Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins

My big takeaway from this book, subtitled “Why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design,” is that evolution is a scientific theory we will never fully understand. Dawkins says as much in his preface, as he describes multiple ways that the human brain seems to be designed to misunderstand “Darwinism,” and to find it hard to believe.

Another way is which we seem predisposed to disbelieve Darwinism is that our brains are built to deal with events on radically different timescales from those that characterize evolutionary change. We are equipped to appreciate processes that take seconds, minutes, years or, at most, decades to complete. Darwinism is a theory of cumulative processes so slow that they take between thousands and millions of decades to complete. All our intuitive judgments of what is probable turn out to be wrong by many orders of magnitude. Our well-tuned apparatus of skepticism and subjective probability-theory misfires by huge margins, because it is tuned—ironically, by evolution itself—to work within a lifetime of a few decades. It requires effort of the imagination to escape from the prison of familiar timescale, and effort that I shall try to assist.

I get this. Just as we can’t truly understand quantum events or accurately predict the motions of enormous galaxies. Like evolution, they operate on scales far removed from our daily world. And in evolution’s case, I firmly believe that we are additionally hampered by the limitations of our own language. We can’t even talk about evolution correctly. The right words don’t even exist and we are forced to deal with shallow approximations.

Don’t believe me? Dawkins’ first three chapters are dedicated almost exclusively to the idea that evolution, contrary to our popular understanding, is not driven by chance. The “cumulative selection” of evolution, he says, is very different from the “single-step selection” that so many mischaracterize as evolution. And he’s right, of course. But at the same time he’s wrong, because the things that are being selected, cumulatively or in single steps, are gene transcription errors and their resulting phenotypic expressions that have arisen by, guess what, chance. So it is both right and wrong to say evolution is driven by chance. It all depends on what kind of chance you’re talking about.

We need a new word to describe this kind of chance, because although gene mutations are random, which expressed traits survive in a population and which do not is clearly NOT random. They are driven by their environment, and certain environments will select and enhance certain traits, every time. As Dawkins does, quoting Peter Atkins provides a memorable way for getting this message across.

I shall take your mind on a journey. It is a journey of comprehension, taking us to the edge of space, time, and understanding. On it I shall argue that there is nothing that cannot be understood, that there is nothing that cannot be explained, and that everything is extraordinarily simple … A great deal of the universe does not need any explanation. Elephants, for instance. Once molecules have learnt to compete and to create other molecules in their own image, elephants, and things resembling elephants, will in due course be found roaming through the countryside.

Indeed. But I am helplessly compounding the problem, because I have already employed one of the language devices I was going to try and avoid in this blog post. Selection. When it comes to evolution, selection (natural or otherwise) is one of the most misleading and misconstrued words there is, referring, as it seems to, to some agency or agent that does the selecting. Nothing, it seems to me, could be further from the truth. Organisms better adapted to their environments live and reproduce. Organisms less well adapted do not. No organism consciously “passes on its genes” or is even driven to do so. And nothing “selects” which organisms will and which won’t.

Dawkins effectively tackles the first half of this concept—that reproduction is a natural and not a conscious process—when he talks about RNA molecules.

Experiments such as these help us to appreciate the entirely automatic and non-deliberate nature of natural selection. The replicase ‘machines’ don’t ‘know’ why they make RNA molecules: it is just a byproduct of their shape that they do. And the RNA molecules themselves don’t work out a strategy for getting themselves duplicated. Even if they could think, there is no obvious reason why any thinking entity should be motivated to make copies of itself. If I knew how to make copies of myself, I’m not sure that I would give the project high priority in competition with all the other things I want to do: why should I? But motivation is irrelevant for molecules. It is just that the structure of the viral RNA happens to be such that it makes cellular machinery churn out copies of itself. And if any entity, anywhere in the universe, happens to have the property of being good at making more copies of itself, then automatically more and more copies of that entity will obviously come into existence. Not only that but, since they automatically form lineages that are occasionally miscopied, later versions tend to be ‘better’ at making copies of themselves than earlier versions, because of the powerful processes of cumulative selection. It is all utterly simple and automatic. It is so predictable as to be almost inevitable.

Dawkins is making the case here, as he does throughout the book, that self-replication, evolution and life are all natural processes—not unlike crystallization and gravity. They don’t need deliberate action to operate. They are, in fact, intrinsic properties of matter itself.

And reproduction isn’t the only life process that is autonomic. In multiple places throughout his book, Dawkins variously ascribes our bodies, our thoughts, our behaviors—even structures we build in the world around us—as the physical manifestations of the genes we carry. Dawkins obviously thinks this of our bodies, and the bodies of all animals. They are the phenotypic expressions of the genes we carry. Specifically, genes working in combination with each other.

But because the environment of the gene consists, to such a salient degree, of other genes also being selected in the same gene pool, genes will be favoured if they are good at cooperating with other genes in the same gene pool. This is why large bodies of cells, working coherently towards the same cooperative ends, have evolved. This is why bodies exist, rather than separate replicators still battling it out in the primordial soup.

And there are other passages in which Dawkins clearly describes thoughts and behaviors as phenotypic expressions of genes. In his thorough treatment of sexual selection, he reinforces again and again the idea that in addition to certain physical traits of males, the preferences for those traits in the minds of the females are also being selected. Here, he’s talking about widow birds.

Instead of simply agreeing that females have whims, we regard female preference as a genetically influenced variable just like any other. Female preference is a quantitative variable, and we can assume that it is under the control of polygenes in just the same kind of way as male tail length itself. These polygenes may act on any of a wide variety of parts of the female’s brain, or even on her eyes; on anything that has the effect of altering the female’s preference.

He offers other examples for structures built by organisms (think beehives and beaver dams). They are all, he says, manifestations of genes, leading me to think that not just biology, but psychology, culture and even architecture may be driven by the mysterious force called natural selection.

But what is natural selection? And what is doing the selecting? The closest thing to truth that preserves the use of that word is, as I said before, the environment. The environment in which the organization lives does the selecting, but this is no conscious process either, and no comparative value judgments are being made over organisms that survive and reproduce and those that don’t. The environment isn’t doing anything, so how can it be said to be selecting? The environment is just the matrix in which the organisms struggle to survive, and some matrices are more amenable to certain variations than others.

These are extreme concepts, dancing around on the teetering edge of our language and ability to comprehend. But one extreme concept that not even Dawkins brings up is the thorny issue of free will. He doesn’t come right out and say it doesn’t exist, but I don’t see how one can conclude anything else based on what he does say. Let’s go back to the widow birds and the desire of their females for long tails.

The reason there is any momentum in the evolution towards longer tails is that, whenever a female chooses a male of the type she ‘likes’, she is, because of the non-random association of genes, choosing copies of the very genes that made her do the choosing.

The emphasis is mine. I don’t think this a sloppy word use on Dawkins’ part. The genes don’t just dictate the female widow bird’s thoughts, program her behaviors and instruct her how to build her nest. They actually force her to make choices about mate selection and, presumably, everything else. I don’t believe there is room for free will in Dawkins’ evolutionary universe. Not for widow birds and not for us.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather

During the last winter of her illness she lay much of the time on her red sofa, that had come so far out to this rock in the wilderness. The snow outside, piled up against the window-panes, made a grey light in the room, and she could hear Cecile moving softly about in the kitchen, putting more wood into the iron stove, washing the casseroles. Then she would think fearfully of how much she was entrusting to that little shingled head; something so precious, so intangible; a feeling about life that had come down to her through so many centuries and that she had brought with her across the wastes of obliterating, brutal ocean. The sense of “our way,”—that was what she longed to leave with her daughter. She wanted to believe that when she herself was lying in this rude Canadian earth, life would go on almost unchanged in this room with its dear (and, to her, beautiful) objects; that the properties would be observed, all the little shades of feeling which make the common fine. The individuality, the character, of M. Auclair’s house, though it appeared to be made up of wood and cloth and glass and a little silver, was really made of very fine moral qualities in two women: the mother’s unswerving fidelity to certain traditions, and the daughter’s loyalty to her mother’s wish.

I remember sitting in the airport in Flint, Michigan, talking to someone about why I like reading Willa Cather so much. I was introduced to her late. Unlike so many, I never read My Antonia in middle school, instead checking it out as an audiobook from my local library, a full-grown adult with a whim many years later. As I think I’ve blogged before, and as I told my travel companion, that book, and O Pioneers!, and Death Comes for the Archbishop, and now Shadows on the Rock—they are all about the spaces the exist between people, and how the fleeting moments of true emotional connection that people experience are pulled tenuously over those spaces, stretching into the thinnest of gossamer filaments of memory, ready to snap with the merest tug, lost forever and forgotten.

Despite the passage above, in Shadows on the Rock, Cecile’s mother is already dead, and Cecile is living along with her father on the rock of Quebec, thousands of miles away from their actual home, 17th century France. Cecile’s father, Euclide Auclair, competes with Cecile as the primary character in the novel, an apothecary in the service of a French count, and a man who represents a transitory state between the encrusted civilization of the Old World and the burgeoning and blending civilization of the New.

He lived on the steep, winding street called Mountain Hill, which was the one and only thoroughfare connecting the Upper Town with the Lower. The Lower Town clustered on the strip of beach at the foot of the cliff, the Upper Town crowned its summit. Down the face of the cliff there was but this one path, which had probably been a main watercourse when Champlain and his men first climbed up it to plant the French lilies on the crest of the naked rock. The watercourse was now a steep, stony street, with shops on one side and the retaining walls of the Bishop’s Palace on the other. Auclair lived there for two reasons: to be close at hand where Count Frontenac could summon him quickly to the Chateau, and because, thus situated on the winding stairway connecting the two halves of Quebec, his services were equally accessible to the citizens of both.

These two halves of Quebec, the Upper and the Lower, are very important to the story, the citadel of French power and culture at the very top and the frontier world of commerce and wilderness at the bottom. For just as Cecile’s mother was committed to the former, bringing it with her across the ocean in her heart and treasured hopes for her daughter, Cecile is beguiled and drawn much more to latter, viewing it honestly as the only home she has ever known.

So much so, in fact, that Cecile, despite her dead mother’s wishes, has no real desire to return to France, or even to perpetuate the French culture and lifestyle in the New World. Somewhat early in the novel we hear the story of Bichet, an old knife-grinder who lodged with Cecile’s grandparents in France, and who is rightly accused of stealing two brass kettles but wrongly tortured and abused by the French authorities, confessing to countless other crimes as a result. As Euclide describes it to Cecile:

“Your grandfather and I hurried to the prison to speak for him. Your grandfather told them that a man so old and infirm would admit anything under fright and anguish, not knowing what he said; that a confession obtained under torture was not true evidence. This infuriated the Judge. If we would take oath that the prisoner had never stolen anything from us, they would put him into the strappado again and make him correct his confession. We saw that the only thing we could do for our old lodger was to let him pass quickly. Luckily for Bichet, the prison was overcrowded, and he was hanged the next morning.

“Your grandmother never got over it. She had for a long while struggled with asthma every winter, and that year when the asthma came on, she ceased to struggle. She said she had no wish to live longer in a world where such cruelties could happen.

“And I am like my grandmother,” cried Cecile, catching her father’s hand. “I do not want to live there. I had rather stay in Quebec always! Nobody is tortured here, except by the Indians, in the woods, and they know no better. But why does the King allow such things, when they tell us he is a kind King?”

“It is not the King, my dear, it is the Law. The Law is to protect property, and it thinks too much of property. A couple of brass pots, an old saddle, are reckoned worth more than a poor man’s life.”

And Cecile means it. As we come to see, the prospect of the Count going back to France—of his own will or by royal summons, and therefore bringing his apothecary and his daughter with him—becomes a central plot point in the novel. But Cecile, a French girl who has never seen France except as an infant, has no desire to return. She finds no greater happiness than in the simple pleasures of her existence in Quebec. Her connections to the people and the place are that strong.

She put the sled-rope under her arms, gave her weight to it, and began to climb. A feeling came over her that there would never be anything better in the world for her than this; to be pulling Jacques on her sled, with the tender, burning sky before her, and on each side, in the dusk, the kindly lights from neighbours’ houses. If the Count should go back with the ships next summer, and her father with him, how could she bear it, she wondered. On a foreign shore, in a foreign city (yes, for her a foreign shore), would not her heart break for just this? For this rock and this winter, this feeling of being in one’s own place, for the soft content of pulling Jacques up Holy Family Hill into paler and paler levels of blue air, like a diver coming up from the deep sea.

Jacques is a young boy from an impoverished background, who Euclide and Cecile both try to protect from the roughness of his own life, and who wants everything they have but can never fully express his aching desire.

Much as Jacques loved chocolate (in so far as he knew, this was the only house in the world in which that comforting drink was made), there was something he cared more about, something that gave him a kind of solemn satisfaction,—Cecile’s cup. She had a silver cup with a handle; on the front was engraved a little wreath of roses, and inside that wreath was the name, “Cecile,” cut in the silver. Her Aunt Clothilde had given it to her when she was but a tiny baby, so it had been hers all her life. That was what seemed so wonderful to Jacques. His clothes had always belonged to somebody else before they were made over for him; he slept wherever there was room for him, sometimes with his mother, sometimes on a bench. He had never had anything of his own except his toy beaver,—and now he would have his shoes, made just for him. But to have a little cup, with your name on it…even if you died, it would still be there, with your name.

More than the shop with all the white jars and mysterious implements, more than the carpet and the curtains and the red sofa, the cup fixed Cecile as born to security and privileges. He regarded it with respectful, wistful admiration. Before the milk or chocolate was poured, he liked to hold it and trace with his finger-tips the letter that made it so peculiarly and almost sacredly hers. Since his attention was evidently fixed upon her cup, more than once Cecile had suggested that he drink his chocolate from it, and she would use another. But he shook his head, unable to explain. That was not at all what her cup meant to him. Indeed, Cecile could not know what it meant to him; she was too fortunate.

Jacques is a minor character in the novel, but he adds so much depth and understanding to the subtext. He is like so many of Cather’s minor characters—well crafted as individuals, with internal motivations and desires, but also easily viewed as archetypes, supporting the flow of Cather’s narrative and highlighting the differences between people that so often so unexpressed.

In many ways, Shadows on the Rock is a very religious book. Belief in God and Catholicism is very much a part of the story, with most of the characters showing true devotion to the faith. In researching the book, in fact, I found it featured on a website for Catholic educators. The conclusion presented there? “This is a wonderful story to study with young girls giving them an example of a truly Catholic girlhood where simple pleasures provide happiness and the importance of family is emphasized.”

I’m not so sure. Yes, it can be read that way, but there are other parts that make it less than devotional. Cecile’s father, for one, is more secular than sectarian, a bit of a scientist with more “faith” in his drugs and potions that the fervent prayers of many of his patients. And Cecile herself, who is certainly devoted to her faith and to the Virgin Mary, is often more focused on her own natural and expressive reverence than anything the representatives of the official church can offer her.

For example, when Cecile thinks she is to be taken back to France, and goes to the Monseigneur to tell him of her fears for Jacques and who will watch over him, they have this exchange:

“You must pray for him, my child. It is to such as he that our Blessed Mother comes nearest. You must unceasingly recommend him to her, and I will not forget to do so.”

“I shall always pray for him,” Cecile declared fervently, “but if only there were someone in this world, here in Quebec—Oh, Monseigneur l’Ancien,” she turned to him pleadingly, “everyone says you are a father to your people, and no one needs a father so much as poor Jacques! If you would bid Houssart keep an eye on him, and when he sees the little boy dirty and neglected, to bring him here, where everything is good and clean, and wash his face! It would help him only to sit here with you—he is like that, Madame Pommier would look after him for me, but she cannot get about, and Jacques will not go to her, I am afraid. He is shy. When he is very dirty and ragged, he hides away.”

“Compose yourself, my child. We can do something. Suppose I were to send him to the Brothers’ school in Montreal, and prepare him for the Seminary?”

She shook her head despondently. “He could never learn Latin. He is not a clever child; but he is good. I don’t think he would be happy in a school.”

“Schools are not meant to make boys happy, Cecile, but to teach them to do without happiness.”

“When he is older, perhaps, Monseigneur, but he is only seven.”

“I was only nine when I was sent to La Fleche, and that is a severe school,” said the Bishop. Perhaps some feeling of pity for his own hard boyhood, the long hours of study, the iron discipline, the fasts and vigils that kept youth pale, rose in his heart. He sighed heavily and murmured something under his breath, of which Cecile caught only the words: “…domus…Domine.”

Cecile knows that Jacques needs something more than what the church can offer him. And the Monseigneur, I think, knows it, too—his internal thoughts providing the reader with a telling critique of his religious upbringing. It’s a device that Cather uses multiple times in the novel—allowing the characters themselves to reveal something to the reader than may remain hidden to the other characters. Here’s another example, from when Euclide and the Count are discussing the potential of one or both of them returning to France. The Count relates a story about a long ago audience with the King:

“My second audience was at Fontainebleau, shortly before we embarked for La Rochelle. The King received me very graciously in his cabinet, but he was no longer in a conqueror’s mood; he had consulted the treasury. When I referred to the project he had advanced at our previous meeting [the seizure of New York and the Atlantic seaports from the English], he glanced at the clock over his fireplace and remarked that it was the hour for feeding the carp. He asked me to accompany him. An invitation to attend His Majesty at the feeding of the carp is, of course, a compliment. We went out to the carp basins. I like a fine pond of carp myself, and those at Fontainebleau are probably the largest and fiercest in France. The pages brought baskets of bread, and His Majesty threw in the first loaves. The carp there are monsters, really. They piled up on each other in hills as high as the rim of the basin, with all their muzzles out; they caught a loaf and devoured it before it could touch the water. Not long before that, care-taker’s little girl fell into the pond, and the carp tore her to pieces while her father was running to the spot. Some of them are very old and have an individual renown. One old creature, red and rusty down to his belly, they call the Cardinal.”

The carp, of course, represent the church and the church leaders—the allusion to the Cardinal at the end is unmistakable—and in that context, the metaphor of the ravenous carp tearing the little girl apart becomes quite sinister. What I think is going on here is not Cather’s rejection of reverence and Godliness, but her rejection of organized religions that put things like education and politics and discipline between what is holy and the people meant to receive it. And Cecile, it seems to me, in her affinity for Quebec, its natural wonders and its people, is much more a testimony for the spiritual life rather than the religious one.

The people have loved miracles for so many hundred years, not as proof or evidence, but because they are the actual flowering of desire. In them the vague worship and devotion of the simple-hearted assumes a form. From being a shapeless longing, it becomes a beautiful image; a dumb rapture becomes a melody that can be remembered and repeated; and the experience of a moment, which might have been a lost ecstasy, is made an actual possession and can be bequeathed to another.

Not just miracles, Willa, Stories, too.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Good Times, Bad Times

“We’ve really had some good times, haven’t we? I think they outweigh the bad ones, and that’s about all a man can hope for.”
David Eddings, The Seeress of Kell (Silk)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Chapter Eleven


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

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Only the dwarven ambassador and the high priestess of Grecolus returned to King Gregorovich Farchrist II from Dragon’s Peak. Upon their arrival at Farchrist Castle, they were quickly given a private audience with the King, where it was their sad duty to report that both the heir to the Farchrist throne and the Captain of the Farchrist Knights had been killed in battle with the evil dragon Dalanmire. The King wept openly at the delivery of this news and was unable to compose himself for many minutes. When he finally had himself under some measure of control, the dwarven ambassador informed him that because of his insolent disobedience, Dalanmire had demanded that the dragon tax be tripled.

+ + +

They started back for Queensburg at dawn. They had spent a quiet night at the campsite outside the wall of the oasis and all had awakened refreshed and ready to travel.

They started their march north in a group, but as the day wore on, they found themselves separating into three distinct communities, each far enough away from the others so no conversation could be overheard from group to group. Roystnof and Dantrius walked ahead of them all, followed by the solitary Roundtower, and finally the pairing of Brisbane and Shortwhiskers.

The two wizards seemed embroiled in a debate of their own. Earlier, when they had been close enough for Brisbane to hear what they were saying, they had been talking about magic. Brisbane was sure that was normal—people of similar professions often had much to talk about that others could not understand—but Brisbane did not like the way Dantrius had occupied Roystnof’s entire attention since his transformation. Part of it was childish jealousy, Brisbane knew. He had always been Roystnof’s confidant and he did not want to see another take that position, especially someone he disliked so. But there was also more to it than that.

Brisbane had thought a lot about what Shortwhiskers had said about the chickens, the farmer, and the weasel, and the more he thought about it, the more he felt that perhaps Dantrius was just a bigger weasel as Shortwhiskers had tried to imply. He seemed to have sneaked his way into their little group without anyone really asking him to. He was physically frail, but he seemed to treat everyone like an inferior, or worse, like bumbling children. Brisbane did not want to wonder what might happen to their party if Dantrius continued to travel with them. He hoped they would turn him loose on the streets of Queensburg and never see him again.

Roundtower walked alone in some kind of trance and, as Brisbane turned his gaze upon the warrior, he supposed Roundtower was thinking about the path his life was taking. As far as Brisbane knew, Roundtower still planned to leave for Farchrist Castle and to try to become a Knight. As Roundtower had said before, there was no longer anything to hold him back. The experience with the basilisk had convinced him he was on the wrong path, and his magical blade, which no self-respecting or Grecolus-fearing Knight would carry, had been safely transferred to Brisbane. It had always been Roundtower’s dream to become a Knight of Farchrist, and now Brisbane presumed he would allow himself the freedom to follow it.

Brisbane would miss him. In the short time he had known Ignatius Roundtower, Brisbane had grown to like him. He felt strangely attached to the older man and realized that, in effect, he would be taking Roundtower’s place in the party. He hoped Roundtower approved of such a replacement.

At last, Brisbane turned to Shortwhiskers. The dwarf had been quiet all morning, but Brisbane felt he had just been waiting for the right moment to start talking. Now, Shortwhiskers looked around at the others, all far enough away not to hear whatever it was the dwarf might say.

“Where was I?” Shortwhiskers asked.

Brisbane knew what he meant. “The king wanted the dwarves to guide an armed party through the Crimson Mountains…”

“…and across the Desert of Despair to Dragon’s Peak,” Shortwhiskers continued, “where this party would destroy the dragon Dalanmire. It was a fool’s mission from the beginning, but nothing could dissuade the King from his plan. It was a goal he had set his sights on from the time he had been a child. It was probably the main reason the Order of Farchrist Knights was founded in the first place. Everyone argued against it. I argued against it and, at first, even your grandfather argued against it. But out of everyone, the man who argued against it the most was the King’s chief advisor, a man named Illzeezad Dantrius.”

Brisbane looked up at Dantrius at the mention of his name. He was still deep in conversation with Roystnof. Brisbane had trouble believing that this could be the same man of whom Shortwhiskers spoke. That man had been alive in the time of Brisbane’s grandfather. If the man talking to Roystnof really was the same man, he would have had to have spent an impossible number of years as a statue in that forgotten garden. Brisbane thought again of how Dantrius’ reawakening had compared to Roundtower’s and he found himself hating the man all over again.

“It was a good argument that Dantrius made,” Shortwhiskers went on. “But it seemed to me like he was making it for all the wrong reasons. There has always been something odd about Illzeezad Dantrius, something that has always made me distrust him and wonder about the secrets he must be hiding. It was something I could never put my finger on, but it has always been there. He argued not to send Gregorovich the Third and your grandfather to Dragon’s Peak, true, but unlike all the rest of us who argued against it, I don’t think Dantrius cared one bit about the incredible danger the mission would force upon the Knights and the entire kingdom. It seemed to me that Dantrius was more concerned about the small danger the mission would have placed upon Dalanmire.”

Brisbane looked at Shortwhiskers with a confused stare. He too had noticed something odd about Dantrius, something unexplainable that tainted everything he did with suspicion, but Brisbane still was not sure what the dwarf meant by his last remark.

“It was a thought I could not have articulated at the time,” Shortwhiskers said. “Before we left I only knew that I didn’t trust anything that Dantrius said or did. It wasn’t until we got to Dragon’s Peak and I saw Dalanmire that I began to put things together.”

For perhaps the first time it hit Brisbane was his friend, Nog Shortwhiskers, had actually been inside Dalanmire’s cave—and that he had lived to tell the tale. In fact, he and a past high priestess of the Royal Temple of Grecolus (whoever that had been) were the only two people in the history of the world who had ever done that. Sir Gregorovich Farchrist III and Brisbane’s own grandfather—the greatest Knights of their and perhaps of all time—had gone there and had been killed by the dragon. But little Nog Shortwhiskers and some mysterious woman had been allowed to survive.

“What is he like?” Brisbane asked.

“Who?” Shortwhiskers said.


“Like nothing you could ever imagine, Gil. Cold. Calculating. Completely evil. His body is the size of a castle and his wings could shade an entire village. His scales are so blue they are almost black and his voice—his voice would drive the righteous insane.”

“He talks?” Brisbane was surprised.

“Oh yes,” Shortwhiskers said. “He talks. I pray no one ever has to hear his voice again. When he spoke to me, when he called me by my given name, it felt like my bones had shrunk inside my body.”

Shortwhiskers was silent for a few seconds as he looked up into the sky and absently rubbed his beard. Brisbane waited patiently as the dwarf reflected on the experience.

“Where was I?” Shortwhiskers said finally.

“It wasn’t until you got to Dragon’s Peak and saw Dalanmire that you began to put things together.”

Shortwhiskers nodded. “It was something the dragon said as he met your grandfather and the Prince. He said he was unhappy to see our party there because it meant that someone wasn’t doing his job. It didn’t seem like much at the time, but it struck me kind of funny. I thought about it later and the answer just clicked in my head. It wasn’t a logical deduction by any stretch of the imagination. It just came to me. But all the same, I knew it was true. The way it felt, it just couldn’t be anything else.”

Shortwhiskers pointed. “That man, Illzeezad Dantrius, chief advisor to King Gregorovich Farchrist the Second, had made some sort of deal with Dalanmire. He was working for the dragon in some way, spying on the King’s court and keeping the King from trying to do Dalanmire in. I was sure of it then and I am still sure of it now. Although I have never uncovered any proof that ties Dantrius to Dalanmire, as far as I’m concerned, he is forever under the control of the dragon.”

“What do you think he was doing in that garden?” Brisbane asked.

“I don’t know,” Shortwhiskers said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he had something to do with that demon you killed. You saw the pentagram. Somebody conjured it up.”

Brisbane remembered the bloody circled five-pointed star on the wall of the shrine and thought absently of the silver pendant he wore around his neck. It had always been the symbol of wizards and magic. Otis’ teachings had told him it was the mark of Damaleous and was used to conjure demons from the Nine Hells, but Roystnof said that kind of magic could be done without the pentagram and that the demons conjured came not from the Nine Hells but from the caster’s own nightmares.

“I don’t know,” Shortwhiskers said again. “I would just feel better about the whole situation if Dantrius was still a pillar of sour granite in that forgotten garden.”

Brisbane looked up ahead at Dantrius. He wondered how a man could be in league with a dragon, especially one as diabolical as Dalanmire.

“Nog,” he said. “How did you escape from Dalanmire’s cave?”

Shortwhiskers nodded, as if he had been expecting the question. “You mean,” he said, “why am I alive and your grandfather dead?”

Brisbane looked hurt at the accusation.

“No, Gil,” the dwarf said quickly. “I don’t think you harbor such sentiments. And even if you did, I wouldn’t hold it against you. There’s no real reason for why I survived and your grandfather did not. It’s not because I was somehow a better man than he, which I wasn’t and don’t think I ever could be. I’m alive today because I am who I am and your grandfather was who he was.”

“What does that mean?” Brisbane asked.

“Your grandfather was a symbol of the resistance against Dalanmire. The dragon said so much himself. From the standpoint of defending himself against attackers, Dalanmire had every right to take your grandfather’s life. He ended it and the resistance in one swoop. I, however, was only their guide. I was against the mission from the start and entered unarmed into Dragon’s Peak. I had no intention of acting for or against the dragon. I was just there to see how things turned out.”

Shortwhiskers paused. “Besides,” he said sarcastically, “Dalanmire needed someone to go back and tell the King to triple the dragon tax.”

“What about the high priestess you spoke of?”

“What about her?” Shortwhiskers asked.

“Dalanmire spared her life, too, didn’t he? Did he want her to serve as his messenger, too?”

Shortwhiskers shook his head slowly. When he spoke, he spoke distantly, almost as if he was no longer walking next to Brisbane but was back inside Dalanmire’s cave in Farchrist Year Sixty-Two.

“The high priestess did not enter Dalanmire’s lair. She stayed at our camp on the south face of Dragon’s Peak. Dalanmire may not have even known she was there.”

Brisbane did not understand the significance of the dwarf’s words. “So Dalanmire just let you go, then?”

Shortwhiskers snorted, snapping back into the present day. “Not quite, Gil. You see, Dalanmire, apart from being a gigantic winged lizard, is also a sorcerer, and can work magic darker than any our friend Roystnof or even that Dantrius have ever dreamed of. I didn’t know why he did it, and I guess I still don’t. Whether it was to teach me a lesson or just because he felt like it, I never found out, but Dalanmire put a curse on me before I was allowed to leave his cave.”

“What did he do?” Brisbane asked.

Shortwhiskers did not answer Brisbane’s question. “Dwarves love their beards, Gil. You have to understand that. To a dwarf, a long beard is a symbol. It is a symbol of his masculinity, of his strength, and of his skill in his chosen profession. A dwarf without a long beard is not a dwarf and can never be regarded as such among any dwarven community. Perhaps it is a bit silly, but that is the way things are.”

Shortwhiskers paused again.

Brisbane said nothing.

“After Dalanmire had killed the two Knights,” Shortwhiskers said, “their shattered bodies laying crumpled at his taloned feet, he looked up at me, standing on the platform that was the entrance to his cave, and said five words. He said ‘Dwarf, I name thee Shortwhiskers.’ And in that moment, for the first time since the days of my childhood, my face became smooth and clean of any trace of hair.

“It has been forty-two years since Dalanmire said those five words to me, time enough for a dwarf to grow a beard yards long if he wished, and in all that time, this moss is all the fruit my face had yielded.”

Brisbane could say nothing. Shortwhiskers had obviously been hurt by the dragon’s actions and, if facial hair was half was important to dwarven society as Shortwhiskers had said it was, Brisbane could easily understand why. This then was why Shortwhiskers had abandoned his political past and had fallen to freebooting and adventure. He was an outcast, rejected from his own community because of a dragon’s curse. Brisbane felt sorry for his friend, but still he felt like he couldn’t, could never, really understand the extent of the dwarf’s sorrow. Brisbane’s life must seem like a happy daydream compared to Shortwhiskers’.

“That’s enough, Gil,” Shortwhiskers said in a quiet voice. “I’ve about talked myself out.”

Brisbane nodded. “I understand,” he said and slowly dropped back to give the dwarf some time alone with his thoughts.

The day was nearing its end and the little group from the forgotten garden would be reaching the outskirts of Queensburg shortly. Behind everyone, Brisbane could see the backs of all the others as he marched along in the haze of sunset.

Closest was Nog Shortwhiskers, who he had just learned had been named by the dragon Dalanmire on the day the monster had killed Brisbane’s grandfather. Brisbane had thought about asking the dwarf what his given name had been, but thought better of it now. He had never heard anyone else use it and he imagined it must be a touchy subject with the dwarf. Dalanmire had named him Shortwhiskers and Brisbane supposed he would remain Shortwhiskers until he died.

Farther up ahead, still walking by himself, was Ignatius Roundtower, warrior and, if his own plans worked out, Knight-to-be. Brisbane felt a certain affinity for the man and wondered if ten years from now he would be anything like him. The faith of Grecolus was strong within Roundtower and he had lived by only that faith and his magic sword for years. But now Brisbane had Angelika and Roundtower was going off to a place where his faith was all that was needed or desired. It was a dream of Brisbane’s as well, not necessarily to become a Knight, but to live by a code of ethics that was personally understandable and unbreachable. Brisbane seriously doubted, however, that he would ever find such contentment.

Still farther up ahead, still deep in conversation with Roystnof, was the newcomer, Illzeezad Dantrius. The man was hopelessly tainted in Brisbane’s view, not only because of what Shortwhiskers had said about him, but because of Brisbane’s own personal observations. Dantrius was like a weasel, sneaking into the hen house that was their small circle of friends. And weasels only did that to steal eggs or kill chickens. Brisbane did not want to think about what Dantrius might do if he was given too much freedom. Roystnof seemed to like him, but the wizard did not know what Shortwhiskers did.

And finally there was Roystnof, the man Brisbane had known as Roy Stonerow for six years. But more than the wizard’s name had changed in the last week or so. Brisbane had seen a side of his friend he had never seen before. Roy Stonerow had also been like an older brother to him, someone who Brisbane could go to with anything that troubled him without fear of misunderstanding or rejection. But now Roy Stonerow was Roystnof, a traveling wizard who lived by his magic and faced peril beyond reason. Perhaps this was the kind of life Roystnof had wanted for Brisbane, and that was why he had begun to teach Brisbane magic. But Brisbane now knew that could never be. He hoped Roystnof did not hold it against him, even though he knew their relationship could never be the same. Brisbane was still Roystnof’s friend, but he was no longer his apprentice.

These were the thoughts that ran through Brisbane’s mind as he topped the last hill and saw the lights and buildings of Queensburg in the distance. A cold breeze came off the Sea of Darkmarine and made Brisbane pause to look at the scene around him. Behind him were the Windcrest Hills, rolling until they met the southern arm of the Crimson Mountains. Queensburg lay at his feet, and beyond that he could see the dark clumps of the Shadowhorn Forest. His friends had already reached the bottom of the hill when Shortwhiskers turned around and, seeing Brisbane had fallen behind, stopped.

“Gil,” he called, his voice bringing the others to a stop. “What’s the matter?”

Brisbane looked up into the sky. Grecolum was setting and was just past full. The stars were twinkling brightly. Brisbane couldn’t help wondering to himself how long the stars had been there and for how much longer they would shine.

“Gil?” Roystnof called, concern in his voice.

“I’m coming,” Brisbane said and he hurried down the hill.

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