I crouch low on Drummer's neck, leaning into his rocking gallop. He's mad, tearing across the field at top speed. I can't hold him and I don't try. We pass Herald and overtake Wilkinson, who swears at us, and slow as we go into the wood. Drummer strains up the hill, making it a little easier to pull him up and wait for the others.
"What's our excuse this time?" I say, once we're all gathered on the top of the hill. Below us, the open hillside slopes down to the school, where we were due back from a cross-country ride an hour ago.
"We got lost," Herald says with a shrug.
"Third week in a row?" I ask.
"Collectively, we have a very bad sense of direction." Herald bends over and pulls a thin flask out of his boot.
"Except where pubs are concerned," I say.
Herald opens the flask and takes a swig.
"Tell 'em the truth," Wilkinson says. "Varenhoff here wanted to see that blond barmaid with the big tits again."
"And then was too much of a poncey twit to chat her up." Herald passes the flask to Wilkinson.
"I talked to her!"
"Varenhoff," Herald says, "'Can I have a bag of crisps?' isn't exactly a come-on."
I fiddle with Drummer's reins until he dances sideways. "I didn't want to scare her off."
Wilkinson laughs. "What kind of school did you go to before you came here? A monastery?"
The burning in my face fries coherent thought. It's only a matter of time before Wilkinson finds out he's not far wrong, that my experience with women is practically nonexistent. But like today, in the pub, when they get giggly and start to flirt, my brain seizes up.
"I think someone's on to us." Herald points down the hill, where a dark figure strides across the playing field in our direction. Ransom, our housemaster.
"Blast!" I say.
"Gentlemen," Ransom says as we pull up around him. "Lost again, I see?"
"Yes, sir," Herald says. "We're sick about missing assembly, sir."
"I can imagine." Ransom turns to me. "Headmaster wants to see you in his office, Varenhoff, after you've put your animal away. As for the rest of you, we can discuss your poor navigational skills in my rooms in fifteen minutes." Ransom turns and heads back to the school.
Wilkinson looks at me. "What you been up to?"
"Don't ask me." I've never been called on the carpet before.
We trail up the hill to the stables. I concentrate on stripping off Drummer's saddle and bridle and rubbing him down until his gray coat is smooth and cool.
"You'd think," Herald calls over the partition, "with the amount of money our parents fork over to send us to this labor camp, they could hire a few stable hands."
"At least we can have our horses with us," I say.
When my father decided the local comprehensive school wasn't doing me much good and the family finances could stretch to boarding school, all I cared about was that Redfield was a school where I could bring Drummer. I've had him since he was a yearling, broke him myself, even though my father said I'd never do it and my mother claimed I gave her her first gray hair in the process. But Drummer and I understood each other from the start, and there was no way I was going to go off to school and leave him behind.
"Oh right, Mary Sunshine," Wilkinson shouts from down the aisle. "And the daily privilege of shoveling out their shit. Or is that what you Rooskies are into?"
I shoot a black look in Wilkinson's direction. "I'm not Russian."
That was another part of the appeal. A distant boarding school meant a fresh start in a place where nobody knew who the Varenhoffs were or cared very much if they did. There's too much history with the villagers back home, and I was never able to make any close friends. At least at Redfield, we're more or less equals.
"C'mon, lads." Herald steps out of his horse's stall and latches the door. "What do you think the head wants with you?" he asks as we cross the stable yard to the school.
"Could be he finally realized he made a mistake letting you in." Wilkinson takes a swing at my head. "This is supposed to be an all-male school, gorgeous."
They fall about laughing, banging on each other's backs as we separate in the back hall. I turn toward the head's office, wondering what's up.
The bus from the railway station dumps me in front of the drive to my house. Apparently, the school forgot to tell my parents what train I was on. Nobody was at the station to meet me.
I stare at a pair of iron gates. For as long as I can remember, those gates have rusted in the weeds behind the derelict gatehouse. Now they're fastened to the stone pillars that flank the drive, and locked.
What's going on and how the heck am I supposed to get in? I heave my carryall over the wall and reach for a handhold. I manage to scramble to the top of the wall and drop into the undergrowth on the other side.
I've still got a half-mile walk to the house, hidden from the road by a dense little wood. I huddle into my jacket. It's cold and a wind has kicked up, swirling dead leaves about my feet and rattling the bare branches over my head.
"Ah, yes, Varenhoff," the head had said when I got to his office. "Your parents have rung up to say you're wanted at home immediately. Matron is going into town this afternoon, and you can go along with her and take the four o'clock train."
"Is something wrong, sir?" I asked him. I hadn't been home in four months, but I'd just seen both my parents the week before when they'd come up for Founder's Day.
"Well, they didn't say." He shuffled some papers on his desk. "But I'm sure it's nothing serious and you'll be back with us Monday morning."
Nothing serious. It's nearly dark when I make the final turn and see the house lit up like a cathedral. The light streams through the long, many-paned windows and picks out a line of unfamiliar cars parked along the carriage circle.
A party? Not likely. My parents don't throw many because the place is basically a wreck. A National Trust orphan on loan to our family since the forties, it's been gradually falling to bits about us and has eaten most of the family fortune. I climb the front steps and unlock the door.
We don't have the money for the proper staff. But everything in the entrance hall has been polished and cleaned and repaired and now seems like a ghost of itself, a memory of former glory. Except for stacks of cardboard file boxes and various bits of computer under the stair. Something is up. Maybe we're being evicted, which wouldn't be a bad thing. Living here has always felt like living in a fading photograph.
One thing hasn't changed. It's still bloody freezing. The central heat has never worked properly. But there's something else. Though there's no one about, there's a feel of activity. I cross the hall and look into my father's study.
A young man stands by the far wall, studying a huge map of Europe pinned over the paneling. A hundred crazy possibilities come to mind, images of James Bond and American police shows. Maybe I'm seeing things. I blink, but he's still there.
"Who are you?" I stand in the doorway, ready to run if he reaches for his breast pocket. "What are you doing here?"
He turns and his dark eyes narrow for a moment. He's not big or physically powerful-looking. Not much taller or heavier than me. But he looks . . . capable, trained. Maybe it's the military-short brown hair or the clipped mustache or his severe suit. Stiff as a poker, he walks across the room, stops in front of me and makes a half-bow, bending sharply at the waist and snapping his heels together.
"I am Count Stefan deBatz," he says in an accent like Dracula's. A familiar accent. "At your service, Your Royal Highness."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Raising the Griffin by Melissa Wyatt. Copyright © 2004 by Melissa Wyatt. Excerpted by permission of Laurel Leaf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.