Into the Woods

By the end of the first week of classes, a sense of normalcy had been restored to Charmbridge Academy. Alexandra had not forgotten about the crow attack, but she couldn't always be thinking about unseen foes, and her classmates couldn't always be worrying about what would happen around her next. Fellow students began to stop acting as if Alexandra's mere presence was dangerous.

In addition to her regular classes, she had to get up early three days a week for JROC exercises; every other morning they met outside to run around the academy building or do calisthenics in the athletic fields.

On Friday morning, in the dim gray mist hanging over the school with the sun just above the horizon, the JROC did sprints across the lawn. Older officers yelled at the junior ones. Inhuman shapes materialized out of the mist – conjurations to frighten the new wands. Already, two sixth graders had quit: the JROC's attrition rate was high.

As the sweating students were dismissed to return to their rooms and shower before class, Ms. Shirtliffe reminded them that the first meeting of the Dueling Club was that afternoon after PME.

When Alexandra checked the ninth graders' bulletin board before breakfast, there was a notice at the bottom she was all too familiar with:

Alexandra Quick: Report to the main office before the end of the day.

Her friends were standing next to her, and the words came out of her mouth automatically: "I didn't do anything!"

"We'uns din't say nothin'," said Constance.

"It doesn't say 'Dean's office' or 'immediately'," Anna pointed out. "Maybe that means you're not in trouble.'"

"Maybe. But I'd rather find out immediately what it is this time. See you in the cafeteria." Alexandra turned up the central hallway and presented herself to Miss Marmsley at the main office.

Miss Marmsley was a life-sized portrait who'd been hanging on the wall in the Charmbridge administrative wing since her death in 1932. The living portrait continued to function as school secretary. She looked down her painted nose at Alexandra, who was wearing her JROC uniform as she always did on drill days, and instead of saying "Dean's office," she told Alexandra that there was a letter waiting for her.

"A letter?" Alexandra repeated.

"On the counter." Miss Marmsley gestured.

Alexandra found an envelope on the counter, addressed to her c/o Charmbridge Academy and stamped with owl postage. It was from Payton, and it had been opened.

"Who opened a letter to me, and why didn't the owl deliver it to my room?" Alexandra asked.

"The Dean has instructed that all your mail is to be screened, Miss Quick," the school secretary said.

"Why?" Alexandra asked indignantly.

Miss Marmsley gave her another disapproving look. "Because we've already received two cursed packages addressed to you since the start of the school year. It's for your own good and the good of your fellow students. So do not take that tone with me unless you want to speak to the Dean, young witch."

Alexandra clutched the envelope. People were sending her cursed packages? Who? Why? But she knew – she was Abraham Thorn's daughter. That was enough, apparently. "So Ms. Grimm is going to read all my mail?"

"Certainly not. Mr. Grue is in charge of inspecting suspicious packages."

"Mr. Grue is reading my mail?"

"I doubt he actually reads it," Miss Marmsley said. "He's just making sure you aren't sent any curses, poisons –"

"Oh my God." Alexandra groaned and stomped out of the office.

She arrived at the cafeteria and sat down at the table with Anna and the Pritchards without even collecting her breakfast first. She slapped the letter on the table in front of her.

"Who's that from?" Anna asked.

"Payton," she said.

"Who's Payton?" asked Constance.

"Her boyfriend," Anna said.

Alexandra wasn't really comfortable hearing Anna say it out loud like that, but Constance and Forbearance both perked up immediately.

"Alexandra Quick, you have a beau!" Constance said.

"Ssh!" Alexandra looked around. "Yell it to the whole school, why don't you?"

Constance blushed. "Oh, I'm terrible sorry, Alex, dear. I din't know it's a secret."

"It's not a secret, exactly. I just..."

Forbearance leaned forward with excitement. "We'uns had no inklin'."

"You never mentioned no chub to us," Constance said accusingly.

"He's just – well, for one thing he's in Roanoke Territory." Alexandra stared down at the letter. "But they're reading my mail!"

"Who's reading your mail?" Anna asked.

"Mr. Grue!"

"Mr. Grue is reading your mail?"

Cautiously, Alexandra opened Payton's letter, and her mouth dropped open in horror.

"What is it?" Constance asked, concerned.

"Did he break up with you?" Anna asked.

"No!" Alexandra said. "He sent me... a poem!"

"Oh!" Constance and Forbearance exclaimed, clasping their hands together.

"That's so romantic," Forbearance said.

"You is a lucky gal," Constance said.

"No, I'm not!" Alexandra's face was red. "I'm getting love letters from my boyfriend and Mr. Grue is reading them! Stop looking at me like that! It's not funny!"

She laid her forehead against Payton's letter, while Anna tried to keep a straight face.

"But why would Mr. Grue read your mail?" Constance asked.

"For my own 'protection'," Alexandra mumbled, with her face still pressed against the table. "Apparently, I've gotten two cursed packages already."

Constance gasped. "Someone's sendin' you curses? That's awful!"

Alexandra folded up the letter. "Anna... I'm going to tell Payton and Julia to address their letters to you."

"To me? Why?"

"Because then they'll come to you and you can give them to me, and Mr. Grue won't be reading my personal mail."

"You could just tell Payton not to write you any more poems," Anna said. Her smile faded beneath Alexandra's glare. "They are trying to protect you."

"Payton and Julia aren't going to send me curses."

"Okay, okay," Anna said, acquiescing.

Constance put her chin in her hand and looked off across the cafeteria wistfully. "I still say you is a lucky gal. I sure wish some boy would send me poems."

Following dismissal from JROC that afternoon, everyone but the sixth and seventh graders marched over to the dueling field for the first meeting of the Dueling Club, which was also led by Ms. Shirtliffe.

Larry Albo was there, of course. He had been the Charmbridge dueling champion the previous year, after beating Alexandra in a close final contest.

Alexandra was itching for a rematch.

Larry was standing next to another eleventh grader, a remarkably tall black girl whose name Alexandra didn't remember. She towered over Larry, who wasn't short.

"Albo, Anderson, hands off each other," Ms. Shirtliffe said.

Larry and the black girl stepped away from each other and their hands, which Alexandra now saw had been clasped, fell to their sides. Ms. Shirtliffe scowled at them, then conjured a stack of fliers which she sent swirling through the air in a spiraling trail of paper. Each one flapped its way into the hands of one of the gathered students.

"These are the rules of the Dueling Club, and formal dueling regulations and etiquette," the teacher said. "Of course the official Confederation Junior Dueling rules are much more detailed, and you will all become familiar with them. The Confederation Wizarding Decathlon is being held next year, and the Junior Decathlon tryouts will be next fall. That means anyone who wants to compete to represent Charmbridge Academy at the Central Territory semi-finals has a year to prepare."

Alexandra glanced at the flier. It listed the rules for formal dueling, which precluded many of the spells and dirty tricks her brother had taught her. She already knew every spell on the approved list, though there were variants she had not yet mastered.

"Do not test my tolerance when it comes to safety and abiding by the rules," Ms. Shirtliffe said. "I have none. One misstep and you're out of the club. No bullying, no grandstanding. And no settling personal grudges on the dueling field, either." For a moment her eyes flicked to Alexandra, and Alexandra's eyes flicked to Larry. He smirked, though he wasn't looking at her.

Following her speech, Ms. Shirtliffe formed students into groups by grade level, then called on some of the more experienced duelers to begin tutoring the eighth graders who'd just joined. Larry and two senior JROC officers were given this task, and then to Alexandra's surprise, Shirtliffe said, "Quick – take the red circle."

In the red circle, a duelist blocked attacks without returning them. It was a training exercise, and it was both an honor and a punishment. It meant you were good enough to be target practice for less skilled duelists, but Shirtliffe also tended to put students in the circle when she thought they were growing overconfident.

Larry whispered something in the ear of the eighth grader he'd been assigned. The boy looked uncertainly at Larry and then at Alexandra.

Alexandra squared her shoulders, held her wand at the ready, and smiled.

The boy tried his best, but none of his Stunning Charms touched her. The next three did no better; Alexandra blocked everything they threw at her.

The fifth and last eighth grader to take her turn was a diminutive Japanese girl wearing a white blouse and dark skirted trousers.

Tomo Matsuzaka was from a prominent Majokai family in California. Because of tensions between the Japanese and Chinese wizarding communities, Tomo had feuded bitterly with Anna when she'd arrived at Charmbridge two years earlier. Alexandra had forced an end to that feud, but Tomo seemed apprehensive at facing Alexandra. She bowed deeply to the older girl. Alexandra returned the bow.

Whatever fear Tomo might still have had of her didn't stop her from doing her best to get past Alexandra's Blocking Jinxes. For the first time that afternoon, Alexandra had to concentrate as Tomo threw one hex after another at her.

"Not bad, Matsuzaka," Shirtliffe said. "All right, Quick, Albo, Keedle, Barker – go join the others. I'll take over."

While the teacher gathered the youngest duelers to begin showing them proper stances and wand positions, Alexandra joined the rest of the Dueling Club.

"Can't wait until I get a shot at you, Quick," said Larry, just loudly enough for all of the older students to hear.

"Bring it on," Alexandra said.

They didn't get to do any real dueling that day. Alexandra spent the rest of the afternoon opposite Torvald Krogstad practicing jinxes and counter-jinxes. She kept half an eye on Larry, whose 'Caedarus' spell she'd never been able to block.

When Ms. Shirtliffe called an end to the meeting and sent them inside, Torvald started to speak to Alexandra, but she gave him a quick wave and then ran after the small Japanese girl who was walking into the academy building with the other eighth graders. "Tomo!" she called.

Tomo turned around and blanched. "I'm sorry, Alexandra," she said, bowing. "I didn't know I would have to attack you –"

"Don't be silly, that was just practice. And you were the only one who was any good." Alexandra lowered her voice. "You aren't still afraid of me, are you?"

Tomo shook her head, without looking up.

"I wanted to ask you something," Alexandra said, as they resumed walking.


"Your father is one of the leaders of the Majokai, right?"

"Yes." Tomo nodded.

"Has he ever talked about why the Majokai have remained a Culture?"

Tomo glanced at her, unable to hide her surprise. "We want to preserve our traditions."

"You could preserve your traditions while being full Confederation citizens, like the Chinese and the Palatines do."

"We made different choices. We still abide by all Confederation laws."

"I know." Alexandra thought a moment. "Some of the Majokai want to become regular Confederation members, don't they? That's why they supported Anna's father last year."

"I don't really know much about politics," Tomo said nervously.

"I was just wondering if you knew anything about who makes decisions like that among the Majokai – being a Culture or allowing your families to join the Elect, I mean."

"My father and the other clan heads would, I guess. But why are you asking?"

"We're talking about Cultures in our Confederation Citizenship class. And, well, Anna's my friend, but I know she's not exactly unbiased about the Majokai."

"Most people are biased against us. Some of the stuff they teach in school..." Tomo cast her eyes quickly downward again, as if fearing that she had spoken inappropriately.

Alexandra said, "We shouldn't believe everything we hear?"

Tomo hesitated, then nodded.

"I already knew that." Alexandra smiled at the younger girl. "See you at the next dueling practice. And when you're paired with me, you'd better not hold back."

She left a silent, blank-faced Tomo behind as she proceeded back to her room.

Larry and Alexandra dueled several times over the next month. Every Friday was open dueling, and they always challenged each other. Ms. Shirtliffe allowed it, though she kept a close eye on them when they faced each other across the dueling platform.

Larry won every time.

It stung, literally and figuratively, but Alexandra was a model of good sportsmanship, bowing and saluting each time she was beaten (except for the time she was knocked out cold with Larry's favorite spell, a green sphere of light that hit like a sack of cement).

Larry was also elaborately polite to her, while the rest of the club looked forward to their fierce contests.

Inwardly, Alexandra seethed, consoled only by the fact that she came a little closer to winning each time. Or so she told herself. If Larry noticed that she was becoming harder to beat, he didn't show it.

They were also bound by formal dueling rules and a limited list of allowable spells. If they ever fought the way Maximilian had taught her – true wizard dueling – it would be a different story, Alexandra thought.

Larry rarely lost to anyone. Only Daniel Keedle was a match for him.

Alexandra usually lost to the seniors as well, but against everyone else in the Dueling Club, she more than held her own. Most of her opponents never wanted to duel her a second time. Torvald was the only exception; he was as persistent as Larry in challenging her. He always showed good humor, but Alexandra was amused that losing to her bruised his ego so badly that he kept seeking a rematch.

She continued to meet her friends in the library, though as their homework increased, they spent more time doing actual schoolwork, and David joined them less regularly. Sometimes he begged off because of Quidditch practice or an ASPEW meeting, but often, he just didn't show up.

Constance was grumbling about this one evening in October as the girls all played Wizardopoly in the ninth graders' lounge, having decided to have a game night instead of studying.

Alexandra said, "It's okay, Constance. He doesn't have to join us every night. None of you do."

"He knows how important what we're doin' is," Constance said.

"Playing Wizardopoly?" Anna said, as she flicked her wand. Her tiny pewter gnome disappeared from one square on the board and reappeared on another.

"We'uns are just takin' a break," Constance said.

"Anyway, this week we've been studying for our Magical Theory midterm, not... other stuff," Anna said.

They all knew the Muffliato spell now, but there were other freshmen in the lounge with them, and a magically impenetrable conversation over a board game might arouse suspicion.

Alexandra grunted, contemplating her tiny pile of gold and the risks of trying to pass the Goblin Banker with it. She had been studying Magical Theory as well – Constance, Forbearance, and Anna were all tutoring her, as she had sworn she would join their more advanced class next semester. She rolled the dice, and groaned when it came up snake-eyes.

"I don't want him hanging around out of guilt or obligation," she said, while the goblin cackled and her gold disappeared.

"I 'magine he don't want to be seen always in the company of girls neither," Forbearance said.

Constance made a disgusted sound.

"Oh, hi!" A new voice interrupted them. Sonja had walked into the rec room, and stood over them, looking down at the board. "You're playing Wizardopoly."

"Yes, we are," Alexandra said.

Sonja remained standing there. Alexandra and Anna exchanged glances with the Pritchards. Alexandra sighed inwardly. "Do you want to join us?"

"Sure." Sonja grinned and pulled up a chair. "I'm just taking a break from studying Astrology."

"You'uns gotta study for Astrology?" Constance said. "What's there to learn?"

Forbearance bit her lip as Sonja looked at Constance in surprise. Alexandra and Anna exchanged glances again.

Constance was taking Muggle Studies again this year, but instead of continuing in that class, Forbearance had chosen Astronomy and Astrology as her elective. It was the first time the twins' schedules were not identical, and Constance did not think highly of Astrology.

"Of course we have to study," Sonja said. "Astrological charts are complicated, and casting someone's chart takes practice. Have you picked your subject yet, Forbearance? I'm doing Carol. Oh, of course you're going to do Constance's chart. That would be so dark, having a twin – all the major aspects and paths are the same as yours."

"Constance don't wish to be charted," Forbearance said.

"Oh." After an uncomfortable pause with no explanation forthcoming, Sonja said, "Then how about Alexandra?"

"No thanks," Alexandra said. She didn't want to hurt Forbearance's feelings, but she was skeptical about Astrology also.

"I'll bet your chart is really interesting," Sonja said. "Don't you think charting Alexandra would be fun, Forbearance? I'll help you."

"No thanks," Alexandra said, more firmly.

"Maybe we'uns should cast your chart, Alexandra," Forbearance said. "We might learn somethin' important."

Alexandra made an effort to appear patient. "I doubt we'll learn anything we don't already know."

Forbearance frowned, and Alexandra held up her hands in concession. "Fine, but not tonight, okay?"

"Maybe this weekend?" Sonja said.

"I thought I'm Forbearance's project," Alexandra said, a little annoyed at Sonja's pushiness.

"You're so touchy." Sonja rolled the dice and moved the little copper cat she'd just put on the board.

With Sonja present, conversation about David and other such things vanished. They played until it was almost time for curfew, and then Sonja walked with Alexandra and Anna back to their suite.

"See you tomorrow morning," Sonja said. "I'm so glad I signed up for Herbology – two whole periods excused from our other classes!"

"What?" Anna asked, as she and Alexandra finally closed the door to their room. Anna had been trying not to roll her eyes the entire time Sonja was with them. "Why are you excused from class tomorrow morning?"

"Mrs. Verde is taking us into the woods to look for magical plants," Alexandra said. "All of her Herbology classes, beginning to advanced."

Anna shook her head. "No wonder Sonja likes Herbology so much. Just like Astrology – it's hardly even a real class..." Her voice trailed off. "Um, I didn't mean that."

"Yes, you did." Alexandra shoved Anna lightly. "It's okay. You're right, Herbology is an easy 'A.' But it is pretty interesting. Mrs. Verde says some of the poisons you learn to prepare in Herbology II are deadlier than any of Mr. Grue's potions."

Anna made a face. "Why would you want to learn to prepare poisons?"

"You never know when you might want to slip someone Devil's Rue." She grinned at Anna, who remained unamused.

Alexandra had discovered to her surprise that she enjoyed Herbology. From September to October, they had spent little time in the classroom. Instead, Mrs. Verde's students planted a winter herb garden and cared for the school's greenhouse.

The morning of their expedition into the woods was chilly. As they all milled around on the lawn, with a tinge of frost crackling on the grass where they stepped, many students were running back inside to get heavier robes and cloaks. Next to the school, it was just a little misty, but near the woods, the fog was denser.

Miss Gambola, a teacher's aide, rounded up the younger students and enlisted the handful of juniors and seniors in the Advanced Magibotany classes to assist her. Seventh and eighth graders had to stay within sight of one of the teachers at all times, but the high school students could roam more freely.

"You will remain within the bounds of school property," Mrs. Verde said. "Everyone will be perfectly safe, as long as no one ventures too deeply into the woods."

"Bet she tells us about the Hodag now," Alexandra whispered to Sonja.

"We wouldn't anyone going missing thanks to the Hodag," Mrs. Verde said.

Sonja raised her hand.

"Yes, Sonja?" asked the teacher.

"How will we know if we've gone out of bounds?" Sonja asked.

"You'd have to hike quite a long way. Don't wander so far that you can't see or hear anyone else, and you'll be fine. If we have to come looking for you, you can expect to serve detention." The teacher pulled her dark cloak tighter, and led the group of students toward the trees. "Now, who can tell me the best way to catch disappearing toadstools?"

There was a lull in the students' chatter as they approached the tree line. From ahead of them came a deafening din: hundreds of crows nesting in the trees, all cackling and cawing at each other. As the humans came nearer, the birds made even more noise, angrily protesting the intrusion. The mist was so dense now that none of the birds could be seen, but Alexandra heard them flapping, and dark shapes flitted just within view before disappearing again.

The students nearest Alexandra were edging away from her.

"They're just crows," she said, while she clutched her wand beneath her cloak.

"Well, with that many crows up there, there probably isn't any magic mistletoe," Mrs. Verde said. Magic mistletoe was as parasitical as its non-magical counterpart but less choosy about what it attached itself to; it was just as happy to feed on blood as sap. "So let's walk a little further away east." She led the students to a place out of sight of the athletic fields, where the trees were a little older and the underbrush thicker, and there weren't so many crows lingering about. "Now remember, no one wander off too far by yourself, and anyone who finds a cluster of magic mistletoe is excused from the next quiz."

Sonja reached into her cloak and withdrew a twig with dried leaves and preserved berries. The Herbology teacher had given everyone a small sample to help them identify the plant. Alexandra kept her attention on the ground. Their chances of spotting any mistletoe high in the trees were minimal unless the sun burned away the fog, so she tried sneaking around trees hoping to surprise some disappearing toadstools instead.

For the rest of the morning, she bagged whatever plants she could find. Other than some verbena, the pickings were sparse near the school, as she suspected Mrs. Verde knew they would be, though occasionally some of the younger students shouted excitedly when they found the elusive toadstools. Alexandra gathered some twilight moss off the lee side of a tree, and overturned a few rocks, but discovered only a gnome, who made disgusting grunting noises at her and waddled deeper into the woods.

The mist cleared after half an hour, but even when the treetops became visible, there didn't seem to be any magic mistletoe. Alexandra pushed ahead through the woods, avoiding the other students but not getting too far from them.

She had been studying a promising tangle of leaves and vines fifty feet up in the branches of a twisting old oak when Sonja suddenly came around the tree, startling her.

"That's very mature, jumping out from behind a tree," Alexandra said. "What are you, six?"

"I found something. C'mon." Sonja turned and moved back the way she'd come.

"What?" Alexandra looked back and forth between the cluster of vines up in the treetops and the retreating redhead.

Sonja stopped to check whether Alexandra was following only when she was almost out of sight. She waved and disappeared into some thick bushes growing between two large oaks.

"Sonja!" Alexandra walked after her. When she reached the bushes, Sonja was waiting for her by another tree.

"Follow me," Sonja said. She turned around again and continued deeper into the woods.

"Hey! Wait up!" Sonja was walking so rapidly, Alexandra nearly tripped over roots and undergrowth catching up to her. "Where are you going?"

"I found something," Sonja repeated. "Come on."

There was something wrong with the way Sonja was acting, Alexandra thought. She looked over her shoulder. She could just barely hear the voices of their classmates echoing through the trees. "Sonja, we're going to get in trouble." When she looked ahead again, Sonja was disappearing around another tree. "Hey!" She ran to catch up to the girl again. "Sonja, what's your problem?"

"Are you scared?"

"No, but this is the longest I've ever gone without going to the Dean's office or getting detention. And you haven't told me where the heck we're going."

"I found something."

"You said that. What is it?"

"I'll show you."

They walked another ten yards, and Alexandra could no longer hear anything but birds. She grabbed Sonja's arm. "Sonja, stop!" She jerked the girl around. "I've been lost in the woods before, and it's not cool. Tell me where we're going, or I'm going back."

Sonja blinked at her. "All right, if you're scared." She shook off Alexandra's grip and turned back around. "We're almost there." She resumed walking.

Alexandra stared at Sonja's back. The uneasy feeling was much stronger now. She held up her wand, hesitated, and cast a red flare flashing into the sky. It was a basic charm that every sixth grader was taught, though she had never used it before. Then she ran after Sonja. "Sonja, I mean it. Stop now, or –"

"We're here," Sonja said. She was standing in a patch of mossy undergrowth on the other side of an old, rotten log, a big one that was difficult to step over even half-buried in the ground. Stringy, dark green tufts sprouted out of the soil around her ankles. The small clearing deep in the woods was heavily shaded, and bordered by the rotten log and several large trees, very little sunlight reached it.

"And?" Alexandra asked. "What's here?"

A realization came to her in a flash: Sonja couldn't have found this place while Alexandra was looking for magic mistletoe and disappearing toadstools. It was too far for the other girl to have come all this way and back in the time they'd been separated.

Sonja squatted and grabbed one of the dark green tufts with both hands. She yanked, hard.

The stringy green vegetation was like hair. A bare, wrinkled lump attached to it emerged from the ground. Alexandra pointed her wand at Sonja and said, "Locopetrificus!"

Sonja stopped moving instantly and remained frozen in a squatting position; even her face was immobile, and her eyes were glassy. She was still clenching the plant in both hands.

Alexandra couldn't explain why she'd just done what she had, but shivers were running down her spine. She stared at the bulbous root that Sonja had started to pull from the ground. It was gray and ugly, and the earth around it moved. Something was squirming down there.

Behind her came a pop, followed quickly by another. Ms. Grimm said, "Miss Quick, what are you doing?"

"Stars Above!" Mrs. Verde gasped. "Sonja – Alexandra – get away from there, now!"

Sonja, of course, did not move.

The two witches stepped in front of Alexandra. Mrs. Verde's wand was out, pointing not at Alexandra or at Sonja, but at the ground at Sonja's feet. Her hand was shaking. "Interra," she said, and the gray lump sank back into the earth, drawing its green sprouts with it and pulling Sonja off-balance. The petrified girl toppled forward, but before she hit the ground face-first, Ms. Grimm waved her wand and levitated her into the air.

"You stopped her before she uprooted it," the Dean said.

"Uprooted what?" Alexandra asked.

"Mandrakes, Miss Quick," said Mrs. Verde, standing amidst the plants. "These are adult mandrake plants. You've found a full-grown colony of them."

"Mandrakes." Alexandra shuddered. She hadn't really realized what the plants were, but they had talked about mandrakes in class, and she had seen pictures. "Do they really scream when you pull them out of the ground?"

"Oh, yes." Mrs. Verde's voice quavered. "If Miss Rackham had pulled one free, you'd have both been dead in seconds."