Sunday, December 1, 2013

Going on Hiatus

Thanks to everyone who's been reading this blog. I wanted to let anyone who's interested know that I'm going to be putting That Inscrutable Thing on hiatus for a while. If you want to see what I'm up to in the meantime, please start following my self-titled Eric Lanke blog. That's going to be receiving the bulk of my attention for the foreseeable future.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Chapter Forty


Speculative Fiction
Approximately 69,000 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1991. All rights reserved.

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I will always remember the day Roystnof transformed Ignatius Roundtower from stone back into his own flesh. It was a day in which I saw firsthand the kind of power Roystnof commanded, but it was also the day I was introduced to one of the greatest men I have ever known. When Roystnof cast his spell, and Ignatius fell weeping to the earth after his days of sensory deprivation, I had no idea the kind of friends we would become, the kind of battles we would fight together, or what he would eventually do for me when I thought my world had come to an end. I only knew what Nog had told me about him, and that he was in a great deal of pain. But even then I sensed something special about Ignatius Roundtower, something special about who he was and what he stood for. And now that it is all over, I think I know what that something special was. Of all the people I have known, no one but Ignatius Roundtower ever got so much out of life by asking for so little.

+ + +

The incense smoke was like a rain cloud above his head when the Demosk appeared to witness his masokom against Sumak Tornestor. The apparition appeared as it always had, eyeless and ghostly—a pale head, torso, and arms floating free above the five-pointed incense burner. When it had appeared, Brisbane quickly ignored it and fixed his attention on the giant form of Tornestor standing not ten paces in front of him.

You can defeat him, young Brisbane. You must. He is big, but he is also surely slow. Use his size to your advantage. Remember what they have done to you and to Amanda and to Grecolus knows how many innocents before her. Remember it, but don’t let it rule you. He is dangerous and you must remain wary. Be patient and be strong and you will defeat him.

I will, Angelika. I will. And when I have killed him?

Then I will be yours again.


The word was shouted out by Ternosh and it animated Tornestor as if he had been a golem waiting for a command. But, unlike Wister and Bronsop before him, Tornestor did not charge instantly for Brisbane and a quick victory. Instead, the Sumak began a slow and cautious circling of his opponent, his shield thrust forward and his sword pointed up beside his right ear. Brisbane realized he was being studied, and he almost failed to notice the clan chief was slowly spiraling in towards him.

Watch him, Brisbane. He’s a tricky one.

The klatru around the rim of the pit were unusually silent. Brisbane figured that had he been fighting anyone else, they would already be clamoring for some excitement in this so far boring battle. But he knew they were playing it cool for this one. None of them wanted to be accused of cheering for Brisbane if Tornestor won. Or vice versa.

Suddenly, Tornestor was upon him, attacking with a flurry of sword strikes, the first of which nearly took Brisbane’s head off. He had been caught off guard, not expecting the Sumak to move so quickly, and nearly paid the ultimate price for it. Brisbane was able to block the strikes aimed at his exposed areas with his shield or his blade, and his chainmail deflected the others, but he had completely lost the initiative, parrying from a purely defensive standpoint. Tornestor’s attack was so quick and so well-timed that Brisbane had no chance to launch an offensive of his own. Any strike he might make would leave some part of him vulnerable to the chief’s blade. Brisbane did his best to thwart the attack and move away.

Tornestor stayed with him for a while, but after Brisbane had backed around the pit twice, he managed to pull away from the onslaught. The Sumak broke off his attack as soon as Brisbane pulled out of his range and quickly returned to the center of the pug-trolang.

Brisbane stood apart and tried to collect himself. His abdomen was sore in a dozen places where Tornestor’s blade had struck him but not penetrated the chainmail. The paint on his shield was chipped and scarred, nearly obscuring the red eye, and the wrist on his sword arm was sore from the impacts the length of the blade had received.

Don’t give up on me, Brisbane. You must defeat him.

I’m not giving up. Not yet.

The spectators were as quiet as ever as Brisbane steeled himself and began his march towards Tornestor. The clan chief stood ready, his shield protecting his entire front and his weapon held again up by his right ear. Brisbane arrived in front of him and swung his sword out, just to see how Tornestor would react. The Sumak thrust the blow aside with such force that it nearly knocked Brisbane off his feet. Even though he was momentarily off-balance and exposed, Tornestor did not strike at him. Brisbane regained his posture quickly.

He’s toying with me. Did you see that? He could have ended it right there and he didn’t.

Don’t talk that way. You can still defeat him. He’s large but not invincible. You must defeat him. We must be reunited.

Tornestor suddenly lashed out in another of his ferocious attacks, but this time Brisbane was somewhat ready for it. He was prepared for the strength of the onslaught, and this time he was better able to control the brunt of the attack. He kept the strikes away from his body, taking them all on his shield or sword, but again he was unable to strike back. He did his best not to back away from the Sumak, wanting to see how long the ork could last in this ferocious mode, but sometimes the force of Tornestor’s blows alone was enough to drive him back.

Finally, Tornestor struck out with such strength he pushed Brisbane completely out of combat, but instead of pursuing his prey, the Sumak stood his ground and lowered his guard in a posture of fatigue. Brisbane leapt at the opportunity, charging back into the melee and scored several hits on the ork’s armor before Tornestor could raise his defenses and foil the attack.

The combatants broke apart and Brisbane saw that one of his strikes must have bounced off the ork’s chainmail and danced across Tornestor’s forearm. The Sumak’s sword arm had a shallow cut in it, welling up with blood and dripping onto the floor of the pit.

First blood! You have drawn first blood, young Brisbane. Now nothing can stop us. We will soon be together again.

Yes, Brisbane allowed. And the clan will be destroyed.

Vengeance is ours, Brisbane.

Tornestor stared in amazement at his arm and then back at Brisbane. The sweat was running down his grugan face and, although Brisbane was surely tired, he judged the Sumak had to be much more tired than himself.

Finish him, Brisbane. I am already dreaming of the evil you and I will destroy together.

Like this clan, Angelika?

Yes, this clan, but much more. Together we will reign undefeated over wickedness and evil. We must be reunited, Brisbane. We must.

Tornestor let out a cry of rage and charged Brisbane, holding his sword high above his head. Brisbane readied himself for the charge and, at the last moment, slipped to the side and pushed the Sumak’s charge off to the side like he had done so many times to Wister. Tornestor ran past him, spun around, and stopped.

Brisbane looked carefully into the chief’s eyes. Anger boiled there, but he did not think Tornestor would let it master him again. The Sumak clicked backed into his attack stance and slowly began to advance on Brisbane. The klatru still had not made a sound.

Angelika’s voice echoed in his mind almost continuously. His eyes were watering from the traces of incense smoke that drifted down into the pug-trolang, but it had not affected him like it had when he was closer to it. Every once and a while, a tear would well up in his eyes instead of running down his face, blurring his vision until he could blink it away. Angelika continued her tirade, singing their praises and promises to be reunited for the destruction of all evil, and just before the Sumak closed and attacked again, Brisbane wondered if, just perhaps, Angelika was actually more anxious than he to be together again.

Tornestor’s attack was swift, but not nearly as swift as it had been before. Either he was holding something back or he was truly getting tired and just a little bit sloppy. Brisbane stayed on the defensive, hoping to find out just what the truth was. He again protected himself well, letting his shield take most of the damage and, several times, Brisbane was able to penetrate Tornestor’s decaying defenses and strike his armor. The blows were not mortal ones, but they surely hurt, and Brisbane hoped they would anger the Sumak into making a fatal mistake.

Then, disaster struck. On a fluke, Tornestor’s sword glanced off Brisbane’s battered shield on one of its many strikes and, with the flat part of the blade, struck the wrist on Brisbane’s sword arm. His hand went instantly numb and he dropped his sword to the ground. Seizing the advantage, Tornestor surged forward to put his opponent’s sword behind him and continued to swing his weapon at Brisbane. The human had no choice but to back away and flee the combat.

Thankfully, Tornestor did not pursue him. The huge ork stood still with one foot firmly set on Brisbane’s sword and, smiling, took a triumphant moment to catch his belabored breath. The crowd cheered for the first time in support of their chief and Brisbane continued to back away, slapping his dead hand against his thigh. Slowly, life poured back into it.

Failure! Angelika screamed inside his head. How could you fail? You were the greatest warrior I have felt in my long history. How could you lose to such a simple evil? You have defeated greater wickedness and perversion than this. The ettins and the demon were much more powerful. What have you done?

It was an accident, Angelika. A fluke. I was winning.

There are no flukes, Brisbane. It is a sign from Grecolus. I am being punished for allowing you to be captured by these orks.


I tried to wake you in time, but your mind was closed to me. At first, I thought we were to infiltrate and destroy this clan of evil denizens, but now I see I was wrong. I have displeased Grecolus and he is going to leave me here to rot for all eternity. The tribute to a pagan god.

Brisbane locked eyes with Tornestor.

Angelika, I know you’re upset, but I’m about to die here.

The sword had no consolation for him. Oh, woe, woe, woe is me! I have become useless, unable to serve my lord, abandoned by him I have served so faithfully for so long.

Angelika, shut up! I think I can still beat him.

Oh, if only you could. If only I could again kill in your hands. I am lost forever, Brisbane. I am no longer a sword. I am useless without you.

With an extreme effort, Brisbane pushed Angelika’s whining completely out of his mind. When she was gone, Brisbane wondered for a moment how she had ever been there in the first place.

Tornestor, his shield held down by his side and his sword clasped lightly in his right hand, started moving towards Brisbane.

Brisbane, quickly and deliberately, dropped his shield and folded his hands in front of his face, extending his two index fingers so they touched only at their tips and began to make a low crackling sound in the back of this throat.

The crowd around the rim of the pug-trolang shouted out their support of Tornestor who, in their eyes, was clearly going to win the contest, now that his opponent had, very much like the human he was, begun to beg for his life.

As Tornestor approached his unarmed opponent, closing the distance with a confident quickness, Brisbane slowly pulled his index fingers apart and was relieved to see a small blue spark of electricity suspended between them.

Tornestor was upon him, apparently oblivious to what Brisbane was trying to do. The Sumak swiped his sword through the air in a gigantic arc, aimed at the spot where Brisbane’s head was connected to his body.

Brisbane quickly and easily ducked under the path of the sword and, before Tornestor’s body could rotate away from him, sprang up and touched one of his index fingers to the spot on the ork’s armor directly over his heart.

There was a blinding flash of blue light, exploding from Brisbane’s touch, and a crack of contained thunder ripped through the chamber. Brisbane momentarily felt his whole arm go numb with the power that was channeled through it.

Brisbane’s vision popped and sparkled after the flash of light, along with that of all the others in the chamber, and when it returned to normal, he saw Tornestor lying supine at his feet, an immense and smoking black stain on his chest.

The ork was not dead. His limbs lay uselessly around him and his face quivered with an unreachable desire to control itself. His eyes were wide open, but glazed over, and some pinkish spittle ran out of the corner of his mouth and onto the floor of the pug-trolang. There was a wet stain on the front of his black trousers, just under the flap of his armor, caused by the uncontrolled release of his bladder. Softly, the Sumak coughed out the same meaningless tone over and over again.

Brisbane looked up at the klatru scattered around the rim of the pit, their shadowy forms present in the clouds of incense smoke. They were all silent and unmoving. Brisbane went over and picked up his sword. He returned to the quivering body of Sumak Tornestor and, with little ceremony, separated the ork’s head from his body.

“Grum Brisbane has defeated Sumak Tornestor.”

The voice that spoke was not that of the Demosk. It was much deeper and seemed to vibrate the very stone on which Brisbane stood. Brisbane turned around to face the pedestal on which the golden incense burner sat and he saw, floating in the air above it, a figure that was definitely not that of Ollikan the Demosk.

It was much larger, first of all. It was the monstrous head and shoulders of a vicious ork, maybe ten feet high, and it was not a ghostly apparition like the Demosk had been. It was life-like in every way, solid-appearing and naturally-colored, hanging motionless in the center of the billowing clouds of smoke, but was totally unobscured by them. Under the heavy brow ridge, the orkish face had but a single red eye, centered over the pig nose and glowing with an alien light.

All around him, Brisbane heard the noises of the klatru prostrating themselves on the floor. Even Ternosh, who stood directly beneath the gigantic projection, backed up a few paces and placed his forehead on the stone in front of him.

“Congratulations, Gildegarde Brisbane,” the orkish head said, revealing row upon row of sharp teeth. “You have defeated my greatest warrior.”

Brisbane stood with his sword lowered at his side. “Are you supposed to be—”

“Yes. I am Gruumsh One-Eye, He-Who-Watches, and supreme god of the grugan. I am their creator and I watch over them constantly.”

The voice was almost too much for Brisbane. It seemed to hammer into his very soul and it was an effort just to stand before it. Brisbane did not want to believe this was really happening, but there he was, and when he spoke, the wind of his breath fell full against Brisbane’s face.

Brisbane took off his black helmet and ran his fingers through his blonde hair. “How do you know my name?”

The god smiled. “I know all about you. I am the one who brought you here.”

Brisbane noticed the incense smoke had stopped coming out of the five-pointed vents and the chamber was slowly clearing of the thick vapor. The figure of Gruumsh did not fade with it.

“You brought me here?” Brisbane asked, skeptical of more than just that statement.

“I did. I needed you test my people.”

Brisbane looked around at the klatru, becoming more defined as the smoke cleared. They were all still kneeling with their foreheads on the floor. He turned back to Gruumsh.

“Test? I don't understand.”

“Since the beginning of time, when I and my people were cheated by the other gods, we have warred continuously, desperate for vengeance and victory. This has been our way of life from the very start and I was interested to see just how far we had progressed with it. And so I brought about this situation, a human warrior accepted into a society of my grugan. You were a perfect choice for the experiment. Not only were you able to fight, you had a very motivating reason to do so.”

Brisbane tried not to speculate on the implications if this really was the god of the orks, and tried to concentrate just on what he was saying. There would be plenty of time for reflection later.

“And what was that?” Brisbane asked.

Gruumsh looked surprised. “Why, your sword, of course. I believe you call her Angelika. Her hatred of me and my creations is almost as strong as our hatred of her and her master. You are a very unique individual, Brisbane. She rules you less than she thinks, but you are still swayed by her judgment. You are in constant conflict with yourself, a human who does not believe in his own god. I’ll wager Grecolus is not pleased with you at all.”

Brisbane willed himself to be calm, but at the mention of Grecolus an irrational fear tried to well up inside him. I am an unbeliever, a mad kind of catechism called out in his mind. A heretic bound for the lake of fire. He quickly put a cap on it, though. He was not going to the hells because the hells did not exist. That was what he believed.

“I don’t believe in you, either,” Brisbane told the god.

Gruumsh gave an earth-shaking chuckle. “I did not expect you to. Surrounded by proof of the gods, you will forever deny their existence.”

“Proof? What proof?”

“Myself and your sword are two obvious choices. But we need not include them to prove our existence. Thousands believe with much less proof. They look no further than themselves when they are in need of proof. For where did they come from if not from us?”

“I don’t know,” Brisbane admitted. “But the fact that I exist does not prove Grecolus created me.”

“But you forget it does prove you were created.”

The smoke had completely cleared from the chamber and Brisbane now had an unobstructed view of his surroundings. None of the klatru had yet moved. Tornestor’s body lay dead at his feet.

Brisbane looked back up into the immense face of Gruumsh. “So what happens now? Do you extract your vengeance on me? For what has been done to your people and for what I have done to your greatest warrior?”

“No,” the god said. “You have won, Brisbane. You have won fairly and, unlike those who have cheated me in the past, I hold no resentment against you. I have allowed you to fight for your freedom and your sword. You have won both.”

“That’s it?” Brisbane asked. “After all this? Take your sword and go?”

Gruumsh looked puzzled. “After all what, Brisbane?”

Brisbane shook his head, knowing he could never explain it to Gruumsh, that he could probably never explain it to anyone. “Never mind. Are you sure your people will let me leave with her? I was led to believe she now belongs to you and it meant death for others to even think about touching her.”

Gruumsh’s head rotated slowly towards Ternosh. Brisbane could see the side of his head as he moved it. It really did look solid. It really did look like it was actually there.

“Grumak Ternosh,” Gruumsh One-Eye thundered. “Rise before me.”

Ternosh slowly got to his feet, teetering a couple of times and almost falling over. He kept his head bowed.

“Look upon me, Ternosh.”

The Grumak raised his head and looked at the image of his god.

“I am Gruumsh One-Eye, He-Who-Never-Sleeps, and creator of you and your race. My eye is always open and I know everything that happens among my people.”

Ternosh swayed in the wake of his tremendous voice. “Your eye is always open,” he acknowledged reverently.

“I decree,” Gruumsh said, “that Brisbane is to be allowed to leave this clan in peace and is never to be molested by any grugan again. Furthermore, he shall be allowed to take the sword he calls Angelika as a personal gift from me. It is mine, and my wish is that it be given to him. Am I understood?”

Ternosh bowed his head. “Your words are our law. So it has always been.”

“The Clan of the Red Eye has failed in this test,” the god went on, his gigantic head pivoting to project his voice over the whole of the chamber. “Its best man proving inferior to the human Brisbane. The clan has earned my disappointment, but I am not angered at it. The situation was a difficult one and the clan acted accordingly under the circumstances. Do not forget the cards have been stacked against you since the beginning of time.”

Brisbane again gazed around at the klatru, their heads pressed against the cold stone. Only Ternosh stood upright, and his head was bowed in shame.

“However,” Gruumsh said, “the failure cannot go unpunished. Sumak Tornestor was a great grugan, and even now his soul is leading my troops into battle, but the clan he ruled must be marked for the loss it has taken. I order the Clan of the Red Eye to rename itself the Clan of the Silver Star in honor of the symbol worn by the human who defeated it. Brisbane, by our laws, is the Sumak of the clan and, even though he shall leave and another shall take his place, he is always to be thought of in just that way. Sumak, a mighty warrior and clan chief.”

Gruumsh let his gaze fall again upon Brisbane. “And now, Brisbane, I shall take my leave of you and abandon you back to your lonely world without gods.”

“Wait a minute,” Brisbane said. “Before you go, tell me one thing.”


“You say you brought me here to test the progress of your people, to see how they measured up to the those who repressed them.”

Gruumsh slowly nodded his tremendous head. “That is correct.”

“Well,” Brisbane said, “At what point did your influence take over my life? I mean, what exactly did you do to push my life in this direction? Was it something as simple as sending the scouting party out to fish me out of the river, or was it something deeper? Did you make me fall from that mountain top or did you secretly orchestrate my trek up the Mystic with my friends? Was it you who whispered into Nog’s ear the rumor of the temple at the source of the Mystic or was it you who allowed Roystnof to find his books of magic so he could retire from adventuring in Scalt and give me the silver star that would keep me alive among your creations these years later? Where in my life am I to see your hands moving things about and where am I to see my own? Just how much credit are you willing to take for my life?”

Gruumsh nurtured a smile throughout Brisbane’s little speech and, now that it was over, he held onto the expression for a few more moments. “You are a very unique individual, indeed, Gildegarde Brisbane. What would you have me tell you? The truth is the last thing you would believe because it cannot be proven. Sooner or later, you will have to realize the truth does not require any proof to be the truth. The truth just is, whether or not you or those like you can find any proof to support it. You should be less concerned with proving all things true before you believe them and more concerned with accepting those truths you will never be able to prove. It would make your life much less confusing.”

Brisbane did not react for several seconds. “That doesn’t answer my question.”

“No,” Gruumsh said. “I don’t suppose it does. Farewell, Gildegarde Brisbane.”

The image of the giant ork face vanished completely in a fraction of a second. One moment it was there and the next is was not. Tornestor’s dead body still lay at Brisbane’s feet.

Slowly, the klatru began to rise to their feet. They stood for a moment, facing Brisbane in a silent tribute of respect, and then began to file out of the chamber. Ternosh motioned for Brisbane to come over by him and, when he did, the Grumak helped him out of the pit. Brisbane stood on the edge of the pug-trolang with the ork next to the pedestal.

“I know I don’t have the proper words for this situation,” Ternosh said. “Nothing like it has ever happened in our long memory. Gruumsh was right in renaming our clan for, indeed, it will never again be the same.”

“Ternosh,” Brisbane said. “You know I don’t believe anything that just happened was really what it appeared to be. It was just a collective vision or something, created out of the hypnotic effects of that incense smoke and the residual force of your magic. We all just saw what we wanted to see. You saw your god and I saw a way out of this mess.”

“Do you really believe that, Brisbane?”

Brisbane looked back at the empty space where the projection of Gruumsh had been. “At this point, I almost have to.”

When he turned back to Ternosh he noticed for the first time the Grumak was holding Angelika, cradling the weapon in his arms like an infant.

“Your sword,” Ternosh said, handing Brisbane the weapon.

Brisbane still held the sword he had used in the pug-trolang in his right hand. In his left he held the helmet he had worn. For a moment, he could not decide what to drop so he could take Angelika from Ternosh. Eventually, he put the helmet back on his head and took Angelika in his left hand.

You did it, Brisbane. I don’t know how, but you did it. Praise Grecolus for his wisdom and—

Angelika. Shut up.

Ternosh then led Brisbane out of the chamber of the pug-trolang, through the many caves and tunnels, and eventually to the entrance of the underground complex and the surface. It was full night and the orks around the campfire were just settling down for the night after gorging themselves on their nightly meal. The prisoners were dark and unmoving shapes in their cages. Brisbane was surprised to see Smurch there waiting for him.

“The news has already spread throughout the camp,” the half-ork said to him. “Many have trouble believing it, but no one will hamper you as you leave.”

“Thank you, Jack,” Brisbane said, feeling a surge of warmth for his friend. Awkwardly, he began to strap Angelika to his waist while he held the other sword under his arm. When he had her secured, he looked oddly at the other blade, not wanting to let it go. It was a fine weapon and he had the feeling his relationship with Angelika was never again going to be like it had been. His experiences had changed the way he looked at her, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to follow her words as blindly as he once had. He still wanted to keep her—for now—but he would have to think long and hard about using her again.

And besides, he now knew she really did need him more than he needed her.

Brisbane turned and looked at Ternosh, the problem with the other sword clear in his eyes.

The Grumak understood. “Vrak!” he called out.

Brisbane watched as one of the orks from around the campfire rose and came over to him. When he got close enough, Brisbane recognized him as Vrak, the ork he had mentally named Snaggletooth, the one who had captured him on the banks of the Mystic River.

Ternosh spoke to the ork in their native language. Brisbane could not understand all of it, but it had something to do with Vrak’s belt.

Wordlessly, Vrak unstrapped his sword from his waist, removed the blade from the scabbard, and handed the casing to Brisbane.

Now Brisbane understood. He slipped his new sword into Vrak’s scabbard—a near perfect fit—and strapped it to his waist, the weapon on the opposite side as Angelika.

In orkish, Brisbane said, “Thank you.”

Vrak nodded. He returned to the smoking campfire and blended back into the darkness.

Brisbane turned and saw Smurch leading the white horse the orks had captured the other night over to him. The black horse was nowhere to be seen. It must have already been carved up. The white horse still wore the saddle and bridle its owner had provided for it before he was attacked by the orks in the raiding party.

Brisbane climbed into the saddle. He had only ridden a horse a few times before in his life. He looked down at Ternosh.

“What about the prisoners, Ternosh?”

The Grumak looked over at the circus wagons. “What about them?”

“Are you going to release them?”

“Why would we?” Ternosh said. “Gruumsh One-Eye still needs his blood sacrifice every month.”

“Not these,” Brisbane said. “You have a whole month to find someone else. Please. For me. Release them.”

Ternosh slowly nodded. “It will be done.”

Brisbane was only a little surprised to find he believed the Grumak. “Goodbye, Ternosh.”

“Good bye, Brisbane. May you find something to believe in.”

Brisbane turned and looked down on Smurch. “Well, this is it, Jack. I want to thank you for everything you’ve done for me.”

Smurch shrugged his shoulders. “It was my pleasure to serve you. In the clan, my name will always be linked with yours.”

Brisbane smiled. “Which names would these be? Sumak Brisbane and his faithful retainer Smurch?”

Smurch smiled back. “Goodbye, Gil.”

“Goodbye, Jack.”

The white horse nickered as Brisbane spurred it forward. He walked it through the many tents and ramshackle buildings of the ork settlement. Everywhere men, women, and children were gathered under the moonlight to see him off. They waved their hands in silence and their eyes seemed to shine in the darkness. He wondered how much they really knew about him and what had happened in the pug-trolang, but they evidently knew enough not to molest him. When he rode past the camp perimeter, he saw one of the ork guards with one of their large dogs at his side. Even the dog was silent as it watched him go.

Brisbane kneed the horse up to a gallop, leaving the Clan of the Silver Star behind, and headed northwest for Queensburg. Where else could he go? It had been nearly a month since he had left his friends on that lonely mountain top to the south. If they had been able to find his trail into the secret tunnel and across the Windcrest Hills, they would have done so by now. They had certainly tried, probably with some complaints from Dantrius, but that would not have stopped Roystnof—or Shortwhiskers—or even Stargazer—from trying. They had tried and failed, and where could they have gone after that?

Queensburg. He would find them there. Maybe Roystnof had gone back to Scalt and maybe Shortwhiskers had gone off on another adventure, but they would have stopped in Queensburg first, and Stargazer would still be there. She would be there treating to the sick with Skinner in her front yard chopping wood for her. And she would know where the others had gone.

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Friday, October 25, 2013


“As in the realm of the stars it is sometimes two suns which determine the course of a planet, as in certain cases suns of differing colour shine on a single planet now with a red light, now with a green light, and sometimes striking it at the same time and flooding it with many colours: so we modern men are, thanks to the complicated mechanism of our ‘starry firmament,’ determined by differing moralities; our actions shine alternately in differing colours, they are seldom unequivocal—and there are cases enough in which we perform many-coloured action.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Thursday, October 17, 2013


“A human being who strives for something great regards everybody he meets on his way either as a means or as a delay and hindrance—or as a temporary resting-place.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham

“Don’t you think it would be more interesting if you went the whole hog and drew him warts and all?”

“Oh, I couldn’t. Amy Driffield would never speak to me again. She only asked me to do the life because she felt she could trust my discretion. I must behave like a gentleman.”

“It’s very hard to be a gentleman and a writer.”

As good as any quote to sum up the theme of this delightful little tome, written eleven years after my favorite Maugham novel, and purported to be the author’s favorite of his own novels.

The second speaker above is Alroy (Roy) Kear, an English novelist of middling fame that has been asked to write a biography of one of the recently passed lions of literature--Edward Driffield--by that author’s second wife and widow. And the first and third speaker is our narrator, William Ashenden, to whom Kear has come for information about Driffield’s early life; for Ashenden knew Driffield as a younger man, when the lion was married to his first wife and, by most accounts, at the peak of his literary prowess.

The first wife, Rosie, is one of those characters in fiction that comes to symbolize much more than just her role in the story. She was Driffield’s muse and, evidently, the muse to many other men--Ashenden included. Here, the two of them talk about Rosie’s other affairs and Ashenden’s jealousy of them.

I looked at Rosie now, with angry, hurt, resentful eyes; she smiled at me, and I wish I knew how to describe the sweet kindliness of her beautiful smile; her voice was exquisitely gentle.

“Oh, my dear, why d’you bother your head about any others? What harm does it do you? Don’t I give you a good time? Aren’t you happy when you’re with me?”


“Well, then. It’s so silly to be fussy and jealous. Why not be happy with what you can get? Enjoy yourself while you have the chance, I say; we shall all be dead in a hundred years and what will anything matter then? Let’s have a good time while we can.”

She is a free spirit, Rosie is, one who sows happiness wherever she goes and, because she does so at least in disregard if not outright ignorance of the social norms that control the rest of society, she is viewed by most as something vulgar. Ashenden himself is troubled by her behavior, trained as he and all men are to believe that happiness can only come from the possession of women. But long after Rosie leaves both him and Driffield for new adventures in America, he comes to appreciate the unique role her spirit played in his art and the art of other great men.

This extended passage comes very late in the novel, when Maugham is clearly interested in summing things up and driving his points home. In it, Kear, Ashenden, and the second Mrs. Driffield are reminiscing, and they come across some photos of Rosie that Driffield had kept locked away in a trunk. I’ll make some comments along the way.

“And here is the bride,” said Mrs. Driffield, trying not to smile.

Poor Rosie, seen by a country photographer over forty years ago, was grotesque. She was standing very stiffly against a background of baronial hall, holding a large bouquet; her dress was elaborately draped, pinched at the waist, and she wore a bustle. Her fringe came down to her eyes. On her head was a wreath of orange blossoms, perched high on a mass of hair, and from it was thrown back a long veil. Only I knew how lovely she must have looked.

“She looks fearfully common,” said Roy.

“She was,” murmured Mrs. Driffield.

Of course she looked different to Ashenden. He is looking at her through the eyes of love, memory, and understanding of what she meant for him. But note especially how vulgar Kear and Mrs. Driffield think she was. It’s not just that they don’t see the muse Ashenden knew--they see something loathsome, something almost opposite.

But first, we’ll pause for this wonderful insight into the life of a successful author.

We looked at more photographs of Edward, photographs that had been taken of him when he began to be known, photographs when he wore only a moustache and others, all the later ones, when he was clean-shaven. You saw his face grown thinner and more lined. The stubborn commonplace of the early portraits melted gradually into a weary refinement. You saw the change in him wrought by experience, thought, and achieved ambition. I looked again at the photograph of the young sailorman and fancied that I saw in it already a trace of that aloofness that seemed to me so marked in the older ones and that I had had years before the vague sensation of in the man himself. The face you saw was a mask and the actions he performed without significance. I had an impression that the real man, to his death unknown and lonely, was a wraith that went a silent way unseen between the writer of his books and the fellow who led his life, and smiled with ironical detachment at the two puppets that the world took for Edward Driffield. I am conscious that in what I have written of him I have not presented a living man, standing on his feet, rounded, with comprehensive motives and logical activities; I have not tried to: I am glad to leave that to the abler pen of Alroy Kear.

I really enjoy this aspect of Maugham’s fiction--the way he peppers the narrative with piercing and lyrical observations of art and artists, and how both fare in an unsympathetic world. More on that later. But for now, let’s get back to Rosie, and how she is viewed by Ashenden vs. Kear and Mrs. Driffield.

I came across the photographs that Harry Retford, the actor, had taken of Rosie, and then a photograph of the picture that Lionel Hiller had painted of her. It gave me a pang. That was how I best remembered her. Notwithstanding the old-fashioned gown, she was alive there and tremulous with the passion that filled her. She seemed to offer herself to the assault of love.

“She gives you the impression of a hefty wench,” said Roy.

“If you like the milkmaid type,” answered Mrs. Driffield. “I’ve always thought she looked rather like a white nigger.”

That was what Mrs. Barton Trafford had been fond of calling her, and with Rosie’s thick lips and broad nose there was indeed a hateful truth in the criticism. But they did not know how silvery golden her hair was, nor how golden silver her skin; they did not know her enchanting smile.

“She wasn’t a bit like a white nigger,” I said. “She was virginal like the dawn. She was like Hebe. She was like a white rose.”

Mrs. Driffield smiled and exchanged a meaning glance with Roy.

“Mrs. Barton Trafford told me a great deal about her. I don’t wish to seem spiteful, but I’m afraid I don’t think that she can have been a very nice woman.”

“That’s where you make a mistake,” I replied. “She was a very nice woman. I never saw her in a bad temper. You only had to say you wanted something for her to give it to you. I never heard her say a disagreeable thing about anyone. She had a heart of gold.”

She sounds lovely, doesn’t she? But wait. Those aren’t the kinds of things she will be judged by.

“She was a terrible slattern. Her house was always in a mess; you didn’t like to sit down in a chair because it was so dusty and you dared not look in the corners. And it was the same with her person. She could never put a skirt on straight and you’d see about two inches of petticoat hanging down on one side.”

Mercy. Ashenden, how can you possible counter that?

“She didn’t bother about things like that. They didn’t make her any the less beautiful. And she was as good as she was beautiful.”

Nice try.

Roy burst out laughing and Mrs. Driffield put her hand up to her mouth to hide her smile.

“Oh, come, Mr. Ashenden, that’s really going too far. After all, let’s face it, she was a nymphomaniac.”

That’s it. It’s out. She broke the sexual mores of their society. She must be all bad.

“I think that’s a very silly word,” I said.

He will try. Ashenden will try to explain what Rosie was in a way they can understand.

“Well, then, let me say that she can hardly have been a very good woman to treat poor Edward as she did. Of course it was a blessing in disguise. If she hadn’t run away from him he might have had to bear that burden for the rest of his life, and with such a handicap he could never have reached the position he did. But the fact remains that she was notoriously unfaithful to him. From what I hear she was absolutely promiscuous.”

“You don’t understand,” I said. “She was a very simple woman. Her instincts were healthy and ingenuous. She loved to make people happy. She loved love.”

“Do you call that love?”

“Well, then, the act of love. She was naturally affectionate. When she liked anyone it was quite natural for her to go to bed with him. She never thought twice about it. It was not vice; it wasn’t lasciviousness; it was her nature. She gave herself as naturally as the sun gives heat or the flowers their perfume. It was a pleasure to her and she liked to give pleasure to others. It had no effect on her character; she remained sincere, unspoiled, and artless.”

How was that? Do you think they will understand that?

Mrs. Driffield looked as though she had taken a dose of castor oil and had just been trying to get the taste of it out of her mouth by sucking a lemon.

Evidently not.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “But then I’m bound to admit that I never understood what Edward saw in her.”

“Did he know that she was carrying on with all sorts of people?” asked Roy.

“I’m sure he didn’t,” she replied quickly.

Editor’s note: He did.

“You think him a bigger fool than I do, Mrs. Driffield,” I said.

“Then why did he put up with it?”

“I think I can tell you. You see, she wasn’t a woman who ever inspired love. Only affection. It was absurd to be jealous over her. She was like a clear deep pool in a forest glade into which it’s heavenly to plunge, but it is neither less cool nor less crystalline because a tramp and a gipsy and a gamekeeper have plunged into it before you.”

Roy laughed again and this time Mrs. Driffield without concealment smiled thinly.

“It’s comic to hear you so lyrical,” said Roy.

I stifled a sigh.

So did I. They just don’t get it.

I have noticed that when I am most serious people are apt to laugh at me, and indeed when after a lapse of time I have read passages that I wrote from the fullness of my heart I have been tempted to laugh at myself. It must be that there is something naturally absurd in a sincere emotion, though why there should be I cannot imagine, unless it is that man, the ephemeral inhabitant of an insignificant planet, with all his pain and all his striving is but a jest in an eternal mind.

Wow. Write that one down on a small card and carry it around in your wallet.

The conclusion here is that Ashenden in unable to make Kear and Mrs. Driffield understand. But there is a deeper question: Is he able to make you understand? Because that’s really the point, isn’t it, Dear Reader. The point of this whole story. Where does great art come from? After the journey you’ve taken through the novel--Ashenden’s journey, a journey through his eyes and heart--are you in a position to understand in a way that Kear and Mrs. Driffield can’t?

Okay. So dwell on that for a minute. But now, here’s a twist. For as much as Ashenden understands the role that a character like Rosie can play in the soul and inspiration of a writer, Rosie herself is incapable of understanding what makes a writer truly tick.

The very end of the novel is Maugham at his very best, deftly using the narrative flow of his characters and their relationships to explore the very esoteric subject of art and its painful genesis.

Here, Ashenden happens to run across Rosie years later while visiting New York. In the course of their discussion, she mentions the child she a Driffield had had at the very beginning of their marriage.

“I didn’t know you’d ever had a child,” I said with surprise.

“Oh, yes. That’s why Ted married me. But I had a very bad time when it came and the doctors said I couldn’t have another. If she’d lived, poor little thing, I don’t suppose I’d ever have run away with George. She was six when she died. A dear little thing she was and as pretty as a picture.”

“You never mentioned her.”

“No, I couldn’t bear to speak about her. She got meningitis and we took her to the hospital. They put her in a private room and they let us stay with her. I shall never forget what she went through, screaming, screaming all the time, and nobody able to do anything.”

Rosie’s voice broke.

Someday, I’ll write a thesis on the use of brevity in portraying horror in fiction, and this paragraph will be one of the examples I cite. The brutal efficiency of the words convey so much more than they deserve to.

But Ashenden has a different reaction.

“Was it that death Driffield described in The Cup of Life?”

The Cup of Life is Driffield’s controversial masterpiece. But note what Rosie says about it.

“Yes, that’s it. I always thought it so funny of Ted. He couldn’t bear to speak of it, any more than I could, but he wrote it all down; he didn’t leave out a thing; even little things I hadn’t noticed at the time he put in and then I remembered them. You’d think he was just heartless, but he wasn’t, he was upset just as much as I was. When we used to go home at night he’d cry like a child. Funny chap, wasn’t he?”

Sure, Rosie. Funny chap. Why would he do such a thing? Oh, wait. Here’s why…

It was The Cup of Life that had raised such a storm of protest; and it was the child’s death and the episode that followed it that had especially brought down on Driffield’s head such virulent abuse. I remembered the description very well. It was harrowing. There was nothing sentimental in it; it did not excite the reader’s tears, but his anger rather that such cruel suffering should be inflicted on a little child. You felt that God at the Judgment Day would have to account for such things as this.

Obvious. What writer wouldn’t want to write something like that? And most writers know that that kind of writing comes only from real harrowing experience, not from fancies that are simply dressed up to be.

But here’s the best part of all. Rosie’s incomprehension about what would possess someone to write about such a tragic circumstance prompts Ashenden to meditate upon the writer’s life. And, as our narrator, we are privy to the the following thoughts that must surely have passed through Maugham’s mind as well.

It is full of tribulation. First he must endure poverty and the world’s indifference; then, having achieved a measure of success, he must submit with a good grace to its hazards. He depends upon a fickle public. He is at the mercy of journalists who want to interview him and photographers who want to take his picture, of editors who harry him for copy and tax gatherers who harry him for income tax, of persons of quality who ask him to lunch and secretaries of institutes who ask him to lecture, of women who want to marry him and women who want to divorce him, of youths who want his autographs, actors who want parts and strangers who want a loan, of gushing ladies who want advice on their matrimonial affairs and earnest young men who want advice on their compositions, of agents, publishers, managers, bores, admirers, critics, and his own conscience. But he has one compensation. Whenever he has anything on his mind, whether it be a harassing reflection, grief at the death of a friend, unrequited love, wounded pride, anger at the treachery of someone to whom he has shown kindness, in short any emotion or any perplexing thought, he has only to put it down in black and white, using it as the theme of a story or the decoration of an essay, to forget all about it. He is the only free man.

Wonderfully phrased, 100% true, and makes you wonder how much of the novel you have just read is autobiographical.

+ + +

As I think I’ve commented before, Maugham’s observations about the world and the cultures in it in Cakes and Ale are as inerrant as ever. Here’s a few that really jumped out at me.

Regarding the use of ready-made phrases to abbreviate common ideas into as few imaginative words as possible:

The Americans, who are the most efficient people on the earth, have carried this device to such a height of perfection and have invented so wide a range of pithy and hackneyed phrases that they can carry on an amusing and animated conversation without giving a moment’s reflection to what they are saying and so leave their minds free to consider the more important matters of big business and fornication.

Regarding beauty in art:

Beauty is an ecstasy; it is as simple as hunger. There is really nothing to be said about it. It is like the perfume of a rose: you can smell it and that is all: that is why the criticism of art, except in so far as it is unconcerned with beauty and therefore with art, is tiresome. All the critic can tell you with regard to Titian’s Entombment of Christ, perhaps of all the pictures in the world that which has most pure beauty, is to go look at it.

Regarding finding truth in fiction:

As we grow older we become more conscious of the complexity, incoherence, and unreasonableness of human beings; this indeed is the only excuse that offers for the middle-aged or elderly writer, whose thoughts should more properly be turned to graver matters, occupying himself with the trivial concerns of imaginary people. For if the proper study of mankind is man it is evidently more sensible to occupy yourself with the coherent, substantial, and significant creatures of fiction that with the irrational and shadowy figures of real life.

And regarding the subjective nature of time, this time squarely in the narrative, when Ashenden encounters and old classmate, now grown old like him:

He had drawn breath, walked the earth and presently grown to man’s estate, married, had children and they in turn had had children; I judged from the look of him that he had lived, with incessant toil, in penury. He had the peculiar manner of the country doctor, bluff, hearty, and unctuous. His life was over. I had plans in my head for books and plays, I was full of schemes for the future; I felt that a long stretch of activity and fun still lay before me; and yet, I supposed, to others I must seem the elderly man that he seemed to me.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Chapter Thirty-Nine


Speculative Fiction
Approximately 69,000 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1991. All rights reserved.

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On our journey south to save Ignatius Roundtower from the stone prison a magical lizard had shut him in, we stumbled across a pair of ogres who must have been out looking for an easy meal. It was my first experience with real combat and, probably because of that, both Nog and Roystnof told me to stay out of the way. This I did and, after I saw Roystnof strike one down with a lightning bolt, I thought it was all I was going to have to do. But the second ogre surprised us with its ferocity and in an instant I found myself standing between it and the death of my two friends. I had two weapons at my disposal, the shocking grasp spell Roystnof had taught me and the short sword Nog had given me. In all the time I have spent thinking about that one event in my life, I have yet been able to discern exactly what it was that made me choose the sword over the spell.

+ + +

Brisbane spent most of the next day, as usual, with Ternosh in the small chamber where the Grumak had originally conducted the test to see if Brisbane’s blood contained the bane of Gruumsh One-Eye. However, they did not spend most of this time going over the practices and lessons of orkish magic, as they had been doing since Brisbane had been inducted into the klatru. Instead, they spent the time discussing Brisbane’s current position in the clan and what was going to happen after that night’s draknel.

They had two very different opinions. Ternosh, who had alluded to his the night before and reasserted it in the morning, felt Gruumsh One-Eye had truly sent Brisbane to become the clan’s new Sumak, to show them a new kind of battle tactic, and to guide them on the path of victory over their enemies. Because he believed this, he did not think Brisbane had anything to worry about in the upcoming battle with Tornestor. After all, Gruumsh wouldn’t very well send someone to become the new Sumak who could not defeat the old one.

Ternosh had this belief so well burned into him that Brisbane, in his anxiety over facing Tornestor in the pug-trolang, felt safe enough to reveal some of his misgivings about the situation. In effect, for Brisbane, it was time to come clean. He told the Grumak he was firmly convinced Gruumsh One-Eye had not sent him here. He told the Grumak he had no idea what his mission, as spoken of by the Demosk, was and that he had no intention of carrying it out whatever it happened to be. He told the Grumak he did not believe an entity named Gruumsh One-Eye existed. He even told the Grumak the only reason he had spent so much time among them was because he was buying time until he could get his sword back.

Ternosh listened to each of Brisbane’s assertions carefully and, when the human was finished, he passed them all off with a wave of his hand.

“It does not matter what you believe,” the Grumak said. “My Demosk has confirmed Gruumsh has sent you here for some hidden purpose. This information cannot be in error. Your belief is not necessary in the matter. Gruumsh sent you here and here you are. Do you really think we would have left you alive for any other reason?”

“The only reason I’m still alive,” Brisbane said, “is because I can work magic. If I couldn’t, you would have killed me for wearing this symbol.” He pulled his pentacle medallion out from behind his robes.

“This is true,” Ternosh said, “and it only further proves my point. Your magic is a gift from Gruumsh One-Eye, as all magic is. Although you do not have red eyes and as yet have been unable to perform respectable magic, the Demosk has confirmed the taste in your blood and I have seen you work small tricks of your own. Again, your belief of where your power comes from is immaterial. It comes from Gruumsh, and he gave it to you to keep us from accidentally killing you. The logic is inescapable.”

Brisbane listened to the Grumak’s explanation. “You remind me of someone I used to know.”

“Oh yes? When was that?”

“A long time ago,” Brisbane said.

But it was true. For a moment, Ternosh had reminded Brisbane almost painfully of Roystnof. His friend had often talked like that, invoking the almost mystical powers of logic to explain certain situations or policies. Except that when Roystnof had used logic, it had sounded truthful and irrefutable. When Ternosh used it, it sounded crazy. The Grumak said his magic came from Gruumsh One-Eye as if it was a logical fact, and he had no proof to support it. Roystnof said his magic came from within himself as if it was a logical fact, but he too really had no proof to support it. So why did Roystnof’s view seem so much more sensible to Brisbane? Why did he believe Roystnof and not Ternosh? They had both used perfect logic, but each of them had started with a different supposition. Brisbane realized logic could only go so far, that it could be used to argue any point of view at all, and that if you followed it back far enough, eventually you would find a pre-conceived idea or, even worse, a declaration of faith.

Brisbane didn’t know. Did this mean the only use logic had was to prove the unprovable?

He knocked heads with Ternosh for most of the day, not really coming away with anything concrete. Brisbane did not get into any kind of conversation about his reasons for wanting his sword back, afraid of getting too deep into it for many of the same reasons he didn’t discuss it with Smurch. Thankfully, Ternosh did not press the matter, evidently understanding to some degree the commitment he felt to the blade. It was obviously something special, for no one in the clan could draw it from its scabbard. The Grumak did ask Brisbane if, before he had been captured, he had been able to free the weapon.

Brisbane was hesitant in answering but finally told Ternosh he was.

Ternosh shrugged. “Perhaps it is another signal from Gruumsh. A warning to us that you are something special and not to be tampered with. It really doesn’t matter now. The sword belongs to Gruumsh One-Eye, and you will never get it back.”

“I won’t?”

Ternosh shook his head. “I don’t see how you could. The weapon was given in tribute to Gruumsh One-Eye, and every grugan in the clan will defend that to their death. Theft is, at this point, impossible.”

This was much like what Smurch had said to him, yet Angelika was certain, had been certain since this fiasco had begun, that Brisbane would eventually get her back. The problem suddenly was Brisbane wasn’t too sure if he wanted her back. Or, perhaps closer to the truth, he wasn’t too sure what he was ready to do to get her back. He still wanted her back, she was too much a part of him to let go, but her messages to him was souring each time she spoke.

Vengeance, she had said countless time, we must wreak our vengeance for what they have done to you and Amanda. Assuredly, the orks deserved some sort of justice for what they had done, but more and more, Brisbane didn’t feel like he was accomplishing anything. What had he done? He had killed two orks so far, and he had killed them in ways socially acceptable to the rest of the clan. The clan was not suffering for what they had done. The deaths of Wister and Bronsop really meant very little to them. Death was so much a part of life to them that Brisbane could get no sense of revenge out of what he had done. They believed when a warrior was killed in the pug-trolang, it was because he was weak and it had been his time to go.

He was almost tempted to try and discuss this new development with Angelika but, even though he had some time to himself before the evening’s draknel, he decided against it. It didn’t matter much now anyway. He was committed. He couldn’t get out of fighting Tornestor now even if he wanted to. The masokom had been issued. In the customs of the clan, it was in fact Tornestor who was being forced to fight him and not the other way around. Angelika had said if Brisbane could defeat Tornestor in the pug-trolang, the clan would be destroyed and he would get her back. The second promise was motivation enough. Brisbane could only hope her promise was not an empty one.

An hour or so before the draknel, Ternosh wished him well and sent him back to his chamber. At first, Brisbane was thankful for the time alone, thinking it would give him a chance to clear his head, but as it turned out, the time was more detrimental than calming to his state of mind. He tried to relax, laying down on his bed and breathing deeply, but he was just too worked up to get anywhere. There were too many possibilities and open questions. If he had been sure about Angelika’s promises, as he always had been before, then perhaps he could have been calm enough to concentrate on his battle with Tornestor. But as he felt now, he found himself worrying more about what was going to happen after the combat than what was going to happen during it.

He called Smurch into his chamber, to give him someone to talk to and to hopefully take his mind off some of his troubles. But the half-ork was of little help, being full of excitement over the upcoming battle. He was very supportive, wanting only the best for his master, but it wasn’t what Brisbane wanted to discuss. He tried to sidetrack Smurch onto other subjects but either the half-ork was unchangeable or Brisbane’s own mind was too much on the combat, because they always seemed to come back to the fight with Tornestor.

Eventually, Brisbane’s time was up.

Smurch got to his feet. “It is time, Gil. You must now attend this evening’s draknel.”

Brisbane nodded. “I know.”

Smurch helped his master to his feet. “Good luck. The next time I serve you, I hope I will be serving the clan’s new Sumak.”

“Either that or you’ll be burying me,” Brisbane said.

The half-ork gave him a queer look. “Well, that’s true, but I don’t think one in your position should be thinking like that.”

“Why not?”

“Confidence,” Smurch said. “You must have confidence. How do you expect to defeat Tornestor if you cannot win such a simple battle with yourself?”

“I don’t know,” Brisbane said. “I used to have confidence. I don’t know what has happened.”

“Well,” Smurch said. “Best of luck.”

Brisbane looked into the half-ork’s eyes. “Thank you, Jack.”

Smurch nodded. “I’ll see you soon.”

Brisbane slowly left his room and made his way to the banquet chamber. Most of the klatru had already gathered and they were sitting around the table, drinking ale and talking loudly. When Brisbane entered the chamber, a silence fell among them.

Brisbane self-consciously looked at himself when all the orkish eyes stared at him. He was wearing his tunic and trousers, the ones he had been wearing when captured, now freshly cleaned and soft to the skin, under the red and white robes that designated his position in the clan as Grum because, frankly, one way or the other, he was getting out of here tonight. He also saw that his pentacle medallion was lying on the outside of his garments.

When he looked back up at the table, the orks quickly turned their heads away. Brisbane cautiously made his way over to his bench and sat down on the right side of Ternosh. Slowly and quietly, orkish conversation resumed around the stone table.

Ternosh leaned over and spoke softly to Brisbane. “Hello.”

“Hello,” Brisbane said.

“You will have to reissue your masokom to Tornestor tonight. Everyone knows it is still binding and Tornestor will not be able to refuse it or require Riltik to fight for him, but it is a ceremonial requirement. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Brisbane said, watching the portal Tornestor would eventually emerge from.

“Good. Would you like some ale?”

Brisbane nodded, keeping his eyes on the arch. “One mug.”

Ternosh poured and set it before him. Brisbane took a sip. It was cold and delicious.


“Yes, Brisbane?”

“How do you feel about it? I mean, with Tornestor being your brother and all?”

Ternosh looked at the portal with Brisbane, as if the Sumak had just appeared. “Tornestor is my brother. I can remember a time when we were just Tor and Ter, living on the surface with the females and the children. But when I became old enough, my red eyes demanded that I be taken into the cave and trained as a Grum. There was a time when I was much like you, an innocent in a strange world, doing my best to get along in my new environment. I remember what it was like then. I remember what it was like when I had both of my eyes.”

Brisbane turned to look at Ternosh’s profile, seeing his healthy right eye and the strap that held the black patch over what remained of his left, plucked out by his own hand when he became Grumak in honor of the single orb of Gruumsh One-Eye.

“I think Tornestor saw the special treatment I received,” Ternosh went on softly, “and was jealous that his younger brother was suddenly so far above him. He wanted the benefits of the klatru, too, but his eyes were black and, as such, he had only one route open to him. As Tor, he collected as much fame and conquest as he could until he was a leader on the surface and, eventually, the members of the klatru voted him to become one of their elite group. This is the only way it is ever done, and it happens only when one grugan separates himself so much from his peers. In fact, the last grugan to be considered for this honor was Kras, the man you strangled on the river bank when you were captured. Even when you were being held in your cage, news of what you had done to Kras was sending ripples up and down the klatru.”

Brisbane thought about it. He had been insane when he had strangled Kras, mad with rage at being disarmed of Angelika. He barely remembered the incident.

Ternosh continued. “As Tornes, my brother was content for a while, but when I became Grumak, a position of higher rank than the regular klatru, I think the tide of jealousy welled up within him again. His course was then set. The only position in the clan higher than my own is Sumak, and Tornes quickly began his successful quest for it.”

Ternosh turned and looked at Brisbane. “What I’m trying to say is that my brother and I are no longer two nameless whelps, suckling at our mother’s breast. We are now Sumak Tornestor and Grumak Ternosh, the two most powerful members of the Red Eye. Our lives are very different now and we have responsibilities undreamed of by the children on the surface. Even if you were not a human sent by Gruumsh One-Eye, I would not interfere with the masokom you have issued. Tornestor has met and defeated several power-hungry grugan before you. It is his duty to meet and destroy all resistance to his authority. If he cannot do this, then he does not deserve to be our Sumak.”

“Yes,” Brisbane said. “But you think I’m going to win, don’t you?”

“If Gruumsh sent you, you must win.”

“Then your brother will be killed.”

“Yes,” Ternosh said. “My brother will be killed. But he has been a great Sumak. Gruumsh will surely make him a general in his army.”

Conversation around the table was cut off at that moment as Tornestor entered the banquet chamber. The huge ork was dressed as he normally was, all in black with the red sash draped over his shoulder. Behind him and to his right stood Riltik, his right arm ringed with a red stripe. There was no one else with them.

From the time the Sumak entered the room until the time he sat down in his great stone chair, Tornestor did not take his black eyes off Brisbane. He was seated in silence for several moments before Ternosh poked Brisbane in the ribs.

“Stand and issue the challenge,” Ternosh whispered.

Brisbane rose to his feet with everyone’s attention fixed on him. He did his best to ignore them all, concentrating on the furrowed brow and the glowing eyes of Tornestor.

Wow, is he ugly, Brisbane thought. Most orks look like humans with some pig features, and that’s ugly enough, but he’s downright hideous. It’s as if he’s not human at all. He’s all ork. He’s a grugan.

“You wish to invoke your right of statement, Grum Brisbane?” Tornestor’s tone was an angrier version of hostile.

Brisbane took a deep breath. “I formally reissue my masokom to you, Sumak Tornestor. I challenge you to battle in the pug-trolang for mastery of this clan.” He remained standing.

Tornestor did not hesitate. “I, Sumak Tornestor, accept your challenge.” He clapped his hands twice and servants were carrying food into the room before Brisbane had retaken his seat.

Brisbane leaned closer to Ternosh. “Angry, isn’t he?”

Ternosh nodded as the servants put food in front of him and all around the table. “It is his authority you have challenged,” the Grumak said softly. “The last masokom he had was nearly two months ago. He accepted that one directly, not passing it off to one of his Sums. He killed the grugan in twenty-eight seconds. I don’t think he expected another challenge so soon. Of course, you are a special case.”

Brisbane began to pile meat and potatoes onto his plate. “Why is there only Riltik? Doesn’t he replace his Sums when they are killed?”

“He will replace Bronsop tomorrow if he survives. It is a show of respect to your combat skills not to replace him right away. Everyone here knows why Bronsop’s place is empty. When you win, it will be your duty to name another Sum from among the klatru. You will inherit Riltik.”

Inherit. Brisbane thought that was a strange way of putting it.

The draknel continued as it always did, but it was oddly quiet that night. There were conversations among small groups of orks, but there were no stories to be told or songs to be sung. Brisbane ate carefully, not eating too much too quickly, and he held himself to only one tankard of ale. He was used to one meal a day and the only time he ever seemed to be hungry now was an hour or so before draknel. His meals had grown in size, too, due to their infrequency. The meal he ate that night was large enough to fill him but not to stuff him, even though that amount of food would have burst him had he tried to eat it three months ago.

Throughout the draknel, Brisbane found himself in an angry staring match with Tornestor. It seemed every time he lifted his face out of his plate, he saw Tornestor glaring at him, his large hands resting on either side of his platter and his jaw immobile. Brisbane did his best to not let the Sumak’s stare ruin his appetite, but it was not easy.

Finally, the meal was finished and it was time for battle. After the servants had cleared away the large mess and the few leftovers, Tornestor quickly rose from his stone chair and rushed out of the chamber and down the short corridor that led to the pug-trolang. Riltik and the rest of the klatru had to scramble in an attempt to preserve the march-like precision they usually used in going to the battle chamber. Brisbane was not interested in preserving any tradition. He took his time getting up and leaving the chamber. Ternosh stayed with him.

“Well,” Brisbane said to the Grumak. “This is it.”

Ternosh nodded. “This is it.”

Brisbane went down the short tunnel and emerged into the chamber of the pug-trolang. The klatru had already taken their positions around the pit and Tornestor stood a quarter of the way around the circle on his right, arming himself with the armor and weapons that ringed the chamber walls. Brisbane watched him carefully. The ork was so huge Brisbane didn’t think he would be able to find any armor to fit him. The orks made none of their armor or weapons themselves. They stole them all from human craftsmen and warriors. Brisbane himself was one of the tallest humans he had ever met and, at seven feet, Tornestor was a good six inches taller than him.

But the Sumak was able to find something to fit him. With a revelation of shock, Brisbane saw Tornestor was donning the same chainmail poncho Shortwhiskers had bought for Brisbane in Queensburg before they had set out that spring. The same one Vrak had taken from Brisbane when he had been captured on the banks of the Mystic River. The mail had hung down to Brisbane’s knees. On Tornestor, it stopped just below the waist. The Sumak also chose a huge, diamond-shaped shield and a double-edged sword that appeared too heavy for even Brisbane to lift.

Fully outfitted, Tornestor gave Brisbane a final angry look and dropped himself into the pit of the pug-trolang.

Ternosh patted Brisbane twice on the back and then went over to take his place beside the pedestal and Angelika. Brisbane looked longingly at his sword and, at once, her seductive presence made itself comfortable among his thought patterns.

The time has arrived, young Brisbane. The time of our vengeance is upon us. We shall kill their demon leader and destroy their whole wicked band.

Brisbane was not sure if he welcomed her input, but then realized there was little he could do about it. He went over to the wall, trying to ignore Angelika’s influence and began to choose his armor and weapons.

Yes, Brisbane. Arm yourself well. This will be the gravest challenge you have faced yet. But you will prevail. You will be triumphant because I am with you and soon I will be returned to your side. Yes.

Brisbane first thought to wear a heavy breastplate like Bronsop had chosen yesterday, but decided against it. He didn’t want to be weighed down too much, hoping quickness could win out over an ork as large as Tornestor. But he also did not want to go unprotected. At last, he chose a light chainmail shirt, painted black, and a pair of black shin guards to offer some protection to his legs. He fitted the black helmet he had used in the battle against Bronsop on top of his head and chose a black crest-shaped shield with a great red eye painted sloppily in the middle. For his sword, he picked the same, perfectly-balanced weapon he had used twice before.

It really is a fine sword, he thought.

Don’t get too attached to it, Brisbane. This is the last time you will ever have to use it.

I will get you back, won’t I, Angelika?

Yes. Kill this pig and you and I will be reunited.

How? How will I get you back.

You will.

Armed properly, Brisbane walked over to the edge of the pug-trolang. All around the room the klatru were staring at him and, down in the pit, Tornestor was looking up at him. Brisbane’s eyes passed over them all one by one and finally came to rest on Ternosh. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the Grumak nodded his head.

Brisbane dropped himself into the pit.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


“Madness is something rare in individuals—but in groups, parties, peoples, ages it is the rule.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil