CHAPTER 25: Merging
Lusi shot out of the tunnel near the left-hand entrance wall, and turned sharply left as soon as she emerged. Only a rocky hillside greeted her view, and she found a conveniently shadowed outcrop to dive behind. There she paused to take stock.
No fliers were in sight above her or to the side. The tunnel entrance she had just left looked deserted. By creeping forward, she was able to reach the edge of a cliff which plunged to become a steep hillside leading down to the valley below. The seething mass of Darxds and other creatures of all descriptions in this valley made her catch her breath in sheer horror.
Many of the Darxds were flying here and there, but she noted that none found it necessary to go anywhere near the height of the surrounding hills or mountains. She decided that it was safe, for the moment, to remain where she was, but not much would be accomplished by doing that. She could sense that the route north towards Darrex Palace would lie directly across the valley. How could she possibly cross it unnoticed? Any female would attract attention, whether on foot or flying.
The solution, of course, lay in being enough distance away not to be seen at all, or so as to be indistinguishable from a distant male, a closer bird, or a far closer insect. Obviously, she told herself, she needed to get behind this hill, out of view of the valley, and then gain as much height as possible for the flyover.
Action was suited to thought. She rode thermal after thermal until the air felt thin in her lungs and trees below became tiny. In order to keep the mountains between her and the valley she needed to circle further and further south, and after that she had great difficulty in finding a wind-stream which would take her in the opposite direction.
Finally, thanks to an unwitting ally in a vulture with - seen from above - a fluffy white collar and neck, which passed some distance beneath her moving northwards at speed, she was able to lose enough height again to catch his current. Heart in mouth, she rode it across the valley. Even at that slightly reduced height the Darxds were the merest specks on the ground. Unless some magic detection was being used below (and why should it need to be?) she should be safe enough.
Nevertheless, she breathed a sigh of relief when the valley and everything in it was no longer in sight behind her. However, she was finding that, try as she might to correct the course, the stream was taking her as much to the west as to the north. In fact, a glimpse of the vulture showed it now as a vanishing speck well to her left and getting much further ahead.
From the height she was at, she could see villages spread like a map, and it was depressing to note their universally drab appearance. Then she was startled to note that they appeared to be cheering up a little, particularly even more to the west. She allowed herself to be taken yet further out of her course and debated going lower for a better look.
However, she flew on and on until eventually, in the far distance, she could make out a palace which. even from that far away, was truly beautiful. With a shrug, she allowed the stream to take her in that direction.
After flying directly away from Dolk and his army until they were out of sight, Dengana and Hugh demoted themselves and returned to see from a safe distance that what they had set in motion stayed in motion.
It was a considerable relief to observe the entire camp going into the appearance of a disturbed ants’ nest, and then into a procession like army ants on the march. This soon became one of flying ants, duly headed westward. It was a pity they were too far away to see, as they hoped, that there was also a solitary walker going south.
Dengana actually remarked how like ants they looked, and Hugh, in the kind of silliness brought on by relief, said, ‘I do suppose they are all feeling pretty “anti”! Can you believe that when given enough bluster they didn’t even ask our names or who had given us the orders? Well done! I can’t believe we brought it off.’
‘Useful that you me we be Highest Princes,’ Dengana said. ‘Same like my culture, Darxem they not ask chief too many questions.’
By late afternoon the only signs of Crows left were the disturbed and rather grubby areas of their camps. The two flew to the lake shore opposite the palace entrance, where they found the shield still in place. They were quickly spotted and let through, though.
Led by Dallent, a whole group flew out to meet them, all gabbling questions. Dallent lost patience. ‘Quiet!’ he bellowed at them. Then he asked, ‘How in the name of all that’s wonderful did you do that? My guess, from those questions you asked, is that you have sent them to Darx Desert. How?’
‘You right,’ Dengana smiled. ‘The Crows they believe we bring orders they must go there. Also that they must work harder to be better Crows. Even make Dolk he go walk south to see how must be done.’
At this, the whole group burst into laughter which carried on until they were breathless and choking. The same reaction came from everyone to whom this was repeated, so the entire palace became a place of great merriment.
Although they were constantly pressed for details, when laughter had subsided enough for speech, the two somehow felt it would be better to continue keeping their true ranks to themselves, and simply said that it had been done by bluster and bullying – which it had.
Protests of wanting an early night so as to set off first thing in the morning were brushed aside. Dallent Island Palace felt that they had earned a party, and the heroes of the hour were going to be at the heart of it, like it or not.
It turned out to be an excellent party, and it became clear that their early start was not going to be nearly as early as they had intended.
The closer Lusi came to the palace, the more her amazement grew. It was built on a hill rising from the centre of a little island in a pretty lake, and she wondered again at all the extra vivid colours that the ‘black’ light of Darx Circle managed to show. In fact, the only thing which detracted from the neat, orderly and lovely appearance of everything, from the outer shores of the lake inward, was a wide perimeter of disturbed and trampled ground, showing scatterings of sticks and rocks as if many small fires had been built there.
Then, from either side ahead of her, she could see two groups of six Darxem, three princes and three princesses in each, and all clothed in bright colours, rising to meet her, After taking a good look at her, all returned to the ground except for one princess who flew up to intercept her.
‘Hello,’ she said with a smile, ‘I’m Tisa. Can I guess that you are suddenly going to become a High Princess with colourful raiment?’
Lusi nearly fell out of the sky with astonishment. Then she responded, ‘You want that I do this thing; I do it,’ and she did.
‘Thought so,’ giggled Tisa. ‘You know Dew and Deng and Tyria, don’t you?’ It didn’t take much thought to work out who she must be referring to, and Lusi nodded eagerly.
‘I suppose you’re really a Higher, like them,’ Tisa went on, delighting in the opportunity to show off. ‘I’m the only one who knows they are. Anyway, follow me, please and I’ll take you to Higher Prince Dallent. Er, you are “High” Princess …?’
‘Lusi,’ Lusi responded, still a bit dazed and not thinking straight.
‘Tuza?’ Tisa repeated, doubtfully.
Lusi un-scattered her thoughts a bit. ‘Yes, Tuza,’ she said. ‘My friends Denga… Deng and Dew and Tyria they here at …?’
‘Do you have any idea what Deng and Dew did?’ Tisa interrupted excitedly. ‘The whole palace is killing themselves laughing. They tricked a whole great army to go off and sit in the middle of the Darx Desert! And they also made their Higher Prince in command walk all the way to the south!’ The very recollection of it had Tisa in such fits of mirth again that she was having difficulty in flying straight.
When Tisa’s spluttering had slowed down somewhat, Lusi repeated, ‘Deng and others they with your Higher Prince?’
‘No;’ her voice became a bit cold, ‘High Princess Tyria went away while we were dealing with a whole lot of drogres.’ The tone changed to a regretful one. ‘Then Deng and Dew left quite a while back, before we came on watch,’
It was mid-morning by the time farewells were completed and Hugh and Dengana started in the direction of Darrex Palace. Both had much more confidence, now, in travelling openly. The rank of prince provided a good general cover, and by keeping a reasonably-converted Crow colouring they blended fairly well with average Darxem they came across. There were no signs of any other brilliantly defiant communities. It was clear, in fact, that conversions of all of them lying south of Darrex Palace were all fairly well advanced.
The women and girl Darxtas were all keeping a low profile and were seldom seen other than in or round the homes. ‘How you think Tye she can travel alone through place like this?’ Dengana expressed Hugh’s own concerns on the subject.
‘It strikes me as being utterly impossible,’ he agreed.
After flying for most of the (mid-)morning, Hugh suggested that they find a place to rest and find something to eat. He had learnt from some remarks of Dallent that princes and above were not expected to pay for food or drink or accommodation when travelling. There was some permanent magic feature which gave compensation to the granters of such hospitality. Somehow, it had never occurred to him to wonder at the time how Felin and Avinia had ‘settled up’ for their visits to inns, but this explained it.
Still, he preferred that they keep to themselves for the time being, so at his suggestion they had their rest alongside a mountain stream where there were some of the large berries recognisable as being part of Dallent Island Palace fare.
The stream had a delightful waterfall with a limpid pool beneath, and the temptation to freshen up was more than they could resist. Darxen clothing responded to the same techniques as that of the Rings, so soon they had shed it and were splashing joyfully (with finned wings) in the cool water.
Lusi was frantic to start out after the others, but was trapped into, firstly, meeting with Dallent and the more senior members of the palace population, and, secondly, hearing numerous accounts of the recent events.
She also had to fob off any number of questions, which she did by simply saying on each occasion, ‘Is sad that I not able to give answer to that.’ It was clear to her that the others had felt a necessity for some secrecy in various matters, and until she knew whether they were being wise, or merely paranoid, it was better to stay on the safe side.
Finally, gratefully but firmly declining invitations to lunch, supper, and a sleepover - there were apparently even some hopes in the direction of an excuse for another party - she set off once more.
It was a curse to have to go so high again in order to be invisible before she could get moving properly, but the curse became a blessing. The wind-stream she now found was going directly north, and at a far higher speed even than the previous one.
Although being carried by the current, it was tiring to fly on and on like this, especially as she needed to remain alert regarding her direction and whether she was remaining in the best part of the flow. She started regretting not having lunched, at least, at Dallent Island Palace, and looked longingly at some places she could see which would make a pleasant resting place. One of these to one side, which she started to fly past regretfully, was a stream on a hillside with a waterfall leading into a pool.
‘Is lovely,’ she breathed, and then noticed some specks in it. ‘No good, even if I want to stop. Look like two Darxem they in it …’ Suddenly she applied air-brakes. ‘Two …? Can it be …!?’
Cautiously, she spiralled downward, and the further down she got the more her spirits went up. Finally she drew close enough to be quite certain that what she was seeing was a Dengana-Darxd and a Hugh-Darxd, and the lower she plummeted the higher grew her delight.
‘ “We” see you, Dengana, Hugh!’ she yelled on landing.
She might have spent more time in considering the wisdom of this. For one thing, her traditional greeting was a far more accurate assessment than it usually is. Both had nothing on, and the water was particularly clear. For another, one should avoid giving considerable shocks to people when they are in deep water. It can lead to a lot of choking and spluttering.
Lusi was jumping up and down in excitement on a rock next to their clothing, completely unabashed. Hugh remembered how unconcerned Tertia and Quinnie had been, so decided there was no point in feeling embarrassed. He couldn’t quite bring himself to carry out his first impulse of hugging her in greeting until after he had dried off and dressed again, though. Neither, he noted, could Dengana.
That was a while later, though. First, with a squeal of joy, she had shed her own clothing and jumped in with them.
The journey was not resumed for some considerable time, while Lusi explained to the bemused boys how it had come about that a Glow guide left in Safah Ring had suddenly arrived, as a Darxta, well into Darx Circle.
Then they had to fill her in on their adventures in the valley beyond the Sad Ones tunnel, and the parts of their Dallent Island Palace exploits which had not already been related to her. She provided them with many suitably flattering expressions of wonder and admiration.
‘You are amazing, Lusi,’ Hugh said in return. ‘We were just saying how impossible it seemed for Tye to travel through here alone, and you’ve made it seem so easy, simply by thinking higher thoughts. Mind you,’ he added, after her giggles had subsided, ‘we couldn’t really have done the same thing and still got to learn anything about what was happening here.’
‘It big worry,’ Dengana said, ‘what you say the queen she say about Tye she go wrong now.’
‘I don’t suppose there is a hope that we will be lucky enough to come across her in the same way as you managed to do with us.’ Hugh said glumly. ‘We should keep a lookout, though.’
Lusi was still in silly mode after the relief at seeing them. ‘We just look for a sprite it invisible,’ she giggled, ‘then we know Tye she nearby.’
It was decided that with Lusi as part of the group it would be better to do some high-altitude travel again. Anyway, with the fast airstream still in the same direction, the better speed more than made up for the time taken to get higher. The only downside of being up (there were a number of ups and downs in recent events) was that one gained less of an appreciation of reality while up in the clouds.
It was getting on towards evening when they spotted, far ahead of them, a palace which was clearly enormous. Even from a distance, the outlines of the structure were pleasing, but it gave an impression of radiating gloom. That was more than just due to a colour which had all the charm and appeal of soot. It was as if something there was muttering, ‘Hate me; hate me.’
‘Tomorrow not long and we get there,’ Dengana said. ‘We find inn, now?’ They had agreed that they would try to spend the night somewhere offering opportunities for an evening of snooping in order to gain a better ‘feel’ for the situation nearer the palace.
Darx didn’t seem to go in much for the sort of tree or treetop homes or inns found in the Rings – in fact, the trees and foliage as a whole were far more Darxen- than human-scaled. When he landed in a village to ask, Hugh received directions to a large stone building near the centre.
He and his party had to do a fairly low adjustment on their colour spectrum to blend in there – the average Darxem nearly came to the high low standards of Dore and Dennet in the valley. To their surprise, they found after entering the inn that a good third of those present were girls or women. These all added universal expressions of misery to a universally drab appearance.
The innkeeper was a surly individual with an expression which could have given him a useful career in curdling milk. Even though they were the only princes/princess present, he didn’t give any indication of being impressed by their status After ‘Triumph’ exchanges, he said, ‘Only one room left; you’ll have to share. The woman can sleep in a corner, or something. Is she going to Darrex Palace for the Training in Child Training Programme, or the Training in Serving one?’
Dengana’s sense of humour took over his tongue. ‘She go for Training in Training in Training,’ he said.
‘Very funny. Ha, ha,’ the innkeeper said without even the slightest vestige of a smile. ‘That, of course, could only be done by a man.’
‘Some of these High Princesses, I heard it said,’ a man at a table near the serving counter chipped in, ‘started getting fancy ideas, and were sent for Cause training themselves very smartly.’
‘Right and proper,’ came in another, who had his back to them. ‘Just because people are born princes and princesses doesn’t mean they should think they are special … ow!’ It seemed likely that a kick under the table had given rise to the last part.
‘Oh, absolutely,’ said Hugh, and the man turned to look at him and quailed. ‘Princes who think they are special are obviously mistaken …’ he paused, and the man looked bewildered. ’… they should know they are, even though they are quite equal, of course.’ There was some laughter at that.
‘Mind, some of the Highest Princesses have reason to be proud … that is, grateful for opportunities … from all that I’ve heard. They’re being brought in from all over the place – not only the Highest Princes,’ said the speaker who now had a sore ankle.
There were many murmurs of agreement, and unfortunately nobody asked what he had been on about. Hugh and Dengana tried to find a chance to steer the conversation back in that direction, but none arose. No opportunity came for Lusi to steer anything anywhere, and Hugh found himself thinking that had Tye been there, a mighty explosion probably would have happened long before.
‘Did you see Dilg’s re-education?’ the innkeeper moved to a topic closer to his heart. ‘They pinned him up. You should have heard how he screamed.’
It soon became boring or violently unpleasant to listen to further malicious talk about who had been reported for showing too much interest in self, or not enough dedication to The Cause, and how much fun it had been to watch the further painful education of some of them. The three took themselves to bed.
Lusi was not consigned to a corner, but had one of the beds all to herself. Hugh and Dengana managed to kick or elbow one another a good deal during the night while sharing the other.