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‘‘A##a##in!!’’ Journal entry XIX from The Misadventures of Wizard Prang or: A Futilist’s Journal

by JAY HOLLOWAY Being fragments culled from the daily jottings of a medieval Wizard, together with the true events throwing new light on the entries, revealed in a recently discovered manuscript. Published by Wizard Books - Devon


A##a##in!! Part XIX of The Prang Codex Published in e-Book format Š Copyright Jay Holloway 2010 The right of Jay Holloway to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

ISBN: 978-0-9530791-0-0

Wizard Books - Devon


“A##a##in!!’’ Journal entry xix

The most important event of the year, the King’s Pageant to ratify his Independent Charter, is approaching, and a sinister stranger is lodging in the old Book Depository: an inept itinerant Tiler is laying a new floor of heraldic tiles on the courtyard and causeway: Harbinger has ill-advisedly hired Griswolde Pauncefoote & the cacophonous Plangent Strains Waits to play triumphal fanfares: Griswolde’s brother in his ancient mould-encrusted armour is retained as the official Black Knight for the ceremony, and the arrival of the Plantagenet King Henry II and his Court is imminent. It only needs the hand of Wizard Prang to tip the scales towards total disaster and a brush with death for the visiting Angevin Monarch.


Prologue

L

et us, Dear Reader, travel back to a Past Time of Romance and Legend. To Merrie Olde Englande and a time of Courtly Love, Knightly Valour and Daily Disappointment.

T

he time is roughly the mid twelfth century; around eleven fifty-five: almost lunch-time, or maybe time for a late working brunch in a nice trendy brasserie.

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’T

is an age perceived vaguely through the swirling mists of murky time as The Dark Ages, and with good reason, whether because of the dark and secret nefarious deeds common thereabouts, or more likely the totally ineffectual rush-torch type lighting system they were lumbered with, the invention of the fluorescent tube being a mere speck on the distant horizon of the map of human invention.

I

n quite possibly the most mediĂŚval part of England is buried the sombre castle of the self-styled King Egbert The Bold, the last remaining independent Saxon Monarch in Eng-

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land, due to a very nifty loophole in the law which will come to our attention later in the tale, and a man who could teach Hereward the Wake a thing or two about survival in twelfth century Norman England.

K

ing Egbert, known behind his back as King Egbert the BloodyTerrifying, due to his hairtrigger temper and huge bristling Saxon handle-bar moustache; his unsettling habit of shouting into peoples faces from uncomfortably-close range at incredible volume; and his ingenious schemes for extracting monies from serfs and lords alike with scant regard for status, wealth or means. For no-

9


one, it seems, is safe from his grasping claws or his unerringly accurate onboard cash-location radar system. 1

T

he tales are legion of the innocent land-owner quietly going about the daily round, patiently dealing with the misery that is MediÌval life in the mistaken belief that this happy state of affairs will go on for ever, who suddenly discovers he owes twenty-five years back knight-service without the option. A nasty shock indeed for one who wouldn’t know a vambrace if it leapt up at him and assaulted him violently about the face with a limp sturgeon. 1

10

But be it known that the one thing he fears above all are the legal sharks with their writs and injunctions and arcane incantations of sub judice and habeas corpus and the terrible power of the small print nestling at the foot of a binding clause.


T

he castle with which we are unfortunate enough to be concerned is poised on a low rocky crag, or mayhap a low craggy rock, hanging on by its fingernails above a small valley containing sprawling untidy scrubby farmland of mind-numbing poverty, beyond which is a poor and shabby excuse for a town sitting astride a narrow and now long-lost tributary of the Thames, a league or two down river of the City of London, on the Kentish side.

T

he whole of the King’s small realm is surrounded by a motheaten primÌval forest, and is effectively sealed off from the rest of

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so-called civilisation, such as it is in mediæval England, and yet bizarrely a constant thin stream of divers wandering troubadours, mediæval merchants, palliards, hucksters and hawkers, jongleurs, vagabonds, migrant workers, minstrels, mummers, malefactors, inventors, entrepreneurs, con-men, travellers and time-travellers2 of all shapes and sizes, trickle through King Egbert’s small domain, and somehow inevitably find their way to his door.

T

he King’s small empire is so cut off from the general run of life, that critics have commented that it has been stuck in eleven-oh-one for the last half-century, causing even 2

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Anachronistic characters are not unknown here and King Egbert’s realm has scant regard for the conventions of historical fact or the protocols of linear time.


the reactionary Guylde of Gothycke Artysannes to denounce it as oldfashioned, or as they would have it, fasshyonned in a mannere moste archaic, and compelling them to look around for more up-to-date premises, with all modde-connes, for their meetings.

T

here is, of course, cunning method in the King’s apparent madness, for if the living standards lag behind at pre-Big Billy Conqueror levels, then so do the wages, allowing the King to stash away an obscene amount of cash while paying his serfs and villeins the equivalent of a handful of poor grade road aggregate for each lunar month they toil.

13


A

gainst this backdrop of darkage consciousness and mediæval catering are played the tales of the misadventures of Wizard Prang, graduate of the Thaddeus Q Susquehannah Postal University 3 by a scant one percent above the minimum pass mark, and unwilling patsy in the King’s various schemes to increase his personal wealth and general standing in the greater world beyond his boundaries - for, secretly, ’tis the King’s fondest wish to become a Mediæval Mogul, a force to be reckoned with, and an important player in the game of life upon the greater span of the World’s stage, if only he could secure an influential honorary appointment at the Plantagenet 3

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Academy Susquehannah; Specialities are pastoral study courses in Wizarding, Tap-dance, Mime, Gallows Construction & Quantity Surveying: “if you’ve got the price of the postage, we’ve got your diploma"


Court alongside the new King Henry II, a monarch, ’tis rumoured, with a temper to match his own.

W

izard Prang, that walking testimonial to the woeful level of competence required to achieve a Susquehannah Diploma, and living embodiment of the difficult technique of snatching defeat from the very jaws of success.

Y

es dear Trembling Reader, this is a tale of dark deeds, underhand dealings, dodgy traffickings, and horrible tuneless wassailing to the accompaniment of hideous wailing crumhorns. Of coercion, confidence

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tricks, lack-of-confidence tricks, selfconfidence tricks, magicke, fire and brimstone, and the turning of a quick profit at a dodgy second-hand cart auction.

O

ur window into this murky mediÌval world is through the medium of Prang’s Journal, a scruffy assemblage of parchment sheets loosely bound in a ratty piece of secondhand vellum, that has survived the ravages of the centuries against all odds. Prang’s daily entries however are somewhat economical with the truth to put it mildly, tending to gloss over his faux pas in his dealings with the King and even omitting some of the worst

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episodes altogether. Fortunately for the sake of history we are able to assemble the true events behind these woefully sketchy diary entries, from various recently-discovered contemporary writings which, unfortunately from Prang’s viewpoint, put the record straight.

E

ntry XIX of Prang’s Journal tells the tale of the King’s Pageant, marred by the arrival of a sinister stranger, the inept attempts to pave the courtyard by an itinerant tiler, the horrendous cacophonous rendition of a triumphal fanfare by Griswolde Pauncefoote and The Plangent Strains Waits, and the near-death experience of the Angevin King, Henry II.

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18


‘‘A##a##in!!’’ The following scrap of parchment is catalogued under “Journal entry XIX” in the Codex and concerns the events leading up to the King’s Pageant:

“ … Extract from Prang’s Journal : May 29th: Really skint at the moment so had a final go at making gold - flaming waste of time. Dragon reckons my specialist subject on Mastermind would be The Pursuit of Futility, cos I’m really brilliant at it apparently. Anyway - it’s the King’s special pageant to

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ratify his Charter. Henry the second is coming with his court and the King’s got some Tiler bloke laying down a special paved courtyard for the occasion, but he’s a twat so that’ll go wrong. Oh yes, and Pencil-neck forgot to hire any musicians so he’s had to get Griswolde’s bunch to step in at the last minute, so the whole thing’s bound to go tits-up in the end. Could be a laugh and it’ll be Pencil-neck’s fault this time & I’ll be in the clear.”

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Chapter 1

“I

wonder who the blighter is Harbinger.” “I don’t know Sire. Er … I’m afraid I couldn’t get anything out of him. He’s very cagey … er Sire.” “That’s not my problem Harbinger. It’s part of your bally job description to discover these sort of things, blast you!” “Well at least he didn’t complain about the price Sire, and paid up in full. And in advance.” “Yes I know. But doesn’t that worry you Harbinger, because it bally worries me. After all, who the hell pays in advance for anything round here? And

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without bleating about the cost of living too.” The King and Harbinger were discussing a new arrival within the castle walls. The stranger had arrived the previous evening and had paid for a month’s full board and lodging with all the extras. “I don’t care what it costs Sire, as long as the aspect suits me that is.” he’d said to the King when they’d met the previous evening. “Fair enough,” said the King, doubling the price and stashing the large bag of gold coins into the recesses of his robe with difficulty. “Yes, there must be a suitable room in such a gentry-cove’s ken as this.” the

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stranger added, looking around at the castle rooms about him. The King looked at him strangely and turned to Harbinger. “Shove him in the guest suite in the East Tower Harbinger.” A little later however, Harbinger was back at the King’s elbow, nervously plucking at his sleeve. “Er … he says the room’s n-no good Sire. He wants to change it.” “He’s got a flamin’ nerve Harbinger! And unhand the bally regal robe blast you … “ “He says he’ll pay whatever you ask for the right room Sire. M-money no object.” “ … in that case tell him to pick any

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room he likes and I’ll fix the price later. No … tell you what, I’ll come and relieve him of said cash myself. I’m interested to see what room he picks. After all, the one he’s just rejected is bally nice if you ask me.” They went to find the stranger, who was up on the third floor peering in door after door along the length of the corridor. He suddenly stopped dead in a doorway, then went in. The King and Harbinger looked at each other in puzzlement. “Correct me if my eyeballs have gone doo-sodding-lally Harbinger, but isn’t that the library?” “Yes Sire.” “Thought so. I don’t like the look of

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this, let’s follow and see what he’s up to.” They entered the room to find that the stranger had gone through to the tiny book storage room beyond the library, and was looking out through the window at the far end. He turned as they entered with a smile of satisfaction plastered across his phizzog. “This will do me very nicely Kingy.” “What??!! Are you off your bally chump Mush? This room’s just a scabby depository for mouldy old books. Full of pesky spiders and fluff and all sorts of bally horrible things.” The stranger pulled forth two more bulging money bags and proffered them to a speechless King.

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“Will these cover the cost of the inconvenience of moving some rudimentary form of truckle bed affair in here old Bean?” The King grasped the bags and turned to leave, all doubts silenced by the appearance of ready hard cash. “No problem Sirrah, whatever you want. Harbinger, get it sorted.”

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Chapter 2

A

few days later Prang and Dragon were strolling across the drawbridge, enjoying a few brief unaccustomed moments of leisure in the sun, when they espied the stranger returning to the castle along the causeway. “Hey, what’ve you been up to Mate?” enquired Dragon. “I’ve just been examining yonder grassy knoll. Very nice. Very … well placed.” “It’s just a hillock, you pillock. A lump of earth covered with grass. What’s so flamin’ spectacular about that?”

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“Well, for a start I can see it from my window up aloft.” “Oh very nice. Incidentally what’s the deal with roughing it in the book store?” “That’s my business, and you would do yourself a service if you kept your scaly snout out of it. My too inquisitive Friend.” With which veiled threat the stranger tapped the side of his nose and disappeared into the castle. “I wouldn’t get on the wrong side of him if I were you Dragon, there’s something a bit sinister about him.” “I know. There’s also something very strange about his face, have you noticed?” “What, you mean that you couldn’t

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describe him ten seconds after he’d left?” “Exactly.” And when Prang and Dragon thought about it they realised that there was a strange fluid quality about the stranger’s features that made absolutely no impression on the memory whatsoever, so that he was impossible to describe to a third party, and was even difficult to recognise on a second meeting.

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L

ater that day, at the Thames Wharf adjacent to the entrance to the little tributary leading into King Egbert’s kingdom, a small French sea-going sloop had just tied up alongside, and a heavily-laden wagon was being slowly winched down a ramp to the wooden jetty by the team of sweating swarthy French matelots at the capstan. The laborious operation was being watched with a jaundiced eye by the sloop’s captain, one Blacques Jacques à t’Acques, who was keen to see the owner of the wagon quit his vessel, and his life, for good. “Merde!” he muttered to himself, scratching the long cutlass scar down his left cheek. “Quel visage d’un chameau!

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Quel lever d’un chemise!!” He spat on the deck in disgust. The owner of the wagon busied himself directing operations until finally the wagon was on dry land and the heavy horse in the shafts. He turned to call up to à t’Acques leaning on the rail. “Are you absolutely sure you can’t take me further? I have some way still to go.” “Sorry M’sieu but I cannot take my vessel along zis leetle rivaire, but if you follow ze rivaire, oh ten miles or so through ze forêt to ze jetty at ze far end, you will come to a château, a castle, where you may find work and a warm welcome.” “Thanks awfully Mon Capitaine.”

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“Tell them Blacques Jacques sent you.” The Mariner called out as the stranger climbed aboard his wagon and urged the horse into a shamble. “That should peess them right off, you leetle turde!” he added under his breath, laughing nastily as he turned away from the rail. “Prepare to get under way Étienne!” “Oui Blacques Jacques! I will ’ave ze sail up, and weigh ze anchaire in juste un leetle jiffy!” “Okay you can drop the cod French accent Étienne, or should I say Ralph, the stranger’s buggered off now, and well on his journey to get under Egbert’s skin and put the needle right up him.”

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“Triffik! So it’s back to Barking Creek is it?” “Yep! Straight back to brother William’s secret orchards toot frigging sweet ready to “import” another highly expensive cargo of foreign almonds, and I have a funny feeling in my water that we’re about to endure a crippling bad harvest with terrible weather, thus making almonds very hard to come by and shoving the price sky-high. Ha ha ha!!” “Ha ha! You know Derek, you’re really pretty clévaire.” “Non, pas de Derek - Je suis Blacques Jacques!” “Ah oui. D’accord!” “Ha ha ha!!”

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The sloop slipped her moorings, and disappeared through the low mist hanging above the water, setting a course for Barking Creek, and the fabled secret orchards of brother “Guillaume�.

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M

eanwhile, back at the castle, the King was up on the battlements surveying his domain and dictating his requirements for the day to Harbinger, when he espied the strange Lodger once more on the small grassed hillock below, behaving somewhat strangely. “What in Hades is that fool up to Harbinger?” “I-I’ve no idea I’m afraid Sire. He seems to be sighting along a stick.” “I can see he’s sighting along a pesky stick Harbinger, it doesn’t take a degree in thermo-dynamics to spot that, but why the cack is he doing it?” Harbinger had no reply, and the King watched as the stranger busied himself

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down below. He seemed to be using a stick as some form of rudimentary mediæval theodolite, and was apparently measuring the angles from the grass-covered mound to the window of his temporary chamber in the library book store, and scribbling a mass of calculations on a scrap of parchment. “Well I’ll be arsed if I can see what the hell he’s up to Harbinger, but I don’t like the look of it. Gad! Look! His bally face is doing that creepy thing again!” “What Sire? Going all sort of swimmy and vague?” “So you’ve noticed it too, eh Harbinger? He’s a bally rum type and no mistake. We need to find out his identity and what his game is.”

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The King was suddenly struck by an idea, and, snatching a quill and some parchment from Harbinger’s limp grasp, began to scribble furiously in large scrawly uncials. “There! Take that to the blighter and get him to fill it in Harbinger. Then we’ll see what he’s about.” Harbinger took the hastily-scrawled sheet, which purported to be a species of visitors’ book, and studied it doubtfully. “Do you think it will work Sire?” “I don’t naffing know” replied the King testily “But I would have thought it’s worth a try. You’ve got spaces for name, occupation and purpose of visit, so surely we must get something on the

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blighter.” The King’s visitor book ruse had little result however, beyond a badlyscrawled entry that even Doctor Placebo-Ganglion couldn’t decipher, save for the sprawling spidery appellation of “traveller” under the heading of occupation, a designation which was blindingly obvious to all, and told them nothing. As time passed, the King ceased to spare any thought for the new arrival, particularly as he’d paid well, and in advance, and he gradually merged into the background of everyday mediæval life until his presence was no longer remarked by any of the castle inhabitants. Besides, the King had more problems

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on his plate with the arrival on the gatehouse causeway that evening of Blacques Jacques’ most recent passenger with his heavily laden wagon. The driver of the wagon was brought before the King to explain his presence there. The King, however, paid him scant attention as ’twas the hour for almond tartage. One of the hours of almond tartage anyway. “Keep it brief Sirrah. I’ve got rather important business on hand here, and I’d rather not be disturbed.” “Well in a nutshell I am a professional Tiler Sire, and I have a load of spare tiles on the back of my wagon. I was just doing a job in the neighbourhood and there are a number of superfluous tiles I

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could let you have at a really knockdown, never-to-be-repeated discount price. Lay you a nice floor somewhere really cheap, Chief.” “Not a bally chance Sirrah! I’m bally fed up with all you pesky chancers coming round to my gate-house with your spurious offers and dodgy deals, so you can just bally well sod off!! I’ve been done up like a flamin’ kipper far too many bally times!” “But they’re really top quality tiles Si…” “NO!!” “Well in that case, how about a crenellation licence? Really cheap.” “HARBINGER!!!” The new arrival ground to a halt and

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an uneasy silence fell on the room as the King moodily munched on another slice of almond tart. Moments later a rapid scuttling noise was heard from the passageway outside, the door eased open and Harbinger oiled in and stood at the King’s elbow. “Ah Harbinger. Nice of you to spare the time to drop by. Now, I understand this prôle has a wagon here on castle premises, is that right?” “Yes Sire. It’s in the courtyard as we speak.” “Right. Shackle the wheels, and charge this blighter for overnight parking, commercial goods storage, stabling and feed for his pesky mangy horse, plus the price of a bed for the night,

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faggots for a fire for the same, hot water, ewer rental, flannel and towel charges, and the costs of whatever victuals he consumes. Then eject him first thing in the morning. That’ll teach the swine to infest me domain without an invitation.” “Yes Sire.” Harbinger turned to the Tiler to lead him from the King’s presence, but the Tiler, worried about the size of his bill and how the hell he was going to pay it, stopped the Chamberlain to ask a few vital questions. “Er, Master Chamberlain, is my overnight bill likely to be very large?” “Enormous Sirrah. In fact, astronomical.” said Harbinger with relish.

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“Oh shit! Look, I’ve not worked in the last two weeks and I’m really skint. Do you think the King might accept a special commission in lieu of payment, otherwise I’m knackered.” “No idea. But it would have to be a very interesting idea indeed, otherwise he won’t even be bothered to look at it, and is just as likely to sling you into the midden overnight for wasting his time.” “Okay, okay I’ll take the risk. Let me speak to him.” “Suit yourself, it’s your funeral. Er Sire, this prôle has a suggestion to make to your Sireship. Nothing to do with me I assure your Sireship, all his own idea entirely. Er … Sire.”

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The King glanced up briefly from his tart. “Well you’d better make it quick, and very interesting. You’re eating into my tartage hour, so if you don’t capture my imagination pretty darn quick I’ll have you strung up and pelted with rotten fruit.” “Well here’s the thing Sire. I’ve got my own kiln, clay and tile making gear on the wagon so …” “Not interested! Harbinger!!” “… a-and I understand you’ve got a very important pageant coming up soon …” “Harbinger!! Get the rope ready!” “Oh God!!” The Tiler began to gabble.

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“I-I was thinking Sire, that if I got the Herald to supply me with your heraldic designs I could make some special limited edition tiles sufficient to pave a small section of the courtyard a-and impress the important guests to your pageant …” “Getting slightly more interesting. Carry on Sirrah.” “… and I could make a special commemorative range of miniature heraldic plaquettes that you could sell as souvenirs Sire.” “Ah! Now you’ve finally got to the nub or crux Sirrah. Just before I passed away from advanced bally boredom. Just let me ponder this awhile.” The King slowly bit into another slice

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of tart and began to chew ruminatively. “Hmm. You’ve actually caught my interest Sirrah, I think we may be able to do some business here.” The King pondered on for two more slices of tart and a beaker of mead while the Tiler nervously awaited his fate, whilst wondering if it wouldn’t be quicker, simpler, and less painful in the long run to just throw himself bodily out of the window onto the flagstones below. Finally the King finished the last of the tart and addressed the Tiler once more. “Well Sirrah, I rather like your idea, so I’m going to feed you and put you up while you get the job done. The new

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Plantagenet King is coming to visit me, so you’ve got two days to get the tiles made and the commemorative floor laid covering the whole of the courtyard, approach walk and causeway, then you can sod off before the VIPs arrive.” The Tiler thanked the King in a state of mild shock at the size of the job before him, and quit the presence to return to his wagon and take stock of the materials he’d need. The King turned to Harbinger. “Right Harbinger, send the Herald down to have a conflab with this Tiler person and authorise correct usage of me personal heraldic achievements. You’ll have to oversee the operation and

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make sure we get good value. We must put on a good show for this newlycrowned King and show him what an ancient English lineage can do.” Harbinger sighed inwardly and mentally added the new task to the tally of jobs awaiting his attention, and was preparing to slip away through the open door when the King added a verbal codicil to their conversation. “… and by the way, don’t forget I’ve charged you with arranging the regal fanfares for the pageant, so I hope you’ve got some dashed skillful flamboyant musicians booked.” The King dismissed Harbinger with a casual wave, and the Chamberlain thankfully left the King’s solar and tot-

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tered weakly down the passageway to his own quarters, because of course he had completely forgotten about the ceremonial music the King required, and unfortunately for him there was only one group of musicians he could lay his hands on at such desperately short notice.

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Chapter 3

Y

ou’re sure you can do this are you Paunchfruit?” “Yeah, course we can Man. And it’s Poncefart … er Shit!! Pauncefoote.” “Well I hope you’re sure, because there’ll be hell to pay if it all goes wrong.” The itinerant Musician stood in the Chamberlain’s room looking like a heap of discarded laundry, a rough hemp sack of ill-assembled wind instruments slung over his shoulder. The Chamberlain paced nervously up and down before the Musician, twisting his twig-like fingers in indecision.

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He was charged with organising an event of great pageantry for King Henry II along with nobles of great note from the English Court, with processions and regal music heralding the appearance of King Egbert and his important guests, before the ritual annual ratification of his Charter of Independent Sovereignty, and was about to make the fatal mistake of hiring Griswolde Pauncefoote and his merry band of misfits, the Plangent Strains Waits Band. Griswolde ventured some helpful information designed to aid the Chamberlain in coming to a decision. “There’s this, like, new-minted stately galliard Man, of great majesty

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just arrived from Burgundy. If you like we could knock up a version for the King’s procession.” Harbinger winced at the casual use of the phrase “knock up”, followed by a secondary wince at the cavalier term “version”, and was about to assay a tertiary wince, when he figured that if he didn’t hire the Plangent Strains Band of strolling minstrels, music was likely to be conspicuously absent from the programme of events, and his privates subsequently jammed in a mangle and rolled out like flaky pastry as a result. Also the happy thought of a brand new dance introduced for the first time before important guests, which would be a feather in his cap and visibly raise his

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status in the eyes of the visiting Royal Emissary from the great world outside their boundaries, prompted him to throw caution to the winds. “What is this new dance of which you speak Sirrah?” “It’s called La Gamba, Man. We’ll play it on a consort of, like, shawms, and a bass rackett.” “Er yes. Sounds divine.” Griswolde Pauncefoote turned to indicate the other Waits leaning shambolically against the wall by the window. “My Man Tarquin Spandrel here will play the tune on the alto shawm on the first refrain …” “Yes but I should be playing the main part. On the soprano.”

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Griswolde turned to Tarquin Spandrel and addressed him huffily under his breath. “Look Tarquin, we’ve been through this already Man, and we decided that, as the leader, I’d take the soprano part.” “Oh we decided did we? I’ve already told you that playing that alto shawm is like trying to blow down a badger’s bum - while it’s got its buttocks clenched.” “Look. It’s all sorted now. I’m playing the main part so you can shut your face.” “Yeah well you make the soprano sound like a weasel with a strangulated hernia if you ask me.” “Yes well no one’s asking you are they, er … ahem!” Pauncefoote caught Harbinger’s eye

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and turned to address him once more. “Er … yeah … to continue. The counterpoint is courtesy of Geezer Guillem Scrotts here on the tenor shawm, while underneath is Master Adam PykePilaster supplying the ground bass on the bass, like, rackett. Then in the second refrain I come in with the melody, Man, soaring above the rest on the soprano shawm, and it all comes together in one magnificent majestic wave of, like, magisterial sound as the procession crosses the causeway and enters the castle through the, like, triumphal archway of the gate-house. Far out … Man.” Harbinger shrugged. “Well I’ve no idea what you’re on about, but as long as the King likes it,

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that’s all that matters. Perhaps you could assay a short verse of this La Gamba thing now. Just to check.” The Musicians looked at each other uncertainly. “Oh. You’d like to hear some now would you?” “Well I think I should you know. The royal coffers are paying you very handsomely for the gig.” “Shit!! Er … right.” The Musicians got into a huddle and much whispering ensued. Try as he might Harbinger couldn’t hear what they were discussing, but eventually they turned back to him and began to reluctantly pull a sad assortment of battered shawms, and a slightly squashed

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bass rackett from their hemp sacks. Griswolde Pauncefoote addressed Harbinger once more, eager to get in a disclaimer before they started. “Er, you understand we’ve, like, not had a chance to rehearse the piece, Man. It’s but newly arrived at these shores and not really ready for public performance.” Harbinger waved a self-important hand. “That’s alright. It’s just to give me the gist, so I can tell the King it’s all in hand.” “Okay, it’s your funeral, Man. Ready Geezers?” The Waits put their instruments to their lips and the piece began, with

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many a stumble and unintentional cross-rhythm in a sort of prerenaissance free-form jazz, accompanied by squeaks of ill-adjusted reeds, with Harbinger unaccountably nodding his head in appreciation. Finally the piece ground to a ragged halt after a verse and a half of unresolved cadences, and the Waits all looked at each other out of the corner of their eyes as an uneasy silence fell. Tarquin now seemed fairly relieved that Griswolde was elected leader, and therefore spokesman, of the band. Griswolde, feeling the eyes of the other Waits on him, cleared his throat and shuffled his feet nervously. “Ahem. Yeah ‌ well, you see the

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manuscript’s just arrived, so we were like, sight-reading really, and the ink’s a bit blurred, and I reckon the like, scribe was a bit pissed, eh Geezers …” The rest of the Waits looked away as Griswolde trailed off into an embarrassed silence, but Harbinger rubbed his skeletal hands together with satisfaction and smiled. “Yes well that all sounds fine, so consider yourselves hired. I’ll get back to you with the programme of events, so stick around the castle and I’ll get one of the Stewards to send for you later. That’s all for now, so buzz off, I’ve got lots and lots of important work to see to.” The Waits looked at each other,

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slightly perplexed, then turned and shambled for the door, stowing their instruments away as they went, and mentally calculating the value of the gig in flagons of Ramsknacker Ale per capita.

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O

utside in the courtyard they came across Dragon lounging on a bench below Harbinger’s partially open window, with an expression of pain and intense suffering plastered across his scaly features. “Bloody hell Griswolde, what in the name of Guillaume de Machaut was that shagging awful noise?” “I know Man, it was absolute shite wasn’t it!” Tarquin Spandrel felt he had to put his oar in. “Well it wouldn’t have been quite so sodding awful if you’d let me play the soprano.” “Shut up Tarquin, you girl.” “You know Grizzy, I’ve never heard

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anything so catastrophic. It sounded like a knight in full armour falling down a four hundred foot well with a bushel of loose gravel shovelled down his cuirass. Only not so musical.” Griswolde waved a casual hand in airy dismissal. “Well I know it was shite, and you know it was shite, but Harbinger seemed to think it was okay, so that’s fine by me Mate, we’ve got the gig and the money’s practically in the bank.” “Yes well one thing you should know about Harbinger, is that he can’t tell the difference between “T he Earl of Salisbury’s Pavane and Galliard” played by His Majestie’s Cornetts and Sackbuts at triple their usual fee plus an unlimited

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mead rider, and a rendition of “Knees Up Mother Brown” by the Bedlam Massed Washboard and Kazoo Gamelan Ensemble. He’s completely tone deaf.” “Oh crap!” “Exactly.” Pauncefoote plucked nervously at Dragon’s arm. “This is heavy Man. Er … any chance of a, like, cunning plan Dragon?” “The best thing you can do Mate, is get out of the gig altogether …” There was a sudden loud crash just above their heads. “Ah Paunchfruit. The King gave me this to pass on to whoever I hired for the regal fanfares.”

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Pauncefoote jumped into the air with a nervous bleat as the window above their heads flew wide open and Harbinger’s head and shoulders appeared in the opening. He thrust an ominous looking parchment, with a very serious looking seal attached, through the gap and waved it at Pauncefoote. “It’s a contract drawn up by Stuff Shaft Stitch-Upp & Stuff. I’ve added all your names, so I think you can confidently assume it’s all legal and binding.” Harbinger thrust the parchment into Pauncefoote’s unwilling hand and vanished, slamming the window shut behind him. “… in that case” continued Dragon “you’d better find somewhere to prac-

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tice in the furthest corner of the castle, make sure the wind is blowing away from the King’s solar, and rehearse your bollocks off!” “Oh great!” The Plangent Strains shambled off with their moth-eaten instruments to look for a safe haven in which to try to hammer their extremely stylised version of La Gamba into shape for the King’s procession, which unfortunately took place on the very next day.

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Chapter 4

T

he following morning dawned bright and clear for the King’s Pageant, and the King took the perfect weather as an omen of good fortune for his important day, for top Earls, Dukes and The Lord High Chancellor from the new Plantagenet Royal Court accompanying the Plantagenet Monarch himself, were to arrive for the Annual Charter Day, a ceremonial procession to ratify the King’s Charter of Independence and the most important day of the year for King Egbert the Bold, despite the best efforts to scupper it of the Royal Lord High Chancellor himself, a grasping

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weasel of a civil servant, still grimly hanging on to his appointment gained under the Norman dynasty, and grudgingly confirmed by the new Monarch at the previous year’s coronation ceremony, much to King Egbert’s disgust and dismay. The King was up with the lark, and began giving his hapless servants the run-around hideously early in the day. The Herald was hauled before the royal presence to confirm that everything had been done on the regal banner and ceremonial signage front, while The Chamberlain was quizzed on just about everything else. Harbinger was about to finally slide away after an in-depth cross-

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examination, thinking that he’d got away with it by the skin of his teeth when the King called him back. “Oh yes, Harbinger. The music for the Royal Procession. I trust that’s in hand?” “Y-yes Sire. All arranged Sire. In fact I heard a small sample yesterday and it sounds very good Sire.” “Hmm. Why doesn’t that fill me with confidence Harbinger? Still, no time to hear it for myself now, so I’ll just have to take your word for it, God help me.” The King strolled to the window overlooking the procession route, to review the preparations before he retired to don his specially commissioned ceremonial robes.

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“Well I must say it’s all looking surprisingly good out there Harbinger. The bunting’s already up, the drawbridge swept and the new heraldic tiled floor looks positively palatial and … What in Hades … ??!!!” “Oh God! What’s wrong Sire.” Harbinger scuttled guiltily to the King’s side and craned over his shoulder to see the cause of the outburst. “What the hell is that arse still doing here with his bally pestilential wagon and his fleabag horse?” Down in the courtyard, partially obstructing the route of the procession, was the itinerant Tiler’s wagon, pulled across the approach into the courtyard through the gate-house, the moth-

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eaten horse munching on the grass verge, while the rear wheels grated on the edge of the new heraldic parterre. “Get that bally thing shifted Harbinger. Drag it bodily onto the grass if you have to, then find that fool and tell him to naff off out of my castle in the next quarter hour or I’ll spike his giblets on the portcullis. While he’s still wearing them!” Harbinger exited hurriedly and drafted a couple of stewards to lead the horse and wagon onto a patch of grass where it was tethered out of the way, then went off in search of the Tiler in a fever of impatience, worried that he’d miss the beginning of the proceedings, as the first participants in the day’s fes-

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tivities were already beginning to assemble. Dragon and Prang soon emerged near the gate-house, Prang scuttling ahead to look for a good vantage point from which to view the festivities, happy not to have been drafted in to help with any of the arrangements for a change, while Dragon followed more slowly in a bored fashion, not too happy at being dragged from his bed earlier than was his wont. Prang pushed through the rapidly gathering crowd, beginning to panic that he’d left it too late to find a good spot. Alongside the approach ramp to the causeway, the grassed mound was roped off and marked with a scrawled

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legend on ceremonial parchment that proclaimed it reserved for the Official Band. Indeed, said Official Band were at that moment unpacking their dented instruments in a desultory fashion and setting themselves up within their designated arena. A look of hope appeared on Prang’s face as he loped across to hail Griswolde Pauncefoote. “Hey Grizzy!” he panted as he trotted up to the leader of the Waits, “any chance of joining you in this nice little enclave?” “Help yourself Man. In fact if you can arrange to stand right in front of us wearing an enormous elaborate hat, it might help to shield us from the King’s

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sight.” “Why’s that Grizzy? Got any problems with the fanfare?” Pauncefoote grimaced and gestured at the other Waits behind him. “Oh none. Other than the fact that not one of these twats can play the sodding piece for toffee!” “Suppose I drag this framework forward and stand on it? Then you can play behind it and the King’ll never see you.” “Sounds good to me Prangy. You just carry on Man, I’ve got to stamp on this poxy shawm a couple of times. See if I can’t, like, improve the tuning a bit.” While the Musician saw to the delicate adjustment of the fine tuning of his

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instrument, Prang dragged forward the strange new wooden contrivance that stood at the rear of the hillock. There was a taut cable connected to it that stretched back up to the castle, and markings on it that seemed to denote angles of elevation, but it was all Greek to Prang and would serve him well for a grandstand. Meanwhile Harbinger was feeling the pressures of responsibility as he went in search of the Tiler. He consulted his scribbled notes on a scruffy piece of parchment to keep himself up to speed as he scuttled along, and with a jolt of horror realised he’d omitted to send anybody aloft to the West Tower to spot the arrival of the procession of

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dignitaries. He recalled belated how the King had impressed most forcefully upon him, with reference to the continued safety of his private parts, the importance of stationing a lookout upon the West Tower, alongside a beacon basket, who would spot the approach and signal himself, and the regal fanfare musicians, of the commencement of the celebrations. Hurriedly grabbing a passing scullion, he dispatched him to the tower with explicit instructions, and accompanied by a fervent sotto voce prayer that the scullion could not possibly be as retarded as he appeared. Soon after, he ran the Tiler to earth in the buttery, dragged him protesting

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from the company of a large flagon of ale, and propelled him at double urgent speed towards his wagon. As the sweating Chamberlain thrust the Tiler up into the driving seat, he caught sight of a large flame suddenly blossoming from the cresset on top of the West Tower, and went into instant panic overdrive. “Get up there and sod off as quick as you can!” he babbled “the procession is approaching and if the King sees you’re still here he’ll impale our most delicate parts on something hideously spiky, and more than likely rusty into the bargain!” The Tiler, panicked at the mental picture thus conjured up by the babbling Chamberlain, and desirous of quitting

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the environs of the castle as urgently as possible, yanked at the reins with just a tad more zest than was advisable in the tight confines of the courtyard approach. The heavy horse, unceremoniously wrenched from his meal of grass and daisies, backed skittishly onto the newly paved courtyard, shattering several of the heraldic tiles, before pulling for the gateway at a trot. As he crossed the drawbridge, a simultaneous chain of events was put into motion. The resplendent Royal procession hove into view on the causeway; King Egbert appeared, arrayed in half a hundredweight of regal robes spattered liberally with a couple of bushels of

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gems, and began to progress toward them along a strip of red carpet specially laid for the occasion; the strange lodger in the book store above them appeared in his window, and the Plangent Strains began to play in what, for them, was an almost controlled fashion. Tarquin Spandrel played the melody through, accompanied by Adam and Guillem, managing to get most of the notes in the right order, but as the end of the first verse approached, he could be seen watching Griswolde Pauncefoote from the corner of his eye, as the leader of the Waits lifted the soprano shawm in preparation for the second verse. A rising shriek as of a castrated pea-

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cock heralded the opening of verse two, and the horse started nervously in his shafts, his hooves skittering on the slippery floor of new tiles. Tarquin Spandrel, goaded by the strident playing of Pauncefoote’s soprano, began to blow harder, adding embellishments wherever he could, and finishing the second verse with a manic flurry of double-tongued semiquavers. The other two Waits meanwhile, not to be outdone by the upper two parts, began to steadily blow louder, making up in volume what they lacked in ornament, and the second verse ended in a heavy fortissimo chord. As the third verse began, Adam Pyke-Pilaster, sensing that no quarter

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would be given, turned the easy loping ground bass into a tumbling mass of arpeggios and embellished scales based around the original theme ‌ only really, really bloody loud. By this time it was every man for himself, and each part had become full of self-important ornament played at full volume. As they crashed into the last verse, the horse, maddened by the cacophony, tried to jump out of the shafts. The flailing hooves skidded on the tiles while the wagon slewed sideways, iron-shod wheels chewing tiles up and spitting them out like a Gatling gun on double rate overtime with bonus as it span. The approaching procession faltered

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nervously, and their leather-soled boots slithered in indecision on the slippery tiled surface. “What in heaven is that God-awful noise?” The Angevin King asked his Lord High Chancellor, as they clutched at each other for support. “It sounds like a load of cannons falling down a mountain Sire, but I suspect it might be intended as some form of fanfare of welcome.” “Good grief! Do you think so? It sounds like we’re being heralded into the realms of Hell itself.” The Waits slammed into the last chord of the fanfare at full-bore double fortissimo with a side serving of extra decibels, the tuning all over the shop

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and reeds shrieking in pain as the horse finally lost all reason and made a dash for the safety of the courtyard, dragging the wagon sideways through the gateway. Newly-laid tiles sprayed from his hooves as they cracked and split under the pressure, and in a hideously slow motion fashion, the load of tiles, clay, tools and kiln began to slide out of the back of the wagon and head in an ever widening arc over the drawbridge and out onto the causeway. The visiting dignitaries began to scatter screaming with rising terror, as the kiln sent up a plume of brackish water from its entry into the moat, while up above the mĂŞlĂŠe the strange lodger

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climbed out onto the sill of his window and grasped the cable which was attached to an iron ring he’d screwed to the window frame the previous evening. Sighting along a viewing tube until the visiting Plantagenet Monarch appeared in the frame, he hung from a specially constructed suspended cradle and kicked himself away from the stonework. Below him Harbinger stared aghast at the carnage the Tiler was causing before his very eyes, and knew with a dread certainty that the King would hold him personally responsible. Even the certain knowledge that the Tiler would accompany him at the head of the queue at the

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headsman’s brazier to have his internal organs individually branded with the King’s cipher brought him scant satisfaction. Just when Harbinger was debating with himself whether to make himself scarce, slip un-noticed aboard Blacques Jacques’ sloop and begin a new life on the continent as a retired mariners’ rent boy under an assumed name, the furtive stranger dangling above him was discovering that nothing was safe left lying around overnight, and that factoring Prang into any plan was a useful exercise, as he belatedly realised that the cable wasn’t going where he thought it was, and he was seriously off target. A scream burst from his lips as he re-

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alised how slack the cable was, and how much closer to the ground he was than he should have been. He desperately tried to swing himself back on course, but he was irrevocably lined up on the centre of Harbinger’s shoulder-blades. He shut his eyes and braced himself, and struck Harbinger square on with the soles of his boots. The hapless Chamberlain was propelled urgently forward, gasping for breath as it was all punched out of him, and eyes widening with terror as he was thrown directly at the King’s back, just a few feet beyond himself. To be fair to Harbinger, he tried harder than he’d ever tried anything before to stop himself hitting the King

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in the small of the back, but it was hopeless. With his feet flailing ineffectively to get a grip on the shiny new tiles, and his arms going like a windmill on a strict diet of peyote seeds marinaded for the full span of a high church Michaelmas festival in a trough of Olde Englishe double-strength gonad-desiccating mead, Harbinger hit the King with enough force to sweep his feet out from under him and pitch him straight on his arse. Turning to grapple Harbinger around the throat, the King suddenly discovered the inherent low grip factor at the interface of the arse of a pair of velvet ceremonial hose and the glazed surface of heraldic terra-cotta tiles, as

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he began to tessaplane at rapidly increasing speed down the slope towards the Royal Plantagenet Monarch who stood transfixed with wide-eyed terror, whilst the panicky tightening of his grip did nothing to slow him down, as Harbinger glissaded after his Liege Lord, the pair locked in a mutual embrace of certain death. Swinging above the tragedy unfolded below, the Sinister Stranger had become hideously enmeshed in cables rendered far too slack and unpredictable by Prang having shifted them from their carefully calculated position, and he slammed into the wooden contrivance, booting Prang in the end of the bugle as he landed.

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With a shriek of pain, Prang flew backwards off the edge of the platform and landed with a crash on top of the band of sweating musicians. The instruments flew into the air, were caught in the back-draught of an inadvertent spell as Prang’s zapping finger went off with the jolt of landing, got themselves into formation and began to wail with increasing force as the slipstream began to whistle through their reeds and they described a huge parabola over the scene of the processionary dÊbâcle. King Egbert crashed into the Plantagenet King, bowling him over like a skittle as the visiting dignitaries dithered alongside the bandstand, a heaving mass of indecision unable to make up its

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mind which way to run. Harbinger landed on top of the King, and as the screaming of tortured shawms rose to ear shattering level, the straining cables above them reached breaking point and parted with a loud dissonant twang reminiscent of the recent Plangent Strains rendition of La Gamba, firing the Stranger down onto the slippery slope of the causeway and straight at his recent targets. He cannoned into the Royal Lord High Chancellor and came to rest at his feet as the flock of homing screaming shawms finally came to earth with a dying shriek, impaling him with their reeds and pinning him spread-eagled out on the ground like a biological speci-

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men. Prang and the shambolic band of Waits got shakily to their feet and surveyed the carnage around them with a feeling of dread. Griswolde turned to the Wizard with a fatalistic air. “You know what Prangy? I think I might just go and saw me knackers off with a blunt harpoon and impale them on the main gate with a marlin spike to save the King the bother. Is there any vague chance in hell we might be able to shove the blame for this one onto Harbinger and walk free?” “No Grizzy, I think we can assume we’re all well in the crap for this one, including Harbinger.” Norman Monarch and Saxon King

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began to disentangle themselves and struggle to their feet, while Harbinger looked around to see if there was anyone of a monkish disposition in the crowd who would be prepared to perform a swift ad hoc Last Rites ceremony for a couple of bob and a firkin of ale. The Angevin staggered upright and looked about himself, his russet hair standing upright like a cheap fright-wig and his face ruddy with barely suppressed anger. “What the hell sort of a welcoming ceremony do call thi‌ ?â€? The bass rackett finally crashed to earth alongside the simmering Plantagenet Monarch and his Royal Lord

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High Chancellor with a crash and a despairing honk. The ill-fitting casing sprang apart and all the interior tubing flew out and shot off in all directions with dissonant homicidal humming as the courtiers and nobles all threw themselves energetically to the ground once more in fear of their lives. Servants began scuttling around in a panic to help the mighty and noble to their feet and brush them down with feather dusters, while the King began to scan the crowd for culprits and scapegoats. He disentangled himself from the bony and unappealing legs of Harbinger, who without reservation shot straight to the top of the hit list. How-

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ever his attention was immediately diverted from Harbinger, fortunately for the hapless Chamberlain, by the unwelcome sight of the massed shambling forces of the Plangent Strains Waits band, hovering guiltily on the margins of the disaster site. “GAAHHH!!! Bally Poncefart! And arsing Tarpon Spaniel! Gad! And all the rest of the bally Strained Flanges too!! GAAHHH!!!” He stared at the horrible collection of musicians with distaste, then his gaze was caught by the fifth member of the group. “Ah Prang! Do you know Prang, I had an uncanny feeling that you might be involved in this little débâcle some-

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where along the line ‌� The King was about to outline in greater depth his feelings regarding the present sorry situation, when he became horribly aware that just behind his back, the Plantagenet Monarch had struggled to his feet once more, and was likely to require a satisfactory explanation, suitable recompense, and adequate massaging of the dignity when he had collected his wits together, otherwise they were all likely to end up clapped in irons in The Tower and charged with High Treason. The courtiers and nobles gathered round their Sovereign and the Lord High Chancellor obsequiously aided him in adjusting his robes to a more be-

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fitting hang, while King Egbert attempted to mentally frame a few suitably abject phrases of apology and regret, something which did not come naturally, when the Lord High Chancellor stiffened with shock and pointed at the ground where the strange lodger lay pinned by a flight of shawms. “Good God!! Look!” The courtiers and nobles crowded round for a better view. “By the cringe!!” “It isn’t is it?” “It is!” “It can’t be!” “It is I tell you!!” “Will someone in the name of arsing

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cack tell me who the hell it is?!!” The King had had enough by now and demanded to be let in on the secret. The Royal Lord High Chancellor turned to King Egbert. “Why it’s the Assassin AstreauTurphe.” “The Assassin Astreau-Turphe?!?*! *!!” The shocked response flew around the rapidly gathering crowd like wildfire. “It is?!! Gad!!” The King went forward and bent over the prone figure of the disclosed assassin to take a look for himself. “GAAHH!! His bally face is doing that thing again!”

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“It’s his most powerful weapon and the secret of his success. Hence our extreme difficulty in tracking him down and apprehending him. We had word he’d picked up a new contract that had the King’s name on it, but we lost track of him months ago. He must have been planning this ambush for some time.” “Gad yes. The swine’s been lodging here for bally yonks and … actually I don’t believe I’ve seen the blighter round here before, do you Harbinger?” “What, the furtive bloke from the book store … Ow!!! Er, no Sire n-never seen him before.” The Lord High Chancellor sent for the Yeomen of the Guard who were waiting with the Royal Barge at the

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wharf, to bear the Assassin away in chains, as the Plantagenet Monarch turned to address the Saxon King once more. “Well Egbert, this has been a right farce of a pageant and no mistake, and I really don’t intend wasting any more time here in this piffling little Kingdom than is absolutely necessary, so I intend to return immediately to the Royal Barge with a view to quitting your bounds. It now rests with you to prove the Charter, which I’ve half a mind to tear up and ram down your throat. However, in view of the fact that we have the dastardly Assassin AstreauTurphe in chains with the prospect of an extended stay in the Tower leading to

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eventual execution, I’m willing to overlook certain unfortunate events of the day. Therefore, in order to rubberstamp your Charter and fulfill the purpose of my visit here, we need a Black Knight. I take it you have one?” “Yes Henry, sort of. Well there’s one on the pesky payroll anyway.” “Send him down to me at the wharf. I’ll see him there before I go.” “Do you have to?” But the Norman King had already left, accompanied by his personal guard. King Egbert turned beseechingly to the Lord High Chancellor, but there was no sympathy from that quarter. The civil servant merely bared his teeth in a humourless grin.

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“No Black Knight, no Charter. No Charter, no independent realm. Take it or leave it King, I couldn’t give a rat’s arse.” “I’ll see he gets there.” The Lord High Chancellor made it plain he didn’t approve of independent realms, or the power of the Kings thereof, and was especially niggled by the lost revenues which should by rights have come to roost in his exchequer before being quietly syphoned off for his own private usage. “Make it snappy Sire, I’ll be leaving in half an hour. By the way, where in the name of Stöckhausen did you find that atrocious band? They’re even worse than the Pauncefoote Troubadours I

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heard at court last year, and I confidently thought they were the worst thing musically I was ever likely to hear in one lifetime.” The Royal Lord High Chancellor turned to leave with his retinue, skidding in a decidedly unmagisterial manner off the glazed tiled causeway, and tripping unsteadily onto the baked earth path. “And get these garish bloody awful ostentatious tiles ripped up before I have to return next year, or I’ll be using your Charter to wipe my arse on!!” The simmering King kept a lid clamped tightly on his temper and waited until the Chancellor and his retinue were safely out of earshot, then

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turned to confront his own sorry escort. “Well thank you all for making this such a truly memorable occasion. You’re all a bunch of cross-eyed brain-dead ham-fisted scrotum-featured arsing crap-weasels, if that isn’t being a little too kind to you. Harbinger, why the hell did you hire this shambling sorry bunch of cacophonous dirge-mongers to perform in front of the King of England? You know how I feel about them. You told me you’d auditioned the musicians.” “I did Sire. They sounded alright.” “THEY SOUNDED ALRIGHT?!! Are you insane? If you chopped their flamin’ hands off they

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couldn’t possibly play any worse than they do!” The King turned to face the quaking musicians. “Poncefart! Gad!! And the rest of the poxy Strained Flanges. Why do you insist on infesting my castle Poncefart? Do you imagine you’ve got some sort of flamin’ licence?” “Well we are registered Town Waits Sire, attached to …” “Don’t for God’s sake say the words small print, or arsing Charter Poncefart. I’ve had more than naffing flesh and blood can stand for one day.” The King ordered the Waits back into the castle to await his pleasure, and looked around at the mess about him.

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He despatched the Head Steward with orders to arrange the clear up party, then turned back to Prang. “Prang, you can go and locate the Black Knight and accompany him down to the wharf and report for inspection to King Henry. Let’s get this flamin’ Charter ratified once and for all and at least we’ll be in the clear for another year … if the Black Knight passes muster of course.” A mental picture of Guilhelmette Pauncefoote in his crusted mouldy armour meandered alarmingly through his mind. “Gaahh!! I must be mad trying to pass that lichened lunatic off as a knighted nobleman, the King will never pass that

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bedraggled buffoon in a month of Sundays! We’re doomed, I can feel it in me water! I need a severe infusion of almond tartage to calm me nerves, so I’ll repair to my solar well away from buffoons and dullards and try not to think about the Angevin’s reaction when he beholds Poncefart II.” The King shuddered with an uneasy premonition and turned to leave the scene of the recent débâcle, but the shagreen soles of his eelskin boots skidded dangerously on the tiled surface, and his arms windmilled crazily before he got his feet under some sort of control once more. Unfortunately however, rather a lot of the tiles were very poorly affixed to the ground and were beginning to

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work loose, causing them to tilt under the King’s feet so that he tripped repeatedly and, no matter how hard he tried to avoid the indignity, he was finally pitched on his arse once more. “Harbinger!!” The King held out his hand for the Chamberlain to assist him to his feet. Harbinger reluctantly took it, and found himself grasped tightly by the windpipe as soon as the King returned to the vertical, while his next instructions were spat at him through gritted teeth. “Now see here you witless fool! Go and find that arse with the tiles and drag him back here. Then it’s your responsibility to see to it that he rips up all these

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highly dangerous shiny tiles by hand, and replaces all the damaged surfaces at his own expense, and to my satisfaction. Fail in this endeavour at your peril Harbinger, for I believe there is a spare Iron Lady somewhere down in the dungeons that’s just about your size.” “Y-yes Sire.” “And finally, I shall repair to my solar for an extended summit meeting with a large almond tart in order to sufficiently build up my strength to be able to do justice to the arses of that bunch of craphound musicians. Which reminds me Harbinger, go to my garderobe and dig out a pair of my longest, most pointy sollerets and take them to the armourer to be ground to needle-sharp arse-

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kicking points!� The King stepped carefully from the tiled surface onto the grass and headed for the drawbridge. “I shall expect everything to be returned to normal by this evening Harbinger, then we can sit down quietly to have an in-depth discussion about your reasons for booking that shambling shower of shits to play magisterial fanfares for the most important visitors of the year.� Harbinger stumbled away looking decidedly green about the gills, intent on venting his spleen on the unfortunate Tiler, who he saw as the cause of all his present troubles.

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Chapter 5

D

o we have to do this Prangy?” Prang and the Black Knight slipped through the postern gate and headed over the causeway on their way to the wharf and their meeting with the King of England, accompanied by Dragon, who’d been persuaded to come, against his better judgement, to lend moral support. Prang shrugged and looked at Dragon, who snorted. “Are you mad Blackie? Of course we do. If the King fails to get the Charter ratified for the coming twelvemonth period, the realm’s independent status is automatically cancelled and the whole

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kit and caboodle defaults to the Crown and Exchequer.” “But at least we’d finally be out of the King’s clutches, and we wouldn’t have to put up with Pencil-neck’s weaselly snideness any more.” “All of which is true, but could you make it as a Black Knight in the outside world?” “We-ell … “ Pauncefoote II looked extremely doubtful. “And what gigs could your brother and his bloody crap-awful band possibly get beyond our boundaries?” The Black Knight cackled derisively. “None. In fact they’d be pelted with rotten fruit and chased out of town. Or

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made to eat their own instruments.” “Exactly. And I know for a fact that Prangy here wouldn’t stand a chance in hell of making it as a proper wizard in the big wide world, where a Susquehannah Diploma is so much toilet paper.” Prang and the Black Knight both nodded ruefully. There was much truth in what Dragon said. Pauncefoote sighed. “I’ve just got the feeling the Lord High Chancellor is going to blame me for the bloody awful disastrous pageant.” “No reason why he should Blackie, he’s just going to want to sod off out of here as quick as he can. He hates the fact

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that we’re independent of the Crown down here. As long as you can prove your Black Knight credentials he’ll be forced to rubber-stamp the Charter, and then he’ll just want to bugger off as fast as the crew of Watermen can row.” By this time they were descending the path which led to the rotting wharf. Ahead of them the Royal Barge glowed in the setting sun, beams of light glinting off the ornate gilding at the prow and heavily carved canopy of the cabin. Liveried Watermen sat along both sides of the Barge, long oars standing between their knees in the tossed position, and a group of uniformed yeomen stood on the wharf, while the Assassin Astreau-Turphe sat in chains on the

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bottom boards between two of the burliest yeomen, his features flickering like a candle in a draught, one look barely able to get a grip on his Teflon face, before slipping away to reveal another. Dragon gained the wharf and hailed the barge, then stepped aside to reveal Pauncefoote II. “Here’s our Black Knight Sire, all present and correct.” “Whatt??!! That moss-encrusted fool?!” bellowed the horrified Monarch in a passable imitation of King Egbert himself, while his Lord High Chancellor braced himself for another Royal Tirade. The Assassin Astreau-Turphe meanwhile had collapsed on the bottom-

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boards in a paroxysm of laughter, pointing helplessly at Pauncefoote and clutching his diaphragm in pain. “Oh my God! It’s Sir Crudalot of Ordure!! Give me oxygen someone!” Unfortunately for the Master Criminal however, the lack of concentration induced by helpless laughter caused his face to revert to its real expression permanently, and his special skill was lost for good. The English King snorted his approval. Holding on to Astreau-Turphe would prove a lot easier now, so he held out his hand for the Black Knight’s credentials in a slightly mellower frame of mind. “Well everything seems to be in or-

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der Sir Black Knight, but I have to say you wouldn’t have a prayer in the outside world, so it seems to me you are very lucky indeed to have found your niche here, where no-one gives a stuff.” King Henry signed the Charter and passed it to the Lord High Chancellor to affix his huge Royal Seal, as Dragon threw Pauncefoote an “I told you so” look, then the Chancellor handed the Charter back to the Black Knight. With a brief muttered “Let’s get out of this hell-hole” the Angevin waved to his Lord High Chancellor to order the oarsmen to ship oars and make way, the yeomen took their stations and the barge pushed off and began to row down-river with steady strokes of the

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twin banks of oars. The three companions strolled slowly back along the path to the castle in the glow of the setting sun. “Let’s go and put the King out of his misery and give him this Charter. He’s probably convinced himself he’s lost it forever by now, so it should put him in a good mood for a while.” The Black Knight was thoughtful as he rustily creaked his way along beside his companions. “What you were saying earlier Dragon; do you reckon that King Egbert’s Realm is the only place we can function successfully?” “In a nutshell Matey. The last resort for failures and buffoons, this place.”

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“Blimey, that’s a scary thought. So this is as good as it gets?” “Uhuh!” “This really is the best we can expect in this vale of tears?” “Yep! After all, where else would Harbinger get a job? Who else would employ such an effete prancing fool as Deidre the Herald, and you, your brother and Prang would all be out of work and on the bread-line if it wasn’t for this place.” “Okay, so why the flamin’ hell are you here Dragon?” “Oh I’m just in it for the laughs Matey. Where else can you see a King plagued by dodgy rip-off Merchants flogging phoney kites, mercenary Wa-

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ter Diviners, shark-featured lawyers bearing punitive writs, drunken hilarious pilgrims, mincing interior designers and failed firework displays. And let’s face it, Josiah Short’s hideous wig is entertainment value all by itself. I spend most of my time doing sod-all ’cos the King knows I don’t give a shit, which I know he respects but he doesn’t know I know, I get board and lodging, albeit of a very low grade, thrown in for free, and I get entertained by a constant stream of buffoons passing through the place. It could be much much worse y’know. F’rinstance my cousin’s got a job as the Welsh Dragon. It’s a hideous existence. He gets no time off, has to attend all those interminable State Cere-

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monies and endure hours of naffin’ Eisteddfods, and gets ordered around by the sodding Welsh, who all think they own him. And all for a flamin’ pittance. I know when I’m well off, thank you very much!” The three companions arrived at the causeway and paused to look up at the bleak crumbling frontage of the castle silhouetted against the setting sun. Prang turned to Dragon to clarify the situation. “So what you’re saying is we should be content with our lot.” “That’s right. This is the only place on the face of the entire planet where you lot can carry out your chosen professions and actually get paid for it. A

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rare thing for such a bunch of misfits in the pre-renaissance.” “Blimey! It certainly makes you look at the place in a new light doesn’t it.” The Black Knight inflated his cheeks and blew out heavily through pursed lips. “Aye. It does that. I don’t know whether to jump up and down like a flamin’ epileptic Morris Dancer with hot coals in his clogs out of sheer unrestrained joy, or top meself out of utter despair!” They stopped on the drawbridge and knocked for the guard to open the postern gate. “Hang about Dragon, are you seriously trying to tell me this is a happy

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ending?” “ ’fraid so Prangy!!” “Bloody Hell! I never expected that.” “Nobody did Matey. Nobody did.” The postern gate closed behind them as darkness fell, and the mouldering mediæval castle they called home gradually disappeared into the gloom.

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The full set of nineteen episodes of the misadventures of Wizard Prang can be read in:

Published by Lulu.com and available in paperback from the publishers or through Amazon Also available from Wizard Books:

The King of String Coming soon:

The King of String II Antlers of Doom



ASSASSIN!!