Chapter Twenty One - The Cage
I had a surprise after breakfast the next morning. Zalibar didn’t announce any training for the day.
“It’s Saturday,” Carodoc explained. “We don’t have any of the normal training. There are sparring duels instead. If you win, you get the rest of the day off, but if you lose, Zalibar can normally think up something entertaining for you to do. Come on, we need to get ready and get on down to the cage.
“That wooden thing, over in the far corner of the quad. Now, get a move on or all the good kit’ll be gone.”
Of course the storeroom was total chaos as everyone dashed around, trying to find the best kit. For once, I was grateful for all the time I’d spent in there, cleaning the stuff and putting it away. It meant I knew exactly where everything was and, in particular, how to put my hands straight on my favourite helmet.
The cage was a rectangular wooden structure, the size of a large room, with no roof. It was built against the walls in the corner of the compound and had a simple gateway which led in from the quad. The walls were about six feet high and had planks nailed to the top as benches where there were already a few students, sitting or standing. I clambered up to join them and Carodoc just jumped up - he must have been using his will to give himself a bit of a boost.
Inside, there was an open stretch of level sandy ground. I was about to ask Carodoc about how it was all organised but he gave me this mental nudge thing to tell me to shut up. Zalibar was taking his place on a rough wooden seat at one end. He glanced around the gathered group then looked down to the quad.
“I see Jenko’s got more important things to do this morning,” he said in a light, almost jolly tone that fooled no one. “Ah, here he comes now. Come along now, Jenko. There’s nothing we enjoy more than sitting round waiting for you, but we do need to get on.”
“Are you sure you’re sitting comfortably?” he went on as Jenko clambered up onto the wall, his face red with exertion and embarrassment. “We’ll have to make sure we find some way of reminding you to…”
In an instant, he flipped from jolly to incandescent rage.
“TURN UP ON TIME!”
The laughter of the students was instantly silenced and Jenko sat, almost shaking, fiddling with his breastplate straps.
“Right,” Zalibar went on. “Whilst Jenko finishes getting himself dressed, let’s get on. Geraint and Kiernonda, why don’t you two get on down there and show us what you can do?”
The two lowered themselves down into the pit and stood facing each other across the floor. They both kept their weapons sheathed but their hands hovered close by, obviously waiting for the signal to start.
“If you’re both ready, gentlemen?” Zalibar said. He put two fingers in his mouth and gave a shrill whistle.
Their weapons sprang into their hands before the whistle blast had finished. Kiernonda leapt across the gap and launched a crushing blow with his sword. Geraint only just managed to deflect it with his dagger.
Then Kiernonda attacked with a scything blow to the knees which Geraint parried on his sword.
They circled for a few moments before Kiernonda sprang once more to deliver a series of attacks with sword and dagger. Geraint hardly responded. He seemed happy to block blow after blow, mostly on his sword.
“G wants to turn this into a slog fest,” Carodoc told me. He can stand there and parry all day if he needs to. Kiernonda is going to have to think of something else.
Kiernonda launched a couple more attacks and suddenly Geraint flicked his dagger towards his face. Kiernonda had over-extended, laying himself open to the counter-attack. Because it was only a wooden training dagger, it didn’t do any real damage but it must have hurt.
Zalibar gave another shrill whistle and the two stood back. “First blood to Geraint,” he announced, as Kiernonda rubbed his cheek. “An irritating wound rather than an incapacitating one. Mind you, it wouldn’t have done anything for your looks.”
That caused some laughs and rude comments from round the walls… particularly with the state of his own face!
Another whistle blast told them to start fighting again.
Now Kiernonda was being much more cautious. The two circled each other before Geraint launched a second blow to the face with his dagger. But this one was a dummy and, as Kiernonda moved to block it, he struck a more serious blow towards Kiernonda’s left side which was completely undefended.
But Geraint’s sword was blocked an inch from Kiernonda’s hip as if it had hit a wall.
“Great mental block,” Carodoc said as Kiernonda launched a whole series of attacks against Geraint, who’d been shaken when his blow hadn’t landed. It took him a few moments of desperate blocking before he could recover his poise and go back to his normal parrying thing. The two began to circle again with only halfhearted attacks.
Suddenly Kiernonda lowered his guard and stepped back. “What on earth…” Carodoc exclaimed. “Oh, he’s trying to get G to commit himself. Risky, but it might be worth it if he’s getting tired.”
They began to circle again with Kiernonda holding his weapons loosely by his side. Geraint tried a couple of tentative blows but Kiernonda knocked them aside with the power of his mind.
Suddenly Geraint made a dummy blow with his dagger to Kiernonda’s left leg, before driving a smashing blow to his left shoulder with his sword. Kiernonda must have been taken in by the dummy because he didn’t manage to block it mentally. He desperately tried to parry the blow with his dagger but he only managed to deflect it down onto his breastplate. As he was smashed to the ground, his dagger slipped from his grasp and tumbled out of reach. He rolled desperately to one side as Geraint tried to smash him with his sword.
But, as he rolled, he threw a handful of sand at Geraint. He must have been steering the stuff with his mind because it hit him full in the face. In the instant it took Geraint to recover, Kiernonda had rolled back to his feet and knocked him to the ground with a sword blow to the knee. He then raised his sword for a final crushing blow as Zalibar whistled again.
It was only a matter of an instant but even I could see he could have pulled the blow. Instead he chose to follow through, striking Geraint on the helmet. The crowd, which, up until that point, had been roaring wild encouragement, fell silent.
“You dolt!” Zalibar said. His voice was quiet but venom dripped from every word and the effect was even more frightening than when he was shouting. “I was just about to congratulate you on an extremely well fought victory. Instead, because you couldn’t resist a cheap blow, you forfeit that bout and you’re on tyro duties for the whole week.”
At a nod from Zalibar, Olwen and another tyro jumped down into the pit and helped Geraint out through the gate.
Zalibar then turned to Jenko, “Right,” he said, “we have an opponent that you should actually be able to beat.”
“Looks like you’re up,” Carodoc whispered. “Nobody’s expecting too much of you, so if you put in a couple of decent parries and try to get in a blow or two yourself, Zalibar’s not going to be too tough on you. Good luck!” He grabbed one of my hands and lowered me down into the pit.
Breathing hard and trying to stop my knees from trembling, I moved to stand opposite Jenko.
“Oh yes, Jenko!” Zalibar added. “You were late this morning. Toss your dagger up here. You certainly shouldn’t need it to deal with someone who’s not been in training for a full week yet!”
Jenko threw his dagger up towards Zalibar who casually controlled it with his will before he caught it. I thought I saw a worried look flash across Jenko’s face as he threw it. Interesting… maybe he isn’t quite as certain about the outcome as everyone else.
“The rules are simple,” Zalibar told me, “though apparently not simple enough for some people.” He cast a withering look over towards Kiernonda. “You don’t touch your weapons until my signal, and you stop on my signal. Beyond that… anything goes.”
As I heard the whistle, I suddenly understood why I’d been spending so much time practicing drawing my blades without looking down. Even though the sword in Jenko’s hand was only made of wood, it certainly looked solid enough. I didn’t want to take my eyes off it for one moment. But as soon as I felt the sword in my own hand, all other thoughts were forgotten.
I heard a scream as I threw myself across the pit, hacking down on my target. As I saw the terrified look on Jenko’s face, I realised that it was me who was doing the screaming. He threw up a clumsy, fumbling block.
‘Don’t let him think!’ I shouted at myself as I swung my sword wildly towards him again. But he’d stumbled backwards, out of range. I almost fell over, swung around by the weight of the blow that failed to land. This left my whole right side exposed. So Jenko hacked at me with his sword, trying to take advantage. I desperately tried a mental block and his sword was pretty much thrown out of his hands as I brought my panicking mind to bear on it.
“Control, control!” I muttered to myself as I turned to face him and we stood opposite each other for a few moments, gasping for breath.
He took a wild swing at me and I parried with the inside guard stroke that I’d been practicing since the first morning.
Another swing from him, again I easily parried, this time using the outside guard.
I made a tentative sweep with my own sword but I was too worried about losing control of the heavy blade to properly commit myself. He managed to fend me off. We stood opposite each other for a few moments and I noticed the spectators for the first time. They were starting to get restless.
I desperately tried to think of some way to get past his defences without exposing myself. Suddenly the pattern I’d seen Geraint practicing the day before jumped into my mind. I didn’t know what else to do so I gave it a go.
“Inside guard, outside guard,” I said to myself, mimicking Geraint’s double sweep. “Dagger dummy!” I continued, jabbing my dagger towards Jenko’s left hip. The dummy seemed to work and he threw up a clumsy parry with his sword.
“Sunset,” I chanted, adding my mind power to my muscles as I chopped my sword down onto Jenko’s right shoulder. His sword was totally out of position and I powered straight through his pathetic mental block, smashing him to the ground where he lay, twitching. I was so overcome by the elation that I barely noticed Zalibar’s whistle and I staggered back against the wall.
“You meant that, didn’t you?” Zalibar observed with a bit of a smile flashing across his ugly face. He jumped lightly down into the pit and walked over to Jenko. After running his hands firmly, though gently, over his shoulder, he coolly announced, “You appear to have dislocated it.”
Zalibar lifted the prone boy’s arm and casually pushed the joint back into place with his foot causing Jenko to scream briefly and then faint. Then he turned to face me. “Not bad,” he said, “I mean, I can’t criticise your swordsmanship ’cos there wasn’t any to speak of. You might as well have been using a club. But when it comes to the determination to win… well… there are plenty here who could take lessons from you.”
He walked back to the wall below his chair and hopped, astonishingly lightly, back to his place. A couple of the tyros loaded Jenko onto a stretcher, but I just stood there, feeling completely flat.
“Hey, come on back up!” Carodoc called down to me. He reached down, caught me by one arm and pulled me easily back up onto the wall.
“Zalibar won’t grumble too much if you pull your blows a bit,” he told me quietly as the next pair got ready.
“I didn’t think of that. I just wanted it over with as quickly as possible,” I answered. “I didn’t want him getting up.”
“If you’d hit him much harder, he’d have never got up again,” Carodoc replied with a grin.
We watched in silence as a couple of transitor nonda circled in the pit below. One botched charge and one elegant counter later and they were both leaving, one leaning heavily on the other’s shoulder.
“I know you’re supposed to be let off chores this afternoon,” Carodoc said tentatively, “but I don’t suppose you could give Jenko a hand tidying up the Mews? I’m not sure he can manage it on his own and he’ll certainly be out of here – or dead – if he doesn’t get it done. I’d do it myself but I’ve got to go up to the Edifice after lunch to ride neck guard for Caronas.”
I nodded my agreement. I thought that it was probably a good idea to keep Jenko about as long as possible, if only to keep Zalibar’s attention away from me.
A while later, I was watching from the wall as a nonda girl was led from the pit with blood leaking out of a head wound. “You play rough games round here,” I said to Carodoc.
“You can hardly talk,” he laughed. “Anyway, if you think that the training’s rough, wait till you see the quarter day duels and races.”
“You mean there are duels to the death?”
“The duels are usually just to first blood but there’s always a death or a maiming or something. It’s the races that are dangerous, particularly for us tyros. There’s something of a tradition of the losers being flamed – and that’s not the only way you can die out there.”
I went quiet as the next two students jumped down into the pit. It was a savage and uncompromising world that I’d stumbled into when I crossed the boundary of the guardian storm… and the only help I could rely on in my battle for survival was from a broken down old dragon.
‘I’m going to need to get very good very quickly,’ I said to myself as Zalibar whistled once more.
There were only four tyros around to help with lunch but, luckily, most of the nonda had gone on up to the Edifice which meant that we were less rushed than usual. So we were all pretty relaxed as we gathered round the kitchen table for our own lunch.
“She’s a wonder is our Cookie!” Bryn said as he carried over the remains of a rather fine casserole that the nonda hadn’t finished. “She manages to come up with such wonderful grub in spite of the state of the scullery roof!”
“And that she keeps doing favours for cheeky tyros,” Cook said, swatting at him with a cleaning rag.
“On the subject of favours,” I said cautiously, “will it be okay if I take something up for Jenko? He’s not been able to make it down with his shoulder.”
“Go on, then,” Cook answered, “but don’t let Zalibar catch you. I need to stay in his good books at the moment.”