Chapter Thirty - Juggling Pebbles
It was pitch black when I woke. As the year crept on, I was having to wake up before dawn to get any time on my own… and I really needed those few minutes for myself. I crept across the dormitory, using my mind rather than my eyes to see the way and, as I made my way down the familiar rickety staircase, there was a distinct nip in the air.
Before starting my normal routine, I went across to the mews, lit a lantern and carried it over to Nero. I needed to check his wing. One of the nonda had let Taloon get too close and of course the bad tempered nag had taken a lump out of him before anyone could stop her.
The slender brown dragon was curled up at the back of his stall, still fast asleep. “Wake up, lazy bones,” I called to him. “I need to have a look at that wing.” I took a gentle grip on his mind and vaulted over the wall. Nero and I had a sort of agreement going on… I only put the lightweight grip on him and he didn’t resist.
There wasn’t enough room in the stall for him to fully stretch his wing out but he reluctantly unfolded it enough to let me have a look. I had to laugh… if he could talk, he’d have been muttering rude things at me under his breath. I cautiously felt around the wound with my fingers and mind… even though it was still hurting a bit, it was healing nicely. “Don’t be such a baby!” I gently chided him as he flinched away from my probe. “It’s your own fault for letting Taloon get too close!”
I carefully applied some of the evil-smelling ointment that Zalibar had given me. “Don’t lick it off, this time!” I warned him. “Zalibar says it’s good for your wing but I can hardly imagine that it will do you any good to eat the stuff!”
I scratched him behind the ears… it was a bit of an insult to his dignity but he quite liked it as long as nobody was looking. Then I released my grip and jumped back out of the stall.
I returned to the quad where I did a couple of slow, loping laps. It was funny but, even though I’d not started doing the afternoon runs again, I was still stiff in the mornings.
Probably some lingering after effect of the gorat.
Dawn was breaking through the heavy overcast as I climbed up onto the gatehouse roof. I gave Psion a sort of nod but went straight into my usual routine.
As I lay on my back, stretching out a thigh muscle, I guided half a dozen pebbles in a figure of eight type pattern above my head. And when I switched to my other leg, I reversed their direction. I stretched out my arm muscles whilst hovering quarter of an inch above the platform and, when I moved to stretch out my hamstrings, I took my weight on my will rather than on my arms.
I could feel Psion hovering on the edge of my mind but he could see how hard I was concentrating so he didn’t disturb me.
The latest exercise he’d given me was juggling pebbles with my eyes closed - it was supposed to build up ‘the needlelike application of my will’. I could just about manage it with three pebbles but I was still struggling with the fourth. I always found myself picking the things up off the floor.
After getting into a rhythm with three, I tried to slip in the fourth and, for a few moments, I had it. I knew where the pebbles were going to be and could stretch out my hands to pluck them from the air.
But suddenly the pebbles were gone. I was left clutching at nothing.
I opened my eyes to find the four pebbles in an impossible looking little stack on the wall in front of me.
“Psion!” I just exploded.
I mean… he wasn’t even holding them there with his will… he must have balanced them there with a crazy level of precision!
“You were about to miss one,” he told me with a grin. “It is, in any event, time for you to finish. People in the house are beginning to stir.”
After stepping up into the dormitory to check that the rest of the tyros were awake, I had a quick wash by the well. The water was freezing and I was shivering as I made my way into the kitchen to collect hot water for the nonda. Nobody else liked the job but it didn’t bother me because I was already awake… and I got to warm up in the kitchen as I poured the water out
As I made my way back across the quad, after delivering the water, the rest of the tyros were coming down the stairs from the dorm. “Don’t forget to wash your hands properly this morning,” I reminded Bryn who was stumbling towards the kitchen, still half asleep. “Remember Cookie said you’re not getting any porridge if you forget again.”
The curly headed noviate nodded vaguely and made his way back towards the trough.
After serving the nonda’s breakfast and chucking our own down our necks, we dashed out into the quad just as Zalibar was stepping from the house. “Rhianadoc,” he called, “Carodoc is taking a group of transitors out for a flight round the island so I’d like you to take Olwen, Doranonda, Bryn and Wast-Bethan and put them through some basic sword routines.”
“Yes, Sir!” I answered. This was the first time I’d ever had to lead a training session but I’d helped Carodoc plenty of times so I roughly knew what I had to do.
“Come on, you four!” I called to them. “Have you all got swords?”
I looked around the group. The rest were relatively experienced noviates but Wast-Bethan, who was Wasty’s younger sister, didn’t have any of the kit. She’d only been with us for a couple of days and she had the familiar appalled and frantic expression of most newcomers.
“Wast-Bethan,” I told her, “if you remember, Zalibar said you’d be doing sword work this morning. That means you need to collect a practice sword and dagger as soon as you come out here.”
“I’m sorry!” she squeaked.
“I’ll let you off today but I expect you to remember next time,” I told her, giving her a little smile. I didn’t want her in a state of brainless panic when she started the exercises.
“Olwen,” I said, “would you go and help Wast-Bethan sort herself out, please.”
That left me with just Doranonda and Bryn. “Would you two gentlemen care to go through the four basic defence exercises for me?” I said.
I studied them as they moved to stand opposite each other. “Doranonda,” I said, “you’d have more control over the sword if you used the correct thumb position.”
“But it’s more comfortable like this.”
“If I see you doing that again, I can assure you it will be anything but comfortable!” I answered him sharply. “And if you ever lose control of your sword during combat, you’re going to discover whole new worlds of discomfort. Just do it.”
I mean… he shifted his thumb but his grumbling carried on just at the surface of his cloud and something inside me just snapped.
“Listen, sunshine,” I burst out, spinning him around with my will. I caught his eye and then sent a controlled mental blast crashing through his hastily erected shields. “If I ever see you with your thumb like that again, you’ll be picking it up off the floor!”
Doranonda turned pale but I hardly noticed as I received what had to be a cerebral wink from Zalibar on the other side of the quad.
“Right, you two,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief, “run through those exercises again.”
I turned to see Wast-Bethan and Olwen returning. Wast-Bethan was dragging the heavy training sword behind her in the sand.
“Olwen!” I said, totally exasperated. “Think please! What’s the first thing you do when you get a sword out?”
“Check it and then buckle it on,” she answered, glancing down at her own sword in confusion. “But I did!”
“But you didn’t show Wast-Bethan how to do it! Come on now! You’re getting pretty close to being promoted to transitor. I shouldn’t have to tell you this sort of stuff! From now on, you’re to make sure that she’s ready for practice every morning.”
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the whole ‘Miss’ thing. I mean… she was a bit older than me and she’d been at the school for twice as long…
But if it helped her to remember, it was probably a good thing!
The next couple of hours passed slowly. Wast-Bethan looked as if she was trying to kill herself… and Doranonda and Bryn definitely looked as if they were trying to kill each other… which meant I didn’t have any time to go through my own exercise routines.
So when, at last, I felt I could send them over to get a drink of water, I called across to Wastnonda, who was practicing on his own nearby, to come and join me in some sparring exercises.
I was enjoying being able to release some of my pent-up energy in the vigorous routines so, when his attention wandered and he missed a straightforward block, I had quite a struggle to halfway control my sword as it smacked into the side of his helmet.
“Wasty, pay attention!” I snapped at him in frustration.
“I’m sorry,” he replied with a bit of a shrug. “But you don’t have to get so stressed out. All I did was miss a block. You’re as bad as Zalibar! ”
“Listen,” I hissed at him, “there’s a reason we’re practicing this stuff. A couple of days ago, I was standing opposite Kiernonda and he was trying to kill me… to kill me! Sooner or later, you’re going to find yourself facing somebody up in the Henge. One missed block like that and you’re nag meat!” I sheathed my weapons and stomped across the quad to grab a drink of water.
As I was collecting my group to carry on with their training, Zalibar came gliding across the quad. “I’ll take over here, now,” he told me. “I want you to take Nero out for a flight to stretch out that wounded wing of his. Take it very gently and, if you feel him pulling, bring him straight back in.”
“Yes, Sir!” I responded with relief. “He won’t try anything with me.” I was getting pretty frustrated with the whole ‘training idiots’ thing… I guess I was starting to see why Zalibar was so angry all the time!
I put on my spurs and then went to get Nero out of the mews. The long, thin dragon had been cooped up for days and was a bundle of energy so I had to keep him in a particularly tight grip as we took off.
“Easy boy!” I whispered down to him. “I’m going to relax my grip a bit as long as you don’t pull. You might damage that wing of yours.”
I sensed the merest hint of grumpy acknowledgement as I eased back on my mind grip.
I took him up towards Dunster Head, feeling down into his mind for any sign of pain, but the wing felt fine, so I decided to take him all the way round the island before we returned. The sun was breaking through the clouds and it was turning into a beautiful morning.
As we were flying along the cliffs, I noticed a dragon coming in hard and low across the waves. I recognised Rhiannas at once and politely reached out towards him with my mind. “Greetings, master!” I said formally.
“Greetings, young Rhianadoc,” he responded, studying me carefully. “Zalibar has been teaching you well. Your posture on that beast is so improved that I barely recognised you.”
He thought for a moment. “To better assess your progress, you will accompany me on my boundary patrol this evening.”
“Yes, master!” I responded promptly.
“I shall collect you this evening at sunset.”
I spotted the chance to sort out a bit of free time for myself so I carefully hid my thoughts behind my most delicate shield then said, “Wouldn’t it be more fitting for the servant to come to her master?”
“That is true,” he replied. “Attend me in my lair at that time.”
On my way back, I passed the stretch of shoreline where I knew Psion would be. I easily broke through the illusion he was using to hide himself and found him lying, curled up in the sunshine. With the gorat and everything, it’d been a while since I’d seen him and it looked as if he’d grown a bit. Somehow he must have been keeping himself fed!
Since my fever dream, I’d been able to remember what he looked like when I was a baby and, whilst his scales would never recover their brilliant silver-white colour, they were, at least, starting to show a bit of their former sparkle.
“Wake up, sleepy head!” I called down to him.
“I was merely resting my eyes!” he responded placidly.
I eased Nero into a circle around the waking dragon.
“I’ll be going up to the Edifice tonight to go riding with Rhiannas,” I told him. “As I’m passing through the village anyway, do you need anything?”
“It is most gracious of you to consider me,” he replied. “Whilst meat is, as you know, always most welcome, what I would particularly appreciate, were you able to acquire them, are half a dozen mackerel.”
“Where am I going to find those?”
“You could enquire at the fishmongers, which is to be found near the harbour, at the far end of the village.”
“I’ll see what I can do, but no promises,” I called back to him as I headed towards the tower which marked the compound.
Back in the quad, I put Nero away then went over to Zalibar who was working with a group of primes. “How was he?” he asked as I walked across.
“Fine,” I answered. “He should be good to fly normally tomorrow as long as you give him to someone sensible.”
He gave a nod.
“By the way, sir,” I added, “I met Rhiannas during the flight and he instructed me to join him this evening on boundary patrol.”
“I suppose it will do you good to keep your hand in, flying a noble dragon,” he responded. “The walk up there will do you good, too. We need to get you back on the runs.”
“I thought I could do this long walk today then the meat run tomorrow then start again on Monday,” I suggested.
He nodded his agreement. I guess he was starting to trust my judgment on that sort of thing.
As the afternoon wore on, I made my way up towards the Edifice. I tracked down the mackerel, as Psion had asked, then met up with him in the little copse above the village.
“I’ve got your fish,” I told him. “Here! Catch!” I threw one of them to him.
“I am not some sort of overgrown pet!” he commented with as much dignity as he could manage whilst secretly using his will to catch the fish and guide it into his mouth. He swallowed the thing whole.
“I was hoping to teach you some table manners,” I told him, putting the rest of the fish on a tree stump for him.
“I am a dragon,” he informed me. “For us, table manners primarily entail not eating the wrong dinner guests. We do not, on the whole, concern ourselves with matters of silver cutlery or silver service!”
Using his will, he deftly filleted one of the mackerel, precisely separating skin and bone and leaving two perfect fillets hovering in mid air.
“That’s incredible,” I told him. “I had no idea that you could do such fiddly things with your will.”
“Talons rather than hands!” he explained, waving his forelegs around. “Peerless in the removal of an arm or a leg, less efficacious in the handling of a salad fork. He used his will to raise the fillets, skin and bones to his mouth and swallowed them in a single gulp. “Should the need arise to perform delicate manipulation, we dragons must use our cerebral capacity… or, preferably, instruct a human to do it for us.”
I was quiet for a bit as he swallowed a couple of the fish whole. “Have you any idea what Rhiannas is up to?” I asked.
“I would presume he wishes to review the progress of your training and to have you accompany him on his tour of duty is the most efficacious means of doing so. Never forget that you are being trained to ride as his neck guard. You are expected to spend the rest of your life serving him in said fashion.”
“Hmm!” I said.
“Please take great care, Young Mistress. Though I do not anticipate that Rhiannas will attempt to pluck ideas straight out of your head, were you to sit on his back, radiating hostility in your current fashion, he could not help but perceive your attitude. And, whilst I am delighted to observe your astonishingly rapid progress, it will, nonetheless, be some little time until you are able to successfully bone and fillet Rhiannas.”
He delicately raised another fish to his mouth and, with great precision, bit off its head.
“Don’t worry,” I told him. “I’ll play the loyal little neck guard for now. Your food supply is safe!”
He gave an outraged flick of his tail, then pointedly ignored me and returned to his meal.
So I set off up the hill with a grin.