Chapter Thirty Nine - The Summoning Gong
When Dee appeared with a cup of tea for me on the morning of the race, I was already awake and buried deep in my thoughts.
“I’ve got something for you, my dear,” she said and she handed me a bundle of fine white silk.
I sat up in bed and unfolded a long, plain smock which had the Rhian House motif embroidered on it in two broad vertical stripes on both the back and front. I realised that this was what she’d been working on since I’d been here.
“Thank you,” I said. “It’s really lovely!” I tried to give her a smile. I mean… I knew it was a great honour for a tyro to be allowed to wear the House mark but, for some reason, I couldn’t get all that excited about it.
“Rhiannas asked me to do it for you,” Dee explained. “Pop it on and check it fits.”
I hopped out of bed and put the thing on over my nightie… it hung down pretty much to my knees. I mean… with that, I wouldn’t need to wear anything else. At least that solved the problem of what I was going to wear in the race.
“Perfect,” Dee said with a smile. “Now check this works too.” She produced a narrow leather belt which was decorated with the House mark as well. It had a gleaming silver buckle.
I put the belt on and hung my mother’s poignard from it and she stood back to inspect me.
“Perfect,” she said then she went all quiet and carried on kind of inspecting me… and it sort of felt like she was inside my head too… but she certainly wasn’t doing any sort of normal probe. We just stood there in silence for a bit.
“Now, no rider I have dressed has ever come to harm in the gates race,” she told me at last, “and you’re not going to be the first.” She paused again. “But you’re going to find yourself paying a heavy price for your victory.” She stepped back towards me and wrapped me up in a warm hug.
I pretty much wanted to burst into tears.
“I’ll be waiting for you when you get back,” she said at last and, with that, the elderly housekeeper hurried out of the room and bustled back towards the kitchen. I watched her for a moment, trying to work out whether she’d just given me a message of support or warning.
I guess she didn’t really know either.
With a sigh, I finished off my tea and then set off for my early morning jog. Psion had told me to keep everything as normal as possible… I guess he was right. If I had to just hang around in my room ’til the start of the race, I’d go stark raving mad.
I was lying on my bed, ready and waiting, when the first of the warning gongs rang out through the Edifice. With a sigh, I hauled myself to my feet and… for about the millionth time… I checked I had everything ready.
Then I had to force myself to step out of the room.
At last I managed it and I went across to the mews where I slipped the lightest of mind locks onto Liberty. I was pretty certain I didn’t need one anymore but now was not the time to start experimenting. ‘Keep everything as normal as possible.’
Then I led him out onto the Rhian veranda and was basically pulled up short by the sight.
It looked like every dragon in the Edifice was already on the wing, wheeling in packed observer rings below, and the verandas… and even the pathways… were stuffed with even more spectators…
Death or glory, there wasn’t going to be any shortage of people to see me meet my fate.
And across the Edifice, in the other House lairs, I could see the other racers getting themselves ready - eleven riders - one for each of the great houses - except for the cursèd line of Dai, of course!
I gave a bit of a sigh then turned back to Liberty, deliberately shutting all the other stuff out of my mind. “Today’s the big day,” I told him as I buckled on my mother’s spurs. “So today you don’t have to bow for me.” I took him over to the mounting steps and casually hopped up onto his shoulders.
Rhiannas stepped out of his lair and just stood there for a while, kind of inspecting me. “The Rhian Mark sits well upon your shoulders, young tyro,” he said at last. Then he stepped to the edge of the veranda and just stood there, waiting for the gong. I guided Liberty across to stand next to him and tried to copy his perfect, inhuman patience.
It wasn’t easy.
“Clang!” The Great Gong filled the Henge with its sound.
“The Summoning Gong,” Rhiannas said impassively. Then he paused for a moment. “I wish you well, Rhianadoc,” he went on in a strange, formal tone that had my hand slipping up to the torque at my neck. “Pay heed to all I have taught you and I am confident that victory will be ours.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Come! I shall conduct you to the start ring.”
The two of us stepped off the veranda into the space of the Edifice. This time, I copied his trick and held Liberty’s wings closed as we plunged. Only when we were up to speed did I let my sleek, black mount open his wings to catch the air. Quite by chance, it was just at the same moment as Rhiannas. The larger red dragon sort of cast me a sideways glance and I could feel the amused sparkles, just under the surface of his cloud.
Rhiannas moved above and behind us as we glided down towards the wheeling start ring. There were already about eight of the racers already in position, including Carodoc who was riding Taloon and dressed in a shirt with the Cindar motif. I slipped into the opposite side of the ring, as far away from him as possible. Rhiannas broke off to join the superior observer ring which was circling slightly below us, out towards the Edifice wall.
As the last of the competitors slipped into place, I checked around the ring. Quaro-Deryn was about four places in front of me and, for some reason, Carodoc had moved up so he was just behind me.
My attention was pulled back to the race by the Great Gong, down below, in the middle of the Henge. “Three times the Great Gong will sound,” Psion had told me about a million times. “On the third stroke, you drop.”
I fought to control my breathing and stay calm as an unnatural silence spread through the Edifice.
The second stroke sounded louder, as if the gong was sensing the tension in the air and using it to build up its own volume.
Suddenly my attention was caught by a disturbance behind me. Quaro-Deryn had gone into a slightly wider ring and was overtaking people. I mean… it wasn’t against the rules but it was an odd thing to be doing because it put him at a bit of a disadvantage for the drop. But as he came past, he chopped back into the circle just in front of me. I was forced to ease back to avoid a collision. But, as I did so, Carodoc urged Taloon forwards. Finding a dragon’s tail within reach, the bad tempered, green dragon did what she always did and tried to take a bite out of it.
As Liberty scrambled out of the way, I fought madly to block his instinct to dive down, away from trouble. To drop from the ring early meant disqualification and, for me, that could only mean death. Desperate to protect his tail but blocked from dropping, Liberty did the only thing he could possibly do. He climbed up, out of the ring.
I’d been so shocked by the double attack that I’d totally missed the gong… and the drop. By the time I got my head back together, I was last by five dragon lengths.
“Steady now, big boy,” I called to Liberty as we tucked in our wings and dived down towards the first gate. I mean… it was as much to calm myself down as for him. “Trust me! We’re going to make them pay for that!”