Children’s: “The Quite Contrary Colin Pluck”

“THE QUITE CONTRARY COLIN PLUCK”

 (if you are interested in buying, click on either image and it will take you to my bookstore: the first image to Amazon and the second one to Lulu)

“THE QUITE CONTRARY COLIN PLUCK” – a rndom chapter extracted for your perusal and evaluation. 

Chapter 6

Important matters of State rudely interrupted, one stroppy Pegasus and a game riddled with danger.

                       

Hauftythorp riding Pegasus

 

*

The High Council’s weekly meetings on Cumbersome Matters of Everyday Life were held on Wednesdays. Taxes and milk prices were normally discussed – and raised – at such meetings. As the population of Hellfernezia was shrinking at an alarming rate due to the extinction of many species and rapid fading of others, the Council had to demand more money from those citizens who were still alive. Of course, wherever you looked there were grunts of discontent, but no one had the guts to stand up to the Government. After all, if the existing government was to be toppled, there would be no one to step into their shoes – there just weren’t any scapegoats left to run a world that was ending. Soon there would be nothing to run.

Whichever way you viewed the usefulness of this government, there was little point to it because nobody took any notice of its laws and orders. Hellfernetians had more important matters to worry about – such as their own survival. Chaos reigned supreme right across the land. Gangs of trolls romped the cities, looting and pillaging, striking fear into the hearts of good citizens. Yet there was no one out there to stop them. The policing cavalry of centurions was decimated as the half-man-half-horse creatures were on the brink of extinction. Farming was in decline as the Cyclopes turned away from their flocks and to religion, seeking forgiveness for their sins before they died. Theatres were closed and no one wrote books anymore. Fairies had lost their love for ballet, and Phoenix quills would fade in writers’ hands as they put them to paper. Anyway, no one had anything to say or to write as soon there would be no one to hear or read it. Even the sun was losing its brightness and night went on for 20 hours out of 24 in a day.  The stampede of the Riders of the Apocalypse could be heard approaching closer and closer. Windows would rattle, walls would shake and the sparks from their hooves flew across the sky as numerous as the stars.

“There is no other choice,” Plumpolina shrieked. “The roof on the government building needs patching up and the roads everywhere have to be cleared of weeds-“

“Even if no one uses the roads anymore?” queried Hauftythorp. “We might make some savings if we give up on the roads.”

Even if no one uses them!” screamed Plumpolina. “It is our duty to keep everything going and in good repair. Even after we’re all gone, the roads will stay behind as our… legacy!” She sniffled, took out a handkerchief and blew her nose loudly.

“Hear, hear!” agreed Rumpolethud. “The taxes must go up! To ninety-nine percent, they must!”

“So they must,” Hauftythorp shrugged. “Mummbleramble, put it in the minutes: Forced by circumstances beyond its control, the Council orders that citizens pay ninety-nine percent of their earnings in taxation. The money will be used for Government building repairs and for the reclamation of public highways from the wild.”

“Don’t forget the Debt,” Rumpolethud said gloomily.

… and for repaying our eternal debt of gratitude to the Right Honourable Lord Zeuseelbub,” Hauftythorp finished the dictation with a reverent nod.  He did not like talking about Zeuseelbub – the mere mention of his name gave him the shivers. Yet, Hellfernezia owed him everything. It was a debt that would never be repaid. Things would, however, be very different if this debt did not exist. If three-quarters of all the taxes raised did not go to the Elfin Lord, Hellfernezia would be bathing in riches. As it were, it was drowning in debt. Still, without Zeuseelbub and his brave ancestors Hellfernetians would be rotting in the shackles of slavery… though sometimes, when he was feeling particularly rebellious, Hauftythorp had his doubts about that. There was that niggling mistrust at the back of his mind. The goblin knew Zeuseelbub too well to believe in the goodness of his heart (if he had any!).

Plumpolina rustled through a stack of papers she had brought with her to the meeting. “Ahem!” she said. “I’ve received a letter from my secret sources about a new cult of God that apparently had taken root in a small village of Awayland, and is spreading over The Jutting Mountains like wildfire. It may soon reach our cities if we do nothing about it.”

“God is banned by law,” Hauftythorp said. “Anyone who believes in him can be arrested and sentenced without a trial to death or at best to life imprisonment. It is common knowledge, is it not? We don’t need to pass any new laws on the matter – we only need to send the bailiffs to arrest the cult members-“

“The bailiffs have been sent – and disappeared without a trace. They have either joined the cult, or been killed.”

“We must send the army then,” Rumpolethud thundered angrily. “How ungrateful! Those damned peasants have short memories and little education. Don’t they know that the threat of God’s wrath kept us enslaved in human hands for centuries? It is all superstition and black magic! It has to be stopped! I vote for an army intervention – I will lead the troops myself. I will quash the cult, level their temples with the ground and pull out their tongues before they preach another word about God-“

Rumpolethud did not have a chance to finish his tirade. He loved the sound of his voice and he would have gone on for ever had it not been for a gust of cold wind that flung the double doors wide open and blew the flames off the Shiny Bottom Beetles, enveloping the room in grey, leaden darkness. It was like the last breath of a dying person. Silence fell. It lasted for a few minutes before the two dragons guarding the entrance to the High Council Chamber tumbled inside amidst the clatter of their spears and silver helmets. They looked petrified.

“Um… hum… oh, my… Lord Zeuseelbub requesting audition!” One of the dragons announced in a trembling voice.

The three Councillors went pale. The Elfin Lord and King of Fallen Angels never ever interfered with the politics of Hellfernezia. He never came to the Council’s meetings; he never sought any influence. Not officially, thought Hauftythorp, because in private, behind closed doors, Lord Zeuseelbub held Hauftythorp in the palm of his hand and, through him, ruled over all of Hellfernezia. Hauftythorp remembered the last visit to his house when the cruel lord extinguished his precious moth collections. The goblin shuddered. Nervously, he glanced at both Plumpolina and Rumpolethud – what if they were about to discover that Hauftythorp was Zeuseelbub’s servant and spy? What would they do to him?

In their turn, Plumpolina and Rumpolethud were equally worried. All three of them had something to hide and in all three cases it had something to do with Zeuseelbub.

They watched breathlessly as a shadow appeared from the bottom of the stairs, and it grew bigger and more formidable as the Fallen Angel approached. His breathing was heavy, almost wheezy. With his every step, the walls vibrated as if there was an earth-rumble somewhere in the depths of the Underworld. Mummbleramble, together with the two guarding dragons, scuttled into the deepest corner of the chamber and tried to look invisible.

Finally, Zeuseelbub, clad in his black robes, with a hood obscuring his face, stood in the door.

“Lord Zeuseelbub, sir! What a …. lovely… surprise,” mumbled Plumpolina.

“SILENCE!” demanded the Lord. “Silence, you fools!” He paced across the chamber with two black gargoyles limping in his wake, their awkwardly folded wings obstructing their step. So the gargoyles served Zeuseelbub! Hauftythorp always suspected that, but he never had any proof. It was said that gargoyles served the Devil, but since belief in the Devil was banned alongside belief in God, no one could tell for certain at whose orders the gargoyles meddled in the affairs of the world. Now it was clear. Zeuseelbub was obviously too angry to care if the world found out about his evil associates. He stopped, turned suddenly and said, “Bring Pandora here! Go!”

The gargoyles whooshed across the chamber and swooped down the stairs to the medical room where Pandora, the dying Elf from The Other Side, was being kept. She had been found a few months ago wandering in the mountains, confused and lost. She was very weak and could hardly speak. When she was brought before the High Council, she was unable to stand up. It seemed the Elfin woman was dying.

Finding her was an unprecedented event. Elves were almost extinct. Zeuseelbub was believed to be the last of them. Even he would no longer show his face in public – apparently his skin was rotting and falling off in patches. And then suddenly Pandora was found! She was ill –true, but not affected by any of the syndromes of a Fallen Angel: her body wasn’t blackened, her hair had not fallen out and her hands were not twisted and gnarly or covered in flaky scales. She looked just like the Elves of the Olden Days, before the Rebellion. But it was clear that she was very ill. Her skin was almost transparent and so delicate that it seemed it would fall to pieces when touched. She was thin. She must have gone through some terrible experiences as she would weep and hallucinate, talk of a dark dungeon and a cruel master. Rumours of devilish forces spread across Hellfernezia and it took some effort to squash them. She also cried a lot and begged to see her daughter. It was then that Hauftythorp discovered that Pandora had come from The Other Side where she had left behind her Elfin daughter – Clarissa. In his eagerness to please Zeuseelbub, Hauftythorp informed him of Pandora’s mumblings, and that was the beginning of all the trouble. Zeuseelbub went mad over the girl. He demanded her to be brought to Hellfernezia. And now he was raving – furious and unstoppable…

“I asked you to bring the girl,” he hissed. “Where is she?”

Hauftythorp swallowed hard. How would he explain himself to his fellow Councillors? How would he explain that he had been manipulating them to get the girl in order to please Zeuseelbub? Hauftythorp felt such a traitor! He hung his head low.

“I asked each of you to get me the girl! Where is she? You incompetent, useless fools!”

Hauftythorp was not sure if he had heard right. Was each of them at Zeuseelbub’s service? Was each of the High Councillors of Hellfernezia a traitor, just like Hauftythorp? He allowed himself a timid glance at Plumpolina and Rumpolethud, and he knew it to be true: they were as guilty as he was!

“If Hellfernezia dies, it will be on your conscience!” Zeuseelbub went on. “Only one of our kind stuck on The Other Side will drain the Lifeforce away from Hellfernezia, and we will all die. That girl has to be brought back! And yet your pitiful agents failed miserably in their mission! They killed my messengers and disappeared without a trace!” Zeuseelbub struck the table and it broke in half. Plumpolina’s stacks of letters flew to the floor. She fell to her knees to pick them up, but Zeuseelbub raised his arm and hurled her against the wall. She hit it with a thud. “Don’t you dare defy me!” he snarled at her. “I’ve had enough of your games!”

The gargoyles returned, carrying Pandora in their claws. Weak as she was, she was whimpering and shivering like a frightened rabbit. The gargoyles dropped her at Zeuseelbub’s feet and she collapsed to the floor, unable to hold herself up.

“Look what you’ve done to her!” Zeuseelbub pointed to the Elfin woman. “She will die unless her daughter is brought here! You will be to blame!”

His hollow voice woke Pandora from her trance. For a second she gazed at him, frowning as if she was trying to remember his face. Then she did. She crawled away from him and cowered in the corner of the chamber, screaming, “The lord of darkness! Please don’t hurt me! Please, stop! Take me away from here! Take me away from him!” Then, exhausted she collapsed into silence. Her eyes were closed and you could hardly hear her breathe.

“Your fault!” Zeuseelbub hissed at the three Councillors, who stared without understanding what was happening. “She hasn’t got long to live. If you don’t bring her child here, she’ll die – Hellfernezia will die…” He turned away with a swish of his long cloak and without looking back at them, added: “I want the girl. You have one day to bring her to me. One day!”

He moved so fast that it seemed he flew out of the chamber, and his gargoyles flew after him with a harrowing shrill and a menacing whisper of their wings.

Plumpolina began to cry, “What have we done! What have we done!”

“We have to bring the girl, you’ve heard him,” said Rumpolethud. “It’s for the good of all of us.” He sounded as if he didn’t believe in what he was saying.

Neither did Hauftythorp. He crept to Pandora’s side and touched her face. She was almost entirely spent – you could see through her. He could tell it was an enormous effort for her to open her eyes, and an even greater one to speak.

“It was him… He held me prisoner… Ten years… Save my daughter from him. Please…” she whispered and fell back into unconsciousness.

“We have to do as Zeuseelbub says,” Plumpolina was agreeing with Rumpolethud. “It’s our duty!”

“Absolutely! We’ll send new agents! We’ll send an army!”

Hauftythorp looked at both of them with contempt. He would no longer be scared of the King of Fallen Angels. He would no longer do as he bid him to do. He would do what was right, but first he had to find out what that right thing to do was. He had to get to the bottom of all this mess!

*

Hauftythorp was an unlikely hero, but he was a scholar and a researcher unrivalled in skill and stubbornness. He wasn’t the bravest of goblins, but he never gave up. By hook or by crook he would find out why Zeuseelbub was so desperate to get his hands on the Girl. It most certainly wasn’t because of his love of Hellfernezia.

Zeuseelbub’s castle stood in the centre of The Jutting Mountains. From a distance it looked like yet another rugged blade of a rock pointing into the sky. Its spires were sharp as spears, the arches of its doors and windows were narrow and pointed upwards like arrow tips; its walls were polished granite – smooth black mirrors impossible to climb.

Getting there would have taken Hauftythorp two weeks at the very least if he hadn’t remembered his old school friend, Pip the Pegasus. They had not been in touch for over a hundred years, Hauftythorp wasn’t very sociable and neither was Pip. Both were confirmed bachelors and utter misfits. This may have been the reason why they had become such close friends when they were at school. Then their paths separated: Hauftythorp became a generally hated politician, and Pip – a reclusive botanist.

Finding Pip’s stable at the foot of The Jutting Mountains wasn’t hard. It was the only dwelling in the radius of many miles. The Jutting Mountains was a hostile environment: cold, wet and torn by winds. Nobody in their right mind would want to live there, but then Pip had not been in his right mind for years.

Hauftythorp knocked on the stable door. There was a long silence, and then a stroppy sounding voice said, “Go away whoever you are!”

The goblin’s heart leapt for joy – the voice was definitely Pip’s.

“It is I, Hauftythorp!” he shouted into the keyhole.

“Nice to hear from you, Hauftythorp,” replied Pip. “It has been a while since we spoke last… Very nice indeed to see you’re alive and well. And now you can go, I’m busy.”

“I can’t go,” Hauftythorp was undeterred. He knew Pip only too well not to take to heart his blatant rudeness. “I need your help.”

“Can no one else help in my place?”

“No.”

“Then you’d better come in.”

A key screeched in the door, and it opened. There stood Pip the Pegasus – a stallion with wings, white and fluffy as a summer cloud.

“You haven’t changed one little bit!” Hauftythorp complimented him kindly, even though he could tell that Pip had put on weight and that his mane was thinning at an alarming rate.

“You have. You’re balder than ever and you have big, puffy bags under your eyes.”

Hauftythorp wouldn’t normally let an insult go unpunished, but on this occasion he only smiled through his teeth and said, “It’s all because I worry. Thank you kindly for your concern.”

“I am not concerned for you in the least,” Pip blundered on in his horsey manner.”I say what I see. Anyway, enough of pleasantries. I am a busy person. I’d offer you a cup of tea but tea leaves are out of season and I can’t be bothered to go to the city to buy teabags. I don’t suppose fresh hay and oats are to your liking?”

“No, no! Thank you! I’m not hungry.”

“Then what brings you here? You didn’t miss me, I don’t think.”

“I can’t say I did,” Hauftythorp was an honest goblin and he wasn’t going to start telling lies now. “I am here because I need your help.”

“Can no one else help? As I said I’m a very busy person.”

“I don’t know anyone else. It has to be you, Pip, I’m afraid.” Slowly but surely, Hauftythorp was beginning to lose his patience with the Pegasus. He was such an obstinate old horse, and there was so little time to spare! The clock in Pip’s cabin was showing the time at Well into the Night – Zeuseelbub had given them only one day; part of it was already gone on idle chit-chat with Pip.

“Well, in that case, I think I can help you on Friday. I have a gap in my schedule between seven and eight in the morning. Come back then, I’ll see what I can do for you though quite frankly I can’t imagine-“

“You must help me now! This very minute, Pip!” Hauftythorp whispered impatiently. He was whispering because he wasn’t sure if Zeuseelbub’s spies weren’t listening. “I need you to fly me into The Jutting Mountains – to Zeuseelbub’s castle. It is a matter of … national security!”

“Woah!” Pip neighed, a look of horror in his eyes. “Hold your horses, my friend! I don’t run a shuttle bus business here, you know? Especially not to that place!

“I’ve just discovered that Zeuseelbub may be up to something very, very nasty-“

“You’ve only JUST discovered that?! Where have you been for the past two hundred years? I knew it all along…”

“Then perhaps you should help me! I don’t know what it is yet, but he must be planning something evil. He gave us one day to bring to him an Elfin girl from The Other Side. I don’t think he means her well, but I need proof.”

“You can take my word that he doesn’t mean anyone well.”

“Your word won’t do. I need your help! We have to hurry!”

Pip looked at Hauftythorp long and hard. He knew exactly what was at stake here. If Zeuseelbub found out that Pip was helping in a plot against him, he would come down on him like a ton of basalt rocks and would destroy the work of his lifetime: all his research, his specimen, his notes and exhibits. Then he would kill him, too.

“All right, then,” Pip said, surprised by his own words. He never knew he was such a decent chap. “Let’s go!”

Relieved, Hauftythorp climbed on his old friend’s back, and they took off into the sky. It was a windy day and the night was lying low and heavy, obscuring their vision. Their flight nearly ended early – firstly a near miss with a black hill and then a close shave with a spiky rock, invisible to them even from a short distance. It was by all accounts a very bumpy ride, but finally the Pegasus landed softly on a ledge of a high mountain. Vicious wind was howling and lashing at them, whipping their legs and faces without mercy. Heavy rain was falling by buckets. They were drained and sore. Hauftythorp was totally disoriented in the endless tar of blackness that surrounded them. But Pip seemed to know exactly where they were.

“That’s it, then,” he shouted through the whistling wind. “Zeuseelbub’s castle is right in front of us.” He was pointing into the darkness, which was of little value to Hauftythorp as he could not see a thing.

“Thank you, my friend,” he said nevertheless.

“The least I can do,” said Pip. “Zeuseelbub is an evil master. He and his gargoyles have diseased these mountains, every last blade of grass is dying, every creature has run away. Someone has to stop him.”

“At least I can try,” Hauftythorp put his head up proudly, though he then bowed it sadly and added, “I’m not without guilt. I’ve served him for many years. I didn’t know…” Something tickled his throat and a tear welled up in his eye.

“Lots of us believed him. Don’t blame yourself. He played us all for fools.”

“I must find the truth – I know he’s holding it well hidden in that castle,” the goblin pointed into the darkness. His eyes began to adjust and he could see the faint outline of the austere fortification that lay before him.

To his surprise, he felt Pip’s wet nose nudge his face. It was a sign of great affection and admiration on the part of the Pegasus. “I’ll watch out for you,” he said. “When you’re ready to come out, I’ll take you back. Now go!”

Embarrassed by his emotions, Pip took off into the night without another word. Hauftythorp made his first step forward, and nearly plummeted to his instant death. His foot did not touch the ground. Luckily, he managed to grab a bit of rock protruding from the wall and held onto to it for dear life. He gazed down. His eyes could now recognise some shapes. They saw the darkness of the abyss below him, and across the abyss a very narrow ribbon of a bridge weaved its way between the ledge where he was standing and the entrance to the castle. Hauftythorp stepped onto the bridge. There was enough space across it for one foot at a time. There were no balustrades or railings to hang on to.

He had learned quickly not to look down. The moment he did, his balance would be disturbed, his head would reel, his eyesight go blurry, and he would start to wobble precariously. The best he could do was to look ahead. With his eyes focussed on the entrance to the castle, his feet followed his mind of their own accord. Slowly, inch-by-terrifying inch, Hauftythorp negotiated the bridge and found himself in front of an iron gate with sharp teeth pointing right in his face.

“Who’s there?” shouted a voice and soon a great big Sphinx appeared on the other side of the gate.

Hauftythorp froze. He didn’t expect to see any guards. He didn’t expect the place would be protected in any way – nobody ever dared to intrude on Zeuseelbub, nobody would come to his fortress if you paid them. Yet, here was a massive Sphinx: armed and hostile.

“I… I… I am Zeuseelbub’s long lost cousin,” lied Hauftythorp, crossing his fingers behind his back. “Come to visit him, if you will kindly let me through…”

“No one’s told me about no cousins visiting!”

“Of course not. It’s a surprise, you see?”

“No, I don’t see. Anyway, you don’t look much like a cousin. You’re not an elf – you’re a goblin!”

Hauftythorp’s knees went soft and he nearly lost his balance. He was still standing on the bridge with one foot in front of the other and no room for manoeuvre. His only retreat would be downwards into the abyss.

“Yes, as you can see I am a goblin. Of course, I am… I…. You see, we are step-cousins, Zeuseelbub and I, or perhaps… cousins-in-law… I can never tell the difference! But if you kindly let me in, I’ll explain it to you in more detail. It is not very comfortable on this bridge, you will appreciate…”

“Let you in?”

“Well, yes. So that we can talk more comfortably?”

“Hm….” the Sphinx seemed to be thinking, which was a good sign, thought Hauftythorp. “All right! I will let you in if you answer a riddle!”

Naturally, all Sphinxes had a weakness for riddles. They were after all the most nonsensical creatures in the Universe. Still, Hauftythorp did not have much choice.

“Go on! I’m ready… “

“Riiight…” the Sphinx’s eyes lit with excitement. He sat down, his long tail curling around his powerful paws, his huge mane flowing and ebbing in the wind. Hauftythorp would never wish to cross swords with this gigantic creature, but he may stand a chance crossing wits with him.

“Right-e-oh! What is it:

It has no wings but it can fly,

When yours passes, you will die,

When it’s over – it is high,

It is one thing you can’t buy.”

Hauftythorp crinkled his nose and furrowed his forehead. It didn’t take too much effort. He knew the answer. A baby would know the answer. “Time,” he said. “It is time.”

“Well done!”

“Can I come in now?”

“One more!” the Sphinx was obviously beginning to enjoy himself. “One more, please!”

“Okay, one more, but then you let me in. Promise?”

“Yes, yes, if you get it right. If you don’t, I’ll knock you off that bridge and see if you can fly… like the time” He thundered with an unpleasant laugh. Hauftythorp’s lips twitched nervously.

“Riiight-e-oh, here it comes:

It has face but has no eyes

With no lips it can tell time

It has hands but has no arms

It sometimes raises alarm.”

Hauftythorp thought with relief that this wasn’t the most intelligent Sphinx the world had ever known. “A clock,” he said quickly. “Now, you promised to let me through.”

“You’re sure you don’t want to try another one?” the Sphinx implored him. He looked like a toddler who had lost his favourite teddy bear.

“Yes, I am sure,” the goblin said firmly.

“Maybe on your way out we can try another one? For old times’ sake?” pleaded the Sphinx as he was turning a key in the gate and as the gate’s teeth drew in with a screech of rusty metal, and as the gate flew open at last.

“Maybe!” Hauftythorp scurried in and dived into the dark corridors of the castle without saying as much as thank you very much.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: “The Quite Contrary Colin Pluck” « abevanswylie

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