Chapter Eight: Crooked Journeys and Siren Songs
Though Wysaerie's skies were pure blue at sunrise, by breakfast white cirrocumulus haloed the horizon. By the time they were on harness and saddle, wispy clouds rolled into the cloud island and dissolved into its humidity, causing a glimmering haze that obscured the wooded foothills.
Gaspar mopped his brow with his yellow sateen sleeve, and Elessa's shirt was glued to her armpits by the sweat. The dewy moisture even clumped the griffins' thick hindfur, overpowering their everyday stink with the stench of wet griffin, which was not unlike a half-drowned cat caught in a soiled birdcage. In their first jaunt, Biter and Beast were so unaccustomed to a rider's weight that they aimed for the trees but faltered over the foothills, descending so comically quick that for the rest of the day, Ilmar mimed their nearly lethal pratfall.
"Griffin instinct will not account for a rider's weight." Ilmar muttered as he scribbled. "In initial lessons, simplify student trajectories. No hills, mountains, trees, or walls. Preferrably, grasslands, beaches, or other flatlands." The wizard's eyes darted at Elessa. "Anything you'd care to add?" For their second flight, the wizard had levitated them to the grassy fields a few miles from the foothills.
Elessa shook her head. Though she did not care to show it to the wizard, her second flight thrilled her even more than the first, when she had flown a griffin for thirty white-knuckled seconds and her near-fatal drop had shaken away any desire to emulate the heroes of Vanoori legend. Riding with their knees while shooting arrows or swinging battle-axes, mounting and dismounting with running leaps, flying upside down or in spirals, and even riding bareback, were feats so beyond her that she had to bury the mythic deeds with her deepest fears in order to learn the more prosaic but deadly serious tasks of buckling herself down with the leg straps Ilmar devised, and crossing a field from one side to the other.
Thinking to adapt her knowledge of saddle and harness, Elessa was sorely disappointed, for Beast was not only untameable but adored her so much that in striving to impress her made ordinary things ten times more difficult; moreover, when Beast became overexcited, it rolled on its back, which could kill Elessa if she wasn't quick with the leg straps.
"Gaspar, you did well today. Elessa, less so," said Ilmar, "though that may be out of your hands. I'm considering ways to adapt Beast's harness. Unfortunately, your third flight is postponed, as I'm leaving tonight, and will return the following evening."
The next morning, after the wizard's departure, Elessa knocked on Gaspar's door. "I'm going to the library."
"Why? You should sleep in."
"I'm looking for entertainment, as I'm tired of griffins, griffin books, and griffin-brained wizards. Ilnar must have stories, poetry, plays, jokes, books of simple charms, anything. I'd even risk cracking one of those grimoires to relieve the monotony of these winged terrors."
Gaspar did not immediately reply. What Elessa was saying made no sense, because he was as infatuated with the griffin as he was with the farmgirl. He was so fond of Biter--who had grown into her name with a massive head and hooked beak--that he had wanted to rename it Elessa, not after his traveling companion, but after the mythic hero Mikhen's steed. When Elessa of Glasford was irritated that Elessa the griffin might become her namesake, Gaspar denied it, suggesting that Shaul Cavarah also remembered the fairy tale when naming her, and that great minds think alike. Fortunately for Elessa of Glasford, Gaspar couldn't make it stick, as Biter wouldn't take to any other name.
Gaspar was inclined to say no, as he had already planned a lazy day. He would prepare treats for Biter, comb burrs and grasses from her unkempt coat, clean her claws and paws from the gore of her recent romp, sweep crumbled pellets out of her stable, then lead her into the grassy meadow at the foothills, where she might idle the rest of the day away. Aside from the omission of classroom work, it wasn't much different from yesterday.
As Gaspar was not uneducated, he knew that he sublimated his fire for Elessa in returning the indefatigable affection of the loyal griffin. If Biter chose him by instinct, and he neither earned nor deserved this loyalty, he valued it nonetheless. Though he lived in a wizard's castle on a cloud island, Biter's affections were all that remained of the magic in the universe; half was crushed by the indiscriminately vast scale of his wife's infidelity, and the rest was snuffed by Elessa's constant reminders that she cared not whether he lived or died.
Despite his disenchantment, Gaspar was more or less pleased with his lot as the wizard's minion, much as a common man might bask in the reflected satisfaction of a nation's banner. Though he could not deny his servitude, he felt not only a pride of ownership, but the glow of health, for though they were fed plenty, he had become much leaner, as his days were full with caring for Biter and castle upkeep.
When Elessa wore the outfit from the day they embarked, Gaspar's old feelings were rekindled. Not only were Elessa's old clothes a memento of his infatuation, but their slack fit called attention to the improvements six months of servitude effected on her figure.
"I haven't anything on," Gaspar said. "Don't wait for me. I'll be down after I feed Biter."
"I won't. And Gaspar, don't sleep with your door open." She didn't wait for a reply and stomped down the hallway.
They let their chores go until evening, as they found dozens of fascinating books, which they now knew how to reference quickly via appendices, tables of contents, and Ilmar's system of color-coded paper tags. Elessa found not only The High Earth and The Quaking Sky but its sequel, Storms of Blood, and after Gaspar corrected his embarrasing distinction of being the only one on the island that hadn't read The Lies of Anduil Mabruk, he turned to both of the wizard's sources on Vanoori horses, which had become not only Biter's but Beast's preferred diet in their long excursions.
When Gaspar lifted his head from the weighty reference tomes, Elessa was poring over a large folio hand-written in the tiniest columns of black ink, and in which diagrams and formulas on onionskin paper had been tipped inside.
"How did you know that one's safe?" asked Gaspar.
"It was with the books on griffins. Ilmar wouldn't mis-shelve a dangerous book, even by accident, with his painstakingly acquired collection. Either it belongs on that shelf, or this grimoire is so harmless that he thought nothing of putting it on any shelf."
Gaspar asked, "could anything in there help us escape? Lady Adelae has bankrupted me by now."
"And with my father and I presumed dead, the farm will come up for auction. What do you suggest? Though fairy tales describe instantaneous travel, Ilmar doesn't know it, or he wouldn't travel by griffin. If we found his levitation spell, could you concentrate from here to the earth below? If magic could age our griffins, would they forget us in the instant passage of time, and become like wild beasts? And good luck charms would be canceled by the velocity of the fall."
"You've thought this out."
"Our only chance of escape is to trick Ilmar into taking us home, or wait for our griffons to grow, and hope he won't redirect their loyalty."
"He'd have done that."
"Maybe, maybe not. What if his errand is buying a crucial ingredient for a potion that transfers the imprint of a griffin?"
"Like there's such a thing." But Gaspar felt doubtful. While he used to feel smarter than Elessa, she retained the facts and formulas of their informal education much better than he, until her halfway-informed fear infected his overeducated caution.
"While there are no escape magics," said Elessa, "we might de-sorcel my father."
"Is that what you're researching?"
"I would have helped you, had I known. I've just read The Song of Longshadow for the third time."
"I'm not sure I should attempt it," said Elessa, "since this book was waiting for us."
"Why would Ilmar do that? Is it a test?"
"I think so. What do you think?"
"Is it a test of obedience, or loyalty?"
"I doubt it. He can command obedience," said Elessa. "And he destroyed my father's loyalty, so that he no longer knows me."
"He won't do that to us."
"Only so Biter and Beast won't turn rogue. But what if he decides our griffins are too wild?"
"I wouldn't call them wild," said Gaspar, who had often cursed Biter for being intractable. "Could it be a wizard's test?" Elessa's paranoia was so brilliant, so persuasive, that Gaspar became desperate to prove her wrong.
"To test intelligence, or an aptitude for wizardry? You're coming around, Gaspar. Ilmar is vain and conceited, but he's not the kind to throw away something useful."
"You think he plans to dispose of us if we fail this wizard's test?"
"Or enslave us."
"What are you waiting for? Cast the spell," said Gaspar, raising his voice. "We'll do it tonight."
"Why not you, Gaspar? That way you can explain it to the wizard. You said you wanted to help."
"I'm too old for undiscovered gifts, Elessa. I know my talents: gambling and numbers. I will help you gather the ingredients in the right proportions, if you'd like."
"Not today," said Elessa. "We need to find out Ilmar's timetable first."
"We don't even know what he wants."
"With a castle in the sky unable to be besieged by the kings of Vanoor or Klyrn, and eight hundred griffins heeding his voice, you don't know what he wants?"
"Power, to be sure," said Gaspar. "But why?"
"I doubt Ilmar himself could tell us that," said Elessa.
When she bent back over her book, Gaspar shelved his, then brought the paints and four of Ilmar's uncolored drawings back to the table.
"You'll never finish," said Elessa.
"What about the stables?" said Gaspar.
"What about them? Who's going to tell Ilmar? The griffins? My father? The others? The stables will just be extremely unswept tomorrow. The wizard never sets foot in them."
"If he's in a testing mood, he might."
"You're making me nervous, Gaspar." Elessa sighed. "What would he do? Take away my freedom? I'm on a cloud island. Hurt the person I care about? My father is his magical slave." After using her fingernail to cut a tiny nock in her page, she slammed the grimoire shut. "I'll help you, and you help me."
"That would be wonderful," said Gaspar. "If you fill in the blacks, I'll do the golds."
After filling in the blacks and golds, they moved on to silvers and blues. "That's enough," said Gaspar. "Ilmar will believe this is a day's work." Then they pushed in their chairs, and half-ran to the stable, where they combed the griffins' coats, checked their talons, swept the crumbled pellets—one of which was full of rusted metal, and rattled as it was dragged to the pile—and, lastly, the worst task imaginable: mopping up griffin spoor, a rank, viscous mix of solid and liquid filth. While it was nice that he helped that night, much of Elessa's resentment of Gaspar stemmed from this part of her duties, while Gaspar's fingertips were soiled by paints.
It was all work wasted, for the wizard did not return that night.
Gaspar tossed, turned, and drenched his pillow with sweat as he thought about what Elessa said. Though he hadn't admitted it until now, he was happy with his lot in life for the first time since his days in Algus's court. Free from Adelae's leeching of his substance, vitality, and mentality, this leaner, healthier Gaspar looked forward to his daily brush with books, found his menial work meaningful, and even felt his wellspring of imagination trickling.
Though Elessa seemed the same person despite her modicum of education, he recognized, with horror and pride in equal measure, that he had become the very essence of a minion. Their minds no longer met; when he looked Elessa in the eyes, it was like they were still in the oubliette, staring across the yawning ascensor. If Gaspar did not foil Elessa's escape, at worst they would share the same fate, and at best, she would become as unknowing as Shaul, and Gaspar's only companions would be Biter...and Ilmar.
Though Gaspar was content in his minion life and Ilmar could have the Baroness, he wasn't comfortable with the wizard including Elessa in his price. Somehow, he must bring the farmgirl over to his way of seeing. Though Gaspar could not deny that love was lost between them, perhaps it only lost its way, and the shepherdess was in need of shepherding.
When the wizard didn't return the next morning, Elessa returned to the library, but Gaspar went to the corral to groom Biter. Though she usually liked him to rub the downy belly line between feathers and fur, today the griffin nudged back, nipping a fold of his shirt and yanking him into her wings, where he heard a new sound, like commingled purring and trilling, the soft subvocal vibrations of the purr escaping from her beak like a teapot that didn't whistle so much as warble.
Not only was Biter stock still while Gaspar buckled the saddle, but it seemed to strike a joyous pose, its head cocked, its breast puffed out, and its wings half-raised. Gaspar had only just strapped his legs down, when she soared so softly, and alighted so gently, that had he blinked or been looking in his saddlebags, he would only have known they flew when the tree line a hundred yards from the castle was a yard in front of him.
Gaspar realized his teeth were clenched when his squeals of mirth and fearful shrieks battered a wall of teeth. "Good girl." He laughed weakly. "Let's try that again."
Absentmindedly, Gaspar had tapped his heels twice, a signal to jump. Though griffins take to saddles, they hate bits and bridles, and Ilmar developed a system of heel taps and feather tugs for Elessa and Gaspar to learn on dirt paths before their first flight. When Gaspar double-tapped again, stroking the left side of Biter's neck, she leaped left, landing less than a hundred feet away with a jarring impact.
Biter was a playful terror that not only pounced with force, but by a cunning sense of humor no doubt thought to surprise him with that first leap. Not for the first time, he wondered just how smart griffins were.
When Biter abruptly leaped again, sweeping her wings several times, Gaspar lost his bearings. Seeing blue beneath, green above, and flapping golden brown fluff in the middle, his topsy-turvy head swam. She landed among reeds and goldenrod, skidding on the damp grass, from which she didn't leap so much as spurt over the slippery marsh a mere twenty feet to a muddier spot, where she clawed to keep her footing.
When Gaspar realized his legs were like an iron clamp, surely discomfiting the griffin, he made himself unclench. Practicing their tags and heel taps, Gaspar soon coaxed Biter into a lap of the island, always turning left as they flew. As Biter had not yet reached her maturity and could not carry a rider in true flight, their jumps and wing-assisted glides made Gaspar feel less like a bird than a cannonball. Although there was no more than thirty seconds between landings, Gaspar was as high as a kite, and it seemed to him that Biter barely touched the ground.
As this was his first unsupervised jaunt on the cloud island, Gaspar was happy to satisfy his curiosity about the lay of the land. It seemed a perfectly natural island, with not only grassy fields and wet patches, but thick woods, and mountain streams tumbling down to ponds. Though the water seemed clearer and more mirroring than their earthly counterparts, they teemed no less with plants, bugs, frogs, and fish. Not for the first time, Gaspar wondered if the cloud island was manufactured magically, or discovered. Could Ilmar have crafted it? It seemed more like a forgotten god's artifact, as no wizard's plaything could rival its perfection.
When the griffin had nearly completed her circuit of the island, the magnitude of Gaspar's achievement struck him; though he was far from Biter's master, Gaspar was proud of himself. Elessa may have proved herself a better student, but look at him now.
Gaspar would learn a deadly lesson if Biter carried him over Wysaerie's edge, for the griffin's young wings could not hold the air long, and they would plummet to the earth. But it did him much good not to think of it, as this island journey was the most thrilling thing Gaspar ever willed. His blood had never raced riding in the king's parades; while he once accepted a duel with a limp, languid handshake, he backed out, pale and begging for mercy, on learning the current fashion was to the death; and, after his few nights of wedded bliss, he felt not a warm glow but a cold flicker, more stunned and numb than satisfied. Yesterday, Gaspar would not have denied he was a worm if you threw worms in his face, but today he was a worm with a griffin, an adventurer of limitless resources.
Elessa read for three hours before she realized Mr. Third had not joined her. Not that she missed his company, but Gaspar's absence, added to the ongoing absence of their captor, was unnerving. She put down Draughts and Healwines, and returned to their rooms, where his door was open on his mess, but he was not inside. Biter was gone as well.
Upon realizing she hadn't fed Beast, Elessa felt bad, but dreaded fulfilling that duty now that the griffin had skipped a meal. While Beast would never eat her, hunger made the griffin a skittering, scampering bully, snapping at her hair and clawing her livery.
When Elessa entered the kitchen for a bucket of scraps, her father sat at a counter, holding his head, choking, sneezing, and muttering. Drool dotted Shaul's unkempt blonde beard, his garment, mustache, and nose were discolored by black, brown, and yellow powders, and there was the strong smell of pepper, cumin, and curry. Though he took no notice when she took his hands, the seasonings rubbed off on her fingers. At Elessa's soothing voice, the muttering and choking stopped, and the sneezing became an irregular hiccup.
Her relief was mixed with trepidation, for her father was sustained not by food, but the enchantment. If he desired spices, the spell relaxed its hold, which meant something dire and injurious may have happened to Ilmar. Though she could care less if anything happened to the wizard, what would happen to her father if the spell ended abruptly? Would he collapse like a puppet with cut strings?
When Elessa left her father in the kitchen, she returned to the library, where she redoubled her efforts to find the counterspell. When neither Ilmar nor Gaspar returned at sunset, she turned the key on Ilmar's table lamp, and shadowless golden light filled the room. As Elessa had only turned twenty, she had never felt real resentment—toxic resentment--until that moment. Why should she worry about that fool, Gaspar, when she must think of her father? Though she continued to read, when she scanned and rescanned the same five lines without finding their meaning, she kicked back from the table.
Though the telescope would be ideal, Ilmar's observatory was on the ascensor's top floor, and the harness was a two hour round trip by muscle power. After exiting the gates, Elessa strode to the promontory to scour vainly for Gaspar and Ilmar, but saw only thralls toiling in the terraced gardens. Not for the first time, she wondered how they descended; had the wizard shaped a ladder or stairs from rock?
When she caught herself teetering on the edge of the overlook, she straddled the outcrop to wait for nightfall. Though the moon was new, Wysaerie's darkest nights were satin bright from the shimmering stars. Presently, the gardeners climbed up stone steps so embedded in the surrounding stone as to be camouflaged day or night. Marking the location in her memory, she retreated into the castle and lowered the gate.
Back in her room, Elessa unclasped her hair, shimmied out of her blue livery, dimmed the light, then flung herself on her bed with a creak and a shake answered by snarling in Beast's attached stall. When the snarls became shrill yowls, accompanied by clawing, she realized she forgot to feed Beast.
Still in her black chemise, she ran to the kitchen, filled a bucket with fetid, red meat, and raced back. At first, she couldn't budge the door, for Beast's forceful scratching had lodged the deadbolt in its chamber. When it finally slid, the griffin bowled her over, seized the bucket, and tore into it so fast that its beak ripped the tin. Though she had read how grown griffins ate armored knights whole, it still shook her to watch Beast eat half the bucket with the horse meat. When shreds of tin were folded in the stringy meat, the griffin choked back the bite with a hoarse grinding that made Elessa's spine shiver.
After picking herself up and brushing the dirt off her smock, she returned to the kitchen for another bucket. Though Beast ate the second bucket slowly, and with more relish, it still slurped a strip of tin. While it was one thing to have the stomach for eating metal, she suspected Ilmar would not be happy that Beast was developing an acquired taste for buckets, which no doubt were in short supply on Wysaerie.
She was half-asleep when Beast scratched at her window, scampered to and fro, scratched some more, then repeated this for what seemed an eternity in her drowsy daze. She held the pillow over her head, hating herself for missing opportunities, not only for escape, but for breaking the spell on her father. She hated and pitied the monster that she did not love, and that had not even grown into a proper monster before monstrous habits spoiled its innocence. A proper monster could at least carry her home.
In a dream of escape, Beast dwindled to the size of a toy pony, and updrafts and downdrafts sent them spiraling to Vanoor. Their flailing was real, as Elessa tossed and turned in her sleep.
Night was darker near the edge of Wysaerie, where the shadow of the dark earth loomed below, and had Biter not panted, cheeped, snapped, and paced nervously several times around the brittle oaks of the grassy shore, Gaspar might have missed the blue and gold glimmer of the wizard's robe.
Ilmar lay facedown next to his sprawled griffin and what looked, in the darkness, like a collapsed tent. As the wizard's robe stirred with shallow breaths, and the griffin shuddered with susurrating rasps, Gaspar recognized the true shape of the other. Snapped petticoat ribs pierced a flowing, voluminous dress, fluttering over legs in lacy hose; though the woman's top half was covered by the griffin, her head, under the monster's sprawled, weighty flank, was turned towards Gaspar.
"Adelae?" he said, more in shock than in any hope of recognition, for his wife's face was pressed into a ghastly grimace by the massive rump.
When Gaspar stroked Biter's tail—the signal to sit—the griffin sank to all fours, and he dismounted. Gaspar then laced his hands under Deathspell's haunches and heaved to no effect. Though hollow-boned griffins are lighter than horses, they are also larger, and while carrying fifty pound bags of seed and grain had kept the shopkeeper trim, it did not prepare him for eight hundred and fifty pounds of monster. Thinking Adelae might crawl free if he could budge the beast, he called his wife's name, then shouted it, then touched her ice cold cheek and held his hand to her unbreathing mouth.
"Gaspar, My leg is broken. Help me." When Ilmar croaked a few arcane syllables, an orange illumination fell on Adelae's ashen face and the wizard's torn robes, gaping on a chest blue from bruised or cracked ribs. More frightful was the jagged bone piercing Ilmar's calf.
"Adelae," Gaspar shouted, "I can't pull her out."
"If you can lift Deathspell, I might pull Adelae towards me. Help me up." When they forced Ilmar to a sitting position, he groaned.
Finding the griffin immovable, Gaspar turned his efforts to shifting the weight. While Ilmar had no hope of finding leverage with his injuries, by fumbling at Adelae's petticoat shambles, she rolled sideways, Gaspar groaned and let go, and as the monster settled with a roaring sigh, its hind leg twitched, snagged Gaspar's boot, and tumbled him to the grass. When the wizard fell beside him, Gaspar stood hastily, and struggled to catch his breath, less from the strain than from the discovery that he was sobbing.
"How is she?" Ilmar croaked.
"She's not breathing. Adelae is dead."
"Unfortunate." Ilmar's tone was understated, as if he had lost a favorite sweater. "If her spirit lingers, this will get her attention." When the dark vowels of the wizard's breath became cluttered with nonsensical cabals of consonants, eerie blue lights wisped the night air, Adelae's eyelids trembled, and her body yawned, as if inhaling her soul back from the ether.
As the yawn receded, she coughed, an overlong and elaborate wheezing that came to a complete stop only to start up again. Gaspar laughed with relief, and Ilmar howled at them both, wincing with the effort. Though she was only half-conscious, this protracted rattle upstaged her near-death. "Wizard...why is it so dark? It's cold. Gaspar? Are you dead too?"
"Adelae, it's night time, and the ground is cold," Gaspar said.
"Lies," Ilmar said. "Adelae, though you were stone dead, that was no barrier to your wizard, who snatched you from death." Turning to Gaspar, he said, "How's it go? 'Til death do us part?' Widower and divorcee in one day..." Ilmar howled hysterically, hacked gobbets of blood, then passed out.
Though the shock of Adelae's corpse-stillness had breathed an afterlife into his long-dead sentiments for his wife, when the moment died, those feelings were again murdered by a mob of humiliating memories; nonetheless, on hearing the wizard's crushing words, Gaspar felt like crushing Ilmar's head with one of the rocks that lay handy.
"Don't even think of it," said Adelae, standing in front of the wizard.
Though being asphyxiated by a half-ton griffin was outright unlucky, Adelae was fortunate to stand; in fact, she had suffered not the slightest abrasion from the landing, for her capacious dress and cage petticoat had absorbed the breakage, and after resuscitation, she was in better condition than the wizard. Though the Baroness of Cape Fliess vainly tried to tuck the jagged steel ribs inside the fabric, it was hopeless; the shape of her favorite dress no longer reflected haute couture but siege warfare.
"Whatever do you mean?" said Gaspar. "Ilmar's not only dissolved our loveless marriage, but in saving your life, spared me unwanted guilt. The man's my hero."
"Dissolved? You'll not escape so easily! If you want to dally with that peasant, I'll have my alimony. No court in Vanoor would believe I've died and returned to tell the tale."
"As Elessa cares for me not at all, you have that in common. You'd like her. As to courts not believing the fact of your death, I'd remedy that now would Ilmar not object."
"I despise you. I've despised you since our wedding night."
"I expected some gratitude after lifting a griffin off of you. I'm just glad you weren't on top, as that would have killed all four of us." With Adelae speechless—for the first time in his life—Gaspar knelt by Ilmar, doing his best to compose a benevolent demeanor.
The wizard's eye flickered. "What of Deathspell?"
"The beast breathes. The griffin does too. Ilmar, how can I help? Can't you heal yourself?"
"How solicitous you are, Gaspar. A spell would heal the flesh, but not the bone, and once the break mended, I would limp the rest of my days. On my alchemical shelf is a brew which mends bones in three days."
"Can you heal Deathspell? Though Biter may carry you, I'd hate for you to fall off her back."
"You know I would, shopkeeper," snickered Ilmar. When he lifted his head, Gaspar had to lean forward to catch his murmur. "Biter knows your moods. See how she fixes Adelae with those unblinking eyes? That's a griffin waiting to pounce. Are there unresolved feelings in your flinty heart?"
"Stop it," hissed Gaspar, "you might be dying had I not come along."
"It was our good fortune, but not yours, Gaspar. Your altruism surprises me. If I had died, in two months Biter would have taken you to freedom. No, say nothing," the wizard said, cutting off Gaspar's answer, "you were never so noble. If you expect goodwill, I shall reward your bad faith. Name what you will, save Adelae, farmgirl, or freedom, as I will not be indebted to such a minuscule, ridiculous person as yourself."
Gaspar thought. "I cannot deny that your words are true, though they paint a poor picture, as if you drew from a memory of me, and not who I am now. I was thinking this evening how happy I was in your service."
"Happiness," snorted Ilmar, though he smiled wryly.
"That said, I should not refuse your generous gift. I will think on it at the castle."
"Think quickly," said Ilmar. The wizard winced at the effort to sit up, then healed the griffin with one stanza. Though Gaspar couldn't hope to pronounce the arcane verses, they remained vivid in his mind, as if wet ink imprinted on a thought. Instead of fading, it seemed that the words were folded up and tucked away. The griffin rolled onto its back, stretched its paws, and opened its eyes.
"Is magic that easy?" was all Gaspar said.
Ilmar ignored him. "Buckle me in the saddle, Gaspar. And since I can't guide Deathspell with a broken leg, we'll trust he has the good sense to follow Biter. Set an easy path. But first, my leg must be immovable. Cut two sticks. Sturdy ones." While Gaspar took the sharp dagger and soon splinted the break to Ilmar's specifications, it took nearly half an hour to persuade Adelae to help boost the massive wizard onto Biter's saddle.
They were still making their way two hours later. Though it was a short distance to the castle, the foothills were thick with trees and ponds, and they were troubled not only by the wizard's ghastly injuries but monstrous shenanigans. Whenever Gaspar reined in Biter's jumpiness, she trilled and stomped, and Deathspell roared at the younger beast, a full-body shudder that shivered fur and feathers and tail-whipped Adelae. Deathspell, a full-fledged griffin come into his plumage, could have borne Ilmar, Adelae, and Gaspar, while carrying Biter by the scruff of the neck, if he was not a quart of blood lighter. Having just circled Wysaerie at an exhilarating clip, Gaspar felt a kinship with the restless griffins. Having moseyed by paw and claw his whole life, he was done with wingless travel, resentful of his injured master, and impatient for his reward.
"Where did it come from, wizard?"
"Wysaerie? I'd love you to think I built the cloud island, but I'll not lie to you today." At the long pause, Gaspar believed Ilmar meant for him to grovel his thanks or beg for the story, but the wizard continued. "Here's the way of it. During the drought ten years past, I voyaged from Klyrn to Vanoor. When the sun's heat caused a stink below decks, I flew as high as I dared, not only to refresh myself but to relieve my boredom—though this trip seems more deadening than that week-long journey. But I digress. When an enormous nimbofractus gushed a torrent of rain..."
"Is that some kind of monster?" asked Gaspar.
"It's a storm cloud," sighed Ilmar. "That backwater rubbed off on you, Gaspar. As I was saying, I raced the rain, not only to bring good tidings to the crew, but also to be on the right side of the cloud. We soon forgot the drought when the cloud drowned us for days, as if a malicious rudder turned it wherever we went. So I flew up again, to satisfy my curiosity about this monstrosity of rain."
"So it is a rain monster?"
"Silence will serve you well, Gaspar. Having never flown so high, or for so long, I teetered on the brink of exhaustion by the time I looked on it. So enthralled was I, that in that momentary emptiness of mind and body, the focus on my spell failed, and I fell hundreds of feet before righting myself. You know what I saw—an intact circle of life suspended in the sky, either a freak of magic or a remnant of divine or sorcerous design. As to its path, and why it pelted us with rain water, that seemed random, though I have since discovered why it always rains. While other clouds dissipate, Wysaerie's water cycle is broken."
"What are you talking about?"
"Forgive me, Gaspar. Sometimes I forget my audience."
"I'm not stupid," said Gaspar.
"No, of course not...though it is irksome to translate my intelligence. Unending water streams down Wysaerie's mountains, pools under the topsoil, then spills onto the land. As neither griffin nor spell could carry me to those distant peaks, and I am loath to attempt the climb, I know not the origin of the streams. I am content to believe it shows the hand of magic in nature, and a sense of humor and wickedness in providence. Once I contrived a spell to move the cloud, I could not only make it rain anywhere, but also direct the griffins' hunt. The griffins have always been here, and as they hunt human flesh, they are its rightful masters--with one noteworthy exception."
"That may not be strictly true," said Adelae. "Remember The Feast of Royal Dues, Gaspar?"
"Oh yes. When the cook bragged we'd have Griffin in Pear Cheese, I was pretty excited, but it was gamy, flaky and dry. On the whole, interesting, but not what I'd call tasty."
Ilmar snorted. "As the cook still serves his majesty, I may seek out the truth of that story. Whether or not it's true, griffins have long, unforgiving memories, and it's good they can't understand speech."
When Ilmar led them from the foothills up the rock-hewn stairs, Gaspar felt pleased, as if he breached a circle of trust, though he knew that was not the wizard's intention. In passing the gates, the wizard said, "Gaspar, not that I think less of you—that's not possible—but the farmgirl is a better lab assistant. Fetch her."
When Elessa answered Gaspar's loud rap, she left the door cracked as she dressed so she could hear his story. While Gaspar was not a bad storyteller, he was a horrible summarizer, and by the time she had on her livery, he had only reached Adelae's burlesque resuscitation. So while Gaspar was spared Elessa's grimace when he acknowledged to helping Ilmar, he could not have overlooked her tortured expressions at his meek acceptance of not only the wizard's scoffing gratitude, but a reward that would surely bring less joy to Gaspar than a humorous payoff to the wizard.
"You're his joke all day long, Gaspar. This reward will be no different."
"Say what you will of the wizard, but he keeps his word."
"In him that's no virtue. Both the honorable and the spiteful keep their word, you know, if in different ways. If you're looking forward to that catty, beady-eyed villain keeping his word, you're in for it, Gaspar."
They entered the laboratory to find Ilmar laying on a workbench flanked by Shaul and another of the vacant-eyed thralls. As Ilmar dictated the recipe, Elessa mixed the bone-knitting elixir, then served it to the wizard, who downed the odorless, colorless liquid. As he tipped it straight up to drain the last drops, Elessa glimpsed cracked, yellowed teeth in bleeding gums.
Elessa turned from Ilmar's ugly mouth to fill the basin from the water dropper—one enchanted drop filled a sink with clear water—then rinsed the vials and bottles. When Shaul and the nameless thrall helped Ilmar hobble to his quarters, Elessa drained the sink, then waited until Gaspar headed for the door before speaking. "Why did you help him?"
"What would you have done?" retorted Gaspar, his hand on the door. "What if the spell stopped sustaining Shaul?" He did not turn to look at her.
"He wouldn't want Ilmar spared on his account."
"Spared? That's a strong word for helping. Power over life and death is not mine." At these words, it was as if his mind unrolled a parchment, on which the griffin healing spell was brightly written.
"You're a fool, Gaspar."
"I will not disagree." When the mental scroll retracted, and he turned towards Elessa, this sudden change in focus made him cross-eyed. "My mind is racing. Look for me in the library." Though Gaspar had meant to feed Biter first, he walked only a few steps down the hallway when he became light-headed and went directly to the library.
The library was neat and tidy, with one conspicuous exception: an oversize folio called The Fables of Vanoori Illustrated was left open to "The Lords of the Siren." As fairy tales were Gaspar's favorite reading, he sat down to read it immediately. Though he was drowsy, the amusing story held his attention until a few key details so gripped him that he slowed down to hang on every word.
"The Lords of the Siren" told of the eleven Lords of Narsi, who one by one were snared by siren's song—one in hunting, another in the passing of his pleasure yacht, and a third entering her grotto in search of his brothers. Though the decrepit king's fear for his heirs cautioned him to take no action against the siren, she demanded no ransom, and soon had nearly completed the set. When only the king's youngest son, Lord Mikkhen, remained, that brave youth, both afraid that his days of freedom were numbered, and knowing that he would be out of his depth in a deep-sea grotto, bargained with a sorcerer in azure blue robes. Having promised to pay whatever the sorcerer asked, Lord Mikkhen received the Ghost Sword, which was possessed by a thousand man at arms and wended through the air without a wielder so long as its owner held an uncovered blade in sight of it. After the Ghost Sword disarmed Mikkhen's ensorceled brothers, the youth slew the siren. For reward, the venerable king gave Lord Mikkhen a large sailing ship and millions in gold coin.
Though there were ten pages left—the storyteller had not yet divulged the sorcerer's price, a detail certain to haunt Lord Mikkhen—Gaspar did not need to finish it. A tale written to amuse noble sons, that, through no fault of their own, but an accident of birth and the rule of primogeniture, could not expect to inherit, "The Lords of the Siren" would end with Lord Mikkhen none the worse for wear after learning not to trust strange men in fancy clothes. "The Lords of the Siren" not only fed the imagination of young princes and dukes, but also Gaspar, who now knew what he wanted from Ilmar. Without business or wife or freedom of his own, there was one thing he wanted.
"Money," Gaspar said, "and a few months to enjoy it, once my griffon can descend to Vanoor on her own. That is my reward. Fifty thousand coin."
Ilmar grimaced. "If this paltry sum clears my debt, so be it."
"Wizard, do you really think I saved your life? Was not Adelae alone in mortal peril?"
"While I should like nothing better than to depreciate your efforts, Gaspar, when you arrived, Adelae was asphyxiated and my own bone stabbed me; though my pain was great, I was more asleep than awake, and in an hour I would have had one foot in the land of death. In this world of near infinite maybes and might haves, my griffin may have dragged my corpse to the foothills if you had not saved me from the fatal certainty of a cold night. As the divine comedian only allows a small, sufficient stage for what is, and none at all for what might or will be, I am glad you stopped by, Gaspar. Whether altruism or bad faith, you deserve your reward."
Ilmar continued: "I would be gladder if I liked you better, and more satisfied if you asked for a magic sword, not loot and a vacation. I left that book open to 'The Lords of the Siren,' you know. I know your effeminate reading preferences and your tendency to become overexcited, and I had expected you to eat the bait from my hook; I had not counted on you being persuaded by the pecuniary fantasies of the long dead author. While a magic sword could have made you useful, time and money will make you indolent and opinionated—you know, like you used to be—but my word is my word. "
""A magic sword? Like Mikkhen's, that fights on its own like a fairy tale hero?"
"My title, Gaspar, is not seer, medium, soothsayer, or fortune teller, but wizard. If I had the temerity to call myself a wizard and knew only card tricks, I'd be killed in a month by magical duelists or robbed blind by thieves. Though I can make a magic sword, I don't need to, because I already have the one from "The Lords of the Siren," the blade called Mikkhen's Wand."
Gaspar was speechless. While Biter was a fabulous creature, she required so much upkeep that, despite the undeniable magic of his day to day life, he didn't see this chapter of his life as a fairy tale. Though fables were peopled by heroes on dragonback, their anonymous authors let the reader imagine the labor of stabling monsters, such as grooming their gore-splashed skins, sweeping nasty and voluminous spoor, or their prodigiously indiscriminate appetite for livestock and neighbors. He enjoyed caring for Biter, but it was hard work, not fantasy.
Mikkhen's Wand, though—though he was as ignorant of the difference between hilt and tang as he was between plie and pointe, he appreciated the idea of swordsmanship the way he admired the ballet, and he was excited for a magic sword to work his manly will, which previously in his forty-some years had been a fiction, and no doubt would continue to be more daydream than destiny.
Though Gaspar was sorely tempted, he was a born haggler. "Mikkhen's Wand, ten thousand coin, and two months' freedom?"
"The sword, one thousand, and a weekend in Vanoor."
"Sword, weekend, five thousand."
"Done. You may resume your duties. We won't discuss our deal until Biter's growth progresses. It may only be a month, as your gallivant shows remarkable readiness far ahead of my projections."
"Her eagerness exceeds our ability," said Gaspar. "With your permission, we'll forego the yard exercises and ride daily instead."
"Take care, Gaspar. I've procrastinated my catalog of Wysaerie's fauna and flora, and while griffins may be the dominant predator, there may be other mortal dangers. Appetizing plants that produce vomiting; spider bites that lead to amputations; paralytic toads the size of your thumb. Even if Biter eats something, it is not safe for you, as griffins' stomachs are unlike ours. Not the least of these dangers is poison oak, which grows in abundance near the ponds. We'll survey the dangers tomorrow, as Elessa and Beast may be wont to stretch their legs." Abruptly, he turned to Gaspar. "But what I know is not exhaustive. Remember that. That is all, Gaspar."
After his dismissal, Gaspar somehow ended up in the kitchen. Though he wasn't hungry, he ate lunch at the counter while thinking about the reward and the lecture. When his ruminations segued into a daydream that Biter had grown twice her size and somehow into male plumage, he knew what it portended, even before he saw himself lightly armored and brandishing Mikkhen's Wand. Though he was the only spectator to these undignified wishes for virility and masculine power, it was so embarrassing that he took a mental torch to the whole dream theater. It was, after all, irrational—he would never need to swing the sword himself, griffin-back or not, and if he did, he might cut Biter. Fairy hero indeed. He was a ridiculous man, not even knowing, in the light of yesterday's events, whether he was husband or bachelor; what he knew with certainty was that he was not only not the hero of a story, but he would never be more than a wizard's minion. At the thought of no more ledgers or order slips, no more heart to tug at his heart-strings, only the coat-tails of Ilmar's destiny, the thought kindled a crooked smile.