Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Chapter Thirty


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

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

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 The promise of eternal life in the heavens was revoked for all who did not worship Grecolus.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.

No comments:

Post a Comment