Chapter Fourty Four - Ambush
At long, long last, spring had come. There was real warmth in the air and the cliffs were alive with birds as Jenko and I pulled the heavy meat carts up the hill from the village.
When we reached the bit of the cliff-top path that overlooked Psion’s cave, I felt back into Jenko’s mind. Even though I was still a bit shocked at what Psion had done, I couldn’t help but admire his craftsmanship. Without, in any way, being aware of what he was doing, Jenko took a large lump of meat from his cart and casually tossed it over the edge, down onto the rocky beach far below. Then he carried on as if nothing had happened. If you’d asked him, at the very moment he threw the meat, he’d have been vaguely aware that he’d thrown something, but not what or why.
And a few moments later, he wouldn’t remember anything about it at all.
I was so busy studying Psion’s work that I completely missed the ambush. Kiernonda sprang out of the bushes on the forest side of the path and jumped on me and, before I knew what was happening, he had a dagger to my throat. Quaro-Deryn casually strolled out of the bushes and stood in front of us with a sword in his hand and a disgustingly smug expression on his face. I turned to face him and Kiernonda followed me round, his dagger still held to my throat.
“Stay out of it!” Quaro-Deryn snapped as Jenko drew the dagger I’d lent him. “My quarrel’s with the bitch… not with the puppy!”
“So,” he drawled, turning back to me, “throwing Zalibar’s valuable meat off the cliff. I expect he’ll get quite… excited about that.”
“Mind you…” he went on. I mean… he was trying to stay all cool but he couldn’t help sounding smug… “probably nothing like as excited as Rhiannas gets when he learns that his new neck guard has been consorting with a rogue dragon.”
“Did I guess right?” he demanded, laughing at the look of shock that flashed across my face. “I guess that discussion could get quite… heated.”
Kiernonda sniggered but I was only vaguely aware of it. I was too busy reaching down towards Psion’s lair with my mind.
But he wasn’t there!
“There are a couple of ways we can play this,” Quaro-Deryn was saying. “My personal favourite is that I have Kiernonda carve your tripes out here and now.”
Kiernonda simpered, menacingly.
“Unfortunately,” he went on, “when I turn up with your dead body, there’s a fair chance that they’ll do a mind ream on us. That means that, as long as you do exactly what I say, I’m not going to have the pleasure of killing you myself. But don’t forget… I’m just waiting for an excuse… just waiting…”
I lost focus on Quaro-Deryn’s gloating as I flipped into the cerebral domain.
Where was Psion? Of course he wasn’t down in his lair. He’d have never let Quaro-Deryn get so close without warning me.
I reached further out along the coast. Was he down in one of the coves, enjoying the spring sunshine? I reached out, straining against the limits of my will.
I was getting frantic as I dropped back into the base domain.
“So, what’s it going to be then?” Quaro-Deryn was asking, menacingly.
I mean… I didn’t have any choice. If Rhiannas got any sort of hint about Psion, I’d be reduced to charcoal before I could think. I needed help… and I had nothing to lose. So I flipped back into the cerebral domain.
I pictured Psion’s bubbling blue cloud and poured my will into a wordless scream. The Edifice echoed with the power and, all around me, minds reached out, trying to work out what was going on.
But I didn’t care because, burning across from the other side of the village, with the intensity of a laser, came the flash of Psion’s mind. “I am at your command,” he said simply.
I flipped back into the base domain and found myself staring into Quaro-Deryn’s stunned face. Kiernonda seemed stunned too but he still had his knife to my throat and I was certain he would use it if I tried to free myself.
So I fought to keep my panic under control. Psion was coming, I knew, but I still had to buy myself a bit of time. I had my mother’s poignard at my belt but there was no way that I could get my hands on it.
Quaro-Deryn was advancing towards me, his sword swinging menacingly towards my face. In spite of the deadly threat, the words of Zalibar’s manual came to me, repeated in Geraint’s monotone voice, of course. ‘The blade should always be directed towards the chest. The head can be moved too easily out of range.’
Unfortunately, with a knife at my throat, my head didn’t have anywhere to go but backwards…
Backwards over the cliff… I knew there was that ledge down there.
“If all else fails,” Psion had told me once, “try something wild and extravagant.”
Pulling in my will, I pushed as hard as I could with my legs, driving myself and Kiernonda backwards off the edge of the cliff.
In his panic, Kiernonda let his knife tumble from his grasp. He clutched frantically at me as we tumbled towards the sea. I tried to slow my fall and steer myself towards the shelf below but, by now, Kiernonda had managed to get a grip around my left leg and the strain of controlling our combined weight left me feeling faint.
By twisting in mid-air, I managed to take some of the shock of the landing on my arms. Still, the force of my chest hitting the stone ledge drove the air from my lungs. I just lay there for a bit, stunned. But Kiernonda still had hold of my leg. And he was slowly pulling me backwards… towards the edge.
Gasping for breath, I desperately scrabbled about trying to find some sort of handhold… But the ledge was just too smooth and slippery. I couldn’t stop myself.
With a savage jerk of my will I pulled myself a bit further up. My fingers found a crack in the rock and I managed to stop my slide. I lay there, panting, for a moment.
Then I tried to shake Kiernonda off my leg. He’d slipped down so now he was wrapped round my ankle. He was clinging on desperately with his arms and his will, whimpering with the effort. From above, I could hear Quaro-Deryn’s harsh words and the clash of blade on blade. It sounded like Jenko was fighting to protect me.
With a violent heave, I managed to jerk my hips up onto the ledge. That meant I could get one knee up - the leg that didn’t have a desperate Kiernonda dangling from it.
I just knelt there for a bit, trying to catch my breath. Then I started to kick out with my other leg. Kiernonda desperately shifted his grip to the ledge, clutching at the edge with his will and fingers.
As I rose unsteadily to my feet, I felt Psion approaching. “I’m down on the ledge,” I called to him. “Are you hungry?”
For the first time since I’d known him, Psion was at a loss for words.
“I was given to understand that you summoned me here on a matter of some urgency,” he managed to say at last. “I suspect that most of the residents of the Edifice are of a similar opinion and, I might add, a significant number are likely to be heading this way soon to investigate.”
“Then we’d better get on,” I said with a grin. “But I’m sure you’ve got time for a snack first,” I added, as he emerged over the cliff edge.
“Please!” Kiernonda begged when he realised what was about to happen. Please… don’t!”
With a great deal of pleasure, I stamped on his fingers.
He let out a despairing scream as he plummeted downwards. Psion dived after him and the scream was cut off in a billow of flame.
My mind was racing. Even without my cerebral scream thing, I couldn’t go back. Quaro-Deryn was bound to tell Rhiannas and Rhiannas had killed many servants for much less than this. He also knew that Jenko had been providing meat and, if any skilled operator inspected Jenko’s mind, they’d find out that Psion had been messing about with his implanted node and we’d be declared anathema.
Psion climbed back up towards me, his mind just buzzing with pleasure. He half landed, half hovered on the narrow ledge and, with a touch of will, I jumped up onto his shoulders.
“Okay, we need to grab Jenko and get out of here,” I informed him. “Can you carry him too?”
“Right now, I could carry about twenty people!” he replied vaguely. He was on such a high that it was obvious that I was going to have to do all the thinking for the time being.
When we reappeared, Jenko was still standing with my old dagger still in his hand. “What’s going on?” he asked, as Psion landed on the cliff edge. “Quaro-Deryn ran off when he saw that dragon.”
“There’s no time to tell you now,” I told him. “Just jump up.”
“I’ll force you if I have to,” I warned him. “It’s your only chance of getting out of this alive.”
He shrugged, sheathed the dagger and jumped up onto Psion’s shoulders behind me.
As I wrapped the three of us in a concealing blanket of illusion, the little silver-grey dragon stepped off the edge and instinctively dived down, away from trouble. There was a wing of dragons sweeping down towards us from the Edifice… investigating the disturbance, I guess. I hovered on the edge of Jenko’s mind, ready to wrap him up if he tried to shout, but it looked like he’d decided to trust me for the time being.
“I don’t suppose you’ve given any sort of thought as to what we might do next?” Psion asked as we darted along the coast, skimming the tops of the waves.
“It’s time to deal with Rhiannas,” I told him flatly. “Now Quaro-Deryn knows about us, we don’t have any choice.”
Psion thought about it for a moment. “Attack is the best form of defence,” he agreed. “We always knew it was going to come to this in the end. I would propose that you issue a formal challenge. Not only does it provide you with certain rights and privileges, it will also infuriate him. And angry dragons make mistakes.”
“I thought angry dragons just flamed people.” I said.
“That can, on occasion, be a mistake.” The funny little dragon banked steeply as he rounded Dunster Head. I mean… he was never going to fly like Rhiannas, or even Liberty, but I could tell he was loving the return of his powers, thanks to the latest dainty snack I’d provided for him.
“And how do you propose that I am to enter the Edifice?” Psion asked. “I have a plethora of adversaries who will attack me on sight and, whilst I do have considerable powers of concealment, there are various wards in position to block covert entry”
“I was thinking of taking you in through the Quaro portway,” I answered.
“Oh!” Psion said. He sounded a bit disappointed.
“What’s the matter now?”
“That is a slightly undignified entrance.”
I couldn’t stop myself from laughing. “In terms of dignity, how do you think it compares with having your head lopped off and stuck on somebody’s wall?”
“In the decade that I was excluded from dragonkind’s highest creation,” he responded in his most haughty tone, “I had not envisaged my first visit would involve creeping through a servant’s entrance.”
“I’ll make you a promise,” I said. “Next time you go in, it will be through the Rhian flute as a highly respected member of the House of Rhian. How does that sound?”
Psion gave an amused flick of his tail.
“Anyway,” I said, “once we’re inside, can you fly down to your lair without getting seen?”
“I should be able to conceal us for that short distance. I can build on certain of the existing illusions I have in place. But why do you want to go down to my lair? Much as I’d love to see the place, this isn’t supposed to be a sight-seeing trip.”
“I’m going to need a sword,” I answered. “I thought it might help! Rhiannas’s sword is in my trunk in the dormitory and I don’t want to have to start dueling with Quaro-Deryn… or even Zalibar… when I try to collect it.”
“It would, in any case, be tremendously poor form to stand against Rhiannas bearing a sword he had lent you.”
I let out a deep sigh but didn’t bother saying anything.
“I didn’t know you could flame!” I said as he turned inland and started flying toward the Quaro portway, staying as low as he could.
“It is associated with the consumption of human flesh,” he said in a bit of a funny voice. “I shall enjoy the pleasure of cerebral conflagration for the next several weeks.”
“You’re embarrassed about it, aren’t you?” I said, amazed.
“I believe I have mentioned that I consider the gormindisation of human flesh to be something of a base instinct and, most of the time, I like to delude myself that I am above such behaviour.”
“So you like eating people but you don’t like the fact that you like it!” I said
“You have elegantly encapsulated the very essence of my dichotomy,” he said, all sort of formally, “However, I would prefer to avoid further discussion of the matter.”
“Oh… OK… I’ll not talk about it any more…” I paused for a bit before adding, “But I should probably tell you that you still have a smear of Kiernonda on your face!”