Thursday, September 1, 2011

Chapter Fourteen


Speculative Fiction
Approximately 46,000 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1990. All rights reserved.

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The King’s School for Boys was what some people would call a stark, cold, and unfriendly place. But to Gildegarde Brisbane II, in the years between the ages of six and sixteen, it was home. Many boys found it hard to deal with the strict regulations, the driving and sometimes seemingly cruel schoolmasters, and the endlessly tedious assignments and exams. But to young Brisbane, this was all icing on his cake of faithful service to Grecolus. He excelled in most of his duties and subjects and, indeed, in the areas in which he performed less admirably, it was not due to any lack of effort. The other boys made fun of him there, as boys are wont to do, but Brisbane never let it bother him. He never said it to their faces, but he knew they teased them because they were jealous of the special relationship he shared with their creator.

+ + +

Four days before the end of Farchrist Year 105, Gildegarde Brisbane celebrated his nineteenth birthday. His friends held a small dinner party in his honor, and it was at this occasion that Allison Stargazer met Roystnof and Illzeezad Dantrius for the first time.

Shortwhiskers had gone to see Stargazer at her cottage a week before to deliver the invitation and to discuss whatever was left hanging after their brief conversation in The Lazy Dragon. Now that Brisbane knew a little more about Stargazer’s past, he felt he could make some fairly good guesses at what they had talked about.

First and foremost, Brisbane was sure they had a long and detailed discussion about Illzeezad Dantrius. Stargazer had said she had heard Shortwhiskers speak of him, but that was before Brisbane knew of Stargazer’s part in the expedition to Dragon’s Peak, and now Brisbane figured that that was just a lie for his benefit. If Stargazer had known Dantrius personally, and felt the same way about him that Shortwhiskers did, the dwarf probably had to do quite a bit of talking to get her to come to a dinner party at which Dantrius would be in unfortunate attendance.

Secondly, Brisbane supposed Shortwhiskers would tell Stargazer that he had told Brisbane about her past. Shortwhiskers had said she probably wouldn’t mind if just Brisbane knew, and Brisbane hoped that was true. He hadn’t told anyone about it and certainly had no intentions of doing so.

Finally, Brisbane hoped Shortwhiskers had in some way explained Roystnof and his magic to Stargazer. Roystnof, after all, was not a servant of Damaleous. His magic power came from his own will and there was no reason why Stargazer should take any offense to it. Brisbane hoped the dwarf had tried to convince her of this, but if Stargazer was like any other Grecolus-fearing faithful Brisbane knew, the dwarf would have little luck.

But whatever it was that Shortwhiskers and Stargazer had talked about at their private meeting, Stargazer had accepted the invitation to dinner. Brisbane was happy for that if for nothing else. She arrived at their little rental cabin as the sun was nearing the tops of the trees and Brisbane met her in the front yard.

“Welcome,” Brisbane said as he offered a hand to her and helped her up the front steps. Her grip was strong but there seemed to be almost no pull against his arm.

“Thank you,” Stargazer said. “And happy birthday.” She stood on her tiptoes and kissed Brisbane on the cheek.

Brisbane tried not to blush. “Thank you,” he said. “Would you like to come inside and meet everyone?” He offered the question as gently as he could.

Stargazer folded her arms under her bosom. “The time must come, I suppose.” She bowed her head and mumbled some words to herself. When she looked back up, Brisbane realized she had been praying. “I am ready,” she said.

Brisbane opened the front door and led Stargazer into the large living room of their rented cabin. A warm fire crackled in the fireplace and seated in the warm glow, in overstuffed chairs, were Shortwhiskers, Roystnof, and Dantrius.

All three men got to their feet as Stargazer entered the room. Shortwhiskers quickly crossed the room in an attempt to greet her first. The two exchanged a few words as Brisbane stood by and watched the expressions on the faces of Roystnof and Dantrius.

“Thank you for coming, Allison,” Shortwhiskers said. “I was worried you wouldn’t.”

“I came because you asked me to, Nog,” Stargazer said. “And to celebrate Gil’s birthday. I did not pick the guest list, nor was it my place to do so.”

“Yes,” Shortwhiskers said uneasily. “Well, I hope things go a little better than that. If everyone acts so formally, I may be asleep by the second course.”

Shortwhiskers got a smile out of Stargazer on that one and he took the opportunity to guide her over to meet the two wizards.

“Allison Stargazer,” Shortwhiskers said. “I would like you to meet Roystnof and Illzeezad Dantrius.”

Stargazer approached Roystnof first. The wizard was dressed in his usual black and red but in no way did his appearance give away his magical powers. His van dyke had recently been trimmed and his hair neatly combed.

“Miss Stargazer,” Roystnof said as he bowed a little. “Nog has told me much about you. I am glad to finally make your acquaintance.”

Stargazer nodded. “Nog has told me about you too, sir. I would be interested in hearing your views on the shrine you discovered on your last expedition.”

Roystnof smiled royally. “It would be my pleasure.”

Stargazer then turned to Dantrius. The mage was dressed neatly and still smelled of the soaps with which he had bathed. His long black hair framed his cracked face, gouged with the fingers of erosion, and his icy blue eyes glared out from under rough brows.

“Well,” Dantrius said. “This has been quite a little reunion for me, hasn’t it? First the Dwarven Ambassador and now the High Priestess. One could even say that young Brisbane there represents the figure of his grandfather, the Knight. I don’t think, however, that the Prince or anyone representing him will be able to make an appearance.”

Brisbane was surprised at the frankness of Dantrius’ comments, revealing as he had that he knew Stargazer had been the high priestess on the expedition to Dragon’s Peak. Did that prove what Shortwhiskers had said about him, about his role in those events? Brisbane wasn’t sure, but he now knew that everyone in the room, with the exception of Roystnof, knew the whole story of that doomed expedition.

Stargazer spoke softly. “Nog has told me that you are a sorcerer, Dantrius.”

“Sorcerer?” Dantrius replied, seeming shocked. “I fear Mister Ambassador pays me too great a compliment. I can do some minor tricks, yes, but a sorcerer? No, I don’t believe so.”

“It didn’t surprise me,” Stargazer said, ignoring his protestations of innocence. “I was dismayed that someone could deceive the King so, but I was not at all surprised to find out you were serving evil forces.”

Dantrius allowed a pained expression to pass over his face. “It’s nothing to hold against me, Your Matriarchy. Ideological opposites are not as different as they may seem on the surface.”

“Your kind disgusts me,” Stargazer said grimly.

Dantrius smiled. “And here I was hoping you would favor me with a dance later this evening.”

Shortwhiskers cut in. “Perhaps we should move into the dining room and begin our dinner. Before someone completely loses their appetite.”

Brisbane presented himself next to Stargazer and hooked out an elbow. Stargazer gave Dantrius a cold stare and then turned, slipping a hand inside Brisbane’s arm. He led her into the dining room.

Brisbane showed Stargazer to her chair and sat down next to her. Shortwhiskers came in and sat on the other side of Stargazer, followed by Roystnof and Dantrius, who took their seats on the other side of the table.

Shortwhiskers picked up a small bell set at his place and rang it. Shortly, a man dressed in white, hired for the occasion, came in through the swinging door that led to the kitchen, welcomed all the guests, and recited off the menu for the evening. He then went off to fetch the first course, returning soon with a tray cluttered with five bowls of thick broccoli soup. He placed a bowl in front of each guest.

Brisbane was reaching for his spoon when he saw Stargazer out of the corner of his eye bow her head and fold her hands in her lap. He quickly brought his own hands to his lap and, for the first time in many months, he offered the small ritual prayer of grace to Grecolus.

When he had finished the mental recitation, Brisbane was ready to eat, but he kept his hands folded because he noticed that Stargazer had not yet finished her prayer. He wondered what she could still be praying about, but then remembered what Shortwhiskers had said out her.

She worships Grecolus in the old ways.

Brisbane knew nothing about this. He thought the rites and rituals he had been taught were the way Grecolus had been worshipped since creation and had no knowledge of any other kind.

She’s a healer, Brisbane heard Shortwhiskers’ voice echo in his head. Claims her power comes from Grecolus himself.

Power. That’s what Shortwhiskers had said. Her power. Brisbane had originally thought the dwarf was referring to her medical skills, but now he was not so sure. He remembered the scene when Stargazer had healed (used her power on) the old man, Skinner. It had been like she was casting a spell, hadn’t it? She had placed her hands on his abdomen, moved them about, and chanted in an unfamiliar tongue. What was there about that process that could realistically take away pain? Nothing. But Skinner had relaxed and he had looked better. It was as if Stargazer had taken away his pain by magic.

Stargazer finished her prayer and began to eat her soup. Brisbane quickly followed and let his ponderings go for another time. He knew he would have to find a time to ask her about it eventually. What was the difference between what she did for Skinner and what Roystnof did with his red book?

“Nog tells me,” Stargazer suddenly said pointedly to Roystnof, “that you found Dantrius as a stone statue in some mysterious garden south of here. The victim of a basilisk?”

Roystnof put his soup spoon down. “Yes.”

“And that you, through your use of magic, restored him to the form present with us this evening.”

Roystnof nodded. “This is true.”

Stargazer returned her attention to her soup bowl for a moment. All around the table everyone enjoyed a few spoonfuls of the fine soup. There was some kind of cheese in it with which Brisbane was not familiar.

“He also tells me,” Stargazer went on, “that inside the shrine you discovered, you encountered some kind of demon, a demon that withstood attacks from both Nog and from Ignatius Roundtower. He says that it was your magic that helped Gil finally destroy the creature.”

“Again, true,” Roystnof said. “Without my slow spell, I fear the demon would have been too much for Gil to handle.”

“I see,” Stargazer said. “And just why did you choose that particular spell? Couldn’t you have brought some sort of fireball down on its head or something? I mean, it seems like such a minor act against such a powerful adversary.” Her voice was subtle and suggestive.

Roystnof considered Stargazer’s words for some time. “Listen, Miss Stargazer, I know what you must think about me and my magic and, frankly, I don’t care. But I’m not going to sit here and listen to you speculate about my motives. I used the spell I thought most helpful in the situation. I helped destroy that demon because it was endangering the lives of my friends. Now, you can speculate to yourself all you want, but you will never come closer to the truth than that.”

Silence fell around the table. Brisbane looked at Roystnof’s angry face and felt a resurgence of the love and respect he felt for his friend. Shortwhiskers kept his eyes switching between Stargazer and Roystnof. Dantrius slurped his soup.

“I’m sorry,” Stargazer said finally. “It was not my place. You surprised me with your passion.”

Roystnof accepted the woman’s apology and the rest of the soup was finished in silence. The hired man came in to take the dishes and returned with salad plates for all of them.

“Roystnof,” Stargazer said, starting the conversation again. “I hope Nog has told you that I plan to accompany you when you set out again in the spring.”

“He has,” Roystnof said.

“For personal reasons,” Stargazer continued, “I am very interested in the shrine you discovered. Nog has told me about it in his words, but I would very much like to hear it described in yours.”

“It was rather plain, really,” Roystnof said after chewing the crisp lettuce. “A cube of stone made out of great slabs of rock. Inside were the rotted remains of what I took to be kneeling benches and a faded mural.”

“A mural?” Stargazer asked.

“Yes,” Roystnof said. “A pair of giant hands parting a cloudbank. Quite a striking image, actually. The basement was completely empty except for the demon we found. I have no idea what the space was once used for.”

“The demon,” Stargazer said. “How do you suppose it got there?”

“Somebody conjured it up,” Roystnof said matter-of-factly. “The pentagram was still on the wall.”

“The pentagram, yes,” Stargazer said. “Do you have any idea who might have conjured such a beast in such a holy place?”

“No,” Roystnof said. “It could have been most anyone.”

Stargazer turned her attention to Dantrius. The pale man held a cherry tomato poked on the end of his fork and was eyeing it dubiously.

“What were you doing in the garden, Dantrius?” Stargazer asked. “What were you doing at that shrine?”

Brisbane held a forkful of lettuce halfway between his plate and his mouth. This was a question he was very interested in hearing answered. It was something he wanted to know, something he had wanted to know since Roystnof had first transformed Dantrius from stone to flesh. The rest of the guests seemed equally anxious to hear the mage’s answer.

Dantrius smiled. “Exploring,” he said simply. “The basilisk trapped me before I could even enter the shrine.” He placed the tomato in his mouth and slowly drew the fork out from between his lips.

“When were you there?” Stargazer asked insistently. “How soon was it after you had left the King’s court?”

“That’s my business,” Dantrius said. “But because it is of no consequence, I will tell you anyway. It was almost immediately. When I left the King’s employ, I started to travel south, searching for friendlier environs. I had been trapped as a stone statue in that garden for nearly the entire intervening time between then and now. There is precious little mischief I could have perpetrated.”

“I’m sure,” Stargazer said uneasily.

Dantrius suddenly stood. “But please, could we dispense with this interrogation session?” He lifted his glass which, at this time, was only filled with water. “We are here to celebrate the birthday of our dear friend, Gildegarde. I would like to propose a toast in his honor.”

The others suspiciously reached for their glasses and held them in front of themselves.

Dantrius cleared his throat. “Here is to young Gildegarde Brisbane. May his life be better than ours have been and longer than the wisest man’s.” Dantrius took a ceremonial drink from his cup, sat back down, and returned to his salad.

All around the table, glasses were brought forward, and uncertain sips were taken.

The rest of the dinner was mostly uneventful, although the food was delicious. The main course was a sumptuous pork roast with potatoes and gravy and steamed carrots. For dessert, they were served the richest chocolate cake with a scoop of immaculate vanilla ice cream. Brisbane’s appetite seemed unstoppable and he devoured helping after helping. The others seemed to nearly gorge themselves as well, except for Stargazer who, although she ate a little bit of everything brought to her, she never seemed to clean her plate.

When the dinner was over, they all retired to the living room to let the hired man and his crew clean up the mess and wrap up the leftovers. Brisbane was hoping for some friendly conversation around the fireplace, but as the others found comfortable chairs, Stargazer drew him aside and said she thought it would be best if she left.

Brisbane did not argue, although he really wanted her to stay. He asked her if she would like him to walk her home and she said that that would be very nice. Brisbane told the others they were leaving and they quickly set out.

It was full dark when they stepped outside, the sun having set a while ago. Stargazer drew her coat around her frame and they marched off, away from town and in the direction of her cottages.

“I had a fine time tonight, Gil,” Stargazer said, her breath puffing visibly out of her mouth. “Regardless of what happened with Roystnof and Dantrius. It was a wonderful dinner party.”

“I’m sorry we can’t all get along,” Brisbane said. “It would make things much easier in the spring.”

“Yes,” Stargazer agreed. “It would.”


“Yes, Gil?”

Brisbane was afraid to ask the question. “Do you really believe all magic-users are servants of the Evil One?”

“It is what the scriptures tell us,” Stargazer said without pause. “Magic is the tool of Damaleous to turn people away from Grecolus.”

Brisbane was working up the courage to ask her about her healing skills but, before he could get it out, Stargazer asked him a question.

“Where do you think they get their powers from?”

There was something about the way she had said the word they. Brisbane knew she was not referring to all wizards in general. He knew she was talking specifically about Roystnof and Dantrius.

“As far as Dantrius goes,” Brisbane said, “you may be right. It wouldn’t surprise me for a minute if he was worshipping Damaleous. But Roystnof? No, I can’t believe that about him. I’ve known him since I was twelve and never have I seen any evidence of it. And if he can do magic without worshipping Damaleous, what does that say about where magic really comes from?”

“Careful, Gil,” Stargazer warned. “You’re coming close to blasphemy. I know how you feel about Roystnof; Nog told me about your relationship with him. You think of him as an older brother, or perhaps even as a father figure. This worried me at first, but now I see he is a man of character, regardless of his religious beliefs, and that he had not corrupted you.”

Warning lights were going off in Brisbane’s head. Evidently, Shortwhiskers had not told Stargazer about Brisbane’s short term apprenticeship to Roystnof, and she as yet had not seen the medallion Brisbane wore behind his tunic. If either of these were made known to her, Brisbane had the impression that Stargazer would have nothing more to do with him. As Brisbane did not want that to happen, he decided it was a necessary deception. Besides, neither he nor Roystnof was really worshipping Damaleous anyway, so it wasn’t really a lie. It was just something he wasn’t telling her.

“I did not mean to call the scriptures wrong,” Brisbane said truthfully. “I just have no proof that they are correct.”

“That is why you need faith, Gil.”

They were nearing Stargazer’s cottages. The one she lived in was dark, but the one where she tended to the sick and injured of Queensburg was lighted. Brisbane walked her up to the door of the latter.

Stargazer turned to face him. “There are a few I want to check on before I turn in,” she said, taking both of Brisbane’s hands in hers. “Thank you for walking me back, Gil. Your gentlemanly manners are impeccable.”

Brisbane shrugged. “It seems to come naturally to me. Especially for someone as ladylike as you.” Even while he was saying it, Brisbane couldn’t believe how lame it sounded.

Stargazer stood on her tiptoes and kissed Brisbane on the cheek for the second time that night. “Happy birthday,” she whispered in his ear and for a second her hushed and throaty voice in his ear reminded him of how Angelika’s seductive voice sounded in his head.

Stargazer broke away from him. “Come and see me again. Soon.”

“I will,” Brisbane said.

Stargazer smiled.

She likes me, Brisbane thought. By Grecolus, she really likes me. She’s giving me the benefit of the doubt with Roy because she likes me. She wants me to be good. She doesn’t want to believe I would worship Damaleous.

Stargazer turned and entered the cottage. She gave Brisbane a little wave goodbye before she shut the door.

Brisbane just about ran home.

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