Friday, February 23, 2018

Korm's Master (Part Seven)

"Where's Belmok?" he asked casually, scratching his head and stretching his ropy neck. "I need to ask him a couple favors right quick."

"Grand Master Belmok is visiting his family for the holiday. He'll be returning shortly," Korm answered, frost in his voice. He'd recovered a bit from his surprise, and now was feeling on his dignity. This tall, wolfish old beggar in tattered dun robes was treating Master Belmok, his chambers, and by extension all of Tronduhon Library School in far too familiar a manner. "Perhaps you'd like to go wait somewhere until he comes back?"

"No, I'd like to catch him pretty quick when he arrives. But you go on then, whatever you're doing here. Don't mind me." He settled back down in the chair.

Korm edged his way over to the desk, eyeing the tattered figure as he went. He pulled a book, almost at random, from a passing shelf. He sat down and lit the ornate reading lamp. He started to read, glancing up every now and then at his unwanted visitor, who waved cheerily back.

The random text proved to be in old bardic Morgish, and he soon found his mind more engaged with puzzling out the sense of it than on the old man sitting quietly across the room. Korm began muttering the lines aloud, trying to untangle the meaning and murmuring with pleasure when he hit on a solution. But finally he came on a word that completely stumped him.

"Abirmokon," he grumbled. "What is 'abirmokon'?"

"It means 'he awakens the flame.'"

Korm looked up in astonishment, then annoyance. He had forgotten the grimy beggar slouched across from him while he was lost in the wonders of the elder tongue. He slammed the book shut. To think that this impertinent wanderer should listen in and think to offer his rigamarole suggestions to a real scholar! To make it worse, his answer seemed to make a sort of sense in the context of the writing. The old man smiled at him.

"Are you sure you would rather not come back later, when the Grand Master will more likely be returned?" the young Morg asked through clenched teeth.

"No, this is fine," the old man said. "Though I wouldn't mind a bit of breakfast while I wait."

"Well you can't eat in here," Korm snapped. "School rules. You'll have to go to the refectory and ask them to give you something there." He smiled, suddenly crafty, struck by a thought. He rose, and walked over to the chair. "In fact, I'll take you myself. It's a big place, you might get lost."

The old man looked at him and grinned.

"Well, that's very kind of you, young fellow," he drawled. "Very kind." He stood up and drew in close, taking Korm's hand and squeezing it tightly. The odor wafting from his robes was musty and rank, as if he had been trudging for weeks and miles through the wilderness, and sleeping hard. The Morg's flat nostrils flared snuffling at the smell.

"Perhaps you would like to visit the water rooms before eating," he suggested, trying not to breathe too deeply.

"Well, that's a good idea," the other laughed, wheezing, and slapped the young Morg's shoulder. "Now that you mention it, I've got to pee like a racehorse."

The old man followed the young scholar into the quiet hallways, the arched corridors echoing with the shuffle of his robes and the slapping of his loose sandals. Though Korm darted his eyes around desperately as they passed room after room, his plan to relieve himself of his unwanted visitor by handing him over to a passing lector was constantly foiled. Every spare staff member seemed to have disappeared for the holiday. At last they reached a green-painted iron-bound door in the bowels of the school.

"Here you go," the young Morg said, standing in front of it and pointing dejectedly at the sign. "Baths and bogs."

The old man laughed.

"Maybe you better come in and show me which is which."

Korm turned on him in outrage.

"Oh, now see here! You can't be that stupid..."

The old man grinned like a wolf and uttered a few flat words. For a snip of time, Korm thought he was being mocked in some foreign tongue. But a flash of light coming from the door at his back distracted him, and he turned in alarm.

"What...? Is the place on fire?" Instinctively he reached out to the door handle and barged stumbling through, skidded to a stop, and stood frozen, his muzzle dropped in wonder. The old vagabond stepped in behind him, quietly shutting the door.

(To Be Continued...)

Weather Or Not

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Korm's Master (Part Six)

It was no wonder that he was feeling fractious as the fall started. Five months had passed in this betwixt and between state, and he seemed no closer to his goal. It was during the days of the Autumn Festival, when the School was mostly deserted and even Master Belmok had traveled into the suburbs to visit his ancient mother, still somehow miraculously alive, that something finally happened.

In the few days of the old Morg's absence, Korm had been acting out a little fantasy. In the morning, having kindled the fire in the front office, he sat down behind the Master's desk with a selected volume, ink and paper for notes by his side, and then worked for the day as if he did indeed belong there. Looking up every now and then at the spotless shelves and gleaming accouterments, their restored condition, at least, the product of his labor, he felt a propriatary thrill, as if they were a hopeful prophecy of his future. A small sign outside the door gave notice of the Master's absence and kept anyone from peering in on his meager indulgence.

On the final morning of the holiday, Korm crept from his cold cramped cabinet, through the silent space of the early morning hall, and eased his way through the entrance of the office. With the school mostly abandoned, there was really no need to be so stealthy, but something about the hour seemed to forbid noise. He closed the door, and made his way through the dim chamber to where the banked fire glowed dimly on the hearth.

He grabbed some sticks of kindling, and thrust them down through the ashes into the live embers beneath. He crouched watching for a few moments until he was sure the wood had caught fire, then creaked back to his feet, satisfied. When Master Belmok came back this afternoon, the chambers would be nice and toasty. In the meantime, the young Morg would be quite comfortable in the last hours of his imaginary way of life.

He looked around the room in the growing light of the fire, thinking about which book to shuffle through in the early hours of the day before he could expect the old Morg's return. His eyes snagged on a bundle of old brown rags piled on one of the visitors' chairs. That hadn't been there when he'd left last night.

Then he remembered that he'd requested some of the groundskeepers be sent to touch up the pocked and crumbling plaster along the walls. They had obviously dumped these tarps off last night in preparation of a day's work. He frowned at the thought about the infringement on his last moments of free time, and stumped over in irritation to throw the pile to the floor. It certainly shouldn't have been left on the furniture, anyway.

He put his hands on the pile of rags, and to his shock it burst into startling, struggling life. He jumped back in consternation, gaping, and watched as the growling bundle thrust out arms and legs and finally tossed back a folded hood to reveal a round white head with a short scruffy beard. Two blazing blue eyes glared at him in angry confusion.

"You're a Man!" Korm barked.

"Last time I checked, son," the other said crossly. The old man stretched out his scrawny brown limbs and rubbed the sleep from his eyes, looking around. He focused on the young Morg and seemed to suddenly realize where he was. He smiled wanly and leapt out of the chair.

(To Be Continued...)

One Big Problem

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...)