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The Kitchen Warriors

Joan Aiken





  The Kitchen Warriors

  Joan Aiken

  Illustrated by Jo Worth


  1. Prince Coriander’s Return

  2. The Cat Mistigris

  3. The Nixie’s Rescue

  4. The Furnace Dragon

  5. The Kelpies’ Bowl

  A Biography of Joan Aiken

  1. Prince Coriander’s Return

  THE KING OF THE ELVES had lost his crown. It was a very old and beautiful one, which had been in the royal family for thousands of years. Also, without having his crown on his head, the king would not be able to make laws, or eat his breakfast, or see ambassadors, or die, or give judgments at the Royal Elvish Games.

  So everybody in the elves’ village was in a terrible state of worry and confusion, dashing hither and thither, moving furniture, pulling down curtains, digging, and pushing one another out of the way.

  The elves’ village is in the china cupboard, behind the soup bowls and the sugar basin and the pile of bread-and-butter plates. Of course THEY—the people who live in the house—can’t see it; in fact the village is not visible at all by daylight. But in the dark it glows, and that is when the elves go about their business.

  THEY—the people who live in the house—had been spring-cleaning; all the china had been taken out of the cupboard, and the cups and plates and bowls washed and then put back again. That, the king said, was when the crown must have been lost.

  He was scolding all his subjects. “The crown should have been put away in my treasure chest!” he stormed. “We heard THEM talking about spring-cleaning last week. Why did nobody take proper care of the crown?”

  “But Corodil,” said his wife the queen, with tears in her eyes, “you were wearing the crown yourself until late last night, just before you went to bed. How could anybody put it in the treasure chest? Can’t you remember what you did with it when you took it off to go to bed?”

  “I did just what I always do with it!” snapped King Corodil.

  But the trouble was that he did something different with his crown every night. Sometimes he hung it on a cup-hook with the best after-dinner coffee cups. Sometimes he climbed out of the china cupboard and hid the crown inside the butter dish in the refrigerator. Sometimes he went into the pantry, and stowed the crown among the onions or potatoes.

  The crown might be almost anywhere, and the poor elves were wearing themselves out, searching here and there all over the kitchen. They had to be extremely careful and quiet, and look sharply about them as they did this, for the kitchen is full of dangers. There is Fendire, the Infrared dragon, who generally lurks behind the gas burners but may come roaring out any minute, with red-hot eyes and tongue. There are the deep-freeze trolls, blazing blue, who can swallow an elf at a mouthful, or turn a whole regiment of elves into ice powder. There are the evil kelpies in the dishwasher, who are slimy and hungry and terribly strong. There is the Norn of the broom cupboard, who sometimes comes out riding on her three-legged broom, and is capable of grabbing handfuls of elves in her sharp talons. There is the dog Garm, who sleeps in front of the coal stove, and the cat Mistigris, whose basket is under the kitchen table.

  All these perils had to be faced by the searching elves. But the elves did face them bravely, hunting far and wide, all over the kitchen, while King Corodil grumbled and fumed and urged them to make haste. He was hungry and wanted his breakfast of bread and honey and a golden cup of warm mead. But, of course, by elf law, without his crown on his head, he might not eat or drink or do anything at all, except grumble.

  “Well, Corodil,” said Queen Corasin, “you might at least brush your teeth and comb your hair and beard, while you are waiting for them to find the crown.”

  These things were allowed. But the king said, “I shall do nothing of the sort!” His white hair and cloudy beard were so long and woolly and tangly that he looked like a bundle of dandelion clocks. “I shall do nothing at all but sit on my throne until the crown is found,” he said, and folded his arms.

  In the middle of all the commotion, a stranger arrived at the elf palace. This was a handsome young man, who looked like an elf prince. He wore a sword, and was well dressed, but seemed to have come from a long way off, for he looked tired, and his clothes were much stained with travel, as if he had been on boats, and swum across rivers, and climbed mountains, and pushed his way through forests. As indeed he had.

  “Who are you?” growled King Corodil, eyeing the young man without favor. “And where have you come from?”

  “I’m your son Coriander. Don’t you recognize me? You sent me away at age three, to be educated among the Garden Elves. Now I’m of age, so I have come home.”

  Queen Corasin cried, “Oh, my dear, dear son! How delighted I am that you have come home at last!”

  But King Corodil muttered, “I don’t recognize you. How can we be sure that you are my son?”

  “Here is the sword that you left for me,” replied Prince Coriander, and he pulled the sword from its scabbard. The blade was all inscribed with runes, and the silver-mounted handle set with sapphires.

  “It looks like the sword,” said the King, “but how do I know you didn’t pinch it from some other fellow, eh?”

  “Oh, Corodil,” cried his wife, “don’t you see that the prince is the very spit image of what you looked like when you were that age? Anybody could see that.” And she gave the young man a hug, and he gave her one back.

  But King Corodil, who was becoming hungrier and hungrier, and angrier and angrier, exclaimed, “If you are really my son, the best way you can prove it is to find my crown, which some dumb mutton-headed fool seems to have lost. You find the crown, so that I can eat my breakfast, and then we’ll see about recognizing you, and all that business.”

  “Very well,” said Prince Coriander, “though it’s a poor way of greeting your only son when he comes back to the palace after eighteen years. Where is the crown most likely to be?”

  “That’s just what nobody knows!”

  Prince Coriander began to search. First he went into the dark pantry, which smelt of onions and apples. A terrible growl came from the huge dog Garm as he passed its basket in front of the coal stove, but the brave prince pulled out a silver whistle and blew it so piercingly in the dog’s ear that Garm sank down again, and hid his head between his paws.

  Prince Coriander searched all through the pantry, but the crown was not there; or at least he did not find it. He returned to the kitchen, passing the broom cupboard on his way. A whiff of cold, dark, stale air came out under the door, and he heard the hiss of the Norn, stirring in her cobwebby corner.

  But the Queen had said, “Your dear father never goes into the broom cupboard, so don’t look there.”

  Prince Coriander scrambled up and looked down into the sink. There were the nixies, beautiful green sisters with long silky hair. They were making a ladder of their hair to climb up to the taps, and turning them on, and sliding down the long twisted rope of water that came out.

  “Hey, you nixies! Have you seen my father’s crown?” he called to them, and they laughed and said, “If we had, handsome prince, do you think that we would tell you?”

  “Yes!” he called, and tossed them an ivory rose.

  They had never seen such a thing, and shrieked with joy.

  “For that, beautiful prince,” said the eldest nixie sister, putting the rose in her hair, “we will tell you that your father’s crown is not here. And it is not among the trolls, either, for our
youngest sister Waterslenda has been captured by the trolls, and cries to us daily to set her free. If the crown were there, she would have seen it. Nor is it in the dishwasher, where the kelpies live, for if it were there we should certainly know. Perhaps the crown has been taken by the Vacuum witch. You had better ask her.”

  “Where is she to be found?”

  “In the Utility Desert, a long journey from here. But the dangers are terrible. You had much better stay here and play with us.”

  “No, I can’t do that just now,” said Prince Coriander, “for I have promised to find my father’s crown. But when I have done that, I will try to rescue your sister from the trolls.”

  “Take care, then! For the witch can swallow you at a gulp! You need to arm yourself with a long, long spear, and hold it crossways, so that she will not be able to bite you. Wait, and we will give you one.”

  The prince thought this sounded like useful advice. The nixies, who have power over all shining things, gave him a slender spear that was made of diamond from end to end, clear as water, harder than steel, and it shone like a lamp, too, giving him light in the Utility Desert, which was a dark, grim place, dusty and cold and so huge that it would take an elf ten days to cross it. But luckily the Vacuum witch lived on the near side.

  She was coiled up, hanging from a hook like a huge snake with batwings, and she opened her jaws wide as Prince Coriander approached. But he held his glowing spear crossways, and, while she was turning her horrid head this way and that, wondering how she could manage to swallow him, he called out: “Hey, you Vacuum witch! Have you swallowed my father’s crown? For, let me tell you this: that crown was made from ninety different red-hot metals in the workshop at the center of the earth, and, if you have swallowed it, the spells engraved inside the crown foretell that you will have indigestion for ninety times ninety years.”

  “Well, I do get a bit of indigestion, as a matter of fact,” mumbled the witch. “I’ve been wondering what caused it.”

  “Try a bit of this,” said the prince, and he tossed her a flower of elvish mint which he had brought with him from the Garden Elves.

  The witch gulped down the flower, waited a few minutes, and then said, “That has cured my heartburn. For which, I thank you! But just the same, that won’t stop me from swallowing you, the minute you drop your spear!” and she opened her wide jaws again.

  But Prince Coriander had already leaped out of reach, crying, “Ho, no, witch, you won’t swallow me this time. If the flower can cure you, then you cannot have my father’s crown inside you.”

  “Very likely the Infrared dragon has it,” said the witch sulkily, closing her jaws again, as the prince returned to the kitchen.

  Fendire the Infrared dragon was asleep as Prince Coriander approached his cave. High up, on the bars of the grill, he hung, with his black and green scales glistening greasily, and his horrible claws uncurled, and his red-hot tongue lolling from his mouth. His eyes were almost shut, all but a faint spark of fire in one of them.

  A long way below him, underneath the gas cooker, was a patch of dust which THEY had not managed to remove in THEIR spring cleaning, and in the middle of the patch of dust, right at the back, against the skirting-board, something shone—just a faint gleam of gold could be seen, and a twinkle of red, which might be a ruby.

  I believe that must be my father’s crown, thought the prince.

  He wondered if it would be possible to get it away without disturbing the dragon.

  Or perhaps it would be better to disturb the dragon?

  The prince pulled out his little silk bag of mint flowers. Holding the bag cupped in his hands, with the mouth of it drawn together, he blew into the narrow mouth—blew and blew and blew, until the bag swelled up like a balloon, to the size of the prince’s head. Then, still holding the mouth twisted together with his teeth, to prevent the air escaping, he clapped his hands against the sides of the bag, so that it exploded with a violent bang.

  The dragon woke with a start. Mint flowers were whirling all round his head. He sneezed and sneezed and sneezed again, and, still sneezing, dropped to the floor. There he saw Prince Coriander, and rushed at him with a roar, darting out tongues of flame in every direction. But halfway through his charge he had to stop and sneeze again, and, while he was doing that, the prince dashed underneath the gas cooker, grabbed the little gold shining dusty object, and sprang way again.

  But the dragon went roaring after him, hissing and flaming and spitting out red-hot grease. The prince turned boldly, with his long diamond spear braced to receive the dragon’s charge. Whether it would have killed the dragon, who can say? But at that same moment, the dragon let out a wail.

  “My handkerchief! My enchanted rag! I had it tucked down behind the grill, and it has blown out of the window. Oh, I must find it at once, at once, for if it is lost for a year and a day I shall grow cold and die, oh, oh, oh, oh!”

  And, whirling and flaming, he rushed away to look for his enchanted handkerchief.

  Prince Coriander lost not an instant in leaping up on to the kitchen table, on to the counter, on to the bread bin, and so up into the china cupboard and back to safety.

  “Look, father!” he called, as he strode into the elves’ village. “Look, I have found your crown!”

  For the object that he had found, though dusty and greasy, was, indubitably, a very beautiful, ancient crown, made from ninety-nine different metals, and ninety-nine different jewels, with a different spell carved on each precious stone and a different rune inscribed on each strip of metal.

  But King Corodil looked on the crown with great suspicion.

  “That? That’s not my crown! That’s the crown of my great-great-grandfather Corasinny, which was lost a thousand years ago. I remember the description of it, and all the fuss when it was lost.”

  “Well, but, Corodil dear,” said his patient wife, “it will do, won’t it? It’s a crown, after all. You can put it on and eat your breakfast.”

  “That’s true,” said Corodil, brightening.

  “Just let me comb your beard a little first.” So she began to comb his beard saying, “Now that our dear son Coriander has come home we must summon all the elves together and hold a feast—oh!”

  For as she combed his beard, what should tumble out of it but his very own crown, which had become tangled up and lost in there while he slept.

  “That’s my proper crown,” said King Corodil with relief. “Now I can have breakfast and be born and die and make laws and judge the Elvish Games. You had better hang that other crown up somewhere. It might come in useful to have a spare.”

  So the ancient crown was hung on a cup-hook, and all the elves came to the palace for a feast, to celebrate the homecoming of Prince Coriander. They sang and laughed and ate and drank all night, until the sun rose, and THEY came down for the day.

  2. The Cat Mistigris

  THE ROYAL ELVISH GAMES WERE being held in honor of Prince Coriander’s return to his father’s palace. On the kitchen floor at night (after THEY had gone to bed) there were chariot races, round and round the kitchen table. And there were horse races, which took place in the space between the great dog Garm and the deep-freeze. The dog Garm had been given an enormous honey-cake, baked in the palace bakery and spiced with poppy seed; it had sent him into a deep sleep from which it was to be hoped he would not wake for nine hours; so that it was safe to start the horse races from a point just two inches beyond his tail. A similar honey-cake would have been given to the cat, Mistigris, but for two reasons: the cat Mistigris didn’t like honey-cakes, and also he was out at the time the Games began. In fact the cat Mistigris often stayed out all night, and the elves hoped he would do so tonight.

  Running races were held on the floor space between the sink and the broom cupboard. Elves are extremely fast runners. They have to be, for there are so many dangers they must run from. And, though people don’t realiz
e this, the kitchen elves have very little magic about them. They can make themselves invisible for short periods, in emergency, but it is hard work, like holding your breath, and soon wears off. They can jump tremendously high—they have the same power of take-off as a grasshopper, which often saves them in danger—but this knack, too, may desert them when they are tired or upset. In daylight, the elves are invisible to people—except just a very few with sharp eyesight—but they are visible to cats, dogs, and birds.

  After the high-jump events, chariot races, horse races, and running races, wreaths of laurel tied with golden ribbons were handed out to the winners. There were no other prizes. These wreaths were considered a terrific honor, and the prize winners wore them for months, until they dropped to bits.

  After this prize giving, a good deal of mead was drunk, before the next events were due to begin: the long jump, discus throwing, and wrestling.

  A couple of hundred-inch winners, Hirondel and Dibdin, became rather lively on mead, and they began to boast. “It’s just as well the cat Mistigris isn’t here,” said Hirondel, “for if he was, I’d climb up his fur and pull out his whiskers.”

  “It certainly is a good thing he isn’t here,” said Dibdin, “for if he were sitting under the kitchen table, I’d tie his whiskers into a granny knot.”

  “I’d fill his ears with cobwebs, so that he couldn’t hear us.”

  “I’d bandage his eyes with mushroom peel, so that he couldn’t see us.”

  “Oh, be quiet, you silly fellows,” said their girl friends Ilthra and Chraselas. “You’ve both had much too much to drink and you are talking a pack of rubbish.”

  But the two winners took no notice of this sensible advice.

  “I tell you what I’d do,” said Hirondel. “If the cat Mistigris came in now, I’d rig up a sling out of a tea cloth, and I’d fix a crane and tackle under the kitchen table, and I’d hoist Mistigris into the air, so that he just hung there dangling, and didn’t interrupt our Games.”