Chapter 3: WILLOWS
There were no bells at St Spiritus to mark the start or end of lessons, only monitors who ushered and rushed pupils to the various places they were supposed to be, timing everything according to the great clock in the main entrance hall and the even greater clock in the West Tower.
When the common room emptied Penny and Peter found themselves suddenly separated in the general chaos as everyone flooded into the corridors, only to be confronted by a row of fourth years in blazers and bright red ties.
"Second year Willows this way please, all second year Willows," a tall girl with curly chestnut hair gestured. She looked like a signal beacon amid a sea of heads.
What was she saying about willows? Penny remembered some mention of trees in the literature she had read before lights out the previous evening. Of course! There had been a mimeographed list of names headed by a tree symbol, and her name was in the row beneath a catkin. She was a 'Willow.' That was the name of her form.
As she absorbed this information, Penny noticed Wesley McShane walking next to her. He wore several metal badges clustered around the school crest on his blazer. Among them was a silver catkin.
"Where did you get that?" she asked him, realising he was making a wonderfully easy path for her through the milling crowd towards the schoolgirl beacon ahead. He too apparently was a Willow.
The Scot read her curious gaze.
"Och, we're all presented with these at the end of our previous year and it's up to us to do with the shiny bauble as we will. It's nae matter to me either way. There's no shame in it for a McShane and I canna be glum. My father was a Willow and his father before him so it's become a tradition in our family. We have our own saying about it, do your best and shove the rest."
"That's um, very noble," Penny replied, hiding a smile and not understanding all the young Scot had said. "When will I get one of those?"
"The master'll give you one of these this morning for certain," he said. "When he introduces you to the rest of the form."
Penny thought about this a moment and realised that as she and her brother had not been first years at St Spiritus they probably missed some end of year ceremony when such badges were handed out.
"Thank you," she then said, the crowd thinning briefly as they followed their fourth year guide with other Willows down a narrow passageway, "for what you did earlier."
The big lad shook his head in puzzlement.
"I beg your forgiveness Miss Thurwell, but I'm not seeing what it is you're thanking me for?"
"You said you would crack the bones of the person who had hit my brother."
"Aye, I did that. But there was nae culprit. He bit his ainself you said."
Penny laughed at this embarrassing image and Wesley smiled.
"It was the sentiment I was thanking you for, the offer of help. We're new here and I think now and again we might need some extra help in this big strange place."
She did not exaggerate either. About the bigness or the strangeness.
It was obvious to the most casual observer that St Spiritus was built on a grand scale, yet originally in the seventeenth century only housed ten boys and three masters at the start. Even in its current flourishing state Penny felt sure the old buildings could accommodate twenty times as many pupils than at present. Thus only parts of the school appeared to be actually opened for use. As the Willows followed their guide they occasionally passed darkened corridors and sealed entrances and at one point a stairway that led down into black nothingness beneath the school.
"Miss Thurwell," Wes said proudly, clapping his hand familiarly on her shoulder as they walked, "you and your own brother can relie on a McShane in any pinch you might find yourselves in at any time."
"Please, call me Penny," came the warm reply as they suddenly found themselves entering what appeared by its sheer size to be a main stairwell with its stained glass dome high up above their heads. It was more crowded here, a meeting place for the various years as pupils sought the right floor for their form rooms. All around could be seen grey blazers shuffling up or down a multitude of stairs, coming and going from adjacent passages, heads popping now and again over the balustrades to look down into the empty space or up at the glittering dome. The place was full of voices, squeals of laughter or excitement, and Penny felt exhilarated by the animated scene.
Amid this happy chaos was a most odd sight. Half way between the fourth and fifth floor access points a large colourful inflated sphere sat unattended on the stairs. It must have been over six feet in diameter and looked like a cross between a giant beach ball and a crazy semi-transparent marble full of oily swirls. Now and again a pupil would squeeze past and it would quiver in the beams of light from above like a soap bubble.
Penny smiled at the strange sight. Just another peculiarity of St Spiritus she concluded.
"I hope we get a chance to explore some of these old buildings," she said to Wesley, who remained shoulder to shoulder with her in the winding journey as they plunged into a dim carpeted passage beyond the brightly lit stairwell.
"You're an adventuress then, lass?"
"Why do you call me that?"
"Well, do you not think these old walls drip and echo with dastardly deeds and nameless evil besides? You'd need a strong stomach to wander such cold, ghost-ridden corridors on your own."
"Oh, I wouldn't be on my own, and anyway I actually don't mind ghosts."
"Och, if you were to see one, it'll go a long way to turning your hair as white as milk," Wesley observed excitedly as they approached what appeared to be the entrance to the Willow room.
Penny paused as others pushed past her into the form room and she gave the young Scot a questioning look. He stopped too and glanced at her uncertainly. Noticing her blonde locks in the lights above as if for the first time he laughed a throaty kind of laugh and clapped her heavily on the shoulder again. Penny laughed too and together they entered the curiously furnished space that was to be their form room for the next two years at St Spiritus.
"Did you see that?" Sandy burst out, walking a yard or two behind with Peter Thurwell. "He even touched her, your own sister. The great oaf clapped his big ungainly hand right on her."
"It didn't seem to hurt," Peter observed, disinterested, and as more form members straggled in at the tail end of the crowd he went casually over to a window seat where his twin sister had chosen to settle.
Penny looked at him briefly, checking not just on his purple lower lip, but on his mood after what had happened in the Banner Hall. He seemed preoccupied with his new surroundings so she let him be.
The spacious form room had a kind of informal look to it. In one area desks were ranged in rows facing a dusty blackboard as if for lessons, but there were also wall seats and even squashy armchairs dotted about the carpeted alcoves. Tall windows in one wall overlooked part of an inner playground as well as the roof tiles of an outhouse, and beyond the distant misty blueness of the ever-present moors. A crow hopped playfully along the nearest roof ridge as everyone settled into their seats to await events.
A bunch of late first years scampered in, all excitement, but the grandeur of the place seemed to subdue their mood and they quietly wandered to wherever an empty seat could be found.
One newcomer paused before a large ornate free-standing mirror and stood curiously gazing at himself in it. A third year went up to him.
"I wouldn't stare into that too much if I were you," he suggested. The boy looked at him.
"That's the Jinxer mirror," the elder boy explained. "Bad things happen to those who see strange shadows in it."
"Really? How's that?" the first year asked with growing interest.
"Glass you see," came the reply. "Bits of ghostly essences get caught up in the reflections at times. Some spirits really don't like being trapped in glass and do their utmost to curse anyone who comes near."
The youngster took a step back. He peered again at his reflection and blinked uncertainly.
"Did you see something?" a nervous girl asked.
"Only a pimple." Which he promptly squeezed.
"You know, some diamonds and semi-precious stones are known for their curses," the older boy continued, enjoying the small audience of curious first years he had now gathered around him. "It's because of the sprites trapped within them you see, and their owners pay the consequences for their vanity. Horrible deaths and incurable diseases."
Near the mirror was an invitingly comfortable and unoccupied chair and the perplexed boy went to sit in it when the talkative third year warned him again.
"Don't sit there," he said suddenly and the boy froze in a ridiculous crouching position.
"What now?" he mournfully replied.
"That's the Uneasy Chair."
Everyone in earshot laughed at this, the twins among them, and the new boy, thinking he was being made fun of, grimaced at the third year and plonked himself into the soft cushions without further concern.
"What's that giant ball thing in the stairwell?" Penny asked the informative third year as the laughter died down. He turned toward her.
"Ah, new faces among the second years?" he said, glancing at Penny's orange tie. "Let me introduce myself. Thaddeus Lippscott at your service. My father is on the Board so I'm a cert as form captain of course. Hope you won't find your time here at St Spiritus too scary," and he flicked his fingers in front of her face as he said the last word, making her flinch, "especially as you've not endured the first year here like these poor little mites are about to do." He indicated the new pupils who huddled in uncertain knots around the form room, noticeably at some distance from the Jinxer mirror.
"Well, um..." Penny murmured, suppressing a smile at this strange speech and glancing at Peter briefly, whose eyes clearly said, 'nutter.'
"The giant ball?" Lippscott continued, shrugging off Penny's stumbling response like a good politician. "I would have assumed you'd picked up something of the Tryall in the school literature. It's one of the great traditions of St Spiritus. Goes back ages of course."
"No time to read it all," Penny explained her ignorance.
"Well, that's the Orb of Judgment," the boy revealed. "It actually used to kill people, I think, way back when it was made of stone, witches and hags possessed by demons and stuff. Crushed the very life out of them. More civilised now of course, not like in those monkish times, so it's just a gentle reminder for everyone to be good, or face the Tryall."
Peter's ears pricked up on hearing mention of monks, for he equated such personages with hidden treasure such as Wesley and Sandy had mentioned, and was about to ask something himself, when a squawk interrupted him.
The boy who had settled so confidently in the Uneasy Chair suddenly leaped from amongst its cushions and scampered in a panic to the other side of the room, where a group of first years greeted him with laughter.
"That- it was-" he tried to explain his discomfort. "Horrible!" he wound up with a splutter and collapsed in another seat vacated by a sympathetic colleague.
This comic show drew more laughter and Lippscott could just be heard saying, "I did warn him," to anyone who might be listening. Peter wasn't laughing though. What he saw reminded him starkly of his own sudden panic in the Banner Hall. Was St Spiritus full of these spots where people were seized with terrifying thoughts?
Hidden treasure forgotten, Peter went up to Thaddeus Lippscott in determined mood to ask for an explanation when he was thwarted a second time by an inner door marked 'Private' opening and the form master making his long awaited appearance. Skypole smiled a benign, unshaven greeting and briskly rubbed his hands as he entered the crowded space.
"Welcome, children, welcome," he declared and then glanced at the antique clock over the blackboard. Like the battered old board below it the clock had obviously seen better days and had stopped working long ago. Seeming only now to recall this, Skypole consulted his watch instead.
"Glad to see you are all here. We'll have just a quick register of names before organising our little form into some semblance of order, and oh yes, there will of course be a special little ceremony on behalf of our late arrivals. Splendid."
This last announcement made Peter and Penny look at each other nervously but the ceremony turned out to be nothing more than tagging on at the end of all the first years as they filed past Skypole's desk to receive their Willow badges. Almost as an afterthought they were stood before the form and introduced to everyone gathered in the sprawling room as they showed off the shiny catkins pinned to their grey blazers.
Peter positively swelled with pride at the ripple of applause from the assembled form as he retook his seat. Sandy shook his hand and Wesley pounded him on the back by way of congratulations. He felt he had won a school prize or something. He was a Willow.
Further mundane matters of school rules, timetables and the handing out of survival kits followed. These latter consisted of torches, basic maps of the school and concentrated foodstuffs in a small holdall for each pupil, to be worn at all times between classes. Everyone soon found themselves loaded up with a thick bundle of coloured information sheets for the days ahead. Now term really felt like it was about to begin in earnest.
Peter thumbed through his bits of paper for a timetable so he could find out what lesson he had first but spotted instead a curious bundle of colourful school club flyers among the sheets. As he tried to prize them free without dropping the whole pile a further applause sounded in the form room and he looked up in time to see Lippscott march grandly up to Skypole to receive his form captain badge, as the boy had predicted.
"Welcome to it," Petter muttered, and then disaster struck. His bundle of papers decided to break free from his clumsy grasp and scatter across the floor like autumn leaves.
By this time everyone was on their feet ready to attend their first lessons and in rising panic Peter weaved among the moving crowd, ignoring protests and laughter as he seized upon the errant sheets. Finally he had all of them but one, which he managed to corner by the Jinxer mirror.
He reached down to pick it up and noticed it was a flyer for 'The Fright Club.' He smiled at this discovery and then felt an odd prickling sensation at the back of his neck which made him glance at the mirror.
A strange shadow seemed to hover behind his reflection.
Looking over his shoulder he realised Penny was standing near, waiting patiently for her butter-fingered brother. Peter glanced again at the mirror and snorted. He snatched up the flyer and left without a word.
~ ~ ~
No sooner had Peter and Penny set foot outside their form room and looked around at the dark and echoey corridors than a red-tied monitor appeared on cue.
"Your lesson?" the boy inquired, looking down from his fourth year spurt of growth at the identically perplexed twins.
"Uh," Penny responded and rotated her freshly printed timetable one way and then another. The boy seized the lemon-coloured card briskly, glanced at the silvery catkin on Penny's lapel and said, "Maths, Silver Group, Miss Tripos, floor two, room thirty nine." He glanced at Peter's slightly crumpled timetable. "The same? Any other Silver Maths here?" raising his voice through the corridor with impressive authority. No one responded. Sandy and Wes they could see were being led down a dark corridor and out of sight by another fourth year.
"Hey, Mona?" Penny squeaked in a slight panic, feeling abandoned by her new found Willow friends, "not coming with us to Maths?"
Mona Kidger, one of Penny's dorm mates, shook her head. "Got a Pewter," she replied enigmatically and she too disappeared.
"Survival kits all in order? Good, follow me," the monitor then said.
Once the matter was settled as to where they were headed, the Thurwell twins trailed interestedly behind their guide, looking around all the while at the impressive carved stonework of the echoey old buildings.
Although it had been distinctly stated their destination was on the second floor the journey unexpectedly took them down several flights of stairs before rising again to upper levels.
"Taking a short cut as we're a bit late," the fourth year said with a grunt, feeling the need to explain their meandering course, although he gave the impression he was actually trying to avoid certain places along the way.
Eventually they reached a side corridor where a number of other pupils waited in orderly fashion by a carved wooden door incised with the legend 'XXXIX' as if cross-stitched in gold.
"Hey, look," someone said, "we got Kitty Willows," and there was a murmur of laughter which died down when a brisk, middle-aged woman with immaculate hair, thick spectacles and dressed in tweed made a sudden appearance from another direction.
The monitor had departed by this time and the teacher, who introduced herself as Miss Tripos, did a quick head count of her waiting pupils before unlocking the heavy wooden door and ushering her charges in with a welcoming smile.
"Please take a seat, any old where will do for now," she said in a pleasant husky voice before placing a heavy leather handbag on her desk and retrieving some stacked sheets from a shelf behind her. "No, you won't need those today," she added, looking over her shoulder as some pupils began pulling text books out of holdalls and satchels in preparation for the lesson.
Turning to face the slightly confused class, Miss Tripos smiled again, her pink cheeks glowing as she surveyed the expectant faces before her. When her eye fell upon the blond heads of Peter and Penny her smile wavered a bit.
"As this is the first lesson of a new term," she began, "and a lot of you will be unfamiliar with many of the places associated with the second year, I've taken the trouble to draw up a detailed map for each of you. Now before any of you tell me you already have been issued with general maps to help find your way around," a hand had gone up, "my map is a little different. It's a scavenger map. Anyone know what that is?" There was silence. Miss Tripos smirked, her round cheeks growing pinker.
"Well, you might have gathered from your timetables that this is a Mathematics class, not a map reading class. So what I propose to do today to ease you into the fascinating world of numbers and their properties, is send you on a scavenger hunt, a hunt for numbers around the school." She paused again to gaze at her class, as if gauging what effect her words were having.
"You will be aware of course that every door in St Spiritus worthy of the name has a number carved on it. What I want you to do is mark on the map I will give you the longest unbroken sequence of door numbers you can find. You will work in pairs and the team with the longest set of numbers will earn two merit stars on their form cards. Is that clear?"
"Yes Miss," came an excited murmur, once it was realised among the assembled pupils that they were all going to be released from a dingy classroom to roam freely around the school buildings for an hour.
"Very well, please take a map, some pens for those of you who do not have any, and pair yourselves off. Check you have everything you may need and drink plenty of water. You may begin immediately and I want you all safely back here in an hour."
There was a scramble for maps and a rising buzz of voices as friends chose each other for the curious task. Peter grabbed a map eagerly, took one look at it and glanced conspiratorially at his sister.
"This is great," he said and the two of them re-entered the corridor without a backward glance. Naturally they were to be a team.
Everyone else scattered in various directions scanning doors as they went. As soon as they were out of sight of the teacher however many of the pupils simply ran off to lark about. Peter and Penny decided to make a go of it, both having done well at Maths in their previous school, so with Peter reading the map, Penny examined each door they came to in their wanderings.
It quickly became apparent Miss Tripos had planned a more difficult task than simply counting numbers. For some unknown reason the rooms at St Spiritus were numbered seemingly at random and, horror of horrors, each and everyone of them had their doors marked in Roman numerals.
The scavenger map Peter clutched eagerly also posed its own problems. A distinct red line snaked around the room and corridor layout. Any door number beyond this boundary was not allowed to be included in the count, no matter how much in sequence it might find itself.
"Look, here's two side by side!" Penny said as they stood in a ground floor corridor gazing at wood panelling and incised numerals early on in their search. Already the other pairings were out of sight and they were alone. "LI and LII," she read hesitantly. "Fifty one and fifty two?"
"Gotcha," Peter replied with a grunt and marked them on the the map. "Let's see if we can find more 'L' numbers to increase the sequence," and off they raced, eyes everywhere looking for the magic 'fifty three.'
The great labyrinth of stone dressed passageways, now deserted as most pupils were confined to their assigned classrooms, echoed eerily with emptiness as the twins strolled along their carpeted lengths. Yet every now and then a conversation would start up behind them, voices increasing in volume, coming closer. Penny glanced over her shoulder several times to see who it might be, expecting fellow Maths pupils on the prowl, but each time she looked there was no one in sight.
"Where'd they go?" she said, stopping in her tracks.
Peter was concentrating on the map, especially the bits beyond the red boundary line, like the science wing with its labs and workshops.
"Those kids behind us. I distinctly heard them talking but they disappeared."
"You hear voices a lot," Peter observed and then returned his attention to the map. His concentration was broken by a sudden shriek just round a corner. The twins looked at each other and then raced up ahead.
What they found was an empty gallery lit by a pale morning sun in bands of light along its entire length. Apart from a few faded paintings, decorative urns filled with dry withered plants and some dust motes dancing in the air, the place was utterly deserted.
Peter consulted the map.
"The Shrieking Gallery," he quoted from it. "South facing windows," and he oriented the sheet of paper to show where they were. Behind them a sort of broken laughter sounded, back the way they had come.
"I think I'm getting the hang of this," Peter continued as they listened a moment. They were definitely alone for they stood at the junction of several corridors, well lit and pleasantly warm in the sunshine. Yet they distinctly heard someone sob next to Penny's shoulder which made her flinch, then the cries distorted into echoey moans and faded away.
"This is creepy," Penny admitted. Her brother nodded.
"Yet nothing out of the ordinary," he said with forced calm. "Strange echoes from distant places, bouncing off walls and passing through long corridors. Acoustics, or something?" he added, trying to remember a peculiarity of St Paul's Cathedral. It was like sounds being funnelled through voice tubes on board ships. A conversation between two pupils in one part of the school might possibly be heard anywhere else.
It made Peter realise that whatever he and his sister was saying could travel all over the school too, and there was no way of knowing who might be listening in. The only consolation was the sounds became distorted in their travels and it was difficult to recognise the speaker.
"I've been thinking," Penny said after a while of wandering, pausing to listen to the strange disjointed mutterings, as they continued the number search.
"Never a good sign," her brother replied as he examined another closed door and vaguely pondered what might be behind it. The more conventional hum of voices could be heard, occasionally rising louder as a teacher emphasised his point. Clearly a classroom.
"Well, what if we bumped into, you know, another cold spot?"
This made Peter stop in his tracks. He hadn't thought of that. They were wandering randomly through corridors and could easily stumble into some unpleasantness like in the Great Banner Hall just as his sister had said.
Penny stared at him a moment, noting the reaction to her word of caution.
"Do you want to talk about it?" she said, peering closer with sisterly concern.
"I think," Peter began hesistantly, willing to unburden himself but feeling uneasy about the subject. "I think there may be lots of places like that cold spot in the hall. I mean, did you see how that first year reacted to the Uneasy Chair?"
"A boy poked him secretly with a pin," Penny remarked, laughing softly. "Didn't you see? It was a joke."
Peter coloured at this revelation and Penny laughed again, but she fell silent when her brother clearly did not see the funny side. He was struggling with his inner thoughts, the rational part of him feeling betrayed somehow.
"What's happened to you?" she added with mounting concern. "You've been grumpy and jumpy ever since the turnip business. I told you not to let your imagination run away with you. This place feeds on stuff like that and it'll drive you crazy if you're not careful. The last thing I want is a twin brother in the madhouse."
"You could visit me and the redheaded girl at the same time," Peter replied sullenly.
"That's more like it," Penny perked up. "See? The bright side, not the gloomy side. That's what'll see you through this school term."
Peter thought the advice sound but remembered how he had felt in the hall, driven deep into that cold spot. Whoever had possessed him briefly saw nothing amusing in his plight, just horror, extreme and enduring. Not even death had the power to diminish it. The torture continued beyond the grave.
"I want to find out more about that cold spot," Peter eventually admitted as his sister stared forlornly at a door number more than a hundred places from their only finds so far.
"Yeah. It gave me the creeps big time."
"I know," Penny said softly. The memory was still raw with her too of course.
"I want to know why I felt so scared, or like I was someone else for a moment and it was he who was scared... terrified..."
Penny realised with an anguished thrill he was finally opening up, telling her the truth about that strange incident, the most extraordinary amid the peculiarities of St Spiritus they had endured so far. Yet the moment was lost as echoey drummings reverberated through the corridors, increasing rapidly in volume. It sounded ludicrously like some rubbery bouncing thing and Penny blinked with puzzlement.
"Whatever's making that noise?" she spluttered.
"Dunno," Peter shrugged his shoulders moodily. The sound seemed to be coming closer but they already knew that meant nothing in these passageways. "Something far away probably so we'll never find out."
He stepped around the nearest corner as he spoke and was flattened by a giant transparent ball. Penny's warning cry came too late and her brother's strange attacker bounded quiveringly off a wall before settling defiantly to rest.
Peter got up off the carpet, none the worse for wear, and squinted at his assailant.
"The Orb of Judgment?" he said.
"What's it doing here?" Penny placed a finger against the warm soft surface of the thing speculatively.
The sound of rapid footsteps and breathless gasps heralded the appearance of a rather tall dark man in a silk-lined cape who grabbed the sphere with impatience. He looked a bit like a magician with pointy whiskers. Only the top hat was missing, rabbit included.
"Blessed thing's a nightmare to get down stairs," he muttered to himself between gulps of air. Clearly he had been pursuing the ball for some time through the mazy corridors of St Spiritus. Then he noticed the twins staring up at him in open-mouthed shock.
"Why are you not in your class?" he demanded imperiously.
Peter explained what they were doing.
The man listened with only vague interest, apparently satisfied, and without further comment began bowling the giant sphere along a shadowy side corridor and out of sight.
"I wonder," Penny said when they were alone again, "if someone is undergoing a Tryall or something?"
"Who knows," Peter growled darkly, nursing a bruise on his elbow that was just beginning to smart, annoyed the man had not even offered an apology for knocking him down. "Come on sis, we've got our own trial to undergo," and he waved the map at her significantly.
The confessional mood had been broken and Penny nodded in agreement. Together the twins raced off in another direction away from the strange man and his absurd bouncing ball.
~ ~ ~
Racing up some stairs, past classmates on their way down who shouted discouragement at them in keen rivalry, Penny and Peter penetrated deeper into the labyrinth that was St Spiritus. The strange voices that floated on the air now and again could still be heard in these higher levels and it reminded Penny of the previous night, chasing the mysterious sounds of the equally mysterious redhead.
"Here's an L," she declared as they traversed a dimly lit corridor that branched off from the main building into a side wing. The twins stopped to peer at it a moment.
"That's not right, is it?" Peter said, wrinkling his nose at the strange smell which seemed to come from the reddish varnish on the door. "LVX? Fifty five and ten? Oh, hang on, we've strayed into a forbidden zone," he then added as he consulted the map. They had crossed the red boundary line into the third year science wing. Peter examined the map with growing interest.
Turning on her heel Penny began to retrace her steps into the brighter main corridor when a cacophany of voices assailed her ears.
"That sounded really close," she said as distinct shouts echoed past the red door from deeper within the science wing. Peter was already several paces ahead of her, eager to investigate.
The corridor turned right and they rounded the corner, expecting to see nothing as usual, but to their surprise they came upon a crowd of pupils surrounding what appeared by his yellow tie to be a much put upon first year.
Voices were raised accusingly and the bigger pupils, third years all, milled around the younger boy who looked frightened but defiant, shouting denials at what was being said.
"What's going on here?" Penny asked in high pitched tones, fearlessly indignant.
Everyone turned to look at who dared to interrupt their apparent sport and several boys further down the corridor immediately slunk off, as if not wishing to be identified. There was the sound of laughter as they rounded the far corner, hands in pockets. Peter felt sure one of them cradled a round object, the size of a shrunken human head, which glittered in the half-light before being whipped out of sight.
A couple of nearer boys stood their ground however and in the dim passageway they formed large and threatening silhouettes. The twins nervously stood their ground also, not sure what to do.
There was a snap of fingers from someone unseen and the aggressive boys responded to this apparent signal. No word was spoken and they too moved off round the corner and out of sight, casting strange shadows in the odd lighting that pervaded this wing of the school.
As echoey laughter faded into the distance the young lad left behind looked around him in confusion, as if not wholly sure what had just happened. Puffing his cheeks in relief Peter went up to him.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
"'Course," the boy replied, but he visibly trembled.
"What were those boys doing to you?" Penny then asked more gently, coming closer also. She felt sure they had just broken up a rather nasty piece of bullying.
"Nuthin.' Just testing me is all."
"Testing you? For what?"
The boy squirmed a moment in silence, impatient to be off it seemed, too scared perhaps to acknowledge what had really happened.
"Are you sure we can't help you?" Peter asked.
"You!" came the indignant reply, and this time the boy laughed. "You're Willows," he snorted and ducking under Penny's outstretched arm he ran along the corridor and back to the main building before the twins could react.
"Well, that was nice," Peter observed as an amused titter floated in the air from some distant place. "We save his skin and he's as grateful as a-"
"I didn't see what he was," Penny interrupted.
"A first year."
"No, I mean his form group or whatever it is. He seemed to take a disliking to us because we were Willows. Like House rivalry or something."
An increasing sound of laughter drowned Penny's response and in anger Peter moved deeper into the science wing. The whole incident had left him in an ugly mood. Penny grabbed his arm.
"It's not worth it," she said. "Not on our first day at school. You really don't want to be pounded and besides time's almost up." She tapped her brother's wristwatch. "We gotta get back to Miss Tripos's class with our map."
Reluctantly Peter agreed and the twins re-entered the adjoining corridor which would take them out of the creepy science wing full of sarcastic and bullying third years.
As they again passed the reddish door with the puzzling Roman numerals Penny thought it looked slightly ajar. She peered closer at the dark gap between frame and door and felt certain she glimpsed a single eye fixed upon her. She gasped and stopped short.
"What's up sis?" Peter mumbled as he gloomily consulted the rather feeble number finding efforts on their crumpled map.
"There's someone watching us!" Penny said in a choked voice. "Look, there!" and she pointed at the strange door.
Just as Peter glanced up the door closed swiftly but quietly. He did not see it.
"Where?" he said, staring at the red panels mottled with age. The door looked just the same as before. Impatiently Penny went right up to it and knocked without warning.
"What are you doing?" Peter asked in a panic, remembering they were beyond the red boundary.
"Hide your map," Penny whispered over her shoulder. "We'll say we're lost. I just want to know who was watching us. Perhaps we can mention that bullying incident."
There was no response to her knock so she tried again, and this time put her ear to the smelly varnish to listen. For a moment she held this position and could feel strange vibrations from the door as if heavy objects were being moved around in the room beyond. Yet there was no sound except once a small giggle from some mischievous imp who might be having fun at her expense. Then came the eerie sensation of someone leaning stealthily against the other side of the door, mirroring what she was doing. She could feel pressure from the door as it pushed out slightly and a shallow, hoarse breathing kept time with her own. It thoroughly creeped her out and she drew back to look at her perplexed brother.
"What is it?" he said, picking up her sense of fright.
She did not reply immediately so he reached past her and rattled the carved door knob violently. There was a sudden stumbling sound on the other side and then silence again. Peter turned the handle slowly, pushing on the door, but it remained shut. It was locked.
"Hello?" he said. "Anyone there?"
A loud peal of laughter made the twins shudder in perfect unison. The corridor that led deeper into the science wing began filling again with strange shadows and Peter and Penny decided they had had enough.
Back they raced into the main school, down several flights in the large stairwell where they barely noticed the transparent ball was back in its accustomed place, and finally across a playground space their map told them would be a short cut to Miss Tripos and safety. A fourth year monitor noted their approach and ushered them quickly into the classroom where all the other pupils were assembled. Obviously he had been looking out for them.
"Here they are Miss Tripos," he said. "Being new I think they're still finding their way around the school," he helpfully suggested as the reason for their lateness and then departed, monitor duty fulfilled.
Embarrassed, the twins reluctantly handed in their map and slid behind the nearest empty desks to await the results of the scavenger hunt. It was no surprise they came bottom with their awesomely appalling score of two numbers in a row. Even the second from bottom managed six consecutives.
"Well," Miss Tripos summed up her feelings after the merit marks had been duly awarded, looking directly at the twins, her cheeks pink with emotion. "You did try, I suppose. Only to be expected from a pair of Willows of course," she added pleasantly, yet with an air of seeming disdain that puzzled the twins somewhat. Most of the class sniggered at this apparent sarcasm. Many of them Peter realised sported what appeared to be emerald green pine cones and a few golden acorns, badges of rival forms presumably. The two Willows were wholly outnumbered.
With a face of thunder Peter stood to refute whatever disgrace being a Willow implied by explaining what happened with the third years but Penny touched his arm.
"It doesn't matter," her pale blue eyes suggested.
As the class broke up Peter felt it did matter and was on the verge of tearing off his silver catkin for very shame, but then recalled both Wesley and Sandy were Willows too. They were friends. Dorm mates.
Peter Thurwell filled his lungs with new resolve. He was a Willow and would remain so, no matter what that implied.
To be continued...