New Zephyria
by Robin Gordon

Auksford crest: a great auk displaying an open book with the words "Ex ovo sapientia"

-  Auksford  -

Part IV: Nanny Scungebucket

Chapter 13: Preparations for a Quest

Copyright Robin Gordon, 1996/2004

The Royal Proclamation was read throughout the land. Town criers with bells and tricorn hats declaimed it in the market places, priests and parsons pronounced it from their pulpits, it was published in all the newspapers, and a series of dignified public announcements was broadcast on radio and television. Knights errant and students of philology were sought by every possible means. Valuable scholarships were offered to students of Ancient, Middle and Modern Zephyrian, with prospects of academic advancement for established researchers, while the knights were tempted with free horses and armour, all expenses paid on their expeditions, and rich rewards of land and titles.

On the day appointed for applicants to present themselves, James Jolly, Regius Professor of the Ancient, Middle and Modern Zephyrian Language, and his brother William, Unicorn Professor of Zephyrian Literature and Folklore, took their seats in the Great Examination Hall of the University and prepared to interview prospective students, while Prince Egbert entered a sumptuous marquee set up in the Palace grounds and sat at the Round Table to await the arrival of his Companions.

The Round Table was a magnificent artifact It was made of oak but bore a complex and beautiful pattern formed by inlaying small pieces of the wood of every tree that grew in New Zephyria, from the loftiest pines to the most modest of shrubs, from the fast-growing cypress to the ancient mulberry. Ash, beech, cherrywood and walnut (both figured and plain) gleamed in its polished surface and reflected the vacuously handsome face of Prince Egbert as he sat with his elbows on the table and his head propped in his hands.

At five o'clock in the afternoon the King and Queen arrived at the marquee.

"Bertie, m'dear fellow," called the King, "introduce your Companions to us."

"Arthur," said the Queen, "there is no-one here."

"Eh? What? By Jove, old girl, you're quite right. Where are they, Bertie?"

"No-one turned up," said Prince Egbert sourly.

"This," said the Queen icily, "is what comes of mixing with wastrels and alienating respectable people."

"Don't rub it in, Mother," sighed Prince Egbert, for he knew it was true. The companions of his nightly revels might be bold enough when it came to kidnapping garden gnomes, making off with gates, waking sleeping citizens in the small hours with bugle calls, holding pretty girls to ransom for a kiss, or filling fountains with foaming bath bubbles and trouserless youths, but when it came to facing real danger their courage would melt like a chocolate fireguard.

"Yes, but look here, dash it," groaned the perplexed King, "there are thousands and thousands of chaps of the right age to go on a quest. Not even a young wastrel like Bertie could have chucked all of them into the fountains."

"Of course he couldn't," said the Queen. "It is merely the spirit of the age. The people have lost interest. One princess more or less makes no difference to them. They are too busy swilling and guzzling and playing that dreadful music of theirs."

"Bit strong, don't you think m'dear," murmured the King, looking round uneasily.

"There are no journalists here, Arthur," snapped the Queen. "Even they cannot be bothered with the Quest. Personally I blame the Prime Minister. We were completely wrong to leave the publicity in his hands. When people hear a ministerial broadcast announced they switch off their televisions. We should have had a professional campaign. We should even have considered employing Nanny Scungebucket."

"I say, what?" bleated Prince Egbert. "I mean to say, what, what?"

"What the young nincompoop means," growled the King, "is that that Scungebucket woman has probably done more to undermine our popularity than even he has. Isn't that right, Bertie?"

"Oh absolutely. Those beastly adverts of hers make one look a real ninny, what?"

"That's because you are a ninny, Bertie," said the Queen. "Naturally everyone knows that the capering fool in the crown is meant to be you. You've brought it on yourself with your silly pranks."

A tiny child comes skipping into her garden. "Hello, Gnomes!" She stops. By the pool a bare rock shows the marks of missing statuettes. her mouth opens. She wails. PING! A tiny Nanny Scungebucket appears in a halo of light. "Have one of Nanny's Nibbles." A blissful smile spreads over the little girls face. Then Nanny, by now full size, leads her to the park, discovers a cache of gnomes, and puts to flight a gang of chinless wonders led by a capering nincompoop in a crown. The little girl cuddles her gnomes while sucking one of Nanny's Nibbles. Nanny grins into the camera. "Nanny knows best, dearies, and what Nanny knows is: a little of what you fancy perks you up no end."

Two neighbours blissfully sleeping. Thunderous knocking rouses them from their beds. They start to open their doors, but can't. They heave and strain. It's a tug-of-war. The doors are tied together across the street. The ninny in the crown appears and cuts the rope. Collapse of stout citizens. Roars of rage as they hobble forth in impotent fury. PING! A tiny Nanny Scungebucket appears in a halo of light - and they find peace and contentment in Nanny's Golden Gaspers, the Smoke that goes Deeper. "Nanny knows what you need - even before you do."

A young man walks quickly along a darkened street. He rounds a corner and is scooped up by the princely prankster and his pals. "Come on, chaps. Let's debag him!" A whirlwind of arms and legs. "No, please!" "Ow!" "Yarroo!" "Hurrah!" Trousers are waved in triumph and the victors race off with their spoils, leaving the bare-legged victim lashed to a lamp-post to await discovery by early-morning commuters. PING! A tiny Nanny Scungebucket appears in a halo of light and pops into his mouth one of Nanny's Extra-Long-Lasting Superstrong Mints. Blissful smiles wreathe his face. The long cold hours of the night pass in a flash. The initial mockery of the commuters has no effect, so they cease their sneers and cut him free. "Nanny knows best, dearies, and Nanny's Extra-Long-Lasting Superstrong Mints keep you smilin' through."

What a character she was! As old as the hills, or even older. Her face lined like a wrinkled chamois-leather, and her eyes twinkling like black diamonds. She reminded people of an ancient monkey that had found the secret of eternal laughter - and she dressed much as a monkey would too: in the brightest of colours, often in lurid pink and green. Night after night she appeared on television, playing her part in the tiny playlets, mouthing her catchphrases, cramming her own creamcakes into her mouth with obvious enjoyment, or drawing deeply on one of her own Golden Gaspers.

Nanny Scungebucket had opened her own chain of shops on the day the baby princess had disappeared - the Gingerbread Cottages they were called - for she wasn't just an actress playing a part. She really was Nanny Scungebucket, the cook of genius who had devised the recipe for Nursery Pride (the bread that's so light you won't even know you've eaten), Nightmare Topping (with all its hundreds of different flavours), and dozens of other wonderful sweets and fancies. "Nanny knows best, and what Nanny knows is: a little of what you fancy perks you up no end."

For someone so old her taste in music was surprising. Nothing romantic, nothing baroque, no tootling flutes, no tinkling bells. "Nanny don't know nuffin' abaht arty-farty music, dearies, but she knows wo' she likes, don't she? - an it ain't ve ol' catgut." What it was was a beat that had never been heard before in New Zephyria. Not even Aquilia had heard its like. The Nightmares and the Hellcats were its exponents: the Nightmares in Nightmare Topping ads, and the Hellcats here, there and everywhere. It was a beat that made young blood surge and young men long to kill. "A little of what you fancy perks you up no end, dearies."

No prime minister, however worthy could possibly stand a chance against her. What was on telly? What did people remember? "Nightmare Topping adverts, and that funny one where the prince tips an old man into a fountain. Then the Hellcats singing their latest hit that you can get free for fifteen tokens off Nanny's Golden Gaspers. What prime minister? Oh, yeah, rabbitting on about something or other, can't remember what. Wasn't really listening."

Nanny Scungebucket's advertisements were the brightest and funniest things on television - and the loudest. The Queen detested her. Her regal demeanour froze into aristocratic ice whenever Nanny appeared. It was a measure of her deep disappointment that she should even have contemplated the possibility of employing that woman. Even to have brought herself to speak that woman's name showed how hopeless she thought the situation.

She sighed. "Very well," she said, "since there are no companions for your quest, Bertie, let us return to the Palace and await the Professors Jolly. Knight-errantry has failed us. There remains only philology."

Philology failed too. Not a single student had come forward. The absence of academic researchers was total. The only person to enter the Great Examination Hall all day was a drunken tramp begging for money.

"We shall, of course, begin the research ourselves," said Professor James Jolly.

"We shall read through all two hundred and five volumes of the Chronicles of New Zephyria," continued his brother, William.

"But it will be a slow and painstaking task to decipher the antique styles of handwriting and to translate from Ancient and Middle Zephyrian ..." added James.

"... especially now that the University area has become so noisy," concluded William.

Then they bowed sadly and left.

The Queen sighed again. "There is nothing more to be done today," she said. "We may as well go to bed."

Princess Cinderella began to cry and Prince Egbert embraced her. "Look here," he said. "I mean, well, d-dash it all, we've still got to find Vicky s-somehow, and if no-one will c-come with me I sh-shall g-go alone!"

"Are you sure you mean this, Egbert?" said the Queen severely. "A Quest will not be a summer picnic. There will be dangers: cliffs, precipices, raging torrents, wild animals, murderous criminals who will stop at nothing to prevent you reaching your goal. With a group of hand-picked Companions you might have stood a reasonable chance. If you go alone you will almost certainly be killed - and probably in a very disagreeable and painful manner."

Prince Egbert swallowed hard. "Vicky's my baby," he said. "I m-must f-find her - and I c-can't st-stand what's happening in New Zephyria. I've made up my m-mind. I'll search the whole c-country until I find old Hinny McIldhu. I'll n-never g-give up. N-n-n-never!"

"I'll go with you, Bertie," put in Prince Bruce. "I know I'm not much of a hero, and I'll probably be more of a liability on the expedition, but I said I'd go, and I will, if you'll have me."

Queen Edna's mouth opened in horror as she heard her son speak, but, for the first time in her life, words failed her. Queen Elizabeth began to speak before she recovered.

"You will be like the First Prince and his Companion," Queen Elizabeth announced. "I do not know what the outcome will be, but if anyone can succeed it will be you. Bertie, you must take Prince Theowulf's sword and greenstone club. Set out at first light. Come back after exactly a year and a day unless you find Vicky before then. That is how a Quest should be carried out. We shall now retire. We shall rise early to bid you farewell."

When they were alone King Arthur said to his Queen, "I didn't know young Bertie had it in him - and I've never heard him stutter like that since he was about twelve."

"I think we shall be proud of Egbert after all, Arthur," replied the Queen.

* * * * *

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