by Robin Gordon
- Auksford -
Part IV: Nanny Scungebucket
Chapter 20: The search for the Chronicle
Copyright Robin Gordon, 1996/2004
He grabbed the Butler's torch, hurried back to the cellar and along the passage to the Three Goats. This time he could see the spiders' webs he had blundered through before, and the pile of packing cases at the far end of the tunnel. As he crossed the yard an angry voice called from the inn, "Who's there?" - but Landlord Holland was too cautious to come out and give chase. He knew better than to expose himself to danger and leave his property unprotected.
The streets were comparatively quiet. Fires were still burning here and there, and he had to make a detour round a whole street that was ablaze from end to end. Drunks lay in boozy heaps in the gutters, and some of the bodies sprawled on the roadways were probably dead. Occasionally a man or a woman would lurch past him or scuttle nervously out of his way like one of the lost souls in the Underworld. A gang of youths rambled past, singing raucously but too drugged by alcohol to present any threat to anyone but themselves, and once he saw a group of teenage girls systematically stripping the bodies in the roadway of any valuables they still possessed: money, watches, rings, brooches, earrings, wallets, purses, handbags, and any articles of clothing that were unsoiled enough to wear or to sell.
The National Library was guarded by a line of Scungebucket Stormtroopers. They were young men in their teens and twenties, all of them well-built, strong and muscular, and all of them brutal and stupid. They were dressed from head to foot in black except for the lurid, blood red "SS" on the front and back of their plastic, imitation-leather bomber-jackets. They were all armed, but some had guns, some had cudgels and some had knives. Prince Egbert lurked nervously in the shelter of a burnt out shop and watched them. He could see no way of getting into the library.
A boy came past - he might have been ten or eleven - and one of the stormtroopers called to him. "Wanna see wo' I got? 'Ere, 'ave a look."
The boy hesitated. The stormtrooper shrugged. "Orrigh', suit yerself." He showed his cupped hands to his three companions, and they sniggered. The boy was curious. He sidled up cautiously and peered into the man's hands.
Suddenly the others grabbed him, twisted his hands behind his back and stifled his screams with their hands.
"Wot we gonna do wiv 'im?" asked one.
"Eat 'im, o' course," said the first. "We ain't 'ad no dinner, 'ave we?"
"You can't eat people!" objected the eldest.
"Course you can. People is meat, ain't vey? Lions eat people."
"Yeah, but people don't eat people."
"Vis one's not people is 'e? 'E's only a gobbin' kid. You can eat kids. Commander Krod says so."
"Yeah, you go in an' ask 'im."
"How ya gonna cook 'im?"
"Boil 'im!" said one.
"Nah! Roast'im!" bellowed another.
The youngest, who was only seventeen, said nothing. There was a sort of an idea in the back of his mind, a vague, indistinct sort of notion. He wasn't very bright, and even the cleverest person in the world would have found it difficult to think in the din of unmusic, but if he had been able to grasp and think his thought it would probably have turned out to be something like: if they eat boys of eleven what's to stop them eating boys of seventeen?
"Shut your gobbin' mouths, will yer?" snarled the one who had enticed the boy. "D'yer wanna 'ave ter share 'im wiv all vat lot vere? Go an' get stuff to make a fire. I'll take 'im over vere, nice and private."
The others rushed off to collect fuel, even the youngest, who had forgotten his thought, leaving the first alone to gloat over his prisoner and drag him into the burnt out shop where the Prince was hiding. The stormtrooper was enjoying himself. His victim's struggles excited him and gave him pleasure.
"Gobbin' question is," he sneered, "wevver we kills yer before we cooks yer, or wevver we roasts yer alive. I fink Commander Krod says it's better to roast gobbin' kids alive. Pain tenderises 'em, 'e says, makes 'em taste better. Leave off strugglin', you little gobber!"
Prince Egbert found a half-burned piece of wood close to his hand. He caught it up, and cracked it hard over the stormtrooper's head. With a final ear-piercing screech the boy fled. Prince Egbert stared for a moment at the stormtrooper. Was he unconscious or dead? Either way he had to be hidden before the others returned. The Prince dragged the limp body to the back of the building, and an idea struck him. Swiftly he peeled off the man's black blouson, jeans and boots, then he tipped him into a nearby cellar.
A few minutes later Prince Egbert, clad in the uniform of a Scungebucket Stormtrooper swaggered towards the National Library. He saw the three others returning with fuel, and heard their opinion of the first: they thought he had slipped away to enjoy his feast behind their backs.
Bertie swaggered up to the steps below the main portico. He was challenged.
"Go' a message for Commander Krod," he muttered.
Bertie swaggered up the steps and entered the main door. The entrance hall was full of stormtroopers, but these were not on guard. These were the privileged ones, the officers and their friends. They were sprawled about on chairs or on the floor, with bottles of liquor in their hands, cigarettes in their mouths, intent on their playing cards or their dice.
Bertie looked round. The door to the main reading room was slightly ajar, but there was no one guarding it. A little way to the right of it stood a squat, ugly figure, very like the unforgettable Azog. Bertie knew at once that this was Commander Krod, and, like Azog, he was a Demon.
Bertie picked up an empty bottle - there were plenty of those around - and began to move around the room. Krod, he plainly saw, was not drunk. The Demon would notice him at once if he made straight for the door.
"You pushed me, you gobber!" snarled an inebriated stormtrooper. "Wan' a fight? Come on, ven!"
"Go' a message for Commander Krod," he muttered.
"Oh. Ass origh' ven. 'S over vere."
Another few feet, then: "Ere, you vere! You go' any money. Come an' play."
"Go' a message for Commander Krod."
Every time he was stopped the name of Krod cleared his way. Soon he was lounging against the doorframe. Still Krod was watching, looking this way and that. There would be no opportunity to slip through.
Bertie stuck a hand in the pocket of his borrowed jacket - and found a few coins. He felt for the milled edge of a New Zephyrian sovereign. His fingers closed round one and he brought it out quietly. With his left hand he raised the bottle to his lips, watching Krod through his half-closed eyes. As the Demon glanced towards the outer door Bertie lobbed the coin towards the middle of the room.
It landed amidst a group of drunken gamblers. All of them snatched at it, and in a moment fists were flying. Krod let out an angry roar and strode forward, and Bertie seized his chance and slipped through the door into the reading room.
Although he was no scholar Prince Egbert's royal duties had often taken him to the National Library. He remembered one occasion in particular. King Arthur had declared open the new Rare Books Wing at the heart of the Library complex. The Royal party had descended with the Librarian and the Chairman of the Governors to Level A, two floors below the ground, and there the King had solemnly placed in the specially protected and reinforced Chronicle Room the first volume of the Chronicle of New Zephyria. Then they had returned to the Librarian's office to deposit the keys in his concealed safe.
Bertie crossed the reading room, entered the staff area and went through the door to the accessions room. From there a staircase led up to the cataloguing rooms and the offices of the senior staff.
The office doors stood open, and furniture lay overturned. The Librarian's door was broken in and hung crazily from one hinge. His chair lay on its back, his papers had been swept from his desk, and there was blood on the carpet. Bertie stopped and looked around. The drawers and cupboards were closed. The Librarian's coat still hung from the back of his broken door, and his jacket was draped over the back of the fallen chair. The room had not been searched. Stormtroopers must have burst in and dragged the Librarian and his senior staff off to gaol. There could still be a chance.
The Prince picked up the jacket and felt in the pockets. There were keys there! But were they the right ones? He turned his attention to the pictures, moving each in turn until he found the safe. It was locked. He tried the keys. The first was too big, the second too small, the third obviously the wrong type, the fourth went into the lock but would not turn, and the fifth opened it. There hung the keys to the Rare Books Wing and its individual stacks, each with its label. He chose the keys for the main door, Level A and the Chronicle Room and turned away.
At the door he paused. If the stormtroopers decided to begin a search any delay might be vital. He went back, locked the safe, replaced the picture, and put the Librarian's keys into his own pocket.
Luckily the staff had had no time to lock up when they were arrested, and everything was open. Even so, Bertie found the stacks of the National Library confusing, and it took some time for him to find his way to the Rare Books Wing. After that it was easy. Stack A was at the lowest level, two floors below the ground. The Chronicle Room was at its centre. Prince Egbert unlocked the heavy doors and entered. He switched on the dim light and looked around.
The room was empty.
Every shelf was empty. The massive folio volumes of the Chronicle of New Zephyria had already been removed.
Prince Egbert slumped against the wall, drained of energy, drained of hope. Only the Chronicle could tell him the true name of Auld Hinnie McIldhu, and only by discovering her true name could he break the spell. If the Chronicle was destroyed then New Zephyria was destroyed for ever. He had failed.
As he sagged to the floor his eye was caught by a something white on one of the lower shelves - a piece of paper.
He picked it up.
NATIONAL LIBRARY OF NEW ZEPHYRIA
Title: Chronicle of New Zephyria
Volume(s): 1 - 205
Reader's name: J. &. W. Jolly
Books were not normally lent out from the National Library, but the Librarian must have agreed to let the Professors Jolly transfer the Chronicle to their offices at the University so that they could spend more time working on it. If the University had survived the prevailing madness all might not yet be lost. Prince Egbert put the slip into his pocket, switched off the light and locked the Chronicle room. Then he retraced his steps towards the entrance. As he passed a room full of empty boxes and wrapping paper he paused to hide the keys. The borrowing slip he tore into small pieces, and he dropped a few into every waste-bin he passed.
When he opened the door to the main reading room the noise struck him like a physical force. He ducked back, thinking the stormtroopers were pillaging it, and it took him a few seconds to realise that they were still in the entrance hall. He hurried nervously across the room, wondering how he was ever going to get past their raucous rampage.
As he reached the main door something smashed against it. It burst open. Half a dozen Stormtroopers came crashing in. Bertie flung himself backwards and tried to roll under a table. Too late. They were upon him. He was buried underneath a swarm of grappling, black-clad bodies.
The struggle rolled this way and that. Someone's arm was over Bertie's face. He wrenched it aside and looked up at cheering stormtroopers, dozens of them, all around him.
They had him by the leg. Someone bit him. He kicked as hard as he could. There was a yell. His leg was free. He rolled clear and thumped against someone's boot. Hands grabbed him by the arms and hauled him to his feet.
Before he could hit out his captors surged across the room, dragging him with them. He found himself on a table. Their arms were about his shoulders, their faces close to his. Their breath, and the smell of their liquor, their Gaspers and their unwashed bodies, was in his nostrils. On the floor, the fight was still going on. The men on the table were cheering on the combatants, and he was one of the crowd, an anonymous spectator.
It was six to one, but the one was giving as good as he got. A priceless statuette flew from his hands, bounced off the head of one of his assailants and shattered on the floor. A shower of rare volumes drove the others back, and one of them crumpled as a well-aimed boot caught him in a tender spot.
One of the assailants snatched up a medieval vase and hurled it at the furious victim. It missed. Prince Egbert ducked as it whizzed past his ear. It caught the man next to him on the forehead and he fell. His mates surged forward, boiling for vengeance. Suddenly the fight was general, every man for himself, punching, kicking, throwing anything that came to hand.
A couple of blows to the side of the head knocked Prince Egbert down. He crawled under a table and lay still for a moment until his head cleared. All around him young thugs were roaring with rage. Tables were overturned. Chairs were thrown. Something crashed into a chandelier, and millions of crystal shards rained upon the struggling mass below. This inspired them to a frenzy of vandalism: missiles of all sorts hurtled through the air. Chandeliers exploded into fragments, and the great glass screen by Lorenzo Pfeiffer, one of the glories of modern Zephyrian art, was smashed to smithereens.
Prince Egbert saw his chance and hared for the door. The entrance hall was empty but for some stupefied drunks. He ran to the main entrance, and just remembered in time to swagger out like a stormtrooper.
"Woss goin' on in vere?" demanded one of the guards.
"Found the booze, ain't they?" Bertie answered.
"Hear vat?" yelled the guard. "Only fahnd ve gobbin' booze, ain't vey. Come on!"
He and his companions rushed for the door and disappeared inside. Bertie swaggered off, trying to look like a real stormtrooper.
His disguise must have been reasonably convincing. He had the right uniform and he was as dirty, dishevelled and unshaven as a stormtrooper. At any rate he reached the University without trouble.
The noise seemed to redouble as he approached. As soon as he entered the precinct he realised he was too late. Nanny Scungebucket's vision of a People's Fun Palace had come to pass. There were loudspeakers in every quad, blasting out unmusic, and in front of the Registry the Hellcats and the Nightmares were performing live. Bertie was struck dumb at the sight of them. Perhaps the dancing youngsters saw a group of youths and girls skilfully made up to look like bloodthirsty big cats and scary ghouls. Bertie, who had been beyond the Black Stump, recognised them for what they were.
He hurried on. Everywhere he looked there were bonfires of books, pictures, statues, furniture. The University Library had been systematically stripped of its books, periodicals and manuscripts. Its catalogues and atlases had been cast into the fires. The Library building itself was ablaze.
The quiet quad where both the Professors Jolly had their offices had become a hell of noise and smoke. Prince Egbert looked in through the broken windows. One room was stripped bare. From the other rioters were carrying the last pieces of furniture, while others tore up the carpet. Smoke-blackened figures like devils incarnate were dancing round a nearby bonfire, hurling books into the flames, among them massive tomes: the Chronicle? Bertie ran across and grabbed a book from the pile. It was the Dictionary of the Zephyrian Language - James Jolly's own copy.
Poor Professors Jolly, he thought. They had undertaken to read the whole of the Chronicle as a last desperate attempt to find the answer before New Zephyria was destroyed. William had died from the strain of working against the noise of unmusic, and James was able to hear it as far away as his own home out in the suburbs.
A sudden thought struck the Prince: could Professor Jolly have taken the Chronicle home? He would have needed special permission to borrow the volumes at all, and he would probably have had to promise not to remove them from the University campus, but he knew the University was no longer safe and he might well have taken them home to save them from destruction.
Next moment the dictionary was torn from his grasp. Jeering youths and girls were pushing and jostling him.
"Gobbin' posho book-lover!"
"Kick 'is gobbin' 'ead in!"
"Strip 'im an' frow 'im on ve gobbin' fire!"
"Yeah! 'At's right! Strip 'im! 'At's wot Nanny says!"
"Frow 'im on ve gobbin' fire!"
They began to drag Prince Egbert towards the fire. He felt the heat sear his cheeks and he fought to escape. Hands were pushing him forwards, others were tearing at his clothes. His black tunic was torn off. One of his assailants hurled it up in triumph, and, as it spun in the flickering light of the flames, the blood red double-s was plain for all to see.
"Stormtrooper!" someone gasped, aghast.
For a moment they stood in frozen silence amid the turmoil of the book burning. The spinning jacket fell. They saw the blood-red symbols on it. They saw the bright SS on the buckle at their victim's waist. Then, with a wail, they scattered and fled.
* * * * *
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