Monday, November 29, 2010

God and Man

“Let me tell you. The proofs that God does not exist are very strong, but in lots of people they are not as strong as the feeling that He does.”
John Steinbeck, East of Eden (Adam Trask)

Monday, November 22, 2010

After Daybreak: The Liberation of Belsen, 1945 by Ben Shephard

This was a very sad and sometimes painful book to read. I picked it up a few years ago in Germany, at the “gift shop” at Bergen Belsen concentration camp. Visiting the camp (or what’s left of it) was a moving experience, as was reading this book—which describes the liberation of the camp by British soldiers and medical personnel in the spring of 1945. The conditions just before that liberation were grim, to say the least.

The camp became yet more overcrowded, the population growing from 15,257 at the end of 1944 to 44,000 by the end of March 1945, even though some 18,000 people had died there in that month alone. ‘We are engulfed in our own stinking sea of germs, lice and fleas, and everything around us is putrid and slimy,’ [Hanna] Levy-Hass [a Yugoslav Communist imprisoned at Belsen] wrote. ‘We are literally lying on top of each other, we provide a perfect breeding-ground for the lice.’ In February 1945, an epidemic of typhus broke out. There began to be reports of cannibalism among the inmates: of corpses being cut open and organs such as the liver extracted and eaten.

Indeed, just reading these descriptions, to say nothing of transcribing them here, makes me uncomfortable. I hesitate, not wanting to slide into objectification and voyeurism as a self-defense mechanism. I wonder if I experience something akin to the war photographers who visited the camp, witnessing things through their camera lens that would be intolerable without the interposition of some recording device between themselves and that awful reality.

For the army cameraman, it helped to concentrate on the technical problems of filming. ‘It was OK as long as you were looking through the lens,’ one said later—though this technique didn’t work with the great photographer George Rodger who was overcome by shame while taking a picture of a man dying at Belsen (for Life magazine). Rodger put his camera away and tried to help. He never photographed war again.

The camera was not enough to shield Rodger, but some were able to make the technique work—and it is important that they were, because there should be some record of these events.

The British were sickened and revolted. ‘The things I saw completely defy description,’ Colonel Taylor’s deputy, Major Ben Barnett wrote. ‘There are no words in the English language which can give a true impression of the ghastly horror of this camp.’ Countless others would say the same thing over the next weeks—that Belsen defied language. But it wasn’t just a matter of finding words: for Major Barnett the thing itself was beyond comprehension. ‘I find it hard even now to get into focus all these horrors, my mind is really quite incapable of taking in everything I saw because it was all so completely foreign to everything I had previously believed or thought possible,’ he added.

That really underscores why the photographers had to take those pictures, why the authors have had to write the books, and, in my own small way, why I have to transcribe here the things that shocked and sickened me. These things happened. They’re not just horror stories. They are a record of just how callous and malevolent we can be to each other, and it’s something that should never be forgotten.

The tales of the medical personnel who faced the impossible task of helping so many thousands of people so close to death are some of the most heartbreaking. There was a cruel but necessary logic that had to be applied.

Military triage divides battlefield casualties into three categories—those who will inevitably die, those who can be returned to the front and those who will live but will not fight again—and concentrates resources on the lightly wounded while ignoring the dying. Similarly, at Belsen, ‘One had to get used early to the idea that the individual just did not count,’ [Lt. Colonel Mervin] Gonin [the officer commanding the 11th Light Field Ambulance and a general practitioner] recalled. ‘One knew that five hundred a day were dying and that five hundred a day were going on dying for weeks before anything we could do would have the slightest effect. It was, however, not easy to watch a child choking to death from diphtheria when you knew that a tracheotomy and nursing would save it.’

Belsen was not initially a death camp. It was a place where the Third Reich wanted to gather all the inmates from across the German camp system who might have some financial or political value as hostages and keep them caged but alive. As such, there were no gas chambers or incinerators at Belsen. But as the resources of the Reich became stretched thinner and thinner by the Allied war effort, the prisoners at Belsen were left alone in their huts to slowly starve to death. Thousands had already died by the time the camp was liberated, the prisoners themselves piling up the dead bodies in the corners of their compound. The medical students who were sent into these huts to separate the nearly dead from the nearly living had a harrowing time of it.

No one forgot the moment of first entering ‘their’ hut. ‘We walked in, held our nose, walked round, walked out again, looked at each other and said “Where do we start?”’ Ian Proctor remembered, ‘It was full of the most emaciated people I have ever seen in my life. There was supposed to be a loo at the far end but they couldn’t get up to go to it. It was almost up to the top of one’s boots in excreta. One just stumped about in it. People by now were too weak to use the lavatory and were just lying there in their own faeces and urine which dripped down from one bunk to the next—quite appalling.’ Writing in 1945, Alan MacAuslan caught more precise details:

‘We took a look round—there was faeces all over the floor—the majority of people having diarrhoea. I was standing aghast in the midst of all this filth trying to get used to the smell which was a mixture of post-mortem room, a sewer, sweat, and foul pus, when I heard a scrabbling on the floor. I looked down in the half light and saw a woman crouching at my feet. She had black matted hair, well populated and her ribs stood out as though there were nothing between them, her arms were so thin that they were horrible. She was defecating, but she was so weak that she could not life her buttocks from the floor and, as she had diarrhoea, the liquid yellow stools bubbled over her thighs.’

Those who were selected for care were removed the filthy huts—sometimes forcibly over the cries of those who did not wish to be separated from relatives or friends who were too sick to be saved—and taken to a mobile bath unit constructed to efficiently wash hundreds of inmates every day.

In this ‘human laundry,’ each patient was carried by a German medical orderly to one of the tables and then washed, shaved and dusted with DDT [standard treatment for typhus at the time] by two nurses from the German Military Hospital, supervised by two German doctors under a British officer. Hair that was long and thick or heavily infested with lice was clipped off, although the British relented somewhat when they saw ‘the deleterious psychological effect this had on women who were well enough to realise what was going on.’ [Lt. Colonel James] Johnston admitted that most of the inmates were ‘not really in a fit state to withstand such treatment’—it was ‘not funny having soap rubbed into a painful ulcer’ and ‘very painful to those with severe conditions such as bed-sores.’ But there was no alternative. Of the 14,000 people who eventually passed through the ‘laundry,’ only two died. Some of the fitter female inmates objected to the immodesty of the procedure but most were too apathetic to care.

‘Going into that place, who could forget it?’ wrote Molly Sylva Jones of the Red Cross. ‘Living corpses, skeletons covered with parchment like skin, discoloured by filth and neglected sores lay on the bath tables. Mostly they lay inert, occasionally they moaned as they were touched by the nurses. They lay with open eyes sunk deep into hollow sockets, eyes which registered little, save fear and apprehension, mainly they were expressionless.’

After the laundry they were taken to a makeshift hospital, where many of them “woke up” for the first time in years.

Anka Fischer was lying stark naked on ‘a large 2-storey mountain of dead bodies’ when the British entered Belsen. ‘I was unconscious at the time,’ she wrote in November 1945, ‘and cannot remember the event.’ Soldiers tried to resuscitate people from the pile—or simply tried to move it—and, when she showed signs of life, she was taken to hospital, and eventually emerged from the coma, still weak and sick with typhus, weighing only 32 kg. She was kept in hospital for nine weeks. Rena Salt remembered coming into the hospital in a bed ‘with white linen. That was just heaven. You could stretch out for the first time in months.’ Her first meal ‘consisted of a quarter slice of white bread, topped with a teaspoonful of stewed apples. And the taste is still in my mouth today.’

There were, of course, reasons why the inmates acted this way—why they were practically comatose. For many if not most, the humanity had been beaten and starved out of them, and they had retreated into themselves in order to survive. Those who were temporarily left behind in the huts still acted as if civilization had abandoned them. As food began to be distributed, the British appointed leaders within each hut, believing they would make sure that everything was shared fairly and that the weakest inmates would get their portion. It didn’t work.

The British had expected to find grateful victims, not ‘beings come from another world’; when they had to intervene in wild brawls between the inmates, and discovered that no one could be relied on to distribute food and everyone was purely interested in their own personal profit, they had completely lost faith in the prisoners:

‘They understood nothing about it; it seemed to them that they were looking after a zoo inhabited by savage beasts, with dominant species and the mass of the dying, an antediluvian zoo where it was as natural to dominate as to die.’

Indeed, the psychological destruction the Nazis had wrought was in some ways more devastating than the physical.

Saving the lives of the Belsen inmates was only part of the story; their minds too had to be rescued. By the end of May 1945, the British, ‘aided by the fine summer weather and the ready-made facilities of the Panzer Training School’ [a nearby institution where they had set-up their hospital], had, in Derrick Sington’s words, ‘carried out the immediate task of feeding, re-clothing and re-housing the inmates of Belsen.’ But there still remained ‘the tasks of psychological restoration, of rebuilding confidence, of making up for years of education lost, of re-accustoming 15,000 people to enjoyment in work, of teaching many of them to trust and respect authority rather than defy and outwit it, of persuading them to regard regulations and rules as benevolent and not diabolical. Obviously nothing more than a beginning could be made with this difficult work.’

It was work that would continue for years, in some cases, for the rest of the survivors’ lives. What may be equally sad is the way so many survivors seem to drop out of history after just a few years. Some stayed in Germany, some were accepted by Sweden, some emigrated to the new Israel or to America, but most seem to drift into the undocumented population of the world like ghosts, doing little to help us remember what had happened to them.

Monday, November 15, 2010

God and Man

“Clearly I miss Him, having been brought up in religion. But now a man must be responsible to himself.”
Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (Anselmo)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence

I had high hopes for this one.

Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances. For years we lived anyhow with one another in the naked desert, under the indifferent heaven. By day the hot sun fermented us; and we were dizzied by beating wind. At night we were stained by dew, and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars. We were a self-centered army without parade or gesture, devoted to freedom, the second of man’s creeds, a purpose so ravenous that it devoured all our strength, a hope so transcendent that our earlier ambitions faded in its glare.

As time went by our need to fight for the ideal increased to an unquestioning possession, riding with spur and rein over our doubts. Willy-nilly it became a faith. We had sold ourselves into its slavery, manacled ourselves together in its chain-gang, bowed ourselves to serve its holiness with all our good and ill content. The mentality of ordinary human slaves is terrible—they have lost the world—and we had surrendered, not body alone, but soul to the overmastering greed of victory. By our own act we were drained of morality, of volition, of responsibility, like dead leaves in the wind.

Those are the opening two paragraphs, and it’s as if Lawrence in speaking directly to my generation and my society over the vast difference of years and miles, intent on providing a cautionary tale about the inevitable legacy of empire, of the fruitless pursuit of the ideal instead of the human.

And the insights into the different cultures and the mindsets of what we now call the Middle East come with fair regularity as in the first few chapters Lawrence describes the stage on which his narrative with be played and the actors that will drive it.

In the very outset, at the first meeting with them, was found a universal clearness or hardness of belief, almost mathematical in its limitation, and repellent in its unsympathetic form. Semites had no half-tones in their register of vision. They were a people of primary colours, or rather of black and white, who saw the world always in contour. They were a dogmatic people, despising doubt, our modern crown of thorns. They did not understand our metaphysical difficulties, our introspective questionings. They knew only truth and untruth, belief and unbelief, without our hesitating retinue of finer shades.

This is on page 38, and with turns of phrase like “doubt, our modern crown of thorns,” I thought I was going to have no problem getting through the next 634.

But I was wrong. After such a promising beginning, Lawrence’s narrative decays into a seemingly endless recitation of people, desert places, army movements, and battle plans. It would help if I knew more about the era and, especially, the people being described. I mean, I saw Lawrence of Arabia once, and remember being confused by even it, so imagine my surprise at finding the book just as inscrutable. Usually, the book manages to explain so much more.

I called it quits after page 168. Before getting there, I found this interesting pearl about leadership.

A weariness of the desert was the living always in company, each of the party hearing all that was said and seeing all that was done by the others day and night. Yet the craving for solitude seemed part of the delusion of self-sufficiency, a factitious making-rare of the person to enhance its strangeness in its own estimation. To have privacy, as Newcombe and I had, was ten thousand times more restful than the open life, but the work suffered by the creation of such a bar between the leaders and men. Among the Arabs there were no distinctions, traditional or natural, except the unconscious power given a famous sheikh by virtue of his accomplishment; and they taught me that no man could be their leader except he ate the ranks’ food, wore their clothes, lived level with them, and yet appeared better in himself.

Perhaps if there had been more of these tidbits between pages 38 and 157 I would have kept slogging through the rest for them. Absent those pillars of wisdom, and as I grow ever older, alas, I find myself more and more thinking about all the other books I’d like to read. Maybe I’ll come back to this one at the end.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Chapter Four


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

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

A son was born to Gregorovich Farchrist on the same night that Dalanmire reminded the new regime of the reason for the dragon tax. On that night, the shrieks of labor were drowned out by the shrieks of lightning fire that burned from the mouth of that ancient lizard. The cries of the newborn were overwhelmed by the cries of the dying in the city below. The castle was spared, but the City Below the Castle was destroyed, and the loss of life was horrendous. The Peasant King first named his son Gregorovich Farchrist II, and then reluctantly reinstituted the dragon tax on his unfortunate kingdom.

+ + +

They decided to spend another day in Queensburg. Roystnof roused the others early and, as Shortwhiskers went out to buy supplies, Roystnof and Brisbane sat down with the wizard’s slim red book.

Roystnof told his pupil that each spell required an exact sequence of either vocal sounds or hand movements—and that some needed material components as well—to spark the magic into the proper channel. Brisbane had already had some experience with this idea through the few cantrips he could cast, but Roystnof said the restrictions on the parameters were much more stringent with more powerful spells. The sounds had to be perfect and exact, and the movements had to be done the same each time.

The spell Brisbane would spend the rest of the morning trying to master was called shocking grasp, and when performed correctly, was designed to send a large amount of electrical energy through its victim’s body at the touch of the spell caster. Roystnof said it was a good offensive spell, and a good one to learn first, for it had the power to kill most humanoids at a single touch.

Shocking grasp required no material components, but had rigorous verbal and somatic components. Brisbane’s throat quickly went dry from trying to copy the crackling noise of lightning Roystnof modeled for him time and time again. For the hand movements, Brisbane had to start with his fists together and his index fingers extended, touching only at the tips. He was to concentrate on the spot where his fingers met and start his crackling noise. Slowly bringing his fingers apart should cause a bright blue spark to hang thread-like between them. After that, the next thing he touched would have a jolt of electricity sent though it powerful enough to stop a human heart.

Shortwhiskers returned with the provisions and equipment when Brisbane was starting to get a small jumping spark between his fingers. The dwarf unloaded himself and, seeing that the others were still busy, discreetly left.

It was well past noon when Brisbane finally got it. He gave a wooden chair enough juice to turn it black. He sat down on his bed and wiped his brow.

“I’m exhausted,” Brisbane said.

“Magic does that,” Roystnof nodded. “It draws from the body. That’s where all your power comes from. Eventually, you’ll learn to tap the power of your mind. That kind of magic is much more powerful, but much harder to control.”

“You can cast spells with the power of your mind,” Brisbane said. “Can’t you?”

Roystnof smiled. “How about some lunch?”

Roystnof fixed them a small meal as Brisbane rested. They ate in the silence that exists between two friends who can talk to each other without speaking. When they had finished their repast, Brisbane took off his boots and lay on his bed, hands folded beneath his head. Roystnof began to study more of his red book in a chair near the window.

“Tell me about Roundtower,” Brisbane said as he closed his eyes.

“What would you like to know?”

Brisbane watched the colors roll around on the insides of his eyelids. “Well, I don’t know. What’s he like?”

Roystnof paused for only a moment. “Ignatius Roundtower is a very proud man whose skill with his sword is better than anyone else I have ever seen.”

“Proud?” Brisbane asked. “What do you mean?”

“He hopes to become a Knight of Farchrist one day. The reason he started traveling with Nog and later myself was to gain experience in combat and to test himself.”

“Test himself?”

“Yes,” Roystnof said. “To test his courage and the strength of his convictions, I suppose.”

“That seems unusual,” Brisbane said, his eyes still closed.

“Why?” Roystnof asked.

“Well, to become a Knight of Farchrist, you have to be of the right social standing and you have to be chosen by an existing Knight to serve as his Squire for a period of at least three years. It’s my understanding that they frown upon outsiders and mercenary types. No offense Roy, but the knighthood won’t look too well upon him if they discover he’s had dealings with wizards. Knights are sworn to serve the King and the will of Grecolus. You know how they must feel about magic and those who practice it.”

That started Brisbane thinking. He had just learned a magic spell. He hated to think of what he might have just done to this mother’s dream of him one day becoming a Knight. By those standards, he was now a servant of Damaleous. He had performed simple cantrips before, but Brisbane had considered those just tricks, little more than sleight-of-hand. Shocking grasp, however, was magic. There was no rationalizing around that. Even now, he could hear Otis lecturing him in his head.

“I suspect,” Roystnof replied, “that Ignatius realizes these facts, but is unwilling to admit their consequences to himself. Although, I have known him for some time now, and it is clear to me that his faith in his god is very strong and very pure. Ideally, that should be all one needs.”

“But you haven’t seen him in six years,” Brisbane said.

“This is true.”

Brisbane lay quietly for a while and Roystnof went back to his book. Brisbane began pondering his beliefs and he found them much more eroded than he would have thought possible. He could still remember his younger years when he had accepted all he had been told as the truth and had held it dear to his heart. But now he looked over all those wonderful truths and found them lacking. Even if it were all true, it was somehow not enough for him now. He felt that there was still something missing, that that could not possibly be all there was. That a timeless, ageless being named Grecolus created the entire universe in which he placed a wholly imperfect world where evil tortured good. Or perhaps, from the dwarven perspective, where philanthropy was conquered by greed. That in this bitter and ugly world, where only the strongest survived, one was expected to adhere to the ethical considerations and moral obligations of a creator who did not make himself visible, in order to secure a place in the heavens for an eternal life of bliss—while those who bested, spurned, and beat you in your short earthly life burned before your vindicated eyes in the fiery hells of Damaleous. Brisbane had been afraid to say it aloud earlier in his life, but to him, it all seemed so vengeful, and just a little bit childish.

Brisbane must have drifted off with these thoughts, for when he awoke the room was dark. In one corner, Roystnof and Shortwhiskers sat playing cards around a small candle. The dwarf was grumbling. He was obviously losing.

“Serves me right. Playing cards with a master of sleight-of-hand.”

Roystnof noticed that Brisbane had awoken. He motioned to Shortwhiskers and the dwarf turned in his chair to look at the young man.

“Put your boots on, Gil,” Shortwhiskers said. “We’ve got an errand to run before sundown.”

Brisbane noticed that the shades were drawn, but they were aglow with sunlight. He nodded to the dwarf, sat up on the edge of the bed, and began lacing his boots.

“What kind of errand?” Brisbane asked.

“Well,” Shortwhiskers said, “unlike your sorcerer friend here, I don’t think one little spell is going to be enough to protect you. We’re going to the armory.”

Brisbane finished tying his bootstrings. He looked up at Roystnof as if to get his permission to go with the dwarf. He had seen Shortwhiskers’ suit of chainmail tied to his pack mule, but he knew Roystnof had no such protection. It somehow seemed that he, as Roystnof’s would-be apprentice, shouldn’t wear any armor either.

Roystnof only nodded his bearded face.

Brisbane got up and left with the dwarf. They quickly found themselves on the busy streets of Queensburg. The day-long festival of Whiteshine was still going strong, and Brisbane could not help but think with some shame that he had just spent Grecolus’ holiest day studying magic and learning how to cast a spell. On the streets, Brisbane saw large groups of people enjoying the entertainment provided by jugglers and traveling acrobatic groups. The sun was nearing the eastern horizon and, within an hour, it would be gone for another night and the festival would be over. It seemed odd to Brisbane that a festival held in honor of the moon Grecolum would start and end with the sun, but that was the way it had always been done. Brisbane had never been to Queensburg before, but Shortwhiskers seemed to know where they were going.

They soon arrived at a small building that had a faded and weatherbeaten sign hung over the door. ‘Royale Armory,’ it declared with flaking paint. Brisbane was surprised it was open on the day of the festival, but he supposed some were worse off than others. The pair went inside and were greeted by a large man with a curly red beard and bulging forearms. He showed them all types of armor, but seemed disappointed when the dwarf said they needed something his young friend could walk out with.

“I usually make the armor custom-made to fit,” the man said. “Takes about a week, but practically eliminates chaffing.”

“Sorry,” Shortwhiskers said. “But we’re leaving town tomorrow.”

“Shame,” the man said. “It’ll be hard to find something laying around that’ll fit a lad as big as him.”

Less than an hour later Brisbane left the shop wearing a leather smock that gathered at the waist and was studded with dozens of metal plates. Shortwhiskers had paid fifteen pieces of gold for it. Brisbane promised he would pay the dwarf back when he came into some money, but Shortwhiskers curtly told him to forget it. They began to walk back to the inn.

“You’ll need a weapon, too,” the dwarf said. “You can use one of mine. Ignatius always said I was a walking arsenal anyway.”

Shortwhiskers went suddenly silent and stared at his feet. Brisbane suspected the dwarf felt uncertain of what lay ahead for his friend. He felt he should change the subject if he could.

“You said you know where this Stargazer woman lives?” Brisbane said.

Shortwhiskers stopped and looked up at Brisbane. “Yes…”

“I would very much like to go there and see her practice this art of hers. I’ve heard about mystics who claim they can heal by divine power. I’d like to see it for myself.”

“Allison is no mystic,” Shortwhiskers said.

Brisbane did not allow the dwarf’s tone to sidetrack him. “Would you take me there?”

Shortwhiskers searched Brisbane’s face. “Want to see her practice her art, huh?”

Brisbane nodded.

Shortwhiskers shrugged. “Follow me,” he said.

The dwarf led Brisbane out of town towards the Shadowhorn Forest. They went about a mile out of town, and there, nestled under the outer trees of the Shadowhorn, was a pair of small cabins. One was dark, but from the other came the powerful glow of lamplight. Both cabins were made of felled timber, were single-storied, and had thatched roofs. Shortwhiskers said Stargazer would be in the lighted cabin, tending the sick, and he led Brisbane to the doorway.

Inside the cabin it was all one room, with a dozen cots lining the walls. All were empty except for one at the far end of the cabin. In it lay the figure of an old man and, sitting on a small stool next to the cot with her back to the door, was the honey-haired Allison Stargazer.

“Allison.” Shortwhiskers’ voice sounded hoarse.

She turned and when she saw the dwarf she jumped up. She bent down and said a few quick words to her patient and ran down to the door.

Brisbane watched as she called out Shortwhiskers’ first name, and as she crouched down to give the dwarf a warm hug. She stood a little under five and a half feet and had a slight frame. She wore a simple blue and white dress that dropped to the middle of her calves and her golden honey hair was pinned behind her ears, falling to her shoulders. She was thin but had a full bosom and sturdy hips. Her face was an angel’s dream. Bright, wide, emerald eyes dominated her sharp features and her complexion was pink and full of health.

Brisbane had never seen anyone so lovely.

“Nog Shortwhiskers,” she said as she broke the embrace and stood up. “What have you been doing with yourself?”

“This and that,” Shortwhiskers said, obviously embarrassed over Stargazer’s show of affection. “I was just passing through town and thought, well, you know.”

She smiled. “How are your ribs?”

Shortwhiskers patted his flank. “Good as new.”

Her smile broadened. “Good, good,” she said, catching Brisbane out of the corner of her eye and turning towards him. “And who’s your young friend, Nog?”

“His name is Gilbert Parkinson,” Shortwhiskers said. “He’s from the village of Scalt.”

“Parkinson?” Stargazer said disbelievingly, her eyes studying Brisbane up and down. “He reminds me of someone else.”

“Yes,” Shortwhiskers said quickly. “I thought so too, at first but—”

“Who?” Brisbane said abruptly, cutting off his friend’s comments. “Who do I remind you of?” He had caught the look in Stargazer’s face and, having seen it, he suddenly wanted to know who she was comparing him to. At one time in his life, Brisbane would have felt no such urgency. Once, he would have done everything he could to convince people him name truly was Gilbert Parkinson. But the look on Stargazer’s face, and its similarity to the look Shortwhiskers had worn before naming him a Brisbane in Roystnof’s study, had suddenly transformed his thinking on the subject.

Before answering, however, Stargazer turned to Shortwhiskers, seeking some kind of approval which the dwarf gave with a nod of his head.

“Brisbane,” Stargazer said simply. “You remind me of the Knights named Brisbane. You have a very strong resemblance, almost as if you were part of that family.”

“That’s because I am,” Brisbane said, his impromptu confession sending tingles of excitement rushing up and down his spinal column. “I am the bastard son of Sir Gildegarde Brisbane the Second and am named for him. But how did you recognize me? I have lived my life in Scalt and no one there has ever expected I was anyone but Otis Parkinson’s adopted son.”

Again, before answering Stargazer checked for some silent guidance from Shortwhiskers. This time, the dwarf gave her a slight shake of his head. Brisbane noticed her looking at the dwarf, but he did not see Shortwhiskers’ covert signals.

“I grew up in Raveltown,” Stargazer said, seeming to collect herself. “One does not grow up there and grow easy with your family name. One either respects it or abhors it.”

“And you?” Brisbane said.

This time, Stargazer did not take her eyes off Brisbane. “I respect it.”

A groan came from the elderly man in the last bunk. Stargazer quickly turned and went down to the man. Brisbane and Shortwhiskers slowly followed. The pair stood at the foot of the cot while the woman crouched beside the man. He was thin and frail and soaked with sweat. His eyes were closed and he seemed to be in a world of his own, with pain as his only companion.

Stargazer brushed the man’s hair off his slick forehead. “His name is Skinner. Joseph Skinner. All his life he has been torturing his weak body with the drink. Alcohol.” She said the word with much distaste. “He comes in here when the festering sore he has for a liver hurts him badly enough. I do what I can to take away his pain, but he had damaged himself too much for me to truly heal him. I will help him get through tonight and next week he will stumble in here again, holding his side and coughing up blood.”

Skinner groaned louder this time and his legs jerked beneath the blanket. Stargazer gently put a hand over his eyes and began to sing quietly. She slowly pulled the blanket down to reveal Skinner’s thin body. She placed her other hand on his abdomen and began to sing louder.

Brisbane did not recognize the language, but the tune was soft and sad and her voice was that of a songbird. Brisbane looked at the man laid out before him while listening. Skinner’s ribs clearly showed through his pasty skin, his chest was a sunken valley filled with bracken-like hair, and his hips jutted out impossibly far. He looked skeletal, a shape from the grave. Brisbane began to feel very warm in the leather jerkin he still wore.

Stargazer sung on and began to rub Skinner’s concave belly. Slowly, he stopped jerking about and groaning. Her singing died down and she took her hands from him. A small amount of color had returned to his flesh and he lay still with his eyes closed.

Stargazer covered him again with the blanket. “He will sleep now. Come.”

She led them from that cabin to the next one. They entered a small living room with carpeting and overstuffed easy chairs.

“We really can’t stay,” Shortwhiskers said. “We have to get an early start in the morning.”

“Off again, Nog?” Stargazer said. “Aren’t you ever going to settle down?”

“Tried that once already,” the dwarf said, somewhat sullenly. “It didn’t work out.”

She smiled, a bit painfully, Brisbane thought.

“Are you going with him?” she suddenly asked Brisbane. “You’re already dressed for it.”

“Yes,” Brisbane said.

She shook her head. “Running off seeking your fortunes. You’d be wiser to follow your forefathers and seek to become a Knight. The right family is more than half the battle, and you’ve got the right family.”

Stargazer did not look much older than Brisbane, but as she said those words to Brisbane she sounded years his senior. Brisbane had no immediate response for her, just staring at her for some time and feeling empty inside for a reason he did not know, a reason he would not know for some time to come. Stargazer caught his pained look, and her brow lost all of the stern wrinkles it had worn as she had given her advice, and returned to a perfect smoothness. Her emerald eyes caught the fading sunlight from the windows and flashed it across Brisbane’s worried face.

“You look so sad,” she whispered too softly for Brisbane to hear.

“Well,” Shortwhiskers said, also not hearing Stargazer’s words. “It was really good to see you again, Allison.”

Brisbane and Stargazer locked eyes for a moment longer and then she stumbled away from his gaze when the pause after the dwarf’s words became embarrassingly long.

“Yes,” she said as she bent down to give Shortwhiskers another hug. “Don’t stay away so long this time.”

“I won’t,” Shortwhiskers promised.

She broke the embrace and stood up in front of Brisbane. She reached up and placed her hand on his cheek. “I hope you return safely with Nog.”

Brisbane put his hand over hers, pressed it against his face, and then slowly drew it away. “I am glad we met, Allison Stargazer.”

“As am I, Gildegarde Brisbane.”

Shortwhiskers offered a final farewell and Brisbane left the cabin with him. Stargazer shut the door and they started back for Queensburg. They walked in silence for the entire trip.