CHAPTER 35: Stone Talk, Mind Matter, Prince-ess, So Close
Once the decision had been taken regarding where to get going to, it seemed a good idea to get the going started as soon as possible. Dallent had already recovered sufficiently from the night before to start talking wistfully about a farewell party, particularly as Hugh and Tye had missed the last one, but Hugh politely declined on behalf of everyone without consulting them.
Anyway, Demp, Tabbia, Tisa and Trona, plus Deam and Durrun, had already flown off to sample some mountain air. This somewhat reduced the number of those from their new circle of friends who would have been available to attend.
A lively discussion was held before departure, however, to decide the merits of heading directly for The Rift without trying to hide route or intentions in any way, and without worrying about who or what saw them, as opposed to taking a roundabout route and avoiding populated areas.
‘The longer we take messing about trying to be too clever,’ said Tergina, ‘the more time it gives for something to go wrong.’
‘Good point,’ said Hugh. ‘Still, by now it may have started to filter through to someone we’d prefer not to know about it that this was the direction we followed, so a continuation of the same one at a southwest angle might be an idea. That will take us, I gather, to a reasonably deserted area – the southern fringes of the Darx Desert, in fact - to camp for the night. Then tomorrow we fly sort-of south-south-east from there to the Southern Rift as quickly as we can, to do it in one day if possible.’
‘You have a really zigzaggy mind,’ Tye said a trifle acidly. Hugh could tell she was miffed about something. That was good news as far as her health returning to normal was concerned, but boded a bit ill for his peace and quiet.
She gave him continued peace and quiet while he asked to speak to everyone’s stones again and dragged Tergina along to help him. She was being kept busy with running a crash-course on some of Terblia’s simpler magic, all involved with doing nasty things to other people, for the benefit of Dengana, Lusi, Chenia, and a selection of Daoine princes and princesses. These included five High Princes, Ophid, Aran, Vespin, Lacer, and Murid, who had hitherto kept a surprisingly low profile. She might have guessed that, in Breena, they ranked just below Chenia.
She came up with Hugh as he was finishing talking to a whole lot of small round hard things on the far side of the lake.
‘… so as soon as it becomes clear that it isn’t working, groups are to put up maximum shielding and retreat all in different directions. When and if safe, then meet back at tonight’s camping spot, failing which Dallent Island Palace.’
‘You could say that your talk, there, was met with a stony silence,’ Cudew observed.
‘It about covers everything, one can think of, though,’ Tergina said, and called to a group of waiting Daoine to spread the piles of stones along the edge so that everyone could scoop one up on the way out. Then she took a look at the approaching Tye, and decided to be somewhere else.
So did Cudew. ‘See you later, if you survive,’ he remarked.
Hugh also looked about him desperately, as if seeking a hole to dive into.
‘Brother-to-be dearest,’ Tye began in a sickly sweet voice, ‘I would love to have someone on whom to test ingenious refinements of some really ouchy magic. If you carry on with your little custom of keeping me out of the picture in this intolerable know-it-all male way, guess who’s elected.’
‘Sorry; I didn’t mean to do that,’ Hugh said contritely. ‘Sort-of force of habit, I suppose.’
‘Well, get out of it!’ she exploded.
The effect was ruined by the fact that on this occasion, instead of snarling at him in sympathy with her, Pip, on her shoulder, was holding paws over ears. Hugh was apparently still too high in the sprite’s estimation for it to join in such condemnation. Tye didn’t notice this, and when Hugh giggled, his stock went down to rock bottom just before the stock of rocks started rising.
When they took to the air, she was in the group which flew with him, but whereas everyone’s stones were no longer silent, she was.
‘You got yelled at?’ Cudew called across.
‘I did,’ Hugh called back with a grin.
‘With a Tye rant, you’re facing a bit of a tyrant!’ grinned the dog.
That didn’t help.
‘Look, sister-to-be, dear,’ said Hugh sincerely, ‘I knew I’d get a chance to explain fully what I have in mind one-on-one during the flight. So I got on with doing the things I couldn’t have been doing now.’
‘I wish I hadn’t needed to drop out of Crecord Training Intro class at Darrex Palace,’ he began, ‘but that at least gave me a lot of food for thought …’
The two flew for some time near the head of the swarm, wings almost touching with Hugh doing a lot of talking. Then they flew further apart, while Tye listened to Hugh’s voice a lot more – only, this time, it was being sent by a stone to sound as if it came from just in front of her.
Finally, like most others on the flight, she began to wear an expression of absent concentration – or, to be perfectly frank, to look somewhat goofy. After some time she turned to Hugh and said crossly, as if it were his fault, ‘Nothing. Nix. Nada. Zilch. A big fat naught.’
‘I know,’ said Hugh. ‘I’m having the same, which is really frustrating, because I’ve had snatches of it often recently, as well as that full-on experience of mine.’ A sudden thought stuck him. ‘In fact, all four of us have, in a different form.’- by this time, Dengana and Lusi had directed their flight patterns closer to them. ‘Remember Ingwe? Surely it must be much the same sort of thing?’
‘But that, I find it would come to me, more than me I go to it,’ Lusi objected. ‘That is, I send shielded probe, and Ingwe he answer.’
‘It must be a question of focus, or tuning on the right frequencies, or something. I can’t understand why you are having any difficulty, Lusi.’ Hugh said. ‘Isn’t it the sort of thing you would do normally, as one of the Daoine?’
‘Not all of us make like this,’ Lusi said. ‘I do more the things like plants-they-grow-in-ground.’
At that moment, Chenia came zooming up to them. She had been buzzing here and there in the swarm like a mayfly, gathering information on progress. ‘Everyone doing amazingly,’ she said with a happy smile. ‘No trouble on individual ones, of course, and a great deal of success on the group ones. Ants are so useful for that, with there being so many of them everywhere.’
‘Ants?’ said Hugh absently, and then added an excited, ‘Wow!’
’Don’t do that. You startled me,’ said Tye. ‘What?’
‘I’m getting them, I’m getting them! Hang on … yes, a big nest just a bit ahead of us … below us … behind us. That was amazing. I got a sense of the w hole mass of individual little minds, and at the same time of one bigger one, made up of them, and with more kind-of general direction. Now, another one ahead to the left …’
‘I don’t get any of that,’ Cudew called from some distance away. It was amazing how far away his hearing could pick up conversations, interference from wind passage and all. ’Maybe I’m just anti-ant antics. However, I have come across jackals, hyenas, wild dogs, and silver foxes. Now that I know what to look out for, the group mind of the wild dogs is particularly easy to pick out. Nice social bunch, that. I like them.’
Lusi tried ants, but got nowhere. She saw some birds to one side, staring in surprise at this sudden enormous flock, and wished she had the skill Avinia had shown with them. She wanted to connect in that way, to reassure them … and suddenly, she was.
‘Ants they coming to me, now,’ said Dengana. ‘Hau, yes. Now easy-easy ants come to me.’
‘As long as they aren’t in your pants,’ said Tye. ‘Why can’t I sense them? All I can … wait … what’s that?’
Then she said, in a tone of great satisfaction, ‘We are about to fly over a pride of lions. You will note that they won’t be - aren’t - weren’t - at all startled at the sight of the cloud of us, because I’d told them there was nothing to be worried about.’
‘Whoop!’ said Hugh. ‘I think she’s got it!’
’The Rain in Spain,’ grinned Dengana, at which Lusi, Cudew, and a selection of High Princes within earshot looked bewildered. The explanation that it was a song from a musical he had viewed at school would not have helped.
Not long after, Hugh got excited again when, while prospecting for ants, he discovered something that gave him far more of a buzz. This was a particularly large colony of wasps, and he managed to get a really clear impression of their ‘mind’. He even knew that they were the ‘yellow jacket’ types. Soon after that he came across a colony of hornets. Soon he was concentrating mainly on sensing colonising-type winged insects of the stinging kind, and ants only when no flying types were sensed.
Chenia had the foresight to get everyone to gather some gourd-like dried seedpods during rest periods on the ground. When they reached a river near to where some rugged mountains marked the edges of the Darx Desert, she urged all of them to fill them and to have a good drink. This was just as well. After that, as they angled their way into the desert, there were no signs of water at all.
‘I’ve spread the message that everyone is to use the supply sparingly,’ she told Hugh and the others during one of the brief times she was back in their group, ‘because during the first part of tomorrow’s journey towards the Rift, there still won’t be any.’ She glared at Cudew and added, ’Don’t you even think of saying something like, “Water pity,” or you’ll be in trouble!’
‘Wouldn’t dream of it,’ Cudew assured her insincerely. ‘Goodness, you’ve had a flight-fully busy time of it. You must have been on the wing – and with the wings on you of course - for three times the distance of any of the rest of us.’
The evening rations were sparse, and although a surface consisting mainly of soft sand gave quite comfortable beds, it wasn’t all that comfortable when small bits of bed crept into clothing or even into eyes, ears, nose and mouth if given half a chance.
‘Everyone is meeting the challenge wonderfully. After adding another good bit of practice tomorrow they should be as ready as they can get,’ Tergina said a short time before they gave the grains of sand opportunities to trespass. ‘Are you sure that army outnumbers us by that much? It must be enormous.’
‘It can’t be believed until one actually sees it for oneself,’ Tye confirmed. ‘It really is huge. That is no small valley, and it completely fills it.’
‘We have no choice but to go ahead,’ Tergina sighed, ‘but to be completely honest our chances are frighteningly slim.’
Hugh found it disturbing to hear such a blunt assessment from someone not inclined to be negative. After a pause for thought he put in, ‘You know, despite what you said earlier about Dennet not being as easy to fool as Dolk was, I can’t help wondering if it isn’t worth a try. He and his men shouldn’t have fallen for our trick to find out what was going on, but they did.’
‘It close thing, though,’ Dengana said.
‘Only because Tye pushed it,’ Hugh said, and got glared at. ‘Think of it: Dengana and I go there now revealing that we are Highest Princes and accompanied by two Paramount Princesses, one of whom is a sister to the Highest King himself, plus another Highest Princess.’
‘You left out the small detail of having a cu present to look down on them and give them a small feeling of discomfort,’ Cudew remarked.
‘Quite so. Anyway, we have come to lead the Daoine to return to their own homes. His Greatestness does not wish to bother with opening the barrier unless it becomes necessary to invade, but is expecting surrender anyway. Therefore, the Daoine are to go through the Rift and then find their way back home via Terra to spread the news of how futile resistance would be. Surely that makes sense?’
‘If put that way, it does,’ Tye admitted. ‘I still have a really nasty feeling about it, though. There is a fair chance that news of the latest developments at Darrex Palace has found its way to Dennet, which would land us straight in the moo-poo.’
‘This is true,’ Dengana said. ‘Is pity we not have spare Darxd prince he fly ahead fast-fast and he snoop.’ He thought for a minute and added, ‘But, if I am staying out of way of all those they have seen me before …?’
‘I am thinking of part of story for Hugh and Tye which Cudew he tell us which make Hugh he get embarrassed’ Lusi said with a devilish smile. ’Maybe you, me, we make me into prince.’
Before they set out the next morning, Lusi insisted on putting her idea to the test. She shed her dress in an instant, and held it towards Dengana. ‘Give to me your clothes,’ she demanded.
With the greatest reluctance, Dengana did as she asked. With even greater reluctance, he put on her dress while everyone tried desperately not to giggle. Actually, he made a far more convincing princess than Hugh had done, and to their surprise Lusi looked quite reasonably prince-like in his clothing. Their short hairstyles were similar, and with a permanent scowl in place her features didn’t look too feminine.
She didn’t give anyone a chance to debate the issue but took off immediately and started to use all her skill to gain height. To her delight, she was able to get some tips from the minds of an eagle and some other high-flyers, which directed her into an ideal airstream for the direction she wanted. Soon she overtook the Daoine flock, who had got well ahead of her while she was concentrating on getting height, and soon left them far behind.
All her water had been used up, and when she saw the first little river after leaving the desert it took all her willpower to stay up there. She bolstered herself up with visions of a little glade with a stream which she thought she remembered seeing on the other side of the hill during her hasty flight away from the Rift.
It was as she had envisaged it – actually it was the same one Hugh, Dengana and Tye had used to recover from valley views. She was sensible enough to sip gently for a while instead of giving in to her urge to gulp and gulp and gulp. Thirst attended to, she flew to the summit and peered down into the seething scene in the valley. ‘I have need to find something to mix in with,’ she said to herself, and then noticed an air transport company approaching. This consisted of many sets of four to six Darxds, including a few princes, suspending large leaves between them piled with head-sized berries. A perfect opportunity arose from the near-decline of one load, when Lusi flew up to snatch at the gaping part in the nick of time. She then arrived as part of a grumbling set of foragers.
‘Further and further,’ said one. At this rate, there soon won’t be a berry left within a day’s travel of us.’
‘Our hardship in the cause of The Cause is, of course, for the benefit of all, but I do wish the benefit would hurry up a bit,’ came from another.
Yet another snatch, which made her shudder, was, ‘Have you seen these gaxen they’ve brought in? You haven’t? Look like little elephants, but their trunk part blows out poisoned air that shrivels one up. I’d hate to be posted anywhere near them.’
After helping dump their load on a pile inside one of the domes, she drifted out as many were doing, hoping for a snippet of conversation which would tell her what she wanted to know. One finally came from behind some bushes.
‘I heard a High Prince from Drogre Division say that the Higher Prince is surprised there has been no news from Darrex Palace since they sent that Drek from Darx Artz to get himself sucked up. He said he hopes they haven’t forgotten about us stuck out here in this …’
The unseen speaker’s voice faded, but she had heard enough.
‘Mission it accomplished,’ she said gleefully. ‘Now I slip out and I tell to the others.’
In the process of doing the slipping, she found her heart skipping a beat when a voice behind her said, ‘Dore; isn’t that the Higher Prince that you brought round to inspect my crecords – ?’
Foolishly, she turned her head, to see two princes regarding her with suspicion. Then the voice of the one who had spoken went on, ‘Oh, no, only a prince, actually, and quite different.’
Of course, Lusi returned to the glade for a brief rest and another drink. By now, it could be said that the five of them (including Pip) had assumed squatters’ rights over it. Then she flew back to intercept the others, and had not gone far before she saw their moving cloud.
They all landed as soon as they spotted her, and she told them what she had discovered, while Dengana eagerly claimed his clothes back and she reverted to princess. Dengana was directing murderous looks at Cudew, who had found his garb gave any amount of wonderful ammunition for the sort of humorous comment started when Hugh wore that style.
‘So we go for it; right?’ Hugh said. Everyone nodded, so the swarm swarmed again.
They arrived at speed, and low. One minute the hilltop overlooking the valley was clear, and the next it was covered in a long line of Daoine, with the rest settled on the slopes behind. Sentries simply hadn’t registered the approach until they were really close. Sometimes, when something is unexpected enough, the brain refuses to accept the evidence of the eyes. It is what happens when someone looks to left and right for cars before crossing a road, and then steps straight in front of a massive item of construction machinery.
The agreed party of two Highest Princes, two Paramount Princesses, one Highest Princess, one cu, and one invisible sprite, flew across to the dome of Dennet, where they landed. Hugh kicked the proceedings off by having a rant about sentries who would allow what could have been an entire enemy army to land on their doorsteps, while Dennet and all his cronies squirmed.
Then, the play went perfectly according to the script. Hugh and Dengana, as main spokesmen, told of the plan for the Daoine, while Tye and Tergina threw in casual supporting remarks about personal meetings they had all enjoyed with His Greatestness in the company of Highest King Darrex.
This was all lapped up by the audience.
Then Hugh moved confidently to specifics. ‘You will need to clear the valley immediately below the Rift,’ he said, ‘so that the Daoine can wait there and fly up in batches to enter the tunnel. It is going to take some considerable time to get all of them through, particularly if some create a bottleneck by going into panic regarding the old magic. Now, next …’
At this point there was an interruption. A Higher Prince flew in, and stared disbelievingly at Hugh and his group.
‘Ah, thank you for joining us so promptly, Dolk,’ said Dennet. ‘I thought it would be of benefit to you to attend this meeting. May I introduce …’
Dolk gaped at them. ‘I do know Her Highestness Princess Tergina …’ he interrupted, reaching behind him to clutch at where his wing had been injured. It looked perfectly healed, but still appeared to be paining him.
‘Now Paramount Princess,’ Dennet corrected importantly.
‘… and these happen to be the Highest Princes who sent me here,’ he said glancing at Hugh and Dengana.
‘Not surprising,’ nodded Dennet.
Then Dolk’s gaze settled on Hugh, and he clutched yet again at his wing, with a look of total shock.
‘It’s him – he did it!’ he shouted, spittle spraying from his mouth in his excitement. ‘I put a magic trace on whoever caused my wound while I was on my way here, and he’s the one!’
Dennet was a quick thinker.
‘Seize them!’ he ordered, and directed a paralysing blast at Hugh.