Chapter Sixteen: The Hungry Gates
When the cloud island passed from sight, the sun reigned in Vanoor for weeks, relieving the storm-ravaged rosebushes, sunflowers, wildflowers, and wheat-fields, so that soon the air was pollen-misted from the procrastinated Spring, and though the peoples' spirits were raised, with many picnics and hunts and meadow rides, and the long-delayed Festival of the Starry Crown, their tending habits were rusty, and soon the city became rife with unmanaged vines, unmown grasses, unpruned gardens, and trees luxurious with not only fruit, but bees' combs and wasps' nests.
Lord Leonidas Andercruik was also unusually sunny, even telling all the jokes he knew—not many—to everyone he knew, in order to share his sunshine. Happy-go-lucky Jeor was quick to laugh, even after a joke paled in its third telling, and most of the staff obliged their lord's good humor, though it whetted their dread for the black gallows humor and wicked workaday mood that was the manor's usual backdrop. Those sourpusses that didn't indulge Leonidas were sent on carnival errands and stuck doing castle upkeep, and since Elessa adopted a monotone personality for Lycinde Mabruk, she was soon designated a stable sweep, and paired with a sot that drank himself vacant the night before. He was so katzenjammered that his face was stone cold, his eyes were beclouded, and his mouth was as slack as a ladle.
To avoid any mischief, Elessa kept Biter and the aged lynxenback in their stalls while Andercruik's forty horses grazed. Elessa had not seen a lynxenback since her childhood visit to Vanoor, when every young Lord wanted one. A pony-sized cat and rabbit hybrid easily domesticated for riding, and meek even towards children, their wondrous speed was undermined by a feline laziness and intractability that made them ill-suited for any meaningful service, and they were so harebrained that they might not even carry their young riders in a straight line away from danger. Once common, they had obviously fallen out of fashion, and this decrepit lynxenback might be Andercruik's own childhood steed.
As the hungover guard raked out the stables, roaches scurried from the manure-studded straw and hay, and spiders retracted their webs to the rafters or climbed the walls to their nooks. Elessa carried in two buckets of warm, soapy water, each swirling with a black rag, and while she swabbed the floor, the sobering guard spread fresh straw into the stalls, then hefted bales of hay and sacks of alfalfa and other greens into the loft.
When an oncoming cloud engulfed the sun, Elessa was more chilled by the shuddery nickering and squealing of the horses than by the sudden shade, and she backed behind the stable doors before the herd's deafening gallop. Though blinded by the cloud-shadowed onrush of horses, so that all she could see was wind-blown horsehair and the low, billowing gloom, she guessed what drove them, as there was some symmetry between this memory and the monsters of recent past.
When the griffins landed like catapult stones, crushing horses and crashing the stable walls, the horses reared, flailed their hooves, and bit each other's ears and faces in their pitiful rush inside, where the drunkard was blotted out by the panic-crazed swarm of horses, so that all that was left of him was his lingering scream.
Though Elessa was already astride Beast, the griffin was like stone, and only her nostrils flared, perhaps intoxicated by the scent of fear. Knowing the griffins might expand their feast to the rogue and the human, she did not take the time to affix her leg straps, but bent her focus to Beast, whispering soothingly and rubbing her ears, until Beast lunged from the stall, then vaulted over the hindquarters of an immense male griffin, its resplendent plumage reddened by the flow of horse blood. There was so much meat to this griffin, that if there were enough paws, claws, wings, and heads handy, four griffins might be made, and it was puffed twice its size by bloodlust. Though one claw scratched Beast's underbelly and the other raked Elessa's thigh, no sooner had they landed on the ground outside, that they leaped into the storm-strewn winds, leaking from the bloody wells in the gashes.
Teased by the thin streamer of their unraveling blood, the griffin pounced skyward, the deep scoop of its full-grown wings gaining in the turbulent winds. When the rain became a deluge, Beast slowed passing through the downpouring sheets, but the walls of water scattered at the onslaught of the male, drenching them from below so that it seemed the rain surged from both sky and earth. Now the cascading torrent was salted with hailstones, just large enough to raise welts, and then golden-brown shapes hailed down, some topped with red, blue, and green plumage. While her wet bowstring might send one straight shot out of ten, in the face of this feathered horde she could only bend to the bow of her steed, and coax Beast to fly true.
Wysaerie's cloud had burst, pregnant with rain, hail, wind, wizard rage, and griffins, all of which lay between her and her father. Even if Elessa dodged countless lethal claws and didn't get hailstoned in the teeth, Beast still couldn't carry them both, and her father was safer in his hidey-hole.
When Elessa flew for the Adercruik manor, the griffin male tailed them.
They crashed through the ballroom's upper skylight, amid a shower of glass, hail, rain and a haystack-sized, baying griffin at their heels. The skittering slide of the kawing griffins on the polished ballroom tiles might have been comical were her leg not drenched with rain-diluted blood. When their pursuer found its footing, it charged, and Beast burst through the ballroom's double doors, stopping just short before Elessa's neck was pierced by one of the man-at-arms at the ready with halberds.
"Out of the way," snarled Lord Andercruik, lifting a greatsword a few inches taller than him and with a blade as wide as a dinner plate. Elessa kicked her heels into Beast, and leaped over Andercruik's troop.
When the halberdiers thought to fend the griffin with their pole axes, it used its speed and the ballroom's high ceiling to its advantage, not only circling, but swooping up above them as well, rounding on them in a full sphere of harrying. Veterans of no conflicts, the footmen's experience was limited to sparring each other. They had only battled griffins in long brags of what they would do given the chance—an opportunity which now proved not to fame and honor them but soil their breeches. Since Andercruik selected them not for military experience, but for their size, strength, and swinish disposition, they proved porkish morsels for the griffin as well, as fingers, a whole hand, ears, and a nose went as appetizers to the cagy griffin, who neatly evaded every slash and stab of the increasingly erratic halberds. As his men were picked at and tattered, Andercruik stood in the center and held his greatsword high.
At the sound of more windows breaking in the manor, Elessa shouted over the cries of anguish, squawks and the storm drizzling through the skylight. "Lord Andercruik, we'll die if we stay in the manor, and Vanoor's no safer."
"I have eyes, fool." Andercruik's eyes widened as the griffin neared. "Valuable servants tell their masters what they don't know."
"Or they repeat good advice until it's heeded. If we don't go, you and your servants will die."
"You overestimate me. Many will die no matter what I choose." The griffin's next swoop extracted a head from the guard in front of Leonidas, so that the corpse leaned back on him, and sprayed his face and chest with jetting blood before he toppled the beheaded guard, then backed towards the ballroom exit. "That said, we have an appointment to keep."
After his remaining men pulled shut the ballroom door, they barricaded it with a halberd. As the griffin battered it, a few splinters showered with each collision, but the iron-banded oaken doors and the steel-reinforced halberd held.
"We don't have long. Come with me, all of you."
On leaving the manse, they jogged through the mud-ravaged yard to the puddle-splashed path, rounding up men-at-arms and servants as they ran. As they leaned into the gale, their clothes billowed, sagging with the weight of water, and their faces and hands stung from the pelt of hailstones, as well as apples and pears shaken from Andercruik's bedraggled orchard. While the older trees only swayed, the saplings were bent double by the black winds.
With the griffins and the death-shrieks of horses dwindling in the distance and the roar of the storm, Elessa began to return to her own mind. First, she nearly gagged from the smell of the deluge, which jumbled wet wool, leather, fur and feathers, swimming earthworms, and fruit crushed under heel, as well as the odor of oiled steel. Then she noticed that Lord Andercruik and his men-at-arms were armored, as if they had advance warning of the attack. This was when she decided that now was as good a time as any to take to the skies, for while the storming cloud was not yet drained of water, the sky was clear of griffins.
"Lycinde, I fear for your life a little," said Lord Andercruik. "Should Vanoor prevail, those fighting and fleeing griffins today will portray you as chief among many scapegoats, and I may be treated as an abettor of a traitor."
"This wasn't my doing."
"If you think to protest your innocence, you'll find the rabble less sympathetic than the hungry griffins. Rather than trusting the appetite of either swarm of monsters, I have a task that could take you far from Vanoor. Take this to Lord Prynyx of Klyrn. Not that you must go all the way to Klyrn, for he is on his way here, some distance past the West Gates."
"Don't you mean the East Gates?"
"While that might have been more direct and uneventful, Lord Prynyx preferred the scenic route. You will know him by his emerald green flag embroidered with a flaming sword. Stay with Lord Prynyx until you receive word, and if you do not hear from me, he will escort you to that noble land."
Now that Elessa had mastered her fear, she felt the call of her childhood dreams and storybooks. Having a flying steed like the heroes of legend, she felt that she should neither think of her own skin nor scrape the knee to Andercruik, but wage war on the evil falling on Vanoor, or finding herself lacking at war, assist others to escape. But this grinning madman insinuated that more massacre skulked outside the walls, so that any refugees she might spare from claws would thereby fall on swords. Even if she misread Andercruik's intent, the circumstances and her thoughts were this—while they might fly a child to safety, the parents would be too weighty a cargo, and in a storm of identical monsters, what mother or father would not take their chances in Vanoor rather than trust their child to Beast?
This left only a few reasonable alternatives for Elessa, only one of which was neither cowardly nor suicidal. She buckled her leg straps tightly. "I'll deliver your message."
"No questions and no qualms. I like that." He handed her a brown leather tube and a pouch of coin. "That's this week's pay, plus expenses."
The pouch had a generous heft, twice the weight of her normal pay. The excess offended her, for Andercruik no doubt believed Lycinde educated enough to know this courier task was treason, and he sought to buy her loyalty. "Yes, Lord Andercruik," was all she said.
Lord Andercruik's armored troop had massed at the outer gate. There were now hundreds of armored guards as well as a hundred more servants wearing leather cuirasses, iron-studded leather caps, and carrying spears. As they winched the gate open, Lord Andercruik turned to address his men, and Elessa and Beast flew into the storm.
While the griffins were spent, the winds, rain, and darkness still surged. Unless Ilmar hurled lightning bolts, the giants threw chunks of island, or the griffins started returning to roost, her path looked true and straight.
She looked down. Andercruik shouted at his men. She slid the recurved bow from its sheath, and struggled to string it, holding one slippery end under her chin and hoping nothing snapped as she twisted the wood. She fumbled the first arrow, and as it plummeted to hit mud or flesh below, she nocked the second, held the point just above Leonidas, and loosed it. When she nocked the third arrow, she noted the second yawed left and overshot her target, so she lowered the bow. The arrow slipped through wind and rain, and Leonidas abruptly spun and staggered. By now, Elessa was so high, and the storm so thick, that everything below blended into gray and mud-brown, and she wasn't sure if Andercruik was struck, or dodged or tripped; distracted by a half-dozen arrows that arced back, she signaled Beast to carry her farther and higher.
When the first spate of griffins surged over Wysaerie's shores, Shaul stood in his cave mouth and counted them as best he could. While he missed a few of the leaders, and the fringe of their numbers were too distant to number, he estimated at least three hundred griffins descended on Vanoor. Shaul had never seen more than a dozen dive at once, and there was little doubt that this was an invasion.
Though Elessa could take care of herself, he feared the next hour; his headstrong daughter would see the monsters in minutes, and whether reasonably or ill-advised, she was sure to do something. There was no telling with Elessa, as like himself, she was a mixture of nonsense and book-reading, but without the mellowing of age. He must act before then.
After lacing his boots and taking only the wood knife Elessa brought him, Shaul climbed down the rocks, and sprinted over the grassless shore until he reached the meadows, which were lit golden. Though Wysaerie rumbled, and it was haloed with lesser storm clouds, the sun blazed down on the island. There was only an icy strip of cirrus above and a bright blue sky fringed with the midnight blue of the circling storms.
Such was his urgency that he ran from the shore to the foothills in twenty minutes, chaffed by the tall grasses of the meadow and the brushwood of the thickets, and nearly brained by the low branches in the woods. When he arrived at the base of the secret stairs, he was scraped and bruised, and shuddering with the effort of his run. Though he was nearly faint, he climbed the stairs unsteady, twice tipping to his knees, and once almost collided with one of the stupefied servants, who carried a bushel of plums.
While his thighs and calves were burning, he regained some of his strength by the time he reached the castle plateau.
Shaul expected to see a few griffins sunning themselves on the walls, but he was unprepared for the sight of the magically sculpted stalactites and stalagmites that comprised the gate yawning open. His trotting heartbeat hammered harder. While Shaul wasn't one to be affected by symbolism, he quailed at the sight of the stone mouth, and hoped it meant the wizard was nose-deep in plotting and too busy to close the doors, and not ready for the old farmer.
When one of the enchanted servants stood at the door and gestured to him, his lightheadedness swooped back, and he swayed a little before following.
Ilmar had accented his library by mounting a jewel-encrusted sculpture on the wall, before which the wizard stood and peered with interest in the largest facet of the design. As if talking to a fast friend or frequent acquaintance, Ilmar said with a friendly tone, "your daughter's foolhardly streak takes after you, old man. Look at her, rubbing shoulders with Leonidas."
Though everything in him recoiled at the thought, what drove him to stand at the wizard's side was the wizard's curious statement, that he might look on his daughter through a gemstone
The wizard's crystal was inset in a shining griffin head, sculpted in profile. In its braided gold and silver molding, the amber sphere's tempest of white foam parted on an image of muddy streets blasted by a torrent of rain. Shaul watched as Elessa took the scroll and the pouch, then flew away. To his consternation, the focus remained on a tall green-cloaked nobleman in plate armor, whom he presumed must be Leonidas.
"Where did she go?" he asked, instantly regretting the anxiety of his tone.
"Sorry, old man," said Ilmar. "I was looking in on my cousin. Easily fixed."
Where the sorcerous lens fluttered, Beast flapped its wings through storm winds, and Elessa struggled with something in the gale. The sorcerous lens was clouded by the pelting rain and hail, so Shaul only knew what she grasped when the arrows flew.
"Wonderful!" shouted Ilmar. "I hate him, but since he is family, I must know." At this, the magical objective flickered again to Leonidas, who lay flat on the ground, with an arrow piercing his steel epaulettes. "Wonderful!" Ilmar repeated. "Though I would have preferred that she waited until tomorrow." However, Leonidas rolled onto his hands and knees, then stood, and yanked the arrow from where it had wedged in the steel plates.
"Though I'm not as happy with that result, it fits better into my schemes. We can't have the Klyrnish waiting for their table. While we need to have words, old man, humor me while I check in on other acquaintances."
While Pennywise Avenue was a well-lit course of commerce and dining, none witnessed the assassin accost his prey in Gurmond Alley, its dark and narrow tributary. When griffins alighted in the street, and rain and hailstones pinged on casement windows, The Knight of Nine Tails relaxed his clench on the candlemaker's neck, and the merchant's gagging elongated into gasping, then a rasping "spare me."
"Run, you stupid little man. While luck is upon you, something else is close behind."
With one hand, the assassin dragged the candlemaker across the cobblestones, pulled him gently to his feet, shoved him to the griffin that blocked the alley, then jumped into the candlemaker's back room and barred the door.
The griffin, who hankered for the tinny crunch of an armored prey, was inclined to chomp the assassin first when a flabbier feast hastened toward his beak. Startled by such helpful prey that flee toward death, the griffin squawked, then instinctively obliged the morsel by rending head, shoulders, and the meatier ribs on top with one bite..
When the griffin kawed, belched, then flapped away, the assassin stepped into the street, where he was pleased to discover that, in the thrill of hunting humans, the griffin neglected his horse. Hooded and nickering, it still stood tied to a post a few doors down and across the street.
"Were the Vanoori good or witless," he asked his mare, "when they didn't steal a horse while running for their lives?" He mounted, then turned the horse in Duremar's direction. "While I'm luckier, I'm no better--only saints and pudding heads talk to beasts."
"Your majesty." Algus looked at his Captain of the Guard, still fresh-faced and earnest, despite the catastrophe outside the king's walls. Though Antynius was a bright, slavish youth with a devotion that would have kicked him very far upstairs, his upward ambitions were thwarted by that jumped-up hedge wizard Ilmar, and no doubt by Gaspar, who had slacked in Klyrn overlong for it to portend good news, but just long enough to completely bollix the king's peace.
Not that King Algus really trusted Antynius, either; he would trust Antynius with his mistress, his fortunes, his messages, or even his manhood, but not his life. This is what happens when you keep toy men around you, Algus mused. Better to collect capable people than flattering ones.
All of Vanoor was shrieking, but what shrieked loudest were the griffins, the breaking windows, and the king's dying subjects.
"Your majesty," repeated Antynius.
"Leave me to my thoughts."
"The palace is not defensible. We must escape to the theater."
While Antynius was normally eager to please, on this point he had argued strenuously, to the point that King Algus was nearly persuaded. The Captain of the Guard's siege strategies were contingent on his notion that the Royal Theater was the most sensible fortification to shelter the King, as its heavy brass doors secured high stone walls and a sturdy roof. Moreover, in their stragecraft, the actors employed secret rooms that could conceal the king.
The king had not deigned to listen, as it was his intention never to be besieged, sacked, or lectured. If a siege did slander his reign, what good was it to fall back to this or that building? Once the enemy was in the walls, they were finished. To be fair, if he had reason to include griffins in his reasoning, he might have been swayed by Antynius.
As his personal guard pushed pell-mell through a hallway thronged with courtiers of every stripe and color, King Algus wished he heeded his penurious accountant, who called civil servants "superfluous leeches." Certainly many clung to his path now. He watched with a grim humor at the noses, lips, and teeth busted by the armored fists, elbows, and halberd staves that repelled the human parasites.
The streets were mobbed by thousands of indolent and well-born sponges, enough to dry instantly any wellspring of pity in the king. Rather than hiding in their homes, and praying that the monsters would pass them by, the soft, sobbing wretches fled to the palace. It rankled that such as they should flood his halls, when he hied to the Royal Theater.
Though the guards were drawn tight around his royal person, Algus was spied, and this sent a ripple of terror through the flow of civil servants, so that they turned around nearly as one, knelt, wrung their hands, and begged King Algus and the Royal Guards not to desert them.
"Who will protect us!"
"Help us, King Algus!"
"Without your swords, we will die!"
"Make straight for the theater," said Antynius, "beat those that stand in our way, and cut down any that lay their hands on us or the king." Though some fainted and many screamed at this pronouncement, there were those who thought to test the young Captain's resolve, and the guards hewed their swords left and right to clear a way for the king. When King Algus wavered over the bodies, already hindered by his mouse-white braids slithering behind him and the heavy hem of his robes, he was hoisted by two of the guards. As the unicorn hair and silk of the red and purple fabric were interwoven with gold thread, and the entire garment was a massive double knit suitable for warming a king on his cold throne, it made the Vanoori monarch a surprising burden for his men, and there was no question about stepping over the slaughtered when it was easier and safer to tread the corpses. That said, they nearly stumbled twice while making their way to the theater doors.
Once inside, Antynius ordered them closed. When his men struggled against the panicked mob pressing into the door, he thrust his sword through the cracked door several times, and finding that not very effective when their flesh gave way but not the crushing weight of their massed terror, he seized a halberd from his lieutenant and shoved them back with its staff end until the door finally sealed on finger tips and squeals of anguish.
"Your majesty," said an accented feminine voice, "we still have room." King Algus was surprised to discover that Lady Venihault was a little smaller than him, for she looked taller on stage and he was befogged by desire during her horizontal performances. Which is not to say that the gracefully aging actress--who played a leading role in every production since the theater opened--did not have presence, accentuated by slender limbs, the fineness of her features, and eyes like green pools.
"Let them take shelter in the shadow of the door," said Antynius. "His highness will not suffer these fools right now."
"The king is here?" said Lady Venihault. "Majesty, forgive my cold welcome. I did not recognize you."
"Yes, I never come to theater in this gown." While it was a stupid thing to say, it was said all the same, a laughable fact like the tragedies—or, heaven forbid, comedies—they would make of his reign. With his crown and his kingdom up in the air, and with this beauty before him, he began to think himself only a man. Though griffin beaks were wet with the blood of his subjects, a swarm of human vermin were clawing at the door, and he had thought himself weary of Lady Venihault's charms, King Algus found himself ogling the way her black dress cleaved to the lift of her breasts and the curves of her thighs. A faint memory came unbidden, like a dry leaf crumbling in the wind, of a tutor who had advocated the boy prince learn restraint and discipline. While he had often laughed to think how he had tricked his father into whipping and banishing his instructor, now the thought brought him shame, though it did not abate his carnal impulse. No doubt that learned head was now an empty skull. Without a drop of brain left to advise the lecherous king, who was the wise one?
"Your majesty," said a guard,"It is more than griffins. Some here saw our west gate opened, and your western barracks driving back a host from Klyrn."
More theater people gathered, dressed in the arms of Madame Curvalot's bordello guards: black chain mail, iron maces, and steel swords. King Algus marveled at the craft of the props, which looked just like real weapons, then felt a flutter of alarm. Surely they weren't staging a show in this calamity? "Push them back, Captain."
Before he could give the order, Antyniua was felled with a cruel blow from a mace. The much lauded verisimilitude in the Royal Theater's props was well deserved, for in moments King Algus's guards were bludgeoned with real maces and pierced with real swords.
Lady Venihault strutted over the bodies to within an arm's length of Algus. "While I have thanked you in many ways, I shouldn't let pass my final opportunity to give thanks for this theater, and for erecting the stoutest walls in Vanoor to treasure the heart of Klyrn. Though Vanoor will always be my best-loved stage—save for the one in these walls, where if we're now being honest, we both know I over-thanked you—after so long a burlesque I await my exit." Turning to one of her conspirators, she said, "Kill everyone without a ticket, then lock him in with the Vanoori actors and the ticket holders."
As the Klyrnish slew the refugees, it seemed to King Algus that they hammed up their enthusiasm for the bloodlust, for who could be so happy to murder these wasted fops. Though the actors had blood on their metal and their hands, Algus was so befogged, and brimming with opening nights, monologues, staged serenades, and deep bows during double encores, that he was unsure if he should think of them as the Royal Theater's beloved troupe or Lady Venihault's partners in crime.
When the poet Jovanda knelt and blubbered, promising to pay a thousand in coin, Lady Venihault sneered and said, "in a temple to the arts, a poet couldn't be bothered to rhyme. Don't snivel and moan, stand and deliver!" She stabbed her in the eye with a silver hairpin given to her by Algus.
Algus was shoved in the dressing room, a capacious T-shaped facility that was unisex save for dresses overflowing one bar of the T, and breeches and blouses on the other, where sat the Vanoori members of the Royal Theater. The ticket holders ushered in behind the king.
Algus wished he could step through the scrim of ignorance to the peace of last year, even if that harmony was a sham ridden with vice. Even if peace was play-acting, and war was truth, he preferred the stage to nature. Were not all his subjects play acting? What of poor Antynius, who was cut down while playing Captain, and died a functionary, not a man? At least his death served an act and scene, unlike the extra deaths of the civil servants and courtiers. Since death might be expected of The King of Vanoor, Algus sat in front of a make-up mirror to await the end of his reign. As he struggled to powder his face, and trace the lines his beauticians drew that morning, and two of the Vanoori actors rose to help, he dammed up the tears with difficulty, and tried to remember that ridiculous portrait, for though he was no fairy hero, at least the artist composed his face with dignity.
"Hungry for more?" said Ilmar. At first Shaul didn't know what he saw in the lens, for the beast's feathers and fur were so soaked that it looked as gaunt as death. When he realized that Ilmar's bejeweled griffin was showing him a real one, the rest of the scene resolved as well, and he closed his eyes. It carved a boy alive, and feasted on the cuts while the family wailed from the windows of their house. "You monster," Shaul said, not meaning the griffin.
"Only my good side," chuckled Ilmar. "You know, the main difference between a zombie apocalypse and a griffin apocalypse is the former is a sick farce, and the latter a deadly serious reality in which the dead keep their dignity and do not rise to lampoon life. The zombie is a caricature of the living, and the griffin is a connoisseur of it, not a shamble but aware. Nothing is crueler than a mindful appetite. As its bright, infantile eyes engulf its writhing prey, they flee its playful mauling, tripping on eviscerations and limbs, hoping another falls behind to feed that awful, animal finality. If they have survivor's luck, they stumble on, and my ensorceled griffins keep eating. Their perpetual appetite consumes unabated until they preside over a city of death. Until the ugly end of the spell, they eat hearts and livers, eyes and faces; they peel skin from those who pray for their own death. If you were in such a grim situation, farmer, you might wish to be one of the eaters rather than the eaten, though such evil might devour you, so that the mantle of your soul conceals only claws and a thirst for blood. You would be such a one as my cousin. Watch."
As many man-at-arms disappeared in the pell-mell crowds of west Vanoor, Leonidas Andercruik's host had dwindled, but were still over a hundred strong, by the time they arrived at West Gate Barracks. Bloodlust and avarice had slowed their march. While Andercruik cared not whether the screaming peasants looted or fled with their own belongings, whenever they blocked his troop, he ordered them cut down. Whenever he passed a merchant who hadn't the sense to close shop, who exploited despair to charge hundreds of coin for commonplace commodities, Andercruik levied all the money in their till.
Since the barracks abutted the West Gate, the siege rang through its windows. Wood crunched on stone, steel sang on steel, commanders screeched at their foot soldiers, and loudest of all resonated the plaintive peal of the dying. The sound of these stalwart soldiers begging for succor was not so different than the pleas of the peasants Leonidas killed.
A youthful soldier dragged an arrow-riven defender from the barracks to a pile of corpses. "You boy," Andercruik said, "where is the barracks commander?"
"I said 'where is he,' lout."
"I will take you, my lord."
The commander lay on a blood-soaked bunk, the back half of an arrow protruding from his ribs. His face had a white pallor, his hand trembled in his salute, and he spoke with a hoarse whisper. "My Lord, forgive me for not rising. I'm Commander Irvyll."
"That's all right, friend. What is this young man's name?"
"I'm Aldrik, sir."
"Close the doors, Aldrik. These bad tidings must not spread." After his orders were heeded, Leonidas continued. "Son, your plan was daring, but when you killed Commander Irvyll, a guard struck you with a mortal blow before succumbing to his own wounds." The youth's eyes widened to accommodate the startling idea, then his heart widened to accommodate the thrust of Lord Andercruik's sword. Aldrik coughed blood and collapsed.
The outnumbered barrack guards were pinned and slashed by Andercruik halberds, and Leonidas pressed the arrow shaft until it completed its delayed mortal journey through the Commander. Though he opened his mouth wide, only a whisper gasped, "help! The lion murders! Treason and lies..." He choked on a sickening flow and died.
"You four," said Lord Andercruik to his men, "tell everyone you find of this dreadful assassination, and that their new Commander of the Gates orders them onto the wall. The rest will come with me."
Since Vanoor was in a vale flanked by three mountains studded by fortified overlooks and outposts, only its Western and Northern Walls were assailable by a traditional army. Though these were defended by miles of sixty foot walls, steel armor and weapons, large standing armies, ballistae, catapults, and a few petty fire wizards, one gatehouse often decided a siege.
Vanoor's West Gatehouse usually decided no, for it was an eighty foot gauntlet of arrow slits, murder holes, nine portcullises, five cauldrons for melting lead and boiling oil, and twenty foot thick walls. Moreover, the length of the gatehouse hall stretched over a gated pit in which dwelt two of the more brutish dracoils, half-blind and prisoner-fed beasts that slavered and hissed at every human-scented traveler that entered Vanoor. Pulleys in the second floor could retract certain sections of the gate bridge to spill walkers to the monsters.
When enemies such as the Klyrnish had flying steeds, they were outnumbered by ballista, and when an opposing force had an advantage in wizards, they were swarmed by arrows. When an enemy was content to fight fair and hurl their forces against the walls, city defenders would mount the six levels of scaffolding and hurl streams of missiles through the arrow slits.
The gatehouse was the city's thorniest defense. Spears and arrows flooded the first portcullis until a barricade of bodies had to be burned or pulled down by their own comrades. When that hedge of iron and corpses was circumvented, there were eight more, and thousands of arrows, hundreds of spears, the five cauldrons to be poured, and the two dracoils. Though the gatehouse only had eighty defenders, the numbers were on their side.
While the Vanoori hid behind walls, the Klyrnish coiled in coups. While they liked to spill blood, they prefaced their conquests with letter and bribe, waiting for Ilmar Andercruik's assurances that Leonidas could advance their invasion.
When a few defenders questioned their orders to man the walls and leave the gatehouse defended, Lord Andercruik ordered them slaughtered. If they were born lucky instead of sensible, they might have lived a few hours longer, Leonidas mused.
When Leonidas and his men barred the doors to the second floor, raised the gates, and bollixed their mechanisms, defenders on the wall's first scaffolding battered the gatehouse's second floor battlement door, but the iron-banded wood was propped by Andercruik halberds and turned their shoulders and their blades. And since the rain-soaked lignum vitae would have rebuffed fire for long precious minutes, they attacked the lock, and would have soon battered their way inside had not a Klyrnish flood poured through the gatehouse down the streets of Vanoor, some charging up the battlement steps.
"To the roof," Lord Andercruik ordered. "With luck, we'll find our route there." Once on the gatehouse roof, they locked its door and waited behind a stone barricade.
The fighting on the wall was pitched and anxious, with both sides hewing, stabbing, and slipping from the rain and gore-slickened scaffolding. Though the streaming storm blotted out the noonday sun, tiny pricks of lightning flickered under Wysaerie, but even these far-off firefly glimmers were overshadowed by a vast, scaly bulk plummeting from the storm.
"Lord Prynyx," said Leonidas, "I am glad you came."
When the Klyrnish lord flicked his reins, the wyvern's sinewy neck bobbed, lowering Prynyx, saddled atop the dracoil's skull, to Lord Andercruik's level. On the beast's back was a small howdah crowded with archers.
"I grew weary of waiting for your tardy communique. No matter. I will still provide your speedy dispatch." Lord Prynyx barked an order in Klyrnish, and the archers loosed their arrows. While most of Andercruik's men were slaughtered in the first volley, wyvern claws and Lord Prynyx's lance skewered some, two flew from the roof to the street below, and one thought to shield his lord, who ran the brave man through with his greatsword.
"Why do you wait, Lord Andercruik? Come aboard." After helping Leonidas into the howdah, Lord Prynyx flew the wyvern east, toward the palace.
When the milling crowds gibbered about the Klyrnish army massing outside the wall, rumoring of tens of thousands swelled with a thousand horse and twelve wyverns, Lord Andercruik's retinue dwindled, and Jeor felt tempted to join the disappeared. Having been promoted from a man-at-arms to a steward, Jeor felt strongly that he shouldn't give in to the base call of his bloodlust, and compose instead an elevated and sensible cowardice. Not that he feared blades, claws, arrows, or any other implement of slaughter, but when Andercruik answered a call to arms without the enticement of land, luxuries, coin, or some other reward, like the promise of lawful booty, this altruism was so irregular as to affright Jeor, all the more since King Algus had issued no call to arms for his lordship to answer. Finding himself no longer in Lord Andercruik's confidence shook Jeor, for he knew the grisly ends of those not in his lord's confidence.
When a caravan of nine wagons pressed through the riotous throng, Jeor cut his orange and yellow Andercruik tabard from his armor, discarded it in the chaos, and joined the merchants. He drew tight his mailed coif and prayed he wasn't seen in the rain, hail, and confusion.
When those fleeing the west wall pounded into those hightailing from an apocalypse of griffins, Jeor jumped next to a wagon driver and shouted, "can't you hear? We're crushed between beasts and swords, Make for the north gate!"
The driver managed "who the hell are you?" before Jeor ripped the reins from his hands.
"Today, I'm your coward benefactor—no charge."
When the wizard bent, yowled, and doubled in size, Shaul bashed his shoulder against the jamb as he fled, scraping many of the walls and doors in his abandoned sprint through the castle halls. He bowled over the slack-jawed servants, and didn't dare look up to the battlements, where a few griffins yet roosted from the force of resentful habit, not yet having forgiven long dead Adelae for her predations on their master. He ran down the mountain's secret stairs, his lungs now a furnace and his legs leaden weights that once nearly tipped him over the rim; he ran long after his momentum was spent, as if his fear had wound him past the tension of his aged springs. His bones felt flimsy in their tender joints, and his tendons tightened past their ache to the point of slackness, and still he ran, the pebbles turning under his worn shoes feeling like boulders, and his cave seeming an impossible journey.
Just when their swarming shadows caused the sun to flicker and strobe, he made it to his rocky shelter. When he saw this last wave of griffins flew in a unified and purposeful vee over Wysaerie's edge, not caring for one measly old man morsel in the slightest, he sat and cursed himelf for being to craven to think of running with them, to leap like a fabled hero onto one of their backs when they descended through the dark clouds that fringed the cloud island storm.
When he saw the aged male—its plumage run grey, white and silver, and its outsized claws like sabers—tailing the herd, Shaul's browbeating trailed into his wobbly-kneed run and many rambling fears: "what if I miss? I'm too old. What if it's too old? What if it shakes me off?"
Overexhaustion seemed to grease his mad sprint, so that he slid down the rocks and over the grassless, blighted shore without effort or memory, as if his consciousness was carried tracelessly to where he desired to go. He seized its furry haunches as it leaped into the dark, stormy space. Though his handhold was tenuous, and he feared its hind paws would swat him reeling to the cliffs, the ancient griffin seemed preternaturally still, its only twitches the hoary wings that cracked and popped, sounds the old farmer's weary bones knew well, though much magnified. As if its gray eyes were fixed on the underworld, it flew on, disregarding his awkward, swinging weight.
Shaul was no fool; he was no stowaway, but a captive, just as this was no griffin, but a riddling sphinx in a griffin's coat, a winged enigma that relaxed every reflex and instinct regarding its human burden. Only the thought of never seeing his daughter stayed his hand, which curled around the knife Elessa gave him. While it was a good wood knife, cutting its wings would kill him, and he doubted it would cut spell strings.
They flew through pelting rain and biting hail, and the old farmer's handful of feathers grew greasy with palm sweat and rain water. He squeezed the clumps so tightly that rivulets ran down his arms to drench the small of his back before the downpour soaked his clothes.
Powered by the fast, wooden flutter of the stony-eyed griffin, the land soon swelled under them, then they landed. Though black ashy splotches supplanted the huts, and the barns and stores were burnt and skeletal, it was Glasford.
Shaul jumped before it landed, skidded and stumbled in the mud, then picked himself up and ran. When the grey griffin leaped over his head, turned, reared on its hindlegs, and thrashed its fore-claws, Shaul backpedaled, ran through one of the scorched barns into a field of charred stalks, then headed for the stream that led to his farmstead.
As his boots were clogged with mud and wet white ash, he waddled and teetered as he ran until he dashed through the current, where the clods crumbled and dissolved in the water and his wading steps grew certain. While the grey griffin seemed loth to dampen its paws, it treaded carefully on the gently sloped banks, measuring its steps so that it matched his pace, all the while staring over at his progress.
His house fared better than the rest of Glasford. Two walls still stood, and a third buckled leaning against the remnant. Shaul prayed it might not collapse just yet, and crouched behind the swaying stone. Through the blackened casements, and gaps in the gashed walls, Shaul saw the circling griffin change—four legs fused into two, then took a few hybrid, double-jointed steps as feathers and fur commingled, and from the monstrous folding, man flesh appeared, naked for a blink before electric blue robes shimmered around Ilmar.
"I thought you might lie with your beloved," said the wizard, adopting a dulcet tone of hypocritical concern.
The old farmer was less scared than angry with himself. One bold knife blow might have ended this threat, and saved Elessa and Vanoor; though he would have died fearful and alone, his irresolution did not prevent that fate. It didn't help that the wizard droned on and flattered himself, congratulating himself for Vanoor fallen and an insult avenged, his boasting distorted by escalating rage until he seemed to crow. Though he knew the man's face, and there was no doubt that this was the wizard he feared and hated, Shaul no longer recognized him, for nothing was left of Ilmar but magician and monster.
Once he believed the abomination was both unnatural and unknown, Shaul skipped past decision to purpose, lunged from the sagging wall, caught Ilmar's arm, and lashed out at his throat. When the wizard jerked back, Shaul followed through with the slash, leaning until the tip furrowed Ilmar's right eye, venting a spurt, then a gory stream down the wizard's cheek.
When Shaul lunged again, Ilmar screeched a single syllable, and a blue thunderbolt clapped into him, smacking his arm aside, sending the knife spinning, and stuffing his nostrils with a sweet roasting aroma.
When his eyesight dissolved into a swirling cloud, the cloying scent evoked his wife, Kala, who joked that Shaul's cooking was so good he made himself hungry, and couldn't finish it without snitching morsels from the pot. In truth, Shaul, Kala, and Elessa would in turns be drawn to the stove to pick at the cooking meal. Now Shaul had really made himself hungry. When his eyes cleared, he was on the ground, prone and immobile like a pig on a serving plate, and steam and smoke streamed from the half-cooked wound in his chest.
Ilmar stooped over him, and even the wizard's ruined eye beamed through the blood. "Smells good enough to eat," he said and laughed loud and overlong. "While I've been saving my figure for that special someone, there's little reason for the king of the world to hold out."
"What's that, old man?"
"Eat me, you old buzzard, don't write an opera about it." While the old man was scared to die, one doesn't smell oneself cooked by lightning and not see death coming. He hated the wizard's power over him, and wanted it to end. "You already took a half year by sorcery. Have the decency not to take a full year with your monologue."
"No, old man," cackled the wizard, "that's dreadfully inefficient. Why murder you with a monologue when I can murder you with murder? While I wanted to slip into a griffin's skin and eat you alive, it's crueler to leave you guessing."
A bitter rebuttal was already on the old farmer's lips when Ilmar unleashed lightning. Though Shaul was numbed by the first stroke, then blackened by the continuing surge, Ilmar kept it going until fire spread to the tender grasses that clung to the cracked farmhouse foundation.
When Ilmar uttered the three arcane syllables that lengthened his torso, legs, and neck, sprouted gray and white wings, gloved his hands in claws, and masked his mouth with a bony yellow beak, the pinpricks of his human desires were swallowed in a pit of monstrous hunger. Facing his dark cloud island and arching his wings, his nostrils twitched mid-crouch, and he turned to the body.
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