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.

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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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