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 21: Failure

Copyright Robin Gordon, 1996/2004

Prince Egbert scrambled to his feet, grabbed his jacket, and fled. Once out of danger he reassumed the borrowed jacket and his Stormtrooper swagger. It was a highly effective disguise. Rioters and drunks all hastily made way for him, and all would have been well if his borrowed boots had not hurt his feet so abominably.

He sat down on a low wall to soothe his aching blisters, and was hidden by an overhanging bush from two teenage car thieves. They chose an undamaged car, broke open the locked door, opened the bonnet, and with practised skill, started the engine. They gave a yell of triumph and darted for the doors. Bertie was quicker. Ignoring his blisters he hurled himself at the would-be driver, swung him aside and slid into the driving seat.

"Ere, wotchu doin', you gobbin' gobber?" yelled the other boy.

Prince Egbert thrust the gear leave into first and gave him an evil grin. "Commander Krod wants his dinner," he snarled. "You!"

The boy squealed, opened the door and rolled out. Prince Egbert drove away towards the pleasant suburb where Professor Jolly lived.

It was greatly changed. The trees which once lined the streets were gone. Houses were barricaded against invaders, or lay abandoned or in smoking ruins. Professor Jolly's house was still standing, but it seemed deserted. Prince Egbert rang the bell, then hammered on the door. A curtain twitched, then the door was flung open by Mrs Jolly.

"I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I didn't know it was a Stormtrooper. I wouldn't have kept you waiting."

He entered, closed the door and turned to her. "Where is Professor Jolly?" he asked.

She seemed confused. "Y-y-your colleagues... I mean..."

"I'm not a Stormtrooper," he said. "I'm Prince Egbert. Don't you know me?"

"No," she said carefully. "Citizen Egbert is dead. My husband has been arrested, but we're not royalists. Long live the Republic. Long live President Scungebucket. I meant no disrespect. I didn't know it was a Stormtrooper at the door."

"I am Prince Egbert," he insisted.

"I'm glad you've joined the Scungebucket Stormtroopers," she answered. "I'm glad you've seen the error of your ways."

Prince Egbert led her into her sitting room. He took off his jacket and threw it onto a chair. He moved towards the window and stood in the light.

"I am not a Stormtrooper," he said, "and I'm not dead. I really am Prince Egbert. Can't you believe me? Can't you tell me where your husband is?"

"It really is you," she said. "But you're too late. They've taken him, the Stormtroopers. I don't know where."

"I've got to find the Chronicle of New Zephyria," he said urgently. "It's the only way to save the country. Is it here?"

"It was here," she replied, but my husband had it taken away last week. He was expecting to be arrested. He got a man to take it away in a van. He wouldn't tell me where. He said it was better that I shouldn't know anything."

"Did you recognise the man ... or the van?"

"No," she said. There was no more to say. The Chronicle had eluded him again. Mrs Jolly made some tea and they sat together amid the remains of her furniture and ate bread and honey, saying nothing.

Prince Egbert's quest had failed. Next day Nanny Scungebucket would be installed as President and Supreme Commander and representatives of all the trades and professions of New Zephyria would swear allegiance to her on behalf of the whole people. There was nothing more he could do. He would find his wife and his mother and stay with them until the end.

He said farewell to Mrs Jolly and went back to his car. Its engine was still running - he had no keys to turn it off - but its tank was nearly empty. He had to drive some way through the city to find the road to Cinderella's old home, and he ran out of petrol.

He trudged on aching feet through the suburban streets. His uniform still protected him from attack, but his swagger was gone, and drunken looters gave him derisive catcalls.

"YOU!" yelled a raucous voice. "Call yourself a gobbin' Stormtrooper? You're a gobbin' disgrace to your gobbin' uniform! Come 'ere! Wot's your gobbin' name?"

"Bert... Bert Holland." Holland was the name of the landlord of the Three Goats.

"An' oo's yer gobbin' troop commander?"

"Commander Krod."

"Krod, eh? Well you're in my troop nah! Ever heard o' Commander Zhurkan? Vey'll tell yer all abaht me, wontchu lads?"

"Yeah!" his troop jeered.

"I eats sloppy Stormtroopers like you fer breakfast. Get fell in!"

"But ..." protested Bertie, "I'm taking a message for Commander Krod ..."

"GET FELL IN, YOU GOBBIN' 'ORRIBLE LITTLE WORM!"

The ogrish face lunged close to his, the stinking goblin breath made him gasp.

He got fell in.

Luckily Zhurkan's idea of marching was more like a drunken rampage, in which Prince Egbert's agonized limp was scarcely odder than any other trooper's way of walking. The purpose of the expedition seemed equally unmilitary. The Stormtroopers seized upon old men and youths, took from them any valuables they might have, gave them a good beating , and let them go. They terrorised women and girls, cut off their hair, rolled them in mud and filth, and let them go. Prince Egbert could see no purpose in their activities except that of sowing alarm and despondency among the populace, but he noticed that they seemed especially interested in women with small children or babies. These were dragged before Commander Zhurkan himself.

The grinning Demon told them that Nanny Scungebucket wanted babies to sacrifice at her inauguration. He described in graphic detail how the helpless infants would be slaughtered. Then he began to hint that even more horrible things would be done to mothers who would not give up their children to him, and pointed out to them the eagerness on the faces of the leering Stormtroopers who stood all around waiting for the chance to try their hands at torture.

Some mothers wept and clung to their babies at first. Others just said, "Tike 'im ven, ve li'l gobber!" All, willing or not, had to give up their wailing offspring, which the Stormtroopers loaded into a van.

"Ere, you!" yelled a Stormtroop sergeant. "Cop 'old o' vis!"

This was a young, dark-haired woman, one of the People of the Sea. In her arms she carried a tiny baby, not more than a few weeks old. She clung to the child, trembling and weeping, and shied away when Prince Egbert touched her.

"Come 'ere!" he snarled as brutally as he could, and grabbed her arm.

As soon as the sergeant's back was turned he dragged her round the nearest corner.

"Run!" he said, "Quickly!"

She stood incredulous. Perhaps she thought he would shoot her as soon as she tried to flee.

"Quick!" he urged. "Before he comes back!"

She gasped. She believed him. She tried to smile, then she fled. She disappeared round the next corner only just in time. Bertie heard the sergeant roaring for him, then two Stormtroopers rounded the corner and grabbed him.

"Where's 'at gobbin blackie?" yelled the sergeant.

"She got away," he stammered. "I don't know how. She just ..."

"You let 'er go, you gobbin' posho!" snarled the sergeant. "Bring ve gobber to Zhurkan!"

He was dragged before the Commander. The sergeant denounced him. "E's a gobbin posho, sir, vat's ve gobbin troof. 'E ain't caught a single gobbin' gobber, an' nah 'e's let one escape - an' she 'ad a gobbin' baby an'all."

"Seems ter me yer right, Sergeant," grated Zhurkan. "Right, you! Less'av ve troof. 'Oo's yer commander?

"Commander Krod," stammered Bertie.

"An' where's yer troop?"

"Guarding the National Library," stammered Bertie.

"Why?"

"Nanny wants it for a special bonfire," said Bertie. "She don't want no gobbin' poshos gettin' away with the books."

"Well, vat much you know, anyway," snarled Zhurkan. "Pr'aps you is one o' Krod's boys after all. But nobody gobs up my troop's work. Gobbin' nobody, unnerstan?"

Bertie nodded.

"Well," mused Zhurkan, "if he's one o' Krod's gobbin' mob we best not kill 'im ..."

Groans of disappointment rose all round.

"... but, on ve uvver 'and, 'e's a gobbin' disgrace to his gobbin' uniform. So, we'll gob 'im over a li'l bit, just ter teach 'im a gobbin' lesson. We'll strip 'im and send 'is gobbin' uniform back to Krod, an' we'll dump him somewhere and see 'ow long it takes him to get back to 'is troop - sort of initiative test."

There followed half an hour that Bertie did not enjoy in the slightest. Zhurkan told them not to hurt him too much, but by the time they had enthusiastically stripped off his tunic, boots and trousers he was battered, bruised, bleeding and barely conscious. He had a vague sense of being bundled into a car, an impression of movement, then he hit the ground hard and lay winded.

When he came to himself he was alone. He ached all over and he was cold. Blood still dripped slowly from his nose and oozed stickily from cuts on his forehead and one of his knees. He was naked but for the tattered remains of his shirt.

He dragged himself to his feet and stumbled slowly along the road. In the distance he saw a village. He dragged himself towards it. There were people in the street. He tried to ask them for help, but the words stuck in his throat and slurred on his tongue. Women laughed derisively and children threw stones. A man came and threatened to set dogs on him. He turned and stumbled away.

He passed the place where the Stormtroopers had dumped him and staggered on down the road. Eventually he found a stick on the roadside and took it to help him walk. He did not know where he was or where he was going. He scarcely knew who he was or why he kept walking.

It was getting dark. There was another village ahead, but he dared not go into it. He stopped beside the sign showing its name: Nether Touchstone. He sank down on the grass verge. Nether Touchstone. It was familiar, but why?

What did it matter anyway? Villages meant women who laughed, children who threw stones, men who threatened and dogs that bit. He would wait until it was completely dark and then try to sneak through unseen.

Nether Touchstone. It was significant. It meant something to him, whoever he was.

"I am Prince Egbert," he muttered, but what did it matter who he was?. He had failed. The Chronicle was lost. Nanny Scungebucket was about to be inaugurated as President and Supreme Commander. What good were memories of the past, of his mother and father, of meeting the First Prince, of his quest, of his happy life with Cinderella, of the time he first saw her and kissed her as she lay asleep in that old house just outside ... just outside ... Nether Touchstone!

His head reeled. They had brought him to Nether Touchstone. They had brought him where he wanted to be. They had brought him almost to the door. They had brought him home - to his mother and his wife!

He gasped. Hope surged in his breast. He wiped the oozing blood from his eyes so that he could see clearly. There it was: Nether Touchstone, and, as the last gleams of the setting sun glinted through the clouds, he could see the familiar thatched roof of the old house they always called the Witch's cottage. Just beyond it lay the road to the Old Forest, and not half a mile along that road was Cinderella's house.

He waited until it was quite dark. He did not want to risk being driven back by a hail of stones, and, as he waited, he began to realise how hungry he was, how miserably, painfully empty.

At last it was completely dark. The moon and stars were hidden by thick clouds. He approached the village cautiously and dropped into the tangled weeds and grass as a gang of drunken youths surged down the street from The Bull to The White Hart, singing raucously. When all was quiet again, apart from the incessant beat of unmusic, he stumbled forward, past the Witch's cottage, round the corner, almost running past the ruins of the church, past Church Farm, where the dogs barked furiously, and out into the comparative safety of the countryside.

* * * * *

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