Actually, what I can't stand is cross series pairings or whatever they call it Cobweb, 19/12/06
Once upon a time, in a castle with truly shocking interior décor, where there were thirteen Brats who wouldn't Grow, there lived a tall and gloomy duke and his ward, the Prince Philandros. The prince was warm in every wind and weather, but the duke was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile, and almost as cold as his tone. He wore a leather glove upon his right hand, which strangely did not make it hard for him to wield a cane or smack a bottom. He was six-feet six, and less than 66, and even scarier than he thought he was.
Excuse me? Less than what?
Sorry, Pi- your Grace. Umm, let's get on, shall we? His nights were spent in erotic dreams and his days were spent in clever schemes.
Acceptable, I suppose, if I really have no choice but to take part in this nonsense.
It's a Christmas tradition. Panto. Just go with it.
Cleverly scheming he would stride through the gloomy corridors of the castle, planning impossible feats for the suitors of Philandros to perform. He didn't want the prince to go, because the prince knew how to blow.
Blow warm, I meant to say. The prince was the only warm thing in the castle. Time had frozen there after one particularly chilly bit of feedback. Even the hands of the duke's watch and the development of the thirteen Brats were frozen. Travellers and netsurfers would look up at the gloomy castle on the gloomy hill and whisper: ‘Time lies frozen there. It’s always Then and never Now.’
The cold duke was afraid of Now. Now might bring a handsome knight of brave renown, of gay and shining courage, to whisk or whip the prince over his crupper. And so he dreamed up impossible tasks for those who dared present themselves to win Philandros. He sent them off to cut a slice of moon...
Of moon, or change November into June. He had them hunt the Crushing Bore of Blogarye, or find a dozen things that could not be. They came and failed, and went away, unable ever to sit down again. Many a bold young man had come to grief at the end of the rattan hidden in his cane-sword for answering a riddle wrong, or having a name that began with Q, or speaking disrespectfully of sin.
The castle and the duke grew colder, and Philandros, as a prince will, even where Time has frozen, grew a little older. One day when he was almost 21 a hero, disguised as a minstrel, came singing to the town below the castle. He called himself Quack, which was not his name, and dangerous since the name began with Q and still does. He found a tavern frequented by travellers, tosspots, and troublemakers, and asked about the castle, and the prince.
“Why, if you would seek the prince’s - hand - all you need do is hunt the Bore of Blogarye, and bring his head in time for tea,” laughed a traveller. “But the Bore has ten thousand heads, which makes it hard.”
“The duke is seven foot tall and seventy-seven, or in his prime,” mumbled a tosspot. “He’ll cane you from your wiggle to your ooch, and make a hamburger or a bumburger to feed the readers. A thousand heroes passed his door, and all of them will sit no more.”
The hero shifted uneasily in his seat and wondered where his wiggle and his ooch might be.
The writer of this is liable to find out if he isn’t careful.
Ahem. “No, this minstrel will dazzle the duke with soliloquies and syllogisms, fantasies and philosophies,” sneered a troublemaker. “He’ll say that sin is silly and that his name begins with Q, until the dazzled duke offers him Philandros with his blessing.”
The troublemaker was hefty enough to be a prop, and not only in a mine, yet the minstrel tossed him lightly in the air and caught him again. Then he paid his due and left. A traveller stared after him.
“I’m sure I’ve seen him somewhere before,” he mused. “Perhaps it was on the television.”
Outside the moon was in her wane, and late revellers wound their way to their various abodes, some in rags and some in tags and some in clothes that weren’t designer-label. Tom cats declared their love, or at least their virility, from rooftops. The minstrel pondered how he might gain entry to the castle. Dukes were not known for inviting ragged minstrels to their table. An idea struck him and he unlimbered his lute.
“How, now, the cats meow
from each convenient roof;
my songs are less enchanting
because I tell the truth.”
“Crap rhyme,” pointed out a passing poetaster. The minstrel ignored him and tried another verse. Several drunks and dregs gathered round, hoping for amusement.
“The duke is cold as winter
it’s power that he loves;
that’s why he likes to stroke the prince
while wearing leather gloves.”
There was a collective sigh from the townspeople, for the duke had flogged eleven men senseless merely for staring at his hands, which were always gloved and adorned with knuckledusters or poison rings. Hastily, they hurried off to put as much distance as possible between the doomed youth and themselves.
A tall man in a velvet cloak and mask hurried off towards the castle. “Griper, the duke’s chief spy,” said a voice at the minstrel’s elbow.
The young man looked around and saw an old ma- an old, um - saw a - saw an indescribable thing. “I’m the Gnomux,” said the Gnomux.
“Gnomux?” said the minstrel dubiously, wondering if this was a cross between an operating system and a vacuum cleaner. Actually, it looked a little like the offspring of an operating system and a vacuum cleaner. Then again...
“The only one in the world, and no mere vice,” returned the other proudly.
“You resemble one,” said the minstrel, bemused.
“I resemble only half the things I say I don’t,” said the Gnomux cryptically. “Tonight Griper will lose the power of sitting. He’ll suffer as the duke best loves, because he’ll have to mention - those things that keep your hands warm.”
“Pocket hand warmers, last for an hour and can be reconstituted in the microwave?” suggested the young man brightly.
“No, gloves - oh, bugger,” said the Gnomux. “Now you’ve made me say it and he’ll be gunning for my arse too. Oh well, at least he’ll have to do you first.”
From somewhere far off came a distant swishing sound, as of someone flexing a very whippy cane. A bell sounded in the castle, and a stream of torches began to issue forth. Or even fifth.
“The duke has heard your songs, I fear,” said the Gnomux, with a level of cheer the minstrel thought in rather poor taste. “He prepares to make a bumburger of your rear. Still, never mind, I am here to help you in your peril.”
The minstrel wondered unhappily if it would be possible to ride once your bum had fallen off. Or indeed if it would be more sensible to give up this questing lark and go home and find a nice accountant with whom to settle down.
“We must invent a tale to stay his hand,” continued the other.
“What sort of tale?”
“Nothing obvious, he’s a Top and he’ll Look at you until you crack. No, we must convince him that if you’re whipped a thousand miscreants will be glad.”
“Why, how, details?” panicked the minstrel, as the sound of marching feet drew near.
“Oh, I don’t do details,” said the Gnomux airily. “I’m an ideas man, I don’t get bogged down in the nitty gritty. That’s up to you.”
“A thousand, you say?” hissed the duke, looking with a chilly glare at the minstrel. His voice sounded like iron falling on cold stone flags. (Flags in stone are odd, you must agree. How do they bravely wave, and how strong must the flagpole be?)
“A thousand at least. Rejoicings, general and public. Amnesties. Sweetness and light. Festivals. Days off work.”
“Bah,” said the duke. “I do not like your tricksiness. I think I do not believe this story. It has the air of implausibility.” He Looked so hard at the younger man that it seemed the air between them trembled with an unheard note, like the swish of a cane that has not yet struck.
“It sounds a little like a witch’s spell,” pointed out Gossip, the duke’s second spy, clad like the first in mask and velvet cloak.
“Ptui,” said the duke, because he knew how to. “I hate such spells, unless they lead to wreck, and ruin.” He pondered a moment. “We’ll think of some amusing task for you to do, like all the others.”
“But I am a poor minstrel,” pointed out the minstrel. “Only a noble may seek the prince’s hand.”
“Come now. A pretty poor minstrel, yes, by all accounts, but my guards found your princely raiment in your rooms. You are Timbo of Timba. A lordly guest for our poor dungeons. We’ll think of some amusing task for you to do. Take him away.”
As the guards opened the door to lead the minstrel from the great hall, Philandros came leaping down the stair. He was tall and handsome, and his hair shone like the sun. Timbo was frozen at his beauty, and warmed by it as by spring. The duke, who was not frozen, held his cold hands up as if to a fire.
Following the prince, like lesser lights, came 13 young men in blue pyjamas. They had identical teddy bears and identical pouts. The air was filled with a faint mutter of ‘It was your fault. No, it was yours. Well, I didn’t know. But he never said. It’s not faaaaaaaaaair.’ Seeing the minstrel, they stuck their tongues out as one and thumbed their noses.
“This thing of rags and tatters will play our little game,” said the duke to the prince.
The prince looked politely dubious. “Well, it would make up the fifteen, but I’m not sure he has the build for it,” lisped one of his companions. “Possibly as a back, if he has the speed.”
“Not that game. The other,” snapped the duke.
“I wish him well,” said the prince. He and the false minstrel eyed one another appraisingly, and small smiles broke out on both faces.
“To the dungeons, now!” snapped the duke. “You’ll find the most delightful things that crawl and creep there.”
When the great iron door of the dungeon clanged shut behind the minstrel he found himself alone in blackness. Things rustled and slithered in the dark, and as he moved his second-best foot tentatively forward, something squirmed underneath it.
“Careful, you oaf, you’re standing on my blue suede shoes,” said the Gnomux.
“Why are you here?” cried the minstrel.
“Oh, existential questions. I can’t be doing with philosophy,” said the other. “Philosophers don’t know nearly as much as they think. I had a perfectly sensible conversation with a lion once.”
“Yes. He said: dinner? I said: goodbye!”
The minstrel pondered this for a moment, but as it didn’t appear to make any more sense on going over it he wisely decided to ignore it before it made his head hurt any more.
“No, I meant what are you doing here?”
“I remembered something. We have to get the duke to set you a task.”
The minstrel thought of boning boneless wonders with his bone, or raising grins on faces made of stone, and sighed.
“Don’t sigh,” advised the Gnomux. “It attracts the denizens of these gloomy depths. The duke has a hatred of the loose apostrophe - he keeps all those he can find in the dungeons here, together with other monsters - dangling participles, and verbless sentences, the malapropism, the catachresis, the tautology. And maddened by the dark and filth they’ve bred new chimeras of that ilk. This dark is full of partial malacologists and taut catastrophes.”
Something chittered near the minstrel’s ear, and he shuddered. “Can you get me out?” he asked.
“The duke will send for you in the morning. Tell him you’ll hunt the Bore, or serve him slices of the moon, as long as he doesn’t ask you to find him cups of silver.”
“And then he’ll set you to finding silver cups, and there are none in this land except those the duke has under lock and key.”
“But I am poor.”
“Don’t kid a kidder, kid. You’re Timbo of Timba, a traveller told me who had seen you there. Your uncle’s cupboards groan with silverware.”
“Yes, but Timba is a long way from here. It would take me twelve days to get there and twelve days to return.”
“And it would cost me twelve strokes of my uncle’s cane for being such a numpty as to get myself in this situation. The duke can’t be any worse.”
“The duke,” said the Gnomux darkly, ”does not stop at twelve.”
“Besides, why should he allow me twenty-four days to complete the task?”
“It gives him longer to gloat. He’s good at it and he likes the opportunity to demonstrate the fact.”
The minstrel pondered. “The task seems implausibly straightforward,” he frowned.
“Yes, but the duke doesn’t know you’re Timbo of Timba. He thinks you a thing of ballad songs and snatches, with no access to silver cups.”
“Um. Actually, he does know.”
“Yes. Mentioned it earlier.”
“Ah. Bugger. I was rather counting on his not knowing, you see.”
“So what do I do now?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea. Sorry.”
“No Plan B?”
“Nary a one.”
They sat in silence in the dark for a while. Then:
“Is that your hand, doing that to my – doing that?”
“Ah. Can we move then? I think a dangbless is trying to crawl into my lap.” He had the sudden depressing thought that it was going to be a long night.
On that thought, he fell asleep with the casual ease of the young, only to be awakened by the shrieking of the great iron-bound door as it opened the next morning. Free at last, a preposition at the end of its sentence slunk through.
“You, up. The duke requires your presence,” said one of the guards.
“What about the Gnomux?” asked the minstrel, looking wildly around. His companion was gone again.
“There is no Gnomux. I’ve been to school, I know about these things,” said the guard. “Hup now, look lively!”
“You would hunt the Bore, or slice the moon, or turn November into June?” drawled the duke the moment the minstrel was brought before him.
“Um, yes?” ventured the minstrel, tentatively. Things seemed to be going a little faster than expected.
“Bah. Anyone may merely hunt the Bore, and the mere presence of Philandros turns November into June. Perhaps you’d rather have me send you to fetch silverware?”
“Yes! I mean, no, anything but that.” The minstrel was fairly sure they hadn’t got to that part yet, and he wondered how the duke could possibly know.
“You are wondering how I can possibly know.”
“You see Gossip, there, my spy?”
“But you don’t see my other spy, Tattle.” The duke gestured with his cane at empty space.
“There’s no-one there.”
“Yes there is,” said the voice of Tattle. “I’m invisible.”
“Yes, he is,” agreed the duke. “He listens in to conversations in the dark. He tells me of a touching little scheme, to fetch your uncle’s silver and marry love’s young dream.” He laughed. It sounded like engines that have never been oiled. With an evil leer he lifted the minstrel’s chin and sneered at him.
“You’d have me set a task you think you can do? Very well then, I’ll send you to fetch me three and thirty silver cups.”
“Thank you,” gasped the astounded young man.
The duke made a dismissive gesture. “You must bring them to me ere four and twenty” – he paused.
“Hours. Four and twenty hours have passed. And when you return, the thirteen Brats must have agreed to a sensible arrangement of precedence for your wedding.”
“The thirteen Brats? The thirteen Brats in this castle?”
“The thirteen Brats. The thirteen Brats in this castle.”
“But – but they’re Brats! They’ll never agree on anything sensible.”
“Which adds a little frisson to your task. Especially as all the silverware for nine and ninety leagues around is safely locked in my trophy cabinet, and your uncle’s demesne is far too far to reach in such a time.”
“And if I fail?”
The duke grinned like a skull. “My cane has lacked employment for some hours,” he said. “I’ll thrash you to the limit of my powers. And when your bum drops off and you’ll never sit again, I’ll lock you in that dark and dismal pit again.”
The minstrel whimpered slightly, despite himself.
“Fare none too well,” said the duke. “Oh, and a word of warning. I would not trust the Gnomux overmuch. He cannot tell what should be from what is. Goodbye. Adieu. Your time starts now.”
The guards threw the young man out of the castle, with a boot to his backside and, he thought, quite unnecessary relish. Rubbing his posterior, he turned to the postern to tell them so, but it slammed shut in his face. A gloomy day was breaking, leaving shards of itself scattered untidily around. Far above in a tower, there was a flicker of brighter light, as if a ray of sunshine had touched Philandros’ hair and gained strength from the encounter. Something fell from the tower at the minstrel’s feet. It was a large and folded sheet of paper. He picked it up and thrust it into his shirt without looking at it, the way you do.
“Now,” said the Gnomux, appearing beside him, “we need to see about the silverware.”
The minstrel frowned at him. Suddenly the indescribable Gnomux seemed all too describable.
“I’m not in the mood for your nonsense,” he said. “I’d rather see if there was some means to get away.”
“None,” confirmed the odd creature happily. “The ports are sealed, and the duke’s men patrol every road and highway.”
“Then I am done for,” sighed the minstrel. “My doom has come, farewell my bum.”
“Don’t be such a drama queen. We have to find you some silver.”
“Who’s this ‘we’?” said the minstrel acidly, but was rather comforted, nonetheless. “Anyway, I only have four-and-twenty. . .”
“Hours, I know. I was there.”
“I’m Tattle. Never trust a spy you cannot see.” He smirked.
“The task cannot be done, and I’m trusting you with my arse,” said the young man.
“Foolish boy,” said the Gnomux with a fond leer. “As it happens I’ve thought of another plan. Faghagga.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Long ago there was a maiden in these parts named Faghagga. She went out one morning to take some nice misty landscape shots, maybe a few close-ups of dew-encrusted spiderwebs for those who like their bondage small scale and au naturel.”
“I don’t quite. . .”
“She was a photographer, dolt.”
Faghagga? Faghagga? I’m going to kill him.
Take a ticket and join the queue.
Do we have to put up with this?
It appears to be in the small print of the contract. But I shall be talking to my agent. Right after I’ve had a talk with the writer.
I’m right behind you.
I know. It worries me a little.
“She was, as I was saying when I was so rudely interrupted, a photographer. But she came across Wise King Wayne of Wheelbarro in a compromising position with a young man and a switch.”
“That was what she said.”
“What did she do?”
“She sensibly destroyed the negatives. The grateful monarch rewarded her by recommending her to an adult entertainment combine in distant lands and promising her that every time she said ‘eep’, or caused another to do so, she should gain an award.”
“Silver cups?” breathed the young noble.
“Some will be those engraved acrylic things, I fear,” sighed the Gnomux. “But we can hope.”
“Where dwells this wondrous maid?”
“I don’t remember. She must be ancient now, and would, by the logic of such things, live in a hovel somewhere. Mountain high, valley low, something like that. I don’t suppose you have a magic talisman that would guide us? An alethiometer, an enchanted rose, something of that kind?”
“No, sorry. Oh, wait, maybe. . .” He fished inside his shirt for a moment.
“I don’t suppose this would be any help?” It was a large piece of folded paper, with ‘MAP TO FAGHAGGA’S PLACE’ written on the outside in bold and friendly letters.
“It doesn’t look very promising,” said the Gnomux doubtfully. “Try holding it up by one edge and seeing which direction it bends in. Maybe that will do the trick.”
Eventually, by such divinations, about halfway through the time available they found themselves in a dark wood, where the right way was lost. A leopard went skipping by.
“Excuse me,” ventured the Gnomux, but the lovely creature ignored him.
A lion followed it. It stared coldly at the Gnomux, who went pink. “Bastard,” it muttered. “You might have told me you weren’t coming before I got to the restaurant.”
The Gnomux opened his mouth as if to say something, and then thought better of it as the lion flounced off with a swish of his mane. Timbo looked at his companion, who shrugged. “I had a better offer,” he admitted.
A she-wolf slipped out of the trees in the wake of the other two animals.
“Excuse me,” said the Gnomux again. “Madam?”
The she-wolf turned back.
“Yes?” She was elegant, her coat beautifully cut and cared for, and had a faint and rather charming Italian accent.
“Do you happen to know the way to Faghagga’s place?”
“Follow the sign that says ‘To Faghagga’s Place’” suggested the animal pleasantly, indicating the prominent sign that bore that legend, and many other boring legends too, creation myths with eggs, or fished-up land, and whence the odder denizens of the zoo.
“Oh, er, thanks,” mumbled the Gnomux.
“Don’t mention it,” said the she-wolf, and he duly complied.
The path led them over hill and down dale, through thicket and over stream, and thus and hence to the door of a semi-det, 2 beds, 1 recep, ftted ktch, some windows d/g as spec. There was a smell a little like Forever in the air, mixed with something spicier that might have been liniment, or ginger.
“I wouldn’t call this a hovel,” said Timbo firmly, looking hard at the Gnomux.
“Perhaps not. I may have made that bit up. I do that, you know.”
“I know,” sighed the young nobleman, ringing the doorbell.
A man answered it. He wore nothing but a leather harness, a studded jockstrap, a policeman’s helmet with a flashing blue light on the top, and a slightly smug smile.
He looked them up and down dubiously, and then addressed the younger, and more personable of the two.
“Other than the fact that you are from Timba, have come over hill and down dale with an unreliable guide, and are searching for something of value with which to placate the duke, I know nothing about you,” he declared. “Darling, it’s for you.”
A woman came to the door. The Gnomux, as sometimes happens with very elderly and unreliable narrators, was totally wrong as to her age and condition. She was not old, and certainly not decrepit: indeed, she merited the description ‘strapping’.
I’d like to strap someone, that’s for sure.
“Eep for us,” the Gnomux cried, “or this young man will never win his prince.”
“I eep no more,” said Faghagga firmly. “Once I ept at every faintly salacious story. I ept for girls who turned out to be boys, and boys who liked the strangest kind of toys; for switches, bitches, and for falling britches. I’m jaded now, and quite inept. I eep no more.”
The minstrel’s lower lip trembled slightly, but Faghagga was unimpressed. “I’ve turned a thousand chancers cupless from my door,” she added. “Come in, if you want. I eep no more.”
“I have stories that would make Messalina blush,” said the Gnomux, “or shock a whore. Tales of razor strop and tales of brush. . .”
“I eep no more.” She gestured for them to sit; apart from a sofa and an ottoman the room was simply furnished with a set of stocks, a punishment bench, chains, and other knick-knacks.
“I could tell you of the bishop and the actress, and what she really said. Or just what rugby players do in bed.”
“I’ve seen it all, and heard it all before. I eep no more.”
“Feh,” said the Gnomux, annoyed. “Just a little one?”
“That’s what I’ve heard, too,” agreed Faghagga. “I’d help you if I could.”
“Damn.” The man in the helmet came back in. “Excuse me,” he said, opening the top of the ottoman. A clanking haul of cups and statuettes gleamed inside it.
“What about those?” breathed the minstrel.
“Those? Those are the eeps of others. They’re only plate, and turn green within a day.”
Even as she spoke the lustre of the cups dimmed, and tarnish began to spread across them. As her scantily-clad assistant piled them into a plastic rubbish sack, shards of foil peeled from them, and several corroded to pieces in his hands.
The Gnomux looked thoughtful. “Within a day,” he murmured. “The timing will be tight, but as long as we get out of town by nightfall. . .”
“Tell me,” he said to Faghagga. “Where did this most recent haul come from?”
“Visitors came by yesterday to try to make me eep. It always makes me liverish, and I took it out on Nate here while they watched.” She indicated the man in the harness, who smiled sweetly. The Gnomux noted for the first time that his name, ‘Dominate-D’, was branded into the leather.
“Took it out how, exactly?” asked the Gnomux, noting the nice set of pink lines across Nate’s nates.
“Well first of all, I took this prison strap to him,” she said, showing them an evil looking implement.
“Eep!” said Timbo. A small cup on a black plinth engraved ‘Winners of the Actuaries Association Pub Quiz Night 2004’ tumbled into his hand. The Gnomux took it from him, looked at it and sniffed.
“It’s a start, I suppose,” he said. . .
“Are we going to get away with this?” asked Timbo, as he staggered down the hill under the weight of a sack filled with fake silverware.
“‘Who’s this we?’” the Gnomux quoted. “I think the replicas of the Heineken Cup and the Jules Rimet Trophy will swing it.”
“Was that the one. . .”
“Where she demonstrated the thing with the length of spiked leather and the burning alcohol, yes.”
They both winced.
“But even if the duke thinks these are real,” added the minstrel gloomily, “there’s still the problem of the Brats.”
“Faghagga came up trumps,” said the Gnomux. “She lent you this.” This was the evil prison strap, which coiled weightily around the Gnomux’s arm with the lazy power of an anaconda as he lifted it. “And should that not leave them too chastened to be clever, she lends her rubbing alcohol, and her leather.” He held up a bag with the aforementioned items, and he and Timbo exchanged winces again.
“How goes the night?” rasped the Duke in icy tones, as he sat in his chilly study in a chilly tower in the chilly castle.
“Look out of the window and see for yourself, hey?” returned Gossip, equally coldly.
“What? Chilly sauce? Do you wish to be kebabbed?” snarled the duke, prodding the spy with the steel-capped tip of his cane.
“Ja wel no fine. It’s nearly dawn,” admitted the spy, sulkily. “They cannot have more than an hour left.”
“I hope they’ve come to a bad end,” said the duke, and laughed his horrible laugh. “Though not as bad as their ends will come to if they return here unsuccessfully. And tomorrow, Philandros is twenty-one, and the spell that keeps me from ravishing him expires. I’ll make him mine, from his wiggle to his ooch.”
“A spell? You’ve kept that very quiet.”
“A curse on such like curses. I didn’t wish it known I couldn’t – perform. Do you blame me?”
“No, no. You’re sure it was a spell – eeow!” The duke’s cane had slashed out with blinding speed and caught Gossip across his hose. “Of course it was a spell, silly me, what else could it be?”
“Just so. And where is Tattle? I do not like a spy I cannot spy, no matter that he tells such wicked tales.”
“He followed the Gnomux and the nobleman. He can be felt, you know,” Gossip added.
The duke stared hard at him. “I cannot for the life of me think why one spy would fondly fondle his fellow spy. Um. What does he feel like?”
“Indescribable. A little like the offspring of an operating system and a vacuum cleaner.”
“The Gnomux! That lurking lar! That Judas ex machina! I am betrayed at every turn. But still, they must fail. There is no silverware the length and breadth of my land save that I hold under lock and key.”
Gossip bit his lip.
“Have you thought about Faghagga?” he suggested.
“Faghagga? Hah! She eeps no more. Not even when I told her what I did to those students who played rugby on my lawns.”
“Ach, I hated that.”
“Not as much as they did. And I loved it. Nobody tramples my property and gets away with it.”
A ball bounced down the stairs and into the duke’s study. It was oval and stamped with the word ‘Gilbert’.
“What means this defiance?” huffed the duke. “Am I to be haunted by insolent rugby players?”
Gossip raised his eyebrows behind his mask, wondering if this was a rhetorical question.
A distant howling began.
“Listen to the children of the night, how beautifully they sing,” sighed Gossip.
“Children of the night? Those are not wolf howls that disturb me so, but Brats a-howling. I should know! That damned boy and the Gnomux have sneaked into the castle. I’ll turn them into bumburger.”
“Still, they must have their time and turn,” said Gossip softly.
“Time? There is no Time in this castle. I staked it in the courtyard one bitter night and watched it freeze.” He indicated the unmoving hands of his wristwatch.
“Ja, you mean you forgot to get a battery,” replied the spy. “But Timbo’s time’s not up.”
“I’ll cane him nonetheless,” hissed the duke. “Come, Gossip.” Swishing his cane through the air he limped out of the study, followed by the spy.
As soon as they had gone a secret door opened in the panelling, and in stepped the Gnomux, with Philandros.
“But how did you get back to the castle?” asked the prince.
“We followed the road, dummy,” said the Gnomux. “Now sit there, and look decorative.”
The prince frowned. “How?” he asked at last. “Should I wear something glittery?”
“No! Just sit, then,” sighed the sprite. “If you can do that without taxing your intellect too much.”
The prince smiled the blank, sweet smile of one who is used to such remarks, and doesn’t really understand what they mean. “Where’s your friend?” he asked. “The nice looking one?”
“He’ll be here any minute. He’s hoping to get to know you better. A lot better.”
“That would be nice. He can be my new friend, and meet all my other friends. Will he come to live here like them? We could have a party and eat lots of chocolate. I can cook chocolate, you know, with rice crispies. It’s yummy. Only the duke doesn’t like me to eat too much of it. And. . .”
“Shut up, there’s a good boy.”
The Prince obediently shut up. Presently a sound like a great chain clanking could be heard on the stairs, accompanied by howls and moans.
Philandros looked up, alarmed.
“What the dickens is that?” he asked.
“Probably a bit of bad mutton,” said the Gnomux tartly. The door opened, and in came the thirteen brats. Their pyjama bottoms had been removed, and their unpyjamaed bottoms glowed like traffic lights on ‘stop’ out in the road. Timbo followed them, flicking the strap. The sack of silverware clanked over his shoulder.
“Stop, please,” they moaned. “We’ll be good.”
“And you’ll behave at the wedding? No arguments, no fuss, no drinking sugary drinks and getting hyper? Because you know what will happen if you do.” Timbo glowed, there was no other word for it, with the glow of self-satisfaction and healthy exercise.
“We’ll stick to wine, and toast the partners’ health,” said the tallest Brat, who was twenty-seven if he was a day. “And each will run his own life for himself.”
“Good men,” said the Gnomux. “Timbo, put the sack upon the table. The hour has come!”
Something like a vulture spread its wings and flapped heavily away from the castle. “That was Then,” breathed one of the Brats. “It’s Now, again.”
The duke burst in, followed by Gossip.
“What means all this?” he hissed.
“The task is done,” said Timbo. “All your conditions met.” He reached to take the prince’s hand in his.
“Not so fast. I’ve not seen the silver yet,” snapped the duke, brushing Timbo aside. He reached into the sack, pulled out the pub quiz trophy.
“Is this the best that you could do?” he sneered.
“It’s still a cup,” pointed out Gossip. Timbo started at his voice.
“I cannot even trust the spies I see,” muttered the duke.
“The best is yet to come,” said the Gnomux. “Count on, oh duke.”
Even the duke was silenced when he pulled the Heineken Cup out of the bag.
“It was a team effort,” said the Gnomux airily into the awed silence.
“But there are only thirty-two,” the duke declared. “You lose, after all.”
“But there were three and thirty when we put them in,” expostulated a flustered Timbo. “Gnomux?”
“Oh very well,” muttered the sprite, going very red. “I just rather fancied keeping this one.” He withdrew from somewhere a large model of a – well, the stem was a rather over-sized part of a gentleman’s anatomy, in silver, and outside of the cup itself was moulded as the corresponding bit of female anatomy. The words ‘Lifetime Award for Services to the Adult Entertainment Industry’ were engraved on the bal- on the base.
The duke’s eyebrows threatened to meet his hair and give it a good kicking. His hair retreated further up his forehead in response.
“And that is three and thirty, and I claim the prince.”
“Bah! Take your petty princeling, if you can. I’ll have my silverware to polish.”
“Philandros, sweetheart, we leave for Timba now!” exclaimed Timbo. “We’ll get to know each other on the boat.”
“You mean – I’m supposed to come and live with you now?” said the prince, slowly. The effort of concentration furrowed his brow.
“Yes, of course. We’ll get married. Well, a civil partnership, anyway, but it’s almost the same.”
“And leave the duke? And my friends?”
“Well – yes.”
The prince considered this. “Bugger off,” he said finally.
“Why would I leave him for you? I mean, you’re very nice, but when I kiss him he’s the only one who makes my body shine as if I’d drunk the sun.” The duke beamed and opened his arms, into which Philandros flung himself.
A crestfallen Timbo sat down, heavily. “I’m sure this wasn’t supposed to happen,” he said bitterly. “Gnomux, this is all your fault.”
“Possibly,” admitted the Gnomux, not a whit put out. “Stories tend to become more interesting when I’m around. You wouldn’t have got on very well anyway.”
“Now who’s sounding like a brat, hey?” asked Gossip.
Timbo looked at him hard. “Remove your mask and hat!” he demanded. The spy complied, revealing merry brown eyes and hair of the true deep auburn.
“League! I knew it was you the moment I heard you speak. What are you doing here?” Timbo flung his arms around the other man, as far as they would go, which wasn’t far, they being attached to his shoulders and having been so all his life.
“Your uncle, Good King James of Timba, and my liege, sent me to keep an eye on you when you sneaked off a-questing, ja nee?”
“Why do they call you League?” asked an interested Gnomux.
“He was found in an attic, with his true name pinned to his chest,” explained Timbo impatiently, “and so of course we call him League instead.”
“Premiership?” pondered a bemused Gnomux.
“Oh, he’s the best,” agreed Timbo dreamily. “My tutor and companion through many scrapes.”
“Speaking of which, I want a word with you, for running off and causing such confusion.”
“What word? Apology? Tick off? No, that’s two.”
“The word I had in mind,” said Gossip, with a gleam in his eye, as he took the strap from Timbo, “was ‘retribution’.”
“Ooh,” said the minstrel. “Ouch! Owoh! Ouch. Ooh!”
“Delightful as this is to watch,” the Gnomux said. “You have a boat to catch. She sails upon the tide.” He led them out of the castle. Two white horses pranced there.
“Where did the horses come from?” asked Timbo.
“I have a lot of friends who lend me things,” the Gnomux said. “Some of them I even ask first.” He watched them mount.
“Farewell,” he said, “and take Faghagga’s strap. You’ll need it to keep you warm from time to time, even in the blessed isles of Ever After.” He patted Timbo’s leg affectionately, and vanished.
“Where did he go?” asked Timbo.
“Oh, he knows a lot of places. Some of them are even real, or so they say.”
“I think it’s time that we were on our way,” said Timbo. “Before the duke examines that silverware too closely, ok?”
“It wasn’t what it should be, hey? I thought as much – I knew that shifty look you get when telling lies.”
“The cause was good, the means were justified.”
“You know what happens when you’ve lied. And we’ve a cabin on the ship that’s big enough to swing a cat. Or strap.” He leered, and fondled the heavy leather.
“It’s going to be a long journey,” sighed Timbo of Timba, contentedly, as he and his sometime lover/tutor/servant trotted down the hill to where the ship’s sails blossomed like swan wings, anxious to be under way. The wind stood fair for Timba, and looking out to sea they thought they saw, as people sometimes think they do on clear bright days, the distant shining shores of Ever After. Your guess is quite as good as mine (there are a lot of things that shine) but I have always thought they did, and always will. And as he put his arm around young Timbo, and took him below to an appointment with the strap, an oval ball bounced down the steps ahead of them, and the duke’s last spy thought he heard, from somewhere, the sound of someone laughing.
Click on Idris the Dragon for more stories
© , 2006