Seventeen proud Panthers, their minds awash with the elevated guardianship responsibilities relayed from Ranevargar, stood guard while Pelnor and the other Lake Grove hosts rushed to ready everything for the race to the Realm Boundary. Rhys had his arms wrapped rather awkwardly round George's neck for a fond farewell and Kieran watched Manon and Deltor clip the last of the extra water skins to Krol's harness.
"Our thoughts are with you for this strange journey, Kieran. Krol has communicated his qualms for the dangers head and his joy in your company. Our Lord's instructions include the blessing of the Realm before you depart.
Pelnor’s hand, glowing softly green, made a formal touch to five foreheads and a Griffin beak, and Kieran, watching as none of the others could, saw a strange gentle flow passing from the Realm Trees. Rhys responded with a thank you hug which lifted Pelnor from his feet, then scrambled to pride of place on Gryl’s saddled back.
"Hold tight, Kieran. You’re going to love this."
Kieran, mounted on Gryl’s mate, was astonished at the sensation of speed and controlled strength and purpose as the group moved along the trail at double the speed the horses could ever have managed. The feeling of excitement and progress steadily waned though, as muscles and minds worked to keep balance and readiness for every direction change dictated by the trail, and after half an hour Kieran called for a halt.
"We’re okay, Kieran."
"Yes, but our muscles aren’t used to this. We’ll have an energy boost every time we stop to contact Ranevargar."
"Can you do that while we’re moving? Night’s coming."
"I have to concentrate too much, Woorawa."
"Fair enough. Have we got time to stretch our legs while you’re thinking?"
Kieran gave a nod, dismounted, and walked a few wobbly steps before reaching afar. As agreed previously Kieran activated the link to the Pearl slowly, gently seeping into Ranevargar's consciousness without any blatant energy changes Maynor might detect.
"Welcome, Kieran. This isolation is trying. Tell me how things stand in my Realm."
Kieran passed on the success of their interactions at the two Groves, and at the same time looked for signs of how Ranevargar himself was coping.
"I appreciate your concern, Kieran. I'm doing as well as this paralysed body can expect. Cut off from everything, all I can do is think ... Replay those memories you gathered of Uirebon's last moments in the Grove please. They don't fit my expectations. Hmm! That was a fierce assault. He was in contention, either with the High King, or with Maynor. Are his Coursers still watching my Groves?"
"No, when I looked they were all racing home."
"Good. Your journey to the Boundary should be unhindered but keep your own watch and pass these new instructions to all the Guardians and hosts you have links with ... And no, nothing has changed here. Maynor is unlikely to pay me serious attention till he has the assistance and security of his castle."
Kieran showed the memories from the very first Courser.
"Yes, that is his Seat of Power and presumably where I am being taken. Resume your journey, Keiran. I hope I will have new information when you make your next contact."
Kieran opened his eyes and couldn't help smiling at all the serious looks.
"That was longer than we expected, Kieran. What's happened?"
"Nothing really, Rhys. Ranevargar says it's important for me to be sneaky when I’m using the link, and that slows me down. He’s still paralysed on the back of that horse, and he doesn't think much will happen till he gets to Maynor's castle."
"The one near the Emperor trees?"
"Yep. We think he’s about halfway. I’m contacting all the hosts and Guardians for him so give me a moment before we get moving again."
The race resumed. Not really a race, except against time, but the rapidly changing landmarks and the unexpected change from their fast trot to this new and much faster bounding gait, gave a strong feeling of urgency.
"Whoo! Gryl wants to keep up this speed till it’s too dark to see. Just as well we had the energy boost."
The sky above the plain turned an astonishingly brilliant red with the approach of evening, bathing riders and mounts in a light reminiscent of Maynor's Ruby, a thought which Kieran kept very much to himself. Wheeling above and ahead, the light changes on Krol's wings were even more spectacular, till the red morphed to purple and then darker still. After a river crossing Kieran called a halt.
"Grab your honey bread snacks and loosen up while I check with Ranevargar. We’ll have to wait for a while before we can travel again."
"Long enough for a little campfire, Kieran? We could make a hot drink with the herbs Manon gave us."
"No, Woorawa, fire stands out like crazy if anyone’s looking for us ... He did say it's better hot though, so put some water in the billy gadget and I’ll use the Opal to heat it."
"Hey! Neat idea, Kieran. You’re more than just a pretty face."
Kieran could just make out the smiles and he took a few seconds to grab a hug before settling to check, first with Krol, who’d decided it was easier and safer to stay aloft rather than land in the uncertain light, and then with the hosts and Guardians at the different groves. After walking back and forth for a minute he chose a spot where he could sit and close his eyes against the distraction of the dimly seen movement around him.
Tan took his billy gadget to the water's edge, smiled at the lapping sounds of five Panthers busily slating their thirst, then found a spot slightly upstream to dip enough water for human drinks. One of the Panthers grunted softly, the lapping noises stopped and the five great shapes drifted silently away. Tan looked at the water, inky black and spooky in the dimness, and was pleased he'd been on a Panther’s back for the crossing. The soft murmur of voices and movement silenced so abruptly he stood and turned to stare at the black shadows outlined against the light shining around Kieran. Billy in hand, he made his way carefully back.
The light brightened and Tan’s hair prickled when Kieran uttered a small cry. He left the billy and, taking a few more steps, linked arms with Woorawa to watch Kieran's changing play of concentration.
The light softened then faded to nothing and Woorawa's occasional arm squeeze felt extra reassuring. Everyone was silent and still, five Panthers and four friends, watching and worrying why Kieran's communication was extending so long. A glow through the riverside vegetation startled Tan with the thought that it was on fire till a proper look showed it was moonrise and the light that Penron had explained would be enough to allow a night journey was on its way. More startling was the call breaking the silence.
"Come close and listen everyone. Everything’s changed and we’re going to race all through the night."
"Kieran, tell us what's going on. We’ve been scared out of our brains with your glowing and calling out, and you've been twice as long as you said."
"They’ve got Ranevargar in that castle and the Realm Lord wants to take his Pearl and use it against the High King. If we don't stop him it will be terrible for Ranevargar and all his Realm."
"We’re going to stop a Realm Lord? You’ve got to be kidding!"
"Not by fighting, Rhys. We wouldn't have a hope. Ranevargar wants me to have it instead so all the Guardians and Realm trees don't fade back to ordinary animals and plants."
"When we get to the Boundary Wall we’re going to Maynor's Realm instead of Dead World and Krol will carry me to the Castle."
"No way, Kieran. We won't let you. Those Power Masters will use the rod things against Krol and you'll get captured again."
"Rhys! Rhys! Listen to our plan first then tell us your ideas. Ranevargar reckons if I take over his Pearl enough, it will come to me like the Opal did. I already tried but the Realm Boundaries interfere because I can't make it completely mine without hurting Ranevargar ... Where’s that water? I'll heat it for our drink while I explain some more.
Ranevargar’s been faced by that Maynor again and there are a few things that really scare him. The worst would be losing his Pearl, but he also thinks Maynor might be able to sneak into his mind and control him."
"Through the shields? Ranevargar told us no one in all Faerie could do that."
"No, the shields will hold for ages. Ranevargar’s worried he might be tricked into taking them down himself. Evidently Maynor knows more about manipulating people's thoughts than anyone. We got caught in the Central Grove because he made all the hosts think there was no one there."
"Wow! Can Ranevargar do anything against it?"
"He thinks he’s safe for a while, Rhys, because Maynor has got too many other things happening to get at him straight away, but he’s worked out an amazing plan to protect us."
"Yes, Maynor’s angry because we got away and he’s still after us. That’s a big reason why he wants to get into Ranevargar's mind, so he can know everything about us and what we’re doing."
"No he's not. He thinks if he gets me he gets a super mind shield as well as power from my Opal to use against the High King."
"He is mad. You’d never give them to him."
"Yes I would, Woorawa."
Rhys broke the startled silence.
"How come? We know you can't stand him and your mind’s too strong anyway."
"He told Ranevargar about a horrible place where he’d keep you all, so I wouldn't have a choice. I don't really understand how, but Ranevargar says anyone who stays there ends up losing their mind."
"More blackmail. This Maynor sounds worse every time we hear about him."
The billy of water in front of Kieran started bubbling, and when Tan added some of Manon’s crumbled herbs an interesting aroma wafted upward.
"That just makes it extra dangerous to go into his Realm, Kieran. What if it’s another trap?"
"It can't be, Mr B. He doesn't know we’re coming and even if he did he wouldn't know where from."
"If you take Ranevargar's Pearl won't that make him weaker against Maynor?"
Tan tested but the drink was still too hot. Kieran looked to where the moon was now rising just above the vegetation and saw that very soon there would be enough light for the Panthers to see their way.
"It would, Mr B, but if the Pearl’s there physically Maynor can do stuff to affect it. If I've got it, Ranevargar's basic links can still keep working and his Realm stays free from danger."
"I see. Ranevargar’s making a sacrifice to protect his Realm. That’s no surprise ... It is more danger for us though."
"It's not, Mr B. Ranevargar's plan protects us even if Maynor gets into his mind. I think he’s way too clever for Maynor anyway but he doesn't want to take the chance."
"Kieran, what is this plan?"
"It's like what happened to us at College but even stronger. He’s going to wipe all the memories about us from his mind and give them to me to keep. After he transfers them to me he won't even know we exist."
"He will when Maynor talks to him."
"Yes, Mr B, and he’ll also be puzzled because he’s got special shields. Maynor could even show him memory images of us all together at the Central Grove. He’ll understand something’s happened to his memories, but Maynor can’t get any information about us because it’s not there."
"Our own memories weren't really gone. They were there when we looked for them."
"That’s the spooky part, Woorawa. If I don't put them back they’ll be gone for ever. Ranevargar says there’s knowledge from when I let him examine my Opal that Maynor mustn’t get, and it's even more important for him not to find out about the Dragon Quest."
"Kieran, it makes me feel awful. He’s choosing to be prisoned there, paralysed and helpless, so he can protect us, without knowing that help might be coming."
Mr B grabbed Kieran's shoulders.
"Tan’s right, Kieran. That’s a horrible place to be. He’s there with no hope in his mind to help him through. We can't leave it like that."
"I don't like it either, Mr B, but he’s certain it's the best way, and we couldn't think of anything else. He’s already started the process"
The seed of an idea was planted.
Tan gulped his share of herbal drink and passed the billy to Woorawa.
"Can the Panthers see better in the dark than we can, Kieran? The trail’s almost clear enough even for me."
"And what about Krol? Has he been gliding all this time?"
The billy went on a pass around.
"He landed where he wouldn't crash into trees, Rhys, when he found out how long I was taking. I’ve been keeping a kind of background link with him ... Man! That was a lot better than drinking plain water ... Rhys, when you’ve had your share we’ll give the Panthers an energy boost. It's a race to Woorawa's waterfall from now on ... And you’re right about their eyes too. I didn't think of that."
A few moments later five sets of paws were padding the trail, softly and quietly till they left the band of river vegetation, then with the great loping bounds of Panthers determined to travel far and fast. The first hour was an exciting and unforgettable mixture of speed and purpose. The terrain, brightened by silver moonlight, switched rapidly between open plains and bordering wetlands with glimpses of dark glistening water. Occasionally a clump of trees would slow the tempo, and the drop to walking speed for two shallow river crossings heightened the sense of speed each time the lope restarted.
Choosing a stretch of open plain so Krol could land safely, Kieran signalled for their first stop then gathered everyone together.
"It depends on Ranevargar how long we’ll be here, so after we’ve given the Panthers their next energy boost I want to put everyone to sleep till we’re ready to move again."
"Give us a couple of minutes to walk around and loosen up first, Kieran. I need to get rid of that last drink."
"Yeah! Me too, Mr B."
That worked well because Kieran needed to check with the hosts and other Guardians before linking with Ranevargar. Krol moved close and watched Panthers and companions, refreshed by Rhys's touch, slump together in an induced sleep.
"Keep watch please, Krol. I have to talk to Ranevargar."
A sense of pleasure about Ranevargar and a comforting reassurance came back while Kieran made this link.
"It's me, Ranevargar. What's happened now?"
Kieran asked this because an element of uncertainty was coming from Ranevargar.
"A serious development! Maynor has taken my Pearl and threatened harm to my Realm if I don't help him use it against the High King. He pitted his Ruby against it to such a level I was worried it might have affected our link."
"It feels perfect to me. Tell me what to look for and I'll check."
Information flowed and was applied.
"There’s no change or damage, Ranevargar ... What sort of threats is he making?"
"Destruction of one of my Groves as a first step, but isolation from my Pearl is far more serious."
"How long can you hold out? The Panthers are racing but we won't reach the Realm Boundary till the morning ... Unless Krol carries me?"
Alarm flared strongly in Ranevargar's mind.
"On no account become separated from your companions, Kieran. The process of fully isolating an unwilling Realm Lord from a Stone of Power is a difficult and drawn out process even for the High King. Maynor has far more pressing challenges and we’ll keep to our plan."
"Mr B made me think, Ranevargar, and I’m going to keep helping you after you forget everything. You won't know I'm doing it so Maynor can't find out either."
"I can sneak a feeling of confidence through the link."
"Show me! ... Yes! Tighten the way you send it ... like this ... and it will be a wonderful support. Watch through my eyes frequently. This secret link should provide vital information for all of us ... Now, no farewells, Kieran ... I won't be aware of it, but I know you are with me through the trial ahead."
The parcel of Realm Lord memories passed far more quickly through their secret link than Kieran expected, and he returned to watch the nearby sleeping shapes till his sense of loss passed and he could shake himself into action again.
"He’s amazing, Krol! We’ll see him again as soon as we can."
A quick command brought everyone out of their sleep and grouping together. Kieran's report was very brief and, understanding he was in no mood for questions, everyone mounted quickly and quietly.
The race was on again.
Stars wheeled, too slow to see, the silver moonlight bathed the Realm with a steadily changing aspect, and Panther muscles pushed ceaselessly to force three days of travel into one long night. Not quite ceaselessly, because roughly every hour the group stopped to revitalise weary muscles and loosen up while Kieran checked for anything happening with the now sleeping Ranevargar. The stops were only a brief interruption to the pattern though, and the gradual rise of the foothills was just starting when an extended break was needed to heal the cramps which Tan had been quietly suffering, and to watch Ranevargar being fed.
"Tan’s been walking and stretching his muscles and he feels okay now. What's happened with Ranevargar?"
"Not much, Rhys. They’ve woken him up and if they’re feeding him so early it must mean Maynor’s coming again. I'll have to keep checking."
"I reckon we’ll reach the waterfall in about three hours but you need to have some sleep."
"The energy boosts will keep me going till after we get the Pearl, Rhys. We’ll all have a sleep then."
The trail, now climbing through forested land, slowed their passage till the light of the dawning day brightened enough to dispel the moon shadows and let the panthers hit full stride. Two short stops showed Ranevargar's physical needs being attended to and a quiet time. A third stop, in a vaguely remembered clearing, extended to nearly thirty minutes while Kieran watched Maynor realise that his captive’s memories of the last few days were gone.
"You’re smiling, Kieran. What did you see?"
"Maynor just discovered that Ranevargar hasn't got a clue about who we are, or how he has mind shields he doesn't know how to turn off. He asked a few questions then did something with his Ruby while he stared at Ranevargar. Whatever it was didn't work and he went off in a rush. I'm smiling because Tan’s idea for Ranevargar to have no control over his shields worked so well, and because Ranevargar was telling Maynor off for being an ambitious fool."
"Wow! Did that make Maynor angry?"
"No, he just ignored it ... But I think it puzzled him. Ranevargar thought so and he was pleased that he'd made Maynor rethink something."
"Do you see everything Ranevargar’s thinking, Kieran?"
"Just his surface thoughts, Mr B, and anything through his senses. He’s hoping the High King knows he’s been captured, and that he’ll work out some way to free him."
A burst of joker-bird song carolling from the edge of the clearing turned every head to the glow of early sunlight catching the tops of the trees.
"Crazy birds! I wish Ranevargar could hear them."
There was another chorus, of deep rumbles this time, as Gryl led the Panthers through a short readying routine of stretching and tensing every muscle. Time to move.