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CHAPTER V.
A Dwarf's Travails, and the Wizard's Comments Thereon. The Dwarf Succeeds. An Imminent Departure, Forestalled by a Gnome's Subterfuge. A Pathetic Scene!

Long were the labors of the dwarf Shelyid which ensued, following his master's clarification of the task at hand. For, 'twas not simply the immensity of the actual collection and storage of the mage's possessions which faced the apprentice. Early on, as the small mountain of said possessions began to pile up in the wizard's study, it occurred to the dwarf that he had no vehicle, no vessel, within which to stow these objects for transport.


This realization come, Shelyid pointed out to the wizard the vast disparity between the hillock of objects to be conveyed and the small size of their haversacks. The dwarf then proposed, as a solution to the quandary, the ruthless elimination of all possessions not absolutely necessary to the wizard's work. Indeed, the diminutive apprentice waxed eloquent. He extolled the sorcerer's great powers of mind, the titanic scope of his intellect, the oceanic breadth and depth of his spirit, all of which, argued the gnome, led to the inexorable conclusion that so puissant a thaumaturge as Zulkeh required, in actual point of fact, no more in the way of possessions than his staff—which he would, naturally, wish to carry himself—and his spare robe and extra pair of socks.


The mage was not convinced. Indeed, he now waxed most eloquently himself. He excoriated the apprentice's feeble powers of mind, his stupefying lack of wits, the oceanic formlessness and viscous sludge of his spirit, all of which, contended Zulkeh, led to the inexorable conclusion that so sullen an apprentice as Shelyid required, in actual point of fact, the application of the wizard's staff to his backside. Theory here led at once to practice.


The dwarf now properly chastened, Zulkeh ordered him to manufacture some suitable sack in which to stow the possessions in question. And so did the apprentice set about this newfound task.


Here, as well, his labors were long and arduous. For the wizard himself possessed no cloth of a size sufficient to make such a sack. Thus was Shelyid perforce required to descend into the catacombs, gravely disturbing, your narrator is pained to relate, the slumbers of the dead. For the apprentice did tumble out of their eternal resting place many a skeleton and many a mummy, seeking, by the collection of their burial shrouds, to amass together a quantity of cloths out of which he could manufacture the great sack.


Alas, these labors seemed in vain. The dwarf was no more nimble-fingered than he was nimble-witted. His attempts at cutting and sewing, not to mention the more subtle of the tailoring arts, were inept in the extreme. Of course, this proved to be something of a boon. For the dwarf was, by virtue of his clumsiness, blessed with a most educational lecture on the part of his master. Zulkeh sat in his chair in the study, observing the gnome at his work, and lightened Shelyid's labors with a lengthy monologue on the subject of bungling and botchery, opening up to the dwarf's understanding various theoretical and historical subtleties of the question which had heretofore escaped Shelyid's attention, this, though the subject itself was actually one of the more frequent of the mage's topics of discourse.


Then, the sack at last stitched and knotted together, in a most crude and unsightly fashion, the apprentice discovered that his labors not only seemed to be, but were in actual fact, in vain. For no sooner had but the fourth part of the mage's belongings been stuffed into the sack than this would-be conveyance ripped at a dozen places, disgorging its would-be contents back onto the floor of the study.


In fairness to the dwarf, it should be said that the fault lay not with his seam-manship. Indeed, his rough-hewn seams were the only places where the sack did not rip. The fault lay rather in the fact, now obvious to the slow-witted Shelyid—especially with the wizard's accompanying and most lucid exposition on the related subjects of idiocy and cretinism to assist him in his reasoning—that the moldy and worm-eaten shrouds of the long dead are not, all things considered, the most suitable material out of which to forge a sturdy traveling sack designed to carry objects not only of vast multitude and great collective weight, but sporting many sharp points and edges as well.


"But master, I don't have anything else to make a sack from," whined the dwarf.


"Bah!" oathed the mage. Zulkeh rose from his chair and stalked over to a shelf, from which he drew forth a book and a box.


"Thoughtless lout!" The mage extended the box to Shelyid. "Have you forgotten this?"


Shelyid gingerly took the box.


"But, master, you told me never to open this box. So I don't know what's in it."


"Do not attempt to excuse your ignorance with ignorance, wretched gnome! Of course I forbade you to open the box, for it contains nothing less valuable than the hide of a guthfish."


Shelyid's brow furrowed.


"What's a guthfish?"


"Lazy dwarf! The nature of said magical piscoid is recounted in this penetrating volume by the Potentates Laebmauntsforscynneweëld, The Guthfish of Grotum, its history and natural philosophy."


The wizard now extended the book.


"Had you but read this tome—instead of lolling about in idleness—it would have opened up to your understanding the divers uses of the creature's hide as well as the strange and wonderful characteristics thereof."


"But, master, you told me never to read that book, lest I should be felled in my mind—actually you said the cluttered pit which passes for my mind—by the subtle and cunning things which are contained therein."


"Bah!" oathed the mage. "Do you seek to excuse your disobedience with obedience?"


Zulkeh thrust the book into Shelyid's hands.


"Read this, unworthy wretch!—and proceed to fashion the sack according to its instructions."


"Yes, master," sighed the dwarf, seating himself on his stool.


Shelyid quickly read through the first chapters, in which was recounted the history and habits of the rare guthfish of Grotum. Therein he learned that the fabled fish had once—or so, at least, was the legend—swallowed the entire universe when it was tiny and disgorged it back out when it was huge. He was then introduced to the lore of the guthfish hide itself, its many attributes and curious characteristics, which included the fact that it was not only the strongest and most elastic material known to exist, that it could not only conform to whatever object or objects it encompassed, but that, in addition, it possessed the strange power of infinite expansion—this last property being apparently magical, since it could be analyzed by the use of any mathematical formula known to man, including several which were mutually contradictory.


The last chapter contained instructions for fashioning the guthfish hide into a useful sack. This Shelyid read carefully, noting that the hide could only be cut with a singularity (left drawer, upper cabinet), could only be sewn with a needle made from the square root of -1 (middle shelf, small box under the curious amulet from Obpont), and could only be stitched with superstring thread made from the Theory of Everything, of which, needless to say, the wizard had a vast amount stored on spools scattered all over the abandoned death house.


After reading the last chapter twice, Shelyid took up the box and examined it. The following was written on the front of the box:


GENUINE GUTHFISH HIDE


100% Pure and Undiluted!
Large Economy Size!!
Use It For Everything!!!
Fits Anything!!!!


WARNING: Studies by pettifogging government agencies and alarmist environmental fanatics have indicated that guthfish hide is toxic to the health of some people. Further study, however, by sober and reputable industrial scientists has shown that such people are not worth a damn and would be better off dead anyway. Symptoms may include the onset of bad nerves, pox, palsy, jitters, quivers, tremors, convulsions, paroxysms, fevers, the staggers, the jerks, shortness of breath, frequent and uncontrolled excretion, irregularities of the pulse, lockjaw, ague, fidgets, timorousness and a general feeling of social inferiority, these, of course, the classic symptoms of that most dread of nervous conditions, hysteria follicularia. Use at your own risk.

 


Shelyid also read this label carefully, especially the warning. Having done so, he spoke to his master.


"But, master," whined the dwarf, "it says here that this stuff can cause—"


"Diminutive cretin!" oathed Zulkeh. "The warning applies solely to individuals who aren't worth a damn anyway." The mage glowered. "And while there is mounting evidence that you fit this criteria perfectly, you already suffer from the classic symptoms of hysteria follicularia—so where is the harm that can befall you?"


Unable to counter this impeccable line of reasoning, the reluctant gnome opened the box and drew out the contents. Several things became apparent. First, the guthfish hide seemed infinitely large, for there seemed no end to the number of folds Shelyid could open. Then, once the dwarf had unfolded the thing to a sufficient size for the sack required, he saw that the shape of the hide itself seemed to suggest the very sack into which it would be made. Finally, it was either utterly colorless or colored in every shade of the rainbow—it was impossible to tell.


Quickly assembling the required tools and supplies, Shelyid launched himself into the making of the sack. All afternoon he labored, stretching and trimming, shaping and fitting, adjusting and improving. Under his fingers (the which seemed less clumsy and more adept than before) a huge sack soon emerged, the interior divided and subdivided into numerous compartments and regions, the exterior liberally bestowed with divers pockets and pouches. At last, all was ready.


Shelyid proudly announced to the wizard: "Master, I've finished the sack."


"Bah!" oathed Zulkeh, not looking up from the tome he was examining. "Do you seek to excuse your indolence with diligence? See to the packing of my possessions—for even as you dawdle, time wanes!"


It was the work of many hours for Shelyid to collect, categorize, store, restore, arrange, rearrange and pack and repack the sack, fitting each tome, artifact, talisman, scroll and all else carefully therein. When everything was complete, just before sunrise, he fell into an exhausted slumber. Only to be awakened, just after sunrise, by his master.


"Come, wretched gnome, arise and hoist the sack! You have wasted an entire day in your inefficiency. We must be off at once—for even as you rub the sleep from your eyes, time wanes!"


Shelyid bent to hoist the burden over his shoulder. More accurately, Shelyid got down on his knees preparatory to burrowing under the enormous sack and hoisting the several-times-larger-than-himself object onto his entire diminutive person. But, at that moment, a thought seized him—or so, at least, one can surmise from his pale and distraught expression.


"Wait! Wait!" he cried. "I forgot something!" And so saying, Shelyid charged from the room, ignoring his master's expressions of impatience and displeasure.


Back into the catacombs plunged the dwarf, his little legs scurrying frantically. Down and down he went, into the lowest depths, arriving at last in a small and dark crypt. He went into a corner of the chamber and squatted, clucking softly.


A moment later, a large and horrid-looking brown spider emerged from a hole. Shelyid extended his hand, onto which the hideous creature clambered. He raised the thing before his eyes. The arachnid stretched out a gruesome limb and touched the dwarf's nose.


"Hullo," whispered Shelyid. Then he began to weep. The spider touched his nose several times with a motion which, were the idea not absurd, one would have called a caress.


"I have to leave," choked Shelyid. Then, a few sobs later: "I'll miss you so much. You're the only friend I've ever had. What will I do without you?"


He looked about the dank little grotto, not much more than a cave, actually.


"My happiest times've been the times here with you." He sniffed. "Actually, been my only happy times."


He stroked the monster. "I know I should enjoy the master's lectures, 'cause they're good for my brain and stuff." Wretched sniffles and snuffles. "It's hard to understand what th'master says, 'cause I'm so stupid. And then he gets impatient with me and he—well, he's sort of mean to me." More wretched sniffles and snuffles. "Real mean, actually."


A great sob burst from the dwarf's chest. "Oh, what'll become of me? I'm just a dwarf. I'm just a stupid, ugly dwarf. I don't want to go off and have adventures! I'm no good for it. I'll get killed—eaten by ogres or something! Or maimed, or—" He stopped, overcome. Then: "Oh, and what's the difference? I guess I'm no good for anything, anyway. Might as well get eaten."


He gazed down at the spider, great tears leaking down his hairy cheeks. He stroked the horrible creature again.


"But I'll sure miss you," he whispered. "I sure will. If I come back, I mean, if I don't get eaten or whatever, I'll come see you right away. I promise." The spider touched his nose.


A faint sound echoed in the room. It bore about it the aura of the voice of a most outraged sorcerer.


"That's th'master. I gotta go, or I'll be beaten." He sniffled. "Probably be beaten, anyway. But I just had to see you once last time."


He placed the monster back on the ground. "G'bye," he whispered, and fled from the chamber.


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Framed