Friday, January 25, 2013

Streets of Laredo by Larry McMurty

This is the sequel to Lonesome Dove, and it recycles some of the characters that are left alive at the end of that massive tome. We’re told about them on the inside front cover—Woodrow Call, Pea Eye Parker, Lorena—as if this is going to be their story and we’re going to care about them.

It’s not and we don’t. At least not until the very end. For the bulk of the novel, the only person I come to care about is Maria Garza.

She is the mother of Joey Garza, the character that drives most of the plot in the book, an outlaw who robs trains and shoots people from afar with a rifle, and whom Woodrow Call has been hired to hunt down and kill. Maria is his devoted, but hated mother; a woman married and widowed four times, and thought to be a whore by her sadistic and unbalanced son. McMurtry spends many pages telling us her backstory, and when he gets to detailing the death of her fourth and last husband…

Later, she was to cry and cry over that remark. When she made it, she did not realize that it would be the last thing she would ever say to Benito, who didn’t make it to Chihuahua City, or to the dentist. Less than ten miles from Ojinaga his horse was shot out from under him. Benito tried to run, but the killer roped him and hoisted him up the side of a large boulder. Then the killer cut off his hands and feet, with a machete. The killer loosened the rope and rode away, leaving Benito to bleed to death. Benito crawled almost three hundred yards, back towards Ojinaga, before he died.

…I found myself acknowledging that Maria was the only character so far that had managed to win my sympathies.

Is this what McMurtry intended?

I believe so. For in addition to Maria being the most sympathetic character in the book, much of the on-going subtext deals with the natural conflicts that arise between men and women. Essentially, they cannot understand each other—what it is they want from life and their fundamental motivations. It is only those with the most worldly experience, like Maria, who begin to glimpse the other side.

For example, when Maria is ten, she becomes the object of desire of an adult neighbor, who, after raping her, gives her a crippled pony as a courtship present. Although Maria loves the pony, she rebuffs the neighbor, and even threatens him with a machete when he gets too close. In his anger and frustration, the neighbor kills the pony. For Maria…

It was another lesson about men: they wanted only one thing, and they were vengeful if they didn’t get it, or enough of it. Later, she was to learn that if someone else got what they wanted, they were even more vengeful.

As a grown woman, Maria has learned many lessons about men—she understands them and what they will do. But like all women, she is incapable of understanding why. Here’s an example that underscores that point.

The lack of laughter in her life was a thing Maria held against men. She felt she had the temperament to be a happy woman, if she was not interfered with, too much. She knew that it was her fault that she let men interfere with her; yet if she didn’t, there was nothing, or at least there was not enough. She wanted a man to lay with, except if she wanted a man once, she would want him many times. She liked to take pleasure from men, and liked to give it, but when she gave men that pleasure, they came to need it and then to resent her because they needed her. When that happened, the interfering began. Maria didn’t know why men resented the very women who gave them the most pleasure, and gave it generously. It was foolish, very foolish, of men to resent the good than came from women. Still, they did.

They’re jealous, that’s why. Any man can tell you that, Maria. But Maria can’t comprehend that. She’s certainly heard the word before, and probably even felt the emotion herself from time to time. But she doesn’t know what makes a man feel jealous when a woman gives him pleasure. It’s beyond her ken.

That’s Maria. She is the strongest female character in the book, and her strength over and in the face of men is shown again and again throughout the novel. The most interesting scene in this regard is when Maria, on a visit to Crow Town to find and warn her son Joey about Call coming to kill him, is threatened by a large wild pig, and, armed with a pistol, casually and almost without thinking kills it with a lucky single shot. The pig, she shortly learns, is known as The Devil Pig by the local residents—mostly by women who have been forced into prostitution by their poverty and the predilections of the outlaws and low characters that frequent Crow Town. Maria’s action causes her to be hailed as a kind of folk hero by these women, and when she suggests they butcher the pig for its meat and to help provision her on her on-going journey to find Joey, the interesting scene ensues. Read this in the light of the thematic conflict between men and women McMurtry is exploring.

By the end of the morning, every woman in Crow Town was behind Joey’s house, helping Maria finish butchering the giant pig. All of them carried off meat, and then came back and helped Maria smoke hers over a little fire. They were beaten women, none of them young; only Gabriela and Marieta were young. Most of the women were old, within sight of their deaths. They had been thrown aside by their men, or their men had died, leaving them in this bad place, too spiritless to move on. All of them, even the oldest, had sold themselves, or tried, to the men who had passed through Crow Town.

Now they were excited, and not just by the meat. The pig had frightened them all. He had made their dreams bad, made them scared when they had to squat in the bushes. They had seen the pig eating dead men, on Hog Hill. They knew that when they died, the pig would eat them, too. Nobody would care enough about them to bury them deep enough, and the pig could even root up corpses that were buried deep.

But now the tables had been turned, and it was all thanks to Maria. She had arrived out of the storm and had killed their enemy, the great pig. They had wet their arms with his blood, eaten raw bits of his liver, and waded in his guts, which spilled from his belly and spread over the ground when Maria opened it.

There is an argument between the women—one of whom wants to strip and eat the intestines, another of whom who thought that was sick because the intestines undoubtedly contained pieces of the people the pig had eaten.

As the women worked, the men of the town came, in ones and twos, to watch the spectacle. None of them said anything. They stood in the wind, watching the bloody women cut the meat.

Though she continued to work, Maria kept one eye on the men. They were all watching her, and their eyes were hostile. She knew she would have to leave Crow Town that night, as soon as she had enough jerky to see her home. She was a new woman; the men who watched her cut the pig were tired of the women they had, if they had any at all. Their women were worn out. Except for the two Mexican girls, they were all women whose hearts had died within them. They were broken and they didn’t care what men did to them anymore. Men had used them until they had used them up. The women were excited that the pig was dead, but their excitement would be brief. In the next day, or two days, or a week, they would just be broken women again.

Maria knew the men would be after her soon. They would be angry because she had stirred up the women. Most men didn’t like women to be stirred up, about a dead pig or about anything. Life was much easier when women were broken, when they didn’t dare express a feeling, whether happy or sad. It was not something to question; it was just how men were.

In the end, I think Streets of Laredo is a book about the spirit of women, which has been broken throughout history by the dominance of men, but which can always rise again, and which must if we are to keep from sliding into chaos.

There are other women in the novel that represent this ideal, with Lorena being the one most primary. There’s another scene at the end that well summarizes the divide that exists between the world of men and the world of women, but here it is Lorena that reveals and reflects upon it. In the scene, Lorena wants to know more about Maria—about whether or not she was ever happy—and in this quest she approaches Billy Williams and Olin Roy, two of the men who knew Maria best.

The two men were silent. They had known little of what went on in Maria’s marriages. When she was with Roberto Sanchez, her face had often been bruised; apparently he was rough, though Maria had never mentioned it to either of them. Carlos Garza had been a vaquero, off in the cow camps with other vaqueros. Juan Castro had been cheap; besides her midwifing, Maria had done cleaning for white people across the river when she was married to him. Benito had merely been lazy; he seemed to have no malice in him.

But was Maria ever happy? Both could remember her smile, and the sound of her laughter, and the look on her face when she was pleased as well as when she was displeased. But was Maria ever happy? It was a hard question.

“She had her children,” Billy replied. “She was good to her children.”

Lorena asked no more questions. She felt she had been foolish to inquire. The two men were probably decent, as men went. Both had clearly been devoted to Maria, else why would they be here, reluctant to leave her grave? But how the woman had felt when she closed the doors of her house at night and was alone with one of her husbands and her children, was not something that men could be expected to know. What Maria had felt in the years of her womanhood was lost. Who would know what feelings she had struggled with as she lost four husbands and raised her children? How could men, decent or not, know what made a woman happy or unhappy? She herself had known little happiness until she had persuaded Pea Eye to accept her. Why she felt she might be happy with Pea instead of with any of the others men who had sought her hand in the years after Gus McCrae’s death was elusive, too. Lorena had thought she’d known what drew her to Pea Eye once, but now, sitting by the campfire in Mexico, she found she couldn’t recover her own reckonings of the matter. She had been right, though, for she had known great happiness with Pea Eye and their children. Probably there was no explaining any of it; probably it had been mostly luck.

I find a lot of McMurtry fiction ends this way—with questions about what something might’ve meant, or what two people might’ve meant to one another—and with a simple sense that the line between happiness and sadness, life and death, might be drawn by luck. In Streets of Laredo, it is men and women that the line is drawn between—but it is not just between individual people like Lorena and Pea Eye, or Maria and her husbands, but between two different worlds that each a man’s and a woman’s sense of happiness would try to create.

This more archetypal tension is Lorena’s real purpose in the book. It is her husband, after all, Pea Eye Parker, that wavers between the worlds created by the two genders—the domestic family life represented by women and that wandering individual life represented by men—when he decides and then regrets his decision to join Captain Call on his hunt for Joey Garza. Lorena sees the essence Pea Eye’s conflict from the very beginning.

That was what it was, too: woman against man. Her body, her spirit, her affection and passion, the children she and Pea shared, the life they shared on the farm that had cost them all her money and years of their energy. It was that against the old man with the gun, and the way of life that ought to have ended. Probably there was more to it—it involved the loyalty of fighting men to one another and to their leader, but Lorena gave that no respect, not where Pea Eye was concerned.

In Lonesome Dove, Lorena was very much a part of the man’s world. As a reminder, there is a brutal scene in the middle of the book where the young wife of one of the lawmen who has gone off with Captain Call to find Joey Garza is raped by her local sheriff. This Mrs. Plunkert goes there looking for information on the whereabouts of her husband—once too often in the view of the sheriff—and the sheriff, in a fit a frustration and closeted passion, brutalizes and rapes her. The act shatters her. It destroys her sense of her own virtue and even the love she feels for her missing husband and the child growing in her womb. In an act of desperation, she eats rat poison until she curls up in pain and dies.

When Lorena hears about the death, she is forced to reflect on the brutalization she herself had received at the hands of men throughout her life—some of it much worse than what had happened to this Mrs. Plunkert.

Although the circumstances of Mrs. Plunkert’s travail might seem lighter, Lorena knew they had not seemed at all light to the young woman who had so promptly taken her own life. Mrs. Plunkert must have felt that her happiness and her husband’s happiness were forfeit anyway. She had become hopeless. Lorena knew enough about hopelessness. She did not want to be reminded of it, not even a hopelessness experienced by a young woman she had never met.

What the death of Mrs. Plunkert meant was that hopelessness was always there. There was never a way or a time one could be safe from it. If Pea Eye dies, or one of her children, she knew she would have to feel it again.

But in Streets of Laredo, Lorena is no longer part of the man’s world. She has quite consciously rebelled against it and now resides apart from it. And her defining conflict must finally come with Woodrow Call himself.

There is actually a great deal of this book that I did not like. The first 390 pages or so feels like little more than wandering around the narrative landscape—almost like McMurtry is trying to reflect Call’s wandering quest for Joey Garza in the pace and unconnected scenes of the story. It might’ve been done more effectively, but at times it seems amateurish and sloppy. Characters wander in from literally nowhere.

If it is a set-up for the final confrontation, it is an overly long one. Call’s story only catches my interest near the very end, when Call, still ostensibly looking for Garza, but finding himself trying to protect Lorena instead, winds up getting shot no fewer than three times by Garza and his long-range rifle. Garza leaves him for dead, and it is only in my rooting for Call’s death that I begin to care about him again as a character. It is a fitting end, I think, my morose narrative tendencies shining through, to one of the heroes of Lonesome Dove, now little more than a grumpy old man in Streets of Laredo. But McMurtry isn’t done with Call, keeping the old codger alive through Lorena’s long and painful trek with him back to some semblance of civilization in order to make some final observations about the two worlds of men and women—and to give Lorena’s way its clearest sense of transcendence

At one point, Lorena is gathering her courage to cut off Call’s damaged and infected leg…

In the morning when she awoke, the Captain was looking at her out of feverish eyes. Lorena looked at the leg and then looked away.

“You might bleed to death,” she said.

“I didn’t yet,” Call whispered. “I ain’t handsome, like Gus. I’ve got no woman to lose. If I have to be one-legged, I will. I want to live to kill that boy.”

He’s a man and he has a job to do.

Lorena felt a flush of disgust. The man was all but dead and might be dead before the day passed, or even an hour. He could barely whisper and his arm was ruined; he had a bullet in his chest that made his breath sound like a snore. Yet he still wanted to kill. The sympathy Lorena had felt for him in his pain, went away. Not all of it, but much of it.

“You ought to think of a better reason to live than killing a boy,” Lorena said. “If killing is the only reason you can think of to live, then you might as well die.”

She’s a woman. To her, life is about growth and happiness, not death.

Call was surprised by the anger in Lorena’s voice.

Lorena was surprised by it herself. It came from memories and from times long past, from things she had felt about Gus, and things she had felt about Jake Spoon. The very man before her, Captain Call, the man with the ruined arm and leg and the deep chest wound, had himself hung Jake Spoon, his friend. If Gus McCrae hadn’t killed to save her, she would have died alone at the hands of cruel men, long years before. She would have had no husband, no children, no pupils. Killing was part of the life they had all lived on the frontier. Gus’s killings had saved her, but Lorena still felt a bitterness and an anger; not so much at the old, hurt man laying by the campfire as at the brutal way of life in the place they had lived.

But that way of life was necessary, wasn’t it? At one time, at least.

She and Clara sometimes daydreamed of making a trip to England together to see civilization. They meant to visit Shakespeare’s birthplace, and to see a play. They had amused themselves in the Nebraska evenings by imagining what they would say if they happened to meet Mr. Browning on the street, or Mr. Carlyle.

Yet here she was, not with Clara in a theater or a nice hotel in London, but on a bleak prairie, with not even one house within a hundred miles, caring for an old killer who wanted her to cut his ruined leg off so he could get well and kill again. She had studied and educated herself, but she had not escaped. When she looked around and saw where she was and remembered why she was there—because this man had taken her kind husband to help him kill a train robber—she felt deeper anger still.

“I’m tired of it,” Lorena said. “I’m tired of it, Captain! You oughtn’t to have taken my husband. He’s not a killer. You and Gus were the killers. I loved Gus McCrae, but not like I love my husband. Our children love him and need him. You oughtn’t to have taken him from us.

Gus and Call, they are the pioneers, the killers who must venture into the wilderness if it is to be tamed. Lorena loved them once, when they were needed, but now with women comes civilization, and Lorena wants no more of that old way of life. She yearns for the new, the one symbolized by Pea Eye and her children.

Call was sorry he had said anything; better to have stayed quiet until he died. Lorena was risking her life to help him, and Pea Eye was risking his life, too; and yet he had angered her. There was justice in what she said, too. He shouldn’t have taken her husband. He had taken him and wasted weeks of his time and put his life in jeopardy, and for nothing.

“The Garza boy is a killer,” he whispered.

“I don’t care,” Lorena said. “There’s killers and killers and killers out there. My husband’s got nothing to do with that.

Indeed. Pea Eye is a civilized man.

“You should have let him be.”

Call remembered the fury Clara Allen had directed at him in Nebraska, as he was leaving her ranch with Augustus’s body to bring it back to Texas. Now another woman, and one who was putting herself to great trouble to save him, was just as angry, if not angrier. He didn’t know what the flaw was in his speech or in himself that brought up such anger in women.

There is no flaw. It’s just the way he is.

But the fury was up in Lorena. He saw it in her eyes, in the way her nostrils flared, in the stiff way she held herself.

“You remember what I was, Captain,” Lorena said. “I was a whore. Two dollars was all I cost—a dollar on Sunday. I don’t know how many men bought me. I expect if you brought them all here, they’d about fill this desert. I expect they’d nearly make an army.”

Call remembered well enough. Gus and Jake and Dish and many men in Lonesome Dove had visited Lorena. In those days, cowboys rode fifty miles out of their way to visit Lorena.

She was a woman fitted for the life of pioneer men.

“But I’m not a whore now,” Lorena said. “I’m a married woman. I’m a mother. I teach school. I didn’t stay what I was—can you understand that? I didn’t stay what I was! Clara cared for me, and she showed me a better way.”

Call didn’t know what was wrong. Lorena had clenched her fist, and if he had been well she might have hit him. But the Garza boy was a killer, and a deadly one: he killed frequently and without pity, so far as Call knew. He had been hired to stop the boy’s killing. That was his job. Getting well in order to do what he had been hired to do seemed a reason to live; though when he took stock of his actual condition, he knew it was unlikely that he would ever go on the hunt for a killer again. He probably wouldn’t live anyway—why was the woman so angry?

“I’ll cut your leg off!” Lorena said. “I’ll cut it off now! If you die, then you’ll have been killed by a killer like yourself. But if you live, you oughtn’t to stay a killer. I didn’t stay a whore!”

She changed. Why can’t he? That, is the essence of the tension in Streets of Laredo. Having tamed the frontier, some men cannot tame themselves in the way all women seemed predisposed to do.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


“Ordinary people waited till life disclosed to them its secrets, but to the few, to the elect, the mysteries of life were revealed before the veil was drawn away. Sometimes this was the effect of art, and chiefly of the art of literature, which dealt immediately with the passions and the intellect. But now and then a complex personality took the place and assumed the office of art; was indeed, in its way, a real work of art, Life having its elaborate masterpieces, just as poetry has, or sculpture, or painting.”
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Wednesday, January 9, 2013


“One should absorb the color of life, but one should never remember its details. Details are always vulgar.”
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (Lord Henry Wotton)

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Chapter Thirty


Speculative Fiction
Approximately 69,000 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1991. All rights reserved.

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The day Otis Parkinson became my stepfather was the same day I began my study and worship of the great god humans call Grecolus. I was given a leather-bound copy of the Scriptures, the holy writings of the ancient prophets, and I was quickly taught to read it. I was instructed in the creation of the world, the mandates Grecolus had set down for his followers to live their lives by, and the promise of eternal life for those who remained faithful to him. These things were good, and in my innocence, I believed them with all my heart. But even before the seeds of doubt began to germinate in the topsoil of my consciousness, I recognized that life and death under the law of Grecolus was a structured framework, without room for experimentation or oddity. And at the center of it all, was the undying assertion that Grecolus was the only true god. His story of creation left no room for other gods, because Grecolus had created everything, including it seemed, himself. One of his mandates forbid the worship of false gods. The promise of eternal life in the heavens was revoked for all who did not worship Grecolus. To me, even at that young age, it was all an argument between the acceptance of ultimate truth and the openness to listen to other points of view. The Grecolus-driven universe was indeed the only way to go if it was true, but if it was not, the rejection of such diversity to me seemed unhealthy and cruel.

+   +   +

Vrak returned Brisbane to his cage, after threading him through the countless tunnels of the ork cave, and Brisbane spent the entire day wallowing in the dirty straw with his two faithful companions, pain and hunger. Before the day was over, the need for a bowel movement came upon him and, unlike urination—which he could direct out of his living space—he was forced to squat in one of the corners of the wagon and leave his refuse of the floor. When finished, he kicked most of the mess out through the bars and scrubbed the fouled area with generous handfuls of straw. He had never felt so low and depraved in his life and could see no difference between himself and the animals that must have once done the same thing in the cage. It was the orks who had done this to him, and Brisbane hung tenaciously to Angelika’s promise of vengeance.

Angelika. Where was she now? Brisbane tried again to contact her but his second attempt was as futile as his first had been. He had seen Vrak take her inside the cave, but Brisbane supposed he could not be sure she was still in there. Vrak had not been able to draw her from her scabbard, Brisbane remembered, and Angelika had said none of the orks would be able to do so. This surely would arouse the curiosity of the orks, to say nothing of the fact that she was found on the person of history’s first human Grumak or, perhaps most importantly, she had an emerald the size of a fist embedded in her pommel.

But, as Brisbane was to find out that day, Angelika was not the only recipient of the orks’ curiosity. Word had evidently spread about the Demosk’s judgment of his blood, and it seemed the whole of the ork encampment passed by Brisbane’s cage that day to catch a glimpse of such a miraculous being. Men in armor and red-eye shields, women with dirty tunics pulled tightly over their large breasts, children with spindly little legs and fingers in their noses—they all came to see the human whose blood bore the bane of Gruumsh One-Eye.

Brisbane did not believe his power came from Gruumsh One-Eye any more than he believed it came from Damaleous. His power came from within himself, as Roystnof had taught him, and the only reason he was not more skillful with his power was because he had not spent enough time mastering it. He was nothing special. All these people, eyes wide with wonder and amazement, who passed by his cage in an endless procession needed to look no farther than themselves to see what they had come to see in Brisbane.

It was a day that passed slowly and during which Brisbane found it difficult to think clearly. The orks—there seemed to be so many of them—passed by with such reverence and awe that it distracted Brisbane and kept his mind from settling down on one idea for long scrutiny. Throughout the day his thoughts passed over many things, maybe as many things as orks that passed by his cage. He thought about his life, the important and not-so-important events that had led up to the situation in which he now found himself.

He thought about Otis, the man who had married his mother and raised him as if he were his own son. He remembered the lessons and the moral training and the occasional spankings, yes, but he also remembered other things, things he had not thought about for quite some time. Brisbane remembered the times they had spent together, not as teacher and student, but as father and son. They had played games together. Otis had been a big fan of card games and had taught young Brisbane just about every kind there was at one time or another. Cribbage was Otis’ favorite and he was very good at it. The day in which Brisbane had finally beaten his stepfather, after years of loss after loss, came flooding back in memory to him now. Brisbane had counted his crib and triumphantly moved his peg into the 121st hole, winning the game. He had looked up at Otis, a smile straining the edges of his small face, and Otis had smiled warmly back at him. Otis had congratulated him and then slyly asked if Brisbane had ever heard of a game called euchre. Brisbane had always known the reason Otis had been strict and sometimes cruel was that he had loved his mother and him like the family they were, but it wasn’t until now, dirty and starving in a broken-down circus wagon, that he realized how much he had loved Otis, too.

He thought about his mother, a woman of impossible beauty named Amanda who had birthed him. Brisbane had many memories about his mother, most of them warm and happy and nurturing, but ever since that fateful day just after his eighteenth birthday

I’m nineteen now and this December I’ll be twenty

all his memories had been tainted with the inevitable fact of her weakened death. Somewhere in the mists of his recollection Brisbane could bring up, when he closed his eyes and shut out all other thoughts, the dimmest memory of himself as an infant, teething and drawing milk from his mother’s swollen breast. But even that was ruined by the stigma of her death, for he knew the suckling flow had stopped completely and her breasts, once so full and smooth and round, had drooped and wrinkled with age and disease and were now withering into dry dust in her grave. He missed her so much and it was times like this that he wondered how he could go on living without her. How could he go on for such long periods of time without thinking about her and all she meant to him?

He thought about Roystnof, his oldest friend who he had known for six years as Roy Stonerow. Roystnof was one of his teachers, too, like Otis, and also like Otis, Roystnof was also something more. Brisbane loved him like a brother and felt the separation from him perhaps more than anyone else. Roystnof was a source of other ideas, ideas different from those set down as law by Grecolus, and may therefore have been more appealing to the rebellious Brisbane approaching his adolescence. Roystnof’s world was a world without gods and without the guilt and sacrifices that gods seemed to need when they lived among men. In Roystnof’s world, man was the master of his own destiny and it was his choice to do what he willed with his life. Death was an ending in Roystnof’s world, not a beginning, and when it found you, all that was left of you were your works and the memories of you in others. It was a less comforting world, a world in which mortal meant mortal, but through his experiences with Roystnof, Brisbane had come to suspect it was the only kind of world that made any sense.

He thought about Shortwhiskers, the dwarf who had come into his life one night and shown him a wizard named Roystnof where he had previously seen a friend called Roy Stonerow. The dwarf had also shown him another world, not the one of Moradin and Abbathor and of the dwarven myths, but the one of stalwart adventure, a man and his sword out to win fame and fortune. A world Nog Shortwhiskers had known for longer than Brisbane had been alive, a world he had shared with his friend Roystnof and his grandfather Gildegarde Brisbane. The dwarf had become such a part of his life. They were friends, yes, but they were also something more than that. They were companions in battle. Together they had faced and defeated orks, ogres, ettins, and a demon. There was a special kind of bond forged there, different from the one that attached him to Roystnof, but strong and binding all the same. In the heat of battle, Brisbane had and would again flagrantly risk his own life to protect Shortwhiskers’, as he knew the dwarf had and would do for him.

He thought about Stargazer, the half-elven woman he had first seen in the town square of Queensburg on the eve of the festival of Whiteshine. Brisbane closed his eyes and tried to remember her beauty through the ugly images that had dominated his life since his capture on the banks of the Mystic. He loved her, he could feel the truth of that inflating his heart like a balloon until it pressed almost painfully against his lungs and shortened his breath. He longed to hold her in his arms as he remembered having once done, only this time he wanted to do more than just snuggle for warmth beneath blankets on the floor of some tent lost in the wilderness. Grecolus said what he wanted to do was a sin when it was done out of wedlock, but at that moment he didn’t care. If Grecolus wanted to condemn him for thinking of making love to Allison Stargazer while he waited in an animal’s cage for Ternosh the Grumak to decide his fate by some drug-induced vision of a strange race’s afterlife, Brisbane thought, then Grecolus could take his best shot. Brisbane believed dreams and thoughts of that sort may very well be the only things that kept him sane during this ordeal, and if he somehow survived to see Stargazer again, he vowed to do his very best to make these dreams come true.

He thought about Roundtower, another warrior like Shortwhiskers, but unlike Shortwhiskers in his manner and purpose. He was a teacher of sorts to Brisbane as well, and he was also something more. Brisbane had an amazing amount of respect for Ignatius Roundtower, even though he did not agree with his religious beliefs. They had fought battles together, too, but what was different about Roundtower was the reason why he was fighting the battles. He was following his dream to become a Knight of Farchrist, and Brisbane could respect him for that if for nothing else. The dream was no longer his own, but it had been his mother’s for him, and Brisbane knew it wasn’t necessarily the content of the dream that won his respect. It was the way Roundtower pursued it, never giving it up and moving towards it in everything he did. He had the faith of Grecolus and was not out adventuring to increase his wealth or fame, he was out to increase his skill with his sword so he could serve his lord better. When Brisbane had happened along, Angelika had left Roundtower free to pursue the next stage of his dream. There was no guarantee he would be accepted by some knight to become a squire, but Brisbane knew Roundtower would be there for as long as it took.

He thought about Dantrius, the illusionist Roystnof had restored to flesh in the basilisk’s garden and who had recognized Brisbane from a mental image of his grandfather. The man had been a pain in Brisbane’s side since that day and the small pleasure he took in knowing he was separated from Illzeezad Dantrius was tainted with the fearful knowledge that the mage was still among his friends. Brisbane knew too many things about Dantrius and he didn’t know which, if any, of them were true. Shortwhiskers said he had betrayed King Gregorovich II at the request of the dragon Dalanmire. Roystnof said he worshipped Damaleous and believed he got his power from the Evil One. Brisbane was only sure of the growing dislike he felt for the man, and had felt from him, since they had met. Brisbane hoped Dantrius would leave them all alone, but Roystnof didn’t seem to think he would without disturbing something. Brisbane realized that right now, Illzeezad Dantrius, and what he might do, were the least of his problems.

He thought about Smurch, the half-ork he had named Jack and who had been tossed in his cage the night before. The only person within miles Brisbane could tentatively call a friend, Brisbane was not sure what to make of this half-ork Jack Smurch. He obviously didn’t like his life of abuse from the pure-blooded members of the clan—who would, even if they hadn’t once been the son of a chief? Brisbane would have liked to think he could use this against his captors somehow, maybe get Smurch to do secret favors for him, but he didn’t know if he was ever going to see the half-ork again. He seemed to be the only member of the Clan of the Red Eye who hadn’t passed by to catch a glimpse of the freak Brisbane had become. Brisbane knew. He had kept his eyes peeled for the half-ork all day.

Lastly, he thought about Grumak Ternosh, the ork who had the power of magic at his disposal and the one who would decide Brisbane’s fate. The question of Ternosh’s power was still a puzzle to Brisbane. He had worked a cantrip in what the Grumak had declared as an anti-magic zone, and so Brisbane questioned just how powerful his magic could be. Even what had just happened in the Grumak’s chamber, which appeared to have been a powerful example of summoning and divining magic, might have been no more than a hallucination caused by the inhalation of the smoke from that strange red powder. It was obvious the incense had been some kind of drug and while he was under the influence, Brisbane could be sure of nothing he sensed. The entire episode with the Demosk, whatever that really was, had possessed a dream-like quality, and it could have been as unreal as Brisbane’s feeling of floating free from his chains.

These are the people who walked through Brisbane’s thoughts as he sat in his cage, trying to ignore the orks outside and waiting for the return of Ternosh the Grumak. He wondered if he shouldn’t try to formulate some sort of plan of escape but the idea seemed strangely ridiculous to him, knowing as little as he did about his surroundings and the potential events of the next few hours. Any plan he could devise was more than likely doomed to failure by any one of a thousand variables Brisbane had no control over. To play it by ear was as detailed a plan Brisbane felt he should make and he pessimistically realized this was pretty much the same plan he had followed for his entire life so far.

The waiting and the flood of orkish bodies past his cage finally ended that day when Ternosh emerged from the cave mouth in his red robes with Vrak right on his heels. The Grumak came out and stood before Brisbane, glaring angrily at him for several seconds before turning to address the crowd of orks in their native language.

It was a speech of sorts and Brisbane watched as the men, women, and children listened silently and wide-eyed to every word. The whole while Vrak stood behind Ternosh’s right shoulder and he would occasionally turn and burn Brisbane with a mixed look of fear and hatred. Brisbane wished time and again he could understand orkish so he would know what it was Ternosh was telling his people, but it was a wish that went ungranted. As he finished, Ternosh raised his hands to the massed populace and sent his voice up many decibels. He rang a final sentence out over their heads and the people reacted with cries of surprise and triumph. When Ternosh lowered his arms, the people quieted and began to slowly disperse back into the settlement.

Ternosh and Vrak turned back to Brisbane. He had come to the front of his cage and had his hands curled around the bars as he watched his audience stream away from him.

Ternosh waited until Brisbane took notice of his angry stare. “Well, Brisbane,” the Grumak said when he had the human’s attention. “It seems He-Who-Watches has revealed to me his purpose in granting the powers of my kind upon a human.”

Ternosh motioned to Vrak and the ork went over to the door of the circus wagon. Vrak worked at the lock with his key and opened the door. He did not enter the wagon. He did not have any other guards with him. Brisbane looked at him for a long moment and then turned back to Ternosh.

“We are all creatures of duty,” the Grumak said seriously. “Some of us are more powerful than others, but in the end, we are all creatures of duty. What I am about to do, I do because it is my duty to do so. Personally, I do not agree with this action, but it seems the path has already been made for me, and now I must walk down it.”

All the other orks were still leaving the scene. This discourse confused Brisbane profoundly. What was Ternosh talking about? What was he about to do?

“You can come out of your cage, Brisbane,” Ternosh said.

Brisbane did nothing.

The Grumak addressed Vrak in orkish. Reluctantly, Vrak backed away from the open cage door.

“Come on,” Ternosh said to Brisbane. “I have little time for your dalliance.”

Brisbane began to move slowly out of his cage. He arrived at the door and Vrak backed off another few paces. Brisbane stood half-in and half-out of the door and looked up at the darkening sky. Vrak had freed him of his bonds and his gag when the ork had returned him to the cage, and without them the outside air smelled a bit sweeter and the sky looked a bit wider. Brisbane started down the few wooden steps and stood upon the hard earth. Vrak grimaced at him as he made his way around the wagon to stand in front of Ternosh.

The Grumak put his hands on his hips and sized Brisbane up and down. “You are free, Brisbane. You may leave this camp.”

Brisbane did not move.

Ternosh spoke to Vrak in a commanding tone, then turned back to address Brisbane. “I have told Vrak not to molest you. If you wish it, Vrak will even escort you from the camp. I am serious. You are truly free to go.”

Brisbane looked the Grumak over very carefully. Something smelled extremely fishy here. Vrak and Ternosh were now the only two orks within a hundred yards and the others were getting farther away every second. Ternosh seemed sincere but there was an odd little twinkle in his remaining red eye that sent shivers up and down Brisbane’s spine.

On the surface of his consciousness, Brisbane was convinced this offer of freedom was some kind of trick, something Ternosh wanted Brisbane to jump up at so he could be knocked down even further. He simply could not accept the fact that the orks would just let him go after all they had done to keep him here. But subconsciously, deep down in the pool of Brisbane’s thoughts, so deep that the surface was undisturbed by it, a soft and seductive feminine voice begged Brisbane not to leave without her, reminding Brisbane vengeance would be theirs if he would only be patient and strong.

A full minute of silence went by as Brisbane stood there in indecision. The whole time Ternosh seemed to be studying Brisbane’s face, as if he planned to paint it later from memory. When the minute had passed, and neither Brisbane, Ternosh, nor Vrak had taken a single step in any direction, Ternosh threw his head back and began to laugh.

“So,” the Grumak said, composing himself with some difficulty. “It is true. You will not leave. I did not believe it even though I heard it from the mouth of my own Demosk. There is something holding you here and you will not leave until you have acquired it. Good. Very good.”

Brisbane lowered his head. He could feel the force holding him here and yet he did not fully understand it. How could Angelika exert such a power over him? He was free to go, Ternosh would not stop him, and still his feet did not move. Just how much did that sword come to mean to him, anyway?

“What are you going to do with me?” Brisbane asked.

Ternosh seemed surprised Brisbane had even spoken. “Why, you will go into training, of course. You have just become my apprentice, Brisbane. You will be instructed in the magic and worship of He-Who-Watches and, when the time comes, you might very well become the Grumak of the Clan of the Red Eye.”

Brisbane did not like the sound of that. He wasn’t about to become the Grumak of any clan, and he certainly wasn’t going to start worshipping Gruumsh One-Eye. But that did not really matter, for in Ternosh’s words, Brisbane did not hear the threats of a controlled existence under the repressive arm of yet another primitive religion. What he did hear was a promise to go on living. The orks were not going to kill him, they were going to give him some time and, in that time, Brisbane nurtured a glimmer of hope he would somehow be able to recover Angelika and extract their vengeance from the hides of the orks around him.

Ternosh asked Brisbane to follow him and the Grumak led him into the cave. Vrak predictably fell into step right behind them.