Crown Infernal


In which King Erik extends his hospitality
and a tale grows with the telling

In the event, the barbarian's senses were sufficiently awake to give warning of the attack before it came. He had an arrow nocked with the speed of thought.

" Wierga ! " cried the wizard.

His staff appeared in his hand.

"Markeria wiris ! "

As he spoke, there was a faint crackle in the air around them. This was rapidly drowned in the clamorous bellowing of a dozen or more brigands. They would have fallen on their prey with great ferocity had it not been for Valarien's spell. As it was, they bounced off the protective circle in showers of sparks and howls of pain and fright.

The villains were not possessed of any great intellectual capacity. They were smart enough, however, to recognize that greater numbers were not going to win the day on this occasion. With angry threats they withdrew, nursing their wounds. Leon, restoring his arrow to its quiver, exulted in their easy victory.

"I wouldn't rejoice too soon," Valarien warned. "They know where we are now, and may yet - um - catch us unaware."

"What can ruffians armed with clubs do against us?" Leon scoffed.

"I can think of a number of things," the wizard replied. Recollect that I know more than you do about my - um - abilities."

"Oh. We'd better stay awake, then."

By late afternoon, the ravine was petering out, and the group was within a couple of miles of their campsite of the previous night. The gloom deepened, both inwardly and weather-wise. The rain, which had eased off a little, had resumed with renewed vigour and the level of the river had risen substantially. It was all very disheartening.

Rather than search for a suitable crossing point that day - with the probability that it would then be too dark by then to risk the manoeuvre and with the brigands awaiting the chance of equalling the score - it was decided to call a halt for the day.

Valarien set up his bubble spell around the campfire so they could dry out, and Kai and Leon set about an early supper. Ewan disappeared on a mission of his own.

Sleep came uneasily and was broken several times by disturbances in the bushes. One notably loud crash afforded the nightranger, who was on watch at the time, particular satisfaction. After this, the forest fell silent for several minutes until more normal night-time sounds filled the vacuum and Ewan felt he could relax a little.

The next morning dawned clear and bright, and the misery of the previous day seemed long away. The water in the river had dropped during the night and although still above its previous level, was no longer in spate. Ewan did an early patrol of the surrounding area and returned for breakfast looking remarkably pleased with himself.

When they broke camp, he remained behind on foot muttering about having something to finish and would rejoin them later on the other side of the river. Sure enough, several hours later, he stood before them among the trees on the north bank, slightly damp and with a distinct air of elation.

He declined to say anything about his activities and Kai, for one, felt certain he didn't want to hear about them. The ways of nightrangers were anathema to him. He wondered seriously if the end really did justify the means but came to no firm conclusion.

The westward trek continued and the sinuous chain that was the Snake Range grew noticeably lower, raising hopes that a route to the south did indeed exist. As the river and the mountains converged, the rising terrain became gradually more broken and the forest more open, dwindling eventually into scatterings of birch trees.

It was five days since the attack of the brigands. In all that time, they had encountered no other living soul, although they had felt the presence of unseen watchers. There was still no palpable sense of evil but the feeling was disquieting nevertheless.

By afternoon, the course of the River Rinnan, now little more than a broad stream clattering over its rocky bed, curved towards the south, and high above, a shoulder of the mountain dipped towards what looked remarkably like a track way. Moving white dots on the mountainside attested the presence of sheep which were probably responsible for the track.

Leon's sharp eyes noticed a smear of green beside the highest visible point of the track, and also what appeared to be a thin wisp of smoke rising from a large boulder on the other side.

This was puzzling but did not seem to be immediately threatening, which was more than could be said for the body of men who appeared suddenly from behind a steep, granite outcrop some way ahead, while high above soared a white bird of prey.

Leon had his bow drawn in anticipation but held his shot. Although the riders were closing rapidly, none was reaching for any of the weapons with which they were well equipped. Indeed, their leader was raising his hand in a gesture of greeting. Leon's first alarm abated but he remained suspicious, his bow-string taut.

"Hold, friend," grinned the leader, a large bluff man with a shock of golden hair and a full red-gold beard. He was an imposing figure in his burnished brazen breastplate and sitting astride a magnificent black stallion.

"We mean you no harm, " he continued. " Usually, we claim a levy from those who pass through our realm but on this occasion, we waive all charges in recognition of the signal service performed by your band."

Kai and Valarien exchanged puzzled glances and Leon lowered his bow. Ewan preserved his usual impassive appearance. The golden giant gave a great bellow of laughter at their patent mystification.

"Perhaps I should charge 'em, after all?" he quipped to his henchmen, "or maybe modesty forbids the acknowledgement of such a piece of work? Then again, was it so trifling a skirmish to such mighty warriors as to have been forgotten already?"

Light dawned as the recent trouble with Erik Bloodaxe's brigands leapt to mind. They must have passed into another kingdom somewhere along the way whose monarch was grateful for the removal of some of the pestilential rogue's men.

Then the giant's horse, clearly impatient to be off, sidled round just enough for them to register for the first time that, strapped to the man's back, was a large double-headed axe. Was this, in fact, 'king' Erik himself? He certainly carried himself like a king. If so, was he just playing with them before— What? It were well to be very cautious here.

Valarien suddenly became aware of an air of expectancy and that all eyes were upon him.

"Um - " he began, " um - thank you very much for your kind - um - reception of us. We are - um - grateful for your - um - generosity in - um - waiving your - um - levy, your - um - majesty?"

"Well said," guffawed the majestic one, "now why don't you all come along to Eriksheim, and we'll have a real bash to celebrate. Ale flowing like a river, buxom wenches a-plenty - that'll suit you, I'll warrant," he added with a sly wink at the barbarian who grinned weakly.

Valarien scowled.

"We thank you for your kind offer of - um - hospitality," he replied calmly, "but regretfully we have some pressing - um - business to attend to across the um - mountains, and must make all haste."

This drew scowls from Ewan and Leon.

"Nonsense!" exclaimed their would-be host, noting the scowls. "The sun will soon be behind the mountains, and you don't want to be benighted up in the Sundering. Much better to spend the night tucked up snug in the Bards' Hall with plenty o' victuals and good company - and you shall tell us 'The Tale of the Slaying of Ketil Trout'— or someone can."

Valarien groaned inwardly. There seemed to be no option but to go along with this human juggernaut and his retinue. He hoped the tap-room twins would have the wit to restrain themselves from taking the offered hospitality to excess but had little expectation thereof. All that remained was to accept the invitation with as good a grace as he could muster and join the train of King Erik, for it was indeed the much feared Erik Bloodaxe who was their host.

Kai, also, was not altogether pleased with the turn of events. The nearer he approached to his homeland, the keener was he to catch sight of Castle Malleckay towering above the city of Gyldenburg, and to root out the evil that had taken up residence there. Now, they were riding at a swift pace in the opposite direction and the detour would no doubt cost them at least an extra day - maybe more. His face had taken on a grim expression whose import was not entirely lost on the two would-be bacchantes.

As they rode, Leon, always the most out-going of the four, fell into conversation with one of Erik's company, a chirpy young man named Ulf who regarded his master with an almost slavish adulation.

On the journey, he learned that Ketil Trout had once been Erik's right-hand man. He had grown greedy and treacherous. Not only had he diverted a sizeable portion of levies into his own purse, but he had also attempted to murder the King and take his place.

Erik had recovered from the effects of the poison, however. With a small group of loyal followers, including Ulf's father who had been slain in the ensuing combat, he had managed to regain control. Ketil Trout - rot his liver - had escaped, along with some two or three dozen of the King's men who had previously thrown in their lot in with the wrong man and feared to return.

Erik's forces had been seriously depleted by the conflict and the subsequent desertions. This had all happened some eight years ago and it had taken considerable time and effort to recoup the losses. During this time, Erik had acted as a father to Ulf and to several other lads orphaned at the same time.

Kai, overhearing the worshipful effusion that followed this disclosure, recognized a degree of astuteness on Erik's part that was quite lost on the guileless thought processes of the barbarian.

During the rebuilding process, Erik's efforts had been seriously hampered by the activities of Ketil Trout and his followers. He had been ravaging the land, extorting excessive levies and attacking innocent travellers, all in the name of King Erik. Despite the best efforts of the King's men, the traitor had remained at large and Erik's name was generally vilified.

The King's present jubilation was the result of the news borne to him, that his four guests had not only slain Ketil Trout, but had also accounted for a large number of his men and the rest had scattered in confusion. Leon was more than a little surprised at this, since it didn't concur with his memory of the little contretemps.

Kai, on the other hand, was giving the nightranger a very long hard look indeed. Ewan returned him a bland open-faced look that was as innocent as a choirboy's and just as misleading.

Although the sun had slipped behind the mountains when the King and his entourage arrived in Eriksheim, a garrison town of log or stone-built dwellings, it was still quite light. In the centre of the little town was the Bards' Hall, an immense barn of a place built of rough-hewn timber and roofed, like most of the buildings in Eriksheim, with thatch. Here, King Erik Bloodaxe held his court.

Despite the time of year, a large fire blazed in the centre of the principal chamber. At one end was a daïs and at the other, steps ran up to a minstrels' gallery. The whole place was set out with benches and trestle tables that groaned under the weight of food and drink upon them.

The King led his guests up to his own table on the daïs as the hall filled with his soldiery, then gave the signal for the feasting to begin. Throughout the banquet, Erik questioned the four about their exploits, while a brightly garbed young man sitting opposite listened intently.

Little hard information was forthcoming because Ewan, uncommunicative at the best of times, was exceedingly loathe to divulge the secrets of his calling and the other three knew nothing of the nightranger's activities after the initial encounter with Ketil Trout. Valarien was delighted to observe the admirable restraint which the two piss artists were showing. He was encouraged to hope that they had at last learnt their lesson, and that all would be well. They had indeed formed the resolve to maintain a modicum of sobriety, at least during the present enterprise.

Alas! for such laudable intentions. What none of the four had bargained for, was the remarkable strength of the ale brewed in the Untamed Lands. It was, moreover, so smooth and slipped down so easily, that it was easy not to notice how much was being consumed.

Kai alone, who could carry his liquor, managed to retain a grip on the proceedings, and watched with increasing despondency as his companions fell under the spell of John Barleycorn. He, alone, could see clearly, and knew well enough that all appeals for caution or restraint would fall upon deaf ears at best. At worst? The word, 'riot' came to mind. Even Valarien was looking suspiciously cheerful.

With the passage of time and ale, the men grew friendlier and the buxom wenches lovelier - and tongues grew looser. It was not long before Erik, life-long friend, it seemed, and boon companion, called for hush, and the showily dressed young man, now known as their dear friend Riordan, ran up the stairs, lute in hand.

To Kai's acute embarrassment, he entertained the company to 'The Lay of Ewan the Mighty'. The other three had their parts in the tale - heroic, naturally - but the lay went on to list in great detail the wondrous manner in which the nightranger had despatched Ketil Trout and three and thirty of his rascally knaves.

Kai was startled by the sum total of those who had met their end at Ewan's hand, then concluded that, as the 'lay' bore little resemblance to the happenings so far as he recalled them, the whole thing was grossly exaggerated —wasn't it?

Kai's embarrassment did not end with the song. He was next treated to the spectacle of Ewan's being carried around the hall, shoulder-high, and surrounded by a gaggle of giggling wenches, all striving to grasp hold of the hero. What really made him cringe was the way Ewan was responding to their advances. The circus finally disappeared behind the screen below the minstrels' gallery. Mighty cheers and shrieks of laughter drifted out from the screen.

Kai raised his eyes heavenward as Leon ran off to join in the fun with a girl on each arm. Valarien, too, was putting up little resistance to a doe-eyed young thing who was making up to him in a very pert manner.

He felt a tap on his shoulder. Turning his head, he met a smacking kiss from a chesty blonde whose eyes devoured him whole. From there on, the situation went rapidly downhill and degenerated into a splendidly debauched carousal that lasted for three days.

end of chapter

Index Page

Chapter 34