Count Di Grisogno’s family mansion is situated on the outskirts of the medieval Tuscan city of Monte Aquila on La Costa degli Etruschi where you can find some of the best wines of the world.
Taïga and Granny flew to Pisa in Italy, as it’s the nearest airport. They were supposed to take the train from there, but Granny had had enough. Her back aches, and her legs are swollen. So a taxi it is. Whatever the price.
The taxi driver is talkative, telling them all about the countryside, the Etruscan ruins they pass, his passion for football and his large family.
Granny finishes by tuning him out, nodding when she sees him throwing a glance in the rearview mirror, and humming noncommittally.
Football? Since when does she look like someone interested in soccer? She snorts. Her mind wanders. She hopes she didn’t make the wrong decision in coming here without warning…
Taïga has dozed off, but jerks awake at the gentle nod of her grandmother.
‘Look! There it is – Monte Aquila di Valle!’
Taïga blinks and sits up straight, trying to get a glimpse of the fortified city. She has never seen anything like it, apart from in Teddy’s books about knights and dragons.
‘Is there a princess living in the tower?’ she asks.
The taxi driver laughs. ‘A long time ago, little one, in the 14th century, a beautiful duchess lived in the castle, but now it’s just a boring – what do you call it? City Hall?’
Taïga is disappointed. ‘What’s the point in having castles if there’s no one who lives in them? Maybe that’s why they all seem to be crumbling ruins…’
‘Taïga!’ Granny shushes. ‘That’s rude.’
They ride in silence for a while, even the taxi driver has decided to be quiet, as he has tuned in a football match on the radio.
‘Look, Granny! The sea! Do you think we can go swimming tomorrow?’
‘I’m sure we can. We’ll just have to see if your mother agrees – she might want to show us around.’
‘Are we soon there? I need to pee…’
‘Yes, I think so… Could you just hold out a little longer?’
Taïga nods, her attention drawn from the sea to the huge aqueduct they are crossing.
They take a sharp right and starts on the zig zagging road up the mountain.
‘Here we are, Signora.’ The taxi stops in front of a beautiful Tuscan mansion.
‘Wow, Granny… Mom said it was nice but not this nice!’
‘There’s a lot your mother hasn’t told you, my child… How much will it be?’
The driver announces the total amount, making Granny blemish. ‘I thought Italy had switched to Euros.’
The driver carries their suitcases to the door, ‘We have, Signora. Years ago!’
Granny hesitates – she could discreetly conjure up some false money, but in a few hours it would vanish and the taxi driver would probably come back here for answers… She fumbles with the unfamiliar money.
‘Like what, Granny? Tell me!’
‘What? Not now, Taïga. There’s a time for everything.’ She straightens her grey jacket and pats her hair, taking a good look at the residence before ringing the bell.
The old, typical Tuscan building is close enough to the walled medieval city to benefit from the comfort of the town’s many services, yet far enough from the city walls to maintain a feeling of seclusion. Surrounded by century old high cypresses that procures welcome shadow during the hot summers, the view is magnificent, opening on the Mediterranean Sea and the picture-perfect landscape.
It breathes money. Old money.
The door opens silently on an elder man Granny immediately recognizes as a butler.
‘I’m Tara Grey and this is my grandchild, Taïga. Mrs. Di Grisogno is my daughter.’
Taïga smiles up at him, ‘Is my mom in?’
‘She is. Why don’t you go ahead.’ He stands aside, gesturing to the open doorway on the right wall, leading to an old stone pergola. Taïga scurries away, eager to see her mom – and her little brother.
She stops in the shadows under the archway, watching her mother talk to someone she has never seen before. She hands over the child she is carrying, kissing his forehead. She bites her lip. Something hurts in her throat, making swallowing difficult.
The girl starts walking away, and Taïga hastily retreats into the shadows, bumping into her grandmother.
‘Shasta!’ Granny shouts, waving at her daughter and pushing Taïga encouragingly forward. The little girl sets into a sprint towards her mother who turns with an annoyed expression that changes into disbelief. Her hands fly up to her cheeks as she watches her daughter come running towards her.
Leonardo comes hurrying down the stairs from opposite stairs. ‘Ah… Signora Grey! It is such a pleasure to see you again. You look younger and more beautiful for each time we meet… What brings you to Monte Aquila?’
Granny can’t help blushing. The gesture is so utterly ridiculous, but not with Leonardo. ‘Hihi… Signor Di Grisogno… You’re such a flatterer! I’m here to see my daughter, of course – and grandson!’
They have dinner on the terrace with a view over the Ocean. The happy banter is punctuated by the sound of crickets and Rowan singing to his ragdoll. The food is delicious.
‘I think I could get used to this!’ Granny smiles.
‘You should visit more often, Mother.’
Granny and Leonardo leave to watch an old black and white Marcello Mastroianni movie on the TV.
‘Do you like it here, Taïga?’
‘Yes, mom. I love it! The house is gorgeous and it’s so sunny and Rowan is adorable – when he doesn’t pull my hair…’
Shasta laughs. ‘Yes, he can be a little devil sometimes… I have talked to Leonardo and we would like you to stay here until school starts in September.’
‘Wow, the whole summer? Well, I’d love to, but what will Granny say?’
‘I’ve already asked her, and she thinks it’s a wonderful idea. So it’s settled then?’
That night, Taïga falls asleep before her head hits the pillow…
The night falls peacefully on the di Grisogno mansion.
Peacefully? Granny is slumbering on the terrace, listening to the cricket song and the distant ocean waves. Suddenly everything goes quiet. She opens her eyes and sees a black cloud that is slowly approaching.
Oh no! Granny’s suddenly wide awake! ‘Shasta! SHASTA!’
Shasta comes running. ‘What is it?’
‘Look over there. The Raukar.’
‘The Raukar? OMG! Rowan! We have to hide him…’
‘It’s too late, Shasta. Hiding Rowan won’t help. Look, the Raukar is hunting, and soon it will see us… There’s only one thing to do, to save us all. Talk to Leonardo about it.’
Leonardo doesn’t agree with Shasta. ‘I won’t allow you to do this! It’s dangerous!’
Shasta is getting angry. ‘I don’t need your… your… authorization! Rowan is my son, and he needs to be initiated before the dark forces takes him! And us!’
Leonardo doesn’t answer. Shasta tries again. ‘You saw it!’
Leonardo snickers. ‘I saw a cloud, a dark, summer storm cloud.’
‘But Mother says it’s the Raukar, and it’s here for Rowan. We need to do it and we will. Tomorrow night the moon is full and it’s also midsummer. It has to be done…’ Shasta and Leonardo continues arguing for hours…
The next morning breakfast is served as usual on the terrace.
But this morning the tension between Shasta and her husband is tangible.
What!?! Shasta watches their Butler approaching with Rowan in his arms. ‘Where’s Ellen?’
‘I think she’s… in her room, Madame.’ Shasta hurries upstairs.
‘I told you not to leave him! You must stay with him at all times!’
‘Yes, Madame… I just needed to use the bathroom! And the Butler took him to the kitchen, he wasn’t alone! I promise!’
Shasta tries to calm down. She might have overreacted. A little.
‘Hurry downstairs now. Rowan is waiting for his breakfast.’
‘Here you are little one! Special superhero breakfast!’
‘Rowan claps his hands and SPLASH! There’re cereals everywhere – even on the walls…
Granny and Shasta continues their discussion after dispatching Ellen to the swimming pool with the two children.
‘Mother, Leonardo thinks you must be wrong. Maybe he’s right… You’re tired after the long journey and maybe you need glasses?’
Granny gets angry. ‘Glasses? You can’t be serious! You must listen to what I have to say!’ And she tells her daughter what she did last night…
‘I decided to follow the Raukar. It stopped and hovered over a small village, not far from Monte Vista.’
‘The village was sleeping, but when I walked by a restaurant I thought I heard some noise. There was a woman standing in front of the entrance but when I got closer I saw that it wasn’t really a woman… not anymore…’
‘I drew my wand to eliminate her, but there were more of her kind coming, crawling out from the ground like vermin!’
‘There was nothing I could do but flee!’
‘I barely escaped…’
When Granny has finished her story there’s only silence.
Suddenly Shasta throws herself into her mother’s arms with a sob. ‘Oh, Mother… You are right, we must do it…’
While mother and daughter plans for the evening’s events, the children and Ellen are settling at the swimming pool. Ellen rolls out their towels close to the pool. Maybe a little too close for Rowan…
‘Come here, Rowan. Let’s play Frisbee!’ Rowan hugs Taïga hard and giggles.
Taïga loves to play with Rowan, but isn’t Ellen supposed to look after him?
They play Frisbee for a while. Then Taïga wakes Ellen up. ‘Hey, I’m going for a swim!’
‘Wait a minute Taïga. What about Rowan?’
But Taïga is already on her way into the pool! She jumps into the water, again and again!
Two other kids join in the fun.
The boy is trying to dive… Ouch!
‘Are you OK?’ The boy doesn’t answer. ‘Parli inglese? Do you speak English?’
‘Si! That was on purpose! It’s called a frog dive!’
‘Really! É vero!’
The boy looks at her. ‘Mi chiamo Goopy. Can you dive?’
‘Wow… that was benissima! But you have to learn how to frog dive… I can show you if you like?’
‘Eh, thanks, but no thanks…’
Goopy looks disappointed. Taïga hurriedly adds: ‘It seems too difficult! Let’s see who can splash the most!’
‘Good idea! Hey, Cipriana! Come and play with me and… Come ti chiami? What’s your name again?’
They spend the rest of the day together, playing in the swimming pool.
‘Cipriana! A che ora apre la piscina?’
‘Io non lo so…’
Taïga loves listening to them talk. Italian is beautiful, and she decides she wants to learn too.
When it’s time to leave, Cipriana whispers. ‘He lied, you know. Goopy can’t dive and I think he likes you!’ Taïga giggles.
Goopy’s approaching the girls. ‘If you come here early, the water is on fire, and I dare you to dive into the flames!’
‘A domani! See you tomorrow!’
‘Ciao! A presto!’
‘Ciao!’ Taïga parts with her newfound friends, promising to be at the pool at dawn the following morning.
Later that night. Shasta’s been at the site for about an hour, performing a cleansing ritual. When she’s ready, she calls for her mother and Rowan.
‘Abrakadabraaa… Abrakadabrome… Mother you can come!’
And here she comes! Granny and Rowan appears as the moon rises behind the hills.
The ceremony can begin. Shasta is walking backwards around the stone totem, joining Granny’s low murmurs. Rowan is silent, he seems to feel the importance of the moment.
Taïga is on her brand new bike before dawn, direction the swimming pool. As the sun rises, she pedals faster and faster downhill.
Wow! This swimming pool is magical! It’s sooo beautiful… like the water’s on fire! I’ll dive right into it!
Shasta and Granny has been singing for hours. A low grumbling can be heard from deep below the earth as the first sunrays reaches the child. The rumbling grows, gets more intense and suddenly the old totem vibrates.
‘Here. Take Rowan.’ Granny hands over her grandson to Shasta, and starts to quiver in rhythm with the totem… ‘Ooooohhhhhmmmmmm…’
Suddenly a lightning! It connects Granny and the totem.
‘Don’t look, darling! Don’t be afraid… Hush…’ Shasta tries to calm the now hysterically screaming boy.
What was that? Taïga thought she heard something, but it was more like a feeling than a sound…
Granny keeps staring at the old statue, which stares back at her. Shasta hugs a whimpering Rowan.
Finally the totem closes its eyes.
‘Yes, Mother… it’s done…’
‘Did it work?’
Granny hesitates before answering. ‘We’ll see…’
‘Yes?… Derek? What a surprise!’
Taïga doesn’t even notice that Goopy has arrived. ‘No, I’m in Monte Vista, at my mom’s… Sure… Really?…’ She giggles as Derek tells her how he and Teddy let out all the frogs in the science lab.
‘What?… Are you sure about that?… No! I don’t believe you!’ She doesn’t see Goopy’s perfect dive…
I have to do it again! It was easy… Why can’t she put that stupid phone away! ‘Oh… Congrats’ then… yeah, I suppose it’ll be a lot of fun… Bye…‘Taïga stares at her cell, willing Derek to call again.
He’s going to summer camp – with Serena… AAAAAAAHHHHHHH… PLOUF!
Taïga feels like crying… Luckily for Goopy, his belly flop went unnoticed…
Part I – End of Chapter 31