An excerpt from The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin — which is FREE through today.
“Are you going to study?” Rachel asked Sigfried, whom she found romping with Lucky in the ferns behind Dare Hall.
“Study? What’s that?” Sigfried snorted. “Certainly not. I’m going exploring.”
“Oh! Me, too!” Rachel cried, delighted. She pulled a Cadbury’s bar from her pocket and split it in half. “Chocolate?”
Sigfried’s eyes became very round. “Ace! I had one of these once. One of the other boys nicked some from a corner shop. Boy, was it good.” He shoved the entire half of the chocolate bar into his mouth, except for a small piece that he broke off and tossed to Lucky. He tried to keep talking, but Rachel could not make out what he was saying.
She giggled. “Do you want to explore on foot or by broom?”
“Whets go wy woom.”
Rachel and Sigfried climbed on Vroomie, and the two of them were off, with Lucky following close behind. They swooped over walled gardens and glided above the sun-speckled ferns that grew beneath the paper birches. Then they sped across the commons and beyond, to the hemlocks. Soaring upward, they burst above the branches into the brilliant fall sky. Small birds flocked together, calling to one another as they gathered to head south. Rachel watched their freedom with a sense of joy. Recalling the statue of the young woman with the bird wings, she wondered what it would be like, to fly as they did—probably a great deal like flying on a broom only more wonderful.
The first orange leaf of autumn drifted down to land in the creek. Lucky dived in and snaked through the water, a red and gold flicker beneath the surface.
Looking down at his friend, Sigfried asked suddenly, “Hey, when do we learn to run so fast we leave a sonic boom?”
Rachel laughed. “No one can do that.”
“Mr. Chanson, the gym teacher, can.”
“That’s impossible. People have tried such things, but they get ripped apart. You’d have to be invulnerable.”
“Chanson can do it. I want to do it, too.”
“No, he can’t!”
“Yes, he can. Lucky saw him. I watched through Lucky’s eyes. Chanson crossed the campus so quickly, he looked like a blur.”
“That’s…impossible.” Rachel frowned. She sighed blissfully at the thought of the handsome physical education teacher. Then, her eyes widened. “Unless… Hey! I bet you he’s from Outside!”
“You mean he was born in the woods?”
“No.—Like Lucky. Lucky has magic from outside that turns off near the raven. I bet you Mr. Chanson is from another world, too. We should ask the princess to shake his hand.”
“A Metaplutonian! You may be right!” Siggy’s face fell, and he scowled. “But that would mean that I couldn’t learn to do it, wouldn’t it? And the princess says it’s impossible to turn into a dragon. Life is so unfair!”
They flew up the river, through the hemlocks, to where it emerged from underground on the inner side of the wall of trees that marked the wards of the school. Circling back, they flew toward Roanoke Hall from the back side.
Leaning forward, Sigfried pointed at the central belfry. “Hey, can we stop there?”
“Sure.” Rachel flew to the spot Sigfried had indicated. Part-way up the belfry, buttresses arched out from around a central cylindrical core. There was just enough room for them to land. Siggy peered in the window at the spiral staircase within. Then, laying on his stomach, he pulled some grubby sandwiches from his pocket and stuffed them into the gargoyle-tipped drain pipes.
Rachel watched him, perplexed. “Siggy, why do you stick sandwiches in your robes? Aren’t you afraid your clothes will end up smelling like food?”
Stretched out on his stomach, Siggy answered absently, “I like the smell of food. But you are right: keeping it in my pockets is too obvious. I have been finding hiding holes and nooks about campus where it can be kept safe, and squirrels and grown-ups won’t find it.”
Rachel leaned against an arched buttresses. “You are hiding food from grown-ups?”
Siggy threw her an odd look. Climbing back to his feet, he lowered his voice conspiratorially. “That’s how they control you, you know. Grown-ups control kids by controlling the food supply. But they can’t keep you from running away if they can’t keep you hungry.”
Bewildered, Rachel asked, “Why would grown-ups take away our food?”
Siggy looked left and right, as if he feared being overheard. “Listen. You’re young yet. This world is going to chew you up like bubble gum and blow you up until you pop and get stuck in someone’s hair. And I mean chew you with its back teeth!
“You just don’t get it,” he continued. “Grown-ups take things away. Food. Lights. Your mattress. That’s what they do. Grown-ups take things. You’ve got to be ready.”
“Is this what your life was like?”
“It’s not just me. Hunt understands all this. She’s seen a few things, Goldilocks has. Did you know that she found a dead body once? Just floating in the water. Even I’ve never been that lucky.”
“I…didn’t know that about Valerie,” Rachel replied weakly.
“Listen, I wouldn’t normally do this, but you’re pathetic. You’ll never survive on your own, so—here. It is half a sausage and a handful of scrambled eggs I managed to sneak out of the cafeteria, when no one was looking. You hide it. When you are put on short rations for something you’ve done, you go to where it is hidden and eat it. You’ll feel better. A mouthful of food makes you stop crying. You can’t let them see you cry. They sense weakness.”
Siggy pulled a wiggling lump of yellowish substance out of one of his pockets and offered it to Rachel. Moisture dripped from between his fingers. In his other hand he had a cylinder of meat with a bite out of one end, covered in lint. A pungent odor assailed her nostrils.
“It will go bad.” Rachel stared at it in mesmerized horror, trying to keep her stomach from roiling. She wanted to take it from him, the way she had accepted his goopy handshake, but she could not get her hand to jerk toward him.
Siggy looked surprised. He put the offering down on the ledge of the nearest window. “Go bad? You can stay out of trouble long enough for your food stores to go bad? Wow! What’s your secret? How do you not get caught?”
“I don’t have any food stores!” Rachel held onto the buttress with one arm and waved her other one around emphatically.
“What about that stuff you gave me? The chocolate?”
“That was a present from my father. He gave it to me this morning. But I don’t have anything else,” Rachel insisted, “just what’s in my pocket.”
Siggy looked stricken. “That’s—that’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard! Come on, you can have some of mine. Otherwise you have nothing to fall back on when the bad times come.”
Siggy’s expression darkened. “The bad times always come.”
“Siggy! It doesn’t work that way here at school. The kitchens will have food every day. If they stopped for some reason, my parents would feed us.”
“I can see I am going to have to take you under my wing. Parents make you weak. You cannot rely on them.”
“Um…” Rachel’s whole body ached with sorrow, but she could not think of anything to say. Her heart swelled with gratitude for her parents. Her problems with her father were nothing compared to this. How unfair that she could not share her family with Sigfried.
Siggy stuffed the unaccepted food back into his pockets. Standing so close, Rachel noted a huge mud stain covered the front of his black robe. They climbed back onto Vroomie and set off circling the campus slowly. Rachel mused quietly, wondering if the matter of Siggy’s robes were any of her business. Finally, she resolved that she should say something. After all, in stories, friends looked after one another.
“Um…Siggy…” Rachel tugged on his sleeve, where his arm encircled her waist. “I can’t help noticing that you’ve been wearing this same robe for four days. It’s getting kind of dirty. You do know that if you put it in the bin in the corner, the bean-tighe will come do the laundry, right?”
“The what? The Band-aids?”
“The bean-tighe. The fairy housekeepers. They look like tiny old women in old-fashioned peasants’ clothing.”
She could feel Sigfried shrug behind her. He said, “It’s the only one I have. If I washed it, what would I wear in the meantime?”
“You only have one robe?”
“But…” Rachel blinked. She looked down at where his bare feet hung beneath them. “Don’t you have any shoes?”
“Nope. Outgrew my last pair. They pinched my toes. Hurt a lot. The nuns never got around to getting me new ones.”
The cup of pity in Rachel’s heart overflowed. “Siggy, you can’t go to school here with just one robe and no shoes! This is New York. It is going to get very cold. You need boots and a hat and sweaters to wear under your robes and many other things.”
“I suppose I could use some of my gold to buy clothing.” Siggy winced, as if parting with a single piece of his treasure caused him physical pain. “But I don’t know how to go about it. There are no shops in my dorm.”
“Would you like me to do it for you? Buy you a proper wardrobe?” she asked hopefully. “Some things can be bought at Roanoke Alchemical Shoppe under Raleigh Hall. It’s similar to the bookshop under Dee, only it sells alchemical supplies, robes and gear. Other things can be ordered. I have all the catalogs.”
“Catalogs of what?”
Rachel craned her neck to look back over her shoulder, trying to discover from his expression if he were kidding. His eyes were squinting against the wind.
“Clothing catalogs,” she said. “For buying shoes and things through the post.”
“Is that allowed? That would be a great relief!” he cried, his voice quite sincere. “Girls are supposed to be good at that kind of thing, aren’t you? You order for me, and I’ll give you the money. But I can only spare coins I don’t like as much. Some are scuffed or melted around the edges. The former owner exploded when he died.”
Rachel blinked. “Oh! You mean the dragon!”
"Yep. So, yeah. I can pay.”
“Fine. Wait just a second.” Rachel shot back to Dare Hall and dropped Siggy off in the feathery ferns behind the dormitory.
Bending low over the handlebars, she shot into the air and through the open window into her room. Once there, she quickly gathered some of the catalogs in her trunk. As she did so, she noticed the tiny lion sitting in a splash of sunlight in the center of the room, washing.
Rachel looked left and right. No one was around. Squatting down, she smiled at the little tawny creature. “Hello. Your name is Leander, right?”
It cocked its head and looked up at her.
Rachel leaned forward and whispered, “Can you tell me what is going on?”
The tiny feline stared at her with its wide golden eyes.
Undaunted, Rachel continued, “What does it mean that ‘one of your children’ was brought here and you’re in her heart? Who is the Raven? Why does he want you to leave?”
With supreme dignity, the lion began to lick its paw. Rachel sighed. Jumping on her broom, she hurried back to Siggy.
She found Sigfried and Lucky with their heads bowed together, concentrating. Sigfried had his right hand up, his fingers together, the gesture Mrs. Heelis had used when she conjured Jemima Puddleduck.
“So, what was the word that nun…er, I mean tutor…used to conjure stuff?”
“Muria, but don’t…” Rachel began.
“No. Lucky and I can do this! Watch!” Sigfried lowered his hand, just as the teacher had. “Muria!”
Rachel felt that familiar feeling, as if she were waking from a dream, that often accompanied conjuring. An animal now waddled among the ferns—a black animal with a long white stripe that ran from its forehead to its back before splitting into two strips that continued to its black bushy tail. An unpleasant stink struck her nostrils.
“Look, it worked!” Sigfried shouted gleefully. “I conjured something! I think it’s an American animal! Here, Kitty, Kitty!”
Lucky shouted, “Skunk!”
The frightened creature lifted its tail. Something horrid shot out, spraying all over Sigfried and his only robe. The stuff stank dreadfully. Rachel’s eyes watered painfully.
“Lucky, get it!” Siggy threw up his arms to protect his face. Bringing his hands down again and gesturing, he shouted, “Ti!”
The still-spraying skunk wobbled into the air. Rachel was duly impressed that Sigfried could lift something so heavy with just the up cantrip. She could only lift heavier things if she used the more advanced Tiathelu, and the skunk looked much heavier than her old tome. Siggy held up two fingers and gestured as if to fling the skunk away. To Rachel’s surprise, it went flying. Lucky breathed on it.
The putrid spray coming from the skunk caught fire. Stinking and flaming, the skunk flew end over end into a crowd of students, who were walking down the gravel path to Dare Hall. They screamed and ducked to no avail. The free-flying spray flew everywhere. Students grabbed their eyes, shrieking. Two girls were struck with flaming skunk-fluid, and their garments caught fire. The first one stopped, dropped, and rolled. The other pointed at her burning skirt and performed a cantrip. The flames sputtered and died.
As everyone else ran, Siggy charged toward the skunk. First, from one of the large inner pockets of his robe, he pulled the trumpet he had borrowed from Music and blew. A blast of air slammed the skunk into a tree. Then he shouted for Lucky, who sped forward and breathed again. This time, there was a brief whoosh, and a ball of fire.
The conjured creature vanished with a pop.
The crowd cheered. With not a single trace of shame, Siggy grinned and bowed. Then he clasped his hands overhead like a prizefighter, basking in their adulation. Pinching her nose against the stench, Rachel watched, amused and embarrassed. When Sigfried glanced back at her warily, she winked. Today, Sigfried was a hero for saving the school from a flying, flaming skunk.
No one would ever learn otherwise from her.