Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Korm's Master (Part Five)

In the meantime, he attended to Belmok's needs. In the better moments, for instance, when he was putting fifty years of disarranged books in order or sorting ancient files, he was quite content. At other times, such as when he was clipping the old Morg's ancient gnarled toenails, he felt that the whole arrangement was a fiendish plan, perhaps by the old Master, perhaps by the whole world, to humiliate him. In the evenings, chores done, he retired to his little room, and read his way through borrowed volumes in search of an area in which to master.

Now and then he stumbled across a promising idea and took it to Belmok, only to be told that Old That had done it recently or Young This was already deep into the subject. Every once in a while Korm got the feeling that the fat old Morg desperately wanted to suggest something, but he knew that the rules dictated that the student must find his own subject. According to the etiquette, he couldn't even point out a book where such an idea might be found. At his lowest points Korm was tempted to just grab some niggling subject like 'Soup Spoons in the Sagas,' but self-respect, not to mention respect for the discipline, always pulled him back.

Still, the young Morg wasn't isolated from where inspirations might occur. His legwork often led him into mindwork, either in Belmok's library or his personal papers. His memory improved, as what notes he made had to be written on whatever scrounged scraps of paper he could find. He started to develop quite good organizational skills, and the ability to grasp the substance of a page, often at first glance. And then there were the tutorials, when students would meet with the old Master to air out their ideas in progress or read drafts of their papers. It was an education in itself to hear Belmok picking holes in arguments here and asking for clarification there. But these meetings never sparked an original idea for a thesis.

What it did spark was a crush. A young student, Gulda, was preparing the first new translation of "Karn and the Lost Nine Hundred" in over two thousand years. She came to read it to Belmok, to have him check her work for historical accuracy. The saga, while quite beautiful in the ancient tongue, was proving a little difficult to wrestle into modern language. While Korm sat in the corner trying to get a shine on an old silver award plaque, Belmok lay back in his chair, eyes closed, and listened intently as she read.


"Karn, bitter with sibling rivalry,
Sits brooding in gloomy reverie,
Thinking of evil treachery.

"Old Mog, our ancient ancestry,
Comes and greets him pleasantly.
'Good my son, and how are ye?'

"'And why, sir, ask thou thus of me?
I am as well as I may be.'
But Mog gazed on him thoughtfully."

And so on and on, for ninety-nine drasty verses. But Korm heard only those first few lines as he automatically polished the tarnished silver. Instead he was entranced by her light grey eyes, her shy manner, and the silky shining underdown of her throat that rippled as she chanted her deplorable efforts at poetic translation. After Belmok had given the girl his critique and shown her out the door, he complimented Korm on the gleam he had been able to put on the old trophy.

For a while after that the young Morg forgot his quest for academic achievement, and could only moon about Gulda. He flapped and floundered around her for days. When he went out on an errand, he searched the crowd for her brown robe and grey sash. Whenever she came by Belmok's office to read revisions, he found an excuse to be working there. At night, by the light of the brass lamp in his little room, he gabbled about his feelings to the impassive stuffed owl and wrote verses that he never worked up the nerve to give her.

That stopped at the end of summer, when he discovered that she was walking out with Drigg, a burly young Morg who wore the black belt of a student of law. Discouraged, Korm put his poetry away, and when it was found a hundred and fifty years later, it was marveled that he had ever written in verse, and that it had been so bad.

(To Be Continued...)

Similar Simians

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Korm's Master (Part Four)

Korm shook his head, staring at the fat old Morg, not daring to open his mouth yet.

"I thought not." Belmok set his cup down and folded his knuckled old claws together. "What I was going to say is that it would be a shame for a fellow of your promise to have to pack it in so soon. Without a subject, of course, you can't be accepted into the School, and no acceptance means no scholarship, and no scholarship, in your case, means, I imagine, that you'll starve. Correct?"

Korm nodded wordlessly.

Belmok grinned ferociously, exposing his gapped and yellow fangs.

"Well, behold a fine bit of legal chicanery, boy. Although it's traditional to join the School immediately after the graduation of First Mastery and an interview, it is not mandatory. In fact, history is rife with examples of elderly Morgs who pursued higher learning later in life. You just need to hang on until a suitable subject occurs to you."

"But...but what will I do till then? How will I live?"

"Look around this room. Tell me what you see."

"I...I see a lot of books."

Belmok smashed his fist on the desktop and laughed.

"Spoken like a scholar, lad. But what you don't see, or are too polite to see, is the dust, mess, and confusion I'm squatting in the middle of. It's my own fault. I'm entitled to have a scout, but for ten years I've been too sour and solitary to keep one around. Well, I've got one now."

Korm's eyes widened.

"Me, sir?"

"You, sir." The old Morg opened a desk drawer and drew out a round plug of brass. "Here. Go to the refectory and get yourself a meal. Put on some ballast to settle your stomach on that tossing sea of Lorelied wine." Korm plucked the bit of metal out of his hand with trembling fingers.

"Now, the job doesn't pay anything, just room and board, but in the meantime you have access to books, books, and more books. You'll begin this afternoon. When an idea for a subject pops into your head, just run it by me and we'll see if we can't have you in some classes in a twinkling."

"Oh, yes sir!" Korm said, bowing gratefully, holding the brass slug like a prize. "Thank you, Grand Master, thank you very much indeed!" He turned to leave.

"Just a minute, Master Korm!" The old Morg held up an imperious hand, the under-fat of his arm wobbling like a jelly. Korm turned back fearfully. Belmok pointed to the young Morg's chest and stroked his long pewter beard.

"A word of advice? Those medals. I'm sure they made you seem pretty distinguished at your old school, but everyone here has a collection just as impressive, if not more so. To wear them at Tronduhon might be seen as a bit of ... juvenile boasting, shall we say? Especially if you're not officially a student yet."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir," Korm said sheepishly. He stepped outside the door and began trying to unobtrusively pluck out the pins. He looked both ways uncertainly.

"To your left, Master Korm." Belmok's dry, sarcastic voice floated behind him through the door. The young Morg hunched, flinching, and escaped into the hallway.

That afternoon started a time that Korm came to consider a strange fold in the tapestry of his life. It began with him clearing out the small room reserved for a scout near the Grand Master's chambers. It was hardly bigger than a closet, and had filled up with a strange stew of odds and ends over the decade. Once it was clear, he had a puzzling time trying to wedge the trunk filled with all the clothes and books he had brought into the tiny space. He ended up sleeping that night inside the open trunk, on top of his spare wardrobe.

In the coming days he found a little shop in the city specializing in student trades, and exchanged his trunk for a second-hand bedroll and several other small items, including a brass lamp and a stuffed owl. The lamp was for reading at night, and the owl was for company. He needed the company.

He was in a very strange position. He wasn't part of the School just yet: without the colored sash declaring his area of study, he existed in a sort of limbo. Regular students and teachers, seeing him dusting shelves or, later in the year, laying on fires, ignored him. They never saw him in classes; there was never a chance of introductions or explanations. In a forest of three thousand scholars, he was alone.

On the other hand, his dark green tunic of First Mastery kept him separated from the three hundred or so folks who serviced the school, cooking and cleaning and mucking out. They would answer his hesitant requests and inquiries with deference, perhaps finding him a brush or a bucket, then speed away, happy to be done with the eccentric requirements of their 'betters.' On the whole, they treated their betters as if they were the prize inmates of a glorified chicken run, and Korm was the odd duck out.

(To Be Continued...)

Restless Bones

Monday, February 19, 2018

Korm's Master (Part Three)

"Eh? What?" The old Morg leaned in.

"Magic," Korm repeated, his voice flat and despairing. "Magic. Does it really exist or not. I guess...," he stammered. "I guess it's really just a variation on Porlu's Naturalistic Theory. But when does anybody see Magic these days? What's the reason for that?"

"Ah."

They trundled on a few yards, their heads bowed, Belmok in thought, Korm in dejection. They stopped briefly at a burbling fountain, set in a cool recess, and the old Morg took a long quaff at the clear jet of water, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. They walked on.

"The thing about Magic," Belmok began, "The thing about Magic is, we Morgs don't have any."

"But I thought..."

"Yes, yes, we can use magical objects. That's sure enough. There are plenty of tales about that. But wielding the power itself? It's just not in our blood. That talent resides in Mankind, in Humans and their cousins the Woses."

"But I've seen plenty of humans. Morg City is literally crawling with them," Korm protested. "And in twenty years I've never seen any use a scrap of Magic."

"And a good thing, too. It's a damn rare power, and only a few can use it with any skill. There is only one premier practitioner that I know of at the moment. And let me tell you, boy, nothing sees Magic but misery. Evil magic to cause misery, and good magic to fight it. I hope I never see it again."

"Then you..."

"Here we are," the old Morg said. "Back at chambers."

They went in the door, and the room seemed even darker and dustier than before. Belmok pointed for Korm to have a seat again, then busied himself drawing a couple of cups of wine from a cask half-hidden behind his desk. He took one over, handed it to the younger Morg, then sat back in his own cushioned chair, eyeing the dejected youth.

"Well?" he asked. "Any other ideas?"

Korm drew in a huge breath, took a gulp the wine, then sighed, shaking his head.

"No."

"Well, that's too bad. I suppose you know it's against the rules for me to suggest a subject?"

"Yes." The younger Morg ticked his black nails across the medals of achievement on his chest, making them dance. A half hour ago they had seemed like trophies. Now they felt like toys. He took another, bigger swallow of wine.

"Hey, careful, son, that's the real Loreleid you're swigging. It's a lot stronger than it seems." Belmok took a long, smooth sip, then set his cup down. He leaned forward over his desk, and looked at the crestfallen scholar over folded fingers.

"Tell me now," he said. "You were near the top of your class, weren't you?"

"The very top," Korm pointed at his neglected documents on the Grand Master's desk, and sucked down another draft. The tears were starting to brim in his soft brown eyes.

Belmok picked the dribbling remains of his sandwich up and wiped the pages off, squinting at the smeared letters praising the young Morg's accomplishments.

"I suppose," he mused slowly, "that you've spent all your money on clothes and supplies and travelling a hundred and twenty miles to get here?"

"Every last coin," Korm agreed wretchedly, his voice starting to squeak.

"Including twenty-five gold on that ridiculous hat?"

Belmok had seen a lot of students crumble, but not like this. The young Morg's limbs went rigid, but every muscle shuddered as if his entire body were clenching. Hot tears came squeezing out of his eyes, and it sounded to the amazed Master that the lad was somehow screaming back down into his lungs behind his tightly clamped lips.

He watched, fascinated, as the smothered wails shook the scholar's slender frame, peaked, and finally died away. Korm's appalled eyes flew wide open, his breath whistling through his flaring nostrils.

"I take it," the Grand Master said calmly, taking another sip, "That you've never had wine before. Certainly none like Lorelied."

(To Be Continued...)

Webs of Deceit

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Korm's Master (Part Two)

They walked together for a few yards before the younger Morg could catch his breath and organize his thoughts. It was distracting, passing door after open door, glimpsing rooms of shelves stacked with scrolls and ancient books, or assembly halls milling with figures dressed in green, brown, and scarlet like autumn leaves, or vaulted galleries of exhibits of artifacts from nature or history. The old Master rumbled the phlegm in his throat and spat, and Korm snapped back to attention. He shuffled his notes and pulled out a slip.

"Ah, yes," he began. "Well, my best idea is an investigation into a promising new theory of history that one of the teachers in Morg City was proposing, High Master Porlu. His thought is that all the old tales of the Yeroni and Mog Gammoth and the other First Fathers of the Peoples are just that, stories made up to explain the wanderings and clashings of the different races. It's quite intriguing, and puts a whole new spin on the nature of history..."

Belmok snorted in amusement. He never slowed a step.

"Old 'Beans' Porlu? Is he still alive? He must be getting senile. Believe me, there is more evidence that Mog Gammoth trod the world in the First Days than that your great-grandfather ever existed. And as for the Yorns..." He trudged along silently for a moment. "Take it from a Grand Master in History, they exist; both the Light..." He shuddered. "...and the Dark."

They walked along silently for a moment. Korm's heart sank. He had been counting on the elaboration of the Naturalistic Theory of History as his strongest shot, new, intriguing, and bold. He shuffled through his scraps of notes. His other ideas all seemed poorly improvised now, feeble second strings to his bow. He had rather been counting on Porlu.

"Well, what else do you have?" Belmok prompted.

The young Morg hurriedly snatched a note, almost at random, and started babbling.

"Oh, well, the Ogres. What's their true character, I mean, what are they really like? This question borders both on the study of Nature and of History. Could we reach some understanding between us, in spite of what's gone before? I mean, we've had quarrels with Men, and now we're the best of allies. It would probably involve some sort of delegation going North, but the benefits should it succeed might far outweigh the danger...I mean, in these times of peace..."

Belmok stopped, looked down, sighed in frustration, and ran his black claws impatiently over his bald head. He looked up, and for the first time in their meanderings seemed to take note of where they had wandered.

"Come with me. Over there," he said, pointing to a door about halfway across the cloister through which they strode. They walked forward in silence, except for the grim tapping of the Grand Master's staff. Several students they passed by bowed their heads and hurried by at the look on the old Morg's muzzle. They stopped at the brass bound door, and he pushed it open. Korm drew back in horror.

Before them stood two monstrous articulated skeletons. One loomed twice as big as the other, almost eleven feet tall, its splayed limbs longer in proportion. The other was a little less than half that height, but seemed sturdier and sleeker in comparison. The similarity of their bulbous craniums and four-digited limbs declared them variations of a single species, however.

"The Greater Ogre," Belmok declared, clonking the large hollow skull with his stick, "And the Less. In this room you can examine articles of their manufacture, gathered through the years. Not all of them are weapons." He gestured to the left. "Come look at this."

Korm shrank behind him as the broad old Morg led the way. They stopped in front of what looked like a rack of torturer's tools.

"Cooking utensils," the Grand Master said. "Not really much different from some of ours. But read on that placard what was found on them."

Korm leaned forward nearsightedly and peered at the writing. About halfway through he gagged and had to turn away. Belmok sighed.

"Every fifty years or so someone with more hope than wisdom raises the same idea as yours and toddles off North; sometimes the patrols find their skeletons. I recall the last Morg to test the idea found a young Ogre runaway and tried to raise it; it ate his baby son out of the cradle." He turned from the display and started to leave. "Those of us with long memories try to discourage the experiment."

Once outside and the door closed, Korm felt he could breathe again. They walked slowly and thoughtfully on, the old teacher giving him time to recover. At last Belmok pursed his wrinkled, blubbery lip and asked brusquely, "Any other ideas?"

Korm looked up, dazed, and realized he was still clutching his bits of parchment. They were twisted and smudged with sweat. He fumbled through the few remaining notes. Each seemed more useless than the last. They slipped from his fingers and fell as he hopelessly rejected them. At last there was only one scrap left.

(To Be Continued...)