Chapter Seventeen - The Long Run
Zalibar was just stepping out of the Master’s Lodge as we joined the others in the quad. He gave us a bit of a frown but didn’t say anything.
He waited for a few moments, looking down on us all from the top of the staircase, and I had a quick look at the new dragon that was over by the mews. It was about the same size as Psion and it, too, looked as if it hadn’t been treated particularly well recently, but that was all the two had in common. I mean… my silver-grey friend’s eyes were bright and golden, always ready with a twinkle or a joke, but this dragon’s eyes were dull and lifeless. It was a blotchy brown colour and looked as if it had lost about half its scales.
But the most striking thing about the beast were the waves of despondency coming off it.
“Right,” Zalibar said and I hurriedly looked back at him. He was wearing knee high riding boots and carrying a long black whip. “I hope you’re all feeling fit because today we’ve got a peak run.”
This was met by groans from some of the students which he silenced with a glance. “Most of you know the drill, but for you…” he glanced down at me… “I don’t think I need to tell you the route. As it’s your first time, if you happen to find yourself out front, you have my permission to take it easy until someone catches up with you.” This comment caused a bit of laughter. “Otherwise, my only rule is, ‘No slacking’. Don’t worry, I’ll have my eye on you all.”
“Hey, Geraint,” he shouted to the tyro holding the dragon, “get Towan over here.”
Geraint hurried the dragon to the bottom of the staircase and Zalibar stepped onto its shoulders. “Okay, ladies and gentlemen,” he said as his dragon took off, “let’s go!”
The group set off out of the gateway and, for a moment, Carodoc ran at my side. “I can’t hang around back here with you lot,” he told me, “but you’ve got to try to stay with the main group. If you get dropped, you’re in for a whole lot of very unwelcome attention.”
We turned right along the track, away from the village.
“That’s Kiernonda,” he added in a whisper, nodding across to a heavily built, dark-haired nonda. “stay with him and you should be okay. And whatever you do, DON’T COME LAST.” With that, he stretched out his legs and pulled ahead towards the leaders.
The track dropped down into a narrow wooded valley and got really slippery with loose rocks and tree roots and things. I stumbled and, before I could sort myself out, a tall Nonda boy had shoved past me.
Flinging my arms out wide, I charged on down the slope after him. Ahead of me the runners were jumping a stream then turning right to follow a smaller path which headed up the valley.
As he reached the stream, the Nonda in front of me boosted his jump with his mind but he must have got the power wrong because he sailed over the far bank and stumbled to his knees. Grabbing my chance, I jumped into the turgid water but immediately wished I hadn’t. The stuff burnt where it splashed up onto me. There must be some sort of horrible chemicals in there! As I stumbled forward, more in shock than pain, someone else shoved their way past.
Gritting my teeth, I pushed on up the path. At first it meandered gently along the river side then it turned left to climb steeply up the side of the valley.
Stumbling over roots, I followed the narrow path until it emerged above the trees and I could see it stretching out towards the peak. It looked as if it was miles away. By now, I was in a group of four runners at the back and, as I glanced around, another one of the Nonda jostled past and struggled on ahead of me.
Our little group slowed as the path got steeper but I was startled by a loud cracking noise behind me. I ignored it and carried on grinding my way up the slope but the two people behind me started making this really desperate effort and pushed past, leaving me all on my own at the back.
At first, I didn’t realise that the sharp, stinging pain on the back of my legs had anything to do with the cracking noise and it was only when I heard Zalibar’s harsh words that I realised that he was flying behind me and using his whip to make me run faster. Somehow, when I worked out what was going on, the pain got even worse and I tore up the path to catch up with the others.
The Kiernonda guy was just in front of me and I could hear his breathing getting ragged and uneven so I used a wide bit of the path to overtake him again. I looked up to see there was another runner just in front of me and I fixed my eyes and mind on the back of his head as I struggled on up the slope.
As I drew closer, I recognised a curly haired tyro and concentrated on closing the gap, shutting out the burning in my lungs and the scream of my leg muscles.
That climb never seemed to end and, a couple more times, when I’d pretty much slowed to a walk, Zalibar flew back to me to speed me up with sharp words and spiteful cuts of his whip.
Soon the quicker runners started to pass us on their way back down but even they weren’t completely spared Zalibar’s attention if he decided they weren’t working hard enough.
Gradually I closed the gap to the tyro and, by the time I reached the bare stone and piles of broken rock which marked the summit, I was almost on his shoulder. I followed him as he turned right onto a rough path that led over a boulder field, making its way around the mouth of the Edifice, over to our left.
A shout from the tyro warned me as the path passed dangerously close to a hole in the ground, big enough to swallow a house. It obviously wasn’t natural because it had a steeply sloping upper lip which was decorated with one of their wavy line things. “Han,” the boy gasped to me. I followed him round the lip, with my arms and my will flailing, desperately trying to keep my balance. I hardly dared to look at the chasm that yawned to my left.
“This is impossible,” I gasped as, side by side with the other tyro, I scrambled up the last stone wall. It was basically vertical.
“This is nothing,” the tyro panted in reply. We emerged onto a small plateau at the top of the peak. “Primes have to use the inner path.” He nodded in the direction of the Edifice’s mouth to our left. There was a short stretch of solid rock so I risked a glance in that direction to try and work out what he meant by the ‘inner path’.
The mouth of the Edifice lay below us like a volcano and it was surrounded by this crazy maze of curved stone struts and beams. For a moment, I was confused until I managed to sort out the scale. I realised that I was looking down on the elaborate stonework decorations that ringed the mouth.
And I suppose there was a path down there… of sorts. Over on the far side the last couple of primes were just finishing their circuit. It looked like they were running along stone beams, only a couple of inches wide, and, in places, they were having to make dirty great jumps. Below them stretched the unthinkable drop of the Edifice.
I ran on, tripping and stumbling over the piles of loose stone, towards another opening. This time the path passed to the left and was, if anything, even closer to the edge. As I ran past, I recognised the Rhian ‘S’ pattern and realised that this must be the flute that I’d flown through that morning with Rhiannas.
“What if you fall?” I heard myself asking.
“Good news. You’ve no chance of hitting the floor,” the tyro replied grimly. “A plummeting human like that would be too much for any self-respecting dragon to resist.”
But then I noticed Zalibar moving back up towards us. “Don’t even think of slacking now,” I heard him shouting.” I’ve got my eye on you.” I risked a glance back and saw that Kiernonda, with his encouragement, had almost caught up with us and, when I looked back, the tyro had pulled away from me, taking crazy risks over the broken rock.
The way down was even worse than the climb. The loose grey rocks kept sliding about under my feet, making me stumble, and Kiernonda, behind me, kept getting closer and closer until I could hear his frantic breaths.
Then suddenly I was flying. For a moment, I couldn’t understand what was going on but, as I plunged down towards the jagged rocks, I realised that Kiernonda must have tripped me. I crashed down heavily, scraping my hands and knees and smashing the air out of my lungs.
For a moment, I just lay there, too stunned to move. I vaguely wondered if it had been an accident but, as he ran past, he kicked me viciously in the ribs. So… there was no doubt… he’d done it on purpose.
I managed to haul myself to my feet and set off running again but now it was tricky to breathe and, with every step, pain went shooting through my right knee. In spite of my frantic efforts, I couldn’t keep up with Kiernonda on the treacherous path and I could only watch as he gradually pulled away. Then, as I looked down the hill, I saw Zalibar drifting up towards me, casually unfurling his whip.
But then I heard a familiar voice bubbling into my head. “I would venture to suggest that some assistance would not be entirely unwelcome, Young Mistress.”
I’d have wept with relief but I couldn’t spare the energy. All I could manage was a sort of mental nod.
“Whilst I am unable to support your running at this distance, I can assist with your balance. Place your trust in me and do not resist my interventions.”
So I forced myself to relax and, relieved of the worry about the treacherous, slippery path, I could just concentrate on the running bit. I was vaguely aware of the little nudges and pulls that were helping me to balance but I couldn’t think about them. My mind was fixed on the bobbing head in front of me.
I turned a corner and caught a glimpse of the wooden tower, in the corner of the compound - the end of the run. But it still looked a horribly long way off.
Up ahead of me, Kiernonda eased up a bit as the path dropped back down into the wooded valley. I guess he thought he was safe because Zalibar wouldn’t be able to see him. I saw my chance and flung myself recklessly down, jumping over tree roots and slipping on the muddy soil. As we approached the main track, he was only a couple of yards ahead and he didn’t seem to have noticed that I was there.
Suddenly Psion’s voice was in my head. “There is a short-cut! Allow me!” There was a weird feeling as he took over my legs and I felt myself being thrown down towards the stream.
I sort of wanted to resist as he steered me towards that horrible, burning water, but I knew I just had to trust him. I felt myself doing this dirty great leap and one of my feet landed on a slippery stone, kind of being held in place by a mental nudge. Then, in three more giant leaps I was across the stream and heading up the track.
By the time Kiernonda noticed me, I was a couple of yards ahead of him. But I was too far gone to think about anything but Carodoc’s words: ‘Don’t finish last.’ With more strength than I knew I had, I hauled my shattered body up the steep bit of the track. Then I just threw myself into the last, desperate sprint towards the gateway and into the compound.
I stumbled into the quad, on the verge of passing out, and felt Psion taking my weight as I collapsed forwards. He gently lowered me onto my hands and knees before he did his vanishing trick.
Still on my knees I looked up to see that Zalibar was talking. “With one glaring exception,” he was saying, “that was tolerable but, Kiernonda, you really are going to have to try harder; allowing yourself to be beaten by an Outsider girl several years younger than you. Same again, please, but this time you’re going to have my undivided attention and I’m going to see a bit more effort. The rest of you, I’ll see you at dinner.”
The look that Kiernonda gave me as he ran past made it quite clear that he intended to make me pay for not letting him beat me but, at that moment, I didn’t care. Nothing could be worse than having to do that run again… nothing.
I felt myself being pulled to my feet and looked up to see Carodoc’s smiling face. “Well done!” he said. “The peak’s bad enough if you’re used to those runs… first time out it must be a killer. Go and have a lie down. We’ll cover for you.”
Nodding my thanks, I dragged myself up the stairs into the dorm and collapsed onto the bed.
It was almost dark when I was woken by another of the tyros, a girl, not much older than me. She was carrying a bowl of food and a mug of water.
“Carodoc asked me to bring you something to eat,” she said.
I tried to go back to sleep but she gave me this funny sort of mental nudge. “You’ve got to eat,” she told me firmly, “or you’ll be in a terrible state tomorrow. I’ve been there once myself and, believe me, you really do not want to try it.”
I tried to sit up but my leg muscles suddenly cramped and I pretty much fell out of bed. The girl steadied me with a touch of mind power then put the bowl and mug on a rickety table and showed me how to stretch out my screaming calf muscles.
When we were done, she helped me to sit up. “Thanks,” I said. “You’re Olwyn, aren’t you?”
She nodded and handed me the bowl. Then, as I started to spoon the thick stew into my mouth, I had a look at her. She was quite tall with long, fair hair tied back in a ponytail and a bit of a twinkle in her eyes.
“You’re not really supposed to eat up here but Carodoc pulled in a favour with Cookie for you,” Olwen told me.
“I must thank him,” I replied between spoonfuls. Now I’d started eating, I realised just how hungry I was.
“We try and help each other out as much as we can,” the girl explained.
When the bowl was empty, Olwyn handed me the mug of water. “Drink it all,” she told me firmly. You’ll need it!” I did as I was told.
When I was done, she took the bowl and mug and stepped towards the door but she suddenly turned round. “You did well on that run,” she said encouragingly. “You should do OK here.”
“Thanks,” I replied before collapsing back into a deep, dreamless sleep.