets. Her anger flashed. Whatever was supposed to have been done to his memory had not worked. Realizing what pleasure her shocked expression must have given to him, Anna immediately moved to halt his amusement. She felt the muscles in her face relax.

“What about my mother?” Anna asked him testingly. Waiting for his reply, she looked for the ways in which he would continue to hint at what she was sure he already knew.

“Is she well?”

Anna’s face remained expressionless. “What kind of question is that?”

The lieutenant smiled again. “It’s a security question.” He went back to his writing. “Do you think your mother will be visiting you here in Spellsburg?”

Anna’s anger was growing steadily. She knew what he was doing. Walking a very tight rope with his every word, he was revealing to her the fact that the spells used to expunge his memory hadn’t worked properly. Anna’s was drawn to catalog every guarded signal he was giving her and then quickly realized one important thing truth. Despite what Dunning thought he knew, there was a difference between his hinting now and his accusations in the past: He wasn’t supposed to know anything. He might try and keep his knowledge of Drogo and her mother a secret, to hold the Ministry from attempting to wipe his memory again, but it was clear he was reserving these moments of selective awareness just for her. Anna moved to put an end to his torments.

“My mother is dead,” Anna said flatly.

Dunning’s smile never broke. In fact, it widened immeasurably.

“Really?” he replied in mocked surprise. “I hadn’t heard. Was she killed sometime over the summer?”

Anna held her breath. “No…” she seethed, “it happened soon after I was born.”

Dunning’s eyes flashed. She could tell it was taking all his strength to keep from shouting it out, You’re lying! Your mother is an escaped prisoner! She’s a killer!

“That will be all, Miss Grayson,” he said unexpectedly, his professional manner returning as moved to write on his parchment again. “You may go. You will be informed before the end of the day of my decision to issue you a security pass.”

“Fine,” Anna said flatly. She immediately stood and headed for the door. She was almost at the latch when she heard Dunning’s lowered voice behind her again.

“Of course, I remember…”

Anna cringed and then slowly turned to face the lieutenant again. He was staring at her, his quill now lying quiet on his desk. She was somewhat surprised that Dunning, now successful in his attempt to inform her that his memory was still whole, would press the game more.

“What do you remember, lieutenant?” Anna challenged him.

He was quiet for a moment and then said, “I remember… you brought a house elf from home with you last year. Unfortunately, this year our security measures will not allow for any such accommodations.” He sneered again. “Your personal servant will have to be sent home.”

Anna smiled reproachfully. “Gabby did not travel to Castlewood with me this year.”

“Charming,” Dunning replied, picking up his quill again to write the note down.

“What’s charming?”

“The fact that you actually name the creatures you command.”

This time Anna smiled. “You are an astounding man, Lieutenant Dunning.”

The man looked up at her and frowned. Plainly, he hadn’t expected her reply.

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

“You have such an excellent memory of every detail both inside and outside this castle, both now and in the past. Yet, you don’t know the simplest of things obvious to everybody else living here.”

“What are you babbling on about, Grayson?”

Anna grabbed the latch and opened the door. Looking back, she said, “All of the elves in this castle have names, lieutenant. And they, like you, have an excellent memory. But they also have one important gift that helps them to survive.”

He glowered at her. “And what would that be?”

She smiled again. “They always know what’s important to forget.” And with that said, Anna left Lieutenant Dunning’s office.

Anna gave the reins a sharp snap and Swooper dipped his wings into a roll at her command. She smiled broadly; it was worth Dunning’s private little tortures to do this - to fly again. She leveled off once more and closed her eyes as the morning air filled her senses even as the security brand on her chest crackled and popped.

There was a slight twinge of pain in her shoulder as she gently moved the reins left, the resultant injury of the limping man’s blast that sent her and TJ across the room. It took but a wave of his wand for Professor Thordarson to repair the damage to the building, but his anger was rather frightening to witness the night before. She had never seen the greatest wizard in all the Americas so absorbed by rage. His public chastising of the new Captain of the Guard at the edge of the forest had most of the students from the Guardian and the adjoining Artisan Hall peering out their windows in stunned silence. Luckily for the captain, the Chancellor’s anger was short-lived when the Mayor of Spellsburg joined them outside the walls with several other guards and teachers.

The Mayor was still wearing a full-length sleeping gown under a half-twisted robe and a bright yellow cap upon his head. He carried a wand in one hand and his ornamental scepter of office in the other.

It had been a very long night. So much so that when Doctor Pearl finished repairing TJ’s injuries, Anna remained quiet about her stiff shoulder to avoid even the remote chance of spending yet another night on the hospital floor.

One by one, their stories were taken and recorded and Anna was surprised to hear Captain Hayman saying there were smugglers using the forest to hide illegal goods in and out of the city. It seemed insane for anybody to use the Shadowed Forest for anything considering how dangerous it would be to enter and especially during that time of high security. The escaped prisoner from Drogo was still at large, there were guards everywhere looking for him, and still these men continued their illegal trade within the Shadowed Forest. Their audacity was unbelievable to everyone.

Worst of all, Captain Hayman believed the reason these men had not been caught was because they spent so little time in transition between the forest and the city. Whatever they were selling in Spellsburg was obviously being taken out of the forest; Hayman was sure of it.

From what Anna was able to remember from the gathering of thieves outside TJ’s window, the contraband was small enough to put into a sack. What was it they were stealing from the forest?

Anna also remembered Eric telling her the same story about the smugglers the year before, after she had been arrested for sending her owl to Drogo. At the time, Eric said Hayman told him Anna’s arrest had been a mistake, a lot of confusion brought on by the Captain’s efforts to find this same band of smugglers. At the time, Anna thought that was just a lie, that Dunning was actually trying to hide the fact she had seen one of the most notorious secret places in all the Wizarding world; a place Captain Dunning was responsible for keeping hidden from public view. While Dunning had indeed lied about the reasons for her arrest, it would seem he was not lying about the existence of the smugglers at all. It now seemed clear to Anna that he was just using the convenience of their existence to keep from being sacked.

Anna turned Swooper again and headed back to the stadium. Forty minutes later, she was walking through the gates of the city and thinking about her scheduled classes. It was still early and the rising sun had not reached the largest portions of the city yet, which sat cold in the shadows behind the union walls. Several shops were beginning to open their doors for business, slowly rolling their samples to the sidewalks in the hope of catching the eye of a passing patron with excess gold jingling in their pockets.

“Good morning…” Anna said, stopping obligingly to look at a rack of dress robes.

“Good morning, dear,” said a kindly witch, redressing the clothing on one of the wooden branches. “Fifteen percent off today,” she said in a reedy voice.

Anna took her time moving up the street, talking to some of the shopkeepers as they prepared for the day’s business. The streets were getting busier as the morning dew burned away and the city shadows retreated toward the union walls.

And then, quite unexpectedly, Anna caught the sudden scent of something odd in the air. More than the passing smell of something unexpected, this had an odd aroma about it, something that she thought she had smelled once before, but she couldn’t quite place it. Why such a thing would gather her attention so quickly was puzzling to her, for the smell wasn’t exactly pleasant and it certainly wasn’t something stirring her morning appetite looking for a missed breakfast… no. This was touching something more meaningful, much more basic within her core. The smell moved through her chest like a hunger, making her lungs rumble and heat up. She cautiously looked around, searching for the source of the scent she was experiencing and her nose began to sniff greedily into the morning breeze.

Anna continued up the street again, turning to follow whatever it was tapping at her senses. She didn’t bother to watch where she was going, choosing instead to focus on the scent she now followed through the air like a bloodhound. She turned left, headed up an alley, then right again, before making her way down another street only to stop when she realized she was going the wrong way. The scent beckoned at her to turn and Anna willingly followed, realizing late why it was taking so long to find what it was driving her onward. Whatever the thing was… it was moving.

Like her, the thing she was tracking was traveling through the streets of the city. When she felt herself going the wrong way, it wasn’t her failure to keep pace with it; it was the thing itself turning unexpectedly as Anna closed in. Still, she knew she was getting closer. Like the bloodhound pursuing its first fox, magic’s first Guardian was honing in.

Anna slowly jogged up a barren street and was somewhat relieved to see one of the towers of Castlewood coming into view in the distance. She stopped to look down another open alley. No… it’s up a little bit further, her mind said after checking the strange tapping in her chest once more, but it was close now — very close. The thing she was tracking wasn’t running or making any attempt to escape the fixated howling coming from Anna’s brain as she closed in.

I have you now, little fox, Anna thought, as she stopped to look up the next alley. She was breathing hard, but she wasn’t really aware of it. In that moment, her body was a slave to her senses, driven only by what they were discerning through the rising smell of normal city life. The scent of breakfast, burning wood, of people, mold and garbage in the alleyways, they were all there; but buried deep beneath it all the fox was still there. She knew the thing was moving in parallel on the next street over, just a few more steps passed the alley that connected the two of them. Anna smiled and looked further up the hill. She would cut it off at the next alley.

She bolted forward, allowing for the moment to let her legs outrun her senses; they didn’t seem to mind. In fact, they were applauding her actions; they were closing in. She turned right into the next alley and entered the shadows within. Her senses were almost screaming in ecstasy as she moved forward, their applause turning into a roar of delight in her head. She moved quickly toward the light at the end of the alley, knowing with every fiber within that the thing was now moving toward her.

I’ll cut it off at the street, she thought, and her heart raced beneath her lungs; the tapping there had become a firehouse bell. She flew into the next street and slid to a stop. The fox was cornered now, from which tree is he hiding? she thought with amusement.

To her surprise, the street she had entered was very busy. Several citizens and even a few students were now clogging its cobbled walkways both in front and behind her. The alarm bells in her chest were now banging so hard against her ribcage they actually hurt, and Anna leaned on a still-flickering lamppost to calm herself. She took a deep breath, swallowed hard, and looked up again to peer into the faces passing on her left and right and those across the street coming up the hill.

And then she saw him and Anna’s eyes widened in horror as the man moved unknowingly toward her. She fell back against the building, allowing the crossing pedestrians to block her from his view as he continued up the sidewalk on the other side of the street. Anna turned around to act interested in the window display and watched him through the reflection passing her position on the other side. She slowly turned to watch him hobble and gimp along, without so much of a glance her way. It was the hooded limping man she had seen in the forest the night before, the same man who fired at their window for trying to give away his position to the guards. The sack he was carrying the night before was gone, of course, replaced by a crooked cane, which he depended on heavily as he walked along.

Without thinking, Anna found herself following him on the other side of the street, and then gasped as he turned up another alley to move away from her. Anna dashed into the street to follow and then stopped suddenly.

“Watch out!” the man yelped as he zipped by her on a door, giving her a friendly wave as he looked back. Anna finished crossing the street and then peered down the alley. She could see the limping man moving toward another street on the other side.

The alley gap contained the smell of the man between its narrow walls, and there was something about his scent that seemed unnatural to Anna; something that she was sure didn’t belong to him. Where had she smelled it before? She wanted to follow, but quickly realized that idea might be too dangerous. And then four more men unexpectedly bumped into her as they entered the alley from behind, barely noticing her as they passed. Anna’s heart leapt at her good fortune and she quickly moved in behind their mass to follow the limping man farther. She could see his dark hood looking back at the crowd of men behind him and noticed his gimping steps increase their pace as he continued on. They had almost caught up to the man as he turned left and fell out of sight once more. The crowd of men turned the other way and Anna jogged forward to enter the next sidewalk. The man had crossed the street again and turned down yet another alley. She took one step to follow and then…

“Well — well — well, look what we have here, boys. It’s the first Guardian.”

Anna turned to find a man sitting at a tiny, round table with two others drinking coffee. She recognized the man immediately and just as quickly tried to ignore him. It was Michael Wendell.

Wendell had almost killed Anna the year before during her fist Vollucross race. She remembered that day vividly, and especially the look in Michael’s face as he brought his wand around to cut her harness away. That action sent her tumbling into the forest and almost to her death, and it was only due to the creature called Trog that she survived the fall that day. As punishment for his actions, Wendell was removed from his Defender Vollucross team and never allowed to ride again.

“What… not even a friendly hello, Grayson?” the boy added quickly with a smile.

Anna looked back around at him. He seemed much more casual now that he’d graduated and left Castlewood. His hair was a bit longer, his face unshaven, but his eyes were the same as the day he’d hope to put her down. They were black as coal and piercing.

“Drop-dead, Michael!” Anna snapped back, looking around again at the alley entrance where the limping man had disappeared.

“Whoa — Whoa — Whoa…” Wendell quipped, looking back at his friends at his table. They were smiling as Michael stood and then stepped in front of Anna. “Now what manners are these, Grayson? Surely the Guardians can be taught the simplest of courtesies.”

Anna stepped back from him. At least a foot taller, Michael Wendell had always been a menacing presence even among his fellow seventh-years.

“I have nothing to say to you,” Anna growled back. She tried to move around him, but he grabbed her by the shoulder.

“Oh — come on now, Grayson,” he replied. “Why don’t you let me buy you a coffee? Join me and my friends here,” he offered, motioning back to the table.

“No, thank you.”

His eyes bore into her. “And why not? There’s no reason to be rude.”

Anna could hear Michael’s friends snickering behind her.

“No reason to be rude?” Anna said, seething. “How about you trying to murder me? I think most decent people would call that reason enough.”

Michael’s friends immediately stopped laughing. He must have noticed it too, because he turned to them with a late smile.

“Rubbish! Only a first-year would call a fall in a Vollucross race attempted murder.”

Anna could see a look of acknowledgment on his friends’ faces as their smiles quickly returned.

Anna stepped up to Michael again. “Well I’m not a first-year anymore, and I still say it was you trying to kill me.” She turned to move away again, but Michael grabbed her shoulder once more.

“Anna, please…”

“Let go of me!” She twisted it away and brought her wand around to point it under his chin. “If you ever put your hands on me again… I’ll make you regret it!”

His friends stopped laughing again and Michael Wendell had that same look of murder in his eyes Anna had seen so many times in her dreams since that terrible day over the Shadowed Forest. The Guardian didn’t flinch as the man’s glare bore into her; she knew those eyes would soon invade her nightmares once again.

Michael slowly backed away. “Very well, Grayson. I’m sorry you can’t join us, and I’m sorry you still don’t understand the difference between a friendly competition and a real fight.”

Anna was seething. “I’ll give you a fight you won’t believe if you ever come near me again, Michael.” And without waiting for his reply, Anna turned and walked away.

She crossed the street quickly and ducked down the alley after the limping man again. She stopped to gather herself, looking back to make sure Wendell wasn’t pursuing her. She took a calming breath and then turned again, looking for the limping man’s scent once more. In spite of Wendell delaying her, the man she pursued was still very close. She continued cautiously down the alleyway and found it ended at a tee. She carefully sniffed at the air once more and then turned right to follow, passing a wanted poster of Reginald Carter along the way.

A row of shabby townhouses came into view; their entranceways, crowded together and peeling, lined the alley on either side of the dirty, trash littered street. Some of the shutters hung lopsided on their hinges while others went missing altogether. The dwellings, packed tightly together and separated only by their crumbling steps, had an odd, almost stubborn stature about them that seemed to send a clear message to the rest of the city: We were here long before all the others on this hill.

Anna looked around the old and broken street, sniffing at the air again for the limping man. He was close… very close. She slowly continued up the gloomy alley lined with dead trees, suddenly aware of the other smells now mixing with what she was tracking. The stench of rotting garbage more then anything, but then there was the scent of burning wood and coal, mingling with somebody’s breakfast of bacon and toast.

Finally, she came upon a boarded up residence next to an open gap; a place where small piles of wood and rubble looked carefully placed to make the missing house look like it had been knocked down and cleaned away decades earlier.

Yes… it’s supposed to look that way, Anna thought, suspiciously. As she stood before the open gap, she could sense enough to know she should be hiding herself. She moved quickly behind an old, broken closet, which had been abandoned and pushed uncaringly against the wall next to the gap. She peered out to sniff at the air again. This was the place all right. Although most of the homes around her were probably vacant, she knew the gap before her was certainly not. The smell was strongest here, but it wasn’t the hammering in her lungs, now wailing out her close proximity to four-alarms, it was the bluish-white glow that settled like a fog within the gap, and like a parent spying the hiding place of a playing child, Anna smiled amusedly.

A lot had happened to Anna Grayson over the last year of her life. She had seen terrible things, almost killed twice, and witnessed great levels of magic that both awed her and made her cringe in mortal fear, but it was in these special moments of awareness that reminded her just how different she was in the world. The special gifts of magic given to no one else since the time of Merlin were now in full force, and although she rarely allowed herself to think what it truly meant to be so different, it was moments like this that she truly loved being what she had become.

Anna moved carefully around the closet where she was hiding and placed her hand onto the stone enveloped within the haze.

“Hello, my friends,” she said expectantly.

“Sithmaith!” came a surprised whisper in reply.

The voice was somewhat different than most Anna had encountered. This one was weak, like that of an old woman. The magic found here was almost feeble.

“The world is well,” Anna whispered quickly in expectation of the next question.

The world is well, the voice repeated. How may I serve you, Guardian?”

“I am the Secret Keeper of this dwelling enchanted by Fidelius, am I not?”

Without hesitation, “You are the Secret Keeper of Fidelius.”

“Then show me this place.”

Without argument, the gap between the two abandon houses began to ripple and distort in what little light existed around it. Suddenly, the top of a brick chimney, smoke still pouring from its top, began to rise straight out of the ground. The chimney was connected to an angle of old slate, which eventually became a roof with broken dormers. The house continued to rise out of the rain-swept mud and finally towered three full stories before her. It was still enveloped within the Fidelius charm that kept its existence a secret to anybody who might have been standing next to Anna.

When the old row house stopped rising, a small porch began to move forward to connect itself to the broken sidewalk. A door appeared beneath an alcove and two windows on either side.

And now Anna could hear the voices of two men arguing through a cracked window above her hiding place. Anna quickly moved forward to the closest window and slowly rose up to peer inside.

Another man was yelling at the limping-man. “What do you mean you’re not interested?” the man bellowed, confident their secret keeper status within the house would stifle his roar. Anna tried to see the limping man’s face, but his back was to her.

“I mean… I don’t want it,” the limping man replied coolly.

The second man was a bit taller and only slightly better kept than the limping man. His clothes were in need of a wash, and even from the window from which Anna was spying she could smell his chewing tobacco, which he turned to spit on the floor near the limping-man’s feet.

“I came here to buy an egg, not some half-dead rat with wings,” the limping added, pointing down into a basket sitting on the floor before them.

“What difference does it make? My men worked just as hard to steal it for the Collector as they did the rest; you have to take it.”

“What difference does it make?” limping man said sardonically. “There’s a big difference between a nice quiet egg and that squawking, sickly looking thing. It’s bad enough the Crimson Guards are inspecting the cargo going on and off every ship, but how am I supposed to get that down to the dock without somebody hearing all the whining and coughing? Have some reason, man. If I’m caught, you and all your men would be just three drops of veritaserum away from Azkaban yourself.”

The man spit down at the floor again. “Just puta silencing charm on it? That’ll keep it quiet long enough.”

“The dragon would never survive the trip.”

The dragon?

Spitting-man sneered angrily. “The stupid thing broke out of its shell just this morning; of all the rotten luck. What am I supposed to do with it now?”

The limping man let out a heave as he looked down at the basket again. “Shame… really,” he moaned, almost caringly. “It would have made a nice little profit for you. The collector is charging me five-hundred galleons each.”

Spitting-man straightened. “Five-hundred, you say? Outstanding! The demand is growing; before long, he’ll be asking a thousand! I was skeptical about our partnership with the collector even after he showed us a shorter path to the cliffs, but he promised he could get us the right price for our risks.

“Perhaps: A very rare breed from a secret location… set deep in one of the most dangerous places on the planet. Your men have cut themselves an excellent path to the lair. They should be applauded. The collector is very pleased.”

“And they expect to be paid well,” spitting-man answered sardonically. “Unlike you… not all of us have cushy jobs in the Ministry and we lost one of the men to an Acromantula on our last trip.”

Anna’s mind was seething at what she was overhearing. The limping man was working in the Ministry? She tried again to see his face, but the spitting-man was standing between them. Anna growled. These smugglers were stealing dragon eggs and selling them for profit. She could feel her Guardian blood beginning to boil with disgust and rage. What gives them the right?

“The collector pays your men well enough for their risk you take, and they will continue to reap the rewards of our venture together so long as they can keep the flow of eggs coming,” limping man replied.

There was a pause before spitting-man said, “So what am I to do with this one?” Anna could hear a faint and sickly squawk coming from the basket.

The limping man shifted his unsteady weight again on his cane. “Drown it,” he replied callously.

NO! Anna almost screamed.

The spitting-man was quiet, which gave Anna a moment of hope, but then, “Gladly; the stupid thing’s already making too much noise anyway. Probably keep me up all night otherwise.”

Anna began to draw out her wand as the limping man shook his head. “His fire is nearly out anyway. Without its mother’s constant care and scorching breath, the thing won’t last but a couple of hours anyway.”

“I didn’t think this breed had fire.”

“Not that they can use for hunting or defense, but all dragons have something of a smolder in their bellies, especially the nesting females. Take care when you put it down. Vipertooth venom is not lethal at this size, but a bite will certainly require medical care and we don’t want to bring any unwanted attention to ourselves by trying to explain what it was that bit you. Tell your men to try and gather only the hottest eggs from now on. Those would be the newest laid and should give us the time we need to get them off of the plateau.”

Anna peered over the sill of the window again and unconsciously raised her wand. I won’t let them do it. They won’t be allowed.

Spitting-man finally stepped away from the basket. “I’ll do it after breakfast. Come on… I found a new place two streets over that can serve a decent morning steak.”

Anna fell back into her hiding place once more at the approaching footsteps and the sound of several banging doors. She just made it back to the dilapidated closet when the front door threw itself open. The two men stepped down onto the sidewalk and then turned to watch the row house sink back down into the mud, leaving an empty gap in its place once more. The limping man’s hood was covering his head again.

Anna watched them turn together and slowly walk away. Then, at the first corner, they fell out of sight and Anna scampered forward to follow them. She cautiously looked around the bend and watched the two men all the way to the end of the alley where they turned again for the open street beyond. Anna ran back to the gap and jammed her hand into the bluish mist. A minute later, she was sliding open the window to the room where the two men had been talking. It was a tight fit, especially in her Guardian robs, but she was determined to get to the dragon as quickly as possible. She fell to the floor inside with a dull thud, quickly got to her feet again, and then ran to the dirty basket sitting on the floor.

Certainly, Anna was no expert when it came to dragons. In fact, other than the projection she saw during the Triwizard Tournament, this was the first one she’d ever seen. Still, she could immediately tell this one was in terrible condition. Its body looked like a freshly minted penny, copper color, with blotches of black all over its body. It had tiny bumps on the top of its head and dirty rags for wings that lay in a sprawl around its body. The uncaring way in which the thing hadn’t bothered to tuck in his wings had Anna believing the creature was close to death. She reached down and carefully lifted the dragon up to cuddle it against her body.

“There — there, little guy,” Anna said, comfortingly. “Don’t worry... I won’t hurt you.” The dragon opened its eyes to murmur a tired coo and Anna could see a drip of green spittle running out of its mouth. She gently folded his wings together properly and then moved him inside her robes against her body. She could feel his trembling chest flatten against hers, seeking her warmth.

“I have to get your out of here.” She quickly moved back to the window and looked out. “Can’t go that way again; not with you under my robes — gonna have to be the front.”

She moved to the door and saw it opened to an adjoining parlor. There was a mattress lying on the floor against the wall and a kettle sitting on a plate next to it. Outside the adjoining double doors to the hallway sat two more doors off their hinges. Anna headed out, turned right, and found the front door. She peered out onto the porch and the street through the dirty glass before jiggling the knob. It was locked.

“Oh… for heaven’s sake,” Anna huffed angrily, “You would think Fidelius would be secure enough!” She reached into her robes to remove her wand again and she could hear the baby dragon give out a squawk of protest in reply. She pointed the wand down.

“Alohomora!” The lock clicked and Anna looked out as she moved her wand away. She stepped outside and closed the door behind her. “Thank you,” she said, placing her hand on the wood of the door one last time.

“Be gone, Guardian — before the thief returns,” said the magical voice, worriedly.

Anna left, clutching the little bundle close to her body and wondering aloud, “And who is this… collector?”

TWO

“Are you insane?” Gwen stood staring disbelievingly into Anna’s bathtub. The baby dragon lay in a pile of moss surrounded by a circle of hot stones. It was the next morning, and Anna was up all night caring for the creature with a book in her lap, The Raising of Baby Dragons by Waterdee Matthias.

“What the heck are those fer?” TJ asked, pointing down at the stones.

“The tub reflects the heat back toward the middle,” Anna replied, looking away from her book. She pointed her wand down into the ring of stones. “Incendio!” she whispered, and the stones grew red hot.

“He’s looking a lot better than he did last night,” Sarah observed, looking over at Anna excitedly. “Did he eat anything yet?”

Anna smiled. “Yeah; Hobbs brought him another rat this morning. He gobbled it right down.”

Suddenly, and as if on cue, Hobbs shot through the open window and turned into the bathroom. The owl landed on the edge of the tub with a dead squirrel in his clutches. The sleeping dragon instantly rolled onto its feet and began to beg like a fledgling in its nest.

“He can’t possibly be eatin’ all that,” TJ surmised, looking at the half-mauled squirrel. “That critter’s nearly’s big as he is.”

Anna took the dead squirrel by the tail and lowered it into the tub to the squeals of disgust from Gwen and TJ behind her. They watched in astonishment as the baby dragon snatched the rodent and eagerly began to rip it apart.

“Holy-moly — I guess he can eat it,” TJ said in wonder. “Look at him go!”

“That is soooo… gross…” Gwen said, turning to leave the bathroom. “I think I’m going to be sick.”

Without waiting to be told, Hobbs leapt into the air and quickly turned toward the open window again, while Anna, TJ and Sarah watched the dragon eat everything within the billowing bits of fur floating about them.

“Incendio!” Anna whispered again, heating up the rocks once more.

“Hobbs is acting like his daddy,” TJ said, as she watched the owl clear the window with a screech.

“Yeah… well… papa Hobbs had better watch himself or that dragon’s gonna make a meal out of him, too,” Gwen said, scowling.

Anna stuck her hand in the tub and stroked the dragon’s bright-copper scales. The dragon looked up and cooed admiringly at her. Then, deciding it was time to play, it started walking around in the tub and head-butting the stones toward the middle around him.

“Would you look at that,” TJ quipped. “That’s one smart critter. He acts like our bull Billy-Jack back at home.” She looked up and smiled. “He’s always buttin’ heads wit’ everything around him. We had to trim his horns, it got so bad.

Finally, the dragon yawned, cooed again, and then curled into a ball to sleep. Gwen, still looking a bit green around the ears, was back in the bathroom again.

“Where did he come from? And what the heck are you going to do with him now?”

Anna looked surprised. In all the excitement she had completely forgotten to tell her friends about the limping-man. As they gathered their books and bags for class, Anna told them how she had seen the man walking through the city and followed him to the old row house. She left out the important parts about smelling the scent in the air, which she had since come to realize was the smell of the dragon on the man’s clothes. When she told them how she had broken into the house to steal the dragon back, Gwen had nearly reached the point of fearful collapse.

“You broke in and stole it? Are you crazy? They could have killed you! If you had been caught…”

“What was I supposed to do? Just let them kill him?”

Surprisingly… it was Sarah who seemed the most understanding. “No,” she said immediately, “they shouldn’t be allowed! They can’t continue stealing and killing these dragons.”

Anna looked at Sarah with astonishment. She remembered those same words coming into her mind the moment she understood what the limping-man was planning to do.

“These dragons are supposed to be protected,” Sarah continued, “I read it in Anna’s book this morning. We have to stop these men; we have to report them to the guards, to Captain Hayman, to Lieutenant Dunning, the Chancellor, to anybody who’ll listen to us.”

“Whoa, calm down, girl” Gwen said, worriedly, but Sara’s reaction made Anna smile.

“I wish I could see the place where it was born,” Sarah went on longingly, looking down at the now sleeping dragon.

“Me too,” Anna agreed. “I’m going to report what I saw to Captain Hayman as soon as possible. I should be able to tell them where the house is, because…”

Anna stopped suddenly when she noticed TJ staring at her with a look astonished wonder.

“What?”

“You… can see through a Fidelius Charm?” TJ’s expression turned suspicious.

Anna was suddenly reluctant to answer. She remembered McGonagall’s warnings not to share too much about her own abilities.

“Yes… she can,” Gwen answered her, “and this isn’t the first time either. Anna’s done it before. She once…”

“Gwen — stop!” Anna warned. She was sure Gwen was going to tell TJ about her trip to Drogo.

“What?” Gwen replied, knowingly. She winked at Anna. “I was just going to tell her how you found your father’s vault, which was protected by Fidelius.”

Anna was so relieved she didn’t protest her friend telling TJ how Anna had become the vault’s secret keeper.

TJ’s look of surprise and wonder was renewed. “Is this ability a Guardian thang, or jus’ somethin’ you can do?” she asked her, suddenly hopeful.

Anna decided to end the discussion quickly. “I don’t know, TJ, but please… don’t tell anybody about this. I wouldn’t want people to think that I’m some kind of sneak-thief.”

“But how you gonna to tell Captain Hayman about the gimp? How you gonna explain how you knew where to find his hideout?”

Anna hadn’t thought of that. She pondered the question for a moment and then said, “I don’t know, but I’m still going to report it. We can’t let a bunch of criminals continue stealing these eggs. If I have to, I’ll just say I don’t know why I saw it. They’ll catch the guy — and that’s all that really matters anyway, right?”

A second later, Hobbs flew into the window carrying another dead rat in his talons. With a happy screech, he turned into the bathroom again. The four girls stared at each other when they heard a rumble of stones and the district sound of begging coming from the next room. Anna’s new charge was squawking excitedly.

Gwen looked appalled. “No way! That thing still can’t be hungry, can it?”

Sarah ducked into the bathroom again, but they didn’t need to hear her report. The eager growling intermingled with the distinct sound of tearing flesh told them all they needed to know.


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