Chapter Twenty Three - Attack in the Dark
I stretched my aching muscles as Geraint limbered up to take a few more blows. It was a simple enough exercise. I had to stand in a four-foot circle whilst he took swipes at me with a padded training sword and try to dodge the blows, or at least take them on my breastplate or something. Then, every once in a while, we’d swap.
I glanced up to the tower where half a dozen primes, mounted on nags, were making passes at a model rider and I found myself wishing I was flying.
But Geraint grabbed my attention with a solid thump on my thigh with his sword that was going to leave bruises.
“Come on, concentrate!” he said. “I pulled that one but don’t expect me to do it again. I’ll get it in the neck if Zalibar doesn’t think I’m trying properly.”
“Sorry about that,” I said. “I’m still aching from yesterday.”
“‘The rider must stand ready to perform his duty, no matter what the state of his body or mind’,” Geraint said in his ‘I’m quoting something’ voice.
“Do you really know the whole manual?” I asked as I leaned out of the way of a blow aimed at my head.
“Not quite all of it,” he answered, “but I try to remember the important bits.” He stepped in to launch an attack towards my right hip. But, by swiftly closing on him, I managed to step inside his attack and, with a little push, helped him out of the circle.
“It’s like that, is it?” he said with a grin. He launched a vigorous attack towards my head which, with a sudden turn, melted into a blow towards my right leg which happened, at that moment, to be taking all my weight. I couldn’t avoid the blow completely but, by hopping, slightly inelegantly, out of the way, I managed to reduce the force.
“Ow!” I said.
“Pay attention!” he told me. “Follow the eyes! The eyes give a lot away.”
“I really do ache,” I grumbled.
“That sand trip’s a killer, isn’t it?” he agreed, as he made his way cautiously round the circle. He was using the approved ‘closed sidestep’ pattern which told me he was about to attack.
Once a month, instead of a run, we were sent down to the beach. The trip back to the compound, loaded with a heavy sack of sand, was much, much worse than any training run.
“At least we have a decent pile of sand again for tidying up any loose footing in the quad,” I said.
“So you have no excuses if you…” Geraint began but then he launched another attack, this time aiming for my right hip. I dodged cautiously, half expecting the switch that came and, when he flipped his attack to a head stroke, I managed to close on him and shove him out of the ring.
“Slip,” I completed his sentence for him as he stumbled out of the ring.
“Maybe you’re not the only one who’s tired!” he admitted. “Should we swap again?”
My answer was interrupted by a whistle from Zalibar, calling the prime riders in and telling the rest of us to clear the quad and get ready for lunch.
The afternoon was beautiful and I was pleased that I’d been sent on the meat run with Geraint. The heat of high summer was past and the light was sharp, giving us an unusually clear view across the water to the mainland.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” I said cautiously as we walked along the open ground at the top of the cliffs, “why have you learnt Zalibar’s whole manual?”
He thought for a moment. “To try and stay alive, I guess,” he answered. “I mean, learning stuff is the only thing I’ve ever been any good at and I may as well put it to some use in this crazy place.”
I looked at him for a few moments. “You’re from the Outside too, aren’t you?”
“How did you work that one out?”
“I dunno, maybe the way you talk about this place as if there is somewhere else. People who’ve always been here don’t think like that. I guess I only noticed because I’m from Outside too.”
“I try and avoid mentioning it as much as possible,” Geraint said thoughtfully. “I don’t suppose it would make all that much difference any more but, when I first got here, it was made quite clear that, if the wrong people found out about it, I’d find myself dead.”
We paused for a moment to catch our breath and enjoy the view. I also had a quiet hunt around for Psion but couldn’t spot him.
“How come you managed to get here without being eaten?”
“I was still quite young then so I don’t really remember all that much about it,. As best I can work out, my family was on a sailing holiday up round the Scottish Islands and there was an accident. I vaguely remember a fire and shouting and some sort of explosion and then it all went dark. I was wearing a life jacket when they found me and I’d had a whack on the side of my head.” He showed me a scar just behind his ear.
“You reckon you were attacked by one of the patrol guards, then?”
“I’ve thought about that too and decided that we probably weren’t. Don’t forget that, even then, I’d have had considerable latent cerebral potential…”
“Sorry!” he said with a bit of a laugh. “I keep forgetting. You don’t really know any of this stuff yet, do you? There are quite a few people on the Outside who can do some of the mind stuff but they’re not really properly aware of it. They’ve got ‘latent cerebral potential’.”
I nodded, thinking about the fisherman.
“Anyway, if I’d run into a serious mind bender… like one of the border patrol dragons, there’s no way he’d have missed me and I’d have been combusted. So I guess our boat was wrecked in some sort of accident and I got knocked out. Because I was unconscious, I managed to drift past the patrols and got washed up here without being noticed. My master found me on the beach and, as most of his Family and retainers had just been wiped out in the Year of Flame and Sword, he wasn’t particularly fussy. He was just happy to find a new servant. He kept me pretty much out of sight until people stopped asking where I came from.”
“What about you?” Geraint asked. “How did you end up here?”
“I was on holiday in a nearby village,” I explained. “I could see this island that nobody else could and, for some reason, I just couldn’t get it out of my head. In the end I stole a boat and came here.”
“I’ve heard about that sort of thing before. For some reason, latents are pulled towards powerful minds. How did you get past the patrol?”
I went quiet and intense for a few moments as the horrible memories of Megan’s fluttering body flashed across my mind. “I don’t want to talk about it,” I answered simply. “It’s all too close and…”
“It’s okay,” he replied. “We’ve all got things in our past that we don’t want to think about too hard. Let’s try an easier one. Would you go back if you had the chance?”
The answer, “No,” just popped out… sort of surprising me. I’d not really thought about it since I’d been here. “It’s a brutal place but I love how simple it all is,” I tried to explain.” You’re responsible for yourself… and there aren’t all those people telling you what you’re supposed to be thinking… and I really love the flying.”
“You seem to have a special knack with the dragons,” Geraint laughed. “It’s hard to believe you’ve only been riding for a month.”
‘Besides,’ I added, but only to myself, ‘I’ve got a score to settle before I can leave.’ Again, the image, seen through Rhiannas’s eyes, of us stooping down on Megan’s helpless, fluttering body, flashed through my mind.
As we were toiling back up the hill with our fully loaded carts, a little twinkle in the corner of my mind told me that Psion was about.
“There you are!” I said. “I’ve been looking for you.”
“Oh, that was you, was it? I thought I noticed something.”
“Where’ve you been?”
“I’ve been conserving my strength to ensure that I can be of the greatest service to you when the need arises,” he answered with supreme innocence.
“So you’ve been snoozing in the sunshine!” I said with a laugh. I was starting to suspect that the complicated little dragon was deliberately putting on the subterfuge thing to give me the fun of catching him out. “Where are you, by the way?”
“You’re about three quarters of the way up the climb out from the village, aren’t you?”
“Were you to jump off the edge, you would, in all probability, land on my head. There is a delightful, sheltered cove down here.”
“Just perfect for catching the afternoon sunshine?”
“It does have a most favourable aspect, yes!”
“Anyway,” I said, “there are a couple of lumps of decomposing porker on this cart with your name on them. Where would you like me to put them?”
“I am rather inclined to dine at home this afternoon,” he replied with a totally over the top formal voice. “I shall return to my humble abode and inform you when I am able to take receipt of an aerial delivery of provender.”
“So you’ll tell me when I’m straight above your cave and I can chuck it off the edge!”
“A most agreeable arrangement!”
I smiled to myself as I trudged on up the slope.
A while later, a call from Psion told me that I was directly above his cave.
“Do you want to push on for a moment?” I called to Geraint. “I need to investigate the bushes.”
“Right you are!” he answered, trudging on his way. “Don’t go too far into the woods, though. I don’t buy the stories about them being haunted but there’s definitely something funny going on in there.”
I waited for a couple of moments to let him move away then, after checking that no one else was in sight, I grabbed a couple of the less rancid pieces of meat and walked to the cliff edge.
“Look out, incoming!” I yelled, as I threw them off the edge.
“Pigs might fly!” Psion commented coolly and I felt him using his will to steer the meat.
I started to laugh but my amusement was cut short. “Oh rats,” I said.
“What’s the matter?”
“One of the lumps has landed on a little jutting out shelf up here. I don’t suppose you can fly up and collect it, can you?”
“Even with your excellent supply of sustenance, I am not yet able to manage that particular feat. Can you not perhaps reach it with a stick?”
“No. It’s too far down. We’re really going to have to shift it though. It looks terribly odd down there.”
“Then you will be obliged to use your mind,” Psion said. “Though I am unable to perform the required cerebral translocation at this distance, I should be able to guide you in the operation.”
“Okay, I’ll give it a go,” I said, flipping into the cloud world.
“Feel out to the dainty morsel with your mind!” he told me. “It may help if you close your eyes.”
I tried to reach down to it, like I’d been practicing with the pebble. Down I felt, past my feet and down the cliff towards the ledge.
I was half aware of the sort of tickle of Psion hovering at my shoulder but I ignored him and pressed on out with my mind. The image I was seeing was really odd, like an old black and white film. There was the shelf! Now I had to work my way along it…
“You need to move in the other direction,” Psion whispered calmly in my ear. “You are almost there, though.”
I moved my senses back and there it was. Now all I had to do was to fasten my grip on it.
I tried to close my will on the meat but it slipped through my grasp. I tried again but I just couldn’t get any sort of purchase.
“I would hazard to suggest that you are attempting to exercise too much subtlety,” Psion observed. I mean… he was working to keep his voice level but I could still feel his whole humour thing bubbling away under the surface. “You may, on this occasion, enjoy more success if you were to adopt a more robust approach”
I smiled and, after deliberately pulling in my will, I fed it out, towards the lump. There was an almost audible click as my will latched onto the target.
“Whoa! Steady!” came Psion’s urgent cries. I blinked back into the sunshine and saw the piece of meat flying out towards the sea. Down below, he was flailing wildly with his will, trying to guide his snack back towards the shore.
Chuckling to myself, I hurried off, along the track.
It was two nights later when the attack came. I was fast asleep and woke to find both my body and mind held in unshakable clamps.
Geraint had lent me a copy of Zalibar’s manual and I’d stayed up late, reading the thing until I found myself falling asleep. I’d been so worn out that I hardly had the energy to spin up the simple resting shield that Psion had taught me.
And now it was all that stood between me and my attackers… but it was gradually being washed away like a sandcastle before the rising tide.
More waves came crashing in from my attackers. I was now pretty sure that there were two of them. One had me clamped fast whilst the other was slowly but surely battering down my mind’s defences, heading towards my crux. I didn’t know what they planned to do when they got there but, in this world of casual brutality, I could guess it wouldn’t be good.
For once, I was grateful that the implanted node was muffling my emotions. Instead of being frozen by panic and fury, I found myself facing the threat with this lethally calm detachment.
The attack had thrown me half-way into the cloud world and, after a short violent struggle, I worked out I’d never be able to break the bonds that held my mind. So I tried pouring my will into my shields instead. I managed to slow down the attack but I couldn’t totally stop it.
They were going to get me in the end. It was only a matter of time.
So, putting my trust in my shields, I flipped back into the silent dorm. My eyes flickered around, desperately looking for something… anything… that could help. Then I remembered that Psion had said that my mother’s bracelet gave me more protection if I grabbed it.
So I ignored the battle that was raging inside my head and poured all my energy into moving my right hand instead.
It wouldn’t budge at first but then, with a wild spasm of will and muscle, I got the thing moving. Inch by inch it started to creep across my blanket towards my left wrist.
But when it got half-way across, it came to a juddering halt. I couldn’t go any further. I had nothing more to give and, anyway, I only had the vaguest of hints from Psion that my mother’s bracelet would do any good.
I felt the waves of despair rising. It was all hopeless, why not just give up the struggle and let it happen. Only the implanted node was stopping the despair from taking total control of me.
The implanted node! There was no way I could let myself die until I’d made Rhiannas pay for that… pay for everything he’d done to me that first night… and for what he’d made me do to Megan. And there needed to be payback for this attack too!
And then I realised that this despair wasn’t really me either. It was part of the attack… just an idea slipped into my mind to weaken me… to stop me from resisting!
So I took a couple of deep breaths and then, with a desperate wrench, forced my hand to move again, crawling across the bedclothes towards my mother’s bracelet.
My hand was only a couple of inches away when the attacker who was holding me worked out what I was doing. But, as he pulled in his will to clamp me even tighter, his grip loosened for a moment. I ducked underneath his grasp and, with a final, vicious jerk, I clasped my hand around my left wrist.
The effect was amazing. Without even thinking, I was thrown back into the cloud world. I was just in time to see the explosion of light and power my mother’s bracelet released. The bonds holding my body and mind were simply blasted apart, as if they were just made of paper or something. And the mind controlling them was simply blasted away.
But the other mind froze, stunned by the reaction. I quickly pulled in my will and did what I could to send a mental blast towards it. And, because our two minds were coupled together so tightly, he was helpless to defend himself. He tried to jump out of contact but he was much too slow and he gave a bit of a mental yelp as my blow struck home.
And, as he stumbled away, I recognised the mind behind the attack. It was a mind I’d tangled with before. It was Quaro-Deryn, the Amendraig.
Well… at least he’d have a headache in the morning!
I flipped back into the dorm to find I was completely rigid and drenched in sweat. And, when I looked around, I was astonished to find that, in spite of the violent struggle that had just taken place, everyone else was still fast asleep. It just didn’t seem right! I lay back in my bed and tried to get a grip on my ragged breathing.
And, over the next couple of hours, I started to envy the others, as sleep just would not come. I was much too wound up by the attack. At last, after resigning myself to a sleepless night, I spent the time practicing building more robust mental shields. It looked like I was going to need them!
But I made a point of being extra cheerful when I saw the Amendraig at breakfast the next morning. He looked terrible… even worse than I felt… and I had something to be cheerful about. I was still alive. I carefully checked the other nonda and I wasn’t at all surprised to see that Kiernonda was looking the worse for wear… I’d bet he was the other one who’d been attacking me. That wasn’t a great surprise… he was always hanging around with the Amendraig.