by Robin Gordon
- Auksford -
Part IV: Nanny Scungebucket
Chapter 11: Auld Hinny McIldhu
Copyright Robin Gordon, 1996/2004
"It's all very well you sayin' you're lookin' forward to it," grumbled Arthur, King of New Zephyria, Lord of the Islands, Keeper of the Southern Seas, Protector of the People of the Sea, Friend of the Unicorn and Grand Commander of the Knights of Zephyrus, "but you don't have to make a bally speech. Do I really have to do it? Why can't the Prime Minister? After all he's paid for makin' speeches, and the silly old goat seems to enjoy the sound of his own voice, though I can't imagine why."
"Arthur!" snapped the Queen. "Do try to pull yourself together. Of course you have to make a speech. The Prime Minister is all very well in his way, but no-one wants to listen to him on a Royal occasion."
"No-one wants to listen to him any time," muttered the King.
"You, as King, will make a speech, and so will Bertie as the baby's father."
"Egad!" groaned the King. "If there's one thing worse than havin' to make a speech m'self it'll be listenin' to Bertie wafflin' on like a wet rabbit."
"Oh, very well, m' dear, if you insist," grumbled the King - but, for all his apparent reluctance, he had his speech already prepared - and secretly he thought it was rather a good one.
* * * * *
The occasion was the christening of the King's first grandchild, Elizabeth Victoria, Princess of New Zephyria.
The New Zephyrians love their monarchy more than any other nation on Earth - even more than the Inglish love theirs in the fairytales of the Brothers Jolly. Not even Prince Egbert's nocturnal jests and japes had entirely soured their outlook - and all was forgiven when he woke the Sleeping Beauty with a kiss and then married her. Door-knocking and gnome-napping, once the occasion of righteous fury, were recalled in tranquillity; girls boasted of kisses stolen by the Prince; and youths merely looked sheepish, or even slightly pleased with themselves in a foolish sort of way, when their families and friends chuckled over Royal horseplay that had left them trouserless in the streets.
When the baby princess was born she became the darling of every woman's dreams. The popular press and the women's magazines called her the country's most precious treasure, and their publishers knew they could be sure of doubling their sales every time they reproduced her chubby features on their front covers.
The day of the christening was a public holiday, and most of the population spent it watching the ceremony on television. The Royal procession made its way from a flag-bedecked palace to a cathedral blazing with flowers. New Zephyrian lords and ladies thronged the nave and chancel, for this was a private New Zephyrian feast and the only foreign royalty present were Queen Edna and Prince Norman of Old Zephyria, and their son, Prince Bruce, who was to be the baby's godfather.
Elizabeth Victoria herself behaved with royal aplomb. It is true she looked a little surprised when a tall man in golden robes dripped cold water onto her head, but she bore the shock with regal fortitude, and, as nothing worse happened, she was soon smiling again and taking the whole occasion as an entertainment put on solely for her benefit.
Afterwards the Royal Family and their guests returned in procession to the Palace for the baptismal banquet.
The food was excellent and everyone was happy. The baby's step-aunt, Bulkomia, piled her plate high and waded in with gusto, while her sister Araxia, despite her fears that the excitement would prove too much for her delicate digestion, found herself nibbling a little of this and a little of that - and so skilful were the palace cooks that, far from feeling ill and sleeping badly, she awoke next morning with the distinct feeling that she might face a whole half-slice of toast for breakfast.
The King's speech was clapped and cheered. His jokes made the lords and ladies laugh till they cried, and the Chiefs of the People of the Sea, who for this special occasion had abandoned their everyday jackets and trousers in favour of traditional flax kilts and feather cloaks, grinned and rattled their necklaces of gleaming shells. Whatever the Archbishop might say, they at least were convinced that the Twelve Great Spirits of New Zephyria were present in person to give their baptismal gifts to the baby princess.
A special high table above the royal dais had been laid for them. On it were twelve golden plates and goblets, encrusted with precious stones.
The Twelve Great Spirits were the creators and guardians of New Zephyria. They had watched over its mountains and its plains, its forests and its grasslands, its lakes, its rivers and its coasts, long before the country had been named, before the First Prince had come from the West, before even the People of the Sea had come in their great sail-driven canoes.
They had poured out their love on the rocks, on the plants, on the birds, the animals and even the insects. They had filled with fish the seas, the rivers and the lakes. They had fed the People of the Sea. They had wept when Ruahine-nui Makutu had sent from the deep underworld the Taniwha monsters to uproot the forests and shake the mountains, to turn the rivers from their courses, to drive away the animals and birds, and to attack the habitations of mankind.
The Spirits of the Wind and Sea had seized upon the boat of Prince Theowulf of Zephyria and brought him and his companion to the nameless islands in the Southern Sea. As he came ashore the waves cast at his feet a sharp-edged club of hard green jade, which he hung at his sword-belt.
Then the noise of battle came to his ears and he saw the People of the Sea fighting with spear and club against the onslaught of the fearsome Taniwha. He drew his sword and faced the biggest of the monsters, and slew it with both sword and club, for only thus can the Taniwha be killed, as it was written:
A sword of steel
it does not feel,
a club of stone
can't break its bone
but stone and steel together wield
and Taniwha its life may yield.
Great was the joy of the People of the Sea, rich their feasting. Prince Theowulf and his squire were guests of honour, and the Prince of the Zephyrians sat and talked and laughed chiefly with Moana, daughter of the Sea-People's King.
Yet all was not well, for that night, as they lay sleeping, the Taniwha came again, tunnelling from the underworld like monstrous moles, and with them came both the Chief of the Taniwha and Ruahine-nui Makutu herself, the sorceress, the servant of Death. Her breath was as a choking fog, and with her claws she killed thirty warriors of the People of the Sea before they were fully awake.
Prince Theowulf set out to pursue them through the Taniwha tunnels, but first Moana gave him a ball of twine, and he tied one end to an oak tree and paid out the twine behind him as he descended through the labyrinth of twisting, interconnected tunnels to the Fourth Level of the Underworld; to Tartarus, where Hades holds sway; whence Whiro, Lord of Death and Disease, sends pestilence to Earth; the abode of Tisiphone, Alecto and Megaera, the vengeful Furies; of Hecate, who sends forth Demons to hunt like hounds, and of Ruahine-nui Makutu, scourge of the islands of the Southern Sea.
With sword of steel and hatchet-club of greenstone-jade Prince Theowulf fought and overcame the Chief of the Taniwha, the monstrous Bull of the Underworld. The other Taniwha scattered and fled when they saw the fall of the great Bull, and never again have they attacked in force the people of New Zephyria.
At feasts and festivals the People of the Sea still sing of the deeds of Theowulf, of the slaying of the great Bull below the earth, and of Theowulf's marriage to Moana, the Sea King's daughter, and of how he became First Prince of New Zephyria. They had sung their songs at the wedding feast of his descendent, Egbert, and now his sword and sharp-edged club hung on the wall above them as they sang again at the christening feast for Egbert's daughter.
Then it was Prince Egbert's turn to speak, and to King Arthur's surprise he spoke well, without a trace of wet-rabbitry. In fact the King had just turned to the Queen, and he had just started to say, "Jolly good speech young Bertie made, what?" - when disaster struck.
There was a crash that shook the palace. The great doors of the banqueting hall were flung open, and there stood a huge and horrible shape: a hideous hag enshrouded in black. Though bent with age she filled the archway, and her shadow engulfed the hall.
She strode forward, raised her staff and shook it at the King.
"Ye've minded a'body," she screeched, "but there's ane ye've forgot - and that's auld Hinny McIldhu! For that ye'll pay, King, wi' yer twa maist precious treasures.
"Long ago there came a prince
living tae the realms below
and rapt a life, a precious life,
tae win himself a sea-born wife -
inflicted on us sic a blow
we've suffered from it ever since.
A thousand years we have awaited
a chance tae strike, revenge tae gain.
The time has come. My gift I bring
unto your noble house, o King.
A thousand years' unending pain
is done. At last we shall be sated.
The gift auld Hinny brings? A present
without a future or a past.
A living yin below is taken
tae serve the Mistress, once forsaken,
who comes into her ain at last,
unknown, adored by lord and peasant."
Auld Hinny McIldhu leaned forward and stretched out her arms towards the baby's cradle. Darkness spread from her, but a strange light seemed to rise above the high table of the Great Spirits. The darkness crept forward, but the light held firm. The crone lowered her arms and spoke again, sneering:
"You alane, o King, shall mind
the words o' Hinny McIldhu.
I'm forced by ancient laws to leave
a loop-hole in the spell I weave,
that if ye ken me you'll undo
my magic, and my power you'll bind.
But you'll no' come tae seek me out,
ye lazy, auld, pot-bellied king,
and none shall rally tae yer cause,
they shall not even keep yer laws,
for here and now is pleasure's fling,
the rest is naught but fear and doubt."
There was a flash, a crash, and she was gone.
King Arthur stared open-mouthed at the spot where she had stood. The hall was dark and gloomy, and even the low sunbeams, slanting under the inky clouds and falling on the high table, were fading. The only sounds were the rumble of thunder and the crying of the baby princess.
"Lights!" commanded the Queen, and servants ran to obey. Conversation began once more, but it was subdued.
"Arthur!" snapped the Queen. "Are you going to sit there all day with your mouth open. You look like a stuffed fish. Haven't you ever heard thunder before? It really is too bad. Such a lovely day, too, and now this sudden storm has cast a gloom over everything. I've never known one come up so quickly. It's very odd. The People of the Sea obviously take it as a bad omen. We must try to cheer them up. Why don't you propose a toast?"
The King proposed a toast, but nothing either King or Queen could do could restore the mood of celebration. The baby princess, still crying inconsolably, was taken away. Her mother went too, and the guests took their leave as soon as it seemed decent.
As soon as he was alone with the Queen, King Arthur raised the question uppermost in his mind.
"What do you think she meant, Old Girl?"
"The old crone, old Hinny McIldhu. You know: For that ye'll pay, King, wi' yer twa maist precious treasures."
"Arthur, what on earth are you burbling about? I've had a very trying day, that thunderstorm completely ruined the christening party, my head is aching, and I really can't cope with you asking foolish questions and putting on silly voices."
"D'you mean you didn't see her?"
"Egad!" said the King. "It's comin' true:
You alane, o King, shall mind
the words o' Hinny McIldhu -
but what shall I do? What sort of present could she give that has neither past nor future - and as for bein' pot-bellied ...! I'm not pot-bellied, am I Liz?"
"Arthur, will you please go to bed!"
"Oh, very well, dear, but ... oh dash it!"
* * * * *
Early the next morning that Palace was roused by screams. Tumbling out of their beds, bleary with sleep, King Arthur, Queen Elizabeth, Prince Egbert, Princess Cinderella, Queen Edna, Prince Norman and Prince Bruce stumbled onto the landing, colliding with each other and with running servants, and rushed towards the baby's room. There they found the nurse screaming by the empty cot.
Elizabeth Victoria was gone.
Cinderella began to scream. The nurse's screams redoubled. The King bellowed for silence. Queens snapped, princes gaped, footmen and under-butlers bustled and bumbled - till the Royal Butler arrived, assumed control of the household staff, and sent maids and footmen off about their duties. Quiet was restored, tea was brought, and the royal party sipped and sought enlightenment.
"It's just as she said," groaned King Arthur. "I've paid with my most precious treasure."
"Arthur!" snapped Queen Elizabeth.
"But you must have seen her," persisted the miserable monarch. "Tall and black, stretchin' out her hands towards the baby - till they stopped her."
They shook their heads.
"We'd have remembered anything like that," said Prince Egbert.
"Poor old Arthur," murmured Queen Edna to Queen Elizabeth. "Completely unhinged. Only to be expected, of course."
"We're wasting time," said Queen Elizabeth severely. "We have to find out what has happened to the baby."
"A living yin below is taken," muttered the King in a Highland accent.
"Arthur!" snapped the Queen.
The Princess Cinderella began a fit of hysterics.
King Arthur drew himself up to his full height. "I'm the only one here who knows what's goin' on," he said. Then, turning to the Royal Butler he gave a few masterful commands. "Take Princess Cinderella to her room. Get someone to stay with her. Send for Dr Pimple to give her a sedative, then get me Oliver Simpkin. The rest of you, go and get dressed. We'll talk it out properly when Simpkin gets here. If anyone has a motive for kidnapping little Vicky we can rely on Simpkin to remember who. We can always rely on his memory. Oliver Simpkin never forgets."
Queen Elizabeth took the arm he proffered and, as they swept regally from the room, she gave a quick glance of triumph at Queen Edna. Unhinged? Not a bit of it! A bit fuzzy at times perhaps, but every inch a king.
* * * * *
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