This story available on Jan 30, 2021

Curmudgeon Quest

by

Art Lasky

Breakfast finished, Crispoff settled into his comfy chair; a second cup of coffee within easy reach on the end table. He picked up a well-worn copy of The White Dragon.

 

It was a sparkling Tuesday morning, and the city hummed along busily outside his open window. The balance between early-morning fresh air and rush hour noise reached its tipping point. He rose and slammed the window shut with a muttered curse for the din, as well as humanity in general.

 

For a moment Crispoff almost missed having a job and someplace to be busily rushing off to. Though, at eighty-four rushing was not high on his agenda. The moment passed, he settled back into his seat and opened the book. Within moments Crispoff was on Pern awaiting threadfall.

 

A peculiar crackling sound caught his attention. At first, he thought it was his hearing aid, “Cheap foreign piece of crap…”

 

The words trailed off as he looked up to see a bright spot slowly growing in the middle of the room.

 

“Damn cataracts, damn bifocals, damn …”

 

The spot took on a humanoid shape, once again, his words trailed off. As the glow faded, he beheld a tall and slender figure. Seven decades of reading fantasy stories paid off: Elf, she’s an elf, he thought.The elf had a lush pile of auburn hair that didn’t quite conceal the tips of her pointed ears. She looked young. Of course, for an elf, young was anything under 900 years old. Crispoff decided he was willing to overlook the age difference if she was.

 

“I am Faye, a warrior of the Silver Court. You are summoned to join me on a quest to recover the enchanted Orb of Oberon.”

 

Her voice was rich and husky, the kind that could ignite a fire in a young man’s heart. Crispoff studied the beautiful elf standing in his living room before replying,

 

“A quest? A quest isn’t exactly what I’ve got in mind,” he said, wiggling his eyebrows.

 

Faye stood quietly, unimpressed by and unresponsive to his advance.Crispoff shrugged and changed his focus,

 

“Well, if it’s a-questing you want to go, you’re seventy years too late. When I was a teenager I’d have jumped at the chance to go questing with an elf princess. When I was in my twenties, I would’ve followed you and that Kathleen Turner voice of yours on a quest to steal Satan’s ice bucket, from his throne room in Hell. Nowadays, Princess, that just ain’t gonna happen.”

 

The young elf seemed taken aback by the old man’s response. But she wasn’t about to give up,

 

“How can you refuse? The high council has chosen you to recover the enchanted Orb of Oberon. They always choose the right champion. You are hereby summoned on this quest… Wait, how did you know I’m a princess?”

 

“I read a lot, your character’s always a princess,” Said Crispoff, “Look, kid, the timing of your quest sucks. I’m old, too old to be running off on an adventure.”

 

“But you must, the enchanted Orb of Oberon…”

 

Crispoff interrupted, “Could you just call it the Orb, it’ll save a lot of time; and, trust me I won’t confuse it with any other orb.”

 

Faye said, “Since the Orb was stolen by Dilfram the Black, the kingdom is in grave danger. Mountain trolls are raiding deeply into the northern farmlands, the Corsairs of Calliope attack our shipping relentlessly, and a plague of screaming locusts sweeps across the Golden Plains of Robarn… alas, they are no longer golden.”

 

Crispoff replied, “listen, I’ve always been partial to redheads, and even twenty years ago if you’d batted those smoky green eyes at me I might have signed up. But I’m old O-L-D old! … Who is this Dilfram the Black, anyway?”

 

Faye said, “Dilfram is a dragon, the greatest of the black dragons that have warred with the silver court for thousands of years.”

 

Crispoff, in his best Dorothy voice, said, “Dragons, and pirates and trolls … oh my!”

 

Faye, missing both the sarcasm and the Wizard of Oz reference, tried a little begging, “Will you come? Please, oh please.”

 

“I can’t, I won’t. Bother someone else, why don’t you? Besides I don’t have that kind of time.”

 

“It won’t really take that long, I can bring you right to Dilfram’s cave, and…”

 

“Wait a minute, Red,” the old man said. “You know where the dragon is hiding with the orb? Then it’s not really a quest is it?”

 

“Whatever we call it, you are the only one who can successfully complete the ques… expedition.” Said Faye.

 

“Why me?”

 

“I only know that you have been chosen to recover the enchanted Orb of… sorry, the Orb, by the high council. Did I mention that they always choose the right champion?”

 

\“That’s not really an answer, why not some heroic elven knight? Or brave warrior?” Said Crispoff.

 

Faye began to whimper, then sob, then cry. There is a certain compelling magic in crying. The tears of a human can be ignored, the tears of an elf princess — not so much. The waterworks had reached full cascade when Crispoff surrendered.

 

“Please stop crying, I can’t take crying, please… all right I’ll go.”

 

The crying stopped, as if she had flipped a switch, and triumph bloomed in Faye’s dazzling smile and mischievous eyes.

 

“Shit. You played me. Shit, shit, shit! … At least promise me that they’ll be warriors, magic rings, and maybe a unicorn or two.” Said Crispoff.

 

Faye only smiled.

 

***

 

Transporting to Faye’s world was a non-event. Faye took his hand in hers and gestured with the other hand. A glittering ring on her index finger rapidly grew brighter. There was a flash, and when Crispoff’s vision returned he was standing in a small glade. It was night, and the light of two full moons filtered through the trees. Faye efficiently set about making camp, pulling a surprising amount of gear from her backpack. Whether the darkness triggered some kind of reflex, or it was an after effect of travel through the portal, Crispoff was tired. He did not argue when Faye suggested they turn in.

 

Despite the finely crafted elven bedroll, the ground felt hard. The smoke from the campfire made his throat ache. One side of Crispoff’s body was too hot, the other too cold. He tried to fall asleep by counting sheep but ended up counting aches and pains instead. He periodically turned his freezing side toward the fire and his scorching side away. His similarity to a slab of beef turning on a spit did not amuse him.

 

Being a man, his thoughts wandered toward his beautiful companion, Faye, sleeping within easy reach. Being an old man trying to sleep on the cold hard ground, his thoughts quickly moved from trying his luck to whether she’d prepare a hot breakfast. Coffee, he hoped she’d provide lots of fresh hot coffee, not that instant crap… or, god forbid, decaf.

 

Crispoff finally slept — fitfully. He woke to the sound of Faye moving about the camp. When she saw him stirring she spoke, “Good Morning, did you sleep wel…”

 

He interrupted. ‘No! It was too cold and too hot. The ground was too hard and everything from my throat to my toes hurts too much!’ Was what he planned to say; all that came out of his sore, smoke-ravaged throat was an unintelligible croak, followed by a coughing jag.

 

“Coffee.” He finally said.

 

Faye reached into her pack and pulled out a steaming mug.

 

“Here, drink this,” She pushed the cup into his hands.

 

He sipped; it was warm and peppery... His throat stopped hurting. He drank it down. Everything else stopped hurting, and all was well.

 

“Wow, good stuff, I feel great, you should bottle this, maybe call it ‘Redder Bull… Now, how about you reach into that pack of yours for some breakfast? Nothing elaborate, a few hot croissants with Irish butter and strawberry-rhubarb preserve, maybe a cup or two of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, just a dash of cream, no sugar.”

 

Faye, once again, reached into her pack offering him a thick slice of something that looked like pound cake, “This is all I’ve got, it’s a loaf of journey-ration. You know, my backpack’s not a cornucopia.”

 

Crispoff stared at the loaf for a long moment,

 

“Are you kidding me? I’m helping save your world and all you offer me is some stale sponge cake? That’s not right; that’s not fair.”

 

The elf replied, “You know this type of magic’s not easy; it requires energy and focus, and just like any other discipline it has its rules and limits.”

 

He remained sitting on the ground, arms folded, shaking his head in silent protest of the elf’s failure to meet his dietary demands. Faye took the ration back; giving in, she stared intently at it. Sweat beaded her brow and she grew pale focusing all of her being on the food. Her body began to shake with exhaustion. Slowly a layer of strawberry-rhubarb preserve formed on the ration. She stumbled over to Crispoff, handed it to him, and then crumbled to the ground where she lay panting.

 

Crispoff gingerly lifted the loaf toward his mouth, taking a tiny taste of the preserve. He smiled, “Good. Now was that so hard?”

 

While he leisurely ate the ration and enjoyed another hot mug, Faye recovered her strength and packed up the camp. When Crispoff was ready, she led the way toward the dragon’s lair. It wasn’t far, two miles or so through a cheerful forest. The place Dilfram called home was a cave in the side of a cliff. Nothing grew within a hundred yards of the massive cave mouth. Scorched earth, heaps of bones, and a sulfurous stench made it clear that something unpleasant dwelled within.

 

Faye, kissing Crispoff on both cheeks spoke, “The dragon Dilfram is within. Remember the hopes and blessings of my people go with you.”

 

Crispoff found himself having second, third and fourth thoughts. But, he forced his uncooperative legs to wobble their way across the blackened ground. His pace slowed and meandered as he drew closer to his ominous destination. To bolster his resolve he began to chant.

 

“I’m not scared, I’m a friggin’ hero on a friggin’ quest. I’m not scared, I’m a friggin’ hero on a…”.

 

The quaver in his voice begged to differ with the brave words. He halted just outside the cave mouth. Before he could summon the resolve to enter the dragon spoke,

 

“Come, enter my cave, o great hero.”

 

A dragon’s voice is beautiful, its rich tone and complex harmonics render it hypnotic. Fortunately, Crispoff’s hearing aid distorted both the high and low end of the register; the dragon’s voice had little effect on him. Nonetheless, despite his misgivings, he entered. The cave was dark, but as his eyes adjusted he could make out shapes that could only be piles of treasure, and heaps of plunder.

 

“In all my long centuries of life, I’ve never seen a human quite so old and feeble. You should be at home on your death-bed, surrounded by your family,” said Dilfram.

 

“They never visit. Never! Besides, I’ve always wanted an adventure and…”

 

“And?” prompted Dilfram.

 

“… And, the elf was so convincing.”

 

“They always are,” Said the dragon. “And now you are here to do their dirty work. How sad and pathetic. A decrepit old sack of man-bones doing the cowardly bidding of some elves.”

 

Anger, lack of sleep and no coffee made Crispoff forget his fear. “Hey! Ease up on the insults, Snake Face.”

 

Dilfram was surprised; the man should have been subjugated by the power of her voice. His impudence should have angered her; instead, she was amused and curious. Being a terrifying dragon is lonely, and boring at times. She decided to let things play out, at least until she got hungry.

 

“Ah, a brave sack of man-bones,” she smiled, allowing a few flames to flicker in the gaps between her serrated teeth, “Do not push your luck too far.”

 

His proximity to a very big and very fiery dragon convinced Crispoff to hold his temper.

 

“O mighty worm I come before you seeking a boon.”

 

“I don’t like being called a worm, ape-thing.”

 

“But all the books say…”

 

“All the books are wrong. Tell me what is your name? And where are you from?”

 

Crispoff also knew, from his reading, that you never give your real name to a dragon. Thinking quickly he replied,

 

”Bilbo Baggins from the Shire.”

 

“Delighted to make your acquaintance, Mr. Baggins.”

 

Pleased with himself over the little subterfuge, Crispoff said,

 

“Why don’t you call me Bilbo? All my friends do.”

 

“Very well, Bilbo. Just so you know, if we get to playing at riddles, do not ask me what you have in your pocketses, my precious, or I will burn you where you stand!”

 

“Oops… So, you’ve read The Hobbit?”

 

“Of course I read The Hobbit, everybody’s read The Hobbit. Now, my friend… we are friends, aren’t we? What shall we do?”

 

Crispoff managed a nod and a sickly smile, “Riddles, you mentioned riddles, shall we play a game of rid…”

 

“No! I hate riddles. They’re a stupid waste of time. Why don’t you just tell me about yourself, starting with your real name.”

 

“Crispoff’s the name. I’m retired 20 years and widowed 18. I have three kids, a boy and two girls. I have seven grandchildren, two great-grandchildren. I don’t remember their names or ages. Why should I? They never visit, never call, the momzers never even write. But, I get ahead of myself, my story starts on the morning of August 27, 1933…”

 

It is said that everybody has a talent. More often than not it is at something trivial, sometimes the talent goes undiscovered. Crispoff’s talent was a world-class one, of which he was completely unaware. He was an Olympic level bore, he was so boring that acquaintances walked the other way when they saw him coming. He was so boring that both the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to ring his bell. He was so boring that his family never visited. Several hours passed,

 

“… Which brings us to 1957, that’s when I started working in the shoe department at Sears. You know the job didn’t pay very much… but the wingtips were great, ha-ha. Get it? Wing-TIPS.”

 

Crispoff didn’t notice that Dilfram wasn’t laughing. He also didn’t notice, despite the thunderous sound of dragon snores, that he had bored the dragon to sleep almost an hour earlier. The man droned on, completely unaware of anything until Faye poked him in the ribs,

 

“Okay, good work. I found the Orb, let’s get out of here before the dragon wakes up.”

 

“But, I’m just getting to the good part. You know in 1961 I was made manager of the entire shoe department, men’s and women’s.”

 

“Crispoff, you are a great hero. Generations of my people will be composing songs to honor your name. Epic poems will be written to tell of your great achievement. But for now, please shut up, before you put me to sleep as well.”

 

The trip home was another non-event. Faye left Crispoff with the thanks of a grateful people, and enough dragon treasure to pay for several lifetimes of public speaking lessons.

 

“Hey wait! You’re saying that the dragon found me boring. I’ve never been called boring. How could you say such a thing, why in 1963 I…” were the last words the elf heard, as she hastily fled back to her own world.

Art’s a retired computer programmer. After forty years of writing in COBOL and Assembler, he decided to try writing in English — it's much harder than it looks. He lives in New York City with his wife/muse and regularly visiting grandkids. He’s had numerous flash and short fiction stories published, including a story in the June 2020 issue of the Gray Sisters.  His first novella will be out in The Rabbit Hole Anthology this summer.  Complaints or (the rare compliment) about the 5 minutes of your life wasted reading his story should go to artlasky321@gmail.com. You can follow him on twitter at @ARTLASKY

Interview available on Feb 11, 2021

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