Crown Infernal


In which Ewan recalls uncomfortable memories
and Leon finds a playmate.

"Well, I - um - did warn you... "

"Not exactly inconspicuous, is it?"

"Oh, I don't know. Green's not a bad colour for camouflage... "

The three gave way to unseemly mirth, and the infuriated troll stumped off down the road in disgust. The others rode after him, leading his horse which he was now too big to ride.

"Don't worry, it'll only last a couple of hours, and by then the - um -potion will have worn off," Valarien reassured him, but Ewan wasn't talking.

They had been travelling steadily across the low softly swelling hills between the Amarelle and its tributary, the Ys. Now, as they rounded a gentle spur, the Ys came into view. Had the river been in spate, they would have had to make a lengthy detour. In the summer months, it was possible to take the direct route. Here the river, although of a considerable size already, broadened into a shallow slow-flowing meander that was easily fordable when the level was low.

Ewan strode discontentedly into the water, still brooding about the wizard's ineptitude and the teasing it had provoked. The rest followed in his wake. He had almost reached the shingle on the farther shore when Valarien's spell shimmered out and the macaw stalked stiffly out of the water trailing a very bedraggled tail.

If the macaw was scarlet, the air was blue. Kai wondered curiously whether the string of expletives was culled from the vocabulary of the normally phlegmatic nightranger or whether the macaw-guise had its own private memory store.

With difficulty, Ewan took off and clattered up on to his horse's saddle, spooking the animal slightly. Leon snickered to it, and it calmed down.

"Does your technique work on parrots, too?" Kai asked.

The macaw gave him a baleful look that spoke louder than the previous invective. Leon laughed and they rode away from the Ys into rolling countryside where the farming was more mixed. The vineyards and orchards were interspersed with pasture land.

It was several hours before the potion wore off and another half hour after that before anyone noticed. Ewan wasn't exactly sulking, but was even less inclined to talk than usual. The impassive exterior hid a sensitive soul that had taken many sharp knocks in earlier years.

A half breed, abandoned to the care of his human grandmother, he had found himself unacceptable to both elven and human races. While he hadn't been ostracized precisely, he hadn't been welcomed either. Frequently, he had been the butt of ridicule and practical jokes. Neither tears nor temper had had any effect and so he had cultivated an ability to be unobtrusive and had wrapped himself in layer upon layer of dispassion to protect his damaged inner being from further hurt.

The hurt remained however, and the mocking laughter of his companions had sliced keenly through the callosity to the tender part beneath. He supposed, considering his recent behaviour with detachment, that he had come to regard those companions as friends, particularly the joyfully carefree barbarian.

Hearing them laughing at him had broken into the hateful memories of his youth, particularly that time when Con and Jago and Gwyn had feigned friendship and then— Betrayal. Their cruel laughter echoed down the years. Of course, it wasn't quite the same. The amusement was friendly now - wasn't it? Still, it was better to avoid more heartache. He wrapped another layer around himself and retreated inside it.

Supper was a lack-lustre affair. No one felt much inclined to talk, each thinking on the way ahead. Valarien's planned route was to take them through the great forest of Ravisonne. To be sure, no evil was known of the forest, rather the opposite. It was said that a hidden power protected the trees, and that those who respected the forest would leave it refreshed and invigorated.

Nevertheless, it would take them five or six days to pass through, and woodland, however friendly, was always a good place for ambushes, as Kai and Valarien knew to their cost. On the plus side, their wolfish shadow was injured, and they had crossed running water, so perhaps, by the time the enemy had sorted itself out, they would be long gone. They still posted guards, though.

The forest was indeed a delightful place - light, airy, peaceful, and overwhelmingly green. Trees of every variety and every age were well spread out, allowing the sun to create moving patterns that danced mesmerically on the velvet-smooth turf below. Flowers and ferns grew in abundance adding their fragrance to the faint breeze that set the leaves sighing gently overhead. A kaleidoscope of butterflies visited the drifts of blossom that curled around the tree trunks. Herds of deer grazed in the sunny glades and shady glens that abounded in the forest. Birds sang in concerted harmony and occasionally the sharp-eyed barbarian glimpsed a dryad peeping shyly through the foliage. Valarien especially felt that he had found paradise.

The greatest danger seemed that one would stay there forever, forgetting all that had gone before. It was clearly not a serious danger, however, for there were not many people dwelling in Ravisonne. One who did, a wizened old elf of great age whom they met on their second day, explained the ways of the forest to them.

All were welcome so long as they obeyed the forest lore. Many folk passed through, but few stayed for very long. They found it too great a challenge to adapt to that lore, for none might chop wood, light fires nor harm any inhabitant of the forest. To do so was to anger the Guardian. To anger the Guardian was - well, best not to find out— So most would-be settlers moved on after a while - assuming that they hadn't challenged the lore - and the Guardian.

The forest certainly exercised a beneficial effect on the four companions. Amicable relations were soon restored and despite an absence of hot food, all felt stronger and fitter. They were also more optimistic than they had felt for a long time. Perhaps the forest healed bruised spirits too.

On the evening of the fifth day in the forest, the track passed the entrance to a beautiful glen. A high waterfall at the far end dropped its misty curtain into a sparkling pool below which in turn tumbled over mossy rocks into a bubbling burn. It seemed an idyllic place to camp for the night.

Ewan, putting practicality before aesthetics, cautioned against it. He pointed out that they must be near the edge of the forest by now. Nothing untoward had happened since the hunting of the wolf-thing and they were getting over-confident, he said. Apparent safety was no excuse for carelessness. A whole army could creep up on them in the night and no one would hear a thing over the noise of the waterfall. Reluctantly, they moved on further down the track till the clatter of the water had softened to a gentle murmur.

It was not till then that they realized their water skins were almost empty. Leon offered to run back to the stream to replenish their supplies while the others set up camp and prepared supper. It was a pleasant evening and Leon was in no hurry to rejoin the workers.

He intended to enjoy the walk, whistling merrily as he went. As he entered the glen, he stopped whistling abruptly, as did the birds, who flew off to the higher branches. The glen, which was previously occupied by the inevitable deer, now had another visitor.

On a rock hanging over the pool, stood a skyclad damsel - exquisitely fair - with long tresses that shone like burnished copper in the declining rays of the sun. She had not seen him. He ducked behind a purple-flowered mallow and watched as she executed a flawless swallow dive into the pool. Her clothes, he noticed, were folded in a tidy heap on a fallen tree trunk.

The rôle of voyeur was an unfamiliar one. As she waded out of the pool, unconsciously displaying her manifest charms, he found it a very pleasant one - not that he could remain inactive for long.

She mounted to her rock again and performed another graceful dive. Leon snaked towards the fallen tree. The girl surfaced in a swirl of bubbles, her hair floating around her white shoulders like a shimmering russet mantle. Her confusion, when she noticed the interloper, was delightful. She looked at the barbarian, then at her clothes, then back at the barbarian, who smiled appreciatively.

"Please . . . my clothes?" she asked.

"Certainly," Leon responded, picking up her garments, "but I shall charge a small fee for their return... "

"What do you mean?"

The barbarian's smile broadened and a knowing twinkle sprang to his eye.

"Only a kiss from your pretty lips, sweetheart. One for each item," he added.

She looked at him speculatively.

"Very well," she agreed, lowering her eyelids demurely over emerald eyes, "but you must come into the water to collect them."

Leon needed no second bidding. He shrugged himself out of his clothes with all possible haste. Following the girl's route to the rock, he dived in. He rose to the surface and gasped. The water was exhilaratingly chilly. He looked around the surface of the pool. There was no sign of the red-headed girl. Her clothes were still there. So - she wanted to play, did she?

It aroused his hunting instinct. Back towards the waterfall, he thought he saw a tell-tale trail of bubbles. A strong swimmer, he launched himself into the depths after her. He hunted among the weeds until bursting lungs sent him hurrying upwards. There he saw her. She was by the tree, gathering up not only her own clothes but his also.

"Hey, what're you doing?" he yelled in consternation.

For reply, she smiled seductively, blew him a kiss, then disappeared through the trees.

Leon cursed his stupidity as he surged towards the bank, and set off in pursuit. He was hunting in earnest now. In truth, there was no way he could face the others until he had made good his foolish error.

He tracked her for nearly half an hour before he spotted her again. Her drying hair, streaming behind her, now looked a deep, glossy mahogany in the fading light. He was amused to note that she was still naked, the whiteness of her skin starkly visible against the dark foliage - almost as if she wanted to be found...

His heart leapt with anticipation. She seemed to be limping slightly, and as she turned to look back at her pursuer, he noticed a half-healed gash at the top of her thigh. He felt both sorry and pleased - sorry that she had sustained an obviously painful injury - pleased that he must now overtake her very shortly, and then—

"I claim my clothes, and my kisses, lady," he said breathlessly, as he caught up with her.

"Your clothes you will have to find for yourself," she said softly, with a smile that was oh, so provocative.

The little minx, he thought. She wants me to teach her a lesson.

"My kisses, then, lady," he said aloud, stepping towards her.

"But you no longer have my clothes," she pointed out, standing her ground as though daring him to touch her.

He remembered the Guardian.

"I mean you no harm, lady."

"Then why are you brandishing your weapon at me?"

She giggled as he looked away abashed, spreading his hands over the unruly member. In seductive mode again, she regarded him coyly from under lowered lashes. Then she ran her eyes over him - every inch of him it seemed. The look was almost hungry. He had the disconcerting feeling that the tables had been turned on him and he stepped back a pace.

She laughed again, soft and low. The sound was sensuous and infinitely alluring. Somehow, he found his arms around her and his mouth pressed hard against hers. She responded with a passion both disturbing and inflaming. At the back of his mind, there was the disquieting feeling that he was losing control of the situation. His body was certainly beyond his control by now as he pushed her on to the springy turf - or she pulled him on top of her. Whatever. The effect was the same.

He pushed deliciously inside her— and found himself flat on his back.

How the Hell did she do that? She must be stronger than she looked. She was riding him vigorously now. Leon looked into her eyes, and saw they were glowing fierily. He was suddenly very afraid.

As he watched in fascinated horror, her lower jaw elongated, taking the bottom part of her face with it. The jaws grew fangs fully as long as his middle finger. The glossy hair became a tangled, matted red mane that was terribly familiar but even mortal terror was not enough to over-ride the passion that was consuming him now.

Then it seemed like he came in torrents— felt as though she were extracting every ounce of fluid from his body and he was on fire. The experience seemed to be draining his mind also. He opened his mouth in a silent scream. No sound would come.

From her - its? - mouth came an eldritch howl, long and triumphant. Now, it had done with him. It threw back its head, mouth agape, ready to sink its teeth into the rigid form beneath it and rip out his throat.

end of chapter

Index Page

Chapter 30