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A Desperate and Despicable Dwarf: Section Ten

       Last updated: Saturday, March 6, 2004 13:06 EST




CHAPTER XXXVIII. A Defense of Bats. A Lewd Proposition Advanced Anew. The Dwarf Stands Firm. A Soiree. Rivals and Their Gaucheries. Unexpected Arrivals. Joyful Reunions. A Slur is Cast. The Dwarf Challenged!

    "Thank you," said Shelyid wearily, handing the empty glass of wine back to Polly.

    "Was the CEO of Hell really as horrible as they say?" she asked.

    The dwarf shrugged. "I suppose. He looks kind of like a gigantic bat with rabies. He slavers at the mouth something awful, especially when he gets mad. And he got mad a lot, on account of how the professor's as stubborn as a mule and kept insisting that the Archdevil knew the truth about Joe and wasn't talking because he was a spiteful lout who resented people with superior intelligence."

    Polly's jaw dropped. "Professor Zulkeh said that? To the archdevil? In the lowest pit of Hell?"

    "Surrounded by millions and jillions of devils and imps," added Shelyid.

    "He's crazy," pronounced Polly.

    Shelyid shook his head. "No, not really—although I know it seems that way at times. He's just sort of—I don't know. Sure of himself."

    "Crazy," repeated the girl. "Were you scared?"

    Shelyid pondered the question for a moment. "No, I wasn't, actually. I should have been, I guess. But mostly I thought the Archdevil was disgusting. He sure gives bats a bad name, which is too bad, on account of how bats are really sweet little things. Don't hurt nobody, bats. Just eat bugs and fruits and such."

    "I wish I'd been there!" she exclaimed. "I would have liked to have seen the Archdevil himself. That'd be something to remember!"

    Shelyid shook his head. "You'd been bored, Polly. I was. The truth is that most of the time the Archdevil kept reading from this ancient scroll which he claimed told the truth about what really happened, way back in the beginning of time."

    "Really? What'd did the scroll say?"

    "Well, first it told of how the Old Geister was the one who actually invented everything, especially a lot of bad things."

    "Why'd He do that?"

    "It was so people could find salvation by resisting temptation and keeping their faith in God through their toils and troubles."

    "That's absolute gibberish."

    "I know it seems that way." The dwarf flushed with embarrassment. "I've never been able to understand theology. It's my worst subject, even though the Professor talks about it a lot. But I know that's the way it's supposed to be, even though it doesn't make any sense at all."

    Polly waved her hand, dismissing the matter. "What else did the scroll say?"

    "Well, then there was a lot about how the first people kept falling into sin, which wasn't real surprising, on account of how a lot of the sins were silly and most of the rest were always being invented by the Old Geister without telling the people they were sins until after they'd committed them and then they found out because they got fried alive or stricken with plague or rained on by toads or something. And then it just went on and on and on about a bunch of people begatting a bunch of other people."

    The girl fixed Shelyid with an intent gaze.

    "Speaking of which," she said firmly.

    The dwarf blushed fiercely. His eyes flitted about the bedchamber, examining every object in the room with intent scrutiny—except Polly, and the bed.

    "Well?" she demanded.

    "Polly, I can't—can't—" stammered Shelyid.

    "Can't what?"

    Shelyid took a deep breath. "I can't do it. It's not right."

    "That's silly. It's a perfectly natural act."

    He shook his head. "That's not the point. I wouldn't feel right, getting you—well, pregnant and such, and then not doing the right thing."

    "Doing the what? Oh. You mean, getting married. So the kid wouldn't be a bastard."

    Shelyid nodded his head vigorously.

    For a moment, the girl's face glowed happily. "That's sweet," she said. Then, in a trice, her expression changed to one of fierce disapproval.

    "That's ridiculous! I'd be a laughingstock! Who ever heard of a girl being shamed and disgraced by getting married?"

    She scowled. "It wouldn't do at all, not at all. No, it's always best to be guided by tradition in such matters. And the long-standing family tradition is that the girl gets pregnant by a ne'er-do-well scoundrel and is thrown out of the house by her outraged father, there to wander alone in the cold, an outcast scorned and despised by all right-thinking folks!"

    She clutched her bosom. "Oh! It's so romantic!"

    "It doesn't sound romantic to me," grumbled the gnome. "It sounds horrid. And I'm not a ne'er-do-well scoundrel. I'm a dwarf."

    Polly frowned. "You're making me cross, dear."

    "I don't care! I won't do it!"

    For a moment, Polly's lips were pressed tightly together with exasperation. Then, suddenly, she smiled.

    "We'll see," she said. Suddenly she sprang up from her chair and extended her hand.

    "But enough of that, for the moment. Let's go downstairs. Mother's having a soirée this evening, and we have to make an appearance."

    Shelyid rose, somewhat reluctantly. "What's a soirée? And why do I have to go to it? I'm tired."

    Polly took his hand and led him firmly out of the room, talking over her shoulder.

    "A soirée is where a lot of useless people get together and brag about what they're going to do except they won't because they're complete parasites."

    "Sounds like fun," muttered Shelyid.

    "And the reason you have to be there is so I can show you off to your rivals."

    "My what?"

    She grinned. "Your rivals. You'll see."



    Rivals, indeed. It seemed the huge salon was filled to the brim with the things—gangly, slack-jawed, pimply-faced adolescents, for the most part; a fair sprinkling of debonair men-about-town; numerous dastardly types twirling their mustachios (these latter uniformly swarthy of complexion, although, in several cases, the swarth was clearly the product of artifice rather than nature; a strange affectation); and a baker's gross of old lechers, one of whom died as soon as he caught glimpse of Polly entering the room (a victim of stroke, it was thought at first; until a doctor summoned to the scene firmly pronounced that the septuagenarian had choked on his own drool).

    Polly was immediately besieged by a horde of her admirers, from whom there emerged a veritable torrent of words, all of which, in their several fashions, amounted to the usual vainglorious braggadocio of suitors wooing a maid—with this peculiar twist, that the boasts invariably pointed to acts and deeds which were wicked and nefarious in their very nature, rather than, as is more typically the case, pointing to aspects of their character which depicted the swains in a wholesome and positive manner. One would have thought the lass was in the midst of the most desperate swarm of villains to be found in all of creation!

    Further reflection, of course, cast grave doubt upon many—even all—of these claims. It seemed unlikely, for instance, that the freckle-faced farmboy by the name of Tom Watt had truly murdered an entire nunnery in its sleep; nor that his companion, another callow youth yclept John Hopkins, had committed four hundred and sixteen acts of arson resulting in the deaths and disfigurement of thousands; nor that his cousin Jack Brown had really amassed a fortune selling the flesh of babes stolen from orphanages under the guise of veal; nor that his older brother Joseph Brown had amassed an even greater fortune selling veal to satanic cults under the guise of the flesh of babes.

    In these utterly preposterous claims the discriminating mind quickly discerned the desperation of fifteen and sixteen year boys, unsure of themselves and utterly inept at the art of seduction. And, indeed, the initial adolescent wave of admirers was quickly swept aside by their competitors.

    The old lechers now advanced to the fore. And here, sad to say, the insecurities of old age and infirmity proved no more salubrious than those of juvenilia.

    Which was more pathetic, more conducive to clucking? Was it the stooped figure of Emil Vieillerie, and his dubious claims of having scattered a veritable legion of bastards across the entire sub-continent (in the past year alone—his lifetime's production apparently accounted for the entire human race). Or the mincing scholar Hans Greisenhaft, who, to hear his tale, had not only penned a seven-volume treatise entitled The Ancient Craft of Pedophilia but had—or so he swore—based his entire research on (here his giggle became utterly grotesque) "arduous field work amongst the native youth." Or perhaps it was the sad spectacle of the wheezing quarrel between Vito de Crepito and Guido de Bolezza regarding which of the two dodderers had cuckolded the most illustrious figures of the world's great realms, a quarrel which was at long last settled—or so, at least, it seemed to your narrator—by Guido's claim to have seduced the entire pride of a lion right under the unsuspecting snout of the dozing King of Beasts. But, in the end, the sorriest specimen proved undoubtedly to be a certain graybeard who introduced himself only as "George the Immense," a nickname which he claimed to derive from the awesome proportions of his male member, a claim which he was (thankfully) unable to substantiate upon the challenge of a fellow oldster, whereupon, after considerable hemming and hawing, he was finally forced to confess that he had forgotten where the item in question was actually located upon his person (indeed, it was not entirely clear whether he even remembered the precise nature of the object itself).

    Fortunately, the old lechers were soon swept aside by the mustachio-twirling dastards. Or, perhaps, not so fortunately—for the gasconade of these fellows soon proved even more tiresome than those of their predecessors. A veritable tsunami of words! (Most of which, praise be, were indecipherable due to the slurring produced by the constant twirling of mustachios in the midst of speech.)

    These fellows were given short shrift by Polly. To the callow youths she had been sweet, and to the oldsters polite. But she soon cast confusion into the ranks of the dastards by twirling her own upper lip and babbling in an unknown tongue.

    Seeing the dastards thrown down, the debonair men-about-town seized the moment and shouldered the mustachios aside. Windy braggadocio was now replaced by soft-spoken asides, innuendos, and knowing remarks, the most of which insinuated that the speakers were in happy possession of the knowledge of divers arcane arts of copulation, known only to the ancients and to sundry far-off peoples in exotic lands, which they had acquired through their genteel habits of leisurely study and travel.

    To these as well the fiendish lass gave short shrift. And, though propriety must disapprove, it cannot be denied that a certain entertainment was to be found in her own sotto voce comments, among which the phrases "oh, but that's so passé" and "how quaint" figured prominently.

    Throughout this entire scene, Shelyid remained unnoticed by Polly's side. Upon his simian face a variety of emotions passed like waves. To the blood-curdling boasts of the adolescents, he registered shock and horror; to the oldsters' lechery, discomfort and disgust; to the leers of the dastards, distaste; and to subtleties of the debonair men-about-town, incomprehension.

    At length, however, a more-than-usually graphic remark by one of these suave fellows elicited Shelyid's first actual spoken words, when the astonished dwarf exclaimed: "Boy, does that sound uncomfortable!"

    Alas, Polly seized the moment. In the momentary silence which fell upon the crowd, a gleam came to the vixen's eye. She placed her hand on the back of the gnome's neck and began stroking him in a manner which was a shame and a disgrace to all custom and good breeding. Shelyid's face immediately turned bright red.

    "I'd like everyone to meet Shelyid," she announced loudly. "He's my new friend"—and, oh! The lasciviousness with which the young she-devil invested that last word! Shocking, shocking.




    Immediately all eyes turned to Shelyid. Unfriendly eyes, let it be said.

    "And who's he?" demanded one of the striplings.

    Polly rolled her eyes. "Oh, you wouldn't believe it! The villain! The rogue! So much capacity for wrongdoing in such a small package! He's on the run from the Godferrets, at the moment. And everyone else, it seems like. Not surprising, really. Would you believe—"

    But she got no further, because at that moment a handsome youth who had till that moment held back from the fray around Polly (confident, no doubt, in the eventual success of his aristocratic breeding) shouldered his way to the fore and announced, most sneeringly:

    "What nonsense! I know this particular dwarf, as it happens, having found it necessary in the past to chastise him for his lack of manners. He's nothing but a manservant. Fetches and carries for some scruffy magician."

    Indeed. 'Twas none other than Holdabrand, with whom Shelyid had had a minor contretemps upon the occasion when Zulkeh had sought legal counsel in the Caravanserai. And it seemed, from his bearing, that the lordly youth had lost none of his overweening hauteur in the months which had passed.

    Holdabrand continued:

    "I'm afraid you've been quite deceived by this dwarf, my dear Polly. A rogue—and a renegade! Hunted by the Godferrets, no less! What stuff. Stuff and nonsense. In point of fact, not only is the creature a mere menial, but the master whom he serves is himself nothing but a craven toady to all manner of authority. Indeed, I found it necessary to rebuke the man—Zulk, or some such uncouth name—for his slavishness, some time in the past."

    The color of indignation was rapidly rising in Polly's cheeks.

    "That's not so!" she cried fiercely. "I happen to know—"

    But her defense—if such a term can be used to validate the gnome's lawlessness!—of Shelyid proved unnecessary. For, at that very moment, a new party entered the scene, and immediately took up the dwarf's cause.

    Six new parties, to be precise.

    "Can you imagine such foolishness, lads?" demanded a loud voice from the doorway.

    "'Tis the typical folly of ye aristocratic rebel," sneered another.

    "Who confuse, from the habit of fox-hunting, their own petty bravura with yeomanly sang-froid," added a third.

    "And who, when they raise their idle hands against the class which nurtured them, for no grander motive than ennui—" began a fourth.

    "—confuse their petty tantrums 'gainst authority with the body blows delivered in the cause of freedom by the true champion of the downtrodden masses—" continued a fifth.

    "—shrimplike in his stature though such a popular hero may be," concluded a sixth.

    Alas. It was Les Six, in the beefy flesh. And worse was to come! For no sooner had the half dozen proletarian scoundrels entered the salon and advanced toward Shelyid, plowing under in their inexorable progress callow striplings, shuffling oldsters and other rivals dastard and debonair with grand indifference, than who should appear in the doorway but the horrid harridan Magrit and the infamous lunatic Wolfgang Laebmauntsforscynneweëld?

    "It's Les Six!" cried Shelyid. "And Magrit! And Wolfgang!" The dwarf charged across the room and hurled himself into the embrace of Les Six, who began immediately tossing him about like a ball, to the pathetic gnome's great glee. Then Magrit plucked him out of the air, bestowed a great kiss on his cheeks, and set him on the ground. Wolfgang, displaying unusual couth, simply extended his gigantic hand.

    "Pleased to meet you!" he boomed. Couth immediately vanished. The lunatic slapped his head. "But wait! Wait! Oh my goodness—I'm such a fool!" (Here he began drooling in a most disgusting manner.) "We've met before, haven't we? Yes, yes, of course!"

    The giant closed his eyes shut and began groping around in the air.

    "Don't tell me! Don't tell me! It'll come to me!"

    "We met in—" began Shelyid.

    Wolfgang's eyes popped open. "In a dream!" His face became pale as a sheet. "No, no," he groaned, "it was a nightmare. Yes! Yes! I remember! I was a waiter, serving tables. You were sitting alone at a great feasting bench, with platters piled up before you—oh! Oh! Such food you were eating—shoveling it down! Baked suckling pimply-faced youths! Stewed geezer! Deep fried mustachios! Roasted roué a la sauce suave!"

    The giant recoiled from Shelyid in horror. "You monster!" he shrieked. "Not a vegetable in sight! Not one! Then—you beat me! Yes, yes, you did! When I tried to hand you a plate of carrots! 'Nothing but meat!' you bellowed. 'Bring me more aristocrat! And make sure it's young and tender this time, knave!'"

    The lunatic began blubbering piteously. "Then you beat me some more!" He pointed to his knee. "Right here! You beat me on the knee." The tears vanished, replaced by giggles. "You couldn't reach any higher, even when you stood on the bench. You're a dwarf, you know. But—such a monster! Such a—"

    "Wolfgang—shut up!" bellowed Magrit. "You met Shelyid at my house, you idiot!"

    Wolfgang drew himself up stiffly. "Magrit, please! You don't have to remind me I'm an idiot. I know that! What do you think I am, an idiot?"

    He turned back to Shelyid.

    "Why, Shelyid! It's you! And here I was thinking you were a cannibal I met in a dream! Imagine! Silly me! Can't think of what I was thinking, except that I probably got you confused with your snarl friend—you know, the one that you told to gobble down everybody at the ball."

    Shelyid shook his head. "I didn't—"

    "Oh, yes you did!" boomed Wolfgang. "Don't try to deny it!" The lunatic looked up and surveyed the vast crowd of rivals, grinning hugely. "He did, you know. Set free a snarl being held in durance vile by none other than Rupert Inkman and then set the horror loose upon Pryggian high society. So he could steal the Rap Sheet."

    A gasp swept the room. Wolfgang snickered.

    "Oh, yes, he's the one! Stole the Rap Sheet! He's on the run now, of course. Well, actually, we all are. We're accomplices. Well, I'm not, naturally. I'm just a maniac who escape from the lunatic asylum at Begfat. My eighty-seventh offense, I believe. But Magrit and Les Six aided and abetted the villain! Oh, yes, they most certainly did! Deny it if you will!"

    'Twas clear from the wide grins on the faces of Magrit and Les Six that they had not the slightest intention of claiming innocence.

    At this moment Polly sidled up to Shelyid and renewed her lascivious stroking of the gnome's neck. Shelyid's face promptly turned beet red again. The shameless girl serenely scanned the crowd of rivals.

    "I told you," she crooned, not forgetting to bestow a great sneer upon the person of Holdabrand.

    It was perhaps that sneer that led the noble youth to commit the greatest act of folly of his short life.

    "And I say it's nonsense!" he cried. "The dwarf's nothing but a wretched servant! He's fooled you all with his preposterous lies!"

    Holdabrand strode forward and planted himself squarely before Shelyid. With a great flourish, he drew forth a glove and slapped the gnome across his face.

    "You are a liar, sirra! An you have the courage to meet me, I shall prove your lies upon your hapless body at dawn tomorrow—with cold steel!"



    Holdabrand staggered back up to his feet, cupping his bloody mouth.

    "Oo wiwwain!" he mumbled. "Dommowwow oo meet oo doom! Code thteel ad dawn!"

    "Cold steel?" demanded Rascogne. He glared fiercely at Holdabrand. "I did not hear my doughty friend say anything about swords!"

    Polly, still ashen-faced, immediately cried: "Certainly not! You're the only one's been talking about cold steel, you—" (here followed a train of words too uncouth to mention).

    Again, Shelyid looked about in confusion. "What's all this about?" he demanded. "I'm not afraid to—" He fell silent, due to the firm pressure of Wolfgang's giant hand across his lips. Harry leaned over and whispered into the dwarf's ear.

    "Be quiet, Shelyid! You're the challenged party, which means you have the choice of weapons. And while I'll be the first to say Holdabrand's a useless parasite, he's really quite an excellent swordsman. I know, I've fenced with him."

    Shelyid's angry mumble was indecipherable.

    Holdabrand tried to talk but found the toothless effort too difficult. He pointed to another noble youth standing nearby.

    "My thecon," he mumbled.

    The designated youth strode boldly forth.

    "As Holdabrand's second, I must protest! 'Tis well known that affairs of honor are settled with swords!" A sneer. "Among gentlemen, at any rate. No doubt a wretched dwarf would prefer some cruder form of combat such as wrestling and boxing, but such, I'm afraid, are quite beneath my lord Holdabrand's dignity."

    "I was afraid he'd say that," muttered Harry. "Shelyid's quite a good wrestler. He's much stronger than he looks, you know."

    "We know," came the muttered replies of Les Six and Rascogne. "Fat lot of good that'll do him here," added Magrit. "The code duello's designed to reward skill over strength, or any farmboy could best any nobleman."

    "Well?" demanded Holdabrand's second. "What's it to be, if not swords? My principal will agree to any martial weapon, so long as it is dignified by the usage of noble combat!"

    Silence. The stripling's arrogant voice rang out again.

    "Well? What is it to be?"

    Silence. Then, from the doorway, a firm voice.


    All turned, to behold the unexpected figure of the wizard Zulkeh. Behind him stood Madame Kutumoff. The mage strode into the salon and came to the center of the room. He gazed down fiercely at the dwarf.

    "And what nonsense is this that you've gotten yourself into, my loyal-but-incredibly-stupid apprentice?"

    Shelyid's angry mutter was still muffled by the lunatic's paw. Zulkeh shook his head.

    "Have I not warned you of the folly of dueling?"

    Shelyid's mutter was still indecipherable.

    "Oh, let the boy speak!" exclaimed Zulkeh irritably. Wolfgang removed his hand.

    "No you didn't, professor!" shrilled Shelyid. "You never once told me not to duel although I remember you did mention a few times that dueling's probably the stupidest thing people ever do and I'll admit that probably I should have applied the general principle to the particular occasion, as you might say it, but you never actually specifically warned me of the folly of dueling and anyway it's beside the point because here I am and I already accept that rotten cad's challenge and I knocked his rotten teeth loose for him and I'm glad I did and I'm not afraid of him no matter what Harry says and I'm sure not afraid to meet him tomorrow with a—" (Wolfgang's hand clamped down again) "—mumble mumble mumble mumble."

    "Upon reflection, 'tis perhaps best that you keep the lad from speaking," said Zulkeh. Wolfgang beamed happily. "Oh yes!" boomed the lunatic. "Silence is golden! Especially the silence of idiot dwarfs!"

    Zulkeh straightened up and sighed.

    "As you say, Shelyid, what's done is done. So—let us to the point. You now require a second, who can negotiate for you in the matter of arms and conditions. In this matter, the persons of Harry Kutumoff or Rascogne de Sevigneois immediately come to mind, as both are stalwart men at arms familiar with the multitude of devices with which humanity has seen fit to commit slaughter upon itself."

    "I will gladly serve as the boy's second," announced Rascogne promptly.

    "I as well!" added Harry.

    "Thank you, gentlemen," said Zulkeh solemnly. He gazed back at Shelyid. "The decision is yours, lad. But, if I might make a suggestion—" For a moment, a discomforted look came to the wizard's face. "I realize that you and I have been, perhaps, a bit out of sorts lately. But I still feel—well. Let us say that I think you would do best, under the circumstances, to select as your second someone who has the most intimate knowledge of your various skills and talents and, perhaps even more important, possesses the acumen and lore to translate those skills into acceptable martial terms."

    "What in God's name does all that gibberish mean?" demanded Magrit.

    Stiffly, Zulkeh responded: "What it means, Madame, is that I recommend to Shelyid that he choose me as his second."

    "You?" demanded Magrit. The salamander on her shoulder goggled.

    "The mage is daft!" cried the first.

    "All the learning has addled his wits!" concurred the second.

    "As 'tis well know to do when the pedant is confronted by practic matters—" began the third.

    "—such as the proper means with which to dispatch the noble idler to the pastures of ultimate idleness—" continued the fourth.

    "—the which requires the hard-handed experience of matters martial and military—" elaborated the fifth.

    "—that is to say, anybody but the wizard!" concluded the sixth.

    "I think it's a marvelous idea!" boomed Wolfgang. "What do you think, Shelyid?" Here the lunatic removed his hand from the dwarf's mouth.

    "I accept!" came Shelyid's instant response. And for a moment, as apprentice and mage stared at each other, the rancor and dispute which had, of late, clouded their intimacy, was swept aside as if by a spring rain. In the eyes of the lesser party, there shone forth unwavering confidence; and in those of the mage—were the thought not inconceivable—what might almost have been cherishment.

    "Well then!" spoke Zulkeh. The wizard turned to Shelyid's opponents.

    "You're crazy, boy!" hissed Rascogne.

    "Daffier'n Wolfgang," agreed Magrit.

    "I resent that!" grumbled Wolfgang. "Nobody's daffier than me. Although it's nice to see a challenger enter the ring. It's too bad, Shelyid, really it is. If you weren't going to get slaughtered tomorrow, you could become a contender for the crown. World's Greatest Idiot."

    "You said it was a good idea," muttered Shelyid.

    "Well, of course I did! I'm the world's greatest idiot."

    Shelyid snorted. Then, seeing Polly's still-ashen face, he said softly: "Don't pay any attention to them. I know what I'm doing. I got myself into the kind of situation that to get out of is going to take real deep and crooked thinking. And I don't know anybody can think as deep and crooked as the professor."

    "You know," said the salamander, "the kid's got a point."




    And so he did. For the mage, upon advancing to the center of the salon and introducing himself as Shelyid's appointed (to a great titter from the mob), immediately announced that the dwarf's weapon of choice was "the sack."

    Outrage ensued.

    "A sack!" cried Holdabrand's second. ("A thack!" mumbled Holdabrand himself.) "A sack!" cried the crowd (friend and foe alike).

    "Certainly!" spoke the wizard. "As a dwarf of honor, my principal has naturally selected the ultimate martial weapon."

    "What nonsense!" cried Holdabrand's second. ("Wad dondenze!" mumbled Holdabrand himself.) "What nonsense!" cried the foes in the crowd. (The friends maintained an embarrassed silence.)

    Encouraged by the agreement of the assembled rivals, Holdabrand's second continued his peroration.

    "A sack! Why—'tis not even a weapon of any kind, much less a noble instrument of war! Not even the toddler in his playpen would stoop to utilize such a feeble instrument, when such heroic tools as baby rattlers and dolls are ready to hand!" The crowd guffawed at the witticism.

    But their guffaws died down upon catching sight of the sneer upon the wizard's face. And let it be said here, for posterity, that the mage Zulkeh was the possessor of a truly epic sneer—a thing of myth and legend. 'Twas not, in truth, an expression oft found on the sorcerer's face, for the wizard Zulkeh held the great majority of human minds in such low esteem that he considered them unworthy of a sneer. But, upon those occasions which he felt suitable, Zulkeh was eminently capable of curling his lip in a manner to make the greatest despot green with envy.

    "Is such ignorance possible?" demanded the mage. "Can there still exist upon the face of the earth creatures of such miserable intellect, such monumental innocence of martial history, as to be unaware of the supreme position occupied by the noble sack in the annals of mortal combat? Has this earth become thus such a place of utter stupidity?" Here the wizard cast his beseeching gaze to the heavens and stretched out his arms in a pose of imploration.

    "Oh infamy!" he cried. "Oh, blow winds, and crack your cheeks!"

    "Oh—that's a nice touch!" hissed Wittgenstein. The salamander began offering bets that the wizard would win the argument. A line of chortling fellows immediately formed to place down their bets, with Rascogne at the head.

    "Sorry, lad," he said to Shelyid. "But a bet's a bet, and this is a sure winner!"

    But it was noteworthy—had there been any with the wits to take note—that neither Magrit nor Les Six accepted the wager.

    "Never bet against my familiar," muttered Magrit. "Surest way I know to the poorhouse. And besides, I never said the blowhard was stupid."

    Indeed. For no sooner had the assembled crowd wagered their fortunes than the wizard began drawing in his cunning net.

    "'Not fit for toddlers in their pens', says this worthy, who, from the looks of him, speaks of the playpen with the sure knowledge of recent experience." (A great guffaw arose at this witticism—at least, among Shelyid's friends.) "Tell me then, o youthful connoisseur of the manly art, what is the most famous exploit in martial history?"

    Holdabrand's second essayed his own (hopelessly outclassed) sneer.

    "Everyone knows that! 'Twas when the mighty Hector Sfrondrati-Piccolomini was slain by Achilles Laebmauntsforscynneweëld."

    "Indeed? Well, I will say this—at least yon stripling nibbles at the edge of the matter. But the slaughter of great Hector was but a mere episode in the great conflict of which I speak. A famous skirmish, no more! No, no—I spoke of the greatest feat! The culmination of that entire war of epic legend!"

    Zulkeh stared about the room, aghast.

    "What?" he demanded. "Am I surrounded by total ignorance?"

    It was Harry Kutumoff, no doubt by dint of his long study, who first saw the light. And, so seeing, immediately grinned hugely.

    "The sack of Troy!" he cried.

    "Precisely! Precisely! The sack of Troy!"

    Wittgenstein immediately offered better odds, in the hopes of catching a few stragglers. But the betting stopped upon the instant. Even the most uncouth intellect in the room could now sense, like the mindless fish in the sea, the ever-closing presence of the seine.

    "Indeed," continued Zulkeh, "throughout history it has been so. And I speak here not simply of the tales of myth and legend, but the certain facts of recorded historiography! For think you, ladies and gentlemen, upon the most glorious empires of the past, in both their triumphs and their downfall. Did not the Romans sack Corinth, only in their turn to be sacked by the fearsome Goths? Compared to these feats of arms, what boots it—the paltry clash of spears and swords? Nay, nay—fie on it! The sack's the thing for the greatest tests of arms!"

    A vast babble of protest arose from the crowd, in which claims were advanced that the mage was playing fast and free with the coincidences of language. But the conclusion was foregone. To cross knowledge of words and linguistic arcana with the wizard Zulkeh must surely rank among the most hopeless endeavors known to man.

    In the end, the issue was settled by General Kutumoff. Heretofore silent, the grizzled warrior now advanced the opinion that, of all present in the room, he was perhaps the most suitable to pronounce judgement upon a question concerning arms and their proper use. The crowd, in its great majority, acquiesced in his opinion; but Holdabrand and his second held forth stubbornly that the matter, being one of holy honor, could be settled by no human opinion.

    The General shrugged. "Well, if that's the way you feel about it—" He stuck two fingers in his mouth and emitted a piercing whistle. A moment later, a batch of children's heads were in the door.

    "Go fetch Fangwulf," said the General. The faces disappeared in a flash.

    "And mind you follow protocol!" he roared after them.

    Not a minute or so later, the ragamuffins skidded into the salon. They drew themselves up into a rigidly military phalanx; then, in shrill voices, intoned the following:

    "All hail Fangwulf! Fangwulf of Wide Fame! All hail the Fleshripper! The Hideous Hound! Fangwulf of the Loping Stride! The Ravening Gullet Himself! Sired by Consumption out of Omnigorge! The Slouching Rough Beast! Its Hour Come Round At Last!"

    A moment later, the most hideous beast of all creation lumbered into the room. The crowd drew back nervously, but, in truth, the monster seemed quite indifferent to their presence.

    The General smiled faintly. "I've got a problem here, pooch, which you could help me with." The General pointed to a strapping young adolescent.

    "Imagine that stalwart yeoman, advancing upon you with a spear. What is your reaction?"

    The Hound of Hell glanced briefly at the now-pallid person of the youth, sprawled onto his side, and closed his eyes in sleep.

    "As I suspected," said the General. He pointed to a cluster of the mustachioed dastards. "Now, if you will, imagine this band of heroes menacing you with swords and bucklers."

    Without opening his eyes, Fangwulf gaped a mighty yawn.

    "No surprise there," murmured the General. Kutumoff now spread his arms wide. "Imagine now this entire room of doughty men of arms—and a thousand more beside!—marching as one army upon your person to the sound of drums and fifes, armed and armored cap-a-pie, dragging in their train fell and mighty catapults and arbalests, and all of them crying out in one voice for the blood and pelt of Fangwulf the Horrible. What then?"

    Fangwulf opened his eyes, gazed upon the assembled horde of rivals, lifted his massive haunch and—well, to be discrete, expressed his contempt in a most crude and graphic manner. A great wail of chagrin rose up from the crowd. Wittgenstein immediately began selling soap and water, which brisk business he accompanied with coarse amphibious witticisms.

    "Much as I thought," murmured the General. He now pointed to Shelyid.

    "Finally, I ask you to imagine this pitiful dwarf, armed only with his sack."

    Upon the instant, the hair rose along Fangwulf's spine. The great beast lurched to his feet, rigid in every limb. He peered intently at the figure of the gnome; a snarl began to appear, then rapidly vanished; then—astonishing!—the beast's tail began to curl between his legs. A moment later the room was filled with the sound of a vast whimpering.

    "There, there, boy!" crooned the General. "The wicked little dwarf's not really threatening you with his sack."

    Doubtfully and fearfully, the great monster gazed up at Shelyid (yes—up! for so low had the creature's head fallen) quizzically.

    "Oh no!" cried Shelyid. "I wouldn't do that to Fangwulf! Not for the world—see!" Here the gnome spread wide his hands, showing to all and sundry that they clutched not the form of the feared and fearful sack. Still whimpering, Fangwulf crept up to the dwarf and began licking his feet, in the well-known gesture of the humbled canine seeking reassurance. Shelyid began immediately rumpling his ruff.

    The General clapped his hands together firmly. "Well, now! I'd say that pretty much settles the question." To Holdabrand and his second: "You wanted an opinion beyond the human, and you've gotten it."

    Exhibiting folly beyond measure, Holdabrand and his second still pressed the point, but their effort proved short-lived. General Kutumoff simply looked over his shoulder at Fangwulf, told the monster that his judgement had been called into question, Fangwulf lunged to his paws, advanced rapidly upon the twain, stripped them bare of all clothing in two swift snaps of the jaws, and roared the roar of ages. Holdabrand and his second now saw fit to accept the terms of the duel.

    "Excellent!" exclaimed the General. "Tomorrow at dawn, then! Oh, yes—splendid! All the folk of the Mutt will no doubt wish to attend. A combat for the ages! On one side—the noted noble Holdabrand! On the other—the desperate dwarf Shelyid!"

    With his last words, the General's gaze lingered upon the form of Shelyid. Then, after a glance at his daughter, he turned away and strode from the salon. An odd little smile lay on his face, and he was whistling softly.

    "Yes, indeed," he was heard to mutter, "a desperate and despicable dwarf. Who knows what crimes such a one might be capable of?"

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