Crown Infernal


In which Kai is called to account
and issues a reckless challenge

When Kai came to himself again, the world was still black. For one horrible instant, he thought he was back outside the gate of Hell - or one of them anyway. His head felt as if it was inside a bell which someone was hammering with great vigour. The smell around him was none too pleasant either, and there was the occasional pattering of little clawed feet - rats . . .

He found he was lying on a pallet. Gingerly, he felt the back of his head and winced audibly as his fingers encountered a impressive swelling. His hair was matted with dried blood judging by the feel of it.

"Kai, are you awake?" asked a voice that was both familiar and unfamiliar.

"Yes . . . Who . . . ?" Kai croaked, his voice hoarse from lack of water.

"It's me, Leon. Are you all right?"

"Leon . . . ? Erm - oh. Oh yes. I seem to remember . . . something— "

He closed his eyes. There didn't seem to be much point in keeping them open.

"Am I all right?" he continued after a while. "That depends on what you mean by 'all right'. I take it we're both still alive? If that's a desirable thing to be, then I'm all right, otherwise— "

"There's some water here somewhere," Leon said. "I guess you could do with a drink. It seems O.K."

"Please," Kai asked weakly. He heard Leon scrabble about for the water jug, then the barbarian was beside him, easing him up and supporting him as he drank. He managed to resist the urge to gulp it all down at once.

"Thanks," he said, then "How long have I been out?"

"About a day and a half, as near as I can tell."

"Ye gods!" Kai exclaimed, wincing again as his voice echoed round inside his head, setting the 'bell' jangling again. "Ouch! What happened? Where are we now?"

"How much do you remember?"

"Not a lot. I remember riding up to a company of dwarves . . . I thought they might help us to find . . . to find - Hell! I can't remember his name!"


"Va . . . Val . . . Var. Damn it! I can't remember his name either . . . The wizard's friend. Didn't I tell you?"

"Oh, yeah, Jankle or something."

"No, that wasn't it." Kai was seriously concerned. The harder he tried to remember, the further away the information seemed to drift. He wondered if he'd have remembered his own name if Leon hadn't called him by it.

"Well, never mind that now," said the barbarian impatiently, after a heavy pause. "It's bound to come back to one of us sooner or later. Anything else you can remember?"

"Only that I thought I'd done for us both. What happened after?"

"Vojur - their leader - tapped you on the skull with the thick edge of his axe."


Leon laughed. "I think he was trying to save your life, actually."

"Oh? Friendly sort was he?"

"Friendlier than the rest. They wanted your blood right there and then."

"Yes, I remember that!"

"Once you were downed, they went off the boil a bit. Vojur pointed out that while you were alive, you could be - erm - interrogated. They liked that idea."


"They seem to place a lot of faith in Boleti's abilities."


"Boleti - seems to be their inquisitor."

"You sound remarkably cheerful about all this. I gather they have no particular interest in you?"

Leon laughed again.

"I wouldn't go that far. I'm stuck in here with you aren't I? Anyway, I tried to explain that it wasn't like it seemed, but with that damned tabard, they weren't buying it."

"Spare me the 'I told you so's, please!"

"We-ell . . . The next thing I knew, we were in the valley you spoke of."


"Erm, I guess I annoyed them some . . ." Leon said ruefully. "Anyhow, we arrived here towards sunset. They've taken all our gear, by the way. They were most impressed by the ironmongery you were wearing under that damn' tabard. Naturally, they assumed you stole it, so that's another one they've got chalked up against you."

"You really know how to cheer people up, don't you?"

"So they say. It's a gift I have."

Leon flashed an impish smile. Kai snorted.

"Anything else I should know?" he asked.

"Not much. They brought us down here while they decide what to do with us. At least they fed us - well, me anyway."

A flickering light appeared in the grill of the door and a key grated in the lock. The jailor entered bearing a torch which he slid into a bracket on the wall, and a bowl. He was large by dwarf standards, with a face like rough-hewn granite.

"Evenin' master Leon," he said with a grin that cracked his features like a minor earthquake. "I brought you some more grub."

"Many thanks, good master Gazda," replied the barbarian.

Kai took the opportunity to look around. As he had already surmised, they were in a narrow cell with a pallet at either side. Straw was strewn over the floor at the farther end. He became aware that he was tethered to the wall by one ankle, Leon likewise. Their fetters had long chains - enough to prevent escape, but not designed to hamper movement otherwise. He looked up and found the jailor eyeing him with disfavour.

"I see yer 'friend' is awake at last, master Leon. I suppose 'e wants feedin' an' all."

"I expect so," Leon replied, placidly.

"I better fetch some more then - else 'e'll be a-pinchin' o' yours . . . Us Radniki is allus very 'orspitable, ya know," he added conspiratorially to Leon, "even to the likes of 'im."

He jerked a thumb towards Kai with a look of distaste and went out leaving the torch behind.

"Well, if that's ''orspitality', I'm a fried chicken!" said Kai indignantly.

"Don't knock it. The food's quite good, actually."

Leon was tucking in with all the zeal of the true barbarian.

"Careful, 'friend', you're beginning to develop the jail-bird mentality," Kai warned.

"You would know about that, would you?" Leon asked through a mouthful of whatever it was he was eating.

Kai choked.

"Well, this isn't the first time I've been deprived of my liberty, I admit, but I don't make a habit of it."

"Too smart, huh?"

The barbarian's eyes twinkled in the torchlight. Kai grinned appreciatively, as Gazda returned with another bowl and a jug of water. He thrust the bowl into Kai's hands without a word and set the jug down on the floor.

"Thank you," Kai said automatically.

"Yeah, thanks, master Gazda. That was very good."

"You're welcome, master Leon," replied the jailor, taking the empty bowl. "Unlike some," he growled, and took the torch as he left.

Half an hour later, as near as they could judge in the darkness, Gazda returned.

"I've come to fetch 'im for the 'earin'," he announced, slotting the torch back in its bracket.

Kai blinked up at him.

"On yer feet, you," he ordered as his charge showed no inclination to move.

"The name's Kai," said Kai frostily, struggling to make his limbs obey the command.

With Leon's help, he succeeded, feeling distinctly unsteady.

"You sure that was just water?" he asked flippantly to cover his trepidation.

"Right, now turn around an' put yer 'ands be'ind yer," the jailor instructed, producing a pair of manacles.

Leon recalled their first encounter with a faint suggestion of déjà vu, and his heart went out to his companion.

"You won't need those, master Gazda," he said quickly.

"I'm sure it's good of you to say so, master Leon, but orders is orders," the jailor responded grimly, snapping the manacles shut round Kai's wrists, and unlocking the chain from the wall.

"Good luck, friend," Leon whispered, with unwonted seriousness.


The hearing took place in an imposing chamber before a Council of dwarf Elders. These austere personages, five in all, were seated behind a long table at the far end of the chamber. To one side of the table, a scribe sat at a writing desk. On benches along the sides sat a number of younger dwarves.

Another table was placed centrally before the elders. On it were displayed the Saghan’ îl tabard, the hauberk of dwarf mail, Kai's sword, his two throwing knives and two other daggers. His cloak and his saddlebags were also set out with their contents neatly laid out beside them.

Kai was escorted up to the table where he took his place between two grim-faced dwarves, bristling with hardware. Glancing at the display, he noted with mild satisfaction, that the dwarves had not taken all his gear.

The leader of the Council banged his gavel and cleared his throat.

"This court is now in session," he announced in sonorous tones. "We are gathered here to inquire into matters concerning the deaths of five of our brothers at Miran Uska Pass, and the capture of one of those responsible. Prisoner, you will give your name."

"Kai," answered the prisoner, outwardly calm.

"Who is your master?"

"I am."

"You do yourself no favours by being obstinate. I say again, who is your master?"

"I serve no master. I came to seek your aid against the Saghan’ îl on behalf of the people of. . . of. . . I'm sorry, my memory was affected when I was hit on the head. It's a little town south of the mountains," he finished lamely.

"You remembered the - Saghan’ îl - was it?"

"They are my enemies of old. It is my most recent memories that are . . . incomplete."

"He is a gutless traitor, Lord Jovan," cried one of the onlookers from the side. "Hear how he betrays his friends to save his own skin!"

Kai's eyes blazed.

"If I were free, I’d make you eat your words— right down to the stop at the end!"

"Silence!" roared Lord Jovan, bringing down his gavel with a thunderous crash. "I will not tolerate these unseemly outbursts. Master Glasno, if your testimony is required, you will be notified. In the meantime, please do not take me for a senile old fool. I am well aware of what this - man - is about, thank you."

Kai stood erect and tight-lipped, looking straight ahead. The dwarf subsided, muttering under his breath.

"We would know more of these - Saghan’ îl."

"They are the forces of Archduke Zervan of Sharestan to the far south. They have left their homelands as a mighty host and settled in Volasnia. From there, they have been sending out raiding parties across the border into Lascany, destroying all that stands in their way. That is why I came. Va . . . my friend in the town I mentioned, has a friend among your people. Him I seek to aid me in engaging your help."

"And what is his name?"

Kai hung his head.

"I cannot remember," he sighed.

"You cannot remember," echoed Lord Jovan in patent disbelief. "Perhaps you can remember a little better how you came to be wearing the livery of this Lord Zervan, or has that conveniently slipped your memory also?"

His sarcasm drew a faint titter from those along the sidelines.

"No. That memory is etched deep. I came across a raiding party some nights ago. They were bragging about what they had done to their latest victims. These are brutal men, my lord, and must be stopped."

"They must indeed," murmured the Council leader, grimly.

'Starting with me,' Kai thought bitterly.

Ignoring the interruption, he continued.

"I slew these men— "

Here he was interrupted anew by gasps of mock admiration.

"I am not proud of the fact that I slew them in their sleep," - someone booed - "but had I not done so, others - innocent people - would have been cruelly butchered!"

Kai found he was shouting now, and Lord Jovan called him to order.

"The country was crawling with Saghan’ îl," he continued in calmer tones, "and I thought if I disguised myself with one of their tabards, I might manage to slip through the pass in safety. I expected to encounter some of the Saghan’ îl there."

"Here you interest me greatly, Kai," put in Lord Jovan. "Did this ploy work?"

"It was not put to the test, my Lord. I met Leon, the barbarian who was taken with me, and he knew another route through the mountains. We met no one."

"Then why did you not remove your 'disguise'?"

"I. . . forgot I had it on," Kai whispered.

"I did not hear that," Lord Jovan grated in a voice that said he'd heard it very well indeed.

"I said I forgot I had it on."

“Had someone hit you on the head before, then?”

The chamber erupted in hoots of derisive laughter, which echoed round the lofty vault for some minutes before Lord Jovan called for order.

"Next we come to your armour," he announced. "A fine - I may say exceptionally fine - piece of dwarven mail. Indeed, I have never seen finer workmanship. Perhaps you would entertain the court with your tale of how you came by it?"

"It was made for me personally some five years ago by Master Yiren at Urga."

There were gasps of genuine astonishment at this. They had clearly heard of the great master armourer of the east even here. At last, Kai thought, they must see that I'm not what they think, but his hopes were rapidly dashed as Lord Jovan asked coldly,

"And where did you hear that name?"

Kai was accustomed to keeping his past life pretty much to himself, but he was nettled by the attitude of disbelief.

"From the Emperor Tamujin, when he introduced us," he replied.

There was a tremor of slightly uncertain laughter at this.

Lord Jovan looked thoughtful.

"You must stand very high in this Emperor's esteem," he remarked.

"I had just saved the life of his grandson," Kai explained. "In token of his gratitude, he commissioned Master Yiren to fashion for me a coat of dwarven mail such as would turn any blade or missile. That is his work."

"Of that at least there can be no doubt," confirmed the councillor. "The runes upon it declare it to be so."

This came as news to the onlookers, who craned forward the better to see the workmanship of the master craftsman.

Lord Jovan continued, "Now perhaps you could explain the rest of the inscription - 'Made by Yiren of Urga for Caspar of Q’izzan, named The Preserver'?"

"I was known as Caspar at that time," Kai explained, and was unsurprised by the contemptuous noises from the sides.

"Yet you told the Council that your name is Kai. Are you now admitting that you have lied?"

"Not as such, no. As I said before, I know the Saghan’ îl of old. Several months ago, in Ashq'arat, my forces were heavily defeated by Zervan's son, Vash’târik, though Vash’târik suffered for it. He has sworn vengeance against me, and I changed my name to hinder his search."

Jovan looked inscrutable. He exchanged a few muttered words with his fellow Councillors. The greybeard on his right took up the cross-examination.

"Your saddlebags contained quite a collection of unusual articles," he stated. "We are interested to know their purpose."

"I admit, you have me there," said Kai. "The vials contain restorative draughts and such like, the round grey stone provides light in the darkness when no other light can be found and the leaves, when chewed, will keep away sleep. Of the rest, I cannot remember their purpose, for Valarien gave them to me before I— Valarien! It came back!"

Then he noticed the more than usually stern expressions on the faces of his inquisitors, and wished it hadn't.

"Val - ar - i - en?" repeated the grey beard. "That name has an elvish ring to it."

It was the tone of voice he might have used if he'd just thrown back the bedclothes and discovered that a rat had crawled in and died there.

"That's probably because Valarien is an elf," said Kai defiantly.

"Have you got that, Master Scrivener?" the greybeard asked with distaste. "Elf-friend."

"I have, my Lord Shirok," the scrivener confirmed severely.

"Your cloak, too," said Lord Shirok, addressing Kai again, "appears to be of elvish origin?"

"That is correct, likewise my sword," Kai responded, his eyes looking a challenge at the Council.

There were more hostile rumblings from the sides. He seemed to be sinking more deeply than ever, yet as hope faded, the glimmer of an idea came to him. He pursued it with a will.

"My sword, too, was a gift from a grateful sovereign - the Emperor of the Higashi people - after I played a part in putting down a rebellion that threatened to plunge the country into chaos. It is an enchanted sword."

The hubbub increased, and Lord Jovan again called for order. Kai ploughed on doggedly.

"Its name is Kennoseigi, Sword of Justice. It can never be used against a man of honour. If you think I lie, then use my sword against me - strike off my head. Let us see justice at work!"

"Aye, off with his head!" came an impassioned chorus.

"Avenge our brothers!" others cried, and still more called for death to all traitors, liars, cowards and other such defamatory names.

It took Jovan a long time to restore order, but eventually calm returned, albeit a tense, brooding calm, as before an approaching thunderstorm.

"I call your bluff. Master Vojur, I think yours is the greatest interest here," Jovan announced. "Step forward, please."

The dwarf seated beside Master Glasno stood up and bowed to the Council, then went to the table and picked up the sword.

"I have one - last - request," Kai put in. "At least remove my manacles. I would not face death trussed up like a coward."

He glowered at Glasno as he spoke.

"This is not unreasonable," Jovan agreed. "There is no way he could escape."

This done, Kai knelt down and bowed his head. He heard his sword hiss from its scabbard, and prayed that he had not miscalculated.

end of chapter

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