MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
The morning of my fiftieth birthday found me, as the last twenty had, sneakily examining my chin in the looking glass, searching for a sign, any small sign, of a whisker.
And, once again, as on the previous twenty birthdays, I found nothing.
It may seem strange to you that I was able to reach the age of fifty years and still have my face remain as smooth and hairless as a green melon, and you would be right. Many lads of my race begin sprouting their beards by the tender age of thirty, and nearly all of them have a full layer of short growth, known as their Bramble, by forty-five. It is all but unheard of among the Nain for a boy to reach his fiftieth year without at least some sign that his beard is beginning to grow in.
But then, this is certainly not the first thing about me that the rest of the Nain in the city of Vaarn think of as odd.
If I were a human, by the age of fifty I would be entering the later years of my life, and my hairless chin would be of no consequence. In fact, it might even be seen as an advantage, since human men have the rather astonishing habit of removing their beards with a sharp knife known as a razor each morning, a practice that horrifies the Nain. This intentional sliding of knife over throat also permanently cements the distrust they feel for the race of humans. A man's beard is the story of his life to the Nain.
And on that morning it didn't seem as if I would ever have one—a beard, a life, or a story worth telling of it.
How quickly Fate turns things around.
Being fifty years old as a Nain is the same as being about twelve or thirteen in human years. We live about four times longer than humans, and grow more slowly. You might think that living four times as long as humans we would have special wisdom upon reaching those teenage years that humans do not have. I certainly thought so. On the night before my forty-second birthday I floated this theory past my mother, who looked at me doubtfully.
"Neh," she said, scorn in her voice. "It merely means you have four times as many years being pigheaded and stupid."
She had a point.
But while Nain can be somewhat pigheaded, I know they are not stupid. They are just uncomfortable in the air of the upworld, with the wind blowing and the bright sky and the commotion of those taller people walking about.
Nain much prefer the dark tunnels of the earth, the warm, solid feel of mountain rising around them, the clanging of anvils and the noise of digging that their deep world absorbs. Being out of the earth for any length of time bothers them. It makes them feel as if things are, well, loose.
So when my great-grandfather, Magnus Polypheme, chose to leave Castenen, the underground kingdom of the Nain, and make his way in the world of human men, it was considered more than strange.
It was a scandal.
Magnus the Mad, as he was known, was by no means the first Nain to leave Castenen. Nor was he the first Nain to choose to live among the humans that were the largest part of the population of the Great Overward, where I was born. Nain, in fact, lived in cities all over the vast continent. Oftentimes they were the merchants who sold the wares that were produced within the mountain kingdom of Castenen to humans in their towns and villages.
But not my great-grandfather. He chose instead to move to the city of Vaarn.
By the sea.
To work on building ships.
Even the upworld Nain couldn't figure that one out.
On the morning of his fiftieth birthday, as Ven Polypheme hurried excitedly to the docks, the light of the sun disappeared for a moment, as if it had been suddenly blotted out.
Ven shielded his eyes and looked up into the dark sky just in time to catch sight of the largest feather he had ever seen, wafting down toward him on the hot wind.
Momentarily blind as the sun returned, he reached out and caught it, an oily white feather tipped with blue-green markings.
It was as long as his forearm.
He had no time to wonder where it had come from. His father's voice filled his ears.
"Ven! Ven! Did you see it?"
Ven looked down the long wharf. Pepin Polypheme, a rather portly Nain of close to two hundred and fifty years, was hurrying toward him, puffing and wiping the sweat from his forehead with his pocket handkerchief.
"Did you see it, lad?" his father asked again.
Ven held up the feather.
"Not the feather, the bird!" Pepin gasped as he came to a halt beside his son. "The albatross—did you see it?"
Ven shook his head. "I saw its shadow as it passed overhead, but I was too busy trying to catch the feather to see the bird."
The older Polypheme shook his head as well, spattering drops of sweat into the hot air, and sighed.
"I fear that may turn out to be the story of your life, my boy," he said regretfully. "Catching the useless feather, missing the giant, rare, lucky bird. Ah, well. Come along."
Ven sighed as well, wondering if he would ever be able to do anything but disappoint his father. He slid the feather into the band of his cap and followed Pepin along the planks to the pier where the ship his family was outfitting was moored. Like all Nain he was stocky, but he was tall for his age, so he kept up easily with the old man.
"Have they decided what to name her yet?" he asked Pepin, who was waving to the head shipwright.
His father scowled at him. "You should know better than that. No one hears a ship's name until she is christened. It's bad luck."
"But someone must know what she is to be called," Ven said, mostly to himself, as his father was now talking to the shipwright. "Someone will have to paint the name on her prow before the christening ceremony."
"That won't be you."
Ven jumped at the sound of his second-oldest brother's voice behind him.
"Morning, and many happy returns of the day, Ven. I'd say ‘bless your beard,' but of course you don't have one yet. Now get your oversized fanny to the end of the causeway where the others are waiting. We're drawing straws to see who has to do the Inspection. Now that you're of age, you have to throw your lot in with the rest of us. No more free ride for you, little brother. Even if it is your birthday."
Ven nodded excitedly. He had long been aware of the need for the final check of the ship's fittings that was made on the open sea outside the harbor just before its christening. It was the last chance the ship's builders had to make certain the vessel was seaworthy before turning it over to the new owner.
His brothers dreaded Inspections. They feared the water and could not swim, so the eight-hour voyage on seas that were often rough was torture for them. Whenever it needed to be done, they had drawn hay straws, making the loser in the game undertake the Inspection.
Unlike his brothers, however, Ven could swim, and he loved to sail. His heart was always dreaming of adventure beyond Vaarn, the bustling seaside city in which he lived. So the opportunity to do an Inspection—taking a ship with a small crew out of the harbor and into open sea—made his skin prickle with excitement. I hope I get the straw! he thought, but he said nothing, following Nigel over to meet with three of his other brothers.
He could see them from quite a distance; his siblings, like Ven himself, had hair the color of ocean sand, and their heads stood out in the sea of darker-haired people milling about the docks, despite their being shorter than everyone else. Besides, most folks knew to give the Polypheme boys plenty of room in case one of their frequent scuffles broke out. Their good-natured horseplay had bumped more than one innocent bystander into the water.
Vernon, Osgood, and Jasper didn't appear especially happy to see him. They glanced up from the model of the ship's hull they were examining, then went back to arguing among themselves. Arguing was how the Polypheme family communicated.
Ven watched nervously as Jasper squatted down and pointed to a line of miniature lead rivets that fastened a small board to the keel of the ship's model. He grew even more anxious as his brother spat on the pier and continued to point at the model's hull. Ven had worked on that part of the model, and had forged many of the actual iron rivets for the ship himself.
Scale models of the ships they built were the Polypheme family's stock-in-trade. They fashioned whatever vessel they were crafting in perfect miniature detail, from stem to stern, in all its fittings, down to the last rivet and dead-eye, at one-tenth the size it would be when the ship itself was finished. In this way the Polyphemes could be certain the design was sound, and catch any problems before the vessel sailed into the harbor for Inspection.
At least that was the hope. It didn't always turn out that way.
On Osgood's first Inspection, a design flaw with the bilge pump caused the ship to start taking on water at alarming speed. By the time the leaky sloop returned to the pier, it was riding very low in the water, and Osgood was gibbering like a panicked monkey.
But for the most part, these models served to prevent problems in the enormous projects of building sailing vessels. Whether it was a frigate, a sloop, a galleon, or a fishing boat, before the first iron rivet or steel nail was forged to fasten it together, the Polyphemes had already built a smaller version of it. The model for this one was lying in great sections on the planks of the dock in front of their family factory.
Jasper pointed a stubby finger at Ven, then indicated the bottom of the model again.
"There's twice as many fastenings here as there needs to be," he said, scowling. "Ya think we're made of gold or something, Ven? Do you have any idea of the cost of this?" Jasper was in charge of the factory's finances.
"I know that the ship stands twice as good a chance of holding together if it hits a reef because of them, Jasper," Ven replied. "Since that might save the entire cargo and crew, by my reckoning it's cheap. Just looking after the family's reputation." It was his birthday, so he decided to risk a playful poke at his brother's stinginess. "Wouldn't want skimping on rivets to cause the loss of the ship and the business at the same time."
Jasper's face turned an unhealthy shade of purple. Even though he was half a head shorter than his youngest brother, he strode over to him angrily and bounced his belly off of Ven's.
Ven knew the belly blow was coming and braced himself. So when it came, Ven didn't move an inch, but it sent Jasper sprawling backwards, landing on his backside with a resounding thump.
"Stow your bickering," ordered Nigel, holding out a curled fist from which five straws popped. "Time to draw. Short straw inspects. Since it's your birthday, Ven, you can draw first."
Swallowing his excitement, Ven stepped forward to get a better look at the ends of the straws, trying to determine which of them was the shortest. He inhaled the salty air, hoping it would bring him luck. Then he took hold of one end, closed his eyes, and plucked the straw from Nigel's hand.
At first he thought he must have dropped the straw because of his eyes being closed. Ven opened them quickly, feeling nothing in his hand, then looked.
The straw between his thumb and forefinger was not even the length from his fingertip to the first knuckle.
Nigel opened his palm. Every other straw was at least the length of his hand.
"Tsk, tsk; hard luck, bucko," said Osgood in obvious relief, wiping the nervous sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. "Your first draw, and your first short straw. Too bad."
Ven nodded but said nothing, knowing that any word out of his mouth would betray his jubilation. He turned away from his brothers and walked slowly down to the end of the pier, where the all-but-finished ship was moored, still waiting for its sails to be brought aboard.
As Ven moved beyond earshot, Vernon turned in disgust to Osgood.
"You sniveling baby," he said contemptuously. "Why are you sweating like a prisoner about to be keel-hauled? You knew all along the draw was rigged."
Ven was too far away to hear when Osgood tackled Vernon, too caught up in excitement to notice his brothers rolling around on the docks, pounding each other's heads into the planks. The sight was a common one anyway.
Instead, he was listening to the call of the sea wind, to the scream of the gulls, to the glad song his heart was singing of adventure beyond the harbor of Vaarn, where he had spent his entire life.
It was an excitement none of his family could possibly understand.
In the distance he could make out a tiny moving shadow against the sun, flying in great circles on the warm updrafts.
Ven touched the long feather in his cap.
"Thank you," he whispered into the wind. "Seeing you seems to have brought me luck this day after all."
He had no idea how much—or how bad.
Copyright © 2006 by Elizabeth Haydon