Chapter Two: The Shadow Play of Beasts
No sooner did the barge lurch from the quay to drift downstream than Elessa and Gaspar acted as if they forgot their charming acquaintanceship and kept their distance like the strangers they were. Not only did setting forth to protect their business interests remove them from the imagined audience of their comedy of flirtation, as it became clear that neither her teenage daydreams nor his mythological self-esteem wanted anything to do with Gaspar, it flipped the game board of their playful infatuation, so that in arriving on the final square, they became not romantic partners, but business partners. As to Renae, she preferred to stage carnal adventures with husky barge hands than to give the slightest thought to the shadow-play of repressed affections between her brother-in-law and a farmgirl whose name she had forgotten.
The shopkeeper sat cross-legged, his back propped against the barge wall as he tallied his ledger. After readying the next week's orders, he subtracted eighty coin for the pups. When he started a line of credit for Elessa on a new page, the thought of the red-head's raucous laugh cut through his monetary meditations, and he ruefully ran his hand through his widow's peak.
Once Elessa's river legs were under her, she introduced herself to the other passengers, most of them merchants bound for Vanoor. She admired their wares, laughed at their jokes, and ate when food was offered. As Vanoori hospitality is famously indulgent, the proffered sweetmeats, cakes, cheese, wine, and cider soon led to a stomachache, then a headache. Elessa settled against the rail as comfortably as she could and closed her eyes.
Accustomed to dreams of opulence—gold, pies, strawberry ices, and sometimes, princes to share them—Elessa was out of her element, and a little out of her mind, in this directionless dream. Dropped from the clouds—not fell, jumped, or was pushed, but held gently by the nimbofractus, cradled in blue night and creamy stars, then dropped naked through the tempest like one newly born. When her storm crashed into the moon at sunset, her bloodied face was lost in the scarlet surface, and when she awoke, her back, neck and ribs ached from her ungainly nap. Dawn's glint pricked the dark morning. Pacing the deck, she found Gaspar, who also dozed in a twisted position, and stomped the deck until he roused.
"Where am I?" he said. When he kicked off his blanket and sat up, he tried again. "Shouldn't we be there by now?"
Though Elessa was still troubled by her nightmare, she decided against sharing it, in fear of practical advice or any other display of paternal instincts that might snuff her attraction to Gaspar. Though he didn't interest her anymore, she still found her raw attraction to him pleasant, and enjoyed the feeling of being desirable. While encouraging him would be foolish, if she smothered the illusion, the much older shopkeeper would no longer treat her as an equal.
"We should be somewhere. Let's get the barge master."
Though they circled the deck several times, they found only his pole, bobbing in its oarlock. It was a miracle they were not capsized or moored on rocks. They circled the deck once more, this time peeking in tents to ensure the barge master was not being entertained. Though they hurriedly closed the flap on Renae panting and shaking on a pile of soft skins with the enormously rotund furrier, the sharp-cornered sight tore at Gaspar's mind, rattling with her hellish, mocking laughter for days thereafter. Not that he was the only one flustered, as Elessa wouldn't meet his eyes. Though they would have preferred to remain speechless until breakfast, groggy merchants crawled from their tents to demand the reason for being disturbed at such an early hour.
"Maybe he fell off?" said the furrier.
"We would have heard his cries if he'd fallen in that ice cold water," Gaspar said.
"Then what became of him?"
Another answered, "the thief lit out in the night, trusting that we would wreck after he filled his pockets. We should check our belongings."
While Gaspar and the merchants tallied cash and goods, the barge bounced once, twice, then in a rhythm, as the river narrowed, deepened, quickened, and bent, and Elessa, seeing that none of these moneyed men were about to stop sifting through property to brake the barge from wrecking or floundering, seized the pole now scudding in their wake, then turned it into the current and shoved until it bent, and its snap back stung her hands. When the remaining barge hands saw what she tried to do, they leaped to the other oar locks and helped her bring the barge to bed. Though their downstream creep had only stepped up to a steady pace, it took long, grueling minutes to rein in their speed, after which her chest, shoulders, legs, and forearms were stiff and shaking.
"I see your worth now," said Renae. "You're half-horse yourself."
Having discovered nothing missing, the passengers convened.
"You can smell the sea," said Gaspar. "Elessa, I think we passed your farm last night and drifted towards Vanoor."
"If he's right, any farther and we'll be fighting the ocean," said one of the merchants.
"Should we double back with one less barge hand?" said the furrier. "We can't expect the lass to keep subbing, and I'm had my fill of pushing." Though the chuckle made Gaspar shiver, the ogrishly obese merchant looked more pleasant when he wasn't huffing and puffing under his sister in law.
"Don't speak, you flatulent dragon bowel." Renae was still half-naked, clothed only in a lengthy undershirt, and leaned on her naked sword as if leading a rebellion and not advertising her charms. Gaspar had to admit she was good-looking, if a bit too intimidating; moreover, she must be poorly read, or she would know she was a lusty caricature of the heroine of The Legends of Legatia, the Vanoori ballad serial that sold so many chapbooks. And, Gaspar reminded himself, he must never let her know that, or she would be as homicidally disappointed as your run-of-the-mill chapbook villain. "The alternative is getting spit into the ocean."
"Renae is right," lied Gaspar, in the hope she wouldn't skewer him figuratively, either. "We must protect our investments. I suggest a third alternative--doubling back over the river bank."
Elessa said, "it sounds like you've forgotten our investments."
"I meant double back to Glasford, not all the way to Murnstead."
"What of the barge master?"
"All the more reason to retrace our route on the river bank, where he might have washed up dying or dead."
Having divvied up Elessa's goods—Renae not offering to help, and neither Elessa nor Gaspar having the guts to ask her—they prepared for their journey by river bank. When the other merchants fretted, having loaded more than they could carry, most decided to wait on another barge, or for Gaspar and Elessa to send help.
"What do we do in the meantime?"
"What do we do when someone else goes missing?"
"Wait some more," sneered Renae. While Gaspar wished she was more sympathetic to the frightened merchants, he agreed with the implication that they were cowards. He had no skill at arms, and wasn't a violent man, but he didn't become rich by waiting for help. Like a man of war, a merchant can either weather the bloodthirsty campaigns of challengers devouring the fruit of the land, or take matters into their own hands. This unknown creature was just another competitor to sort out, like a new courtier greedy for the king's favor; while these lazy merchants fretted over the uncharted threat, he would assure his prosperous harvest.
"What will we eat?"
"Where do we sleep?"
By making a decision in a bad situation, Gaspar became the hero of the entitled merchants, who by way of reward laid their raw gripes and rotten moans at his feet. As the burdensome whining felt like shame to the shopkeeper, he jumped to the river bank and half ran a dozen yards, leaving Elessa and Renae to their unwanted attentions.
"Walk backwards, for all I care," Elessa said to the merchants, with the tone of a good scold, "but those not thinking with their backsides should head to Vanoor. As to what you eat, you might roast and carve the barge--or you might try food. As to who's next, the killer's likely to choose the smaller target, and there are dozens of you and only three of us."
When the merchants pursued Gaspar up the bank to persist in their lamentations, Gaspar slandered his own authority by insulting the tradesmen with the dirtiest, most ear-achingest insults he knew. Though his colorful, courtly slurs sailed over the heads of these tradesmen, the effect was the same, for in their bemusement, they bemoaned their abandonment bickered sullenly about their hopelessness, and turned toward the wreck, as the shopkeeper, the farmgirl, and the lusty caricature hiked downstream.
After walking a few hours, the sea smell abated, and the river was a familiar reddish shade from rich loam bedded underneath the water.
"I think we're near."
"I hope you're right." The weather had taken an ominous turn, with charcoaled skies, swaying tree branches, and a constant spattering.
When an enormous cloud thickened, furled, and roiled overhead, near-darkness engulfed them, cold winds flung dry leaves, twigs, and riverbank sand, and rain pummeled down in a black pour lit by glints and flashes of lightning.
When the shredded and bloody corpse impacted the riverbank, spattering mud, twigs, and leaves, and splattering blood and gobbets of gore, under the dark cloud the former was so indistinguishable from the latter that it mingled in a deathly black spray. While Renae sprinted for the treeline, Gaspar retched, and Elessa laughed hysterically for a long minute, vomited a minute more, then fainted. Much of their nausea may have stemmed from the thought that if the timing was off, both would have been added to the slaughter, for the barge master was a weighty fellow. Though Gaspar's eyes were clouded with rain and the tiny hot tears that well up when you vomit, he cast his eyes this way and that, looking for the killer.
When Renae sauntered towards them from the woods, Gaspar stooped to shake Elessa's face, which was painfully effective, as she responded to his grasping hand by slugging him in the ribs, so that he hacked and screamed all over again. "What was that for?"
"Mr. Third? What happened?"
"You punched me!"
"I punched you, and a bargeman fell from the sky?"
"That's not funny!"
"What happened?" she repeated louder.
"I think whatever dropped the body is following us. It's cat and mouse now."
"We're definitely being toyed with," said Renae. "Though he's disemboweled, he was barely chewed, and dropped right in front of us. How far is Glasford?"
"It's this way," said Elessa.
The thought of being watched by whatever eviscerated the barge master, then dropped his lightly chewed body at their feet in the next move of its malevolent game, was so frightening that they alternated between jogging and a fast walk the rest of the way. Soon their labored breathing drowned out the storm, though each thunderclap made them either freeze or jump into each other's way. One thundercrack was so earsplitting that what started as a flinch sent them reeling, then sprawling on a sodden grassy field, where they lay panting like dogs, laboring to catch a jagged breath.
"We left him there," said Elessa.
"He was beyond mercy," said Gaspar. "We're not."
"Did mercy move your feet?" laughed Renae.
"And your hands," said Elessa.
"I touched your face," Gaspar said, "not any lower. You fainted; was I to leave you for dead?"
"You screamed like a girl! Was I to leave you for being a weakling?"
"You both howled like old, toothless cats," said Renae.
In glaring at each other, they realized they could, more or less, see each other. Their scowls floated luminously in a dim light cast a few hundred yards away.
"That must be Glasford. During a storm, they light the night lamps."
"Let's get out of the rain." Gaspar was fuming—a little at Renae, who never said anything that wasn't hateful, and a little more at Elessa, who was a little too eager to bruise him, but mainly at himself. What stung worse than the farmgirl's words or his ribs was his unmanly behavior, for though he did not aspire to be a hero, a man rarely daydreams of being less than a man in an attractive woman's eyes, twenty years his junior or not. <
After ten minutes trudging through the mud, the storm cloud still oppressed most of the sky, but an ambient light welcomed them to Glasford.
"Elessa," wailed an old woman. "Bless the woods for bringing you back."
"Mrs. Drumm, wait until you hear what happened to us!"
"Though your adventures may be worth hearing, I have bad news."
When Elessa saw the look on her neighbor's face, she drew a breath and held it.
"Last night," continued Mrs. Drumm, "at the bloodcurdling cries of our horses, we doused the lamps to hide our farms."
"That's why we drifted past Glasford," Gaspar interrupted. "The barge hands never saw the lights."
"Shush," hissed Elessa, letting her breath escape in irritation. "Don't interrupt. What of my father?"
"When the whinnies died, many of us gathered. Altom wanted to check every farm with a horse, but I suggested we start with the two that bred horses for market. Samorn's herds were safe in her barn, but the monsters tore through your stable. Though only two horses were missing, the rest were slain, as if out of spite, and in the wreckage we found only a spilled flagon, an upended keg, and a blood-spattered palette of hay, but not your father."
"Though the barge hands may not be innocent," said Gaspar, his internal rambling suddenly booming over Mrs. Drumm, "Victims like us, but maybe not so innocent. If the barge master was snatched after missing our stop intentionally, with plans to rob us and scuttle the barge, we owe the beasts our lives." Gaspar's paranoid calculus rattled on, until it settled in that Elessa's father was presumed dead.
If you've pigeonholed Gaspar as 'a sycophant poser seduced from his cushy courtier job by a penniless, landless Baroness and who has survived less by common sense than commerce,' you're right that there's no wiggle room for heart or a sympathetic ear in that cubist sketch. However, Gaspar's long stint in country retail taught him how to counterfeit kindness, fake sentiment, and coin aphorisms that sounded like understanding.
"That's horrible—I'm sorry for your less, Elossa..." In his attempt to smooth over the slip, Gaspar stammered, then sputtered, then said with perfect lucidity, "I'm sorry for your loss, Elessa."
Though "I'm sorry for your less, Elossa" was so far from glib as to be its flip side, bilge, even "I'm sorry for your loss" is such a patented phrase for condolences that they have become a morbid gift often left unwrapped by the receiver, who is too enthralled to rage, grief and denial to pin these identical, bland death notices to the black walls of their mind. Pity not Gaspar, who gave an "I'm sorry for your loss" to be thought well of, in a kind of reciprocal arrangement, pity instead Elessa, who wanted assurance that her father yet breathed. Gaspar's "I'm sorry for your loss," was particularly understated, since Elessa was given to believe that she was orphaned, impoverished, and homeless by the stroke of the same claws, but Gaspar, who was deaf to his own hollowness, only felt pain when it touched him, such as in his realization that if the farmgirl lost her livestock, he lost his autumn profits and his wife's respect, for Adelae would be loath to tighten her bodice, fire her hirelings, and live in a reduced means. Perhaps if they kept her maid...his thoughts trailed off when they looked at him in contempt, and he hoped he hadn't—while knowing he had—voiced any of that aloud.
"You are such a prince," said Elessa, mingling tears with dirt, sweat, and rainwater.
"Nice people never say what they mean," said Renae. "Allow me to translate her dishonesty." She looked at Gaspar coolly. "By prince, she means shit."
"In tragic times, we hold our own loss most dear." While Gaspar only entered church to get out of the rain, this was a common proverb, referenced in broadsheets and often cited by King Algus. When he aimed at a pious tone, and instead rang the bell of holier-than-thou, this time he heard his own false notes, giving himself all the advance warning he needed to duck Elessa's fist.
"Though he's a jackass, your father's fate isn't the merchant's fault," said Mrs. Drumm. "Come inside. Eat and dry off, all of you."
While Elessa was ravenously hungry, she wasn't such a thankless child as to presume her father dead. "Who saw my father's body?"
"My sons picked through the ruins. The stable looked punched through by a battering ram, the horses were half-eaten, and your father was gone."
"Gone? Gone isn't dead."
"Yes," agreed Renae. "The crone is too vague. Gone can mean so many things. He may have run into the woods, or drowned in the stream. He might be in a Vanoori brothel, or feasting with the quiet gods. Or he was eaten and shat, or the beast might be waiting, like a proud, playful cat, to drop his corpse at our feet. We just don't know. It's heartbreaking." As she exhausted the unpleasant possibilities, Gaspar's sister-in-law looked anything but broken-hearted. "If my sainted father or beloved husband fell from a cloud, I might have died from shock, not fainted." When she sneered at Elessa, her eyes were smiling.
"That's enough of that," said Gaspar. His weak smile incensed Elessa's loathing all the more. "Elessa, though being your friend is mainly dodging blows, I'm willing to help."
She frowned. "You mean willing to protect your investment. Though your business sense seems like bravery, I have your measure, shopkeeper."
"Bless the woods for that little sense, though you won't get out of the rain and take your supper," said Mrs. Drumm.
The split pea soup, served with a knot of bread under a dry roof, was so savory that it sopped up Elessa and Gaspar's bickering, and even plugged Renae's sharp mouth. Once the food was eaten, the silence lingered. Gaspar relived the harrowing, corpse-raining storm. Elessa dwelled on how soaked she was, her socks as wet and squishy as mud, and her pants pinching her legs as they dried. Renae brooded that she was grossly underpaid for this adventure.
After Mrs. Drumm pulled off their sodden boots, she added logs to the fire. "You'll have to sleep sitting up."
"We're not staying," said Elessa and Gaspar at once, the former desperate to find her father and the latter wishing this misadventure was behind him and already scheming new revenue streams. Renae made no protest, having fallen asleep with half her bread in hand. Not wanting to miss out on this rare chance, Gaspar snatched the crust and crammed it in his mouth. Though Elessa looked up at this, she looked away as if she had not seen it.
"Forgive my manners, Mrs. Drumm," said Elessa. "It's very good. Do I smell ham?"
"Thank you, but no. Maybe it's the smoked paprika?"
"I smell ham," Elessa said, absently rubbing her eye. The comforting aroma reminded the farmgirl of birthday feasts, in which her father ringed a fat ham with roasted vegetables and succulent pies.
Now that Gaspar was full, and his feet were warming, he became more critical of the Drumm residence: what was left of the soup was thin and watery, and as they ate by dim light, he feared it had bugs in it; moreover, the roof wasn't dry, but dewy wet with splotches of mold. The shopkeeper made a mental note of the inferior thatching in Glasford, as it suggested a new line of business. Like counting sheep, the wheel of Gaspar's pettiness soon put him to sleep.
When Elessa awoke under heaps of tattered quilts, she squirmed at the notion that she fell asleep in the same room as her detestable companions. Though the damp cushions had flattened under her stiff legs, and Elessa's posterior ached so much that she dreaded getting up, when the others stirred, her loathing rekindled, and she kicked the covers off, then tottered to her feet. The morning was so pale as to be colorless—the sun so low that darkness pooled in the cold cottage, and the shadowed windows glimmered. Though neither Drumm was home, Mrs. Drumm had left a pot of bean porridge smelling of syrup, sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg, which proved less delightful and as cold and clammy as the cottage.
"What a horrible woman," said Gaspar. At Elessa's look, he said, "Did I say that? I meant hospitable. Let's not put her out more than we have, and see what's in our packs for breakfast. Her larder looks as full of spiders and roaches as barley and beans, all the bad rotting with the good like that disgusting porridge."
"Like old age," snorted Renae, then parried Elessa's sharp look with her own eye-daggers and helped Gaspar rummage through the goods. Elessa returned to her chair with the pot, and ate the porridge with a long wooden spoon.
Perhaps in their rough flight from the barge master's corpse, a ham jar cracked, spreading ham water like a rankling perfume in Elessa's backpack to souse the parcels which the shopkeeper's clerk had painstakingly wrapped, and unfortunately making everything, edible or not, smell like ham. Reaching behind her, Elessa found that the dampness on the back of her tunic and the chair's seat, as well as the now fetid smell of ham which still clung to her, were concentrated in one place near her right shoulder blade. "I told you I smelled ham," Elessa grumbled.
While brooding that her father might be some beast's breakfast, and cursing herself for not pushing on, Elessa continued to eat porridge. Though her imagination strung up meaty horrors, she was so ravenously hungry that these bloody anxieties had little weight, more like a puppet show than a butcher's window. In conjuring a blackly comical vision of her father sliced into sausage links by monstrous claws, she laughed nervously.
"What's so funny?" asked Gaspar.
"Your stupid face," she said, and continued eating.
Through the half-open window, they heard Mrs. Drumm say, "I told you. We haven't seen anyone." When her cries ended with a gurgling groan, Renae ducked into the kitchen, and Elessa and Gaspar hid under the table. As it was a cramped space, Elessa could no longer avoid Gaspar's eyes, and she hoped her face was not as fear-struck as his. When boots crunched straw, they risked a glimpse through the window, and saw armored man-at-arms wearing yellow tabards emblazoned with a rampant, orange lion.
"Those are Lord Andercruik's men, said Gaspar, "or at least his tabards."
"How would you know?" Renae hissed from the kitchen.
"I know you have a low opinion of me, and lower now than yesterday, but don't forget I was once a king's courtier."
"We must help Mrs. Drumm," said Elessa. "She was always kind to me."
"If a lord turned brigand or rebel, we must help ourselves," said Renae.
Gaspar said, "couldn't we include the old woman in our escape?" In his desire to avoid Renae's glare, he missed being disappointed by Elessa's reaction, which was no softer, though pity now mingled with her prevailing mood of anxiety and horror, apprehensions that spread from her father to her neighbor and contaminated her pity with contempt, for with his every breath the shopkeeper proved he was no person of his own, but the creature of others; first the creature of the king, then the creature of Lady Adelae, and now—she lamented—he was a creature of her own, though as often he bent backwards for Renae. Though at first Gaspar's assertion seemed selfless, and hence unlike him, Elessa saw that he only acted in service to one of his many lords. After a few waves of unbelieving pity, this nausea so infected the horror of missing father, murdered neighbor, and invaded hometown, that she glared at him through brimming eyes, and said, "don't do anything on my account, Gaspar."
Peeking from the back door, they saw Mrs. Drumm, pinned to the ground by two arrows through her chest, and her head bobbing in a silent moan. Elessa stepped closer, the old woman's head rocked towards them, wailing "help me." As the soldiers stomped back, Renae gripped her sword hilt, and Gaspar seized her arm, for he wanted no part of what she intended, whether that was to silence Mrs. Drumm or fight trained guards. With farm-born strength, Elessa yanked them both into the dining room, where Gaspar's shuffling momentum carried him stumbling through the front door.
As Elessa and Renae sprinted down the path, and Gaspar picked himself up and followed, he heard shouting, and an arrow pitched over his head to pierce the ground between the two women. Elessa nearly tripped over the shaft.
"They're finding our range," said Elessa, then turned to grab Gaspar, and pushed him towards a shallow stream that wended down a wooded gully. "Half a chance is better than none at all."
"That poor woman. I wish I knew what was going on." The cold stream seeped into his boots, floating leaves clung to his pants, and when the slippery stones gave way, he nearly tripped, but Elessa grabbed his hand, planted her feet, and kept them both upright. When a gigantic cloud grumbled going over the pale sun, bright filaments twitched in the water, reflecting tendrils of lightning, until the spattering sent ripples through the image, and the whole stream was soaked in darkness.
"Watch your step. The rocks are loose."
"Is that your farm?" A blocky farmhouse adjoined a half-crumbled barn with a gaping hole fringed by the jagged ends of broken slats. Tendrils of smoke curled up from torches thrown on the farmhouse roof and dropped on the porch. The wet wood had not yet caught fire, but it smoldered. "They might still be here. We should run." Gaspar again sloshed right when he should have sloshed left, and nearly ate a faceful of gravel, but Elessa once more anchored them both. "Where's Renae?"
"Do you really want to know?" growled Elessa. "Gaspar, help me find my father. If you need a better excuse to risk your life, we hid a pouch of gold."
The barn door hung from its hinges, and whatever crashed into the roof and upper wall had shredded the lumber like roasted chicken. The horses' eyeless, flayed heads grinned back at them from the bloody, hay-strewn stable floor.
"Nothing survived this. Let's go."
"I see pieces of horses, not pieces of my father. He may have lived. I would have climbed in the loft, and hoped the beasts would be too mindless to remember, or too lazy to follow, after their feast." When meaning caught up to what she said so matter-of-factly, she sobbed, then sucked it back and smeared the tears into her rain-wet cheeks. She climbed the ladder into the loft, where a flicker of lightning streamed through the broken wall, and the horror at last took shape.
As it was pinned to the wall by Shaul's long-bladed scythe, at first they thought the insensate beast was dead, but when they came near, it pulled weakly against its impalement, its claws gouging the floor and its wings fluttering against the cold blade. That it had battered the blade for hours could be seen in the raw bald spots on its wings, feathers drifting in the airy room, and the motes of down that glinted when the storm flashed. If it lusted to kill them, its shrieking caterwauls were nonetheless pitiful, though mixed with the fear that its mournful yowls and resounding clatter might draw the murderous soldiers.
"Griffins," said the bewildered shopkeeper, not daring to believe it could exist outside of heraldry and fanciful calligraphy in illuminated tomes. "Where did it come from?"
"I asked where it's coming from, not where it's going. Poor beast."
"It isn't dead yet, thank the quiet gods."
"How is that good? And why are Lord Andercruik's man-at-arms massacring Glasford?"
"That is now the least of our problems," said Elessa, then grabbed the wounded griffin's wing and bent it backward. Its plaintive shriek must have carried for miles.
"Stop! What are you doing? They'll come."
"The soldiers had time to find us. The griffins taunted us in the storm." When she twisted the wing as hard as she could, the griffin screamed, almost like a human, if a human could reach that blood-curdling pitch, and a lashing claw only quivered the impaling scythe, elongated the scream, and widened the griffin's wound. "Following orders and instincts, these dogged killers will never stop hunting us."
When a howling gale buffeted them through the broken wall, the wrecked stable doors chattered and nearly drowned out men yelling outside, and the shrieking roar of more griffins. They peeked over the rim of the jagged breach at soldiers stabbing with spears at four rearing and plunging griffins. When one beast plunged its beak through breastplate and ribs, then snapped the corpse through the hole in the loft, Elessa and Gaspar pulled back just in time, and the body struck the far wall, where the scythe-impaled griffin worried its wound struggling to reach the fresh meat.
Though Gaspar stayed hidden, Elessa rolled back to the hole. Not only did she want to be certain she imagined the griffin winking mischievously after having aimed at their hiding place, but she wanted to watch the murderers' fate. She regretted this instantly, for though she was not disappointed, she was disgusted by the bloody show. Though the man-at-arms were torn to shreds, one griffin died when the spear clutched by its headless prey found the beast's deeply-buried heart a moment after the gobbled head reached its stomach.
Having unlashed a bale of hay and coiled the length of rope on her forearm, Elessa climbed down the ladder. Though Gaspar also fed on desperation in that moment, chickenhearted desperation is less nourishing than lionhearted desperation, tastes more like fear than bravery, and partaking of it in a lifelong diet does not inspire great deeds. "Where are you going?" he hissed. For all his faults, Gaspar possessed the virtue of imagination, and when he had a dreadful vision of what Elessa intended, he shivered, then whispered, "hanging yourself with that rope would be quicker." When the whistling storm drowned out these whispers, his nerveless disquiet was fanned into a rage. Despite her insane plans, his madder fears, and the sobering certainty that he would only contribute another body to the griffin feast, he followed.
It is less likely that Elessa successfully crept up on the monstrous predators, than that the griffins, happily tearing gobbets of man-flesh, did not deign to notice her. With a practiced flick, the farmgirl hurled her noose, and the instant the loop settled on the griffin's neck, it vaulted into the surging gale, towing Elessa straight up. Gaspar froze, fearstruck, as another griffin seized him and pounced after its mate. The third griffin dawdled, playing with its food, then seized the still groaning soldier in its hind paws, spread its wings, and gave chase.