Chapter Five: Rogues in the Herd
The wizard was an exact man. Ilmar learned by way of rote, practiced to make perfect, hewed to the letter of contracts, and preferred measuring to believing and facts to friends. A magician and a scientist, Ilmar's credo was "not certitude but exactitude," for certainty was delusion, blind faith in a world less predictable than habitual, and just as often suggestible, coercible, cruel, whimsical, or random. A wizard first and foremost, and a scientist second, Ilmar determined not to be entangled by the habitual material universe, but weed stray causes, cultivate effects, and graft purposes in a garden of his own delight. The only fixed points were what you fixed yourself: the food you cooked to your taste, the wine you poured with your own hand, the bets you hedged, the lords you bribed, the servants you enslaved with magic, the griffin eggs you raised as your own savage children, and the countries you usurped. Until he could check all the way to the bottom of that list, he would not be satisfied.
Moreover, today was the worst of all possible days—as if paying the wizard back for his cuckoldry, Gaspar fell from the sky to steal a priceless griffin egg. Not that Ilmar believed Gaspar's arrival was either coincidence or divine retribution. There were no coincidences, just overlooked causes. And if you accepted the existence of the gods, which Ilmar did not, Gaspar's theft amounted not to divine retribution, but divine spite; it wasn't an eye for an eye, but an eye for a head. Adelae's faded beauty was of minimal value compared to the fabulous wealth of a griffin egg. The more he compared the two, the more he felt the horror of the poor exchange rate. Nonetheless, despite neither believing in coincidence nor the currency of the gods, Gaspar the stray cause had tripped his desired dominoes and stolen what the wizard loved. A reasonable man would learn to make do without a single griffin, but just as there was no certainty or coincidence in Ilmar's worldview, neither was there the reassurance of reasonableness; every hatchling factored in his great experiment, and his plans reluctantly expanded to include Gaspar.
As to the young woman, who being not only good with animals, but the daughter of his thrall, was not only gift-wrapped but prepackaged with leverage—one unlooked-for present deserved another. While griffin eggs usually hatch two days apart, it is not mandatory that they do so, and with a Midwife's Candle gathering dust on his shelf, it would be inconsiderate not to lend a hand.
Ilmar set the Midwife's Candle on his tea table, lit the wick with a pinch of his fingers, then headed for the kitchen.
Having no pillow, Elessa's sleep was fitful until her tossing and turning head found the egg. Though slightly damp, it was warm and spongy where the cracks expanded, and she found a few hours of uninterrupted slumber until its rocking and crunching roused her. Gaspar was woken by the shell's echo, followed by the farmgirl's startled cry. "What do I do?
"You don't have to do anything."
"Very funny. I meant to say this won't do. Ilmar will kill us in frustration."
"Come to the edge. I'll hand you what's left of the meat."
Gripping the partition, Gaspar cautiously leaned over the ascensor and extended the tray over the gap, but it wasn't enough—Elessa flailed for it, but couldn't grab hold. As the shopkeeper swayed another inch, then another, he got an eyeful of the enormous drop to the first floor. When his hand shook, not only with fear, but fatigue, the tray became an enfeebling weight—and Elessa snatched the tray, then snapped back to her side, one hand holding the tray aloft as the other caught the side of the bed.
As if mimicking their efforts, the griffin hatched in reverse—its hindquarters backed out of the shell, the sticky wings spilled out in a frail heap, then the head flopped onto the bed, squawking, all of it covered head to toe in an amber liquid that soaked the mattress. When bits of shell clung to its head like a comical helmet, Elessa left them alone, thinking that peeling them away might tear its tender skin. As she dried the head and wings, its lion hind paws clutched and needled her forearm, and with her good hand, she fed it two meaty chunks before its bobbing head nestled on her lap; it was trilling and half-asleep when it peeped plaintively at the onrush of an updraft through the ascensor.
As Ilmar ascended, the surging, crackling overflow of levitated air blasted both sides of the oubliette, billowing the griffins' feathers and Elessa and Gaspar's sheets, clothes, and hair.
Not only was the hovering wizard fully dressed in dandyish evening attire--silver roses embroidered the hem of a black satin cape draped over a lincoln green doublet with a maroon lace collar--he was barefoot, and his uncallused feet had manicured toenails painted gold.
"Now I have two rogues in my herd," Ilmar said, smiling. While most would assume they, themselves, were the rogues, Elessa heard the double meaning, though she was uncertain whether the wizard thought it intimidating, cute or charming. Only those that studied animals or raised herds would know newborn animals taken from their mother and tainted by human smells, would be seen as rogue animals by other herds. Ilmar's layered analogy insinuated that not only were Gaspar and Elessa out of place and not at home, they were unwanted castaways.
"Were we watched?" Gaspar asked.
"What clued you in, shopkeeper? The oubliette, which from an architect's view, resembles an eye? Yes, I was spying when that sneaky griffin poked its head out."
"Why are you here?" groaned Elessa. "To gloat? Or have you finished our accommodations?"
"Let me tell you about my night. When the mother crashed into my gate, then flew the perimeter, tearing away a few hapless servants—no, no," he said, at Elessa's look of alarm, "not your filthy sire—my first thought was to feed the monster the farmgirl, as killing one soaked in her egg's smell might give the beast closure. My second thought was to put the hogtied farmgirl in the nest like a cuckoo's egg, and take notes. Would she be eaten at once? Kept around for a few days, like a catnip mouse, then bitten to pieces? Raised as a wingless, mutant surrogate until pushed from the nest to spread her arms and die? In the end, I couldn't do it, for the hatchling's sake, who doesn't deserves to be orphaned, though her choice of mothers leaves much to be desired."
"I don't believe you," said Elessa, with a hint of taunting in her voice. "You're lonely. You have enough griffins. In our flight here, every plateau, ridge, and ledge had one or more griffin nests."
"Though eight hundred and fifty seven griffins think me god, it is not enough. I need thousands before stage two."
"If stage two is forcing us to be your friends, it's not working."
"Don't listen to her," said Gaspar. "We're impressed."
"Though you grovel well, shopkeeper, pay me with better and longer groveling, if you expect to hear an evil monologue. Another time, perhaps."
"Tomorrow," Ilmar continued, "Another platform will bring necessities, including appropriate attire for your new duties, then levitate you safely to the ground floor. Gaspar, you'll be my courier, as promised, and my new errand girl will one day keep me in spices, coffees, teas, tinctures, rare spell ingredients, and the like. Because you will see this as an opportunity for escape, I won't ask for any objections, though you'll soon see that my reach is long and escape is improbable."
When Ilmar descended, Gaspar and Elessa fell into a deep sleep, and the hatchlings, each with a bellyful of horse, let them until dawn trickled, then poured, through the skylight. On the cloud island, morning's light was pure and bright, almost white in its radiance. They each woke within a few moments of the other.
"Here's a thought," said Gaspar. "When our new clothes arrive, we still have no modesty."
"You're worried about that," said Elessa.
"I'm no spring chicken."
"At least you'll look like yourself in whatever ridiculous uniform he'll expect us to wear."
When the wooden disc levitated until flush with the split floor, like a puzzle piece completing the oubliette, there was not only a footlocker on Gaspar's side, but a large screen draped with a golden hide on Elessa's.
"Despite his murderous pretensions, our host is a man of his word."
"Don't say pretensions. He's watching."
As neither were ready to trust the platform, Gaspar took the clothing intended for him, then attempted to spin the disc. While the spell resisted Gaspar, by pushing together they rotated it until the footlocker faced Elessa, though the shopkeeper strained while the farmgirl took her clothes.
While they dressed without discussion, in mutual embarrassment, they did not dress noiselessly, for each stumbled and cursed as the other dressed. While unfamiliar with the fashions, everything fit except Elessa's hip boots, which were a little too snug, a feeling to which the big-boned farmgirl was well-accustomed. While Elessa was used to unflattering clothing, she was especially well-acquainted with footwear that pinched, for even for a tall, farm-hardened lass like herself, she had big feet. So familiar was she with cruel shoes that, compounded with recent losses, discomforts, inconveniences, and her father's thralldom, she exceeded her tolerance for contemptible footwear, tossed the hip boots under the bed, then put on her own walking shoes, which monthly pounding of the road between Glasford and Murnstead had drummed into a second skin.
"I'm ready," she said.
"I'm not. Not looking like this." While Elessa's ensemble was a blouse, a skirt, hose and the aforementioned hip boots, Gaspar's ensemble was also a blouse, a skirt, hose, and hip boots. To Elessa's chagrin, he cut a trim figure in the blue sateen livery embroidered with golden griffins and silver dragons.
"This is tame for a wizard's revenge," said Elessa. "Though he's not the type to dirty his own hands, he could have fed us to one of eight hundred and fifty-seven griffins. If all he wants is a little fun at your expense, let him for both our sakes."
"Though Ilmar may not sully his hands, this griffin peed on me twice." When the squirming, yawning hatchling kneaded his chest with prickly claws and needled paws, Gaspar didn't know whether it was protesting or getting comfortable. Seeing that Elessa swaddled hers in her old shirt, and used her forearm for a mattress, Gaspar asked, "how did you do that?"
"Holding it upright makes it anxious. Lace your fingers."
After Gaspar followed Elessa's suggestion, the hatchling painfully kneaded the soft skin inside his forearm, nestled its beak into his armpit, then settled drowsily into a nap.
"Here we go, then," said Elessa. No sooner had she stepped onto the wooden disc than it descended, slipping four feet before Gaspar's drop jolted the platform.
"Thanks for the warning!" Halfway down the ascensor, Gaspar's sulking dissolved in an envious rapture for the pink and cream paisley wallpaper. What he thought were fleurs-de-lis were griffins rising, wings displayed and elevated. While he admired the heraldic design, he smirked at the wizard's monomaniacal and tedious tastes. Soon he would have the wizard eating out of his hand, as having flattered kings, ambassadors, and duchesses, making himself indispensable to a supercilious wizard would be effortless. Through compliments and praise he would elevate Ilmar's piggy opinions, dignify his bad taste, and sanctify his snobbery. That said, serving himself in humble pie to this infantile wizard might be more onerous than feeding raw meat to a baby monster.
When the platform softly alighted on the ground floor, Elessa's father waited in identical blue and gold livery, though his was streaked with drool from his slack-jawed, vacant stare. Shaul waved them into a round room lined with alternating bookshelves and writing desks. White, yellow, and blue chalk lay on four slate tables.
"Welcome to The Care and Feeding of Griffins," said Ilmar. "You will confine your studies to the oaken bookcase"—here he indicated a squarish tower of shelves—"as my other grimoires and scrolls are confusing, chaotic, and hazardous for unarmored minds. The deadliest volumes cannot be handled without significant precautions, as they are guarded by watchdog runes, toxic binding and vengeful elementals. Though I am most excited to share my discoveries concerning griffin metabolism, we will start with a more practical lesson: hatchlings."
"It's always good to start at the beginning," said Elessa.
"Raise your hand," said the wizard. "This is a classroom, not a barn. Now, split into two groups."
"There's only two of us," said Gaspar.
"Professor," corrected Ilmar. "There's only two of us, professor."
"Raise your hand."
Gaspar raised his hand. "There's only two of us, professor."
"I count four: two humans, two griffins. Each group will have one of each."
"We've already done that!"
"Professor," Ilmar cleared his throat.
"We've already done that, professor."
"Then let's proceed."
Though the class was dry, Gaspar and Elessa's interest was stimulated by their lab partners—not each other, as they still harbored resentments and grudges, but the hatchlings, whom, in thir roles as the cared and fed griffins, ate what they were fed and trilled at Gaspar and Elessa's least attempts at care. The infants' enthusiasm seemed so sincere that the wizard reluctantly gave a passing grade to their first day's efforts.
After class, Ilmar led them to quarters adjoining a stable, a combined structure shaped from one slab of mountain by wizardry. Vacant-eyed thralls were furnishing their rooms with spartan-looking beds, dressers, and tables of fragrant, newly cut pine.
"Enjoy your dormitories," said Ilmar. "Though there's nowhere to run, you're free to see for yourself. For sightseeing, I recommend the eastern shore--its plunging coastline is quite breathtaking."
"When I caught myself almost enjoying today," said Elessa. "I disliked you more."
"Though I don't care if you're happy, I prefer to keep good company. And while an enjoyable stay is up to you, a comfortable one is up to me. Do I make myself clear?"
Elessa heard the threat, but when she tried to smile, it withered on her lips. "Can't you unspell my father?"
"Of course I can," said the wizard. "Don't expect me to. Hope is a waste of energies you should save for class."
"Are you enjoying this?" asked Elessa. "This play-acting at being a Lord? A professor? A god?"
"I am," said Ilmar. "Still, though I don't mind being thought cruel, and I know myself to be a petty bastard, I won't have you thinking your professor unfair, so I'll give you a goal. When either of you make a significant contribution to life on Wysaerie, I'll consider freeing another mind."
"You'll consider," said Elessa. "How magnanimous."
"I must do what's best for my nest."
The next day, they learned Biter was a girl; moreover, both griffins were female, and would remain golden-brown, not developing the rainbow plumage illustrated in storybooks. As the days passed, they learned griffins grow slower than birds, but faster than lions, and would be dog-sized in two weeks, flying in three months, and pony-sized in six months, when they could carry riders for short flights. Reaching their full growth in three years, the griffins would be a tad lighter than a warhorse, but much larger, like the beasts that dragged them to Wysaerie.
Though taken frrom the same nest, there were differences, and when Elessa's griffin, Baby, grew quicker and wider than Gaspar's, it paralleled their development as students. Though at first Gaspar was not as reluctant as Elessa, by the end of the course, she absorbed not only the main points, but the details, as well as Ilmar's sidebars, trivia, and vain anecdotes, although the wizard never divulged anything really useful, like how to demist an enslaved mind or escape a cloud island.
Gaspar was more interested in mastering what improved dinner. For after their first day, they were responsible for their meals, which meant they ate well some days,and when they ate not so well, it was through no fault but their own—and, Gaspar reminded himself, that of the madman that removed him not only from Adelae's shadow, but from the orbit of her chef's everyday delicacies. In trying to reproduce some of these dishes, Gaspar learned that he knew more culinary art than he believed. Stocking his shop taught Gaspar not just the names of foods and spices, but their aromas, and these memories, motivated by necessity, soon made him a decent cook. He also cataloged the wizard's larder, and reminded the wizard to maintain the inventory, so that ingredients remained full.
Like Gaspar, Biter was more interested in acquiring outside skills, such as putting her beak in the larder to nose through sugar, lard, and wheat—which she crunched, loudly. Towards the end of their course, Biter disappeared for days, to return covered with burrs and leaves, and crunching bone fragments that she spit up in a cannonball-sized pellet, which the wizard expected pulled apart for that day's lesson.
It was packed not only with sheep's wool, fur, feathers, and bones, but also crumbled stones smoothed by the grinding of the griffin's guts. They learned in the wizard's accompanying lecture that griffins supplemented their diet of fat sheep and gamy wolves with a few grams of ore-rich mountain rock.
It was not Biter, but Baby, who returned after a two day absence to cough up a pellet with long, frail bones.
"That large skull is no child's," said Ilmar. "No doubt some unlucky crone." Despite this sneering reassurance, Elessa became cold to her cannibal child, and renamed her Beast. This new name wasn't paired with a new heart, however, for no matter how many times Elessa waved away or shook off the playful monster, it would bounce back and press its affections until she threw shoes.
When Beast snatched the seat of Elessa's pants, then dragged her twenty feet into the air before being rebuffed by her kicks and punches, Elessa relented, and started to treat it with a wary affection, though it was more for fear for her own skin.
When Beast dragged Elessa by the seat of her pants twenty feet into the air, she rebuffed the griffin with kicks, punches, and screeches that rivalled a griffin's squawks, but on cooling down, she treated her pet with a wary affection, less from a change of heart than fear for her skin.
Four months after their arrival, class ended and their duties changed. Gaspar colored black and white woodcuts for the wizard's textbook, The Care and Feeding of Griffins, and Elessa fed and groomed the half-dozen rogue griffins that preferred the castle grounds to the plateau of nests. When their attention shifted from their griffins to their duties, the monsters' feline halves emerged, and they followed Gaspar and Elessa room to room, only to curl on the floor and ignore their humans. The sullen monsters began to spray in corners, and Ilmar started flying school. When the griffins had learned to leap to the roof and back, Gaspar quailed at what came next—riding the griffin there and back.