Chapter Four: The Falling Skins
Lord Leonidas Andercruik refused to dismount. Though his white boots were flecked with mud, he was pleased that his father's mantle—an aged greenish-brown lion skin with a finely brushed black mane—was spared any contact with Glasford. And if he stayed in the saddle, he could tell King Algus he never set foot in this miserable collection of hovels; even the king's astrologers might be stymied if they were not clever interpreters. Not that he wasn't doing Vanoor a service. "Burn them."
"They're wet, my lord."
"Mix pitch. They'll burn."
"Right away, my lord."
"Quicker than that," he called after them.
"Lord Andercruik." Two man-at-arms dragged frightfully mauled corpses, each liveried with Lord Andercruik's orange lion on bright yellow, and painted as well with death's colors—blood and gore-darkened mud.
"Though we have not found Edwin, my Lord, these two lay outside a barn."
"And inside the barn?"
"My Lord, we thought it best to return with a larger force."
The other man-at-arms said, "One wall was broken in, my Lord, and the barn shudders with earsplitting shrieks."
"And what is that?"
The man-at-arms stooped to retrieve a large feather on one of the bodies, then handed it to Leonidas. After examining it, the mounted lord said "take me there."
As Lord Andercruik's roan stallion trotted down the rain-swamped stream that led to the farmstead, the soldiers walked on its narrow banks. Though Leonidas was disinclined to affection or admiration, inspired instead to resentment or envy by the beauties he desired, and feeling only the joy of ownership for that which was his, he prized his horse more than most of his belongings. Though vain, Leonidas complained more about his wardrobe or even the contents of his mirror than this flawlessly graceful animal.
While Leonidas was appreciating his horse, it slipped on the loose rocks, dunking them in the overflowing stream. When he righted himself—the foaming water lapping against his chest and running off the soaked lion skin mantle—he waited until its hooves found purchase, and when it was on the verge of standing, buried his sword in its eye.
Though the horse died instantly, a plaintive shriek split the air. The screech lingered long enough for Leonidas to know it came from downstream, in the direction of the barn, and that whatever wounded beast made those grating yowls was dying. When he pulled himself out of the stream, the lion skin drizzled and his wet pants clenched his thighs and knees
"I'm not a superstitious man, my Lord, but that wailing..."
Leonidas cut him off. "If you mention ghosts, you'll think the horse lucky, and find this sword sheathed in an even more uncomfortable place."
While one wall was blackened, the barn fared better than the farmhouse's ashy ruins, which still smoldered with a slow blaze. After opening the barn doors and climbing into the loft, Lord Andercruik faced the beast at last. Though the mauled griffin was deathly quiet, its shallow breaths stirred the dander of its underbelly, and there could be no mistake it yet lived when it opened its beak, and after a hoarse, breathless gasp, screeched another head-splitting caterwaul.
"It's ghastly," said Lord Andercruik. "A noble beast dying in the shambles of Glasford. We won't let it rest in squalor, when its home was in the skies. Let there be no suffering, as we want no clutch of griffons revenging it. Cut its throat as finely as you can. I want its coat for my back, its head for my wall, and its heart for my table. Then let's leave this hell-hole for more pleasant pastimes."
After Gaspar and Elessa continued on to Glasford, and only after much bickering and lamentation of lost profits, the merchants took what they could and headed for the capitol. As the barge was damaged when it was moored, and none of the merchants wished to risk sinking their investments, they persuaded the remaining barge hands to leave it moored while looking for their employer by land, so that the merchants could return later for their goods.
Their two-day journey was a dismal march, plodding through sheets of rain and paths loosened by slipping mud, and the somber, moody merchants arrived to a Vanoor similarly buffeted by the dogged storm. Market had become a tent village of sorts, as the merchants were so determined to ensure their profits that they raised canvas roofs throughout the square. Thick tarps covering bushels of grain and fruit were occasionally tilted to slough the rain, which ran into puddles that widened into rivulets gurgling into the sewers.
Under the stretched skins, food vendors kept their cook fires going, which made the underbelly of the tent market so smoky and steamy that those that stuck to the covered paths still looked moist from sweat and grease, and both buyers and sellers were so tempted by the good smells of the fried meats, breads, and stews that they were constantly eating. This constant consumption kept the cook-fires going and made the tent market exceedingly hot, and the normally fast pace of dickering became lazy, even drowsy, with the sleepy hagglers so hungry to hear the gossip of a murder on a riverboat that the starved, parched merchants got excellent deals. Though they felt a pinch in their wallets, they spent their money free as water in Vanoor's drowned market square, to patch their wounded pride and ravaged stomachs.
While the sated but annoyed merchants told their story to whomever would listen, the wine-seller, having abandoned more than he wished to lose, hired sell-swords to bodyguard him back to the barge. <
Lord Andercruik was likewise famished on returning to his ancestral estate, and though it was abundantly stocked with grape vines, apple orchards, and rose gardens, as well as two hundred servants and six hundred man-at-arms, only one on the grounds could satisfy his hunger. Not that Leonidas would trust anyone in the kingdom to prepare his food other than Lancurc, whether a seven platter feast, a sandwich to fuel late night reading, or fifteen meals in a saddlebag for a long journey. With the roan stallion slain, Lancurc was Lord Andercruik's most treasured resource, and as the chef was the most joyful, and, most importantly, the most deferential man in his employ, he stood little chance of infuriating Leonidas to his breaking point, though the chef did have one habit only tolerable in small amounts. Lancurc was an inveterate gossip, and so skilled with his hands that he could chit-chat from the first chop to the final garnish of his most complicated dishes. After ordering the entree he craved, Leonidas was unable to pry himself away from the unending and admittedly entertaining chin-wag, a monologue made even more ingratiating by salivating aromas and the theatricality of Lancurc's finesse with knives.
Lancurc chopped and minced with such rapidity that chives became a green dust and a garlic bulb a blob of white paste. So adroit was the cook that on arriving at the third step of a ten step recipe, with only a few extra cuts, a vast appetizer was plated and set before his ravenous employer. By this time, Leonidas was so entranced by this food wizardry, and his appetite pacified by a succulently buttered artichoke, a crusty slab of grilled, herbed bread, or a bowl of greens tossed with a shallot and caper vinaigrette, that he learned to nod and smile, and indulge the hummingbird chatter, as if married to his hireling. He rationalized that it did not matter if his most valuable and most harmless employee had more license than most, because the chef never put on airs.
On this day, when Lancurc gossiped of a moored barge bearing rich cargo, disgruntled merchants, and a barge master that went missing by stormy Glasford, Leonidas choked on a crouton in his haste to swallow, and after he had mastered himself—the chef standing, stiff as a board, as if this interruption to his chatty monologue gave pause to his hands as well—demanded that Lancurc repeat every word. Having tracked the griffins to the cloud island, then the cloud island to Glasford, Leonidas realized that the merchants' misfortune played a part in his story.
When Lord Andercruik commanded his scribe to invite the merchants to a luncheon the very next day, all RSVPed except for the wine-seller, who had already left Vanoor with his sell-swords.
As the merchants arrived, they were shown to the library, a rectangular room with a fireplace and divans at the far end, oil lamps hanging over each of six reading tables, and bookshelves lining the walls. The largest table bore numerous books, open to illustrations of beasts both common and monstrous, and on a facing table, covered with white linen, rested a greenish-brown leonine coat topped with red, blue, and green plumage instead of a mane, as well as an atlas-sized sketchbook open to a sketch, in progress, of the beast that grew it.
When Micheren the tanner, a very short man, struggled to push through his peers to lay his eyes upon the fabulous hide, and in an attempt to circle around, walked between the tables, he noticed the books were open to G, picturing not only Goat, Goose, Gopher, Gorilla, Goshawk, and Grasshopper, but Griffin. Finding the skin fenced in by merchants greedy for a touch, in the end Micheren jostled between Arami the bookbinder and a tall, husky man he did not know—by chance clad in a lion skin of the tanner's own handicraft, though in a style he abandoned more than twenty years ago.
Laying his hands on the griffin skin, Micheren noted that it was weighty, and though bloodless, not yet tanned. Lord Andercruik was taking matters slow, which Micheren himself would have advised. The skins of lions and birds presented different challenges, and unified in one monster, Micheren would be likely to err on the side of caution until the job was completed. What was that smell? Holding the soft skin to his face, he smelled—.
"Grain alcohol and water," said the broadly muscular man next to him. "You don't remember me, Micheren."
"Lord Andercruik?" Through the horror—he had elbowed a lord, and rubbed his nose in his host's trophy—Micheren attempted a smile. "You're a hunter, like your father—why not give me your business, like he did?"
"Isn't it a marvelous skin, Micheren?" said Leonidas. "I have meant to come around your shop, if only to show my face and pick your brain."
"This is very good work, Lord Andercruik. But tanning isn't a hobby for Lords," said Micheren disapprovingly. "Your father was a patron to craftsmen."
"I can't stop killing things," said Leonidas, "and I like being clad in the lives of beasts. Four different beasts died for this ensemble," he said, indicating not only his father's lion skin mantle, which Micheren tanned thirty-two years ago, but suede pants and fur-lined vest, cloak, and boots. "But don't worry, Micheren, I'm not about to set up shop."
As they talked, the other merchants retreated to the divans and other tables, so that Micheren was the only witness to a conversation that remembrance would later cast in a macabre light. An aproned man, only a few inches taller than himself, and characterized by a brisk gait and melodious Klyrnish accent, approached Lord Andercruik.
"My Lord," said the aproned man, "My center piece! The fats! The grease! It drained and boiled away. The effect is ruined."
Lord Andercruik bent his head low and whispered, a hiss which the tanner could not help hearing unless he joined another conversation, which he was loath to do, being desirous for whatever gossip he could take with him. "What do you mean ruined, Lancurc?" The tanner hoped to see violence when Lord Andercruik grabbed the cook's apron straps, but an instant later he let go, as his servant already shook from weeping.
"Fix it, Lancurc," Lord Andercruik growled, and the cook quickly comported himself, though the lively man was more subdued in his exit.
When melodious chimes rung, Lord Andercruik boomed over the conversing merchants, "Friends! Dinner is served, and the guest of honor is ready. Let us make our way."
When doormen impeccably dressed in Leonidas's yellow and orange opened the thick oak doors, the merchants filed into a dining hall even longer than the library, and lit by two brass pendant chandeliers so weighty they could have served as anchors.
A long table was dressed with a black satin tablecloth, burgundy silk place mats, bone-white ceramic plates and bowls, and large copper steins. After Lord Andercruik sat not at the head of the table, but the first right hand chair, the merchants took their seats.
Two servants, also clad in yellow aprons emblazoned with the orange Andercruik lion, placed salad in the bowls with wooden tongs, and a third followed with a cart of pepper grinders, cheese graters, and dressing bowls. "Is there nothing without garlic?" Micheren asked. "Oil and wine would suffice." As the young woman was about to oblige him, a shriek, echoing in the kitchen and only slightly muffled by the kitchen door, caused her hand to shake, so that olive oil dribbled on his lap, soaking into the red, soft suede.
When Micheren looked up in rage, the kitchen doors clattered as another server escaped, a rictus of fear on her face. Though his pants were no doubt ruined, the effect of this fright spoiled his indignation. Even when the young woman begged forgiveness one too many times, so that the other merchant lords looked their way, Micheren said nothing and waved her away.
The kitchen door resounded when a train of five servers, each pushing a cart of covered dishes, proceeded around the table. A tall, red-haired lad stopped his cart at the head of the table, struggled under an enormous covered platter until he carefully laid it next to Lord Andercruik, then hastily wheeled back, smacking the kitchen doors so hard they shuddered.
"My friends," said Lord Andercruik. "The guest of honor." When he lifted the cover, a hush smothered the hall, which then shook with shouts, chairs pushed back, and boot steps, as the merchants took to their feet.
The headpiece, as a gory jest, was exactly that—the wine-seller's head, served on a bed of red onions and roasted garlic. Deviled eggs occupied the eye sockets, and the mouth, horribly distended by a broken jaw, accommodated an uncorked red wine of respectable vintage. The tanner, who worked with skins, and moreover was the only witness to the cook's whining, noticed subtler signs of violence, not intentionally inflicted, but accidents of hamfisted kitchen failure—the wine-seller's face was overcooked: peeled, blistered, his cheeks sunken.
When the merchants backed away from the table, the double doors swung, and a dozen guards entered, two pointing cocked crossbows, while the rest herded the merchants back to the table with halberds topped with cruel hooks.
"Friends," said Lord Andercruik, "forgive the cruel joke, which was staged more for mine own amusement and to save time at the bargaining table, than to show you that I am in deadly earnest. Make no mistake, though." He barked a laugh. "That's a head, no matter how Lancurc bungled it. Though he's a funny man and a wonderful chef, his confidence evaporates like booze in a drunk's hand when there's a little horror in the kitchen." Leonidas's smile vanished. "Let's see how the head curdles what you cook up. Tell me about Glasford."
When the merchants stammered their story, each interrupting the other in their desire to ingratiate themselves with their captor and to interject that they would happily ransom their lives, Leonidas thought sardonically that their stumblebum adventure no doubt took less time. They rambled on and on and on, and on, and on, and on, occasionally sniffling and blubbering at the nearness of the weapons, or croaking apologies for their sniveling; Wagur the carpenter even whined, then retched, at the burned bacon-like scent of the overcooked head.
"Why have you cornered and coerced us, my Lord," said Perida, the curio dealer. The oldest merchant, and half-blind, she no doubt felt less threatened by the nearness of danger. "Do you imagine that we have wronged you?"
"No," said Leonidas, "though my cook had a hand in that horror, I am entirely to blame for your inconvenience, old one. If I allowed you to leave unharassed, you would soon hear of the griffins, and while I have ample head start and more preparation, that would not daunt those who crave money on the hoof, or those like Micheren, who would pursue it for the prestige of ownership or the challenge of his craft. When the smartest of you guessed the future in this, I made plans to get ahead." Leonidas snickered, then continued. "Each of you may ransom your skin for one hundred thousand coin, provided you swear not to hunt the griffin."
"Oh yes, my Lord." "I swear it." After every merchant made their toadying avowal, Andercruik dispatched their letters of writ, which ordered their banks to pay the coin. Though he did not care if toothless merchants followed his trail, it was pleasant to have the coin, and an even greater pleasure to think of owning their skins.