Friday, October 29, 2010

The Wandering Hill by Larry McMurtry

This is Book 2 of McMurtry’s Berrybender Narratives, the first of which was Sin Killer, which I listened to as an audiobook back in 2006. I liked Sin Killer, mostly because I saw it as a kind of homage to Cooper and his Leatherstocking Tales, seeing more than a little Natty Bumppo in the character of Jim Snow, the Sin Killer.

And there are pieces of that same storyline in The Wandering Hill. Near the beginning, after Jim slaps his wife Tasmin for cursing, we learn more about Jim’s upbringing, and why he is so rigid against sin of any kind.

Jim didn’t answer. He wished Tasmin could just be silent, and not always be spilling words out of her mouth at such a rate. Lengthy talk just made it harder for him [to] hold the simple articles of faith in his mind, the faith that Preacher Cockerell had beaten into him at an early age. Preacher Cockerell never hesitated: he took the horsehide whip to his own wife and children as readily as he took it to Jim. Sin was to be driven out and violence was the way to drive it. Sin was also constant; violence had to be constant too. Preacher Cockerell whipped in the morning, whipped in the noontide, whipped at night; when members of his congregation sent their unruly young to him, he whipped them too. Jim grew up fearing the whip but not doubting the justice. Before the morning meal and the evening, Preacher Cockerell read from the Holy Book, terrible passages about punishment, sin, hell, Lot’s wife, the whore of Babylon, wars and floods and banishment, all the punishments that man deserved because of his sinful nature. Preacher Cockerell even whipped himself, for he had fallen into adultery with the wife of Deacon Sylvester. For such a sin even the whippings had not been enough, so Jehovah sent the lightning bolt that fried Preacher Cockerell and turned him black; the same lightning bolt threw Maundey Cockerell and Jim Snow aside as if they were chaff from the grain. For three days Jim lay unmoving; he seemed to float in red water, though there was no water where he was. Even the Kaw was low that year. Maundey Cockerell lived, but her mind died, destroyed by the heavenly flash. From that time on Jim had felt it was his duty to punish sin, whenever he met it in the violent men of the West, red or white; the Indians feared him because of the ferocity of his attacks. He was particularly feared by the medicine men, because it was the heresy of their spells and potions that angered him most.

Which I was initially intrigued by because, as clich├ęd as the background may seem to be, it certainly provided a contrasting moral construct than the one Natty pursued in books like The Pathfinder. For the Sin Killer, evidently, moral action is driven by blind dogma and violence, not by any heightened understanding of the natural world and the forces that shape it. Upon reading this, I was excited to see how this moral guidance would play itself out, as Jim Snow and Tasmin Berrybender seemed destined to enact some kind of epic clash between moral understandings of the world they decided to co-inhabit as man and wife.

And then, even more interesting, was the character of Pomp Charbonneau (the historical infant that Sacagawea had birthed and carried with her on the famous expedition of Lewis and Clark, now grown into a young man and fictionalized for this series), who McMurtry seems ready to set in opposition to the hard and judgmental morality of the Sin Killer.

Though glad, of course, that Hugh Glass was alive, Pomp felt no inclination to join in the party. Tasmin, in her annoyance, had stated an awkward truth about him: he was not often lustful, and he had rarely been able to join in the spirit of any group celebration. The English girl stated clearly what he himself had never quite articulated: he stood apart, not hostile or critical of the lusts or greeds of others; his gaze contained no stiff judgments, as her husband the Sin Killer’s fierce look was apt to do. Pomp would have liked to love a woman, feel a brother to a man, and yet he never had—or at least, he hadn’t since the death of Sacagawea, his mother; and that had occurred when he was only a boy.

But neither of these promises is kept—at least not in this volume of Berrybender Narratives. Pomp Charbonneau and even Jim Snow are more like minor characters in the story that follows, spending most of their time away from the story’s main character, Tasmin. There’s a hint of a coming conflict at the very end of the novel, when Pomp is injured in a climactic Indian attack, and has to have an arrowhead removed via frontier surgery before he floats off toward death.

Pomp, drifting in deep and starless darkness, heard Tasmin speak softly in his ear, saying she was here, she was here; but he couldn’t answer. The easeful darkness held him in its lazy power; he floated downward, deeper and deeper into it, as the soaked leaf sinks slowly to the bottom of a pool, to a place deeper than light. Helpless as the leaf he sank and sank, until, instead of Tasmin’s voice, he heard, “Jean Baptiste…Jean Baptiste!” Then the darkness gave way to the soft light of dream, and there was Sacagawea, his mother, sitting quietly in a field of waving grass, as she had so many times in his dreams. Though her dark eyes welcomed him, the look on her face was grave.

As always in his dreams of Sacagawea, Pomp wanted to rush to her, to be taken in her arms, as he had been as a child; but he could not move. The rules of the dream were severe—old sadness, old frustration pricked him, even though dreams of his mother were the best dreams of all.

As usual, when she visited him in dreams, Sacagawea began to talk in low tones of things that had happened long ago.

“When we were on our way back from the great ocean I took you up to the top of those white cliffs that rise by the Missouri,” she said. “I wanted you to see the great herds, grazing far from the world of men; but you were a young boy then, not even weaned, and I held your hand so you wouldn’t step off the edge of life and go too soon to the Sky House, where we all have to go someday. Now that old Ute’s arrow has brought you to the edge of life again, but the woman who whispers to you wants to pull you back, as I pulled you back when you were young.”

Sacagawea was looking directly at him—Pomp wanted to ask her questions, and yet, as always in his dreams of his mother, he was gripped by a terrible muteness; he could ask no question, make no plea, though he knew that at any time the dream might fade and his mother be lost to him until he visited her in dreams again. With the fear that his dream was ending came a sadness so deep that Pomp did not want to wake up to life, and yet that was just what his mother was urging him to do—she wanted him to listen to Tasmin.

“I did not wean you until you had seen four summers,” Sacagawea told him. “My milk was always strong—I filled you with it so that you could live long and enjoy the world of men, the world I showed you when we stood together on the white cliffs. Obey the woman who whispers—it is not time for you to come to the Sky House yet…”

Then, with sad swiftness, his mother faded; where her face had been was Tasmin’s face, leaning close to his. Pomp tried to smile, but couldn’t, not yet. Even so, Tasmin’s eyes shone with tears of relief.

“There…it’s out—and he’s not bleeding much,” Father Geoffrin said. “I think our good Pomp can live now—if he wants to.”

Tasmin had been watching Pomp’s face closely. Her heart leapt when he opened his eyes.

“I’ll see that he wants to!” she said, overjoyed that her friend had lived.

Father Geoffrin—priest, surgeon, and cynic—raised an eyebrow.

“I expect you will, madame,” he said. “I expect you will.”

That’s how the book ends. The juxtaposition between Pomp’s mother and Tasmin is, of course, symbolic, but the Father Geoffrin’s allusion at the very end is fairly direct. It’s too bad that I’ll have to wait until Book 3 to see this confrontation of moral attitudes.

So if not that moral confict, what does The Wandering Hill focus on? Well, the wandering hill, for one.

“I guess I’ll stay with you,” he said, a little awkwardly—but Pomp seemed not to mind the awkwardness. He was staring at a small, conical hill about half a mile away. The hill was mostly bare, but had a gnarled tree—cedar, probably—on top, a single tree with a dusting of snow.

Pomp looked troubled.

“That hill looks familiar,” he said—“but it ought to be farther south. There’s a hill just like that down by Manuel Lisa’s old fort, where my mother is buried.”

Jim looked at the tree—it seemed to him that he had seen a hill remarkably similar to this one—hadn’t it been near the South Platte?

“Maybe it’s the wandering hill—they say you usually find it where there’s been killings,” Pomp said.

Jim had heard of the wandering hill several times—it was a heathenish legend that many tribes seemed to believe. The hill was said to be inhabited with short, fierce devils with large heads, who killed travelers with deadly arrows made of grass blades, which they could shoot great distances.

“If that’s the hill with the devils in it they’d have a hard time finding grass blades to shoot at us, with all this snow,” Jim said.

Pomp was still staring at the strange, bare little hill.

“My mother believed in the wandering hill,” he said. “She claimed to have seen it way off over the mountains somewhere—near the Snake River, I think.”

“Well, I thought I saw it once myself—on the South Platte,” Jim admitted. “What do you think?”

Pomp shook his head.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t remember that particular hill being here the last time I came this way.”

If the novel hadn’t been named after it, this little section on the wandering hill may have gone unnoticed. But the title makes it stand out, and you begin to wonder what role the Indian legend is going to play in the narrative that follows.

The answer, surprisingly, is very little—until the very end, when the hill makes another appearance, convincing an Indian warrior that the English party traveling near it possesses some unknown kind of magic that is keeping the devils inside their hill. Magic of such power, he reasons, must be fought, and great honor would be bestowed on the warrior who could wrest it away from the English—and that prompts the attack in which Pomp is wounded.

In between these two events, there is nary a mention of the hill, making me wonder how relevant it really is to the story line.

There was only one other symbolic theme I stumbled across. It comes when the painter in the Berrybender party—George Catlin—is convinced to paint a nude portrait of Tasmin and another woman in the group, both exceedingly pregnant.

George Catlin scarcely noticed the incident, so absorbed was he in planning the composition; though idly suggested by Tasmin, it had now quite taken hold of his imagination. Motherhood, if delicately yet boldly executed, might be the canvas that would make his name. Perhaps it should be hung in some great building in Washington—the Capitol, perhaps. The more he thought about it, the more excited he became. The allegorical dimension should not, in his view, be ignored. Were not these two Englishwomen, after all, giving birth to Americans—and, by extension, to the new America itself? Would not they represent the newer, grander America even then being born in the West?

McMurtry is also an artist not likely to ignore the allegorical dimension of his work, and this passage and a few that follow is proof of it. The Berrybenders in the West are indeed an allegory of the new America being born, forged both out of the rugged frontier and overmastered by the self-assumed sophistication of English and, more broadly, European cultures. At one point Tasmin herself wonders which life would be best for her newborn son:

What did she want for Monty: the English life with its order and pattern, or the frontier life with its vast beauty and frequent danger?

Sadly, it’s a choice that the reader also has to make, as I don’t think that McMurtry has blended these ideas as well as he might’ve in his fiction. I’ll read the next volume in the series, but I won’t rush it to the top of my pile.

Friday, October 22, 2010

God

“It was a piece of subtle refinement that God learned Greek when he wanted to become a writer—and that he did not learn it better.”
Friedrich Nietsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Friday, October 15, 2010

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

I started off liking this book. Then I didn’t like it. Then I liked it again.

Let me explain.

Re: I started off liking this book. The first chapter is awesome. It's told in Vonnegut’s own voice, and it’s about the book he’s going to write about his experience in World War II (i.e., the book you’re reading, Slaughterhouse-Five). It’s clever and totally deconstructs the novel form. He tells you on page 4 what the climax of this book is going to be, as he’s talking to an old war buddy about the project.

“Listen—” I said, “I’m writing this book about Dresden. I’d like some help remembering stuff. I wonder if I could come down and see you, and we could drink and talk and remember.”

He was unenthusiastic. He said he couldn’t remember much. He told me, though, to come ahead.

“I think the climax of the book will be the execution of poor old Edgar Derby,” I said. “The irony is so great. A whole city gets burned down, and thousands and thousands of people are killed. And then this one American foot soldier is arrested in the ruins for taking a teapot. And he’s given a regular trial, and then he’s shot by a firing squad.”

“Um,” said O’Hare.

“Don’t you think that’s really where the climax should come?”

“I don’t know anything about it,” he said. “That’s your trade, not mine.”

The book that follows does indeed contain a character named Edgar Derby, but his execution is hardly the climax of the story. Every time he’s mentioned, Vonnegut reminds the reader that he’s going to get shot, and when it finally does happen it practically happens off stage. By telling us up front what the climax is going to be, Vonnegut destroys its effectiveness. He renders it impotent and takes away its sting. But there’s more than that going on here. O’Hare says, “that’s your trade, not mine,” calling attention to the idea that novel writing is a trade, and that it, like all trades, has tools. Tools like character development, plot exposition, rising action and climaxes. Slaughterhouse-Five has precious little of any of that, because Slaughterhouse-Five is not so much a novel as it is a commentary on the fundamental immorality of war—and how impervious most people are to seeing it.

Re: Then I didn’t like it. So then we get into the book, and are introduced to the protagonist, who isn’t Vonnegut, but an optometrist from Ilium, New York named Billy Pilgrim, who also fought in World War II and was present for the bombing of Dresden. Billy, as Vonnegut famously writes, “has come unstuck in time,” meaning that he seemingly jumps from time period to time period within his own life throughout the course of the novel.

Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between.

He says.

Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.

With the benefit of hindsight, I see now that this is Vonnegut’s metaphor for war, a place where a soldier “has no control over where he is going next,” and where he lives in “a constant state of stage fright.” It also is a remnant of the trauma Billy suffered in Germany, the time travel more mental than physical for him, especially as his life also includes time periods where he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. I don’t like this part of the novel—or at least didn’t while I was first reading it. It’s rough and jarring and unbelievable (more metaphors for war, perhaps?), but even so, some of Vonnegut’s genius begins to slip through.

It starts with a couple of Billy’s encounters with the Tralfamadorians. When he is first taken for observation:

“Welcome aboard, Mr. Pilgrim,” said the loudspeaker. “Any questions?”

Billy licked his lips, thought a while, inquired at last: “Why me?”

“That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?”

“Yes.” Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three ladybugs embedded in it.

“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

And later, when he is actually taken back to Tralfamadore to live in a zoo:

“Where am I?” said Billy Pilgrim.

“Trapped in another blob of amber, Mr. Pilgrim. We are where we have to be just now—three hundred million miles from Earth, bound for a time warp which will get us to Tralfamadore in hours rather than centuries.”

“How—how did I get here?”

“It would take another Earthling to explain it to you. Earthlings are the great explainers, explaining why this event is structured as it is, telling how other events may be achieved or avoided. I am a Tralfamadorian, seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”

“You sound to me as though you don’t believe in free will,” said Billy Pilgrim.

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

And I realize that this silliness about Tralfamadore is really very serious business, because through it Vonnegut is expressing his commentary about war and the men who fight in them. This piques my interest, and I begin to pay closer attention to what’s happening to Billy as he bounces around in time and space.

Re: Then I liked it again. And while I’m paying more attention, I bump into this:

Billy couldn’t read Tralfamadorian, of course, but he could at least see how the books were laid out—in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars. Billy commented that the clumps might be telegrams.

“Exactly,” said the voice.

“They are telegrams?”

“There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you’re right: each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message—describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”

Which, of course, is an accurate description of what Vonnegut is trying to do with Slaughterhouse-Five.

These adventures on Tralfamadore, then, like all good science fiction, become fantastic analogies for the realities that Vonnegut is trying to convey, and since the reality he is trying to convey is the nearly inscrutable subject of war, the more fantastic the analogies become, the more accurate they can be in describing the indescribable. The Tralfamadorians put Billy on display in their zoo, and the general Tralfamadorian public has a hard time understanding him and his behaviors, because the two species perceive time in drastically different ways. So Billy’s Tralfamadorian guide gives them an analogy.

The guide invited the crowd to imagine that they were looking across a desert at a mountain range on a day that was twinkling bright and clear. They could look at a peak or a bird or a cloud, at a stone right in front of them, or even down into a canyon behind them. But among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe.

This was only the beginning of Billy’s miseries in the metaphor. He was also strapped to a steel lattice which was bolted to a flatcar on rails, and there was no way he could turn his head or touch the pipe. The far end of the pipe rested on a bi-pod which was also bolted to the flatcar. All Billy could see was the little dot at the end of the pipe. He didn’t know he was on a flatcar, didn’t even know there was anything peculiar about his situation.

The flatcar sometimes crept, sometimes went extremely fast, often stopped—went uphill, downhill, around curves, along straightways. Whatever poor Billy saw though the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, “That’s life.”

I believe that Vonnegut is not just describing Billy’s “vision” in relation to that of the Tralfamadorians, but in fact is describing a human’s vision in relation to the actual reality that surrounds him or her, not just on the battlefield of war, but in everyday life. “That’s life,” we all say, but it isn’t really. It’s just what we are able to perceive.

And then there’s the fundamental immorality of war—and how impervious most people are to seeing it. In the course of Billy’s time jumping, he comes across a hack science fiction writer named Kilgore Trout.

This, too, was the title of a book by Trout, The Gutless Wonder. It was about a robot who had bad breath, who became popular after his halitosis was cured. But what made the story remarkable, since it was written in 1932, was that it predicted the widespread use of burning jellied gasoline on human beings.

It was dropped on them from airplanes. Robots did the dropping. They had no conscience, and no circuits which would allow them to imagine what was happening to the people on the ground.

Trout’s leading robot looked like a human being, and could talk and dance and so on, and go out with girls. And nobody held it against him that he dropped jellied gasoline on people. But they found his halitosis unforgivable. But then he cleared that up, and he was welcomed to the human race.

See what I mean? In the parable of science fiction the inscrutable becomes clear. It takes the steel sphere with its eyehole pipe off our heads and lets us see the reality that surrounds us. Through the periscope, burning the innocent city dwellers of the enemy to death with jellied gasoline may pass the constructed morality test of our times and our society, but abstracted to the world of robots and aliens, the utter lunacy and immorality of it all becomes apparent.

That’s Slaughterhouse-Five in a nutshell. And taken from this perspective, the novel is a remarkable achievement.

Friday, October 8, 2010

God

“He doesn’t exist, yet He does. There’s no pain in the stone, but there’s pain in the fear of the stone. God is the pain of the fear of death.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Devils (Aleksei Nilych Kirillov)

Friday, October 1, 2010

Chapter Three

from STONE TO FLESH
FARCHRIST TALES - BOOK ONE

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

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Throughout the realm the name of evil was Damaleous. But to the people of The City Below the Castle, evil bore the name of Dalanmire. This evil took the form of a monstrous winged lizard, a dragon, with scales of dark blue, deeper than the color of a midnight thrush. The old regime had extracted a dragon tax from its citizens and had delivered the gold to the beast in order to spare The City and its valley from destruction. The system had worked for decades—perhaps centuries—but the followers of Farchrist thought it was just a scheme to steal what little they had and, with the revolution, they quickly abandoned the collection of the dragon tax. In Farchrist Year Four, seven years had passed since the last collection and the tax came due again.

+ + +

The three of them left early the next morning, before the sun was an hour over the Shadowhorn Forest. They decided first to travel east to Queensburg, a journey that would take all day on foot. There they would spend the night and buy the supplies they would need for the trek south.

Shortwhiskers was dressed much as he had been the night before, but he had a pack mule with him, laden with all sorts of things he had acquired. Most of it was hidden in packs and saddlebags, but Brisbane could see a myriad of weapons and a small suit of chainmail tied securely to the beast of burden.

Roystnof, as usual, was adorned in red and black. He wore comfortable walking shoes, black pants with plenty of large pockets, and a red shirt, buttoned down the front and tucked into the trousers. He wore a black cap, carried a backpack, and leaned on a polished wooden staff that was tipped with metal and as tall as himself. He looked very much like an ordinary traveler.

Brisbane was dressed simply as well. He wore boots that laced halfway up his calves, tanned leather pants, and a blue tunic his mother had made for him. His hair was tied back with the same red strap he had worn the night before, the tail falling to the bottom of his shoulder blades. He still wore the pentacle medallion.

He remembered the scene the night before, after he had left Roystnof’s house and had told Otis that he would be leaving with the wizard in the morning. Otis had taken it surprisingly well. He had merely nodded his head as if he had long ago sensed that this day would come. Brisbane had seen deep disappointment in Otis’ eyes, but Otis had contained himself and had not spoken out against his stepson’s decision. He had even tried to give Brisbane a small bag of gold coins, but Brisbane had not been able to bring himself to take them. Now, the memory gave him a chill in the warm sunlight.

But as the day wore on, Brisbane began to shake loose some of the guilt he felt for doing what he wished instead of what had been expected of him. He began to feel that he had left his old life behind and became eager to start living a new one.

Roystnof was generally quiet throughout the march to Queensburg, only mumbling to himself on occasion, obviously deep in thought about some part of his craft. Both Brisbane and Shortwhiskers felt it wise not to disturb the wizard, so they spent the time getting to know each other. Shortwhiskers said he was from a small clan who lived in the northern reaches of the Crimson Mountains, and that he had left his home about the time the Farchrists had come to power in the valley. He was elusive about the reason he had left, but it was obvious to Brisbane that he hadn’t been back since that time, and that such a long absence pained him deeply.

Brisbane didn’t feel he could tell Shortwhiskers much about his true family that the dwarf didn’t already know, so he spoke of his childhood in Scalt, his mother, Otis, and his upbringing.

“Nog,” Brisbane said at one point in the day. The dwarf had asked the young man to call him that after Brisbane had called him ‘Mister Shortwhiskers.’ “Nog,” he said. “Last night you used two names in exclamation that I did not recognize. Moradin and Abba-something. What are these names?”

Shortwhiskers gave him a slanted look. “Do you mock me, Gil?” Brisbane had in turn asked the dwarf to call him by his first name.

Brisbane was shocked. “Of course not. I was just curious, that’s all.”

Shortwhiskers still looked at him in disbelief. “Moradin and Abbathor,” he said clearly. “They are two gods of the dwarven pantheon. Moradin is the Soul Forger, creator of the race of dwarves, and Abbathor is the Great Master of Greed, the thoroughly evil opponent of Moradin and his followers.”

Brisbane’s curiosity jumped up three notches. In all his studies and teachings, he had never heard mention of gods other than Grecolus. In fact, the worship of false gods was one of Grecolus’ deadly sins. “Tell me more,” he said.

“You mean,” Shortwhiskers said, “you have never heard of Moradin?”

Brisbane had thought—and had been taught—all the races: men, dwarves, and even the elves, worshipped Grecolus. He had been taught that Grecolus created them all. “No,” he said with all honesty.

“I didn’t think anyone led such a secluded life,” the dwarf said. “But since you are a Brisbane, I will accept you word as the truth.”

“Tell me about your gods,” Brisbane said.

Shortwhiskers showed his teeth in a smile, revealing one gold incisor. Brisbane already knew the dwarf well enough to know he liked telling stories.

“Well,” Shortwhiskers started, “when the world began, the fold of the dwarven gods, ruled by Moradin, and the gods of the other races decided to populate the Earth with races of their own creation. Moradin is called the Soul Forger because it is he who created the first dwarves, forging them in the center fires of the world from iron and mithral. He gave them their souls when he blew on their mortal forms to cool them.”

Brisbane found this information fascinating. Here was a totally different view of the creation of life. This one dealt with many different gods creating many different races. It was so foreign to what he had been taught that he found it strangely attractive.

“And Abbathor?” Brisbane asked.

“In the beginning,” the dwarf continued, “Abbathor was not an enemy of Moradin. He was the God of Gems and Metals, and his worshippers were respectable members of the community. But when Moradin named Dumathoin the protector of the mountain dwarves—”

“Dumathoin?” Brisbane interrupted.

Shortwhiskers chuckled. “Not heard of him either, eh? Dumathoin is another of our gods, the Keeper of Secrets Under the Mountain. You see, the mountain dwarves are miners by and large, and since they mine for secrets under mountains, Moradin appointed Dumathoin their protector. Abbathor argued that since the secrets that the miners discovered were gems and metals, he should be their protector. But Moradin would not hear of it. From that day forward, Abbathor has worked to wreak his revenge on the other gods—and especially Moradin and Dumathoin—by trying to establish consuming greed as the focus of dwarven lives.”

Brisbane began to realize that this mythology was remarkably similar to the one he had been taught. But in his case, Damaleous had not been a god, but a powerful servant of Grecolus who had felt wronged by his creator and who had sworn undying vengeance upon Grecolus’ flock because of it. Brisbane began to wonder if in fact Moradin and Abbathor were really just the dwarven names for Grecolus and Damaleous. He wanted to see if there were other similarities between the two religions.

“But how did your gods get here?” Brisbane asked the dwarf. “You said they were here when the world began. Did Moradin create the world? And who created Moradin?”

“Moradin did not create the world,” Shortwhiskers answered. “The world was here when Moradin and the gods of the other races arrived. Where they came from is only speculation in most circles, but the highest dwarven clerics believe it was from a faraway place in the sky where our laws of nature do not apply. It is also believed that Moradin exists out of the time frame that structures our lives, so that to us it would appear that he has always been and will always be.”

Some of this differed from what Brisbane had been taught. Grecolus was said to have created the universe: the stars, the sun, the moons, the Earth, and everything on it. He did it all. But as far as Grecolus’ origin was concerned, it was left as abstract as Moradin’s. Brisbane’s lessons had always been hazy in this most important respect. The best he had ever been able to come away with was the explanation that Grecolus had created himself, too.

They passed the day with this kind of talk and about two hours after the sun had dropped behind the Crimson Mountains, they stumbled into Queensburg. It was a small town, much larger than the tiny village of Scalt, but small when compared to Raveltown, the City Beneath the Castle. It lay on the shores of the Sea of Darkmarine, nestled between the Shadowhorn Forest and the Windcrest Hills.

Queensburg was dark and quiet when they arrived, but light and voices could be seen and heard coming from the town’s square. When Brisbane and his companions arrived on the scene, they found the square filled with people. At one corner of the square stood a large stone platform which pushed a small pulpit twenty feet above the throng gathered below. Two huge torches burned their orange lights on either side of the pulpit and, in the pulpit itself, shouting to the crowd, was the figure of a woman.

As Brisbane followed Shortwhiskers and Roystnof as they meandered through the crowd, he listened to what the woman was shouting.

“Friends! Citizens of Queensburg and subjects of Farchrist! Look into the sky and see the full face of the white moon of Grecolum.”

Her voice was like that of a choir. It had many facets that seemed to reverberate in unison. She sang the words into the night air, and her voice had the power to warm the chill that hung in one’s bones.

“The Evil One’s satellite is dark this night, afraid to show its red luminance. For tonight is the eve of Grecolus’ holiest day. The Whiteshine is upon us!”

Brisbane had momentarily forgotten it, but the woman was correct. As everyone knew, the Earth had two moons, the token symbols of Grecolus and Damaleous. Grecolum was by far the larger of the two and, when it was full and Damaleum new, it marked the eve of the festival of Whiteshine. It happened once every three years. Brisbane had no way of knowing it, but he assumed worshippers of Damaleous held a similar festival when their moon was full and Grecolum new. How often that happened, no one Brisbane knew had ever bothered to figure out.

“And so I have gathered you faithful here to hear the good news of Grecolus,” the woman in the pulpit went on. “For some time now we have been plagued with rumors of an army of orks massing in the Windcrest Hills to our south, intent on burning our homes and destroying our crops.”

Brisbane had heard of orks although he had never seen one. They were denizens of evil who warred continuously to claim more and more power. Some people classified them as a separate race, like the dwarves and the elves, while others believed them to be demons on earth, slaves to their master Damaleous.

Brisbane looked and saw that his friends seemed to be making for a small inn on the far side of the square. He followed them, but tried to keep his eye on the speaker.

“But it is a time of goodness—the heavens confirm it—and no abomination of evil can expose itself to the full radiance of Grecolum!”

Shortwhiskers and Roystnof arrived at the inn, a homey little place called The Driftwood, and Brisbane stopped just outside the door. The inn was near the corner where the woman stood in the pulpit and Brisbane was as close to her as he was going to get that night. He looked at her one last time before he went inside and, as he did so, he realized that she was beautiful. The door shut and her voice became muffled, but still understandable.

“So be at peace, my friends. Rest easy tonight and enjoy the festival tomorrow!”

A tremendous cheer went up throughout the gathered crowd.

“You want rooms?” asked a small balding man behind the front desk.

“Just one large one,” Roystnof answered as he stepped up to deal with the innkeeper.

Shortwhiskers moved closer to Brisbane. “Her name is Stargazer,” he said.

Brisbane was watching her descend from the pulpit through a small window. “She’s beautiful, Nog. Who is she?”

“A mystery to most,” the dwarf replied. “I’ve known her for some time, but most, even those who live in Queensburg, have not. Her first name is Allison. Allison Stargazer.”

“Why was she addressing them? Is she a priestess?”

Shortwhiskers paused. “Not exactly,” he said as he scratched his beard. “She’s more of a prophet, now. She worships Grecolus in the old traditional ways. She has a place outside of town where she practices her art.”

Brisbane lost the mysterious woman in the crowd. “Her art?” he asked, turning back to look at Shortwhiskers.

The dwarf nodded. “Allison’s a healer. She says her power comes from Grecolus himself.”

Brisbane could only stare at the dwarf. He found he had no other response to make.

Roystnof suddenly called to them from the stairs, saying their room was ready, and the two stragglers quickly caught up.