Chapter Eighteen - Mind Grip
When I woke up, the next morning, there was a watery light filtering in round the edge of the roof so I knew it was still early. I tried to get back to sleep but the bed was hard and uncomfy. I didn’t want to disturb the others with my tossing and turning so I got up and made my way down into the quad.
I drank a bit of water and then, because my muscles were totally stiff, I tried to copy the stretching things my dad did when he’d been out running. Stretch out those aching muscles to the point of pain… hold… hold… then release. I was leaning against a wall, stretching out my calf muscles, when I worked out that this would be a good time to practice my brain stretching exercises too. So I started pulling together my protective tower thing.
In the cool, fresh air of the morning, I felt calm and relaxed for pretty much the first time since I’d been on the island. And, with the whole calmness thing, I knew I was being much quieter than I’d ever managed before… and the tower was looking much more solid too.
I gently jogged round the quad for a couple of laps. I mean… my legs grumbled at first but then they sort of loosened up as the blood started to flow. Then I relaxed again and leaned over to stretch my back, kind of reaching down to touch my toes. I saw a pebble on the ground and tried to reach down to it with my mind.
And here, with the whole calm thing I had going on, I could, at least, control the thing’s height to within a couple of inches,
Mind you, it was still trembling and jittering in the air as if it was alive.
Suddenly I felt eyes on the back of my neck so, without letting go of my pebble, I kind of reached out behind me with my mind and wasn’t surprised to find Zalibar was there. I carefully brushed past the solid fortress round his mind… close enough to sort of say, ‘Good morning’… but plenty far enough away to make it clear I wasn’t trying to probe him in any way.
He gave me this slight mental nod thing by way of an answer.
I plucked the pebble out of the air then turned to see he was standing at an upper window of the Master’s Lodge, looking down on me with a piercing stare. So I dropped the pebble into my pocket and walked back up to our dorm.
Carodoc was just waking up.
“Thanks for covering for me last night,” I said to him, keen to stay in his good books. “I owe you for that.”
“That’s okay,” he replied with a smile. “You were good for nothing anyway. It’d have been more trouble than it was worth trying to get anything out of you. This way, at least, you’ve got a chance of getting through today.”
“Geraint and Bryn,” he called across to two of the tyros who were slowly waking up, “you two’ve got house duty. Get going now or the nonda’ll have no hot water when they wake up and they won’t be happy.”
“Jenko and Olwyn, I want you to go down and check up on the practice kit. I wouldn’t be surprised if Zalibar wanted to pop in to take a look, so make sure you do it properly.
“Katie, you and me have got the nags this morning. Let’s go!”
“Okay,” he said as we made our way carefully down the stairs. “If you make a start on drawing water, I’ll go and get the yoke. You might as well fill the troughs up whilst you’re about it.”
I went over to the well in the corner of the quad by the kitchen. There were two troughs, one for the nags and one for the people. I started hauling up buckets of water and emptying them into the troughs. Soon Carodoc returned with the yoke thing: a couple of buckets dangling from a bit of wood that went over your shoulders. He filled the buckets and started lugging them across to the mews.
“Keep going!” he said as he came for another load. “We’ll need at least ten more buckets for the nags.”
When he came back for the fifth time, he dumped the yoke thing. “I’ve got to go and get the key,” he told me. “You bring the last load over to the mews.”
He turned and walked up the main stairs into the Master’s Lodge.
When both the troughs were done, I filled up the buckets on the yoke. Then I put the thing over my shoulders like Carodocc had done and tried to pick them up - they were stupidly heavy - and the buckets started swinging round, splashing water over me. Without thinking, I used my will to steady the things. Then I staggered across to the mews bit.
Going through the high, open doorway I found myself in the middle of a dark corridor which had a row of dragon stalls along the far side.
“Those are for Nero,” a bodiless voice emerged from the gloom off to the left. “Second stall, down that way.”
I carried the load down to the stall. A narrow trough led through the wall into the stall where a long and relatively thin, brown coloured dragon lay curled up like a dog, apparently asleep.
“Do I pour it into the trough here?” I asked.
“Yeah. And don’t spill too much or you’ll have to get more.”
So I carefully poured the water into the trough… I didn’t want to have to do any more water luging
As my eyes got used to the dim light, I noticed that everything, including the doors of the stalls, was made of the same grey stone as the rest of the compound.
“No wood,” I said. “I guess that makes sense.”
“Wood wouldn’t last long round here. “Carodoc replied, reappearing with a wheelbarrow and a large shovel. “Nags can’t flame properly but they can spit out enough scraps of fire to reduce any wood to ashes.”
“The nags can’t flame?”
“No. They’re so crushed down that they haven’t got the powerful emotions that dragons need to flame properly.”
I thought back to the wild feelings that had surged through us as Rhiannas had flamed the dolphin and nodded my understanding.
“I guess you can’t do a mind grip yet, can you?”
“A mind grip: you use it to take charge of a nag’s mind.”
I shook my head
“You certainly don’t want to go into a stall with a nag until you’ve got it in a proper grip. So I’ll shovel, you shift. The mist gate is down the corridor on the right.”
“Yeah, I dunno why it’s called that. Anyway here’s the key.” He handed me a large metal key attached by a chain to an even larger lump of wood.
“Don’t leave it unlocked when you’re done or Zalibar will have our guts for garters. The dung heap’s through there on the right. You can’t miss it.”
In the gloom, I had difficulty even spotting the opening between the two stalls that led to the mist gate and manœuvring the cumbersome wheelbarrow down there, with its heavy load of dung and partially chewed bones, was pretty tricky. The door out was surprisingly low. Even I had to duck.
But I had no difficulty finding the dung heap. I mean… you could have found the thing blindfolded. The smell was a horrible mixture of cow dung and bad eggs.
“This place is pretty much a fortress,” I commented when I returned for my next load. “Who’s Zalibar expecting to attack him?”
“I think it’s mostly force of habit,” Carodoc answered. “There hasn’t been any real trouble since the Year of Flame and Sword, years ago.”
It took us the better part of an hour to get the place ‘shoveled and swept’ as Carodoc put it. “Okay, we’re done here,” he called to me as he was putting the brooms and shovels away. “Are you sure you locked that door?”
“Yep. I’m sure.”
“Then go and get washed up. I’ll put the key away. We need to be ready to serve breakfast in a couple of minutes.”
Carodoc arranged breakfast so that I didn’t have to go anywhere near the top table so it passed uneventfully. I mean… Kiernonda was still giving me dirty looks. I guess he still thought I ought to have let him beat me in the run, yesterday.
At the end of the meal, the Amendraig struck the gong. The nonda sat in silence and all the tyros hurried to our alcove bit by the curtain.
Zalibar, dressed, as usual, in his black dragon hide leather, stood up and announced the timetable for the day.
“Primes: you’ll be doing sword work this morning: basic drills and then some one-on-one skirmish work. Take care this time, please. I don’t want any more broken bones.
“Transitors: Daggers. Carodoc will take you through the basic routines then I’ll come and show you some new parries.
“Noviate: I want you starting off flying triangles round the tower. Don’t forget to take a sword and dagger along for the ride. There’ll be exercises with them later on.
“Right, I want everyone in the quad at nine. Dismissed!”
There was a sudden explosion of noise as everyone hurried to the doors.
“Okay, gang, let’s move,” Carodoc said. “We’ve got twenty minutes to eat, get everything cleaned up and get out there.”
“What’s the whole noviate and prime thing about?” I asked when we were gathered round the table, stuffing porridge into our faces.
“The Noviates are people who’ve just arrived,” Bryn explained. The rest of the tyros were being much friendlier this morning. I guess, after the run, they’d decided I might just survive after all. “When Zalibar decides you’re probably not going to kill yourself by accident, he promotes you to Transitor…” he went on.
“And when he decides you might just have a chance of killing somebody else, he promotes you to Prime,” Jenko finished off with his mouth full of porridge.
“You can think of it as three years of one of your Outside schools,” a tyro called Geraint added helpfully.
“Come on, gang,” Carodoc said. “There’s no time for chatting now. We need to get going!”
A few minutes later, I was standing at the bottom of the steps with the rest of the noviates when Zalibar appeared.
“What are you playing at?” he bellowed at us. “I said you were riding today. Didn’t it occur to you that you might just possibly need a nag? Or were you going to try without? Go and get them out!”
“Leave Lippit, though,” he called after us.
“No, not you,” he called to me as I joined the stampede towards the mews. I want to see your mind lock before I trust you with one of my nags.”
“Come on, spread out,” he called to the noviates as they started to emerge from the mews with nags. “Ah, you’ve managed! Well done!” he said to the last nonda to appear, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
“Right, get’em up in the air, three times round the tower then bring’em back in.”
“You,” he said, turning to me. “I know you’ve ridden a noble dragon… after a fashion… but I’m guessing you’ve never ridden a nag before. That right?”
“Yes, Sir!” I answered promptly.
“Well you’ll find…” he began but he was interrupted by a sudden commotion over on the other side of the quad. Jenko had been thrown off his nag and the thing was flapping around violently… it looked as if it was about to take off.
“What on earth…” Zalibar exploded. His sword seemed to magically appear in his hand as he flowed across the quad.
He attracted the panicking creature’s attention with two blows of the flat of his sword and it sort of relaxed as Zalibar slipped into its mind. Then he turned his attention to Jenko, who was still lying on the floor.
“What… do you think… you are playing at?” he raged, kind of emphasising his words with kicks to Jenko’s head and ribs. “These creatures are valuable… and I’ll not have them damaged… by your stupidity.”
“You!” he shouted at Carodoc who was standing nearby with a group of transitors. “Put this animal away then get this rubbish…” kick… “out of my sight.”
He moved smoothly back to me, leaving Jenko lying in a crumpled heap.
“As I was saying, before I was interrupted by that idiot,” he continued as if nothing had happened, “you’ll find that riding one of these beasts is nothing like riding Rhiannas.” I tried desperately to concentrate on what he was saying but it was a bit tricky because he had a patch of blood on one of his boots. I mean… I knew I would never be as useless as Jenko but I decided I had to be really careful with Zalibar.
“Nags are dumb things,” he went on. “Which means you have to take control of pretty much everything from flapping the wings upwards.”
“Follow me,” he said, heading off towards the mews. “The first thing you’re going to have to learn is how to lock their minds.” I hurried after him, fascinated by how such a misshapen body could move with such grace.
Once in the mews he took me to stand in front of one of the stalls. “Right, this is Lippit,” he said. There was a greyish-green coloured dragon perched on a small pedestal at the back of the stall. Its tail was wrapped around its body and it seemed to have hunched shoulders. For some reason, the thing made me think of a vulture, though it was as big as a large elephant, if a little skinnier.
“He’s generally the easiest of the nags to handle,” Zalibar went on. “Mind you, he’d still take your leg off if you gave him half a chance, wouldn’t you, you old beggar, so you never let go of his mind when you’re anywhere near him.”
“Meld with me,” he told me. “We’re going in.”
I reached out of my cloud and felt my way towards him. The solid fortress that I’d seen that morning was still there but there was a bit of space around it where I’d be welcome. So I cautiously moved in.”
“You’ve not done this before, either, have you?” He was doing the ‘putting the words directly into your mind’ thing.
“No, Sir,” I answered promptly.
“Don’t talk!” he barked. “Sub-vocalise or you’ll give me a headache!”
“Yes, Sir.” I tried to think the words, rather than saying them out loud.
“Better, but you need to practice doing it without moving your lips ’cos you look like a baby.
“Right, a mind grip. You prepare the grip like this…” A bulge appeared in the surface of his cloud… “then you move into the nag’s mind…” The bulge grew into a fat tentacle and reached out.
Only now did I notice the nag’s cloud. It was small and faint but, now I was looking at it, it did have a really bright kernel in the middle.
“Pay attention!” Zalibar barked.
“Now, you wrap your will round the nag’s crux and make sure you don’t let go, no matter what. Now you try it.”
I tried to reach out with my will.
“You’re going to need a bit more than that,” he told me contemptuously. “Lippit’s a dragon, not a fluffy little bunny rabbit.”
I forced a bit more will into the structure and the whole thing fell to bits.
“I don’t have time to watch you playing silly games,” Zalibar said, pulling himself out of our meld so sharply that pain flashed across my mind.. I’ve got to make sure those idiots out there aren’t killing one another. Stay here and practice. I want it right by the time I get back.” With that, he moved gracefully out of the mews.
Without him standing over me, I quickly managed to sort out a grip on Lippit. And, after a bit of practice, I found I could still keep it in place when I was thinking about something else.
Then I tried using my will to make the nag obey some simple instructions… moving forwards and backwards and stretching out its wings and tail and things. I mean… it kept on giving me this stare of total hatred but it did exactly as I commanded.
After a while, I got bored and tried sending a sort of probe into Lippit’s crux but he wasn’t having that and chucked me out so forcibly that my mind grip was broken. Deep down, at the lowest level of his mind, his pure fury was still burning. So I re-established my grip a bit more firmly.
I was still concentrating when Zalibar returned to the mews and I didn’t notice him until he rapped me sharply on the shoulder. I jumped violently and, in my shock, I really had to struggle to keep my grip on the nag.
“Still much too noisy,” he said gruffly, “but I suppose it’ll have to do. You can open the gate now and bring him out.”
So I followed him out into the quad with Lippit trailing reluctantly on behind.
“You’re going to need a training dagger,” Zalibar said. “Go and get one from the store room over there.”
“But what about my grip on the nag, Sir?”
He gave me a bit of a mental nod thing that told me I’d just passed a test. You might just be able to manage to keep it going over that distance, we’ll see. I’ll be here to take over if you can’t.”
I found I could just about keep control, though it got much trickier once Lippit was out of sight. So I quickly grabbed a dagger and hurried back out into the quad.