"Expendable indeed," Skade muttered darkly to Nanye as they walked side-by-side towards the cave where the ritual was to take place, several paces behind the king and the pair-to-be. "I hear they gave the worst performance any pair have ever given.
"That's what Liigro thinks," said Nanye, "and Wallace has hardly stopped gloating since."
"Eugh," Skade dug her nails into her palms and growled. "That brat drives me mad. Can't we stick a poker up his backside or something? That might encourage him to stop being such a pompous idiot."
"We might have a hard time getting it up there with his head in the way," said Nanye.
Skade barely managed to smother a laugh as she elbowed Nanye's flank. "Behave!"
Nanye pretended to look abashed, and Skade allowed herself to grin, fighting back the urge to burst into hysterics as Nanye impersonated Wallace's self-important strutting, waving his tail in the air and waggling his back end like a snake. Both dragon and rider tried to force their faces into some semblance of composure as they entered the cave. The king, Lady Vallery, Ragta and her new rider - Nikolai, Skade thought his name was. She hadn't bothered to remember it properly; after all, he'd probably be gone within the week. Not that she cared.
"Your Highness." Skade bowed politely to the king as she passed him. Nanye copied her, lowering his great head until his nose almost touched the ground. The king gave a non committal nod in reply, as Skade brushed past him. She and Lady Vallery exchanged passing nods, and Skade gave her a quick smile. From what the weapons master told her, Vallery was a good soldier, and she was certainly more intelligent than most of the court. She would have made a good SoulRider, Skade thought. Then again, anyone would have made a better soldier than the gawking fool across the room. Skade had to bite her lip to keep from sneering as she approached the spot where he stood on the other side of the cave. He kept shooting nervous looks at Ragta, and Skade noted that they were standing a very wide distance apart. She coughed, and Ragta shuffled closer to her rider, which only made him look more uncomfortable. If it hadn't so irked her, Skade might have felt sorry for him.
"Rhagtan Chanu Gwynt," she said imperiously. Ragta dipped her head and snuffled in acknowledgement. Skade put a hand on the end of her nose, and Nanye nudged the young dragon's flank encouragingly.
"Nikolai," Skade looked next to the bemused looking man. He looked utterly bewildered by what was happening, and he kept shifting and fidgeting as she placed a hand on his forehead. Skade barely resisted the urge to kick him when she caught him looking at her cleavage.
Taking a deep breath, Skade closed her eyes and began chanting the ancient rite of soulbonding. Her tongue flowed smoothly over the familiar soft syllables, and despite her agitation she felt some slight comfort in the power of the old words she had committed to memory so many years ago. She felt a twinge of sadness as she remembered performing this same ceremony for Handel, Elric, Larite and all the other young hopefuls that had died through the years. She hadn't known any of them particularly well - some even for as little as a few months - but it had never got any easier to speak the last rites over their graves. Well, at least this would be the last time she'd have to do that.
"Bone to bone,
Mind to mind,
Make hearts as one,
And two souls bind."
As the last echo of the rites died away, Skade felt her fingers begin to tingle. She waited, keeping her eyes closed and breathing steadily as the power flowed down her arms and into the newly forged bond. It was a bizarre sensation that she could never quite get used to, though she knew it was stranger still to be on the receiving end. Finally, the tingling stopped, and Skade removed her hands and looked at the two before her. Nikolai's legs were wobbling beneath him, and Ragta kept blinking, as if she were plagued by small insects. Both of them looked distinctly dazed, as almost everyone did when the bond was still new.
"Both of you will remain here until morning," said Skade, speaking slowly so that the dopey duo would hear her. "You are not to leave this place under any circumstances. I will return for you in the morning. Do you understand?"
Rider and dragon nodded drunkenly, eyes glazed. Satisfied that all was in place, Skade turned and walked out of the cave, falling into step beside the king.