by Robin Gordon
- Auksford -
Part IV: Nanny Scungebucket
Chapter 17: Beyond the Black Stump
Copyright Robin Gordon, 1996/2004
It was some hours before Nigel Crimper awoke. Dr Pimple told him, with perfect truthfulness, that he had suffered a sudden seizure, and advised him to take things easy for a while. By then Prince Bruce was out of the country and well on his way to Old Zephyria. Crimper scurried off to consult Nanny Scungebucket.
"Ne'er mind, Dearie," she said. "Nanny would've liked to 'ave 'im on toast, but 'e'll do no more 'arm. 'E won't dare set foot in New Zepheeria again, not if 'e knows wot's good fer 'im. Now, Dearie, let's look at ve plans fer my noo palace, shall us?"
"Nnnnnnnnngh! Yes!" honked Crimper, thinking to himself "MY new palace!"
The site had already been chosen and acquired. The Royal National Botanical Gardens of New Zephyria were even then being bulldozed and the foundations dug. The palace would stand over the city and dominate it. It would be visible from every park and open space and from most of the streets. Seafarers entering the harbour would notice it at once and marvel. It would look down scornfully on the old royal palace and overtop the pinnacles of the cathedral. It would be one of the wonders of the modern world, ranking above the Pyramids of ancient Khamsin and the great Temple of Wisdom in Etesia. Not even the cathedral of the Supreme Pontiff on the Isle of Omphalos would match its magnificence. By day its pink artificial marble would gleam in the sun like a huge mould of Nightmare Topping, and at night it would be illuminated and visible for miles.
Nanny Scungebucket took Crimper up to the site in her chauffeur-driven pink limousine. Together they gloated. Then suddenly Nanny staggered and put her hand up to her head.
Nnnnngh! Nnnnngh! What's wrong, Nanny?" cried Crimper in genuine alarm. What he thought was: "I don't want the old bag dropping dead at my feet before we've established the Republic."
"It's nothin'," she replied. "Jus' them gobbin' bells givin' me an 'eadache. Still, when me palace is all built an' lovely I'll 'ave ve 'Ellcats blaring aht o' lahdspeakers all day an' all night. Vat'll drahn 'em aht! We don't need 'im tellin' us wot ter do no more." She gestured angrily towards the cathedral.
"I've got a cousin who's a clergyman," sniggered Crimper. "It wouldn't surprise me if he were to be promoted to ... well ... perhaps a bishop? Shee-hee-hee."
"Or an Archbishop maybe, seein' as vere seems ter be a vacancy," leered Nanny Scungebucket. "Ven 'e could stop vem gobbin' bells."
"I think she'll last out," thought Crimper as they went back to the car, "but only just. I shan't have to wait very long, hee-hee-hee hee-hee."
* * * * *
"It is true, then?" murmured King Arthur.
"Of course it's true," replied the Unicorn King. "The legends of New Zephyria are all true, though people think themselves much too clever to bother with them these days. When a great and good man dies it is the task of the Unicorn to provide him with a mount to take him to the Black Stump and beyond. When a King of New Zephyria dies, the Unicorn King carries him through the Underworld."
"I don't like leavin' the country in this state," groaned King Arthur. "Is there no way I could stay around for a while? I might just be able to help, don't you know."
"Each dead soul may take as long as he wishes over his journey. If you like I can carry you from end to end of the Kingdom - but there is nothing more you can do to change its fate."
"Am I a ghost, then?" demanded the King.
"Yes. That is what you are. The spirit of a person who has died. You can stay in your old haunts, or you can set out for the world beyond."
"I should like to see what is goin' to happen - or rather, I don't think I should like it at all, but I must see it."
So began the last ride of King Arthur. He rode unseen through the streets of his capital city and saw many things which made him weep and others which made him boil with anger, but he was powerless to intervene. He saw the streets awash with litter and filth. He heard the ghastly row of Scungebucket unmusic blasting from houses, cars and portable radios. He saw quarrels and fights, burglaries, robbery with violence, muggings and stabbings. He saw old ladies beaten to death for their purses, and children kidnapped and strangled for no reason at all. He saw youths steal cars and race them around the streets or crash them into shop windows, while their parents, instead of stopping them, cheered them on and joined them in looting from the damaged shops. He saw them setting fire to buildings and stoning the police and fire brigade when they arrived on the scene. He saw other buildings blazing and the fire brigades not bothering to answer the calls. He saw armed clashes between gangs of white Zephyrians and brown Sea People, and he saw white and brown policemen joining in the battles instead of trying to stop them.
Then a new note of wild revelry seemed to spread all across the city. Looting and arson continued unabated, but in celebratory mood as the news spread: the Monarchy is abolished, New Zephyria has become a republic!
"I don't want to know any more," groaned King Arthur. "Take me away."
Swift as the wind the Unicorn flew across the fields of New Zephyria. Northward it went, seeking the far plain where the last of the unicorn graze and where stands, ancient and black, like a solitary rotting tooth, the stumplike cone of an extinct volcano. The Black Stump it was called, and its reputation was evil. Ghosts, it was said, were often to be seen coming and going around it. People avoided the area, and perhaps that's why the unicorn had lived there so long unmolested.
As King Arthur and his unicorn drew near their destination the King became aware of other shades moving in the same direction. Some hurried eagerly. Others looked back with tears in their eyes and called occasionally with quavering voices, "Goodbye ... goodbye." It was an eerie sound, and no answer ever came. Still others looked around fearfully and did not seem to understand what was happening or where they were going.
The Black Stump is a portal leading from this world to the others. Some say it leads only to the Underworld, but that, though true in its way, is not the whole truth. The Underworld is itself only a halfway stage on a journey which leads either to the Rainbow Bridge or to the Edge of the Abyss. There are portals in every country, and they are all regarded with dread as places both holy and uncanny, for, though the living cannot recognise them for what they are, yet they have some sense of the presence of the spirits of the dead.
All this the Unicorn King explained to King Arthur as they went, and he told him too of the great task that had been laid on the unicorn by Prince Theowulf and the Twelve Great Spirits: they were the Guardians of the Gate of the Underworld. Without the unicorn, nightmares, goblins, hobgoblins, orcs and evil spirits would roam freely over New Zephyria, as they used to before Prince Theowulf defeated the Taniwha.
"Things couldn't be much worse than they are now," said King Arthur.
"You do not know the evil that lurks in the Abyss," replied the Unicorn King. "It is stirring once more, for a thousand years have passed since the days of Prince Theowulf. What you have seen is only a foretaste of what is to come. Some evil thing has passed out into the world, some great evil, and not alone."
As they approached the portal the Unicorn King grew silent. "Let us speak no more of these things," he said, for as soon as we are beyond the Black Stump we are in their realm."
"Egad!" murmured King Arthur. "Better watch our tongues, what?"
The stream of shades narrowed as if to pass through a gateway. It seemed to King Arthur that they came to the entrance to a cave, that they were swept pell-mell along a tunnel, that they plunged deep into the waters below the earth, and then there opened before him a colourless world that stretched farther than the eye could see - a grey, dreary desert, unlit by any sun or moon, but visible to the eyes of the spirits in a cold cheerless light.
Stretching ahead until it was lost in the darkness lay a narrow path. The souls of the dead could be seen making their way along it, down a long, gentle slope, then up again and away into the far distance till they were lost over the hump of the next dune.
"That's the way we go," called King Arthur confidently. "To the Rainbow Bridge!"
The Unicorn King set off.
"Now how in the world did I know that," mused King Arthur. "I've never been here before, never even heard of the bally bridge before today. How do I know where to go?"
"Some people do, some don't," replied the Unicorn.
"Egad! You're quite right," growled King Arthur. "Hey! HEY! You there! Where d'you think you're goin', dash it? You're wanderin' orff the path!"
The shades he addressed took no notice. He bellowed even louder, without effect.
"Come on!" he shouted, digging his heels into the Unicorn's flanks as if it were a mere horse. "Let's round 'em up."
"It will do no good," murmured the Unicorn - but he charged forward, wheeled round the strays and cut off their retreat. They scattered in panic like frightened sheep, but, instead of finding the path, they seemed determined to avoid it.
"Can't ye see the bally path?" roared King Arthur. "Listen to me. I'm your King. Follow me. I'll lead you to the bridge."
The scared souls twittered and moaned but said nothing he could understand. They stared past him as if they could not see him. Only the Unicorn was real to them, and it terrified them.
King Arthur dismounted. "Can you see me now?" he cried, and seized the nearest man by the shoulder. The fellow flapped feebly at his hand, like a drunkard imagining an unpleasant insect, and shrank away.
"I'm the King!" yelled Arthur, but the souls paid no attention. They turned and stared into the distance with expressions of wild panic.
From far off came a sound like the thrumming of wings, then a red glow, two points of red light, the only colour in that accursed realm. Then, with a shriek before which the stoutest heart would quail, the monster was upon them. Some of the souls flung themselves face-down upon the earth, trembling and twitching. Others fled, screaming, away into the dunes.
King Arthur hurled himself onto his unicorn's back, drew his sword, and slashed wildly at the hideous apparition. With a screech of rage it turned on him and struck with its razor-sharp claws. Despite the pain he managed to hack at its wing. Then it was past. It wheeled sharply and hurled itself on the defenceless, fleeing shades.
King Arthur put his hand to his head. "No blood?" he muttered. "But I felt its claws strike."
"How could you bleed?" said the Unicorn. "Flesh and blood have passed away. You can still feel pain, but that thing can do you no real harm. It is one of the lesser demons. You know them even in the upper world - Nightmares. Here they fall upon the vacillating souls, madden them with terror, and drive them to the Abyss where the greater demons wait to receive them."
"Can't we do anything to help them?"
"Nothing. Their fate is already sealed. Let us get back to the path."
They went on. King Arthur was silent and sad. For long stretches the path was empty, but from time to time they came up with small parties of pilgrims striding confidently along, or little groups of uncertain travellers who seemed ill able to see the track. Some of these could see and hear King Arthur and let him point out the way to them - and this cheered him up considerably.
He made one or two attempts to go to the help of stragglers who had left the path, but gave up after a while. Few of these could see or hear him, and those that could did not recognise him and blundered away in a sort of muddled panic. So he journeyed on for many long leagues. After a couple of rescue attempts he ignored the Nightmares. Only the doomed stragglers were afraid of them. The people on the path seemed to know as well as he did that they could not be harmed by apparitions.
To travel hopefully, some sage once remarked, is better than to arrive. That, of course, depends on where you are going and what the journey is like. King Arthur travelled hopefully through the Underworld, but the journey, despite the company of his Unicorn, was no pleasure trip. There was no scenery to admire, just hour after hour of grey track climbing up and over the colourless dunes; mile after mile of dreary sand stretching for ever on either hand. Nothing to see, the boredom grew worse, till even the King started thinking in verse. Thinking in verse and making up rhyme and trying his best to fill up the time.
Then something brought him fully awake with a jerk: another miserable lost soul wandering off the path, going in the wrong direction, away from the Rainbow Bridge, almost as if he wanted to go back to the Black Stump - and it was Bertie!
* * * * *
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