The bright morning sun burst through the thick canopy of maple leaves above Rowan’s head. She smiled, stretching her sore limbs.
“Willow!” She spoke with her usual morning singsong voice. “Rise and shine! Today we are-” She stopped short. Her upbeat, joyful attitude was crushed as she realized the tasks of the day. “Today we are going to the village,” She finished gloomily. At this, Willow poked her head up. Rowan’s cotton-tailed companion loved the village, since that’s where she got her the bundles of fresh carrots. Rowan grimaced. “I guess we should make the best of it, huh, girl?” She asked, cuddling her pet. Willow squeaked and scampered down the tree as if to say ‘of course!’. Rowan smiled and threw on her thick cloak. Willow purred, anxious to start their journey.
Traveling to the village had always been one of Rowan’s least favorite things to do. She much preferred the secluded woodlands to social niceties. Rowan trudged through the dense foliage, ducking under low-lying branches and treading lightly on the rackety leaves. About an hour into their trek, the sounds of the town reached their ears. Willow bounced excitedly, and would’ve scampered off if Rowan hadn’t tucked her safely into the folds of her cloak.. Too soon, they reached the earthy pathways that would lead to the main cobblestone roads of the Sage Vista village. Horse hooves clattered in the distance while villagers went about their daily tasks. A familiar yet foreign pang of longing engulfed Rowan as she heard families talking and laughing together, without a care in the world.
Suddenly, the sound of horse hooves pounded harder and harder. Too late, Rowan realized they were coming from behind her. Kids' voices yelled and laughed, while a deeper male voice shouted orders above the sounds of the horses. Rowan turned, startled, and came face-to-face with an enormous black stallion.
“Whoa!” the man yelled, yanking the reins back in surprise. Rowan blanched. “Pardon me, miss!” He gushed, slipping down from his saddle with more grace than Rowan would’ve expected. Choruses of neighs filled the air as all the children that were following the man halted their horses. Rowan noticed that all the children wore the same clothes; colored polo shirts tucked into either plaid skirts or khaki pants. Their chests were all adorned with the same design; the design of the Sage Woods Academy.
“Are you hurt?” the man asked quizzically, stepping towards her. His brows furrowed in true concern.
“No,” Rowan stuttered, backing away. He followed gently.
“Why aren’t you at school? The new decree was supposed to go into effect immediately,” he asked, and looked at her with calculating eyes, as if she was a math problem that he just couldn’t solve. Rowan had no idea what he was talking about.
“Excuse me, but...what decree?” The children on the horses looked at each other.
“Maybe she’s not from this town!” A boy in the front suggested. Rowan glanced at him.
“Maybe so,” the man said to himself. “Where are you from, little girl?” She knew he was trying to be gentle, but she cringed when he called her ‘little’.
“Around here,” Rowan said carefully, waving her hands at the trees. The man raised an eyebrow.
“So you do or don’t live in Sage Vista?” Rowan wasn’t sure how to answer him. She just wanted to get out of there. “Why don’t you come with us?” He asked cautiously.
“No, no, no,” Rowan argued, backing away again. “I have to go get carrots,” She stuttered.
“You should be in school, young lady,” The man said, clearly losing his patience. “Come with me, please,” he commanded.
Then Rowan bolted.
She heard the man send a few students off to get backup. Whatever backup it was, Rowan didn’t want anything to do with it. School was the last thing she wanted. Or was it? The little voice inside her head stunned her.
Rowan kept running, leaping over logs and darting through the dappled shadows, but less vigorously this time. I guess school wouldn’t be awful, she thought. Then checked herself. Are you kidding?! Being stuck in a stuffy room all day wouldn’t be awful? She continued to sprint, although still not fully convinced one way or the other about attending school.
Suddenly, the trees disappeared from around her. Rowan barely had time to register where she was before she was free-falling off the sheer side of a cliff. She shrieked, waving her arms wildly. She barely grasped a large outcropping of rock before she splat on the sand below. The impact popped her wrist, sending pain shooting through her bones. She yelled out, and immediately regretted it, knowing the man heard her. Moments later, horse hooves boisterously clobbered the grass above her. The man stopped his horse and leaned over the edge, scanning for any sign of Rowan. His eyes widened as he spotted Rowan dangling over the waves pounding the surf.
“Hold on, miss!” He shouted. “I’m coming!” Rowan grimaced, pulling herself up with her other hand. She tried in vain to climb to the top, but her injured wrist would not support any of her weight. She cried out in agony as she desperately tried to scale the rocks.
“Drop!” she heard. The man was about six feet below her, stretching out his muscled arms. “Drop!” he said, trying to be encouraging. Rowan hated the fact that she was giving in, but there was nothing else she could do. She let go of the rocks and free fell once again to the ground. She closed her eyes tight, preparing for the impact of the sand. But it never came. Instead, warm arms wrapped around her with an audible grunt, much too close to the ground than Rowan would’ve liked.
She opened one eye to see the man holding on tight to her. He set her on the grass, inspecting her wrist. He took a branch from the sand and used it as a makeshift splint. Rowan inhaled sharply as extreme pain erupted from her joint. She looked sadly at her throbbing, injured wrist, then felt anger toward the man. If he’d just left her alone… Suddenly, a quiet cheep interrupted Rowan’s thoughts. The man raised an eyebrow when Rowan gasped.
“Willow!” She breathed. “Oh, thank goodness you’re all right!” Rowan cradled her frightened rabbit in her good arm. She kissed her rabbit’s fuzzy forehead, guilt washing over her. So selfish! She scolded herself.
“Time to go,” the man said sternly.
“Where?” Rowan’s voice quavered as she asked the question, even though she knew the answer. Still, dread filled Rowan’s entire body as he said;
“We are enrolling you in Sage Woods Academy, for your own good!”
The horseback ride to the school was the most humiliating experience of Rowan’s life. She could feel the students’ eyes on her, even though she kept her head down as she stroked Willow’s silky ears. Her rabbit was shaking, as if she was scared by the horses and all the stranger's attention.
Before too long, a fancy gate appeared at the end of the road. It had thick wrought-iron fencing connected to large posts covered in stones. The yard was well groomed, with towering maple trees dotting the vast space. A sizable stream tumbled through the land, feeding into a vast pond with lily pads and cattails illuminating the edges of the water.
The troop continued on their steeds along the path once they passed through the gates. They broke through the dense thicket of trees and an enormous, looming building came into view. It looked much more like a castle than a school, and Rowan gaped at its tall, spiraling structures and large windows. Two immense banners, on either side of the huge double doors, were decorated with the school crest and waved in the wind like flags.
A few stable boys opened the large doors to the stables to let the fatigued horses in. Rows and rows of stables lined the walls, most of them empty. The man, whom she’d come to know as Mr. Reeves, slipped off his mare and held a hand out to assist Rowan. She reluctantly took it and slid off the large saddle. She stood erect and thought, This is my life now, I guess. Make the best of it! Her feeble attempts to keep a smile on her face were hopeless. She missed her forest home, with all the friendly squirrels and birds.
“Let’s get you inside, miss,” Mr. Reeves said, handing the reins of his horse to a stable boy. The boy was tall and muscled, with shaggy black hair and deep brown eyes. He winked encouragingly at Rowan and took Mr. Reeves’ stallion. Rowan glimpsed the nametag on the stable the boy led the horse into. It read, in big block letters; Poseidon. She whispered a heartfelt goodbye to her new friend and let Mr. Reeves lead her to the castle.
The massive double doors were even more impressive up close. Intricate designs coated the polished wood, studded with diamonds and gold streaks. Rowan gaped at the enormous chamber that they strutted into. A spacious fountain was in the middle of the room. Shimmering water gushed out of its grand spouts. Tremendous picture windows exhibited the brilliant autumn sunlight. Two elongated staircases traveled up on either side of the geyser, full of bustling, chatty students in coordinating uniforms.
Rowan suddenly felt miniscule in the grand building. She followed Mr. Reeves up the crowded staircase, almost losing sight of him multiple times. At the top of the stairs, they turned a sharp left, and followed another, smaller staircase. At the top of the carpeted landing, there was a humble-looking door. The paint was peeling off in strips, and there was a brass doorknob that looked as if the rusty screws would give way once someone tried to turn it.
“Miss...um...” Mr. Reeves glanced expectantly at Rowan. Up until now, she’d refused to give him her name. She wasn’t sure what changed her mind, but she began to trust him.
“Rowan,” she confessed. Smiling and nodding, Mr. Reeves said,
“Miss Rowan, I present to you your new headmistress, Mrs. Cyrene,” he pushed open the door. Rowan expected a headmistress’ office to be a massive room with velvet cushions and a fancy desk, but there was hardly anything at all, except for a beautiful woman sitting in a crumbling desk chair behind a decrepit desk that looked much too small.
Cyrene stood, grinning. Rowan felt a wave of peace as she looked upon her new headmistress. Rowan felt like she could trust her with anything. Cyrene was a truly dazzling sight. Her long, thick blonde hair cascaded down past her slim shoulders, which were decorated with a most elegant gown. She had bright eyes and an even brighter smile.
Rowan was suddenly very aware of her appearance. Her ratty hair, dirty face, and ripped clothes seemed like rags in front of this woman. As if Cyrene could sense Rowan’s thoughts, she said,
“Don’t worry, dear. We’ll get you washed up. Rowan,” she said happily, her voice like honey. “It’s a pleasure to meet you! Welcome to Sage Woods Academy!” Cyrene beamed at Rowan knowingly. “I can assure you that you’ll be safer here than in the forest.”