Chapter Twenty Five - The Challenge
When I came back to my senses, Zalibar was carrying me up to the dormitory. Somehow he was feeding some of his will across to me, kind of topping up my reserves which felt way beyond empty.
“I hear you’ve done really well, young lady,” he said, popping me down, surprisingly gently, on my bed. “Not only did your swift action save the lives of two nonda but you also ensured a couple of my nags weren’t lost or damaged. Thank you. You’re excused chores for the rest of the week. That idiot Wastnonda can cover for you. You’re also let off the run this afternoon. He can do a triple and be grateful.”
“Oh yes!” he added as he turned back towards the door. “I’d also like you to eat with us in hall tonight.”
I must have fallen asleep or passed out or something because, the next thing I knew, I was being woken up by Carodoc.
“So… you’ve decided our company isn’t good enough for you!” he said with a grin. “You’re dining in Hall with the nonda tonight.”
“That’s what Zalibar said. I’m not sure I’m all that keen, though!”
“Anyway, I mentioned it to Iola when I was down in the village and she asked me to give you these,” he said, handing me a bag.
I looked inside and saw a beautiful silky red dress and a pair of elegant matching shoes with a bit of a heel on them.
“If you hurry, you’ll have time for a bath whilst we’re out on our run. Us tyros aren’t worried if you smell, but it might be a bit much for the refined nonda sensibilities! You’ll have to carry your own hot water, though.”
“A bath!” I’d hardly had time for anything more than a quick wash since I’d been there.
Smiling my thanks to Carodoc, I grabbed the bag and hurried down to the kitchen to collect the hot water.
I was feeling pretty self-conscious as I made my way across the quad to the Great Hall. That dress was really posh and… let’s just say that it displayed the little bit I had by way of attributes to their best advantage.
The Armenclethyfur was waiting at the door in a black jacket with his hair held back in one of those elegant coronets. And the whole self-conscious thing wasn’t made any better by the way he inspected me when I arrived. “Who are you?” he asked with a smile, “and what had you done with that grubby little tyro?”
But at least he gave me a friendly smile to let me know he was only teasing.
“You know, I’ve never seen Zalibar looking so impressed,” he added. “Now go and grab Wasty’s seat. I guess he won’t be needing it tonight!”
“What I don’t understand is how one mind can possibly do a double grip,” a noviate nonda was saying as I sat down. “I mean… you’ve only got one brain, haven’t you?”
“We’ll have to ask the expert,” a Transitor boy answered. He shook his long hair away from his face giving me what, on one level, was a friendly smile. Then he dusted an imaginary speck of dust off his purple velvet jacket.
“Well, I sort of had Nero under control at the back of my mind,” I tried to explain. “Then I could concentrate on Taloon, who was the real problem.”
“I just don’t understand how you managed to stop Wasty from smearing himself all over the rocks,” Llynnonda said. “I was sure he was dead when I saw him falling like that.”
“He was trying to slow himself down anyway. So all I had to do was to help him a bit and nudge him out to sea. The water did the rest.”
“But how…” another nonda tried to ask but he was interrupted by the gong. We all jumped to our feet as Zalibar walked in.
The meal was really good, of course, but I couldn’t help remembering Psion’s words. ‘A simple meal with friends is usually much to be preferred’. I found I had to be much too careful not to use the wrong fork or say the wrong thing. I mean… in a way, the people round me were being friendly but there were far too many cryptic comments and clever smiles…. and I was painfully aware that there were layers of politics in the discussion that I wasn’t even close to understanding.
I was relieved when everyone had finished eating and the Amendraig strolled across and struck the gong again. The nonda fell silent and turned towards Zalibar who had an untypical smile on his scarred face. The other tyros had gathered in our alcove and I got a friendly grin from Jenko.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” Zalibar began. “I have taken the unusual step of inviting a tyro to join us here tonight. Not only did Rhianadoc save the lives of two nonda this afternoon – one of whom is…” he paused significantly, “…otherwise detained…” That got a bit of a laugh… “and is likely to remain so for a while. But she also managed to save a couple of my nags from damage or escape.
“Now, in the few weeks she’s been with us, this young lady has made quite exceptional progress and this morning’s performance confirms to me that she is fit to be promoted to the status of transitor.”
This got polite applause from most of the nonda and wild cheering from the tyro’s little alcove.
But, as I turned bright red and smiled my thanks around the room, I noticed Quaro-Deryn giving Kiernonda a significant nod. You could tell that this was what he’d been waiting for. Everyone fell silent as Kiernonda stood up and walked down the length of the room to the doorway. There he drew his dagger and struck the gong with its hilt.
“In accordance with the ancient rites and Precepts of the Edifice,” he said, “I hereby challenge this new transitor to a personal honour duel.”
Zalibar sat in silence for a moment. “Nobody denies you the right to make such a challenge…” he said at last, and I could tell he was choosing his words carefully… “but I strongly advise you against it. There is little honour to be gained for a nonda challenging a tyro in this way and there is a danger that it will make you look petty.”
Kiernonda glanced briefly at Quaro-Deryn before clearing his throat and saying: “I hear your advice, Sir, but I must, nonetheless, insist on satisfaction of my demand.”
“Very well,” Zalibar replied simply then he gave Carodoc a nod. The head tyro marched across the silent Great Hall, drew the dagger from his belt and handed it to me.
“You need to go and strike the gong with the hilt to formally accept the challenge,” he told me.
Of course I hesitated.
“Just do it,” he whispered. “You don’t have any choice. I’ll explain later.”
So I took the dagger and walked up to the gong. I was about to strike it but then I paused. When I turned to face Kiernonda, the silence in the room seemed to deepen.
“Don’t forget for a second that you’re not just bullying a noviate tyro here,” I told him coolly. “You know as well as I do that Zalibar has promoted me to transitor because of what I’ve done and what he thinks I’m capable of doing. If you want a duel, you will have one.”
I held his eye for a few moments more. He didn’t say anything and I was pleased to see that he turned a bit paler. Only then did I turn and strike the gong.
The room remained silent as I returned to my place. Carodoc didn’t say anything but he gave me an encouraging smile.
“The duel will take place in the Henge on Saturday,” Zalibar announced formally. “Quaro-Deryn and Carodoc are to act as seconds. Is that acceptable?” He looked around and all four of us nodded our agreement. “Until then, combatants and seconds are relieved of all other duties. Seconds are to meet in my quarters in one hour to coordinate training schedules to avoid clashes. Until then, combatants are confined to their quarters.”
“If there are no questions, I would ask you to depart first, Kiernonda.” Kiernonda nodded formally to Zalibar and walked to the door accompanied by Quaro-Deryn, their footsteps echoing through the silent room.
I then had to wait a few moments until Zalibar told me I could go. As I made my way across the silent Great Hall, with Carodoc at my shoulder, I could feel every eye on me. But, still, I did my best to stand up straight and look confident.
But as we stepped out through the doors, the place exploded into conversation behind us but Carodoc wouldn’t let me say anything until we were safely up in the dorm.
But then, of course, I needed to know what was going on.
“OK…” Carodoc answered, sitting on his bed, “Kiernonda has challenged you to a personal honour duel and, because you’re a tyro, you didn’t have any real choice but to accept. The fight’s going to take place in the Henge, up in the Edifice, on Saturday. We’ve got until then to get you ready. In theory it’s to the death, but the heads of House may step in at any stage because your lives belong to them.
“Do you know what it’s all about, by the way?” he asked. “There’s obviously something going on but, quite frankly, it’s beyond me. I can’t imagine what he thinks he’s going to get out of beating up some tyro.”
“I get the impression he’s doing it for Quaro-Deryn,” I answered, pacing up and down the room. “Maybe he’s still hacked off at me about that whole soup thing. The two of them tried to attack my mind the other night but I managed to chuck them out.”
“Well as long as it’s nothing trivial!” Carodoc said, raising his eyes to the heavens. “Makes some sort of sense, I suppose. Kier is all but a vassal to the House of Quaro.”
He went quiet for a bit but then kind of jerked himself out of his thoughts. “First things first,” he said. “Don’t talk about things with any of the other tyros. It’s not that I don’t trust the rest of them but it’s just much too easy for them to bully a tyro. I’m your second so that gives me some sort of formal protection. Anyway, the fewer people who know our plans, the better.”
I nodded my understanding.
“Okay, I’ve got to go up to the house soon to talk things through with Quaro-Deryn. When do you want to use the quad?”
“Well, you know I like to get out there on my own before everyone else is up,” I said. “I’ll also need…” but I was interrupted by a knock on the door.
Carodoc gave me a look to tell me to shut up then called, “Come in!”
Wastnonda stumbled across the threshold looking totally bedraggled and shattered so we jumped up to grab him and helped him to collapse onto Jenko’s bed. “Are you alright?” I asked.
“I’m a lot better than I would have been if you hadn’t pulled off that stunt,” he answered, trying to do some sort of smile thing. “I came up here to say thank you.”
“What’s he had you doing?” I asked.
“Well after my little swim – great thinking by the way – Zalibar came to collect me. I say collect – he was riding Nero and had his whip. I was running. Since then, I’ve been up the peak three times.”
“Have you eaten?” Carodoc asked.
“No time. Zalibar barely gave me the chance to grab a drink of water.”
“I’ll go down and see Cookie,” Carodoc said and stepped out of the dorm.
Wastnonda lay back on the bed and looked across at me. “You’re looking smart,” he said. “You’ve been up to dinner in the Great Hall?”
“Yeah, I’d almost forgotten, Zalibar promoted me to transitor.”
“Almost forgotten? That’s the quickest promotion I’ve ever heard of! How on earth do you forget something like that?”
“Because, as soon as Kiernonda heard the announcement, he challenged me to a formal duel.”
He lay back silently, obviously enjoying the rest, but after a few moments he said. “He’s an idiot! We all saw what you can do this morning. You’ll make mincemeat of him.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Carodoc said as he stepped through the door with a bowl of leftover stew type stuff. “She’s certainly got the edge in terms of brain power but he’s much stronger and a much more experienced fighter.” He walked across to Wastnonda and handed him the bowl. “The bread’s stale and the mush isn’t all that warm but it’ll have to do.”
Wastnonda nodded his thanks as he attacked the bowl of lukewarm stew. You could see he was starving.
“If there’s anything I can do, let me know,” he said when every crumb was gone. “It’s going to take me a while to pay you back for saving me this morning.”
“As a matter of fact, there might be something,” I said thoughtfully. “Do you think anyone saw you coming up here just now?”
“I shouldn’t think so. The quad was empty when I got back and it’s not as if the steps up here are in open view.”
“Then try not to let anybody see you with us before Saturday,” I told him. “I’d like you to find out as much as you can about Kiernonda’s plans: what weapons he’s going to be using and that sort of thing. Anything you can let us know would be really handy.”
“That’s a good idea,” Carodoc said with a nod. “It might not occur to him that a nonda would pass information to us. He might let something useful slip.”
“Okay,” Wastnonda said. “I can’t promise anything but I’ll try.”
“I understand,” I told him. “Just keep your ears open.”
“I’d best be getting back,” he said, pulling himself painfully to his feet. “For one thing, we don’t want anyone to notice I’ve been up here, and, for another, I could really do with a wash before bed! Is there anything else?”
We couldn’t think of anything.
“Then would you come and check the coast is clear for me?” he asked Carodoc.
“Good night,” he said to me as he left the room, “and thank you again for saving my life.”
“Okay!” Carodoc said when he returned. “I need to go up and see Quaro-Deryn to sort out the training schedule. You said about your early morning sessions. What else do you need?”
“I could do with a couple of hours in the morning for some basic weapons practice, then, in the afternoon, I’m going to need some time on my own, away from the compound.”
“You mustn’t go out on your own,” he answered urgently. “There’s a real chance that Kiernonda… or a couple of his mates… might try something on. I have to be there to look after you.”
I had to have a long think about how much I dared tell Caradoc about Psion. It was a risk but he was bound to notice something was going on.
“I’m going to be getting help from somebody else,” I told him at last.
“There’s a limit to how much help Rhiannas can give you,” Carodoc replied. “If he gets too heavily involved, the whole thing could blow up into an all-out inter-House war.”
“No, I don’t mean him,” I said. “Don’t ask…” I added, as the questions bubbled up inside him… “you really don’t want to know!”
Carodoc’s forehead went all wrinkly as he studied me but then he shrugged.
“If you could leave me somewhere near the village, you might be able to find some way of entertaining yourself down there,” I suggested with a grin.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Carodoc replied. He’d gone all red but didn’t look too unhappy with the idea. “Are you going to need anything else?” he added hurriedly, in an attempt to cover up his embarrassment.
“I can’t think of anything,” I answered.
“You need to go up and formally tell Rhiannas about what’s happened,” Carodoc told me. “I mean… he’ll have heard about it but it’s your duty to let him know in person.”
I nodded. “I’ll come and find you in the village tomorrow after my practice, “I told him. It’s on the way. I can guess where you’ll be!”
Carodoc nodded. “Then, if there’s nothing else, I’ll get on up to see Quaro-Deryn.”
“Do you need me to come with you?” I asked.
“You can’t possibly come,” he answered, shocked at the idea. “You mustn’t leave the room.”
“You don’t think he might try and do something to you?”
“Don’t worry!” he said. “This stuff is all part of the formal negotiation of terms. It’s all laid down in the precepts and there’s no way they’re going to try anything, particularly with Zalibar hanging around, two sword lengths away.”
“OK, I’ll stay here then,” I reassured him as he made his way towards the door.