by Robin Gordon
- Auksford -
Part IV: Nanny Scungebucket
Chapter 22: Queen Elizabeth and the Three Goats
Copyright Robin Gordon, 1996/2004
The house where Cinderella had once lived with her sisters, and where she lived again under house arrest, was guarded by Scungebucket Stormtroopers. If Prince Egbert had succeeded in getting there in his borrowed uniform he could have swaggered past the drunken youths in the guise of an arrogant Stormtrooper bringing a message from Commander Krod. Now he had no chance of getting in.
Tired, exhausted by the depression of failure, Prince Egbert plodded up to the gate. A thin, cold rain plastered down his hair and made his torn shirt cling to him. The guards jeered at him from the shelter of the trees, and one or two flung empty bottles at him, but Scungebucket Stormtroopers were not trained soldiers. They were a rabble recruited from the backstreets of the inner cities. They had been told to stop the Queen and the Princess escaping and to see that none of their posh friends got in. Nobody had said anything about stopping dishevelled victims of street violence - anyway, it might be fun to hear some royal screams if a half-naked tramp got inside.
There was a scream of sorts from the Princess Cinderella, but Queen Elizabeth was made of sterner stuff.
"The poor man," said Cinderella. "He's exhausted, and he's been beaten and stripped."
"He must have a hot bath," said the Queen, "then we can decide what to do with him." She had never before had to deal with a near naked stranger who had been beaten up by unknown assailants, but there were many things now in her life that she had never had to deal with before. Besides, there was something about the young man that reminded her of the son she had lost.
They half carried the dripping stranger to the bathroom. The Queen ran a bath for him. The Princess brought him pyjamas, a dressing gown and an electric shaver from the abandoned servants' quarters. They asked him if he could manage. He nodded, and they left him to his ablutions.
The warm water relaxed Prince Egbert's aching body. The chill of the rain left him, and even the sense of his failure receded. Half an hour later, clean, refreshed, shaved and decently pyjama'd, he made his way to the sitting room. His entry occasioned a certain amount of refined and regal surprise.
"Bertie!" said the Queen.
"Oh, Bertie," sobbed Cinderella. "You're not dead."
"No," he said. "I'm not dead. But I've failed."
He began to tell them his story. His mother interrupted to ask if he was hungry. He was. The ladies went to the kitchen to prepare something while he dozed in front of the fire. When he had eaten he told his story: the last round-up of the Unicorn, how he had gone beyond the Black Stump ...
"I knew Bruce was hiding something," said Cinderella. "I longed to ask him, but I couldn't ..."
"It killed your father," said the Queen.
Then Bertie told them how he had met King Arthur on his way to the Rainbow Bridge, and how the Kings and Princes of old had beaten off the Taniwha. He told them of his search for the Chronicle, and how it had eluded him.
"But I know where it is!" cried Princess Cinderella. "Professor Jolly came to see me at the Palace just before we were arrested and brought here. He said, If he should return, tell him where to find it, but keep it secret from everyone else, even the Queen. I thought he must mean if Bruce should return, but perhaps he suspected that you ... oh, my darling Bertie!"
After a tender embrace Prince Egbert reminded her that she had not yet told him where the Chronicle was.
"It's at the Three Goats," she said, "in the tunnel. I don't know where the Three Goats is, though. I suppose it must be a pub of some kind."
"I know it," groaned Prince Egbert "I know it and the tunnel. The Chronicle must be in those packing cases I've been pushing past and climbing over when I went to the Palace. I thought Sam Holland must have been hiding his loot there. Well, now I know where the answer is, but I can't get to it in time. I've failed."
"Nonsense, Bertie!" snapped the Queen. "You've just had an excellent meal of cold roast duck and one of New Zephyria's finest wines. You don't suppose they were supplied by Nanny Scungebucket, do you, or by that odious hypocrite Crimper? The friendship between the Royal House of New Zephyria and the Hollands of the Three Goats is as close as ever. The smugglers have the most amazing network of tunnels. There is even a secret passage to this very house, and, what is more, I am expecting a delivery this evening. I took the precaution of re-lining a rather shabby old coat of mine and stuffing it with banknotes when I saw how things were going, and I made sure that Landlord Holland got to know that I could still pay well."
They fell to making plans while the evening drew in. Sometime after dusk they went down into the cellar. Cinderella, who had lived in the house since she was born, had never suspected the existence of a secret passage but now she knew exactly where it was. A section of wall turned aside as she manipulated the hidden control, and they could hear the approach of feet along the dark tunnel.
"Good evening, Mr Holland," said the Queen, with easy, regal grace.
"Good evening, Ma'am," the landlord replied. "I've brought you ..."
"Thank you, Mr Holland. We have important business to discuss. My son has returned, and ..."
"But he's dead, Ma'am ...," Sam Holland protested.
"No, Sam. I went beyond the Black Stump, but I didn't die," said Prince Egbert, who was by now fully dressed in the off-duty rig of one of Bulkomia's former servants.
"Glory be!" muttered the landlord.
"Prince Egbert needs access to the Chronicle of New Zephyria in order to find out the true name of Old Hinnie McIldhu and break the spell that is about to destroy New Zephyria," said the Queen.
"But the Professors Jolly laboured at that for months and couldn't find it," moaned Sam.
"I know the volume number and the page number," said Prince Egbert.
"Nobody could know that except Oliver Simpkin," Sam Holland said, shaking his head in disbelief, "and poor old Olly's lost his memory."
"And I found it," said the Prince, "never mind where. If I can find the right volume before tomorrow Simpkin will get his memory back, we'll get back Vicky, the spell will be broken, and we can settle Crimper and that Scungebucket woman."
"We mustn't be too confident," said the Queen. "There are an awful lot of volumes."
"And an awful lot of boxes," said the Prince.
"And every box is labelled, and I've got a little notebook listing which volumes are in every one," said Sam Holland cheerfully. "Professor Jolly may look absent-minded but he's as methodical as it's possible to be. Come along, Your Royal Highness. We've a long way to go."
It was a long way, but Prince Egbert was buoyed up with hope again. Even being called "Your Royal Highness" after so long as an isolated wanderer was balm to his soul. Sam Holland's announcement that from that moment on he would call him nothing but "Bert", for safety's sake, did not dampen his mood.
Bert and Sam tramped through a long, dank tunnel, broken in parts by the penetrating roots of trees, and flooded here and there, though only to a few inches' depth. They emerged in the middle of a patch of brambles in a wood and had to crawl through bushes to get to a path. Then they walked for a mile or more to where Sam had hidden his truck.
The drive through the streets of the capital city was the most alarming part of the journey. Several times they were stopped, and each time Sam identified himself as the landlord of the Three Goats and said that he and his mate Bert had been out in the country looking for supplies but had got nothing. He swore, with many strange oaths, that them gobbin' royals had ruined the gobbin' country and there was nothing left for honest gobbin' men to eat. His mate Bert nodded and said, "S'right!", and the strangers agreed with them, hoped that things would be better under President Scungebucket, but doubted it, and let them drive on.
The Three Goats was in semi-darkness. Mrs Holland and her three sons were serving beer to a few regular drinkers, and Oliver Simpkin was sitting hunched in a corner. He missed something or someone, but he could not remember what or who.
I like to keep things quiet here," Sam said. "Those big places up west started making a fortune till people stopped paying. They had to keep serving or the customers would have torn the place to pieces. At least I've still got a place. Here's the notebook. You know where to find the tunnel. I'd best go and look after poor old Olly."
* * * * *
Thick fog enshrouded every coast of New Zephyria, a fog that not only blotted out every visual landmark but even confused radio communication and made radar unusable. The ship bearing the Archbishop home turned aside after a few hundred yards, came to a stop, then, after some discussion between the captain, his first officer and their principal passenger, continued a slow turn, hooting mournfully all the while, and headed back in what the captain hoped was the way they had come.
Eventually it emerged many miles further down the coast, and the Archbishop surveyed the bank of fog from the bridge. It hung between the sea and the sky like a monstrous, long, white cloud that had sagged upon the breast of the ocean, and, however far they sailed, it was always there, unbroken, impenetrable, forbidding.
"No ship can go through that," said the captain. "It would be madness to try. It's not like any fog I've ever encountered. It's unnatural."
"You are right, Captain," replied the Archbishop. "I cannot expect you to risk your ship and your crew, but somehow I must get to New Zephyria before it is too late."
"What can you do?" the captain asked. "What can any of us do? The King is dead. The monarchy is ended. Nothing can stop Nanny Scungebucket."
"My Lord," the Archbishop's chaplain interrupted. "We have come to the Dragon's Teeth. There are the outermost rocks just visible at the edge of the fog."
"Well, at least we know where we are," said the Captain. "Bring her well out to sea, Number One."
"I was born at Fishers' Cross," said the chaplain, "and I know these rocks around the coast like the back of my hand."
"Can you guide us in?" the Archbishop asked eagerly, but the captain shook his head.
"Impossible!" he said.
It's much too dangerous for a ship this size," said the chaplain, "but if you really want to get to shore my Lord, and if you are willing to take the risk, I think I could get a rowing boat through by keeping close to the Dragon's Teeth."
The ship carried lifeboats, but they were too big and needed a crew of at least eight. Even if sailors had been willing to volunteer the chaplain was unhappy about taking a boat that size through the needle sharp rocks. It seemed that nothing could be done, until the First Officer remembered a little rubber dinghy.
The captain was horrified. "I can't let you put to sea in a thing like that!" he exclaimed. He wondered how he could ever explain to the Supreme Pontiff why he had abandoned his friend at sea, in a frail dinghy, in a thick fog, close to the jagged rocks of the Dragon's Teeth.
"The decision is mine," said the Archbishop solemnly. "I do not know if we can make it to the shore. If we do, I do not know if we can reach the capital on time, or at all. When we get there I do not know what, if anything, I can do. I only know that I am called to return to New Zephyria, to be on hand - and, if this is the only chance, then I must take it."
The captain nodded sadly. The Archbishop and his chaplain fetched their ecclesiastical robes and put them in waterproof bags in the dinghy. The Archbishop led the crew in one last prayer. The ship approached as close as the captain dared bring her to the outermost rock of the Dragon's Teeth, the dinghy was lowered into the water, and the Archbishop and his chaplain disappeared slowly into the fog around the string of rocks.
* * * * *
Nanny Scungebucket was in various shades of fluorescent pink and orange and in the best of humours when Nigel Crimper came frisking in.
"Eunnnngh! Good news, Nanny," he sniggered. "The Queen - I mean the gobbing ex-Queen ... Sh-sh-sheeheeheeheeheehhh ... Nnnnnngh the gobbing ex-Queen has just phoned to say she wants to do homage to the new President. She demands to be the first to swear fealty to the Supreme Commander."
"At's luvly, dearie. I'll reelly enjoy vat, I will."
"Well I soon put her in her place. I told her she'd have to wait her turn."
"I wanner first dearie? Unnerstand?"
"Eunnngh!" he honked, and he thought, "The old bat is getting above herself. I put her where she is today and I'm not going to be spoken to like this."
He caught the eye of the Captain of the Presidential Guard, Khazgûn, and he shuddered. Better keep on the right side of the old battle-axe. She couldn't last much longer, then Khazgûn would be doing his bidding.
"Nanny," he said, "Nnngh, nnngh, nnngh ... surely you don't want her to swear allegiance before ME! You know how much I love you ... Sh-sh-sh-hee-hee-hee ... chee-hee-hee."
"Yeah, dearie," said the President and Supreme Commander of New Zephyria, "Nanny knows just 'ow much you love 'er. Course she does. Don'tchoo worry. Nanny doesn't want anyone to swear before you. You anna guvmint first, ven ve gobbin' ex-Queen."
"Eunnngh! Yes, Nanny," sniggered the Prime Minister, then he frisked out to make the necessary arrangements.
* * * * *
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