Which tells of the aftermath of the visit to Eriksheim
Dawn crept softly into the Bard's Hall on the fourth day as if fearful of waking the slumbering inhabitants. Several people groaned, turned over and went back to sleep. Others groaned, threw up, turned over and went back to sleep.
Kai lay in a huddle of bodies under the King's table wondering why his head felt as if it had been stuffed with straw. From there, he went on to wondering who he was - and why he was - and where... ? He opened his eyes and still had difficulty in getting to grips with reality. A number of visions flashed past his inner eye and stopped at one that was both strange and familiar.
Kieran! Hell's bells, what had they been playing at? He extricated himself from the heap and stood up Then he sat down again sharply and closed his eyes. The world continued to spin - and not just on its axis. He groaned.
When he ventured to open his eyes again, he found he was sitting on Eric's ornately carved chair. Throne? He felt he ought to move and after a few minutes, attempted the standing up manoeuvre again, only more carefully this time. It worked, and gave him a tremendous sense of achievement.
He staggered towards the door, passing Valarien on his way. The wizard was out cold with a silly grin plastered on his face and showing an awful lot of leg all the way up to his navel, as was the girl with whom his limbs were entwined. Kai shut his eyes and turned his head away. The world swam again. At great risk to his equilibrium, he bent down and adjusted his friend's robes to a more decorous position. As an afterthought - while he was still down there - he performed the same office for the lady, then continued on his way to the great outdoors to relieve himself.
The fresh air hit him like a brick. His stomach took things into its own hands. It voided its contents, narrowly missing an unwary tomcat that shot off down a nearby alley with an indignant screech. Belatedly, Kai apologized.
He recalled another morning, not so long ago, in a little Lascan village. What was it he'd promised himself then? Something about never again... He could hardly criticize the other two - he was no better than they. Wherever they were. He supposed he'd better go and look for them.
Leon had finally crashed out under Eric's table too. He had a black eye and three parallel scratches ran down the other side of his face so, clearly, he had had a good time. Ewan was sleeping like a babe behind the screen. Both strongly resented being dragged back into the land of the living - and suffering...
It was impossible to wake Valarien, of course, so the other three set about stowing their gear and moaning. All the while, Valarien slumbered on. They were about to return to the hall with the two-fold intention of seeking out the king to thank him for his hospitality and collecting the wizard, like so much dead lumber, and stowing him on his horse with the rest of the baggage, when they saw the king himself striding up the main street towards them. His hair and beard were dripping wet and he grinned broadly when he saw them.
"You look as if you could do with a nice cold dip to brighten you up," he bellowed cheerfully, the words echoing painfully around the skulls of his guests. "Just follow the beck along Main Street to the edge of town and carry on to Rigskew Fall. It'll give you an appetite for breakfast."
"Er, thanks," Kai muttered as Erik disappeared into his hall. So much for the intended speech of thanks, and regrets for their urgent departure. Still, it probably wasn't such a bad idea at that.
"Think we'll take Valarien with us, too," said Ewan, with a malicious glint in his eye.
A quarter of an hour later, the trio - on foot and with Valarien lolling over Wildfire's neck - had reached the edge of a little wood. A dry well-used track ran beside the beck into the trees. The wood was open and airy, allowing shafts of misty sunlight to reach the short, rabbit-cropped grass, foxgloves and columbine below.
It is doubtful whether the walkers even noticed the beauty around them. They were certainly not in the best state to appreciate it. Even less appeal had the bird song all around them, which sounded a strident cacophony in their ears. Rigskew Fall, when they reached it, was less a waterfall than a cascade, with the chilly water from the mountains tumbling noisily over a steep rock fall into the silvery pool at its foot. It did look inviting, in a kind of masochistic way.
Kai stripped off and plunged in, leaving Ewan and Leon to unload the still sleeping wizard.
"The Serendipity," said the nightranger with a significant look at his boon companion as he disrobed Valarien. "Grab his ankles."
As they carried the skinny elf to the edge of the pool, it suddenly struck Leon how much his attitude to Valarien had changed in the dozen weeks since he had met him. Then, he had been in awe of the wizard's probable cantankerous nature and fearsome powers. Now, here he was, swinging the fellow out over the pool - once - twice and
The wizard hit the water with a splash and a scream that put the birds to flight. A beautiful cosy dream suddenly disintegrated in an icy shock that almost deprived him of breath. He sank beneath the surface, arms and legs flailing wildly, setting a myriad bubbles coruscating in the pale sunshine. When his head emerged at last, gasping and spluttering, the two on the bank were doubled up, partly with laughter and partly with the agony of the laughter-induced aggravation of their present sufferings.
The laughter stopped abruptly as the sound of a wizardly incantation sliced through the cool air.
Fortunately for his intended victims, Valarien did not realize he was not alone in the pool until the waters closed over his head for a second time, neatly cutting him off in mid-spell.
" Nice one, Kai!" Ewan called, gingerly divesting himself of his clothes. " I owe you for that. Thanks!"
He and Leon joined the other two in the water, which wasn't too bad - once you got used to it. Quite invigorating, in fact, though not so pleasant as to make them linger too long.
Valarien rode back to the hall in a monumental sulk, leaving the malefactors behind. Erik had been right about a cold dip stimulating the appetite. However, while the other three tucked into breakfast with a will, Valarien merely toyed with the food. He looked so thoroughly forlorn and miserable that Kai decided there must be more to it than the horse-play at the pool and determined to pursue the matter at a more suitable moment if his friend did not soon buck up.
Valarien did indeed make an effort towards cheerfulness when the king declared his intention of riding with them to the Sundering, but Kai was not fooled and contrived to ride alongside the wizard. Gradually, he drew Valarien a little ahead of the escorting party before broaching the subject.
Initially, Valarien tried to pass it off with a nonchalant laugh, but the laugh sounded forced and so did the nonchalance. Kai tried again.
"It's plain that something's troubling you, friend. It might help to talk about it."
Valarien sighed dolefully. "Perhaps so," he agreed, and fell into an agonized abstraction for some moments before continuing, his head bowed and eyes fixed on Wildfire's silky mane.
"It's not easy," he temporized, and paused again. Kai preserved a respectful silence. "Before we left the Eyrie, I - um - made a vow to be faithful to Peri's memory for - um - the rest of my life. Yet again I have failed her."
He raised his eyes heavenward in anguish and bit his lip hard as a single tear slid silently down his cheek.
"I'm sure your lady would understand - knowing the circumstances - and forgive," Kai reassured him.
"Doubtless," Valarien agreed fervently, "but I cannot forgive. At the very first temptation, I - um - succumbed - and with a human girl, too," he went on in self-reproach.
He seemed to soften slightly.
"Atalie seemed . . . different somehow, not like the other girls. So sweet and gentle..."
Kai was trying to reconcile this vision with his own observations of the wizard's temptress when they were disturbed by a raucous laugh from behind.
"Did she, though?" Erik guffawed. "Hot stuff, our little Atalie. I noticed she was giving your wizard chum a good time too, the first night, but I got the impression that Sigrid was his favourite."
Valarien looked stupefied.
"Sigrid? First night?" he breathed, horrified. "Who's Sigrid? And how long have we - um - tarried?"
"Sigrid was the dark-haired girl I untangled you from this morning, and three or four days, as far as I can guess."
"Then it was not a dream. I thought I was dreaming of Peri."
He sighed again, more dolefully than before. His eyes, dry now, seemed to be focussed somewhere in the middle of nowhere and his expression was unbearably sad. Kai cast around in his mind for some means of offering solace, but could find no words. The bawdy banter and lewd laughter from behind, mostly from Erik, did nothing to help.
At first, Valarien seemed unaware of the salacious reminiscences, then something broke through the reverie. A scowl descended on his brow and he kicked his horse into a furious gallop. Kai turned to pass on the scowl to the lechers behind before urging Sadique into a gallop also.
They were well ahead of their escort by the time they reached the track that led up towards the Sundering, though the rest of the party had speeded up a little, too. Wildfire's pace began to slow perforce as the path became steeper and strewn with rocks.
The view, as they neared the pass, was impressive. A deep narrow gash seemed to cut the mountain chain in two. Kai recalled a legend, heard in his boyhood, of how the giant, Cnossian, had wrestled with the great serpent, Sorgwyrm, for a thousand years, until he espied, enmeshed in the branches of a gigantic redwood, a huge sword, which he named, 'Needful'.
Placing one foot on the serpent's head, he withdrew Needful from the tree. With one mighty blow, he severed the neck, whereupon Sorgwyrm was transformed into stone to remain forever as the Snake Mountains. Looking at the pass, Kai could almost believe it.
Valarien, still in lead, suddenly reined in sharply, Wildfire's hoofs stirring up a cloud of dust. Kai had ridden up beside him before he saw the cause of the wizard's alarm.
"Oh, shit," he murmured.
A cloud of sickly greenish-yellow vapour was oozing out of the pass and rolling slowly down the mountainside towards them.
"Looks like they tracked us down," Kai commented with sinking heart.
"I'm not sure," Valarien said thoughtfully. "It is one of the - um - lesser magics I think, such as the Dark Lords would - um - scorn to use. It will not do to be complacent, nevertheless. Perhaps our - um - 'king chum' may be able to shed some light on this phenomenon."
Erik could indeed. He laughed uproariously when he saw the reason for their delay. Valarien ground his teeth.
"Naught to worry about," he assured them jovially. " 'Tis only Gammer Otta. She guards my 'back door' here, that leads to the wild lands of the south. She's a witch."
With that, he rode ahead, waving an arm and yelling, "Hey, Gammer! These are friends. Get rid of that stuff, there's a good girl."
Obedient to the stentorian call, the cloud began to thin and curl back on itself. As it did so, a veil seemed to drift across the sun and a chill smote the watchers. The vapour darkened and turned a greasy glaucous grey, building up into a towering column. Slowly, the vapour coalesced into humanoid form as the king hastily rejoined his men.
"What the hell ?" he demanded with less than his usual self-assurance.
"About right there," Valarien remarked grimly.
Erik's eyes bulged. "What does it want?"
"Us, probably," came the terse reply.
High above, Kai noticed that the bird of prey was back. Right now, that seemed the least of their problems. The Thing had grown to some sixty feet in height and solidified into a crudely man-shaped creature with dark leathery grey skin and deeply sunken eyes that glowed like sullen furnaces.
It bent down and scooped up a handful of sheep that were huddled in terror on the little stretch of greensward at the top of the track. These it stuffed whole into its great maw, revealing a multitude of ragged teeth.
At this, the majority of the escorting troop broke and fled back down the mountainside. Only Erik and four of his men remained with their guests who watched the nightmare creature, transfixed.
Valarien was feebly, and not very hopefully, stammering out the spell of protection as the daemon turned its eyes upon them.