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A Surprising Guest
I was sort of hoping to have a moment to rest before my next adventure began.
I hope for a lot of things that never happen.
Don’t get me wrong—I love adventuring. Unlike most people of my race, I go to bed at night dreaming of faraway lands and all the magical things waiting to be found there. It’s only been recently that I discovered adventures can be less than magical, and very dangerous.
My name is Charles Magnus Ven Polypheme. Most people just call me Ven. When I say “most people of my race,” I’m referring to the Nain, an old race of people who live in dark mountains, far away from the upworld. I am fifty years and a few months old, but that makes me about twelve or thirteen in human years, because Nain live about four times longer than humans. Even though I am Nain, I have lived around humans all my life, and have never been downworld to see how Nain really live.
I began life the youngest of the thirteen children of Pepin Polypheme, a shipbuilder of note back in my homeland of Vaarn, which is a city, not a mountain range. Now I live at the Crossroads Inn in the beautiful countryside just east of the city of Kingston on the Island of Serendair, far from my home and family.
Even though Nain don’t like to travel, I do. They don’t know how to swim, either, but I do. They generally try never to leave home, but I did. Most Nain are suspicious and grumpy about trying new things, but I was born with a driving curiosity that burns so hot in me that sometimes I feel like my head is on fire or my skin is being eaten by ants when something new and adventurous comes along. Even though they are highly superstitious, the upworld Nain I know don’t believe in magic. I imagine that’s even more true for the downworld Nain I’ve never met.
But I know it exists, because I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
I guess in many ways I’m sort of a fish out of water. That’s fairly odd, since most Nain don’t even know what a fish is.
Anyway, I have a brand new journal, bound in purple leather with crisp, blank parchment pages inside. I am supposed to be keeping track of all the magical things I see in the world, especially those that are hiding in plain sight. I was asked to do this by the ruler of this land, His Majesty, Vandemere, high king of Serendair. When the king gave me my first journal a short time ago, I thought it would be many years before I had filled all the pages with notes and drawings of the magic I had seen.
This purple journal is my third one in only a few weeks’ time. I’ve filled up so many pages with notes and drawings that I have worn an inch off the albatross feather I am using for a quill pen. Fortunately, the feather is as long as my arm, but at this rate it will be worn down to the size of a chicken feather in no time.
Which is why I was hoping to give adventuring, and my fingers, a rest for a while.
But that is not going to happen. My next adventure is beginning less than one day after the last one ended.
And it’s just as well, because it seems that if I don’t get started on my next adventure—and out of here—quickly, the job of recording the world’s magic may have to be finished by someone else.
Because I may no longer be alive, having met my end in what is sure to be a very painful and unpleasant way.
Ven’s bedroom in the boy’s dormitory known as hare Warren was still dark when he heard the first thump, followed by horrifying sounds of snarling and screaming.
He had been sleeping soundly, so at first his head was fuzzy. His heart began to beat wildly as he fumbled for the lantern on his bedside table. After a few seconds he removed the hood of the lantern and light spilled into the room.
The snarling and screaming turned into hissing and moaning.
“Gah! Ven, douse the light, you’re stabbin’ my eyes!”
Ven looked down at the floor between his bed and that of his roommate, Char. Char was lying on the floor, covering his eyes with one arm and rubbing his shin with the other. Ven scrambled out of bed and helped him stand up.
“What happened?” he asked woozily. “What’s all the noise?”
“Blimey, I dunno,” Char replied, still rubbing his leg. “I just came back from the privy. I got to get to work, it’s almost dawn. I was headin’ for the lookin’ glass when I tripped over somethin’. And it stabbed me.”
Ven looked around the floor. “Spice Folk, maybe?” he asked.The invisible fairies who lived at the Crossroads Inn, behind which Hare Warren stood, loved to torment Char, but they weren’t usually violent.
“Criminey, I hope not,” Char said. “Never known a spice fairy to draw blood before.” He raised his ragged pant leg. Three long red stripes were dripping down his shin, forming what looked like an M slashed into his leg. “Besides, it was bigger, like a pillow.”
“Uh oh,” said Ven. “Murphy, is that you?”
From under the bed he could hear the sound of a throat clearing.
“Murphy, what are you doing out here?” Char demanded. “And what the heck?” He pointed to his bleeding shin.
Slowly the head of a large orange cat emerged from beneath the bed. Murphy was an old tabby, a famous ratter who had caught rodents on the ships of Captain Oliver Snodgrass, the husband of the innkeeper.He looked annoyed.
“I’m on an errand for Mrs. Snodgrass,” he said testily. “I was sent to wake Ven up and tell him to come in with you when you report to the kitchen for work. Mrs. Snodgrass wants him to help you unload some of the supply wagons that are making deliveries this morning. I’ll have to let her know that your response was to boot me across the room.”
Char’s mouth dropped open in horror.
“I did no such thing,” he insisted. “I’d no idea you’d be on the floor. It was dark in here—I try not to wake Ven up when I go to work.” He glanced sourly at his roommate. “He needs his beauty sleep.”
Murphy came all the way out from under the bed. He stretched lazily, allowing his front claws to extend all the way out.
“That’s no excuse for kicking me,” he said, yawning. “I’ve been keeping the Spice Folk busy and out of your room for days, and this is the thanks I get. Well, I’d be sure to watch myself from now on if I were you. They’ve been cooking up all kinds of interesting tricks to play on you. I think I’ll just let them. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be on my way back to the Inn, where no one would dare to trip over me. Next time you kick me, I’ll write my entire name on your leg.”
Char sighed, and limped to the door of the room. He held it open for the cat, who strolled out regally, then shut it behind him.
“Well, this day is off to a lovely start,” he said. “At least it will leave an interesting scar. Come on, Ven, we better hightail it to the kitchen.” He checked himself in the mirror, ran his hands through his straight black hair, then hurried from the room and closed the door behind him.
Char never leaves our room without trying to make himself look presentable, because the girl he has a terrible crush on works with him in the kitchen of the Crossroads Inn. Her name is Felitza, and she’s very shy and quiet. When I first met her, I wondered what it was that Char saw in her. She has rather large teeth, and neither her hair nor her skin has much color in it. But there is something about her that has appealed to Char from the moment he met her. At first I thought it was that she is a wonderful cook, and he was named Char by the men he sailed with because he burns everything. But now it’s clear that he just really likes her, and he does his best to look good and behave properly when she’s around.
This isn’t easy for him, because Char is an orphan, like many of the other kids who live in the dormitories behind the Inn. But unlike them, Char was sent to work on the sea when he was too young to remember any other life. So his clothes are more ragged than everyone else’s, and he learned his manners from sailors, so it’s sometimes either comical or disturbing to watch him eat. But he is the best friend anyone could ask for, and I’m really glad he’s mine. He is smart, resourceful, and more loyal than anyone I’ve ever met. He follows me everywhere, because Captain Oliver once told him to look out for me. He’s even saved my life a couple of times.
So if he says Felitza is beautiful, he must be right. Now I think of her that way, too.
Ven climbed out of bed and got dressed quickly, then left Hare Warren and hurried up the path to the back door of the Inn. The air around him was cool and heavy with vapor, and the sky was still dark. The edge of the horizon was the faintest shade of gray, meaning the sun would not be up for almost another three hours.
Inside the Inn the fire on the enormous hearth was burning, as it did year-round. Sitting in front of it, as he always seemed to be, was McLean, the Inn’s resident Storysinger. He smiled and waved from across the vast room, and Ven waved back, even though he knew that McLean could not really see him.
Most of the other people in the Inn, including Char, have no idea that McLean is blind. McLean is a Lirin Singer, a race of people who have a special understanding of the vibrations of the world, especially music. While his eyes do not work, he’s able to see things in other ways. Once he showed me how to see the Spice Folk the way he does, and it was amazing. Sometimes even I forget what I know about him.
Which I’m sure is the way he wants it.
“Good morning, McLean,” Ven called as he headed for the kitchen.
“Morning, Ven,” the Singer called in return. “Enjoy your big day.”
Ven stopped where he was. “What big day?” he asked.
The Singer shrugged and went back to tuning his instrument.
“You just have the feel of a big day about you,” he said idly. “Like something important is about to happen to you.”
“That’s interesting,” said Ven. “Important good, or important bad?”
“No way of telling,” said the Singer. “Sorry. I hope it’s good.”
Me too, Ven thought. He pushed open the door that led into the kitchen.
Unlike the main room of the Inn, which was quiet except for McLean’s soft music, the kitchen was bustling with noise and activity. Mrs. Trudy Snodgrass, the innkeeper and Captain Snodgrass’s wife, was walking rapidly around the cabinets, sorting and moving containers as she gave orders to the kitchen staff. Her brisk manner reminded Ven a lot of her husband calling orders to the sailors on his ship, the Serelinda. The Serelinda had rescued Ven when he was floating, helpless, on a piece of wreckage in the middle of the sea, so Ven felt he owed both the Snodgrasses a large debt.
“Get those sacks of dried peas and beans out of the cupboards, Char, and move them to the pantry,” Mrs. Snodgrass was saying. “We need to make space for the fresher fruits and vegetables. Felitza, make sure the sausages and porridge are started. We can’t let breakfast be overlooked just because we’re getting deliveries. Ciara, you wipe the cupboards down inside and out.” She spun around and came within inches of bumping into Ven. Even though she was human and Ven was Nain, a race generally a head shorter than humans, Mrs. Snodgrass was a Knuckle or two shorter than he was. Her eyes twinkled, but her expression remained stern.
“Ah, you’re here too, good,” she said. She looked over at Char, who had already completed his task. “You two boys go out and wait at the crossroads for the wagons. One has already dropped off a load of cheese, which will need to be taken to the icehouse. While you’re waiting, you can move some of it in. But keep an eye and an ear out for the wagons. Some of the drivers won’t wait if there’s no one to meet ’em because they’ll think we don’t need anything this week. I’ve got a full house for the first time in a long while, and I don’t want to get caught short on food. Hungry guests are grumpy guests. The only one allowed to be grumpy around here is me.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Char said quickly. Char was terrified of Mrs. Snodgrass. So was every sailor that had ever served on one of her husband’s ships. Even though she barely came up to Ven’s chin, her temper was legendary and known in every port across the seven seas.
The boys hurried back into the main part of the Inn and headed for the front door. They were within a few steps of it when it opened. Otis the barkeeper was just coming in for work, carrying a pile of clean dishcloths.
“Mornin’, Otis,” Char said.
“Hmmph,” snorted the barkeeper. “Not for a few more hours, lad.”
“Hope your day goes well,” called Ven as they hurried past him and out to the crossroads.
“Sure,” said the barkeeper, closing the door behind them.
The sky had not grown any lighter since he had first come into the Inn, but Ven was beginning to hear the occasional twittering of birds and could feel the mist getting thinner. Dawn was still a long time away, but at least he could tell the morning was coming.
By the side of the road lay three large wooden wheels of cheese in different sizes. Ven looked down the road leading east to the Great River. In the distance he thought he could hear the clopping of horses’ hooves and the rattling of wagons.
“Do you want to start moving the cheese now?” he asked Char. “It sounds like we have a few minutes before the first wagon gets here.”
His friend looked at the cheese wheels. “I think I could prolly take the smallest two by myself,” Char said. “You wait here for the wagons. Then, once all the deliveries are done, we’ll move the big one together.”
“Sounds good,” Ven agreed. He helped Char stand the two smallest wheels up and watched as his friend rolled them toward the icehouse shed near the stable. He could see a tall figure come out of the stable in the dark as Char approached, and realized it was Vincent Cadwalder, the house steward of Hare Warren. Cadwalder took one of the wheels and held the icehouse door open for Char.
As he was watching the two boys store the cheese, the sound behind him grew louder. Ven turned to see three wagons approaching, though he could not make out what they were carrying in the dark. He waved his arms, feeling a little foolish, but not wanting to miss the deliveries.
By the time the first wagon slowed to a stop at the crossroads, Char had returned.
“Gah, look at all those apples,” he murmured. “That should take a while to unload.”
“Not all of them are for the Inn, I’d bet,” Ven said. “I’m sure he’s taking the rest of them to Kingston.”
Char nodded as the farmer stood up, pushed his straw hat back and pointed into the wagon.
“Those ten bushels are for Trudy,” the man said crisply. “Make haste, young’uns, I want ta be to town before daybreak.”
“Yes, sir,” Ven said as Char climbed into the wagon. The two boys unloaded the bushels as quickly as they could, then waved to the farmer as he started west. Char picked up two bushels and headed into the Inn while Ven waited for the second wagon. That one was full of corn, and just as they were finishing unloading Mrs. Snodgrass’s order, a third wagon pulled up, full of parsnips, with one man driving the horses and a second following behind on a mule.
“Give us just a moment, please,” Ven called to the man driving the third wagon. Beneath his straw hat, the farmer nodded. The boys finished quickly, then waited for the third wagon to replace the second in front of the Inn.
“Thank you for your patience,” Ven said to the driver, who nodded again. The second farmer came down from the mule and walked over to the wagon. He reached inside, gave Char a large sack of parsnips, handed another to Ven, and then hauled two more up onto his shoulders. He turned and started for the Inn.
“Want these in through the front or at the back kitchen door?” he asked. There was something vaguely familiar about his voice, but Ven could not see him clearly in the dark. Besides, all farmers and people who worked outdoors wore broad-brimmed straw hats in the summer, making it hard to see them anyway.
“If it’s all the same to you, the back would be great, thanks,” said Char. “We appreciate the help.”
“Always happy to lend a hand,” said the farmer. He trudged around behind the Inn, with the two boys following him, lugging their sacks of parsnips. When he got to the door, he held it open for Char, who went through first, then nodded to Ven to go next.
“Thank you,” Ven said as he struggled with the heavy sack.
The man chuckled. “Not at all,” he said. “How are you this morning, Ven?”
Ven stopped in his tracks. He stared up under the broad brim of the man’s hat and saw two blue eyes twinkling at him in return. His mouth dropped open.
“Your Majesty?” he asked, thunderstruck. “What are you doing here?” Excerpted from THE DRAGON'S LAIR by Elizabeth Haydon.
Copyright © 2008 by Elizabeth Haydon.
Published in July 2008 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.