It was the morning of September the fifth - the first day of school - and Willow stood on the sidewalk waiting for the bus. It wasn’t warm, and there were low clouds that blocked the sun, but her hands were sweating anyway as she twirled her hair. She glanced at her watch - it was 7:28 and the bus was nowhere to be seen. The past month since she had come back from Narrowway seemed to have dragged on as she anticipated this day, but now that it was here, Willow was incredibly nervous. It was now 7:30. She looked down to the end of the block, but there was no sight or sound of the bus coming. She reached in her pocket again to look at the invitation to check the schedule for the tenth time, but just as she was pulling it out of her pocket she heard a loud noise.
When she looked up, a small yellow school bus stood where a second before was an empty street. It was yellow with a black stripe and the words “Gampton Hall Academy” spelled out in block letters along the side. The door opened to show a very old lady in the driver’s seat. She must have been about eighty years old.
“First day?” she asked Willow.
“Well, hop on sweetie, we have twenty more stops to go this morning.”
With twenty more stops, we'll be jammed in here like sardines, she thought as she stepped up onto the bus which looked from the outside like it was already full. As she got to the top of the stairs and looked toward the back of the bus, her mouth, which was half open to ask where they would all sit, dropped open and then shut again without making a sound. The bus was huge inside. Not just huge; impossibly huge. There was no way that the amount of space inside the bus - easily enough to hold a full sized tractor trailer - could have ever fit inside the small school bus that she had just boarded.
“You’ll want to sit down dear,” said the driver. “This is going to get a little bumpy.”
And before Willow could even think of sitting down, she was thrown toward the back of the bus as the world outside the window blurred.
As she picked herself up off the floor and sat down in the first available seat, she saw that she had already gotten a black mark across her sleeve and a small cut on her left hand. She set her book bag on the seat next to her and started digging through it to find a tissue.
What bad luck to start my first day at magic school, she thought to herself and she started to hold a tissue on her left hand to make sure the blood didn’t get all over her black dress robe. She looked out of the window and saw the world blurred. This was all too much too fast. She had just boarded a bus that appeared out of nowhere, that was larger inside than out, and now she was traveling at what appeared to be hundreds of miles an hour.
As the bus shifted again, Willow was thrown forward, but the seats were all well-padded and her body just bounced off the seat in front of hers. The doors opened again, and another student got on. Before he could be thrown on the floor like Willow had, he jumped on a broom and soared down the length of the bus.
People fly on brooms? she wondered, watching him fly to the back. They probably brew potions with 'eye of newt' too. She tried to imagine everything else she could remember about witches and kept coming back to the stories where they eat little children. As the bus door closed, Willow remembered to brace herself as the bus leaped forward again toward the next stop. As the world outside continued to blur by, she turned toward the back of the bus.
She was startled by what she saw. How is that even possible? she thought as she gazed at the magic that was being performed two rows behind her. She stared intently as a group of paper soldiers created by one older girl battled a group of paper dinosaurs created by the boy she was with, the papers shredding into confetti as they were defeated.
As the bus shifted with another series of bangs, she looked further back, where the bus was spattered in a rainbow of colors. Are they playing paintball? Where are their guns? She soon saw that these kids were shooting each other out of the end of their wands.
With each loud bang, the bus gained another student or two. Willow noticed one new student who had obviously never been on the bus before only after she was lying on the ground just like Willow had been.
“The same thing happened to me,” said Willow to the girl. “Here, let me help you up.” Willow reached out a hand, helping the girl to her feet.
“Thanks, do we just uh, sit anywhere?” the new girl asked, looking around. She was a short black girl, shorter than Willow with black curly hair and very dark brown eyes.
“You can sit next to me,” said Willow. “Who knows when we’ll suddenly stop again. My name’s Willow.”
“Hi Willow, I’m Lef.”
“Lef? That’s a funny name.”
“Short for Maleficent. It’s a family name, but I prefer the shorter one.” Lef settled back into the bus seat as Willow turned to ask a question.
“Are you from a magic family or a...nomaj one?” Willow stumbled over the name, remembering it from Narrowway.
“Magic,” said Lef. “I take it you’re nomaj-born? What’s that like?”
“Compared to this? Boring. We’re not even at school yet and I’ve already seen the most amazing magic.”
“Really, like what?” Lef looked puzzled.
“There were enchanted papers fighting each other just over there.” Willow pointed to the remains of the soldier and dinosaur paper battle. “About halfway back, kids are shooting paint out of their wands, and I saw people flying on brooms! It’s awesome.”
“Oh,” Lef looked disappointed. “I hate to tell you this, but that’s all simple magic.”
“Not simple for me,” Willow answered in a hushed voice.
“Don’t worry,” said Lef. “We’ll probably be doing all that and more before Christmas.”
Lef looked down at Willow’s hand, which still had the tissue held on it.
“Did you cut yourself?” Lef asked.
“Yeah, when I fell down,” said Willow. “It’s really not that bad, I just don’t want to get blood all over my robe.”
Lef dug in her bag for a few seconds and then pulled out a paper envelope. Opening it, she handed Willow a leaf from the inside. “Here,” Lef said. “Eat this. It should help with the cut.”
“What is it?” Willow asked, taking the leaf and holding it in her fingers.
“It’s motherwort. Look,” Lef said, reaching over, tearing the top half of the leaf and putting it in her mouth. “It’s okay.”
Following Lef’s example, Willow took the rest of the leaf and put it in her mouth. Chewing it, it tasted like a dirty sock dipped in ear wax. “Ugh! This is awful.”
“Yes, I know,” Lef said, cringing herself as she swallowed her half of the leaf.
“What does it do?” Willow asked after she swallowed.
“It fixes the cut,” Lef replied. “Take a look.”
Looking down, Willow lifted the tissue and was amazed to find her skin completely healed. She lifted her hand close to her eyes and couldn’t find a single remnant of the wound.
“That’s amazing,” she said to Lef. “Where did you get that?”
“It’s just motherwort,” Lef responded. “I picked it from my garden this morning. You don’t have this in the nomaj world?”
“No, we don’t,” said Willow. “Thanks!”
After another 15 minutes, the bus halted and the doors opened, but nobody got on. The little old lady at the front of the bus had turned in her seat and yelled out to the bus, “ Gampton Hall Academy! Last stop!”
Willow looked out of the window. They were in the middle of the woods with a cobblestone driveway leading off further into the dense trees. A number of horse-drawn carriages were lined up along the side of the driveway, clearly staged to ferry the students further.
Lef and Willow grabbed their bags and stood up to exit the bus. As they stepped to the ground, they looked toward the carriages and the beautiful white horses tied to them. As Willow stared at them, she realized that they were not, in fact, horses.
“That horse has wings!” she said.
“Yeah,” Lef answered, matter-of-factly. “It’s a Pegasus.”
“Pegasus!” exclaimed Willow. “You mean like ‘My Little Pony Rainbow Dash’ Pegasus?”
“I don’t know what a pony-rainbow-dash is, but that” Lef pointed at the closest one “is a Pegasus.”
Willow stood wide-eyed, staring at the snow white horses with large feathered wings folded along their backs. Two of them were hooked up to each carriage, one in front of the other. The carriages looked like something straight out of the 1700s with large wooden wheels and open windows.
“First years over here!” A female voice carried over the milling students in the direction opposite the carriages. “First years this way!”
“That’s us,” Lef said. “I guess we’re not getting a carriage ride after all.” She started to walk in that direction. “Are you coming?” she asked. “Or are you going to look at your pony dash things some more?”
“No, I’m coming.” Willow started walking toward the voice while still looking over her shoulder at the majestic beasts.
“Firsties!” they heard the voice continuing. Willow and Lef walked past four other buses which were lined up with students milling all over the area, slowly working their way toward the carriages, joining with friends along the way. A few of the older students were calling out to the first years who were walking in the opposite direction.
“Hope you can swim, newbie!”
“Have a good trip down the falls!”
“Hey, noobs! Try not to get your feet wet!”
Wondering what was meant by these taunts, Willow and Lef followed the sound of the voice calling for the first years and ended up gathering with about forty other first year students near the edge of the woods. At the head of the group stood a fit reddish-brown haired woman in school robes. She was tall, standing more than 5 and a half feet, but was relatively thin. She was pointing fingers at the group, counting them.
“Hold still, you guys,” she said. “I can’t get an accurate count with you jumping around like blink dogs.”
Willow turned to Lef, “like a what dog?”
“A blink dog, it’s a...” but Lef was cut off by the red-haired woman.
“Thirty-seven. Okay, that’s all of you,” she said. “Follow me down to the boats.” She set off on a well-worn trail through the woods that led slowly downhill. There were roots and leaves on the ground so Willow and Lef had to pay attention to where they were stepping. Twice Willow helped Lef back up after she had tripped over a root. A couple of boys were chasing each other and fell down, knocking over two other first-years. The red-haired woman yelled back toward the boys.
“Don’t make me come back there! No fooling around or I’ll feed you to the manticore!”
The two boys stopped their antics at the sound of this threat.
“What was she going to feed them to?” Willow asked Lef.
“A manticore,” Lef answered, and guessing what was going to come next added “look, you’re going to have to get used to the fact that everything about the world you just joined is new to you.”
“You’re telling me.” Willow said as they reached the bottom of the trail which opened up on a large boat house with a long dock that extended into a river. Six boats were tied up alongside the dock. The river itself was very wide - easily a half mile to the other side and forested along both banks.
The red-haired woman had gathered them together at the start of the dock. “Alright, six to a boat with seven and me in the larger one at the front,” she said. “No pushing! I don’t want anyone getting soaked...yet.” Willow only heard his last word because she was standing right next to the red-haired woman when she turned toward the docks.
Yet. This must have been what the warning was about when she had first visited the Academy. Do they dunk us or what? Willow decided she was going to ride in the first boat with the red-haired woman, figuring that she wouldn’t want to get wet herself and that Willow might be spared the worst of it.
She looked over to see the two boys that had been chasing each other step into one of the boats and watched it bend and shift like it was made of rubber. “These are kind of wobbly boats,” one of the boys called out to the red-haired woman.
“Well, you wouldn’t want them too stiff or they would just smash apart on the rocks,” she replied with a big grin on her face.
The boys turned to each other. “Rocks? Where are we going?”
Willow and Lef found their way to the first boat and got in while the red-haired woman did another head count to ensure she had everyone.
“Alright, everybody put your bags in the bottom of the boats and hold on,” she said. She stepped into the first boat and pointed her wand at the rope holding them to the dock. The rope untied itself from the cleat and coiled neatly in a pile at the front of the boat. Looking back toward the other boats, Willow saw the other ropes untying themselves in order until all six boats were gliding away from the dock in the current, drifting along in a row like a mother duck and her ducklings.
The red-haired woman sat down in the front of the boat, conjured a hat out of thin air using her wand, put the hat low on her head, leaned back, and put her feet out in front of her, eyes closed. Willow, who was sitting next to her thought she caught a wink before the red-haired woman shut her eyes and appeared to doze off.
Willow and Lef were at the front of their boat, facing backwards toward the other five first years. Everyone looked nervous, but after about fifteen minutes of silently drifting with the current, they started talking to each other. Willow and Lef remained silent, staring out at the water and forested hillsides beside the river. They continued to look out for another few minutes, hardly noticing that the chatter in the rest of the boat had stopped.
“Are we moving faster than we were?” Lef asked.
“Yeah, I think we are,” Willow said. “The river looks like it’s getting narrower. Do you hear that? It sounds like thunder, but it just keeps going.”
“Kinda sounds like a waterfall...," said Lef. "You don’t think...” They both turned to look where they were headed and saw what the others in their boat had seen a moment before. The hills rose up before them and the river grew narrower until it funneled through a small slit between two hills. In between they could make out the roar and spray of the rapids.
“Must be time to shoot the narrows,” the red-haired woman announced without lifting the hat from her eyes. All of them jumped as they didn’t realize that she was awake. “Hold on,” she continued as she sat up and made her hat vanish with a flick of her wand. “This is going to get a little bumpy.”
(My Little Pony: Copyright Hasbro; Rainbow Dash created by Lauren Faust)
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