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A Portentous Dream—Its Contents Revealed. The Mage Is Troubled in His Mind. King Roy's Wrath. The Mage Elucidates. King Roy's Anxiety. The Wizard Is Commanded!

"The hair—the hair!—everywhere I turned—pulling me down, binding my limbs—then! My tongue—caught! Caught, I say, caught!—grasped by a great beard sprung suddenly up before me, coiling about like a thousand serpents, writhing and twisting—but worse—it spoke! Yes, it spoke, I say! The beard spoke! Oh God, did it speak—on and on and on and on, babbling in some heathen tongue.

"But I couldn't speak—it was horrible! I couldn't give orders—not a one!—and me, a King! And who ever heard of a beard speaking, anyway? Certainly not to a King! I mean, what's happened here to the basic rules?

"Then it was worse still—for suddenly it wasn't just the one great beard, oh no! Thousands of beards, millions of them, millions I tell you! Little ones mostly—but so many! Everywhere—growing over the whole palace, sprouting up everywhere—right on my dinner plate, I tell you!

"I couldn't move, couldn't lift a finger—every finger was held down by beards! And worst of all—I couldn't give orders, not a one—and me, a King! The great beard still had me by the tongue!

"But it got worse! For then—all the beards started to speak! Oh God and what a fearful racket they made—millions and millions of little beards, all of them gabbling away in hundreds of barbarous tongues, not one of which made any proper sense.

"Then—suddenly—the beards let me go! I jumped up—ran away—they all hissed at me but they let me go—I thought—but I was wrong! For just when I thought I was getting away I saw this figure before me. Not much—something small. But it was hideous! Hairy and frightful!—and then! It started to grow! It wasn't small at all! No! It tricked me! And me—a King! It was huge! It was gigantic! And it kept growing and growing, higher and higher—o horrible! Horrible! Horrible!

"No more," wept King Roy. "No more—the rest is lost, I remember no more. It is all like a black stain, all other memory is lost." He fell silent, hunched on his throne, scepter clenched in bony fist, ashen-faced, eyes haggard and unseeing.

"So," spoke Zulkeh, musing in deep thought. At length he emerged from his contemplation. "I must ponder upon this matter, Your Majesty. A most profound maloneirophrenia! Now had it been snakes which grasped you so, 'twould be a simple problem. Snakes are a trifle. Ropes are also quickly fathomed. Tentacles, likewise. But beards? That is quite a different matter."

The mage fell silent, lost for some moments in his thoughts, then spoke again. "Your Majesty, this problem will require my full study, the application of my most cunning dialectic. But rest assured—the solution will emerge in due time."

"Time?" demanded King Roy. "How much time?"

" 'Tis difficult to say, Your Majesty. Certainly weeks, probably months, possibly years."

"Months!" screeched King Roy. "Years!" His eyes bulged. "I don't have years! I must know now! I must know the danger, that I may take steps to avert it!"

"Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. "Think you a question of such gravity—a portent of such overwhelming peril—can be discerned in its unveiled essence in the twinkling of an eye? Years, I said, and years it may well be. I shall almost certainly be forced to travel to divers and odd locations, heathen lands and the like, where beard lore is most fully developed."

Then did apoplexy seize upon the royal visage. "You are hereby commanded by royal edict to report to me at this palace one week from today!"

"Utterly impossible!" spoke the mage. "One week could barely allow me to scratch the surface of the problem."

"Two weeks, then—and not a minute more!" And with these words King Roy lowered his head, grasping it in both hands. "Go now!" he groaned.

* * *

"What does it all mean, master?" asked the dwarf later, as they rode through the crooked alleys back to their domicile.

"It means ill, Shelyid, great ill," spoke the wizard in a dark voice. "Of what ill, and whence, I know nothing as yet. But the truth is there, and I shall unearth it—never fear!—wherever the search may take us."

"Us?" queried Shelyid. "Us, master?" His beady eyes began to glaze. "But what have I to do with searching out great ills, master?" He whined in his throat. "That sounds dangerous, searching for great ills and perils and such. I am no mighty mage such as yourself, to wander about the world like that. I'm just a dwarf, a wretched dwarf."

"True, quite true," agreed Zulkeh, patting the gnome's head. "But you will be needed to carry my things."

And then did the wizard launch into a most learned discourse, opening up to Shelyid's understanding the necessary place of the burden carrier in history, recounting tales of faithful servitors of yore and their role in sundry legendary exploits of ancient sorcerers and warlocks, in which these humble drudges found not only their proper place but a share as well (paltry though it was) of the glory and—alas, usually—the gory end of these selfsame puissant probers of the unknown. But, in truth, his exposition was in vain, for his apprentice had long since fainted dead away, whether in awe at such deep and profound thoughts or in horror at the now-revealed impermanence of his fate, it is difficult to say.

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