From the moment Suhel Caradoc laid eyes on the Lynwood School for Girls, she knew she did not belong there.
The little Christmas-coloured Lupe poked out her snout from the window of her carriage, eyeing the grounds with distaste. The immaculately-trimmed lawns stood behind signs saying “KEEP OFF THE GRASS”. The stately trees had been expertly trimmed to remove all low-hanging branches that might facilitate climbing. The school building itself was the most boring grey monolith Suhel had ever seen, as if not a single Neopoint of the construction budget had gone into trying to make it interesting or beautiful. At least Suhel’s parents’ house contained the expensive things they had bought to show off, but Lynwood seemed to scream dullness—or rather, to whisper it politely.
Suhel’s dark green ears drooped. Barring holidays, this was to be her home for the next seven years of her education, and she felt a pit of dread well up in her stomach.
“You’re slouching,” her governess said.
Suhel stiffened and clenched her paws in her lap, shooting an exasperated glare at the aging, thin-lipped red Blumaroo who sat across from her. Suhel and Miss Matilla had never gotten along, but Father paid Miss Matilla too much for the governess to quit.
“I can’t help it,” the Lupe said. “These boots pinch my toes and make my paws hurt. And you’ve braided my hair much too tightly.” Sitting up straight was just too much to ask on top of all of the other discomfort. Suhel’s long, curly black hair hung in two glossy plaits over her shoulders, although a few bits of frizz had managed to defiantly sneak their way free.
“You,” Miss Matilla sniffed, making her dangling nose wobble, “are going to enter Lynwood looking like a respectable little girl, and not a Gremble.”
“I like Grembles,” Suhel said under her breath. “There’s a family of them that lives in the old oak tree in the park, and sometimes I share my sandwiches with them—“
Miss Matilla groaned. “Oh, is that why you’re always running away to the park? To waste food on Petpets?”
Suhel scowled and ducked her head. She ran away because she liked to climb trees, and dig holes, and build fortresses out of branches and stone and pretend she was a mighty queen of a forest realm. She could not do any of those things in her own house—of course she tried, but the maids made too much of a fuss.
So it was either sneak out to the park, or laze around the nursery, not feeling particularly useful or wanted. Her parents never spoke to her except at supper, and it was just a token “how was your day”, which really just meant “I hope you’ve been minding Miss Matilla”. And then they returned to chatting and arguing with the other adults about parties and business and news around the Haunted Woods.
Suhel thought this was fine, as none of that interested her anyway. She wanted to be outside, among growing things and the good earth, not the tacky kitsch that encumbered her parents’ house. And she wanted to know what it was like to have a real friend or two.
Outside of Lynwood, other girls were being dropped off by their governesses. Some of their farewells became quite teary as Uni carriages pulled away. Suhel doubted Miss Matilla could ever evoke that level of emotion.
Their own carriage stopped and Miss Matilla opened the door. “Out you go,” she said, shooing her charge. “Thank the driver,” she added, as if Suhel needed to be reminded to do everything.
The Lupe’s fur bristled, but she managed a thank-you to the purple Uni who pulled their carriage. He nodded in reply, and Suhel fetched her trunk from the luggage compartment.
For a moment she and Miss Matilla stared at each other, and Suhel wondered if the governess felt as awkward as Suhel did. Clearly something was supposed to happen here, but they lacked the emotional bond to properly go through with it. This was not a farewell, merely a Neopet escorting a child to boarding school.
Finally Suhel decided to take the initiative. “Good-bye,” she said, in a sort of tone that insinuated the carriage had better get a move on.
Miss Matilla had an odd expression on her face as she seemed to struggle to figure out what to say. Finally, as the carriage lurched forward, she said, “Don’t embarrass your parents.”
And then she was gone.
Suhel heaved a sigh of relief. One more irritating adult out of her life. She felt more her own Neopet than she had ever been. Except now she had Lynwood to deal with.
The thought made her snout wrinkle as she regarded the featureless grey building once again, and began to pull her trunk toward the doors.
A grating giggling made her glance over her shoulder to see a red Kougra looking her way. The other girl flounced down the walk like she owned Neopia, tail held high and long brown hair cascading behind her. “You must be a first-year,” the Kougra said. “I’ve not seen you before.”
“Aye,” Suhel said, trying to size up this other student. The Kougra did not really look any older than her.
“I’m Lexora Fitchet,” the Kougra said, looking down her broad nose at the Lupe. “I’m a second-year.”
Suhel decided she did not like the way Lexora looked at her. “I’m Suhel Caradoc,” she said, moving for the doors.
Lexora stepped in front of her and asked, “Caradoc? What sort of a name is that? You’re not from Bogshot, are you? Because you speak funny—sort of the way I’ve always imagined Bogshot folk to speak.”
Suhel noticed that Lexora did, indeed, have a different accent than she was used to. “I’m from Kincaird,” the Lupe said. “It’s in the western Haunted Woods.”
“Kincaird? Up in the highlands?” Lexora asked with a smirk. “No wonder your accent is so… rustic.”
“Move,” Suhel said, nudging her aside. The more she was around Lexora, the less she liked it. The Lupe’s bright green eyes flicked up to her surroundings. Far away, past the artificial-looking lawn and trees, lay the Haunted Woods, wild and beckoning. The very thought of exploring such a place made Suhel’s heart leap.
And then of course reality pulled it back down again. “What does your daddy do?” Lexora asked, her paws on her hips and her striped tail lashing.
“He’s in business,” Suhel said, not bothering to stop this time. “I think.” At least, that was what she had gleaned from supper conversations that she had been left out of.
“So’s my daddy,” Lexora said from behind her. “He’s one of the wealthiest businesspets in Neovia, you know!” Her voice rose as Suhel retreated. “His company imports from Shenkuu! This dress cost him two hundred thousand Neopoints!”
“What a waste,” Suhel grumbled to herself as she pulled her trunk up the steps and barged through the door into the entry hall.
“Your dress looks like it’s hardly worth a hundred thousand!” Lexora said as she followed Suhel. “Your daddy must not love you as much!”
Suhel groaned and clenched her teeth, trying her hardest to ignore the girl. They could make her go to Lynwood, but they couldn’t make her like it.
As it turned out, there was plenty to dislike about Lynwood. The trouble started right away, when an older brown Elephante girl gave Suhel a cruel smile as the first-year brought her luggage inside, and deliberately tripped her.
“You did that on purpose!” Suhel snarled to the girl, who giggled as her gang of friends congratulated her on a job well done. “What was that for?”
“I’m just the welcome party,” the Elephante said with a sneer, “that’s all. And don’t you talk back to a fifth-year, you little scrub.”
Suhel’s eyes widened in shock. She never imagined anyone could be so nasty. She marched over to the nearest adult, a green Jubjub woman wearing spectacles and a prim little hat in her verdant fur. “Excuse me,” Suhel said, “but she just tripped me. On purpose.” She pointed to the Elephante and her friends, who did not look at all afraid—if anything, they looked even more amused than before, which was extremely disturbing.
The Jubjub looked over at the fifth-years, then up at the Lupe girl—and frowned. “Shame on you,” the Jubjub said, “for tattling!”
Suhel grimaced. “Tattling?! But she—“
“Don’t take that tone with me, young lady!” the Jubjub said, drawing herself up as high as physically possible. “I didn’t see it happen, but for all I know, you’re lying to get her in trouble! We don’t take kindly to tattle-tales here at Lynwood, you know.”
“But—“ Suhel gestured back to the fifth-years in disbelief. “Just look at them! Look how they’re acting! It’s obvious they’re up to no good!” Her heart sank. What in the world was wrong with everyone here? “Fitchet!” she barked to the Kougra girl who had seen the whole thing. “Tell her what happened!”
Lexora’s tail bushed and she wrung her paws. The Elephante and her posse glowered at the second-year, who shrank under their withering gaze and said nothing.
“That’s two strikes for talking back!” the Jubjub snapped. “Cross me again and it’ll go on your permanent record!”
Suhel shut her jaw, more because she realized nothing she said would get through to this woman than because she cared anything about her permanent record. Clenching her fists, she went to grab her luggage. As she did so, she glared daggers at Lexora, who looked rather ill. “I can’t believe you,” the Lupe growled. “You’re just as bad as them, you know.”
“W-well,” Lexora stammered, “I—“ She turned and ran down the hall.
Ears pitched forward dangerously, Suhel made for the stairs to the dormitories. So this was how Lynwood would be. Suddenly she felt the horrible dread of being beleaguered from all sides with no allies. She would have to tough it out until the holidays.
Unless… The wild growth of the old Woods called to her like a siren song. Suhel stopped and closed her eyes, breathing in deeply as though she could smell its rich aroma. Then she frowned and kept walking. No matter how much she wanted the Woods, she could not have it. That was the way life was, a series of things she couldn’t have. The sooner she accepted that, the better.
Being stuck in orientation made that fact difficult to swallow, however.
The next day, Suhel found herself and the other first-years marched out to the fields surrounding the school. “And here is where you will play field hockey as part of your physical instruction,” said a yellow Blumaroo teacher who reminded Suhel unsettlingly of Miss Matilla—not just in personality but in appearance, as though the two had gone to the same school of fashion and deportment. “You will be assigned teams. You will play your best, as we play against other schools during the year and we demand excellence in all our endeavours.”
Suhel hated how the teachers here never asked the students to do anything—they demanded. And Suhel certainly did not care for attempting to play team sports with any of these girls. She sighed and lifted her green eyes to the beckoning Woods. She’d always felt like she belonged there, ever since she could remember. Would she really have to abandon that dream forever?
“Now, back inside for lunch!” the Blumaroo said, shooing the girls away. “I expect you at the library promptly at one o’clock to learn about our filing system. Late arrivals will receive a mark on their permanent record!”
Suhel scowled as she tromped inside. Wearing boots on a grassy field was a nuisance as well. Her paws worked perfectly fine—but of course they’d never let her go barefoot at Lynwood.
“Good morning, scrubs!” said an irritatingly familiar voice as they headed for the school. Lexora and a few other girls her age walked out to the field with some badminton equipment. “Clear out, would you?” Lexora asked. “I don’t want any of you getting in our way!”
One of the second-years, a red Meerca, got an ugly look on her face that Suhel recognised as the expression of someone who is about to do something hurtful. As the first-years passed, the Meerca casually whipped out her tail and caught the ankles of a blue Mynci near Suhel. The girl let out a terrified squeak as she fell face-first into a patch of mud.
The Meerca and her friends laughed, and to Suhel’s horror many of the first-years laughed too. And the teacher had seen the entire thing.
Suhel pulled the Mynci to her feet, but the other girl pulled away from the Lupe with a suspicious glare. Suhel looked over to their adult supervision. “Now see here,” Suhel said, “you’ve got to do something about this! These girls are out of control! Even I can see that and I’m younger than they are!”
The Blumaroo narrowed her eyes. “Why should I do something about it?”
Suhel’s fur bristled. “What—because it’s common decency!” she snarled. “Because you’re supposed to be looking out for us!” Her voice broke a bit. Adults had done nothing but betray her and abandon her. It hurt to realise it was the same here as at home.
“That’s nonsense,” the teacher said, folding her arms. “If I do that, how will you girls learn to fend for yourselves? The world is a tough place, Miss Caradoc. You must toughen up as well, or perish. It’s survival of the fittest.”
“That’s the worst rot I’ve ever heard!” Suhel barked, baring her fangs. “Sounds like just an excuse to be awful to each other and not have to care about anyone’s feelings!”
The Blumaroo scowled. “Watch your tongue! I’ve been warned about you, Miss Caradoc—you wouldn’t want anything to happen to your permanent record, would you?”
“Bother my permanent record!” Suhel shouted, throwing up her paws. “I don’t care a bit about it! Do whatever you like to it, you nasty old hag!” The other girls began to whisper and giggle, enjoying the drama, but Suhel did not care about them right now either.
The teacher drew a sharp breath. “Fine, then! It’s going on your permanent record that you are a tattle-tale, you don’t mind, and you are a generally disagreeable child!”
“Smashing!” Suhel said. “I can’t wait to see how long those notes are on my permanent record by the time I’m graduated!”
The Blumaroo did not have a reply for this, so she simply marched inside in a huff.
“Oooh,” one girl said, “you really made her cross! How droll!”
“I say,” said another girl, “she is quite funny when she’s angry, isn’t she!”
“So’s Caradoc!” the second-year Meerca said with an unkind laugh. “Especially with that Bogshot accent of hers! It gets thicker when she’s worked up about something!”
Now it was Suhel’s turn to frown. “It’s not a Bogshot accent,” she said, turning to the second-years. “I’m from Kincaird.”
“No you’re not,” the Meerca said. “You’re from Bogshot.”
Suhel stared blankly at her, unable to wrap her mind around the sheer idiocy of denying the truth of something one knew nothing about. That was like definitively declaring that Kreludor was made of green cheese, and refusing to believe otherwise.
She looked to Lexora, who was chuckling politely and looking more and more guilty about it with every moment. “Fitchet,” Suhel said, “tell her I’m from Kincaird.”
Lexora’s eyes widened and her ears drooped. All eyes were riveted on her, and for a long moment she paused, clutching a lock of her long brown hair. Then she ducked her head and stepped away.
“So she is from Bogshot!” another girl said, and they all laughed again.
Suhel was done. She brushed past them and toward the school, shooting a parting glare at Lexora, who looked dreadfully sorry. But not sorry enough, Suhel decided. She made plans to just stop talking to everyone at this school. It would only be three short months before she was back at home for Giving Day, and there not talking to anyone was par for the course anyhow.
But the first day of school changed everything.
It happened in her first class—grammar. Not Suhel’s worst subject, but not her favourite either. She could read and write well enough, but the endless technicalities of language bored her. She would much rather be learning about living things, or more practical subjects.
But she had to suffer through Lynwood, and try as hard as possible to put all thoughts of the Woods out of her mind. So she sat at her desk and pulled out her grammar text, a pawful of paper, and a pen and ink.
“For your first assignment,” the purple Jetsam teacher said, “you will write a five-page composition on the conjugation of verbs, as discussed in the text.”
“Oh, wake me when it’s over,” Lexora whispered, rolling her eyes.
“What are you doing sitting next to me?” Suhel grumbled under her breath to the Kougra. “Did you flunk first-year grammar?”
“Of course not,” Lexora hissed back. “The second-year class is awfully small, so they grouped us in with you scrubs this year.”
“But isn’t it boring doing the same work over again?” Suhel asked.
“Does it matter?” Lexora asked. She tried to sound snippy about it, but Suhel caught a definite tone of resignation in the Kougra’s voice. “You know, we’ve—we’ve got to learn to just do the task set in front of us and not ask questions. That’s—the way society works.”
“If I ever find out who decided society ought to work that way,” Suhel said, “I’ll hunt them down and—”
“Caradoc,” Lexora said, doing a double-take at Suhel’s desk, “your ink’s on the wrong side. You’ll spill it that way. Heavens, they don’t teach you anything right in Kincaird, do they?”
Suhel ignored her. She always placed her inkwell to her left, or else she would have to reach across her paper to recharge her pen. She was not about to sacrifice efficiency because of an annoying schoolmate. Snout bent toward her desk, she began to write with all of the enthusiasm one can possibly muster when writing about the conjugation of verbs.
Something moved in front of her and a sharp crack split the air—followed by a stinging pain in Suhel’s knuckles. She yelped, dropping the pen which splattered ink all over her first paragraph, and shook out her paw. “What—“
“Miss Caradoc,” the teacher said, standing above her and wielding a yardstick menacingly. “Proper young ladies write with their right paws.”
Suhel narrowed her eyes and rubbed her paw, which still smarted. “I’ve always written with my left paw. I don’t see the harm in it.”
“It’s aberrant,” the teacher said. “We shall have none of that here, do you understand me? Lynwood is a school where girls are trained to integrate into society. Which is something misbehaving children like yourself especially need.”
Suhel stood up and growled, her ears pitched forward. “I think that’s stupid.” The other girls had all stopped writing to watch, but Suhel didn’t care. “There’s nothing wrong with writing left-pawed—it’s just another one of your rules that exist for no reason.”
“Rules,” the teacher snapped, “are the building blocks of civilisation! And we live in a civilisation that requires all of its members to conform in order to function properly!”
“That’s rubbish if I’ve ever heard it!” Suhel said. “Society will not collapse if Neopets write left-pawed, or—or write novels instead of going into business, or something of that sort! And at any rate, you faculty seem to have forgotten the rules that really matter—the ones about brother- and sisterhood, and taking care of the people who need you!”
The teacher scoffed and rolled her eyes. “Real life is not some Meridellian chivalric fantasy, I’ll have you know, Miss Caradoc. The only one you should be looking out for in this miserable world is yourself. Now, be a proper young lady and mind your manners!”
“Maybe I’m not a proper young lady!” Suhel snarled, her eyes wide as she bared her small fangs. “I hate your stupid rules, and I hate your stupid civilisation! I want to be myself!” Visions of the Woods danced in her head. She knew where she belonged, and she was tired of making her heart sick to try to please others who would never be pleased with her.
“You are the bane of the faculty and we’ve only had you here a week!” the teacher said, showing her own large sharp teeth in a very disapproving scowl. “Lynwood is no place for difficult little miscreants who refuse to grow up!”
“Not a problem,” Suhel said with a fierce grin. “I’ll take my difficult-ness elsewhere.” Splashing her inkwell at the teacher’s face, she turned and ran.
Ignoring the cries of alarm from the other girls, Suhel tore out of the classroom and down the hall. She would have jumped out a window, but she was on the third floor and didn’t trust her climbing skills that much, so she made for the stairs.
“Miss Caradoc!” the teacher shouted down the hall. “Get back here this instant!”
They couldn’t make her, Suhel realised as she bounded down the steps, her claws ripping into the banister as she swerved on the landing. They couldn’t make her go to Lynwood, after all. She laughed, a throaty and gleeful laugh, making a pair of sixth-years on the second floor stare.
Let them stare, Suhel thought. Perhaps they would learn something from all of this.
The teacher never caught up. Suhel was much younger and much faster. She burst out the doors of Lynwood, leaped down the steps, and took off across the lawn.
She had hoped to sprint all the way to the Haunted Woods, but her paws were practically screaming in her boots, and Suhel stopped near an old tree to pull them off. Her stockings followed shortly after.
With a satisfied grin, she wiggled her toes and let her paw pads feel the cool dirt, the rough bark of the tree’s roots, and the wet grass. She would have to find a blouse and some trousers somewhere as well—dresses were rubbish for exploring the forest.
Suhel turned to look back at Lynwood, drab and grey against the cloudy sky. She couldn’t really just run away like this, could she? A knot formed in her stomach. What if she was making a terrible mistake? But was it ever a mistake to follow one’s heart? She grabbed the tree trunk, her claws digging into it. She didn’t want to go back to Lynwood. But ahead of her stretched the unknown, and something about that unnerved her too. Swallowing hard, she turned and looked at the great old Woods before her, seeming to go on forever, beckoning her.
“Caradoc!” Suhel looked up to see Lexora jogging toward her. The Kougra’s ears were low and her golden eyes wide as she said, “You must come back, right now!”
The look on her face made Suhel wonder if Lexora actually cared about her. “Why are you out here?” the Lupe asked with an unquenchable longing to actually have a friend.
Lexora dashed that with the next thing out of her mouth. “The teacher sent me after you. She’s in a terrible rage and she threatened me with suspension if I didn’t apprehend you! And I simply can’t get suspended, they’ll tell Daddy and then he won’t buy me that coat from Prigpants and Swolthy!”
Suhel frowned. Pushing away from the tree, she drew herself up tall, although Lexora was still taller. “I’m not going back,” she growled.
“You—you’re not going to go into the Woods, are you?” Lexora asked, tail bushed with fright.
“Aye,” Suhel said.
“Neopets who go in there don’t come out,” Lexora said.
“Maybe they don’t want to,” Suhel said.
The Kougra grabbed the younger girl’s arm and said, “You’re already in enough trouble as it is—we’ll never hear the end of it from the staff if you go missing! Oh, please don’t go—if I come back without you, I’ll get a mark on my permanent record! And the older girls will never let me hear the end of it!” She cringed.
Suhel felt a pang of sympathy for this girl, who probably didn’t have any real friends either, and it sounded like her father was no better than Suhel’s parents. The Lupe’s tail lowered. “Fight it,” she said. “Tell your daddy that the Lynwood teachers are monsters. They’re the ones who ought to be punished, not you.”
Lexora looked up from her boots. “You—you think so?” she asked, her voice cracking.
“Aye,” Suhel said. “Don’t let Lynwood destroy you, Fitchet. Just like I won’t let it destroy me.”
“I don’t know if I can,” Lexora said, wringing her paws again.
“You won’t know until you try,” Suhel said.
Lexora bit her lip. “I… I want to be brave like you. I’m awfully sorry I didn’t stick up for you those two times. I felt just horrid about it. But I was so scared of what would happen to me…”
Suhel looked her over and put a paw on her shoulder. “I think you can be brave,” the first-year said, “if you really want to be. It’s just about doing what you know is right—no matter what.” She grinned. “Now, I’ve got my own adventures in store. Good-bye, and good luck!” Turning tail, she broke away and ran for the Woods.
“I shan’t forget you, Caradoc!” Lexora shouted.
“Same to you, Fitchet!” Suhel said, and then the shadows enveloped her. She bounded across the forest floor, leaping over logs, splashing through streams, and getting her dress snagged on branches. It felt like coming home.
Once she had run all of the frustration out of herself, she collapsed on a pile of dead leaves, exhausted but thoroughly happy. Her tongue lolled from her jaw as she undid her braids, and then she gave herself a good, thorough Lupe shake. It started from her head and worked its way through her whole body to the tip of her tail, and then she really felt better. Her hair, finally free from its confinement, fell in a frizzy mane around her face, and Suhel thought she certainly must look as wild as a Gremble.
Overcome with emotion, she tilted back her snout and howled. It was a long and joyous howl, a song for the Woods themselves. Suhel belonged here.
The Lupe girl knew something of the dangers that lurked in the Woods. Everyone who grew up in this region heard the stories. But Suhel was also confident that she could prevail. After all, everyone in the stories seemed like cowards who only knew how to scream and run. Suhel could do more than that.
She reached for a nearby stick on the ground and took a few test swings—with her left paw, of course. It made a passable sword and she grinned.
As the little Lupe set out to explore her new home, she could not predict everything about her future. She did not know how living in the Woods would change her—how she would grow to monstrous size and strength, and her forest green fur would shift colour into an earthy brown. It would take a few times hearing the cry of “Werelupe!” before she could fully realise what she had become.
And she relished it.
Lynwood had tried to smother her spirit—but Suhel Caradoc was stronger than that.