Crown Infernal


In which Valarien and Scipius Magnus marshal resources
for the defence of Laurenna.

Valarien watched in some distress as Kai gallop off up the north road. This discomposure was occasioned not so much by the separation as by the manner of it. As Kai had come to realize, he was not adept at handling people.

Being highly intelligent, even among elves, he had been singled out for greatness at a very early age. From so high an eminence it was difficult not to talk down to those who might otherwise have considered themselves his equals. Personal relationships, which he had great difficulty in sustaining, were therefore a source of acute private sorrow.

He'd become quite fond of Kai. Although their relative ages were quite close, this fondness was manifested in a somewhat paternalistic way, like a caring but dictatorial father. He'd been surprised and hurt therefore when Kai, like a surly adolescent son, had rebelled. He had a vague feeling about what was required - expected even - but words like 'sorry' did not rise readily to his lips, while as for admitting that he could just possibly be at fault, it simply did not enter his mind. All he could do by way of making amends was to load his companion down with an unlikely collection of little magical 'toys' which might, but probably wouldn't, come in useful.

Scipius Magnus, in an attempt at pouring oil on troubled waters, had thrown in few more such contrivances for good measure, but Kai had remained aloof, his thanks mechanical. Valarien's heart sank at the thought that yet another promising friendship seemed to have fallen apart.

There was no time to dwell on his own problems - those facing Laurenna were infinitely more pressing - so he put away the hurt and threw himself into sorting out the town's defences. The illusionist meanwhile was already weaving the early morning mist into a thick fog.

He took heart the following morning, however. He was picking at his breakfast, looking every bit as morose as Kai had done over breakfast at the Jolly Raven, when the crystal zipped through the door, took a sharp right-angled turn and came to a stop in front of his nose.

He plucked the crystal out of the air, gave a crooked grin and called for Marcella. She quickly fetched a piece of parchment from his room and he spread it on the table. He ran the flattened side of the crystal over the parchment, and Kai's message appeared. Until then, it hadn’t occurred to him to ask if Kai were lettered. Perhaps it was as well he hadn't asked, for Kai would no doubt have taken offence at such a query.

The writing was a flowing scrawl, but legible nevertheless. Four days? It was more time than he'd looked for, and meant that the fog could be dispelled for a couple of days at least, which would relieve the drain on Scipius's energy.

In the intervening days, Valarien had the townsfolk dig a trench around the outside of the town. It was parallel to the walls and several yards away, which puzzled the diggers enormously, for it was shallow and not very wide. As a moat it was risible, and so must have some other purpose beyond their divining. Next, its sides and bottom were puddled and sun-baked, then filled with straw - very mysterious—

Valarien had set up a make-shift workshop in the cellars of the inn, and filled it full of glass bottles, jars and flasks. His activities there also provoked much speculation. A succession of buckets of coal went down into the cellar, together with as much coconut oil as could be found in the town. Barrels of something liquid were carried out of the cellar - very, very carefully. These were stored at regular intervals along the town side of the trench. Curiouser and curiouser . . .

The wizard also called for all such small, spherical jars as could be fastened with a bung. These, too, disappeared into the cellar. When they came out, they seemed as empty as when they had gone in. Needless to say, no-one dared tamper with the bungs. Valarien instructed that they be planted in the fields to the east of the town, beyond the trench. They were to be buried to half their depth, and the top half lightly covered over with soil. When it was done, it looked as though there had been a nasty attack of moles; in fact the townsfolk referred to them as 'the mole fields'. It was felt that this might be too much of a give-away, so Scipius Magnus obligingly carpeted the fields with an illusion of uniformity.

Valarien and Scipius, with the co-operation of the Guardian of the Keep, had set up a command platform on the highest tower. The keep was conveniently placed along the eastern wall. At dusk on the third day, weary from their preparations, they retired there for some much-needed rest, leaving the Guardian to keep watch. Valarien, as usual, slept on air, and thus had no worries about waking up at the right time.

Before dawn on the fourth day, Scipius Magnus set up an immense bank of fog to the east of the city, stretching several miles north and south. The land in the immediate neighbourhood of the town, he had left clear so they could see what they had to face.

Two nerve-wracking hours passed before Kotar and his men broke through the fog. The vanguard, all mounted, was over a hundred yards wide, with nearly as many men on the flanks. Behind them came siege towers and a couple of mangonels, and more men.

"Looks like they mean business," remarked Scipius Magnus, and began an incantation.

From the trench a curtain of flame sprang up, some ten or twelve feet high, surrounding the town. The illusionist was piqued when this aesthetically pleasing creation was greeted with hoots of laughter, though he was not surprised.

"Let us hope their belief that all is illusory may be their undoing," he growled.

Letting out frenzied war whoops, the vanguard charged. They hit the mole fields at a gallop, shattering the jars. Each jar went off with a sharp retort, startling many of the horses and unseating a number of riders. This was not all. As each jar exploded, it threw out a pale green vapour. Those caught within its range rapidly slowed down, stopped and gracefully sank to the ground in sleep. The war whoops became rather less enthusiastic.

Valarien added to the confusion by calling up a strong breeze which blew the vapour back towards the troops on foot. They fell back, though in good order.

It took a while for the vapour to dissipate. The sleepers were then removed from the fields. Judging by manner in which they were carted off and dumped in heaps behind the lines, this was not so much from humanitarian motives as to clear them out of the way. The horses had to be left until they woke up naturally. This caused considerable inconvenience to the engineers in charge of the siege towers.

As they neared the town, these doughty individuals were also hampered by the inhabitants manning - or for the most part, womaning - the walls. These doughty females set up a barrage of assorted missiles, hurled with more enthusiasm than accuracy. The sheer volume of projectiles made the occasional hit inevitable. Each success was greeted by irritating, high-pitched cheers from the walls, and curses and mutterings of vengeance from without.

The engineers were also in some danger from their own comrades who seemed to be having difficulty in finding the correct range with their mangonels. They, at least, were eventually persuaded to desist.

The next obstacle was the wall of flame. This was largely ignored by the enemy. Those at the sharp end had been informed that all such ploys were the work of an illusionist, and that what didn't exist, couldn't hurt you. This proved to be a miscalculation on the part of Those At The Top, for they had not registered, or else had forgotten, the existence of the trench.

Small, it may have been, but it was enough to snag the wheels of the cumbersome equipment. That was not all. Behind the screen of flames, the precious liquid in the barrels had been emptied - very carefully - into the trench. It looked like water, but had one property not normally associated with water. Once the towers were thoroughly jammed, and the engineers were looking round for the means of jacking up the forward ends, Valarien pointed his long finger at the trench.

"Fulgurar!" he declaimed.

Suddenly, the flames were no longer an illusion, but an incandescent wall of fire. Hellfire, the survivors called it. Even the defenders on the walls felt the blast. Valarien's "fire-water" did not blaze for long - impossible to sustain such fury for more than a few minutes - but it was certainly long enough to rekindle in the minds of the Saghan’ îl a belief in the reality of Scipius Magnus's illusion. And what is "reality" but the belief of an illusion? Or vice versa . . .?

It proved a stunning blow to the enemy who withdrew and, rather surprisingly, called it quits for the day. Scipius Magnus felt obliged to keep up the flame curtain, partly to maintain a belief that might crumble without something visible as a reminder, but mostly to prevent anyone sneaking up in the night. By evening, tents had sprung up like mushrooms half way around the town from the north road to the south road, and in the dusk, men were working on something near the roads.

Dawn broke to the sound of rocks pounding the walls and the nearest houses within. The mangonel operators had finally got the range right. They were also returning some of the cooking pots (bent), heavy ladles, flat-irons, stools (singed), and other such missiles as had come to hand on the previous morning.

Those on the receiving end generally greeted with pleasure the return of kitchen impedimenta. They'd already regretted parting with well seasoned vessels, though old Orella Zaro was not overjoyed by the return of her neighbour's door-stop, which nearly removed her ear. It was not as if she were even on speaking terms with Mother Adella . . .

Valarien felt it was incumbent upon him to "do something", though the ammunition was doing little harm so far. He faced the east, spread out his arms with the palms of his hands toward the glowering sun, and took several deep breaths.

"Stelloria!" he cried, bringing his hands together with a loud clap.

He slowly pulled them apart, the gap being filled by an expanding globe that shone with a radiant golden light. It looked as if it was burning, yet it was not even warm. Valarien stopped when it was about a foot across, and set it spinning on his forefinger.

"Vollarkrem arkway!" he commanded, and propelled it towards the right-hand mangonel.

The glowing sphere flew like an arrow to the centre point of the machine and exploded. The whole contraption burst into flames, shooting out long, blazing splinters. These injured most of the operators and set fire to three of the nearby tents. The upper parts of the mangonel collapsed in a blackened heap and a flurry of sparks as its sister flew apart in like manner. This caused great consternation. Fire-fighting details rushed about trying to extinguish all the blazes before they spread to the rest of the camp.

Valarien looked on with some satisfaction. The result had more than justified the expense of magical energy. By now, the Saghan’ îl must be aware that they were dealing with more than one artiste of the arcane powers, but that couldn’t be helped.

The wizard's private rejoicing was short-lived however, as alarums sounded from both the town's gates. He was unable to see the cause of the clamour, but an underlying deep and regular series of thumps gave a strong impression that the gates were being assailed by battering rams. It was an idea that was completely in keeping with the activity in those areas on the previous evening.

He caught up his robes and ran down the stairs of the keep to the little door that led on to the ramparts. From thence, his long strides took him quickly to the North Gate, that being slightly the nearer.

There was no barbican as such, but the parapet extended a little way out over the gateway, and contained machicolations. On the town side, the rampart broadened into a platform on which to store equipment for defence and to heat up oil or coals to drop on to invaders. This had already been started.

Below the platform, the gates were being reinforced with heavy items of furniture - dressers for preference. Lascany certainly bred sturdy women.

It appeared that Scipius Magnus had also taken a hand in the matter for, from the northern mountains, something came flying. A small bright dot at first, it soon developed wings and as it came ever closer, was seen to be an enormous white dragon.

The white dragon

end of chapter

Index Page Chapter 8