Chapter Twenty Eight - In the Sands of the Henge
The Saturday morning dawned cool and there was a touch of autumn mist in the air as Carodoc and I jogged gently round the quad. As ever, we made our way up to the gatehouse platform and I reached out to Psion.
“Good morning, Young Mistress!” he greeted me. “I hope you are well rested.”
“Yes, thank you. That final session last night left me too tired to stay awake worrying!”
“I had rather hoped that would be the consequence,” he responded with a smile.
“Now I do not intend to say anything about the fight this morning because I believe you already know everything you need to prevail. I did, however, wish to let you know what you should expect before the fight commences.
“Firstly Rhiannas: I do not know whether he will attend. If he does, it will be as an impartial observer. As you are a servant, he will not be able to publicly acknowledge his support for you. You should not allow that to concern you, however, as the loan of that sword clearly indicates where his allegiance lies.
“Carodoc will fly you up to the Edifice and, if I know Zalibar, he will happen to fly up at the same time to ensure no foul play.
“Only you and Kiernonda may cross the stones into the Henge and the stones themselves prevent any form of external interference. Zalibar will ask the two of you if you’re ready and, if he receives no reply, he will begin the duel with the command ‘Lath’.
“Remember to let him come at you. He will underestimate you. Use his own impatience and frustration against him and, if all else fails, try something wild and extravagant. It might not do any good but at least it will give people something to remember you by!”
He was silent for a few moments, allowing me time to think about this then asked, “Have you any final questions?”
“Will you be there?” I asked. I suddenly felt very alone and frightened.
“Though I am unable to attend in person, you know you have my blessings and good wishes. I should be able to pick up enough from the spectators to know how the duel is progressing.”
He went quiet for a moment then said in a measured, formal voice, “Do not, for an instant, forget whose daughter you are. Hold tight to that and I am certain you will prevail.”
Then he was gone.
I stood for a moment longer, staring out to sea and thinking about my mother and the duel ahead. Then I turned to Carodoc. “Come on,” I said. “Let’s go and get some breakfast.”
There was already a small spectator ring wheeling around the Henge as Carodoc brought me into the Edifice on one of the nags. As Psion had guessed, Zalibar was following us. He was far enough away for it to be clear that we were traveling separately, but close enough to stop anyone from causing us trouble.
“Kiernonda’s not here yet,” Carodoc said as we landed just outside the Rhian gate, “but he’ll be here soon. He’s not going to risk being late.” We started to run through my final checks.
Soon Kiernonda and Quaro-Deryn appeared. They glided down towards us, accompanied by Quaroclethyfur and Kiernon, Kiernonda’s father.
“No Quaronas,” I observed.
“Of course not. Quaro can’t be seen to be showing any interest in a personal honour duel between a couple of Zalibar’s students. To be honest, it’s stretching things for Quaroclethyfur to be here.”
Kiernonda and Quaro-Deryn landed just outside the Quaro gate and they, too, started their final checks.
I was carefully rechecking the edge of Rhian-Ceridwen’s blade with a sharpening stone when there was a disturbance above us. “We’ve got an extra impartial observer,” Carodoc said.
I looked up in time to see Rhiannas cruising into the spectator ring and, as he did, the ring split into two levels with only Rhiannas, Kiernon and Quaroclethyfur remaining at the lowest level. Everyone else moved up into a higher, inferior ring.
He didn’t acknowledge me, of course… he was an impartial observer, after all. But, even though I hated him for what he’d done to me and what he’d made me do to Megan, in a way, I was still glad he was there. There was someone up there who I knew was on my side.
“Right, mind back on business,” Carodoc said, doing his best to radiate an air of calm control. “Armour straps… chin strap…” he said, restarting the checklist. When we were finished, he smiled at me. “Go get him!” he said.
I nodded back and moved towards the stones, my heart was pumping and I wanted to scream. But, before I breached the circle, I stood for a moment to slow my breathing and gather my thoughts. ‘You’re good!’ I told myself. ‘You’ve not been at it as long as he has but you can take him to pieces with your will. And you are your mother’s daughter.’
I stepped into the ring through the Rhian gate with a smile on my face.
I watched as Kiernonda, too, walked confidently into the ring but I was pleased to see that he turned a bit paler when he saw me standing there looking impassive and confident. His contemptuous smile became a bit more forced.
We moved to stand opposite each other in the sand at the centre of the Henge, then Zalibar, mounted on Nero, came in to perch on one of the gates. “I shall ask you once if you are ready,” he announced formally. “If I receive no reply, I shall give the command, ‘lath’, to start you.” As he spoke, the Great Gong seemed to amplify his words so they echoed through the whole Edifice.
“Are you ready?”
My right hand hovered over my sword hilt, with my left just a touch further away from the dagger. My eyes remained fixed on Kiernonda’s.
As the challenged party, I got to draw first and, as planned, I waited for two seconds that felt like an eternity to build up the tension even more. Then, in an explosive release of my pent-up tension, I sprang across the ring, drawing my weapons as I moved. I saw Kiernonda’s lips twist into a smile as he recognised the basic opening gambit we’d selected. As Psion had predicted, he moved into an aggressive counter and was almost completely thrown as I switched into another form. Only a desperate, scrambled block let him slip to one side as I passed him.
I turned and started circling, left foot crossing right, ready to retreat, and looked across to Kiernonda. He’d been shaken by my unusual opening and had turned even paler. He jumped across the circle to attack and I parried him easily, pushing him off to the right and retreating back into my circling movement.
Twice more he closed and twice more I parried and retreated: once to the left and once more to the right.
I tried one of Psion’s flash transitions and felt Kiernonda gathering himself for a high-level attack. As he charged across the circle, I threw in one of the simple mental trips. He stumbled forwards and only managed to avoid my sword by throwing himself into the sand and rolling out of the way.
He scrambled to his feet in a stream of profanities.
He attacked twice more, but now he was being a bit more careful.
“Come on, fight, damn you!” he snarled at me. I didn’t bother replying but just gave him a little smile. I carried on with my circling, studying every move of his hands and face.
It was his eyes that told me he was gathering himself for an all-out attack. So I blinked into the cerebral domain as we continued to circle. I reached across to his thrashing cloud and could almost taste him gathering his strength and will. As he sprang at me, I switched to a right foot cross and counter attacked. I managed to throw myself inside his defence and only a desperate mental block saved him from my sword. Even so, I managed to flick my dagger towards his throat. He tried to dodge but the blade caught his cheek as he staggered past.
I’d drawn first blood.
And at least he’d have a scar to remember me by.
I resumed my circling and he followed me round. ‘Time is your friend!’ I repeated to myself as I retreated before another of his attacks. I didn’t even try to block the thought from leaking out of my mind. If he overheard, he’d get even more frustrated.
Not wanting to become predictable, I closed for a dummy attack of my own towards his right leg. The dummy was so successful that both his sword and dagger were thrown to his right side in defence. I grunted in frustration when I realised that I couldn’t bring my sword to bear. So I used my will to help me jump and gave him a kick in the side of his helmet instead. He staggered back, a bit stunned.
With Kiernonda at this disadvantage, it was my turn to go on the offensive. Twice I launched attacks across the circle. The first time I closed, he managed to parry my blow and retreat under control. But the second time he almost fell as he scrambled back.
I looked across as we started to circle once more. I saw Kiernonda throw a despairing glance up towards Quaro-Deryn who gave a nod of agreement. I threw in a blink transition to try to work out what he was planning but he’d thrown up his most solid shield - I wouldn’t be able to break through it without losing concentration in the base domain.
So I launched yet another attack. But this time, as he blocked my blow on his dagger, he let the thing slip from his hands. I was astonished. I mean… my blow hadn’t been all that hard… he should never have lost his grip like that. He used my moment of confusion to scramble back out of range before I could press my attack home. As we began to circle once more, he drew another knife from a scabbard at his belt. Something about the blade of the new knife caught my eye. From close up, its blade had a funny sheen… like oil on water.
I savagely barked at myself for letting myself get distracted and dragged my attention back. For a few seconds we circled and then we both closed on each other. I was astonished when he didn’t even try to block my blow to his thigh with his knife. Instead, he flicked the thing towards my shoulder. I used my will to power through his mental defences and felt my blade biting home into his leg. Not a grievous blow, but it would hamper him for the rest of the fight. I was so intent on powering through his mental shield that I hadn’t quite been able to block his knife as it flashed towards my shoulder and I felt a slight sting as it bit home.
I glanced down at the wound as my legs began to take me round in a circle once more. It was nothing. I’d got worse off Zalibar’s whip on our training runs. I looked across the circle to Kiernonda. With the wound in his leg, he was having trouble moving. He’d never be able to fend off another attack.
But there was something wrong with my arm. He must have caught a nerve or something? My stomach cramped with terror as I realised that I couldn’t hold my sword anymore and it tumbled from my grasp.
I tried to stumble away as Kiernonda began a clumsy attack. I tried to block him but my legs couldn’t hold me. I tumbled backwards onto the sand.
I could do nothing but lie there as Kiernonda rained blow after blow down onto me. I blocked as well as I could with my will and my dagger but I could feel the strength ebbing from my left arm too. I knew that, when that went, I would no longer be able to defend myself.
Suddenly a shout of, “Hold!” rang around the Edifice. I couldn’t move my head any more so I sensed, rather than saw, that Rhiannas had landed on his gate. And not even Kiernonda was stupid enough to disobey that command.
“The outcome of this duel has been determined and I would not have my property further damaged in this encounter,” he announced. “Is there any here who would gainsay me?”
There was silence throughout the Edifice.
“Then clear the Henge,” he ordered, as he took off and flew up towards his lair.
As the mists closed in, I saw Zalibar’s face leaning over me. His ugly features were twisted by a mixture of confusion and suspicion.