Chapter Fourteen - Zalibar’s School of Dragonology
When I woke up the next morning, the lair was still and empty so I practiced the exercises Psion had shown me until my head ached. By that time, I could throw up a reasonable defensive shield and move the pebble about with some sort of control… but even I could tell I was still really clumsy… and much too noisy.
I was sitting on the veranda, staring across at a patch of sunlight on the far wall of the Edifice, when Rhiannas finally emerged from his flute. Without any sort of greeting or explanation, he told me to get ready for a flight and I hurried to do as I was told. I mean… I was desperate to find out what he was planning to do with me but he made it pretty obvious that he wasn’t interested in chatting.
Before long, we were flying out of the Edifice through the narrow stone tunnel. And this time, I was halfway ready when he did his tumbling turn thing as we burst out into the sunshine.
From the top of the mountain, he started gliding down towards the island’s eastern shore. I sort of peered down from his back and saw that we were heading towards a large stone building near the top of the cliffs.
As we got closer, I strained to look past his neck so I could see where he was taking me. The house, and a couple of smaller buildings, were built along three sides of a rectangular courtyard. On the fourth side, facing towards the sea, there was a high wall, with a low stone gatehouse in the middle. At one end of the wall, there was some sort of wooden enclosure, open to the sky, whilst, at the other end, there was a rickety-looking wooden tower about twice the height of the house. It had a couple of dragons flying round it.
As we flew lower, I could see about thirty people in the courtyard, They were wearing armour and doing training type routines with swords and things but they all hurried out of the way as Rhiannas swept down. He landed on a platform just in front of a flight of stairs that led up to the main house.
“Ho Zalibar!” Rhiannas said as an elderly warrior hurried up the stairs and bowed to the dragon. “I have a new tyro for you. See whether she can be trained. Return her when she is capable of riding as a neck guard without causing me embarrassment.”
I looked across at the ugliest face I’d ever seen. It was all lumpy and made even worse by a long scar that stretched from forehead to cheek. The man was quite short but powerfully built and he had a funny, lopsided hunched back. He was wearing a jacket and trousers made of heavy black leather with strange markings and, after a moment, I worked out that they were made of dragon hide.
“Yes, Sir!” the man responded promptly. Then he turned his piercing blue eyes on me. “Well, dismount, girl!” he barked.
I tried to do as I was told but, in my hurry, one of my spurs caught in Rhiannas’s scales. I fell heavily onto the stone stairs.
Rhiannas flicked a glance in my direction. “Should she prove unworthy, you may dispose of her as you wish,” he said. Then, without waiting for any sort of answer, he stepped off the platform, sprang into the air and disappeared off towards the mountain.
The ugly man looked down on me for a few moments. “Welcome to Zalibar’s School of Dragonology,” he said in a normal sort of voice but then he turned all savage. “Well… what are you waiting for?” he barked. “Get up!”
I jumped to my feet and looked nervously at the man.
“My name is Zalibar,” he told me, “but I expect you to call me ‘Sir’, if you have to talk to me, but I’d rather you didn’t. Rhiannas has asked me to train you and that’s what I intend to do. He came to me because I am the best. I have very exacting standards and get angry with anyone who fails to meet them.”
He paused for a moment to let this sink in, then added, “And you don’t want me to get angry with you.”
“Follow me,” he barked as he walked down the stairs and across into the middle of the courtyard. He was surprisingly graceful for someone with such a deformed body but there was a hint of a limp there.
I was about to hurry after him but he turned and stared at me. “Spurs!” he said with this menacing sort of sigh thing.
So I shuffled the things round so I wouldn’t slice myself up then hurried after him.
“Armenclethyfur,” he yelled at one of the older boys, “give that halberd here.”
The boy stepped forward with this dirty great hooked spear… about twelve feet long. Zalibar casually took the thing off him… using just one hand… and put it on the ground in front of me.
“Right,” he barked, “Pick it up!”
I reached down and put my hands around the handle and lifted the near end. But the far end just didn’t want to budge off the floor. So I flexed my back and strained my arms and…
Basically nothing happened.
I mean… I didn’t think I’d ever be able to shift the thing.
So I adjusted my grip. A circle of spectators had gathered. Most of them were laughing at me but there were a few encouraging smiles and one, a bedraggled young man, seemed to be sharing my suffering. “Go on!” his mind was shouting at me. “You can do it!”
“I told you to pick it up!” Zalibar reminded me. His tone was still calm but I could feel the menace smouldering not very far from the surface of his mind cloud.
The sand slipped under my feet as I strained my arms and shoulders to move the thing. It was just impossibly frustrating. I mean… the rage that would normally give my strength was being blocked by Rhiannas’s horrible implanted node so I just couldn’t do anything.
Frantically, I thought back to what Psion had said, “Your puny body is never going to be up to it… you’re going to have to hope there’s enough between your ears…” I guess now was the time to find out.
So I took a couple of slow breaths to calm myself then reached out from the cloud world towards the thing. I tried to feed strength through to my arms and… lift.
The halberd leapt into the air and flew out of my hands. I overbalanced at the sudden loss of weight and stumbled to the floor. And, before I could move, I felt a foot on the top of my head, pushing my face into the sand.
A ripple of laughter from the circle was again silenced by a vicious look.
“Others might be amused by the sight of you groveling in the dirt,” Zalibar snarled, stressing his words with extra pressure from his foot. “But I don’t like the idea that important people,” he glanced around the circle again, “might see you there and that…” he paused… “would reflect badly on me. Don’t let me ever see it again.”
“Now stand up!” he said with a kick as he released the pressure. “Do it again. This time I expect control.”
I staggered to my feet, blinking tears from my eyes and spitting sand from my mouth. For the first time I was almost grateful I had that vile lump in my head as it was blocking out the rage and humiliation that I knew I should have been feeling. I just shut everything out and reached down to the halberd with my arms and mind.
With massive concentration, I managed to get the thing off the floor and hold it in front of me, swaying a bit.
“Better!” Zalibar barked. “Now I want to see a figure of eight with the tip.”
Trembling with the strain, I began to move the thing. After just a few moments, sweat was streaming from my forehead and into my eyes.
Time seemed to stand still as I struggled to keep the tip moving. My muscles and mind were screaming. I would have looked up to beg him to let me stop but I didn’t dare move my eyes from the metal tip of the halberd.
Still time stretched on and, though my muscles and mind were shaking violently, I forced myself to keep that tip moving, Every ounce of my being wanted to stop but I wouldn’t let myself. I was determined to keep going until I passed out.
At long, long last, Zalibar took the thing out of my hands. I staggered backwards but managed to stay on my feet.
“Carodoc,” he barked. “Get yourself over here.” A boy… one of the ones who’d been encouraging me… hurried across. “Show this new tyro where to find water then take her through the first basic sword exercise.”
As the boy led me off towards a well bit in the corner, I staggered a bit and I felt him secretly steadying me with his will. “Don’t fall again or you’re dead meat,” he whispered. He sat me at a bench and handed me a simple earthenware mug full of water. “Drink this,” he told me. “It’ll help.”
I drained the water then looked up and managed a weak smile of thanks. He was a thin, medium height boy, a couple of years older than me. His long wavy hair was tied back in a leather thong and he seemed to give off this air of quiet competence.
“You’ve got another couple of minutes,” he told me with an encouraging smile, “then we need to get going. Don’t worry though. The training swords are nothing like as heavy as those halberds.”
I gave a bit of a nod
“My name’s Carodoc,” he told me. “What’s yours?”
“Katie,” I managed to reply
He gave me a couple of seconds then said, “You’re from the Outside, aren’t you?”
I could only manage a weak nod.
“And you’ve only just arrived?”
“Okay, for the time being all you need to know is this: you’re a tyro, like me. We’re here to serve the nonda. When they say, ‘jump,’ you jump and when Zalibar says, ‘jump,’ you jump very high indeed.”
I nodded again then glanced around me. There were two distinct classes of students in the compound. There were about six of the tyros and they were easy to spot with their simple, and usually tatty, loose shirts and tight leggings. The two dozen nonda were wearing the same sort of stuff but it was much smarter
Then I noticed that all the nonda’s shirts were decorated with some sort of wavy line pattern - a hem or a collar or a couple of vertical lines. And no two patterns seemed to be the same… interesting.
At last the trembling in my muscles started to die down and I felt I could go on. “Right,” Carodoc said, “spurs off and then we can get going.”
So I took the things off and tried to stuff them into the pouch without any noticeable success. And, of course, the harder I tried to stuff them in, the worse it got. “Let me do it,” Carodoc said as he took the total mess out of my hands. I mean… he was being pretty condescending but I could live with that for the time being. With a couple of deft folds… and I noticed he was using his mind as well as his hands… he packed the things neatly into their pouch.
“I’ll show you how to do it another time,” he promised. “It’s not too tricky.”
Carodoc led me across to a corner of the yard. “Right,” he said, “first of all we’re going to have to work on your stance… base position… feet shoulder-width apart with your right foot slightly advanced. That’s it! Now let me see you on your toes and flexing your knees.”
After everything I’d gone through in the last couple of days, it was a bit of a relief as he started to take me through the footwork for the first of the routines. I had to concentrate and that sort of pushed my other worries to the back of my mind
At last, Carodoc was more or less happy. He took me over to a store room in the corner that was completely stuffed with training weapons and collected a pair of wooden swords. “These are what you noviates use in your basic training,” he told me. They’re only wood so you’re not going to do any real damage with them, but they’re solid enough so the first rule is: KEEP CONTROL!”
“Oh yes,” he went on. “You’ll be able to swing the thing around with your muscle power but that’s a really bad idea. Us Primes use ones that are weighted with lead and if Zalibar catches you being lazy he’ll have you using one of those. Okay, base position, like I taught you… that’s it… now right hand out to greet the sword.”
That sword slipped into my grip as if it belonged there. Not just my hand grasped it but my mind kind of opened up to embrace the weapon too, as if it were filling a hole that had always been there.
I must have made a lot of noise though because everybody turned to look. “Muffle your mind, girl!” Zalibar barked at me. But, when I managed to drag my fizzing mind away from the sword, he was giving me this funny look.
“You did make an awful lot of noise there,” Carodoc told me, “but at least you’ve got the idea of using both your hand and your mind to grip your weapon… and both grips look fine.”
The rest of the session passed in a bit of a daze but soon I was working on the first exercise. “Inside guard, outside guard, sunrise cut,” Carodoc was chanting to me. “Outside, inside, sunset.” From time to time, I could feel Zalibar’s eyes on me but he didn’t say anything so I ignored him and concentrated on keeping my swinging sword… and my buzzing mind… under control.
And I was concentrating so hard that I was a bit surprised when Zalibar gave a whistle. He didn’t bother saying anything though. I guess everybody else knew that meant it was lunch time.