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CHAPTER ONE, cont'd.

"What's this, then?" Spryte asked in a sly tone, shrinking back to his normal size and reaching out to take hold of the part of Buck that made him a man-Cub. The fuzzy cub blushed scarlet beneath his fur.

"It always does that when you spank me, Spryte, I don't know why," Buck mumbled shyly. "Please don't make fun..." he appealed. His cubdink was very hard, and Spryte's grasp was making it even harder. Spryte's own spritestick was stiffly poking against his snug shorts, but he could wait. The cub, on the other hand...

"Silly, silly cub," Spryte laughed, "You'll be good for nothing 'til we've had done with this," and he gave Buck's cubdink a squeeze that made his furry friend gasp. "Hold on, help is on the way!" he chuckled. Floating upward (sprites can fly when they've a mind to) he plucked a large leaf from the treehome's ceiling, and cupping it in his hands he whispered a slow incantation over it. As Spryte cast his spell, the leaf began to glow brightly between his palms, glistening as if wet. "Pompa!" he shouted, and the shining leaf flew through the air and wrapped itself around Buck's stiffly-waving member. The leaf began to spin around and up and down the cubdink, and Buck stretched up on his toes, grinning.

"Turn round and face the door!" Spryte cried out -- there was enough to clean up already without a sticky mess on his kitchen floor, and he knew that cubs were notorious 'sprayers.' Recently reminded of the comforts of obedience, Buck turned to poke himself through the open doorway as the whirling leaf continued its slippery ministrations. Spryte seated himself again, lounging back in his twig chair to enjoy the view of Buck's well- spanked red bottom-cheeks as the furry cub jounced on his toes in delight. After a minute or two, though, Spryte grew impatient. Some further encouragement was needed here! He rose from his chair, strode determinedly up behind the panting cub, and taking up the bread-board from the table he swung it with a sturdy smack across Buck's red backside. WHAP!!!

"OOHHH!!!" Both the cub's hands flew back to his smarting bottom -- and one pearly jet after another gushed from his cubdink to spatter like steaming dew in the forest gloaming below. The spinning leaf dropped away as if exhausted, and the cub sank back panting into the foliage of the kitchen wall.

"Oh, oh, thank you Spryte!" Buck gasped, smiling in gratitude. "That was lovely, that last part!"

Spryte grinned at his friend. "You seemed to enjoy it. But now, let's investigate this 'big mischief' you smelled that began all the little mischief," he said. "I don't expect you want to sit down anyway, so the broken chair's alright then," Spryte grinned again watching the fuzzy cub vigorously rubbing his spanked bottom. "Can you still smell it?" he demanded.

Rubbing his backside more gently, Buck sniffed at the air, and his eyes widened as before. "It's still there, Spryte," he announced somberly, "And it's getting stronger. It's really, REALLY bad mischief -- it's almost -- wickedness!" the cub finished in a loud whisper. Spryte's green eyebrows arched in alarm. Wickedness?!?!? There had been no real wickedness on Mirror Earth since the Forest Army crushed Serpos the Sorcerer and his sinister forces, centuries ago.

"Can you tell where it's coming from?" Spryte asked his furry friend, as they both leaned through the open doorway high above the forest floor. Buck sniffed again, turning from side to side. "There's a little of it everywhere," the cub said, "But it seems strongest from the North." Even as the Buck spoke, it seemed as if a cloud passed across the sun, dimming the bright morning into gloom. Spryte's pale green face paled even further. The North! Tales of Serpos and his wickedness lingered strongest in the northern part of the Grand Forest, for it was from his frost-rimed fortress in the icy fastnesses of the North that the sorcerer's minions had descended to wreak their badness.

Spryte and Buck withdrew back into the cheery brightness of the sprite's kitchen. "Do you think there could be something really wrong?" the fuzzy cub asked -- his friend looked alarmed, and Buck knew the clever, wise Spryte was not easy to alarm. "Shhh, Bucky, let me think a moment," Spryte muttered, sinking back into his chair of twigs. The cub stared through the feathery leaves around the kitchen door at the dimming morning, unconsciously still rubbing his sore bottom. "I must write to my cousin Forl, the Magister of Sprites," Spryte, announced with a thump of his green fist on the kitchen table that made Buck jump and turn around, startled. "Forl lives on the banks of the Paron River, and that is as far north as any live in this forest. Perhaps he can tell me if there's anything amiss in those parts," Spryte said with a decisive air.

"Friend Cub, climb up to the study with me, and we'll write to Forl of my tingling palms and your twitching nose, and the scent of great mischief that might be -- wickedness," Spryte said, his voice dropping ominously on the final word. Buck dutifully followed Spryte up a ladder of sturdy vines to the next level of the treehome, although ordinarily a visit to the study was an appointment he dreaded. But apparently Spryte would be wielding nothing more threatening than a pen to paper this time! He followed his pointed- eared friend into the comfortable room, walled in smooth brown bark and carpeted with fluffy dry ferns.

Spryte sat down in the big hart's-hide chair at his massive desk, and took a long quill pen and a crystal vial of emerald-green ink from a drawer. "Now, paper, paper, where have I put it?" he wondered aloud as Buck sat down -- rather gingerly -- on the hart's-hide sofa, looking up humbly at the array of paddles, straps, crops, canes and tawses hanging on Spryte's study walls. "Ah, here it is, lucky it didn't fall in!" Spryte announced with satisfaction, picking up a pile of vellum sheets from the partially-ajar lid of the brine-barrel next to his desk, where he kept his rods of birch, willow, and applewood soaking.

Spryte dipped his quill into the ink, and began writing. "To Forl, Magister of Sprites, Greetings from your cousin Spryte of Gebinning," he announced aloud as he wrote -- Cubs cannot read, and the written word frustrates them, so Spryte told the contents to Buck even as he wrote them. "I write to you with some small dismay, for I awoke this morning with an intense tingling of my palms, and well do you know what that portends for our kind: mischief, and great mischief at that. Yet I at first discounted this, perhaps it was merely a passing thing, or the premonition of my clumsy friend Buck the Cub's visit this morning," Spryte continued. The furry cub pouted at being labeled "clumsy," but he had after all broken quite a number of Spryte's possessions in the past.

Spryte again dipped his pen. "The Cub scents mischief as well, and though they do not live in your domain of the forest, Cubs' senses in this instance are as powerful and magical as our hearing." Buck's pout disappeared as he heard his kind praised. "It saddens me to write you," Spryte continued, "that Buck believes he smelled not just mischief, but WICKEDNESS." Here Spryte drew three heavy lines of the emerald ink to underscore the dreadful word. "The tingling of my palms is greater than I have ever known it, so I too fear there is something more than just mischief abroad. If there is sign of anything amiss in the valley of the Paron, send word to me with haste!" he concluded, signing his name with a flourish beneath the letter, and pouring sand from the silver caster onto the sheet to blot the ink.

"Will you send it right off, or wait until night?" the cub asked as Spryte folded the letter and sealed it with green wax. Spryte turned in his chair with a rueful expression as he answered. "I know -- the nightdwellers hate being disturbed for a message while the sun's abroad, but I think this warrants speed," he said. "Hmmm, well, if you don't mind then, I'll be off," Buck said uneasily. Spryte smiled sympathetically; his friend must already be uncomfortable in a room which had so many -- tender -- memories for him, and Cubs loathe and fear the nightdwellers and their slimy nakedness. "Go along then, but come back and have supper with me later; there may be news before the moon rises," Spryte invited. Buck brightened. "Mayn't I bring some wine along, then?" the fuzzy cub asked excitedly. "Yes, yes, wine by all means," Spryte laughed, endlessly amused by the passion of Cubs for wine, "But not so much as last week, or it won't be the paddle this time -- you'll get your first tickling with one of these fellows," and he rapped the brine-barrel with its hoard of supple rods. But the prospect of wine swept away Buck's trepidation, and as he'd never been birched the barrel of rods was an unknown peril, which might be lesser than those he could see on the walls. (He would soon find out differently.) " 'Till tonight, then, Spryte! Good-bye!" the Cub cried cheerfully, bustling away to clamber back down to the kitchen and out.

Spryte sat whistling the edge of the letter against his green lips, wishing the missive could wait until nightfall. The nightdwellers detested being roused from their underground slumbers during the day, even more so to carry out the bidding of any of the Sun People, and most of all to help a sprite! But it was their niche in Mirror Earth to serve those who lived in the light, in return for having the night to themselves. There's no help for it, it must go today, Spryte thought.

He climbed purposefully down and down through his treehome, until he reached the dark room inside the trunk. Tapping the smooth inside of the trunk, Spryte rapped out the code that would rouse a nightdweller for an urgent mission. Minutes later, Spryte heard the slithery rustling that presaged the creature's appearance, and suddenly it rose up inside the dark trunk-space, hissing gently as it breathed.

"What?" the nightdweller demanded curtly, in a wetly-croaking voice. Spryte recoiled from the dank, muddy breath, but held out the sealed letter. "This is urgent, or I would not have wakened you," he said placatingly. "Where?" the creature's voice came again, curt as before, and Spryte felt the brush of its slimy -- hand? -- as the letter was taken. "To Forl, Magister of the Sprites, and quickly," Spryte responded. The nightdweller hissed loudly. "We do not go to the River," it announced hoarsely. Spryte's alarm was abruptly back in full force. "You have always gone to the River," he answered. "No more," the creature croaked. "Why? What has happened?" Spryte demanded. "We do not go to the River," the nightdweller repeated.

Now Spryte's alarm was mixed with anger. The nightdwellers must obey, and obey they would! "You MUST deliver the letter," he said firmly, "It is not a request, but an order." The creature hissed loudly again, and its dark mass rose up close before Spryte as if to confront him, then sank back again. "Only this time. Never again," it croaked, and sank into the earth with the letter before Spryte could utter another word.

Filled with foreboding, Spryte climbed back to his study and sat pondering. What could be wrong in the valley of the Paron that the nightdwellers would refuse to go there? And his palms -- they itched and tingled maddeningly, surely there was some great mischief at work! That discomfort he could relieve, at least temporarily, Spryte thought, patting the brine-barrel full of well-soaked rods. He'd need to be able to think clearly, and clear thinking was impossible with the tingling distraction in his palms crying out to mete out discipline. I can't worry any more about this until I hear word from Forl, Spryte thought, but in the meantime he would cure his palms. "Ah, Buck the Cub, my poor, silly friend," Spryte mused aloud. "You'll bring wine, and you'll have too much, and then, my cub, it's time for your first taste of a well-soaked birch rod," he said to the empty room, plunging his hand into the cold salt water and drawing forth a bunch of slim, supple branches tied together at one end. Spryte flourished the rod whistling overhead, and drops of brine flew sparkling like jewels through the shafts of sunlight. Yes, this one would do -- the branches so thin they were switches, not too heavy, and so soaked they were flexible as green wood. A pity Buck's bottom will have to suffer, Spryte thought in anticipation, but I must get some relief for my hands.....


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