Chapter Fourty Two - Rapier
I had to be a bit careful about deciding how much I was going to say in my lecture. I mean… I knew the stuff pretty well by now but I didn’t want to give too much away in case I ever found myself riding in the race again. In the end, I was pretty pleased with how it came out and the rest of the primes seemed happy enough.
Mind you, they probably didn’t want to get on my bad side by asking too many tricky questions. They’d seen what I’d done to the Armenclethyfur in the cage, the Saturday before!
Zalibar must have been pretty pleased too because, afterwards, he invited me to join him and a couple of the senior nonda primes for a drink.
The door to his private rooms was just across the entrance hall from the Great Hall. I’d walked past it plenty of times but I’d never been inside. I wasn’t all that surprised to find the place was simply furnished. There were a couple of severe looking armchairs over by the fireplace and a solid writing desk in front of the window. I guess he wanted to keep an eye on what was going on in the quad whilst he was working.
But there were a couple of interesting maps mounted on the walls so I went over to have a look at one of them.
Zalibar appeared behind me and put a glass of dark red wine in my hand. “It’s the eastern part of the Gobi Desert,” he said as I cautiously sipped the stuff. It had an intense, fruity sort of a taste. “People say that there are wild dragons in the area.”
“I’d wondered about that,” I said. “Are there any other groups of dragons out there?”
“Well…” he said with a pause sort of a thing… unusual for him… “there are persistent rumours of a group out on an island in the Atlantic somewhere but, apart from that, there are just a few solitary wild dragons and small family groups scattered around. If you have two dragons in any one place for any length of time, one of ’em usually ends up dead. It’s only the Precepts that keep the Edifice from tearing itself apart.”
I thought about that for a moment then nodded. I guess it was probably true. I mean… the Precepts were astonishingly severe, with duals to the death common and obliteration of your entire family line the standard punishment for major rule breaking. But I suppose they made it possible for the ruthless creatures to live together within such a small space.
He was about to walk away when I realised I was about to miss my chance. “I’ve heard about some people using a lighter sort of sword…” I said, trying to keep my voice casual… “a rapier, I think they’re called… But I’ve never seen one about.”
“There’s a reason you don’t see many of ’em about,” he replied gruffly. “Dragon hide is tough. Unless you keep your will on your blade all the time, you’re going to find yourself in a shower of steel splinters in five seconds and dead in ten. That’s what happens to most of the arrogant idiots who try to use the things.”
But then he sort of studied me for a bit… kind of inside my head and out. “Mind you…” he said at last with a bit of a nod, “you might just get one of the things to work for you. You’ve got the right balance of speed and cerebral capacity. Let me have a think about it.” He turned and stalked away, leaving me standing on my own in front of the map.
I had another sip of wine and was about to make my excuses and run away when Han-nonda, the Armenclethyfur, came over to join me. “Your lecture seemed to go rather well,” he said.
“I know quite a lot about the subject,” I answered. “I had to study it quite hard recently.” I sighed and my eyes started to glaze over as I thought back to the gates race.
“If you carry on at this rate, you’re not going to be here in the academy for much longer,” he said. I guess he wanted to give me something else to think about. “I can understand that Zalibar doesn’t want to lose you but there’s a limit to how long he can keep you hanging around here as some sort of extra teacher.”
“But I’ve only been here six months,” I replied, shocked at the thought.
“And, in that time, you’ve learnt more than most people learn in three years. You’re coming to the end of what he can teach you. You’ve already won the Neophytes Gate Race and the less said about our duel last Saturday, the better!” He gave a bit of a smile.
I desperately looked behind his eyes for some sign of humour but there didn’t seem to be any there. Confused and worried, I said my goodbyes and hurried away but, as I battled my way across the storm-lashed quad, I realised he was right. My time at the academy was coming to an end and then I’d have to return to the Edifice.
And, once I was with Rhiannas full time, there’d be a limit to how long I’d be able to keep the ‘dutiful neck guard’ thing going.
After the late night, it had taken all my willpower to drag myself out of bed the next morning. There wasn’t even a hint of dawn in the sky and, as I struggled across the dark quad into the wind driven sleet, the idea of leaving the academy was still playing in my mind.
So I wasn’t really paying all that much attention and I was shocked to find a cloaked figure waiting for me on the gatehouse roof. Without even thinking, my combat shields locked into place and my hand jumped to the dagger at my waist.
But I relaxed a bit when I heard Wasty’s voice. “Mornin’,” he said in his usual cheerful voice. “Wretched one, isn’t it?”
“What on earth are you doing up so early?” I asked, still recovering from the shock. “I mean… you’re not exactly famed as an early riser!”
He chuckled at that. “I overheard Quaro-Deryn talking about you,” he explained, “and I thought you might be interested.”
I was suddenly very alert. “What did he say?” I asked.
“Not much. He was chatting to Kiernonda last night and seemed pretty pleased with himself. He thought he’d found a way of getting at you… it seemed to involve Jenko.
“’Fraid not. I know it’s not that much to go on.”
“That’s quite alright. The two of us’ll just have to make sure we’re ready for anything they try.”
After breakfast, I took a prime group out on a training flight, warming up with a quick circuit of the island. As we rounded Dunster head, on the way back in, I led the wing low and hard in towards the cliffs. I was riding Liberty, of course, and I let myself sink deep into his mind as he flew through the tricky maze of crosswinds. For a while, at least, I could just appreciate his exquisite control and forget all my other worries.
When we returned to the enclosure, Jenko and Geraint were at the top of the tower. They’d just finished lashing a straw target in place. Zalibar told us to make passes at the target and practice using our dragon’s wing barbs to slash at the targets.
After a couple of passes, it was obvious that this was not an area where Liberty needed any help from me, so I stopped my own practice and concentrated on coaching the others.
“No, no!” I shouted across at one of the nonda as his clumsy effort pretty much had Taloon tumbling out of the sky. “You’ve got to come up from below and let her stall. If you bring her in in a dive, she’s never going to be able to get her wings round in time. You should know this by now!”
After a couple more rounds, I was lining up for another pass… to show them all how to do it properly… when Zalibar called me in. I let Liberty follow through before I landed, of course. I mean… he was bound to get all stroppy if I let him get the idea of attacking something and then called him off… even if it was just a straw target!
When I emerged from the mews, Zalibar was just coming down the main stairs from the house with a long wooden case.
“Let’s see whether you’re as good as you think you are!” he said gruffly, carrying the case over to one of the tables near the well and undoing the catches. Inside, nestled in a velvet lining, was a pair of shining silver-coloured rapiers.”
“They’re beautiful,” I said.
“I won them in a duel,” he explained. I mean… his voice still had its normal curt tone but, by now, I knew him well enough to see there was more to this than he was letting on. “Go on! Take one and get the feel of it.”
I was so impressed by the sight of those magnificent weapons that I didn’t think about how my mind would react to them. As my hand closed on the hilt, my mind leapt to embrace the blade and, for a moment, I was overcome by the powerful emotions surging through me.
But my attention was dragged away from the exquisite blade by a sharp slap across the back of the head. “How many times do I have to tell you to mask your mind, girl!” Zalibar barked at me. “You do not want me to have to tell you again. Now go through a couple of the basic exercises to get a feel for the blade.”
With a struggle, I managed to pull my surging mind back under control and ran through the first four exercises a couple of times. After the heavy, cumbersome broadswords, this blade was so light and fast I hardly had to think about moving it. It felt as if it was part of my arm… like it just belonged there.
“That’s it,” Zalibar said, drawing the second rapier from the case and moving to stand opposite me. “Now let’s see how you are on the partner exercises.” He moved into the familiar first exercise. “Remember to keep your will on your blade at all times!” he reminded me as I moved to follow him. “It can’t take any sort of rough treatment. It’s only there to act as a conduit for your will.”
We began to run through the first cycle. I mean… we started at half speed but the blades seemed to be begging us to speed up… they were so light, you only had to think and they were already in position!
“That’s it, girl, keep your will on the blade!” he said as he pushed up the speed yet again until the rapiers were flashing in the sunshine.
Without any warning, he transitioned into the second exercise and, with a bit of a smile, I followed. I was vaguely aware that people round us were pausing their own practice and turning to watch but I had to keep my eyes… and my mind… on those dancing blades.
Again, without warning, he switched into one of the advanced exercise figures… but at an unbelievable speed… advance… sunrise… sunset… withdraw… sunset… sunrise… repeat…
And it might just have been the effort, but he had this funny smile type thing playing across his face as we… well… danced.
But then, as he was doing one of the withdrawals, his right knee seemed to kind of give… which meant he missed the parry…
And I realised, with horror, that my blade was hurtling towards the side of his head.
I couldn’t stop it. But I did manage to steer it a bit so that it was flashing towards his shoulder instead. And he joined his will to mine to take some of the speed off the blade.
But we couldn’t stop it from slicing through his dragon-leather jacket and biting into the flesh of his left shoulder. I stepped back, appalled… and the quad fell silent as everyone turned to stare in shock.
Then he started making a funny noise.
It took a long time but I finally managed to work out he was laughing. “Stop looking so worried, lass!” he told me. “I spend all my life trying to drum it into your heads how to make your blows count. I’m hardly going to give you a hard time when you actually get it right! Now put this away for me.”
I took his rapier from him and he put his hand to the wound that was steadily oozing blood.
“I’d normally tell you not to get into the habit of pulling blows, even in training,” he told me as I wiped the blood of the rapier with an old rag and put them both back in their case,” but, in the circumstances, I can hardly grumble! Thirty-eight years of training idiots to handle weapons and this is only the second nick I’ve ever had”
“And, funnily enough…” his eyes started burrowing into me… “the other time was a young lass with a rapier too… and, come to think of it now, she looked a fair bit like you…” He carried on studying me for much longer than was comfortable as the blood oozed out around his fingers. The only other woman I’d ever heard of who used a rapier was my mother… and I certainly didn’t want his thoughts moving in that direction.
“Anyway,” he said, still smiling his uncharacteristic smile, “I better go and let Cook stitch this up for me. Keep an eye on things out here for me whilst I’m gone. When I get back, you can practice your parries with the Armenclethyfur. Half speed at first until you both get a feel for the blades.” He began to walk away but then turned back for a moment. “And whatever you do, don’t try a riposte or we’ll be spending the rest of the morning picking up body parts!”
And, for the rest of the morning, with that magnificent rapier in my hand, I even managed to forget all about the danger and uncertainty of my future.