the shouting from the lower floors grew louder and the mountebank heard heavy boots pounding up the stairs.
the mountebank slowly pushed the door of his room open a crack. now he could hear louder shouting on the landing outside.
he made out a female voice which he thought he recognized as that of the innkeeper’s beautiful daughter whom he and the other three travelers had fallen so desperately in love with earlier in the evening…
how long ago it aeemed...
the innkeeper’s daughter was saying, “this man is not kobra! look at him! does he look like kobra, does he look like a desperate bandit?”
rough laughter answered her. the mountebank opened his door a little more and thought he saw the flash of a bayonet!
soldiers! two soldiers were standing outside the door of one of his fellow travelers, and the beautiful daughter was standing in that doorway!
she must have been in the room of one of the other travelers!
and now there was more shouting from another room, from further down the hall, and what seemed to be another female voice addressing more soldiers - in a somewhat more commanding tone than the innkeeper’s daughter -
and more loud banging and shouting from the lower floors of the inn -
the mountebank had heard enough. his only thought was to escape. but there was no way to get past the contingents of soldiers.
he softly closed the door and looked back and considered the little window of the room. it looked like it might be just wide enough to crawl through…
he opened the window. his luck was good. there was a tree just within reach, if he could manage to crawl through the window…
he got out the window and down the tree with only a few scrapes. the whole inn was now lit up and in an uproar.
he dashed between some trees and found himself on a dirt path which must have led somewhere… anywhere…
he saw a figure ahead of him, also running away, and followed it…
was it one of the other travelers? was it kobra?
before he could discover who it was two more soldiers emerged from the trees beside him and arrested him.
the mountebank, the flowerseller, and the fool were all taken into custody by the soldiers who had been detailed to capture kobra.
it was decided that one of them would be hanged and the other two turned over to the local authorities to work on the roads.
the salesman escaped, as did kobra.
the innkeeper, suspected of being in league with kobra, was sentenced to three dunkings in the local pond, a fine of five hogsheads of ale, and twenty lashes. in consideration of his age, and his long standing in the town, the sentence of twenty lashes was commuted.
kobra was never found or heard from again, but the empire was brought down by another rebel and his band…
a man and woman walk down a dark road.
the man’s bulk is hidden under an old greatcoat, and his head under a wide hat. he has the rounded shoulders of a peasant, and the black beard and sunken eyes of a fanatic.
the woman is wrapped in a long cloak so that only her eyes are showing. she carries a basket on her arm.
they come to the outskirts of a town. some sort of celebration is being prepared for… a coronation, a carnival, an execution…
a constable stands at the entrance of the town, and the man asks the constable if there are rooms available in the town.
“you are late, brother,” the constable replies, “all the rooms are taken, you will have to sleep in the park or move on.”
the woman shows the constable the basket and pulls back the cloth covering it, revealing a redfaced child with an angry staring expression on its face. the child shakes his fist at the constable.
“you see this child,” the woman says. “this child is going to be the savior of the world.”
“i am happy to hear it, madam, but move along, please.”
the man and the woman and the child move down the town road. booths have been set up by the enterprising, selling food and drink, and promoting games of chance. it is late, and many of the booths are dark, but a few are lit by torches.
“try your skill, brother, you look like a strapping fellow, win a prize for the little lady…”
“what kind of mug do you take me for?” the man scowls, but the woman pulls him along.
they pass through the town and back on to the road… rain begins to fall…
on the carnivals and the coronations and the executions… rebels and infidels are rounded up and hanged … and the hangman bets his pay on the turn of a card…
saviors are born… hymns are sung… churches are built and then burnt down,,, witches pronounce their curses and popes their benedictions… win a prize for the little lady… you look like a lucky fellow… you can’t win if you don’t play…
the rebels against the empire, and the empires they rebelled against… where are they now?
they have been blown away with the dust… the dust that is flattened by the rain,,,
the innkeeper’s daughter stands at the window above the road to the wicked city…
"but drink up! you can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning.”
merlin smiled politely at his host’s remark, and took another hearty swig of the ale. he felt the gargoyle’s eyes fixed intently on him, but perhaps, he thought, that is just his way, and he means nothing by it.
“do you get many visitors from other planets?” merlin asked the gargoyle, attempting to make what he thought might be polite conversation.
“not so many, but perhaps a fair amount considering how sparsely populated the planet is.”
merlin nodded, not being sure how to reply.
“but,” the gargoyle continued, “we happened to have a visitor just the other day, one outwardly very different from yourself. would you care to see it?”
merlin thought that his host wanted him to say yes, so he did.
“well then drink up, and when you have finished i will show you our visitor and perhaps get your opinion on it. then we can come back here and drink some more, what do you say?”
“that sounds very agreeable,” merlin replied.
merlin tossed back the remains of his tankard, and the gargoyle then led him into the shadowed cathedral .
they ascended a long flight of winding stairs.
then the gargoyle led merlin down a long corridor.
the corridor seemed much longer than merlin would have guessed possible from his view of the building from the outside.
the walls were lined with frescoes, and also with hung paintings, containing endless scenes of warfare and conquest interspersed with a few idyllic landscapes and depictions of tender love and romance.
none of them seemed exactly familiar to merlin, but at the same time he felt he had seen them all a million times before.
at last they came to a small room.
the room contained a single large window, opened to the blue sky, and a single chair in which a man sat hunched over and apparently dozing.
something was crawling across the floor, which merlin at first took to be a large lobster.
on a closer look it was a human child of a bright red hue, with an aggressive look on its little face as it looked up and beheld merlin and the gargoyle.
“and here is our visitor,” the gargoyle pointed to the crawling child. “we found him in some weeds the other day, and do not know quite what to make of him, or of the language that he speaks.”
at the sound of the gargoyle’s voice, the man in the chair shook himself from his sleep and looked up.
it was king richard the lion hearted!
“richard!” exclaimed merlin. “i had not thought to find you here! we all wondered what had happened to you.”
but before richard could reply, a large white bird appeared on the sill of the open window and said something to the gargoyle in a strange language.
“you will have to excuse me,” the gargoyle said courteously to merlin, and opening its wings - and almost hitting merlin in the face with them - flew out the widow with the bird.
leaving merlin alone with king richard and the red-faced child, which began to whimper, and then to shout in a language unfamiliar to merlin what sounded like violent curses.
“do you know what it is saying?” merlin asked richard.
“it is cursing the day it was born and the existence of the universe, and also calling on some sort of bandit god that troubles the sleep of the rulers of this planet.”
“oh. and what is the name of this deity?”
richard looked around the room. “his name is not to be spoken aloud.”
“oh come now, old fellow, have we not known each other for years? what is its name?”
richard hesitated. “its name is - kobra!”
the mountebank awoke. he was in his bed in his little room in the inn. it was still dark.
he heard shouting from the lower floors of the inn.
"all distances are great,” he heard a voice behind him.
merlin turned, and saw that, contrary to his original impression, all the other seats in front of the inn, or cathedral, were not empty.
or perhaps the individual seated at one of the tables had just slipped in behind him, although merlin liked to think he was alert to such things.
in any case, a person, or creature, was seated at a table, and beckoned to merlin to join him.
the creature had the appearance of a gargoyle, one who perhaps had adorned a niche in the facade of the cathedral, but had come down from it, either to greet merlin, or just to enjoy the day.
“welcome, stranger,” the gargoyle addressed merlin. “would you care for some refreshment?”
“i very much would,” merlin replied with his customary suavity, “but i am a stranger to this planet, perhaps to this universe, and i may not be able to offer you renumeration.”
the gargoyle brushed this aside. “this is a hospitable planet, good sir. we pride ourselves on welcoming all strangers.”
“well, in that case, i will have a glass of ale, or any other liquid you might have on hand.”
the gargoyle signaled to the dragon-headed maid. “you heard the gentleman’s preference, magdalen. bring him a foaming tankard of the inn’s very best.”
“yes, moloch,” the maid replied, and turned back into the interior of the building.
merlin took a seat across from his host. “so, this is indeed an inn,” he observed. “it has something of the appearance of a cathedral.”
“it is both, sir, and many other things besides,” the gargoyle smiled.
merlin thought it prudent not to enquire as to nature of the “other things” if his host did not offer to divulge them, and instead said - “i notice that the servant addressed you as ‘moloch.’ i have so far encountered only one other native of this world, and his name too was ‘moloch’. is it a family name of the region?”
“all natives of our planet are named either ‘moloch’ or ‘magdalen’, depending on their station.”
“unless -“ a frown creased the gargoyle’s brow, “they are bandits or rebels , and then they have another name - one which i do not care to pronounce.”
“i understand,” merlin replied.
this response seemed to please the gargoyle, and he asked merlin, “and what brings you to this planet, sir? ah, but here are our brews.”
the dragon maid placed two foaming tankards on the table, filled with an ale which had a slightly greenish tinge but looked familiar enough to merlin.
after taking a deep draught, merlin proceeded to give the gargoyle as concise an account as he could of his travels and of his arrival with lancelot and guinevere and robin hood, downplaying his departure from them and making it sound more amicable than it had been.
“so you are a magician, sir,” the gargoyle observed, when moloch finished his recital.
“indeed, i was, at least on my own planet. i do not know what powers i might possess on the one.”
“give it a try.” the gargoyle pointed to merlin’s tankard. “see if you can change the ale into wine.”
“very well.” merlin made a few passes over the ale. it remained ale.
merlin shrugged. “you see, it is as i feared.”
“try changing it into water.”
merlin smiled. “i do not know if i wish to do that.”
“go ahead. even if you can not change it back, there is plenty more where it came from. especially for a guest.”
merlin made another pass over the ale, but it did not change to water.
“too bad,” the gargoyle observed with a sympathetic air. “but drink up! you can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning.”
“yes, to moloch!” robin hood and guinevere echoed. “and to a new world!”
the mountebank raised his overflowing cup to his three new friends. “to a new world,” he smiled. “new to you, anyway, my new friends.” he took a sip of the hearty brew.
suddenly a door to the room opened and merlin appeared. he looked at the mountebank suspiciously.
“who or what is this fellow?” he asked, surveying the mountebank’s lemur like form.
“his name is moloch,” lancelot replied easily. “and he is to be our guide and companion in this bright new world.”
“you do not say so?” grumbled merlin. his long peaked wizard’s hat flopped down over his bleary eyes. “and why was i nor consulted on this matter?”
“because, my dear fellow,” lancelot drawled, “you are no longer to be consulted on anything. we have decided that you have brought us nothing but bad luck lately, and we are terminating your services. you are no longer a member of our expedition.”
“terminating my services! that seems rather harsh, lancelot! after all we have been through together?”
“we have been through too much together, old boy. that is the problem.”
”but - am i to go back to the old planet? i do not think i will get a very cordial welcome, after all that’s transpired.”
lancelot chuckled amiably. “you can go back to the old planet if you can get back yourself - with magic or anything else. the ship will stay with us.”
“but - where am i to go ?”
“this planet seems a fairly large place. surely you can find a berth somewhere.” lancelot turned to the mountebank. “how many miles around is it, anyway?”
“about 25,000,” the mountebank replied.
“there you have it,” lancelot told merlin.
merlin found himself trudging along a country road. the road seemed about as dusty as the ones he had left behind on the old planet , though the sky above seemed a little bluer.
he saw acres of waving green and blue grass, but not much activity in them.
occasionally a little monkey like creature like the one he had been introduced to by lancelot darted across the road. but he saw no other living creatures.
there were no birds in the sky.
25,000 miles! the old planet had only been 23,000 miles and it had been hard enough walking around that.
surely he must come to a house eventually, maybe even an inn.
after another hundred miles, he saw a bird in the sky.
and then he saw a tall building on the horizon. a cathedral?
as he approached the building he saw that it was, or had been, a cathedral, but that the lower part of it, at least, had been converted into an inn.
there were a few tables and chairs in front of the cathedral/inn.
without waiting to be invited, merlin sat down in one of the chairs.
a creature emerged from the dark door of the cathedral. it had the slender form of a young maid, and the head of a dragon.
“i am thirsty,” merlin told the maid/dragon. “i have traveled a great distance.”
“all distances are great,” he heard a voice behind him.
“may i take my jelly tart with me?” lord salisbury asked the widow.
“yes, but not the tea, we don’t want you spilling it all over - “
the ground began to shake more violently, and a hissing sound filled the air…….
the next thing snively knew he was in the back seat of the motorcar as it was bouncing crazily along the dark road heading directly for the blasted heath. the ground beneath the road continued to shake.
chancellor bismarck shared the back seat with snively, and was maintaining an attitude of stoic teutonic calm.
the widow was driving. lord salisbury sat beside her in the front seat. he, too, seemed to be maintaining a calm exterior, or at least keeping silent, as the vehicle jolted along.
“what is going on?’ snively cried. “is it an earthquake? where are bickenden and chitworth? have we passed them?”
none of his three fellow passengers deigned to answer him.
suddenly lights were visible up ahead, apparently in the middle of the road.
“what the devil is that?” lord salisbury growled.
“it appears to be a roadblock of some kind,” the widow replied, and reduced the speed of the motorcar.
“a roadblock in an earthquake?” growled bismarck. “what foolery is this?”
it was indeed a roadblock, with wooden sawhorses placed across the road, illuminated by smoky fires from a couple of small oil drums.
the widow caused the car to glide to a stop, and a couple of uniformed men approached out of the shadows.
one was wearing the uniform of a royal canadian mountie, the other of a french foreign legionnaire.
lord salisbury addressed the legionnaire, who was coming up to the passenger side with a bayonet at the ready.
“what the deuce is going on here? do you know who i am? “ as he spoke, the ground shook again, and snively was thrown against the back of the front seat.
it was the mountie, leaning into the car from the driver’s side, who replied. “we know all too well who you are, lord salisbury. may i ask you to get out of the car, please.”
“what cheek! i’ll be damned if i will.”
“i rather think you will,” the mountie replied evenly, as the legionnaire stuck his bayonet into the passenger side window, a few inches from lord salisbury’s face.
“i have someone i would like you to meet,” the mountie continued. “get out of the car, please, slowly - though with your unseemly bulk i suppose you can hardly do otherwise - and no tricks.”
“no tricks, eh?” lord salisbury muttered ominously, but he got out of the car as instructed.
the mountie opened the driver’s side door, and the widow also stepped out.
a figure emerged from the shadows. a man in a belted overcoat, with a slouch hat over his eyes, and his hands in a familiar pose nonchalantly holding the lapels of the coat.
it was mr balfour!
“arthur!” exclaimed lord salisbury. “what is going on here?”
“what is going on, my dear uncle,” balfour replied languidly. “is that you are being arrested.”
“arrested? what rot! and for what, may i ask?”
mr balfour ignored lord salisbury’s question, and turned to the widow, who was now standing iin front of the motorcar. “i don’t believe, my lord, that you have been properly introduced to this young lady. permit me to introduce mademoiselle margaretha zelle - otherwise known as mata hari.”
“mata hari!” but lord salisbury was only momentarily discomfited. “that is all very well, but what is this about my being arrested? for what, eh? for plotting to overthrow the empire, i suppose?”
“the empire? no, for plotting the overthrow of civilization itself, and razing its very foundations to the ground!”
“what bosh! and do i have any confederates in this grand scheme?”
“indeed you do, my dear kinsman, indeed you do. i accuse you of being in league with the archfiend, revolutionary, and bandit - kobra!”
the salesman awoke. it was still dark, he was in his bed in the inn, and rain and wind lashed the little window above his head.
but what was all that noise downstairs? what was going on?