Friday, March 1, 2013

Chapter Thirty-Two


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

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

I took the pendant home and showed it to Otis and my mother, liking its shape and the way it glinted in the sunlight. What followed was as big a shock to me as the medallion was to them. My stepfather took the trinket from me and then violently shook me until I told him where and how I had gotten it. Crying, I told him all I knew. I was spanked and punished, and then Otis lectured me on what the five-pointed star stood for and the dangers of associating with men who bore it as their symbol. I said I was sorry and that I had not known and together, Otis and I, we prayed to Grecolus for forgiveness. The matter was settled, even though I still was not sure exactly what I was asking forgiveness for, and Otis threw the pendant deep into the small copse of trees that grew behind our home. It took a long time, skipping out whenever I had an hour or two of free time, but eventually I found it and secretly hid the medallion in my room.

+   +   +

Dinner was, in many ways, not what Brisbane expected it to be. After Smurch had helped him into his robes—Brisbane did not seem able to prevent the service—the half-ork took him directly to the banquet chamber where members of the klatru were already gathering to feast on what was their only meal of the day.

The chamber itself was conveniently located at the other end of the main corridor, opposite the bath chamber, and was by far the largest chamber Brisbane had seen so far. Gigantic might have been an understatement. It was so huge Brisbane could not even guess at its dimensions. It was roughly oval with plenty of exits scattered around the walls and a high, vaulted ceiling. Like the other main chambers in this complex, it was lit with torchlight and, in the very center of the room, a huge stone table stood surrounded by numerous stone benches.

There were several orks already seated at the table, none of whom Brisbane recognized, all dressed in black and drinking from great tankards. Smurch stopped Brisbane at one of the portals into the chamber.

“I am forbidden to enter until the time has come to serve the meal,” the half-ork said. “I must go to the kitchen now. Enjoy your meal, Grum Brisbane.”

Smurch walked quickly away from Brisbane and turned down one of the side tunnels. Brisbane raised a weak hand in a wave and said goodbye to his friend under his breath. Suddenly, he wasn’t so eager to go in there and get his dinner, even though he had eaten nothing but prison rations for the last two days. He took a small cautious step into the chamber and, when none of the orks at the table took notice of him, he took another. Soon he was moving steadily towards the center of the room and he did not stop until one of the orks looked up at him.

Their conversation suddenly went silent and all their heads pivoted up to look upon Brisbane. Brisbane stood frozen in their gazes and, for the briefest of moments, he was deadly sure they were going to rise up and snuff out his life.

“You that human Grum?” the ork who had first noticed him asked.

Brisbane could not find his voice. There were eight orks at the table, all of them larger than Brisbane and all of them more fierce-looking than any creatures he had ever seen. He might have turned and fled in fear if a sarcastic vein in his body hadn’t ballooned up and said to his mind, What the hells kind of question is that, dumb ass? Who else would I be, an unarmed human so deep in the lair of a clan or orks?

“Yes,” Brisbane said finally.

The ork nodded his head and fell back into conversation with his comrades around the table. They were speaking orkish and Brisbane couldn’t help but think they were doing that just to spite him. He still did not feel comfortable enough to go on over and take a seat at the table, a seat Smurch would probably have said he now deserved, so he stood lamely in place and tried to will someone he knew into the room. At this point, he would have even been glad to see Wister.

Fortunately, it was not long before Ternosh entered the chamber with Wister right on his heels. The Grum went over to take his place at the table while Ternosh spotted Brisbane and came over to him.

“Well, Brisbane,” the Grumak said kindly. “I see you are now properly attired. I hope you are taking easily to your new life. I imagine it is quite different from the one you knew before.”

Brisbane was still not used to the Grumak’s friendliness. Until what had happened with the Demosk, Ternosh had seemed ready to gut Brisbane with a paring knife, and now it was all warm greetings and friendly overtures. Brisbane did not trust it.

“Things are going okay,” he said cautiously.

Ternosh actually smiled. “This will be your first dinner with us. I’m glad I have a moment to talk to you a little bit before the meal begins.”

“Go ahead,” Brisbane said.

“You may have noticed,” the Grumak said, “that dinner is the only meal we grugan eat in the day.”

“I have,” Brisbane said as he held his stomach.

Ternosh chuckled. “Yes,” he nodded. “Very good. Perhaps because it is our only meal, it has taken on quite a bit of importance in our lives. It’s more than just a meal, it’s a gathering time, when peers come together to eat, drink, talk, and celebrate. The grugan word for it is draknel.”

“Kind of like a holiday feast every day?”

“Yes,” Ternosh said, sounding surprised. “That is one way of putting it. Now, since this is your first draknel, and you are still learning our customs, I think it would be best if you kept to yourself as much as you can. Eat your fill, by all means, but do not initiate any conversations. If questions are put to you, answer them simply and respectfully, but do not offer any needless information. I am telling you to do this for your own safety. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Brisbane said.

“Fine,” Ternosh said. “When we take our seats at the table, I will sit between you and Wister and you will sit on my left. You may pour yourself some ale and drink it if you wish, but you are not allowed to eat anything until Clan Chief—we call the position Sumak—Tornestor has been seated and has begun to eat. Is that clear?”

Brisbane looked briefly over at the table of orks. Wister was not drinking nor was he conversing with the others.

“I’ll just follow your lead,” Brisbane said. “I won’t do anything unless you do it first.”

The Grumak clapped Brisbane on the shoulder. “That will probably be the best way to handle it. Are you ready?”

“I suppose so,” Brisbane said, not really sure if he was or not.

Ternosh led him over to the table and they took their seats, Brisbane on the Grumak’s left just like he had been told. The black-clad orks were separated away from Brisbane and the red-eyed orks by the many angles cut into the edge of the table. It was a huge sprawling thing, roughly oval but with many sides to it. At one end of it sat a stone chair, not a bench like everyone else was sitting on, but a chair. A throne perhaps, with a high back and regal arms.

Ternosh poured himself a tankard of ale and then poured one for Brisbane. Brisbane took the drink and sipped it, lighting a small fire in his belly and reminding him just how hungry he was. The ale was a fine brew, probably stolen from some merchant on one of the roads, and was much better than the swill Shortwhiskers had taken from the orks on the bank of the Mystic River. They had red eyes on their shields, Brisbane reminded himself. They were members of this clan. When he had first seen their shields, Brisbane had wondered about the great red orbs on them. Now he knew they were representations of the one great unwinking eye of Gruumsh One-Eye, a god Brisbane now had to feign allegiance to. Until he could find Angelika and escape with her, Gildegarde Brisbane III was now Grum Brisbane, wizard and priest-in-training of Gruumsh One-Eye.

A silence fell over the orks at the table. Brisbane looked up and, at one of the many entrances to the chamber, he saw an ork who could only have been Sumak Tornestor.

The chief was huge. His pink pig ears twitched nearly seven feet above the floor and his shoulders stuck out from his neck like the wings of a great bird of prey. Like the orks at the table, he was dressed all in black—black boots, black trousers, and black tunic—but he had a red sash draped over a shoulder that crossed his body on a diagonal. He strode into the room like he owned it which, Brisbane thought, he probably did, followed by two more black-clad orks, these two each with a red stripe on their right sleeves, and sat heavily on the stone chair at what now was no doubt the head of the table. The two orks who followed him sat on benches on either side of the Sumak.

“The Clan of the Red Eye,” Tornestor said in a voice like sandpaper, “extends welcome to Grum Brisbane on the occasion of his first draknel.”

“Welcome,” a chorus of deep voices chanted all around the table.

Ternosh leaned and whispered in Brisbane’s ear. “Say, ‘Thank you all.’”

“Thank you all,” Brisbane said, pitching his voice as low as possible.

Tornestor nodded his head as he appraised Brisbane with his eyes. “And now, before I have the food brought in, does anyone have any statements they wish to make?”

Heads turned back and forth up and down the table. There were perhaps twenty seconds of silence before Wister rose to his feet.

“Grum Wister,” Tornestor said gravely. “You wish to invoke your right of statement. What do you say?”

Brisbane took another sip of his ale and shifted his weight on his bench. He was doing just what Ternosh had warned him to do, minding his own business.

Wister cleared his throat. “I would like to issue a challenge, Sumak Tornestor.”

Mumbles bounced around the table. Tornestor’s brow wrinkled and Brisbane did not think he looked pleased.

“A challenge has not been issued in this hall for quite some time, Grum Wister,” Tornestor said. “But that does not prevent you from issuing one now. You may continue.”

“I do not issue it lightly, Sumak Tornestor,” Wister said. “I have given it a great deal of thought. I have decided I cannot share my position in this clan with a human. I challenge Grum Brisbane.”

Brisbane heard his name called out and saw all the eyes around the table turn to him. He did not know what this challenge meant, but he had the feeling it was not good news.

Ternosh leapt to his feet.

Tornestor turned to his brother. “You have something to say, Grumak Ternosh?”

“I do, Sumak Tornestor.” Ternosh gestured towards Brisbane. “He was sent here by Gruumsh One-Eye. His purpose among us in still unknown, but it must be direfully important for Gruumsh to send a human to do it. We cannot allow him to face Wister, or anyone else, in a challenge. What would happen to us all if Brisbane were to lose? Gruumsh’s purpose would go undone.”

Tornestor faced Wister. “Grum Wister?”

“I have considered this, Sumak Tornestor,” Wister said carefully, “and it means nothing to me. I will not share my position in this clan with a human. My oath to Gruumsh compels me to no other action.”

Brisbane tried to rise to his feet but Ternosh pushed him back down with a hand on his shoulder. He still didn’t know what this was all about, but he was getting tired of the way Wister said human. Brisbane figured Wister had been planning this since he first heard the news about Brisbane. That’s why he was so rude to me in the work chamber. He wants nothing to do with me.

Tornestor rubbed his chin. “Ternosh, did your Demosk say Grum Brisbane was to receive special considerations while he lived among us?”

Ternosh paused. “No, Sumak Tornestor.”

“What exactly did it say about Brisbane?”

Brisbane’s ears perked up. This was exactly what he wanted to know.

“The Demosk said three things about Brisbane,” Ternosh said. “First, it said Brisbane’s blood carried the bane of Gruumsh One-Eye. He can work magic and is entitled to possess the pentacle medallion he wears around his neck. Second, the Demosk said Gruumsh had granted this power to a human because he had a special plan for Brisbane among us. And thirdly, it said Brisbane was to be treated as a member of our clan.”

“That is a bit vague,” Tornestor said.

“Information gathering with my Demosk can be a time-consuming practice,” Ternosh said. “That is all I have had time to discover so far.”

Both Ternosh and Wister were still standing while they argued their cases before Tornestor. All the other orks remained seated, quietly drinking their ale. Brisbane could tell some of them were very interested in how this all turned out. Others, Brisbane felt, could not have cared less about it and were just waiting for their dinner to be served.

“It is my job as Sumak of this clan,” Tornestor said, “to listen to the information my Grumak receives from his Demosk and decide how that information would best serve the clan. Is this not true?”

“Of course it is,” Ternosh admitted.

“Brisbane is to be treated as a member of our clan, the Demosk has said,” Tornestor went on, his brow wrinkling as he forced the logic out of his mouth. “This, I have seen to. His blood bares the bane of Gruumsh One-Eye and, even though he does not have red eyes, I have allowed him to assume the position of Grum among us. This is how any grugan with the power of magic would have been treated. This is just and right.”

Brisbane tried to stand up again but Ternosh firmly pushed him back down on the bench.

“However,” the clan chief said, “the rights of challenge and the pit of combat are also part of our society and Grum Brisbane, as a member of the Clan of the Red Eye, should not be exempt from them. Grum Wister is just in issuing his challenge, his rights shall not be denied because of Brisbane’s mysterious origin, and after this evening’s draknel, in the traditional manner, Wister’s challenge shall be answered.”

Both Wister and Ternosh slowly bowed and then reseated themselves.

“I, Sumak Tornestor, have spoken.”

Tornestor clapped his hands twice and immediately the table erupted again in loud conversations and servants entered the chamber carrying platters of food.

Brisbane turned to Ternosh as a steaming plate of potatoes and vegetables was set near him. “So what was that all about?” he asked the Grumak softly. “What exactly does this challenge mean?”

Ternosh picked a plate off a nearby pile and began to spoon potatoes onto it. “Wister has challenged you to combat. After the draknel, you two will fight and the winner will retain the right to be my Grum.”

The smell of the food was inebriating. Brisbane took a big platter of sliced meat from the ork on his left and began to fill his plate. “And the loser?”

Ternosh spooned some potatoes onto Brisbane’s plate. “The loser will be dead. It is a fight to the death.”

To the death.


Brisbane stole a couple of looks at Wister, but the Grum ignored him completely. The ork was of average size for his race, which meant he was about Brisbane’s size. Brisbane may have been somewhat of a giant among humans, but among orks, he was as average as the night was dark. More food was passed around the table and Brisbane continued to pile his plate high with a little bit of everything.

“Do we use weapons or something?” Brisbane asked the Grumak. He hated the thought of hand-to-hand combat to the death. He wasn’t very good at street fighting.

“Armor and weapons,” Ternosh said curtly. “Now shut up and mind your manners.”

By this time, all had their plates full and their forks poised. Brisbane remembered not to start eating until Tornestor did, but the aroma coming off his plate nearly drove him mad. He joined everyone else at the table in silence and in staring at the Sumak.

Tornestor paused for a dramatic moment and then dived into his food. A second later, Brisbane and the other orks did the same. The food was delicious. Brisbane ate with an abandon he was sure Otis would have called gluttonous. Brisbane didn’t care. Let Otis have only six small strips of salty meat for two days and then serve him a feast like this and see how much he ate.

Brisbane devoured helping after helping, but through it all, his thoughts were on the challenge Wister had issued to him. Evidently, it wasn’t an ork’s right to refuse a challenge. At least, no one had asked him if he wanted to pick up the glove Wister had thrown down. But Brisbane guessed that wasn’t important for, even if he had been asked, he would not have turned down Wister’s challenge.

He could not, as Brisbane saw it. If he was ever going to get Angelika back, he had to mold into the society of the clan, and this challenge and the pit of combat, whatever that was, were obviously very important to the life of the klatru. Brisbane could not let himself be excluded from that. Ternosh had seemed displeased with Tornestor’s decision, but Brisbane had heard the reasoning behind it and he agreed with it.

Also, Brisbane knew, Wister’s feelings, his hatred of Brisbane because he was human, could not be a sentiment exclusive to Wister. If Brisbane somehow shirked the challenge, what would the orks who hated him for being human think of him then? Brisbane remembered the faces around the table when Tornestor had been casting judgment on Wister’s challenge—the ones that had seemed lined with concern over whether or not Brisbane would be forced to face the challenge—and he thought he knew which ones resented him on the basis of his position and his race. To face Wister in combat was perhaps to gain respect in their eyes.

But then again, this was not an arm wrestling contest. This was a fight to the death. Ternosh had said the combat would be done with armor and weapons, and Brisbane was glad for that. In his opinion, a sword in his hand increased his odds of winning to a more comfortable margin. If he could somehow use Angelika against Wister, he would have no doubts about winning the contest at all.

Eventually, the meal was finished and servants re-entered the chamber to clear the table. Brisbane saw Smurch was among them, but the half-ork paid no attention to his new master and soon he and the other servants left the chamber with the many dirty dishes and the few leftovers.

Brisbane was full, fuller than he had been in a long time, but he had stayed away from too much ale to keep his head clear in the coming battle. He noticed Wister had done the same. Just as he began to wonder what was going to happen next, Tornestor rose to his feet and addressed the table.

“Gentlemen,” the Sumak said. “In the tradition handed down through generations, a tradition begun in the time Gruumsh One-Eye himself walked the earth, a challenge, a masokom, has been issued by one of our number against another. We have all heard the reasons for this masokom. Are there any here who would deny Grum Wister his right in challenging Grum Brisbane?”

The table was silent.

“Then let us move to the pug-trolang, the pit of combat, to settle this masokom before our own eyes.”

All around the table the orks got to their feet. Brisbane, imitatively, did the same. Tornestor and the two orks with the red stripes on their sleeves began to move towards a wide exit from the room, opposite the one Brisbane had used before the draknel. The other black-clad orks soon followed and, when he was given a little shove from Ternosh, so did Brisbane, the Grumak, and Wister.

Brisbane was not sure what lay in store for him at the pit of combat, the pug-trolang, but he was sure he was doing the right thing in facing Wister. He was confident he could defeat the Grum and he was ready to show the rest of the klatru he wasn’t some puny human they could push around like the ones they kept in the circus wagons on the surface.

No comments:

Post a Comment