Chapter Twenty Seven - Rhian-Ceridwen’s Sword
The track was overgrown and obviously wasn’t used much and, as I made my way back into the woods, the funny feeling that everyone got round here seemed to grow.
After a while, the path dropped down into a little valley and a clearing with an old, falling-down farmhouse appeared.
I cut across some boggy ground and jumped the stream but, as I climbed up the steep slope to the farmhouse, the whole ‘uneasy feeling’ thing got worse.
I couldn’t quite force myself to step inside the place and kind of hung around in the doorway but, after blinking a couple of times, I forced my way past his illusion and Psion sprang into sight, curled up on a pile of rubble. “Good afternoon, Young Mistress!” he greeted me.
“Are you sure it’s safe in there?” I asked.
For a moment he was puzzled but then he did his bubbly cloud laughing thing. “With your permission, Young Mistress,” he said, then he was inside my mind and the feeling just vanished. “It’s a simple enough illusion that I’ve been using to maintain my privacy,” he explained as I made my way inside.
“So you’re responsible for the whole, ‘Haunted by the Souls of the pupils who didn’t survive the Academy’ bit.
That kicked off more of his bubbly cloud laughing thing. “I merely lent the place a slightly menacing aspect and allowed people’s imaginations to do the rest.”
I nodded. In a way, I wanted to ask him about it but my time was too precious so I just showed him Wastnonda’s note instead.
He didn’t even bother getting up to read it properly… I just felt his mind brushing over the thing and then he gave a nod.
“I had, in any event, intended to touch upon the matter of weapon switches tomorrow,” he said. I could see he was pleased to get this information. “I take it that the wing of dragons I observed this morning was the Kier group.”
“Carodoc said it was the Quaro sword master.”
“Excellent!” Psion said, rising to a more alert sitting position.
“But isn’t he really good.”
“Quaroclethyfur is one of the best.”
“Then how can that be good?”
“Because I know I’m facing him and he doesn’t know he’s facing me,” he explained with an enthusiastic wave of his tail.
“I thought it was me who was going to be facing Kiernonda!”
“The engagement will proceed at a number of levels,” Psion explained. “Of course the two of you will be inside the Henge, hacking lumps off each other, but Quaroclethyfur and I are going to be there beforehand, recommending strategies, anticipating your opponents moves and teaching you manœuvres to counter them.”
I thought about this for a bit. “How are you going to go about teaching me manœuvres?” I asked. “I mean, you can’t exactly hold a sword and dagger.”
“Should it prove necessary, I am perfectly capable of manipulating weapons with my mind. However, in these particular circumstances, I propose to leave your education in the crass mechanics of butchery in Carodoc’s capable hands. For what I intend to teach you, it will prove more efficacious, and certainly less dangerous, to insert the image of an attacker directly into your mind.”
“You can do that?
“I’ve told you I’m good!” he said with an arrogant tail flick - though the sparkles in his cloud told me he was just teasing.
“OK!” I said, springing to my feet. “Let’s get going then.”
“Very well,” Psion said. “Firstly, today, I intend to introduce certain fundamental manœuvres that may prove significant. Then we shall consider cerebral combat. And, finally, I will address more strategic aspects of the confrontation.”
“What do you mean by ‘strategic aspects’?”
“Consider this,” Psion replied, slipping into his professor’s pose. “You and Kiernonda are circling each other in the centre of the Henge. Do you attack or do you wait for him to do so? When you attack, do you go all out for the kill, risking everything, or should it be more of a probing, weakening attack? You decide to make a probing attack but, in the middle of it, you recognise that he is in difficulty. Should you escalate to take advantage of this perceived momentary weakness?”
“Oh, I see,” I said, feeling a bit deflated. “You think you can teach me all this stuff in four afternoons?”
“You could easily spend four years learning it. Many do. However, there are factors at play which permit us to take short cuts. Firstly, at this juncture, you face but a single adversary. We know him and, what is more, I know his tutor. Secondly, your challenger is a mere transitor. He will have studied more strategy than you… but only a little… and, I surmise, he will not have been overly diligent in such studies.”
“You also have one further significant advantage. You have an unusually powerful mind which can compensate, to some degree, for your limitations in other areas.”
The time with Psion flew by: I was circling an illusionary opponent, as if in a dance, with my right leg crossing in front, if I intended to advance, and my left, if I intended to retreat; I was deflecting phantom blows from sword or dagger, choosing either to twist the blow to one side or to parry and counterattack; I was learning to escalate from a simple, probing level of contact to a decisive attack.
But, most of all, Psion was teaching me ways of breaking contact for when I didn’t feel completely in control.
I was feeling really good… but a bit tired… when he told me to sit down and rest.
“Pray, keep your enthusiasm in check, Young Mistress,” Psion cautioned me. “Bear in mind that Kiernonda will already be completely familiar with these basic techniques and more.”
I nodded, a bit deflated.
“But we should now consider the domain in which you hold a decisive advantage: how to make the most effective use of your cerebral potential. In addition to those cerebral parries that you practiced this morning, you enjoy a whole gamut of additional options.”
“There are a number of other things that you can do with your mind during the duel. You recall Rhiannas’s assault on you, that first evening?”
I nodded. I wasn’t going to forget that in a hurry!
“Consider the impact of such an attack in combat!”
“But I can’t…” I began, appalled at the idea of another attack like that one.
“Don’t worry. Nor can he, or he would no longer be a transitor. There are, nonetheless, a couple of tricks I can show you. First, however, you must master what is termed a blink transition.”
“‘A blink transition into the cerebral domain’,” he explained. “You can’t stand around for five minutes in the middle of combat whilst you perform your transition into what you’ve been calling the ‘cloud world’, can you? By the time you returned, you would be reduced to nag meat.”
I smiled and gave a nod.
“So you need to perform the transition in, execute the desired action and then transition back out before your opponent has a chance to react.”
“And I’ve got to learn how to do this in four days?”
“I have some good news for you. You are already capable of this feat.”
“Do you recall the incident with Quaro-Deryn and the soup? I presume that you instinctively performed such a blink transition to throw up your shield.”
“I didn’t think about it at all… I just did it.”
“That, I would venture to suggest, is the quintessential core of the blink transition. Now the method that I propose to adopt in teaching you this technique is to trigger your instinctive reaction…”
Without warning, he launched a slap sort of thing in the direction of my mind. Stumbling over myself, I threw up a flimsy tower which allowed me to bounce off most of the force.
“…whilst you’re performing some minor task in the base domain and then allow you to analyse how you performed the blink transition.”
I smiled as I thought about how I’d done my shield thing… time seemed to pass more slowly in the ‘cerebral domain’, so I had more time than I’d have expected to do the transition and to parry the blow.
“Isn’t it a bit unfair,” I asked, “slapping me when I’m…”
I tried to do one of his blink transition things and flipped out a slap in the direction of his bubbling blue cloud. At first he didn’t react and I thought that I might, maybe… just maybe… have got one over on him. But, at the last moment, he flicked out a lazy, partial sort of a shield and swatted the blow back towards me as if it was an annoying fly. I had to scramble once more to throw up my own shield. As I was flipping, slightly disappointed, back into what he called the ‘base domain’, his cloud was doing its golden sparkly thing.
“…I’m not ready!”
The two of us looked at each other for a moment then laughed.
After another hour, I was standing on one leg on a large rock with my wooden practice sword balanced on one finger. At the same time, we were exchanging slaps in the cerebral domain.
At last Psion told me to come down and rest. “You would appear to be making considerable progress with those blink transitions,” he told me. “Tomorrow, we shall consider how to make most effective use of them.”
I sat down on the rock, closed my eyes and shook my head. I had a bit of a headache from a couple of his slaps that had got through my defences.
“Now we move on to the area of strategy. It is here that we should be able to achieve a decisive advantage.”
Psion did his false modesty thing, turning himself slightly to one side and, wrapping his tail round his body, he started his lecture.
“The first factor to consider is that you have considerably more endurance than Kiernonda. He will seek to conclude the fight as expeditiously as possible. Consequently, you should seek to prolong it by withdrawing from every contact in the first phase of the encounter.”
“I did notice that you were talking about withdrawing a lot!” I said.
“It will be critical to your victory.”
Psion carried on with his strategy lecture for another hour and he kept repeating that I should make Kiernonda keep trying to attack me. “He is the far more experienced fighter,” he explained. “He will be expected to dispatch you expeditiously. When he fails to do so, the crowd will become restless so he will become frustrated and start making mistakes… that is your moment to strike.”
I went quiet for a moment, thinking about this.
“You need to be on your way quite soon if you are to reach the Edifice before nightfall,” Psion told me.
I nodded. “What do you think I should do tomorrow morning?” I asked.
“Quaroclethyfur will be receiving regular reports and your training must not give him insight into our plans so I suggest you practice the standard attacks - both simple and counter. You may need the simple attacks for later in the duel and the counters provide an effective way of breaking contact with scope to inflict harm… or at least reminding your opponent of the risks he faces.”
“OK,” I said as I climbed wearily to my feet. It had been a long day.
“Take care up in the Edifice,” he warned me. “Whilst I am confident that they underestimate you and would not expect them to attempt anything untoward, you should, nonetheless, remain vigilant. Avoid dawdling on your way up to the Rhian lair.”
From the farmhouse, I made my way down another track that followed the stream down the little valley and joined the main track close to the bridge. As I made my way up into the village, I stuck to the lengthening shadows at the side of the road, trusting to my mother’s leather bracelet to hide me.
“I’m here,” I announced to Carodoc as I approached the shop. He must have been waiting for me because he opened the door straight away.
“And I’m pleased to see you!” he told me. “I was starting to get worried.”
I gave him a reassuring smile. “Let’s see if the pie shop is still open,” I suggested. “I’m starving.”
The walk up to the lair was uneventful, though I was sure I was never going to get used to the scale of the Edifice or the appalling drop on one side of the ringway path.
“You should ask Rhiannas’s permission before we go in,” Carodoc warned me as we reached the Rhian veranda. “We don’t want him to combust us by accident!”
So I gently reached out my mind to Rhiannas who was waiting inside… he already knew we were there. “Greetings, master!” I said. “I bring a visitor, the head tyro Carodoc. Do we have your leave to enter?”
“Enter in peace, Rhianadoc and Carodoc!” came the formal response from within.
The two of us walked the length of the chamber and approached Rhiannas who was lying, curled up on his dais like a dog.
I took a deep breath then said, “I have come to let you know that I have been promoted to transitor and also that Kiernonda has challenged me to a formal honour duel.”
“I had been appraised of this,” he told me impassively. “Nonetheless, it is fitting that you inform me in person.”
“I take it you are to act as Rhianadoc’s second,” he said to Carodoc.
“Rhianadoc,” he said, “enter the House Hall. There are a number of swords hanging on the wall. The fourth from the left has a simple metal pommel and a leather sheath that bears no markings other than the House insignia. Bring it here.”
I did as he said and quickly found the weapon. Then, being careful only to touch the sheath, I took it down from the wall and hurried back with it.
“Draw the blade!” he told me.
By now, I was used to the way my mind leapt to grasp the simple training blades that we used down in academy and I’d learnt to at least half way muffle my mind. But I just wasn’t ready for the way in which my mind reached out to embrace this obviously superior blade. For a moment, I was lost to the world as my mind reached out to explore this amazing sword.
“Your appreciation of the blade is not overly difficult to perceive,” Rhiannas remarked, his tone remained flat but contained just a hint of amusement.
“My apologies, Master,” I said when I got my mind halfway back under control. “Zalibar encourages me to muffle my mind but I just wasn’t prepared for the way it would react to such a magnificent weapon.”
“He probably heard you from down in the compound,” Carodoc observed quietly.
I ran through a couple of the basic sword exercises and found that the heavy pommel gave it a beautiful balance whilst the handle and simple cross guard fitted me like a glove.
Rhiannas studied me for a moment, as if he was interested in the way my mind had reacted to the sword. “It is Rhian-Ceridwen’s training blade,” he told me, “You may use it in the duel. May it bring you good fortune!”
“Thank you, master,” I replied formally, my hand rising to the torque at my neck.
“I shall now bear you back to the compound for it is not without peril for you to be abroad in the Edifice after nightfall without appropriate protection.” He stepped off the dais and, stretching out his wings, he skimmed casually down the lair to the mounting stairs.
“Thank you, sir,” Carodoc said promptly. He hurried after the dragon, obviously relieved, and I followed.
“Come then,” Rhiannas said as I climbed onto his shoulders and Carodoc climbed up just behind me. Furthermore, this affords me the opportunity to appraise your progress,” he said as he pulled me into his mind.
The flight through the darkening sky was as exciting as ever and my experience with the nags made me appreciate his skill even more. I got a bit of a mental slap when I tried to ease a little more room for myself as we flew through his flute but, overall, I could tell he was pleased with the progress I was making
“Zalibar is teaching you well,” he said as we arrived in the compound. “The reports I have received indicate that you have the potential to be a creditable servant. I wish you well in this coming encounter, Rhianadoc.”
“Thank you, master!” I answered formally as Zalibar appeared at the top of the house stairs and bowed to Rhiannas.
“Now leave us,” he told Caradoc and me. “I would talk with Zalibar.”
We bowed then headed for our dormitory.
The next three days passed in a flash. Both Psion and Carodoc were excellent teachers and I knew that I was learning quickly but I remained painfully aware of how much I still had to learn… and what the price of failure would be.
As the challenged party, I got to draw first, so Carodoc spent an hour on the third morning teaching me a couple of the standard moves. But, in the afternoon, Psion showed me how to switch from one to another in mid flow. “Kiernonda will be anticipating one of the standard opening gambits,” he explained. “We can use that against him.”
Then he had me practicing heaps of dirty tricks: tripping your opponent, using your foot or your mind; or a kick to the knee; or an elbow to the kidneys.
“There are almost no rules out there,” he commented coolly. “Anything you can do to unsettle or unnerve Kiernonda is fair game.”
He even mentioned the subject of talking in the fight. “Your aim is to radiate an air of quiet confidence at all times,” he told me. “You should avoid extended conversations, but a word now and then may serve to keep him attacking.”
On the last afternoon, Psion didn’t want to wear me out so he had me sit in the corner of the farmhouse whilst he put a whole series of ‘scenarios’ straight into my mind - and got me to react to them, again, in my mind. It was a bit like a computer game but I think he was playing with my emotions too and, somehow, it all felt much more real. A phantom Kiernonda was attacking me - parry and withdraw… another attack - parry and withdraw… he’s over extended - parry and counter…
And, finally, he played through the whole thing in my head from the moment I arrived in the Henge, until the end of the fight.
He made it really tough… but, in the end, he let me win, of course!