Authors: Rick Shelley
Tags: #Fantasy, #General, #Fiction
OTHER BOOKS BY RICK SHELLEY
The Dirigent Mercenary Corps
The Spec Ops Squad
HODLING THE LINE
The Federation War
THE BUCHANAN CAMPAIGN
THE FIRES OF COVENTRY
RETURN TO CAMEREIN
The Varayan Memoir
SON OF THE HERO
THE HERO OF VARAY
THE HERO KING
THE WIZARD AT HOME
THE WIZARD AT MECQ
SON OF THE HERO
The Varayan Memoir, Book 1
Copyright © 1990 by Richard M. Shelley
All rights reserved.
Cover art by Isaac Stewart.
Originally published in August 1990 by Roc, a division of Penguin Group USA. Published as an ebook by Jabberwocky Literary Agency, Inc. in 2012.
The Cellar Room
I wasn’t sure that I had enough cash to pay for the cab ride. I’d never expected to need a taxi. My folks had planned to meet me at the airport, the way they normally did when I came home from college. This time, I was coming home for my last spring vacation. In another six weeks I would have my B.S. in computer science. I was also coming home to celebrate my twenty-first birthday. Dad had promised something unusual for my “coming of age”—not my eighteenth birthday when I could vote and all, but number twenty-one. Dad wouldn’t say what he had in mind, just that he wasn’t being old-fashioned about twenty-one being “of age.” I was a little edgy about the surprise. The one he’d hit me with when I turned eighteen was unusual enough. He dumped me in the Colorado Rockies with a light backpack and a few essentials and told me that I had three days to cover fifty miles of rough mountainous forest. He would meet me on the other side. But then, Dad was always a little strange. For years I worried that he was completely loony. Some of his habits were hard to accept as rational. And Mom wasn’t a whole lot better. But it was a fun kind of crazy, and I guess I had a better childhood than most kids I knew. Even being dumped out in the wilderness wasn’t
rough. Dad and I had done a lot of camping, and I knew how to take care of myself. Dad called it a test. I passed without much trouble, even enjoyed it.
“Here you are, kid,” the cabbie said when we pulled up to the curb in front of the house. “That’ll be twenty-fifty.”
Searching for the money and worrying that I might not have that much on me kept me from getting too upset at being called a “kid.” I even had to give him the ten quarters I had left from the video arcade at O’Hare. There was nothing left for a tip—but then, I wouldn’t have tipped anyone who called me “kid” on my twenty-first birthday anyway. I got my suitcase and overnight bag out and shut the door. The cabbie screeched away to let me know how he felt about not getting a tip.
I stood out front and looked at the only home I had ever known. It looked old-fashioned and was. Even when the house was new it must have looked out of place, out of time—limestone blocks in a development of brick, wood, and aluminum; two stories with high-peaked roof and gables among ranchers; nearly hidden behind a stone wall and thick bushes instead of neat white picket or chain-link fencing with sparse, carefully manicured landscaping. Dad had designed the place. He liked to say that it was sometimes worth being different just to be different. From the street, the house was almost hidden. Twelve-foot privet hedges surrounded it. Windows peeped out. Thick ivy clung to the walls. The walk curved back and forth through two decades of transplanted Christmas trees. Lilacs bloomed everywhere, giving the place an overwhelming sweetness for a few weeks every spring.—Home.
I carried my bags toward the front door slowly, savoring the lilacs and the feeling of being home. The house sits 120 feet from the road, and the ground rises five feet from curb to porch. Ten acres of land—most of it looks wild, though there was reason, rationale, behind the layout … at least Dad claimed there was.
No one came out to greet me, but I didn’t start to worry until I saw three newspapers on the porch.
Three days’ papers
. Both locks on the front door were locked. When I opened the door, I had to push a stack of mail out of the way.
“Mom? Dad?” I didn’t get any answer. I brought the papers in, set them and the mail on the little table in the entry way. I headed for the kitchen then, my mother’s private kingdom. There were no dirty dishes piled up. There was also no birthday cake waiting. The milk in the fridge smelled sour. A package of hamburger had turned a peculiar gray color. A quick tour told me that there was no one in the house but me. The search was a frenzied formality. After seeing what was in the fridge, I knew that no one else was home. But both cars were in the garage.
It was time to start worrying.
I went through the house again, more slowly, more carefully, looking for notes. There was nothing in the living room, dining room, or kitchen—places Mom was likely to leave word. Nor was there anything in Dad’s office or in any of the bedrooms or bathrooms upstairs. I even unraveled a couple of feet off every roll of toilet paper looking for a message. I know that sounds crazy, but in my family, it’s not enough to merely be logical.
That left the garage, basement, and yard. I checked the garage first. I looked through Dad’s Citroen and Mom’s Dodge van, and then under them. Nothing. The yard—all ten acres—would need hours to search thoroughly; it’s not as though we just had grass and a few tame trees—it’s a jungle out there. So I headed for the basement.
The cellar was always taboo for me while I was growing up. The door leading down from the kitchen was always locked. On the few occasions when I
allowed down there, it was to get something out of the larger of the two cellar rooms. The smaller room was Dad’s private preserve, and I was
allowed into it. Well, when I was very young, before I started school, there may have been a few times when I went in there with Mom and Dad, but those memories were impossibly vague, connected somehow to memories of visits to relatives.
The door leading from the kitchen down to the cellar was unlocked. I turned on the lights and went down the steps—slowly. My stomach started to churn. I hesitated and wondered if I should call the police. I decided to wait until I finished my search. There were some other calls I could make too—back to the dorm to see if a letter had come for me, to Dad’s agent and a couple of people my folks sometimes did things with. I didn’t think that the calls would do any good, though, not with both cars in the garage, rotten food in the fridge, no note, and the pile of papers and mail. My folks were much too organized for that.
The main part of the basement—furnace, central air, water heater, an old sofa and chair that had been exiled when I was ten, three bicycles (my “wheels” from ages seven to fifteen), and other odds and ends you might find in any cellar—was as I remembered it. Back in the farthest corner, the door to my father’s
was propped open with the snow shovel. I stopped at the bottom of the stairs and stared at that open door, reluctant to cross the cellar and look inside that room. I was afraid of what I might find. That door was always secured by two combination locks and a heavy deadbolt.
I held my breath and listened to silence for a couple of minutes, crazy fears racing through my mind. Had someone broken in and killed them? Had they run off on my twenty-first birthday? Murder-suicide? Was the old man really as crazy as I sometimes thought he was?
After a long hesitation, I walked slowly toward the open door, wishing I had a weapon. I stopped at the door and reached inside for the light switch. It took a bit of fumbling. The switch was set farther from the door than the rest of the switches in the house.
Bright light. Nothing jumped out. I looked in, then stepped inside … maybe with my jaw hanging open.
. There were swords, knives, maces, shields, pennants, and other medieval goodies hanging on the walls. A suit of chain mail was arranged on a dummy in one corner. There was a huge rolltop desk and a worktable in the center of the room. I saw a pile of stuff on the table with several sheets of my mother’s lilac-colored-and-scented stationery on top, but I didn’t run right for that. I was, momentarily, flabbergasted at what else the room held—seven extra doors spaced around the four walls. Two doors flanked the door I had entered through, on the wall between Dad’s room and the rest of the basement, doors that weren’t there on the other side. I shook my head, almost forgetting the search that had brought me to the room. The weaponry was no surprise. There was more of that all over the house. But those doors! Then I went to the table and picked up mother’s stationery.
One mystery at a time. I told myself
Mother’s stationery was an off-size, six inches by twelve, made of heavy paper that felt like parchment. She had written the note. Her ornate script and the royal-blue ink were quite distinctive. The note was dated Wednesday, three days back.
“Dear Gilbert,” it started. Mom never called me “son” or Gil,—well, almost never, certainly not in writing—and
never admitted to Gilbert.
“Your father is overdue from a trip. I’m going after him. I fear he may be in trouble. This is certainly an awkward time. I hope we get home before you arrive—of course, if we do, you won’t see this note—but if your father
gotten himself into a sticky situation, it might not be possible for us to get home before you do.
“Awkward. We intended to have a long talk with you while you were home this time, to tell you about our family history and to initiate you into some of our—shall we say—family mysteries. Your heritage.”
Mother has never been able to write a
note. Once, while I was in high school, I came home one afternoon and found a note that boiled down to “Ride down to the grocery store and get a loaf of bread.” It was 130 words long. I counted.
I took a moment to look through the rest of the stuff piled on the table, hoping it would help me understand what the hell she was getting at. My sword was there. Yes,
, one of them. Fencing was one of Dad’s obsessions. I started taking fencing lessons when I was six—not to mention judo, karate, savate, boxing, and a half-dozen other varieties of martial mayhem. The shooting lessons, guns and bows, didn’t start until I was eight. My favorite sword was there on the table—heavy, double-edged blade, simple cross-hilt—plus a twelve-inch stiletto, weapon belt, camouflage fatigues (I had refused to continue wearing a Robin Hood costume when I was fourteen), compound bow, quiver of razor-headed hunting arrows, small pack, full canteen, and about thirty pounds of other Sherwood Forest-type equipment. Okay, I was looking at some kind of trip again, apparently wilder than my survival trek of three years before. There was also a small leather-bound book—four by six, and three inches thick—held closed by a cracked leather strap. I went back to the note.
“I certainly don’t have time to tell you everything you need to know right now. If I tried, I would still be writing when you got home and I don’t dare wait that long to go after your father. Three days are too many if he
in trouble. Some of it I might even get wrong, and that would be worse than leaving you ignorant of certain possibilities. Knight-errantry is your father’s area anyway, not mine. But I have to give you what help I can. Among the gear I’ve left for you is my grandmother’s
. It’s filled with odds and ends of lore and whatnot, things she wrote down during the years she was imprisoned. You may find it useful if you have time to consult it at need. The short index is one I added when I was a young girl. It’s not complete. I fear that I grew bored long before it was finished.”