White Queen, Knight Black [The Books of Retslu I]
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by Joe Vadalma
Description: A humorous fantasy in the tradition of Pierre Anthony's Xanth series! In the magical land of Retslu, Dorian, a plucky youth, sets off to win the hand of the lovely princess Jennifer, by winning a tournament. During his travels he befriends a vampire, saves a tiger-headed woman from assault, falls into the Looking-Glass world, is thrown down a well by a witch, is tried by gnomes, goes to Hell, is kidnapped by pirates, finds Atlantis which sinks into the sea, and exchanges riddles with a troll. Through amazing luck and guile, he becomes one of ten tournament finalists. But that is only the beginning, the tournament winners must go on a quest to obtain water from the Fountain of Youth. The first to return with the magical fluid will marry Princess Jennifer and be named heir apparent to the throne. The final test of Dorian's pluck comes when he and the other finalists reach the Fountain of Youth, guarded by the great red dragon who demands the one thing each finalist cannot give in order to pass the gate. A uprorious fantasy classic in the making no true fan should miss.
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner Editions,
eBookwise Release Date: December 2009
7 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [437 KB]
Reading time: 276-387 min.
CHAPTER 1. YE OLDE CURIOSITY SHOPPE
In the most notorious part of Strange City, below a hand-lettered sign reading "Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe," there was a tiny basement antique store. Its quirky, odd customers needed to thread through a musty, gloomy maze of tables and shelves piled high with statues of imps, cherubs and angels; dusty antique bottles; delicate ivory dragons, cats and owls; ancient crumbling books with dog-eared covers and unreadable titles; an unusual stuffed reptile reputed to be a baby dragon; silver and china snuff boxes and heaps of oil lamps. Sun dials, urns, seamen's chests and marble statues were so crowded in the narrow aisles that a person could hardly keep from rapping a shin against them. Death masks, paintings, faded tapestries and gilt-framed mirrors seamed with networks of lines hung on the shop's dingy walls. Antique clocks tolled each hour in a cacophony of chimes. Layers of dust covered everything.
One evening Gnorduc, the proprietor, closed early to admire his latest acquisition, a valuable relic purchased from a nefarious source. He was small of stature and twisted with age so that he resembled a grotesque gnome. His shoulder-length hair mingled with a straggly unkempt beard. Rumpled, patched garments from a bygone era hung on him like rags. His lined pinched face was the same dusty ash as the long untouched items of his shop.
He withdrew a strong box from under the counter and fumbled with a ring of a hundred keys until he found one that unfastened the container's rusty lock. With exaggerated care he removed a teak casket inlaid with ivory. Inside the casket, a silver pendent on a golden chain rested on a plush velvet cushion. The face of the disc illustrated a dragon swallowing its tail with such artistry the creature seemed to live and breath. A blood red light gleamed from the serpent's ruby eyes. Strange indecipherable symbols were inscribed around the perimeter.
As Gnorduc inspected the bauble in trembling hands, he muttered, "At last I've found it, the key to the Book of Retslu." The Book of Retslu, his most treasured possession, occupied an honored position atop a lectern in an odd niche of the store. Although hoary with age, the tome's rich leather binding and parchment pages had weathered the centuries well. Its brass-edged cover was embossed with the identical symbol as the charm--a dragon swallowing its tail. The metal band holding the book shut had a curious disc-shaped indentation with no obvious way to unfasten it.
Gnorduc perched on a tall stool, murmured an incantation as his trembling fingers placed the ruby-eyed charm into the recess. It fit perfectly. He bounced up and down and hollered, "Glory to the Gods." The pendent melted into the band until it became one with it, as though it had been part of it all along. At the same time, the fastener divided with a snap and the book's cover flew open as though by an invisible hand.
Gnorduc placed rimless spectacles on the end of his nose and turned to the page after the title page.
"The ancient land of Retslu has a long history of which I know but a small part. Thus I begin these chronicles during the reign of Good King Woden, since I, myself, have witnessed the important events of his reign. I am sure that many marvels and great matters will occur in Retslu after I am gone. Hence, this volume, like time or a dragon swallowing its tail, has no beginning and no end."
Here, the crooked man paused, scratched his head and readjusted his glasses. "Interesting, interesting," he muttered although he wasn't sure what the author was getting at. He wet his thumb and flipped the page. The next folio contained a beautiful illustration of an enormous red dragon standing guard before a golden arch. In the foreground a tiny man when compared to the dragon stood sword in hand and gazed up at the beast.
Gnorduc turned another page and read on.
"The Kingdom of Retslu is nestled in the Nosduh River Valley, a country bountiful with rich farmland in the midst of majestic mountains whose sides are lush with mysterious and shadowy forests. Life abounds everywhere in this verdant valley in varied forms which include such exotic animals as unicorns, dragons and were-beasts. It is well populated by the most unpredictable and interesting animal of all--human beings.
"During the early morning hours of the day of which I begin this chronicle, in the tiny hamlet of Sawyer a poor youth sleeps and dreams. He is the son of the proprietress of the village inn where he works as waiter, cook and handyman. His dream was about to change his life and the history of Retslu."
Wonderful, thought Gnorduc, now we're getting somewhere. Surely his dream has something to do with the dragon pendent and its powers. He read on.
"The youth was dreaming about a dusty curiosity shop and a gnomish old man named Gnorduc." * * * *
CHAPTER 2. DORIAN'S DREAM
In the loft above the Wayfarer's Inn, Dorian stirred in his narrow bed, coming fully awake only as the dawn's first gray light filtered through the dust on his porthole of a window. It was time to rise and serve breakfast; the tenants would want their morning meal. As the young man stretched and rinsed sleep from his eyes with icy water from the washing bowl, he mulled over his strange dream. What can it mean? he thought. Such a curious shop and strange shopkeeper. I've never seen such a place. He let out a giggle. How could I? I've never been further than two leagues outside of Sawyer Village. Hardly further from this very inn.
"And what is this?" he cried. A pendent, hanging by a golden chain, rested on his chest. With care he slipped the ornament over his head and examined it. "Why, it's the pendent from my dream. How did I come by this?"
For a long while he stared in wonder at the object. Finally the reason for its appearance came to him. He recalled that it was his eighteenth birthday. It is a gift from mother or Felice. (Felice was his older sister.) One or the other must've slipped it on while I slept. That accounts for the dream. A lump came to his throat at the thought of this loving generous act.
But it's so expensive. How could she afford it? He had decided that the bauble came from his mother, a liberal giver. His sister could never scrape enough together to buy such a treasure. But, hardly could his mother. The inn barely paid for their necessities. It must be an inheritance. Something from poor dead papa, bless his soul, to be given to me as I enter manhood. Oh mother, father, it's beautiful. I'll treasure it forever.
With this glad thought he slipped the pendent over his head and hurriedly dressed; time was getting on. He intended to embrace his mother and thank her profusely as soon as he saw her. Nonetheless, in the rush to prepare and serve breakfast, the right moment never came. By midmorning it had slipped his mind.
Although somewhat of a dreamer Dorian was a hard worker. At the age of eight he had been apprenticed to the local carpenter. He labored at this trade until fifteen, when his father died and he was needed to help run the inn. He had gotten along well with John the Carpenter and did his bidding without complaint, regardless of how odious the task. The only sour note in their otherwise good relationship was that John did not hold much with book learning and reading, while Dorian loved books, especially those about knights and dragons. When the shop work was slow, he'd slip away into the woods with a well-loved tome. If the carpenter caught him, there would be a row. Nevertheless, the bad feelings never lasted.
Although John was a rude man, he was a good teacher of the trade he knew. Hence, Dorian learned many useful skills that came in handy when his mother needed his help. On their last day together, the carpenter gave him this advice, "Lad, you've been a good worker, and I think you've learned a little about carpenting. I'll be hard pressed to get your like again. But, stay away from those books; they'll addle your brain. Work as hard for your mother as you have for me. Someday the inn will be yours and give you a comfortable living."
They shook hands solemnly as though Dorian was going on a long journey rather than just up the road. Although the youth saw John each evening when the carpenter stopped by the inn for a mug of ale, and they usually spoke, the words never came as easily as when they were master and favored apprentice.
On the day that the pendent appeared, the inn bustled with activity. The dining room overflowed with travelers on their way to King's Town. He and Felice scurried about taking orders, carrying heavily laden trays and cleaning tables. Something was up; they had never been so busy.
From snatches of conversation that Dorian overheard as he rushed from table to table, he pieced together that the king had proclaimed a great tournament. During a short lull between breakfast and lunch, he asked a patron why all the excitement. The diner was a jolly, talkative man who was only too happy to tell him everything.
"King Woden, who you know is getting on in years and is a widower, has a young daughter, the apple of his eye, who is of marriageable age. Since she is an only child and the laws of Retslu state that only a male may inherit the throne, our beloved monarch has decided that she must wed soon, before he passes to the other side.
"Since her husband will eventually become king, His Majesty desires that the princess's consort be clever, manly, strong, brave and a warrior, like himself. Someone who could run a kingdom, sire wonderful grandchildren and defend the land. Thus, he has arranged a great tournament, open to all unmarried males between fifteen and sixty, of noble birth or commoner.
"The event will take place in a fortnight in King's Town. The games will be elimination contests to winnow the contestants to those who are the bravest, cleverest, and strongest, and who show leadership qualities as decided by the judges. Ten finalists will be sent on quest, the object of which has not been announced as of yet. The first to complete the quest successfully will be betrothed to the princess."
At the word "quest" Dorian's mind wandered. He recalled the books he'd read and began to daydream, imagining himself a knight in shining armor winning each event of the tournament, going on a quest to kill dragons with many adventures on the way and returning to wed the beautiful princess, although in truth, he had no idea what the king's daughter looked like. Because of his musing, the youth failed to hear the jolly man's last remarks. "Of course Woden is very indulgent with his daughter and dotes on her every whim. Whoever wins all may yet lose if she finds him unacceptable. So it would behoove any man who aspires to the throne to also woo the princess."
Among the inn's recent boarders was a gaunt man with fierce eyes called Mordrake. An air of mystery and menace surrounded this goateed stranger with his dark clothing and red-lined cape. As well there should be. He was a powerful sorcerer whose plan was to win the tournament and the princess's hand through necromancy. Mordrake's ambitions soared well beyond even his most ambitious competition. Once he became prince, he would do away with the monarch, declare himself king and use the power of the crown to conquer the surrounding kingdoms. Thus, he would become emperor of the Nosduh Valley.
At supper, from a dimly-lit corner of the dining room, Mordrake surveyed the other guests, many of whom would be his rivals, to determine which men were potential winners. With a keen eye he assessed their strengths and weaknesses by their demeanor. Meanwhile, he kept his waiter, Dorian, busy with demands. He sent back the beef because it was too rare; the asparagus because it was overcooked. He remarked, "After all, why should I, who have eaten in the best inns in the kingdom, suffer this atrocious garbage." He noticed, however, that the waiting lad knew several patrons by name. Hence, he prodded the youth with questions about them.
After he sipped the dregs of wine from his cup, he retired to his room to plan his strategy. None of the inn's tenants seemed to be formidable opponents, although he suspected that some might make it through the first couple of events. He decided to use magic to discover the likely winners. Forewarned is forearmed.
He removed a crystal ball from his trunk, set it on the night stand and made mystical signs over it. "Forces of darkness, Demon Stiny, demon of destiny, show me the future. Let the countenance of the one likely to be crowned in the great event appear within the crystal."
Inside the crystal a cloud churned, forms appeared and disappeared and rainbow colors swirled around. Gradually the chaos resolved into a scene so real it seemed a miniature of life itself. A man climbed steps to a platform while a crowd threw their hats into the air and moved their mouths as though cheering although no sound emanated from the globe. On the stage a royal personage waited for the man's approach. A pace behind, a page held a velvet pillow upon which rested a golden crown. With ceremony the king lifted the coronet and gently placed it on the bowed head of the person who had mounted the platform.
Mordrake bent close, but he could not discern the man's features, the view was too distant. "Who is he?" he cried.
The scene shifted, as though one were moving closer to the platform. Finally only the head and shoulders of the crowned man appeared in the ball. It was a youthful face and rather ordinary.
"I know him. Where have I seen that face before?" Mordrake snapped his fingers to jog his memory. "Recently, I believe. Someone at this very inn." He paused and massaged his temples. "Why ... why, it's the waiter. I scarcely believe it. That bumbling youth? How could it be?"
After the scene in the crystal faded, the conjurer paced the room to reflect on what he had learned. "The only way someone like him could win," he muttered, "is by sorcery. Either he's not what he seems, or he's being helped in some way. Well, it matters not; I'll make certain that he's out of the running before the tournament begins."
From his trunk he withdrew several bottles, something wrapped in expensive silk, a long black robe, a pointed lead cap engraved with astrological signs, a charcoal crayon, string, measuring instruments, nails, wax candles, a brass brazier and some gruesome objects. He donned the robe and cap. After an admiring glance in the mirror, he poured the bottle's contents, a noxious mixture of laurel leaf juice, camphor, salt white resin and sulfur into the brazier and lit it, filling the room with evil fumes. When the liquid burned away, he used the charcoal tied by string to a nail pounded into the floor to draw a large circle. Inside this he drew a smaller circle. Neither ring was complete; in each he had left a small gap. After he wrote magical symbols in the rim between the arcs, he measured two triangles, one inside the smaller circumference, its points intersecting it in three places. He inscribed the second triangle two paces from the rest of the drawing. Along the perimeter of the larger circle at primary points of the compass, due north, east, south and west, he placed the head of a cat fed on human flesh, a bat drowned in blood, a unicorn horn and a man's skull. He carried the remaining paraphernalia to the triangle within the inner ring, completed the circles, lit the candles and placed them on two sides of the triangle. He filled the brazier with hemlock and henbane and poured camphor and brandy over the herbs, which he fired. Lastly, he sprinkled perfumed water over a hazel wand tipped with a magnetized steel point. "Oh wand of magic, I command thee to obey my will, to attract all substances I wish to attract, and to sunder and reduce to chaos all things I wish to destroy."
Now he was ready for the actual summoning. With the wand in hand he raised his arms and in a loud, commanding voice, chanted, "I conjure thee, O Demon Ception, strengthened by the power within me. I command thee by the most powerful prince of the ninth region. Appear forthwith and show thyself to me, without delay."
The room grew dark and a chill permeated it. The flickering candles and the light from the flaming brazier cast looming shadows over the sorcerer like monstrous beasts ready to strike.
Mordrake continued in a louder voice. "Come at once from whatever part of the nether regions and answer my questions. Come at once, visibly and awfully, and do whatsoever I doth desire, for thou art conjured by the name of Mordrake the Powerful." This he repeated three times.
On the third repetition, the room trembled. There came a rumbling as though an earth tremor had rocked the inn. A small flame appeared within the outer triangle. The fire grew until it was the size of a large man. At that point it flickered and turned to thick black smoke. With a sound like the roar of a whirlwind, an evil demon appeared. A thick tail protruded from a tuxedo with striped pants and horns stuck through a stovepipe hat. In one hand this ghastly fiend fanned and shuffled an oversized deck of cards.
"Ah, it is my old friend Mordrake who summons me." It gave the sorcerer a ghastly grin as it riffled the cards. "What service may I perform for you? For a price, of course."
Mordrake stepped back a pace. He hated dealing with demons, especially this tricky one. But, it was necessary for what he had in mind. "I'm traveling at the moment, but I'll provide what you seek as soon as I'm able." He grinned in an attempt to conceal his terror. "Put it on my tab."
"Very well, but your credit is stretched to the limit. As I recall, you already owe me two infants. This will make a third. My appetite is growing; I haven't eaten a fat succulent babe in a good long while. Of course, a fine attractive virgin would be worth two and a half sucklings."
"I'll see what I can do on that score. Pretty virgins are getting harder and harder to obtain. What I need from you is ..."
"I already know what you want. Here, pick a card." The denizen of hell offered the fanned deck to Mordrake.
As the sorcerer stretched out his hand to select a card, he was extremely cautious not to step outside the confines of the circle lest he become meat for the demon. He glanced at the card and nodded. It was the king of diamonds. The king had Dorian's face.
The demon removed his top hat and pulled out a six-inch flame. Within the fire was a tiny perfectly-shaped woman with miniature horns. "This is Miss Direction. Whomsoever I curse with her will always choose the wrong path. Do you wish for me to inflict her upon the youth pictured on the card?"
Mordrake knew this demon was tricky. After all, deception was its forte. So, he did not say yes right away, but asked, "What do you mean by 'the wrong way'?"
Demon Ception chuckled. "Well, for instance, suppose the youth was to start out for King's Town to compete in a tourney. He would get confused and travel in another direction all together without realizing it."
"So he would never actually get to his desired destination," Mordrake completed the thought. "Why the poor lad might wander the world over never arriving anywhere he intends to go. Is that it?"
"Very well. Make it so."
The evil spirit wound up like a pitcher on a baseball mound and threw the girl-flame. "Your wish is granted. Now don't forget about that virgin or babies." It snickered as it vanished in a puff of sulfuric smoke.
At that moment Dorian had entered his room, dog-tired after a long day. Something invisible alighted on his shoulder like a fly, which he flicked at absent-mindedly. While he prepared for bed, there came a knock at his door. To his surprise mama and Felice were there. His mother held a small cake, and his sister concealed something behind her back. "Happy birthday," they chimed.
"Oh my. I don't know what to say. Thank you."
After Dorian embraced them, the little family celebrated. They each ceremoniously devoured a slice of cake and sipped hot tea. Afterwards Felice and mama handed Dorian gifts.
"More presents? I have yet to thank you for the pendent."
Mother and daughter's eyes met in puzzlement. The elder asked, "What pendent, Dorian?"
"Oh you. The one you slipped over my neck while I slept." He removed the amulet from his shirt.
His mother examined it while his sister looked on curiously. "This is an expensive piece. How did you come by it?"
"You know very well. Time for teasing is over."
"No, I don't know." Mama's tone was serious. "That's the truth. No teasing."
Son and mother looked at Felice. She threw up her hands. "Well, I'm sure I don't know."
Seeing their earnest expressions, Dorian told them of his dream and how he had found the bauble.
"It's a magical thing," his mother whispered. "I only hope it is good magic, not evil."
"I know what it is," Dorian cried. "It's a charm and an omen. I'm eighteen today. By many this is considered the onset of manhood."
His sister tittered at this.
"No," her mother scolded. "Don't laugh, Felice. He's right. Now I think I know who his benefactor is. Everyone has a guardian angel. At crucial times of our lives these angels sometimes give omens that the person must do something."
"Oh mother, don't be superstitious."
"Mama is right," Dorian interjected. "And I know what it is that I must do. Enter King Woden's tournament. This charm will help me win it."
The skeptical Felice laughed. "You? Win a tournament and marry a princess? I always knew you were a dreamer, but this is too much. You can't be serious."
Dorian's mother looked from one to the other thoughtfully. This was her first realization that her son was no longer a boy and that he should be free to follow his heart. But she also needed his help to run the inn and there would be danger to him if he did take it into his head to go to King's Town. Nonetheless, she believed in omens; her son's dream and the strange appearance of the pendent were powerful ones. "Dorian? Do you really want to do this?" she asked in a quivering voice.
"Yes mama, with all my heart. I know it will be hard while I'm gone, but Roblo, the butcher's son, is looking for employment and will work for a song. Although he's young, he's a strong, intelligent lad. He's already approached me for a position. There's naught that needs mending now, and Roblo can wait tables, pour rum, do dishes and sweep the kitchen well enough. And, win or lose, I'll return before the moon becomes full again."
To Felice's astonishment their mother said, "Yes, you must go, with my blessing. I'm sure that soon I will have a princess for a daughter-in-law."
They kissed and celebrated into the night.