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?"