CHAPTER 20: Defenders Under Threat
Hugh took a deep breath. He was quite sure he was going to need one.
He wasn’t fast enough in using it, though. Tye’s had been taken and employed with far greater speed.
‘You have it “under control”, have you? Are you completely out of your tiny little mind?’ she stormed.
The Higher Princess knocked over her drink, as did several others at the table. The Higher Prince choked on the mouthful of food he had just taken, and coughed and spluttered for a while.
Hugh had time for another, even deeper, breath. ‘Before you react to that,’ he said mildly, ‘I suggest you listen to what we have seen and heard since we arrived in this …’ he nearly said, ‘Circle’ but in the nick of time substituted, ‘… in this area.’
All eyes upon him, he launched out as briefly but as thoroughly as he could on an account of their recent experiences, and of what they had been told about ‘The Cause’. Dengana and a slightly cooled-down Tye chipped in here and there, and the narration was interrupted from time to time by incredulous questions from Dallent and others.
Everyone in the room had been curious about their arrival, and all eyes had been upon them, but now a realisation was growing that something momentous was being discussed at the High Prince’s table, and all other conversation was suspended while everyone tried to listen. Those whose tables were revolving closer had expressions of eager anticipation, and those who were moving away ones of frustration.
After Hugh had finally reached the stage of feeling that all the most important points had been covered, Dallent said, ‘This is utter madness. I thought the whole point of this Cause nonsense was being equal and losing all feelings of self-value. Not this conquest and take-over idea, at all.’
‘Maybe only tell that stuff after they get to believe not-self,’ Dengana suggested.
‘That’s probably it,’ Dallent nodded. ‘Of course, I do think it is stupid of the Rings to think that queens can do a proper job of ruling, but let them get on with it is what I say. As for Terra – well, they certainly have a point, there. Humans are repulsive and destructive creatures. Still, it would be a bit extreme to kill the whole lot of them.’
Hugh was grateful that some instinct had prevented him from making any mention of their own origins, or their visit to the Rings. ‘Who is this Greatestness they are treating like some sort of god?’ he asked.
‘No idea,’ said Dallent. ‘I heard that only the Highest King and the Highest Princes are permitted to speak to him. Also, they say that it is not for ordinary Darxem to know anything of his nature, as that would be far beyond their levels of understanding. It is enough to know that he has been destined to be the Supreme Leader.’
‘They actually buy that rubbish?’ Tye said, with contempt.
Dallent shrugged. ‘As you know, we have learnt we can trust true readings of the patterns of past and future. It is given to highest of the Highest to be able to do such readings. Just as those of us who have not trained in matters of the nature and science of the universe must trust the findings and knowledge of those who have been.’
‘Where other kings?’ Dengana asked.
It was clear that this had brought him to dangerous ground. Dallent gave him a puzzled frown. ‘Of course, there has been no attempt to restore the other levels since the War of the Power to the Highest,’ he said. ‘After all this time, don’t tell me there has been another of these surges of princes trying to be restored as kings?’
Dengana thought on his feet – or seat, in this case. ‘Could happen, now,’ he said, ‘Highest princes they not like Crows, they maybe think other kings better?’
‘Anyway,’ said Hugh, ‘in the light of what we have told you, don’t you think you are in rather a dangerous position? Sooner or later - and probably sooner rather than later - you are likely to have enormous flocks of Crows coming to change your minds about certain things.’
There was a chorus of cries of horror, particularly from the princesses, and including all other tables which had drifted into earshot.
‘Unthinkable!’ Dallent exclaimed. ‘That could not be - could it?’
‘What defences do you have?’ Tye asked.
Dallent motioned to Demp. ‘Your area,’ he said. ‘Tell them.’
‘Of course we can deploy the normal magic barrier,’ Demp began, ‘which, because of our position on an island, and in an area of power, is particularly strong. Then we have Darxem with greater than usual magical strength, on average, due to the fact that Dallent Island Palace simply attracts such people.’
‘Would that be enough to hold off hordes of rhaxen? Or an attack by numbers of darxtyls?’
‘Well … yes, it should be.’
‘What about,’ Tye persisted, ‘if there were also three or four times your numbers sending magical strength against your barriers and defences?’
Demp did a lot of shuffling in his seat. ‘That would be a problem,’ he admitted.
‘One of you … yes, I think it was you, Durrun, wasn’t it? … told us that you haven’t heard from Dunn for a while,’ she changed tack with. ‘Are you sure he isn’t Dunn for?’
‘Very amusing,’ Dallent said. ‘As a matter of fact, I sent some of our fast flyers to check up on him. Should be due back any time, now.’
‘What do your defences consist of? I mean, how do they work?’ Hugh asked.
‘How do they work? They work to keep nasty things out, of course,’ said Demp, looking puzzled.
‘They don’t actually harm the nasty things?’ Hugh persisted.
‘Not unless they try to push through them.’ The puzzled look was deeper.
‘So you don’t have ways of attacking things that attack you?’ Hugh had a sinking feeling.
Dallent cut in, ‘You mean, something which will deliberately cause harm? That is something humans do; not Darxem. Unheard of.’
‘After all I have told you,’ Hugh said slowly and deliberately, avoiding a temptation to scream, ‘you still don’t realise that the Crows have in mind doing that on a grand scale? Which would include doing it against you? And, what exactly do you think the rhaxen or darxtyls or whatever would do if they did get through? Ask for a drink and a chat?’
There was a long silence, during which the residents of Dallent Island Palace did a great deal of blinking.
Finally the Higher Prince said rather weakly, ‘It couldn’t come to that.’
After that, for some time, everyone concentrated on eating and drinking or chatting to those on opposite sides of the table, or over their shoulders to those at other tables in temporary proximity. Chatting to anyone, in fact, other than Hugh and his party.
Then there was a commotion as a female fluttered in frantically, hovered over the centre of the table facing Dallent, and gabbled, ‘You-need-to-come-now-our-watch-has-brought-in-messenger-who-went-to-Dunn-Palace-badly-hurt.’
‘Alone?’ asked Dallent. ‘What about the other four?’
‘Yes, alone; come!’ was the response.
‘All wait here until I return,’ rapped Dallent, and a flurry of opening wings became a flurry of them closing again.
There was an uproar of voices as soon as he had flown from the room with the watcher who had brought the message. Those further away wanted to know what was going on, and the ones who had been close enough to hear were relaying all they knew. Then everyone was speculating on what they didn’t know.
‘I get the horrible feeling that my joke about Dunn being done for may have been a bit of a prophesy, which has turned out to be in really bad taste,’ Tye said in a small voice. Not for the first time, Hugh found himself thinking what a strange mixture of toughness and sensitivity she was.
It wasn’t long before Dallent returned, but to those waiting it seemed like an age. Higher Princess Tabbia was apparently in a state of shock and would not speak, which put a damper on the conversation and speculation at their table.
When he did come back, he was followed by a large crowd of others, and the princes or princesses among them took what vacant seats there had been. The rest gathered to stand in the ring surrounded by the tables. Dallent stood on an outside table at the far end, and the revolving came to a stop.
As soon as Darxem had stopped flowing into the vast room, Dallent began speaking. His voice was audible everywhere, obviously through some form of magical amplification.
‘We have a dire emergency,’ he started flatly. ‘Only one of the messengers I sent to Dunn Palace has returned, and he is severely injured. The others are undoubtedly dead.’
Not even pausing for the gasps and horrified exclamations, he went on, ‘The situation they found at Dunn Palace was indescribably terrible. Everyone there, regardless of rank, age or sex, has been killed, and the palace totally destroyed.’
He cupped his hands over his face for a second, and then went on, ‘The worst horror of all is that they have used some spell to prevent them from Fading.’
A stunned silence met the announcement, and after the briefest of pauses to let this news sink in, he continued, ‘The horde of Crows who did these things are on their way here, now. They are travelling on foot because they apparently include many non-flying creatures in their number, but should still reach us by midday tomorrow.’
The uproar after he had left the room was nothing to the one which now ensued. When words replaced wailings, two major factions were emerging: those who wanted to flee, and those who wanted to send a delegation right away to negotiate. The total consensus was that if Dunn Palace defences had failed, it was certain that theirs would, too.
Hugh decided to experiment with ‘willing’ his magic to assist his voice, and found it surprisingly easy. ‘What about fighting them?’ he called out, and he could tell that his words were carrying like those of Dallent.
‘How?’ Demp said.
‘Um,’ said Hugh. It was a good question. ‘What does their mob consist of, apart from a great many Darxem?’
‘Just Darxds, apparently; no Darxtas … They have numbers of flying creatures of the same kinds as rhaxen and darxtyls. The boggarts are like a swarm of midges. There are also wingless ones like stygs or brackles. The worst thing, though, is that they have hundreds of drogres with them, who are somehow not eating them. Those also appear to have adopted The Cause.’
‘What these drogres them like?’ Dengana put in, but he hadn’t got the hang of magic microphones so Hugh had to repeat it for him.
‘They must just be the usual ones,’ Dallent said impatiently. ‘About five times our size, bloated, hairy even on hands and feet, stupid, and always bad-tempered. The big problem with them is, of course, that their magic shields are so big and so strong that they can simply break through almost anything.’
‘Those big domes in the valley must have been for them oops,’ Tye guessed, with the last bit being because in her case she had found and used an amplified voice without realising it.
‘So what magic weapons can you deploy?’ Hugh asked.
‘I told you before; we can shield, protect, and guard, of course,’ Dallent said.
‘Right.’ Hugh thought hard, before trying: ‘What would you do if only one of you was in charge of a scattered group of youngsters; too many for you to shield; and some of these … drogres? … came at them from all sides?’
The reply was unexpected in two ways: the nature of it, and from whom it came. ‘I would destroy them all!’ Higher Princess Tabbia snapped in a tone of fury and a voice amplified almost too much.
‘Now we’re getting somewhere. How would you do it?’
She blinked at Hugh before replying, now hesitantly, ‘My anger would enable me to direct blasts of fire, water, air or earth in any combination at them,’ she said. ‘As a matter of fact, I had need to do it once against rhaxen when I was younger, although I felt bad about it afterwards.’
‘Who else here would know how to do that?’ Hugh asked.
A few scattered arms came up, mainly among the princes. The Higher Prince’s was not among them, and he was still gaping at Tabbia with a shocked expression.
‘You wouldn’t be able to, anyway, if the drogres had put up their shields,’ muttered Demp, whose arm had also failed to rise.
‘I imagine the anger has already been generated,’ Hugh said, ‘if one simply thinks about what has happened to everyone at Dunn Palace, and that these Crows should dare to come and try to impose their crazy ideas on you. Do you think,’ turning to Tabbia, ‘you could imagine that large fruit over there was one of them, and demonstrate a blast?’
Tabbia concentrated for a while, but then shook her head.
Hugh wondered if perhaps she simply lacked enough imagination. ‘Let me have a go,’ he said. ‘Try and sense what I’m doing, everyone.’
First, he marshalled up anger at the actions of the Crows. Then he imagined that the fruit was a symbol of them. After that, he willed a blast of earth and fire to build up. Finally he pointed a finger at the fruit and tried to release the energy.
With a feeling of desperation, he went through the sequence again. This time, though, he only imagined the fruit to be a Crow a split-second before he ‘shot’.
There was a gasp from everyone in the enormous room as the fruit suddenly turned into a hole in the table, smouldering slightly.