Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Chapter Thirty-Four


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

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The day my mother died was the saddest day of my life and, at the time, I couldn’t believe there would be any sadder for as long as I lived. In this, as in so many other things I believed when I was young, time would eventually prove me wrong. I remember so many things about that day. I remember how sickly and pained she looked right before she died and how healthy and peaceful she looked right after. I remember Otis placing a death shroud over her body, careful not to let any of his tears fall onto it and stain the fabric. I remember the crude dinner Otis heated up for us that night and I remember thinking that even in the midst of death, we were still alive and we still needed to eat. I remember the prayer Otis and I offered up for her soul and I remember almost believing it was being heard by an understanding god, for if ever there was a prayer that deserved to be heard, it was that one. But I guess what I remember the most was looking up to see she had died while my head had been turned and feeling an almost overwhelming sense of relief. Relief that her pain had finally ended followed by dreadful sorrow because mine was just beginning.

+   +   +

When Brisbane turned down the short side passage leading to his chamber he found Smurch lying in the small cubbyhole beneath the lit torch. The half-ork quickly scrambled to his feet as his master approached.

“Grum Brisbane,” Smurch said, standing at attention. “May I congratulate you on your victory in the pug-trolang?”

He was in no mood for Smurch’s formality. “Listen, Jack,” he said. “If you want to congratulate me, go right ahead. But make sure you call me Gil when you do it. The next time you call me Grum Brisbane when we’re alone, I’m going to punch you right in the nose.”

He did not wait for Smurch to react. He went into his chamber and let the curtain fall over the portal. He flung himself down on the mattress that was to be his bed and closed his eyes.

“Congratulations, Gil,” he heard Smurch say from beyond the curtain.

Brisbane smiled. “Thank you, Jack.”

He heard Smurch crawl back into his cubbyhole and he buried himself under some of the blankets and pelts, eager to get some sleep and forget about everything he had been through that day. But, as usual, when sleep was the most desired, it proved the slowest in coming. Brisbane’s mind swirled with thoughts about what he had seen and done that day, and no matter how hard he tried to sweep them aside, they flowed back to the center of his thoughts and kept him from drifting off to sleep.

For the first time in a while he thought about the other prisoners, the other humans, that the orks kept in the circus wagons on the surface. Brisbane had been kept alive because they had thought he might be a Grumak, but why did the orks keep their other prisoners alive? He remembered Shortwhiskers saying orks ate humans, but the meat they had at dinner had obviously been beef. Maybe they only ate people on special occasions, or when their food supply ran short. Everything the orks had they seemed to steal from others. Brisbane was not sure if they produced anything on their own or what it was they did with the other prisoners, but as a new member of the klatru, he had the feeling he would soon find out.

He thought about the way he had momentarily escaped from his cage the night before. This still puzzled him greatly. Supposedly, Ternosh had cast a spell of anti-magic over the wagon and yet, Brisbane had worked his cantrip to magically turn the tumblers in the padlock. He did not know what to make of this. There were too many possibilities and he did not have enough information. Ternosh could have not really been able to cast such a spell and he merely told Brisbane he could to trick him into not trying to escape. But why would they bother with the subterfuge? If they wanted to keep him from casting spells, they could have kept him bound and gagged like Vrak had on the journey to the ork settlement. Ternosh may actually have that kind of power, but for some reason, the spell didn’t work right. But what could cause such a failure? Brisbane had no idea. In the few examples he had seen, Brisbane could tell orkish magic was far different from any kind of magic Roystnof had taught him. He couldn’t even tell how it worked, how could he tell what went wrong with it? Or maybe Ternosh’s spell had worked as promised, but it did not include things outside his cage. Brisbane decided this was a silly line of thought. What kind of sense did it make to cast an anti-magic spell on an area if a wizard inside could magically affect things outside that area? If Roystnof had been out in the cage, he could have sat calmly in the anti-magic shell and magically set every ork in the camp on fire. All Brisbane could really be sure of was that Ternosh had appeared to have cast a spell and, for whatever reason, it did not keep him in his cage.

He thought about the Demosk, the eyeless apparition that Ternosh had twice conjured up in Brisbane’s presence. The first time, when Ternosh had fed it some of his blood to see if it contained the bane of Gruumsh One-Eye, Brisbane might have believed it was a hallucinogenic effect of the incense smoke on his brain, but after seeing it again in the pug-trolang, he felt he could be sure it was some kind of magical manifestation. There hadn’t been as much smoke in the pit, most of it had stayed up in the gallery, and his head had remained reasonably clear. Unless the drug in the smoke was incredibly potent, which he didn’t think it was, the second appearance of the Demosk could not have been a hallucination. So what was it? Brisbane hated to admit it, but it sure seemed like some kind of spirit from the afterlife that Ternosh consulted with on important decisions. He would much rather believe it was a creation of the Grumak’s magic, for with this explanation, he could retain his belief that there was no such thing as an afterlife. Roystnof had taught him that dead meant dead, but it would seem the orks, like most others in the world, didn’t choose to believe that. It was much like the demon Brisbane had encountered with his friends in the basement of the shrine. Most people believed it was a creature summoned from one of the nine hells by some evil wizard in service to his high lord Damaleous. Roystnof had told him such a monster was a creation of the wizard’s magic, something that did not exist anywhere before the invocation of the spell. As with Ternosh’s anti-magic spell, Brisbane thought he would have to learn much more about orkish magic before he would be able to discern the truth about the Demosk.

He thought about the orkish notion of an afterlife. Smurch had told him much about orkish life and religion, but he had said little about what they believed happened to the soul after death. He remembered Wister saying something about the army of Gruumsh One-Eye before Brisbane plunged his sword into the ork’s heart. Was this their vision of the heavens, service in an army of the dead led by their god? Given the violent and combat-minded structure of their creation and their society, Brisbane would not be surprised to find this to be the truth. But if, after death, each orkish soul was enlisted in an army, he wondered just who that army would be fighting. And how could an army of the dead possibly be defeated?

He thought about Wister and the hatred the ork had felt for Brisbane just because he was human. I will not share my position with a human, he had said with a conviction that he took to his death. What kind of madness was this? Brisbane wondered how many other orks would have done the same thing in Wister’s shoes. He was still convinced he had done the right thing in not shying away from the challenge and he hoped his defeat of Wister would keep some of the others off his back, but there was still something about the situation that bothered him. Ternosh had said his Demosk—and implied that Gruumsh One-Eye himself—had said Brisbane was to be treated like any other member of the clan, and even though Tornestor had allowed the masokom to take place on the basis of that argument, Wister had not treated him like any other ork. If Brisbane had been an ork, born with red eyes and raised to be a Grumak, Wister would not have put up a fuss. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to share his position as Grum, it was that he didn’t want to share his position as Grum with a human. This distinction may have eluded Tornestor’s logic, but Brisbane didn’t think so. He believed Tornestor, and everyone at that banquet table, had known Wister’s masokom violated the orders of Ternosh’s Demosk, and they had allowed it to carry through anyway. If they hated humans so much they would ignore the will of their god as handed down by their high priest, Brisbane could expect nothing but trouble ahead for him.

He thought about the orkish customs of the masokom and the pug-trolang. If this was the way they resolved all arguments in the klatru, trial by combat in a circular pit, Brisbane could see why the Clan of the Red Eye never materialized as a serious threat against the power of the Farchrist Empire. It was a wonder they could pull off as many raids against merchant wagons as they did with their upper class constantly fighting amongst themselves. Still, Brisbane could not deny there was something honorable about the way they treated their customs. Here was a society where the ultimate measure of a man was his skill in combat. The finest warrior was clan chief and he reigned until someone came along who could beat him. It was a system where each knew where he stood in relation to his comrades and the only political maneuverings and disagreements came with the issuing of a challenge and the clanging of steel. It was a system Brisbane was going to have to respect and be wary of if he ever expected to leave with Angelika and his life.

Finally, before he fell asleep, he thought about his sword, Angelika. His attitude toward her had shifted slightly in his battle with Wister, but he could not deny he still wanted her back. He wasn’t sure what had changed, but Angelika’s voice seemed to have a lesser effect on him than it had when he had first received her. For one wild moment, he thought perhaps this was because she was getting ready to leave him for another, but he quickly pushed such a horrible thought aside. Hadn’t she said there was no one here who was his equal in combat? Who then would she be leaving him for? No, that couldn’t be the answer. It was just that, for a moment there, Angelika had seemed so…seemed so…wrong? Could that be it? She was wrong? She had told him that standing before him in the pug-trolang was an evil creature that had to be vanquished, but when Brisbane looked closely, all he saw was Wister. He did not see a demon from the nine hells. He saw a man whose pride had been hurt and who was fighting back in the only way he knew how. But Angelika had always sounded so right before, and Brisbane knew when he fought with her in his hands, these things made so much more sense. Maybe he was just upset because she was so close to him and he couldn’t use her. Yes, that must have been it. The kill didn’t feel right because instead of Angelika, he had to use that clumsy sword with the dull blade. That was not the weapon of a warrior.

All these thoughts danced in and out of Brisbane’s head as he drifted off towards sleep. They surely did not come in the neat order they have been presented here. He was really much too tired for such logical thought processes. Instead, they developed from bits and pieces of memory and cogitation, slowly lulling him off to sleep and affecting his dreams.

The longest dream he had that night took place in the banquet chamber of the orks, with the entire klatru gathered around for the nightly draknel. But Brisbane was not at his normal spot beside Ternosh. He was surprised to find himself entering the chamber from the portal Tornestor had used, and when he did, he had two orks with red stripes on their sleeves walking behind him. He looked down at himself and he saw a red sash cutting across his black uniform like an open wound.

The orks at the table all got to their feet. “All hail, Sumak Brisbaner!” they chanted in unison.

He had become clan chief in this dream. He did not know how it had happened, but it was true nonetheless. And he was surprised to find out it felt good to be the Sumak. He watched his dream-self stride to the table and take his seat. He was the only one who had a chair to sit in and he was the only one who had a three-syllable name. Brisbaner. He liked the sound of that.

The orks around the table sat respectfully after Brisbane had taken his seat. He clapped his hands twice to bring the servants carrying their food into the chamber. In response, a single servant entered the room and meekly came over to Brisbane with empty arms. It was Smurch.

“Where is the food for our draknel?” Brisbane bellowed at the half-ork, his voice sounding a lot like Tornestor’s.

Smurch quickly prostrated himself on the floor. “The kitchens are empty, Sumak Brisbaner. There’s no food to be found. I swear it.”

Brisbane rose to his feet and he kicked Smurch. “I told you never to let supplies run this low without telling me. We could have planned another raid. Now we’ll have to eat one of the prisoners.”

Brisbane was surprised to hear these words coming out of his mouth, but in the context of the dream, they flowed naturally. He was the Sumak and he had the power to do as he wished. If he wanted to dine on human flesh, then by Gruumsh, human flesh it would be.

“Which one will it be, Sumak Brisbaner?” Smurch asked him. “Shall I pick the fattest one?”

“No!” Brisbane exploded. “You couldn’t pick the worm out of an apple. I will do it myself.”

“Yes, Sumak Brisbaner.”

With that, Brisbane quickly turned and left the chamber. Smurch scrambled to his feet and dutifully followed him. Brisbane made his way through the endless series of tunnels and passageways with a determination that shocked his sleeping self. Of course, this was a dream and as Sumak, he would know his way around the underground maze. He thought for a moment to try and keep track of where the dream Brisbane was going in case, against odds and logic, it turned out to be the true route out of the caves. Dreams were subconscious processes after all, and maybe his subconscious remembered all the twists and turns when his conscious mind couldn’t. It was worth a try, but there were too many changes which Brisbane couldn’t keep track of in his slumbering state. Besides, this part of the dream seemed long and drawn out, as if he was walking grimly through the corridors for hours, always sure of where he was going but never quite getting there. Brisbane gave up paying attention to the route his dream self was taking and settled back to see what would happen next.

And, as if that was what the dream had been waiting for, Brisbane suddenly found himself emerging from the cave mouth out into the sunshine of the ork settlement. A group of lower class orks sat around a dead campfire on his right, quickly rising to their feet when they saw their clan chief, and on his left was the line of circus wagons. Brisbane stepped up to the cages with Smurch behind his left shoulder.

“A very fine selection, Sumak Brisbaner,” Smurch said. “Any one of them would make a fine feast.”

Brisbane looked at the prisoners and instead of seeing the thin faces he had glimpsed when Vrak had first brought him into the camp, he saw the faces of his friends, the ones he had left on the mountain top overlooking the forgotten temple of Grecolus. Shortwhiskers, Stargazer, Roystnof, and even Dantrius, they were all there in separate cages, looking at him with accusing eyes.

“Yes,” he heard himself say. “They do make one hell of a smorgasbord. This is going to be a difficult decision.”

He began to walk down the line, examining his friends on the basis of their edibility. Again, he was shocked a little at the turn the dream had taken, but it was just a dream after all, and everything he did seemed somehow right and proper. The first person he examined was Shortwhiskers.

“Gil,” the dwarf said. “What are you doing? Let me out of this cage.”

Brisbane turned dispassionately to his servant. “Smurch, didn’t we have dwarf last week?”

“Yes, Sumak Brisbaner.”

Brisbane moved onto the next cage. This one contained Illzeezad Dantrius.

“Brisbane!” the mage spat. “Let me out of this cage, you bastard. I’ll tear your heart out!”

He smiled cruelly at Dantrius. “As much as I would like to see you roasted, Weasel, I’m afraid you are too skinny to provide much of a meal for my men. Smurch?”

The half-ork stepped up. “Yes, Sumak Brisbaner?”

“Make sure this prisoner gets double rations from now on. Maybe he’ll be fat enough for next week.”

“Yes, Sumak Brisbaner.” Smurch stepped back.

Brisbane’s stomach began to roll as he watched the dream progress. For the first time he began to wonder just what kind of dream this was supposed to be. The person in the next cage was Stargazer.

“Gil!” she cried. “What kind of madness is this? Stop it! Please, dear Grecolus, let it stop.”

Brisbane looked her over carefully. Her face had been beaten and there were bruises on her arms and legs. Her clothes were in tatters and she did the best she could to cover her nudity.

Brisbane called for his servant’s attention again. “Has anyone been at this woman?” he asked.

“I think so, Sumak Brisbaner.”

“They raped me, Gil,” Stargazer said, “Three of them. Three of those monsters raped me.” Her voice was hollow and echoed with shame.

Brisbane ignored her. “The fools have damaged her pretty face,” he said to the half-ork. “Tell them to leave her alone. When her wounds have healed, I might want her for myself.”

eHe began to grow very uncomfortable with the turn this dream was taking. Why didn’t he recognize his friends? What kind of monster had he become? In his bed, he began to toss about and quietly moan out. The last cage he came to held Roystnof prisoner.

“Gil,” the wizard said calmly. “Don't you recognize any of us? Let us out of here. It’s Roy, Gil.”

Brisbane looked blankly at Roystnof. “I guess this one will have to do, Smurch. Get some help.”

The half-ork went over to the burned out campfire and recruited three other orks to help him.

“Gil, stop it,” Roystnof said, his voice rising. “It’s Roy. What’s the matter with you?”

The dream Brisbane stepped back and let the orks come forward and open Roystnof’s cage. They began to wrestle the wizard down to the floor of the wagon and then they produced a rope and began to tie his feet together and his hands behind his back.

“Gil!” Roystnof was shouting. “Have you gone mad? Let me go!”

Brisbane watched in horror as the orks strung Roystnof up by the feet from one of the top crossbars of his cage. He listened in horror as he heard Roystnof and the others cry out for him to help, but was amazed to find his dream self standing aloof and ignoring their pleas. He did not like this dream at all and he began to fight his way back to consciousness. But he seemed trapped in it, and it was not until one of the orks pulled out a gleaming knife and slit Roystnof’s throat, cutting deep into the tendons and cartilage and spurting vividly red blood all over his face and the ground beneath him, that Brisbane was able to jerk himself awake.

He must have cried out, for moments later the curtain to his chamber was pulled back and the figure of Smurch could be seen in the portal.

“Grum Brisbane, are you all right?”

Brisbane was so worked up he didn’t notice the formal address. “I’m fine,” he said, panting. “It was just a bad dream.” Already the details were fleeing from his mind.

“Can I get you anything?”

He shook his head, trying to swallow some of the dryness out of his mouth. “No, thank you. I’m fine. Go back to bed.”

The curtain dropped shut again and Brisbane laid back on his makeshift bed. He tried to recall what had horrified him so, but most of the dream was gone from his memory. All he could really remember was the blood. A lot of blood.

In the morning, he would not even remember that.

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