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A Wizard's Wrath. A Dwarf's Biography Retold. Unfortunate Misunderstandings Thereof. The Wizard Abashed. A Dwarf's Decision. A Contract Is Negotiated!

And so it was that the first sight which greeted the wizard Zulkeh upon entering Magrit's chamber was that of his apprentice, perched on a couch, a shawl wrapped about his little shoulders, a steaming mug of hot chocolate in his hands. Magrit sat next to him on the couch. Les Six were scattered about on various seats. Wolfgang sat in his special chair in the corner, his features hard to discern in the dim lighting.

The gnome was chattering away as if he had not a care in the world. He was immediately disabused of the notion.

"Miscreant!" oathed Zulkeh from the doorway. "Disobedient rascal! Insubordinate delinquent! Mutinous—"

His peroration was cut short by Greyboar, who pushed him into the chamber from behind.

"Do you mind letting the rest of us by?" growled the strangler. He staggered into the room and let fall the sack off his shoulders, heaving a great sigh of relief.

"Am I glad to be rid of this thing!" he puffed. He eyed Shelyid with respect. "How long have you been lugging around this—this burden of eternal damnation, anyway?"

"Ever since we left Goimr!" piped up the dwarf. "Thanks a lot for taking care of the sack. I know it's real heavy. It was hard at first, but I've gotten used to it, and besides, it's like the master said! This trip's improved my muscular tone and strengthened my stamina, just like he said it would!"

"Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. "Think you this feeble praise will deflect the force of my chastisement? Which even now sweeps toward your diminutive person as the cyclone of the tropics falls upon the monkey chattering in his palm tree!"

The mage shook his staff and advanced to the center of the room, glowering down at his apprentice. "Gnome, you have displeased me beyond measure! Aroused my temper! Wrothed my wrath! Incited my—"

"SHUDDUP!" came the united cry from every throat in the room save Shelyid's. And as, among the throats numbered in the room, were those of the witch Magrit and Les Six—I leave aside the now-revealed-to-be-stentorian voice of the normally-soft-spoken-though-possessed-of-windpipes-like-unto-the-moose-of-the-north Greyboar—the wizard was stunned into silence.

"You are an asshole," stated Magrit.

"A gaping asshole," clarified the salamander.

At this point, Les Six would no doubt have contributed a round or two, but Ignace—of all people!—rose to the mage's defense.

"Still and all, he's a good wizard," said the agent. "I wouldn't have thought so before this little escapade—but there's quite the hexman underneath all that verbiage!"

Magrit looked at Ignace, then back to Zulkeh.

"Yeah, I know," she said sourly. "That's why I knew it would work." She adjusted the shawl around Shelyid's shoulders, saying: "He's a windbag, he's got an ego would paralyze Narcissus, he's self-righteous like the Old Geister in his cloud-shrouded citadel wishes He could have wet dreams about, he could dry up a middle-sized lake with hot air, he could bore an oak tree into falling over in the hope of escape, he—" She paused, took a deep breath. "He has the screwiest ideas about the real world—gravity's caused by graveness, can you believe it?" Another deep breath. "But when it comes to real magic, he's a hell of a wizard. I hate to admit it, but he's probably the best actual sorcerer in the world."

She rose suddenly and advanced upon Zulkeh, who was standing as rigid as a post. Seizing the mage's shoulders with her thick hands, she shoved him into a chair. Then, returning to her seat, she spoke again:

"While we've been waiting for you, Shelyid's been telling us all about his life."

"Cheerful little fellow," commented the first.

"Nary a complaint uttered," added the second.

"Not a peep!" emphasized the third.

"Naught but a recital of events," summarized the fourth.

The round now took an ugly turn.

"Difficult to fathom such innocence," mused the fifth.

"In light of selfsame events," agreed the sixth.

"'Tis not the beatings, of course," protested the first.

"Certainly not!" concurred the second.

"Good for sprouts to be switched now and then!" snorted the third.

"Though perhaps not with oaken staffs," qualified the fourth.

"Nor with the frequency of pellets in a hailstorm," added the fifth.

"Should at least let the wounds heal," developed the sixth.

"The blood dry." The first again.

"The scars fade." This from the second.

"Nay, 'tis the other little matter," stated the third.

"The selling into slavery," specified the fourth.

"The attempted selling into slavery," quibbled the fifth.

"The distinction is of little moment," countered the sixth.

"From the moral standpoint," explained the first.

The round now took a very ugly turn.

"As has oft been expressed by the toilers in their various congresses and assemblies," began the second.

"Speaking with one voice, and in no uncertain terms," added the third.

"The downtrodden masses," continued the fourth, "have declared the traffic in human flesh an abomination."

"An historical anachronism," chipped in the fifth.

"A monstrous crime 'gainst humanity," concluded the sixth.

"To be dealt with by any representatives of the suffering classes—" The first.

"Elected in formal congress—" The second.

"Or self-appointed—" The third.

"Due to the press of circumstances." The fourth.

The round now took an extremely ugly turn. Such, at least, seemed the best interpretation of the fact that Les Six had put down their teacups, risen to their feet, circled the mage, clenched their meaty fists.

"You wouldn't happen to have the odd bucket of tar lying about, Magrit dear?" asked the fifth.

"Forgotten in a corner, perhaps?" queried the sixth.

"Hot tar," clarified the first.

"The unused pillow here and there?" inquired the second.

"We'll be needing feathers," explained the third.

Fortunately for the dignity of the mage, a new party interjected himself into the scene.

"Just hold on a moment there, lads," rumbled the strangler. Les Six turned as one man and glared at the strangler. Greyboar raised a huge hand, in a calming gesture.

"I'm a man likes peace and tranquility," commented the strangler mildly. "And what's all this about, anyway?"

The minutes which followed did not, one suspects, take their place among the mage's fondest memories. For Les Six and Magrit proceeded to provide Greyboar and Ignace with the biography of the dwarf Shelyid, as the youth had recounted it to them over the hours gone by. Particular emphasis was placed on the apprentice's relationship to his master. More precisely, on the wizard's notions of discipline, and his concept of the rights of masters over their wards.

As the story unfolded, Shelyid attempted, on several occasions, to lighten somewhat a tale which, it is difficult to deny, would seem dark to the uninformed listener.

"Oh no!" he cried in one instance, "You're exaggerating like you shouldn't! The master only beat me seven times that day, not ten! And it's true, I was really slow to learn the lesson." He blushed. "I'm never good at theology, especially the part about how God's love of man is expressed in crippling diseases and such." Then, in a small voice: "It's 'cause I'm so stupid, and you have to be real smart to understand theology. Really, really smart—like a genius. Like the master."

"And there's another point we'll be needing to discuss, good my mage," stated the first.

"The constant emphasis on the youth's lack of brains," explained the second.

"As contrasted with the brilliance of the scholar," elaborated the third.

"With which we ourselves will soon be blessed!" cried the fourth.

"As the illuminatus corrects our dull-witted mistakes—" The fifth.

"Our crude technique—" The sixth.

"Our disrespect for the classics—" The first.

"Our gross ignorance of the fine points—" The second.

"As laid down in the writings of Jack Ketch Laebmauntsforscynneweëld—" The third.

"Vigilante Sfondrati-Piccolomini—" The fourth.

Fortunately for the mage, this particular round was again quelled by Greyboar. Even more than the strangler's warning growl, however, it was perhaps the sight of the little apprentice moving over to stand by Zulkeh's side which caused Les Six to settle back in their chairs.

The strangler himself made no comments throughout the entire tale. Early on, Greyboar rose and went to the fireplace. He returned to his seat holding the great iron poker which stood by the mantel. In the minutes which followed, the strangler proceeded to idle away the time twisting the poker into a succession of knots. During the recital of Zulkeh's various attempts at the Caravanserai to sell Shelyid to slavers and circus owners, Greyboar tired of knot-tying. He now stretched the poker into a long iron wire, with which he idled away further minutes making a cat's cradle.

For his part, Ignace spoke just once, saying: "Boy, I thought my pop was bad, before he died. And he had the excuse of being a drunk."

At length the biographical project came to an end. There followed a minute's silence, which was broken by Greyboar.

"There's one thing in all this puzzles me." He looked at Zulkeh and said: "I've had the dubious privilege of carrying that weight of the world's sins you call a sack. I doubt you could even pick it up, much less move with it. So who was supposed to carry your sack? After you'd sold the kid into slavery, I mean?"

Zulkeh frowned, stroked his beard.

"Actually," he began. Stopped. Then: "Well, that is to say, actually." Stopped. Then: "I confess I had not considered the point. No doubt I should have engaged a porter."

"You'd have needed to hire a crew of teamsters, more like," grunted Greyboar. The strangler shook his head. "What a genius. He tries to sell his apprentice into slavery so he can get enough money to go on saving the world, but in order to save the world he needs his sack, so he'd have to use the money to hire people to carry the sack the apprentice was already carrying all by himself for—what was it?—a shilling a year and, in good times, maybe the odd meal once a day." A snort. "You always hear about absent-minded professors—but!"

Then he rose, stretched his muscles. This awesome action was perhaps not done unconsciously, for the strangler proceeded to say to Les Six:

"Boys, you'll have to be forgetting about lynchings and such. There's better ways to handle the situation, and besides, in case you hadn't noticed, Shelyid's making it pretty plain he'll stand by the mage. What're you going to do? Restrain the kid while you string up Zulkeh? Shelyid might be harder to restrain that you think—he's a lot stronger than he looks, and I'm telling you, the lad's got the making of a chokester. Besides, the snarl might be hanging around, lurking in the shadows like."

A moment followed, in which the united glare of Les Six was met by the strangler's calm stare. Les Six looked away. Greyboar then turned to the wizard.

"Now, as to you: I hope you've got plenty of money, because you'll need to be hiring some idiots to carry your sack. The kid'll be staying here."

At this last statement, Zulkeh raised his head, began to protest. But the sight of Greyboar's face stopped him. And it was odd, how the strangler's gaze could have this effect upon people. For there was not a hint of anger, not a trace of a clenched jaw, not a blink of an eye, not even the slightest flush on the cheeks. Just—impossible to describe!

Of course, in the time to come, the wizard would describe it often.

" 'Destiny's Glime,' 'tis called in Begfat," he would explain to a rapt audience. "In the Crapaude, le Visage Impitoyable, or simply 'l'Implacable; in the bustling streets of Ozar proper, 'tis 'the Mirror of Mortality,' but in the slower-paced Ozarine as a whole, 'the Mirror of Imminent Mortality'; in the mystic land of Sundhjab it has many names: most common among warriors is the terse 'Kismet,' but the higher castes prefer 'the Contemplation of the Endless Round of the Wheel,' which is shortened by the fellah classes to 'the Window on Infinite Pain'; in Grotum itself, these elaborate terms are discarded in favor of the simple 'Basilisk.' But"—here he would wag his finger solemnly—"I have personally experienced the phenomenon, and I can assure you that none of these names—though they each capture some aspect of its essence—approaches in exactitude the phrase which is universal in Greyboar's own homeland of Sfinctria, I speak, of course, of 'the Time to Reconsider.' "

But we leap ahead of our tale. Greyboar continued to speak as follows:

"Magrit, you can put the kid up, at least for a while. Your place is plenty big enough, and I'm sure Shelyid'll be helpful around the house."

"Hell, I'll take him on as my apprentice. Won't be able to teach him all that high-falutin' stuff, but he'll get a lot more practical education. And if it turns out the kid decides he doesn't really want to be a warlock"—here she looked pointedly at Les Six—"I'm sure the lads here can set him up in a suitable trade."

" 'Tis a certainty!" boomed the first.

"Any one of a hundred!" cried the second.

"The possibilities are endless," added the third, "shoemaker, baker, turner, drayer, forgeman, welder, blacksmith, ironmonger—"

" 'Course these'll be but the means to pay the rent," interrupted the fourth.

"While the lad learns his true and proper profession," explained the fifth.

"The art of insurrection," concluded the sixth.

"Here's to the new comrade!" bellowed Les Six in unison, rising to their feet, clenched fists held high like hams in a smokehouse.

Then Ignace spoke.

"Before you all start planning out the kid's life," he snarled, "why don't you ask Shelyid what he wants?" Surprised, all stared at the agent. The little redhead's face was flushed and angry. "You all remind me of my aunts and uncles!" he shrilled. "'Do this, Ignace! Do that, Ignace! You'll make a right proper little whatever, Ignace!'" He glared furiously. "Poor guy'll wind up like I did—take to the streets just to get away from it all."

"He's got a point," rumbled Greyboar. He looked over to Shelyid, who was still standing next to the mage. Zulkeh remained in his chair, his head bent.

"Well, Shelyid?" asked the strangler.

The dwarf's face was a study in uncertainty. Uncertainty but, it soon became clear, not confusion. He placed a hesitant hand on the shoulder of the wizard.

"Well, actually," said the dwarf, "I'd really rather stay with the master. If he's willing, of course."

The faces around him filled with surprise.

"We've been together a long time," explained Shelyid, "ever since I was—well, found in a basket. I don't know where I was born, or who my parents are, so the master's really been my only family. Until I went on this trip, I didn't even have any friends—well, I had one, but—well, never mind."

Seeing that his words were not having much effect, the dwarf hurried on: "And besides, it's not been as bad as you all make it out to be. Sure and the master thrashed me a lot, and he's impatient with me, and maybe I think I'm not really as stupid as he always says, but the truth is I actually learn a lot and this trip's been really exciting even though I didn't want to go and I only went because he made me but it really has turned out just like he said it would, I really have gotten better—really, I can tell! I'm stronger and smarter, and I made a bunch of new friends and before in my whole life I only had one and it—well." He fell silent for a moment, then said: "I miss—well. But it'll be so nice when I get back! I'll be able to tell—" Again, a moment's silence. Then, quietly: "It's my secret."

When the dwarf spoke again his voice was filled with a quite unusual firmness. "I want to stay with the master. The reasons may not make any sense to anyone else, but they're good reasons to me. It's not always fun, being the master's apprentice. Truth to tell, it's not any fun at all. But it's best for me. I don't want to be just a wretched little dwarf. I'm tired of it. But even though the master treats me bad, well, I don't know any better way to learn what I have to learn."

He looked around the room. All visible faces were blank in expression. The wizard's head was still bent. Wolfgang's face remained invisible in the darkness of his corner.

"You all think I'm crazy," muttered Shelyid, "but I know what's the right thing to do."

"Of course you do, boy!" boomed Wolfgang's voice. Everyone jumped.

"What a fright you gave me!" exclaimed Magrit. "I'd forgotten you were even here!" She gazed at the lunatic quizzically. "You've been silent as a clam. Not like you, at all."

Wolfgang pulled his chair into the light.

"As the mage would say—'bah!' You sane types have an altogether irrational faith in the power of speech. Babble, now, there's a useful skill!"

He gazed about the room, beaming like an idiot.

"I think the boy's quite right! Not stupid at all! Of course he should go with the wizard! Where else would he learn the things he's learned? Why, think about it! A mere sprout, and he's already sown confusion and havoc! Fed a high and mighty Crud to a snarl! Which of you had accomplished such mad deeds at such an early age? Not to mention stealing a great relic!"

"Oh!" gasped Shelyid. "The Rap Sheet! We haven't even looked at it! We've wasted all this time talking about me!" He grasped the sleeve of the mage's robe and tugged vigorously. "We should look at the Rap Sheet, master—it'll tell you who your enemies are!"

Zulkeh's head lifted a bit. His face, it could now be seen, was pale and drawn.

"Later, Shelyid," said the mage. "It will keep. At the moment, there are more important things to deal with." He gazed down at the dwarf's hand, still resting upon his sleeve.

"You are firm in your resolve?" he asked. "To remain as my apprentice?"

"Oh yes, master!" cried Shelyid.

"Be not so quick, Shelyid. The road I must travel, though its exact route remains uncertain, will undoubtedly take me to distant and perilous lands. 'Twill be long, perhaps very long, before we shall return to Goimr."

"Oh, I'm not afraid!"

The wizard shook his head. "That is not my meaning." He snorted. " 'Tis certain that the timid gnome who left Goimr is no longer timid! Rash, yes. Foolhardy, yes. But certainly not lacking in courage."

He paused, took a deep breath. "I raise the question of our return to Goimr because, listening to your earlier words, I was struck by your references—three of them, if I am not mistaken—to the friend left behind, the one you so look forward to seeing again and telling of your adventures. Your 'secret,' you called it."

Zulkeh raised his eyes to Shelyid's face. "You are referring to the spider in the lower catacombs."

The dwarf's mouth fell open. "You know?"

"Certainly. Only a fool could have missed your expeditions to the lower levels. After a few such, I became curious. I followed and observed you with the spider."

He raised his hand. "I did not eavesdrop! I departed the scene after no more than a minute, and never followed you again. 'Twas clear enough—well. I am not unaware of my inadequacy as a source of emotional comfort. To anyone, much less an orphan. Some happiness the spider's company seemed to give you, and I saw no harm in it. 'Twould have been sheer cruelty to intervene."

The wizard paused, took another breath. "I am not cruel, Shelyid. Cold, yes. At times, I admit, even harsh. Perhaps other terms could be used—"

"We shall assist!" cried the first.

"The word 'callous' immediately springs to mind," mused the second.

A single gesture from Greyboar brought silence.

The pained look on Zulkeh's face faded, to be replaced by a frown.

"Doubt me not on this, Shelyid," spoke the mage. "These—gentlemen—may mock, but if you travel with me you shall soon enough learn the meaning of true cruelty. Inkman gave you but a taste of it."

"I never said you were cruel, master. I never even thought it." A guilty look crossed Shelyid's face. "I did say you were mean a few times." A look of greater guilt. "And I thought it a lot more times."

"I will allow 'mean,' dwarf." The wizard sighed. "'Tis perhaps not far from the mark. But look you, Shelyid, we have drifted from the point. If you truly wish to see your friend again, you cannot accompany me. You must return to Goimr now. For she has not much longer to live. Certainly she will be dead before spring comes—and we are already well into autumn."

"The spider's sick!" gasped Shelyid.

"Nonsense!" snorted the mage. "A most hale and healthy arachnid! She has already lived to a ripe old age. Spiders do not live long, Shelyid. Your spider has done exceedingly well in that regard, actually."

The dwarf fought tears. "I never knew. And I promised—it's a she? A female spider? I never actually knew which sex my friend was."

"Bah!" oathed the mage. "Who cannot distinguish between the male and female arachnid is a—" His jaws clamped shut.

"Amazing!" cried the fifth.

"Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks?" demanded the sixth.

Another gesture from Greyboar stilled the round.

After a moment, Shelyid spoke.

"Well, it makes me feel better, knowing that she had a full life. And it's nice to know what sex she was, after all this time. Maybe you could teach me more about spiders, master."

"Certainly!" spoke the mage. "A most fascinating breed, the arachnids! 'Pound for pound,' as your lowlifes would say, the fiercest predators in the animal kingdom. Moreover—" He stopped. "But let us save this for a later occasion. For the moment, we must resolve the issue before us. Do you still wish to remain with me, knowing what you now know?"

Shelyid pondered the question for perhaps a minute, then nodded his head.

"Yes, master. It's true I promised her, but there wouldn't be much point going back just to see her die. And I don't think she'd like it, anyway. Actually, I always knew she was pretty fierce, and I think she wouldn't like me, well, you know, fussing over her deathbed, and such. I'll sure miss her, though." A tear formed, but he wiped it away. "So I'll stay with you."

Then the dwarf squared his shoulders, stepped back a pace, and stared the wizard straight in the eye.

"But there's going to be some changes made!" he said shrilly.

* * *

The scene which followed is painful to relate. For the dwarf Shelyid not only behaved in a most reprehensible manner, insisting upon the most preposterous rights and privileges, but was shamelessly aided and abetted in this impudence by Les Six.

Their brazen role began at once.

"The lad needs a new contract!" cried the first.

"A complete overhaul of his terms of employment!" exclaimed the second.

"But he's a youth," moaned the third, "inexperienced at the negotiating table."

"A pawn in the hands of the boss," wailed the fourth, "sure to be shackled in the exploiter's cunning twist of phrase and subtlety of clause."

"Desperately in need of experienced counsel, lest he sign himself over to helotry," opined the fifth.

"Stewards, to the fore!" bellowed the sixth. And with these words, Les Six pulled up their chairs, forming a semicircle around the mage.

Zulkeh stared at the half-dozen great and grinning faces, much as a cornered fox examines the muzzles of the hounds.

"Perhaps," said the mage, coughing, "we should first examine the great relic which we have—just this very night!—obtained in order to determine the nature of our enemies. Our enemies, gentlemen! Who are—perhaps this very moment!—closing in, their black hearts filled with—"

"Do not concern yourself with the enemies of the future," counseled the first.

"When you are surrounded by the enemies of the present," advised the second.

Here Magrit intervened. "The Rap Sheet'll wait till tomorrow, Zulkeh. And whatever enemies we've got are so fuddled tonight they'll have a hard enough time finding their peckers to take a piss. No, you just concentrate on this business—it'll take you hours as it is. The rest of us can go to bed."

And so saying, she strode out of the room, stopping along the way to take Wolfgang by the hand.

"C'mon, tall and handsome, let's get laid."

Greyboar rose, stretched. "I think Ignace and I will turn in, also. Been a long day."

The wizard looked at him with appeal. "Sirrah Greyboar! Perhaps—you have been a most calming influence—the heat of negotiations—"

"Me?" cried Greyboar. "You want me to stick my nose into the affairs of a different trade?" He shook his head, clucking. " 'Tisn't done, just isn't. Not at all proper! Besides, I wouldn't be any help, anyway. I don't really know a thing about negotiating complicated labor contracts. The fine points just don't come up in my profession. The basic provisions of my contracts are simple and straightforward, so I hardly ever run into difficulties with my employers. They pay me what they owe me when the job's done, or"—he cracked his knuckles; the house shook—"I collect from the estate."

He turned to his agent: "C'mon Ignace. Let's hit the sack." The two departed.

"Down to business," said the third, rubbing his hands.

"Point one," stated the fourth. "This 'master' business has got to go."

" 'Tis demeaning to the laborer," explained the fifth.

"And most inaccurate," happily added the sixth, "as you'll soon see for yourself when examining the provisions which are about to be included in your new contract with the dwarf Shelyid."

The first: "Who is hereafter referred to as the short-statured-but-fully-qualified-apprentice Shelyid."

And this was but the beginning!

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