Chapter Nineteen - Going Solo
As I hurried back across the quad to Lippit, Zalibar was giving me a bit of a funny look. “Okay,” he said, “put your spurs on and mount up.”
But when I moved to climb up Lippit’s side, he gave a laugh.
“I forget!” he said. “You’ve only ever ridden a noble dragon before. With nags, you make ’em lie down in the dirt for you. It’s easier for you and it’s a handy little reminder for them of who’s boss.”
Obeying my commands, the creature lowered itself onto its short front legs and lay down in the sand. I climbed up onto his shoulders then grabbed hold of a pair of crenels.
“Stop!” Zalibar barked. “That is the last time I’m going to see your hands on a dragon’s crenels. On the back of a dragon, your hands are for one thing and one thing only: combat. Feet and knees are the only things that ever touch the dragon. Now try again. If you really need to, you can use your will to steady yourself.”
So, using a touch of will to balance, I reached my leg over the nag’s neck and sat down.
“I won’t tell you again!” Zalibar shouted, a blast of rage exploding out of his mind. “Only feet and knees! You don’t sit on a dragon; you stand. Get your backside in the air.”
So I raised myself up onto my spurs, until I was in a position mid-way between kneeling and standing and, as soon as I did, it was obvious why. As my weight caught, the spurs bit more firmly into the scales and I felt much more secure.
A rare smile flashed across Zalibar’s ugly face. He must have been reading my mind. “I wish everyone got it that quick,” he said quietly, almost to himself. “Some never do. As soon as my back’s turned they’re sitting again. I might as well just feed them to a dragon myself.
“Okay,” he said, “it looks to me like you’re ready.”
“I’m going to take him up for you. Then I want you to bring him round in a couple of loops and then come on back in again. Don’t let him get too far away or I won’t be able to sort things out when you make a pig’s ear of it. Everything clear?”
I nodded nervously.
“Before you go…”
He put two fingers in his mouth and gave a staggeringly loud whistle. All eyes turned towards him. “Everyone on the ground!” he called. “Clear the quad!” We waited until two dragons had been landed and everyone had hurried to the walls.
“Okay, off we go.” I felt Zalibar’s will wrap around the nag and I sank into the creature’s mind as he prepared for flight.
Lippit took three short steps and then, with his wings’ first, all powerful surge, his feet left the ground. The next eight wing strokes took us up above the top of the house then the nag relaxed and spread his wings out into a comfortable glide.
“You set?” I heard Zalibar’s voice in my head.
I gave a bit of a mental nod. I mean… the idea of taking control was exciting but a bit worrying.
“Okay! He’s all yours,” Zalibar said as he released his grip.
And I was flying solo.
‘We’re sinking!’ I thought. ‘Quick, flap the wings!’
Three strokes and we were already too high and climbing hard. I eased off for a moment, waiting until I felt him sinking.
“Swing him round!” I heard Zalibar shout in my mind. I looked up and realised that I was out of the compound and heading towards the sea. I jumped to do as I was told but I was concentrating so hard on pulling the dragon round that I almost lost my own balance. My hands were grabbing out for the crenels before I remembered I had to use my will to balance myself.
“Don’t think I didn’t see that,” Zalibar’s voice growled in my head. “Okay, give me a stroke and glide. You can steer in the glide. That’ll be easiest for now.”
I tried it. “Stroke… then steer… stroke… then steer…” I was making better progress but now I was zigzagging through the sky.
“A lighter touch on the steering,” Zalibar told me.
So I eased off a bit with the steering and the zigzags became less obvious. And I found myself coupling my will in with Lippit in the stroke. Because I was basically having to run everything, it was kind of automatic.
Zalibar didn’t say anything but I could tell he approved.
Over the next couple of circuits of the quad, my control gradually improved until I could relax and glance around… and just enjoy the fact that I was flying.
But, of course, Zalibar was never going to let me get away with that. “Keep your mind on business, girl,” he growled. “Bring him into the wind and come on in to land.”
I gave a quick mental nod as I guided Lippit round.
“Okay!” Zalibar told me. “Keep him coming round.”
I swung around so Lippit was coming into the wind towards Zalibar.
“Mind the tower… that’s it! Keep him coming now,” came Zalibar’s steady voice.
Wings spread wide… leaning backwards… slowing down…
“You’re coming in too fast,” Zalibar called, stepping smartly back and waving the students behind him out of the way, “but don’t worry about it for now. Get him further back… that’s it!” I felt his will hovering on the edge of Lippit’s mind, ready to take over, but he stayed out.
Slowing… leaning right back… slowing…
I felt the ground under my Lippit feet and they took a few steps. We were down. I had to force myself to breathe again.
I looked round and saw that we were ten yards past where Zalibar had been standing.
“Missed!” he observed, a humourless grin spreading across his scarred face. He turned to the rest of the students who had stopped what they were doing to watch.
“Right, you lot!” he shouted. “The show’s over and nobody’s injured – not even me – so get yourselves back to work!”
“I don’t know what you’re looking so pleased about,” he barked, turning back to me. I realised I had a huge grin on my face and quickly tried to squish it down. “I don’t ever want to see you muck up a landing like that again. You need to look what you’re doing and, if you’re off, you pull up, swing round and start again. You do not just charge on regardless. There’s much too much risk to the dragon or to someone on the ground.
“You’ve got to know what’s going on around you all the time, particularly round here, so keep your head up much more. You can look with your dragon’s eyes as well as your own. You’ll find they’re much sharper, particularly at night.”
“Oh yes,” he added with a dry laugh, “and you’ve got to start your run-in for landing a lot earlier.”
“Okay. Go and put him away then you can have a short rest. After that, get one of the transitor tyros to take you through the basic dagger drills.” He paused for a moment then added, “And don’t, whatever you do, let him go until he’s safely in his stall.”
“Of course not, Sir.”
With that he turned and stalked away.
And the grin exploded out all over my face again.
Carodoc was at the drinks table with his transitor group when I returned from the mews and he handed me a beaker of water.
“That wasn’t too bad at all,” he said. “Zalibar must have been pretty impressed. You’re the first one he’s let bring in a nag on their own, first time out, since me.”
“There’s so much to think about just keeping the thing in the air!”
“It gets easier. You sort of forget you’re doing it after a bit of practice.”
“I just can’t imagine that.”
“What’s he got you doing now?” Carodoc asked.
“He said I should get one of the transitor tyros to show me the basic dagger stuff.”
“I’ll ask Geraint,” he told me. “He’s solid on that sort of stuff.”
We just relaxed for a bit then he called to his group, “Right, I’m going to join the primes now to do my own practice. You need to get back to those exercises or Zalibar’ll be down on you like a ton of bricks. Geraint, could you take Katie through the basic dagger exercises?”
Geraint walked across to me and checked I had a training dagger. “You’ll need one most days,” he told me, “so you might as well get into the habit of carrying one.”
He led me across to a quiet corner of the quad. “Now we all heard you working with the sword yesterday,” he said with a grin.
I gave an embarrassed nod.
“Right, the dagger,” he said and cleared his throat. “‘It can come as a surprise to the beginner but the dagger is a more complicated weapon than the broadsword. It may be used in either hand and it can be used both for attack and for defence.’”
His voice had this funny monotone thing going on but the stuff he was saying sounded solid and I tried to listen carefully. But, after a bit, my attention started to wander and I wasn’t really ready when he suddenly stopped reciting and told me to adopt the first position.
“That’s like the sword ‘first position’, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Like I said, ‘The first position is similar to that for the broadsword but with more weight on the toes and with the knees slightly more flexed.’”
I noticed he was repeating the exact words in the exact same flat voice. I had to think about this for a bit before I worked it out. “You’re quoting something, aren’t you?” I said.
“Yeah,” he answered. “It’s Zalibar’s Training Manual. It tells you pretty much everything you need to know about this sort of stuff. Now let’s see you do it.”
I jumped into position.
“Good… knees a bit more flexed… that’s it, try and bounce on your toes.”
At last he was happy with the way I was standing. “Now, without looking down, ‘Grasp the hilt of the dagger’,” he quoted, “‘and draw it in a single, smooth motion’.”
I’d basically prepared myself for the same sort of reaction as when I’d first grasped the broadsword so, when nothing happened, I was so surprised that I fumbled my grip and almost dropped the thing.
“‘A single, smooth motion’,” Geraint repeated. “Try again!”
I kept on practicing but it was totally frustrating. I couldn’t block the urge to glance down and this was making my draw slow and cumbersome.
“You might find it easier if you shut your eyes,” Geraint suggested after a couple more clumsy efforts. “Then you won’t be able to look down. I’m going to leave you to practice on your own for a bit while I go and get on with my own stuff. Give me a shout if you need anything.”
After a few dozen attempts I found that I was fine as long as I kept my eyes closed but was still struggling when they were open. I glanced up and saw Geraint a couple of yards away. He was repeating this almost ballet-like routine with a sword and dagger and had a look of intense concentration on his face… and it didn’t change, even when he mucked something up and had to start again.
One part of the routine particularly caught my eye. “Inside guard, outside guard,” he was sort of chanting into the cloud world as he made a double sweep with his sword, as if to shield himself. “Dagger dummy,” he went on as he made a short sharp lunge with the dagger in his left hand. “Sunset!” he concluded, bringing his sword down in a smashing slice.
After studying him for a bit, I tried to draw again without taking my eyes off him. This time the draw worked perfectly.
“Yes!” I said to myself jubilantly.
“Good,” he said, looking up. “It took me days to get that far. Keep going and try and get that draw a bit smoother.”
But we were interrupted by a whistle from the other side of the quad. “Lunch time!” Zalibar shouted.
With a sigh, I turned and started to collect up the kit that the nonda had just dumped.