Rhiannon - Dragonrider

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Chapter Sixteen - Piquant Putrefying Porker

We helped to clear the table and carried our stuff across to a falling-down extension bit they called the scullery, over on the right hand side of the kitchen. There wasn’t any water in the rest of the kitchen… and even in here, it came from the well.

Then Carodoc took me back outside. “Right,” he said, “this is the main quad. The main house bit is called the Master’s Lodge, with the Great Hall, you know, at this end, and Zalibar’s rooms to the left.” He pointed out a balcony bit on the far end of the building. “It’s a good idea to assume he’s got his eye on everything that happens down here in the quad,” he warned me. “There are rooms upstairs for the nonda.”

“You’ve seen the kitchen. Cook’s store rooms are down below the main hall, next to them. She sleeps down there, too, so there’s no breaking in to help yourself!”

“Where do we sleep?” I asked.

“Our dorm’s on top of the kitchen, so it’s usually nice and warm in the morning, as long as Cookie’s been baking. There are the stairs up.”

They led up over the scullery bit and were pretty rickety too. I didn’t say anything but gave him a look.

“Zalibar’s not all that keen on wasting his money on that sort of stuff,” Carodoc told me with a grin as he led me across the quad. “That’s the mews where we keep the nags,” he told me, pointing out this dirty great barn of a building.

“What are nags?”

“Nag dragons… if you crush dragons down enough, they sort of stop thinking and sink down to the level of animals. Then you can kind of domesticate them. That’s what we get to practice flying on.”

He led me into a storeroom next to the mews. “We’ve got to get down to the village to collect meat for the nags,” he explained. There were a couple of little carts and he grabbed one and slipped its stained leather strap over his shoulder. I did the same with the other one. “They’re not too bad when they’re empty,” he explained, “but they’re a bit tricky to handle when they’re loaded up.”

Pulling my cart behind me, I followed him out into the quad then through the gatehouse down towards a rough track which passed in front of the compound along the cliff top. To the right it led downhill towards a wooded valley but we turned left.

At first the track ran through open moorland close to the edge of the low cliffs but then it swung inland, rising steadily towards a thickly wooded hill. When the track reached the woods, it turned and began to climb steeply. At last it emerged onto a narrow strip of open land at the top of some cliffs. There were sea birds circling and, down below, you could hear the waves crashing on the rocky shore. But the woods on the other side felt a bit spooky. They were much too quiet and I felt like I was being watched. I peered into the undergrowth but it was much too dark to see anything.

“Those woods are a bit creepy, aren’t they?” Carodoc said when he saw my glances. “Some people say that they’re haunted by the souls of the students who didn’t survive the academy,” he added with a grin.

The thick woods went on for about half a mile as we followed the track along the cliff edge. Then they thinned until there was only the occasional tree and the track turned inland, dropping down towards a wide valley where there was a village. As we went down the track, I worked out it was the same village that I’d been to the day before.

“Is there just the one village on the island?” I asked.

“There are a couple of smaller ones round the other side,” Carodoc answered, “but most of the important stuff happens up in the Edifice. It’s only the peasants who hang around out here.”

At the bottom of the hill, we crossed a rickety-looking bridge and, from there, we went up a gentle slope which brought us out into the village square. Carodoc headed towards one of the butcher’s stores… not the one that Psion had recommended.

“Afternoon!” he called to the butcher, who was wearing a heavily stained striped apron. “We’ve come to collect the meat for Zalibar’s nags.”

“Right you are,” the butcher replied. “It’s out the back if you want to take your carts round there.”

As we began to load the carts, I noticed that some of the meat didn’t smell particularly good. “You know this stuff isn’t all that fresh, don’t you?” I said to Carodoc, holding out a particularly rancid lump.

“It’s only for the nags,” he replied. “They’ll be fine. It takes worse than that to poison a nag.”

“Where does all this meat come from?” I asked. “I’ve not seen all that many farms since I’ve been here.”

“The council organises raiding trips to the mainland,” he answered. A few dragons wander over, befuddle a farmer or two and come back with half a dozen animals apiece.”

“Keep moving,” he told me when I stopped to stretch my back. “If we hurry, we can go and get you some proper clothes but we have to get back on time. There’s a run later on this afternoon and Zalibar really doesn’t like people being late for that.”

“I hate running,” I mentioned conversationally. I mean… I didn’t really mind the running bit… it was the whole organised sport thing I hated.

“Like it or lump it,” Carodoc replied. “As long as you’re with Zalibar, you’re going to be doing lots of running. He likes running.”

He paused and threw another couple of lumps of meat onto the cart.

“At least,” he added with a wry grin, “he likes other people running.”

I sighed and carried on loading my cart.

When we’d piled on all the meat, we set off back through the village. The carts had got heavy and cumbersome and I was glad when he paused by one of the shacks. “Come on in,” he called, ducking in through the door. I followed him and was astonished to find myself in a clothes store.

There was only one, small room, with a single, tiny window, and it was completely packed. Shelves on the walls were crammed full of clothes and there were more in wooden boxes piled on a table and on the floor.

“Hi Iola!” Carodoc called out. A young lady with shoulder length, brown hair stepped out of the shadows at the back of the room. As she approached, I saw she wasn’t much older than Carodoc though, from the way she moved about the room, I guessed she owned the place.

“Katie here is in training with Zalibar,” he explained. “Have you got anything better for her to wear?”

“Rhian,” she muttered, after seeing my torque. She studied me for a bit then muttered, “You’re a tiny thing.” Then she stepped back into the shadows at the back of the store and started sorting through piles of clothes.

She carried on for a bit and then clicked her tongue. “Of course,” she exclaimed, “that’s just the thing.” She went through a curtain at the back and returned a short time later with a pair of leggings and a light shirt. She also had a leather waistcoat [vest] which was beautifully decorated with shallow cuts in the leather. However it looked as if a narrow strip had been neatly sliced off the bottom.

“How does this look?” she asked.

“It’s a bit grand,” Carodoc replied. “It looks like something a nonda’d wear.”

“It comes from a nonda – from the oldest son of the Skrell Family. I’ve cut their mark off the bottom but, still, no nonda is going to touch it.”

“Skrell Family?” I asked.

“The Skrell Family was taken out in the year of sword and flame,” Carodoc explained. “In fact, thinking about it, it might have been Rhian who did them in.”

“Now, Carodoc, sling your hook!” Iola said. “Let this young lady get changed.”

“Okay,” he said as he disappeared out through the door, “but get a move on. We really mustn’t be late.”

As I hurriedly changed into the leggings and vest, Iola handed me a warm woollen cloak. “Don’t ask!” she said when she saw me looking at a neatly repaired cut in the material just below my heart. “You’ll have to make do with your Outsider shoes for now. They look like they’ll be fine for the time being.” She handed me a string bag saying, “There are a couple of other bits and pieces in here.”

“Now get going,” she said as she hurried me out of the shop. She blew Carodoc a kiss as we went on our way.

Carodoc hurried us back onto the track and down to the bridge but the carts were now heavy and unwieldy. As we made our way up the slope on the far side of the bridge, I started lagging behind.

“Come on!” Carodoc called back to me as we reached the top of the cliff. But, in spite of my struggles, I kept slipping further back as we made our way along the top of the cliff.

But then I felt this funny sort of mental nudge thing and I had to smile when I recognised Psion’s typical twinkle.

“Good afternoon, Young Mistress!” came his cheerful voice. “That cart would appear to be extraordinarily heavy. I do believe, however, that, if just a single piece of meat were to fall off, it would become significantly lighter!”

“It’s a bit rancid”

“I’m a dragon, Young Mistress! How delicate do you think my stomach is?”

“Where do you want it?” I laughed.

“It’s a delightful day. I rather fancy a picnic in the woods.”

I glanced towards Carodoc who was marching onwards, his rope grasped grimly over his shoulder. I grabbed one of the larger lumps of meat and threw it into the woods.

“My most sincere thanks!” came a cheerful voice in response.

I resumed my cumbersome trudge but now it felt as if there were someone behind the cart giving it a helpful push. I glanced back and just caught a glimpse of Psion fluttering back into the woods with the lump of meat in his jaws.

“Mmm, piquant putrefying porker! How delectable!” the little dragon commented.

“Yuk!”

“Slurp, slurp, slurp!”

“Stop that at once or you won’t get any next time!” I warned. He departed my mind, leaving nothing behind but an amused grin. But the push from my invisible helper carried on as I made my way along the top of the cliff.

By the time the wooden tower in the corner of the compound came into view, I’d pretty much caught up with Carodoc. “Keep going,” he called back to me. “We’re nearly there!”

The students were starting to assemble as we hurried back into the quad and a tyro had one of the nag dragons in some strange sort of mental hold and was guiding it towards the platform at the bottom of the stairs. “We’ll have to feed the nags when we get back from the run,” Carodoc said as we pulled the carts into the storeroom, “but we’ve still got time to dump your stuff if we hurry.”

“Be careful,” Carodoc called back to me as I followed him up the rickety staircase to the right of the kitchen. “Sooner or later, someone’s going to go through and find themselves in the scullery.”

“Welcome to our palace,” he said with a sarcastic bow as he opened a door which led into the loft space above the kitchen. A bit of light was creeping into the room from round the edge of the roof but it was dark and dingy. There were half a dozen beds on either side and a heavy curtain ran down the middle, separating the boys from the girls and giving a bit of privacy.

“The roof leaks whenever there’s rain from the north but it’s home to us,” he told me with a laugh. “Dump your stuff on Mairwen’s bed, over there. She won’t be needing it anymore.”

“Has she left?”

“Sort of…” his voice was flat. “She left feet first.”

“What?”

“A training accident. They happen sometimes.”

“But…”

“There’s no time now,” he interrupted me urgently. “Just dump your cloak… and that waistcoat. You won’t be needing ’em. Hurry up! We need to go now!”

I was still wondering about what had happened to Mairwen as I followed him back down the rickety staircase.

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