RECOMPENSE by Louis W.

Gresham

Once again his forehead smashed against the glassy surface of the water. A moment before he had been in position. A split second later he was floating on his stomach, head pounding. Sylph thrashing on the end of the steering lines two hundred hands away. It had been the same story all afternoon. “Your board needs to be parallel with the flight of the sylph,” laughed Ikarios. “But the power level is good.” Eratos cursed under his breath as he struggled into position again. The waxed wooden board lashed to his feet bobbed uncertainly in the water. Pull on the steering bar to dive the sylph into the wind. Turn the board towards its flight. Rise. Ride the water. It sounded simple enough. But ever so hard to put into practice. Eratos took a deep breath and dove the sylph again. The lines stretched with power and the bar lurched in his hands. He rose above the waves. Just an instant too late he turned the board. The cold salt slap of the water left his ears ringing. Ikarios looked up at the sun. “Two more tries. Then we call it a day.” Eratos gritted his teeth and dove the creature once more. The sylph lifted him up in the air and dragged him before he let go of the bar and slammed into the water. A wave filled his ears with seawater. His hands cramped as he gripped the bar for another dive. One more time. He squinted up at the sylph. The wind was picking up. The creature strained against the lines as air filled its wings. You just can’t wait to dunk me again, Eratos thought. “Dive it already,” yelled Ikarios.

Another wave washed over Eratos as he lay there on his back with his board floating in the water in front of him. Wet, cold, and at least a mild concussion richer, he wondered how he had ever let Ikarios talk him into this. “I’m falling asleep over here!” Fine, fine. Better to get it over with, he grumbled under his breath. Eratos pulled the bar down to the right. Two hundred hands above him the sylph shook itself then and shot across the sky. Power shot through the lines and he was lifted out of the water. “Turn your board!” He did. For a brief beautiful moment he was flying along the water. A turn of his wrist and the sylph hung right at thirty degrees. Then the wind died and he sank back into the water. * After undoing at least a dozen tangles with his brother’s help Eratos finally had his lines wrapped around the bar and the sylph secured in its pen. The translucent creature looked like a cross between a jellyfish and an angry seagull. Most of its forty hand span was wings. When the wind was light it took a bigger sylph to get a man aloft. When the man weighed as much as Eratos it took an even bigger one. He was built like a chimney and nearly as tall as one. Ikarios was a little slimmer. Though the sylph he had flown was the biggest in the instruction pens it had still struggled to lift him in the light winds that had plagued the coast of Irremyr for the past sennight. The next day the brothers were due to return home to Irremyr’s capital, Anelphi. Eratos wished he had more to show for the trip. Ikarios had ridden the winds with little trouble. The massive sylph he had bought for himself the last season seemed able to take flight in hardly any wind at all. “Back to the den of thieves tomorrow then?” chuckled Ikarios.

2

Eratos looked up from the sylph at his brother. “It’s good money. And I have a knack for it.” “But is it really what you want to do with your life?” “You’re one to talk. You can’t hitch rides on quests forever. You got lucky last year.” Ikarios had secured a berth on the Sirenya days before it sailed for a legendary vine supposedly planted by the god Stothenes himself. The vintage from its grapes would be priceless. After months of searching across the hundreds of islands that dotted the Desideratan Sea Ikarios had been the one who finally found it. And planted an arrow right in the skull of the manticore skulking nearby. “All I know is that you should be writing epic poems, not merchant contracts,” laughed Ikarios. “One of us is chasing dreams. The other is chasing his tail.” “It’s a future.” “A future. Not the future.” “It’s mine. And as of tomorrow, it’s Alanna’s too.” Ikarios paled. “What is that supposed to mean?” “I’ve got the ring. Tomorrow is the day.” * It was a beautiful day in Anelphi. The sun was high in the sky, the air cool. The whitestone streets sparkled in the light. Eratos smiled to himself as he walked toward Divinity Square. The perfect day to propose. He knew Alanna had been hoping for a long time now. The look on her face would be priceless. Ahead the splash of fountains in the square was still a murmur. She would meet him at the Fountain of the Gods. Thinking that it was just for lunch. Just as the sun rose to its highest he would take a knee and draw the ring that was burning a hole in his pocket.

3

She was not there when he arrived. He was early. Time to take in all of this and remember it forever. The bright colors of the myriad street vendor stalls. The packs of doves that dive bombed visitors for crumbs. The graceful arc of the fountain water rising up towards the clear blue sky. “Eratos.” Her voice was sweeter than a birdsong. He turned. Her hair was gold in the sun. “Sorry to keep you waiting.” And her eyes glittered a finer blue than any sapphire. “I just got here. But I’d wait forever for you if I had to.” She laughed. “Always flattering. My grandmother always said to watch out for the ones with silver tongues.” “From what I’ve heard of your grandfather she didn’t take her own medicine.” She had such a way about her when she laughed. Eratos could not help but grin. She smiled back at him and caressed his hair. “A topknot? Still? You’ve been spending too much time around your brother.” “Too much time away from you.” The quip brought his mind back to what he was here to do and he swallowed deeply. Alanna feigned concern. “What is it, my dear? When that stubborn jaw of yours sets like that I know there’s something.” She laughed again. “Alanna, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you.” The words came haltingly. “Oh?” She raised an eyebrow. Mocking him just a little. “Do you have a surprise for me?” Eratos cursed his nervousness as he stumbled over his words. “Alanna, ever since the first day I met you--"

4

He never finished. A thunderclap echoed overhead and fat raindrops plummeted from the sky. Eratos stood there in dismay until Alanna grabbed him by the arm. “Let’s get under a roof, silly. I don’t want to get soaked.” * They ran toward one of the cafés that ringed the square. More thunder sounded and a lightning bolt struck the Fountain of the Gods. The water sizzled as electricity coursed through the water. Alanna and Eratos finally made it under a parasol. “What is going on?” gasped Alanna. Eratos simply shook his head. “Unbelievable,” he muttered. The ring still sat in the pouch on his belt. He considered going through with the proposal. Until the rain turned into snow and the fountain froze. Moments ago it had been a warm day for breeks and a vest. Now he wished he was wearing a fur cloak. Alanna stared at the fountain. “When was the last time it snowed in Irremyr? Three generations ago? I never thought I would ever see water freeze.” “Something is wrong here, love.” Eratos cast a worried look around the square. A shiver went down his spine. Not from the cold. Others huddled under the parasols nearby. No one knew what to do. A thick fog descended upon the square and lingered for an instant. “Eratos, let’s get out of here,” whispered Alanna. As he clutched her hand and turned to leave a sound like a thousand windows shattering at once dropped them to their knees. When Eratos recovered the frozen fountain was gone. In its place stood the form of a man with a laurel crown upon his brow. There was nothing overtly divine about him but every soul in the square knew who he was the moment he appeared. The luxurious black beard. The

5

mischievous green eyes. The inhuman perfection of his body. And the subtle shine of the simple white robes he wore. “Stothenes.” Eratos’ voice was a strangled whisper. Anyone with half a mind would have known. The god’s image could be found everywhere in the city. His associations were many. Storms, wine, male fertility, and a good many more that Eratos could not recall. He was also the patron deity of Anelphi. Like everyone else in the square Eratos stared at him, unable to move. He held Alanna tight and felt her draw a deep breath. The god stepped out of the frozen fountain accompanied by a crackle of ice. Then he smiled. Right at Eratos and Alanna. * The god’s voice boomed across the square. “Several months ago a young man from Anelphi helped himself to something of mine. Today I am here to return the favor and help myself to something of yours. “It’s been a long time since I came down from Mount Theas anyway. I was overdue for a visit.” Stophanes smirked. Eratos felt his heart pound. The vine. Ikarios. That had to be it. His mind raced as he tried to remember where his brother was today. Either the farm or the gymnasium. Nowhere near the square thankfully. “He’s looking at us.” There was fear in Alanna’s voice. “Don’t move. There’s hundreds of people here. No reason for him to single us out.” Eratos wished he was right but to his horror the god seemed to have eyes only for them.

6

As Stothenes strolled away from the fountain his gaze narrowed upon Eratos. Despite the cold Eratos felt perspiration bead on his forehead. The god stopped only an arm’s length away. After the most uncomfortable silence of Eratos’ entire life Stothenes finally spoke. “It took me a long time to find you. I felt the cutting of my vine as it happened. Got a glimpse of the interloper who took it. Not much, but enough to find him again.” He turned to the rest of the square. “Do any of you know how long it took to perfect that grape? How much divine care went into it? Not to mention how difficult it is to breed a decent manticore these days.” This cannot be happening, thought Eratos. There would be no use in trying to explain. His fate was in the hands of Stothenes as surely as if he was an ant about to be trod underfoot. The god’s hand rose and gripped his chin. Alanna’s eyes opened wide with terror. “Hello, mortal. I know you were far from the only one involved in the theft, but your hand did the cutting. How will you make reparations?” Eratos’ mouth was dry and his words came out haltingly. “I beg your pardon, Lord.” Stothenes laughed. “What can you possibly give me? You have nothing so precious as that vine. Or do you?” His gaze lifted from Eratos’ pale visage and fell upon Alanna. Eratos felt her tremble. No, not her. He heard himself begging. “Please. Anything but her.” Tears welled in Alanna’s eyes as the god drew her away. Eratos was on his knees, hands clasped together. “Almighty Stothenes, have mercy. Let her go. Do as you will with me but please let her go.” The god ignored Eratos. As he walked back towards the fountain he spoke to everyone else. “Good people of Anelphi, all is forgiven. I have my recompense. Peace be with you.”

7

When Stophanes stepped into the fountain the ice melted and the waters flowed again. The snow ceased as quickly as it had begun. Sunlight streamed into the square as if nothing had happened. Onlookers cautiously peeked out of windows and doorways. The water whirled around Stophanes and a sobbing Alanna and a mist rose from its surface. Eratos stumbled to his feet and ran to the fountain. With each step he took they faded. By the time he reached it they were gone. He waded in, crying Alanna’s name. * “He’s a god, Eratos. Gods don’t have to answer to anyone. We take what they give us and thank them.” Ikarios sat on the windowsill of Eratos’ small apartment in downtown Anelphi. “Any girl would jump at the chance to go to Mount Theas.” When Eratos did not respond he went on. “Who knows, the next demigod hero of Irremyr might come out of this.” Eratos’ face flushed with rage. He leapt up from his chair and grabbed his brother by the collar. “You are unbelievable. That’s the girl I’m going to marry.” “Sorry but--" “Sorry? None of this would have happened if not for you. He thought I was you, Ikarios.” Eratos pushed his brother away and covered his face with his hands. Ikarios began to speak again but thought better of it. Instead he walked over to the window and looked out. Anelphi was abuzz with activity. Ikarios could see clear to the harbor and every street was full of people. No wonder. Stophanes had not descended from Theas for generations. “Ikarios. You’ve got to help me.” “Do what?” “Get her back.”

8

Ikarios’ eyes widened. “You’re insane. No one has ascended to the heavens since the times of legend. You--we-- would have to find a way up into the clouds. After climbing Mount Theas.” “I’ve got one.” There was no doubt in his voice. “Let’s say you did make it up there. Then what? You can’t walk just stroll through the Gates of the Gods, walk up to Stothenes himself, and demand your girl back.” “Got that covered too.” “Well great,” laughed Ikarios bitterly. “Let’s get to it then.” “Just help me get better with the sylph. I’ll take care of the rest.” * Dawn found them back on the beach. Ikarios was shaking his head as he and Eratos untangled the lines. Two sylphs lay on the sand nearby, their wings rippling in the wind. “You’ve almost got it. Just make sure you dive the sylph hard enough and turn your board as it picks up speed. Getting up on the water is the hard part,” Ikarios said. Eratos nodded silently. When the lines were straight he walked out on the beach and launched the sylph with his brother’s help. The wind moaned as he and Ikarios waded out into the crystal clear water up to their hips. Overhead the massive sylph strained against the lines. Water washed over Eratos when he sat back in the water and slipped his feet into the leather thongs looped into the board. It took him fewer tries than the last time. He turned the bar to bring the sylph directly above. Come on you ugly beast, he thought. Work with me today. Cringing inside he turned the bar. Hard. The sylph screeched and dove straight at the water. The power shot through the lines instantly and Eratos felt a rush as he was pulled up and out of the water. At the last possible moment he remembered to turn his board. Suddenly everything

9

seemed to move in slow motion. His board began to slide across the water. The sylph beat its wings and sailed with the wind. The world went quiet around him and he barely heard Ikarios excitedly cheering that he had finally done it. The water was like glass before him. A blank canvas to fly across. There was hardly any friction at all. Only a small bump with each wave. Two hours later he lay down in the hot sand next to his sylph. “Get ready,” he said to Ikarios. “Tomorrow we climb Mount Theas.” * It took them the better part of three days. Every step was a battle. Between the steep slopes of Theas and the constant struggles of the sylphs on the ends of their lines Eratos and Ikarios were taxed to their limits. As the sun descended on the third day they finally neared the clouds. “I still don’t think there is the slightest chance this will work,” grumbled Ikarios. “We’ll know soon enough. You can say ‘I told you so’ then. I spent hours poring over the legends at the Academe when we were students. The legends all speak of clouds that can be traversed into the heavens.” Ikarios laughed bitterly. “And did they all have the harebrained idea of bringing sylphs along to expedite the trip?” Eratos shook his head. “No. They rode griffins or pegasii. Sylphs are the next best thing.” “Oh. Of course. Really not that different. Creatures of legend compared to the overgrown seagulls that people use to surf waves.” As if they knew they were being spoken of the sylphs squawked in irritation above the brothers. “There’s a first time for everything.”

10

“Little did I know that introducing you to sylph riding would get me into this fine mess. Traipse up into the heavens and confront a god. No big deal.” By moonlight they continued to climb. Wisps of cloud curled around their ankles and thickened as they rose. After several hours more the stuff was up to their knees and a cool wind whistled in their ears. “Eratos, we can’t keep going in this. It’s like wading in mud.” Eratos smiled. “My thoughts exactly. From here we ride.” Launching the sylphs proved easier than they had expected. As did the riding. The clouds were more forgiving than the water. Less friction and more buoyant. Both brothers were soon speeding along beneath their sylphs. Ikarios wore a surprised grin. Eratos’ face was blank. There was nothing for him but Alanna ahead. And a reckoning with a god. * It seemed like they rode forever in the moonlight. The clouds grew denser underneath their boards and soon they could see nothing below them but a sea of white. The air was colder and the wind stung their faces. “How much longer,” yelled Ikarios. “The sylphs won’t last forever.” “Can’t be too much farther. From what I’ve read there’s only a few leagues of clouds to get climb through.” Eratos shivered. The cold cut through his leather jerkin like a knife. He hoped he was right. “What are we going to find up there anyway?” asked Ikarios. “A gilded gate to heaven? A nice red carpet?” “No idea. Every account is different. I just hope it’s warmer,” Eratos answered.

11

Suddenly the gates loomed before them. No warning. They simply appeared. Eratos nearly crashed into the smooth silver bars and his sylph screeched with anger. Ikarios fared better. He came to a smooth stop just short of the gates and whistled. “I always wondered what a god’s fence would look like.” Eratos untangled himself from his lines and rose to his feet. Silently he wondered how much further his scheme was going to hold up. “Hetrogenes wrote of a portal in the gates ‘abreast of the sun and astride the world,’” he said. “We walk in the footsteps of legends.” “Or the pages of greybeard scribes with too much imagination,” responded Ikarios. The two sylphs squawked assent from their sitting positions on a nearby pile of cloud. Here the substance was more like strands of silk carelessly woven together. The brothers’ sandals left light impressions that quickly faded behind them as they walked along the line of bars. “Your guess is as good as mine. I have no idea what Hetrogenes could possibly have meant,” Eratos said. Ikarios was several steps ahead when he suddenly stopped. “Maybe he was talking about that.” Eratos looked up and drew in his breath. There was no mistaking it. They were on the very threshold of the home of the gods. * The sun shone so brightly that the brothers could hardly keep their eyes open. As if a curtain the size of the world had just been drawn. But no ray of sunlight pierced the deep black nothing of the portal before them. Large enough to swallow a good chunk of Anelphi, thought Eratos. “There’s no way I’m touching that,” Ikarios said.

12

Eratos’ hand hovered near the surface. No, he thought. We can’t have come so far to stop at the door. Nothing in what he had read of gods and heroes mentioned how to open the Gates. Perhaps a gesture, a command. For all he knew it could even be a thought that unlocked it. Eratos shook his head in frustration. “I’ve got no idea how to get through this.” Ikarios shrugged his shoulders. “Only one thing to do.” With that he plunged into the portal. A yell froze on Eratos’ lips as he watched his brother disappear through the portal. He found himself alone before the gates, surrounded by a blank plane of cloud with only his thoughts for company. If only he and Alanna had not been in town that day. What if he never saw her again. Or his brother. His eyes glistened. Stophanes would pay. Somehow. A loud pop shook him out of his reverie. The portal had begun to boil. Eratos backed away and watched as it evaporated. There was no telling which of his words, thoughts, or even emotions had triggered it, but it was open. * The world beyond was schizophrenic. One moment a massive thunderstorm cracked over a desert. The next, a soft wind caressed sunlit grassland. Disorienting to say the least. Eratos stood there for a moment to pull himself together before stepping through. At least objects did not seem to change. The rocks nearby simply changed in appearance like the rest of it all. Only one thing stayed the same. The figure at his feet. Eratos gasped and fell to his knees. It was Ikarios, frozen mid-dive. Every inch of him was glossy and black. As if the portal had turned him into stone as he passed through. A surprised expression was frozen on his face. Eratos looked up at the ever changing landscape before him and screamed. “Stophanes,” he bellowed. “I’m not leaving without your head.” A peal of thunder resounded across the plain. Eratos’ eyes searched in vain for anything that might give him direction.

13

Finally his gaze lit on a structure in the distance. A white dome, no more than a speck over the horizon. Eratos would not have seen it without the bolts of lightning that seemed to emanate from it. With no other reference in sight he began to walk. After what seemed like hours the dome was still nothing more than a speck. Then he blinked and it appeared before him. Only steps away. Too tired to wonder at the trick Eratos advanced. There was no visible entrance. It might as well have been a half buried egg. Albeit one larger in breadth and height than any building he had ever seen. It was cold to the touch and surprisingly soft. After a moment’s pause Eratos drew a dagger from his belt and stabbed the structure. The weapon slipped through easily. He cut a hole and looked inside. A palatial estate unfolded before him. Fountains, carefully trimmed lawns and hedges, the works. And a beautiful white manor house in the middle of it all. White columns everywhere. Eratos tore open the cut he had made and slipped through. He heard the soft sound of distant laughter from behind a hedge. Then a splash. He sheathed the dagger and dashed across the lawn. His heart pounded as he slid next to the hedge. Another splash, louder this time. The hedge was too dense to see what awaited him there. Eratos rose to a crouch and crept along the hedge until it gave way to a tiled pathway. Laughter bubbled up again while he moved. A woman’s. Followed by a man’s guffaw. The sound made the hair rise on Eratos’ neck. There was no mistake. It was Stophanes. Anger boiled up inside him and he stepped out from behind the hedge. * A pool filled with beautiful young women greeted him. Stophanes floated on a straw raft among them. The splashing stopped when one of the girls noticed Eratos.

14

Stophanes’ jaw dropped. “How dare you enter the divine realm unbidden,” he growled. Eratos clenched his fists and stepped up to the pool’s edge. “I’ve come to take back what was stolen from me.” Stophanes laughed. “A god does not steal. He simply takes what is already his.” He leaned back on his raft. “Run along before I cast you down, mortal.” Eratos did not respond. The girls shrieked in surprise as he leapt into the pool and upended the god’s raft. Stophanes coughed as Eratos gripped him by the hair and dragged him up the pool stairs. “Release me, fool,” he spluttered. Eratos complied, tossing him onto the adjoining lawn. “Last chance. Leave before I cook you with a thunderbolt and drop your roasted body back to earth.” “I don’t think so. I’ve read all the legends. Including that of Tolynices. Remember him?” Stophanes’ brow wrinkled as he rose. “Not in the least.” “This might ring a bell." Eratos caught the god square in the chin with his fist. The blow crumpled Stophanes to the ground. “The only man to ever confront a god in the divine realm. Until today. He found out that you and your ilk are powerless here. Away from the mortal realm you’re simply men with infinite lifespans.” The kick Eratos delivered to Stophanes’ ribs elicited a choked groan from the god. “Alanna. Now.” With Eratos’ heel on his forehead Stophanes pointed towards the manor house. * Alanna was shaken but Stophanes had not hurt her. By the time they reached the gates she seemed better already. Stophanes walked ahead of them. Shoulders slumped like a beaten dog.

15

“One last thing, Stophanes. Open the portal and cure my brother of the condition he’s in.” Ikarios still lay before the gate, frozen. Stophanes complied. Even gods occasionally blundered into it without proper activation and required help. Soon Eratos was looking out into the clouds through the open portal, a dazed Ikarios at his side. The sylphs rose into the air and flapped eagerly when they saw him. “Ready for another ride, brother?” Ikarios rubbed his head. “Anything that gets us out of here.” Stophanes had begun to slink away as the portal opened, but Eratos pulled him back. “You first, Stophanes.” The god stammered in protest. “You have what you want. Leave me in peace.” “So you can pay me a visit, thunderbolts in hand? I think not.” Eratos held him by the shoulder as he wriggled in terror. The god was no match for his grip. A few moments’ struggle, a strangled scream from Stophanes, and it was all over. Eratos watched him fall. Ikarios and Alanna looked at him in disbelief. The sylphs were still beating their wings excitedly. “Let’s go home,” said Eratos. ****

16

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful