Chapter Eleven - Rhian-Ceridwen’s Torque
“To eat, you must descend to the village below,” he told me at last. “And, to ensure you are not accosted by undesirables, you must be identified as my property.”
Then, to my astonishment, he just leaned back and let himself fall off the edge of the veranda. But, of course, I was thinking like a creature that couldn’t fly. He casually tumbled in mid air and, with a couple of lazy flicks of his wings, he circled back up and flew into his lair. “Follow me,” he said as he glided down the chamber. He had to tuck in his wings for a moment to shoot through the screen bit in the middle then unfolded them to help land on his dais.
I hurried after him but, as I got close to the screen, I felt this funny sort of reluctance to go any further. I tried to do as I was told. I mean… I really didn’t want him to think I was being disobedient… but I just couldn’t make my feet move.
But, when he saw this, he did this funny bubbly cloud thing that I could sort of tell was a chuckle. “Of course,” he said, “you still carry the inhibition.”
Without asking for any sort of permission, he plunged inside my cloud. I had to fight my urge to resist him as he started to fiddle around with that disgusting grey lump. “It is a simple trick that serves to prevent the occasional sneak thief from violating my domain,” he explained as he slipped out of my head.
At least the reluctance thing had gone so I hurried through the screen after him. But I was brought to a stop by the magnificence of the… well… palace that was built into the back wall. There were four levels of windows all built on a grand scale… though they were obviously human sized. In the middle of the wall, stretching the full height of the chamber, there was a semi-circular tower sticking out from the wall.
There was a grand doorway at the bottom of the tower and, above it, an elaborate balcony from where you could look out on the whole lair. Over on the right of the dais, back against the wall, there was a huge gong.
And that funny ‘S’ motif thing was everywhere.
The place had obviously been built to impress. I mean… the stone had been so delicately carved that it looked as if it had been plaited.
And I was so amazed that it took me a couple of seconds to work out that dragons would never be able to use any of the palace bits… it was all much too small…
And, when you looked carefully, you could even see that the dais had been added as a bit of an afterthought…
So that meant that, when they’d built this chamber, humans had been in charge.
“Enter the Family Apartments,” Rhiannas told me. “On this occasion you may make use of the Grand Entrance, ascend to the first floor and enter the House Hall directly.”
As I stepped in through the Grand Entrance, I was pretty much brought to a stop by how beautiful the place was. The semi circle of the tower was completed inside the building to give a huge, circular entrance hall which stretched up through all four floors. It also worked as a stairwell with curving arms of staircase sweeping upwards both left and right. As I climbed one of the staircases, I could look out at the lair through the fancy carved gaps in the stonework.
The two stairway arms met at a broad landing on the far side of the entrance hall. From here, I stepped into the House Hall
It was, of course, magnificent.
There was a row of long windows so, even though it was lined with dark wooden panels, it was still quite light. Much of the panelling was decorated with scenes of battles involving both humans and dragons. The high ceiling gave the room a light, airy feeling.
At the far end of the hall was a dais with a carved wooden table and four intricately carved wooden thrones. Behind each of the thrones was a life sized statue: two adults and two children. Each of them was wearing the finest clothing and jewelry.
On my left, a long wooden table ran up towards the dais with a row of high backed chairs and there were all sorts of weapons hanging on the wall behind it. Some of them looked dangerously functional whilst others were so fancy, decorated with jewels and things, that I couldn’t imagine them ever being used.
And, throughout the room, at the top of the panels and on the facing edges of the tables and things, that pattern of ’S’s was repeated. You could tell it was a family thing.
The hall didn’t have a right hand wall. Instead, there was a large courtyard where Rhiannas was standing. He was holding himself particularly erect, his tail was wrapped tightly around his body and his narrow tongue was darting in and out. He looked kind of… nervous.
“It’s beautiful!” I whispered without thinking.
“For many human generations, the House of Rhian shone throughout the Edifice as a beacon of elegance and propriety, as well as of power,” Rhiannas explained. He remained cold but I could feel an undertone of pride… and maybe there was a bit of regret going on there too.
“Remove Rhian-Ceridwen’s torque,” he told me.
“Sorry, who’s Rhian-Ceridwen?”
I guess I wasn’t completely surprised when he pointed out the smallest statue behind the high table… it was obviously a girl.
As I walked up the hall, I saw that the incredible designs weren’t just painted onto the wood… they’d been done with exquisite marquetry work.
“These panels are amazing!” I said to myself, sort of forgetting that he could read my mind.
“Only dragons with immaculate self control were permitted to enter the House Hall of Rhian,” he said… and, again, there was more of his wistful thing going on.
I walked up to the statue… it was about as tall as me… and carefully took off the golden torque. It was surprisingly light… the design was so fine that it looked as if it had been plaited from strands of gold.
And, as I looked down at the beautiful thing, I saw that, no matter how you turned it, the strands lined up to give the now familiar ‘S’ motif.
“Now put it on!”
I was startled by his command. I mean… I did as I was told, of course, carefully fastening the torque round my neck… but I just had to say something. “Sir, it is so precious. Aren’t you afraid that it’s going to get lost or stolen?”
But he didn’t answer. I could tell he was busy doing some sort of tricky mental operation.
“Have no fear,” he said when he was done. “I have secured the catch. Only individuals of significant power will be able to release it and all such would appreciate that to do so would bring down my unbridled rage and retribution.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say so I just gave him a bow.
“Stairs lead down from the veranda to the upper ring pathway,” he told me. “Follow that widdershins and you will arrive at the Dom terrace whence the portway offers egress from the Edifice. Thence, a track will conduct you to the village.
He put an anti-clockwise picture in my head.
“The wall-ways of the Edifice can confuse the unfamiliar,” he warned me. “Note your route with care. Ensure that you return by nightfall. Whilst none of significance will inconvenience you when you are wearing my mark, there are certain rogues and vagabonds to be found beyond the Edifice who could importune you.”
As I set off back down the lair, Rihanas reappeared and returned to his dais. There he curled up like an overgrown pussycat and went to sleep.
And it was only when I got to the veranda that I realised just how much that grey blob in my head was messing with my thinking. As I’d been enjoying the flight, I’d managed to forget that Rhiannas had murdered Megan, just yesterday.
And maybe the thing was letting me think even more clearly than usual because I realised that he hadn’t murdered her… he’d made me do it.
And, when I realised this, I was sort of glad that the thing was there. It kind of soothed out the wild desperate anguish that I knew I really ought to be feeling.
So, with a kind of hollow emptiness in my tummy, I went and peeped over the edge of the veranda. The flight of steps was there, perhaps a hundred feet long, and I could see the path down below…
You could tell the place was built by creatures… or maybe by people… who could fly.
I mean… both the path and the steps looked solid enough…. but they were cut into the overhanging wall of the Edifice so there was an unthinkable plunge away to your left.
And there was no handrail or anything….
But, if I wanted to eat, that’s where I had to go. So drawing a deep breath, I set off down.
The footing on the steps and path was reasonably secure… and they were plenty wide enough… so your brain sort of knew that you were reasonably safe… it’s just that your brain doesn’t get much of a look in with a drop like that. I suspect that the horrible grey blob in my head was taking the edge of things for me, so I could make a reasonable pace along the ring pathway. I was still pretty worried when a young man came from the other direction carrying a large bundle of laundry… I sort of tried to bury myself in the wall to let him pass… but he just swung by as if he did this every day.
I followed the path for about half a mile, passing a couple more long flights of stairs leading off to other lairs and, at last, the path ended in another long flight of stairs which led down to a small open terrace.
From here I could look back on Rhiannas’s lair. It was definitely the grandest in this bit of the Edifice.
A narrow tunnel led into the wall… the portway. There was the faintest smudge of daylight at the far end but, when you stepped inside, you couldn’t see a thing. I sort of reached out to touch the wall and felt my way along. I kept thinking I was about to plunge into some invisible hole or something but, again, I suspect the horrible grey blob was taking the edge off things.
At last I emerged from the tunnel and found myself on the side of a hill with a beautiful view out over the sea. A track led down to a small valley where there was a collection of buildings that looked like the village.
By now, I was getting really hungry and so I hurried on down the track without paying all that much attention to where I was going. So, as I was hurrying through a copse of scrubby trees just above the village, I pretty much smacked headlong into a small dragon.
I kind of jumped back with a bit of a squeal and the dagger that I was still wearing on my belt kind of jumped into my hand. After my experience with Rhiannas, I was pretty worried about meeting another dragon. The little dragon was shocked too and kind of leapt into the air… but he didn’t seem to be able to fly properly. Instead he just fluttered round in these ungainly circles.
I sort of studied this new dragon. He was silver-grey and not much bigger than a horse. He sort of fluttered back down onto a tree stump where he started preening the scales over his wings with his long tongue and pretending that nothing had happened. Then he turned his intense, golden eyes on me.
He was pathetically thin and bedraggled and I couldn’t really imagine that he was dangerous. So I relaxed a bit and put my dagger back in its scabbard. I realised that he must have been spying on the village - he was probably after food.
“Good afternoon, Young Lady,” he said. “It has been a long time indeed since a human last caught me unawares. You must be singularly light of foot.”
His eyes sort of burrowed inside me.
“I see that you are an Outsider and that you have been claimed by Rhiannas,” he said, conversationally. “Powerful enough; certainly not to be trifled with.”
“How on earth can you tell that?” I asked.
“Your clothing marks you clearly as an Outsider and you wear an extremely elegant Rhian torque,” he explained. He paused for a moment, obviously deep in thought, before adding, “I believe that we may be able to reach an accommodation to our mutual advantage.”
I looked at him for a moment and tried to work out what he was going on about. “But I’ve already been claimed by one of the most powerful dragons around here,” I replied at last. “What can you possibly do to help me?”
“I used to know another young lady, not much older than you are now,” he said with this glint thing in his golden eyes, “my former mistress, in point of fact, who would have posed that selfsame question.”
He did a bit more of his preening thing before he went on, “You are new to this island and I might hazard to suggest that you could benefit significantly from my vast experience, albeit,” he added, sort of to himself, “in recent years, that experience has been a trifle less glorious than I might have wished.”
“Who exactly are you?” I demanded. I still wasn’t really sure whether I ought to be amused or suspicious of this little dragon…
“How terribly remiss of me to fail to correctly introduce myself,” he said with this completely over-the-top bow. He left off his preening and, wrapping his slightly stubby tail round himself, he struck something of a dramatic pose and started to tell his tale.
“My name is Psion and I was once a great dragon. Never, perhaps, quite as puissant as your Rhiannas…”
“What are you going on about?”
“Puissant… adept in the arts of combat. There are but few who can contend with Rhiannas in that particular domain. I was, however, perfectly capable of looking after myself and enjoyed a certain reputation for adopting innovative stratagems during combat which could disadvantage even the mightiest of opponents.”
I had to have a little think about what he was going on about but got there in the end. “You’re talking about dirty tricks, aren’t you.”
“I wouldn’t characterise them in quite that manner,” he said, sort of pretending to get all huffy about it.
I just smiled.
“So few chose to challenge me directly. Alas, I am much reduced in size and power by age and misadventure. I am not currently able to fly and am consequently obliged to be rather less than open when obtaining food from the villages. As my current misfortune also renders me incapable of defending myself, the peasant boys there find amusement in throwing stones at me.”
“So,” I said, not quite swallowing a giggle, “you’re saying that you lurk around the villages looking for food and the village boys throw stones at you to make you clear off! You’re one of the rogues and vagabonds Rhiannas warned me about, aren’t you?”
“An unsympathetic way of describing my current plight, though, it must be admitted, admirably succinct.”
“This isn’t doing anything to persuade me to help you, you know.”
Psion paused for a few moments and his golden eyes seemed to bore right inside me. “Very well,” he said at last. “As a preliminary token of how I may be of assistance, it may interest you to learn that Rhiannas’s implanted node has been less than perfectly emplaced. Should you choose to do so, you could break away from his control without having the life force within you extinguished.”
“I knew he’d left something behind in my head,” I exploded. “Can you really tell me how to get rid of it? I tried but couldn’t get any sort of a grip on the thing.”
He gave a knowing nod. “I may be able to do so but first I need to eat and so, I would hazard to guess, do you. Might I suggest that you proceed forthwith to the village to secure appropriate provender?”
“Alright then!” I said. “It looks like it might be worth my while helping you after all.”