Theodore didn’t look happy about being left with two strangers, but also didn’t run after his brother. An awkward silence hang over them, and Nick hurried to ease the tension.
“I’m Nick, from Russia,” he told Theodore. “This is Aram, from Armenia.”
“Theodore MacLeod, from Great Britain.”
“Scotland?” Nick asked.
Nick nodded knowingly, but for some reason it seemed to Aram he had never heard of Lancaster.
“Do you know those guys?” Aram asked Theodore.
“Will said they’re second years.”
“So your brother is a…?”
“Third year. All MacLeods study at the Academy. It’s a tradition, that’s why I’m here today.”
Aram thought he heard resentment in Theodore’s voice. The young Scot didn’t seem too happy to be there, which seemed strange to Aram. How could someone not be happy for having to study magic at a witchcraft academy? Then he pinched his hand for the third time.
“So you know more than us,” Nick said. “Maybe you’ll be our guide then?”
“I’ll do my best,” Theodore said. “Have you got the subject lists for the first years?”
Aram and Nick exchanged confused glances. “I think we don’t,” Aram said.
“It’s right there.” Theodore pointed at the far end of the courtyard. From the stand with a blue awning Nick and Aram received two rolls of paper and began looking through them.
“These are the subjects we shall be studying?” Aram asked.
Theodore nodded. “Will’s told me a bit about each of them. The History of Magic is the hardest, ‘cause it’s lectured by Magician Northmind, and his kindness is directly proportional to his height. Will says he gives the students hell. And the Magic Races is the most interesting. Then there’s the…”
“Arithmetic,” Nick moaned. “I hate numbers.”
“Arithmetic isn’t bad. But Grammar is ghastly. Then there’s…”
“Use of Magical Items?” Aram asked in amusement. “What’s that?”
“Umm, crystal balls, flying broomsticks, magic saucers…”
“We’ve got a magic saucer at home,” Nick announced, “and it works! Yaga says it’s really hard to find a working saucer nowadays.”
Standing aside, Aram watched Nick and Theodore discuss magic items as if those were common stuff they had been seeing every day. Turned out there were broomstick saddles that could give you a pain in the back, while the flying umbrellas of low quality could leave you hanging upside down over the water. Crystal balls could grow dim and stop talking to their owners, and portal mirrors could lock you up inside them forever.
Aram smirked. How could that all be true?
“Oh shoot!” Theodore yelled. “We need to sign up for a room in the dormitory.” He set off to another stand, and Aram and Nick rushed after him. A big journal was left open on one of the stands, and Dormitory Rooms was inscribed across its awning, but there was no one around. Theodore scanned the last page of the journal, picked up the quail and scribbled down their names.
“The last room. Probably the worst,” he said with a scowl, snatching the last pack of keys hanging beneath the awning.
“Shall we go find our room, unpack our things?” Aram asked. He looked at Theodore’s and Nick’s luggage. Just like him, all they had were backpacks hanging on their backs.
The two adjusting buildings with thick stone pillars that Aram had spotted earlier turned out to be the dormitories. They noticed that all the girls were entering the left building, and headed to the right one. Passing by the willow with the bench, Aram looked around it. The woman with white eyes was gone. Thinking of her, Aram pinched his hand for the fourth time.
“So what are we going to do for two more days before September?” Nick asked.
“Tomorrow we’ll go to the town after stationery, books, and student uniforms,” Theodore said.
Aram thought about the little cash Grandpa Kevork had forced into his backpack. “Are they costly?” he asked Theodore.
“They’re free,” Theodore said. “Almost everything in the Academy is free, including the tuition.”
“Free?” Aram asked in sincere amusement. “Then how do they maintain this huge castle and pay to the staff?”
Theodore gave Aram a puzzled look. “How come you’re here but know nothing of the Academy?”
“I’ll tell you later,” Aram said. “Also, I’m still not sure I’m not sleeping.”
Theodore looked at Nick as if for confirmation, received his nod, and let out a loud giggle.
They entered the boys’ dorm and found themselves inside a big hall with marble floor and two stone staircases, one of which led to the balcony, and the other to the rooms. The first thing Aram’s eye caught in the hall was a stone giant carved right into the wall between the two staircases. It was so big that its head had pressed against the ceiling, and its multiple hands stretched all across the walls, ending in gigantic palms with curvy fingers.
“Tell me about the Academy,” Aram said.
“I don’t even know where to start with,” Theodore said. “The day after tomorrow we’ll have a great feast, before starting the classes. Then you’ll see everything yourself.”
“Are the classes as hard as everyone says?” Nick asked.
Theodore nodded grimly. “Will’s always reading and practicing. He wants to be a sorcerer, you know probably how hard that is.”
“I do,” Nick said.
Aram was silent yet again. Unlike his roommates, he didn’t know if becoming a sorcerer was harder than… Than what?
His thoughts were cut short by a sudden scream coming from around the staircase leading to the rooms. All three turned around in fear, looking for the source of the voice. The students passing across the hall stopped and stared at the stairs. Then Aram saw the screamer. It was a young boy, probably another first-year, shrieking at the top of his voice. Aram knew he might be shrieking like that too. The boy was caught in what looked like a giant stone fist that had lifted him up and was squeezing him inside its stony grip. Aram’s eyes ran over the hand all the way back to the wall. The hand belonged to the stone giant and it had somehow come to life and was now going to squeeze that poor boy to death.
Aram pinched his hand for the fifth time. He didn’t wake up and the giant continued to hold the boy in his clutch. What surprised Aram was that the older students were just standing there and laughing their heads off instead of pulling the boy out of the giant’s grip.
“He’ll get squeezed,” Aram said. “We need to get him out.”
“You can’t,” Theodore said. “The Centimane’s got him, I just don’t understand why.”
The older boys on the other side of the hall laughed harder, while the prisoner continued to scream and call for help.
“He’s so short and skinny the guard’s taken him for a girl,” one of the students said. “Stop crying,” he told the boy. “He won’t kill you.”
Panic-stricken, Aram looked around to find someone who could help that unfortunate boy, and saw the woman under the willow walk through the door. The moment she entered the dormitory, all the voices vanished at once. The only one still crying for help was the boy caught in the giant’s fist.
The woman raised her hand and unclenched her palm. Immediately, the stone fist copied her motion and the boy fell on the floor. The woman helped him to his feet.
“What happened?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” the boy stammered in a high-pitched voice, wiping his tears away.
“He’s mistaken the dorms,” one of the older students laughed. Receiving the woman’s white gaze, he instantly shut his mouth.
“Who’s that?” Aram whispered to Theodore.
“Witch Demetria,” Theodore whispered back. “The deputy headmistress and dean of the seniors. Better be good when she’s around.”
“She’s a teacher?” Aram asked in awe. “But… how?”
Demetria turned her head to him. She was standing at least seven feet away, but something in her white glance told Aram she might have heard him.
“Hush,” Theodore mumbled. “She’s blind, but not deaf.”
“What is your name?” Demetria asked the skinny boy.
“Thomas Malory,” he sniffed.
“Very well, Mr. Malory, go find your room.”
The students in the hall gradually left for their rooms. Thomas Malory was one of the first to run upstairs.
“So, that Centi-giant with so many hands prevents girls from getting into the boys’ dorm?” Nick asked on their way to the sixth floor.
“Centimane,” Theodore said. “Yes, he’ll catch a girl whenever she’ll try to sneak into the dorm. But he won’t harm her. He’s a guard, not a killer.”
“Is there a similar guard at the girls’ dorm?” Aram asked.
“Yes,” Theodore said. “A Gorgon.”
“A what?” Aram asked.
“Will says there’s a statue of Gorgon between the stairs. Luckily this one doesn’t really turn you into stone with her glance, but merely immobilizes you. You’ll have to stand in the dorm hall for hours under her spell until someone from the staff sets you free.”
Their room was on the very end of the corridor, but unlike Theodore’s expectations, it wasn’t a mess at all. Though small, it was clean and tidy, had a separate small bathroom, sported three beds under the three walls, a tall window hidden behind deep blue drapes, and three narrow wardrobes standing beside each of the beds. Aram couldn’t help noticing how beautiful the furniture in a common dormitory room was. The bed headboards were high and deep brown, adorned with carvings of stars and half-moons. The bed feet were in the forms of fauns and mermaids; the wardrobe doors were decked with carved broomsticks and cauldrons, and the metallic keyholes resembled roaring lion heads. There was also an old desk crammed against the wall, with a quail pen and a silver inkpot, and a fringed lampshade perched on its edge. It seemed strange to Aram that for three boys there was just one desk, but Theodore explained that the bedrooms were for sleeping, while for homework there was a common house with desks, reading nooks, and bookshelves.
As Aram placed his backpack on one of the beds, he heard gears start rolling in the room. He turned to the wall to see what the matter was, then gaped mesmerized at the cuckoo clock. It was a two-story house whittled meticulously from a whole piece of wood, flanked with spiral oaks and pines. As the clock began chiming, the small window on the second floor attic opened, but instead of the expected cuckoo, a witch riding a broomstick slid out of the window. Similar witches wearing cone-shaped hats were hanging on the pendulums, one of them now rising up while the second one glided down.
“And they have one of these in every one of the rooms?” Aram asked.
Theodore grinned. “You won’t believe how funny it is to meet someone who’s got no idea where he’s come to.”
The doors on the first floor of the small house opened and another mechanical witch came out, walked to the table outside and sat behind it.
“It’s dinner time,” Theodore said. “Let’s go.”
They followed a group of second-years into the Refectory, which was situated between the two dormitories, on the second floor of the castle’s front base, and could be reached through the three paths supported by the stone pillars that connected the dorms to the castle. The hall was vast, illuminated by massive chandeliers hanging down the high ceiling, and while they walked to one of the least occupied tables, Aram managed to count twenty oblong tables that ran half the length of the hall.
“How many students study here?” Aram asked.
“Actually not that many,” Theodore said. “But Academy is not just for students. Other magicians come here to, to receive their degrees or finish their doctorates.”
The hall that was filled with buzzing suddenly plunged into silence. A few novices were whispering, but were immediately told to keep quiet by the older students. A man was standing in front of the wall covered with old tapestries. He was thin and gaunt faced, wearing a dark blue robe with golden embroidery across its collar and sleeves.
“There’s a group of youngsters who have just arrived at the Academy,” the man said, “I suppose all of them have found the Academy Rulebooks in their bedrooms and by now have read it from core to core.”
“Academy Rulebooks?” Aram whispered.
“Hush,” Theodore hissed.
“For those, who might consider themselves above the rules, I will repeat once again: Leaving Academy after ten o’clock in the evening is strictly prohibited. You should be in beds by ten thirty. Tomorrow you will go to the town after books and uniforms. The free coupons have been left in the desks in your bedrooms. Any rule breaker will be expelled immediately.” Saying this, the man turned on his heels and strode out of the Refectory, the hem of his robe sweeping the shiny parquet. The moment he was gone, the buzzing returned into the chamber.
“Who was that?” Aram asked. “Looked like he’d just sucked a lemon.”
“Wizard Persivald,” Theodore said. “Dean of the juniors. Our dean for the next three years, so be good when he’s near.”
Once again Aram had a thousand questions in his head, but now he wasn’t going to ask them. Too spellbinding was the smell of food awaiting him. He picked the fork and knife, and though shy at first, he was soon filling his plate with honeyed chicken and lamb pie. The tomato tart with cheese was delicious, and he had to admit he had never tried anything as tasty as the éclairs filled with cherry custard. He hadn’t eaten since afternoon. The questions could wait while he savored the baked apples with nuts and cinnamon, washing them down with the sweetest peach lemonade.
After he was full, Aram looked around the hall. The young people he had seen earlier, some with pointy ears, others short as children, were sitting behind the tables, enjoying the meals the way he had been doing a minute ago.
“Dwarves?” he asked Theodore, pointing at a table as imperceptibly as possible.
“Uh-huh,” Theodore said, his mouth full of cranberry pie. He swallowed and sipped lemonade. “Dwarves, elves, dryads, sometimes even faes, there are all kinds of students here. Some leave after the third year, when they receive their magician degrees, others stay for six years to become witches or conjurers, or maybe even sorcerers and wizards.”
Aram once again looked around the spacious hall filled with all kinds of people, some of whom seemed to have just stepped out of legends and fairy-tales. “Where are the teachers?” he asked.
“Teachers have a separate dining room,” Theodore said.
“Are those Wizard Arterberry’s famous dinners?” asked a first-year boy next to Nick.
“Hardly,” Theodore said. “The secret dinners don’t happen every evening, and are not for the Academy staff, but for…” he shifted to a whisper “…a different kind of guests.”
“Who’s Wz Arterberry?” Aram asked, causing the first-years around him to crack up.
“Now that’s a question!” a blond girl said.
“Who’s Wz Arterberry?” said a plump boy, mimicking Aram’s voice. “You have got to be kidding me.”
“He does not,” Theodore said angrily. “Aram is a newbie to everything.”
The blond girl gawked at Aram. “Seriously? You have never heard of Amonshire before?”
Aram shook his head.
“And the Academy?” the plump boy asked in bewilderment.
Aram shook his head again.
“Witches? Wizards? Sorcerers? Spellbinders? Magicians?”
Each time Aram shook his head.
“But how’s that even possible?” the blond girl asked. “Then how come you’re here? How did you find the road?”
“The road to the Academy?” Aram asked, and the girl nodded. “My Grandpa told me to search for a door that would take me to a place of wonders. And I found it.”
The blond girl smiled at him with her bright blue eyes. “Mine was underwater,” she said proudly. “Came to Academy all wet and shivering.”
“And mine was buried under a heavy layer of snow,” Nick said.
“Will never told me how the road at Lancaster looked like,” Theodore said. “It’s a rule. Listen closely to the voice of the laughing elf…”
“…And you will find the road to magic all by yourself,” the plump boy finished.
After dinner Aram, Nick, and Theodore headed back to their room. They had just descended to the ground floor and were to climb the stairs that led to the bedrooms when they once again heard an already familiar shriek which was followed with loud laughter.
“I can’t believe it!” Theodore said.
One of the stone hands had once again untangled itself from the wall and seized the same first-year boy.
“Leave him,” Theodore said angrily, shoving a fist at the stone hand. The Centimane paid him no attention.
“Please help,” Thomas Malory pleaded, tears glistening in his eyes.
Some of the students were telling him not to be scared, while a group of third-years was dissolving into loud giggles under the wall.
“A girl needs to sleep in the girls’ dorm,” someone shouted from the crowd. Aram recognized the lad with whom he had clashed earlier because of the Pegasus.
“If you can’t help him then you better keep your mouth shut,” Theodore told him. The lad sobered and stared menacingly at Theodore.
“Watch your mouth, noob, or I’ll turn your life into hell.”
“Please get me out of here,” Thomas Malory whimpered.
Aram, Nick, and Theodore tried to pull him out of the stone fist, but the giant’s grip was solid.
“Step away, please,” said a female voice, which although was calm and quiet, possessed some inexplicable power that made them immediately step away from the stone hand.
Her hand held up, Demetria walked to the Centimane and felt its arm all the way to the wall.
“Release,” she commanded, and the Centimane unclasped his fist. She turned to the boy on the floor. “Thomas Malory?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he stammered.
“I will tell Wz Arterberry that the Centimane has malfunctioned, and you, please, come with me.” Saying this, she walked out of the dormitory, the boy following her and wiping his tearful eyes.
“You think he’ll face problems?” Nick asked.
“I don’t think so,” Theodore said. “It’s not his fault someone has messed up with the guard.”
“Someone has done that on purpose?” Aram asked. “Is that possible?”
“I think a girl might have tried to sneak in, using some bad magic…” Theodore shrugged. “I don’t know actually. Whatever it is, I hope Demetria will have it fixed before one of us ends up inside that stone clutch.”
Back in their room, Aram drew the curtain off the window and looked out at the mountains backing the castle, and at the forest growing outside of the stone wall.
“How high is this castle?”
“I don’t even know,” Theodore said, staring up at the towers. Some were cold and grey, but there was fire burning inside some of the tower windows.
“Scholar Towers,” Theodore said. “Scholar magicians work in those towers. Research magic and write books. It’s forbidden to disturb them. But there’s a separate tower we are allowed to enter, for the Astronomy class. Will says it’s hard but informative and important to every sorcerer. Will studies really hard. I don’t know if I can be up to his standards.”
Aram glanced at Theodore. Each time he spoke of his elder brother, there was an unmistakable concern and sadness in his voice. Aram turned back to the castle. From that angle he wasn’t able to fully enjoy the view of that majestic building in its whole glory, but he saw small flickers of fire spinning around the castle and its endless towers.
“Are those big fireflies?” Aram asked. There were no fireflies that big and fast in his world, but he had guessed already that this new one was full of the impossible.
“It’s the Coven of Fifteen.” Theodore leaned against the window frame and followed the rapid flight of the lights with his eyes. “The fastest fifteen witches in the world, led by their elder sister, Celia the Rider. Once the sun sets, they soar around the Academy and guard its walls and towers. And with the first rays of the sun they go to rest. My dream is to learn to fly like them.”
“Shall we be flying too?” Aram asked eagerly.
“We will,” Theodore said. “And I’ll be cursed if one day I’m not as fast as them. So, what brought you two to the Academy?” he asked Nick and Aram.
Nick sat on his bed and shrugged, then reluctantly pulled his right hand out of his pocket and showed them his stump. “I was born this way, and no one in Koldograd—that’s my town—could do anything about it.” He let out a bitter chuckle. “Magicians are thought to be able to fix everything, but nope, not all of them. I came to Academy, because the best of the best study here. I plan to become one of the best too and fix my hand on my own.”
When Nick and Theodore looked at Aram the first thought he had was about the old wrinkled letter in his backpack.
“I had no idea of this place,” he said, “but I’m here now, and I’m planning to learn as much as possible.”
“I see,” Theodore said. “I came to the Academy ‘cause that’s what my family does. All MacLeods are Academy graduates. Will’s the best in his class. Has been the best since the first day. I’m supposed to do as well, if not better. Only…” he heaved a sigh, “I’m not nearly as smart as him. Nor as diligent and attentive… I’m not sure I’ve got the magician’s qualities.”
The cuckoo clock on the wall struck ten times. The mechanical witch that had been reading a book under the spiral oak, moved back into the house.
“Time for bed,” Nick said.
Soon Nick and Theodore were fast asleep, but Aram was still standing by the window and watching the Coven guard the castle.
Forgive us for choosing this path, he heard the familiar words in his head, but know also that there was no other choice.
Aram pinched his hand for the sixth time. It wasn’t a dream and his heart filled with hope. He had found the place. Soon he would find the answers.