Chapter One: The Eye of Wysaeriee
Elessa's sheepdogs barked and yelped, then yipped at the hem of her work dress and pulled like hungry toddlers. Even as she laced one boot, the other was chomped and dragged, the leather worried by a yapping dog. She stepped out into the brisk, cloudy day and tightened her shawl as the hounds stood on hind legs to scratch the pasture fence. After she opened the gate, she walked about a hundred yards, the dogs racing there and back and then with blood on their whiskers and jowls.
It was the first kill of many. The ribs were pushed back like rose petals, the heart devoured, the guts chewed, and the grass and leaves shredded to clump on her dogs and dress. As there were no tracks leading from the dead horse, she looked to the skies and backed away—thinking of herself as an entree with a fork dangling overhead—then made her way home and barred the door.
The next morning, when another kill sprouted like a gory weed, Elessa and her father stabled the horses most of the day, then locked the barn on the nickering animals that night. Over that week, the confined horses came out only for a daily trot and some oats. One morning as her father overslept—there was so little to do now—she rounded up whatever pups were ready for sale and started the trek to town.
The farmgirl, Elessa Cavarah, had arrived at an unromantic adulthood, but that is not to say that she did not travel there by teenage daydreams. As a young girl, she had wished her red locks would be supplanted by a crown of golden hair and a crown of red gold on top of that, seizing emeralds and rubies. You would have thought a Prince would factor into these daydreams, but the extent of it was: royal blonde, and sometimes a host of liveried halberdiers waving bannered pole arms, which a court astrologer might make an interesting interpretation of this as other than wish fulfillment. Indeed, in only a few more years, young men presented pole arms of a different fashion, young men chased by her father, Shaul, brandishing a pitchfork, shovel, or backhoe—whatever rudimentary pole arm came to hand. Her romantic disillusionment was no doubt attributable to these young men, as none brought the expected fairy tale gifts—spun gold, a tiara, a barded and brocaded unicorn, a four-tower castle with moat and alligators, a potion to make her hair permanently blonde; in fact, every young man was endowed with such a limited imagination that they each sought to give the same thing, and, truth be told, this thing does not figure into many fairy tales or daydreams, although it does continue to poke its head into them via the interpretation of graybeards.
As Elessa resigned herself to farm work, she found an expertise other than daydreaming. The horses and ponies loved her, and she became famous in Glasford for domesticating all horseflesh. Though this suggested another line of ribaldry, it was one to which she was deaf. Whenever a petty knight, merchant, or fellow farmer had a problem animal, no matter how mean-spirited or vile, it would be eating oats out of her hand within a week.
Given the limited recreation in a farming hamlet when a roll in the hay is prohibited, when she was not domesticating animals she tamed daydreams and nightmares, soon sleeping twelve hours a night. Hard farm work and long rest made her preposterously strong, and the next time she heard suggestive teasing, that young man claimed his eye was kicked by a horse, but in truth it was Elessa. He may as well have been, for her hands, inured to farm work, were iron hard, as were the pistoning muscles that knocked him flat.
And so this adventure begins with Elessa in possession of a few wonderful gifts—an active imagination and dream life, the ability to domesticate animals, and a strong right hook. Near Glasford was Murnstead, a village stimulated first by the industry of Murn the brewer, then the success of a disgraced courtier who set up shop fourteen years ago with his plump, vain wife, and an interesting assortment of goods, not the least of which were the handful of books her father added to their small shelf over the years. Prosperity brought business, opportunity, and competition, so that while both villages once claimed hundreds, Murnstead swelled to a small city, boasting of thousands. Moreover, river boats brought tourists from the capitol to the rustic city.
As Elessa came into her majority and began to attend to rumors circling people other than herself, she pitied the shopkeeper, only partly because she knew what it was like to fuel the fire of gossip, and there were a dozen variations on the story of his disgrace in circulation, but mainly because whenever she entered the shop, she invariably heard the henpecking of Gaspar's wife. Henpecking was too polite a way to describe this harridan's bullying; better to call it harpy-pecking, for hens only feasted on worms, while Adelae feasted on manhood, not only Gaspar's but every man or boy that entered the shop. Adelae seemed to thrive on this diet of nagging, fanning herself coquettishly, and flirting. Once the peach fuzz was showing on the lip, Gaspar's wife saw it as an invitation.
Elessa was initially excited that the developing neighbor village brought more boyfriend material, young men unaware of the rumors from her teenage years. But the sort of folk that settled in Murnstead seemed either spectators or marionettes—there for the show or to join the puppet play, without effect or thought. The exception was Gaspar, who had briefly lived his life the way he wanted, pursued his dreams, obtained them, and been disgraced by their pettiness. Since his wife was a contemptible coquette and vain flirt, she gave herself permission to be interested, if mainly in the shop that she so often frequented, so as not to start up any more rumors, as she had had enough of rumors.
As Gaspar was handicapped with an ostentatious name, compounding the innocent egocentrism of children, who can blame the boy for believing himself destined for greatness. When this sense of destiny burdened him more than poverty or riches, he felt himself above assiduous pursuits, came to no good, and climbed swiftly in the king's civil service. Thinking himself charmed by fate, the king's favor, a benevolent wizard, or some other model angel, gave him a boldness that precipitated not only his rapid rise but his passion for gaming.
For in the royal court, he avoided fencing, jousting, archery, hunting, and all other games of war and sport, and devoted himself to games of chance, discriminating not against dice nor cards nor baccarat nor roulette nor board games. By feigning an ailing disposition, he hoped not only to avoid duels, but to prefer concupiscent pursuits to puissant ones. For surely he had died ill-equipped and ignobly in a duel, or by luck alone survived as a vagabond wretch, as the king had illegalized dueling in favor of the more civilized murder by jousting. Though he was lucky at games, fortune did not always favor Gaspar, who found himself ill-placed for carnal delights, as the favorite sport of baronesses, countesses, duchesses, and their daughters, was not the faun and satyr game but fawning over knights only to spurn their commonplace, muscular wooing, then satirize the dolts in tea room discussions.
Hence Gaspar's surprise when his misplaced smile was seized upon by Lady Adelae as a prelude to a tryst. For Gaspar's sense of predestination, which made him such a confident courtier and gamester, also ensured that he would elope with a not quite landless Lady and fall from his luxurious royal lifestyle, to become the only creature in the bestiary, other than a king, dragon, merchant prince, or pirate lord, that could provide for his entitled wife.
And so Gaspar became a shopkeeper.
He applied himself with such a distinctive flair to the trade that even a toddler could see the insouciance with which he catered to customers. Candy to kids, penny dreadfuls to hausfraus, plows to the homesteader, it was all the same to him. All to feed the fattening Lady Adelae, who demanded a splendorous variety in her trough; her omnivorous eye desired apples of all varieties, eggs of mythical beasts not for hatching but for frying, boiling, and scrambling, and eating with a teaspoon delicacies bought by the ton. Gaspar had always thought that moving into the country would be a sure way of surrounding himself with portly people and seeming slim by comparison, and this prediction was sustained when his Lady inflated. Her girth had been enhanced not by domesticity, but by mere sedentariness, for though she helped herself to the goods and the till, she did not stir a finger to help Gaspar. While the shopkeeper could not afford a retinue, still did he submit to hiring a clerk, as well as a maid and a cook for their adjoining residence, so that all Adelae had to do was bathe her rotundity and busy herself in frippery and frillery, and that all he needed to do is place orders and do the bookkeeping so that he could subscribe to the needs of both the prospering village and his booming wife.
When he wooed her, his design was not to be encaged in an emasculating wedlock to a woman ten years his senior, but a shortsighted design to plant the seed of his one-eyed lust, and yet he had been domesticated into a ridiculous thing, pursued, flattered, puffed up with preening self-importance and nearsighted self-love, and crippled with the disease called shop-keeping.
Though the years were kind to Gaspar, and Adelae was miraculously preserved, it was the nature of shelved love to expire, whether from spoiling or the change of taste. While there was a woman under all that finery he paid for at so steep a price—not that it would ever beggar the indubitably clever shopkeeper—his fixation on his former objet d'amour had dwindled so that he handled the money more passionately than her, which is not to say that pressing his affections often led to romantic reward, for Adelae's eyes and heart had never warmed, but were attracted, like to like, by Gaspar's cold coin.
Gaspar's pontification broke off when the farmgirl banged her way into the shop, setting off a rattle of clappers and bells. Elessa Cavarah was a stunner, with a healthy attractiveness that took you by surprise, despite the manure, dirt, and other farm stink she reveled in, as she talked and even breathed twice as loud as the other customers. Remembering the ironic tastes of the aristocracy, Gaspar knew that Elessa's physicality might have made her not only popular with the court but the king's favorite.
As Elessa related her story, the miserable Gaspar's eyes drifted from the tale to her natural endowments, and she wondered, not for the first time, if he intended to be so honest with his ogling or thought himself subtle. "Are you there, Mr. Third?" As his full name was Gaspar Aldin Radican the Third, she had glommed onto "Mr. Third" as the best mode of address, only knowing those that have seconds for breakfast and thirds for dinner. razzing
At her teasing, Gaspar sobered. He looked forward to these horse trading days less for the farmgirl's less than flirty tone and the middle-aged timbre of his adolescent lust, and more for the quality livestock. A Vanoori shopkeeper could trade only a few big ticket items—rarely, the authentic elixir or ensorceled wares; seldom, the potion of doubtful alchemy; seasonally, the exotic spices, fruits, and vegetables of other lands; and more commonly, and always in demand for labor and consumption, livestock. While Gaspar's interest in Elessa was more than slight, he was more covetous of her animals, as she brought the best, most sure-footed ponies, mules, and horses, wormed sheepdog puppies, and occasionally, a dowsing pig. Not that Gaspar believed in dowsing; it was the farmgirl, who was affectionate to the pigs, that hoped to dignify the bacon so that it escaped slaughter and made pet out of pork. Fortunately, dowsing pigs were just as salable as unpretentious pigs, and if Gaspar did not care to ask, the pig's futures were rarely mentioned by the buyer; moreover, he need not disillusion Elessa, who never followed up on the pigs or their prophecies.
Though he was consumed with eager avarice, Gaspar said with practiced reluctance, "I was glad to sell your last sheepdog today. He had become a bit of a troublemaker, savaging stray cats."
"I'm sorry to say it's only mutts today. We've had..."
"No horses or ponies?" The thought of losing the 150% markup whitened the shopkeeper.
"Well, here's the way of it. Last week, two of our horses were skinned and eviscerated, so that their ribs stood like white tulips. Lots of torn grass and trampled bushes, as if the poor things were trampled first, and only then laid out like a buffet. Though I'm not the best tracker, I couldn't find the slightest trace of what did it, as if lions and tigers rained down, then dried up under the sun before I found the carcass. We've taken to cooping up the horses, and we won't bring them to market until this threat is known."
"A dragon? We'll have to move the shop. Adelae will hate that, and there will be no end of it."
"Did I say scorch-marks or ash?"
"That's an odd question."
"Dragons cook their food, Gaspar."
"Have you known many dragons?" Gaspar chuckled, he hoped in a friendly way.
"I know that long-lost dragons wouldn't make a showing at a horse barbecue."
"A dracoil, then."
"Dracoils aren't that clever."
"Whatever it is, it won't do. I'm sure you count on those sales just as I do. Thankfully, only two were eaten. How many did you say you're bringing this season?"
"I didn't, and I'm not likely to risk bringing any to Murnstead or anywhere else. While we take them out each day to walk and graze them, it would be foolish to test the killer's appetite."
"Then I'll have to go, and take the risk myself."
Without any indication she had been eavesdropping, the shopkeeper's wife backed through the door behind the counter, turned around, then said vapidly, "where are you going with her when the money and me are here, Gaspar?"
Gaspar said, "My love, the orders are placed, the next shipment isn't until next week, and the clerk can mind shop."
"And she'll be minding you?" Adelae snorted. "Then Sir Stanton can mind me."
"I would not leave you my love, except this is most urgent to our income, as something is slaying Elessa's stallions and fillies."
As Adelae had earmarked the windfall income from the horse trade for a new cage petticoat and an Ardemian automaton for her closet, she said, "find those money-murdering monsters, Gaspar."
"You could come with us, my sweet."
"You've never made the trip, have you?" Elessa asked. "If I turned around now, I'd get home tomorrow morning."
"There and back, that's two days! You don't expect me to ride or walk anywhere for two days, do you, Gaspar? Obviously, the young lady is as trustworthy as she is sturdy." Fear of any exertion so strenuous made the shopkeeper's wife more forgiving of any imagined trespasses, but spite still popped out in a parting shot: "but you'd best watch out, as he's after everything that comes through those doors."
Normally, Gaspar would play the aggrieved, indignant spouse a little better, but as the object of his fantasies was before them, he said nothing, and as Adelae then left them there, nothing more was said.
Elessa said, "Mr. Third, I wasn't expecting to go back empty-handed. Give me something for these dogs."
"I can only give you four coin a head."
"That won't be enough. I need at least ninety."
"They're not worth that much, but I can put your purchases on store credit."
"Credit? What's that?"
"You take what you want, and we keep the costs as a matter of record that you pay later."
"Isn't it stupid to trust me to take things without paying?"
"No, it's clever. It's how it's done at the capital and all the other trading cities. As for security, we know each other, and as for the journey, we'll take the barge there and drive the animals back after eliminating the threat. I'm only allowing three days at most for this enterprise."
"Eliminate the threat? Though the village talks about you, Mr. Third, I've heard no tales of your skill at arms, and you inspire me with no confidence."
"I'll let nothing interfere with my autumn sales. Certainly not a mere logistics problem of delivering the product. We don't need to kill any monsters, just drive them off by making their hunt unpleasant, or figure out how to lead the horses to market under the nose of dragons."
"It's not dragons, Gaspar."
"Winged monsters, then. They might be ghosts, or vampires, or leprechauns."
"Leprechauns don't have wings." Adelae snickered.
Gaspar ignored his wife. "Let's just call them dragons, Elessa, as I'm not a speculating man, and it's the most demonstrative monster name to come to mind."
"I'll agree to that, but only because together we might come up with something, and the problem needs solving. Help me with my shopping and we'll get going."
After she bought her grocery, they loaded the wheelbarrow for her trip to the quay. She was glad of this, not knowing how she was going to walk home with twenty pounds of flour, a dozen onions, five pounds of dry black beans, eighty pounds of apples, assorted spices, a new robe for her father, a tin of tea, three pounds of coffee, a box of nails, a box of tees and divots for golfing, bones for the dogs to gnaw, spools of thread, lengths of rope, and a wood axe.
Persuading Elessa that Gaspar meant business was the easy part. What was hard was extricating Gaspar from Adelae for three days. Though she glared at Elessa and fumed at him, when he stressed they would be unable to afford the pricey peppercorns and imported cheeses for her salad, the figs, apricots and cinnamon sweetmeats she adored, the iridescent gold-tinged ceramic plates and lead iron flatware (which Gaspar loathed for the taste, and eschewed in favor of plain wooden utensils), or the bolts of blue silk the overworked maid sewed into blouses, shawls and bonnets, she relented. Elessa wondered how she could be bought so expensively by a man.
"Go, then," said Adelae, whose girlish sweetness middle age made bittersweet, and whose curves aged into a still wanton plumpness. "Not too long, or I'll take up with the clerk." When she batted her eyes and laughed, aiming at cuteness, it fell flat in the gravity of age.
"Don't say that, precious," said Gaspar, contriving a concerned look for his face.
"Gaspar, you fool." A woman in man's finery backed through the door behind the counter and leaned in so that her hawkish nose was less than an inch from Gaspar's. "If my sister doesn't care that you honeymoon for three days with a farmgirl, she's not here for your charms. What are you waiting for?"
"What are you implying, Renae? My intentions..."
"Don't matter," finished Renae. "Adelae doesn't care, as long as there's money in the till."
Adelae looked like she was choking. "I don't like what you're making me out to be, either."
"Of course you don't. You're always lording it over me, though only one of us is a Duchess."
"And only one of us has any money. That reminds me," said Adelae, with a cruel smile. "Forgive my rudeness, whoever you are"--she indicated Elessa---"but I have the pleasure of introducing the Duchess Renae Vargun. I'm sorry for not getting around to the niceties earlier, but my topheavy sister had just asked me for money."
"You mean that I was asking you for some of your rich husband's money," retorted Renae, "and he's on his way to Glasford with something borrowed and new."
"Not again," groaned Gaspar. "I'm sorry, Renae, but this is the wrong time of the month."
"Isn't that your line, Adelae – the wrong time of the month?" Renae snickered. "When you both have monthly dilemmas, no wonder you don't give me a nephew or a niece."
"Now, Gaspar," clucked Adelae. "Can't we spare something for Renae? She is family. Why not take her as your paid protector?" Though she giggled, Gaspar knew the seriousness underlying this jest at the expense of his masculinity. A few months after marrying a Duke forty years her senior, Renae took his frequent memory lapses and speechless moments as a pretext to send him to the tower, bade Duke Vargun's man-at-arms teach her manly duties and disciplines, took the emaciated codger's wardrobe for her own, and played the part of the lord of the manor.
Though Duke Vargun talked to his footstool and chamber pot in the tower garret, it was like he had died and been reborn in a younger body that swayed its hips in a way he had never done.
Gaspar dreaded Renae's visits for many reasons. Firstly, he remembered Duke Vargun from court, where he played table games with the harmless dotard. Despite the Duke's humorous if oft impolite observances about other Lords, Ladies, and courtiers, he in no way deserved to be kept captive in his own house. Secondly, Renae was wedded in name and property only, and in other ways acted as a bachelorette whose hands wandered—sometimes to Gaspar, but more often to the clerk. Thirdly, she unmanned him in other ways, as she was now fearsomely drilled with the bloodletting tools Gaspar avoided his entire life: sword, bow, spear, and lance. Though becoming her traveling companion was too onerous to bear, Renae hammered out the details with Adelae. "No," he said weakly, "Just no."
"It's settled, Gaspar," said Adelae, as she counted out stacks of Gaspar's hard earned coin. "My sister's a sellsword," she laughed with delight.
"Don't I have a say?" asked Elessa.
"Say what you want," said Renae. "But I'm still coming. We can leave together, or you can await us on the barge."
"Thank you, my lady," said Elessa. "By your leave, I will do that with pleasure."
Though Gaspar was enamored of the way Elessa walked, and would have preferred to watch her leave the shop, without knowing what he was doing, he found himself pushing the wheelbarrow behind her to the quay, where they loaded her parcels on the barge.