CHAPTER 22: An Ambush and a Departure
By the time the force returned to Dallent Island Palace, it was well into the evening. They crammed into the Great Dining Hall until all seats were filled, and the overflow who wanted to hear any announcements which might be announced stayed standing in the centre portion and stayed hungry. The rest went to do such preparation and carrying of food as wasn’t simply done by magic - or to find lesser dining rooms.
Dallent was not in a speech-giving mood, though. He gave a brief one praising everyone for their valour and lamenting the loss of six, which included two who had been blasted in the group who were doing the dangerous final return flight on the other side of the enemy.
‘We must now double our watches, and be prepared to exert maximum force with our shields,’ he finished. ‘Other than that, I have followed a suggestion by Prince Dew that scouts be sent to large villages and palaces within reasonable flying distance - in all directions except the ones he and his party have already viewed on the way here. - in the hopes that we can find reinforcements. I am proud of the Darxem who volunteered to add such efforts to those they had already used for the journey and attack.’
‘Not likely to get much response,’ overheard from a table revolving past Hugh’s shoulder, about summed up the expectations. Everyone was reverting to their recent preference for lying low and hoping not to be noticed.
Musicians came into the centre of the room to play briefly during the final stages of the meal, but there did not appear to be any intention of making an evening of it. Soon, Hugh and his friends were shown to guest rooms – simple, by comparison with those in the Ring palaces, and not in towers, but still luxurious enough.
There was some confusion when their hosts wanted to put Hugh and Tye in one room, looking quite surprised that they asked for separate ones.
With all the excitement and uncertainty, nobody slept too well, and most were up early. By the time Hugh, Dengana and Tye flew to join others in the gardens surrounding the palace, the news had spread that most of the scouts had already returned bearing bad news. During the course of the morning the final ones who had gone further afield also returned, bearing the same.
All of them had accounts of village after village where even late at night or early in the morning there had been enough activity to see that they were filled with dull Darxem, being made duller by even duller ones. Those of more colourful appearance were, as predicted, keen on staying as invisible as possible, and they definitely didn’t believe that sending any reinforcements to Dallent Island Palace would contribute towards being invisible.
The news of what had happened to everyone at Dunn Palace had spread to some areas, or had to be related to others. In both cases, this also had a quite definite effect of discouraging any support. Fear seemed to be a far stronger emotion than anger, and it was clear that none of them would believe the messengers when they gave an account of the recent success against the Crow horde. Most thought that they were complete lies, told out of desperation; or, at least, that they were wildly exaggerated.
To add to the general atmosphere of doom and gloom, scouts reported that the Crows, although still at walking or running speed, were drawing closer so quickly that they couldn’t have been taking any breaks at all.
‘Is a surprise,’ Dengana mentioned during a period they were all together, ‘that Crows they not send flying ones on ahead. Maybe they want to keep all together at first, but now that so many of the no-wings killed, no reason to stay slow.’
‘You have a point,’ came from Hugh. ‘Perhaps it wasn’t such good thinking to blast so many of the walking ones – I mean, if I’d been in charge there I would immediately have regarded that as a signal to stop messing about and simply fly the rest of the way.’
‘Anyway, isn’t it time for us to get out, before we get hemmed in?’ Tye said crossly.
They gaped at her. ‘Do you mean … just leave them to it?’ Hugh asked incredulously.
‘Why not? We’ve done what we could. What good is it going to be, now, to mess about with one little battle when we should be thinking what to do about the whole war?’
‘How you think we stop the war?’ Dengana challenged.
‘For starters, we need to get to this king’s palace as the most likely place for getting some clues about what is really behind it all. I think we should leave now. Already, we are going to need to duck round these attackers. I gather from things Tabbia has said that they are directly in our way on the route to Darrex Palace.’
‘We can’t simply abandon Dallent and everyone!’ Hugh burst out.
‘Why not? Stop being pathetic and use some sense. We have far bigger things to worry about.’
‘Maybe Tye she right,’ Dengana said in a worried tone. ‘Most important now we carry information to Highest Queen. Even what we know already she have need that we tell her.’
This support wasn’t enough to satisfy Tye. ‘We don’t know nearly enough, yet,’ she snapped. ’This was a valuable source of information, but we’ve got all we’re going to get from here. Now, we simply must keep moving and start snooping round the king, somehow.’
Hugh dug his heels in. ‘That may be the most sensible idea,’ he said shortly, ‘but I simply can’t do it. If you want to leave everyone in the lurch, go right ahead, but you’re on your own.’
‘Not good way to be,’ Dengana agreed.
Tye and her sprite had her usual reaction to opposition. Pip growled fiercely at them, and she swung on her heel and flew away. Dengana started after her, but Hugh called him back. ‘Leave her to cool down,’ he advised.
Scouts were running relays to report on the approach of the enemy, and some had managed to get close enough to observe that there were still about twenty of the drogres at the head of the march. They were guarded, though, by a pattern-flying group of Darxds, staying just ahead of them.
‘We would have no hope trying another surprise attack,’ Dallent said morosely.
‘Maybe not, but the strategy of taking out the drogres was a sound one. As a tactic, perhaps some sort of ambush is called for to deal with the remaining ones?’ Hugh suggested a bit hesitantly. ‘Let’s see; the logical way for them to come will be through that little gorge we flew over on the way back, won’t it?’
Dallent nodded, but objected: ‘Before anyone gets within blasting range of the drogres, they will be attacked by the flying Crows.’
Hugh looked for Tye to join their discussion, but she was at the far side with Higher Princess Tabbia and pointedly ignored them when they waved. He, with Dengana, Dallent and Demp, then spent some time on working out a plan of action.
Sixty-one volunteers were soon found. Tisa teamed with Hugh again, and Demp went as shielder to Dengana. Hugh persuaded Dallent and Demp not to join this expedition, in case anything needed urgent decisions back at the Palace. Also, although he didn’t say it, in case the ambush went horribly wrong.
Led by a group of Crow Darxds flying in low circles just ahead of the remaining drogres, the enemy horde started entering the gorge. They had to thin out to follow the banks of the river which ran through it, but first the flyers were reinforced with many more, who all scoured the cliffs and the very steep hillsides on either side to ensure that there were no lurking ambushers. Then most landed again to join the Darxds walking behind the drogres, while the permanent air force resumed their station just ahead. Rather than continue to fly in irksome tight circles, they were now almost hovering in order to keep down to the walking pace.
As soon as they had finished their search, Trona, completely concealed in one of the few bushes she could find at the top, flashed a signal. At that, fifteen pairs flew to a considerable height from behind the next set of hills on either side, making sure that they could not see into the gorge and, therefore, that they were out of sight of anyone in it. Then they hovered, waiting for Trona to peep cautiously over the edge and then send another signal as soon as the flying Crows had passed a place previously pinpointed.
As soon as this came, both groups of thirty launched into a steep dive, aiming for the tops of the cliffs and thus still out of sight of anyone below. Only at the last instant before they would have plunged into the hilltops on either side did they do a jink to continue the dive straight into the gorge.
By this time, they had built up a furious speed, and it was only a matter of seconds before they were within range of the drogres. There was only time for one blast each, and it required lightning- quick reflexes for each to identify their agreed target and ‘shoot’. This time, shielders and blasters alike were blasting, so that each drogre would receive three direct hits at the same time.
The front and back drogres started falling first. It was easy to pick ‘first’ or ‘last’, but took longer to count, ‘tenth from front’ or ‘tenth from back’. Then the swooping attackers used their momentum, after coming out of the dive, to rise to the opposite cliff-tops, rather like an aircraft starting the upward part of a loop-the-loop. By the time both groups had vanished over opposite edges, the middle drogres were also toppling.
The Crows flying ahead of the drogres hadn’t seen a thing. One or two of the drogres had glanced upwards at the attackers, but even the ones who had noticed them as soon as they had come into view didn’t have fast enough reflexes to shield themselves in time.
The walking Darxds behind the drogres had actually started blasting, but too late. Then they took off in a swarm in pursuit, but the Dallent party fled straight back to the protection of their barrier, well out of range of the pursuers.
At last, the Crows realised that there was no point in continuing at the speed of the other, less formidable, walkers. Dark clouds of them arrived to congregate as an unpleasant black horde just beyond the outer ring of the palace defences, which formed a ring around the lake as well as the island.
Once there, all of them became busy simply being there, but not really doing anything more than being there.
‘We’re well-and-truly hemmed in now, all right,’ Hugh said glumly.
He and Dengana went to find Tye to tell her that a respite had been won with the elimination of the drogres, but she was nowhere in sight. Finally Hugh saw Tabbia coming out of the palace, and flew across to her. ‘Have you seen Tye… er, Tyria?’ he asked.
Tabbia frowned at him. ‘Didn’t you know?’ she said rather coldly, ‘High Princess Tyria has already said her farewells and has left on her mission, whatever it may be.’