Saturday, January 1, 2011

Chapter Six


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

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All Knights of Farchrist placed death before dishonor. It was a code as strictly adhered to as the ritualistic worship of Grecolus himself. Honor was difficult to define, but it was always obvious when it was breached. It took years of faithful service to the cause to acquire it, and those who found it in their lifetimes radiated it out like the sun shines light to the dark planets around it. Many searched all their lives to find it. Most, however, could only truly find honor in their deaths, as my grandfather did in the cave of Dalanmire and as my father did on the rocks below Farchrist Castle.

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They spent a rainy night within sight of the walled garden of which Shortwhiskers had spoken. It was a horrible night, wet and uncomfortable. Shortwhiskers pitched a small tent he had packed on his mule, but it was not meant for three and it leaked. Brisbane tossed and turned throughout the night and did not drift off to sleep until very late.

The rain stopped during their fitful slumber and the morning greeted them with warm sunshine. The dwarf carefully rolled his leaking tent up and strapped it again to the mule, which they had leashed and staked to the ground during the night. They ate a quick breakfast of preserved meat and fruit and began to discuss how they hoped the day would go.

“How far in from the wall is Roundtower?” Roystnof asked the dwarf.

“Less than a hundred yards,” Shortwhiskers said. “It won’t take long to find him.”

Roystnof hummed. “I was just wondering what else we might find in there. Someone or something built the wall and planted the trees for some reason. This is obviously not a natural oasis. I’m thinking that once I restore Ignatius, we should explore it. See what we can turn up.”

“You can restore him, then?” the dwarf asked.

Roystnof’s brow furrowed. “I should think so, yes.” He withdrew his red book from a large pocket and opened it. “The spell is really not so difficult. Once you understand the magic that structures it, that is.”

“I’m sure,” Shortwhiskers said.

“Roy?” Brisbane asked.

“Yes, Gil?”

“About exploring the rest of the garden,” Brisbane said. “What if we should come across this basil-creature?”

“Basilisk,” Roystnof said matter-of-factly. “The garden encompasses a fairly large area. I’m hoping we can evade it if necessary.”

“But what if we can’t?” Brisbane said. “Or what if there is more than one?”

Roystnof did not have a quick answer for that one. Shortwhiskers looked at Brisbane like he agreed with the young man’s way of thinking.

“Well,” Roystnof said finally. “We’ll deal with that when need be. Look, we don’t have to scour the place. Just a quick look around. I think it’s a little odd that this kind of place a day out from Queensburg could be kept hidden for so long. I mean, I’ve never even heard rumors about this place. Have you, Nog?”

Shortwhiskers shook his head. “But not many folks come into the Windcrest Hills, what with the orks and all.”

“The orks do not dwell this close to the Mystic,” Roystnof said.

Shortwhiskers nodded. “True. But most people don’t know that.”

Brisbane briefly wondered how they knew that. “Maybe it’s the basilisks,” he said.

“What?” Roystnof asked.

“Maybe everyone who comes here gets turned to stone,” Brisbane said, swallowing hard before continuing. “They never return and their families and friends assume the orks got them.”

Shortwhiskers gave Brisbane another look like his last.

Roystnof dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. “Unlikely. Someone would have returned.”

“How do you know?” Brisbane asked.

“Because Nog did,” Roystnof stated. “And he’s never the first to do anything.”

There wasn’t much argument after that. Roystnof begged for some moments alone to prepare his spell, and Brisbane helped Shortwhiskers suit up in his chainmail. Soon they were marching to the spot in the wall where the dwarf indicated he and Roundtower had climbed over previously.

There was no discussion. Shortwhiskers led them over the low wall and into the thickly vegetated region. The trees were placed close enough together that they nearly formed a canopy overhead, and the grassy floor was cluttered with small bushes and undergrowth. Brisbane was sure that at any moment a basilisk monster would drop from a tree or spring from the brush and turn them all to stone. He unsheathed his short sword and held it tightly.

They slowly made their way through the plants and were abruptly confronted with the statue of Ignatius Roundtower. Brisbane walked slowly around him, taking in every detail he could. It all appeared surrealistic in its final shade of granite gray. The figure was otherwise entirely lifelike and Brisbane expected it to move at any moment.

Roundtower was a tall man, just inches shy of Brisbane’s height, and had the build of a veteran sword swinger. A stone helmet was perched on his stone head, his face cleanshaven with the skin pulled tightly over his prominent features. He was dressed in stone chainmail much like Shortwhiskers’, but of a much finer quality, and a full-length stone cloak that wrapped loosely around his frame. One hand still pointed a finger at the large brown lizard he had seen seventeen days ago while the other held a massive stone shield. His belt held a stone scabbard as long as his legs, the stone hilt of a sword jutting from its end.

Roystnof kept his voice low. “Nog, scramble up a tree and keep a sharp eye out. If you see your basilisk friend coming, give a holler and we’ll make for the wall.”

“What about me?” Shortwhiskers said.

“Shut your eyes and keep quiet,” Roystnof said. “Basilisks can’t climb trees and can’t turn you to stone unless you meet their gaze.”

The dwarf looked at the lowest branch on the nearest tree, a foot above his head. Brisbane saw his dilemma and rushed over to give him a boost.

“He always gave the orders before we parted ways, too,” the dwarf grumbled as he made his way up and into the tree.

Brisbane went back over to Roystnof and the frozen Roundtower. The wizard was standing in front of the stone figure, his left hand held palm up at chest level, a small pinch of dirt resting in its center. Between the thumb and index finger of the same hand he held a slim needle.

Roystnof began to chant softly in the ancient tongue of magic. Brisbane knew better than to disturb him at this point, so he backed off and watched the scene from a distance. The wizard brought the index finger of his right hand down upon the needle held in the other and drew a red bead of blood to its tip. Holding the punctured finger above the pinch of dirt, and squeezing it between another finger and his thumb, he deposited a single drop of his lifeblood on the pinch of earth.

Brisbane could see no change in the statue that was Ignatius Roundtower. He looked up into the tree to see if he could see Shortwhiskers but the foliage was too thick. Brisbane turned his attention back to Roystnof.

The wizard’s chanting had grown louder and he was mixing his blood and the earth in his left hand with the ring finger of his right. He approached the statue and brought his left hand up flat to his lips. He had dropped the needle he had held and, when he stood only inches in front of Roundtower, he abruptly stopped his chanting and blew the smudgy contents of his palm into the statue’s face.

Roystnof quickly stepped back as his wet bloodmud hit the granite face of the warrior. Brisbane watched with fascination as the filth appeared to dry off the face within a few short seconds. It quickly lost all of its moisture and the dirt left behind flaked off harmlessly. Brisbane realized that the blood was actually soaking into the pores of the rock figure.

It was with that realization that Brisbane began to see the color return to Roundtower’s form. His helm, chainmail, and shield began to change to a bone white. The plumes jutting from the peak of the helmet turned red and the shield began to show a red decorated ‘I,’ hidden before by its plain gray face. The cloak became red as well and the rocks that had studded the scabbard began to glow like the colorful jewels they were. Finally, his face and hands grew a tanned and healthy brown.

The colors reached their peak intensity and Ignatius Roundtower stumbled out of his stone coma.

He immediately slapped his hands over his eyes, dropped to his knees, and cried out as if in agony. Brisbane approached him in concern, but Roystnof held him back with a cautionary hand on his broad chest. Roundtower curled himself up into a ball, squatting on the garden floor, and began to whimper. Brisbane heard a rustle behind him and turned to see Shortwhiskers descending the lookout tree in haste. The dwarf reached the lowest branch and dropped himself squarely to the ground. He started for the weeping Roundtower, but Roystnof stopped him as well.

“Do not touch him,” Roystnof warned.

“But what is wrong with him?” Shortwhiskers cried.

“All will be explained,” Roystnof said. “But for now, do not disturb him.”

The three of them turned to look upon Roundtower. The warrior’s cries had fallen to low moans of terrible sorrow, but he still hid his face in his hands. Slowly, those hands came away from his face and he blinked his red eyes at the ground again and again. His body was shuddering with sobs, but he stifled all sound coming through his throat.

Roundtower quickly looked up at the small group of companions, his face wet with tears. He looked each one over carefully, recognition vacant from his eyes. Brisbane stared back into the warrior’s eyes and the sorrow he saw there made him feel weak in the knees.

Roystnof took a step forward. “Ignatius,” he said, his voice soft and calming. “You are free. We are your friends. We have returned you to the world you know.” He spoke as if trying to pacify a snarling dog.

“My God,” Roundtower said, his voice cracking horribly. He got shakily to his feet. “Roystnof.”

Roystnof nodded, smiling.

Roundtower approached the wizard on staggering feet and embraced him. Roystnof stiffened in the warrior’s arms, but quickly relaxed and returned the hug. Roundtower shortly broke the embrace and turned to the dwarf.

“…and Nog Shortwhiskers,” Roundtower said softly.

Shortwhiskers smiled at the mention of his name and quickly shook Roundtower’s hand as the warrior was crouching down to embrace him, too.

Roundtower awkwardly regained his feet and turned lastly to Brisbane. Roundtower’s face put the vacant stare back on, but now it was lined with puzzlement.

“Do I know you?” Roundtower asked.

“No, you don’t, sir,” Brisbane said, somehow feeling that the ‘sir’ was necessary. “My name is Gilbert Parkinson. I am…well, I am a friend of Roystnof’s.”

Roundtower nodded slowly to Brisbane, some measure of understanding highlighting his features.

Shortwhiskers stepped forward. “Are you truly all right, Ignatius?” he asked. “When you came out of it you were so insane.”

Roundtower spoke to his dwarven friend but kept his eyes on Brisbane. “Nog, I have been through a terrible ordeal.” His voice faltered for a moment. “A very terrible one, indeed. I would like to rest before I speak of it.”

“A wise idea,” Roystnof said quickly. “Come. Let us leave this garden. I don’t think it would be safe to make camp here.”

The others agreed and all made their way back to the garden wall. Brisbane remembered the danger of the basilisk and again expected the party to meet up with it before climbing the wall. But the basilisk was not to bother them this day. They left the garden and walked back to the campsite the three of them had used the night before.

They made camp in silence. Roundtower helped Shortwhiskers pitch the tent, and, when it was erected, the warrior stripped off his armor and crawled inside. Roystnof and Brisbane went about fixing a small meal and before the fire had thoroughly warmed their stew, they heard soft snores coming through the tent’s fabric.

Brisbane scooped out a plate of stew and handed it to Roystnof. “Roy?” he said.

“Yes, Gil?” Roystnof said, blowing on a spoonful.

Brisbane served a second plate to Shortwhiskers. The dwarf sat near the fire.

“What was the matter with Roundtower?”

Roystnof swallowed the stew he had put in his mouth. “What do you mean?” he said.

Brisbane dished himself out a plate of the stew.

“You know damn well what Gil means,” Shortwhiskers snapped. “Why was he crying like an infant when you turned him back?”

Roystnof ate a few more spoonfuls before he said anything. “What happens to someone when they are turned to stone?”

“Isn’t that what we’re asking you?” Shortwhiskers scoffed.

Brisbane raised a placating hand to the dwarf. “How do you mean, Roy?”

“I mean,” Roystnof said, “that for the time the physical body stands immobile as stone, what becomes of the consciousness?”

“It’s froze,” Shortwhiskers blurted. “Time stops for the individual…doesn’t it?”

Roystnof shook his head. “No, my friends, time does not stop. Ignatius spent the entire time—over two weeks—in a conscious state.”

“Well, big deal,” Shortwhiskers said after a moment’s reflection. “Sure, it might get dull looking at the same bush for the whole time, but that hardly explains his reaction.”

Roystnof shook his head again. “Ignatius could not see with stone eyes. Nor could he hear with stone ears. He spent that time without any worldly stimuli, completely alone with his consciousness.” Roystnof looked toward the tent in which Roundtower slept. “There’s no telling what effect this deprivation has had on him. I have read of instances such as this in which the victim has gone mad.”

The dwarf did not have a snappy retort here. Brisbane thought of Roundtower’s plight. He tried to put himself in the same situation, but his mind could not rationally imagine the isolation involved. Totally devoid of all one’s senses for more than two weeks? There’s no telling what one’s mind would do in such a circumstance. Brisbane was sure, however, that after even a short time of such deprivation, the passage of time would lose all of its significance.

“Do you think Roundtower will be okay?” Brisbane asked Roystnof.

“I don’t know,” the wizard said. “He is strong and apparently aware of what happened, but he also has obviously gone through some sort of trauma. When he wakes it will be important for him to talk about what he went through. But it is much more important that he not forget who he is and the things he has done. That is often all too easy in cases like this.”

They finished their meal without talking more about Roundtower. None of them were tired so they began the arduous task of waiting for Roundtower to wake up. Roystnof spoke again of his desire to explore the rest of the garden, and Shortwhiskers mentioned that he had seen a small stone building in the center of the oasis from atop his lookout tree. Roystnof decided that tomorrow, if Roundtower was able, they would make for that building.

After that the wizard buried his nose in his red book and left the other two alone. Brisbane tried to get Shortwhiskers to tell him more of the story, but the dwarf said his tongue wasn’t in the mood to tell it. Instead, Shortwhiskers decided to pass the time by showing Brisbane some of the finer points of swordplay. Roystnof looked up from his book as the dwarf was demonstrating the proper grip for an effective thrust. His mouth curled into an unconscious frown and he returned to his magical writings.

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