Fortunately, or unfortunately, Wragg suggested the character of Sir Robert Inder, and being suggestible, I couldn't just let that go. Anyway, we take a brief segue from our previous characters (because there can never be enough characters ). I'm sure it will all come together in the end, and I needed someone to go fetch the Amazons.
Old Firm 8
Sir Robert Inder, or Bob, as his friends counted him, was an errant knight. He couldn’t remember why he had been knighted, but the “Sir” was a fixture on his name. It had been there as long as he had known Lord Wragg, and that had been some time. He was pretty sure he had not been knighted just for being errant.
To be quite honest, he was more than errant. Errant implied that he had possibly deviant taste in art, or expressed views that others might not agree with. He sometimes did that, he mused, but at the moment that was not his problem. He was lost.
It had started out well enough. He had been visiting with Apostate, an artist who loved traveling around and painting various scenes of crucifixions, floggings, and other trials and tribulations of young women. Sometimes they were rescued. Sometimes not. Either way, Apostate made sure they were immortalized in oils, acrylics, photography, or computer graphics, depending on the media available in whatever time things were taking place. This had spurred (figuratively) Sir Bob forward, on the quest of his life, his driving goal, and he had in turn spurred his horse (literally) forward to the same end. That quest was to find the mysterious and lovely Alice. Sir Bob was not, it should be noted, sure what he was going to do when he found her (and he was sure he would), but he had so far amassed a collection of art (not all by Apostate) featuring this rarest of beauties, much of which hung in the various halls and salons of Cruxton Abbey. Being errant also meant that you didn’t have your own castle, or even a decent sized house, Sir Bob mused. He was momentarily annoyed at the thought.
He had more pressing concerns. For one, while his horse was still going forward, this was only because it is quite difficult to get horses to walk backward with any consistency. Forward, in this case, could be getting him anywhere. Where he wanted to get, at this moment, was Cruxton Abbey, and due to the strange conditions of that place’s existence, which have been mentioned in previous sections of this story, it was dashed hard to locate. But find it he would. He could almost hear the various artistic renderings of Alice calling out to him. He had to find the Abbey and look upon Alice’s face, and a few other parts as well (as rendered by the artist), and gain fresh incentive for his quest.
He spurred his horse into a gallop, and plunged into a forest. Forests are not good places for a gallop, so the horse stopped somewhat abruptly almost as soon as it started. Sir Bob inadvertently dismounted at this point, assisted by a tree branch that hit him across the chest. He lay on the turf looking up at his horse. He decided to walk, given the number of trees and low branches. He got to his feet, checked his sword and chainmail, grasped the horse’s bridle and forged onwards on foot. He was bound to get somewhere, he reckoned. Hopefully he would meet someone who could tell him where the Abbey was these days.
About a half hour later, he reached the roadway, a sort of 2 lane divided road along which at regular intervals there seemed to be a Porsche or a BMW, sometimes a Range Rover whizzing along. Nobody seemed to care that there was a man with a war charger dressed in chain mail walking along the verge or shoulder of the road. He got that a lot. People see what they want to see, Sir Bob thought. He was never sure what people wanted him to look like. He didn’t really care about them unless they had heard of Alice. His experience suggested most of them hadn’t.
Another 15 minutes of walking took him around the bend, where there was, he decided, an inn. It was actually a roadside rest area with a Nero’s Coffee shop and a McDonald’s, but Sir Bob’s world included roadside inns, and he was not prepared to change with the times. He fished around in his belt purse and came up with 4 pounds and 23 pence. Enough to buy a coffee, he figured. He tied his horse to a box that said “Royal Mail” and jingled into Nero’s.
There was a black squirrel of large proportions talking earnestly with a teenaged girl at the cash. She looked about 18, Bob thought, but who could tell after so many years of being errant. The squirrel was earnestly trying to convince the girl to open her shirt and hold her arms out at her sides. “It’s for an artistic project,” said the squirrel. The girl seemed unconvinced and was suggesting what might happen to her if her manager caught her with her shirt open and pretending to be crucified on the espresso machine. The squirrel made a suggestion about this, which only got the girl to put her hands on her hips and glare at him. Her shirt stayed resolutely buttoned.
Finally he gave up, and was about to leave when he saw Sir Bob.
“Well met, Sir knight,” said the squirrel.
“And you,” said Sir Bob. There was something odd going on. He could feel it. You didn’t stay errant and alive without knowing when things felt odd, and this felt odd. It was odd beyond the simple fact that there was a large black squirrel in Nero’s.
“I suppose you are wondering what I am doing in this establishment,” said the squirrel.
“Not entirely,” said Bob truthfully.
“I would have you know,” said the squirrel, “that I am here on official business of the Lord of Cruxton Abbey.”
This surprised Sir Bob, but he kept his cool. “I seek the very same place,” said Bob.
“You aren’t one of them,” said the squirrel, and then clamped its mouth shut as if it hadn’t wanted to say that.
“One of whom?” asked Bob.
“Oh, nothing,” said the squirrel. “I’m looking out for a couple of people.”
“You, er, wouldn’t know the way to the Abbey from here, would you?” asked Bob. “Only I’ve ridden a long way, and I’m an old friend of Lord Wragg.”
“Certainly,” said the squirrel, happy to be on firmer ground with the conversation. “You take the track behind this shop, and turn left along the old road. It gets you straight to the gates.”
“Much obliged,” said Bob. “I suppose I should be going.” He couldn’t shake the feeling that something was odd. He didn’t know any black squirrels, let alone ones that claimed to be working for Wragg. He’d have to ask about that.
“You didn’t buy a coffee,” said the squirrel.
“Don’t feel like it now,” said Bob. “Changed my mind. I’ll get a drink at the Abbey.”
“Tell them I’m on the case,” said the squirrel and dashed out the door. Bob looked around. There was no case in the coffee shop. He shrugged. He went back to his horse, untied it, and mounted.
“Oy, nice ride!” said a voice. A large bearded man in a leather jacket, and sitting on a large motorcycle was eyeing his horse with genuine admiration. “Is that an Italian model?”
“Arabian,” said Sir Bob. “It really moves.”
“Didn’t know the Arabs made them,” said the bearded man. “Learn somfing new every day, eh?”
You see what you want to see, Bob figured, and rode around the coffee shop to the back, where there was, indeed, a track. He and the horse trotted down it.
About a kilometer on, there was a clearing, and on the other side of the clearing was the old road. He was about to turn left, as the black squirrel had suggested, when he saw a tuft of reddish fur.
He might not have known any black squirrels, but he knew one red squirrel. He sighed.
“Is that you Racing Rodent?” he asked.
A head popped up out of the undergrowth. “Bless me,” said the red squirrel. “It’s my old mate, Sir Bob!”
“Old mate!” exclaimed Bob. “You ran off to cuddle with Amazons. There I was stuck in a swamp, battling those lizard women…”
“Glad to see you came through that,” said Racing Rodent. “I was a bit worried. How’d you manage it?”
“They were driven off by the Amazons,” said Bob.
“Still questing?” asked Racing Rodent. “I didn’t see how we were going to find your Alice in that swamp.”
“No,” said Bob. “I suppose not. Hey, I met another squirrel today.”
“Lucky you,” said Racing Rodent. “We are a fascinating…wait…another squirrel?”
“Yes,” said Bob. “Big black squirrel. Says he works for Wragg.”
“Black squirrel,” said Racing Rodent, suddenly very serious. “About my size? Black eyes. Furry tail?”
“Yes,” said Bob. “What should he look like?”
“No,” said Racing Rodent. “It’s just that I’ve been tracking my distant cousin, a certain Woodrunning Rodent. He’s always scheming. Up to no good.”
“People say that about you,” said Bob.
“I never!” exclaimed Racing Rodent. “I may get up to a bit of mischief, and some whimsical photography of pretty girls, but I am true as steel.”
“You abandoned me to the lizard women!” yelled Bob.
“The Amazons were right there,” said Racing Rodent. “Beautiful cuddly Amazons, and their leader, the lovely Messaline. Now she is worth cuddling up to, I can tell you that!”
“They had me stripped naked and tied to a pole,” said Bob. “They were carrying me off to roast me alive. Do you know what that does to a knight’s self-esteem?”
“But you were rescued,” said Racing Rodent. “I saw to that. I said to Messaline, ‘that’s Bob, there. I’d be very obliged if you rescued him.’ See? I had your back.”
“I didn’t know what was going on,” said Bob. “I’m upside down in my ‘altogether’, and this band of fierce topless women with leather skirts bows and swords comes charging in.”
“Must have been quite a sight,” said Racing Rodent.
“The Lizard Women dropped me into the swamp,” said Bob.
“Oh, listen to you wingeing,” said Racing Rodent. “People pay money for adventures like that. Nobody said this questing thing you’re doing would be easy.”
“Oh, fine,” said Bob. “I can’t really blame you, I suppose. If I wasn’t questing for Alice…”
“Quite,” said Racing Rodent. “Did this black squirrel say anything?”
“Well the whole situation felt odd,” said Bob, “you know, like, er, odd.”
“Ah,” said Racing Rodent, “one of those situations. Not just ‘squirrel in a coffee shop odd’?”
“No,” said Bob, “really odd. Like ‘convincing the serving girl to strip off and get crucified on the appliances’ odd. And then he says to me, “you aren’t one of them”.”
“One of whom?” asked Racing Rodent.
“He didn’t say,” said Bob. “Why are you tracking your cousin?”
“He’s got some notion of attacking the Elves, or something,” said Racing Rodent. “Messaline sent me word that Barbaria, Queen of the Elves, was in danger, and Erin was bringing her to the Abbey for safe keeping. But you know the really big problem here?”
“What?” asked Bob.
“I saw them,” said Racing Rodent. “Two days ago at the Travelodge in the village.”
“Which ‘them’?” asked Bob.
“The Old Firm,” said Racing Rodent.
“The old firm,” said Bob experimentally.
“No, with capital letters,” said Racing Rodent. “The Old Firm.”
“Not one of them…the Old Firm,” mused Bob. “Good lord! Your distant cousin is waiting for the Old Firm!”
“Seems likely. But why?” asked Racing Rodent. “They’re extremely nasty.”
“We have to warn the Abbey!” said Bob. “Wragg thinks your cousin is working for him.”
“And then what?” asked Racing Rodent. “We can’t stop the Old Firm, and we’ll all be captured if they’re making for the Abbey, and then we’ll be dead. I don’t know about you, but dead was not in my plans for next week.”
“Why can’t we stop them?” asked Bob. “I’m a knight. I have a sword, and I’m pretty good with it.”
“Nobody can stop the Old Firm, when they get going,” said Racing Rodent. “Not in the usual ways, anyway. They’re sort of unstoppable.”
“So, what do you suggest,” asked Bob.
“Ride like the wind to Dover,” said Racing Rodent. “Bring back the Amazons.”
“And why would they come with me?” asked Bob. “I’m a chap, and all. They only follow women, specifically Messaline.” He didn’t ask why the Amazons might be in or around Dover.
“Look, they rescued you from the Lizard Women. They like you,” said Racing Rodent. “Anyway, you just tell them that Messaline is in danger and under attack and they’ll be at Cruxton Abbey before you can get your horse turned around.”
“Great,” said Bob. “So I’ll end up abandoned in Dover.”
“I don’t think there are any Lizard Women in Dover,” said Racing Rodent. “You’ll be fine.”
“And what will you do?” asked Bob.
“I’m going to keep tracking my cousin. I think that finding him is the only way to save everyone’s lives.” He stopped and smiled. “I like the sound of that. Maybe more ominous, though.” He continued in a deeper voice, “finding him is the only way…”
“Yes, very effective,” said Bob. “Okay, I’ll get the Amazons, but you find the black squirrel. I have a lot of art at Cruxton, and I need Wragg around to keep it safe for me.”
“What?” asked Racing Rodent. “Wragg has all those pics of Alice you’ve been collecting?”
“I don’t criticize the way you live your life,” said Bob. “You have whole hollow trees full of nuts that you don’t know where they are.”
“Fair enough,” said Racing Rodent. “Now ride!”
And so Sir Robert Inder rode to Dover. At some point he realized he was in the 21st century and he put himself and his horse on the train, which was considerably faster, and came with a meal and drinks service.
* * *
“Not long now, Mr. Phlebas,” said Jollyrei. “It’s been an interesting few centuries, although this is certainly the least interesting part.” He gazed balefully around the modern café-style restaurant of the Travelodge. “In a few hours, we shall fulfil the terms of our contract and…”
“…kill a few people,” said Phlebas, stabbing a grilled chicken breast with his fork. It made for a bit of emphasis.
“Indeed I hope you have better things, or people, on whom to use your toad sticker,” said Jollyrei.
“I’ve been quite patient, Mr. Jollyrei,” said Phlebas, “all things considered.”
“All we need is word from our employer that all is in readiness for our arrival, and Bob’s your uncle,” said Jollyrei.
“No,” said Phlebas thoughtfully. “I don’t think he is.”
“A figure of speech, Mr. Phlebas,” said Jollyrei.
“Actions speak louder than words, Mr. Jollyrei,” said Phlebas.
“If you say so,” said Jollyrei. He scowled at his empty glass on the table. Service in this place was terrible. The staff seemed terrified of them. Occupational hazard, he thought.
To cheer himself up he thought of stripping the clothing off Barb, Messaline and Erin, and hanging them on crosses. They would look lovely stretched out and hanging helplessly. Come to think of it, he’d have to do something with Wragg and Windar as well. Then Mr. Phlebas could set to work. He’d enjoy having so many different canvases on which to practice his art.
“We all have our little interests, Mr. Phlebas,” said Jollyrei. He picked up the annoyingly empty glass, stared at it for a moment, and then crushed it in his fist. It made a satisfying crunching sound and when he opened his hand, there was only a fine dust that piled up and glittered on the tabletop.
“Diversity makes life interesting, Mr. Jollyrei,” said Phlebas. He began cutting the chicken breast into very thin strips with his knife, arranging the strips along the edge of the plate.