Count Di Grisogno dell’Aquila’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 fly to Pisa in Italy, as it’s the nearest airport. They were supposed to take the train from there, but Granny has 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, just nodding and humming noncommittally when she sees him throwing a glance in the rearview mirror.
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, piccola. 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.
‘… constructed by the Romans in Anno Domini 45 and…’ The taxi driver drones on and on. Taïga yawns and is suddenly thrown against the door as they take a sharp right and starts on the zig zagging road up the steep hill.
‘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!’ Taïga insists.
‘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. We are here to see Mrs. Di Grisogno.’
‘Her Grace,’ the Butler points out but Granny just stares blankly at him.
‘Ahem. Are you expected?’ the Butler drawls in an unmistaken British accent.
Granny draws a deep breath, ready to harangue the poor Butler who’s only doing his job, but Taïga beats her to it.
She smiles up at him. ‘Is my mom in?’
The Butler smiles back. ‘She is in the Atrium.’ He nods to the open doorway on his right leading to an old stone pergola. Before he has the time to stop her, she scurries past him, eager to see her mom – and her little brother.
She stops in the shadows of 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 opposite stairs. He intercepts Granny, bending over her hand with a welcoming smile. ‘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?’ Elegantly he lifts her hand to within an inch of his lips.
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!’
Taïga hugs her mother, hard. She had forgotten how good it felt. At first Shasta doesn’t know what to do with her hands, then she tentatively strokes her daughter’s wild dark locks.
‘What a surprise! You’re not alone, are you?’
‘No, I’m here with Granny! We decided to surprise you!’ Taïga answers at the same time as Shasta catches sight of her mother talking to Leonardo.
‘For a surprise it’s a success… Mother, you could have warned us you were coming! I don’t know where to lodge you both…’
‘We will always have room for your family Shasta. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a conference call I have to attend.’ Leonardo bows again to Granny and addresses their au pair. ‘Ellen, would you please ask James to prepare a room for my mother in law and Taïga?’
Ellen starts away, but is stopped by Granny. ‘Wait a minute, this must be my grandson? Can I hold him?
Obediently Ellen lets Granny take the little boy, expecting a tantrum, but to her surprise, he doesn’t protest when the old lady takes him in her arms.
‘He’s got your eyes, Shasta – our eyes!’
‘Leonardo’s eyes are also grey, Mother,’ Shasta answers primly.
‘I know, I know…’ Granny turns her attention back to the beautiful child in her arms. Taïga watches them jealously. Her eyes aren’t grey like her mom’s… Or Granny’s.
‘And how long will you stay?’
‘Oh, just a couple of days…’ Granny smiles at Rowan and tickles him. ‘One, two, three… Tickle your knee…’
Shasta adds, ‘Four, five, six… Pick-up sticks.’
‘Seven, eight, nine… You’re all mine!’ They say in unison, both of them tickling Rowan.
Granny holds the delighted boy up high.
‘Don’t be such a sissy! Look, he loves it!’ And Rowan certainly does. He screams of laughter as Granny hoists him in the air again and again…
Taïga stands there, watching the giggling little boy being the center of attention. Both Shasta and her grandmother only have eyes for Rowan. Maybe Granny will forget her now. Maybe she’ll want to bring Rowan back home. Rowan with the same eyes as Granny.
‘Why are you looking so glum?’
Taïga jumps. ‘Oh, it’s nothing.’
Ellen smiles at her. ‘Come on, I’ll show you your room.’ She gestures upstairs. ‘You’ll be sharing Rowan’s, but it’s big and it has a sea view!’
‘Cool! Could we go swimming tomorrow?’ She follows Ellen who’s already walking away.
‘Sure! At least, I guess-’
Shasta takes Rowan from Granny. She calls out after the departing girls. ‘Taïga! Ellen! Could you play with Rowan for a while?’
Rowan reaches for Taïga’s hand and smiles up at her. He points at Ellen who’s already starting up the stairs and she can’t help but smile back.
‘Yeah, let’s catch up with Ellen! I have something for you, it’s in my suitcase…’
As soon as Taïga is out of earshot, Shasta turns towards her mother. ‘I can’t believe you have travelled dressed like that, Mother.’
Granny looks down at her grey sweeping skirt. ‘I admit it wasn’t really practical on the plane, but-’
‘Mother! It’s not a question about being practical – or not.’
‘So what’s the problem?’ Granny says, raising her chin defiantly.
Shasta rolls her eyes. ‘You look like an advertisement for Halloween costumes. It draws attention. Unwelcome attention.’
‘I didn’t wear my hat,’ Granny answers grumpily and not a little miffed.
‘Thank the goddess for that,’ Shasta says. ‘As forTaïga…’
‘What about her?’ Granny is defensive. Nobody criticizes her granddaughter.
‘Well. She’s dressed like… like… I don’t know. I have to go through her suitcase, she must have something appropriate with her. It’s +30°C in the shadows and with those tights and cowboy boots she’ll end up with a bad case of athlete’s foot!’ Shasta splutters.
‘She’s dressed just like her friends at school. All little girls in Vulturu wear them.’
‘Thing is, you’re not in some godforsaken village but in Italy now – Florence is the capital of fashion-’
‘Humpf… I thought Paris was.’
Shasta continues, without accrediting Granny’s comment, ‘-and Leonardo is a very important – and famous – citizen who has to surround himself with a certain class. Both in manners and looks…’
They have dinner on the terrace with a view over the Mediterranean Sea. The happy banter is only punctuated by the sound of crickets. After nibbling on antipasto, James brings plate after plate of delicious Italian specialties.
‘I think I could get used to this!’ Granny smiles, dabbing her mouth with the napkin.
‘You should visit more often, Tara,’ Leonardo says as he starts to cut the pie in front of him. ‘Now who cares for some Dolce?’
His smile vanishes as Rowan reaches for the cherry decoration and knocks over his father’s glass of the family Chianti.
‘Rowan!’ Ellen immediately secures the plates and dries Rowans hands.
Taïga watches Shasta attentively. When she was little and knocked something over, her mother would be furious and send her away without finishing the meal. Calling her clumsy and making her feel bad. But now she doesn’t say anything, just tut-tuts.
‘James? Could you take care of this mess?’ Shasta asks the hovering Butler.
‘Yes, Your Grace. But Shouldn’t Ellen… ahem… put Rowan to bed now?’
‘No, it’s all right. It’s a special occasion, he’ll stay up the time we finish dessert…’
Muttering, James returns to the kitchen, reappearing with a sponge and a towel with which he swiftly clears the mess.
The pie is covered in different fruits on a thick layer of something yellow tasting of vanilla. Taïga has not tasted anything as good since Mrs. Brown passed away. She exchanges a glance with Granny, sharing the moment.
After the meal, Granny and Leonardo settle in the living room to watch an old black and white Marcello Mastroianni movie on the TV.
Ellen picks up Rowan and holds him out to his mother to kiss him goodnight. She holds him out to Taïga who timidly kisses his chubby cheek, all the while trying to avoid her hair being pulled.
‘Ouch! Goodnight, Rowan.’ She disentangles his hands and Ellen takes him off to bed.
‘Do you like it here, Taïga?’ Shasta asks after a couple of minutes of tense silence.
Taïga jumps on the occasion, ‘Oh, 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… Your grandmother has talked to me about an important matter-’ She hesitates, fiddling with her wineglass.
Taïga holds her breath. Will her mother finally ask her to stay?
‘Ahem… Granny and Leonardo – I – We – would like you to stay here-’
Taïga’s face splits into a huge smile.
‘-until school starts in September.’
The smile becomes somewhat strained. ‘Wow, the whole summer? Well, I’d love to, but…’ Her sentence trails. ‘I thought…’
‘What about after the summer?’
‘You’ll go back home to your Grandmother, of course.’ Shasta looks surprised and Taïga quickly looks down, blinking away the tears that threaten to overflow. Shasta continues, ‘Well, we think it’s a wonderful idea.’ She drains her glass and pushes back her chair. ‘So it’s settled then?’
‘Of course,’ Taïga whispers. She watches her mother disappear into the living room, feeling a strange emptiness in her stomach. She mustn’t start crying, nobody likes a whiner…
Rowan is already soundly asleep and she stops by his bed, contemplating him for a little while. She wants to hate him, but when she looks down at the little figure she realizes that she can’t. It’s not his fault if their mother loves him more than her. She tries to swallow but there’s a big lump in her throat that won’t go away. Rowan whimpers in his sleep and fumbles for something with his little hand so she picks up his ragdoll from the floor and puts it within his reach. She’s gratified by a little sleepy smile.
She falls asleep before her head hits the pillow, sadness or not. Her last thought being that maybe her mother will change her mind during the summer if she behaves right.
The warm Italian night envelopes the Di Grisogno mansion like a dark, peaceful blanket.
Peaceful? Granny has refused to admit that she doesn’t know how to turn on the AC and is slumbering on the terrace, making the most out of the relative coolness of the quiet evening. The chirping of crickets and the distant murmur of the sea has a hypnotizing effect, lulling the grumpy old woman to sleep.
Suddenly everything goes eerie quiet. She opens her eyes and sees a black cloud slowly approaching. Oh no! Granny is suddenly wide awake. She blinks, focusing on the dark shimmer.
Shasta comes running. ‘What is it, Mother?’
‘Look over there.’ Granny points with a trembling finger towards the dark cloud. She continues in an awed whisper, ‘The Raukar.’
‘The Raukar?’ Shasta looks from the cloud to her mother. ‘Does that mean? 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… We might only have a day or two. No, there’s only one thing we can do, to save your son. Talk to Leonardo about it.’
Shasta hurries back to the master suit where Leonardo impatiently is waiting for her. ‘What did she want?’
Shasta quickly explains, but her warlock husband doesn’t agree with her. ‘I won’t allow you to do this. It’s too dangerous. Rowan is too little.’
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! I will do it now!’ She turns on her heels, but Leonardo grabs her arms, shaking her slightly. ‘Let go of me!’
‘You have to calm down!’
Shasta stops squirming and takes a deep breath. Reluctantly Leonardo lets go of her.
She rubs her arms, hoping there will be no bruises. She tries again. ‘You can’t say you didn’t see it!’
Leonardo snickers. ‘I saw a cloud. A dark, summer storm cloud.’
‘But Mother says it’s the Raukar, and that it’s here for Rowan. We need to initiate him and we will. Tomorrow night the moon is full and it’s also midsummer. It has to be done…’
Shasta and Leonardo continues arguing back and forth for hours.
The next morning breakfast is served on the terrace. Everyone is up earlier than usual, to enjoy the sun rising over the sea. The light banter from last night is gone, instead an uneasy silence has taken over, only broken by the clinking of cutlery. Taïga is sensitive to the atmosphere. Having spent such a long time with her grandmother, she knows when to be quiet. Discreetly she watches the three adults, wondering what could possibly have happened. They don’t seem to have got much sleep, if you judge by the dark circles under their eyes.
The tension between Shasta and her husbands is tangible. With a sigh Taïga concentrates on reading what’s written on the box of cereals. Picking at the delicious fresh strawberries, she hopes Ellen and Rowan soon show up. What could have happened last night? She hopes it’s not her fault…
But instead of Ellen, it is James who comes carrying Rowan.
‘What!?!’ Shasta watches their Butler approaching with their son in his arms. ‘Where’s Ellen?’
James installs Rowan in the high chair. ‘I think she’s… in her room, Your Grace.’
Shasta throws her napkin on the table and pushes back her chair in an irritated gesture. Without a word she leaves the table.
Shasta finds Ellen in Rowan’s room, folding and putting away his clothes in the drawers. The young girl jumps at the sound of her employer’s hard voice.
‘I think I had made it very clear that you were not to leave Rowan! You must stay with him at all times!’
‘Yes, Signora… I just needed to put away his dry clothes. And James insisted, he took him to have breakfast so he wasn’t alone! I promise!’
Shasta tries to calm down, but it is not easy with this Raukar business. She might have overreacted, though. A little. ‘Hurry downstairs now. Rowan is waiting for his breakfast.’
Shasta stares meaningfully at Ellen who stammers, ‘Contessa…’
‘A simple “Your Grace” will do.’ Shasta turns on her heels, beckoning for Ellen to follow her.
Ellen quickly whips up Rowan’s favorite cereals and some fresh milk.
‘Here you are little one! Special superhero breakfast!’
Rowan claps his hands and SPLASH! There are cereals everywhere – even on his father. Taïga stifles a laughter, not wanting to encourage her little brother, but it’s hard. Leonardo swears and leaves the table, muttering about a table full of non-competent women. The Butler quickly vanishes, clutching his stomach with glee. With a sigh Ellen starts cleaning up.
Granny and Shasta continue their discussion after dispatching Ellen to the swimming pool with the two children. Shasta was hesitating to let her son out of eyesight, but Granny convinced her that the Raukar only hunted by night, being blinded during daytime. Most important, she can’t have the children around when they start preparing for the ceremony.
‘About the Raukar… Mother, Leonardo thinks you must be wrong. We’ve had a lot of thunderstorms lately, and the cloud was probably just one of those.’
‘It moved, Shasta. You saw it. In the opposite direction of the other clouds.’
Shasta looks away. ‘Mother… You’re tired after the long journey-’
‘-and err… Maybe you need glasses?’
Granny can’t believe her daughter said that. ‘What? Glasses? You can’t be serious? The day I will need glasses pigs will fly! My eyes are perfect. It’s not because Dr. Goodman persuaded me to buy a pair of glasses that I forcibly need them. Hmpff…’
Shasta doesn’t know what to answer. Suspiciously Granny looks over her shoulder, but there’s no one in sight. ‘Now, listen carefully…’
‘I couldn’t go to sleep last night so I decided to follow the Raukar. It had disappeared out of sight just across the hill-’ she holds her hand up to stop her daughter from interrupting. ‘-I used Ellen’s bike-’
Shasta lets out a sigh of relief. She wouldn’t have been surprised if her mother had been flying around on her broom like some sort of medieval-
‘Which I haven’t brought anyway.’ Shasta meets her mother’s eyes.
‘The broom. I left it in Vulturu.’
Shasta swallows. It had always been uncanny the way her mother seemed to know what was going on in her head.
‘It was a quick ride. It’s all downhill from here,’ Granny continues. Shasta wonders how she got back, though, she has some difficulty imagining her mother slaving uphill.
‘… it had stopped and was hovering over a small village, not far from Monte Aquila. The village was sleeping, but when I passed by a restaurant I thought I heard some noise. ’
‘I turned around to the back and there was a woman lying on the ground with another woman giving her CPR so I jumped off the bike to help them but when I got closer I saw she wasn’t trying to help – it wasn’t even a woman… Not anymore…’ Granny stops to catch her breath. ‘She was eating. Growling and tearing out the intestines of her poor victim!’
‘She stared at me with those dead zombie eyes and gaping mouth so I drew my wand to eliminate her-’
Shasta’s jaw goes slack in disbelief.
‘OK. OK. I didn’t eliminate her. I didn’t even draw my wand. Are you happy now? No exposure whatsoever.’
‘Anyway, there were more of her kind coming, crawling out from under cardboard boxes and behind trashcans like vermin!’
‘There was nothing I could do but flee! I barely escaped the hoard of zombies, mind you…’
When Granny has finished her story there’s only silence.
‘Zombies?’ Shasta breathes.
Granny nods vigorously.
‘Mother. I hate to break this to you, but they are turning an Italian low budget version of “The Walking Dead” and-’ Seeing her mother’s expression of utter dismay, Shasta feels sorry for her. ‘But they are very good, anybody could have been mistaken…’
Granny doesn’t listen. She remembers hearing someone screaming about old, crazy ladies in Italian, but she had been too terrified to look behind her…
She blushes. How stupid of her. A movie! Of course. Since when did the Raukar generate zombies???
‘Ahem. So what about Leonardo? Does he agree?’ Granny changes the embarrassing subject.
Suddenly Shasta throws herself into her mother’s arms with a dramatic sob.
‘Oh, Mother… He’s against it, but you are right, we must do it… Can’t you try to reason with Leonardo? He’s so stubborn, but I think he would listen to someone his own-’ Shasta stops. She was just about to make a mistake that could not be made undone – reminding her mother of her age. ‘-with his own experience,’ she finishes, satisfied.
‘Did I hear someone mention my name, cara?’ Leonardo appears after having showered and changed.
The two Grey witches are soon talking sense into him, doing their best to convince him…
While mother and daughter are planning for the evening’s events after convincing Leonardo to join their cause, the children and Ellen are settling at the swimming pool. They had had to wait until the opening at 10 o’clock before being able to get in. Ellen picks a nice spot and rolls out their towels. It’s still early and there’s no one in sight except an elder couple who settle on the loungers and soon fall asleep. Taïga intercepts her brother who’s happily exploring the pool area.
‘Maybe it’s a little too close to the water for Rowan?’ she asks Ellen, but the young girl has done her duty pumping up an inflatable ball and a bath ring with the little hand pump they have brought and is now sunbathing, her earplugs in place and the beat of loud music escaping from them.
She’s a little embarrassed about Ellen being topless, even if she’s lying on her stomach, and her brother running around all naked can’t be appropriate at a public place like this. What if he starts peeing? Or worse…
She shrugs. ‘Come here, Rowan. Let’s play!’ She takes his hand and leads him to the big tote bag with all his stuff.
‘Let’s get you into these first…’ She fumbles in the bag for the ‘Little swimmer’ disposable diapers. He doesn’t want to wear them, but when she gives him the inflatable arm rings he forgets about being difficult and lets her guide his feet into the waterproof contraption. Some sunscreen and sunglasses and he seems ready for the day.
She grabs the ball and precedes him onto the lawn. With a joyful scream he runs after her and stops, looking down at his feet. Then he starts to cry.
‘Hey, don’t you like the grass?’ She takes both his hands and tells him to step onto her feet. Giggling they walk around.
Taïga has a lot of fun playing with Rowan, but isn’t Ellen supposed to look after him? They are here to swim, aren’t they? She longs to get into the water, especially as there are two other kids already playing in the tempting pool.
Taïga wakes Ellen up.
‘Hey, I’m going for a swim!’
‘Wait a minute Taïga. What about Rowan?’ Ellen asks sleepily, fumbling with the top of her bikini.
‘What about him?’ Taïga kneels to let Rowan get off her back.
‘He seems so happy to play with you.’
‘We’ll play again later!’ she hollers over her shoulder, already on her way.
She heads for the slide where some boisterous kids are queuing, taking place last in line. She feels self-conscious as the queue advances, smiling timidly at the girls. She soon joins in their merriment, the voluptuous blonde right before her has them in stitches when she starts fussing about descending the slide.
When it is her turn, she quickly escalates the ladder.
She hesitates at the top, the slide appears bigger from up here. Suddenly the fussing woman doesn’t seem so ridiculous.
The kids encourages her to hurry up and she plasters a brave smile onto her face before crossing her arms on her chest and… Off she goes!
As soon as she spluttering gets back to the surface, she heads back, queuing with the others. This must be the most fun she has ever had. She soon loses count on how many times she has slid down into the lukewarm water.
One of the girls grabs her arm and points across the pool at a boy getting onto the diving board.
‘Guardalo! Look at him!’ The brown-haired lets go of her and runs after the other kids, beckoning for Taïga to follow.
‘Err… Whose turn is it?’ The lifesaver charged with the surveillance of the slide is left on his own, his question hanging in the air. ‘Don’t run!’
The boy walks confidently onto the board, decided to dive, but at the last moment he seems to slip and screaming he lands spot onto his belly to the general merriment of his comrades.
‘Ouch!’ Taïga winces. ‘That must have hurt.’
She watches him hoist himself out of the pool, his belly an angry red. ‘Are you OK?’
He doesn’t answer, so she tries again, ‘Parli inglese? Do you speak English?’
He looks up at her, getting to his feet. ‘Si! That-’ he gestures vaguely towards the diving board, ‘-was on purpose. It’s called a frog dive!’ he says with a thick accent.
‘Really?’ Taïga throws a glance at his red stomach.
‘Really! É vero!’
The boy looks at her. ‘Mi chiamo Guglielmo. Can you dive?’
‘Sure.’ Taïga hesitates. She can dive, but she has never dived from a real diving board before. ‘I mean, a little…’
The boy looks at her with a huge smile plastered on his freckled face, waiting for her to do something. Probably dive. Taïga swallows. ‘OK.’
She walks out onto the diving board, trying to remember Derek’s instructions when he taught her how to dive from the boulders in Bigwood Falls. ‘Just keep your head tucked in between your arms and imagine the arc your body will draw,’ she mumbles to herself.
‘Watch out! Il trampolino è scivoloso! Very slippery!’
‘Yeah. Right. Goopy, huh?’
Waving to the boy she tries to buy some time. ‘… and then there was something with the feet, too…’ She bends her knees and the diving board sways.
Taking her off balance it sends her up into the air.
There’s no way she can dive, so on reflex she curls into a ball, careening into the water, making a huge splash.
‘Wow… that was bellissima!’ Guglielmo claps his hands when she spluttering emerges and hangs onto the edge of the pool with both her hands. ‘But you have to learn how to frog dive… I can show you if you like?’
‘Err, thanks, but no thanks…’ Guglielmo looks disappointed so Taïga hurriedly adds, ‘It seems too difficult! Let’s see who can splash the most!’
Guglielmo reaches for her hand and helps her out of the water. ‘Good idea! Hey, Cipriana! Come and play with me and… Err… Come ti chiami? What’s your name again?’
They spend the rest of the day together, annoying the adults perfecting their splashing skills as they fool around in the swimming pool. They only take a break to have lunch with their respective families; Cipriana at the pool restaurant, Guglielmo and Taïga having picnics.
‘Cipriana! A che ora apre la piscina?’
‘Io non lo so…’
Taïga loves listening to them talk. Italian sounds so exotic to her ears and she decides she wants to learn how to speak such a beautiful language, too. She can’t pronounce the boy’s name, though, so Cipriana proposes to call him Goopy as he’s terribly clumsy, always blaming the slippery ground. He doesn’t seem to mind, and Taïga thinks the nick name suits him. She would have called him Goofy, because he’s goofing around just as much as he slips.
When it’s time to leave, Cipriana whispers.
‘He lied, you know. Goopy can’t dive and I think he wanted to impress you!’
Taïga giggles. ‘Boys are sooo stupid!’
Cipriana nods eagerly in agreement.
Goopy is approaching the girls. ‘If you come here early, the water is on fire, and I dare you to dive into the flames!’
Taïga stares at him. On fire? That can’t be possible… But she nods nevertheless. ‘OK! But I didn’t notice this morning.’
‘Early. That means dawn.’
‘But the pool doesn’t open until 10.’
‘Well… Shall we tell her?’
Cipriana nods in agreement, ‘There’s a whole in the wall…’ They quickly explains where and how to get into the pool before it opens.
‘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 the same evening.
Granny and Leonardo have been at the old Etruscan dig site for about an hour, performing the cleansing ritual.
Shasta hates being treated like an accessory. She wanted to be part of the ritual, but she has never learnt how to use her powers and it could be dangerous. At least that’s what her mother and dear husband said, so now she’s reduced to walking to and fro in her stupid witch outfit, carrying her impatient son in her arms. She can’t let go of him, but holding on to the wriggling boy is more than tiresome. She mustn’t stray too far from the teleportation spot or it won’t work, but it’s impossible to stay still, waiting. Rowan makes sure of that. She tries to distract him by looking out of the window.
‘Yes, it’s the gelado truck. We’ll buy some next time. Nonono, I can’t let go of you. Let’s see if we can see Taïga. Or Ellen…’
Suddenly Rowan wriggles more than usual, reaching for the window.
She watches her daughter hurry across the walled in Atrium, heading for the gate. She fumbles for her cell, but of course she doesn’t have it on her. She picks it up from the bedside table, calling Ellen who is supposed to keep an eye on Taïga tonight.
‘She’s not far, Your Grace. She’s just outside the gates, chatting with one of the girls she met at the pool.’
‘Don’t discuss. Just get the wretched girl inside again.’ Rocking Rowan on her hip, she watches Ellen head for the gates. Satisfied to see her bring her daughter back she resumes her pacing. ‘Tonight it’s dangerous to hang around outside,’ she adds to herself, checking the time on the alarm clock for the umpteenth time.
When Leonardo and Granny have drawn the Raukar close enough, they call for Shasta and Rowan.
Mother and son can come!’
To Shasta’s surprise, the hokus pokus actually work. Suddenly there’s a tingling in her body and a nauseating feeling as if someone tries to push her head to the ground, not caring about her shoulders being in the way, nor the rest of her body. She hangs on to her son for all her might…
Shasta and Rowan appear exactly at the designated spot as the last sun rays taints the sky a rosy glow.
The ceremony can begin. Granny and Leonardo start walking backwards in a circle around the pentagram they have drawn in the dirt. Shasta has taken place in the middle holding Rowan high. Turning in the four directions she hoists her son towards the dark cloud that is now hovering right over them. The three witches chant, a low, hypnotizing murmur. Rowan is unusually silent, he seems to feel the importance of the moment.
Or he’s just recovering from being teleported.
Shasta, Leonardo and Granny has been singing for hours, the Raukar getting lower and lower, enveloping Shasta and the boy without touching them.
‘Now. Take Rowan away.’
Shasta doesn’t hesitate. She steps out from the protective bounds of the pentagram, watching the Raukar lie as a purple blanket, small and shivering in the center of the intricate lines on the ground. Leonardo and Granny intensify their chant, their wands sparkling, driving the cloud into the earth.
Shasta lets out a sigh of relief, thinking it is over, when a low grumbling can be heard from deep below her feet. The rumbling grows, gets more intense. Shasta clutches her son to her chest and turns away from the terrifying vision of the Raukar rising.
Suddenly, lightning emerges from the thick base of its head, connecting Granny and Leonardo with it. They start quivering in rhythm with the gigantic totem.
‘Don’t look, darling! Don’t be afraid… Hush…’ Shasta tries to calm the now hysterically screaming boy.
The two elder witches stay connected to the Raukar, slowly emptying it of its power.
At last the grumbling ceases. Granny and Leonardo keep staring at the old statue, which silently stares back at them. Shasta hugs a whimpering Rowan, rocking him in her arms. What if it doesn’t work? Will the Raukar annihilate the four of them? She knows it has happened before.
‘Is it over?’
‘Not quite yet. We have to wait it out…’
Finally the totem closes its eyes.
‘It’s done,’ Granny whispers.
‘Yes, Mother, it’s done… But did it work?
Granny hesitates before answering. ‘We’ll have to wait and see.’
Shasta looks at her husband for help, but he seems extenuated. ‘Tara is right, we have to wait and see. Where’s Rowan?’
She had not even noticed that she had let go of her son. He’s quietly sitting on the ground, chewing on a flower.
‘How long will it take?’ she whines, picking up her son again.
‘It will disappear when the sun’s rays reaches it. Better be far away when it happens.’
‘Si. I just hope the old ruins will remain standing…’ Leonardo adds, throwing a last glance over his shoulder.
Taïga is on Ellen’s bike before dawn, direction the swimming pool. As the sun rises, she pedals faster and faster downhill, thanking her lucky star for Monte Aquila being such a small sleepy town.
Just as Goopy promised yesterday, the rising sun is painting the water of the swimming pool a fiery red.
‘Wow! This swimming pool looks magical! It is so beautiful… Goopy was right, the water seems really to be on fire.’
She quickly strips out of her clothes, looking around the deserted pool for her friends, but there’s not a living soul in sight. Seizing the opportunity of being alone, she walks out onto the diving board, adjusting her swimming goggles.
What was that? Taïga thought she heard something, but it was more a feeling than a sound… She watches the water ripple. Are there earthquakes in Italy? It was stupid of her to sneak out without telling anyone. What if there will be a major Tsunami or something? Or a mud slide? She swallows, but the water in the pool is lying like a mirror before her, reflecting the rising sun.
She will dive into the fire, just as Goopy dared her…
Goopy arrives when she is still in the water and he waves at Taïga, holding her cell in his hand.
‘Telefono per voi, hurry!’
She quickly gets out of the pool. She hopes it’s not her mother or Granny who have discovered her absence, as she had counted on being back for breakfast.
‘I will dive, look at me,’ Goopy says, handing her the cell.
‘Yes?’ she answers into the phone, nodding to Goopy to go ahead. But the voice on the other end of the line quickly makes her forget about the eager Italian boy.
‘Derek?’ She turns and walks away a few yards, her heart beating fast.
‘No, I’m in Italy, at my mom’s… Sure… Really? …’ Derek tells her how he and Teddy had let out all the frogs in the science lab the last week before graduating, making her giggle and totally miss Goopy’s perfect dive.
‘What? … Are you sure about that? … No! I don’t believe you!’
‘Oh… Congrats’ then… Yeah, I suppose it’ll be lots of fun…’
‘I have to do it again! It was easy… Why can’t you put that stupid phone away!’ Goopy says over his shoulder as he walks out onto the diving board again, but she doesn’t answer.
Taïga stares at her cell, wanting this call to never have happened. Why does he only call with bad news? OK, he’s getting better at football, playing whatever position, and that’s good for him. It makes her proud, too. But she’s so jealous of him, continuing to do things with their friends. She misses them all so much, Teddy, Zoe and Felicity and… Derek.
A howl precedes a monstrous splash and Taïga just has the time to see Goopy hit the surface, belly first in a “perfect” frog dive.
‘Ouch… That must have hurt.’ She quickly turns her back on him. He doesn’t need to have his pride hurt as much as his belly. She feels like crying. Derek is going to summer camp, the whole school is, but it means he will spend a couple of weeks with Serena…
Part I – End of Chapter 35