Ever wondered why the world didn’t end last December? Now, for the first time, the whole story is made public. Well, more public than Dakota’s facebook page, at any rate.
The expression on my master’s face was most grave when I slipped into his chamber. Not because I’d slipped into his chamber, I was quite entitled to do that. In fact, he’d requested it of me. His secret carrier pigeon brought me a message as I crept through the dark streets of London in search of the kind of information that a sneaky spy like me might make use of. No, his face was grave because he had grave news.
“You have nine days to save the world,” he said.
I sat down and took the cup of wine he held out to me. My master had one of the finest wine cellars in all of Christendom. The liquid in the cup I now sipped in a most refined manner was as red as rubies and tasted like really good wine. I set the cup on the table, leaned forward to show I was listening and listened.
“I’ve checked with every seer in the land,” my master said. “Every witch, every soothsayer, every astrologer, every crackpot with a bong, and they all say the same thing. The world is going to end. Really soon.”
“And I have to stop it?” I said.
“I can’t think of anyone else who could. You’re the best of the best, Madison…”
“Dakota,” I murmured.
“…You’ve been in and out of more tight places than the Bastard of Fauconberg.”
I flushed to hear my lover’s name. Not because the mere mention of his name made me hot with desire, fervid with lust and longing and a deep deep need for him to rip the clothes from my back and bend me over a… It was because I was angry with him. He was never there when I needed him! Always off on some adventure or other, usually involving a scantily clad virgin and a pirate. With him as the pirate.
I shook my head to clear it and found that I’d missed about half of what my master needed to tell me. Still, I could always work it out as I went along.
“I’m counting on you, Tiffanee…”
“And so is the rest of the world. Even the bits we haven’t discovered yet.”
I picked up the cup, drained the rest of the wine – which really was very good – and thought about how I was going to go about saving the world. Apart from the obvious. One thing was clear. I was going to need the Bastard of Fauconberg in my bed… by my side.
I was woken next morning by my good friend, the Bastard of Fauconberg, bringing me a lovely cup of piping hot sweet tea. I held the delicately patterned eggshell thin porcelain cup and saucer in my hands and breathed in the fragrant steam. With his network of contacts across the known world, the Bastard was privileged indeed to enjoy many delights of the far and mystic east long before anyone else in England. Sharing this unique bounty was just one of the many things that made me feel just that little bit better than everyone else. As feelings go, it certainly beats the alternative.
I was contemplating this when the sheet slipped, causing me momentary embarrassment.
“Oh dear,” I said. “The sheet has slipped and my hands are full! Could you just… Oh, my.”
Twenty minutes later, after casting a rueful glance at the delicately patterned eggshell thin porcelain cup of lovely stone cold tea, I watched the Bastard dress. Which was something I enjoyed only marginally less than watching him undress.
“What have you got on today?” I said.
“Oh, long day of pirating,” he said. “I’ve three virgin rescues pencilled in for this afternoon and five Spanish caravels to plunder. Oh, and I’m getting a haircut at three.”
I lay back on my pillows, stretching and sighing languorously, sated by love but not, sadly, by tea. “I have to save the world. I’ve got an appointment with a rather nice chap over in Southwark who might be able to help.”
“Why bother?” he said. “We could just sail away to the Caribbean like we did last time. Leave these chumps here to deal with it on their own.”
“Thing is, Tom,” I said, because, apart from the Bastard of Fauconberg, his name was Tom, “If the world ends, so will the Caribbean. And with it will go all the dusky maidens you’re so very fond of and that Spanish contessa. The one with the flashing eyes.”
“And your prince.” The Bastard grinned. “The one you pine for, despite your hard and gritty exterior.”
I waved a hand dismissively which, from a supine position has less affect than one might like, and said, “The prince was lost to me a long time ago, Tom. He matters naught. The world, on the other hand, matters a great deal. And I must get up and dressed and over the river.”
Father Brimspoon was a jolly chap with a face that creased into smiles at every opportunity and blue eyes that twinkled without warning.
“I’ve been searching my secret arcane texts for some clue,” he said. “Earthquakes, pestilence, rain of frogs, death of the firstborn, that kind of thing. I’ve come up with nothing! I’m wondering if the world might not be planning just to sigh itself to gentle sleep.”
“Hardly in keeping with the spirit of an apocalypse,” I said.
“I know! Back in my day, we did things properly. No-one can be bothered now. I did try casting the world’s horoscope, but I’m buggered if I can work out if it’s a Capricorn or a Leo. I’m afraid I can’t be of much help. The Squatting Monks of Ooo might have something. There’s a book in their library I’ve been trying to get my hands on for decades. I was just about to put the kettle on, have a nice cup of tea, if you’d care to join me.”
I thanked him most kindly but said I wouldn’t, if he didn’t mind. I’d had enough cups of tea for one morning.
Standing on the banks of the turgidly flowing, stench-filled, corpse laden banks of the Thames I thought what a great pity it would be if all this vanished. Impossible to imagine it, really, on a morning like this, with the cries of carrion birds in the air, the curses of boatmen on the river and the raucous shouts of the ladies of whatever-time-of-the-day-they-could-make-a-quick-profit. With a sigh laden with all the words I couldn’t express, I turned my back on the river, slipped in the mud and would have ended up sprawled in the garbage bin of the shallows had I not been caught by a large net.
“What has we here?” an unpleasant voice sneered. “I thinks I shall takes it to my barge and has a closer look.”
I sighed again, but this time it expressed not my sadness at the imminent end of all beauty and joy but frustration at what I was sure was going to turn out to be yet another waste of my time.
When I came to my senses, I found myself bound, hand and foot, hanging from a hook, some two or three feet in the air.
Amateur! I thought.
I was in some kind of small, dark, fetid, smoke-filled room. I cast my eye about and decided it really wasn’t worth the bother of describing. Small, dark, fetid and smoke-filled were it’s more interesting features. And it swayed. Or rather, I did, gently swinging like some kind of smoking hot pendulum. The unique combination of stenches – sweat, death, rotting fish, oranges and beer infused piss – told me I was still on the river.
Someone shared this space with me. A waft of pickled onions and grit; and the sound of stricken bellows told me it likely the chap I met on the riverbank.
“Ah, it’s awake,” he said. “I was wondering if it ever would.”
He came closer to me, craning his neck to look. He licked his lips and cupped his crotch and I prayed I hadn’t stumbled into the fervid fantasies of a bored legal secretary.
“I’s Shee-teh-poh,” he said. “And I has plans for you.”
“Oh, please don’t tell me you intend to ravage me,” I said. “Or worse, carry me off to a church to make me your wife. I really don’t have time for all that today.”
Shitepot laughed, coughed, hoiked up something noxious and spat it onto the floor, laughed again and said, “It thinks I wants to marries it! Oh, it does has ideas above its station. When I’s marry, ’twill be to a hardier body than yours. All those squishy bits! Hows they helps with hauling on ropes, I asks it!”
I was most offended. I am in possession of no squishy bits. Every part of me is firm, rock hard and bitchin!
“No,” he went on. “Shee-teh-poh has no marryings, No woman to ties him down, Fancy free and loose of foot, is me! Plays the field. Sows the wild oats. Plenty of fishies in the river. I just dangles my worm and they bites!”
I’d had enough. I flipped onto my back, hauled myself up the short length of rope by my feet, caught a free finger in the hook, lifted myself off and, with a neat twist on the way down, landed on the deck at Shitepot’s feet. He had the intelligence to reel back.
Using an ancient and secret technique learned from the monks of the Most Venerable Order of Tofu in the high Himalayees, I wriggled free of my ropes and grabbed Shitepot by the throat. Not that there was any ancient and secret technique for the last bit. That wasn’t covered in the otherwise exhaustive and venerable Tofu curriculum. It was one of the many areas in which I was self-taught. Shitepot dangled from my hand, squealing.
“These ‘plans’ of yours,” I said. “What do they entail?”
“The world ends,” he said. “Big party, important mans, pretty girls. You was to go out with a bang. Hur hur hur!”
I threw him against the wall, very hard, found the way out, went up on deck and breathed in the slightly less fetid air. I took stock of myself. My boots were gone (and with them, my favourite dagger), my clothes were in tatters but not a hair was out of place. Channeling my secret powers of weapon-finding, I picked up a nearby belaying pin. I was hunting for something nice and sharp when I heard footsteps behind me. Shitepot really did want throwing in the river!
I whipped around and found myself looking not at a misshapen bargeman but the fair and handsome form of Lord Hastings. He smiled at me.
“I was just coming to collect you,” he said. “I’d have come much sooner if I knew it was you old Shitepot found.”
It could have been worse. It could have been Anthony Wydeville. In which case, my self-administered vow to stay faithful to the Bastard of Fauconberg, or Prince Edward, whichever happened to be around at the time, might have been tested. As it was, I could resist Hastings, though with difficulty, because his dear wife was a very dear friend of mine.
“I’ll walk you through the city,” he said. “Party’s not due to start for another hour or so, so you’ve time to clean up. Or whatever else you may wish to do.”
“I was on my way to see the Squatting Monks of Ooo,” I said.
“That can wait, can’t it? Ned will be so thrilled that you’re back in the country.”
Lord Hastings leapt from the deck and onto the bank of the river. He looked up at me, still smiling. With a sigh of resignation, I started down the ladder, resisting the urge to kick him in the face when he so kindly helped me down.
“It’s not as if there’s anything we can do about it,” Edward IV said. “The End of the World is… Well, it’s the end!”
He leaned back in his chair, his hands clasped behind his head, his feet stretched out, legs apart. Here was a man sure of himself, sure of his power. His sheer animal magnetism, which oozed from every pore, might have been impressive, had such things been capable of impressing me. I got the feeling that any woman who wanted him could have him with a snap of her fingers. Given that I’m hardly ‘any woman’, I doubted I’d need to waste energy on the snap.
“Ms FitzPercy seems to think otherwise,” the frail and angelic® Richard or Dickon said. “I do think we should give her the courtesy of listening.”
His nose buried in a cup of wine, his brother Clarence gave a gentle hiccough.
The door to the adjoining chamber opened just a crack and the sound of merry laughter spilled out. With a sigh, Hastings got up and went to close it, spotted something that piqued his interest and went through it instead.
Richard or Dickon frowned, Edward chuckled and Clarence asked if there wasn’t some more wine somewhere.
“There must be a way to stop it,” I said. “I’ve been asked to try and I’m jolly well going to!”
Edward looked at me coolly, his mind snapping back from whatever it was he thought Hastings was up to.
“I didn’t even know you were back in the country, Dakota,” he said.
“My lord of Warwick cares very deeply for the world,” I said. “He’s of the opinion that life won’t be much fun without it. He consulted his favourite shaman, who cast her bones, read the chicken entrails and went into a trance, just to make triple sure of her findings, and she said that the answer lies here, in England.”
“Is he here?”
“Wherever he is, Sire, he’s on your side. In his own, albeit strange, way he’s always been on your side.”
Edward said ‘tcha!’. Richard or Dickon frowned again. Clarence said, “Bastard! Said he was going to make me king, he did. And am I king? No, my stupid bloody brother still is!”
“I was on my way to consult with the Squatting Monks,” I said, “when your friend Shitepot entangled me in his net.”
“Not my friend,” Edward said. “One of Hastings’ chaps. Will is of the opinion that quantity is more important than quality. If I’d known you were here, Dakota, you’d have received a more civilised invitation.”
He stood up and went to the window, rocking back on his heels, his hands still clasped but this time behind his back.
Richard or Dickon kept his eyes fixed on his adored older brother. Clarence toppled gently sideways and landed in a heap on the floor.
“I think you should keep your appointment, Dakota,” Edward said. “But I don’t think you should go alone.”
The door behind me opened. Thinking it was Hastings come back, I didn’t turn around. Ned did, looking over his shoulder at whoever it was behind me.
“I want you to listen to everything Ms FitzPercy has to say, Anthony,” he said.
I stiffened. Not him! I prayed. Oh, please God, not him!
“Even if it takes all night,” Edward went on. “And in the morning, you’re to visit the Squatting Monks. I don’t want you to let her out of your sight. Keep her close by at all times.”
Anthony Wydeville, my nemesis, the bane of my life, the man I once nearly surrendered my honour to in the back room of a tavern in Bruges, sat down in a chair beside me. He hooked a leg over the arm of the chair and grinned at me.
“My pleasure,” he said. “Perhaps we can talk over a private supper in my apartments?”
I looked at Edward, but he gave me no rescue. I looked at Richard or Dickon, but he was frowning again. I’d have looked at Clarence, but his gentle snoring made me suspect he’d be of no help. There was nothing for it but to share an intimate supper with Anthony Wydeville and spend all night in his company, talking about the End of the World.
Anthony Wydeville wasn’t only one of the most exquisitely designed men in England, he was also one of the most learned. What he lacked in warlike masculine energy, he more than made up for in good manners and intelligent conversation. (And if you’re going through my notes, dear Thomas, yes, you could learn something from this. Reading a book every now and then and learning not to spit on the floor while I’m eating wouldn’t do you any harm.) He had luscious brown hair (like warm honey), the softest of grey eyes and calves and thighs so shapely one would think them sculpted by the finest of artists. (Keep reading, Tom. You never know, it might get worse.)
“Do you truly believe the world is going to end?” Anthony said.
“Well, no,” I said. “I’m going to make sure it doesn’t. But if your question is do I think someone, or something, is intending to bring the world to an end, then yes, I do. My master…”
“The earl of Warwick,” he said. “Oh, don’t look at me like that! If any of us had any doubts that he somehow slipped away after Barnet, leaving a conveniently dressed corpse for us to find, they were swept away when the Trinity weighed anchor and sailed out of Sandwich Harbour. Add to that Lady Montagu’s habit of calling her new husband John instead of William, Margaret of Anjou muttering to herself in German and both the duchesses of Clarence and Gloucester referring to their father in the present tense, and a certain level of suspicion begins to build. If he’s in back England as well, he’d best keep low, for I’ve not yet forgiven him for taking my father’s head and Ned is still a bit miffed at the whole fleeing to Burgundy thing. So, your master, the earl Warwick, believes what?”
“That the signs all point to one thing – the world will end in less than a week.”
I shrugged, fully aware of the way it made my magnificent bosom rise and fall. “That’s what I don’t know.”
“And the Squatting Monks?”
“May know something,” I said. “Or nothing.”
He looked at me from across the table, far too close for comfort. His eyes said, I want you. Which I was used to in a man, only I was terribly afraid mine were responding in a most brazen manner. I only had to reach out a hand… (Oh, and Tom, where were you last night? I’m not sure your explanation is quite as convincing as you’d like it to be. When you said “I’ve got no plans” I thought that perhaps that meant you had no plans, that you’d be in when I got home. Not that it’s at all important. You can do as you please. Just as I can.)
I shook my head, pushed back my chair and stood up. “We should go and see them now. We’re wasting time here.”
He didn’t move. “I remember a back room in Bruges. I was this close.”
“So was I. It’s no use, Anthony. I love another. Depending on what mood I’m in and who happens to be around. But you and me… That’s never going to happen.”
“Yes,” I said. “it is.”
He sighed and stood up. “The Squatting Monks, then. I only hope one of them’s still up.”
The house of the Squatting Monks was squeezed between a stable and a house of ill repute, the entrance a short way up a dark and stinking alley. I let Anthony lead the way.
He knocked on the door and a little hatch slid open at about belly height.
“What do you want?” a voice said.
Anthony bent down. “We need to talk to someone about the end of the world.”
“The Red Rose tavern,” the voice said. “He’s usually there around four. Likes a table in the corner. Tall chap dressed in white. You can’t miss him.”
The hatch slid shut with a snap. Anthony knocked again, but all was silent. He turned to me with a rueful smile.
“What shall we find to do to keep us occupied until tomorrow afternoon?” he said.
“I have to wash my hair,” I said.
Back in my secret quarters, I closed the door and fell into my bed. Anthony’s face refused to leave my mind. My skin tingled still where his gentle hand had touched my arm, my lips waiting for the kiss than never came. The Bastard of Fauconberg was nowhere to be seen and I so needed to debrief him. I lay on my back staring up at the ceiling. It was going to be a most uncomfortable night.
If I could just go a week without being stalked, captured and threatened with marriage to some unbearably nasty piece of pond scum…
The Red Lion wasn’t far from my secret quarters. I thought I might be able to get there without incident, but some unbearably nasty piece of pond scum had other plans.
Waking up in a dark, cold cellar to find oneself naked can be a bit of an inconvenience. Within five minutes, I’d felt my way round every surface, fashioned a weapon from a discarded spoon and was awaiting developments. By the time a trapdoor opened above my head and a basket tied to a rope dangled its way down, I’d already formulated seven escape plans.
“It puts the lotion on its skin,” a voice said.
“No it doesn’t,” I said.
I grasped the rope and climbed up, emerging into the murky light of an abandoned kitchen. A quick karate chop to my kidnapper, followed by a slightly more strenuous rolling of him into the hole in the floor, a rifling of a cupboard hung with all manner of gowns, a swift dressing in one of the more acceptable styles and one last look around before opening the door that led into the street, saw me out the door and in the street.
The first thing I saw was a man holding a sign on which was painted: The Ende Beith Knygh. Further along, a shop selling secondhand chamber pots was holding a Goyng Outte of Byzynesse sale. Outside it, a painted lady of whatever time she might turn a profit was having a heated argument with a fat man who was desperately trying to change his appointment from next week to today. A tavern boasted an Ende Of Ye Worlde Partye and several unkempt monks offered me a chance at redemption before it was too late. Word, it seemed, had leaked out.
All around me, the crowds milled. Some were shrieking, some were praying, some were loading carts with baggage. Others still were selling all their worldly possessions. I was swept along, which isn’t like me at all.
In all the confusion, a hand clamped onto my arm and a voice hissed in my ear: “Quick, into the time machine!”
Intrigued by the notion, I allowed myself to be bundled into a kind of carriage. In the seat opposite me was an elderly lady, quite well dressed, who looked at me from under furrowed brows.
“I’m glad you could join me.” She extended an imperious hand. “I’m the Countess of Richmond, the King’s Lady Mother. Or I will be once I sort all the mess out. I was on my way to 1499 to write a letter to Queen Isabella when I got caught up in all this. It’s rather bothersome, you know. If the world ends now, my son will never be king!” She smiled at me. “You look bewildered.”
I doubted that but decided to play along. “This is a time machine?”
“And you travel through time?”
“Where are we going?”
“Well, I’m on my way back, actually. I took those brown chappies a whole wagonload of stone, but it’s the wrong sort, apparently. Applying a logical mind to difficulties always falls apart when some stubborn bugger refuses to play along. Why they couldn’t just write it all down on a piece of paper is beyond me. So, that’s where we stand. The calendar runs out in four days and can’t be extended. Where would you like me to drop you off? I was thinking 1065. There’s a chap who could really do with my help.”
“But you’re from the future,” I said.
“Don’t try and think about it, dear, you’ll only end up with a headache.”
Slipping back into some past time was tempting. There were several kings and nobles I could think of who could do with my help. But it felt a little like running away. And without the Bastard of Fauconberg. Or Prince Edward. Life just wasn’t worth living.
“No,” I said. “I’m needed here.”
Maybe she could take me back to last night. I could tarry a moment or two longer over supper… I gave myself a stern talking to that involved words that no-one else need hear and shook my head.
“What time is it?” I said.
“When?” the Countess of Richmond said.
“Around six, I think.”
I’d missed the meeting at the Red Rose.
“If you could take me back to, say, three, half past…”
“Of course, my dear. You just sit tight. Would you care for a glass of midori while you’re waiting?”
She poured me a glass of something green. I sniffed it.
The countess laughed. “There’s a whole universe of wonder out there for an adventurous woman with a time machine to explore. The court of Charles II! He’s a bit of a derp, admittedly, but such fun!”
As the carriage lurched into motion, I settled back among the cushions and thought about the possibilities. What I couldn’t achieve with a time machine!
“Oops!” the Countess of Richmond said.
Not the thing a girl likes to hear when she’s trapped in a time machine with a demented old lady.
“What?” I said.
“This thing is so temperamental! It’s got the timing wrong, again. I really should change the oil. Or something. It’s a quarter past three, but we’re out by a day.”
“Have we gone forward or back?” I said.
“Forward, I’m afraid.”
“So this is tomorrow?”
She frowned at me. “No, this is today. It will have going to have been tomorrow, but it isn’t any more. Your stop, I believe.”
The carriage rattled to a halt and I got ready to get up…
Waking up in a dark, cold cellar to find oneself naked can be a bit of an inconvenience. Within five minutes, I’d felt my way round every surface, fashioned a weapon from a discarded spoon and was awaiting developments. By the time a trapdoor opened above my head, I’d already formulated seven escape plans.
“So,” came a voice from above. “Have you made up your mind yet?”
This time there was no convenient rope.
“Um, yes. Yes I have,” I said. “I’ve decided to do whatever it is you wanted me to do.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful! Mother will be so pleased!”
Something rattled down past my ear. When it stopped I put a hand on it. It was some kind of ladder. Taking a deep breath, I set my foot on the bottom rung and climbed up.
Waiting for me at the top was an unbearably nasty piece of pond scum.
“I’ve bought the rings!” he said. “And your gown is such a delight.”
A quick karate chop to my kidnapper, followed by a slightly more strenuous rolling of him into the hole in the floor, a rifling of a cupboard hung with all manner of gowns, a swift dressing in one of the more acceptable styles and one last look around before opening the door that led into the street, saw me out the door and in the street.
I was met by a breathless and redfaced Bastard of Fauconberg and a cool as a cucumber Anthony Wydeville.
“We’ve just come to rescue you,” the Bastard said.
“No need,” I said.
“We followed clues and everything!”
“Well, I followed clues,” Anthony said. “Your friend here just ran around in circles threatening to hit people.”
“Well, thank you both,” I said. “But you needn’t have gone to any trouble.”
“Oh, no trouble at all,” Anthony said. “We heard there was a spot of bother and thought we’d check it out. You seem to be fine, that’s the main thing.” He offered me his arm. “Shall we?”
The Bastard of Faoconburg glared at both of us. I smiled at him sweetly and blew a kiss, then I took Anthony’s offered arm and we set off for the Red Lion.
He sat at a corner table, dressed in robes of gold and white, a heavenly aura emanating from his being. We ordered three glasses of beer and joined him.
“You’ve come to ask me about the end of the world, I take it?” he said.
“Can you stop it?” Anthony said.
The Archangel Gabriel, for indeed it was he, sighed. “If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times. It has nothing to do with us. I’ve checked seven times and there’s nothing scheduled. You need to talk to our other branch.”
“You mean…” The Bastard of Fauconberg looked rather pointedly down at the floor.
“Yes.” Gabriel looked at us, one at a time, his gaze at last settling on me. “You’ve got a task ahead of you, my dear. It always falls on one such as you.” There was a dramatic pause. “You’re going to have to make a deal with the devil.”
A profound silence fell, broken at last by the Bastard of Fauconberg. “Bloody hell!”
“I’m going to have to get further instructions,” I said. “From my master.”
“You’ve not much time,” Gabriel said. “You have quite a journey ahead of you.”
“Why her?” Anthony said. “We’ve big strong lads we can take with us. With big sharp axes.”
“It takes a certain kind of mind to defeat the Lord of Darkness,” Gabriel said. “And the only one here who possesses such a mind is the girl. I wish you luck.”
“You can’t help?” I said.
The Archangel shook his head and I got the impression of feathery wings shimmering in the golden light. “I can’t help.”
I downed my beer and stood up. “We’d best get moving, then.”
My heart beat a little faster and I’m sure my eyes glowed with excitement. I’d tell my master this news and he’d summon his men and sharpen his sword. We’d ride out with such an army behind us! Finally, one of my long held ambitions was about to come true. I was going to follow the earl of Warwick to the gates of hell.
We marched three armies out of London, following the directions most thoughtfully jotted down by the Archangel. My master and I rode side by side. The dear Bastard’s men came behind us and, at the rear, Anthony Wydeville’s motley band of musicians and writers, painters and translators from the Greek muddled along, wondering why on earth they’d been got out of bed so early.
“Our enmity is on hold for the duration,” Anthony said to Warwick when they came face to face, barely concealed contempt and a mutual longing to get their hands about each other’s throat giving the two a sense of shared purpose. “For the sake of the world and all its glories, I shall set aside my thirst for revenge. Once that is done, all bets are off.”
“Suits me,” Warwick said. “But you’ll have to catch me first.”
I was in a merry mood for I had spent a most pleasant evening with the sweetest Bastard in Christendom. From the fresh plucked roses he presented to me, through the fine meal, good wine, sparkling (for him) conversation, to the words of love and admiration that carried me from table to bed as if my feet had wings, I could fault nothing. He had learned his lesson, and most abjectly. I purred in his ear, telling him how glad I was I’d taken up his invitation to a private supper instead of Anthony’s.
“He’s hardly a man, though, is he?” the Bastard said. “All that reading. It thins a man’s blood! I’ve seen his codpiece, you know. It’s nothing to write home about.”
So now, on this sparkling winter’s morning, I hummed softly to myself as we rode to meet our destiny.
“Stop that!” my master said. “It’s really irritating.”
We turned left at Barnet, Warwick taking a moment to shred the signpost to match sticks.
We collected the Archbishop of York along the way. He greeted his brother most warmly, winked at me and scowled most darkly at Anthony. He seemed a little nervous.
“He’s worried that, once the other side of the gates of Hell, he’ll not find his way out,” Warwick said. “My dear brother has lived a life entirely free of sin, yet this nagging sense of guilt eats away at him. Once he skewers his first demon, I’m sure he’ll feel better.”
In a quiet, unassuming village of no account, we found the Portal alluded to by our good friend, the Archangel. We led our armies through it and I was sure I’d find some hellish landscape on the other side. Instead, we emerged into the same sort of sparkling winter’s day that we had just left. Tranquil, is the word I’d use to describe it. Our sense of peace didn’t long last, however. Space doesn’t allow me to detail all the adventures that befell us. Some involved fearsome giants, others great bands of trolls. There was a river of blood to wade through and another of sparkling cider. We crossed a canyon on a narrow, swaying rope bridge, hungry crocodiles, their teeth snapping, lying in wait below. We tramped through a maze of caves and tunnels beneath a massive mountain. We aided a band of dwarves on their quest while we were there, slew an elderly dragon, and continued on our way.
At last, we came to a broad road paved with golden stone. On each was carved a motto: I’ll do it tomorrow… Just leave it, I’ll sort it out… If I just prop this up with a brick… The cheque’s in the mail… I’ll mark them all ‘poison’ before I go to bed… Use by dates are just suggestions… Oh, that poor injured badger, I’ll just pick it up… We were definitely on the right road.
“Well, Makayla, this is it,” Warwick murmured.
“Dakota,” I said. “If I’m going to die saving the world, I’d like you to get my name right.”
He bowed his head. “Dakota. You’ve done me good service. I thank you for it.”
I felt a warm glow suffuse my being. It stayed with me right up until the sky darkened, the ground shook and, before our very eyes, a set of wrought metal gates rose from the very bowels of the earth. They were decorated with the visages of terrifying demons; birds with dusty black wings settled on the top, croaking their warning. Blood dripped from spikes and bits of it kept bursting into flame. Behind me, the Archbishop muttered a prayer.
“This really is it,” Warwick said. “I wonder if there’s a bell?”
We took tea in the Devil’s parlour, which was opulently – if grimly – furnished. There was a certain repetitiveness to the decor. Skulls and flames, bodies skewered on spikes, depictions of men having their livers eaten by eagles and, tucked away in a corner, several scenes that our host might have thought ‘erotic’. I didn’t and even the Bastard of Fauconberg blushed when he saw them. The Archbishop just couldn’t relax, though the rest of us managed it to varying degrees. It was a little unsettling to find that both my master and Anthony Wydeville seemed right at home.
Along one wall, shelves stretched from ceiling to floor. On them were kept souls in jars, silently screaming. And if you’re wondering how I knew they screamed if I couldn’t hear them, I shall simply invite you to be in the same room as a thousand soul jars so you might find out for yourself. It was the most hideous, blood curdling, heart stopping non-sound I’ve ever not heard.
The Devil’s hand hovered above the teapot. “Shall I be mother?”
He poured us each a cup and gestured towards a plate of biscuits. Not even his Grace, who did so enjoy a nice biscuit, dared to take one.
“Why have you come?” the Devil said.
“We’ve heard some unpleasant rumours regarding the end of the world,” Warwick said. “And we were led to believe that perhaps this was something you were planning to do.”
“Yes. Tomorrow. So looking forward to it!”
“We’d like you to not do it, please.”
The Devil shook his head. “Sorry, can’t be done, I’m afraid. Once these things are set in motion, it’s the devil’s own job to stop them. It’s momentum, you see.”
I was tired and crotchety, not having spend the most comfortable of nights in the Devil’s guesthouse. The screams of the tormented kept me awake half the night. The sound of footsteps creeping between Warwick’s room and Anthony’s (or vice versa) kept me awake the other half. Seven times I had to lead one or other of them back to their bed, their claims of ‘sleepwalking’ entirely unconvincing. In the end, I joined the Bastard and the Archbishop in the parlour, where they’d found a rather nice bottle of something which they were most happy to share.
“I don’t like this, Dakota,” the Archbishop said. “I don’t like it at all! Mortal man has no business wandering around in Hell.”
“It’s not the most pleasant of places,” the Bastard said. “But I’ve seen worse. Port-au-Prince on a Saturday night, for one.”
My sleepless night, bad mood and disturbingly fuzzy head led me to impatience. I fixed the Devil with a withering gaze. He failed, entirely, to wither.
“You are the Prince of Darkness, are you not?” I said.
“Well, one of the Princes of Darkness, at any rate.” The Devil smiled. “I’m the one who can function without Sharon. But I assume you have a point to make?”
“I do. You have no business ending the world. Those of us who live on it are rather fond of it.”
“And what would you do, young lady, to save it?’
I nearly said ‘Anything’ but I caught a glint of mischief in the Devil’s eye and instead said, “What did you have in mind?”
“A duel! Just you and me. Your friends can watch. Then gather your lifeless body and carry you home, wailing and lamenting.”
“If there’s a duel to be fought…” Warwick said.
“Then I shall be the one to fight it!” Anthony said.
The Bastard of Fauconberg sniggered. “He’s talking real fighting, Wydeville. Not just prancing around on a horse to the breathless gasps of the fair sex.”
“I can fight!” Anthony bristled. “Right now, if you like. You and me, outside. Winner takes all!”
The Bastard laid a proprietorial hand on my arm. I shook it off. I wasn’t in the mood to be fought over today, however jolly it sounded.
“So,” the Devil said. “What do you say?”
“What kind of duel?” I said.
“You have a certain grace about you. So I propose we dance. To the death.”
I thought I could handle that and smiled.
“Naked,” he went on. “On a plate of iron. With a fire underneath it. Last one to die wins. We’ll do it straight after breakfast,” He stood up. “In the meantime, why don’t you take in the sights? I can find someone to show you around.”
I looked around at four pale faces and the laughing red visage of the Devil.
“Oh, dear God!” the Archbishop said.
“There must be some other way,” Warwick said.
“Yes, this is men’s business,” Anthony said.
“Naked,” the Bastard said.
“I’ll do it.” I stood up, spat on my hand and held it out to the Devil. ‘Bring it on!”
I spent a sleepless night being shown dance steps by my companions. I’d rather have been alone, working out some kind of strategy.
Anthony Wydeville showed me an elegant minuet, as slow as a glacier. I didn’t think it would impress the Devil.
Warwick stamped his feet and snapped his fingers in a wild Spanish dance, taught to him by a captive gypsy, his prowess forever to be hidden from his wife, who had once been a Queen and was well known for her short temper and jealousy at the faintest hint that Warwick had been in the company of a captive gypsy.
His Grace, the Archbishop, remembering a dance from his youth, but not the steps, nor the order in which those steps were danced, flushed a bright red and retired early.
The Bastard of Fauconberg stripped off his clothes and danced an energetic hornpipe.
“Solidarity,” he said, by way of explanation for his nakedness.
I shooed them all away, lay down on my bed and thought up several plans, discarding the sillier ones and refining the ones I thought had some chance of success. At the back of my mind, a little voice said, “You only have to dance for longer than the Devil,” but this sounded far too simplistic and I dismissed it.
The chamber was vast, the audience innumerable, the groans and screams indescribable. The iron plate was wide and long, the pit beneath it deep and the fire that burned in that pit had flames that varied from yellow to white hot. Warwick and Wydeville took their places in the front row. The Bastard stood behind me, massaging my shoulders and giving me last minute advice.
“He leads with his left,” he said, “you go with the right. Listen to the music and, above all, keep to the beat.”
The Archbishop, bothered by the idea of my nakedness, had blessed me before we left our quarters. He held me in his arms for a moment and kissed me on both cheeks.
“There’s some chaps here,” he said, “from Ancient Greece. I thought I might spend a quiet hour or two with them, going over some things. Take my blessings with you, and the Lord’s. I’ve always been most fond of you, Dakota. Remember that, whatever happens.”
Now, the Devil appeared in a puff of sulphurous smoke. A little showy, but if that was the best he could do…. He was already naked, his red skin glistening, his horns polished to a fine lustre and his forked beard neatly forked. I undressed quickly and handed my clothes to the Bastard.
“I love you, Dakota,” he whispered.
I climbed the steps to the platform, the Devil doing the same on the other side. The surface was hot, hotter than hell, and I resisted the urge to hop from one foot to the other. “Rise above it, Dakota,” I told myself. “Remember all that Zen.”
There was no announcement, no preliminaries at all, just a thunderous clash of chords and the contest began…
They say the Devil has the best music, and they’re not far wrong. Such a joyful, monstrous, cacophonic melange of melody! Such driving, pounding, sensual rhythms! I kicked up my feet and flailed my arms.
I spun and jumped, two steps forward and three steps back. A jump to the left and a step to the right. Left leg in and shake it all about. Knees up (apparently) Mother Brown. I danced the frug, the watusi and the mashed potato. I danced minuets and quadrilles. I reeled and polkad as if my life (as it did) depended on it.
The Devil danced like a demon. Whirling and leaping, squatting and kicking. He was going to be hard to beat.
I marvelled at his innovative dance steps.
“My little baby sister can do it with ease,” he shouted.
“Put your hand on your hip,” I countered. “And let your backbone slip.”
All the while, hanging onto the ladder for dear life, darling Thomas shouted words of advice. I didn’t catch any of them, but I’m sure they were wise and most encouraging. When I could, I danced near him and blew him a kiss.
This is what was going to get me through this test. The love of a Bastard. If only Prince Edward had thought to send me a message, I’d be holding a laydown misere.
This is for the world, I told myself. For all the puppies and kittens. This is for the cutpurses and vagabonds. For the priests and politicians. The wives and daughters; husbands and sons. The mothers, the maidens and the whores.
I danced my memories of trees and oceans. My feet spun the history of indoor plumbing. My arms drew the shapes of a ginhouse and a church house; a school house and an outhouse. My feet were on fire! (No, really, they were. Actually on fire.)
Still the Devil outdanced me.
In their seats in the front row, Warwick and Anthony Wydeville watched me. The first bit his lip and the second winced each time I missed a beat.
I felt myself tiring, knew I’d twisted last summer but couldn’t for the life of me work out how to twist again. I tried my hardest to feel the beat from the tambourine, but I was no longer seventeen and most certainly wasn’t having the time of my life.
I stumbled, catching myself before I fell to my knees. The Devil laughed and executed a masterly backflip.
“Get down!” he screamed.
I was going to fail. I couldn’t go on. Maybe if I just stood in one place and shuffled my feet for a time…
Then it happened. The miracle. Somewhere deep within the music came the words that revived me, reminded me of what I was and what I must do.
“Hey, sexy lady.”
Yes! He was talking to me, singing just for me.
“Hey, sexy lady.”
The Devil paused, missing a beat and landing awkwardly. I lifted my head and my arms, crossed them in front of me and danced liked I’d never danced before.
“Hey, sexy lady.”
The Devil faltered.
A hundred songs, layered one upon another, drove me on. The Devil staggered and reeled, panting like a broken winded horse.
With every breath, every beat, every nonsensical word of every song, I grew a little stronger. When finally, the Devil fell into a sobbing heap on the floor, I spun round one last time, dropped to my knees and slid, stopping just inches from his pathetic form, both fists raised and a cry of triumph on my lips.
It was done.
From all accounts, it was a most beautiful day. The sky was blue, the sun shone and a mighty wind blew the Trinity across the trackless ocean. Our escort of porpoises leapt with joy, chattering to each other nineteen to the dozen, giddy with the joy of life. Warwick stood at the wheel, the wind in his face and the call of his new home in his heart.
I saw none of this, for I was in my cabin telling the darling Bastard of Fauconberg how much I loved him. I made careful note of the words I used, for I didn’t want to repeat myself when I greeted Prince Edward.
The dear sweet Bastard sat beside me, bathing my poor burned feet and wrapping them in bandages.
“You saved the world, Dakota,” he said.
I lay back and stretched my arms above my head, enjoying the most delicious feeling anyone could ever experience and so few did. I had saved the world. Again.