Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Chapter Two


Speculative Fiction
Approximately 33,000 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1990. All rights reserved.

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They built his castle high on the cliffs overlooking the Sea of Darkmarine. It was built at a record pace by hands that would take devotion to its limits. It was said that its towers reached high into the sky to embrace the love of Grecolus and that its walls stood solid against the hate of Damaleous. When completed, the Peasant King moved in with his wife and attendants. He would often come out to look down on the city and his people, of whom he had once been a member and now over whom he ruled.

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The dwarf entered a tavern called The Quarter Pony a few minutes after midnight. He was of average height for a dwarf, about four feet tall, and had the stocky build typical of his race. He had the customary dwarven round face with red cheeks and a protruding brow and nose. But unlike the traditional dwarf, who wore his beard as long as possible, this one had his light brown whiskers cut very close to his face, like the moss on a tree stump. He was dressed in a green tunic and tanned leather pants. A brown cloak fell from his shoulders to his boots and on his head he wore a broad-brimmed hat. At his belt was sheathed a short, thick sword in a jeweled scabbard, and on the middle finger of the hand resting on the sword’s pommel was a slim gold band.

The dwarf walked up to the bar and heaved his heavy frame up onto a bar stool. The three quiet patrons gave him a quizzical look but soon turned their attention back to their glasses. The bartender wiped the bar down in front of the dwarf. He was a tall young man in a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up over his large biceps. His blonde hair was long and tied together in back with a red band.

“What’s your poison?” the bartender asked in a clear and unhurried voice.

The dwarf did not answer him right away. He looked for an odd moment or two into the bartender’s face, almost as if he recognized the young man. Shaking his head, he muttered something to himself and quickly lost the look of familiarity.

“A cold mug of ale will do for my throat, my boy,” the dwarf said in a low tone of nearly fluent common tongue. “But I also require your indulgence in answering a few questions about this part of the world.”

The bartender arched an eyebrow. He had not expected such an eloquent manner from his stout patron. Most of the dwarves that came in from the nearby mines were proletarian folk who, by and large, drank more than they spoke. But, of course, those dwarves were dressed in grimy rags and had dirty faces behind their long beards.

The bartender poured a mug of ale and set it before the dwarf. “Ask away,” he said. It was about as eloquent as he got.

The dwarf took a long drink from the mug. He looked both ways down the bar and leaned closer to the bartender. “Would you happen to know where I might find a man named Roy Stonerow?”

The bartender chuckled. “You know,” he said quietly. “If you had asked anyone else in this town that question, they would probably have led you to an open mineshaft.”

The dwarf smiled. “I doubt I would be that gullible.” He took another drink of ale.

“Well, whatever,” the bartender said. “I do know where he is.”

“Can you take me to him?”

A door behind the bar opened and through it came an aging man with a small wooden keg held on his right shoulder.

The bartender spoke to the man. “Otis,” he said, “I need to help this gentleman find his way. Can you tend the bar for a while?”

Otis nodded. “Don't be gone too long.”

The bartender walked through a swinging gate in the bar and the dwarf hopped off his bar stool. The pair left The Quarter Pony and the bartender led them down the street. The dwarf stared up into the night sky as they walked on in silence. Soon they came to a small red house. The bartender stopped at the front door, knocked loudly twice, and opened the door.

“Roy?” the bartender called out as he and the dwarf walked down a dark hall to a single lighted room at its end. “I’ve brought someone who knows your name.”

The bartender and the dwarf entered the lighted room and found a middle-aged man sitting in an overstuffed chair with a massive tome in his lap. His hair was black and cut short. His face wore a charcoal-colored van dyke beard and his eyes were steel gray under a furrowed brow. He was dressed in a red v-neck tunic with black cuffs and collar, black trousers, and red houseslippers. The room itself was a library of sorts, the walls lined with heavy bookshelves and the floor richly carpeted.

The man in the chair let his eyes fall upon the dwarf. He slowly smiled. “Nog Shortwhiskers,” he said. “It is good to see you again. How did you find me?”

The dwarf called Shortwhiskers pulled up a chair and sat down. “It wasn’t easy, Roystnof. After that last adventure, you really dropped out of society.”

“Roystnof?” the bartender asked.

“The name I used in my career before I settled here,” Roystnof said to the bartender. “I told you about those days and my companions. This is the dwarf I associated with.”

Associated, he calls it,” Shortwhiskers said sarcastically. “We would go out and nearly get ourselves killed for gold and treasure, and then we would, ah, we would…” The dwarf trailed off strangely in the middle of his comments and gave the bartender another odd look.

“Have we met somewhere before?” Shortwhiskers asked the bartender.

“No, I don't think so,” the bartender said.

“Nog,” Roystnof said. “This is a good friend of mine here in Scalt. His name is Gilbert Parkinson.”
“Parkinson?” Shortwhiskers said, his tone of voice indicating that he did not believe it for a second. “No, his name’s not Parkinson. I don’t know how it’s possible, but Moradin strike me dead if his name isn’t Brisbane.”

Brisbane and Roystnof exchanged glances.

“How do you know that?” Brisbane asked the dwarf.

“Gil,” Roystnof said. “Nog knew your father. He must have recognized the family resemblance.”

Brisbane looked intensely at the dwarf. “You knew my father?”

Shortwhiskers nodded. “And your grandfather. Finer men I’ve never met.”

Brisbane pulled up a chair of his own and studied the dwarf’s face and hands. He looked to be a man in his forties. “My grandfather?” Brisbane asked, puzzled. “But how can that be? You look so young.”

Shortwhiskers smiled. “We who live under the mountains may not see as much of the sun as you humans do, but we are generally given more opportunity to do so. I am a hundred and sixty-three years old.”

Brisbane was astounded. He had only known one person who had ever met his father—his mother—and no one who had ever known his grandfather. Here was a dwarf who claimed to have known both. “Tell me about them,” Brisbane said, his need to know sudden and clear in his voice.

“Sometime,” the dwarf said, “I will tell you all I know about them, which is much indeed. But for now, more pressing matters are at hand.” He turned to the wizard.

“What has happened?” Roystnof asked.

Shortwhiskers cleared his throat and sat back in his chair. His feet came off the floor and he swung them absentmindedly as he spoke. “Two weeks ago, Roundtower and I caught a rumor in Queensburg. It told of a forgotten temple standing at the source of the Mystic River. Surely exaggerated, this rumor told of uncounted wealth awaiting the brave souls courageous enough to face its keepers. I can’t speak for Roundtower, but I never claimed to be brave. Greedy, yes, but not brave.”

Brisbane spoke as the dwarf paused. “Roundtower?”

Roystnof nodded. “Ignatius Roundtower. The other warrior I associated with before I settled here.”

Associated again,” Shortwhiskers snickered. “Anyway, we suited up and started following the Mystic into the hills. Boring landscape. About one day out, we encountered something that absolutely scared the marrow out of my bones.”

Brisbane nudged closed and Roystnof closed the book in his lap. He took out a pipe, mumbled to himself, and lit the tobacco with the end of his index finger, which had begun to glow red.

“Go on,” the wizard said.

Shortwhiskers coughed into his fist. “Yes, well, we first came upon this low stone wall, which seemed to enclose a large area between two hills. Inside the wall there were plenty of trees and bushes, as if someone had made an oasis amidst all that barren rock and soil. We spotted some fruit trees and, already tired of our dry rations, hopped the wall to get some fresh fruit. We went to the nearest tree and Roundtower pulled down some fruit for us. We were just eating the fruit and taking in the scenery when…it happened.”

“What?” Roystnof asked.

Shortwhiskers swallowed hard and looked first at the wizard and then his young friend. “Roundtower called out my name. He was about thirty feet away behind some bushes. ‘Nog,’ he says. ‘Look at this—’ I turned as the words stuck in his throat. He stood frozen for a moment, with one finger pointing ahead of him, and then he slowly turned dull gray in color. Not just him, either. Everything he wore drained all its color away and became just like granite. In less than ten seconds, he looked like a statue someone had chiseled out of a slab of rock. And still he did not move.”

Roystnof and Brisbane only stared at the dwarf.

“I crouched down beneath the branches of the tree I was standing next to and looked in the direction Roundtower had been pointing. It came out of the bushes slowly. It moved like a snail, as if hours were only minutes to it. It was a huge lizard, as high at the shoulder as a large dog, and longer than young Brisbane here is tall. Its scales were dark brown along its back and brightened to yellow in its underbelly. I couldn’t see its head, it was moving away from me, and for some reason, I felt relieved that it couldn’t stare at me. Most freakish of all, however, was that it had eight legs. It gave me plenty of time to count them. With that many legs, I would think it could scamper along like lightning, but it moved so slowly.”

Roystnof nodded and blew a smoke ring. “And Roundtower?”

Shortwhiskers clenched his hands together in his lap and bowed his head. “That is why I have sought you out. I waited until the beast was finally gone. It seemed like hours, but I waited anyway, unwilling to reveal myself to it until I had determined what it had done to Roundtower. Eventually, I was able to get up and move over to him. All this time he had been frozen in place and had remained entirely the color of granite.”

The dwarf looked up suddenly. “He was granite. Vile Abbathor, I knew that before I even touched him. I’ve smelled that stone too often to mistake its scent, no matter how impossible the situation. I could salvage nothing from him. Everything he had carried had become stone as well, and was securely attached to the statue that had once been my friend.”

Shortwhiskers drifted off briefly into silence. “Then I began my search for you, Roystnof,” he said quietly. “I left him standing alone in that garden. There was little else I could do. It took some time, but eventually I was able to track you down. I can only hope you know what manner of creature it was I saw that day, and that you know something that can be done to help Ignatius. He is certainly beyond my power to assist.”

Roystnof quickly got up and went over to a bookcase. He spoke as he chose a book from the shelf. “I believe I do know what manner of creature it was. I have read of it in the years I’ve spent away from you, my friend.”

Roystnof came back to his chair with a slim book in his head. “It is called a basilisk, and it has the power to turn men to stone. It accomplishes this by merely gazing at its intended victim. If that victim meets the creature’s gaze, as Roundtower must have done, he will actually turn to stone.”

Shortwhiskers was staring intently at Roystnof, listening carefully to every word he said. Brisbane was doing much the same but, unlike the dwarf, who was hopeful at the wizard’s words, Brisbane was somewhat fearful. Shortwhiskers had already asked Roystnof if he knew of anything that could help this Roundtower. If Roystnof did, it would mean only one thing to Brisbane. Roystnof would be leaving Scalt to administer this help.

“Can anything be done, Roystnof?” the dwarf asked.

Roystnof looked at Brisbane when as he answered the dwarf’s question. “Yes. I know a spell that will return Roundtower to his own flesh.”

“Thank Moradin!” Shortwhiskers exclaimed as he rose to his feet. “I knew you would know what to do, Roystnof. I just knew it. You always got one more trick up those red sleeves of yours, don’t you?”

Roystnof and Brisbane were exchanging glances. Brisbane got up to leave suddenly but Roystnof detained him with an outstretched palm. Brisbane obediently sat down.

“Nog,” Roystnof said. “I will need some time to prepare this spell tonight.”

“Oh sure, sure,” Shortwhiskers said. “I understand. I’m beat anyway. I’ll go back to the inn and get some sleep. I’ll come back in the morning and we’ll head out. Okay?”

“That’s fine,” Roystnof said.

Shortwhiskers looked about himself to see if he was leaving anything behind. “Tomorrow, then.” He extended a hand to Brisbane and the young man promptly shook it. “Nice to have met you, son. Someday we’ll sit down and I’ll tell you just what your name means.”

Brisbane smiled. “I’d like that.”

Shortwhiskers patted him on the back, said a final farewell to Roystnof, and left the house.

Roystnof sat down and put the slim red book he had taken off the bookshelf on the low table in front of Brisbane. “Take it, Gil,” he said. “Open it and look inside.”

Brisbane picked up the book. On the outside it looked ordinary. It was bound in featureless red leather and was perhaps fifty pages thick. Brisbane opened it and met a blank first page. He began to leaf through it and recognized the magical writings that filled the rest of it. Some of the twisted and arcane runes he could understand from the lessons he had stopped years ago, but most were beyond his comprehension. He continued flipping through it and glanced at the page numbers as they went by. Fifty, one hundred, one hundred fifty, two hundred. The book isn’t this thick, Brisbane thought as he kept paging through three and four hundred. He looked up at Roystnof.

“There are seven hundred and twenty-six pages,” Roystnof said. “All of which I have magically slimmed down to exist in the space of fifty or so.”

Brisbane shut the book with a snap and handed it back to Roystnof. The wizard put the book back on the table.

“Gil,” he said. “When I came here six years ago, I had boxes and boxes of books that I had collected over my travels.”

Brisbane took something out of his shirt pocket. “I know,” he said. “I carried them in.”

Roystnof smiled. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, you did. Those books were filled with magical information. Spells, magical research, summonings, curses, component enhancers. It was a treasure trove of knowledge.”

Brisbane rubbed the thing he had taken out of his pocket between his thumb and fingers. It had a slim silver chain that hung down between his knees.

“In the past six years,” Roystnof continued, “I have gone through those books. Page by page, paragraph by paragraph, line by line. And I have consumed and understood nearly all that I have seen. My abilities must have increased a thousand fold.”

Brisbane looked sharply into the eyes of the wizard.

Roystnof indicated the red book on the table before them. “All of this knowledge, Gil, all of this power I have set down in this book. It contains everything the other books in this room have taught me, and a few things these books have enabled me to teach myself.”

Brisbane only rubbed the silver medallion in his fingers.

“The time has come,” Roystnof said, “For me to take this book and see what I can do and attain with it. I must go with Nog to help Ignatius, yes, but after that I must continue with my travels. Scalt is a nice town, but six years is too long for anyone to spend in it.”

“I’ve been here for eighteen,” Brisbane said. He did not want Roystnof to go and he suddenly decided that if that was the way it would be, then he meant to go with his friend.

“Gil, I want you to come with me.”

Brisbane almost dropped his medallion.

“The time has come for you to continue your training. Although it has been a while, I doubt you have forgotten a single thing I have taught you.”

“I haven’t,” Brisbane said.

Roystnof smiled. “But, it is your decision. If you feel you should stay, I will understand and wish you well. I am sure Otis will want you to stay, and if you feel you bear any obligation to him, perhaps you should stay. But again, it is you who must decide.”

Brisbane fastened the clasp of his medallion behind his neck. The silver pentacle rested in the space between his collar bones, below his adam’s apple and above the swelling of his pectorals. He thought of how upset Otis would be if he left with Roystnof. The elder Parkinson still instructed him in the knightly virtues and the holy words of Grecolus, but Brisbane had only been studying these to avoid a conflict for years now. He had lost most, if not all, of his faith in the benevolence or even the existence of Grecolus and the evil Damaleous. The only proof he had was the existence of magic, which he had been taught was the tool of the Evil One. But Brisbane no longer believed that either. Roystnof worked magic and he was not evil. Or if he was evil, then the concepts of good and evil were not absolute, and were subject to interpretation. The more Brisbane thought of these things, the more confused he became.

Brisbane then thought of his mother and the wishes she had had for his life. If she were still alive, he was sure he would be traveling to Farchrist Castle to appeal to the King to start his formal training to become a Knight. He would have done it if she had asked him to go but, somehow, with her gone, it didn’t seem as important. Her last words to her only son had been about loyalty, and staring at Roystnof’s red book of magic on the table before him, Brisbane realized that he felt more loyalty towards his wizard friend that he ever had for his mother’s dream.

“I will go with you,” Brisbane said finally, and he lowered his head, feeling somewhat ashamed.

Roystnof put a reassuring hand on Brisbane’s knee. “The choice is made, my friend. Go now and sleep a dreamless slumber. I will fetch you in the morning.”

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