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the Crown of Ice

Chapter 3: Meetings Both Merry And Menacing

Though it was long years since he'd traveled so deep into the Grand Forest, Grynnis of the Faeren remembered the way well. The tall, silver-maned faery strode briskly along the path, in a hurry to reach his destination: the home of Spryte of Gebinning.

Passing by the treehomes which grew increasingly thicker and closer-together, Grynnis soon recognized Spryte's tree; it was a bit larger than he remembered it, but there was no doubt. He walked up and rapped on the trunk. "Who's calling?" came a voice from far above. "It's Grynnis, come to visit you, you wicked sprite!" the faery called back in mock- anger. "Grynnis! What a surprise! Come up, come up!" Spryte called back.

As quickly as he could, Grynnis climbed the ladder of vines, muttering in his long beard at the foolishness of living in trees -- his old bones weren't used to climbing, and protested as he made his way upward. With a few final steps, he was up, stepped in at the threshold of the open door, and burst abruptly into laughter at the absurd scene before him.

"What in the name of wonder are you about, Spryte?" the old faery sputtered through his laughter. There before him was a furry Cub bent over the back of a twig-chair, resting his head against his arms crossed on Spryte's kitchen table and looking at him with interest, while Spryte stood behind the Cub with a blue jar of ointment in one hand. The fingers of the sprite's other hand gleamed with the glowing blue stuff.

Spryte began laughing too; he realized suddenly how ridiculous a picture they made. "I'm putting some balm on a birching, old friend; needless to say I wasn't expecting callers," Spryte chuckled, "But come in!" The tall, stooped faery walked up to Spryte, and reaching into his silvery robes he drew forth an eye-glass, put it to his eye, and peered down at the Cub's upturned and unnaturally furless bottom. "Whew!" Grynnis whistled, wincing at sight of the reddened cheeks and thin crimson weals, "Whatever could a Cub have done to deserve all that?!?" he queried.

"This is my friend, Buck, Sage Grynnis," Spryte began. Buck looked back over his shoulder at the grey-haired faery, heedless of his foolish position, and politely said, "I'm very pleased to know you, sir," provoking another chuckle from Grynnis. "As I am to make your acquaintance, Cub," he replied courteously. "But what has happened here?" the faery asked Spryte again, gesturing at Buck's striped bottom which the sprite was gently massaging with the glowing blue balm.

"Truth to tell, Grynnis, I'm afraid I went a bit beyond the call of duty with Bucky, here," Spryte said ruefully. "I never meant to give him such a hiding as this, but I'd done it almost before I knew it." Buck again turned his head, brightly volunteering, "And Spryte said he was sorry, too, sir, and he's taking me to the Lion tonight, and the balm does make it better -- a little, anyway," he grumbled as he finished. Grynnis smiled at the Cub's prattle, but Spryte gave Buck a smack on his bottom which, love-tap though it was, nevertheless made the Cub yelp and stand up straight in a twinkling. "Don't be ungrateful, Bucky," Spryte mock-scolded, "This is my very best evenbalm, and you know it helps more than 'a little.'

The Cub grinned, blushing a little through his fur. "It does help, Spryte, really, I was just fooling," he said. But old Grynnis' smile had faded as he pondered Spryte's explanation for the state of the Cub's bottom. "Was it your hands?" he brusquely demanded, turning to Spryte. "I'm afraid it was just that, old friend," the sprite admitted regretfully. The silver-haired faery sighed deeply. "It is as I feared, then," he muttered to himself. "We must talk, you and I, Spryte," he said portentously, "And speedily!" Spryte felt his alarm of yesterday returning -- for Grynnis to arrive out of the blue after all these years was rather startling in itself, but for the faery to arrive so troubled was a bad sign.

"Go along back to your Lair, now, Buck," Spryte said to his friend, who stood looking uncertainly at the muttering faery, "Come back at sundown, and we'll off to the Lion for your birthday, all right?" The Cub smiled broadly. "Hooray!" he cried, "Then goodbye until tonight, Spryte! And goodbye to you, sir," he bowed clumsily to Grynnis, and with a bound he was out of the door and climbing noisily downward.

"Come into the parlour," Spryte said to his aged guest, leading the way through a door off the kitchen, "And tell me what is so urgent! I've had a letter from my cousin Forl, saying he meant to write to you today. What is this all about?"

Grynnis settled himself slowly into one of the purple-velvet chairs. "The Magister of Sprites was writing to me -- to ME?" he asked querulously. "Well, yes..." Spryte began with some embarrassment. There was little love lost between the sprites and the Faeren, though no one could seem to recall the beginning of the rift or what feud began it. "That is news indeed," the old faery said with a bitter laugh, "As I was barred from his door not six months hence, when I might still have been able to help him." Spryte frowned deeply at this turn to the conversation. "Help him from what? Are you saying you cannot help him now, Grynnis?" he demanded.

The silver-maned faery sighed heavily again through his long beard. "I will speak plainly, Spryte, for though our races love each other not, you and I are friends of old," he began gravely. "Forl and all the sprites of the valley of the Paron ought to have fled months ago," he said, and Spryte blanched nearly white at this pronouncement. "What! Why, why?" he cried out in alarm. Grynnis looked Spryte full in the face, and the sprite saw the bleakness in the aged faery's eye. "You know why, friend, for you've felt it in your hands. They tingle, they itch, they prickle and sting, do they not?" Grynnis charged. The sprite nodded mutely in agreement. "Yes," the faery Sage continued with another bitter laugh, "You all but flayed-alive that Cub you call friend because of those hands; I've rarely seen such cruel results even when the miscreant deserved it, and you admit frankly he did not deserve any such punishment." Spryte looked at the floor in discomfiture.

"There is more than mischief abroad in the land to make your hands torment you so, friend sprite," Grynnis continued. "There is wickedness, wickedness nigh unto evil, and it is closer than you imagine!," he shouted suddenly sitting bolt-upright in the chair, then sinking back again as if exhausted. "Here, take care, Grynnis," Spryte said, leaping up to quickly fetch a glass of brandy from the sideboard and offer it to the trembling old Sage. He sat down again, watching with his breath held as the aged faery shakily sipped from the glass and seemed to calm. "I knew it -- we both knew it," Spryte announced abruptly.

"Go on," Grynnis said shortly, sipping again from the great crystal goblet. "I woke yesterday with my palms tormenting me, and Buck was so alarmed by the wickedness he smelt at breakfast then that he broke a chair and cup," Spryte continued, his brows knitting. "And you spanked him for it, no doubt," the Sage asked grimly. "Yes, of course," Spryte replied. Drawing himself up again, revived by the brandy, the silver-haired faery went on. "And then birched him this morning, and then as I stood there you smacked his bottom again atop that sore expanse of weals. Does it not occur to you, Spryte, that rather than controlling your impulse to avenge mischief, it has begun controlling you instead?" Grynnis asked pointedly.

Spryte was suddenly appalled, realizing the truth of the Sage's observation. "I see that it DOES occur to you," the old faery said with a thin smile of grim satisfaction. "There is wickedness at large, wickedness that can overcome even the tight self-control of a sprite. And that is why Forl and his folk ought to have decamped months hence." Now Grynnis dropped his voice to a hoarse whisper. "I now know for certain, that -- Serpos -- has returned from the Far Darkness, and is come to trouble Mirror Earth yet again," he said.

Spryte was aghast to hear fright-stories for children suddenly spoken of as real and imminent possibilities. "But -- but he couldn't!" the sprite burst out passionately. "He was destroyed along with his army, long ago!" The now-unpleasantly-familiar grim smile twisted Grynnis' lips. "Could he not? He was NOT destroyed, Spryte, he was simply defeated. But the worsted may always return one day to try again, and this I fear is true of Serpos," the Sage said.

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