CHAPTER 15: Into the Leopard’s Den
No use to think about such things before,’ Dengana declared. ‘We need to be here, to look, see, and then make plans.’
Tye nodded agreement. ‘What Faie folk activity can we see?’ she asked. ‘Any of the Daoine? There must be Darxem. How many can we spot?’ She paused for thought, and turned to Hugh. ‘You were able to sense Darxem. What about now?’
Hugh concentrated. ‘No, I’m getting bad vibes from the whole area, for whatever reason, but I can’t actually sense any of them.’
They all studied the scene for some time.
‘Absolute blank,’ said Hugh, finally.
‘No tokoloshe,’ Dengana agreed.
‘Nothing I can see, either,’ Tye said. ‘This is weird. I would have thought the Darxds, at least, would be all over the place by now, or what was everything all about?’
Hugh looked on her shoulder. ‘I wonder if Pip can get rid of his tail and look more like a bird?’
‘Meep,’ said Pip mournfully.
‘Or hide it?’
Pip suddenly grew wings, and did some experimental flitting with tail tucked underneath. At first it kept needing to be extended again for balance, and it looked from below like sudden puffs of smoke appearing behind the ‘bird’. Hugh and Dengana giggled, and Tye glared at them.
After a minute or so, Pip got the hang of it, and without being asked flew out in a wide circle behind them, and then down towards the valley. From a distance the appearance was enough like a very fat bird not to attract undue notice.
‘If Pip he do magic here,’ Dengana said thoughtfully, ‘why not us?’
‘Good point,’ Hugh nodded. ‘How would one start? Maybe, when Pip comes back, we could ask him to grow and un-grow his wings and we could try and sense what is happening?’
‘If I put mind out to valley,’ Dengana said, ‘is bad feeling.’
Hugh and Tye gaped at him for a second, and then they both told their minds to explore the area. It was true – an almost tangible sensation of oppression came to them. Hugh probed further, and began to be aware of many little snatches of what he had felt from the bees - what appeared to be any number of little mind-messages. They were a bit scary, and he stopped.
After he had done the best he could to describe what he had felt to the others, they tried too, but without result. ‘I wonder if I’m imagining things,’ he said, ‘or if the Darxem have done something here to … change things to be more sensitive or whatever?’
Pip returned and sat on a rock overlooking the valley, and with nose pointed down into it said, ‘Meep.’ Then, looking up at The Sad Ones, went, ‘Yip.’ Another look further along the valley, and the comment was, ‘Yip?’
Tye translated: ‘Darxem up near The Sad Ones, but … inside?’ - she paused for Pip to yip – ‘something funny further up the valley, and otherwise nothing.’
Pip gave her another yip but she frowned and didn’t translate.
Hugh directed another little probe up the valley, and immediately felt something questioning in response. He backed off, hastily. ‘I get something, there,’ he said, pointing, ‘and it strikes me as being a bit familiar, somehow. It … oh, I don’t know … not Darxem, though.’
Pip stretched wings to fly back to Tye’s shoulder, but she said, ‘Hang on, can you just de-wing where you are so that we can try and sense the magic?’
The sprite did as she asked, and then had to have wings appear and disappear several times until giving quite an irritated, ‘Meep!’ and refusing to do it any more.
‘I do feel a bit of what happen,’ Dengana remarked, ‘but not make sense.’ That summed up what Hugh had and hadn’t experienced.
Tye had got it quite strongly, but again not quite enough to grab hold of. ‘I tried using the Avinia technique …’ her voice faltered for a second ‘… but it didn’t help enough this time.’
‘This must confirm that the Darxem are up at the rocks … or in a cave there, rather.’ Hugh mused. ‘That is where we need to go to sneak into the Circle, but I think first we need a thorough idea of what is going on in the valley.’
‘Why mess about?’ Tye snapped. ‘If we cut across to our right on top here, we can link up with the extension of that Sad Ones hill without having to go down into the valley and up again.’
Dengana shook his head. ‘That way go out in open; we seen,’ he objected. ‘Also, like Hugh he say, I say we must learn what in valley, first.’
Tye scowled for a while. Then she said, ‘Oh, alright then. You two scoot down as fast as you can, but not together. Head for the Old Frogs’ place. Pip and I’ll keep a watch out, and join you once you’re both out of sight there. He’ll have seen where you go.’
Hugh opened his mouth to object, but she forestalled him. ‘That way, we’ll have a pretty good idea whether you’ve been spotted or not, and if any one of us is seen alone, the penny may not drop.’
‘I don’t see why you have to wait; you can leave the watching to Pip,’ he grumbled, but then shrugged. ‘I’ll go first, then,’ he said. He mounted up, and started down the hill, leaning right over into the first sharp turn while having to make lightning-fast decisions on his course on the rutted surface.
It was a thrilling descent. Time and again he was on the verge of losing control, but somehow managed to keep going. The drops at the side of the road, particularly near the top, were stomach-lurchingly high; some were even sheer. He was actually travelling faster than a car would have dared to go, on that road, and the slightest miscalculation would undoubtedly lead to severe injury or death.
Some parts a bit further on had little uphills in them, like a switchback, before the road would plunge into the next series of twists. Such respites were brief, but welcome. Then came another funfair-ride-like section, and he waited for the next downward dash – but came to a bridge over the river, instead.
‘Made it!’ he breathed. ‘That was hairy. And real fun!’
The going was still up-and-down after that but, by comparison, quite easy. He caught a glimpse of Pip high above him when a smooth stretch of road allowed him to take his eyes off it for a few seconds. At the same time he had a chance to notice that the heavy feeling of the place was worse – it made one really want to be somewhere else - anywhere else.
‘I wonder if there’s magic involved?’ he said aloud. ‘A sort of repel-spell?’ He gave a wry grin and chanted, ’Dispel repel-spell … wow!’
As he had said the words, he had felt a distinct lifting of the feeling. Saying the words again didn’t help, though, until he did it while willing the spell to be driven away – and suddenly the whole day felt much brighter and happier. Even though the avenue leading to the Henderson farmhouse was still devoid of all signs of life, it gave a far less forbidding impression than when last he had been there.
Wasting no time, he put his bike out of sight in one of the outhouses, and then let himself into the home.
Dengana arrived some ten minutes later, with a covering of dust and looking miserable. It was clear that he had come unstuck at least once, but the misery was due to the spell. When Hugh told him how to get rid of the effects and he succeeded, he was so relieved he clapped and danced.
They were starting to get concerned about Tye, but then a scratching at the front door announced Pip, joined by the girl a few seconds later. ‘Feels awful here. Horrible place!’ was her greeting. So bad was her mood that it took her quite some time to get the hang of countering the ‘repel-spell’, as they had all now started to call it.
Something was still increasingly worrying Hugh, though, and he could tell from the occasional frown and uneasy look that it was affecting Dengana as well. There was a mental impression of someone getting closer and closer, and trying to speak …
He decided it wasn’t something that should be blocked out, like the repel-spell, though. Therefore, it had to be something that he should encourage. He concentrated, and sensations of being spoken to grew stronger. It wasn’t in words, though – and yet, if he translated it into words, it started being able to make sense.
When he tried this technique, the words which came faintly into his mind amounted to, *You called. I am curious why. I have come.*
‘Where are you?’ Hugh asked, and the others gaped at him. Then he said it again, but this time while thinking of getting the message across to whatever he was getting the message across to.
*Tree … branch …* came to him. That was enough. In an instant, he knew exactly what he was talking to, and also where it was.
‘Leopard outside – says we called him,’ he gabbled.
Tye looked at him as if he had lost his mind, but Dengana immediately knew the right window to dash to. Hugh joined him there, and they peered. There, on the far side of the courtyard, was the large tree and its spreading branches. On one of the branches was a section quite normally made up of twigs and leaves and shadows similar to all the rest – until one concentrated. Then, suddenly, that part of the scene resolved itself into the clear shape of a reclining leopard staring fixedly at the house.
‘We are coming out to you,’ Hugh said, and *said*.
He went through onto the verandah with Dengana at his elbow and Tye trailing bemusedly behind. As the leopard caught sight of them, the head gave a twitch of surprise.
*Human cubs … not shiny-bat-humans? See males before … not female. Smell same too, for males. Puzzled …*
The message was clearer now that they were outside, and became even more so as they walked closer, just as if it were made up of sound.
Tye had been putting two and two together. ‘All our effort wasted!’ she snapped. ‘Now the whole of Darx Circle will know exactly where we are.’
‘Not necessarily,’ Hugh said. ‘This must be one of the leopards the Darxem – only Darxds, Lusi said? - recruited, all right, but I don’t think they are in touch with him right now. Somehow, we need to get him on our side to keep it that way.’ He struggled to think of how to do this as they drew closer and closer to the magnificent animal, who was giving them a most unnerving stare with unblinking yellow eyes. ‘We are like bat-humans,’ he ventured. ‘Can change into bat-humans.’
*Change into bat-humans, then. Hate big humans.*
Oops. This was a bad start.
‘We can only change to bat-humans if we go to their hole-in ground,’ he said, hoping that the mental picture he was trying for was clear enough.
*You are humans or bat-humans?’ Hate humans.*
‘We can change to both. Why hate humans? They are dangerous, but so stupid that it is easy to make them think you are not there.’
The leopard gave some blinks. *Hate humans,* he repeated, but with less certainty.
Hugh felt he was starting to get somewhere, but it was Dengana who now picked the ball up and ran with it. ‘I greet you, Ingwe. Humans not make you do things that are not-leopard,’ he said, and Hugh could sense that his mind-projection was at least as good as his own. ‘You listen to bad bat-humans. They tell you what to do. They bring leopards together to hunt in packs like dogs. Wrong for leopards.’
*Bat-humans show good ways to hide from humans. Hate humans,* countered the leopard, but now with some signs of real doubt.
‘They show you how to hide,’ Hugh took over again, ‘but then get you to help with killing all the humans, so you don’t need to know how to hide. That means they teach you to hide for reasons not good for leopards.’ He wondered if he wasn’t being far too ambitious in expecting to get this idea across, but the leopard sat up abruptly, causing the branch to sway quite a lot, and set his ears back.
*Hate wrong bat-humans!* was his verdict.
‘This is your territory, Ingwe,’ Dengana guessed, ‘and it is not right to let other leopards come in. Only female leopard, when you want family. Bat-humans make you do things not normal for leopards. Leopards should only do things leopards want to do; not be told what to do.’
*I not listen to bat-humans any more. Eat them if tell me what to do,* resolved the leopard, giving them all rather a nasty look and lashing his tail.
‘We have not told you what to do,’ Hugh said hastily, ‘but only let you see how things are. We must now try to go into hole without bad bat-humans seeing us, and then we will leave and not bother you any longer. We are trying to stop bad bat-humans from doing more bad things.’
Again he wondered if this could possibly filter through into the mind of the big cat; again it transpired that its intelligence was far greater than he would have expected. With true feline perversity, the leopard then projected: *I like you human cubs. Will help you get to hole; then not eat you even if you come back to live here.*
This was even more than could have been hoped for. ‘When is best for us to try to get to the hole?’
The leopard gave signs of considering for a while, and then settled comfortably on his branch again. *Sleep now. A short time before light comes in morning, never see bat-humans awake. Lead you there, then.*
With that, he closed his eyes and purred himself to sleep.