Chapter Nine - The Rhian Lair
When I woke up, everything was quiet and, for a while, I could sort of pretend it was all just a horrible dream… except there wasn’t a mattress on the bed… so the hard wooden planks let me know that there was something wrong.
And then I opened my eyes and the granite walls… and the heap of charred human bones in the middle of the floor… left me in no doubt
I didn’t dare to do the full cloud world thing but I sort of crept towards the edge and kind of peeped through. I was pretty much dazzled by the galaxy of stars that were out there but I could tell that Rhiannas wasn’t about… I wasn’t going to forget his mind in a hurry…
So, for the time being, I was safe.
Only then did I let myself think about last night… what he’d forced me to do to Megan… and how he’d totally crushed and humiliated me. I sort of braced myself for the waves of disgust and anger that I knew were bound to follow…
But there was nothing!
I felt totally flat with just the tiniest hint of regret… something was all kinds of wrong.
So I cautiously reached into my cloud.
I mean… the thing was a total mess after last night… I guess it looked like you’d expect it to look after I’d been beaten up like that. OK… the familiar swarm of memories and emotions and stuff was still there… but I could tell that there was something up.
And then I found it… deep down inside, pretty much wrapped around the kernel bit that I somehow knew was the most important bit of me… there was this ugly grey blob that just didn’t belong there.
He must have left the thing there… sort of lurking inside my cloud. And the horrible thing was kind of putting a damper on my emotions… flattening down the intensity of my feelings.
And I knew for certain that, if the repulsive thing wasn’t there, I’d be totally appalled at this outrage.
So I sat up straight in bed, held my head in my hands and tried to chuck the vile lump out… but I just couldn’t get any sort of grip on it. I tried gently easing the thing out… I tried battering against it with the fists of my will…
But nothing worked. All my efforts flowed round it like water round a stone leaving me with nothing but a headache.
And when, at last, I worked out that I just couldn’t shift the thing, I collapsed back onto the bed in total failure.
I lay there for a long time… numb… unthinking…
But at last I made a decision.
There was nothing I could do about it for now so I was just going to have to live with it. But I made myself a promise… the thing was going to come out and the dragon… Rhiannas, he said his name was… was going to pay a heavy price for putting it in there.
With that, I climbed painfully to my feet and had a look around.
I was in a little room whose walls had been cut from solid granite. In one corner there was the bed… a simple thing made from a couple of planks of wood, nailed together… and a simple fireplace in one wall that looked like it hadn’t been lit for years.
A doorway led out to the main chamber. There’d once been a door but it had been reduced to ash and splinters and I decided not to think about how that had happened. A bit of light was creeping in through the doorway.
But the thing that really caught your eye was the pile of charred human bones in the middle of the floor. You could tell why Rhiannas needed a new servant.
In a little alcove, hidden behind a curtain, there was a primitive bathroom with a hole-in-the-ground type toilet - the sort of thing you find in the more basic campsites in France - and a sink with a cold tap. There was also an ancient broom so, swallowing hard, I swept the pile of bones into a corner and threw some old rags over them. I mean… it was hardly the most respectful of funerals but it was the best I could manage for now.
My next thought was breakfast. I took a long drink of water from the tap in the bathroom but that just made me even hungrier. I’d sort of resigned myself to staying hungry when I remembered that I still had a bar of chocolate from lunch, the day before. So I reached into my coat pocket and was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t the impossibly sticky mess I’d have expected after that storm… in fact the coat wasn’t even wet!
I sat on the bed and chomped my way through my breakfast then, sort of bracing myself, I stepped through the charred doorway into the main chamber.
I was brought to a sudden stop by the echo of my own footsteps… the place was stunning… amazing… simply magnificent.
It was a vast cave and had been built to impress. It was long and relatively narrow - like the nave of some enormous cathedral or something, although it was easily wide enough for Rihanas and his thirty foot wingspan. Enormous pillars stretched up to the roof, high above, where they branched into complicated patterns in the vaulted ceiling. One end was open, allowing daylight to filter in but the light was a bit funny, giving everything this weird, hazy sheen.
There were doorways off on either side of the main chamber. On this side, they were human sized, like the one leading off to my room; on the other, they were big enough for dragons.
The view down the chamber was partly blocked by a hugely elaborate stone screen towards the far end and, on the other side of it, the stonework was even more fancy. There were delicate-looking, human scale windows built into the back wall.
There was a raised dais back there too and I sort of knew that that’s where Rhiannas would be if he’d been home… so I was sure I was alone. I guess that meant, for now, I was safe.
That meant I could relax a bit and have a closer look around. The walls and floor, the gigantic pillars and even the astonishingly ornate stone screen looked as if they’d been carved from the solid granite and then polished until they gleamed. Shining crystals glinted from within the stone in the peculiar light.
And the walls were lined with trophies… banners and carved heads, both dragon and human. And everywhere there was this funny mark - like a line of flattened ’s’s stretched out in a ribbon.
I went over to have a look at one of the carved dragon’s heads on the wall. It was a bit like a horse’s head in shape, though narrower, more angular and with forward-looking eyes. Instead of skin, it was covered in tough, overlapping scales which merged into elaborate flutings that decorated the upper parts of its face and led to a double crest down its neck. At the end of the face, a rounded mouth was filled with two arcs of viciously-pointed, black-coloured teeth. This was not a beast which spent much time chewing its food… or brushing its teeth.
It was incredibly detailed and, as I was studying the thing, I realised that it might not be a carving at all, but rather a real head that had been lopped off and mounted on the wall. I sort of stumbled back in shock and decided I wasn’t going to look too closely at the human heads.
I was just recovering from my shock when I sensed someone approaching and I looked up to the huge opening at the front of the place to see Rhiannas flashing into view. As he glided down the chamber towards me, I got a proper look at him for the first time
He was a vast creature and really powerfully built. His two leathery, bat-like wings swept slightly forward from his shoulders to vicious looking barbs, then tapered back to a pointed tip. But, even though they were huge, his wings just didn’t look big enough to lift his enormous weight.
He landed on his rear legs, just a couple of yards in front of me, and his long, leathery wings seemed to vanish into the armoured scales that covered his back.
“You are awake,” he seemed to say but, I realised, he wasn’t talking out loud… he was just putting the words straight into my head.
He settled down in front of me like an enormous Labrador with his short front legs hanging down casually in front of him. He was simply huge… as big as a double decker bus.
As I stood there, his snakelike neck stretched out and I sort of held my breath as he inspected me.
“You, too, are a tiny thing,” he said and I thought I could sense just the faintest hint of humour. The tip of his tail swayed around as he spoke, partly to help his balance but also to sort of stress his words. I could feel him burrowing inside my cloud again and really had to work to stop myself from fighting against him.
“Come!” he commanded. “We fly. A pair of spurs is to be found in the servant’s room at the front of the lair. Retrieve them and join me on the veranda.”
I recognised the picture that he pushed into my mind… a broad leather belt with a dagger on one side and a leather pouch on the other… they were hanging up on a peg in my room so I hurried off to collect them. The belt was much too long for me so I threw the thing over my shoulder like a bandolier.
When I returned, he was hopping out of the opening at the front of his ‘Lair’ so I hurried after him.
And, as I stepped out of the elaborately carved opening, I just froze as a vast space opened up in front of me.
I was on a sort of ledge thing, high up in the wall of an unthinkably vast amphitheatre, maybe two miles across, though it was pretty much impossible to get any sort of sense of scale. The walls stretched up in this impossible overhang to quite a small, circular opening at the top. The edge of this opening was particularly fancy… like a stone doily or something!
And the space within was full of dragons: large dragons and small dragons. Most were coloured in tones of red, green or brown, though occasionally I could see flashes of blue and silver. Many had human riders perched on their shoulders and some were carrying goods or packages. The riders gave you a feel for the size of the dragons. Even the smallest ones were bigger than any horse.
There was a ring of stone archways at the base of the vast space. It looked a bit like Stonehenge but, as I slowly worked out the scale, I could see it was bigger… much bigger. Set on a pedestal in the middle of this ring, was a vast metal gong.
You could tell it was important!
“You have the privilege to observe the Edifice,” he said, making a grand sweeping gesture with his tail, “beyond question, the triumph of dragonkind. Few from Outside have seen it and lived.”
“It’s enormous,” I murmured without thinking.
“Space enough to accommodate over five hundred lairs,” he replied and I could hear the pride flowing through him as he spoke, “from the noblest of Houses to the lowliest of scavengers.” As he said it, I noticed all the openings in the walls. Up at this level they looked really grand but they got simpler as you worked your way down until, at the bottom, they were basically just caves.
“Few, however, can match the lair of the House of Rhian for magnificence,” he added, sort of as an afterthought.
Then he noticed my bandolier. “Should we find ourselves in any altercation that I am unable to satisfactorily resolve,” he said, and he definitely had some sort of humour thing going on, “I cannot imagine that that toothpick will serve great purpose. You should, nonetheless, wear it in a fashion that permits you at least some hope of reaching it.”
I worked out that the dagger was dangling down in the middle of my back….
And that he was laughing at me…
Fair enough, I suppose!
“If you’ll give me a moment, Sir,” I said. I took the belt off and, after a bit of quick measuring, I made an extra hole with the point of the dagger so I could fasten it around my waist.
“Quite the little warrior,” he observed but I could hear he still had his amused thing going on. “Now don the spurs.”
He sort of put the picture in my head so I took the things out of the leather case and put them on. A flat bit of metal went under my foot which put a metal bar against the inside of my shin and this was fastened into position with a couple of leather straps. Leather pads covered in hooked barbs hung from each of the spurs so you could pull them either to the front or the side.
“Ensure that the barbs are facing forward at all times when you are not astride a dragon,” Rhiannas warned me, “or your puny hide will be shredded to ribbons.”
“But won’t they hurt you?” I asked.
“There is nothing so paltry a creature as yourself can do to cause me harm,” he said… and, of course, he had more of his amused thing going on. “Ascend the mounting steps.”
“Come,” he said… and I could hear he didn’t have whole heaps of patience. The veranda was a bit wider than the lair’s entrance and, at one end, a steep flight of stairs was built into the wall though it didn’t seem to go anywhere. He hopped elegantly over to stand next to them.
So I hurried after him, carefully avoiding the vicious barbs on the spurs. I guessed what he wanted so I hurried up the stairs.
“Now step onto my shoulders, using the hooks to secure yourself to my scales.”
I tried to shut the unthinkable drop out of my head and reached across with one leg. His scales, which were about the size of my hand, were hard and slippery and I couldn’t see any way of climbing onto him. But when he started to get impatient, I put the hooked pad of one or the spurs onto his shoulder and, when I put a bit of weight on it, the thing bit home, easily holding me.
So I threw the other leg over his back and sat down.
Move higher to position yourself behind my first crenels. Until you are more experienced, you may wish to grasp them to assist your balance.”
I guessed he was talking about the upright, leaf shaped scales that ran in a double line up the back of his neck. The first ones were about as long as one of my fingers but they got longer. Then, towards his head, they got smaller again and sort of merged into the line of scales that decorated his forehead.
Not daring to look down, I did as I was told.
“Steady yourself!” he told me. “We fly.”