Harry's Spring Break Ch. 3bySabledrake©
"Fighting with your roommate, eh?" Harold Ethelbald Senior said, arching his iron-grey brows as he studied the sheet of parchment.
"Is that all it says?" Harry reached, but his grandfather whisked the sheet away with a quickness that belied his age.
"What else might it say?"
"Nothing about ... girls?"
"You had girls in your room?"
"Let me see that! Come on, Grandfather, please!"
This time the older man relented, and Harry read over what the Headmaster had written. No mention of Sherla or Loresa or the reason that he and Cray had managed to turn their entire fourth-floor suite into a shambles and land themselves in the campus infirmary.
"That ratty old whoreson," Harry grumbled. "Wasn't about to get Cray in any more trouble."
"Why don't you tell me what really happened?" The steel in Harold Senior's eyes made it not really a request.
"Are you going to tell Grandmother?"
"Pfffff, boy! Do you think I'll need to? This nonsense --" he thwacked the parchment with a limber finger, "-- might go in your records, but you can bet your backside that she'll have even more details than you give to me, all that before we get home."
"But if this is the official report," Harry said, "then I only earned ten demerits."
"Only, he says."
"Rather than the fifteen it would have been for having a girl in the room. Which means I won't get expelled from school."
"The way you're carrying on, my boy, it looks to me like you're trying for it!"
Harry chewed the ball of his thumb. "Not intentionally ..."
"No, but you've got a self-destructive streak in you." He snorted. "Must be one of those things that skips a generation; your father's as straight an arrow as they come. Which means your sons will be too, but you'd better watch out for your grandsons!"
"But could you blame me? I have never liked it here. Look at me, Grandfather. You know I'm not Academy material. I'll never sit on the Council like they want. Diana's got the talent, so why do they keep after me?"
"Maybe you should ask them."
"I have," he said glumly. "I don't even think they know. But if they let me out of their sight for a single minute, they think I'll wind up the most notorious scoundrel in all of Andur."
"That you'll take after me, in other words," the old man laughed. "Chin up, boy. You'll have to eat a plateful of grief for today's escapades, but like you said, you didn't get expelled. So you haven't thoroughly disgraced the family. They won't be too hard on you. Besides, you look like you've been run over by an ale wagon, so they might even take pity on you."
Harry just looked at him, knowing full well that his grandmother didn't take pity on a living thing. She didn't go out of her way to kick starving orphans, but by now they knew enough to scramble out of her path when they saw her coming.
"How's the other fellow look?" Harold Senior asked. "Has he got a shiner to match yours?"
"Two," Harry said proudly. "Cray may be fast on the grassball field, but his idea of a punch is a roundhouse that makes the air whistle. All I had to do was step aside and he'd pull himself halfway around in a circle. Then I'd pop him. He called them 'sissy punches,' until I broke his nose."
"That's my boy!" he cheered, then hushed as the school nurse -- a dour old drayhorse whose lumpy potato figure and gargoyle face had instantly squashed any budding daydreams Harry might have harbored about attentive bedside care -- scowled menacingly at him. "Now, then, how'd you get into it with him anyway?"
Harry sighed and 'fessed up, doing his best to make it sound like what it appeared to be: Cray's jilted girlfriend seeking to get back at him by throwing herself at his all-too- human roommate. He didn't go into detail, either about precisely what Cray walked in on or how he had manipu -- no, encouraged, subtly encouraged, that was a better term -- Sherla into anything.
And he'd been right; in the end, their encounter had been more than worth it. He'd soon forget the crunch of Cray's fist when his one lucky blow had connected, but the memory of her mouth would follow him the rest of his days.
"Damn me, but I wish I were young again," his grandfather chuckled. "Not that I'd trade my life with my family for anything, you understand."
Harry didn't understand; the man sitting before him had been married to Charlotte Ethelbald (nee Sinclair) for better than fifty years, and there were probably men condemned to a life sentence in the deepest prison pit in Pandathaway who, given a full explanation and a chance to meet the lady in question, wouldn't trade with him.
"How come you came instead of Grandmother?" he asked.
"I was home when the message got there." Harold Senior shrugged. "Down in my workshop, you know. She was off at one of those charity suppers, to raise money for something or another. Involved with a lot of causes, is your grandma. Thought I'd better take care of this myself, because if they pulled her away from it or your father away from his enchantings, you'd be in even hotter water than you already are."
"But you tell them that I scolded you so fierce that you think you're going to have blisters, have you got that? Probably won't make them be any easier on you, but miracles happen now and again."
"He can go now," the nurse informed Harold Senior. "Poultices and some willowbark are in this bag; here's a list of local chemists, herbalists, and alchemists if he needs anything stronger."
"What, no healing spells?"
She sniffed. "Our policy is to reserve magical healing for serious injuries."
"In other words," Harry said, "they think I deserve it and they're going to let me suffer. I bet Cray's not getting a bagful of poultices and being showed the door. Big game this tenthday, after all."
The nurse chilled him with a look, then turned to his grandfather. "If you wish to pursue further treatment on your own, that's up to you."
"Might just," Harold Senior said. "Come along, boy. You didn't get expelled but you did earn yourself a three-day suspension, so that means the semester's over."
"What?" Harry grabbed the parchment again, read the rest, and with a monumental effort of will was able to avoid cursing his heart out. When that battle passed, he shook his head wearily (the motion causing a hitherto unsuspected herd of tiny pains to stampede over him) and sighed. "Well, I guess I don't have to worry about finishing that paper."
His grandfather eyed him craftily. "Think so?"
He thought about it and grudgingly admitted, "No. Suspended or not, they'll want me to hand in all my assignments."
Harold Senior slapped his own knees and stood up. "Come on, then. Let's get your things together and see you home."
* * * * *
The next two weeks seemed stretched out before Harry like a prisoner on a torture rack.
He began the holiday squashed into a coach with his mother and sister, aunt and uncle, and one of their sons (the other son, Aeric, being the youngest, had to ride up with the driver).
Squashed into a coach, his cousin Chas' elbow digging into his ribs, the swaying motion making his lunch churn gruesomely in his stomach, sweltering despite the cooling spell the driver had cast.
And it was only going to get worse from here.
"This will be so nice," Joanna Ethelbald said, smiling at her children. "It's been too long since we've visited the country."
Diana glanced up from her book and returned the smile. "Yes, Mother."
"Don't you agree, Harry?" she hinted.
"Yes, Mother." His reply was far more hollow than Diana's.
"It will be good to see Rheda again," Aunt Pigeon said. "And so good of her husband to welcome us!"
"How long have they been married now?" Joanna asked.
Harry looked out the window and listened with half an ear to their discussion of Anson Byrtwold, the Southern Barony horse breeder. Man was said to have one of the finest stables in western Andur, but he attributed his success to the fact that his estate was located several miles from the nearest town with all of its distractions.
Harry could ride, but it was something he saw more as a necessary transportation evil than something to be pursued for fun.
He already knew how it was going to go. His mother and aunt and his aunt's old chum would cloister themselves in the tea room and get tiddly on apricot cordial, munching petite triangular sandwiches, talking about old times and new gossip and the latest developments in Pandathaway's famous chapter-plays. Lord Byrtwold and Uncle Charles would fall naturally into discussions of business, with the cousins joining in, because while both of them might be younger than Harry, they'd been born as old misers.
That would leave Harry with only Diana for company, and anyone who took Theoretical Applications of Enchantment Magics to read on the trip was not going to be lively company.
When they'd been younger, his little sister had been a pesky nuisance always wanting to tag along and tattle when he and Howie were up to mischief. Recently, as their father realized that Harry was showing no signs of turning into a dedicated mage, he'd devoted more of his attention to Diana, and she in turn had seen that there was one area in which she could outshine her big brother.
He wouldn't even have his own schoolwork to help pass the time. Under Grandmother's eagle-eyes, he had completed his paper, taken three tests, and delivered a presentation. All was in order for him to return to classes at the end of the break, albeit in a different room. And wasn't it so terribly convenient that the only other room open in the entire dorm was the one just two doors down from the Headmaster's own quarters?
Trapped. Howie was right. Oh, sure, in his own way Howie was just as bad as the rest of the family, trying to push Harry into being and doing what he wanted Harry to be and do; in that respect, Howie wasn't all that unlike Grandmother. But at least the things Howie suggested were exciting, adventuresome. Things suited for a hot-blooded young man.
He smothered a sigh. Here they were in the Southern Barony, where if the tales were true the young women pranced along the beaches in skintight knickers and a grin, their tanned bodies glistening beneath a coating of sun-oil. But he wouldn't be seeing any of that, oh, gods no, perish the thought!
Mother and Aunt Pigeon were still talking about the wedding. What Harry recalled most clearly about that big stuffy affair were itchy clothes, a droning ceremony, sharp pinches on his arm whenever he fidgeted or was on the verge of falling asleep, and getting bullied by the groom's son from his first marriage.
"And of course Othelia will be there," Aunt Pigeon said. "Do you remember her, Diana? Oh, you two were so darling in your matching flower girl dresses!"
Harry hid a yawn behind his hand and tried to think. Othelia? Ah, yes, the bride's daughter from her first marriage. Diana's age. Wasn't that a treat? Even Diana, the bookworm, would have someone to talk to. Or maybe if Harry's luck was really in, the Byrtwold boy would be there too, ready to give Harry another orc-burn.
No, that was all in the past. Drefan Byrtwold was a couple of years older than Harry, which meant that anyplace in Andur except for 'civilized' Pandathaway, he'd be considered an adult. Harry considered himself a fairly good observer of behavior, and could not think of a single instance in which he'd seen one grown man give another an orc-burn.
They stayed at an inn that night, and either the dinner of chicken-in-cream sauce or the way Mother and Aunt Pigeon gushed over how charming the place was made Harry's already unsettled stomach cramp up on him mercilessly.
He retired to the room he had to share with his cousins without even a backward glance at the serving girls, even though one of them had been well worth a second or third look.
The next day was better, bringing a smoother road and a cool wind washing in from the ocean. Harry's appetite improved, though his spirits remained low.
Soon the road left the beach and curved up into the higher country, a land of grassy plateaus and stands of cottonwood trees. Weathered old posts and the remains of rambling stone walls rose among wildflowers like remnants from some fabulous, forgotten society. The hint of seaspray on the air was weaker, elusive.
Byrtwold's estate was unimaginatively named The Cottonwoods. It was set far back at the end of a long meadow, the road running straight up the center to the covered porch. Fences lined the road, and dozens of horses tossed their maned heads curiously, nickering to their brethren pulling the coach as they went by.
"Aren't they lovely!" Diana gasped. Like many girls of her station, she'd gone through a phase in which she'd been fascinated with horses, but never so severely as some of her silly young friends.
The house was spacious and unpretentious. It lacked the columns and fountains so popular in Pandathan architecture. The walls were thick to keep out the heat and the windows were wide to catch the breeze.
To one side of the house, a massive tree stood alone and covered with blossoms just beginning to give way to fruit. A swing suitable for two people hung from one of its sturdy lower branches, and Harry spotted a brindle cat sprawled across the seat.
The coach creaked to a halt, and the Ethelbalds clambered gratefully out. The front doors -- two of them, painted white and inset with ovals of stained glass that showed a rising sun and a crescent moon -- opened and a host of servants came out. They swarmed around the coach, unloading the trunks and baggage strapped to the top.
"Ludmilla!" a woman's voice called.
It took Harry a moment to remember that Ludmilla was his aunt's given name; he'd never heard Uncle Charles call her anything but Pigeon.
"Rheda!" his aunt responded, hurrying toward the steps as the woman came down.
Harry knew he was staring, but no one was looking at him, so that was all right.
He'd assumed that a friend of his aunt and mother would look like his aunt and mother, the same small dumpling-plumpish matronly type. Reading spectacles suspended by a beaded chain, prone to fancy chocolates and chapter-plays and needlepoint, that sort of thing.
Rheda Byrtwold was worlds away from that. He'd seen her once before at her wedding, but his only impression then of the bride had been someone dressed up as a giant pastry, with sleeves poofed out to here and a skirt that four people could hide beneath, the whole ensemble topped with layers and layers of cloudy veil.
Now he could see, and he liked what he saw.
Her hour-glass figure was sheathed in apple-green silk dotted with white silk flowers. The neckline plunged dangerously low but modesty was given a nod by way of a lace-trimmed flounce. The dress was sleeveless, her arms bare and tanned from shoulder to the dainty white lace gloves. Her hair was light brown feathered with grey, swept up in a lace snood in the back.
She wore the broadest-brimmed hat Harry had ever seen, which not only shaded her face but cast an eclipsing shadow on the ground. It was held side-slanted on her head with a ribbon. and burdened with fake fruit -- green apples for the most part -- and doves so lifelike they seemed about to chirp and flap their wings.
He recovered from his momentary stunned state as their striking hostess moved to greet first his mother, then Uncle Charles.
In every case, her greeting was the same: catching up both hands in those dainty gloves, leaning forward to peck the cheek, and a dazzling smile and, "Welcome to The Cottonwoods!"
"Goodness me, is this little Diana? Where does the time go? Such a fine young lady! And ... Joanna, this can't be your son! Why, it seems like only yesterday that he was playing tin soldiers on the staircase! Come here, Harry, let me have a look at you!"
Her eyes were as apple-green as her gown, and twinkling with exuberance. Harry returned her smile as warmly as he could.
"Thank you for inviting us, madam," he said as she grasped his hands.
"A handsome, well-spoken gentleman; Joanna, you must be very proud!" She leaned forward to kiss his cheek, but as the brim of her hat obscured their faces from the rest, planted it on his mouth instead. A quick but searing-hot kiss, finishing with a flick of her tongue against his lower lip.
She stepped back, and Harry was astounded but didn't show it, bowed to her and watched intently as she moved on to his cousins. Neither of them got such a reception, and when she turned away from them, he thought that her gaze shifted back to him for too long a moment.
Rheda went back to his mother and aunt, and started telling them all about the house as she ushered them up the steps and through the front doors. The rest trailed after. Harry brought up the rear, alternately wishing he'd worn looser trousers and speculating that these two weeks might be much more interesting than he'd first expected.
* * * * *
Continued in Ch. 4