Thursday, August 1, 2013

Chapter Thirty-Seven


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

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My arrival in Queensburg is memorable for two important reasons. It was the first time I had been in a town larger than the village I had grown up in, and it was the first time I had seen a woman as lovely as Allison Stargazer. I remember seeing her in the town square on the eve of the Festival of Whiteshine, raised up on that platform, preaching her message of good news to those assembled. I remember going to visit her the next day with Nog, and the old man named Skinner she had healed before my eyes. I remember how beautiful I thought she was and how that beauty seemed to squeeze my heart, dissolving my hope and making the rest of the world seem ugly in comparison. At that time, I had no idea how close we would become and, if someone had told me we would eventually love each other, I would have laughed in their face. I don’t see how such a vision could possibly have loved someone as simple as me and, after everything that has happened, I sometimes wish she never had.

+   +   +

After a dreamless slumber of indeterminate length, Brisbane awoke in his personal chamber, safely tucked under many blankets in his makeshift bed. Disorientation was his first sensation, a dizzying moment when he could not recall anything, and the only thing he could wonder was why his bedroom was so damp. But that soon passed and the reality of where he was and what he had done to get there came crashing in on him. For a long time he just laid there with his eyes closed, wishing it all away and wishing he was back with his friends.

Almost fearfully, he opened his mind to Angelika.

I am here, young Brisbane. I have been awaiting your call.

That’s it, Angelika. I’m done. I’ve been patient and I’ve been strong and now I want out. I’m not going to be part of another one of those ceremonies.

The memory of what he had done chewed away at him like a ravenous animal. He could rationalize it as much as he liked, telling himself he hadn’t actually cut the woman and it wasn’t his fault she had been captured, but it all came down to one simple fact. Brisbane had done nothing to try and save her. Perhaps responsible was too strong a word to describe the way he felt about her death, but it certainly wasn’t far from the mark.

Brisbane. I am not sure I like your tone.

Like my tone? What do you mean?

You sound so defeated. I assure you, our position is far from dismal. The hardest part is past, true, but you can still destroy it all if you start rushing things.

Look, Angelika, I’ve had enough. I’d just like to leave here with my life.

What about the way those monsters treated you? They’ve beaten, imprisoned, and humiliated you. Are you willing to forgive them for that?

Yes. Yes, I am.

Then what about Amanda? What about what those butchers did to her? She was an innocent who gave her life so you could complete your mission here. Are you going to forget about that? Are you going to let her death serve no purpose?

My mission? Brisbane thought.

Your mission of vengeance. Why do you think Grecolus allowed these heathens to capture you? He wants you to destroy the entire clan.

The entire clan? How can I possibly destroy the entire clan? There must be hundreds of orks here.

The pug-trolang, Brisbane. That is the answer. With the pug-trolang you can destroy the entire clan and win me back. The pug-trolang.

Angelika, leave me alone.

The pug-trolang, Brisbane. You must use their barbaric customs against them.

What do you expect me to do? Brisbane thought. Fight them all one by one in that accursed pit?

Not all. Just one. Defeat Tornestor and you defeat them all. Defeat Tornestor and you can take me back.

What do you mean? How can I get you back?

Tornestor and the pug-trolang. Your path has been set. If you can defeat him, the clan will be destroyed and Grecolus’ will shall be done. If you can defeat him, you will win me back and your will shall be done. Two questions with the same answer. Tornestor and the pug-trolang.

Angelika? Wait, I don’t understand.

But her presence was gone and Brisbane was left alone in the darkness. He felt like he was on the verge of understanding what she had been talking about, but there was some essential piece missing. What she had said about Grecolus giving him a mission of vengeance was just Angelika’s way of interpreting what had happened to him, Brisbane was sure, but she had said his quest to retrieve her had the same answer as Grecolus’ mission. In his mind, if Angelika wanted to think he was serving Grecolus’ purposes, that was fine with him, as long as he got her back and got away from the Clan of the Red Eye.

Brisbane thought about it. Given what he knew about the pug-trolang, if he was able to defeat Tornestor in that pit, he would be forced to take the ork’s place as clan chief. But how would that help him destroy the clan? As their chief, he could order them to all kill themselves, but what chance was there that they would obey such an order? The orks were loyal, certainly, but they were not crazy. Besides, Brisbane didn’t think they would accept him as their Sumak even if he could defeat Tornestor. They barely tolerated him now as their Grum. How much would their hatred of him intensify if he became their leader?

And how would defeating Tornestor win him Angelika? The Sumak had given her as a gift to Gruumsh One-Eye, believing her to have magical powers. No mortal was ever to touch her again. Indeed, his fear of the clan’s violent reaction had kept Brisbane from just sneaking into the chamber one night and taking her outright. As Sumak, would he have any more right to her than he did now as Grum? Brisbane did not think so.

But still, there was something about the way Angelika said things that made them almost impossible to disbelieve. Brisbane did not fully understand it, but the persuasion was certainly there. He had asked her many times just how she knew what she knew, and she had always had the same simple answer for him. She knew. And up until now, that had always been enough.

“Jack?” he called out, wanting to get some fresh information from a more reliable source.

There was a short pause and then the curtain was drawn back to reveal Smurch’s dark shape. “Just a minute,” he said and then let the curtain fall back into place.

Brisbane threw off some of his covers and sat on the edge of the mattress. He still had the remnant of a terrific headache. “Jack?”

Soon the half-ork re-entered the chamber with a large tray which he set on the table in the center of the room. He quickly lit the oil lantern and Brisbane could see the tray was full of food.

He suddenly realized how hungry he was. Brisbane felt like he hadn’t eaten in a week. “How long have I been asleep?”

Smurch adjusted the lamp to its brightest intensity. “All day,” he said. “You slept right through draknel. Grumak Ternosh said it would be all right if I kept some cold leftovers for you. Are you hungry?”

“Yes,” Brisbane said over his growling stomach.

Smurch brought the tray over to Brisbane and set it across his knees. Brisbane quickly began to make a sandwich with some cold meat and bread.

“Have a seat,” Brisbane said. “I want to talk to you.”

Smurch sat next to him on the bed. “There are some things I think I should tell you, too.”

“Like what?” Brisbane said, taking a gigantic bite out of his sandwich.

“Well,” Smurch said evasively. “It has to do with your standing in the clan.”

“What about it?” Brisbane asked through a mouthful of food.

“It seems you have lost a lot of face. I overheard at tonight’s draknel that most of the klatru see you as sickly because of the way the incense smoke affected you. Ternosh tried to explain it wasn’t your fault, that it was just because you are human and the smoke effects you differently. That didn’t seem to help any, though.”

“Swell,” Brisbane said. Now they had an even lower opinion of him. His odds of carrying out Angelika’s plan, whatever that really was, probably just passed out of betting range. “Anything else?” he asked.

“No, that’s it, Gil.”

Somehow, having Smurch call him Gil took some of the sting out of the news. “Well,” Brisbane said. “There isn’t a whole lot I can do about it, so, forget them. I’ve got something more important to worry about.”

“Oh?” Smurch said. “What’s that?”

Brisbane took another bite of his sandwich and cleared his mouth before he went on. “Needless to say, Jack, I don’t want you to repeat this conversation to anyone. Okay?”

“Okay, Gil.”

“Do you know the sword that was taken from me when I was captured? The one Tornestor has given as a gift to Gruumsh One-Eye?”

Smurch nodded. “Yes.”

“I want it back.”

Smurch did not look easy about Brisbane’s demand. “It is forbidden,” the half-ork said. “The clan would never let you touch it and live.”

Brisbane shook his head. “I know that. I don’t plan on stealing it. I need to know if I can obtain it in some rightful manner.”

Smurch looked puzzled. “Like what?”

“That’s what I want to find out from you,” Brisbane said. “Is there any way for anyone to take something back that has been given as a gift to Gruumsh One-Eye?”

Smurch shook his head. “There’s no way I know of. Maybe Ternosh knows some way. At least he could ask his Demosk about it.”

Brisbane grimaced. “I’d really rather not go to Ternosh with this.”

“Why not?”

Brisbane swallowed some more of his sandwich. “Because once I do get her—I mean, once I get my sword back, I plan on leaving the clan forever.”

“You can’t do that,” Smurch said hurriedly.

“Oh yes I can.”

“But what about your mission here?”

Brisbane experienced a strange feeling of doubling. For a moment he thought Smurch was somehow talking about his mission as described by Angelika, but then he realized the half-ork meant the mission the clan believed Gruumsh One-Eye had sent him here to complete.

“Jack,” Brisbane said quietly. “You know how I feel about that. Gruumsh did not send me here.”

“But that’s what Ternosh said the Demosk said.”

“Well, do you believe everything Ternosh says?”

Smurch looked shocked. “Yes, of course I do. Why would he lie? He’s the clan’s Grumak.”

“Look,” Brisbane said, clearing his mouth of food again. “There’s no point in arguing this. You believe Gruumsh sent me here because it is what your Demosk said and you believe the Demosk is the mouthpiece of your god. I’m not trying to change your mind about that. You can believe anything you want, but don’t be surprised when I don’t act according to your expectations. I don’t believe Gruumsh sent me here because, frankly, I don't believe your god really exists. I’m not living in your clan because it is the will of any god. I’m here due to an almost unbelievable chain of coincidences.”

Smurch eyed him suspiciously. “What do you mean, ‘mouthpiece of my god?’”

Brisbane’s shoulders slumped, knowing Smurch hadn’t heard anything he had said after those words. “Never mind. Are you going to help me or not?”

“Am I still your servant?”

Brisbane hated that question. Even though he had gotten Smurch to call him Gil in private like this, the half-ork still considered himself first and foremost Brisbane’s servant. The problem was, of course, Brisbane in no way considered himself Smurch’s master.

“In the eyes of the clan,” Brisbane said conditionally, “yes.”

“Then I have no choice,” Smurch said. “I must help you.”

This was not exactly the kind of assistance Brisbane wanted, but he realized it was the best help he was going to get. He asked Smurch to rack his brains for any way for someone to rightfully take back a gift to Gruumsh One-Eye. The half-ork thought about it long and hard but, in the end, had to report there was no way he knew of or could imagine.

“What about the Sumak?” Brisbane asked.

“What about him?”

“Well, he formally gave the gift in the first place, didn’t he?”

“Yes,” Smurch said.

“So, couldn’t he take it back if he wanted?”

“No! That would be sacrilege of the highest order. Tornestor would be immediately removed from power and probably killed.”

Brisbane pondered his position. “Well, what if you got a new Sumak?”

“I’m not sure I understand what you mean.”

“If Tornestor was defeated and a new Sumak took his place, would the new chief be able to take back Tornestor’s gift?” Angelika had said the problem would be solved if Brisbane defeated Tornestor in the pug-trolang.

Smurch shook his head. “I doubt it. The situation has never happened before. The new Sumak could probably order it, but he would most likely be challenged immediately after doing so.”

In other words, not unless you wanted to fight them all. That’s not what Angelika had said. Defeat one and you defeat them all, but, according to Smurch, if Brisbane defeated Tornestor and took the sword back, the klatru would challenge his authority and he would be locked in combat until one of them killed him. What exactly did Angelika mean?

“Say,” Smurch said. “You don’t plan on challenging Tornestor to become Sumak, do you?”

Brisbane nodded. “I was thinking about it.”

The half-ork leapt to his feet. “That’s great! When are you going to issue the masokom?”

This was not the reaction Brisbane had expected. He put the tray, with considerably less food on it now than when Smurch first brought it in, beside him on the bed and looked questioningly up at the half-ork.

“You’re happy to hear that?”

“Yes,” Smurch said. “I am your servant. The more power you gain in the clan, the happier I am for you.”

“Jack, the only reason I would challenge Tornestor would be to get my sword back. And once I do that, I’m leaving any way I can. If becoming Sumak won’t allow me to take her back, I won’t issue any masokom.”


Swell. Brisbane knew he was going to slip sooner or later. He did not want to try and explain who and what Angelika was to Smurch. It would just confuse things too much. You see Jack, it’s like this. My sword is named Angelika and she can talk to me inside my head and I can talk to her there, too. She’s a holy sword, said to bear the enchantment of Grecolus, and even though I don’t believe in my own god, she’s one hell of a weapon and I want to use her again in combat. I use her to protect myself and my friends and she uses me to destroy evil. It’s kind of complicated. You see, Long ago the priests of Grecolus were wizards and they forged Angelika and gave her a magical identity, intent on destroying all of Grecolus’ enemies. Now, the priests have abandoned magic, claiming it to be a tool of Damaleous and Angelika is kind of an outcast. She still wants to destroy evil, but no faithful warrior would carry her in combat because they would believe she was a source of evil and corruption disguised as a holy sword. I don’t believe she’s either holy or demonic, simply magical, and when I am armed with her I feel invincible. Get it?

“Never mind,” Brisbane said.

“Well,” Smurch said. “I really don’t believe you becoming Sumak would give you the right to the sword. So, does that mean you won’t be challenging Tornestor?”

“I don’t know,” Brisbane said. “I guess I still need to think about it.”

Smurch didn’t think it would work but Angelika had sounded so sure, so certain. Defeat Tornestor in the pug-trolang and everything else will fall into place. The clan will somehow be destroyed; that was what she wanted. And he would somehow get Angelika back; that was what he wanted. Wasn’t it?

Brisbane rose to his feet. “I’m going for a walk.”

“A walk?” Smurch asked. “By yourself?”

“Yes,” Brisbane said. “I need some fresh air and a chance to think this through. Is that all right?”

Smurch nodded quickly. “Oh, yes, fine, fine. Shall I wait here for your return?”

“Yeah,” Brisbane said and then gloomily left his chamber. He began to make his way through the complex twists and turns of the orkish lair, retracing the path he had memorized to the surface. It was late, many hours after the draknel, and the corridors and chambers he passed through were empty, all of the klatru sleeping soundly after gorging themselves on their only meal of the day. Even servant activity was absent, as the only chance they seemed to get to rest was when their masters were doing the same.

Soon, Brisbane found himself at the cave’s entrance, staring up into the night sky. It was a clear night and the stars and moons shone down, illuminating the camp in a pale imitation of sunlight. The circus wagons holding the prisoners, now reduced in number to two, stood on his left, just as he had last seen them, but on his right, he was surprised to see no trace of the cluster of orks that usually slept around the campfire there. It did not even appear as if a fire had been built tonight, the circular pit lined with stones containing only cold and dark ashes.

The air was clear and crisp up here, compared to the dankness of it in the caves, and Brisbane inhaled it deeply. He could smell on it the odor of the prisoners, musky and earthen as they squatted in cages of their own filth. He had been in there once

—when was that? oh it seems so long ago—

but only for a short time. Brisbane was not sure how long the merchants had already been in their cages, but given the cycle of orkish sacrifice to Gruumsh, he knew one of them only had another month to live in those conditions. The other, two.

He did not want to linger by the prisoners, the memory of what he had done to Amanda was too fresh in his mind, and he did not think he would be able to stomach their blank eyes on him. To say nothing about what would happen should one of them try to speak to him. Brisbane remembered Amanda begging for his help and the tone of her voice sat like a predator on the edge of his sanity. To hear that tone of voice coming from one of the merchants, after what he had done, would surely drive Brisbane mad.

So Brisbane quickly walked past the wagons, his gaze averted and his steps quick. He was sure one of them would scream out an accusation at him, freezing him in his tracks and stopping his heart. But no such vocalizations were made, the prisoners sleeping like most of their captors, and Brisbane was quickly past them and out into the settlement.

He began to walk among the dark tents, not heading for the perimeter, but strolling along in a slow curve that would keep him inside the camp and within sight of the hill that bore the entrance to the ork’s underground lair. He walked in a kind of stupor, his mind more on his future actions than his strides.

What should he do? He had been here so long and still he desperately wanted to leave and get back to the people he knew. Shortwhiskers, Roystnof, Stargazer—it was as if they existed only in dreams now, as if they were the ones who had fallen from that mountain top and had left him alone on that rainy peak. At times, Brisbane would think he would give his very life—now, all that was left of his things—just to drink one last mug of ale with Nog Shortwhiskers, or learn one more spell from Roystnof, or even to kiss Allison Stargazer for one last time. And yet, there were things holding him here. There was Ternosh’s claim of his mission here, hanging like an axe over his head, ready to fall the moment he betrayed it. There was that, real and compelling, but more importantly, there was Angelika’s pull on his will and her power over his heart.

Brisbane had admittedly not thought much about the strange force Angelika seemed to be able to use on him. It was always too much a part of him to analyze too closely. It was as if he did what she told him to do, but he did it in such a way that he believed it to be his idea. But lately, he had been sensing a growing distance between what she told him to do and what he actually did.

The battle with Wister, Brisbane remembered, was where this gap seemed to have been the widest. Before the battle, he had gladly killed each time Angelika had demanded it of him. The demon in the basement of the shrine, the orks on the bank of the Mystic River, the ettins in the mountain cave—each time it had felt right to combat them, to fight them to the death and revel in their defeat. But with Wister, for the first time, Brisbane questioned the directive Angelika gave him. It did not seem right that time, not at all. It had seemed downright wrong. Wister had been no warrior, and he did not attack Brisbane by stealth or surprise, fighting over something as petty as a campsite or a sack of gold coins. In his society, Wister was something like a lord, and he was fighting honorably for his standing in the community. Angelika had condemned him for that, but Brisbane could not.

The questioning of Angelika’s judgment had been new, but the result of the combat had not been. Brisbane had ended up killing Wister anyway, not in the way Angelika had wanted, but he had killed the ork all the same. Wister had known he had been bested by Brisbane, even though Brisbane had not used all his combat skills against the ork, and Wister had ended Brisbane’s indecision about killing him in the most efficient manner. After Wister had bared his chest and Brisbane had plunged his sword into his heart, Angelika had praised Brisbane for his courage, but Brisbane had seen nothing praiseworthy about it. To him, the whole affair seemed horribly sad and his victory over Wister had a decidedly bitter taste to it.

To Angelika, it was another step on the road to the destruction of all evil, a step to be celebrated with holy words and promises of further revenge against the eternal adversary that had corrupted the very fabric of nature. To Brisbane, there was no thrill of revenge closing on an enemy. In killing Wister, he had avenged nothing, nothing the orks might have done to him or his fellow man, nothing. All he had done was to take the Grum’s life when that life had become unbearable to him. Brisbane was sure some of the klatru would say Brisbane had shown Wister mercy.

But even with these new doubts about Angelika and the place of her purpose in his life, Brisbane knew he was not ready to leave her behind. Walking through the sleeping camp under the immense sky, Brisbane could almost feel like he was free, like he could just walk over the crest of the next hill, and then the next, and the next, until he had left Angelika and the Clan of the Red Eye behind him forever. He could almost believe this but not quite. He knew he would never be free of the clan until he had Angelika back in his grasp, and he knew he would probably never be free of Angelika. How had Roundtower ever given her up so easily? When the day came that Angelika left Brisbane for a greater warrior, as she was sure to do eventually, he did not see how he could let her go with such grace. When she was gone, he would look back on this time among the Orks of the Red Eye and go stark raving mad.

And so, as he had secretly expected, the decision had already been made for him. Brisbane would have to follow Angelika’s advice, no matter how little sense he could make out of it. As he turned and began to make his way back to the cave mouth, he knew he would have to challenge Tornestor to trial by combat in the pug-trolang and, if he won, he would have to hope Angelika was right and everything turned out the way he wanted. If he lost, it certainly wouldn’t matter how things turned out.

Before he made it back to the cave he found out why there had been no black-clad orks around the campfire beside the circus wagons. Over the crest of one of the hills that surrounded the small valley in which the ork encampment sat came a band of orks, back from a raid they had just brought down upon an unsuspecting caravan of merchant wagons.

Brisbane watched them march into the camp, leading two mule carts laden with all sorts of items of use and tribute. There must have been two dozen orks in the party, all in mismatched black armor, some holding onto the reins of captured horses and some holding onto the bonds of captured humans. They brought the whole procession to the center of the camp, before the cave mouth, and quickly began to sort through their booty. The humans, three more of them, all men, they locked up in the circus wagons, and the two horses, one white and one black, they staked to the ground with a short tether tied to their bridles.

Brisbane did his best to avoid them, taking a very scenic route back to the cave, but he could not help hearing some of their comments as he made his way around them. They all spoke orkish, being members of the lower class, and although Brisbane’s knowledge of that language was still sketchy, he was able to decipher enough of it to draw some conclusions.

It had been a good haul, the wagons containing such important items as armor, weapons, fabrics, and ale. The humans were, of course, to be kept for sacrifices and many felt Ternosh would be happy to hear they now had a five-month supply. The horses, Brisbane discovered with some revulsion, were to be carved up for their meat and preserved in the small strips he had been fed while he had been Vrak’s prisoner. All the returning orks were happy with the results of the raid and most felt the eye of Grummsh had watched over them in their good fortune.

Brisbane, with a final thought wondering how the King could let this kind of thing go on in his kingdom, turned away from the scene and went back into the underground lair.

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