Gliding effortlessly in wide, lazy surveillance circles, the Courser veered for a different view of the sprawling heart of the High Realm. Concepts of magnificence and grandeur were for other minds and the keen eyes regarded the panoply of ramparts, courtyards and tall spires with indifference till movement stirred a primal hunting drive. Recognition of the being below quashed the thought of prey and the pattern of watchful oversight resumed with a long sweep of the High Castle perimeter and a thermal lift past the massive central tower. Keen avian vision registered the blue glow from within a balcony, again with indifference, and moved on. In contrast, the watchful mind riding the Courser noted the signature of the powerful privacy ward with interest and wondered what deep matter the High King might be addressing.
The shimmer surrounding Aglaron and his advisers deepened in hue.
"What do you mean you can't? You must."
"We can't. Not without causing damage. High King, your son has extraordinary natural defences and directly overwhelming them could cause irreparable harm."
Aglaron gestured at the deep blue shielding.
"Forget protocol and speak plainly. None can hear us."
Maynor, Lord of Power, ruler of the First Outer Realm and strategic adviser relaxed slightly then waited while his liege contained his emotions.
"You are certain, Maynor? The succession for the Over Realm is at stake."
"I'm certain. This relationship with his guide and companion was successfully hidden for over three years and the bond they established can only be broken by an intrusion of great power, power strong enough to leave permanent damage and limit his future development."
"Then we must use some form of persuasion. If he changes of his own accord we will need no mental interference."
Uirebon, Keeper of Lore and Elder for the Over Realm, shook his head emphatically.
"Keryth cannot make that choice, Aglaron. His bond with Pethron is so deep the inclination must be inherent. His will is strong, yes, but will can't prevail."
"Inherent? It can't be. My family is free of widderkin."
"Not quite. There was your cousin."
Aglaron paused to recall.
"Seven centuries ago. And recalibration worked perfectly. It always works."
"And it would work for Keryth too, but at a cost you can’t countenance. I agree with Maynor on that."
Aglaron clenched his fist.
"Can we nurture the deception? They've successfully managed for over three years."
"We could, but discovery would be inevitable and then we are seen as condoning the practice."
"I know. I know. I'm venting my frustration. To retain sovereignty and order I may have to banish my own son. How can I do that?"
Uirebon and Maynor waited silently while the High King wrestled with his inner conflict.
"... Maynor, you said you can't directly override his defences. Is there some indirect method?"
Maynor and Uirebon exchanged a glance of relief.
"Yes, there is, but it involves tedious preparation and great use of power and is rarely used. Moving Keryth to the Human Realm to live as a mortal for five years would give us time to slowly and carefully effect the change you seek."
"Keryth! A mortal for five years? Worse than banishment."
"Not so. He would live a life of challenge and fulfilment from the human point of view we give him. Elves who have undergone the process almost invariably report a strangely powerful longing to repeat the experience."
Aglaron listened to the structure of the plan then silently wrestled with his decision.
"The future of the Over Realm is at stake. With Lord Narello gaining in power and misdirected ambition Keryth will require all possible strength and ability to cope with the succession. He must not be damaged. Conversely, none of the five Realms will accept widderfolk for any Court position, let alone as High King. We have no choice. Make it happen."
Keiran cursed his headache and wished it would go away. The doctor said it was a kind of migraine and had given him tablets to help.
But he took one anyway. Maybe if he didn't he'd feel worse.
No matter what, he knew his night was wasted and he'd be lying around the place till he fell asleep.
Bed! Easy chair! Which one? He chose the chair and closed his eyes.
Shutting the light out was the only relief from the strange way everything looked. The colours weren't right and all seemed dull.
He couldn't read a book. The words floated round without moving, and watching a screen of any kind was impossible when the colours of anything moving left a blurry trail behind them.
Studying for the maths exam was now a write-off. Not only because it was hard to look at the course-books but also because he couldn't concentrate properly.
The tight feeling in his head stopped concentration and two hours in the morning was the best he could hope for now, and it might cost him his chance at acing the course.
His best lecturer wanted him to try for an open scholarship at the start of next semester and that was a tempting idea but he had to make a decision by the end of the coming week, and it would also mean using most of the semester break for swotting time.
If he won it he'd be able to rent an apartment and move out of this tiny room in the College residential area for a start.
An hour passed and Keiran opened his eyes. The room still looked like a faded colour photograph so he drank some water, stripped off and climbed into bed. Hopefully sleep would come early and mask the discomfort.
It took another hour of fuzzy thinking and fighting the pressure in his head before he slipped into a fitful dream state and finally a deep sleep.
At eight o'clock next morning he dragged himself out of bed.
So much for the early study.
Now he had to make his lethargic body start functioning properly with only an hour and a half before his exam started.
First step was ten minutes of slow jogging around the College fitness track.
The cold crisp air was a wake-up in itself, the white mist of his breath making him think of a dragon sending smoke and fire from its nostrils. This was a good sign. Images usually poured into his mind when he was fully awake. Next step was a speedy shower and a light breakfast of herb tea and toast.
This left fifteen to twenty minutes for music. Nothing seemed to set his body going like music, and this morning he chose a medley of lively Irish dancing tunes.
With earphones in place, he’d be howled down if he played music aloud at this time of the morning, he pressed the play button and closed his eyes.
They opened quickly though, as he rose to his feet and started moving. The music sparkled in his mind so much he almost felt like a puppet with the music pulling the strings.
Life and vigour poured in, and soon his lithe and nimble body was improvising steps to match the message from the player.
Whoops! Time to go! Jeans, runners, shirt and a warm jumper went on, and fifteen minutes later Keiran was sitting, waiting for the signal to start reading the exam paper resting on the desk in front of him.
His spirits rose as he read through the questions in the fifteen minute preparation time.
Maxima and minima, 20% and a real cinch. Anti-differentiation, 20% and he'd done an example almost identical only a week ago.
Complex numbers, 20% and it was his best topic.
Logarithmic equations 10%, this was the one he'd wanted to work on last night. The short answer section looked okay but he'd find out later.
Bummer! The main problem wasn't one he recognised. Well! He'd tackle that section last.
The three hours flew and so did Kieran's pen. The only question he couldn't finish was the logarithm problem but he did what he could with that by showing workings for parts that he knew and thought must be relevant.
He was pleased with what he'd done, and then secretly felt even better when he heard other students complaining bitterly about how hard the questions had been.
Kieran's day was a long way from over because there was still a Literature exam on Wednesday afternoon then Physics on Friday morning, and he was aiming for another nine hours of study before he went to bed.
He grabbed a sandwich pack from the canteen, relaxed in a sheltered courtyard and enjoyed the warmth of the winter sun while he ate, then headed for the College pool.
Twenty minutes of easy swimming would be a good break before he set his brain in harness again.
In this first semester at College Keiran had discovered how much he enjoyed swimming and with free student access and only a five-minute walk from his room, he’d gradually built up till he was using it almost every day.
The pool was busier than Keiran expected and he recognised a few people from the maths exam.
Rhys was a quiet guy who went to one of Kieran's tutorials.
He had a smile for everyone but kept very much to himself. Keiran liked him and always said hello when their paths crossed.
Mark Geston was there too. He was confident and popular but something about him grated and Keiran tried not to have anything to do with him though that wasn't easy because his room was only two doors down the corridor.
After ten minutes Kieran pulled himself out of the pool and, with a practised twist of his hips, sat on the edge tiles next to Rhys, who was obviously taking a breather.
"Hi twin! What did you think of Maths this morning?"
Keiran liked calling Rhys twin. It always set him smiling and it was appropriate at the moment because they were wearing the identical light blue bathers which had started it. Colour, make, and style were alike and the only difference would be size, to fit Rhys’s larger body.
"Don’t talk about it, Keiran! It was a nightmare and I'm worried whether I did well enough to get through. I suppose you thought it was easy?"
"It wasn't too bad."
"Well you must be a genius! I'm fed up with studying but I've still got Literature and Physics left. At least they're not on the same day."
"Hey! You are a twin. They're the same exams I've got."
The smile lit up again as Rhys slid into the water.
"Ten more laps and I start on Literature. See you!"
Keiran dived in after him but without a thought of trying to keep up. He swam because it was fun and easy, whereas Rhys obviously liked serious training. After a couple more laps thoughts of how he should be planning his study started intruding enough to head for a quick shower.
On Wednesday afternoon Keiran walked out at the end of his Literature exam feeling pleased with the way it had gone and headed for Mr B.'s office.
He was curious to find out what he wanted.
It was probably to talk about the scholarship, but Keiran would be happy to talk to him anyway. If only the other lecturers were as friendly and interesting.
"Keiran! Thanks for coming! I guess you know what I'm going to say, but entries close on Friday and I wanted to make one last effort to persuade you. I guess you've decided against it since you haven't done anything, but you do have a good chance. Don't tell anyone but I've checked the exam you did on Monday and you only missed on one question."
"The log one?"
"Yes! Look! What if I give you a couple of days help in the break? You've got too much ability not to make the most of it."
"Mr B. I'm dropping the forms in to administration tomorrow. You don't have to give up your time."
"You are? That's great! Look, I've got some spare forms here so why don't we sit down and fill them in now?"
Five minutes later they were finished and Keiran complained that he'd just signed away two weeks of his break.
"Don't worry! The last week will make up for it."
Wondering what he meant, Keiran gave a puzzled glance at Mr B.
“You're going with the outdoor group in the third week and, since I'm one of the leaders, I saw your name on the list. We're going to some great places."
Kieran's face lit up.
"You're one of the leaders? Maths lecturers aren't meant to like climbing mountains."
"Well this one does and I'm really looking forward to it. Now! How does Monday sound for a coaching session?"
Keiran protested, saying he couldn't use Mr B.'s holiday time, but he was easily over-ridden and soon had a load of extra textbooks, in case he got a chance to look at them over the weekend.
Well, it would be Physics and nothing else still Friday afternoon and Keiran left feeling rather amazed at the way Mr B. was helping him and wondering why.
Back in his room Keiran mentally planned his time ahead.
A swim first, then five hours of Physics between six and eleven with some short breaks and, hopefully, he’d manage another twelve or thirteen hours tomorrow.
He slipped into his bathers, pulled his tracksuit on, headed for the pool and emerged half an hour later with his body relaxed and mind clear.
After a quick meal at the College canteen he settled at his desk and started thinking. He’d needed that break after the Literature exam to help get his mind ready.
He was very conscious of changing to a different pattern of thought. From imagination to fact, and from inspiration and creativity to logic and problem-solving. He was intrigued with the sensation of being able to switch his brain to different purposes.
Four and a half hours later Keiran wondered what had happened to the time. Oh well! He'd covered the whole topic of waves and wave motion.
Maybe it was that fascinating section explaining sound and music that made it pass so quickly.
It was eleven o'clock now. It would be great to put on a CD, but if he was to start at seven in the morning he couldn't afford the time, so bed it was, with a mental command to wake at 6:30.
The next day disappeared with the same focused concentration on the changing topics, and when he went to bed he had to force his mind to slow down or he knew he wouldn't sleep.
He used his black method. He'd learned it in a tutoring group when the tutor was late and the topic of sleeplessness had somehow arisen.
Solutions ranged from sleeping tablets to sex, hot milk to alcohol, and reading to yoga, but one girl had described her idea of sending a black wave through every muscle in your body and then using it to block out every racing thought.
Keiran had been intrigued and it had been so effective that it wasn't until the next morning when he woke that he realised he'd gone out like a light after trying it.
"Hi twin! How was Physics for you?"
The quiet smile blossomed, making Kieran's grow as well.
"Hi, Keiran! It went well. I like physics though, so that makes it easier to remember."
"What about Lit?"
"Lit's my favourite and I know what the lecturer wants in the answers so I should get a good score."
Rhys pulled himself out of the water and sat on the tiles next to Keiran, who watched the play of his muscles and then the quick sideways glance as he settled.
"At least we've got a break for a while."
"Ha! Lucky you! Mr B. talked me into trying for that math scholarship and I'll be swotting for another two weeks."
"Two? Are you giving the last week a miss?"
"I have to. I'm going to the Grampians with the Outdoor group and it sounds like it's going to be great."
Keiran stopped speaking because of the look of Rhys was giving him.
The smile that Keiran liked appeared.
"Twins again. I'm going on that trip too."
"You are? Your name’s not on the list."
"I wasn't going but Mr B. organised it for me when there was a spare place. He found out how interested I was when he was helping me a couple of weeks ago."
"He's helping you? Rhys, this is weird. He's helping me too."
There was a pause before their voices spoke together.
They talked about the trip and when Rhys slid into the water Keiran spoke on impulse.
"Rhys! Why don't you come over to my room one day next week and we'll check out the maps and organise our packs?"
Rhys looked uncertain about this but Keiran pressed him and they ended up arranging it for the second week. Rhys started on his training again and Keiran headed to examine the textbooks Mr B. had given him.
"Keiran! Come in!"
Keiran looked around in amazement. This wasn't a house. It looked big enough for three houses, and there were stairs leading to a second storey. Mr B. led the way up and through a large living area. There were photos and sketches hanging on the walls and Keiran felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck at a glimpse of a wilderness photo showing a mountain with rays of sunlight streaming through a misty cloud bank to light up a huge buttress of rock. He stopped and stared.
"You like that one Keiran? "
"Is it real?"
"Well it mightn't have the same lighting, that was a lucky fluke, but you'll see for yourself when we get to Gariwerd. It's called the Fortress and if the weather’s kind we'll be camping there for two nights."
Keiran wanted to stay and look at all pictures but it wasn’t the right time and he followed Mr B. into a roomy study where they sat at a big study desk.
"Did you get a chance to look at any of the textbooks?"
Keiran had looked through them all and he'd also used the information sheet that came with the application form to sort out which areas he already knew and which areas he'd need to work on.
"Yes! And I've started on this graphing section but I'm not sure how much of it I should do."
He handed Mr B. a sheet showing the five topics he wasn't familiar with, and all the others listed with an indication of how much attention he thought they needed.
"Keiran! Are you sure this is right? Four of these areas weren't covered on the course and you've put them as ones you know."
Keiran felt proud of himself.
"They were in the textbooks and I worked through them early in the semester so they'd be easier, but then we didn't do them."
"You did? Well! I never did topics I didn't need when I was studying. Well, let's see where you are with the graphing and then we'll do the hardest topic first."
Keiran answered some questions and watched Mr B. sketch quick graphs, which he said were the basic references, then saw how different parameters affected them.
"So, can you see how the whole topic is based on just five main shapes? If you remember the rules for each, then all you'll need is practice with the different ways they dress up the problems."
Keiran thought he worked best by himself but this was a real eye-opener.
He knew he’d eventually have figured this out but it would have taken three or four times as long, and he'd also learnt some general tactics that weren't in the books.
Mr B. made him feel good about what he was doing too, and Keiran suddenly realised that every time a new idea clicked in for him Mr B. was just as pleased as he was.
"Keiran! We're stopping for food. Do you always work like this? It's 12:30 and we've covered two topics already."
Mr B. went downstairs and Keiran spent ten minutes looking at the pictures in the living area before joining him for a meal of cold chicken and a couple of rolls with various fillings.
The afternoon session was even more productive and Keiran’s brain worked faster and faster to cope with all the challenges Mr B. was throwing at him.
"Enough. We have to stop. You've worn me out. I've never worked with anyone who can learn like this. Do you think you'll remember everything we've done?"
"Yes! I've got a really good memory, and it works best of all when I've been concentrating like this."
Mr B. arranged for another session on the coming Thursday and Keiran set off for College after trying to say thanks but not feeling he'd done it well enough. After a swim and a meal at the canteen, he put in another four hours working on problem examples in the textbooks before heading to bed.
He had to use the black wave again to slow his mind and noticed that he had to make it blacker and stronger than usual before it worked properly. He woke early next morning though, ready and keen to get going. The day with Mr B. had made getting the scholarship more real, and now he committed himself to working at it as best he could.
He didn't quite become a hermit because he came out for meals, a daily swim, and the morning run around the exercise trail, but otherwise he stuck to his program of fourteen hours study each day for the next ten days.
Mr B. gave him three more sessions. The first was to finish the last uncovered topic and work through the log equations topic.
For the second session he’d prepared a range of problems for every required topic, and on the Wednesday in the last week he had the scholarship exams for the last five years.
"I can hardly believe I'm saying this but we're going to do every one of these exams today."
Keiran didn't believe him either for a start because there was a three a half hour time allowance for each exam. As well is that the questions were designed into three sections of increasing difficulty with the last section being so long and complex that it could take the whole time by itself. It worked though because Mr B. sat with him and listened to an oral answer for most of the questions.
"Just tell me the process, Keiran, and if it's the right technique we won't even write it down."
This way, question after question was ploughed through in a quarter of the time. Occasionally Keiran had to write a summary of his technique and logic, and in the difficult section Mr B. marked some questions to be tackled later. It took longer to finish today but Mr B. was excited at what they'd done and urged Keiran to continue when he said he was worried about the time.
"Don't worry how long it takes. You won't be getting home till later tonight anyway."
He laughed at the surprised look he was given.
"We're going out for a meal. It's my thank you for an unforgettable experience."
"You're thanking me? I've learnt everything twice as fast because of you, Mr B."
"Call me Peter please, Keiran, and I'm serious about thanking you. I've never seen anyone learn things the way you do and it was exciting to watch. Do you always study like this?"
"I've been getting better, but I don't remember being able to concentrate so well before I started College."
It was good to be able to talk to Mr B. He was really interested and Keiran really had been wondering if other students studied the way he did. It certainly didn't happen in the tutorials because there were too many distractions.
"Well, it's a special gift, Keiran. We've covered half a semester's worth of work in a week and half and I know you're going to get the scholarship. You can't miss with what you've shown today."
They left the study, sat in the living area next door and, after some general conversation, Mr B. asked how Keiran liked to relax when he'd been studying hard.
"I like swimming, but the College pool closes early during the Semester break so I either go for a run or put some music on and dance."
"Swimming? Let's go then. I love it too, and I feel like some exercise."
"Now? The nearest public pool is too far away and College is closed."
"Not for us! I used to coach the swimming team and I have a key."