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."