Chapter Thirty Three - Squeezing The Node
It was a quiet Saturday afternoon and I had nothing to do.
I’d won my cage duel which meant I got let off most of my chores… so I’d checked my kit and sharpened my dagger and I was lying on my bed, enjoying having a bit of free time for a change, when Jenko came crashing into the dorm.
“There’s going to be a duel up in the Edifice,” he panted, stumbling over his words in his excitement. “Zalibar says I can take Lippit up to watch. D’you want to come?”
As I jumped to my feet, he charged recklessly down the rickety staircase. I followed him a bit more cautiously, strapping on my belt and spurs as I went. By the time I’d made it down into the quad, he’d rushed Lippit out of the mews and was already mounted. “Come on!” he called.
With a surge of will, I jumped up onto the dragon’s shoulders, using my weight to bite one set of spurs into his flank as I landed, and let my momentum swing the other leg over, snapping those spurs home too. “What are you waiting for?” I laughed as I clapped Jenko on the shoulder. “Let’s go!”
Of course, in spite of our urging, Lippit climbed up towards the mountain at little more than his normal sedate pace and we were only just approaching the mouth of the Edifice when we heard the sound of the great gong.
“That’s the challenge!” Jenko yelled as he brought Lippit over the gaping mouth and pushed him into the steepest dive the lumbering dragon was prepared to contemplate. As we dived, I could see three rings of spectators circling within the Edifice.
“Riff raff like us have to go in the inferior observer ring, right down by the Henge,” he told me as we continued to dive. The superior ring’s in the middle and intermediate’s at the top.”
“Made it!” he said as he guided Lippit into the packed ring. “They’re just about to start.”
Two dragons were perched on the Henge stones, facing each other. The larger one, who Jenko said was called Pennas, was crouched in an aggressive pose on the Han gate with an impassive looking neck guard on his shoulders. The smaller, Lloynas, who was crouched opposite him, didn’t have a guard.
“The Lloy family has pretty much been a vassal to the House of Quaro for years,” Jenko explained, “but it looks like they’ve lost that support now. He couldn’t even find anyone to ride as a neck guard for him. Pennas certainly wouldn’t be looking that confident if it was Quarodu he was facing.”
You could see that Pennas was enjoying the situation. As the challenged party, he got to make the first move and was using his right to delay things and intimidate the smaller dragon even more.
Suddenly he jumped… but he didn’t head towards Lloynas… instead he climbed hard. “That’s the traditional start when a stronger dragon is fighting a weaker one,” Jenko explained. “First he’ll go for height then he’ll stoop down on Lloynas.”
As the two flashed past us, Lloynas was still trying to stay with the larger dragon but he just couldn’t match his power. He broke from the climb and began to circle, cautiously studying Pennas with his eyes and mind as the larger dragon circled above him.
Suddenly Pennas stooped down in a roar of billowing flame. But Lloynas rose and managed to deflect it. I scrambled to throw up a shield for the three of us as the wild wave of flames churned towards us but we could still feel the heat as it passed.
But one of the riders in the ring just in front of us wasn’t quick enough and took the full force of the flame. He went tumbling from his mount and crashed into the sands below.
Above us, Lloynas had countered with a flame of his own and, for a moment, the two battled in the cloud world until he managed to deflect the attack and send Pennas tumbling downwards until he was almost level with us.
“That’s not supposed to happen!” Jenko commented. “It’ll mean Pennas loses face.”
When Lloynas saw his opponent at a disadvantage, he dived down himself. But, this time, Pennas managed to shield his mind and reared up to face his adversary. While his neck guard distracted Lloynas with a blow to the head, the larger dragon twisted in mid air and, slashing viciously with his right wing spur, opened a gaping wound in Lloynas’s side.”
“That’s it,” Jenko said as the smaller dragon fluttered desperately away, barely able to stay in the air.
The larger dragon dived again and this time Lloynas couldn’t rise to meet him. Of course that left his neck totally exposed. Pennas’s teeth closed on the vulnerable top vertebrae and Lloynas tumbled away. He was dead before he crashed into the sands of the Henge.
Pennas flew up past the inferior and then the superior observer rings, shedding gouts of flame as he basked in the congratulation of the spectators. As he moved on up to the intermediate ring, a dragon from each of the four senior Houses, including Rhiannas, dropped out of their ring and dived down towards the Henge. “They think he did well,” Jenko said as the four took their places on their House gates. “Four senior dragons is an honour.”
I felt a wave of heat hit my face as the four bathed Lloynas’s body in an inferno. Within seconds it was reduced to ashes. Carefully shielding my mind, I stared down on Rhiannas, truly understanding, for the first time, what a challenge I was going to face when the time came for me to break free of his grip.
Then, on Monday, it was back to training.
“Sunset, left guard, thrust right, right guard, retire,” I chanted to myself, stepping sharply back to let Wasty take my place opposite Carodoc.
I wasn’t allowed to lower my heavy sword from its ‘ready’ position but I tried to relax my straining muscles for a moment before I had to step back in to face Carodoc again.
We were practicing a complicated switch manœuvre. It was exhausting and you needed to concentrate even more than usual because, as Zalibar pointed out, “Get it wrong and you’ve got just as much chance of getting your partner’s sword up your arse as your opponent’s sword in your face.”
“Parry, thrust, parry, retire.” The routine was becoming automatic now but we had to keep going. Keeping control of those cumbersome broadswords when everyone was getting knackered was one of the most important things we had to practice.
“Okay, let’s stay with it!” I called to Wasty as he switched in. He was being just a touch weak with his parries and it was throwing his timing off for the next blow. “Use your will if you need to but keep the timing.”
“That’s better!” I called when I saw he was using his mind to support his aching muscles. “Twenty more cycles then we’ll have a rest.”
“You’re as bad as Zalibar,” he murmured as he stepped back from the contact.
“Worse… much worse…” I murmured as I switched out, letting him take my place.
Suddenly our routine was interrupted by a sharp vocal and cerebral shout from the Armenclethyfur. “Incoming! Clear the quad!”
The three of us stepped back, sheathing our weapons, and hurried over to the well. I nodded my thanks as Jenko, who was already there, handed me a beaker of water.
Zalibar was gliding down into the quad on Nero with an extremely sheepish looking Quaro-Deryn riding double with him. Then I realised that he was holding Liberty in an emphatic double grip and his ugly face was distorted by boiling rage.
“Should have let me take him up,” Carodoc said with an uncharacteristic sneer. For the first time, I realised that he, too, was jealous of the fact that I’d got to ride Liberty first.
But I ignored him and stepped across the quad. “Should I take him, Sir?” I asked Zalibar as they landed.
He nodded. I could pretty much reach out and touch the waves of exhaustion coming off him. “And you, take Nero!” he barked at Carodoc.
I slipped into Liberty’s mind and found that it was basically on fire. “Gently, gently, big boy,” I muttered, trying to smooth the tumult within him.
Meanwhile, Zalibar was screaming at Quaro-Deryn, emphasising his words with punches and kicks. “What on earth possessed you?” he demanded, aiming a sharp blow to the side of Quaro-Deryn’s head. “You never… ever… use pain to bring back a dragon that’s on the point of breaking free…” thump… “I’ve told you a thousand times what would happen…” kick… “And to try it with a dragon that’s only half broken…” kick… “Try anything like that ever again and, Quaro or not, you’re nag bait…” kick… “Is that clear?”
A prostrate and terrified looking Quaro-Deryn frantically nodded his agreement.
“Double peak, now, and I’ll be watching you! If it’s not fast enough, it will be a triple! Go!”
Quaro-Deryn jumped to his feet and ran towards the gate.
Zalibar staggered towards the main house, his exhaustion showing in his uncharacteristic clumsiness. I suddenly realised that I’d never seen him so tired… I guess I knew how exhausting a double grip was and Liberty was so much more powerful than Taloon. As he stumbled up the steps to the house he turned to me. “Take him up for a quick flight to try and calm him down before you put him away. I’ll come and see him when you’re done to see what damage that idiot’s done.”
“You lot, get on,” he shouted to the rest of the students. “Armenclethyfur, get ’em going! The party’s over.” He crashed through the door into the house.
“It’s okay, my lad,” I said as I reached into Liberty’s thrashing mind. “I’m sure he’s learnt his lesson,” I tried to feed reassuring thoughts across to him as I buckled on my spurs. “He won’t be coming anywhere near you for a long time.”
“Easy there, now, big boy,” I said as he strained against my bind, desperate to fly. “You’re going to show me what you can do in a moment, just let me get myself sorted out.” I didn’t think it was a good idea to make him lie down in the dust for me so I used my will to jump up onto his shoulders.
As my spurs snapped home, I released the bind and he threw himself into the air… riding on his will and not bothering with the normal steps that most dragons need for takeoff. I could feel every eye in the quad following us as he hurled himself into a Sheer Climb, straight up into the grey, overcast sky. “I don’t believe it!” I called to him, encouraging him to vent his anger with every stroke of his wings. “You’re doing this on your own!”
But even his boundless rage wasn’t enough and, after about thirty wing strokes, he was starting to flag. So I began to feed my will across to him as we drove ourselves on, up to the level of the mountain peak. On and on we drove, enjoying, in a wierd, crazy sort of a way, the stupid workload of our shared struggle.
He was coming to the end of his strength but I knew that I had to let him drive himself all the way. I was getting tired too but I just gritted my teeth and kept going. “Go on!” I screamed to him as we flashed past the top of the mountain. “Work out that rage. I feel it too!”
I reached down into his mind and laughed when I worked out that he was waiting for me to break. “If you want a battle then you’ll get one, big boy!” I told him. “You’re never… ever… going to beat me!”
The mountain, far below, disappeared from view as we smashed through the base of the clouds. I felt a few drops of rain on my face as we entered the murky world above. We were locked in this intensely personal duel, both of us determined not to be the first one to break.
But, hidden behind my shields, I was reaching my own limits. With my emotions bottled up behind that detested implanted node, I didn’t have the wild anger I needed to keep this savage torrent of power going.
But I knew that, if I blinked first, I’d never be able to fully command his respect. I had to prove to him that his reserves of will could never match my own.
So, remembering one of Psion’s first lessons, I reached down towards the evil, grey implanted node which was still lurking in the centre of my mind, almost completely surrounding my crux. I wrapped the vile thing in my will…
Then I gave it a bit of a squeeze…
I’d tried to brace myself but I was nothing like ready for the blast of unalloyed fury that came boiling out from inside me. I just hung there for a moment, totally stunned, as the memories of my humiliation on that first evening… and of Megan’s body wreathed in flame… exploded through my mind.
And I had this wild, desperate need to squeeze tighter… to destroy the hateful thing. But the sensible bit of me knew it still wasn’t time. I was closer now… much closer… but I still wasn’t ready to deal with Rhiannas. So I just had to get a grip on myself. Like Psion had said… ‘the time will come… and the satisfaction will be even greater for having waited.’
So, with a bit of a sigh, I eased off the pressure until the torrent of rage sank down to a more manageable level. And with the extra will, I had no problem matching Liberty, wingstroke for wingstroke, as he drove us onward… upwards… higher.
We exploded out through the top of the clouds into the dazzling sunlight above. And at last Liberty had to give in. He broke from his climb and started to circle as we gasped and laughed together in the cold, thin air.
“Well done,” I murmured as I massaged his top vertebrae. “You are good! You stayed with me for a long, long while there. You’re not quite a match for me but you’re the best wild dragon I’ve ever met.”
We carried on with our circling as we enjoyed the sunshine, the stark beauty of the cloud tops and the harmony between us. Then I noticed there was something else going on in his mind and, when I reached down into it, I realised that he’d seen what I’d done. So I thought for a bit and then spoke to him. “I can’t make you any promises because I don’t have any more control of my life than you do… but when I do break free, I’ll try to take you with me.”
There was a flash of something… recognition… acknowledgement… maybe even thanks… before he dropped back down into the cloud in vast, wheeling turns.
I guided him down towards the compound and he landed deftly in the corner of the quad nearest the mews. I jumped from his back and was preparing to put him away when, without prompting, he dropped into the dragon bow in front of me.
“It looks like you made a big impression on him,” Zalibar said, strolling over. “What did you do?”
“You saw him take off in that Sheer Climb?” I said. “Well, I went along with it and we had a competition to see who could keep it going the longest.”
“How high did you get?”
“He gave up when we hit the top of the cloud.”
“Daft beast!” he said to Liberty, reaching down to scratch him behind the ears as if he was a poodle or something. “You picked the wrong one there and no mistake. She’d have pulled herself inside out before she let you get the better of her!”
“Okay,” Zalibar said, turning back to me, “you’ve got to put your foot on his head to take his submission.”
I looked up and saw that a crowd of students had gathered around us so I put my foot on Liberty’s head. “I accept your submission in the name of Zalibar,” I said in this funny sort of formal tone. Then I stepped back and let Liberty rise.
Zalibar glanced around at the circle of students. “I see you’ve decided you’ve had enough for this morning,” he said. They were on the point of rushing back to their practices when he added, “so we might as well break for lunch, then.”
Zalibar thought for a few moments then said, “You’ve done well this morning, girl. Put him away then come and join us.”
“Yes, Sir,” I said. I couldn’t quite hide my surprise.
“Hopefully it’ll be a bit less eventful than last time you ate in hall!” he added. His ugly, scarred face remained as severe as ever as he turned and marched off towards the Master’s Lodge. But I could have sworn there was a smile twinkling just below the surface of his cloud.