Chapter Twenty Four - Double Grip
A couple of days later, there was something new for us noviates. We got to use a buckler - a small shield about the size of a saucepan lid - that some people use in their left hand instead of a dagger.
And I found myself paired up with Jenko in a sparring exercise. I took his sword blow on my buckler, taking the standard half stride back to absorb the force. Then I stepped forward and launched my own series of blows. “Buckler to sword…” I muttered to myself. “Step forward… dummy sunrise, reverse sunset.”
As I swung a powerful blow up towards his ribs, he used his buckler, supported by his body and mind, to absorb the blow. Then we stood, looking at each other for a bit and gasping.
He’d got so much better since Psion had sorted out his mind lock. I mean… he was never going to be an outstanding student but at least he was starting to hold his own in our vicious little community. Last Saturday, he’d even managed to win his duel, down in the cage.
And he was even getting a bit more colour about him. Mind you… that was never going to be tricky. There were dead things with more colour than he used to have!
“You ready to go again?” he asked. Since Psion had done his thing, he’d been showing this puppy dog-like devotion to me and, a couple of times, he’d taken a rough word or casual blow that should really have been aimed in my direction.
I was starting to suspect that the work Psion had done on his mind had been even more complicated than I’d realised at the time.
“Let’s go,” I answered with a smile but we were interrupted by a whistle from Zalibar.
“Jenko, you go and join the Armenclethyfur’s group,” he said. “By the look of things, you won’t be too much of a burden for them today.”
Then he turned to me. “I’ve got a transitor group going out to fly amongst the cliffs up by Dunster Head. I’d like you to take Nero and go with them. You need to get a feel for the way a cross wind can muck up your steering.”
“Yes, Sir!” I said, trying to keep the grin off my face as I hurried over to the mews.
Nero was snoozing at the back of his stall and the thin, brown coloured dragon didn’t look all that enthusiastic when he saw what I wanted. “Come on, you,” I told him as I got my mind lock in position. He gave me a bit of a look but reluctantly uncurled himself.
And when I led him out of the mews, Zalibar was shouting across the quad to Llynnonda, who was already mounted on Lippit. “Don’t forget she’s still a noviate,” he was saying, “and whatever you do, don’t let her do anything to Nero.”
“So, I’ve got to stop you from killing yourself…” Llynnonda said… “ and…” Her voice was completely flat but she added this funny sort of mental thing that I guessed was telling me she was joking… “not let you damage Nero.”
I gave her a smile as I buckled on my spurs and forced Nero to lie down in the sand so I could mount.
Wastnonda, one of the older transitor boys, emerged from the mews with Taloon, a large, green female nag with a particularly bad temper. I mean… even I could tell that his grip wasn’t firm enough for that particular bundle of malice.
“Wasty,” Llynnonda called to him, “get a proper grip on Taloon and keep her away from the rest of the dragons. You know she’s been aching to have a go at someone for weeks now!”
“All right…” he answered with a bit of a sigh as he tightened up his grip slightly.
I’d never flown Nero before and, as we took off, I could feel that he was much more jittery than the dragons I was used to. The other riders all seemed to know exactly what they were doing and, without a word from Llynnonda, they formed up into a tight V-shaped wing. So I hurried Nero across to a position at the end of one of the arms.
I needed to really concentrate as we set off along the coast and I settled into Nero’s mind, feeling the wind across his wings and seeing the world through his sharp eyes.
“Wasty, look what you’re doing!” Llynnonda’s quiet, bossy voice rang out across the wing.
So I slipped out of Nero’s mind and, when I looked across, I saw that Wastnonda had slipped away from his position at the end of the other arm of the chevron and was now drifting backwards.
“Sorry!” he answered. “For some reason I’ve been given Taloon and you know what she’s like. It’s a constant battle to get her to do anything.” He dropped in behind the chevron for a few wing-strokes and used the slip-stream to pull himself back into his place in the line.
The night before, I’d heard Geraint and Carodoc talking about how important the crenels were in precisely controlling a dragon’s position and speed so I sank deep down into Nero’s mind once more and cautiously experimented with shaping the wind around our bodies.
“You too, Rhianadoc!” Llynnonda called to me. I looked round and saw that I’d let my attention wander and that I’d drifted out of position too. I sharply pulled Nero back into our place in the wing and got my mind back on business.
I was concentrating so hard that I was a bit shocked when I felt the touch of a mind on mine. I reached round and found, as I’d suspected, that Psion was gliding along behind us.
“Good morning, Young Mistress,” he said when he noticed me noticing.
“Erm, there are other people around. Don’t you think they might spot you?”
“As I’ve told you on numerous occasions, I am something of an expert in the fine arts of concealment. The day I fail to elude the attention of half a dozen of Zalibar’s transitors is the day I retire.”
“Fair enough, I suppose! I see you’ve remembered how to fly.”
“Memory was never the problem. It was, rather, the inadequate diet which restricted my ability to enjoy success in that particular domain. Now, however, thanks to your most gracious ministrations, I am once more able to cope with the rigours of flight.”
“If I might make so bold, I cannot help but observe that you are holding that unfortunate creature in an extremely tight grip.”
“That’s the way Zalibar taught us to do it.”
“I cannot claim to be astonished by that particular revelation. It is in Zalibar’s nature to wish to control every facet of every situation down to the least detail.”
“You know Zalibar then?”
“Of course I know him. Zalibar’s School of Dragonology has been in existence for years and, in that time, his brutally competent and uninspiring training methods have turned out armies of brutally competent and uninspiring riders. Your mother trained with him and had many of the same characteristics until…” he paused and managed to do his false modesty preening thing without doing the actual preening, “until I was able to add a couple of touches of subtlety to her armoury.”
I thought about his ‘extremely tight grip’ thing for a moment. “You can’t be suggesting that I just let go!”
“Should you make that mistake, you would not have the opportunity to regret it for long for, should the nag not kill you, Zalibar would. But, up here, amongst the cliffs and the wind, I’d recommend that you loosen your grip somewhat and let the dragon handle the details. Try as you might, you will never have the instinctive feel for flight that a dragon has.”
“How do I go about doing that?”
“Pray, allow me to demonstrate…”
The funny little dragon slipped deeper into my mind. “Instead of grasping the wretched beast with a grip like a cumbersome fist, so…” he started popping pictures into my head, “you grasp its crux firmly as if between a finger and thumb… so… With this more precise grip, you can release the pressure a little, allowing the creature’s lowest level flight instincts to take over, so… while you can hook into these instincts and provide overall guidance and control, so…”
“It’s an interesting idea. I might try it… but I think I’ll keep my big fist lying in wait in case everything goes horribly wrong.”
“A wise precaution, Young Mistress, though I have every confidence that it will prove unnecessary. It may, however, prove judicious to drop out of formation before you begin. You could be a trifle noisy at your first attempt.”
“Hey, Llynnonda, I’m going to drop back a bit,” I sent a mental shout to the group leader. “There’s something I want to try but I’ll need a bit of room. I’ll catch you up.”
“Okay! Don’t be long. We’re just running up to the Head one more time before we go back.”
I dropped back to Psion and, after taking a deep breath, I eased my grip off slightly. But Nero noticed the change and struggled for his freedom and, without really thinking, I snapped my more secure mind lock back around his crux.
“You can talk to the nags, you know,” Psion told me. “Though they are too far gone in their rage and despair to answer, they do understand and can, at some level, at least, respond.”
So I reached down into Nero’s mind. “Easy, now, my lad,” I told him. “Take it easy. There’s something coming up which you might like but it’s not going to happen until you stop fighting me.”
Nero stopped struggling against me and I felt something a bit like curiosity flashing across his mind.
So, after checking my most clunking fist was still ready, I cautiously relaxed my grip again.
And something seemed to click inside Nero’s mind… it felt like he was suddenly more alive. It wasn’t happiness or anything like it… more a temporary release from the unbearable torment that was his life.
In the next few minutes, as we swept along those rugged cliffs, I learned more about the artistry of flying than I had since I’d been here. It was suddenly obvious how slightly changing the angle of your wing could adjust your speed and balance… or how a stretch of the tail can be used to shed speed and gain a little height.
But, more than that, I could suddenly see that flight wasn’t really a question of adjusting all the individual bits… it was about the whole thing… mind and body… working together in this perfect harmony. It was beautiful… spectacular… amazing!
“That’s right!” I murmured to Nero as we skimmed around a headland, so close that I could have reached out and touched the rock. “Come on! Let’s catch up with that gang up ahead.”
“I’m back!” I called over to Llynnonda as we slipped back into formation.
“Good,” she replied as the wing of dragons powered on towards the Dunster Head. “We’re on our way back in now.”
As we swung round the headland to run back along the cliffs to the compound, I sank deep into Nero’s mind, sharing his satisfaction as I let him enjoy this taste of something at least close to freedom.
But I was shaken back to full awareness by a sudden shout from Llynnonda: “Wasty!”
I looked up to see that he’d drifted off course again but this time… and this close to the cliffs… it was much more serious. He tried to pull Taloon round but his turn was too sharp. He was almost thrown over the nag’s shoulder. He desperately grabbed at her crenels to stop himself from falling but he lost his grip on the bad-tempered dragon. She rolled savagely in the air, throwing him and sending him tumbling towards the rocky shore, far below.
Then, of course, Taloon turned on the dragons next to her. They scattered.
“Use your will to catch him!” I felt Psion’s urgent thought in my head.
I got Nero to throw himself into a steep dive and, without totally letting go of him, I locked my will onto Wastnonda. I managed to slow the tumbling boy but couldn’t completely stop his plummet.
“I can’t hold him,” I grunted despairingly to Psion.
“Then why don’t you throw him in the sea?” Psion suggested casually. “It might teach him a lesson!”
Gritting my teeth with the effort, I eased the tumbling nonda out over the sea whilst doing what I could to slow his fall. A corner of my mind kept a grip on Nero, who was pulling out of his dive as the sea flashed up to meet us.
Wastnonda crashed heavily into the water but I could see him struggling and spluttering and knew that he wasn’t seriously hurt. And when he set off, swimming towards land, I knew he’d be fine.
I collapsed onto Nero’s back as he skimmed along at wave-top height. I was pretty much shaking with the effort of slowing Wasty’s fall.
“I regret to inform you, Young Mistress, that you have more to do!” Psion’s tone was insistent. “There remains the issue of an out-of-control nag up there and I do not believe any of the others are up to the demands of double gripping her.”
I looked up to see flashes of green and grey as Taloon danced around Lippit, looking for the chance to close in for the kill. “I don’t like the sound of that,” I said as I pulled Nero round and got him circling back up to where the rest of the flight was wheeling in panicked chaos.
“It should not prove as challenging as the stunt you just pulled off,” Psion reassured me. “You merely have to impose your clunking fist on Taloon without completely letting go of Nero.”
“Is that all?”
“I have every confidence in you! Should you come in from above her and use your bracelet, she may not even see you coming.”
“I don’t like the way you say, ‘may,’ when it’s me who’s going to end up as nag-bait!”
“Stay well back and continue your climb,” Psion told me as we reached the top of the cliffs. Here Llynnonda was using every scrap of her flying ability to avoid being plucked from her dragons back by an incandescent Taloon.
“Now is the moment to conceal yourself and your steed,” the little dragon told me.
I touched my hand to my bracelet and eased myself gently out of sight, as if hiding behind a shadow. I mean… I knew the bracelet had hidden me in the past but this was the first time that I’d ever tried to use it on purpose. It took a couple of seconds and then the shadow just clicked into place around the two of us.
Below us, Llynnonda’s dodges and darts were getting more and more desperate as Taloon tried to pluck her from her dragon’s shoulders.
“Prepare yourself, Young Mistress!” Psion said. “Ready now… and dive!”
As I threw Nero into the dive, I relaxed my grip on him, leaving only the most gentle of touches, then I gathered the full weight of my will.
And, as I closed on the group below, I locked that will onto Taloon.
For a moment, Taloon’s mind went totally blank. She just couldn’t cope with being recaptured.
Then it exploded, crashing against the fist of my will.
It would have been enough of a struggle to control her mind if that was all I had to do. Doing it without letting go of Nero made me feel faint.
For what felt like an age, Taloon’s mind kept on convulsing. My face stretched in this silent scream and I started to tremble.
But, at last, her will collapsed. I found myself swaying violently and I grabbed at Nero’s crenels. Suddenly I realised that I was being held up by someone else’s will. I managed to raise my head and saw Llynnonda looking across at me.
“That was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen!” she said quietly. “I tried to grab her but I couldn’t even get close. And she got pretty pissed off about it! How you managed to double grip her through that frenzy, I will never know!”
“It wasn’t easy!” I smiled weakly.
“Can you bring her along or do we need to go and get help?” Llynnonda asked.
“I think the sooner I get rid of them both the better,” I answered. “You can let go of me now, thanks.”
Double gripping the two dragons, I followed Llynnonda back towards the compound.
The flight back was not a violent struggle, like first grabbing the angry dragon had been, but it kept draining at my strength. By the time the tower came into sight, I was pretty much collapsed on Nero’s back, grimly hanging onto his crenels. Llynnonda was supporting my body again. She called down to Zalibar in the compound below to clear some space.
Zalibar quickly saw what was going on and, as I clumsily landed the two dragons, he ordered the Amendraig to grip Taloon and Geraint to take Nero.
“Now what on earth…” he began but he was interrupted as I tumbled towards him. I was vaguely aware of him catching me with a deft combination of mind and muscle power but then everything went dark.