CHAPTER 8: The Cu, Rhaxen, Sprite, and Palace
Where, where, where?’ Avinia squeaked, in a flutter.
The creature drew closer, and Hugh was able to tell that it was of the same shimmery black of the Darxem, but was actually a huge flying dog, about the size of an elephant. Then he was able to make it out properly. ‘It’s a massive Irish Wolfhound!’ he yelled, and after a second’s thought added, ‘Or probably a normal-sized one, back home.’
‘Oh, one of the Darx cu,’ said Felin, without enthusiasm but with no apparent fear.
Avinia relaxed. ‘They are all Highest Prince-companions, in Darx,’ she said. ‘What’s he doing here, I wonder?’
The cu flew closer, and looked amiably at them. ‘Can we land?’ he called out. ‘I have an invitation for you.’
They were passing over a densely wooded area, but soon spotted a clear patch in the dark mass of foliage beneath and headed for it. The cu obviously lacked the equipment and inclination for setting down in treetops.
‘ **** !’ said Tyrentia. As she had touched earth she had tripped over something. She picked it up and glared furiously at it. It was a remarkably heavy bit of wood, tapered to look rather like a fat baseball bat.
‘Clubroot,’ sniggered Avinia. ‘You should look where you’re landing; look where landing.’
As soon as they had gathered round him, the dog said, ‘Hello; my name is Cudarp. I know who all of you are, and I have volunteered to bring you an invitation from Highest Queen Glorianne to dine and sleep at Glorianne Palace tonight.’
‘An invitation from the Queen of Glit Ring; the Queen, the Queen, the Queen!’ Avinia was positively chirping with excitement.
Felin was less entranced. ‘That’ll take us out of our way,’ he complained. At that, a flickering ball of black light which had been hovering next to Cudarp started circling Felin’s head making indignant squeaks. It was about the same size as the head it was orbiting.
Felin flapped his hands at it. ‘Call your sprite off!’ he called. ‘I was only joking, of course. Queen Glorianne is not someone it is a good idea to turn down on an invitation, whether one wants to go or not.’
’Whoever would not want to go?’ Avinia asked, and then three heads slowly turned towards Tyrentia. Cudarp’s followed their example, and the glowing ball flew to land on his back, where it became a blob of shimmering black fur. Sticking out near the top of it was a pointy muzzle and two large bright eyes, also staring at the girl.
Tyrentia swung the bit of wood experimentally and glared at each in turn. ‘What?’ she snapped. ’I want a rest and food and drink and a good bed, and if something is going to delay me getting to all of them, it had better be good.’
Cudarp gave her an enormous doggy grin. ’It will be. Queen Glorianne is the most important ruler in all of the Breena Rings next to Supreme Queen Aiennea, and believes in high standards of luxury. As a guest from Darx I am qualified to say that her hospitality is superb. Shall I lead?’
They were actually on the point of taking to the air when the attack came. This time, it was a horribly real one.
Dozens of shapes of a sick-looking black, nothing like that of the cu, were suddenly flowing above the trees to one side of the clearing. As several of them settled to hang upside-down in the treetops on that side, Hugh could make out that they resembled giant rat-like bats. Others were flowing round to cling to other treetops until they completely surrounded the clearing. Then they all glared straight at Hugh – but it seemed, also, that the eyes were directing a beam of blackness, with a weird streaky reddish quality, at him.
Immediately he was overcome by awful feelings of nausea and faintness. Somewhere far back in his consciousness was the knowledge that there was something he could and should be doing about it, but it was too deeply buried to be of any use.
‘Rhaxen!’ squawked Avinia. ‘Look out for glarespell!’
Tyrentia and Felin seemed frozen in shock, but Cudarp gave a fearsome snarl of outrage and flew at the nearest ones. Snaps of his mighty jaws had many of the attackers at that side falling from the trees like so many torn rags, but the others immediately switched their aim from Hugh to him. The cu gave a shuddering jerk in midair, and then fell to the ground where the ‘rays’ continued to beam mercilessly at him.
The sprite set up pathetic little wails, and began flying in circles above the motionless body, somehow unaffected by whatever spell the rhaxen were using. Three flew down towards it with fangs bared while, just as Hugh was starting to recover slightly, the rest switched their magic back to him.
The sprite settled on the motionless form of Cudarp, becoming a black furball again, but one which was snarling fearlessly at the approaching rhaxen even though far smaller than any one of them.
‘No!’ Tyrentia yelled furiously and suddenly became a blur, heading straight at the fliers. She had dropped the clubroot in readiness to leave, but snatched it up again in the split second before she took off. It only needed two swings to have all three fall to the ground permanently, and she continued flying at an astonishing speed towards the ones to the left of the gap created by Cudarp, where she continued bashing.
Then she started a circuit of the clearing, clearing as she went. Before any rhax could register the danger, the club had enjoined it to join the club of ex-rhaxen. Five of them, near the point at which she had started, tried to flee just before Tyrentia completed her circle. Her wings actually buzzed like those of a bee as she speeded up even further, and she caught all of them with ease. Every one joined their fellows as blobs on the ground or limply dangling from the branches they had been caught up in.
Tyrentia returned to find Hugh sitting on the ground looking groggy, and the rest grouped round the huge body of the cu. Avinia was crying bitterly, and the sprite was letting out heart-wrenching little wails of grief and ‘Meep, meep, meep,’ sounds in between. ‘Is he d…dead?’ she asked, and Felin nodded miserably.
‘Oh, how awful!’ Tyrentia said, and clambered onto the massive body to gather the sprite into her arms. At first the little creature resisted furiously. ‘Please let me try and comfort you; oh do, do let me try!’ the girl said in a wonderfully gentle tone … and suddenly it stopped clinging to the cu and snuggled into her. As she stroked it, its cries subsided into a string of high-pitched whines.
Hugh, recovering slowly from what felt like the strongest dose of awful meds he’d ever been dosed, registered with vague amazement that tears were streaming down Tyrentia’s cheeks.
Felin rested an arm round her shoulders above the wings. ‘It’s no use,’ he said soberly. ‘Sprites also die when whatever they are attached to does. He will Fade with Cudarp.’
Hardly had he spoken when the form of the great dog started to look smoky and insubstantial. Gradually it became like the wall of the ‘bubble’ they had entered, and then transparent … and then it was gone.
The little body in Tyrentia’s arms also started showing signs of smokiness. ‘No, oh no!’ she said, now sobbing openly. ‘Don’t go!’
The tiny nose poked out of the ball of fur, and the bright eyes looked up at her face. ‘Yip-yip?’ it said in the tiniest of barks, and added, ‘Yip.’
‘I understood that,’ Tyrentia said wonderingly through her tears. ‘He has just said, “You want Pip with you?” and then, “OK,” after that.’
Avinia stopped sniffling and stared at the little creature. ‘He’s gone all solid again! This is impossible; impossible!’
‘I hope you know what this means,’ Felin said. ‘I’ve heard that it can happen, though very rarely. You now have a sprite, whether you want one or not.’
Tyrentia held the little bundle out from her and stared at it. ‘Is that true, Pip?’ she asked.
‘Yip,’ said the bundle.
Hugh had been following all of this, after a fashion. ‘What does having a sprite entail?’ he asked.
‘It means,’ Felin said, ‘that he will be attached to her and be with her, whatever she does and wherever she goes from now on.’
Tyrentia blinked a good deal, and said, ‘Oh.’
‘Yip-yip?’ came from Pip in doubtful yips.
‘Yip!’ said Tyrentia in a perfect imitation of the one Pip had uttered earlier, at which the sprite took off and flew round her head a few times before cuddling and whining again. ‘Don’t worry,’ she murmured, ‘I know it’s going to take a long time to get over losing Cudarp, and to get on with me. Just let it come as it comes.’ Then she glared at the others. ‘Don’t think I’m going all soft on you!’ she snapped.
‘I wouldn’t exactly call “soft” what you did to those batty rat things,’ Hugh said feelingly. ‘Thanks, Tye, you saved us all, I think.’
Tyrentia went straight back into fury mode. ’Don’t ever call me that!’ she raged. Pip stopped whining for long enough to snarl at him.
‘Why ever not?’
’Because that’s what my … because I don’t like it, that’s why!’
‘You know what? I’m sick of pandering to your likes and dislikes,’ Hugh said calmly. ’Your mom calls you that, and I’m afraid you are going to have to face the fact that with the side of you I’ve seen now I quite like and admire you. Therefore my likes mean I’m going to like calling you Tye from now on, like it or not.’
‘Never mind who calls whom what,’ Felin said seriously. ’We have a lot to wonder about and to decide on. Why were we suddenly attacked by a group of rhaxen which shouldn’t even be here – a rhax being one of the nastiest creatures found in Darx? Why were they so set on Hugh?’
‘Clear enough; clear enough!’ Avinia put in. ’Just about everyone knows he’s come here from Terra. It must be one of the best kept non-secrets there is, there is. Somebody must also know why he’s come. Somebody who doesn’t like the “why”.’
’I’m happy for them; we don’t even know why, yet,’ Hugh said drily. ‘Anyway, I suppose the only thing to do now is to take up the invitation to this palace, if we can find the way, and report what has happened. It’ll be bad news we bring. Even in the matter of minutes we knew Cudarp, I really liked him a lot.’
‘It will be a great loss,’ Felin nodded. ‘All the cu are greatly respected and admired, and one with a sprite will have been of the highest.’ He couldn’t help his eyes wandering to Tye and Pip, and one could all but see a large question mark poised above his head. ‘Anyway, I think I have a reasonable idea of how to find the palace – in fact, if we fly high enough the lights should be visible from here.’
It turned out he was right. The lights would have been visible from even much further, for Glorianne Palace was on a particularly high and steep hill, and also had impressive spires and turrets reaching to the heavens. The appearance, even at dusk, was lovely. The best of the fairy book illustrators had, Hugh decided, been on the right track, but they had still fallen far short of the sheer beauty which the true fairyland - Breena, he corrected himself - had achieved.
Tye came up alongside him for a minute, and said thoughtfully, ‘You know, I wonder if we weren’t given a bit of a hand, there. By magic, sort of. That clubroot was just too much of a coincidence, don’t you think?’
Avinia had dropped back to within earshot. ‘No; probably was coincidence,’ she put in. ‘Those things are always getting underfoot in this part. Always underfoot.’
‘Even so, it could be,’ Hugh mused. I wonder who …’ but the others were going ahead of him again to catch up with Felin. This was the trouble with chatting while flying. One generally had to slow down to do it.
They did slow down as they got right up to the palace. ‘Good manners to land at the gate. Only fly over walls in emergencies,’ Avinia said.
‘I suppose one can say we’ve had an emergency, all right, but not one which makes our arrival urgent. Gate it will be,’ nodded Felin. ‘We’ve been seen, anyway.’
Sure enough, as they landed the gates were opened, and when they entered they could see that the courtyard and every window overlooking it had little people of all kinds swarming to take a look at them. They could actually hear the murmurs of surprise at the fact that Cudarp wasn’t with them.
A group of eight female glows came forward, and the leading one gave a half-curtsey. ‘Welcome,’ she said. ‘The Queen is eager to meet you as soon as you are properly attired. We will take you to your rooms.’
‘Princesses-in-waiting,’ Avinia whispered.
Hugh stepped forward. ‘Thank you, but we can’t wait for that,’ he said. ‘We must see her right away.’
The princess who had first spoken started to shake her head, but two wide-eyed ones on either side of her were tugging at her clothes and pointing, with expressions of complete shock, at the sprite still whimpering to itself in Tye’s arms.
Her expression of shock immediately matched theirs, and they could see that it took a tremendous effort of will for her to pull herself together. ‘Follow me,’ she said in a shaky voice, and took to her wings towards a balcony on what was clearly the grandest of the many grand towers. They duly followed, with the rest of the princesses coming up behind, and from behind them, in turn, a gasp of amazement from the crowd at the unexpected move.
Doors on the balcony opened – magically, they assumed – as they landed, and the leading princess ushered them in. They were met by the sight of an astonishingly beautiful fairy who looked rather like Tye in colouring – even to the eyes – but had a composed and regal expression instead of a sulky one. She not only glowed, but had a glittering quality as well. She literally sparkled.
At her side was the first actual Darxd they had seen properly, and Hugh and Tye couldn’t help staring. The nearest way to describe him was that he was black – but it was a black which had all sorts of other overtones and undertones in it. Otherwise, shape and features were much the same as those of the Glows. Being near him gave Hugh some of the strange mixed feelings he had been experiencing at Rhino Valley and at odd times since. He decided that they were definitely associated with Darx residents.
‘Your Higher Majesty Queen Glorianne, and Your Higherness Prince Darp,’ said the princess-in-waiting, ‘I present Highest Prince Hugh, Highest Princess Tyrentia, High Prince Felin, and High Princess Avinia. They have asked to see you urgen…’
‘I can tell that,’ the Queen interrupted frostily, ‘and I can also imagine why. You will tell me why Cudarp is not with you?’
At that, there was a whimper from Pip, and Darp gave a start and stared. ‘How is this possible?’ he said. ‘That is Pip, Cudarp’s sprite! Where is Cudarp? He must be very close indeed.’
‘Cudarp is dead,’ Hugh said bluntly. ‘He was killed by a lot of rhaxen while trying to save my life.’
‘That cannot be!’ Darp exclaimed, still staring wonderingly at Pip.
‘He is still alive,’ the Queen said positively. ‘If he were not, the sprite would be dead.’
‘We all saw the Fading, your Higher Majesty,’ Felin said, shaking his head. ‘Highest Princess Tyrentia effected a transfer of Pip to herself before he could follow.’
‘Yip!’ said Pip.
The Queen stared hard at Tye. ‘I have heard it can happen,’ she said, ‘but it takes …’ She didn’t appear to take kindly to where the ‘takes’ thought was taking her, and tailed off. Then she stared at Hugh. ‘Describe everything that happened,’ she commanded.
‘I think Felin or Avinia would be better at it,’ he said. ‘I was sort-of out of things for most of the time.’
The two guides between them gave a clear account of all that had taken place. Towards the end of the story, Tye shuffled uncomfortably as she started being stared at a good deal.
‘This is unacceptable,’ Darp said icily when everything had been related. ‘How can it be that you allow such things to happen in your Queendom? There is something very wrong here.’
‘You cannot blame us,’ said the Queen equally icily. ‘They are, after all, creatures from your Circle.’
‘Yes, but living here and subject to your rule,’ – by now, Darp was snapping. ‘Glit Ring must be held responsible. First my companion is sent on your mission, and then he is killed while carrying it out. I feel …’
At last, the Queen showed some signs of temper. ‘This is ridiculous,’ she declared. ’He was not sent. When the news came that they had been seen in the Cobley village, Cudarp volunteered to do the inviting as probably the fastest flier amongst us. He was not …’
‘Enough!’ Darp shouted. He glared at Tye and added, ‘This is intolerable!’
‘Meep!’ said Pip.
Somehow, that was apparently the last straw for Darp. Storming out onto the balcony, he took off and flew away from the Palace at great speed.
’How dare he!’ said the Queen passionately, and then turned to where they were all standing open-mouthed. ‘Take them to be attired,’ she ordered imperiously. ‘The banquet will proceed as planned.’