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Chapter 1: Letter
For the rest of Faolcairn, it was an ordinary Friday afternoon. Children, still dressed in their large school jumpers and shiny shoes, shed their ties and began to unbutton their shirts as they piled onto buses or traipsed down the pavement in the direction of their houses. Adults were thinking about starting to prepare the dinner or finishing the last of their work before gathering their belongings and attempting to make it home before rush-hour.
Leslie Corren tried to picture these people, these ordinary people, from her place on the ground beneath the sycamore tree. The small, slight girl lay on her back, half hidden in the jungle of waist-length grass. Her unruly tangle of golden ringlets were spread out like a cushion behind her head, her delicate lids were closed tightly over her dark blue eyes and just the hint of a smile played with the corners of her rosy lips.
After many hours spent outside in this peaceful hollow, she had found that if she let herself drift away, she could catch a glimpse of the rooves of the identical houses that lined either side of a damp, grey street; see into the gardens that were full to bursting with flowers or clustered with sandpits and climbing frames. Occasionally, if she was able to search hard enough, she could even see into the lives of the normal, average people that lived in these houses and sat in these gardens; she could imagine for a few minutes what it would be like to have no worries; to have who should I sit beside on the bus? or what should I wear tomorrow? as the only questions clouding her mind. Then reality would tumble down on top of her at the sound of a door slamming or the creaking of one of the branches overhead. This time, it was Mr Henderson's voice that dragged her back to the present;
"Les?" his hand found her shoulder and gently shook it. "Leslie? Wake up!"
Leslie peeled her eyes open. Grey clouds were gathering in the otherwise clear sky, threatening to swallow the sun in their dark folds. The cool wind whispered through Adelaire's bare grounds, shifting the bricks of the crumbling stone wall and stirring the debris that lay scattered on the ground.
Long grass tickled her bare arms as she pulled myself up into a sitting position. Mr Henderson's face was a couple of inches away from her own. His pale skin was dented with premature wrinkles, his blonde hair streaked with white and his young green eyes had been long ago stripped of their innocence.
"I wasn't sleeping," Leslie replied.
"Good," Mr Henderson said, taking her arm and helping her to her feet. "You have to come with me! And hurry - we can't get caught out here!"
"But why?" Leslie protested. "You said I could have 'till five today!"
"Mrs Yule wants you in her office! Now!"
"How come she wants me? I haven't done anything wrong!" when Leslie saw the look that Mr Henderson was giving her, she quickly countered herself, "Well, nothing that she could ever find out about."
"She said that she'd recieved a letter for you. That was it."
"A letter? From who? I've never even met anybody from outside Adelaire."
Mr Henderson shrugged. He was already running, sprinting at full speed through the undergrowth. With her arm tightly linked with his, Leslie allowed him to pull her along with him. Stumbling over tree roots and tugging her jeans free of bramble bushes, they fled the forest. She could hear her heart beating in time with the thump of her trainers hitting the hard ground; could feel her lungs burning white hot pain as she pushed herself onwards; see nothing but the seemingly endless road that led up to Adelaire. A stitch throbbed in her side and she wanted nothing more than to flop down onto the cool grass that grew on either side of the track.
"Just a little further," Mr Henderson promised, pulling her against his side as he quickened his pace.
Across the close-cut lawn, through the wooden double doors, up the winding staircase and then finally they had arrived. After a moment in which he took to catch his breath, Mr Henderson entered the office, Leslie hot on his heels. The room was smaller than she had expected. Humid air wreathed around her as she stepped through the doorway, and the smell of decay hit her nostrils.
"Sorry about the delay, Mrs Yule," Mr Henderson apologised. "Corren was hiding down in the cellar - it took me ages to find her." He and Leslie exchanged a knowing look.
"Do not waste anymore of my time with your poor excuses, Henderson," came the reply. "And in the future, wait to be invited before you barge into my office. You may leave."
Mr Henderson winked at Leslie on his way past, closing the door behind him.
"Sit down, Miss Corren," the voice drifted out from behind a large stack of paper. Leslie did as she was told, perching herself on the very edge of the hard wood opposite the founder's desk.
"Mrs Yule," she began after a long while of silence. She made sure to sit up straight and not to slouch. After all, she thought bitterly, Adelaire had taken me in purely out of the kindness of their hearts. The least that I can do is to treat everybody here with the utmost respect.
"Mrs Yule," Leslie continued. "I was just wondering if you could tell me why I'm here? Mr Henderson told me you'd recieved a letter for me."
It was a known fact that if ever anybody did anything even slightly imperfect, they would be sent up to the founder's office and would often never return. Thinking back, Leslie couldn't remember anything that she had done wrong; she had taken extra care when sneaking out into the forest, she hadn't stolen any food or had any fights with the other children. She had even made her bed.
Mrs Yule chuckled softly, pushing the pile of parchment to the side so that Leslie was able to see her face. She was an elderly woman with long white hair that fell down her back. Although she may have been pretty at one point, her looks had sunk into the folds of her deep wrinkle. All that remained of her earlier beauty was her blue eyes; pale, sparkling and icily cold.
"Don't fret, Miss Corren," she assured Leslie. Her smile was yellow and sickeningly sweet. "This meeting is not about your behaviour." Leslie held her gaze ", despite the fact that her mind was clouded with confusion.
The only other reason that a child was sent to the founder's office was if-
Leslie quickly shook the thought out of her head, extinguishing the tiny ember of hope that had flickered to life inside the pit of her stomach. It wasn't possible.
"What I have here with me is, to you, both bad news and good news," Mrs Yule went on. She paused while I waited expectantly. "The good news is that you have been accepted into a school of witchcraft and wizardry."
Leslie felt my heart skip a beat. She, of all people, had been accepted into magical school? Her astonishment was apparently crystal clear on her face, as Mrs Yule carried on without hesitation.
"Although you will be given the opportunity to learn the ways of a sorcerer, this school is truly the lowest of the low. Elvindor Academy of Magic allows any old riff-raff to enter through its doors."
Leslie couldn't help but notice Mrs Yule's patronizing tone of voice and the disapproving glint in her eyes. She considered her as any old riff-raff.
"I trust you want to attend this school?" Mrs Yule's voice dragged her back to reality. Leslie nodded instantly.
"Yes, of course I do," she agreed.
"Excellent," Mrs Yule announced. "All of the books and equipment that you require has already been owled to me. The only other essential that you shall need is a wand." The founder of Adelaire rose from her chair and walked steadily over to Leslie's side. "Stand up, girl."
Leslie looked up in surprise, a single word slipping from her mouth before I could stop it,
"The wandmaker that I have spoken to insists that you be there in person," Mrs Yule replied, glaring. "Apparently, the wand has to choose the wizard. All a load of codswallop in my opinion. Nevertheless, we must see to his wishes."
Still bewildered, Leslie struggled to her feet to stand by the older lady's side.
"Take my hand."
Leslie jerked my head up, startled. Why would Mrs Yule want her tainted hands touching her pure-blooded perfection?
"Excuse me?" Leslie asked incredulously.
"Take my hand," Mrs Yule repeated.
Hesitantly, Leslie reached out for her wrist. As soon as her fingers touched her bare skin, knowledge seemed to rush through her. Suddenly, the concept of holding Mrs Yule's hand didn't seem quite so strange.
"Are we going to-"
Everything darkened, so much so that all Leslie could see was deep, heavy black, swirling all around her. She was falling, though in which direction, she could not be sure. All she knew was that there was no longer ground beneath her feet and her chest was tightening as all of the air left her body. She couldn't breathe, she couldn't think and whatever she was falling through was becoming increasingly smaller, squishing and squeezing me down, up or to the end of where ever she was going. It felt as though there were heavy weights pushing against her head and at any moment, her skull would shatter.
Then she was on the ground. Grass, still wet wish morning dew, pressed against her cheek and the sounds of footsteps and speaking came from nearby. Disorientated, Leslie sat up to find herself on a patch of lawn on the corner of a pavement. Witches and wizards of all shapes and sizes were bustling along around her, all carrying bags full of carious different purchased items.
"Just perform Side-Along Apparition?" Mrs Yule cut across Leslie. "Yes. Now get up, girl. We are rather short on time."