The Werewolf and the Wormlord
Touching that monstrous bulk of the whale or ork we have received nothing certain. They grow exceedingly fat, insomuch that an incredible quantity of oil will be extracted out of one whale.
Lord Baakan, History of Life and Death
It is an undisputed truth that a man with weak sight must be in need of an ogre; for, as all the world knows, ogres are by far the best oculists. Therefore it is not surprising that, on each of his annual visits to the Qinjoks, Alfric Danbrog took the opportunity to have his eyes retested and to get a new pair of spectacles ground to his prescription.
Shortly after his thirty-third birthday, Alfric made his fifth such venture into the mountains. On this occasion, the bespectacled banker took with him a large carven box. This was a gift for the ogre king; and inside there were twenty pink mice, five thousand dead fleas, thirty chunks of cheese and seven dragons.
Alfric’s journey to the Qinjoks was made exclusively by night, which multiplied its many difficulties. However, young Danbrog was not just a banker but the son of a Yudonic Knight, and he pressed on regardless of danger. Once the many difficulties of the journey had been overcome, Alfric’s first duty was to present himself to the ogre king. The audience took place in a deep delved mountain cave in one of the shallower portions of that underground redoubt known as the Qinjok Sko.
Before the meeting, the king’s chamberlain cautioned Alfric thus:
‘You will not address the king by his given name.’
The chamberlain, a small and nervous troll, had given Alfric exactly the same warning on each of the four previous visits the young banker had made to these mountains. But Alfric did not remind him of this.
‘My lord,’ said Alfric, ‘I do not even know the king’s name, therefore am in no danger of addressing him thereby.’
This was a diplomatic mistruth. Alfric Danbrog knew full well that the ogre king had been named Sweet Sugar-Delicious Dimple-Dumpling.
Among ogres, the naming of children is traditionally a mother’s privilege; and female ogres are apt to lapse into a disgustingly mawkish sentimentality shortly after giving birth. Those who cleave to the evolutionary heresy hold that such a lapse is necessary to the survival of the species, for baby ogres (and the full-grown adults, come to that) are so hideously ugly that it is surely only the onset of such sentimentality which keeps their mothers from strangling them at birth.
Once the chamberlain had been assured on this point of protocol, Alfric was admitted to the presence of the above-mentioned Sweet Sugar-Delicious Dimple-Dumpling, king of the Qinjoks. The king, let it be noted, was nothing like his name. Rather, he would have better fitted the name his father would have liked to bestow on him: Bloodgut the Skullsmasher.
While the ogre and the banker met on cordial terms, there stood between them a line of granitic cubes, each standing taller than a cat but shorter than a hunting hound. These were stumbling blocks, placed there in case Alfric should take it into his head to draw his sword and charge the throne.
Technically, there was peace between Galsh Ebrek and the Qinjoks. Furthermore, every expert in combat will tell you that it is theoretically impossible for a lone swordsman to overcome a full-grown ogre. However, the Yudonic Knights are what they are; and the king did well to be cautious.
‘We trust your journey was pleasant,’ said King Dimple-Dumpling.
‘It was not,’ said Alfric. ‘The roads between Galsh Ebrek and the Qinjoks owe more to fantasy than to fact. The dark was dark, the rain was wet, and the mud was excessive in the extreme, quantity in this case quite failing to make up for lack of quality.’
So he spoke because his ethnology texts had taught him that ogres value honesty in speech above all other things.
Such scholarly claims are in fact exaggerated. There are many things an orgre values far more, some of them being mulberry wine, gluttonous indulgence in live frogs, and the possession of vast quantities of gold.
‘So,’ said the ogre king. ‘You travelled by night.’
‘I did, my liege,’ said Alfric.
‘Hmmm,’ said the ogre king.
While the king puzzled over this strange behaviour, Alfric had ample time to study his majesty’s surrounds. Ranged behind the king were racks of skulls; interlaced washing lines strung with scalps; and two vultures, each a triumph of the taxidermist’s art. Carven draconites served these beasts as eyes, and an evil light swashed from these gems as they caught the buckling flaze of torches. Flanking these beasts were skeletons in duplicate; while at the king’s head was the mouldering head of a dragon. And, in pride of place at his right hand, a low bookcase crammed with philosophy books.
Alfric started to sweat.
Not because he was frightened, but because the cave was grossly overheated.
‘So,’ said the king. ‘You travelled by night. Which means, does it not, that She walks again?’
‘So it has been said,’ acknowledged Alfric.
‘It has been said, has it? And what do you believe?’ ‘That custom commands me,’ said Alfric. ‘Hence I walk by night. I can do no less. I am of a Family.’
‘You belong to the Bank,’ said the king, ‘yet declare allegiance to a Family.’
‘The Bank, my liege, lives within the bounds of law and custom; nor does the Bank seek to sever its servants from their rightful bondage to either.’
‘I have heard otherwise,’ said the king, almost as if he were accusing Alfric of mistruthing.
‘My liege,’ said Alfric, ‘I cannot answer Rumour, for Rumour has ten thousand tongues and I have but one.’ ‘Hmmm,’ said the king.
‘You travelled by night.’
Alfric kept his face blank. This was no time to show impatience. But Alfric liked to do business in an efficient manner; and not for nothing was the king known as He Who Talks In Circles.
‘Night is a strange time to travel,’ continued King Dimple-Dumpling. ‘Particularly when night is Her chosen time.’
‘My duty bids me to rule the night,’ said Alfric. ‘I cannot permit Her forays to keep me from the dark. I am a Yudonic Knight.’
‘Who fears nothing,’ said the king.
When one hears dry irony from the lips of an orgre, it is hard to credit ones ears. But Alfric, who knew ogres better than most of his kind, did not underestimate them. He answered deadpan:
‘My liege is generous in his praises. I fear myself unworthy of such praise.’
‘Why unworthy?’ said the king. ‘Do you think yourself a coward?’
A dangerous question, and one not easy to answer. In the halls of an ogre king, one does not confess to cowardice, for the ogres think pusillanimity to be a crime meriting death. Equally, in such a place one boasts not of courage, for ogres delight in supervising tests of the same.
‘Well,’ said the king. ‘Are you a coward or are you not?’
‘So far,’ said Alfric, answering carefully, ‘fear has not chosen to be my companion. But, in keeping with the teachings of the philosophers, I do not hold such companionship to be merely because it lies outside my own experience.’
An adroit answer, displaying the mental agility which had seen Alfric rise so far and so fast in the ranks of the Bank. It pleased the king.