The Mighty Morg

Part IV 1. Hot Stuff

The days that passed in the wake of her capture were some of the most miserable of Berla’s generally miserable life. It wasn’t the loneliness that bothered her. Loneliness was an old, if tiresome, companion. Nor was it the fear of death. To the contrary, meeting a violent end at the claws of the dragon held a certain tragic allure. It wasn’t even the hunger, though it devoured her day by day. But there were other times when the hunger receded to a dull throb and her thoughts came wandering back like orphaned children with no place to go. What will you do now? they chorused mockingly. Slow Berla. Fat Berla. Useless Berla. Hurry up and die. Who’s going to miss you?

At the bakery there had always been some task waiting for her able hands to perform. Even now, a week after her capture, a mental hourglass turned over in her head, telling her when it was time to put a batch of bread in the oven or take one out. She reflexively swaddled her hands in her dress to form makeshift oven mitts. Without anything to grip, they gawped open like the mouths of baby birds longing to be fed. At night, she was visited by nightmares of unborn loaves blackening in the oven. Every morning, she woke up anxious, convinced that some disaster was upon her.

As one day blended into the next, a dull lethargy set in. The only thing she had ever been good at was baking, and if she couldn’t do that any longer, what was left for her to do? Even Berla knew the answer to that question. Nothing. And that was exactly what she did.

Berla wished her grammy was there. If there were two things her grammy couldn’t tolerate, it was glumness and moping. Each day, she told Berla when she could play and when she must cook, sweep, gather wood and go to town. As Berla grew older, her grammy directed her less and less, but her voice was ever in her head, instructing her. Time to go to town. Today is Tuesday, beef stew day. I need to buy carrots, onions, potatoes and peas—and half a pound of beef trimmings please. And if farmer Blackstone tried to charge her three coppies instead of two for a pair of fist-sized potatoes, Berla would tell him, My grammy says I pay two coppies for potatoes. And if they were all out of peas that day or the carrots were twisted and runty, she would go back home and her grammy would sort things out. Her grammy had an answer for everything.

Berla tried praying to her grammy though she doubted she could hear her all the way up there in Rho; sometimes she hadn’t even been able to hear from across a room. She prayed to Rhojë too. After all, if anyone could get a message to her grammy, she figured it was the All-Maker. That evening, when a storm rolled in and thunder pealed across the mountains, Berla imagined that Rhojë was talking out loud just like the holy man said he could. The mountains tremble at the sound of the All-Maker’s voice, she recalled from one of his sermons. Little of what he said made any sense, but that line had been so oddly grandiose it lodged in her memory. But just when Berla’s spirits were starting to lift, a cold drizzle fell, chilling her to the bone. And still her grammy gave no reply.

Little did she know that a heavenly sign was being borne to her from on high.

* * * * *

Having dropped the carrier beast into the smoke-hole of the large nest, Morg flew in a wide loop and took up position on a hilltop some distance away. Though the line of trees provided imperfect cover (magnificence and subterfuge not being complementary traits), the manlings nonethelss failed to spot him. If there was one thing he could count on, it was their lack of perspicacity.

First in a trickle and then in a flood, manlings poured from the smaller nests to swarm in front of the larger one. Like termites, their humble nests concealed deceptively large numbers. There were several kinds in evidence: workers, breeders and larvae in various stages of development. Disappointingly, he spied no soldiers among them.

A clump formed around a central figure which Morg recognized as the one he had glimpsed inside the big nest. It was ugly even for a manling, scrawny and pale with a slack face and weedy hair. Even so, it seemed to exert some power over the others as it barked and gesticulated at them. At length, several manlings detached from the main group to clamber atop the nest and try to fetch the herd beast down. Meanwhile, their feeble leader gazed on, not troubling to bestir himself.

Morg had seen enough. Disgusted, he flew back at speed to his mountain retreat. A queen was one thing, but to see a mere worker—an enfeebled one at that—impose its will upon those of its own caste was a perversion of the worst sort. Even the caribou, the dumbest of animals, submitted to the universal law of might. The strongest buck led the herd. When a stronger arose, it challenged the leader to vie for its rightful position. So it was with all creatures, even dragons. Only the strongest from every dragon-clutch survived, culling out the weak and infirm.

Back at his lair, Morg curled up by the edge of the manling pit to mull over the day’s events. The sight of the despondent breeder further depressed his spirits. It had been unresponsive for several sun-moons now, spending most of its time sulking on its boulder. It had shriveled a good deal and he didn’t expect it to last much longer. Such a disappointment. He had held out such high hopes for it. Yet the soldiers with their precious carapaces had failed to materialize and perhaps it was time he considered capturing another.

Almost as an afterthought, Morg fetched a tree and set it ablaze in the pit. Not once did he think about the silver disc tucked beneath a scale of his claw.

* * * * *

Berla was shuffling closer to the fire when something reflective on the ground caught her eye. She took it for a dragon scale, but when she picked it up, she was surprised to discover it was a medallion of some kind. Making out the familiar engraving by the unsteady light of the flames, she could scarcely believe her eyes. It could not have been more clearly a message from her grammy if it had been scrawled across the heavens in flames.

Berla would never forget the day she and her grammy fled Alvaron, leaving behind the big stone house with its cavernous halls full of statues. She had been in the mudroom petting the kittens when her grammy, usually so calm and poised, yanked her up by the wrist and dragged her out through the back entrance. Hustling her across the courtyard, she hoisted Berla up into a waiting carriage before climbing up after her. After a series of urgent commands, they were rumbling through the streets of the great stone city.

Berla had been too startled to cry at first, but once they left the walls of the city behind, the tears wouldn’t stop flowing. Her grammy explained that they were just taking a trip to the countryside and her parents would meet up with them along the way, but Berla sensed they wouldn’t be coming back. It wasn’t the thought of losing her parents that distressed her so. “My fozzy!” she howled. “I want my fozzy!” Her fozzy was the fox tail one of the cooks, a grasshopper-faced spinster with the heart of a dove, had gifted to her on her tenth nameday. Berla carried it with her everywhere and slept with it nuzzled against her cheek at night. She had left it behind in the confusion and now she would never see it again. Her grammy, who possessed an almost magical ability to cheer her up, could in this case do nothing to salve her loss. Then something remarkable happened. “Lookie there, dearest.” She pointed to a stand of trees beside the road where, peering out from the shadows, was a russet fox.

“It’s fozzy!” Berla declared.

“Yes, dearest. And wherever you go in this world, he will follow you and watch over you.”

After that, Berla knew things were going to turn out all right. Even when her grammy sent the servants away in the next town and swapped their dainty, plush dresses for drab, scratchy ones. Even when they climbed aboard a rickety old wagon loaded with itchy sacks and foul-smelling hay. Even when they settled into a lonely, run-down cottage a forty-minute walk from a boorish hinter-town that didn’t appear on any map. And now, just when she needed it most, her grammy had sent her another sign. Fozzy had come back to her.

Suddenly, Berla knew exactly what her grammy would say. In no uncertain terms, she would tell her to stop moping about and get herself something to eat before she pined away to nothing. She could almost hear her voice, telling her, Why, aren’t you just a sight. If the sun were to see that sad face of yours, it might not feel like shining and then where would you be?

With newfound determination, Berla picked out a jagged rock from those that littered the ground and set to sawing off the hind leg of the more recent of two caribou carcasses. It was grueling, messy work. The stone was not so sharp as a knife and it was soon made slippery with blood and gore. Her muscles burned and sweat irrigated the creases of her face. Still, she plowed on, feeling a sense of satisfaction every time the stone’s rough edge bit into flesh. Finally, when she had sawed down to the bone, she seized the leg in both arms and twisted with all her might. With a satisfying pop, the thigh bone dislocated from the hip joint. Tugging on it until the last of the tendons came free, she triumphantly raised the haunch over her head and heaved it into the leading edge of the flames.

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