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CHAPTER TWO:
A STRANGE SUPPER


As the last rays of the setting sun blushed the treetops of Gebinning in the Grand Forest with purple, Spryte looked out from his kitchen doorway to see the lights begin twinkling in the leaves of his neighbours' homes. It was getting dark, and the table was all laid for supper, but his friend Buck the Cub was late. Spryte had almost begun regretting having prepared a lavish meal, when he heard a heavy pattering and then the familiar, bristly rustle of Buck climbing upward.

"Where've you been, you're late to supper," Spryte began -- but the Cub sat abruptly down on the floor, clutching his wine-jug, and burst into noisy tears. "What's all this? Whatever is the matter?!?" he demanded. It wasn't at all like his furry chum to cry, except of course when spanked.

"It's your n-neighbour, T-tylsyn," Buck hiccoughed between sobs. "H-he's been just awful S-spryte!" Tylsyn, "awful"? Spryte thought in confusion. The elderly sprite was a fine old gentleman; far from being awful, he was courtly in an old-fashioned way. "Awful how?" Spryte asked, patting the cub's furry head to soothe him.

Bucks sobbing subsided to sniffles. "He wouldn't let me pass, that's how! He shook his fist at me as I left here this afternoon, and he was waiting on the path for me when I came back tonight," the cub said, rushing his words to tell the tale. "He had a burning torch in his hand and he said he'd singe me bare if I didn't clear off! And he called me a dirty little hairy beggar, and said 'You're not wanted here, this part of the Forest is for sprites, so go back to the dirty Lair with the rest of your kind,' and then he chased me down the path for half a mile, I'll bet!" Buck took a deep breath and his tone was indignant as he finished, "I had to go all the way 'round by the old path, and I hate that, Spryte, it was getting dark and the slimers come out there soonest, and now I'm late to supper and you're angry!", and with that he burst into tears again.

"Now, now, Bucky, I'm not angry, here, pull yourself together," Spryte soothed, squatting down on his haunches next to the cub. But Spryte was deeply troubled -- Buck hadn't the wits to invent such a story as this, so it must be true at least in part. "Come, sit here at the table and have a cup of your wine," Spryte calmed, helping Buck to the newly-repaired twig chair and setting a large pewter goblet in front of him. "I'll just go have a quick word with old Tylsyn and clear this all up, and then we'll have a nice supper!" he said, and was rewarded with a small smile from the distressed cub. Spryte floated out the door to the sound of wine gurgling into the goblet.

Tylsyn's treehome was just a few trees away from his own, and Spryte arrived in moments, tapping courteously on the old fellow's closed door. "What? What? Who's that?" a querulous voice called from within. "It's Spryte, come for a word with you, neighbour Tylsyn," Spryte replied in his friendliest tones. "Spryte? Spryte!" and the door flew open to reveal the greyed old sprite brandishing his walking-stick wildly!

"You -- YOU! It's you who asks those dirty outsiders in here, you -- traitor!" Tylsyn wheezed, his face purpling with anger. Spryte was shocked speechless -- was this ranting oldster the same gentle, polite neighbour he'd known so long?!? "But, friend Tylsyn, it's just my friend Buck the Cub! He wouldn't harm a leaf of your tree!" Spryte asserted.

"I don't care if he's the King of the Mountain, he's an outsider!" the old sprite raged. "There are bad times coming, you mark my words, young fellow, and it will be the worse for those who don't keep to their own kind! Now be off!" and with that Tyslyn slammed the door right in Spryte's face.




Spryte floated away, distressed and bewildered. What could have so provoked his elderly neighbour? And what did the old sprite mean by "...there are bad times coming"? Spryte was more troubled than ever; the scent of wickedness in the wind from the North, and now his kindest neighbour turned into an intolerant bigot? He could only hope for good news from Forl at the Paron.

Returning to his own home, Spryte alighted in the kitchen. His furry cheeks flushed with wine, Buck leapt up eagerly if somewhat unsteadily. "Didn't I tell you, Spryte? He was awful, wasn't he?" the cub asked, seeing the troubled expression on his friend's green face. Spryte sought to smooth the incident over. "He's old, Bucky, and he's not himself today, that's all," he said firmly. "Let's have supper and talk about happier things!"

"Hooray! Supper!" Buck cried out, plumping himself down in the kitchen chair, which creaked ominously at the assault. Frisking from cupboard to table and back again, Spryte soon had the board laden with delicacies -- white bread spread thickly with fresh butter; grapes glistening with dew; a fragrant cheese; shining apples in a turned wooden bowl. "Yum, YUM!" the cub whooped in delight. "I have something special for you, too, my fuzzy friend," Spryte said, carefully pulling a hinged pan from the fire. Protecting his long green fingers with a heavy cloth, he opened the pan, and a cloud of redolent steam poured out -- to reveal a scarlet retsbol, the succulent shellfish from the sea to the East that all Cubs relished passionately.

"Oh. Oh! Oh, Spryte, you're wonderful, OH, thank you so much!" Buck gushed in gratitude, his eyes wide at the crimson magnificence of the luscious retsbol in its pool of steaming juices. Spryte smiled as the hungry cub fell to, wrenching the four large claws from the cooked beast and gnawing on them with gusto. The retsbol had been an absurd extravagance, but Spryte felt rather guilty about his plan to birch Buck so as to relieve the tingling of his palms, and the costly shellfish was a subtle recompense for what he would put the cub through. It was also quite salty, which helped ensure that Buck would drink enough wine to get tipsy and deserve punishment, Spryte silently mused as he munched the sweet grapes, watching the cub sloppily devour the steamed creature.

Spryte was slowly sipping his own wine when an ominous slithering sound outside made both cub and sprite sit up and cock their ears. "Uck! A slimer!" Buck said, licking his fingers. "Now, cub, I've told you not to call them that," Spryte scolded. "Well, they're icky, I don' like them," Buck responded with a slur in his voice. "Go and wash up, then, there's nothing left there but shell and you're a sticky mess," Spryte said. "I shall," the cub said, getting to his feet unsteadily, "And I'm staying in the washroom 'til the horrid thing's gone!" And with a very impolite (and loud) belch, he stumbled out of the kitchen.




Just as the splashing of water became audible from the washroom, a squishy-toned scratching on Spryte's kitchen door alerted him to the arrival of his visitor. He rose and opened the door wide, and the glistening black nightdweller shrank back from the bright glow of the fire and candles. "No light! No light!" it croaked, and Spryte rushed to extinguish the candles in their brass holders, and scatter the fire into soft-glowing embers. As the light dimmed, the creature slithered into the room like a mound of pitch-black gelatin. "Here," it muttered wetly, holding out a vellum packet sealed in violet wax.

"I thank you, my friend," Spryte said gratefully, taking the letter from the nightdweller. "No thanking," the glistening creature croaked, "No more letters to the River," and it shrank out of the door and away before Spryte could say anything further. His brows knitted in disquiet, the troubled sprite laid the letter on the table and built up the fire to a comforting blaze, then lighted a spill at the flames and set the candles burning again. As he sat down to open the missive, Buck called out from behind the washroom door.

"Ish it gawn yet?!?" Spryte heard the cub mushing his words. "Yes, yes, it's gone, for pity's sake come out of there!" he called back. In a moment, Buck appeared, swaying in the kitchen. "Well, ish it th' answer?" he slurred, pointing at the packet on the table. Spryte was secretly amused, but concealed his amusement behind a stern tone as he addressed the tipsy cub.

"Too much wine, Buck!" he barked. "You've befuddled yourself as usual, I don't know when you'll learn your lesson!" The Cub grinned fatuously, belched again, and said "But Shrpryte, it wash such goo' wine..." "Well, my fine fellow, we'll see how good you think it was in the morning," Spryte countered in mock anger. "Now go to bed, you drunken Cub, I'll deal with you tomorrow!" he ordered. "Mmmm, bed, ohhhh tha' soun's nice..." Buck muttered with his eyes crossed, before turning and stumbling away down the leafy corridor. Spryte gritted his teeth in exasperation, listening to the tipsy cub bang into the walls of the hallway on his way to the bedroom, then sighed as he heard the heavy "Foomph!" of Buck falling into bed.

Spryte drew a candle close, and broke the seal of the letter, the violet wax crumbling onto the table as he did so. He unfolded the thick cream-colored sheet, and read with growing trepidation:

"To Our Cousin Spryte of Gebinning, salutations from Forl Magister of Sprites:

Cher Cousin,

Your letter came not unexpected, and the portents of your itching palms and the Cub's sniffings are dire. All is not well here on the banks of the River."

Spryte drew the candle closer, the better to read his cousin's spidery handwriting.

"The old tales of Serpos are told anew, and folk bar their doors at night. Autumn has come early here, and some say they have seen one or more of the Wanderers in the chill mists, though we thought them destroyed for all these many years. It may be naught but foolishness, for the crops this year were lean and the cattle bore but lightly, and folk are wont to blame any ill on what they cannot see and do not know. But others say the poor harvest and barren cattle are the work of the Sorcerer of old, though his armies are destroyed and his terrible crown melted centuries past."

The Wanderers -- why, they were just an old-wive's-tale to frighten children, Spryte thought in dismay. They'd been destroyed, along with their master, when his fearful Crown was melted. Why should the sprites of the Paron Valley to the North be talking again of the Wanderers? He looked down again at the letter to read on.

"These last weeks I, too, have wondered if there is more than mischief abroad. My servants complain that I spank them for nothing, but my palms itch so that I cannot help myself. And yet, it brings no real relief; in hours the itch returns, and I must discover yet another hollow reason to tan the bottom of some serf or servitor.

If the scent of -- dare I even write it? -- WICKEDNESS -- has drifted so far south as Gebinning, then we are at dire straits indeed. I beg you, cousin, to be watchful and wise. But come not to the River! If wickedness there is as of old, then it will strike here first, and I do not wish you besieged with the rest of us. I am loath to counsel you so, but you might better seek the wisdom and advice of the Faeren. Our peoples have long been estranged, yet they are a wise and purposeful race, and if trouble comes they may be our greatest hope. I have myself this day written to Grynnis of the Faeren, seeking his counsel.

Take care, cousin, and do not write again: your dark messenger spat at me, and threatened much if you presumed again upon its pledge. I will send word anon..."

And Forl's signature was scrawled across the bottom of the letter jaggedly and carelessly, a grave departure from his usually-meticulous script, Spryte noted. He poured himself another cup of Buck's wine, thinking hard. "This is not well," Spryte muttered to the empty room, frowning as he scanned the letter again.

Long did Spryte sit pondering his cousin's disquieting letter, until the candles guttered in their stands and a chill crept into the room with the fire untended. The sudden call of a nightingale startled Spryte from his reverie, and glancing at the window he saw the Moon had set, and it was very late. "I will decide tomorrow," he thought, and with a great yawn and stretch he rose from the table to seek out his bed.


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