Chapter Ten: The Lives Left Behind
Elessa was not surprised when Gaspar was sent off with a saddlebag of coin, Though Ilmar called it a reward, she thought it a bribe to smooth Gaspar's ruffled feathers. Though Elessa felt that her sympathies should lie with Mr. Third, she knew no pity but self-pity, and her reservoir of sorrow was dammed by thoughts of her father. Not that Gaspar lost sleep over Ilmar and Adelae shacking up in the wizard's ascensor apartment. Ilmar, also, had become cordial to Gaspar, and reserved his cruelest jests for his new paramour. When this triangle of false friendship emerged, Elessa knew herself to be a point unknown to that trinity, an outsider in a castle in the sky.
Every day Elessa resented the castle more and more, for it was no architecture, but a piece of Ilmar himself. Which is not to say that she disliked the inspiring style, as the enchantment had smoothed the vast rock impossibly sheer in parts, with crystalline windows, lacy moldings, and staircases that twisted not only upwards, but diagonally, taking you to a different part of the floor above. An earthly architect would have had a hard time describing it, for it had no prosaic gatehouse, but a cave hollowed into an enormous geode, and it had no walls made of locked stone, but a stone box, all of one piece, that was squeezed upwards from the mountain. The spell-carved castle was not a masterpiece of planning, not a life's work of human hands, but the concretion of Ilmar's ego from a single thought and naked will. As the days drew on, Elessa felt that even her lonely moments were mirrored in this stone reflection of the wizard.
Long at ease with herself, Elessa was unaccustomed to the misery and loneliness of being removed from the society of others, and so she found herself applying to a new society, the society of books. Ever an imaginative girl who consumed the books and scrolls available to her, in the wizard's care Elessa became bookish, cutting corners in her duties to find more time for study. No longer perusing a single subject, Elessa read by candlelight until her eyes were red. The constant grinding was not unlike farming, except the gruelling mental labor enervated her instead of making her stronger.
Though the corral became untidy, and the griffins in her care became rumpled, Ilmar was distracted by his insufferable coquette, who had become a burden not only on the wizard, but his estate. While at first the wizard happily made many steep descents to fill her gourmet orders, as the days drew on, he went from affectionately handing her the delicacies to levitating them toward her, to carelessly tossing them next to her on the divan. While Ilmar was initially delighted to serve her dishes cooked by his own hand, in time he delegated this to one of his servants, even giving the task to Shaul, who in his ensorcelment didn't know salt from sugar. By the end of Ilmar and Adelae's black honeymoon, hundreds of griffins, frustrated by an inconsolable craving for their absent master's attentions, looked with rage on Adelae. When the beasts took to perching on the battlements, Ilmar magically shaped stone bars from the castle walls to flow over the windows.
To Elessa, Adelae was particularly onerous, remembering and resenting her as a free spirit half her age. Finding the confident young woman in her power, Adelae punished her by making Elessa attend her in the smallest matters, the pettier the better. In addition to her many duties and her constant reading, Elessa was forced into a new calling, that of a jane of all trades--not only a maid and valet, but a seamstress, shoe-shiner, plumber, cook, secretary, and scribe. Though Ilmar was once the pinnacle of Elessa's loathing, that hate ebbed when the odious Lady eclipsed him, and because Ilmar dismissed Elessa when entertaining Adelae. Though she harbored a vengeful resentment toward the wizard, she could not deny that in being relieved from the horrid woman's presence she felt immense gratitude. Though exhausted from her double duty to the cruel wizard and the crueler adulteress, she would walk briskly not to her room, but the library.
After Elessa read every book on the safe shelf, she re-read them, and learned, through observing Ilmar out of the corners of her eyes, the trick of handling a few tomes on the entrapped shelf of dangerous books. Abstruse volumes she familiarized herself with as soon as possible, so that she might use them later as a reference when the rare opportunity arose, while the rest she absorbed, reading and rereading them for knowledge, entertainment, diversion, or fascination.
She kept a secret the few things of use that she learned. Though she was seeking for the specific formula, incantation, or method to dispel her father's ensorcelment, it was a wizard's libary, which meant the trick was buried not in pedantic texts of useless information, but in grimoires stuffed with magic spells, so that her problem was less finding a needle in a haystack than in looking for a magic wand in a stack of wands. The intoxication of knowledge often distracted her from the monotonous task of freeing her father. And when the easiest spells worked, her surprise soon gave way to gloating. She learned what words create a scintilla of light, then how to widen it to a beam or an orb; she discovered how to cast away her shadow, then her weight, so that she could walk on water or swim through air to the top of the ascensor, where the wizard's telescopes soon became smudged from overuse; she learned how to ignite a flame, clarify water, and alter her face; most useful of all, she absorbed the spell of indistinguishability. Not as powerful as invisibility, the spell of indistinguishability nonetheless shifted people's attention elsewhere, so you could walk not unseen but undisturbed.
When Gaspar left Wysaerie, Ilmar and Adelae followed a few hours later, leaving her alone with the griffins, her father, and the castle's other stony-eyed servants. That night, Elessa found neither spell nor antidote, but the exact enchantment transfixing her father. Eternal Bewilderment made the world seem virginal and new, so that its thralls were ever recognizing and never connecting sense to knowledge, so that the world of sense became a kind of brightly colored cave that the bewitched could never escape. Commands issued by the wizard would then be so magnetized with irresistible suggestibility that they would be followed to the letter without knowledge of the deed, leaving only a dream-like remnant in the doer. Not only did Elessa's father live in an ever-signifying world devoid of personal meaning, but the wizard held the reins of signifying. When a footnote remarked that 'a loving meal, made and served, will break your hold,' she scooted from the table so fast that she was halfway down the hallway before the tipped chair clattered, filling the castle with its echo.
Her worries mounted as she ran. Could it be that easy? When he refused all food, why should he eat what she offered him? For twenty minutes she wandered the halls and the grounds, looking everywhere except the place she meant for her last stop. He sat at the kitchen counter again, staring blankly less at her than through the door frame, as if he as instructed to wait for an order. Though her first thought was that the wizard again had a hand in this, her next thought was what would be the fastest dish to prepare. When she chopped fruits and vegetables, then offered him cuts of celery, apples, and potatoes, his eyes fixed on none of these things. Thinking it might be the bland smell, she proffered cuts from the cold, strong-smelling horse meat sweating on the counter, and he didn't bat an eye.
She thought again on the exact terms the spell's author had used. While there were literally no foods made by hand in their entirety, as recipes derived ingredients grown from nature, she could be certain that was not the long-dead wizard had meant. She was less certain that he was not a cannibal necromancer, intending that she make a meal from her own hand, but as she was as unwilling to feed her father her hand as to lose it, she blocked that thought from her mind, and decided to parse the instruction in its simplest terms. For instance, chopping a celery stick was only midway there, for that was not a meal. And if every word counted, the dish must be made with love as well, so she ought not to be thinking of her recent miseries and her own long pining after her magically enslaved father, and not even of her excitement that she was on the verge of dissolving it; for this to work, she had to make the food while thinking fond thoughts of her father.
Elessa stoked the oven good and hot, then soon had a loaf kneaded and in a pan, then waited for it to rise, all the while thinking of the good things she owed to her father.
He taught her to read, to garden, to know what people thought from their faces and actions, and everything she knew about animals; he taught her how to make a fist, and he taught her how to make a list. While her father was dismal as a model of femininity, he did his model best to teach her how to dress, how to brush her hair, and how to carry herself, and he was an exemplary model of misanthropy, teaching her a healthy distrust of everyone, whether the neighbor boy, the king, his current queen, or if Prince Cloudmore should come to live, to steer clear of his fancy pants.
Elessa stopped her musings to put the risen loaf in the hot oven. As it baked, the kitchen was imbued with the warm aroma of delectable bread. When her father turned to stare at her, it was as if he endeavored to see past his own vision, to break through to the world.
Elessa remembered birthdays, including Jinn, her dear mastiff puppy that was her fourth birthday present from her father; she remembered learning to foal horses, and her first ride; she remembered holidays, family meals, market trips, and once, a journey to Vanoor, where they attended the Grand Opening of The Royal Theater. On the day of their departure, she woke up hungry, hot, excited, and as it was her birthday, five years old. As a black pot cooked a breakfast of oats next to a sputtering kettle, and a pan baked over the firewood, the Cavarah farmstead was steeped not only in the bitter scent of tea, but the cloying scent of cinnamon and molasses and the savory aroma of sweet cornbread. Though Elessa's father had cracked the shutters, the overworked stove had made the one room farmhouse unbearably hot, and Elessa threw down her covers; as she slept in a loft, the blanket tumbled onto his bed. They ate the cornbread hot and buttered, and then the oatmeal, which was so toothsome it oozed streams of black molasses and the spoon was crusted with cinnamon. Though Elessa had a few hot sips of tea, she drank most of it cold. After Shaul loaded a dozen sacks in boxy saddlebags, he carried them draped on his crossed arms to the barn, where he flung them on their favorite mare. Spoiled by Elessa's habit of treating her with fruit and feeding her at every opportunity, potbellied Getta had become more of a family pet than a working animal. Once Getta was loaded, Shaul then saddled Lisena, and lifted Elessa upon the gentle pony. Though she had learned to ride that season, she had already ridden Lisena a few dozen times, and the pony was so accustomed to her burden that she broke into a canter for a hundred yards before Shaul and Getta caught up.
She was equally fond of her memories of The Mouser, The Mice, and the Nine Madrigals, a story in nine farcical songs about each of an alley cat's nine lives. Since she still treasured that charming night, remembering the songs, costumes, and backdrops vividly, it was as if her childhood had a long afterlife. and it stung Elessa to decline when Ilmar invited her to accompany them to The Stranger Death of Madame Curvalot. Though the wizard's invitation was no doubt tendered in the spiteful knowledge that Elessa would ever be an unwilling companion to the Lady Adelae, this cruelty hit her harder than most, for the little girl preserved in her amberous memory paled. And though she remembered the warmth of her father as they shared the armrest, and the cheap, warm cologne, bought that morning from a Klyrnish merchant, that they seemed awash in at the theater, she could no longer remember how her father looked that day.
When she removed the bread from the oven and cut two warm slices, the aroma of the cracked crust filled the kitchen. She slathered the crusty pieces with olive oil, lettuce, tomato slices, radish, and a pungent cheese and thin strips of cured ham, both of which she found in the larder. When she began to table it in front of him, he nearly knocked the plate to the floor in his haste to grab it, as if his hands were hooks dangling from strings. Only after it was in his hands did his eyes gravitate towards the sandwich, like one sobering from a week-long bender. From her reading she recognized the emergent spell logic; this was not her father, but the spell recognizing the request to exit. At first, her father also ate by clockwork, but as the spell dissipated, he ate with increasing gusto, then shambled like a sleepwalker to the counter to cram the bread, vegetables, fruit, and a whole bucket of cold horse meat in his ravenous craw. Though his magical appetite was still nothing compared to the appetite of a griffin, and he stopped short at the bucket itself, he scraped it clean.
"I wish you hadn't seen that, but I'm so very hungry," Shaul began. "Why is everything so strange? Not only is the place unknown to me, but my eyes seem unfamiliar, as if a borrower had just returned them. But don't I know all this? My hands know the knife and the cutting board, though I do not, and I have held a plate just like this hundreds of times...Elessa, why are you crying?" Though she sobbed without explanation, when she hugged her father, he hugged her back.
"You look thinner. When did you start wearing your hair that way? What happened to me? Is this a hospital?"
"Father," she said, "it's not a hospital. Do you remember the griffins?"
"Oh, yes," Shaul said, suddenly startled. "That was the last thing I remember. These strange clothes, this strange place, this delicious bread—are we dead?"
"Daddy..." she laughed, through the tears in her eyes.
"I know how it happened to me, but you? I'll murder whoever killed you. Can't I leave the land of the dead for one day? The gods will take pity on a grieving father."
"Don't grieve, Father. I'm right here, and we are not dead. The griffins took you to a mighty wizard who ensorceled you."
"I remember. When the beast flew through the storm to a strange land shadowed by a looming mountain, then, as now, I thought it was the afterlife. When in the mountain was a castle, and in the castle was the smirking wizard, I demanded that he return me to the farm, and he seemed to be shouting at me harshly in a foreign language. As my memory stops there, I can only presume that was the enchantment."
"Father, though my mind was free, I'm also the wizard's captive, and have been nearly as lost as you, not only in unraveling your enchantment, but in puzzling out our escape. Beneath this floor and the island soil under that, miles of cloud and open sky divide us from the farm, if it still stands."
"What do you mean, if it still stands?"
"Soldiers in service to a noble Lord Andercruik—the cousin of this wizard—slew Mr. and Mr.s Drumm. There were other screams, and when we raced to the farm, more soldiers had set fire to the house."
At hearing this, Shaul hugged his daughter, then said "I am sorry you saw that, Elessa. Pity the Drumms and any others who died that day. Who's we?"
"That would be me, and Gaspar."
"The shopkeeper? The one with the countess, candies, and spices."
"That's the one. He was our biggest buyer."
"Is he here?"
"No," said Elessa. "Gaspar has ingratiated himself with Ilmar, and they are now on such good terms that the wizard permits him a vacation."
"Isn't he married? What were you doing with such a man?"
"Father, you forget that I'm a grown woman," said Elessa, though her eyes and cheeks were still wet from tears of relief.
"Though it is charitable to be friends with such a lonely man," said Shaul. "it will come to no good, and I disapprove."
"I can choose to be friends with whom I please," said Elessa. "but for the moment, I choose not to be friendly with Gaspar. And since he already has a degree of liberty, we need not consider him in our own escape—once we know how to achieve our own freedom."
"Can't we leave by the route Ilmar and Gaspar took?
"Despite the floor beneath us and the island beneath that, we're still on a cloud. Though I've stolen a peek at a few spells, none match the circumstances. There are no ropes or ladders long or strong enough, and the wizard uses no vessel for travel, but the very beasts that carried us here. Mine is only half-grown, barely likes me, and can barely carry me, let alone us both."
"Yours? You have a griffin? Where?"
Shaul Cavarah had devoted his professional life to animals, not only training horses, donkeys, and dogs for service to their masters, but raising pigs and hens for slaughter, and cats and ferrets for amusement, and it was only natural that he would be curious and excited to see the monsters.
"I'll show you," said Elessa, "but walk like you see and know nothing, not like a village idiot, but as if you were a statue carved from flesh. And follow a few steps behind."
"Embarrassed by your father after all these years?"
"No," Elessa started to say.
"I'm joking," her father interrupted. "I've waited my whole life to see a griffin, so I can stumble and drool if you insist."
"Stumble, drool, and carry this bucket," said Elessa, handing her father another pail of horse meat from the larder.
Shaul shuffled twenty feet behind Elessa. When she reached the door to her room, having first ensured no one else was in the corridor, she waved him inside, then took the pail.
"These are your quarters? It's only slightly smaller than our house."
"Are you jealous of the evil wizard's castle?" When they walked out the back door, and stood in the shadow of the stable overhang, Elessa pointed. "Here she is."
Half asleep, Beast trilled as she rolled over the ground until her head lay under the bucket of horse meat. When Elessa lowered it to the ground, the griffin's beak rang the tin, spilling its contents.
"You spoil him."
"No, papa. Beast is active, not overfed. Griffins eat more than this."
"That stands to reason. Like everything pretty, it demands upkeep and gold. Since there's no other way, Elessa, you'll have to keep it, which means scrimping where you can to stay one step ahead of the wizard."
"Where I can? What of you?"
"Near as I can tell, our plan is simple—you must mount up and fly away. Short and sweet."
"I'm not leaving you!"
"Who would think you abandoned me when you stayed here so long to free me? We're only parting ways. You're leaving the nest, and I'm staying in it. It's just as I hoped, though I had wanted better prospects for you and the farm to console me in my old age."
"No, papa," said Elessa. "If we can't think of something better, then we'll both ride Beast off the island and cross our fingers against the fall. If I leave you, Ilmar will be petty and cruel, if his enslaving spell doesn't kill you the second time."
"Are you not only a griffin tamer but an expert in magic now?"
"I've learned a little."
"Fine," said Shaul. "Make me as light as air. No, lighter. Make me as light as a flatulence, then drag this old fart all the way to Glasford." The raucous laugh they shared was less a relief than a catharsis, for though they felt a little better at the end of it, they still felt the dread of their situation. Though one might flee easily, the other's soul and personality would be quelled by the vengeful wizard.
"While I found a spell that does that," said Elessa, "you'd be blown off the back of the griffin." The idea of being blown off the griffin's rump set them laughing again.
"If we don't attempt it, there's only one other possibility. Islands have many hiding places. Once we've found a nook for me, you'll not only have peace of mind seeing where I rest my head, but you'll know where I'll be when your fledgling grows enough to carry us both. "
"If you fly away instead, Beast will come back for me."
"You mean that she might return, just as she might throw a stranger with an unfamiliar smell and an unfamiliar weight. If we trust to my way, in time she will save us both."
"Better had I waited."
"No, you did right. Your mother and I lived on less than I'll have on this island."
"I'll bring food, and a bedroll. As we were to be the first of his thinking minions, there are no patrols, only griffins that hunt and servants that graze the horses."
"Knowing I can't talk you out of visiting, we'll designate a meeting place separate from the hiding place. And you will only look for me there every other week, on the anniversary of this day. If you track me down, you'll risk discovery, and you might find that those hunting griffins like to eat tame ones."
"First, we'll get supplies for all three of us. Ilmar owes us that much."
"Ilmar owes us more," said Shaul. "Much more."
When evening fell, they loaded sacks from the kitchen larder. "Dad, you'll have to carry them. As you're mindless, no one will stop you."
"Mindless? That's unkind."
"I meant 'considered mindless.' And with enchanted strength, so pretend the weight doesn't bother you." Once he held all the goods close to his chest, he shuffled down the corridor toward the gate.
After Elessa saddled and mounted Beast, she walked the griffin through the yard that wrapped around Wysaerie's east wall, passing two ensorceled women that hung washed table linen, towels, and bed sheets. She realized the cruelty of the ancient sorcerer when she saw them, for no ordinary human pity could save them from their sorcerous sleepwalking, but only the love of their unknown mothers, fathers, husbands, sons, or daughters. The spell was a death sentence on the cloud island, where they were hidden from those that loved them. Though Elessa regretted leaving anyone behind, her heart was not false, and she could mot muster love as easily as sympathy. This did not stop her from cursing Ilmar, and the eldritch hooks of the spell, nor from bearing the guilt with her wherever she went.
The gibbous moon gleamed, and stars sparked. When a thrall emerged to light the gatehouse lamps, she saw Shaul on the promontory, where he followed servants down the long mountain stairs. When she could no longer hear their footsteps, she descended behind them. The night that clung to the mountain face seemed darker, and a cold breeze shivered the rock, and turned her flesh as cold as stone, As she arrived at the base, the shadowed thralls merged with the dark tree line; while Shaul was at first blotted out by the dark woods, he turned back to join her.
Though she was on the verge of escape, the thought of abandoning her father was an unimaginable doom. In Glasford, she only left him for trips to Murnstead and back, and since then, despite the absence of his mind, the presence of his body had been a comfort.
After six months, she should have more to tell her father, but they walked quietly for the first hour. As if reading the mood, Beast ambled behind her, though occasionally scrutinizing Shaul with its moonlit eyes, or rubbing up against Elessa and trilling.
Though there were long stretches of silence at the farm house, marked only by good mornings, good nights, and I love yous, this silence was not full of those brimming pleasantries, but a chilled, starved silence. Having waited to hear her father speak for six months, now he would be lost for an unknown time, and while she had so much she wanted to tell him, not only about the dangers of the island and events he had missed, she wanted more to hear him say I love you. What stopped her tongue was the knowledge that once they started speaking, it would lead to goodbye.
It was Shaul that broke the silence "How do you like this monster?"
"Pretty, rambunctious, big-mouthed, and useless until today. In her defense, her training was my responsibility, and my mind was on other things."
"Don't apologize. It grew into that without any help. But how do you like her?
"Her affection is growing on me."
"Growing on you? I should hope not, having grown a lion in the back and an eagle in the front already. Would you like her better if she was also jackass on bottom and hog on top?"
"I wouldn't dislike it any more than I already do," she said. "I might feel differently if it wasn't sprung on me, if it was something I had accomplished for myself."
"When you escape," said Shaul, "she'll be your only friend. Unless there's a boyfriend up here I don't know about."
"No, nor any friends. While I grew to pity Mr. Third, he's the wizard's toady now."
"What of the wizard's cousin—the one who slew our neighbors—does he know your face?"
"No. Nor do I know his."
"Then you're safe. Unless it's griffins he hunts, in which case he will come looking for a griffin-riding lady."
"I've puzzled that out myself. He was following the griffins, and it was our misfortune that they passed through Glasford."
"And the only way he won't hunt you is if he already has you—or thinks he does. You must enter his service."
"He's a killer!"
"A killer and a Lord. You've lived under a wizard's thumb, and he's no less a villain."
"Ilmar is less megalomaniac than a harebrained eccentric, and his cousin is a mass murderer."
"And a man who trusts his help is more dangerous than a crazed loner. You'd best get used to running."
"I'll stay with you."
"Two are more easily spotted than one, and divide whatever food they have. Not to mention the griffin's share, unless we devour our future means of escape. No, Elessa--if we are prisoners together or fugitives apart, your flight today may soon free us both."
"You're right, papa," said Elessa. "Then there's only our respective problems to consider: for me, the wicked Lord, and for you, the lunatic wizard."
"Since the wizard's more likely to hunt the one who stole his beast, he may overlook me," said Shaul. "and if his cousin covets griffins, he'll likely hide you from the wizard. If Vanoor had a fair and just king, you could go to him, but we have a vain and capricious king; who knows what he'd do."
"He'd pull strings like the wizard, not with magic but a king's power and authority."
"And though you know his wickedness, this Lord Andercruik is the lesser lord."
"What if he takes after his cousin not just in malice but magic?"
"You have tricks of your own."
"Nothing useful. While I can make lights, that's no better than having a lamp. While I can't levitate, I can make things lighter. Nothing that anyone couldn't learn with access to mystic grimoires, and nothing to conquer wizards, kings, or lords."
"A wizard in the family," He hugged her gently. "Trust in yourself, and all will be well."
When they reached the shore, they walked until they found a suitable promontory for Beast's plunge. Whereas much of the coast was thick with grasses and shrubs, this desolate spot was dry hardened earth in a large circle adjacent to the rocky spur. Not only was the area barren, but it was as if rain and dew rejected that place, for the brittle dust not only came off on their boots but drifted in the air gusting over the island's edge, so that both had to raise their hoods and speak—then sob—through their hands.
While Elessa was not looking forward to the goodbye, she had not anticipated the difficulty of picking their meeting place, as it was less the hope of a quick reunion than an acknowledgment of their parting, and their faltering breaths snagged on tears as they agreed on a long-dead tree with V-shaped branches that forked from one joint. After that, their weepy embrace was soul-wrenching. Then Elessa steeled herself for the hardest thing of all.
Though she had watched Gaspar's confident departure, flying above the cloud island until he was a speck that then bobbed down to the Earth below, she had not given Beast the time he had given to Biter, so this plunge would be attained less by accomplishment than by hazard and luck. First talking to Beast, then smoothing her feathers and fur, she then laced herself into the saddle, and did her best to mirror the griffin's loud trills with a soothing murmur.
As they soared over the cloud island's turbulent lip into the blue, buffeting wind, Shaul watched under the gibbous moon.