Crown Infernal


In which Valarien finds a glitch—
or vice versa . . .

Valarien admired the artistry of the rapidly advancing dragon. It even took the townspeople by surprise and number of women screamed. This was not a bad thing as it made the battering ram team pause to watch and thus lose their rhythm. Then came a cry from their sergeant.

"Get back to work, you maggots! It's only another one o' them hillusions what that there magician is doin'. It can't 'arm yer. Now get crackin' or the Boss'll 'ave summat to say about it . . . !"

There was some grumbling but the men set to work anew.

"Ho, 'hillusion', is it? Magician, is it?" Valarien fumed. "We'll see about that!"

As the dragon flew nearer, he prepared a suitable spell to complement the virtuosity of the illusionist's skill.

"Drar kalbus evommay ghelloo, hostee zambooree tay!" he growled through clenched teeth as the dragon flew over the 'maggots'.

The freezing cloud which enveloped them did not quite have its source at the dragon's mouth as Valarien had intended. It mattered not. The enemy was in no position to indulge in polemics, even had they been paying that much attention to the 'hillusion'.

They were initially frozen into immobility by surprise as well as the icy blast. Indeed, one or two of the bravos collapsed from the shock. Movement returned only slowly as the men gingerly stamped frost-bitten feet and rubbed frost-bitten fingers trying to stimulate their circulation, and looking nervously around the while lest the dragon should return.

The sergeant was the worst afflicted for he wore an iron helm. It attached itself to his ears and, in his attempt to rip the thing from his head, his hands similarly froze to his helmet. He removed the skin therefrom as he wrenched them away and was last seen screaming down the road.

Valarien did not wait around to watch all this. He was concerned at seeing that some of those who should have been guarding the ramparts had abandoned their task to aid those reinforcing the gate. As the situation there was, for the moment, under control, he hurried back along the wall, dodging volleys of arrows as he went.

He took advantage of a pause in the firing to look over the wall and found his qualms totally justified. The enemy had laid several sheets of metal over the trench. The fact that the flames continued burning above the metal as though it were not there was a fine indication that they were illusory again. Teams of men with scaling ladders were hurrying across and setting the ladders against the wall.

"Oh shit!" he gasped. "To the walls!"

Being somewhat short of breath by now, he had small hope of being heeded.

"Oh shit," he muttered again, "Vok stonny tree— TO THE WALLS!"

His alarm call boomed out across the town causing a coping stone nearby to drop off. It smashed a ladder and severely injured the man who was half-way up it. The warning had the desired effect on those within the walls.

Valarien ran on, stopping only to push back an invader as he appeared over the wall. This had a domino effect on those below, but again the wizard had no time to admire his handiwork. He must now get round to the Great Gate on the south side which was still taking a battering. At least the drumming sound meant that the gate still held.

Along the southern ramparts he passed stouthearted citizens, mostly female, zealously dislodging the scaling forces with brooms, besoms, mops, shovels and the odd pitchfork or two. The redoubtable Nanny Grimonia was wielding her late husband's maul in prime style. Worth two men any day, thought the wizard as he ducked past.

By the time he reached it, the gate, piled high with furniture and bric-a-brac, was beginning to splinter. Above, the cauldrons of boiling oil were bubbling merrily and the coals in the braziers were glowing red hot.

Outside, the battering ram detachment were determinedly ignoring Scipius Magnus's beautiful dragon which was swooping around in a very graceful and artistic manner. Valarien gave them the same lesson in art appreciation as the northern group which halted their activities likewise. Valarien breathed a deep sigh and set off at a much more sedate pace for the keep.

Suddenly the dragon winked out. So did the flames. The wizard's heart did a double somersault with back flip. Something had gone wrong. Seriously wrong. He sprinted to the keep and saw a small dark figure creep out of the door. It looked more goblin than human. The wizard took no chances.

"Eksanimar volitar!" he cried.

The creature sagged at the knees then rose a foot or so into the air, as if dangling from an invisible peg. He would keep for later. The illusionist was Valarien's first consideration. His long legs took him up the stairs two at a time. Scipius Magnus lay in a crumpled heap at their command post.

Valarien bent over him. He was breathing, but very shallowly. The wizard slid his arm gently under his colleague's shoulders. It felt warm and wet. He choked back a sob. The illusionist stirred slightly and opened his eyes, then he opened them wider, and made as if to speak. Valarien leaned closer to listen. The last thing he heard was, ". . . bee. . . high . . . "


Half an hour later, the battering ram at the south gate had a new team, which went to work with a will. The men's fear of the actuality of Kotar the Butcher surpassed even their fear of the possibility of magic. Magic was, after all, fairly random; it didn't usually seek you out personally. Kotar did, so a wise man didn't offer him any unnecessary provocation. The Great Gate began to groan in serious protest.

The anxious people above, who had not seen or heard anything of their thaumaturgical protectors since the dragon disappeared, now saw a cloud of dust gathering on the south road. A ragged cheer went up. The battering ram team ignored the distraction although their sergeant look back down the road. He gave a great bellowing roar of laughter.

"Your magic tricks won't save you now! Despair your lives, you fools! We Saghan’ îl will level your town and trample you underfoot for your obstinacy. You’ll beg for death . . . !"

Those guarding the gate fell silent, doubting. Down the road, the sun could be seen to glint on shining armour, and banners on spears fluttered as the riders came onward at full gallop. It was a beautiful illusion - an army big enough to overcome the depleted Saghan’ îl forces - and no doubt timed to coincide with the disintegration of the gate.

But how could mere illusion save them now? Where was that wizard? What they needed was more of them exploding fire-stars. Or a lightning bolt or two if he could manage it. Some opined that he was preparing himself for mass slaughter of the enemy. Others retorted that if he didn't do it soon, the mass slaughter would be inside the town, not outside.

In the event, the arrival of the army did not coincide with the shattering of the gate. This had one advantage in that the boiling oil and hot coals were not wasted. Once the casualties were out of the way, the Saghan’ îl set about entering the town, clambering over the mountain of cupboards, tables, trestles, benches and a second-best bed or two.

Behind the advance party came the mob, whipped up to a state of frenzy and keen to exact the maximum amount of pain, suffering and other such "fun". They totally ignored the approaching army, despite its remarkable resemblance to a real one. Their blood-lust was running high and, of course, what didn't exist couldn't 'urt yer. The corollary is that what does exist can be exceedingly painful and, in many cases, terminal, as the Saghan’ îl discovered to their cost.

The forces led by Ardino Eques could hardly have achieved a greater degree of surprise had they been both invisible and inaudible on their approach. They set upon the aggressors with a ferocity which equalled that of the most savage among the enemy. Like Kai and Leon, they knew the ways of the Saghan’ îl.

Within minutes, they had reduced that force by nearly half, and the remainder behaved in the manner of bullies everywhere. Those already inside the town sought hiding places, taking with them hostages where they could; those outside who had no opportunity to flee, threw down their arms and grovelled for mercy.

This left Ardino in an unenviable position. He was a knight of the classical mould, educated in the traditions of chivalry. As such, he could not honourably put to the sword men who had ostensibly surrendered and were begging for clemency. On the other hand, these evil men deserved no clemency, and as captives, would doubtless cause what havoc they could. This could jeopardize the lives of his men.

In the heat of battle, Ardino never had any difficulty in making decisions. There was no room for moral qualms. One did what had to be done and moved on to the next thing. Afterwards was Another Matter. There was time then to consider the ethics of one's actions.

Ardino hated inaction. The mind cluttered itself with all sorts of unnecessary ideas that he'd much rather not be troubled with - like what to do with these misbegotten scoundrels without denting the knightly Code of Honour. It was a nice balancing act and he was about to come down on the side of "No quarter!" when two figures, one of whom he recognized, appeared on the battlements.

"Oi, you in ver tin can!" bellowed the one he didn't recognize. "Eiver we walks out ov 'ere alive, or ver magician gets it!"

The loudmouth was a large, blackavised ruffian with more than a hint of hobgoblin about him. His name was Glitch. He was holding Valarien by the hair and had a heavy knife with a wicked-looking blade pressed against his neck. The wizard was gagged and presumably bound.

Ardino raised his hand and his men obediently ceased whatever they were doing.

"Very well," he called back, "I will provide you with an escort to the Lascan border. There you may go on your way unhindered and we will return with the - er - 'magician'."

"I don't fink you properly understand me, squire. 'We' means me and ver men. We all goes togever. And we takes ver magician wiv us. All or nuffin'. Make yer mind up. An' no 'anky-panky or I does fer 'im . . . Ged it?"

"You leave me little choice. There will be no hanky-panky as you call it, upon my word of honour, but I must insist on escorting you to the border. My people expect no less. And your men must leave their weapons."

"No way. We takes our weapons - or else . . ."

He prodded the wizard's neck with the point of his knife. Valarien winced, but not as much as he had at the mention of the word, 'magician'.

"Then . . . I will have my men load your weapons on to a cart. When we reach the border, I will return them to you."

"Fair enough, squire. Nah, move yer men away from ver gate."


By mid-afternoon, the remnants of Kotar's brigade had packed up their tents and other accoutrements, and were ready to leave. They were sullen and dispirited, and there was a lot of muttering. Of Kotar - the subject of much of the muttering - there was no sign. Nobody was surprised.

Greatly to the disgust of Ardino, Glitch had Valarien - who was thoroughly gagged - spread-eagled and lashed to a framework of tent-poles. Valarien should have been flattered by the degree of precautions which indicated a considerable amount of respect for his powers.

He wasn't. He was fuming at his own unutterable stupidity in allowing emotion to overcome his higher faculties. He was also fuming because it kept at bay the overwhelming feelings of panic at being, for the first time in his adult life, no longer in control of his own destiny. Furthermore, fuming took his mind off the manifest discomforts of his current mode of travel, for the framework had been loaded on to the back of one of the Saghan’ îl carts with the rest of the baggage, and unless he was much mistaken, it was going to be a long and bumpy ride.

end of chapter

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