CHAPTER 11: Aiennea Palace, a Mission, and Sneaking Out
They had to overnight in a treetop inn, again. Hugh was starting to worry about the number of days they were taking, but Avinia said casually, ‘No worry; no worry. You’ll get back in plenty of time. Unless,’ she added casually, ‘you get killed here or something.’
Tye found that amusing, and Pip made sounds suspiciously like a snigger. Hugh was not impressed, and the effect on Dengana was obviously to make him de-pressed. ‘I do not wish to be killed here,’ he said.
‘Where do you want to be killed, then?’ Tye asked in a would-be innocent tone, and earned another set of universal glares.
Before they went to bed, Hugh got Dengana to tell him the full story of what had happened in Rhino Valley to chase the villagers away from their home. The boy shuddered and stammered when trying to tell the horror of what he had seen at the farmhouse. When Hugh asked him to describe the tokoloshe, all he could do was to repeat, ‘It was tokoloshe.’
‘Who … tidied up … the Place of Two Old Frogs before Dad and I got there?’ Hugh asked, but Dengana didn’t know and Lusi said she didn’t, either.
Breakfast was a hurried affair, and then Felin and Avinia set a fast pace in leading them. Katha was still faithfully in attendance, but if he discouraged any appetites from taking an interest in them along the way they remained unaware of it.
’We need to angle in and out of Tya Ring – “Tie-ya”, not “Tye” - to find the place where the Honour Ring Conjunction is going to be now,’ Felin told them, and they flew through another ‘wall’ into another Circle a good deal more subdued than Glit Ring had been. They kept within sight of the wall for what gave the impression of having been a really wearisome time before diving through it again.
Although Avinia did announce, ‘Honour Ring’ as they came through, they would have guessed easily enough. All the Breena lands had been impressive, but Honour Ring obviously went out of its way to be even more so. Every part they could see, whether plants, trees, hills, streams or lakes, was breathtakingly beautiful. The various Faie folk they could see appeared even more striking in dress and appearance than those in the other Rings.
Even Tye was impressed, and she and Hugh said, ‘Wow!’ simultaneously, and Dengana exclaimed, ‘Hau!’ in the same instant.
Avinia smiled at them. ‘As the oldest and original Ring,’ she said, ‘this has more magic. The most magic of them all. It makes everything feel extra special; feel special.’
Aiennea Palace, which they were able to see from a considerable distance, was heart-wrenchingly lovely. Soaring atop the highest peak in the land, it showed a bewildering array of graceful arches and turrets and towers. Every feature was perfectly placed to look stunning on its own and yet to set off all the others. The colours were dazzling, and yet all perfectly complemented one another. The closer they got, the greater became the impression of sheer perfection. It almost hurt to look at it for too long. Hugh felt constantly on the verge of sensory overload.
They were obviously expected. Swarms of Faie and birds made a dense cloud in the air above the palace, and the ground, windows, wall-tops and balconies were all filled with the non-fluttery residents. Every one of them was goggling at the approaching group.
Katha gave a cry from above them, and then turned round and glided in the opposite direction. ‘Thank you!’ Avinia called after him, and the others echoed her.
A solitary Glow could now be seen flying towards them. Although her garb was particularly simple, they could tell that she must be a princess of importance from the way all the others stayed a respectful distance from her.
‘Welcome to all of you,’ she called. ‘Never mind landing. Follow me, please.’
The palace gates remained closed while all of them simply followed their guide over the walls and towards the top of what looked to be the highest tower. As soon as she had landed on the balcony, she led them through large glass doors into an exquisitely-appointed room furnished with comfortable chairs set roughly in a circle, and motioned for them to be seated.
‘Just wait a minute!’ Tye snapped. ‘I take it we are going to start yapping. Just tell your queen that I want to freshen up and have something to eat and drink first.’ Then she stared in amazement at Avinia and Felin, who both suddenly appeared to be choking on something.
Their guide gave a charming smile. ‘I am Aiennea,’ she said mildly. ‘We can have something to eat and drink while we talk, but it is important that we do talk as soon as can be. Matters have now become even more urgent than before.’
Tye subsided, but still had a touch of rebellious sarcasm in her voice when she responded, ‘As you say, Your Highest Majesty.’
‘Aiennea,’ she repeated, with her eyes resting speculatively on Pip for an instant. ‘Now, because of the urgency, I am going to need to rush trying to explain things to you far more than I would have hoped. I am glad, at least, that you have had a chance to come to grips with so much which will have seemed completely strange to you, but what I have to tell you is still going to be hard to accept. It is a pity that I only once managed to build a mind-to-mind link with you,’ and she looked at Hugh, ‘and then such an imperfect one. At least I did succeed in warning you about the poison you were taking.’
As she looked from one to the other of them, Hugh found himself noticing things about her which at first had not been apparent. For one thing, her ‘glow’, though muted, had a quality which could build up to an almost blinding intensity. It was difficult to keep one’s eyes on her for too long. Another thing he observed was that, even without any finery, her looks were the most striking of any person he had yet seen in Breena. It went further than the perfection of her features and body. In a sudden flight of fancy he found himself imagining an artist driving himself quite crazy trying to capture the quality which made her so increasingly striking the more one looked at her.
‘We’ll do our best to follow what you have to tell us,’ he found himself murmuring, and she nodded.
‘Let me start by explaining that in a Magic Circle, even more than in your world, time is not something which runs completely in one direction or at a set rate. It is possible to see both backward and forward in the Timeflow, and to change certain things in the before and in the after. Where future time is concerned, certain things have already been laid down in accordance with the way things have to be. Those cannot alter. However, much can be done to change aspects which are not firmly fixed. In the same way, there are some things in the past which can still be altered in such a way as to change certain parts of the present and the future.’ Aiennea paused and sat back to let this sink in.
After a few moments, Tye said, ‘However weird and interesting all that may be, I don’t see what it has to do with whatever is going on. Or to do with why we’re here.’
‘For one thing,’ Aiennea replied, ‘it will explain to you how I know some of the things I need to tell you. They are part of the fabric which has already been laid down; some permanently and some not. Those of us who have been blessed with stronger gifts of magic than most are able to read these patterns and try to consider how best they can be used or altered for the good of all.’
Tye shrugged, Pip blinked, Hugh nodded, and Dengana breathed, ‘Is wonderful.’ Avinia and Felin continued to give the seated-statue imitations they had done since arrival. Lusi said nothing, but with the wriggling of someone who is only doing that with difficulty.
The queen continued almost dreamily, ‘Some individuals show the potential, if steered in certain directions, to assume central parts in forming important parts of the pattern, and even to draw others in who will do the same. Hugh stood out clearly as being one such.’
Aiennea leaned forward in her chair. ‘Now, just before you have a break to think about these things, and to have some refreshments, let me tell you something most important. There has to be a strong significance in the fact that all three of you,’ and she looked at Tye, Hugh and Dengana in turn, ‘have the ability not only to Adapt as Daoine, but also as Darxem should you enter Darx Circle. Particularly easily in Hugh’s case, as it would seem that he is more Darxen than Daoine.’
At that point, food and drink suddenly appeared on a table to one side of the room. They didn’t need to open their mouths for it, as they were hanging that way already.
Hugh’s mind had been working while he ate and drank. ‘That would explain,’ he said almost to himself between mouthfuls, ’why I had this strange familiar feeling when Darxem were around?’ The queen nodded.
After they had finished, and the food and dishes were suddenly not there any longer, Aiennea addressed all of them again. ’Now, I must bring you up to date with the problem we are having with the Darxem, and what little we know of the cause. We have always got on well with them, even after they changed to being a kingdom rather than the queendom they also used to have. Even though each nation prefers their own living conditions, there were a lot of – I suppose it could be called ‘tourist’ – visits between Darx and our Rings. Highest King Darrex would come often, and I always thought the two of us got on exceptionally well.’
‘Did you have … was he your boyfriend?’ Tye butted in.
Even the ‘statues’ jerked with shock at that, but Aiennea remained perfectly unruffled. ‘In a way, perhaps,’ she said. ‘At any rate, on his last visit he was almost a stranger, and shortly after his arrival he suggested that it would be better for Darx and the Rings to combine under one rule. When I said light-heartedly that I supposed I could cope with an extra Ring – even such a large one – he completely missed the joke and left almost straight away.’
‘Touchy; like Darp,’ Hugh remarked, and she looked at him with slightly raised eyebrows before continuing.
‘Since then, most Darxem have left the Rings, and their borders have now been sealed magically against all Daoine and Ring dwellers, with no explanation. News has come that some of the nastier creatures in Darx have been gathering into large groups, some of which have strayed into our Rings. And then, there is the report of Lusi, here. She is, as you know, from Safah Ring, which until very recently had an Interface with Rhino Valley - near Rhino Peak, I understand - where she spent a lot of time.’ The three ex-humans looked startled.
‘Isn’t it there any more?’ Hugh asked.
‘No; the Darxem have used some remarkably powerful magic to seal it, now,’ said Aiennea, ‘probably for reasons Lusi can clarify. Lusi?’
Lusi blinked, stuttered for a few seconds, and then said, ‘I see more and more the Darxds in Rhino Valley. But none of the Darxtas. Then the Darxds they start chasing away all of us Daoine. I am not going, but hide and am watching.’
Tye was noticing again that although Lusi’s speech came across to her as being in English, some aspects of the wording and word-order were unusual, as she had also found with Dengana.
‘I follow them to high on mountain where there are big rocks called The Sad Ones.’ Lusi went on. ‘Nearby is new big gateway to Darx which stays in the one place all the time. Plenty, plenty Darxds they come go from there. They speak much with the animals and insects; they bring together many crocodiles and leopards and hyenas. I see them make bad things for all the people who live in the valley, I see them tell the leopards to kill all people at the place of Two Old Frogs.’
She glanced at Hugh and Dengana in turn before going on, ’Then I go to seek another Interface to tell Highest Majesty what is happening, but I not find. When I come back I see Dengana he go to look, and later I see Hugh he go to look, and I try to warn them to go away but they not take notice. But the Darxds they tell the only leopard which is still there not to kill them. They want Dengana to tell other people and chase them away.
‘When Hugh he came with his father, it was after they clean up and they say it is better to let them go and tell other people like them everyone has gone away, so no more come. I not think they know Hugh he is same person who chase the Bee Darxds away day before.’
‘You saw that, too?’ Hugh said.
‘I follow the group that go to do that thing,’ she nodded.
‘Lusi had to go all the way to Dengana’s new home area of Sisebenzela to find an Interface,’ Aiennea came in, ‘and after she had spoken to me I asked her to fetch Dengana, and I asked Felin and Avinia to collect Hugh. Even then, I knew we would need you, but it is only just becoming clearer what your task must be.’
‘To find out what the heck is going on, I suppose,’ Tye said. ‘I mean, it’s clear enough the Darxem want Rhino Valley to themselves and don’t mind bumping off or scaring away droves of people to get it, but I suppose the question is still: why? So you want us to nip through the nearest Interface to Darx Circle and do some snooping?’
Aiennea laughed. ‘That does sum it up,’ she nodded, ‘except that it isn’t quite as simple as going to the nearest Interface. You can’t Adapt as Darxem from Daoine forms – they have to be your human ones. And you can’t get your human ones back unless you go out through the same Interface you came in by - in Glim Ring, or Safah Ring in the case of Dengana.’
‘That means w…’ Hugh began, but Tye cut him off.
‘So all we have to do,’ she said with heavy sarcasm, ‘is to go all the way back to where we started from, and then find our way somehow to this Rhino Valley without freaking out our folks, and then creep our way through thousands of hostile animals and insects and Darxem-types without being seen while we find the way to the top of a mountain, and then dive in as Darx characters ourselves, and only then start finding a way to do the whole spy act?’
‘Yes, that about covers it,’ the Queen said mildly.
’You’re getting way out of line,’ Hugh snapped, at the same instant.
Tye exploded in full Tyrentia mode. ‘Well, why the **** couldn’t you simply have sent **** messages to us where we started out from, instead of having us go through all this ****?’
‘Not work any good to do how you say,’ Dengana said thoughtfully. ‘We have need that it be like this.’
Pip growled at him, and Tye glanced down at the sprite clinging to her front. Surprisingly, she responded in a subdued voice, ‘You’re right, actually. We did need to come here first.’
‘But then,’ Hugh objected, ‘if I understood things properly we are going to return home only a couple of hours after we left it, in spite of all the time we’ve spent here. But in that case if we spend days messing about in our world trying to get to Rhino Valley, won’t that mean weeks or months will be elapsing in Breena and in Darx Circle?’
Aiennea shook her head. ‘It doesn’t work quite like that,’ she said. ‘Once you first Adapted you established a datum point from which adjustments will flow both ways.’
‘So, interstices they will then compensate,’ Dengana put in eagerly, and Hugh and Tye gaped at him.
Aiennea nodded. ‘Precisely,’ she said, ‘and the first time at least, in Darx Circle, will mean you can come out again at as close to the time you went in as makes no difference.’
She turned to Hugh. ‘You mentioned, earlier, something about Darp being touchy? I know that Glorianne has been close to him, and we had hoped that there might be a way of resolving things with his help. Strangely, she hasn’t yet told me what took place …?’
Hugh was still grappling with trying to make any sense out of the ‘interstices’, but gave up and related the history of what had happened just before and after their arrival at Glorianne Palace, while she listened intently.
‘This is of grave concern,’ she murmured when he had finished. ‘Small things, in themselves, but they cast a blemish in the mould of the future, which can have far-reaching consequences. Everything is of even greater urgency than I had thought, and it is important for you to move quickly, now. I was hoping to offer you our hospitality to provide some time for rest and relaxation here, but as things are I think you need to leave again straight away.’
‘Literally?’ Hugh asked, rising to his feet. She nodded, and the rest got up and began moving in the direction of the balcony.
Tye stayed put. ‘Hold on, you lot, before you all go issuing a beautifully embroidered invitation to ambush us.’ She turned to Aiennea. ‘I can tell that for all your wisdom and magic and stuff, what you know about being devious would fit in a gnat’s ear. I think it has been made clear enough that somebody doesn’t want us to try and do whatever we’re going to try and do. Is there any way to sneak out of here?’
Aiennea actually looked slightly ruffled, saying, ‘I suppose we could try a spell for …’ but Pip and Felin both interrupted.
‘Meep!’ said the sprite, in a positively negative tone.
‘Nothing using magic,’ Felin said firmly. ‘Tye has a good point, and I’m sure our ill-wishers will expect us to take magical precautions, and be ready to overcome them.’
‘What we need,’ said Hugh wistfully, ‘is a good old-fashioned secret passage. The longer people think we’re still here, the better.’
Without a word, Aiennea closed the doors leading to the balcony, blocking the view of quite a crowd of local residents equipped with wings who had suddenly acquired an urge to fly back and forth within sight but a discreet distance away.
Then she beckoned everyone towards the inner doorway, and led them to another large room, without a balcony and with small, high windows. She went to one of a set of little paintings of pretty scenes on one wall, turned it completely upside-down – and a large mirror on the opposite wall said, ‘Click!’ and swung open to reveal a doorway.
‘No magic involved,’ she announced smugly. ‘I’m not sure what some of my ancestors got up to, but maybe it was just to enable them to have a bit of total peace and quiet. You can’t fly inside there, so there are a great many stairs to climb down, and then a long passageway which takes you well into the woods outside the walls. Don’t forget to close that doorway behind you, and then you’d better walk until out of sight of the palace.’
She called Lusi, and then Avinia and Felin, and gave them some quick instructions which made no sense at all to Hugh and Tye but which they obviously understood. Then she said simply, ‘Goodbye, good luck, and my deepest thanks to all of you!’
They said hasty goodbyes in turn, and then entered a tiny room at the head of a narrow flight of stairs sloping into blackness. Pip immediately began glowing, but Felin shook his head, went to an alcove at one side, and handed each of them a candle in a holder. He lit his with a matchstick, and Aiennea immediately closed the mirror door. Then each of them lit their own candles from Felin’s or from one another’s before starting down. Pip turned off again, looking sulky.
The steps seemed to go on forever, and it was with aching muscles and a feeling of deep relief that they finally reached the beginning of a level passageway. Then, that seemed to go on forever.
Eventually they came up some steps into a tiny room surrounded by dazzling tiny lights – which they discovered were peepholes with daylight streaming through them. Wordlessly, each had careful looks through these holes. All they could see were trees and some large boulders; no mobile life-forms were visible.
At the far side was a doorway secured with a simple bar which when lifted stayed up as soon as the door was opened slightly. It was obvious that it would fall back into place when the door closed again. Hugh gave the door a push, and it swung open smoothly, which was surprising as from the outside it looked exactly like a solid part of one of the group of boulders.
One by one they blew out and then put down their candles before leaving. When Hugh closed the door behind them, it showed not the slightest outline in the rock.
Felin beckoned, and they followed him at a fast walk which became short flights whenever space above and to the sides would allow, but always ensuring that there was a canopy of branches above them. They moved in total silence, except when Tye stumbled over clubroots – her feet appeared to be attracted to them, somehow. Her resultant comments would be followed by, ‘Shush!’ from the others.
Pip took on scouting duties, flying ahead and then coming back to lead them. This was just as well, as on any number of occasions the sprite had to direct them on a wide detour to avoid some living creature in their path. Although she wasn’t quite sure, Tye thought some of them might well have been hostile – at least, it was quite clear Pip hadn’t liked them.
At long last they came to the edge of the trees overlooking a broad valley, and Felin called a halt. ‘We should be out of the woods, now,’ he announced, and didn’t appear at all amused when this was greeted with laughter. ‘I’ve taken us well to the side of the route we should have followed towards either Interface, so anyone watching for us would not expect an approach from this direction.’
‘If there are any groups lying in wait for us,’ Hugh said soberly, ‘the danger will increase as we get closer to the point they will know we have to reach in order to leave the Rings.’
‘Only way round that, round that - ha-ha! - round that,’ said Avinia, ‘will be to take a parallel course to the Interfaces. Then we turn a right-angle and get to them from one side; one side.’
‘Idea is good,’ said Lusi. ‘We will also do. Now is time we go own way. You meet Dengana where; when?’
Hugh thought quickly. ‘You have your bike?’ he asked. Dengana nodded.
‘Right, then. I don’t know how we’re going to get there, but look out for us at the shop in Ummango from about midday on Saturday onwards.’ Dengana nodded again.