My first night in the dorm isn’t good. I toss and turn all night and, when I finally fall asleep, I’m woken up by Poppy’s loud snores. I’m paranoid about sleeping. When I close my eyes, I feel as though someone is going to creep up behind me and try to slit my throat. I lie there with my eyes wide open, staring out of the window. It’s pitch black outside and the only thing visible in the fathomless darkness is the bright white light of the moon. I wonder whether, in another galaxy, people are awake and wondering what’s going on in the other galaxy. Maybe it’s the same as it is here. Maybe they speak another language. Maybe they’re a different species. There are so many maybes and what ifs in life that sometimes, I wonder what is certain in life. It’s certain that, eventually I will die. But, if I don’t exist in the first place, how can I die? I lie awake thinking until my brain feels like its frying. Then, I get up and go to the common room.
The lights are dim in the common room and the fires still glowing slightly. I nestle myself into one of the squashy armchairs by the fire and close my eyes. It’s warm and comfortable and it takes me no time at all to fall into a deep slumber.
In my dream, I’m staring up at the roof of the cottage. I’m surrounded by shouting people but, their words mingle into a useless whirlpool of noise. I’m transfixed by what’s happening on the roof. There’s a man standing on the edge of the turrets. He’s dressed from head to toe in white. He rises up onto the balls of his feet. Everyone around me screams. I cannot scream. I just stand there mutely, struck dumb by what I know he’s about to do. The man brings his arms above his head. I squint at his expression; he looks calm and peaceful. I envy him. The man springs off the roof and plummets down to the earth. He looks so serene and at peace that, I want to climb up onto the roof and do what he did. When he hits the ground with an awful thud that echoed across the grounds, the crowd screams. Several people behind me are nigh on hysterical. I, however, begin to push through the crowd to where the body lies. It’s broken and crumpled but, in an odd way, it looks beautiful. His expression is calm and peaceful. He looks as though, if it weren’t for his broken limbs, he could be asleep in the green grass. Then, I realise who he is and I scream. And that is when I wake up.
Light is flooding in from the windows. Someone must’ve drawn the curtains. The fire is out. Slowly, I rise from the armchair and walk into the dorm. The dorm is in a flurry of activity. No one asks me where I’ve been so I walk over to my bed and locate the fresh clothes. They’re the same as yesterday only clean. I pull them on and look around for Eddie. He’s fully dressed so, I walk over to him.
“Where do we go now?” I ask.
“Breakfast.” He says, his face lighting up. Boys and food.
“Come with me.” He says, “I’ll show you.”
We walk over to the door and Poppy pops up, closely followed by Scarlett, who narrows her eyes at me, and Matt. We walk to breakfast as a group. I suppose that, whether I want to be or not, I’m part of a group now.
The tables in the hall are heavily laden with various different types of food. The deliciously enticing smell of bacon wafts up my nostrils, igniting my hunger almost immediately. We locate five seats and sit down. Eddie and Matt begin by piling their plates high with scrambled eggs, bacon, sausages, baked beans and toast. Poppy begins on the fruit salad and Scarlett stares into the bottom of a cup of coffee. I gaze around, looking for something to eat. I settle with a cup of coffee, two slices of toast and a bowl of cereal. Best breakfast I’ve had in a long time. I eat quickly, ignoring Scarlett’s somewhat horrified stares as I tuck into my meal. Eddie and Matt meanwhile finish their mountains of food within minutes and quickly begin to load up their plates for another round.
Once all of the food on the plates in front of us is demolished, we leave the hall.
“Do you guys have shooting practice as well this morning?” I say as we walk out of the entrance hall.
“Yeah.” Matt says absently, watching Scarlett who happens to be walking next to him.
I walk down to the shooting range in silence, craning my ears to hear Scarlett’s whispered conversation with Matt.
“I’ll see you at midnight.” Scarlett whispers urgently.
“Where?” Matt whispers back, glancing at Poppy to check she’s not listening in.
“The tower on the gallery above the dining hall.”
I see Matt nod but then they stop whispering because we’ve reached the shooting range. Several people are already there. Charles is stood by the table. No one tries to talk to him but, I see several girls shoot him somewhat longing looks. I ignore Charles’ nod as I walk in with my well, I think I could call them friends. Scarlett, however, as sharp as ever, spots Charles looking at me.
“Look over there,” She hisses in my ear, “A certain someone is looking at you.”
I twist around to glare at her. “I couldn’t care less.” I say.
“Hey, Elizabeth, thanks for last night.” It’s Pete. His untidy black hair is sticking up and there are bags around his eyes.
“It’s ok.” I say, “Anything for a friend.”
“She’s amazing.” He says, drawing his hand back through his mop of hair. I see the ink-stained fingertips of his long, pale hands.
“Are you a writer?” I ask when I see them.
He nods sheepishly. “Yeah, just some small stuff.”
“It’s never small stuff.”
He grins, “I’m writing a book.”
“Thought so, what’s it about?”
“Stuff.” He murmurs evasively.
“Speaking of the devil.” I say as Poppy peers over Pete’s shoulder.
“I see you’ve met Pete.” She says, putting a claiming hand on his bony shoulder.
I nod and smile slightly before withdrawing, leaving Poppy with Pete. I look around. Scarlett’s deep in conversation with Matt. Eddie’s standing on his own. I walk over to him. He smiles at me. I attempt to smile back.
“Hey.” He says, “I think it’s really cool what you did for Poppy.”
“Well, she deserves to be happy.”
“Did Scarlett tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
“About her and Matt.”
“Yes,” I say wryly, “It seems to be the world’s worst kept secret.”
He laughs. “Yes,” He says, “Subtlety is not one of Scarlett’s strengths.”
“I noticed.” I say, “What are her strengths?”
Now it’s my turn to laugh, “She seems to excel at that.” I say.
“But she’s not nearly as scary as you.” He says, stepping closer to me. Someone laughs and I look over my shoulder. Charles is standing within hearing distance, staring right at me, grinning. I swear.
“Okay, kids, listen up.” Charles calls. Everyone stops talking immediately and turns to look at him. “Today, we’re going to be practising shooting…”
“Oh well done, genius. We’re at the shooting range to swim instead.” I hear Scarlett mutter. Charles hears her and glares at her.
“So, I want you to partner up.”
Eddie looks at me and I nod.
“Ok, go and stand with your partners so I can see who’s left over.”
Charles scans the crowd of pairs.
“Eddie, you go with Chris.” He says, indicating to a tall, thin red haired boy standing alone at the edge of the group.
“But what about me?” I say indignantly.
“You’re going he says, with me.” He says firmly. I settle for glaring at him with my arms folded. Scarlett catches my eye and grins, rolling her eyes at the same time.
“Ok, now we’ve managed to get that sorted,” He says, glancing at Eddie who is glaring at him too, “It’s time to start. Line up in pairs with a gun in front of the range.”
There’s a sudden flurry of movement as everyone rushes to get the best gun. I stand back and wait for Charles to come to me. Once he reaches me, I walk over to the table and pick up a gun, testing the weight of it in my hands. I walk over to the shooting range and stand in the only space available; at the end next to Isla. She shoots me an appraising look before staring down the range. I sense Charles coming up and standing behind me but I too stare down the range.
“Ok,” Charles calls, “I want the first person to shoot once before handing the pistol to their partner. We’ll do that until the pistols are empty. You may begin.”
The sound of twelve pistols going off fills the air. I glance at the target before handing the smoking pistol to Charles.Bull’s eye.
“Good job, newbie.” Charles says as he takes the pistol. He raises it and shoots before handing the pistol back to me. We both shoot, hitting the centre of the target each time until the gun runs out of bullets. Eventually, everyone’s left standing in front of the range with empty guns.
“Ok,” calls Charles, “That wasn’t too bad. Go and collect your targets and we’ll see who got the best score.”
We all scurry up to the targets and tear them off the wooden boards which are indented with various bullets and covered in holes. I run back to where Charles is standing. It’s obvious what we got. We hit the target every time.
“Right, if you could all call out your scores, please.” Charles says.
“90.” Says Eddie, glaring at Chris who shrugs apologetically.
“120.” Says Scarlett.
“50.” Says Poppy, giggling slightly.
“130.” Says a blond boy whose name I don’t know.
“55.” Says Jack. He too glares at his partner who giggles loudly.
“97.” Shouts a black haired girl.
“54.” Calls a girl with curly auburn hair.
“115.” Shouts a boy with almost white hair and cold blue eyes.
“121.” Says a boy with dark brown hair and hazel eyes.
“111.” Calls a tall girl with cropped black hair.”
“146.” Says Isla. There’s an intake of breath at this astronomical score. Charles smiles slightly.
“And you, Elizabeth?” He says, still smiling.
I draw myself up proudly. “150.” I say, my voice ringing clearly across the range. Isla scowls and Eddie grins at me appreciatively.
“Ok, now that we’ve established the winners,” Charles says, indicating to himself and me. Isla scowls and drops the pistol on the floor with a sickening thud. Charles ignores her petulant look and ploughs on, “It’s time to start the next exercise. Now, we all know that, by now, most of you should be able to shoot with a pistol by now,” He glances over at Poppy, who giggles and clutches Pete’s chest. “It’s time to shoot with something else.” He walks over to the table and picks up a bow and arrow.
“But what use is a couple of sticks?” Isla calls.
“Well, Isla,” Charles says, “Someday, you may not have a pistol and, one of these,” He shakes the bow, “May be the difference between life and death.” He looks around at the crowd, looking for any other challenges to his authority. “Ok, so, I want each pair to put another target up and collect a bow and a quiver of arrows.”
We all obediently collect bows and arrows before hanging up new targets. I sling the quiver over my back and wait in front of the range expectantly.
“Now, I want you all to shoot. Just see how it goes.”
I load my bow before raising it and pointing the tip of the arrow at the target. I let go of the string and watch as the arrow flies through the air before lodging itself in the wood of the target board.
“Not bad for a first attempt,” Charles murmurs in my ear, “But, try to keep your elbow raised next time.”
I raise the bow again, this time raising my elbow. I let go of the string. It hits the ring outside bull’s-eye. I reload and shoot again, this time hitting the centre of the target. I shoot arrows at the board until my quiver’s empty. I turn around. Charles is standing there with his hands on his hips.
“Do I not get a go?” he says indignantly.
“Sorry, got carried away.” I say, grinning at him.
“Yeah, it doesn’t matter, I can already shoot perfectly anyway.”
“If you don’t blow your own trumpet, no one else will do it for you.”
I roll my eyes and grin.
“Come on, “He says, “The sessions over. Assessment time.”
“You’re taking me?”
“Yes,” He says, “Do you have a problem with that?”
“I just wanted to walk on my own, that’s all.”
“Quite the little loner, aren’t you?”
“Well, I don’t argue back.”
“Doesn’t it?” He says, “I must be the only person who argues with themselves.”
“One of a kind.”
He smiles and looks down at his feet. We continue walking until we reach the stables. It’s a large, proud grey stone building. It stands atop a large hill, its high entrance archway gazing imperiously at the latest visitor. We walk through the archway into a courtyard. Horses of every different colour poke their heads inquiringly over the door, scattering their hay onto the grey cobbles. Several people wearing blue polo shirts and cream jodhpurs run around the yard, sweeping up hay. A man of about thirty walks over to us and shakes my hand.
“Mark.” He says, smiling warmly.
“Elizabeth.” I say, smiling back.
Charles clears his throat. “Elizabeth is here for her riding assessment.” He says, as if Mark didn’t already know that.
“Well, we’ll put you on something relatively sane to start off with then.”
“Yes, put her on something steady.” Charles says firmly.
Mark smiles slightly, illuminating his tanned face. “Ok, follow me then.”
I follow him over to one of the door where a bay head pokes out. I glance into the stable. A relatively small pony stands there. He’s pretty enough with a regal head carriage but, I hope that, after my assessment, they put me on something a little bigger.
“This,” Mark says, indicating to the pony, “Is Dulce.”
I nod and glance at the pony. I decide that I’ll have to make sure that I get a slightly better mount next time.
“Ok, his tacks in the corner. I’ll leave you to get ready.”
Taking a deep breath, I slide the metal bolt across the door and push it open. At once, the sweet, horsy smell of hay and straw hits my nostrils, taking me back to a different time and place entirely. Dulce has moved away from the door and is now stood munching on a full hay net, his bay coat gleaming like a mahogany table. A rope which, is hung across one of the walls of his stable, is laden down with various rugs. In the corner, there’s a door which, upon opening it, I find out is a small cupboard containing a pristine black leather saddle and bridle. I select a couple of brushes from a bucket in the cupboard and begin to brush him although, I suspect that, brushing him is partially redundant owing to the fact that he’s gleaming already. Dulce swigs his head around and searches my person, looking for a pocket which might have treats. Once he realises that I don’t have anything for him, he turns back to his hay net and largely ignores me. This suits me just fine.
I hum to myself as I prepare Dulce. As I groom and tack up, my mind is whirring, wondering what exactly my assessment might entail. The gym assessment wasn’t so bad but, maybe, here my riding won’t seem as good as it did back home. After all, I haven’t ridden since I was ten; horses aren’t great when you’re on the run. Once I’m done, I pick up his reins and lead him out into the courtyard. Mark’s stood there waiting, holding a riding hat in his hands. He hands it to me and I put it on.
“All set?” He says, running an expert eye over Dulce to check that I’ve tacked him up properly. I nod. “Good, follow me, then.”
I follow him through another archway and along a short, sandy path until we reach a large, flat, sand school. This must’ve been here for hundreds of years because very few people know how to build a sand school now. Like civilisation, it’s a skill that’s long forgotten. Once we’re in the school, Mark locates a battered wooden block for me to stand on whilst I mount. I look at him and snort before shoving a foot into one of the stirrups and swinging myself onto Dulce’s back from the ground.
“Good,” He says, laughing, “I’m glad I won’t have to practically carry another bratty girl onto the saddle.”
“Glad to be of service.” I say dryly, digging my heels into Dulce’s sides. With a start, he lifts up his head and begins to walk forwards briskly.
“Ok,” Says Mark, “Because it’s your assessment, I’m just going to watch you ride for a few moments, ok?”
“That’s cool.” I call from the far end of the school.
I walk Dulce around the school a couple of times before I ask him to trot on. He has an odd, high-stepping trot and kicks up a large cloud of dust every time he moves. Automatically, I rise to the beat of it. It’s odd, I think, how even after such a long time, it feels like I haven’t even left the saddle at all. Every one of my reflexes, whilst slightly rusty, is still there. I still know when I need to adjust my weight and when I need to change the diagonal. I don’t even have to think about it. I suppose that, riding, like fear reflexes, is something which becomes indented into your brain, impossible to forget.
After I’ve trotted on each rein, I ask Dulce to canter. Like his trot, his canters slightly bouncy but, otherwise, it’s ok. I automatically plant myself in the saddle so that I don’t bounce around like a sack of potatoes, as my father used to say. Once I’ve finished cantering on each rein, I trot Dulce over to mark and halt in front of him. His expression is hard to read and he stands there, staring at Dulce for a few moments as though he’ll put the words into his mouth.
“Well?” I say.
“You ride very nicely.” He says appreciatively. “If you don’t mind, tomorrow, could you come down during lunch and we’ll put you on something a little more challenging.”
“Don’t mind, are you kidding?” I say incredulously, “I would rather ride than eat and as for something challenging… well, I would love to.”
“Good, untack him and sponge him down. See you tomorrow.” Mark says abruptly, turning his back and walking away. I sense that, Mark prefers horses to people so I don’t try to call him back for a chat. I find that, people who don’t want to talk are far easier to be around than people who do.
I walk Dulce around the school a couple of times, trying to contain my excitement about tomorrow. I’ve missed horses so much and now, I can come down at lunch time! I decide that, for as long as I’m at The Cottage which, I assume will be until I’m deemed ‘ready’, I will ride every lunchtime and, when I go out on my mission, I will demand a horse. Problem solved; I need never be without horses again. When you think about it, life needn’t be as complicated as people make it out to be.
Once I’ve finished looking after Dulce, I begin the long walk through the beautiful grounds up to the main building. It’s only when my stomach rumbles angrily that I realise that, I haven’t eaten yet and that it’s lunchtime. When I finally reach the entrance hall, I find that the doors to the dining hall have been flung open and that the sound of clattering knives and forks and loud, idle chatter is spilling out into the entrance hall in an unstoppable tidal wave. I walk into the large room and locate Eddie, Scarlett, Poppy, Matt, Jack and Pete who are all sitting where they were sat last night. When they see me walking over, Poppy, Eddie, Pete and Jack all wave. I slide into a space next to Eddie and look at the enormous platters of food in front of me. I select some chicken and a pile my plate high with some sort of rectangular potato things. Eddie later tells me that they’re called chips. I wolf down my food, vaguely listening to Poppy wittering away about who fancies who in her sword-fighting class. I sense that Scarlett’s watching me but I resist the urge to look up. I’m almost afraid that, if I do, she’ll talk to me. Once I’ve finished eating my food, I look up. Poppy’s still talking.
“Hey, what do you guys have next?” I ask, looking around at them. Poppy and Pete, it turns out, both have swimming down by the lake. Jack and Scarlett have sword fighting and Eddie and I both have gym. When I tell Eddie that I have gym next, his innocent face lights up as though hit by a ray of sunlight.
“Do you wanna be partners?” He asks eagerly. Scarlett stares at me so I look round at Eddie.
“Yeah, sure, I’d love to.” I say, forcing my voice to sound casual and yet enthusiastic at the same time. It’s immensely difficult, it transpires.
Scarlett snorts but everyone ignores her.
After the bell sounds for the end of lunch and Eddie and I wander off to the gym. Eddie chatters away as we walk but I zone out, grunting and nodding occasionally when it seems appropriate. Once we reach the gym, we open the doors. It’s empty.
“Where’s the instructor?” I ask.
“Oh, gyms a free period,” Eddie tells me, “We get to do what we want.” He explains, seeing my confused expression.
“What, you’ve never had a free period before?”
“I didn’t grow up around here, remember?”
Eddie’s mouth opens as though he’s about to say something but, by the time the words are formed, I’ve already located a treadmill and am making a beeline for it. I hop onto it and crank it up to a reasonable pace. After a few minutes, other people have begun to flood into the gym and so I speed the treadmill up until I’m almost sprinting. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Isla slide onto the treadmill next to me and crank it up to the top speed. I speed my treadmill up and hammer away on the belt. Isla speeds up too. Therefore, I speed up too. We keep going until we’re both thundering away on the treadmills and they won’t speed up and more. My lungs are burning but, when I slide my eyes across to look at Isla, I notice that, she’s still going so I stare straight ahead and force myself to keep running.
We both keep running until suddenly, I hear a loud crash and look around to find that Isla’s lying flat on the floor, having fallen off her treadmill. I turn the treadmill off before sliding onto the floor. I try to arrange my face into an expression which does not scream ‘smug’ but, judging by the way Isla kicks my leg, I wasn’t particularly convincing. Isla staggers to her feet and stands in front of me with her hands on her hips, glaring at me.
“What’s your problem?” She growls.
“Me?” I say, “I don’t have a problem.”
“Yeah you do.” She says, stepping closer to me and glaring at me.
“No, I don’t.”
“Yeah you do.”
“Just get out of my face.” I growl, shoving her in the chest. And that is when she punches me. I grab my nose, staunching the flow of blood with my sleeve before swinging my free fist back around and punching her square in the face. She clutches her face and kicks me in the stomach. I double over before ramming my head into her stomach and forcing her onto the floor. She grabs my leg and pulls me down. She pins me down, lying on top of me, about to aim another punch at my face.
“Shouldn’t you guys be in bikinis for that?” An amused voice calls out, echoing through the gym. Isla twists around before leaping off of me, straightening her clothes and attempting to wipe the blood off her face. Slowly, I stagger to my feet, coming face to face with a grinning Charles Grey.