The Mighty Morg

Part V 9. Good Manners

Morg’s tail gave a startled twitch, decapitating a treasure-cone and sending a shower of golden discs clattering across the great cavern. One disc, bent on escape, kept rolling into the next chamber until it faded from hearing.

“Hail, oh mighty serpent!” the manling repeated.

Morg gave his head a brisk shake and cleaned out his auditory clefts with the tip of a foreclaw.

“Hail, oh mighty serpent!” it repeated yet again.

The manling’s voice was feeble and gravelly, but the sounds were unmistakable. By the wings of the Great Serpent! It was speaking. It scarcely seemed possible, yet there it was, the manling’s fishy lips moving in time with the words. He pondered the situation. Just how did one go about addressing a talking manling? He knew of no precedent and even the most ancient of legends never hinted at such a thing. If he killed it now, he would be spared the effort, but that flew in the face of greeting protocol, and Morg was not one to flout protocol. In the end, he decided to address it after the manner of his own kind. “Hail, oh despised spawn of the Cursed One,” he said formally. His words were not intended to be impolite. He was simply stating the obvious truth.

This time it was Moribus’s turn to be taken aback. He had not expected the dragon to accept the proof of his intelligence so readily. Like humans, dragons considered themselves the only enlightened race. “How art thou being called, oh Great Dragon?”

“We are called Mrrgkhtchkllk,” Morg said.

“Morg-ka-chuk-a-luk,” Moribus did his best to imitate the grinding of the tongue over the washing board texture of the upper palate. “And we are being called Moribus Ansol Polibdemus the Third.”

From the long string of blubbery sounds, Morg could only produce a single rolling syllable, “Thrrdh.”

Moribus prostrated himself on the ground and rolled over to expose his underside, making the gesture of obeisance a lesser dragon would pay to a greater one.

Morg inclined his head to one side, signaling to the manling that it could now rise and communicate with him as a subordinate. “We are well met, Thrrdh. May thine offspring be many and strong of snout.”

“May the eggs of thine rivals crack and split,” Moribus responded in kind.

Introductions complete, they were free to discuss whatever business was at hand. Typically, this had something to do with territory, killing or mating. Subtlety was a distinctly un-dragon-like concept.

“Thou art bringing much bat-stench into our treasure-home.” Morg reached out to seize the manling. “For that we will be killing thee now.”

“We would be honored to be killed by Great Dragon,” Moribus said quickly. “But then we will no longer be telling Great Dragon many things great and unknowable.”

Morg’s outstretched claw encircled the manling but did not yet lay hold of him. His curiosity was piqued. “Thou speakest of mysteries?” The word in dragonspeak translated as: the place from whence the wind springs forth.

“Mysteries, forsooth. Third will be telling Great Dragon many great mysteries.”

Morg considered the manling’s offer. Distasteful as it was, it would be foolish to squander such a rare opportunity to converse with one of the clever little beasts. “So shall it be.” He retracted his claw. “Thrrdh wilt first tell Great Dragon of these great mysteries. Then we shall slay thee thereafter.”

“Thou art most wise, Great Dragon.” Moribus wiped sweat from his brow. He had passed the first test, but the next phase would be trickier still. He had to keep the dragon interested and off balance while taking care not to say anything too implausible. Lying was a mortal offense among dragonkind. “Of what mysteries shouldst Third speak first? There are being a great many.”

“How dost manlings spawn?” Morg said without hesitation. “Is it after the manner of the soaring eagle? Or of the herding caribou? Or of the small, buzzing fly?”

“Of the caribou,” Moribus said. He should have known the issue of reproduction would be foremost on the dragon’s mind.

“How is this being possible when manling lackest both life-thorn and birth-eye?”

“This manling hast life-thorn and is counted amongst those that breach the cloven heart-chamber.” Moribus was not being prudish; one could not refer to gender or intercourse in dragonspeak without resorting to metaphor.

“Great Dragon seest no life-thorn upon thee.”

Moribus spread wide his cloak. “Manling is concealing under many skins.”

“But skins are not being flesh of manling flesh.”

“Great Dragon is speaking sun-truth,” Moribus acknowledged, amazed to have encountered a dragon that grasped the uniquely human concept of clothes.

“Wherefore manlings wearest these many skins?”

“Many skins are protecting and keeping manling warm. Many skins are making manling peacock-pretty. Many skins are hiding soft manling underflesh.”

“Wherefore art thou hiding underflesh?”

Moribus sucked on his lips, trying to distill a suitable answer. Dragonspeak lacked a vocabulary for concepts such as shame and modesty. “Wherefore is the lightning?” he said at last, the dragon equivalent of, I have no earthly idea. “It is being the way of the manling. As fire-heart is being the way of dragonkind.”

Morg digested the manling’s answer. Was it possible that manlings did not comprehend the precepts behind their own behavior? Then again, did birds understand why they migrated south for the winter or salmon why they swam upstream in mating season? The Great Serpent apportioned to each creature its lot, but her designs were beyond their knowing. This question would require much thought and reflection. In the meantime, there were many other mysteries to explore; the manling’s mention of a fire-heart brought one such to mind. “Art manlings fire making?”

“Are making,” Moribus agreed.

“How art thou making fire without fire-heart?”

“We are showing.” Moribus rummaged in a pocket of his cloak and produced two small pieces of flint. He struck them together, sending a bright spark leaping into the air.

Morg reared back in surprise. Although he had grudgingly come to accept that manlings could harness the power of fire, he had never imagined they could summon it forth with so little effort. Why had the breeder never done this? “These rocks, what are they being called?”

“Are called flint.”

“Where to find this flnnt?

“In bottom of water-snakes and buried in earth-ribs.”

“How dost thou collect this flnnt when manling neither swimmest like the fish nor tunnelest like the gopher?”

“Manling is swimming. Manling is tunneling.”

This was vexing news. What of the soldier he had stranded on the island? If it had the ability to swim, then it had probably escaped by now. In retrospect, he could see the flaw in his logic. He had only tested with dead specimens. In any case, there was nothing to be done for it now. “Of what manner of manling art thou?” Morg asked.

“We are not understanding thine question,” Moribus said. “What is this manner of which thou speakest?”

“Bees? Thou art knowing them?”

“We art knowing.”

“Then thou art knowing of the many manners of bees. Some bees are gathering flower-dust. Others are spawning in hive. Yet others are guarding the hive. All are being bees, yet all are not partaking of the same purpose. Is it not being so with manlings? Thrrdh hast not shell as soldier hast. Boastest not butterfly-skin as queen boasts. Not worker or breeder, thinkest Mrrgkhtchkllk. Thou art being seeker, mayhaps?”

Moribus laughed. It was perfectly logical that a dragon would, upon observing humans, organize them into functional classes. How else could one explain the vast inequalities that separated man from maid, prince from pauper, or warrior from slave?

“What meanest this noise?” Morg asked, puzzled by the sequence of dry, ratchety noises.

“It is the noise a manling makes when he is hearing a great sun-truth. Great Dragon is much—how sayest—everywhere-seeing. This manling was being soldier once. Was seeker once too but now is seeking no more. Among our kind, this manling is being called hermit.”

Morg had never considered that an adult manling might metamorphose into some other sort. Just what manner of beast were they? At every turn they surprised and confounded him. “Hrrmtt. What meanest this word?”

“Hermit is living alone like dragon in earth-teeth. Betides, hermit is much wandering earth-skin, going to and fro, to and fro. Hermit is seeing many sun cycles and storing up great thought-treasure in mind-lair. He is growing much clever, much dangerous.”

Morg was certain the manling had misspoken. Its command of dragonspeak was impressive, all the more so for a manling, but not without its flaws. “Not dangerous surely?”

“Of danger there are being many kinds—danger of claw and danger of tooth and danger of fire. And there is being danger of mind also.”

Morg recognized the truth of these words. He had not survived over the millennia by relying on brute strength alone. How strange to hear certitudes issuing from the mouth of such a repugnant creature. “Thrrdh is telling Mrrgkhtchkllk how thou art coming to speak the language of the Great Serpent.”

This was the opening Moribus had been waiting for—and dreading. “Is being a much long tale.”

“Thou wilt tellest Mrrgkhtchkllk this tale,” Morg demanded. There was nothing a dragon enjoyed so much as a good story.

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