Saturday, July 01, 2006

Episode 1: Adrift

Gundar Baldursson glared at the vacant horizon, cursing every god he had ever heard of. This was the first time he had ever been out of sight of land, and he did not relish the experience.

Crossing the Mystic Sea had seemed simple enough. During the long fireside nights of winter, he had listened to the skauldir's guttural voices intoning tale after epic tale of those desperate or intrepid ones who ventured across the waves in search of treasure, adventure, or freedom from bad debts. The tempests in the lays were fearsome, but not so powerful that they could not be successfully overcome. In Gundar's case, the inexperience of his crew had been their undoing. They had failed to lash themselves to the mast and oarlocks before the dark squall hit three days before, and had been swept away in an instant when The Lili turned on her side and righted herself. Twenty-eight brave souls had met their ultimate fate, leaving Gundar alone with Tasso the Beggar, a disreputable foreigner who had been pressed into service at the last moment when one of the prospective crew was mauled in his farewell boar hunt.

Tasso was now sleeping in the dubious shelter of the bow of the boat, wrapped in his ragged cloak. "The finest in the kingdom dead, while this piece of filth lives on!" Gundar exclaimed as loudly as he could, hoping to interrupt the vermin's undeserved slumber. If ever a man was a bad omen, this one surely was. His nose was hooked, his eyes had the look of a ferret, and all his visible skin was covered with running sores. His one redeeming quality was his endurance. Even half-starved, he found the strength to keep pulling on his oar long after the overfed scions of nobility pleaded exhaustion and blistered palms. It was for this strength that Gundar had promised Tasso land and a home after the completion of his voyage into the unknown.

Gundar gave no credence curses and spells, but he could not help wondering if someone had used magic against him. His father poisoned by that witch of a wife; his betrothed bride killed in battle even before the wedding feast was set; and now this. He had planned to redeem his shattered heart by dying gloriously, surrounded by fellow warriors. Dying of thirst in the midst of nowhere with only a beggar for company was something else altogether.

Gundar rose unsteadily, his head reeling, and aimed a kick at Tasso's midriff. The effort robbed him of his balance, and he fell heavily against a splintered board. Pain lanced through his chest. Clenching his teeth, he extracted the bloodied piece of wood from his flesh. The pain swelled along with his frustration. He began to pummel Tasso, screaming imprecations.

"What ails you?" Tasso cried, rolling away from the blows. "Has the sun driven you mad already?"

Gundar resisted the temptation to curl into the fetal position. That was another of the irritating qualities of this beggar: despite his depressed social status, he was impossible to intimidate. Even with a sword at his throat, he spoke his mind as if wealth and rank meant nothing.

Tasso rolled lithely to his feet, his feral eyes glinting with contempt. Gundar looked around him, searching for an implement of destruction. His sword had disappeared in the storm. He had only a dagger at his waist, and a shoulder bag whose leather strap might serve as a garotte. He picked up the board that had impaled him and charged.

Tasso batted the improvised weapon aside as casually as a twig and twisted his body, allowing Gundar's weight to crash into the side of the boat. Water splashed over the side of The Lili, baptizing the indignant Northerner. Gundar stumbled to his feet and charged blindly. In the twinkling of an eye, he found himself on his back, pinned down by Tasso's hideous strength.

"This is mutiny!" Gundar panted. "You know the penalty."

"And who will enforce it, you overgrown terrier?" Tasso asked in a sibilant whisper.

Gundar closed his eyes, trying to shut out the unpalatable reality of his predicament. It would not do for a prince, even a cadet prince, to yield to a beggar, and yet there seemed no other option.

He opened his eyes again, fixed his most fearsome glare on his opponent, and bunched his muscles. He longed to pour his final energy into a blood-curdling war cry, but his chest hurt too much.

Gundar jerked one way, then the other, to no avail. Tasso continued to stare down at him with unblinking scorn. Gundar tore his eyes away and turned his head. His own heart and honour were the final battleground now. He could not let this scum see the tears of frustration that threatened to surface.

Dark clouds had gathered, promising another squall. Gundar prayed silently that the next attack of the elements would send him and his humiliation to the bottom of the sea. The blackest of the clouds was bearing down upon them . . .

No! That was no cloud. It was something huge, bigger than a horse or perhaps even an oliphant, with flapping wings.

"Look!" Gundar croaked. "Up there, behind you!"

Tasso smiled. "What kind of fool do you take me for? That trick was ancient before my grandfather was conceived."

Friday, June 30, 2006

Episode 2: Lexa the Conqueror

"Wings!" Gundar gasped, struggling frantically as the shadow of the great bird loomed larger. He could see the talons now. "I swear it! We must fight together, or die together."

"Wings?" Tasso asked. His eyes softened, but he did not turn to look.

"Stasi! You old rascal!" a female voice sang out from above in the Talassian tongue. "Are you in need?"

The weighted ends of a rope ladder thumped onto the deck. A short moment later, a woman descended lithely from the sky. She jumped down and whistled shrilly. The great bird moved off, dragging the swaying ladder behind it.

Gundar lay still, overcome with wonder. Northern women wore leather leggings, but not like this one. The oxblood suit she wore appeared to be all of one piece, tighter than her own skin, revealing every ripple of her muscles. This woman had seen perhaps three or four summers more than Gundar's sixteen, and was in the prime of her life, with high breasts and taunt thighs. Her unspoiled body lit a fire in Gundar's groin, filling him with shame. His vow of lifelong constancy to his departed Lili had not been overly difficult to keep until this very moment.

"Lexa!" Tasso was grinning outright now. "And in fine fettle!"

"Indeed," she said. "I won fame and fortune at the Theronian games, and was crowned Warrior Queen. You know I have coveted that honour since I first held a sword."

Tasso bowed his head. "Felicitations, Basilea!"

"Thank you, Patrocule," she answered graciously. "You know full well I could never have grasped such honours without your teaching." She touched Gundar's leg with her toe. "Who is your friend?"

"No friend this, but a spoiled pup who needs to learn manners!" Tasso growled. Gundar racked his brains for words to express his indignation, but his command of the Talassian was inadequate.

Lexa sized Gundar up with a shrewd glance. "He looks well-bred enough."

"He attacked me as I lay sleeping, for no reason whatsoever."

"For shame," Lexa said softly. Gundar cringed, seeing himself momentarily through her eyes.

"If you will allow me to rise," Gundar said haltingly in the unfamiliar tongue, "I will show proper respect."

Tasso looked into his eyes. He seemed somehow ennobled, not like a beggar at all. "I will take you at your word, but I warn you -- I allow no one to betray me more than once." He released Gundar and held out his hand to Lexa, who pulled him to his feet.

"No wonder he despises you," Lexa laughed. "Why do you persist in assuming such repulsive disguises?"

"It is the simplest way to discern which hearts are charitable," Tasso said. Gundar rolled onto his hands and knees and pushed himself to his feet, feeling smaller than ever.

"You are hurt!" Lexa said.

"A scratch," Gundar shrugged, though the whole front of his tunic was soaked in blood.

"It more than a scratch," Lexa said, and laid the palm of her hand on the wound.

She closed her eyes. Gundar felt a stirring within him such as he had never known. He swayed. Tasso grabbed his shoulders from behind and supported him. Gundar's legs turned to water, and he barely managed to keep his feet as sweet waves of energy surged through his chest -- the very wine of life, drawn from some source that he could not fathom. He was overcome with a profound desire to fall to his knees and worship at the feet of this youthful goddess, for a goddess she must surely be, to command such power.

She opened her eyes and smiled. "There. That's better. But you have lost a lot of blood, and it will take time for your strength to return." She patted Gundar's chest. He felt no pain.

Gundar groped at his chest, digging through the hole in his tunic with his fingers. The flesh had closed, leaving behind an irregularity no more significant than an ancient scar.

"Who are you?" he asked. "Tell me your true name, and I will see to it that my people sacrifice to you at every festival."

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Episode 3: Peril from Above

"Steady, boy," Tasso chuckled. "Impressive as she is, she is as human as you are -- merely one of my lesser disciples."

"Liar!" Lexa's eyes flashed. "You cannot deny that I am the best you have, and your favourite!"

"Take care not to try my patience," Tasso chided with mock severity. "Both Tarantolos the Great and Archon Theronike address me as Patrocule -- or has the flush of victory so gone to your head that you cannot remember?"

Lexa preened. "They are less pretty than I am."

Tasso collapsed onto the nearest bench, laughing heartily. Then he sobered. "Let us test your cleverness, child. How do propose to bring us to land?"

"You could raise a tempest and accomplish the task without my help," Lexa replied.

Raise a tempest! Gundar's stomach quivered. Who were these people?

"Alas, both mast and sail were washed away," Tasso said. "Perhaps your faithful steed could tow the boat."

"Orestes is a warrior eagle, not a draught horse," Lexa said. "He would not relish the task. You had best ride with me."

Tasso jerked his head towards Gundar. "And this one?"

"Let him swim," Lexa suggested airily. "His blood wants cooling."

Gundar swallowed hard. "I have never learned that art," he muttered, looking downward. Only his pride kept him from throwing himself on his face and begging abjectly to be returned to dry land at any price whatsoever.

Tasso looked up and patted the bench beside him. "Sit down, boy," he said kindly in Gundar's own tongue. "We mean you no harm."

Gundar kept his feet, fidgeting. Tasso's generosity humbled him, reminding him of his own ungracious behavior when he thought him merely a vile beggar.

The other man seemed to read his thoughts. "You will experience the sting of correction in due course, when you can benefit from it. For now, sit and take your ease."

Gundar obeyed, flushing, feeling as if his father had come back to life. "You have me at a disadvantage, Sire," he said with utmost deference. "May I ask your name and homeland?"

"I am Archmentor Arestasis Lightwielder, and this is my pupil Alexa Protea, both of the Isle of Ortessa."

"Basilea Alexa Protea," Lexa corrected. "One of only six in all the Islands."

Gundar racked his brains, reviewing every tale and lay he could remember. He had heard tell of islands beyond the sea, but nothing of one named Ortessa.

"Do all your people share this power that you wield?" he asked.

"Only a few of us," the Archmentor explained. "What we carry depends on natural giftedness as well as the will to submit ourselves to rigorous discipline."

Gundar nodded, recalling the countless hours he had spent with sword and spear, the bruises, the sore muscles, the punishments for slacking. And yet, he knew that he was no more than an infant in the eyes of these two, who had undertaken to reshape their very souls to converse with powers he could scarcely imagine.

His reverie was interrupted by a great screech from above. He cried out with alarm and grabbed for support as the enormous warrior eagle Orestes landed on the stern of the boat, almost capsizing it.

"What ails you?" Lexa cried, rushing back to untangle the ladder that still trailed from one of the bird's talons. She glanced up and swore. "It's a swarm of iccubata! They must have scented my trace!" Her face crumpled in dismay, like a little girl's. "Forgive me, Patrocule -- I was so eager to carry my news home that I did not take care--"

"We will discuss that later." Arestasis was beside her, cutting the ladder loose with a single swipe of a dagger that had appeared in his hand from seemingly nowhere and disappeared from sight just as quickly. "Up you go!" He held out his hands, fingers interlaced. Lexa put one foot onto the improvised stirrup, allowing her master to toss her onto her mount's back with practised ease. She settled on the bird's shoulders in front of its wings, kicking her toes into loops in the harness that encircled the eagle's body and held a silver shield in place over its breast. In response to some signal that was indiscernible to Gundar, Orestes crouched, unfolded his wings, and leaped into the air.

Gundar watched the proceedings open-mouthed, gripping his seat with both hands. His eyes followed the upward progress of the bird and espied the object of Lexa's consternation -- a black cloud bearing down upon them.

He looked questioningly at Arestasis, who was now transformed. The mage's skin was as smooth as Gundar's, and his long black hair was no longer matted, but flowed in the wind. He was still clothed in rags and his nose still resembled a bird's beak, but the overall effect was one of self-confident power. His sea-green eyes no longer darted about, but gazed back at Gundar with the resolute air of a lord who expected obedience as his due. "Iccubata are a harmless pest taken individually," the mage explained, "but they have sharp little teeth and claws. A swarm can tear you in pieces by sheer force of numbers."

"Can you not raise a tempest to sweep them away?" Gundar asked. Surely a master mage such as this had nothing to fear!

"They would be upon us before I had time to finish such a complicated spell," Arestasis said, "and they have an annoying resistance to magic. We are best to tackle them the mundane way, by slicing them in half with our blades."

Gundar's heart began to thump, preparing itself for battle. "I have no weapon--" he began.

"I will provide you with one," Arestasis said, "if you will swear fealty to me."

"Swear fealty!" Gundar exclaimed, leaping to his feet and doing his best to stand steady despite the rocking of the boat. "Do you trust me so little?"

"I am not sure of your friendship," Arestasis said, "but I know that I can trust your oath."

"Is my simple word not enough?" Gundar asked desperately. The approaching cloud was growing bigger by the moment, flapping and chittering. He had no desire to face these unfamiliar monsters unarmed, but it was surely imprudent to put his life into the hands of someone he hardly knew.

Arestasis shook his head. "None may touch a blade of mine without taking an oath to use it only at my behest."

"That I will promise gladly," Gundar said. "But fealty is another kettle of fish."

The mage extracted a pouch from under his robes and blew a yellow powder into the air, muttering a charm. "There -- that will protect us from the venom of the bites." He looked Gundar in the eye. "Decide. Will you pledge yourself to me, or face the horde empty-handed?"

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Episode 4: The Swarm

Gundar's hands clenched spasmodically. Could he survive the onslaught without a weapon? And even if he did, how could he live with the shame of letting others defend him?

Arestasis stood tranquilly, green eyes unblinking, rocking gently with the rhythm of the waves underfoot. Gundar stared back, trying to read the heart of the man. What kind of master would he be? Lexa seemed easy enough with him, but she had been Arestasis' pupil for long enough to know exactly how far she could try him. Furthermore, it was unlikely that she had ever treated him with the gross disrespect that Gundar had shown the beggar Tasso. Would Arestasis take advantage of the opportunity to exact revenge?

"I will bind myself to you for three days," Gundar offered.

Arestasis' face did not change. "You will have to do better than that."

Gundar searched the depth of the mage's eyes. Was is merely his hopeful imagination, or had a twinkle appeared?

"Come, my boy. What price do you put on your life and honour?"

"A year and a day," Gundar said hoarsely. "I will pledge myself to you for a year and a day." He fell to one knee and bowed his head.

"Done," the mage said, holding out his left hand and hauling Gundar to his feet. "We will dispense with the formalities for now. Choose your blade."

Before Gundar had time to ask what blades he meant, a pair of swords appeared in the mage's right hand -- one that appeared to be constructed of clear glass, and the other a slender two-edged blade that shone silver, with a dark blue hilt.

"This one is more like what I am used to," Gundar said, taking the silver one. It felt weightless in his hand. His heart sank. How could they do battle with such toys?

"Fear not," Arestasis said, releasing his hand. "You will find this blade cuts as deeply as any you have wielded." He pulled a dagger from his belt and offered it to Gundar. "Perhaps this is more to your liking."

"Thank you." White-knuckled, Gundar gripped his weapons while the chittering swarm closed in. The eagle's scream from above informed him that Lexa had already engaged the enemy. "Back to back?" he asked his companion.

"Back to back. Keep your head and pace yourself. It will seem that there is no end to them, but we must endure."

Gundar nodded grimly and turned away just in time to impale the first of the attackers on his blade.

The iccubata, who were the approximate size of Gundar's forearm, had the appearance of misshapen men covered with brown leathery skin. Their featherless wings were equipped with a flexible network of sinews and bones which lent them astounding agility. Their arms and legs ended in a prehensile hand with four fingers and a long thumb tipped with nails that resembled the claws of a chicken, not razor-sharp but capable of inflicting painful scratches. Their hairless heads reminded Gundar of bats' faces, with tiny teeth that ripped easily through clothing and skin. When he sliced through their bodies, they did not bleed. Instead, viscous yellow fluid oozed and slimed over everything, prompting Gundar to gag from the stench, which was infinitely worse than that of a decomposing horse carcass.

Remembering Arestasis' admonition to pace himself, he fought down his panic and kept cutting steadily with both hands, ignoring the scratches and bites. He could no longer see the sky or the sea or even the deck of the Lili. His entire universe was reduced of a tangle of brown bodies, putrid ichor, and eager teeth.

Just as Gundar's arms grew so heavy from the strain that he thought he could do no more, Orestes and Lexa came sweeping through the brown cloud that surrounded the boat, momentarily disorienting the iccubata. Gundar raised a war cry and brandished his sword in a salute to the valiant basilea, while her conquered enemies dropped into the waves like rain.

A goodly portion of Gundar's foes veered off after the warrior eagle, which flapped its wings mightily and flew off, keeping just out of their reach while Lexa kept busy dispatching the creatures which were clinging to its body. Heartened, Gundar returned to the slaughter.

His movements became mechanical, and his mind retreated from his body, leaving behind the pain and fatigue. He was flying through the clouds, back to his homeland, his horses, his precious Lili. His father Baldur, wearing the robes and crown of high king, was presiding over the marriage of his youngest son to the red-headed Lili, daughter of Muktar. Her wild curls tumbled over his face as he kissed her, tasting the sweetness of her lips and her tongue in anticipation of their night of consummation, while the honour guard of warriors beat their shields with their swords.

His imagination wandered further into the future, to the sons they would bear and war-craft he would teach them, to the hunts, the feasts, the weddings, and the grandchildren. Finally, he felt the weakness of old age and approaching death, and realized that his time was almost spent. He came to himself again on the boat, leaning back against the mage, barely able to lift a finger. Yet, somehow, the sword continued in its dance and the dagger wove in and out, turning the horrid creatures into slack-jawed carrion which piled higher and higher until it seemed that the boat must sink under the weight.

Was he only imagining it, or was the horrid cloud becoming less dense? It no longer mattered. Come death or glory, he would show his new master that he was a worthy vassal.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Episode 5: Who trusts his heart

Abruptly, the battle was done. The chittering turned to a high-pitched wail and the iccubata fled like leaves before a gust of autumn wind, leaving their fetid dead behind.

"What happened?" Gundar gasped, barely daring to trust his senses.

"Reinforcements." Arestasis turned to face Gundar, pointing his yellow-smeared glassy blade at the sky. Lexa and Orestes had been joined by two other eagle riders in hot pursuit of the scattering horde, which had lost all will to work together as a group.

"Nothing more to fear," Arestasis said off-handedly, wiping his dagger on his sleeve and slipping it back into his belt. "Sit down before you collapse." Gundar's knees began to shake uncontrollably. Arestatis grasped his elbow and helped him sit. Gundar suppressed a moan. He had never been so tired in his life.

"Here -- drink." Arestasis held a wineskin to Gundar's parched lips. The liquid was cool and bracing, neither wine nor water but somehow both. Energy coursed through Gundar's limbs, and he knew that he would live.

"You did well," Arestasis said softly. "Very well indeed. You were weakened from thirst and loss of blood, but you did not falter once."

Gundar looked up into the sea-green eyes and saw understanding and respect. "I thought of giving up," he whispered. "There were so many of them . . . too many . . ." To his horror, his long-repressed tears made their appearance, burning his mangled face. Now that his fighting frenzy was abating, he could feel every one of the wounds that covered his body. Even his double-layered leather leggings had not been able to withstand the relentless teeth and claws.

Arestasis put away his sword and passed his hands before Gundar's eyes in a mystic gesture. "Sleep," he intoned. "Sleep."

Before he had time to protest, the young warrior fell into black oblivion. When he came to himself again, he was in a dank gray tunnel, his skin unblemished and his clothing miraculously repaired. All was dark behind him, but there was light somewhere ahead. Gundar felt at his belt, and found nothing -- no weapon, no treasure, not even a flint and steel. He had no choice but to follow the light. He moved ahead into the unknown, stumbling over the rocks.


He stopped, electrified. Lili's voice.

"Gundar!" the voice called again. "Come."

The voice seemed to come from the right. Gundar turned and looked, and saw nothing but water dripping down the rockface.

"Where are you?" he called.

"Come," the voice called again. "Do not trust your eyes, but come to me."

Gundar heard his own heart pounding in his chest. A fragment from the Saga of Skeddeswyr surfaced in his memory:
Who trusts his eyes will never see,
Who trusts his ears will never hear.
Who trusts his heart and follows true
Will always know when love is near.

Those words had stirred him strangely when he first heard them. He had tried to dismiss them as romantic claptrap, but they seemed uncannily appropriate now.

I'm most likely dreaming, he told himself, and in dreams all things are possible. There was little that he would scorn to risk for the sake of seeing Lili again, even if her countenance was no more than a fleeting image born of exhaustion. He closed his eyes and walked towards the sound, bracing himself for his inevitable collision with the wall.

He encountered no obstacle. After a few steps, the ground under his feet became level, like pavement. He became unsure and held his trembling hands out in front of him, feeling for some clue to his whereabouts.

"Silly!" Lili's voice teased him. "Open your eyes!"

Monday, June 26, 2006

Episode 6: The Fields of Wounded Love

Gundar opened his left eye a crack, bracing himself for disappointment. He saw light and bright colours and a red-haired figure in a green gown.

"Lili!" He opened both eyes wide, held out his arms, and leaped forward. The ground under his feet swayed from side to side. When he glanced down, he saw that he was on a narrow sliver of rock over a dark abyss. Gasping, he jumped back to the safety of the platform he had been standing on. His head started to swim and his stomach churned. Heights had always tested his courage to the utmost.

"Gundar!" Lili cried. "Don't look down! Look at me! Trust your heart!"

Enough, Gundar told himself sternly. I swore I would do anything for Lili, and now I must do this. If I perish now, I perish with my beloved close by. I can ask nothing more from the gods than that.

He fixed his gaze on Lili and stepped forward with brash confidence, pretending that he was walking in the banquet hall of his own palace. To his amazement, his footing was solid and sure. A dozen steps, another dozen, and he was face to face with his beloved. She seemed older and sadder than he remembered her, but the green flecks in her eyes had the same life as ever.

"My love!" Gundar reached for Lili, but she dissolved as he touched her and reappeared several paces away. He leaped forward again, arms outstretched. The same thing happened.

"Alas," Lili said. "I am only a shade. Though you see and hear me, my true self remains in exile in the Rhydamanth Fields of the Netherrworld, where the spirits of wounded love must dwell."

Gundar fell to his knees before her. His eyes had been dry when he put the torch to her funeral pyre; but now, he wept with bitter longing. She stood watching, her face as tranquil as before.

"Don't you care?" he sobbed. "Don't you care that we are separated forever, that we will never touch each other again?"

"The dead do not feel things so intensely," she said. "As the eons pass, our passions and memories are washed away, until we are as innocent as the newborn. Then, I am told, the spirits of the earth and sky claim us as one of them. Some become birds; others are re-born of women's wombs."

Fairy tales! Fairy tales! Gundar's logic cried. I am dreaming, seeing what I want to see. He stood up and looked around. The abyss had vanished, replaced by a polished stone floor. The great hall was now full of row upon row of banqueting tables decked with every imaginable kind of food. Doors swung open, letting in a great crowd of brightly-clothed lords and ladies, who chattered brightly like a flock of multicoloured birds.

"Come!" Lili invited him with a wave of her hand. "Enjoy what the moment has to offer!"

"Can we ever be reunited?" Gundar asked.

"If you can find the entrance of the Nether Regions and strike a bargain with a clever guide, it may be possible to draw my life out of the earth. But I must warn you -- many have tried such a feat, but none have succeeded."

Gundar's nostrils began to quiver. Though he could not touch Lili nor smell her perfume, the food seemed real enough. He realized that he was ravenously hungry.

"Come!" Lili said again. "Quickly, before all the places are taken!"

They sat side by side at the nearest table. Gundar grabbed at the roasted capon before him, half-expecting it to be air. But his hand clutched warm, greasy meat. He ripped off one of the legs with a flourish, mouth watering and stomach growling.

"Gundar Baldursson -- NO! You must not eat!"

Gundar turned around in suprise. His father had appeared at one of the doors in his full kingly regalia, and was striding across the floor in undignified haste.

"Put it down," Baldur ordered. "If you touch but a single mouthful, you will be lost in the land of dreams forever!"

Gundar put the capon leg back on the plate, resisting the urge to lick his fingers. "Is that where I am?" he asked. "That land of dreams? Is any of this real?"

"Of course it is!" Lili said. "Pay him no heed. He is an old man, full of disappointments. What could be wrong with staying here in this hall with me and feasting forever?"

"You are young -- there are many adventures yet to come," Baldur said. "If you remain here, you will lose them all."

"But you will gain me!" Lili cried. "Is that not worth more than anything?"

"The choice is yours," Baldur said, and disappeared.

Gundar hesitated. He looked deeply into the green-flecked eyes he had loved so much, and then stood up. "I cannot stay. But I swear that I will seek the Nether Regions and find them, though it take the rest of my life."

The bright hall dissolved and swirled before Gundar's eyes. He seemed to be flying through the heart of rock until he reached a place of utter darkness. He swooned. When he came to himself again, he was lying on a pallet, tears running down his face.

"My lord!" A young peasant woman was looking down at him, the picture of concern.

Gundar struggled onto his elbow, his head swimming. The woman held a earthenware goblet of water to his lips. He took a mouthful, then spat it out.

"It's vile!"

"Yes, my lord. It is medicine from our lord Arestasis, to make you strong again. You must drink."

Gundar considered the possible consequences of disobedience, then drained the cup. "Do you have anything to eat?" he asked.

"I made some broth for you," the woman said. "And there is bread and cheese."

Gundar looked around the dimly-lit, cramped quarters. "Where am I?"

"This is the swine-herder's hut," the woman informed him.

"The swine-herder's hut! What am I doing in the swine-herder's hut?"

"The Lord Arestasis has instructed my father to teach you his trade."

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Episode 7: Gundar the Swineherd

"Mayhap it's all for the best that all my crew was lost," Gundar muttered to himself as he hauled a pail of slops to the pen where Arca's offspring awaited him with eager squealing. "It would disgrace me forever to be remembered in the scauldir's lays as Gundar the Swineherd."

Since his arrival at the swine-herder's hut, he had spoken to no one but his host Petros and his buxom but intellectually limited daughter Marcelle. He had heard enough pig lore to last a life-time. A cartload of slops arrived from Arestasis' palatial residence daily, but the driver considered the new assistant swineherd beneath his notice as he chatted with Petros about the latest agricultural trends, interspersed with the occasional bit of gossip, while Gundar unloaded the full containers from the cart and replaced them with empty ones.

The work was dull, the food plain, and the bed lumpy. The clothes he wore were shapeless and scratchy. All these Gundar had endured before in his life. But the humiliation he suffered was enough to drive him off to brave the unknown with neither coin nor weapon, save for the fact that he had given his word.

His oath of fealty bound him body and soul, will and fancy, might and main. To break even the smallest part of his troth meant forfeiting his greatest treasure: his honour. Every evening, as he put another pebble in an empty bag he had found, he asked himself if he should have chosen death rather than leave himself vulnerable to the whims of that maddeningly unpredictable mage. He would be adding his fifteenth pebble before sleeping tonight. The remainder of the year lay before him like an eternity. What benefit was there to be had in this life when he could be sporting in the land of dreams with Lili? When Baldur spoke of adventures to come, he surely had not meant a tourney with slop-pails and swine.

Gundar lifted the pail over the fence and dumped the slops along the trough for the seven young pigs. A small litter, but vigorous, and growing fast. Gundar did not pause to admire them, but trudged back to fetch another pail.

The pig-herding business was more complex than he had thought at first. The herd consisted of twenty-four sows, a resident boar Petros had named Edigg, and a nameless boar who had been brought from afar to impregnate the younger sows who were Eddig's daughters. Seven of the sows had litters still nursing; nine had been separated from their progeny and were waiting to be bred again; and eight were in various stages of pregnancy. The oldest and largest of the sows, Rosalyn, was due to farrow at any moment, and had to be watched carefully. The pigs were fed grain, grasses and table scraps according to precise measures determined by Petros, and let out of their pens daily to root for grubs and bathe in the mud of the nearby slough. The various litters were inclined to fight with each other, even to the death on occasion, and had to be kept separate. It took all day to release the pigs in groups, keep them from straying, and herd them back into their pens.

By the time the day's work was finished, Gundar was more than ready to sit and take his ease with Petros while Marcelle prepared their food over an open fire. The first day he had felt on the verge of swooning, but his strength was returning quickly. The scratches and bites had turned into itchy scabs which tormented him until they fell off, but Arestasis' spell had done its work, and there was no sign of infection. The sores that remained were the result of Gundar's impatient scratching. Petros had advised him that the mud of the slough had healing properties and would soothe the itch, but Gundar had been too proud to make use of it.

Petros treated his charges like family. To Gundar's untutored eyes, one pig was like another; but Petros had named them all and could distinguish them at a distance. He spoke to them tenderly, checked them for disease and wounds, caressed them like pet dogs and knew their whole history. He never failed to shed a tear when the butcher came to claim his next victim for the banqueting table. Gundar had tried to draw him out on the subject of the larger world beyond the pig yard; but somehow the conversation always turned back to Petros' darlings.

"We have to watch our Rosalyn carefully," Petros said for the hundredth time as they waited for their supper to finish cooking. "She has large litters and mothers them well, but she's likely to be agitated at first and lie on her young. You have to keep well back from her, but keep a sharp eye and be ready to rush in if need be. An' don't be surprised if she takes a chunk out of you! She's older than she was, but her temper's no better."

Gundar was relieved that Petros did not pull down his leggings again to show the scar on his thigh that Rosalyn's teeth had left years ago. Petros had a number of marks on his body left by pigs and others left by passing soldiers or impatient masters. The worst of them was a deep gouge in his calf left by a boar's tusk which had done enough damage to spoil his gait. He wore them all with pride, like battle scars, and was never shy to recount how he came by them.

Marcelle brought the men fresh bread and a savory stew concocted from some local bird she liked to snare. Better fare than usual, Gundar thought after slurping a mouthful of the liqud from the bowl, taking care not to burn his mouth. He speared a piece of meat with his knife and held it up, grinning appreciatively at Marcelle. She blushed and looked away. Gundar jerked his eyes away from her cleavage and popped the meat into his mouth. This one would be easy to take, but he had not forgotten his vow of loyalty to Lili. In any case, it would be wise to abstain until he knew more of the local laws. He had heard more than one horror story of travellers who acted as they did at home, and endured dire penalties as a result.

"My girl and I be on our way to market in Calligena first thing in the morning," Petros said. "We be staying for one night at least, maybe two. The pigs be yours to tend 'til we return."

Gundar continued spearing morsels from his stew and mopping the gravy with chunks of bread, his mind wandering while Petros meticulously detailed the care each and every pig must receive.

"Can you remember all of it?" Petros asked. "Or must I tell you again?"

"Fear nothing," Gundar said hastily. "All will be well. You'll see."

"You do seem a little slow-witted at times," Petros fretted. Marcelle hid a giggle behind her hand.

Gundar's muscles bunched, aching to add another wound to Petros' collection. What right did this churl have to criticize his wits? "All will be well," he repeated in a sharper tone.

"Hello the house!" a cheerful female voice cried outside the door of the hut. Without waiting for a response, the new arrival opened the door and stepped inside.

Petros' face brightened. "Mistress Lexa! Will you share our food with us?"

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Episode 8: In the Woods

"Thank you!" Lexa said. "I will gladly share your supper. I brought a brace of rabbits to help fill your larder." She held her trophies out to Marcelle, who took them with exclamations of delight and scurried off to find another bowl for their guest.

"Just the thing!" Petros exclaimed. "We can roast one on the way to market, and barter the other."

And what am I going to eat, I'd like to know, while they are off gallivanting? Gundar thought rebelliously. But he curbed his tongue.

Lexa dragged a chair to the end of the table and sat comfortably, as one in her own home. She was not wearing her skintight leathers today, but a plain outfit such as any peasant hunter might use. She did not look as vibrantly full of life as she did the first time Gundar saw her. Her face was pasty, and there were shadows under her eyes.

"So," Petros said, "Been hunting, have you? I heard tell that you were confined to bed."

"Indeed," Lexa said. "This is my first time away from my chamber. I didn't go far, but my legs are shaking nonetheless."

"The iccubata's venom?" Gundar asked.

"Yes. I heaped one error onto another, and leaped to the fray without Stasi's magical protection." Lexa shook her head. "I thought too highly of myself, and it almost cost me my life." She looked down at the table, tears gathering in her eyes. "All that training and practice, and I still let my thoughts scatter to the winds."

"Here," Marcelle said, putting the steaming bowl in front of her guest, "eat. It will strengthen you."

Lexa collected herself and smiled. "Thank you. I have been away too long."
The rest of the meal was taken with small talk about the pigs. Gundar was full of questions about what had happened after he lost consciousness, and looked for an opening to turn the conversation in the direction of the great battle in the sky. But the subject of heroic struggles seemed to hold no interest for Petros or Marcelle.

"The Lili -- my boat," Gundar blurted out at last, after the bowls had been cleared. "What has become of her?"

Lexa looked at him with mild surprise. "Scuttled."

Gundar's heart sank. "Scuttled? She was damaged, I know, but surely not beyond repair!"

"The stench would remain forever," Lexa said. "There was nothing else to be done."

"And how will I leave this place without a boat?" Gundar asked.

"You could not crew her alone," Lexa said. "In any case, you are pledged to Stasi."

"But not forever!"

Lexa looked at him sharply. "You seem to be in a great hurry to be free of him."

"And why not?" Gundar shouted, unable to contain himself any longer. "He has no regard for me!"

"He has every regard for you," Lexa said in a steely tone with more than a hint of warning in it, "as he does for everyone under his care. You would be well-advised not to spurn his wisdom."

"I am going out a walk," Gundar said abruptly. His head was hot, and he knew his temper would soon run out of control. Challenging Lexa to a duel in her weakened state would disgrace his honour and remedy nothing. He stood up and bowed formally to his host. "I will leave you to your own devices. I am sure you have much to talk about."

"Take a look at Rosie while yer out there," Petros said. "She's likely to drop any minute."

Gundar stormed out into the cool of the evening, through the pig yard, down the well-trod path leading into the woods. Before he had gone far, he stumbled over an exposed root and fell headlong. When his breath returned, he pounded the ground with his fists, cursing until he could think of nothing more to blaspheme. His rage swelled, demanding an axe to fell the offending tree, a knife to butcher the squealing swine, an army to lay waste this accursed place which took no heed of his importance. How could Lexa speak so casually of the loss of the Lili? Was there no pity for him anywhere in the universe?

As his temper cooled, he began to shiver. In the heat of the moment, he had not thought to take a cloak. Groaning, he sat up. His shoulder throbbed with pain.

He sat in the gathering darkness, considering his options. He could go deeper into the forest in the hope of being eaten by some nocturnal creature. He could return to the hut. Perhaps, even in her weakened state, Lexa could heal his injuries. But she might take it upon herself to reprimand him again. Best to wait until she was gone and Petros and Marcelle were asleep. Then he could creep into his bed and rise in the morning, pretending there was nothing amiss. The swineherd and his daughter would be thinking of nothing but their precious market. By the time they returned, all would be forgotten, and his disgrace buried forever.

But Lexa would remember. Of all the creatures in the world, it was her good opinion that he craved, and it was unlikely that he could ever redeem himself sufficiently to earn it. Perhaps a speedy death would be preferable after all. Why had he not gone down with the Lili?

There was nothing to do but venture deeper into the forest, where ravenous beasts were sure to lurk. A bear, perhaps, or a pack of wolves to tear him apart. Without weapons, he would be easy prey. Would Lexa regret her words? Or would she shrug her shoulders and turn her attention to future adventures?

Gundar gathered his strength and pushed himself to his feet. Too late, he discovered that his right ankle refused to bear his weight.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Episode 9: Burdens of the Past

I have shamed myself beyond redemption. What will become of me now?

The words echoed through Gundar's mind again and again, but his teeth remained clenched as if they had been magically glued together. He had not spoken since Lexa found him in the woods.

She was too depleted to heal his ankle, but she had eased the pain somewhat before she splinted the injury and found him a stick to lean on for the hard walk back to the hut. She had draped his free arm over her shoulders and supported him as he hopped on his good leg. She had eased him onto his bed, assuring him that the bone was not broken, and prepared an herbal infusion to ease the pain. Through it all, he had remained silent, dreading what would come once he opened his mouth.

In the morning, Lexa saw Petros and Marcelle off and fed the pigs while Gundar slept off his exhaustion. Later, he managed to struggle to his feet and hobble about a bit, but not enough to be helpful with the work. He maintained his bitter silence, watching Lexa carry the heavy buckets, jest with the slop cart driver, release the pigs from their pens and drive them in again, all with the easy rhythm of the experienced.

Shamed beyond redemption.

At noon, Lexa interrupted her work to heat some stew and start a batch of fresh bread dough. She brought Gundar his food where he sat, on a rock facing Rosalyn's pen. He was determined to watch over the old sow, although he had no idea what to do if she began giving birth.

Lexa handed Gundar his bowl and hunk of bread and sat beside him to eat. He played with his food for a while, devoid of appetite, searching for words that would change the unpleasant truth into something more palatable.

Lexa finished and stood up, looking down at his full bowl. She hunkered in front of him, searching his soul with her sky-blue eyes. He wondered how one with such dark hair could have blue eyes, and noticed for the first time that her tresses had a purplish sheen, like mulberries.

"Do you have nothing better to do than tend pigs?" he asked with a bitter edge on his voice, letting his anger spill on her.

She raised an eyebrow and cocked her head sideways. "Gaia be praised!" she said, with a soft snort that nearly missed being a laugh. "I feared that your fall broke your tongue beyond repair."

"Leave me be," Gundar snarled. "I can manage."

She stood and looked away, clearly considering her next move. Gundar's heart churned within him. If she turned to leave, could he restrain himself from calling her back?

Hard-headed, you are, and slow to confess to any fault, his armsmaster had chided him more than once. I fear you will end your days as an overgrown boy.

Lexa took a couple of hesitant steps towards the hut, then turned to look down at him. "Say that again, and I will take you at your word," she said, with an edge on her words. Before he could formulate a response, she spoke again in a softer tone. "Gundar Baldursson, we all need friends from time to time."

"Does your master not require your presence?" he asked, trying to hide his gratitude under gruffness.

"Stasi says I must be gentle with myself if I am to fully recover," Lexa said. "He has decreed an end to all studies, and commands me to fresh air and gentle exercise until the time of my emancipation."

"Emancipation?" Gundar asked. "You are bonded to him, then?"

"For seven years," she said. "My bond is fulfilled forty-one days from now. There will be a big festival in my honour. Most of my family will be coming to wish me well."

"And then?" Gundar asked. "Will they take you home to be wed?"

Lexa laughed. "Wed? After all I have endured to become fit to reach for something more? Nay -- I will go questing for two years, and then decide what to do."

"Questing?" Gundar said, his heart thumping. "Alone or in company?"

"I will see when the time comes."

"You will be better prepared for it than I was. . ." Gundar began, and then stopped, overwhelmed with emotion.

"I grieve with you," Lexa said. "It is hard to lose men, and a boat as well."

"I named the Lili after my heart's true love," Gundar said, no longer able to contain his tears. "She died in battle. I commanded her not to go, because I feared for her, but she went anyway, without my knowledge. I thought her safe until I found her among the corpses. We won the war, but I lost my heart forever. I thought to seek solace in adventure, but found nothing but . . . more . . . death."

Lexa came closer. Gundar wound his arms around her waist and wept, while she stood stroking his hair and chanting some ancient spell under her breath.

When his sobs had quieted, he unburdened his heart to her, ending with a heartfelt plea for pardon. "Arestasis did well to leave me here among the pigs," he said, in a flurry of self-recrimination. "I deserve nothing better."

"You are not here to be punished," Lexa said, sitting down beside him and putting her hand on his shoulder. "You are here to learn. If you will put your will to this work, you will see that it is honourable."

"You have spent time here?" Gundar hazarded. "You seem to know the pigs better than I do."

Lexa smiled. "Indeed. At first, it was under grave duress; but now I go for the sheer pleasure of an orderly existence uncomplicated by political scheming. The pigs' needs are simple, and I supply them."

"But you did not appreciate the finer points of pig herding at first?"

Lexa's laughter coursed like molten silver. "Indeed not. I thought it the ultimate humiliation, just as you do now." She sat, musing. Gundar kept his tongue in check, hoping to learn more.

"I was very rebellious when I came here," Lexa said. "My life at home was sweet and easy. I had no desire for arduous training. But my mother insisted on it."

"Your mother must be an unusual woman."

"Indeed she was. She was Stasi's first pupil. She left off questing because she was with child with me. I daresay she regretted it until the day she died."

"How did it happen?"

"A mindless accident. She was standing on her balcony with my youngest brother Telegon, and sent his wet nurse away to fetch a warmer cloak. It is not known how she fell. Telegon was found lying on top of her lifeless form on the rocks below, bruised and screaming. He was too young to tell the tale. When I went home for the funeral, Father was so distracted that he hardly spoke to me, except to command me to study hard and become the world's greatest warrior for my mother's memory's sake. I have never found it in my heart to return."

"I see that your life has not been without pain," Gundar said, his heart opening to hers in sympathy.

"When I first came here, all I wanted was to go home," Lexa continued. "I hoped that if I did badly, Stasi would despair of training me and send me away. But he saw through my ruse. At first he beat me, as any master would beat his apprentice, but to no avail. The more he punished me, the more defiant I became, thinking I was coming closer to reaching my goal. After almost two years of fruitless struggle, he brought me here and told me the choice was mine. I could spent the next five years tending pigs, or I could submit to him and learn what he had to teach me."

"And you chose to become Basilea Lexa rather than Lexa the Swineherd."

Lexa smiled. "That I did. But not without a struggle. I was here for more than a year before I finally realized that Stasi meant what he said."

"What think you?" Gundar asked. "Will Master Arestasis leave me here until my pledged time is fulfilled?"

"I cannot speak for my master," Lexa said, "but I believe it will depend on how quickly you learn."

"What is there to learn here, in a pig yard?" Gundar asked, exasperation creeping into his voice despite his best efforts to control it.

"That is for you to decide," Lexa said. "But I would advise you to pay more attention to the details of your work. Petros is not at all pleased with your progress. You only pretend to listen, and hear nothing of what he has to tell you."

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Episode 10: Dreams of Love

"Calligena is so unlike this backward place!" Marcelle proclaimed, her eyes shining. "So many folk, so many wares, so many new ideas . . ."

Petros frowned. "'Tis a village like any other. I, for one, and glad to be home."

The senior swineherder was in a distinctly sour mood. He and Marcelle had been gone for six days, much longer than he had planned. Even the fact that Rosalyn was the proud mother of fifteen healthy piglets was not enough to bring a smile to his face. "I should 'ave been here," he had growled when Lexa gave him the happy news. "Only a moment of inattention, and all can go amiss.

Thanks to the faithful ministrations of Lexa and a visit from a healer, Gundar was able to walk again, though it hurt him to carry the heavy pails. He gritted his teeth and endured the pain in silence rather than admit the extent of his injury to Petros. Lexa made light of her contribution, giving the impression that she had done nothing more than assist with the farrowing.

"Princess Laesta was there, with a whole train of followers," Marcelle continued, avoiding her father's baleful stare. "'Twas wondrous! I would dearly love to live in Calligena forever!"

Gundar looked from daughter to father and back again. He had never seen Marcelle so animated. Something hung in the air, something they were in no mood to share. The little fool may be in love with some fop from the royal court, Gundar thought. Nothing else could adequately explain the joyous sparkle in her eye.

"The princess?" Lexa asked, raising an eyebrow. "What in the world was she doing in humble Calligena?"

"Some nonsense about the mud," Petros muttered.

"The hot spring near the village is said to restore youth," Marcelle said. "First you must be packed in the warm mud and wait until it bakes in the sun, and then have someone break it open and wash yourself clean in the water."

"Did you try it?" Lexa asked.

"I meant to, but there were too many ahead of me," Marcelle said sadly. "I wanted to wait, but Father insisted--"

"Two days of waiting!" Petros burst out. "Two days which could have been profitably spent here."

Marcelle's face crumpled. "You will take me back, won't you?" she pleaded. "Soon? I never want to grow old like that Laesta woman. She is nothing but wrinkles. Why she wants to marry again, I'll never know. What man would have her?"

"Never fear!" Petros said. "With her exalted station and fat dowry, she'll have no end of suitors."

Gundar leaned back, pretending to doze, watching Marcelle. She was much changed. Could it be -- could it be that she had sacrificed her maidenhead on the altar of love?

Lexa poked him in the ribs. For a moment, he feared that she had read his thoughts. "What is it?" he grunted.

"We must check the pigs before retiring," Lexa said.

"Very well," Gundar said, pushing himself to his feet. "Maybe we can go for a little walk afterwards. I never did see much of those woods."

"Are you well enough to take over the work?" Lexa said once they were outside. "I mean to leave tomorrow."

"Where are you going?" Gundar asked.

Lexa shrugged. "Calligena."

"Indeed?" Gundar asked. "What is there to see in Calligena?"

"I don't know," Lexa said. "But I have an uneasy feeling. If there be nothing amiss, I can always bathe in the mud in the hope of regaining my strength sooner."

"You could bathe with the sows right here," Gundar said.

Lexa laughed and punched him in ribs, leaving him gasping. He tried to grab her to retaliate, but she stepped back out of his reach, then darted in close and tripped him, sending him sprawling. Before he had the chance to get up, she was gone.

He searched for her all around the pig pens and even ventured a considerable distance into the woods. He found her at last in Rosalyn's pen, feeding the runt of the litter with a bottle of goat's milk. She looked so charming that his heart melted. He kept silent, knowing better than to disturb the nursing mother, and waited until Lexa gently tiptoed out of the pen.

"All is well," Lexa said in an undertone. "If you conduct yourself gently around her, there will be no problems."

Gundar took Lexa's hand. "Thank you. I know things would have gone badly without you."

"You're welcome," she said. She started to disengage her hand, but Gundar held on more tightly.

"I dreamed of you last night," Gundar said, his voice thick with desire. Even in the gathering dusk, hers was the face of a goddess.

"Gundar--" Lexa began. Before she could say more, he covered her lips with his.

He knew his mistake the moment they touched. He felt no softness, no answering passion. She pushed him away firmly, almost knocking him off his feet. He stood staring, knowing she could have done much worse to him.

"Forgive me," he muttered. "I seem to do nothing right."

Lexa paused before replying. "Gundar," she said, "You are far from home, and your heart is wounded. Allow yourself time to heal."

"And then?" he asked with sudden hope, fantasies running wildly through his mind.

"And then nothing," Lexa said. "I have my path, and you have yours."

"Can we not go questing together?" Gundar asked eagerly. "Arestasis would agree if you asked him. I saw how he dotes on you."

"Mind your pigs," Lexa said shortly. "These things are not mine to decide."

"But if he agrees," Gundar persisted. "If he agrees, will you go with me?"

"Perhaps," Lexa said. "But understand that to me you are merely a boy. A very likeable boy, but a boy nonetheless."

"Time will mend that!" Gundar protested, knowing he would have done better to be silent. Once again, he had bulled his way where he had no business.

Lexa looked at him with a frown, then smiled and shook her head. "I cannot find it in my heart to fault you for trying. But, I beg you, let this go, or you will spoil our friendship."

Gundar felt hot blood in his face, and was grateful for the dusk. "I owe you much," he said. "It was churlish of me to ask for more."

"If you truly wish to impress me," Lexa said with the severity of a school teacher, "put your pride aside and put your mind to what is set before you."

Gundar bowed his head. "It shall be done, Patrocula."

A smile tugged at the corner of Lexa's mouth. "And if you fail me, what shall the forfeit be?"

"If Petros does not give you a good report of me when you return, then you may wash your hands of me," Gundar said. "I can think of nothing that would sting more."

"Done," Lexa said. They walked back to the hut arm in arm.

Gundar lay awake long that night, upbraiding himself for his fickleness. How could he forget his beloved Lili so easily? Had he not promised to seek her in the land of the dead? He resolved to think of Lexa only as a friend.

When he fell asleep at last, it was Lexa who came to haunt his dreams, not Lili. He woke hot and sweaty, almost glad that the object of his temptation would be on her way before sunrise.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Episode 11: Trouble in Calligena

"The princess Laesta has been kidnapped," the slop wagon driver told Petros as he was waiting for Gundar to finish unloading. "Snatched, she was, while she was baked solid in the mud. Nothing she could do but scream for help,and even that was only for a moment, until they stopped her mouth."

"Indeed," Petros said, his voice indifferent. "She will fetch a fine ransom from her father if they manage to hide her long enough."

"That be the third kidnapping in Calligena this year," the driver said. "But never one of such high degree."

Gundar slowed his work a little, the better to listen. Could this kidnapping have been the source of Lexa's uneasiness? If she had the gift of foresight, she had never made mention of it.

"Did no one have the balls to stop this outrage?" Petros asked.

"Three of her men and two women gave their lives, as well as a passing townsman. Basiliea Lexa was gravely wounded, and Archmage Arestasis has rushed to her aid with a squadron of Lord Gryphos' warriors to reinforce his own. They plan to remain there until they have discovered who is to blame for this outrage. The townspeople are clamoring to have a stop put to it before it drives away the tourists in search of rejuvenation."

The conversation became more animated as Petros pumped the driver for further details, but Gundar heard not a word. Lexa gravely wounded! His heart pounded frantically. What business did she have joining in a brawl in her weakened condition? He had no doubt that her Patrocule would heal her forthwith, and yet--
"I am going to Calligena first thing tomorrow," Gundar announced after supper.

"You cannot do that without your liege lord's permission," Petros said.

"He is in Calligena," Gundar said in his most confident manner. "I will seek his consent when I catch up with him."

"He will be sorely vexed," Petros said in a tone of foreboding. "If he loses patience, he may turn you into a pig."

"That is a chance I will have to take," Gundar said. "But I must see with my own two eyes how it goes with Lexa."

Petros' eyes softened. "If truth be told, I long to do likewise. But I have just returned from journeying there, and I cannot leave my work again."

"I will be your eyes and ears," Gundar said, taking advantage of the moment,"and bring you back word about everything."

"And I will go with him," Marcelle announced, "and show him the way."

"You will do no such thing, Missy!" Petros said sharply. "You are needed here,not gallivanting wherever your fancy dictates!" He turned to Gundar. "A squadron of soldiers is spending the night at the manor house and will be on their way in that direaction at sunrise tomorrow. If you are truly determined to go to Calligena,you had best join their train. But I warn you -- I will do nothing to shield you from your master's wrath if he objects!"

"However foolish it seems to you, this is something I must do," Gundar said. Petros looked at him shrewdly. "Is it love that compels you, or are you insearch of an excuse to fly the coop?"

Gundar considered the question and decided that neither answer would further his cause.

"Is there anything you would like me to bring you?" he asked.

Marcelle's eyes brimmed with tears, and Gundar realized that her heart was fullof longing, not for ribbons or jewels or fancy meats, but for a certain masculine smile. He kept his counsel for the moment, but was not surprised when she came creeping to his bed after her father was asleep to whisper in his ear that she would very much like to know how a certain Pier Drost fared.

"He was travelling in the princess' company with his master Prince Vogol," she whispered. "It is said that Princess Laesta's father, King Tantalos, would dearly love to forge an alliance with Prince Vogol's homeland. They producewondrous amber which produces both light and heat for those who know how to harness it."

"And now Laesta is gone," Gundar mused, wondering if the abduction hid a larger motive than easy riches.

"Pier Drost," Marcelle whispered insistently. "Do not forget that name. Pier Drost. If the opportunity were to present itself, perhaps you could ask him if he remembers me." Her voice broke, and she melted into the darkness.

Gundar slept little that night, but lay on his bed, speculating. Would he be able to find the means to persuade Arestasis to let him help with the rescue? How grateful he would be to get a break from the pigs! True to his promise to Lexa, he was working harder at his task of tending them, but he had discovered no joy or serenity in it. His blood sang day and night, yearning for the open road and a skirmish or two.

Before the stars faded, Gundar groped for his clothes, pulled them on, and eased himself out the door of the hut. Best to be on his way before Petros awoke and made trouble.

"Gundar!" Marcelle's soft voice called him back. Gundar paused and waited for her to catch up with him. "Provisions," she said, handing him a pack, "and a change of clothes."

She pressed a metal disk into his hand. "You may need this."

"Thank you," Gundar said, touched. In the darkness, he could not distinguish whether the coin was copper, silver, or gold, but whatever its value, he would feel more of a man with money in his pouch.

"We have no swords," Marcelle said, "but the Lord Arestasis gave Father your dagger for safe-keeping."

Gundar took the proffered weapon with a sigh of satisfaction. It was good to be armed with something more than a pigherder's staff. "Thank you," he said,kissing her hand lightly. "I will do my utmost to carry out your will."

"Pier Drost!" Marcelle called after Gundar as he strode towards the manor house. "Remember that name! Pier Drost!"

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Episode 12: A Small Surprise

Gundar squirmed, trying to find a less uncomfortable position. I have been with the pigs so long that I have become a pig.

He had always prided himself on his ability to sleep anywhere, like the hardened veteran soldier he was. But he had become soft, too acclimated to his pallet indoors. His calves hurt from the unaccustomed rigour of military pacing. The ground was lumpy, nocturnal insects were exploring the crannies of his body, and, even though he was wearing all the clothes he had with him, he was cold. Why had he not thought to bring a blanket from his bed?

The one redeeming feature of the day had been that it had cost him nothing. After the soldiers had eaten their fill, the cooks had distributed left-overs to the two dozen camp followers. The food was ample and just as tasty as Marcelle's, but it had irked Gundar immensely to wait humbly for others to finish. No one thought to give him a second glance. Could no one discern the exiled foreign prince under his peasant disguise? When the rabble built a camp fire and began to settle for the night, Gundar had withdrawn from them in disgust and made a bed of branches in the heart of a hollow tree.

Gundar re-rolled his pack in a vain attempt to transform it into a more comfortable pillow. He curled up on his side, wondering if his blood would be frozen in the morning. Perhaps he should continue his hike alone. According to the desultory gossip he had overheard, they were already two-thirds of the way to Calligena. But what of the bands of brigands who roamed the countryside like ravening wolves? What match would he be against them, armed only with a dagger?

A low voice hissed in Gundar's ear. "Good master, help!"

Gundar rolled onto his knees, sweeping the dark with his left arm while his right snatched the dagger from his belt. He stuck his head out of the opening in the tree, but saw no one.

"For pity's sake hide me!" the same voice said beside him. "You will not regret it."
Gundar looked down. A human shadow no larger than his forearm stood beside his left leg.

I must have fallen asleep after all, Gundar thought. This is a strange dream indeed, unlike any I have had! I wonder what it portends.

"I beg you -- shelter me," the miniature man said. "I will reward you well."

Gundar shrugged and shook out his pack. "In here."

"Bless you," the little one said as he disappeared among the folds of cloth. "Now you must lie down and pretend to sleep. They will be looking for me. Say nothing to give me away, or they will accuse you of being a thief."

Gundar rearranged his body on the inhospitable ground. "Ouch! Take care!" the little voice protested when Gundar laid his head on his improvised pillow. The creature inside the pack squirmed about, nestling between his neck and his shoulder. "Keep very still now, and do not speak unless you are spoken to," its tiny voice advised.

Gundar closed his eyes. The living warmth against his neck was comforting. He relaxed, ready to let his dream take him wherever it would. Perhaps it would tell him something of his future. But nothing more transpired until he woke to the first light of morning.

He extricated himself from the tree trunk, stretched, and tried to work the stiffness out of his legs. In the main camp, the cooks were handing out some sort of steaming beverage along with hunks of bread. He reached into the tree and scooped up his pack.

"Gently, gently!" a familiar voice said.

Gundar halted, electrified.

"Do not look into your pack yet," the voice instructed. "No one must notice anything amiss."

I am still sleeping, then, Gundar reassured himself as he fastened the pack on his back. Either that, or I am hearing spirit voices.

He took his place at the end of the food line and looked around with pretended indifference, watching for any sign of unusual activity. All seemed normal.
A horn blew, and the troops scurried into their formation. A squadron set briskly to covering the latrine pits. Gundar swore at himself for not tending to the call of nature earlier.

He took the wooden cup and cautiously slurped the steaming liquid. The herbal concoction was somewhat bitter, but it spread a delicious warmth through his body.

The horn blew again.

"Hurry!" the cook urged. "It is time to go. I must have all my cups back."

Gundar gulped the rest of the drink, burning his throat, and handed back the cup.
Clutching his hunk of bread, he looked around for a place to answer the call of nature. Two women and their children were emerging from a stand of bushes a few paces from the road. Gundar set out in their direction.

"Good morrow," one of the children said as they passed each other. He was a sturdy lad whose dark eyes flashed with mischief. "Have you seen Uncle Netheniel's ferret? It escaped from its cage during the night."

"How would I know it from any other ferret?" Gundar asked.

"It is snow white, with a black patch that looks like a cap," the mother interjected. "It is very valuable. Netheniel is most perturbed -- he's been hunting all night."

"I will keep an eye out," Gundar promised without really meaning to do anything about it. Any animal with a lick of sense would be long gone by now.

He plunged into the stand of shoulder-high bushes, set his bread on top of a low bush, and proceeded to his business.

"You must let me out before we return," the voice said when Gundar had finished.

"Why?" Gundar asked. "Why should I make myself tardy for your sake?"

"If you do not, your food will surely be spoiled. And I must tell you, it is very fine food indeed."

"You have been helping yourself to my provisions?" Gundar stormed, pulling his sack off his back. He turned it upside down and shook it. The little man yelped as he was dumped onto the ground along with sausages and cheese.

Gundar's passenger stood up and dusted himself off. He looked to be of middle age, and was attired in random scraps of burlap haphazardly wrapped around him with string. His hair was snow white, with a black patch that looked like a little cap.

"Did you save me any of that brew?" he asked hopefully.

"No," Gundar said shortly, "I did not. Are you a shape-shifter? It seems to me that you were a ferret not long ago."

"You might describe me as such," the little man said. "But it is not by my will. I am transformed each time the moon is full. That is my curse."

"Does Netheniel know of this?" Gundar asked.

"Indeed he does. He was planning to become rich by putting me on display in Calligena." The little one began to fumble with his garments. "Turn your back," he instructed. "I cannot bear to be watched."

Gundar hesitated, then turned his back. If the little one elected to disappear, he might be better off without him.

He picked up the bread and munched on it. The troops had already begun their march. Perhaps it would be for the best if he sprinted after them and left his guest to fend for himself.

"There -- that's better!" the little one said. "Now help me back into your pack.
Gundar began to pull of off his outer layer of clothes. "Let me put these in first."
"Good -- that will give me a soft place to sit."

"What are you?" Gundar demanded. "And why should I help you

Monday, June 19, 2006

Episode 13: Tidings Most Foul

"Mine is a long story," Gundar's guest said, "and this is neither the time nor place for the telling."

Gundar put his hands on his hips. "Tell me now, or remain behind!"

"All in good time, all in good time." The little one reached inside the bits of burlap and extracted a worn leather bag bearing a mystical-looking monogram in silver. "Here -- I took this from that fool Netheniel. You may have it as a token of my good faith."

Gundar glanced inside and whistled softly. It contained at least a dozen gold and silver coins.

"Enough here to get me hung," he said, considering his options. Should he return Netheniel's money rather than risk being accused of thievery? If he did, would his act of charity win him a useful friendship, or make him the object of suspicious scrutiny?

"You would do badly to entrust yourself to Netheniel," the little man said shrewdly, reading Gundar's thoughts on his face. "He is a charlatan -- a seller of useless potions."

"And you are a thief," Gundar growled. "How does that make you a better man than he is?"

"Come now," the little man said in a coaxing tone. "Throw your lot in with me, and I will show you a great adventure."

The military horns began to blare out a lively tune. The troops stepped out briskly, their steel-bossed leather helmets glinting in the sunlight. Whatever decision Gundar chose to make, he would have to make it forthwith.

He untied his own money pouch and dumped the contents of the bag into it. Two coins dropped into the long grass. Gundar swore as he tossed the stolen bag away.

The little man reached down and felt the earth. "Here's one," he said, holding up a silver coin.

Gundar grabbed it and added it to his hoard. "Never mind the other. Into my sack with you, or I will leave you behind."

The little man scrambled into the sack. "Before you settle us in an inn for the night," he said to Gundar, "buy a needle and thread from a pedlar. I must improvise some garments."

Gundar did not reply, but jogged after the troops. He exchanged no further words with his guest, and kept a covert eye on Netheniel, anticipating the uproar when potion-seller discovered that more than his magic ferret was missing.

The morning passed uneventfully. Lunch consisted of bread, cheese, and more herbal brew. Gundar took care to be at the head of the line, and slipped away to share food and drink with his secret companion.

The sun was less than half-way to the horizon when the travellers arrived in Calligena. The troops marched smartly down the main thoroughfare with a fine show of military force. Gundar slipped into a side street, unwilling to risk being searched if Netheniel noticed his loss and complained to the captain. He soon found himself in a small market square and stopped to buy needle and thread, as well as some sturdy blue cloth that would be softer against the skin than burlap. He took the opportunity to ask if anyone knew of the whereabouts of Basilea Lexa and her mentor.

"Gone this morning," a young woman told him as she nursed her infant. "I saw her myself -- pale as death, she was, lying in a wagon padded with silk, with two healers beside her and a dozen warriors keeping guard. The Archmage did what he could to help, but from what I hear, she continues in mortal danger."

Rumours and wild fancies, Gundar reassured himself. Women are ever wont to dramatize.

"Do you know where they took her?" Gundar asked, his voice hoarse from the lump in his throat.

"To King Tantalos' palace, no doubt," the woman said. "Princess Laesta has retained the finest physicians in the land to search for the secret of eternal youth."

"And Archmage Arestasis?" Gundar asked. "Did he go with her?"

"I did not see him."

"Thank you," Gundar said gallantly, masking his unease. "You have been most helpful. I have only one more question. Do you know anything of a certain Pier Drost? I have a message to deliver."

The woman took the baby from her breast. "Surely Fate smiles upon you," she said. "Pier Drost is my husband, and this is his son. You can give your message to me."

"That cannot be," Gundar said. "The one I seek travels with his master Prince Vogol."

"Indeed he does," the woman said proudly. "He is a very important man -- a diplomat. We are together only infrequently, but, as you can see, we have made good use of our time."

Gundar's heart sank. Poor Marcelle!

"You look troubled, good sir," the woman said. "Is something amiss?"

"It is nothing," Gundar said hastily. "I was wondering to myself how he could bear to deprive himself of such a lovely creature as you."

The woman blushed. "That is most gracious of you to say. He did, indeed, speak of setting me up in his mother's estate in Veogellandt. But it is far away and his mother is old and testy. Pier thought I would be happier here."

"That is most considerate of him," Gundar said, striving to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. That scurrilous excuse for a turd probably has a wife in every land he's visited, and more besides. If I ever meet him face to face, I will tell him of Marcelle's yearning heart while I twist my dagger in his gut.

"What is the message?" the woman asked.

"I regret to say," Gundar said, "that it is very private -- a diplomatic secret."

"I understand." The young mother smiled with innocent pride. "When a man is as highly placed as he is, one cannot be too careful."

"Do you know where I might find him?" Gundar asked.

"He is attending Prince Vogol at King Tantalos' palace. The king is in the field with his troops searching for his daughter, while the nobles continue the trade negotiations in his absence."

Gundar thanked her and asked if she knew of a moderately priced inn where a man night get a good night's sleep without being overly troubled by rats and the vermin they carried.

"My uncle Mercurios keeps a proper establishment, and brews a splendid ale to boot," she said, pointing down the street. "It is only a few paces from here. Tell him that Aurelia sent you. That should merit you an extra mug of beer."

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Episode 14: Scaramouche's Tale

"Now," Gundar said sternly. "The time is overripe to explain yourself. Open your heart to me. Tell me who you are, and how you managed to get yourself into such a pickle." After the previous uncomfortable night outdoors, his bones longed for bed; however, he was determined to find out something more about his companion before closing his eyes.

Innkeeper Mercurios' establishment, The Lame Duck, had more than met his expectations. As she had predicted, the mere mention of Aurelia's name had garnered him a friendly greeting and a foaming tankard of beer on the house. One of the silver coins had been more than adequate to procure a snug room, two candles, and enough food to provide a fine supper and re-stock Gundar's supply bag.

Before Gundar barred the door for the night, he had spent a pleasant hour warming himself at the fire in the great hall of the inn, consuming ale and roasted chestnuts, and finding out what he could. He was not able to add much to his store of knowledge. One of the guests told a colourful tale of a magical lamp from the East, but Gundar dismissed it as a fable. His inquiries regarding Archmage Arestasis were met with blank stares. When he asked about the condition of the road to the royal palace, he was informed that the road was well-travelled and generally safe. However, none of the present company was planning to go in the direction in the morrow.

The guests had made their way to their beds, and all was quiet in the inn. Gundar was now comfortably esconced in an armchair covered with a blanket of wolf pelts, while the little one was sitting on the bed, making good use of the cloth and sewing supplies Gundar had purchased. The round moon, just beginning to wane, shone so brightly into the window that the candlelight paled in comparison.

"Speak up, man!" Gundar said impatiently.

His companion did not lift his eyes from his work. "I was once known as Maurice Scaramouche, a cobbler by trade."

"And a tailor too, by the look of it," Gundar said, watching the busy needle flashing back and forth.

"I learned that from my mother," Scaramouche said. "She was fond of saying that well-made clothes are not easily come by, so it is wise for all to learn the art of sewing."

"And where did you do your cobbling, if I may ask?"

"In a land called Grondellie, so far from here that I could weep. Oh, to return to my dear village of Hirondelle-des-Aires! The grape-stamping festival was such a time! There is no place in the world where the wine and cheese are as fine."

"If it is so wonderful, why did you leave?" Gundar asked.

"Oh, it was not my notion to do so," Scaramouche replied. "I was content enough with my shop and my wife and three children. But one day, cruel fate intervened to send me forth into the harsh world and break my tender heart."

"What happened?" Gundar asked, hoping to hurry the tale along.

"A charming creature came into my shop one day with some red leather, and asked me to make it into a pair of boots for her father's birthday. She had outlined his feet on some scraps of parchment, and described his leg in detail -- long and thready, she said, with knobby knees and big calf muscles. We spent an hour or more discussing the most favourable style. There was something about her . . . something so sweet . . ."

"Did your wife have nothing to say about your little tête-à-tête?"

"My darling Céline? Oh yes -- she made herself known and invited Charmaine for supper. However, Charmaine declined to stay. She excused herself politely and said that she would return in one week for the boots."

"And so -- you made the boots."

"Indeed. I worked night and day, slaving over every detail. The leather was so fine and soft -- a pleasure to work with. When I had finished the boots, they were so beautiful that I could not resist trying them on. My feet were much the same size as Charmaine's father's, you see, and his boots fit my feet like gloves. They made me feel so light and happy that I was filled with envy. I could not bear to take them off, so I decided to break them in by wearing them to the market at Morissette, twenty kilomètres thence."

"And how much, pray tell, is a kilomètre?" Gundar asked.

"A thousand steps -- like one of your leagues, but shorter."

"Twenty kilomètres there and back again would be fair day's walk even for a young and vigorous man," Gundar observed.

"Indeed. But as soon as I thought of going there -- there I was! I could not believe it. Could I be dreaming? I purchased what I wanted and then thought of home. In a moment I was transported back to my own house."

"Magic boots," Gundar said wisely. He did not believe in such a thing, but he had heard tell of them.

"Indeed they were. I spent the rest of the day visiting every place I knew. In each case, they took me there in an instant. The only thing that disappointed me was that they would not transport me into the unknown -- only to places I could clearly picture in my head."

Scaramouche stopped his sewing and stared into space.

"And Charmaine the Charmer found out about your misuse of her boots?" Gundar prodded.

"Oh, it was worse than that! I decided I must have them for my own. 'Twas folly, and I have oft regretted it, but the excitement of instant travel went to my head . . ." Scaramouche wiped a tear from his cheek before resuming his work. "I made a second pair of boots from ordinary leather, and gave them to Charmaine when she returned."

"I take it that she discovered your deception."

"She was back the next day, not nearly as charming as before. She demanded that I return her boots and the money she had paid, or face the full extent of her wrath."

"And you refused?" Gundar asked.

"Oh no. It was clear to me that she was a sorceress, not one to be trifled with. I would gladly have complied--"


"When I went to the house to fetch the magic boots, I discovered that Céline had taken them to the shop and sold them to a young nobleman who happened to be riding by. She thought she had done me a favour, and was on top of the world, inordinately pleased with herself for the fine price she had received. Poor darling -- I did not upbraid her, but kissed her heartily, convinced that I had only moments remaining to live."

"And Charmaine -- did she believe your story?"

"Not in the least. While I was still begging and pleading for her mercy, she turned me into a fine, fat goose. Before I could think, she tied my legs together and sold me to my wife for the celebration dinner she was planning."

"Monstrous!" Gundar murmured. "To be eaten at your own table!"

"Céline put me in a wicker cage, meaning to slay me in the morning. Luckily, the moon was full that very night, and I was transformed into a mouse. I chewed a hole through the corner and escaped."

"How many different forms have you worn?"

"Too many to remember," Scaramouche said. "I have been a cat, a wolf, a grasshopper, a sparrow -- every imaginable creature, wandering the world, trying to find Charmaine again and implore her mercy. I was a turtle dove when Netheniel purchased me. At the next full moon, he was present in the room when I changed into a ferret. He saw his opportunity to feign great magical powers, and took me along on his trip to the city, hoping to find some way to turn my condition to his profit. By great good fortune, he did not realize my connection with the moon. When I became a mannekin, I was able to work the cage door open without being observed. I looked desperately for a hiding place and found you."

The little man finished a final stitch and held up the shirt he had made.

"Very handsome," Gundar murmured, impressed by Scaramouche's skill. It would have taken a seamstress of his own Northern land at least a day to finish such a fine piece of work.

Scaramouche yawned. "I must sleep now, and complete my outfit in the morning."

"That will have to wait," Gundar said. "I mean to set out for the palace at first light. I must know what has become of the Basilea Alexa."