he door was locked.
It had to be the one Aram was looking for. All the other gate doors inside that fern thicket were open, leading either to the mountains, or back into the village. But this low wicket gate with a small keyhole didn’t seem as simple as the rest of the doors. Firstly, it was forged of black metal and decorated with ornaments in the center: a broomstick, a cauldron, and a cat, and this kind of ornaments were not fit to the courtyard of the old church. And secondly, when Aram crawled closer to the door, he could hear a babble of a stream, even though there was no river within a radius of five miles. Yes, that was the door he needed, the door which, as Grandpa Kevork had been promising all those years, would take him to a place he would never want to leave again. The place where he would find the answers.
The door was surrounded with a thicket so dense there was no way to climb over or walk around it. The only way to get to the other side was through the door. Aram snapped his head left and right, but there was no key. He looked back, thought about running home after tools, but feared of losing the way back to the door, which he had found after crawling through fern and thorn bushes for the last two hours.
Someone laughed inside the bushes. Flabbergasted, Aram pressed his ear to the door. He still could hear the babble of the water, but he was sure that the laughter had come from his side of the door, and so close, that had it been someone from the village Aram would have noticed him.
“Who’s there?” Aram asked.
Laughter again, this time right under his palm. Aram gawked at the ground where something small and shiny fluttered into the withered bushes. A bit of earth seemed to have been dug up by tiny hands. Aram touched the small hole, felt something hard and pulled it out. It was a small key and without hesitation Aram shoved it into the keyhole. It fitted. Aram took a deep breath and pushed the door open.
Even though all that he had seen around the door was fern and thorn bushes drying under the scorching August sun, Aram found himself inside a plaited tunnel of yellow marigolds and white hydrangeas, with a piercing sunlight awaiting him on the other side. He thought about getting rid of his backpack, which hindered his movements inside that narrow tunnel, but immediately changed his mind. If Grandpa Kevork had told him to take the backpack, then he would be needing it.
A greening clearing welcomed him on the other side, with chamomiles trembling in the gentle wind. But it wasn’t the unfamiliar clearing that took his breath away, but the mountains surrounding that clearing. Aram had grown up in highlands, and knew each crag and hill of his village as well as a bird knows its nest. But the chains of peaks stretching before his eyes were not those he had been seeing every day for the last thirteen years. They were higher, overgrown with forests, their tops slumbering under a layer of white snow. Panic-stricken, Aram turned his head around, hoping to find a familiar sight: There was a woodland he didn’t know, an unfamiliar river was snaking across the rocks, and he was standing on an unknown chamomile-covered clearing. Even the clouds were different…
Aram froze. What he saw made him doubt his sanity. If he tried hard, he might find an explanation for the sudden change of his village’s settings, but for the life of him, Aram could not explain how a castle so big and majestic could have grown up in mere seconds. Or was it not a castle at all? What were constructions this massive called? It wasn’t just one, but more like five castles grouped together, carved right from a great rock that served as a resting board for that colossal back overgrown with towers so high their sharp roofs scratched the sky and went beyond it. Aram had never in his life seen anything that massive and mesmerizing at the same time. For many years he had been falling asleep to Grandpa Kevork’s fairy tales about a land filled with wonders he had never heard of before, of creatures he had never seen, and of the day he would become a part of it. Aram’s heart fluttered against his ribs. No matter how beautiful Grandpa’s fairy tales had seemed, to him they had always been fibs, splendid stories meant to put him to sleep.
“They were not fibs,” Aram whispered to himself, his heart beating as fast as ever. And if the castle, the ‘source of great knowledge’, as Grandpa called it in his fables, existed, then so did the rest.
Aram let out a nervous giggle. He knew it was a dream, but such a beautiful one that he wished to see more of what his own imagination had prepared for him before awakening.
Had he fallen asleep while looking for the door, or had the door been a dream too?
Doesn’t matter, Aram thought, and squeezing the shoulder straps of his backpack, he hurried down the slope. Soon he saw the high stone wall circling the castle and the paved roads stretching to the widely open gate. He could even hear the sound of the waves breaking against the rocks, but the sight of the sea was shielded by the enormous castle.
Aram stepped on one of the paths stretching to the gate. He saw boys and girls like him walking happily into the courtyard. Well, they were mostly like him, if Aram did not take into consideration that some of them had big or pointy ears, some were strangely short, and others seemed to have stepped out of century-old books.
Two giant oaks flanked the castle gates through which Aram walked into the courtyard, once again marveling at his own imagination. A deep green maze rose on the castle grounds that was covered with emerald grass and dotted with blooming flowers of summer. The hedge of the maze was almost eight feet in height, and a great part of the grounds was hidden behind the yew walls, unlike the bronze fountain that was standing proudly right in front of the gate. It reminded Aram of a merry-go-round carousel, but instead of horses and lions there were bronze witches on flying broomsticks spinning above the fountain’s pool, and strips of sparkling water were gushing down from the cauldrons in their hands. A curved pole rose near the fountain, with nearly two dozen arrows sticking out of it, telling Aram to head to the left if he needed the Bakery or the Ballei Hall, and to the right, if he was looking for the Arena. The Armory and Broomstick Storage were in the northeast, but in case Aram needed the Girls’ Dormitory, he’d have to walk to the northwest. The biggest arrow with the word ACADEMY glowing across it pointed forward.
Aram passed the fountain, staring at the wooden stands with motley awnings, where the young people lingered and scanned the thick journals lying open on the desks. With the grounds full of people minding their own business, Aram was the only clueless one. Now, closer to the castle, he took a long look at its massive front base with stone stairs leading to a wooden door and two adjusting six-story buildings on its left and right that connected to the castle with three rows of stone pillars. Two enormous suits of armor had crossed their spears over the castle door, which was so tall and big that even without climbing up the stairs Aram could see the engravings etched all over its length, the mermen and mermaids with scaled tails, the centaurs shooting arrows and fauns playing the flutes, and the already familiar broomstick, cauldron and cat chiseled on the door’s center. Six statues flanked the entrance, three on the right and three on the left, but only two of them resembled humans. The other four either had pointy ears or a horned head, or stood on hoofs instead of feet or were half the human size.
Walking slowly across the castle grounds while not taking his eyes off the statues in front of the entrance, Aram stumbled upon a lonely willow leaning against the yew wall, with a trimmed bench under it. A woman was sitting on the bench, her black hair flowing down and pooling on the ground. The longer Aram gazed at her, the more he couldn’t take his eyes off the dots sparkling above her long thick hair. The woman had her eyes closed and was holding a book in her hand, but instead of scanning the pages, she was sliding her forefinger over the letters. And what from the distance had seemed to Aram sparkling dots turned out to be butterflies, or similar winged creatures, fluttering over the woman’s hair and plaiting narrow strips of her tresses into long braids. Aram gasped with bewilderment, and even though his voice had been low, the woman opened her eyes and stared at him.
“Yes,” she said. “Can I help you?”
This time Aram’s gasp was louder. He felt sick in his gut at the sight of the woman’s eyes. They were very much like the eyes of any other human being, with the only difference that hers were white, devoid of irises.
“Don’t be scared, child,” she spoke in a gentle tone of voice. “If you have any questions, I can help you.”
The dream was getting more and more bizarre, Aram thought, retreating away from the willow while keeping his eyes on the woman on the bench and the winged fairies plaiting her hair. Pacing backwards, he bumped into someone and heard him hit the ground with a low ‘oy.’ Aram turned around. There was a blond boy sitting on the ground and looking up at him with his deep blue eyes.
“Oh!” Aram hurried to help him to his feet.
The boy rose and glanced at Aram from head to feet. “Govorish po Russki?” he asked.
Even though Aram was fluent in Russian, he began stammering under his breath, until the boy spoke again.
“Umm, yes,” Aram said at last.
“Did you just arrive at the Academy?”
“Academy?” Aram squinted at the boy.
“Yes, the Academy.”
Aram glanced at the castle, then back at the boy. “Who are you?”
The boy chuckled. “Nikolai Dimitrov, from Russia. Kolya for family, Nick for friends. And you?”
Aram frowned deeper. Somehow everything happening around him didn’t seem like a dream anymore. “Is this…” he began, then stopped. Of course it was all a dream, though a vivid one.
“Wait a minute,” Nikolai said, “do you know where you are?”
Aram had nothing to answer.
Nikolai chuckled louder. “How did you get in here?”
“Through a door,” Aram answered quickly.
“That’s right. So did I. Then you’re one of us.”
“One of you?”
“Soon to be magicians. Come on, buddy, don’t be so thick.”
“I…” Aram stammered again. “I don’t understand.”
“No worries,” Nikolai giggled merrily, “you’ll understand everything soon. Just try not to gape like that. It’s not polite, you see. By the way, you still haven’t told me your name.”
“Aram, from Armenia,” he mumbled, offering his hand. Nikolai glanced at Aram’s outstretched arm, but his right hand stayed inside the pocket of his pants.
“Nice to meet you, Aram,” he said, clapping Aram friendly on the back. “Call me Nick. You have to be thirteen, right?”
“So am I. Know what that means?”
Aram shook his head.
“It means we’re gonna be in the same class. You and I and everyone else here who’s thirteen.”
“This is a school?” Aram asked, glancing once again at the castle.
“A school?” Nick sniggered. “No, my friend, you have come to the Academy of Lost Knowledge. Or, as the common folk call it, the Witchcraft Academy.”
Aram’s mouth hang open. “A witchcraft what?”
Nick glanced at Aram as if he had just broken out of a mental hospital. “Aram, wake up,” he said, putting his left hand on Aram’s shoulder and smiling widely. “If you have found the road to the Academy, then you are going to be a magician. No, you’re not dreaming. Yes, this is for real. Here, let me help you.” Nick gave Aram a quick painful pinch on the hand. Aram winced.
“Believe me now?” Nick asked happily, and hurried to the biggest stand with a great journal left open in the middle. “We need to sign up first,” he told Aram, queuing in line to get to the journal. “I know, ‘cause I asked one of the third years. She was also from Russia, a very nice girl, gave me a lot of necessary info. Unfortunately she couldn’t walk with me through the sign up process, said she had to go after her books. Anyone from your country?” Nick looked inquiringly at Aram.
He shrugged. “I don’t know… Guess not.”
“No worries. I’m sure others here are nice too. Magicians are supposed to be nice, aren’t they?” Nick said, while Aram pinched his hand two more times.
“There it is,” Nick said happily, reaching the journal and picking up the quail pen. “Nikolai Dimitrov, Russia…” he mumbled under his breath, writing in the journal, then moved aside and gestured for Aram to do the same.
“Aram Nazarethian,” Aram jotted down, then added his home address and put his signature next to his name. “What now?” he asked Nick as they moved away from the sign-up stand.
“Tatiana said the staff will do a quick background check, then will arrange the class timetables and hand them to us tomorrow.”
Aram shut his eyes, took a deep breath then looked around again. He was still in the middle of the castle grounds, among the greening maze and the colorful stands. “We’re really going to study here? Study magic?”
“I don’t understand,” Nick said, “if you’re here, then how come you’ve never heard of the Academy?”
“And you? How did you come to know about it?” Aram asked, walking with Nick across the grounds.
“My Yaga had told me.”
“My Gramma. She’s a… umm… a witch.”
“Your Grandmother’s a witch!”
“Yes, but don’t think of her as of an old ugly witch who steals kids to eat them. My Yaga is great. She knows a lot of things, and she’s shared with us stories about the Academy. So many that I chose to study here instead of our local school of witchcraft.”
“Your local…?” Aram shook his head, as if trying to rid it of crazy thoughts. He wasn’t dreaming and he could feel the elation growing inside him. All the dreams he had seen, all the stories he had heard, turned out it had all been true.
“Look there!” Nick shouted, pointing at the other side of the grounds. “I can’t believe it!”
And both ran to the fence behind which four boys were doing their best to hold the reins of a strangely shaped black stallion that was kicking its way out of their hold. Aram saw that it was an arena with audience seats on its three sides, and a stable on its north. The stable door was left open. It seemed to Aram that the boys had taken the stallion outside without evaluating their strength, as the animal seemed too sturdy for them. While three of the boys tried to hold the reins, the fourth one leaped on the stallion’s back and got hold of its neck. And then something amazing happened. The stallion whinnied and reared and two gigantic wings spread open on its sides. They were huge, made of lengthy black feathers that blazed like tar under the sunlight.
“Pegasus,” Aram whispered in awe. He and Nick climbed over the fence and paced closer to the Pegasus which was still kicking and trying to throw its rider to the ground.
“Cillian, watch out!” one of the boys yelled to the rider. The latter looked smugly at the three lads around him.
“Step away, I’m going to make her fly.”
“Think he can do that?” Nick asked, not taking his eyes off the winged stallion.
Aram could not speak. He had been riding horses since childhood, but this animal, it was something else, something so unbelievable he doubted any human could tame it.
Maybe that’s what the magicians ride? Aram thought, staring open-mouthed at the Pegasus and its rider. The lad who had straddled the Pegasus did not seem to be able to tame it. The Pegasus kept kicking and rearing, but refused to fly despite the rider’s orders and body language.
“I want to get closer,” Nick said, taking careful steps towards the Pegasus.
“It’s not a good idea,” Aram told him, nevertheless following him closely. “It’s annoyed and won’t fly, but will give you a nice kick if you go too close.”
Nick stopped a few feet away from the Pegasus. The boys around it had stepped back too, yelling instructions to the rider that seemed to annoy him greatly.
“I know what I’m doing,” he kept shouting back, “just step away and I’ll tame her!”
The Pegasus soared at last. But it wasn’t the desired flight the rider had been expecting. It soared ten feet into the air, then sunk down at the five boys standing now in a group. While four of them jumped to the right, Nick leaped to the left, almost getting under the front hoofs. The Pegasus saw him and reared in the air. The rider hardly stayed in the saddle, and Nick got so scared he tripped and spread over the grass, then hid his face behind his arms, for the first time pulling his right hand out of his pocket.
Aram rushed to Nick’s aid and began dragging him away. The Pegasus was still whinnying, flapping its wide wings and trying to get rid of the rider pressing on its back.
“You lousy cripple!” the rider shouted. “Get the hell out of my sight!”
Nick’s face turned crimson, and before he managed to shove his hand back into his pocket Aram noticed that Nick’s right arm ended not with a palm, but with a stump.
“That’s right,” the rider yelled after Nick, who was hurrying away from the arena. “Who the hell lets freaks into the Academy?”
Aram looked at Nick’s hunched back, then turned to the Pegasus and without giving it a second thought, lurched at the rider, grabbed his leg, pulled it out of the spur, and threw the lad to the ground. The Pegasus reared again and flapped its wings, creating a wind so strong that it sent Aram backwards to the ground. The Pegasus hovered up into the sky.
“No!” the rider shouted. Then he looked at Aram and so full of malice was his glance that a shudder ran down Aram’s spine. “You will answer for this,” he muttered through clenched teeth. Aram had just gotten on his feet when the rider ran into his chest and they both tumbled down on the grass. “Do you even know what you’ve done, you idiot!” the rider was shouting. “How will I get her back?”
Aram gripped his tormentor’s neck and held it in a chokehold. They rolled over the grass, hitting and punching each other. Then voices sounded nearby, hands and legs came into view, and someone began dragging Aram away from the rider.
“Leave me,” the rider was telling his friends. “Let me break his head!”
Aram was trying to get free and get back into the fight, but at least two pairs of hands were holding him back.
“Stop it,” someone spoke in his ear. “You’ll get expelled even before the Initiation. Stop it, calm down, he’s not worth it.”
Aram stopped resisting and the hands that were holding him let him go.
“I’ll remember your ugly face,” the rider cried out, pointing a finger at Aram. “I’ll turn your life into hell.”
His three friends threw a menacing glance at Aram and all four left the arena. Aram looked at the two lads who had kept him back. Both were tall, one had bright auburn hair, the other a few shades darker. Nick was there too, looking guilty.
“My fault,” he mumbled.
“Absolutely not,” Aram reassured him.
Nick bashfully looked away.
“Did you calm down?” the red-haired lad asked Aram.
Aram nodded. “Will the flying horse come back?” he asked, looking into the sky. There was no trace of the Pegasus.
“She will. The problem’s that they had taken her out of the stable without Wizard Persivald’s permission. Cillian and his minions will get into a lot of trouble.” The lad looked at Aram and Nick. “I am Wilhelm, this is my brother, Theodore. He’s a first year too,” he said, then turned to his brother. “You don’t mind if I leave you here, do you? The first day is for making new friends. Go get a room.” He winked to the three of them and left.