Saturday, June 1, 2013

Chapter Thirty-Five


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

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It was a slow night at The Quarter Pony when Nog Shortwhiskers walked into my life. I remember seeing him for the first time, before I knew who he was and what kind of friends we would become. He was dressed like no other dwarf I had ever seen, and his beard was trimmed short like no other dwarf I had ever heard of. I could tell he was something special, but when he came up to me and asked in his clandestine way if I had ever heard of a man called Roy Stonerow, my curiosity jumped up and tried to look over the head of caution, who was standing, as usual, in front of him. From that moment on, Nog never stopped surprising me. Whether it was news that he had known my grandfather or that he had purchased a leather jerkin for me to wear on our first expedition south, everything he did or told me was done out of the part of his heart he most often denied having. I’ll never forget him and, wherever he may be right now, I hope he has plenty of ale.

+   +   +

Time passed. Days turned into weeks and Brisbane found himself getting tangled deeper and deeper into the society of the Clan of the Red Eye. The very next day after his horrible dream, Ternosh began meeting with him to teach and instruct him in the worship of Gruumsh One-Eye and in the practice of orkish magic. It could be said Brisbane learned more about the orkish religion than he wanted to. Over the course of time, nearly all of his questions were answered, some of them more graphically than he might have wished.

Early on, he learned all about the orkish vision of the afterlife. It seemed when an ork died, one of two things would happen to him. The newly deceased would stand before Gruumsh One-Eye himself and the god would look over the ork’s life, intent on deciding if he had spent it in proper devotion to his god and his mission. If the ork had been faithful and had waged enough war against Gruumsh’s enemies, He-Who-Watches would induct the ork into his heavenly army and for all time he would do battle against deceased members of the other races. If the ork was found to be lacking in his duties, Gruumsh would crush him under the heel of his mighty foot, thus ending the ork’s existence permanently.

Brisbane found this unusual mythology to be nearly horrific in its implications. The greatest prize an ork could receive was recruitment into the eternal army of their god, where the battle and war that made up their earthly lives would go on for all time, every casualty springing back to fight another day. This was what the orks looked forward to, what they lived their lives in anticipation for. Ternosh did not have to tell him Gruumsh’s army won every battle it fought. That would be axiomatic. It would hardly be heaven for the orks if their enemies continued to kill them in death. In Brisbane’s mind, it was the ultimate expression of red-faced vengeance. Orks lived their lives on Gruumsh’s vengeance, so was it any surprise they lived their deaths on it, too? You lousy humans, you may defeat us when you’re alive, but just wait until you die. Then we’ll really get you.

Brisbane, however, could not afford to take such a light view of it while he was among the orks. To them, this was serious business. It was their god and their religion, and Brisbane knew those were two things you did not pick on if you liked where your nose was placed. He found himself forced to go along with the belief, always on his toes to prevent himself from accidentally ridiculing it or letting his true feelings show. Brisbane believed in Gruumsh One-Eye no more than he believed in Grecolus, but he had to remember Ternosh and the others believed in Gruumsh, and that they believed their god had sent Brisbane among them for some hidden purpose. As long as he stayed here, he was going to have to play that part.

Just how long would he be here? This thought did not occur to him much over the busy weeks, but every once and a while, when he was left alone, it would come to his mind and he would turn it over a few times. The best answer he could come up with was that he was not sure. Originally, the plan had been just long enough to get Angelika and get out, but some things had changed since then.

Regardless of what he had said, Brisbane was surer than ever Ternosh was not going to let him leave. In the beginning, when Ternosh first brought Brisbane out of his cage to take his place in the clan, the Grumak had given him the chance to flee if he wanted to. Then, he had stayed, intent on retrieving Angelika before he left, but even if he had taken the opportunity and left, Ternosh still would not have let him go. If Brisbane had tried to leave, it would have proven to Ternosh that the Demosk had been wrong, and Ternosh would have killed him for wearing the sign of a Grumak. So Brisbane’s only chance then had been to stay, whether he had any reason to or not.

And so Brisbane found himself among the upper class of the clan, treading lightly and biding his time until he could find Angelika. Then, surprisingly, he had found her in the chamber of the pug-trolang right before his combat with Wister. He could have taken her that night and tried to slip out of the camp with her, but knowing what he learned in the following weeks, he was glad he hadn’t tried it.

Tornestor had said Angelika had been given as a gift to Gruumsh One-Eye and, as it turned out, that was not something to be taken lightly in orkish culture. If Brisbane had taken her, and anyone had seen him with her, the whole of the clan would have risen up against him. It was a very serious matter. No one in the klatru had been able to draw Angelika from her scabbard, not even the great Tornestor, and it was concluded the blade had to be enchanted. In the orkish definition of the word, enchanted meant Angelika belonged to Gruumsh and no one else was allowed to touch her. Brisbane wasn’t sure if anyone remembered that Vrak had taken Angelika from him (i.e., she was his), but he wasn’t too keen on reminding them under the circumstances.

So Brisbane did not know when he would be able to leave the clan, if ever. He didn’t want to leave until he got Angelika back, which the orks wouldn’t let him do, and the orks wouldn’t let him go until he did this mysterious job the Demosk had spoken of, and Brisbane didn’t know what that was. The situation did not exactly glisten with hope.

Brisbane could only continue to bide his time, gathering information and waiting for something to happen that would help him out of this mess. He found out what the Demosk really was or, more precisely, what Ternosh believed the Demosk to be. The answer was really not that surprising, given what Brisbane had seen and what he had learned about the orkish afterlife. The Demosk was nothing more than a high-ranking officer in the army of Gruumsh One-Eye that Ternosh could call up from the great beyond for advice and orders. The apparition had no eyes because it had no power to “see” the material world, but it could sense it in a way that went beyond sight. It was very important for the Demosk to witness all masokoms in the pug-trolang for Gruumsh was very interested in the power structures in all his clans. Supposedly, after Brisbane had defeated Wister, the Demosk had gone back to report the change to his god. Ternosh told him he had certainly gained some respect in the eye of Gruumsh One-Eye.

Brisbane thought it was a lot of hogwash, but again he did not let his true feelings show. He was sure the Demosk was just a result of Ternosh’s magic coupled with the hallucinogenic effects of that strange incense smoke. The drug in the smoke made people hallucinate and Ternosh’s magic shaped what they saw. When he asked about the incense, Ternosh told Brisbane it had magical properties and was needed to complete the spell that brought the Demosk’s image into their world. It shaped itself out of the smoke. Without it, the Demosk would not be able to take form. Brisbane mentioned off the cuff that the smoke kind of made him dizzy, but Ternosh acted like he didn’t know what the human was talking about.

As the weeks rolled on, Brisbane did not seem to get anywhere as far as acceptance into the clan. Ternosh treated him with civility, and Smurch fawned over him—although Brisbane had gotten the half-ork to call him Gil in closed quarters—but nearly everyone else in the clan avoided him like a leper. His defeat of Wister in the pug-trolang may have made them think twice about razzing him, but none of them were leaping over each other to become his friend. It was not that Brisbane really wanted or expected their friendship, it just seemed like they went out of their way to avoid him. The whole time he spent among them, he did not have a single conversation with anyone beside Ternosh or Smurch that lasted more than thirty seconds.

Smurch did his best to get Brisbane mainstreamed, but although he could teach his master all about orkish society, the half-ork couldn’t push him all the way into it. Regardless of what the Demosk had said about him, Brisbane remained an outcast for the whole time he spent among the orks of the Red Eye.

One day, in the middle of one of his many lessons on orkish religion and magic, Ternosh shifted gears and began to talk about Brisbane’s place in the clan.

“Brisbane,” the Grumak said painfully. “As a member of the klatru, you have a right you have not yet taken advantage of.”

Brisbane thought about the way he was now allowed to bathe regularly. “Oh? Which one is that?”

Ternosh did not answer right away. “The right of mating.”

Brisbane pretended he didn’t hear the Grumak. “The right of what?”

“The right of mating,” Ternosh repeated. “Any time you wish, you may go into the settlement and select a female to take back to your chamber. There, you can, well…mate with her.”

Brisbane’s head filled with visions of the ork females, with their small pig-features, their hairy bodies, and their large breasts. The thought of mating with one of them did not exactly excite him, but he could not help wondering what it would be like. The way these orks treated their females was barbaric. None of them had names, none of them were allowed to participate in the wondrous afterlife the orks believed in—they were not warriors, after all—and now it seemed that any upper class male could demand sex from them anytime he wanted. Brisbane thought about what it would be like if his culture had the same practices. Choosing any woman you met and ordering her to mate with you. It was certainly an uncivilized practice, but it did have a definite, if impossible, thrill tied to it.

“Unless she is wearing a red arm band, of course.”

Brisbane had not been listening to the Grumak. “What?”

“You cannot choose a female who is wearing a red arm band. As long as she wears it she belongs to the clan chief. Tornestor has a couple of favorites.”

“No offense, Ternosh,” Brisbane said. “But the female of your race is not exactly my type.”

The Grumak nodded. “Understandable. Personally, I find human females unattractive, although there are a few grugan who would disagree with me. I believe your servant is of mixed descent.”

Brisbane was suddenly sorry he had shut off that avenue because he just realized it would have given him an excuse to learn a way from his chamber, through the maze of tunnels, and to the surface. But what a price he would have to pay for such knowledge. A sudden inspiration swept him and he had to fight to keep his voice calm.

“What about the prisoners?” Brisbane asked, trying to add a sly twist to his voice.

Ternosh sobered. “What do you mean?”

“Well,” Brisbane said. “There are some females among them, aren’t there? Human females?”

“Ah, I see what you’re driving at,” the Grumak said. “I don’t know. That may not be the best idea.”

“Why not?”

Ternosh pondered for a moment. “Well, I guess it would be all right, so long as you didn’t get attached to any of them. Or didn’t expect children from them.”

Brisbane did not know what the Grumak was talking about, but Ternosh soon explained it to him. The sole reason the orks would occasionally capture a human and keep them locked up in a cage was that in the worship of Gruumsh One-Eye, a monthly sacrifice of blood was required. Ternosh calmly explained the kind of blood that pleased He-Who-Watches the most was the blood of his enemies.

The information sickened Brisbane but he kept his cool about it, still clinging to the hope that through this he would be able to obtain a reason to learn a way to the surface. The imprisonment and slaughter of his fellow man was a terrible thing, but Brisbane had to watch out for his own hide first.

And so, that night, when Ternosh had finished with his lessons, Brisbane asked Smurch to lead him to the surface, so he could choose a female prisoner for his right of mating. He, as usual, got no argument from the half-ork, and soon he was being led away from his chamber, carefully memorizing every twist and turn his servant took.

As it turned out, it wasn’t all that complicated. The path was fairly direct, once you realized the caves seemed to have been dug out in large sections, maze-like within, but connected to each other with single, straight corridors. Upon entering one section, all you had to do was find the exit, usually located somewhere roughly opposite the entrance, and then move onto the next section. He saw a few orks along the way, some klatru, but most of them servants, and none of them stopped Brisbane to ask where he was going. He should have realized this. They all avoided him anyway. He probably could have done this earlier without any reason and no one would have questioned him. It seemed his outcast standing had pluses as well as minuses.

Soon, he and Smurch emerged from the cave and stepped out into the sunlight. It was a warm day and off in the distance Brisbane could see the ork women and children going about their business apart from the males. Before him stood the circus wagons with their prisoners and the usual gaggle of black-armored orks. Brisbane recognized Vrak among them and was surprised to see the ork come over to speak to him.

“He wants to know if there is anything he can do for you, Grum Brisbane,” Smurch said, translating the ork’s orkish.

Anytime one of the klatru had needed to speak to him, they had used the common tongue of his kind. Brisbane was appreciative of this, but he wanted to learn orkish anyway. Smurch had been giving him lessons in his private chamber, but so far it had been slow going. Brisbane had caught maybe a third of the words Vrak had used.

“Tell him no,” Brisbane said as regally as possible. “I wish to be left alone.”

Smurch did so and Vrak quietly went back to his lower class companions. Brisbane did his best to ignore them and went over to stand before the circus wagons.

For the first since he had been captured, he got a good look at the other humans the orks had taken prisoner. Pale and thin, they reminded him more of ghosts than of human beings. There were three of them, two men and a woman, all in separate cages in a line next to the one Brisbane had been in. They stared back at him with open eyes that had seen their own deaths countless times and had cried all the tears they were ever going to cry. Their eyes were simply waiting, waiting for Brisbane to do something, or waiting for the first of the month to roll around, when one of them would be sacrificed to a god they did not believe in. To them, it did not matter which.

The men had probably been merchants, still wearing the simple clothes of the working class. But the woman was something different entirely. Her clothes, now torn and dirty, were obviously once elegant and beautiful. It seemed to have once been a long dress, cinched together at the waist and once a pristine shade of white. Now, ripped and soiled with the muck of imprisonment, it did little to cover her dirty legs and bony shoulders. With something akin to shock, Brisbane realized it had once been a wedding dress.

Suddenly, her eyes shifted and widened as if she had noticed Brisbane for the first time. She came forward to the bars and reached an arm through as far as it would go. She worked her mouth up and down a few times but no sound came out.

Brisbane was unsure if this had been such a good idea. The woman looked so pathetic, beaten and abused in a cage like some disobedient animal. The wedding dress, that’s what bothered him the most. He could see the whole scene playing out in his mind like a vision of history. The woman and her new husband traveling on the road, traveling to a new life together, when suddenly out of the hills rise a marauding band of ugly orks. They attack ruthlessly and the groom, out of mixed emotions of love and duty and passion, is slain in the doomed protection of his bride. The orks take the woman and force her back to their settlement, here to this cage, and treat her to nothing but prison rations, violent rape, and a promise of sacrificial death. Brisbane could not take this woman back to his chamber under any pretense. He felt bad enough just exposing himself to her, a human like herself, in her eyes, in league with her captors.

“Human,” the woman said, finally finding her voice. “You are human. Who are you? Help me, please, help me.”

Smurch stepped up. “Does this one please you, Grum Brisbane? Shall I have her taken to your chamber?”

Brisbane took the woman’s hand which she had thrust through the bars. “What’s your name?” he asked her softly.

“Amanda. My name is Amanda.”

“Grum Brisbane?”

Brisbane dropped the woman’s hand and stepped away from her cage. Slowly, he felt control slipping away from him.

Amanda tried to push her hand closer to Brisbane. “No, don’t go. Help me, please. Dear Grecolus, I’ll do anything you want.”

“Grum Brisbane?” Smurch asked hesitantly. “What do you desire?”

Brisbane tried to force his heart back down into his chest. “Nothing, Jack,” he heard himself saying. “Let’s get out of here.”

He began to move toward the cave mouth and Smurch fell into step behind him. “But what about your right of mating?” the half-ork asked. “Do you want the female or not?”

“I’ve changed my mind,” Brisbane said through gritted teeth. “Now, drop it.”

“Yes, Grum Brisbane.”

And Smurch did drop it. Brisbane never heard the half-ork mention the subject again, but that did not keep it from his mind. For days afterward he thought about it constantly. What was he doing here anyway? Living among these orks, patiently waiting for an opportunity to steal his sword back while innocent people like Amanda—

Amanda, could her name really be Amanda?

—and the merchants, people wholly like himself, suffered in misery and awaited only their own deaths? He began to wonder if one night he just shouldn’t break the prisoners out of their cages and try a desperate escape with them through the sleeping ork settlement. Assuredly, not all of them would make it, but at least it was a better chance than the one they faced now.

To Brisbane, this is what it all boiled down to. Without his help, the prisoners had no chance to survive their imprisonment. But if he did help them escape, he would have no chance to retrieve Angelika and his life. He had to decide which was more important, the lives of his fellow man or his own wants and desires. Put bluntly like that, it was hard not to run up and try to free as many prisoners as he could, but there were many subtle persuasions that kept him from doing just that. He was confused and needed someone to talk to in order to resolve the problem. But he didn’t think he could trust anyone in the clan with the nature of the question he was debating, not even Smurch.

In the end, desperate for some kind of guidance, he consulted the only friend he seemed to have in the area. Late at night, lying silently in his bed, he opened his mind to Angelika.

Angelika? Are you there?

Yes, came the instant response, sweet and strongly persuasive in the darkness. Yes, I am here, young Brisbane. What troubles you this night?

It’s the prisoners. The orks plan to sacrifice them to their god.

I know.

How can we allow that? Are they not innocents?

They are, but you must not rush things, Brisbane. Things are going well. You have the potential to destroy much evil here. And soon you will win me back.

But I may be able to rescue them.

You will not, Angelika said. Their fates have been set. If you try to escape with them, you will all be killed. It will profit you nothing.

Angelika, how can you know these things?

I know.

Yes, Brisbane thought, but how do you know?

I know. That path leads to despair. You must remain patient and strong. Our vengeance is certain only if you do so.

But what about the prisoners?

Their plight cannot be helped. But know their sacrifice will allow us to wreak unbridled vengeance against these demons of Damaleous. Their deaths will add fuel to our fire and sweeten the taste of our victory.

Then they will die?

Their bodies will die, yes. But hearken, Grecolus has already prepared their place in the heavens.

He has? Brisbane thought.

He has.

Brisbane had to be satisfied with that solace and, for a while, it was sufficient. He stayed below ground, each day following the tunnels to the surface to be sure he knew the route, but never actually leaving the confines of the orkish lair. He found it strangely easy not to think during his busy days about what was going to happen to the prisoners, but when he was left alone at night, the subject nearly filled his thoughts. He could only keep it at bay by remembering what Angelika had said. Not what she had said about the blessed afterlife of the prisoners, for he knew that was garbage, but what she had said about their deaths. He could not save them but at least he would not let their deaths go unavenged.

Brisbane did not yet realize that as a Grum in the Clan of the Red Eye, a minor priest in the religion of Gruumsh One-Eye, when the time came to sacrifice the blood of one of the prisoners, he would have to assist Grumak Ternosh in the bloodletting.

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