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A Desperate and Despicable Dwarf: Section Six

       Last updated: Saturday, January 3, 2004 12:59 EST




Magrit, Chapter Three

    Well, there's good news, bad news, and terrible news.

    The good news is that Magrit landed a great job almost as soon as we walked into the door of [figure out name of company]. She was shooting for some kind of low level chem lab job, but the company president wouldn't hear of it. No, no! Seems that humans hardly ever apply for a job in the "realm of words" on account of there's all these words ready and eager to do all the coolie work, so the company president was only too delighted to offer Magrit a plum job as his executive secretary. Easy work, great money, perks you wouldn't believe ("of course your salamander can have his own desk!"), the whole bit.

    The bad news is that in order to get the job Magrit had to hump the company president.

    The terrible news is that she turned him down. I couldn't believe it! And was quite rude about it, too!

    "Oh, sure," I complained bitterly, as she stalked out of the building, "God forbid you should come across for a respected pillar of the community. Oh, no—not Ms. Morality! Not Ms.Pick-and-Choose! Drooling, gibbering lunatics, sure. Young windbag apprentices, sure. Drunken sailors on leave, sure. Hordes of flea-bitten barbarians, sure. Escaped—"

    "Three barbarians are not a horde!" she snapped.

    "Those three were!" was my rejoinder, and a fine one it was, too.

    "That creep!" she snarled. "That drooling old lecher!"

    "Wolfgang drools worse—"

    "Wolfgang drools cute! The rich fatboy drools rich fatboy disgusting!"

    "So what? Concentrate on the adjective: rich. We're in the "realm of words," Magrit—nouns and verbs don't count."

    Well, as you can see, I won the argument hands down, but it didn't do me any good since once Magrit gets set on a course, that's that. Logic, reason, common sense—out the window! (It didn't do the rich, drooling, disgusting fatboy any good either. A word to the wise sexual harasser: do not practice your hobby on ill-tempered, coarse-minded, plump, blowsy proper witches who specialize in foety. No, no, no, no, no.) (Worst case of prostrate leprosy the doctors ever saw, I heard.)

    Oh, well. It's the hallmark of sane salamanders that we adjust instantly to reality, no matter how grim. So I took it in stride when Magrit gave up the silly idea of going back to work in a factory (oh, yes, she's a true-blue prole by origin; that's what explains her low tastes, even for a witch) and decided to resume her normal trade. Even though I knew we'd be lucky not to starve to death since 98% of our customers would be words and what, I wondered, would words need with a witch?

    Quite a bit, as it turns out. Mostly fortune-telling. It seems words are all convinced that after they're made they're going to be sent somewhere which they call the "realm of reality" where they will be—you're going to love this—words, what else? They say they're where words come from. Anyway, the point is that lots of them want to know exactly where they're going to wind up.

    It's kind of pathetic, actually, especially for all the "thes" and "ands", each and every one of which is convinced it's going to be the key word in the key sentence which—you name it!

    Which, of course, Magrit was more than willing to do, gazing into the crystal ball that she picked up years ago in a junk store.

    "I see a man—he has a full beard, a lofty brow—a very lofty brow—he's sitting at a desk; he's writing—what? Yes, I see it now—he's writing a great novel—no! It's going to be the greatest novel ever written, probably; certainly the longest. He's finished the book! Now, he's scratching his head; stroking his beard; pursing his lips thoughtfully. What can he be—oh, I see it now! He trying to think of a title for the longest, greatest novel ever written. Yes, yes, it's coming to him now. He writes the first word—War. Yes, that's it. Now he's really thinking hard, really hard. Suddenly—his eyes light up! Yes, he has the second word of the title—and it's—yes! yes! It's you! It's you! War and "

    And (pardon the pun) another happy customer trots off. Well, not trots actually, since words don't have legs and feet so they move around in the wierdest ways imagineable, but you get the idea.

    The truth is, Magrit's lousy with a crystal ball. She usually reads palms or tea leaves when she tells fortunes, but words don't have palms and they don't drink tea. They don't drink anything, as a matter of fact, or eat—which makes the bosses happier than clams.

    When they discovered this fact, Les Six really hit the roof. No sooner did they get off work on their first shift than they all headed for the gin mills, only to discover that there weren't any. Soon enough, they were crowded into Magrit's parlor, bitterly expressing their complaint. They started with lofty political principles:

    The first: "'Tis a plot to keep the wages down!"

    The second: "As 'tis well known that the variable portion of the capital—"

    The third: "—more commonly known as the wage bill—"

    The fourth: "—is regulated by the necessity to reproduce the working class in its historically determined standard of living."

    The fifth: "The which, in this benighted place, approximates the living standard—"

    The sixth: "Of stones."

    Soon enough, however, they got down to the gist of the matter, which (I will summarize a mound of verbiage) was that inasmuch as it was widely known that drink is the curse of the working class, the downtrodden masses in the "realm of words" had been foully deprived of their curse in addition to the blessings of life which are, as a matter of course, naturally denied the proletariat.

    As always with Les Six, complaint soon led to action. Magrit's little parlor was located on the bottom floor of one of the many tenements in one of the many slums which surround the word factories. In a matter of days, Les Six obtained the floor above from a landlord who, though grasping, was the word "butterfingers" (with all that implies). Within days thereafter, they had transformed the seedy dump into an even seedier gin mill and were ready for the business which they confidently expected their daily agitation on the job would soon drum up.

    I thought they were nuts, and was highly amused, until they turned out not to be nuts and I got dragooned into being the bartender. I couldn't believe it! I mean, what possible use could words have with booze? Or coffee, and damned if Les Six didn't add on a coffee house. ("Keeps the high-falutin' intellectual words out of our hair.")

    But, practically overnight, The Gin Mill and Pretentious Coffee House became the center of social life in the slums. (Which tells you all you need to know about social life in the slums of the "realm of words.") I thought I was going to die of overwork.

    I complained to Magrit, but the rotten witch had already jumped aboard the bandwagon. Now she was telling all her customers that when they went to the "realm of reality" they were all going to be words spoken by profane proles hunched over their alepots in taverns, plotting and planning the revolution. No sooner did they leave her parlor than the cretins (words are not bright) piled into the saloon, eager to prepare for their future life.

    Words are weird. Must be why humans like them so much. I remember one in particular—"because." It insisted on shortening itself to "be," so that it could go around and impress all the other words by saying it was a rebel without a cause. The other words were impressed, too.

    The whole set-up on the "realm of words" is weird. (Our part of it, anyway—later, we found out that the "realm of words" has lots of different levels. All of which are weird.) There's a handful of humans who own all the word factories. Where they came from, nobody knows, and the owners aren't talking. Under them, there's a class of parasite words who lord it over all the other words. Needless to say, they toil not, neither do they labor. They are called the Proper Words, and they are all capitalized.

    The common words do all the work, which consists of rendering raw material (mostly hot air, but with lots of scrap words thrown for good measure—runes, obsolete and archaic words, passe slang, etc.) into shiny new words. The shiny new words are immediately put to work, while the worn-out old words are "retired" to a giant complex called the Happy Home—which, to a shrewd salamander, looks remarkably like a blast furnace—where they are shortly thereafter "dispatched" to the "realm of reality," rising thereto on a vast column of—can you doubt it?—hot air.

    Into this weird but efficient set-up, Les Six and Gwendolyn charged like the proverbial bull in a china shop. If it had been Les Six alone, things would have just gotten rowdy. But when you added Gwendolyn to the stew! There's a good reason the porkers all over Grotum have a price on her head that's only a few pennies less than the one on The Roach—and only a small part of that's due to the numerous porkers she's gutted over the years with her cleaver. No, the real reason is that the wench is a fiendishly good agitator, propagandist, organizer, you name it.

    The first thing she does, naturally, is call for the unity of all oppressed and exploited common words. No mean trick, that, let me tell you. Words are even worse than people when it comes to figuring out ways that this group is better than that group. The nouns detested the verbs and vice versa; their sidekicks the adjectives and adverbs positively hated each other; the pronouns always tried to get cozy with the nouns but the nouns referred to hanging around with pronouns as "slumming;" among the verbs, the third person singulars were considered uncouth; on and on.

    Then, to boot, the words were further disunited by the rampant animosity among the different fonts. Helveticas despised Century Gothics who loathed Britannic Bolds who detested Courier News. All regular fonts considered all bold fonts (even their own) to be hopelessly low-class, and as for italics—I remember one italic word (indeed, I think it was) bitterly complaining to me over its alepot:

    "It's a dirty rotten stereotype! It's not true that all italics are part of organized crime!"

    Anyway, before you know it Gwendolyn's managed to convert a bunch of new words to her viewpoint, and the next thing you know leaflets are being passed around all over the slums with slogans like: FONTS OF THE WORLD, UNITE and THE PARTS OF SPEECH, UNITED, SHALL NEVER BE DEFEATED.

    Within a week, she had Committees of Correspondence organized all over the place; within another week, she had all the Committees organized into cell structures. Within a month, she put together a full-fledged Provisional Revolutionary Government.

    Sometimes, I think that woman's not playing with a full deck.

    I tried to reason with Magrit:

    "It's all nuts! I let it go back in the real world, on account of I have a soft spot for humans, handicapped as you are with mammal habits and brains. But this is going too far! What do we care about a bunch of words, anyway? When you prick them, do they bleed? No! Utterly impervious to pain and hardship. Do they starve? Nope—can't eat anyway. Sure, they're overworked and underpaid, but so what? What else are words good for? And besides, the whole reason we came to this Godforsaken "realm of words" in the first place was to rescue Shelyid and them. What happened to that, huh? Think of the poor dwarf! And the Kutumoff youngsters! Why—right this minute, they're probably in dire peril of their lives! We should be off to their rescue!"

    "And just how do you propose to do that?" demanded the witch. "We wound up here because that stupid Wolfgang babbled in an unknown tongue and planted us in the middle of nowhere. Do you have any idea where Shelyid and the Kutumoff kids are? And if you do, do you know how to get there from here? Well? Speak up, Wittgenstein!"

    "I'm your familiar, remember. You're the witch—the "proper" witch, no less! You're the one's supposed to know how to get your way around."

    "Well, I don't," she grumped, and then she started making noises about how if Zulkeh were here he'd probably know the answer and at that point I realized the poor old woman had lost her mind and it was hopeless. Imagine! Actually wishing the windbag were around!

    Her conclusion was that since we were stuck here anyway, we might as well start a revolution since this place needed it as much as anywhere. To which I made the sane response that there'd be trouble since this place had powers-that-be as much as anywhere else and they wouldn't like it. But I might as well have saved my breath.

    And, sure enough, trouble came. As soon as the company owners figured out that trouble was afoot, Les Six and Gwendolyn all got fired. That, as they say, was locking the barn door after the horse got out, since by that time Gwendolyn and Les Six had already organized the factories they worked in and now they were free to concentrate on agitating all the rest. Which they did, needless to say.

    Next, the bosses—they're a sorry lot, bosses, dumb as frogs—set their company goons on Gwendolyn and Les Six. That resulted in a lot of thug words being turned into ex-thug letters.

    Finally realizing that the usual methods weren't going to work, the bosses whistled up the official authorities, who promptly responded by sending the police into the slums to round up all agitators and malcontents.

    The police were a riot, as always. They came in with their shields, batons and helmets: þôlì¢ê! and went out (¡) better educated.

    "It'll be the fascists, next," predicted Gwendolyn, and, sure enough, it wasn't long before we started hearing about a word called "mustache" that was making a lot of noise about what it called "the subjunctive problem." The mustache had a whole crowd of lumpenproletarian words gathered about it, with all the silly buggers coloring themselves brown instead of black.

    To my outrage, I got sent in as a spy. So there I was in a big square, a disgruntled salamander if there ever was one, watching this jerk work jerking around other jerk words. "Mustache" was up on a podium and it was haranguing the mob, calling for the extermination of all qualifiers:

    "No ifs, ands or buts!" it shrieked. "There must be a final solution for the subjunctive problem!"

    The mob went wild, rampaging through the streets of the slum. All shop windows which displayed the ? mark were smashed. The wretched maybes, perhapses, and possibles who huddled within were dragged out into the streets and beaten into 8-point. A scholarly insofar as was torn letter from letter.

    It didn't go any further, of course, because at that point Gwendolyn and Les Six showed up, leading an army of Working Words Defense Guards, and proceeded to beat the brownwords into 4-point. Mustache itself was singled out for special attention by Gwendolyn and her cleaver, whereupon the would-be demagogue was known forever after as must ache.

    Now the powers that be declared martial law and brought in the army, but to no avail. The word army was made up of a lot of unhappy conscripts who were easy prey for Les Six and their experienced rabble-rousers, and before you knew it the troops had deserted to the revolution and Gwendolyn was cheerfully setting up a Words and Scripts Council.

    In desperation, the Proper Words set up a Provisional Revolutionary Government and tried to take control of the situation by going with the flow, so to speak, but Gwendolyn and Les Six soon had the Words and Scripts Council set the situation right. The Word Palace was stormed, the Proper Words were arrested and stripped of their pretensions. Count Jello became the plebeian jello, the haughty twin earls Ping and Pong became ping pong, [need more brand names which became common names], and the whole lot of useless parasites were set to work digging the trenches and earthworks which Gwendolyn and Les Six said were going to be needed to repel the inevitable forthcoming invasion by reactionary imperialist powers bent on crushing revolution before it could spread.

    I though they had completely lost their minds, but we'll never know because at that point the Old Geister stepped in directly and sent The Flood. He usually keeps a lower profile in the "realm of reality," but I guess He figures He can afford to use a heavier hand in the "realm of words" on account of He claims to have spoken the Word in the first place. I dunno, I'm just a sane salamander trapped in a universe of human lunatics. (Who else but a human would have invented God in the first place? You wouldn't catch a salamander doing any such silly thing!)

    Yeah, it was great, just great. For forty days and nights, the "realm of words" was deluged by a rain of letters, periods, commas, colons and semi-colons. Naturally, having gotten us into the fix, Gwendolyn and the half-dozen bigmouths had no idea how to get out of it, but Magrit said there was nothing to worry about.

    "Where there's a Flood, there's gotta be an ark. We'll just catch a ride."

    Sure enough, about a week into the Flood this bearded character named Noah showed up, with a bunch of sons and a big boat. Before you knew it they were scurrying around collecting two of every word and hustling them aboard the boat. Most of the work was being done by Noah's son Ham, who was a nice enough kid except he complained a lot.

    As usual with humans, most of his problem was with sex.

    "I've got to avoid sodomy, you know," he mused. "The Lord's very insistent on that!" He reached down and grabbed up a word that was running around loose, un chien as it happened. Ham held it up for cursory inspection. "Boy," he announced. "No problem." Next, he picked up une table. "Piece of cake. It's a girl." Then, with a look of total disgust, he held up a chair. He turned it upside down and spread its legs.

    "I ask you, Wittgenstein—is this a boy word or a girl word?"

    Then he and his father got in a big argument over whether or not they had to save pidgin words and creole words. Noah started off by damning all unauthorized words, but Ham sweet-talked him into finding room for the creoles. The pidgins were out of luck, which caused a lot of squealing, let me tell you.

    "That boat's not going to be big enough," I remarked to Ham. He looked shocked.

    "Of course it's going to be big enough! We made it just according to the Lord's specifications"—here he rattled off a lot of stuff about cubits and such—"so it's bound to be big enough."

    And, whaddaya know? Damned if it wasn't big enough. Don't ask me how. I'm just a salamander, not the Supreme Being. But, when the time came, all the chosen words trooped aboard and crammed themselves into the hold. I had wrangled us a place, too, buttering up Ham and the boys. I think Magrit on her own would have gone for it, but Gwendolyn and Les Six naturally had to stand up for principle.

    So there I was, formerly a salamander sans souci, perched on Magrit's shoulder, the waves lapping at the last little outcrop of rock left in the "realm of words," treated to the spectacle of Gwendolyn and Les Six shaking their fists at the heavens and taking the Lord's name in vain. Actually, they were cursing Him directly, which I'm not sure counts as the same thing.

    "Things," I muttered, "couldn't get worse."

    Things, of course, got worse. The Old Geister heard them cursing Him, took umbrage, and manifested Himself in the form of an arch-angel. Seheboth, I think his name was.

    "Curse ye the Lord?" he demanded.

    A string of curses confirmed the charge.

    "Then be ye damned!" he cried. Then, frowning: "But wait! I forgot—you're already damned. Damned the day you were born, in fact. Original sin, you know. Hmmm. Let me think. I have it! Be ye cursed!"

    "Cursed with what?" sneered Magrit. The archangel took a breath, and I saw my chance.

    "No!" I shrieked. "Not that! Anything but that!"

    The archangel frowned again. "Not with what?"

    Hey, it's as old as the hills, I know that. But a good trick's a good trick, even if a stupid rabbit did come up with it. So I shrieked:

    "Not the dwarf! We've had enough of that gnome Shelyid to last a lifetime! No, let us drown here in peace! Oh, please! Don't cast us into whatever mess that dwarf's got into! Oh, please! Oh, please!"

    The arch-angel beamed, gestured grandly, spoke portentous words of doom.

    A flash, a feeling of sudden heat and cold, total disorientation, and—there we were!

    Where? Well, at first glance, we seemed to be in a big glass jar at the bottom of what seemed to be some kind of ocean. Just beyond the glass we could see Shelyid in some kind of peculiar get-up—a helmet of some kind, with a hose leading above into the gloom. He had a chain in his hand and was trying to hook it up to the glass jar, which wasn't easy on account of he was being beset by every kind of monster you could imagine. But he seemed pre-occupied with something else, because as soon as he saw us he started gesturing madly at something in the glass jar. When we turned around, we saw Polly Kutumoff all tied up with rope, which was a lot of rope on account of the girl looked to be about eight and 99% months pregnant.

    "Boy, am I glad to see you!" she said, snapping with her teeth at a really nasty-looking acronym that was trying to bite her on the neck (CREEP, I think it was—no, CREEP was the one trying to bite her on the leg) while she was trying, with bound feet, to stomp another one that was crouching by her leg (that one was CREEP—I remember now, the one at her neck was [NEED GOOD ACRONYMS].

    "You're pregnant!" cried the first.

    "No shit," snarled Polly. Snap! Good teeth, that girl had. EEP went scuttling off; she spit CR out in a hurry.

    "Be careful!" she warned. "These things are poisonous."

    "How did you get in such a fix?" demanded the second.

    Polly stomped [ACRONYM] and then fixed the second with a glare.

    "By fucking, how else?" She snapped at another acronym and swept her feet around wildly. The damned things were all over the place.

    "Not that, lass—'tis obvious!" exclaimed the third.

    "Nay, we mean—" For a wonder, words failed the third; he was reduced to gesturing about him.

    "All of you shut up and do something useful!" bellowed Magrit. "If I'm not mistaken, the girl's about to give birth." (I didn't think she was mistaken. She's a proper witch, Magrit; which, among other things, means she's been a midwife more times than you can count.) She and Gwendolyn began untying Polly.

    Within seconds, Les Six were frantically trying to fight off poisonous acronyms. I myself had no trouble. An acronym began scuttling toward me [ACRONYM], I flickered my tongue, the acronym went elsewhere. Simple as that. Acronyms are terrified of salamanders, you know. Actually, the nasty things generally ignore any kind of animal except humans, who are their natural prey.

    I heard Gwendolyn chuckle. "Nice move, Wittgenstein. Did you ever hear the one about the frying pan and the fire?"

    I maintained a dignified silence.



    Yet again, Uncle Manya shrugged.

    "Well, there's different tales. Some folks say it's a legacy from Joe himself, way back in the beginning of time. But there's differences of opinion amongst those folks. Some say Joe specifically forbade the practice of law. I can't say I agree with that myself, since there's no real evidence of any such decree on his part—and if there were, it'd kind of defeat its own purpose. How can you decree against decrees? But others say it's implicit in Joe's legacy."

    For a brief moment, Uncle Manya's normally soft blue eyes took on a steely glint.

    "One thing's certain, if you study the legends. Whatever else he invented, there's no record that Joe ever invented law. Or lawyers. Bosses, yes; cops, yes; priests, yes. But lawyers? No."

    Zulkeh glared. "Ridiculous! The concept of the lawyer is implicit within the ontology of all the other dominant classes."

    Uncle Manya leaned forward, moving his hands with animation.

    "Yes! Yes! That's just what Sam told him!"

    "Who's Sam?" queried Shelyid.

    Uncle Manya peered at him. "Sam? Oh, he was Joe's best friend. He changed his name after he had to take it on the lam. Called himself The Roach."

    He turned back to Zulkeh. "The legends have it that Sam warned Joe, but Joe thought he was nuts. As it turned out, of course, Sam was right."

    Shelyid's simian face was furrowed in thought.

    "But—if Joe didn't invent lawyers, then where'd they come from?"

    He cringed from Zulkeh's exasperation.

    "Cretin!" oathed the mage. "Have you forgotten everything I taught you? I specifically covered the subject of the origin of lawyers in my lecture on the writings of the great natural philosopher [FIND NAME IN GOULD]. Lawyers are the product of spontaneous generation, arising naturally from the decay of organic refuse. Any fool knows—"

    "What nonsense!" interrupted the heretic Alf. "Positively medieval! My dear wizard, don't you read any modern scientists? The theory of the spontaneous generation of attorneys was disproved years ago by my great-uncle Pasteur Sfondrati-Piccolomini. [LOOK UP DESCRIPTION OF PASTEUR'S EXPERIMENT—I THINK IT'S IN GOULD, BUT I'M NOT SURE] They're spread by germs, my dear man, germs. That's why—"

    Zulkeh's face was red with anger. "That fraud! That empiricist! Bah! I say again—bah! The entire concept of the germ theory is epistemologically preposterous! How can an intelligent man possibly—"

    Where this emerging debate might have led will forever remain unknown, for Uncle Manya interrupted at this point. Not with words, but with the emission of a vast cloud of evil-smelling fumes.

    "Keep that satanic substance away!" bellowed Zulkeh, waving his hands frantically. He cast a sharp eye at his apprentice.

    "Shelyid, I command you—hold your breath!"

    "Yes, professor!" piped the dwarf obediently. Shelyid proceeded to take a deep breath preparatory to holding it. His eyes became very large and unfocussed.

    "Bah!" oathed the mage. "Sirrah, I must insist that you extinguish your pipe!"

    Uncle Manya chuckled and laid down the meerschaum.

    "Oh, very well, Zulkeh. But I think you're going to find that we'll need my pipe soon enough."

    "How so?" demanded the mage.

    "Well, as I understand your purpose in coming here, you wish to decipher the true meaning of the dream of the former King of Goimr."

    "Precisely so. The dream portends a great catastrophe for civilization, but I was unable to determine its precise nature. Due to magical intervention on the part of God's Own Tooth. This much, however, is clear—the dream is inseparably bound up with the entirety of the Joe question."

    "Yes, yes, to be sure. But the point remains: first, you have to decipher the dream."

    The mage nodded sagely. Uncle Manya spread his arms.

    "There you have it!" he boomed. "Dreams are, by their nature, hallucinogenic versions of truth. So, in order to penetrate to the truth beneath the hallucination, you must join with the hallucination. Hence—" He held up his pipe.

    "Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. "What nonsense is this?"

    "No worse nonsense that what you've been spouting," interjected Alf. The heretic seemed singularly unfazed by the withering glare bestowed upon him by the wizard.

    "Explain yourself, sirrah!" commanded Zulkeh.

    "I should think it obvious. Dreams are meaningless, pure and simple. They can't be deciphered by any method, sober or otherwise, because they don't mean anything in the first place. Silliest waste of time I ever heard of!"

    This statement produced a veritable firestorm of a debate. Immediately the wizard produced a vigorously-defended précis of the opinions advanced by the great Sigmund Laebmauntsforscynneweëld in his multi-volumed study of dreams. To this did the heretic Alf counter with pungent quotations from Dr. Medawar Sfrondrati-Piccolomini, whose rabid hostility to psychiatry is well know. Above this fast and furious fugue, the not-entirely-coherent opinions of Uncle Manya hovered like an ethereal melody. These opinions, which became less and less coherent in direct relationship to the amount of fumes emitted by his pipe, seemed largely to revolve around the "studies" of such disreputable individuals as Drs. Laing and Leary Laebmauntsforscynneweëld.

    Throughout this lengthy dispute, Shelyid and the tullimonstrum remained silent. The brow-furrowed expression upon the apprentice's face indicated deep thought (insofar as that phrase can be used with respect to the moronic dwarf). As for the attitude of the tullimonstrum, it is difficult to be certain. The prehistoric creature's expression was impossible to read. Yet there was something—in its posture, perhaps—which exuded total and complete derision. The proof of its contempt for the proceedings was demonstrated some time later, when the tullimonstrum brought the debate to a sudden halt by twittering very loudly.

    "What is it saying?" demanded Zulkeh.

    "It wants to know what Shelyid thinks," explained Uncle Manya.

    Contempt, indeed. For what could the dwarf possibly have to contribute to such a profound dispute? And it was clear enough, from his expression, that such was the very thought uppermost in the wizard's mind. Zulkeh began a dismissive gesture, but was cut short by Uncle Manya's booming voice.

    "Yes! Yes! Splendid idea! Well, lad? What's your opinion?"

    The dwarf's brow was now so knotted with "thought" that his eyes had disappeared. Yet, astonishingly enough, he responded instantly.

    "I think you're all wrong," he said. Quite forcefully, actually.

    Then, as if realizing the enormity of his deed, Shelyid's eyes popped open and he cast an apprehensive glance at the wizard.

    "Well, that's not quite what I meant. I mean, I think Uncle Manya and Alf are wrong and the professor's right, of course, like he always is—"

    "I should think so!" exclaimed Zulkeh.

    "—except that he's right in the wrong way. Or maybe—"

    "Bah! What nonsense is this?"

    "—it'd be better to say that he's—"

    "Explain this impudence, diminutive dunce!"

    "—got the truth sort of, you know, turned inside out." Then, a moment later, his brow once again furrowed: "Or, maybe, standing on its head."

    It goes without saying that the dwarf's statements caused not only the wizard's furious indignation, but, in the case of the Alfredae, utter astonishment. Many of the clan heard the statements themselves. Those who did not soon got the word, which spread like wildfire. Before long, the entire clan was perched upon various portions of Shelyid, eagerly following the subsequent events.

    I myself, of course, as the Alfred, immediately called an emergency session of the clan elders. And it took even those normally-judicious lice but a moment's discussion to reach their judgement:

    For the first time in his life, Shelyid had contradicted the wizard.

    Oh, to be sure, the dwarf had, on several occasions in the past, set himself against the mage's judgement—but only in matters which were essentially emotional, and which concerned the gnome personally. But now, here, Shelyid had shown the temerity—it might be better to say, the insubordinate gall—to question the wizard's judgement on a matter of science and logic!

    Well. All responsible louses were of one mind:

    The nerve of that gnome!

    Sad to say, not all members of the clan responded in a responsible manner. To the contrary, the opinion rapidly spread through the youth and the lower classes that this was—can you believe it?—a fine and meritorious act! And so, as the debate raged 'twixt master and servant, so did a parallel debate rage among the Alfredae. A debate which, as the gentle reader will discover, was fraught with horrid consequences for the lousely future.

    But, for the moment, we must return to our narrative.

    "Debate," is, perhaps, not the best word to describe the ensuing proceedings 'twixt wizard and apprentice. "Debate" implies an exchange of views—hotly advanced, perhaps, but an exchange of views. In this instance, the term "beating" is perhaps more appropriate. For, in truth, the mage was wroth with wrath at the dwarf's impertinence. So wroth, indeed, that it must be admitted that he violated, on several occasions, not only the spirit but the letter of Shelyid's labor contract—the which expressly forbade the chastisement of the apprentice with heavy oaken implements.

    Throughout this affair, Shelyid remained hunched on the floor, enduring the well-deserved thrashing in silence. Yet, 'twas clear from the dour expression on his face that the dwarf felt himself aggrieved. No sooner had Zulkeh ceased his disciplinary activities than the dwarf gave utterance to his feelings, announcing, in the most surly manner, that he intended to file a grievance with the proper authorities at the first opportunity. Then, not satisfied with this sullenness, the gnome announced that he was going on strike, inasmuch as henceforth the wizard would find it necessary to carry his own sack.

    Needless to say, this further impudence caused the mage to resume his chastisement of the wretched little creature, a chastisement which was only brought to a halt by the intervention of Uncle Manya, who, in a most unmannerly fashion, began to curse the wizard for a bully, a sadist, a tyrant, a martinet, and a fool.

    It was the accusation of folly, of course, which caused the wizard to desist in his application of the rod.

    "A fool?" he demanded. "Explain yourself, sirrah!"

    Uncle Manya sneered.

    "The folly is self-evident, and threefold. First off, it's folly to beat a miscreant with a heavy oaken staff when it's obvious that the subject of the chastisement is utterly inured to pain and punishment. Might as well beat a rock."

    Zulkeh stared down at the hunched form of his apprentice, who, in point of fact, resembled a small and misshapen boulder.

    "Second, it's folly to beat one's apprentice when one is relying upon that apprentice to carry a sack which, at my best estimate, weighs approximately as much as a small hillock."

    Zulkeh stared over at his sack lying in the corner of the room, which sack, in point of fact, was doing a fair imitation of a small hillock.

    "And finally, it's folly to beat one's adversary in a debate when one might, in actual fact, be in the wrong."

    This last point, of course, was one which the wizard was hardly willing to concede. In the event, however, his lengthy rebuttal was cut short by the twittering of the tullimonstrum, which twittering Alf the heretic interpreted as follows:

    "The tullimonstrum says that there's another reason you're a fool. It says that if you don't watch it, you'll go the way of the dinosaurs."

    Alas, Zulkeh demanded an explanation.

    "How? It says that the real reason the dinosaurs became extinct was their excessive use of corporal punishment upon their young. The poor little critters got so upset they evolved into mammals and killed off the dinosaurs because their parents were so ashamed of the ugly little furballs that they all committed suicide."

    A long silence followed this explanation. Alf shrugged.

    "I didn't say it—the tullimonstrum did. Don't agree myself. I think the dinosaurs were killed off by a comet."

    "Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. "'Tis widely known the dinosaurs became extinct due to the subtle—"

    "On the other hand," interrupted Alf, "the tullimonstrum was an eyewitness to the event, so I don't suppose we can laugh the explanation off."

    Seeing the stares, he shrugged again. "I told you: it's very long-lived. A living fossil, in fact."

    Before yet another debate could erupt, Uncle Manya forcefully brought the central issue at hand back to the fore.

    "Explain what you meant, Shelyid!" he boomed.

    The dwarf glared up at the wizard. Zulkeh flushed hotly, then sat down in his chair and fell silent. After a moment, the dwarf spoke.

    "What I was trying to say"—he paused, glared again at the wizard—"was that Alf's wrong that the dream doesn't mean anything on account of how everything which the professor predicted to the King came true. So the dream has to mean something or other. I don't have any opinion as to whether Uncle Manya's right or not when he says that we ought to smoke a lot of weird stuff so we can unscrew our brains so that we can figure out a weird dream. But it sounds kind of silly, to be honest."

    Zulkeh cleared his throat. "Well spoken, apprentice."

    Alas, the mage's attempt at reconciliation failed of its purpose.

    "On the other hand," emphasized the dwarf, glaring again at his master, "the professor's argument is also full of holes."

    Zulkeh's protest was cut short by Uncle Manya's bellow. Shelyid continued.

    "See, the problem's this. The professor's overlooking the fact that what's really important in the King's dream is the fact that the professor thinks the dream portends great disaster for everybody but he's forgetting that it was the King who had the dream."

    "So?" asked Uncle Manya.

    "So sure and the dream foretold disaster for the King—but who's to say it means disaster for anybody else?"

    The wizard began to express himself but was again cut short by Uncle Manya.

    "Then what do you propose, young fellow? Are we supposed to ask everybody in the world what their dreams are and then try to interpret them?"

    Shelyid frowned, fell silent for a moment, then shook his head.

    "Well, no. I guess that's not too practical."

    Uncle Manya shrugged. "That's it, then. I tend to agree with you about the—what would you call it?—'non-universal-application' of the King's dream. But since we can't interpret the whole human race's dreams, we're pretty much stuck with the King's. After all, he does seem to have been the central figure in the matter."

    Shelyid shook his head.

    "I don't see it that way at all. Begging your pardon, sir."

    Uncle Manya grinned. "Oh, I don't mind being contradicted. Stimulating, actually."

    He cast a sly glance at the red-faced Zulkeh, then said to the dwarf:

    "But I still don't see what alternative you propose."

    Shelyid's face was once again knotted up with thought. Yet, surprisingly, the dwarf responded immediately.

    "Well, I think it's actually kind of obvious. The one thing that's clear in all this is that, some way or other, it all goes back to Joe. Am I right?"

    Everyone in the room nodded (except the tullimonstrum, which wasn't actually designed that way).

    Shelyid's face brightened up. "So, that's it!"

    Uncle Manya frowned. "That's what?"

    "That's it. The dream that's really important is Joe's dream. That's the one we have to interpret."

    Silence followed, broken at length by Zulkeh's pitying remark:

    "Poor lad. No doubt the excessive rigors of our adventure have unhinged his none-too-secure hold on reality."

    Shelyid glowered. "You don't have to be insulting, professor!"

    "Bah!" oathed the mage. "How can we interpret Joe's dream?"

    Shelyid stared at him in confusion.

    "How? The same way you interpreted the King's dream. Ask Joe what his dream is. That's how."

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