Crown Infernal


In which the reader learns more about Istvan and his Eyrie.
A tale of base treachery is told and plans are made.

It was not all life in the sunshine for Kai and Leon. They became involved in planning the attack on Istvan's Eyrie because of Kai's friendship with Istvan. It had given him a degree of inside knowledge of the fortress, including Istvan's "back door".

It was decided to follow the foothills of the Starkamen Mountains eastwards to the River Desni, recruiting more fighters from other dwarven delvings on the way. They would remain on the right bank until they reached the confluence with the great river Jasna. This latter they would cross by the Gorecki Bridge. A little further upstream, the Jasna was joined by the little River Levi which they would follow towards its source in the Torath Sulari.

There were a number of delvings there too, whose inhabitants might also be persuaded to join their endeavour, or at least to provide more detailed information about the fortress. There was good reason to believe that such information would be forthcoming, for although Istvan was human by birth, he was dwarven by upbringing.

One bitterly cold winter night nearly fifty years ago, Istvan's mother, heavily pregnant, was found wandering in a dazed condition in one of the valleys of the Sularin dwarves. Who she was, nobody knew, nor how she came to be there. The dwarves who found her, carried her, more dead than alive, back to their dwelling, where she was brought to bed of a healthy son. Her own condition being severely weakened, she soon succumbed, leaving the dwarves to care for her child. This they did for nearly twenty years, teaching him dwarven crafts and fighting skills, at both of which he showed both aptitude and interest.

He had often wondered about his real family - who they were and if any still remained - and plagued his foster family with questions which they were, of course, unable to answer. Though there seemed little hope of following a trail so cold, he determined to leave the mountains and search for his roots.

He was gone for many years, and when he returned, it was with a respectable fortune, a sizeable bodyguard and a large number of retainers. He had decided to build a dwelling place suitable to his present prosperity and wished it to be among those who had cared for him throughout his childhood without thought of reward, that they might share in his good fortune.

Despite having spent the greater part of his formative years underground, being human, he preferred the fresh air and sunlight above ground. He was not beyond compromise however, and set about creating his citadel part outside and part inside the mountain.

As the years went by, the delving within the mountain grew and grew until it resembled a small town, housing Istvan's people and many of his friends among the dwarves. That part of the fortress on the outside of the mountain was self-contained as Istvan's personal residence.

Kai knew, however, that there was a "back door" leading through the inner workings and down to a concealed exit by the side of a narrow pass. There was also a good chance that these workings had been connected to the original dwarvish settlement on the north side of the mountains. If so, it could be used as a starting point for their incursion.

Kai was to lead the initial assault because of his intelligence of parts of the interior of the fortress. He had drawn numerous maps of those parts with which he was familiar. These were for circulation among the militia when they returned.

It was Kai's foremost intention to dispatch the Archduke - and Vash'târik too if he were there - on the principle that if you cut off the head, the rest of the animal will die. Without the brains and the unifying force of Zervan, the Saghan' îl would, he hoped, scatter to the four winds with the intention of saving their own miserable lives.

Junak and his forces returned nearly a week after they had left, and reported a successful mission. As they had approached the Miran Uska Pass, they had seen such sights as had whipped up a blood-lust in the dwarves. They had caught a couple of raiding parties unawares and had destroyed them utterly.

When they reached the pass, which was eminently defensible, they had run into stiffer opposition. This lasted until Junak, wielding his mighty axe as only a dwarf can, had fought his way through the press of what could only loosely be termed "humanity". He slew their leader - presumably Nellek - and the remaining Saghan' îl, finding themselves without direction, were plunged into confusion. In their attempts to escape the fury of the dwarves - and the vigorous Junak in particular - they fell to fighting each other.

It went against the grain with the dwarves to hack down the retreating forces from the rear, but Junak had declared no quarter. With the memory of the atrocities of their enemy was still fresh in their minds, they were not inclined to hold back. Nellek's forces were eliminated to a man, while the dwarves had lost only five dead and nineteen injured.

Three of these were seriously injured and had been taken to a small settlement on the edge of the Saghan' îl's area of destruction. Here they were being tended by grateful villagers whose lives and homes had been saved in the very nick of time by the sudden and unlooked-for descent of the dwarves upon the raiders.

The next day was spent in finalizing plans. This also gave the dwarves a breathing space to recover their strength, and on the following day, they rode forth. They had some success in recruiting other Starkamen dwarves, though not so much as they had hoped. Those of the eastern delvings had had little or no experience of the Saghan' îl. Consequently they were reluctant to join a venture which not only took them away from their lucrative employment but also promised very little gain for themselves. This infuriated Junak. How could they place so small a value on peace and life? It could so easily be shattered if the Saghan' îl were not driven out.

Kai was more philosophical. Had their own companions not felt Saghan' îl steel themselves he wondered whether they would have been quite so keen for this long expedition. He was not dissatisfied with their present force. Perhaps they were small in number relative to the enemy, but the Saghan' îl were, apparently, well scattered around the Eyrie.

Moreover, these troops were tried and tested in battle, full of fighting spirit and, above all, they were dwarves. He could not wish for a better company. Unwilling volunteers, even were they to double the size of their army, would not add substantially to their chances of success. Of this, his expectations were quite sanguine, being pinned on the destruction of Zervan.

As they rode, he thought of Valarien and his planned " - um - enterprise" in Gyldenburg with "a small - um - elite group of warriors". His mind and heart flew across the ocean to that beloved place. Well, the sooner this was done, the sooner he'd be off. He wondered idly where the architect of the enterprise was, but there was no way of knowing.

Leon, too, had disappeared, albeit temporarily. A creature of the wild, he had been fidgeted even more than Kai by their incarceration and enforced idleness in the dwarven halls. Now, he took every opportunity to throw off all restrictions and indulge his love of hunting. He ranged far and wide, returning each evening with an assortment of game to vary their rations, and occasionally with intelligence about the route ahead.

It took them over a week to reach the Torath Sulari, but where they had least expectation of support, they had the greatest. The Sularin dwarves were more than keen to join the undertaking. Their experiences had roughly parallelled those of the people of Lascany.

The relation of the tale fell to one, Sofian by name, who had dwelt in the delvings of Istvan and was one of a very small number of survivors. Under any other circumstances, it would have been a most pleasurable experience. To be sitting in the Great Hall of the Sularins in the flickering firelight and listening to a master chronicler recounting heroic exploits was an experience to treasure - but this was a bitter tale of treachery and torment:

"'Twas the Great Festival of Winterdeep,
when dwarves return unto their fathers' folk
to toast good fortune and set care aside,
and celebrate the new year's birth in wine.
From Istvan's delving to this hall they came,
little knowing the grief that lay ahead
through Krevli's treach'rous tongue and greed for gold
and some imagined grievance 'gainst his lord.
This discontented dwarf with aspect grim
had quit the fastness ere the winter-wight
had cast his mantle o'er the mountain's peak,
and, swearing vengeance, to Campesti went.
There, in a shady tavern and his cups,
his grievances he aired both loud and long.
Among his hearers was a jackal spy -
Lord Zervan's trusted killer, Glitch by name -
who tempted him with promises of gold
if he would turn informer 'gainst his friends.
And so for filthy lucre, he betrayed
the secrets of the Eyrie to the foe— .
While dwarves were celebrating Winterdeep,
the jackals gathered by the mountain pass
where opens Istvan's hidden lower door,
and waited for their lord to let them in.
Meanwhile so high above, atop the cliff,
Lord Zervan sought for shelter from the night
in guise of harmless trav'ller far from home,
and with a beauteous lady on his arm.
Istvan, benevolent and courteous host,
did welcome them and bid them share his board.
They dined in amity, then called for song;
the Lady Perizade brought forth her lute,
and, in her singing, cast her evil spell.
For this, my brothers, was no gentle maid,
but pow'rful sorceress who moulds the minds
of those she would control. E'en dwarven kind
could not resist the charm of that clear voice
that rang through the hall like a crystal bell.
There we sat ensorcell'd, seeing, hearing,
yet unmoving - life suspended................
How bitter were the orders that she gave,
for our undoing was by our own hand.
Alack! that one so fair should be so cruel!
Sladak she sent down to the lower door
to give admittance to the jackal horde.
Next, on Istvan, her magic arts she work'd . . .
Calling his spirit from his human frame,
she captured it within a golden urn.
The empty shell of him that we called lord
was taken to the highest tower of guard
and laid in state upon a silken bier;
the golden urn, she gave into my care,
that I must bear it to her chosen room,
and there must lay it safely by her bed.
That done, I did return as in a dream,
but ere I reached the hall, good Tabor came.
When I responded not, he broke the spell -
right brutally did he beset me till
unto my proper senses I did come!
Within his quarters, well beneath the hall,
he had escaped the sorceress's spell,
all unaware of danger close at hand
till, hearing cries of mayhem from below,
he sounded the alarm, but far too late—
He now must save himself and bring the news.
By secret ways unknown to the betrayer,
did Tabor and myself and sev'ral more
make our escape to freedom as you see.
Now my tale is done, but is it ended?
Evil deeds like these should be amended . . . "

The narration was concluded amid murmurs of agreement rather than the usual enthusiastic cheers and calls for more. As the ale sank in the tankards, the visitors were brought up to date with events since the seizing of the citadel.

Sporadic attempts had been made on the fortress by the back door, now no longer secret, but this had always been well guarded. No one had contemplated an attack on the front gate. Suicide missions are all very well if they achieve their purpose, but the Eyrie was impregnable against a frontal assault. While the Saghan' îl remained in possession of it, they constituted a threat to the dwarves' safety.

There had been several reprisal raids already, and the dwarves lived in constant fear of a full invasion. Something had to be done, and done decisively. The problem was, what? Everything that could be tried had already been tried - and failed . . .

Kai had been hoping for more information about the Eyrie from the Sularin dwarves. What he had heard was not helpful.

"There must be some way," he said finally, "probably something right under our noses, too."

He brought out his sketch map of Istvan's part of the fastness.

"I think we should collate all the information we already have, and see what shows up. Different eyes see things in different ways. In particular, I'd like an up-to-date set of maps of the whole community."

"I'm not sure that's altogether possible," Tabor responded. "The delvings are extensive, and many of those - most of those, alas - who were involved in the later workings, are no longer with us."

Kai looked thoughtful.

"That could well hold the key we're looking for. Everyone knows his own area, but possibly not the whole delving. If all those who have any knowledge whatsoever - no matter how small or how seemingly out of date - can draw a map of that part, perhaps we can compile an overall set of maps of all levels. If we can compare them with the outside terrain, we may find something we've overlooked, simply because it didn't seem important."

Now the dwarves looked thoughtful. It seemed a very long shot. After all, they never got lost underground, so they must surely know all the salient features. Still, a long shot is better than none. They left the Great Hall discussing the project and all who had something to contribute, whether they were escapees from the Eyrie or had merely visited it on occasions, went up to the Hall of Archives.

It took two days to produce the maps Kai required and considerable time afterwards was spent in close scrutiny of the finished work. It proved to be time well spent. There was not one, but six possible access points to the delvings behind the Eyrie, and a startling number of concealed doors and passageways.

Of these six points, three were located in areas of new workings which extended far towards the northern delvings east of the pass. This suggested the intention, at least, of linking up with them.

The fourth possibility was a concealed passage which meandered in serpentine manner for a long distance without actually going anywhere and the fifth was a secret door on the north side of the passage that lead down to the "back door". Nothing was drawn on the other side of the door, but it seemed reasonable to infer that there was another bolt-hole leading to an exit higher up the pass.

The last option was in an old abandoned working to the east, the most distant of which extended high above the rest of the delving. An elderly dwarf came forward who had lived there at the time of excavating and subsequently returned to one of the northern delvings. He recalled that this part of Istvan's delving had had to be blocked off after it became flooded during a terrible storm back in the early days.

"Won't that route be flooded still?" Kai asked.

"Oh no," replied his informant. "We couldn't afford to risk water bursting through the seal at a later date and flooding the rest of the delving. It was touch and go at the time, so before we closed that part off, a drainage shaft was dug."

"So there could be two ways in?"

"I would think so, yes, but neither of them will be easy."

An intensive search was mounted for the other ends of the unfinished delvings. There were some misgivings about searching the pass, as there was usually a squad of Saghan' îl guards outside the entrance to the "back door".

"No problem," said Leon blithely.

He had been unusually quiet during the proceedings, but now found he had a contribution to make.

"I'll soon have them running for shelter," he promised with a broad wink at Kai.

The latter was a little unsure about this, but Leon was as good as his word. Out in the open air once more, he gave a blood-curdling howl that set the hairs on the backs of his hearers' necks on end. Twice more he howled, then waited. Minutes passed, then grey shapes were spotted, loping towards him.

The dwarves were all for running for shelter themselves, but the barbarian bid them stay. The wolves converged upon him, and sat on their haunches in a half circle as a great, battle-scarred animal approached him and looked up into his face. Leon knelt on one knee, fixing the wolf with an unblinking stare. It gave a low whine and rolled over on to its side, exposing its throat and belly to its master. The Master rubbed its belly vigorously then patted its shoulder, giving a sharp yelp.

The wolf sprang to its feet and Leon took its great head between his hands, holding its eyes long in his gaze, then he broke off and uttered another howl. The wolves were on their feet in an instant and, following their leader, bounded off up to the pass.

"I don't think the Saghan' îl will bother us now," the barbarian grinned. "Jackals are no match for wolves!"

They spent two days searching both inside and outside the mountain. In that time they found the postulated second entrance in the pass, two delvings in the northern side close enough to Istvan's newest delvings to be knocked through, and a natural cave system whose final, immense cavern almost coincided with the serpentine passage.

It was decided that the first three routes into the Eyrie should suffice to mount an attack on the intruders. Kai and Leon were to take one force through the upper entrance in the pass which would lead directly into the citadel, where Zervan would be their prime target. Junak, with Tabor and the second force, would follow one of the inner connecting passages. Their aim was to neutralize the sorceress. The rest would take the other inner passage.

Again covered by the wolves, the two humans with their dwarven companions entered the hidden tunnel that led to Istvan's main escape route. The air was stale and oppressive as though it had been left undisturbed for many years and resented the intrusion. Leon, in particular, found it suffocatingly claustrophobic, but received little sympathy from the dwarves.

He was even more agitated when, after a long trek, they reached an apparent dead end. His relief on being told that this was the door indicated on the map turned almost to panic when Kai doused their only light, leaving them in pitch blackness.

Kai enquired somewhat acidly if he really wanted to give the Saghan' îl advanced notice of their presence, as a dwarf flicked the opening mechanism. Cautiously, he slid the door a little way aside. A thin line of light, very faint but growing brighter, penetrated the darkness. It was accompanied by the sound of marching feet, not quite in step, and grating voices moaning about the change of duty - and wolves.

At least it will be a very short spell on duty, Kai thought savagely.

They waited until the Saghan' îl relief guard had passed, then slipped out of the doorway. Unlike the narrow passage they had just left, this was a good six feet wide, with crisp fresh air. Kai sent a detachment to the "back door".

With avenging dwarves behind them and Leon's wolves in front of them, Kai didn't think they would survive long. The image was a balm that soothed the lacerations left in his memory by his first encounter with the Saghan' îl. He smiled a grim smile, and led the rest of his force up into the fortress itself.

end of chapter

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Chapter 17