Syril’s head was pounding.
That’s all he could focus on as he stared hopelessly at the sheet of paper that sat answerless on his desk. He had spent all his previous night attempting to shove six thousand years’ worth of dates, names, and places into his brain, and the only thing he could focus on now was this brain-splitting headache.
This, of course, was a folly of his own making; he knew too well that zoning out, doodling, and daydreaming during the lectures was never going to make for an easy time in the exam.
Hindsight is 20/20, after all.
He took a sip from his water bottle, hoping it would dull the pain threatening to overwhelm his head and spread to his eyes. Thankfully the water did bring him some momentary relief – unfortunately, it brought him no closer to answering the exam’s last question.
He tugged at his collar, the button-up white dress shirt and accompanying red tie were beginning to feel less like a uniform and more like a straitjacket. His back was ripe with sweat, and he could feel the shirt stubbornly sticking to his chair; he rubbed his cramping leg, an unfortunate reaction to stress.
On the bright side, focusing on these things afforded him the luxury of forgetting about his pounding headache. His hand came up to his short blonde hair, running its way down to the back of his neck before resting on his cheek; he could feel the irritating stubble scattered on his face, a side effect of oversleeping and forgetting to shave.
Subtly, he looked up from his paper, feigning a stretch and casting his eyes around the lecture theatre, praying to see anything that could help him. He looked from the large blackboard that sat erased by the lecturer to the desk beside him that housed a male classmate who returned his gaze with an interrogating expression.
Syril quickly looked away and hoped the classmate wouldn’t query his stare. To make it appear that he was doing his work, he mumbled the question to himself, being sure to nod along to each word as if they provoked a deep and thoughtful answer.
“Describe the effects that early Elven expansion had on the development of other societies,”
He took a deep breath; there was no need to panic; Syril was sure he could write a haphazard response before handing in his exam; he was confident in his ability to wring a pass from nothing.
He reread the question repeatedly, being sure to sound out each word as if to find a hidden answer within the letters. Finally, when no answer jumped out at him, he began to doodle on the margins of his paper, hoping the distraction would calm his spiking nerves. It was ok; he was sure he had time.
A deep gravelly voice boomed around the lecture theatre, “Ten minutes remaining, start finishing up.”
Syril looked up; his thoughts scattered by the echoing voice tearing apart the silence. He stared hopelessly at its origin; professor Seabright sat at his desk, diligently finishing that day’s crossword puzzle; his small wooden chair bending dangerously under his muscular frame.
Syril registered the meaning of the announcement, and white-hot panic shot down his spine. Why does he always do this, he spent too much time focused on a headache, and now the stress of finishing the exam was threatening to escalate it to a migraine. He looked back at the paper and willed his brain to remember something; anything, words on a page were all he needed right now.
Reasoning that anything would be better than nothing, he listed everything he could remember about Elven expansion.
There were the basics; Elves expanded their influence through war and deception; they overthrew kingdoms as saviours to some and tyrants to others; one bloody uprising later and the same realms they subjugated overthrew them, and the Elven kingdoms fell into obscurity. Syril knew there was much more, but he just needed to put pencil to paper.
‘The elven expansion brought medicine and technology to other races…’ Syril was sure that starting by rewording the question wouldn’t win him any points. Still, he was just happy to see words appearing.
He wrote frantically; words were misspelled, dates incorrect, and names jumbled, but Syril didn’t care; he would be thankful for any grade on this question, and he just wanted this hell to be over.
Professor Seabright’s voice rang again through the silence, “Times up, pens down, leave the tests, and get out of my classroom.”
Syril anxiously looked over his test again; he knew this was the best he could do, yet he felt no pride in the words on the page. He hastily threw his pencil, bottle, and runic dictionary into his bag, got up from his seat, and moulded into the line of students descending the theatre’s stairs towards the door.
He looked around, studying his classmates’ faces, desperately hoping to see a sign that they had found the test as brutal as he had. But, instead, no one spoke, no chatter, no laughter, and Syril felt better at the sound of it all. Perhaps everyone also struggled, and maybe Seabright would be forced to curve the grades. Syril fantasised about the possibility.