There was only one problem.
The pencil remained perfectly in one piece, mocking her.
Rhian was a failure at Welsh.
She dropped her head into her hands. For all her father's recent discovery of Welsh nationalism, he didn't speak a lick of Welsh, and being raised in England, neither did she.
"Alright, class, that's enough for now," Mrs. Mackerel stood up from her desk. She was a stout woman with curly grey hair — American. Rumour was she came from a branch of witches that escaped the Salem trials back in the colonial days. She seemed nice enough. Clearly the whole witches are mean thing was the result of poor brand management.
"Your assignment for this evening is to study the composition of two common items and create a vanquishing potion for each."
Rhian winced. As long as she didn't have to actually ignite the potion she should be okay. She closed up the box of pencils and slipped it into her book bag.
"And remember," Mrs Mackerel raised her voice several octaves, "the composition exam is Tuesday. All students are required to achieve at least a 40% mark to continue attending at this institution. Those who score below 60% risk having their entry status re-evaluated at the discretion of the admissions board."
A soft murmur swept around the room.
Katie Phan cleared her throat. "Excuse me, Mrs Mackerel, but what about the students who've been absent, or miss the exam?"
The shuffling of students preparing to leave ceased. Attention turned to the empty chairs spotting the classroom. The number of absent students had been growing by the week.
Katie tugged on her blazer's sleeve. Her friend, Julia Silva, was one of the students who'd disappeared.
Rhian's house matron had assured her it was common for students to drop out around exam time. "The pressure of attending a school such as this is sometimes too much for some," she'd said.
Rhian shifted her gaze to the tall arched windows, the grey overcast threatening rain. It wasn't as if she hadn't considered leaving herself. This was her first experience boarding at a school, and the first few weeks she had been desperately homesick. But knowing how much her parents had invested in this, in her — she just couldn't. No matter how lonely she was, the thought of letting them down was ten times worse. Plus, it wasn't as though she had a home to return to.
"The matter of retakes will be determined on a case by case basis." Mrs Mackerel frowned. Rhian felt a bit sorry for her. It must be difficult for a teacher to have nearly half their class withdraw. Well, for the teachers that cared at least, which she was sure Mrs. Mackerel did.
The period bell rang. Its high vibrations bounced off the stone walls.
"Don't forget," Mrs Mackerel called to the students making their way out the door. "I want two potions on your desk tomorrow. We'll be spending the hour practicing ignition again, so be sure the items you choose are portable!"
"Bollocks," Rhian swore under her breath. She pulled her bag off the tiled floor and headed for the hall.
Gretchen waited outside the door with a red squirrel she'd crafted sat inquisitively on her shoulder. "Uh oh, that face. Still having trouble with your Welsh?"
"It's a stupid language." Rhian muttered, careful not to be overheard by the other Welsher students. "Not nearly enough vowels. What kind of word is "Froydra" anyways?"
"I think it's pronounced Ffrwydro."
"Whatever." Rhian shrugged her bag onto her shoulder. "You headed to lunch?"
Gretchen nodded. The pair cut their way through the flow of uniformed students toward the cafeteria.
"You know, I can help you if you like, with the pronunciations."
Rhian's eyes lit up. "Yeah? That'd be ace. Cheers, Grez you're a star." A weight lifted from Rhian's chest. Although Gretchen wasn't a native Welsh speaker, her family being from York and all, she'd picked up the language quite fast.
Gretchen smiled. "Are you still going for the scholarship?"
Rhian's shoulders slumped. The weight returned. The Owain scholarship was awarded to the most worthy pupils. There'd be a ceremony, photo taking and most importantly a free year of tuition. "I have to try. Though my chances are slim to none."
"Yes, me too."
"Better than mine, surely."
Rhian walked with Gretchen into the cafeteria. Bars of light from tall windows striped the crowded mess. It was more crammed than usual, without a spot spare on any of the tables.
"Want to eat outside?" Rhian crinkled her forehead. As unappealing as possibly getting rained on was, soggy sandwiches beat squeezing in-between people and bumping elbows.
"Sorry girls," a voice cut from behind.
They turned to see the prim Ms. Landeg, the power controlling instructor for gifted students.
"I'm afraid the grounds are off-limits for the afternoon."
"How come?" asked Gretchen.
Katie brushed past Rhian from the cafeteria.
"Miss. Phan, slow down."
Katie turned around red faced. Tears pooled in the corner of her eyes. "You were supposed to protect us, to —". A sob escaped.
"I assure you Miss. Phan the matter is well under control. There is nothing to be concerned about."
"Oh? Is that so? Tell that to Julia's parents when they come to collect what's left of her body," Katie spat. She glared at Ms. Landeg and muttered a curse before turning around and storming off.
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Diolch! (That's Welsh for thanks.😉)
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