Chapter Twenty - The Gatehouse Roof
As a tyro, my days were completely packed with chores and training and stuff, so, to get any time on my own, I had to get up earlier than everyone else. And I just needed that bit of time… even if it did mean sacrificing precious sleep!
The morning air was chilly as I crept down the rickety wooden staircase from the dormitory but the sun was already up and the day ahead promised to be warm. My muscles grumbled as I started to jog slowly round the quad in the early morning light. As I jogged, my mind wandered back over the last couple of days which had passed in a bit of a blur.
I’d been out on the nags a couple more times and, with each flight, I’d got a bit more control and Zalibar had let me go a bit further. Last time out, I’d managed a complete circuit of the island under Geraint’s careful supervision.
Then there was the training with broadsword and dagger and, from the second morning, I’d basically been living in a padded helmet and a cuirass - the heavy, metal breast- and back-plate setup. My mind still pretty much exploded with excitement every time I got a sword in my hand but, with a bit of practice… and some not particularly gentle encouragement from Zalibar… I could now more or less stop it from leaking out!
I’d also got to know a few of his runs. With Psion’s help, I’d managed to avoid coming last in any of them but on one, a particularly horrible obstacle course thing in full kit with high walls to climb and muddy tunnels to crawl through, it had been desperately close.
When I wasn’t training, there were the never-ending chores. I’d been down to the village a couple of times to collect meat and, every time, I’d managed to smuggle something to Psion.
I guess I wasn’t quite as stiff this morning… maybe last night’s run hadn’t been quite as tough as the others… or maybe I was just getting used to them. I mean… yesterday, I’d managed to get away from the little group at the back and so I avoided most of Zalibar’s attention.
On my second lap of the quad, I noticed a narrow stairway leading up to the roof of the gatehouse and so, once my muscles had warmed up, I climbed up there and found myself standing on a flat roof with a beautiful view up to the mountain and out over the coastline.
I was just enjoying the view when I felt the faintest brush of a mind on mine and, before I could even think, I’d already thrown up my defensive shield.
“Good morning, Young Mistress.” Psion’s cheerful voice was suddenly in my head. “I do apologise. I had not intended to startle you.”
“That’s quite alright,” I answered, lowering my defences. “I just wasn’t expecting anybody. Where are you, by the way?”
“I have moved to the base of the cliff. There is a cave down here where I can conceal myself should anyone approach too closely.”
“Can you fly again then?”
“I have recovered the ability to flutter for short distances so the journey up is less burdensome than hitherto.”
“That sounds particularly elegant!”
“I would prefer to avoid discussing the matter!”
I said nothing but grinned.
“I take it there’s no danger of us being overheard,” I said as I started my stretching exercises.
“There should be no danger as long as we keep our conversation quiet,” Psion answered. “Whilst a couple of the more skilled operators in the Edifice may be able to eavesdrop on us, they are extraordinarily unlikely to attempt to do so with one of Zalibar’s noviate tyros.
We were quiet for a bit as I carried on with my stretches.
“How are you finding it?” he asked when I took a bit of a pause.
“I could do without most of the rubbish,” I answered, wincing as I stretched my right arm behind my head, “but there’s something really special about working with the swords… even though they’re really heavy and can be a bit tricky to control… and I just love the flying!.”
“Flight is wonderful, isn’t it?” he said wistfully. “I do miss it. However, should I continue to dine as amply as of late, my capacities in that particular domain will soon be completely restored?”
“Ah, you’re just here to beg for more food, are you?”
“It was merely intended to be a social call,” Psion responded in his most affronted tone. “And I was also wondering whether I could provide you with any form of assistance. However it would appear…” he drew himself up in mock outrage, “my presence is unwelcome!”
I just grinned.
He tried to keep his affronted thing going but couldn’t manage it for long.
“Incidentally, may I congratulate you on the alacrity with which you raised your shield – though it was, on this occasion, unnecessary. I take it you’ve been practicing.”
“When I get the chance. It’s not exactly a holiday camp here, particularly for us tyros.”
The funny little dragon did his bubbly cloud thing. “This may be an apposite moment to introduce you to a more sophisticated shield that you should be able to maintain at all times,” he told me.
“What? Even when I’m asleep?”
“Particularly when you are sleeping for that is when victims are at their most vulnerable… and, consequently, it is then that the vast majority of underhand attacks take place. I could imagine some rival of Rhiannas’s… or more likely one of their underlings… seeking to disadvantage him by some covert attack on you.”
“That’s the sort of thing that happens around here?”
“With a distressing regularity.”
“Okay. It sounds like I might need one of these shields. How do I go about putting one up?”
I had to smile as I felt him drawing himself up into his professor’s pose thing, with his tail mostly wound round his body but with its tip waving around for emphasis… but I listened very carefully. “You are, by now, completely familiar with the defensive blocks with which you construct your cerebral defences. However, these blocks also lend themselves to more sophisticated manipulation. They can be stretched into long, thin fibres so…” he popped a picture into my head… “then plaited into a much finer and more subtle form of protection.”
As I was practicing, he went on, “Not only can this form of shield be maintained with minimal effort, both day and night, it has the further advantage that it is difficult to observe and, consequently, it may be used to conceal certain thoughts and sentiments from a master who might be expecting to receive his servant’s unswerving loyalty and devotion.” He paused significantly.
“Oh…” I said. “I’d not thought of that.”
“I had consciously avoided drawing the matter to your attention,” he replied, “for, to do so, would have had the effect of pushing those concerns to the surface of your mind and it would have been all too easy for Rhiannas to detect them. He could then breach your defences with brute force at which stage…” he paused dramatically, “the game would be up…”
He went quiet for a bit, deep in thought.
“And I simply could not bear to lose another mistress,” he added at last, sort of half to himself.
He paused again so I took the chance to finish off my last few stretches as I practiced his woven tower thing. I could see what he meant about it needing less effort than the clunky one he’d taught me at first.
“There is, however, no significant cause for concern,” he said at last. “Rhiannas’s typical modus operandi favours brute force over subtlety and he is extraordinarily unlikely to notice this lightweight shield. You should be completely safe.”
I thought about it then nodded.
“Incidentally,” he went on, “I intend to terminate my assistance on those training runs that you all so relish. Not only do you need to hone your application of cerebral manipulation in such contexts, but there is also some slight risk that, in spite of my abilities, my intervention be detected.”
“Fair enough, I suppose,” I answered with a sigh.
“Now,” he went on, “have you any questions whilst I’m here?”
“What I really want to know,” I said, after a bit of thought, “is what’s really going on. What’s Rhiannas sent me here for? Am I being trained up to be some sort of gladiator?”
“Certainly not a gladiator,” Psion answered straight away. But then he sort of thought about things for a bit.
“Before I can meaningfully answer your question, you need to understand a little more of our society, here on the island.” Even though I couldn’t see him, I knew he was doing his professor thing again.
“We dragons are, by nature, savage and massively self-centred individuals. To allow our society, here on the island, to flourish, we are required to follow a simple set of rules named ‘The Precepts’. Anyone deviating from them is destroyed utterly. Now, according to the terms of these Precepts, disagreements are resolved by means of formal duels which frequently result in death for one of the combatants; certainly in overwhelming loss of prestige.” He did a bit of a pause thing for dramatic effect.
“As you have doubtless observed, we dragons are all but indestructible. We do, however, have a vulnerable point on the base of our necks, between the top two vertebrae, where a lethal bite may be inflicted with ease. Many dragons choose to take a human neck guard to protect this spot.”
“So I’m going to be sitting on Rhiannas’s back making sure nobody bites him in the neck.”
“That will certainly be your principal purpose, though I could imagine that he will have additional duties for you. Rhiannas is notoriously short of temper, even for a dragon, and has the unfortunate habit of combusting his servants. You are currently the only other member of the House of Rhian.”
I guess that answered my questions about what was going on, up in the lair.
“Anyway, young mistress, you need to be getting back down. People would appear to be waking.”
I nodded briefly and made my way back down into the quad, deep in thought.
That evening, after another exhausting day, I found myself sitting at the kitchen table with a couple of the other tyros. All our chores were finished and, for once, we had a tiny bit of free time before bed. Jenko was telling us one of his ‘battle sagas’… a long, complicated tale of inter family politics and warfare with loads of backstabbing and betrayal and, of course, dirty great heaps of ‘glorious flame’! Over by the range, Cookie was bustling around getting ready for morning.
“Are all the individual lairs so grand?” I asked when Jenko was done. “Rhiannas’s place looks like one of the Loire Châteaux or something.”
“I don’t know anything about the ‘Loire Châteaux’,” he answered, “but I expect they look like the Edifice. It’s certainly much older. I don’t think they had anything like it Outside for centuries after it was finished.”
“How old is it?”
“About fifteen centuries or so.”
“Work on it started one thousand six hundred and twelve years ago,” Geraint chipped in. He’d been dozing in the corner.
“But how on earth did they make something like the Edifice back then?” I asked.
“That’s easy,” Jenko answered. “All you need is six hundred years and an unlimited number of slaves.”
“But where did all the slaves come from?”
“What d’you think the dark ages was all about?” Geraint replied with a shrug.
“That was a good time for the riders,” Jenko added. “It wasn’t a case of them hiding from Outsiders. Outsiders did what they could to hide from the riders.”
“Right, you lot,” Cookie said as she waddled over with a saucepan. “I’ve got some warm milk with honey for you here but then you’re going to have to clear off ’cos I want to go to bed.”
There was a chorus of thanks from round the table.
“But no letting on,” she warned us. “If Zalibar finds out that I’ve been wasting his precious milk on you lot, I’m never going to get the scullery roof fixed!”