The hand-lettered sign above the tiny basement antique store read "Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe". To enter it a customer had to walk down five steps from the pavement. The musty, crowded interior was such a maze that any potential buyer of antiques -- of which there were very few and these were of an odd sort -- had to thread through the store carefully to keep from knocking some ancient brittle artifact to the floor.
Several tables, scattered about in no discernable pattern, held a disarray of curiosities -- small statues depicting imps and cherubs, dusty antique bottles, delicately carved ivory figurines, ancient leather-bound books with dog-eared covers and unreadable titles, a stuffed reptile reputed to be a baby dragon, assorted silver and china music boxes and a heap of brass lamps.
Blocking the already narrow aisles stood sun dials, urns, seamen's chests and marble statues. The dingy walls held death masks, strange fantastic paintings and faded tapestries that depicted knights in a clash of arms. A gilt-framed mirror reflected dark images seamed with spidery lines. An antique grandfather clock tolled each hour solemnly. The room's shelves were laden with more books, bottles and lumpy clay images.
A thick layer of dust covered everything.
Gnorduc, the owner, closed his shop early this evening to admire his latest purchase, said by the seller to be a valuable relic and to have magical properties.
Gnorduc was as antique and curious as his shop. Always a short man, as he had aged he had grown smaller and twisted so that he now more resembled a gnome than a human being. His shoulder-length hair mingled with a straggly unkempt beard and his rumpled and patched garments seemed to be from some bygone era. 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, placed it on the one clear place available and fumbled through a ring of a hundred keys until he found one that unfastened the container's huge rusty lock. With exaggerated care he removed an ornamental teak casket inlaid with ivory. Inside this, a pendant on a golden chain rested on a plush velvet cushion. Engraved on the face of the golden disc was the likeness of a dragon swallowing its tail. It was carved with such artistry that the monster seemed to live and breath. A strange blood hued light gleamed from the serpent's ruby eyes. Around the edge of the pendant were inscribed in delicate script symbols that Gnorduc could not decipher.
The shop owner's hands trembled as he inspected the bauble for several minutes. Finally he muttered, "At last I've found it, the key to the Book of Retslu." The book he spoke of was his most treasured possession. It occupied an honored position atop an old 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.
Except for a curious disc-shaped indentation, the metal band that held it shut had no obvious way to unfasten it. Gnorduc murmured a magic spell as his trembling fingers placed the ruby-eyed charm into the recess. To his delight it fit perfectly. When the objects met, the pendant melted into the band without a visible seam, the fastener divided with a snap and the book's cover flew open as though by an invisible hand.
Gnorduc perched on a tall stool, placed rimless spectacles on the end of his nose and began to read the preface.
"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 have witnessed many of the events of his reign first hand. Also, 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 own 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 exactly sure what the author was getting at. He wet his thumb and flipped to the next page which contained a beautiful illustration of an enormous red dragon standing guard before a golden arch. In the foreground a man, tiny when compared to the dragon, stood sword in hand gazing up at the beast.
Gnorduc turned another page and read on.
"The Kingdom of Retslu is nestled in the Nosduh River Valley, a country with majestic mountains, bountiful farmland and mysterious and shadowy forests. Everywhere in this lush valley life abounds. Its many forms include unicorns, dragons, were-beasts and that unpredictable and ever interesting animal known as humans.
"Early morning of the day of which I shall begin this chronicle, in the village inn of the tiny hamlet of Sawyer a poor youth sleeps and dreams. He is the son of the landlady and works at the inn as waiter, part-time cook and handyman. His dream was about to change his life."
Wonderful, thought Gnorduc, now we're getting somewhere. Surely his dream has something to do with the dragon pendant and its powers. He read on.
"The youth was dreaming about a dusty curiosity shop and a gnomish old man named Gnorduc."