Recently, Winston Samoula, a resident of Nigeria, wrote me a very touching and grammatically-unique letter about how he is dying of stage 7 lung cancer after smoking ten packs of Marlboros a day since age three. He also informed me that he is the sole heir of the Deputy Minister of Nigerian Oil and Ostrich Farming, George Mabunge, who recently was killed in an elephant-meets-rhinocerous accident in downtown Lagos. However, due to some strange rule of international banking law, Winston cannot access his uncle’s money without my Social Security number, my bank account number, and my birthday. Winston says if I will help him, he will give me 10 MILLION US DOLLARS (all in capital letters, too, which makes it all the more exciting). He says he will donate the remainder of his uncle’s money to a worthy charity in Monte Carlo.
I’m always happy to help out strangers from other continents, particularly if their names are Winston (as I am a longtime fan of Winston Churchill, former and deceased Prime Minister of England, a country which, interestingly enough, once handily subjugated Nigeria). However, I wrote Winston back and told him that I would rather share some of my writing with him than give him tedious personal banking data, as I consider my writing more interesting than my banking data. I told him I hoped the story would comfort him as he lay expiring on his hospital bed, listening for the sound of Death’s soft wings flapping closer. He has not written back yet.
So, without further ado, here’s the first chapter of my work-in-progress, a very not-serious fantasy. This is an unedited manuscript, so feel free to restrain your inner English teacher for the moment.
The platter of succulent and delicious roast boar sailed through the air, missed the tavernkeeper’s head by an inch, and smashed against the mirror behind the bar in a shower of hot gravy and glass.
“Get him!” howled the tavernkeeper. “Drinks on the house if you catch the wretch, hogtied and gagged!”
The crowd inside the Queen’s Head tavern needed no encouragement. They surged forward as one toward the man in black standing in the middle of the room. He smiled and flicked a bit of lint off his sleeve. That was all the free time he had before the mob engulfed him. He disappeared beneath the wave of patrons. Fists flew, crockery was put to violent use, a table splintered under the weight of several bodies. Inexplicably, and against all probability, the man in black suddenly popped up in the middle of the scrum. He had two attackers in headlocks under each arm and was simultaneously head butting a third in the face. Somehow, he managed to wink at one of the barmaids at the same time. She sighed and sat down abruptly on a chair, her legs weak.
The fighting mob of men crashed up against the bar. A hand shot out of the scrum and snatched up a tankard of ale. The man in black’s head appeared (it was his hand that had shot out of the scrum, of course) and he drank the ale down in one swift gulp.
“Excellent vintage,” he said, nodding genially to the tavernkeeper.
“Get him!” hollered the tavernkeeper, grabbing the empty tankard and hurling it at the man in black. The tankard made a satisfying metallic bonging sound as it missed and bounced off the skull of one of the other patrons. “He’s insulted our fair city, he’s insulted my cooking, and he’s insulted my niece!”
The tavernkeeper’s niece, a rather comely girl named Meg, leaned on the end of the bar and watched the riot with her pretty blue eyes. “He can insult me again, if he likes,” she murmured, but no one heard her over the noise of the brawl.
The front door of the tavern flew open with a bang and the air rang with booted feet. Several soldiers wearing the royal livery marched in. An officer followed after them. He stood in amazement for a split second.
“Arrest them all!” he bellowed.
“Do you mean all, as in all?” said one of the soldiers. “There’s a lot of them and there’s only three of us.”
“Alright, lissen up, you drunken and disorderly lot!” hollered the soldier. “Consider yourselves arrested!”
Due to the noise of the fray, no one heard the soldier. However, as if guided by the ironic hand of providence, a pottery mug flew out of the thick of the brawl and struck the arresting soldier upon the nose.
The soldier wheeled about to his captain and saluted smartly. “They are resisting arrest, sir,” he said. “In the process, I was assaulted with a flying projectile.”
“Use force, you idiot!” yelled the captain.
To demonstrate his point, he seized a chair and broke it over the head of the nearest tavern patron. The other soldiers collected their own chairs and enthusiastically waded into the fight. It only took a few blows and a correspondingly few unconscious bodies laid out on the floor before the rest of the fighters became aware of the soldiers.
“It’s the authorities!” shouted someone, and everyone scrambled for the exits. In a trice, the tavern was empty except for the tavernkeeper cowering behind the bar, his niece, the soldiers, and an assortment of unconscious patrons scattered about the floor.
The captain strode forward and placed a massive, steel-gauntleted hand on the bar counter. The tavernkeeper filled a tankard with ale and slid it across.
“Don’t try to bribe me, peasant,” said the captain, downing the ale. “Fill it up again. Bribery is punishable by death or decapitation, or sometimes drowning in hot oil, depending on the mood of the chief magistrate.”
“I would never dream of bribing you, your lordship,” said the tavernkeeper, his teeth chattering a bit. “I merely have a habit of offering new guests a free drink.”
The captain tossed off another tankard and then set it down with a bang. “I’m looking for a scoundrel named Malix Shandy, a real blackguard, a rogue and a knave if there ever was one. Ever heard of him, you foul-smelling peasant?”
“Why, yes,” said the tavernkeeper, his face darkening. “He was in this very place only a few moments ago. In fact, Shandy started the fight your men broke up. He shattered the this mirror behind me with a roast boar. This roast boar right here. That’ll cost me a whole silver piece fresh in the market.”
“He did, did he?” barked the captain. “So you let him go, eh? I ought to haul you in, you dirty peasant.”
“He insulted my cooking,” said the tavernkeeper, turning a little pale. “He also said disparaging things about our fair city of Mauncleyberg. He kissed my niece against her will!”
“He almost did,” murmured Meg from the far end of the bar, but no one heard her.
“Bah!” sneered the captain. “Child’s play. Shandy is wanted for crimes against the Crown, not for kissing filthy peasant girls or throwing meat about. Here, you, collect that roast boar and a keg of ale! Make that two kegs of ale. We’ll need them for evidence.”
“Yessir, captain, sir!” said one of the soldiers.
“As for you, you smelly peasant,” said the captain, turning back to the tavernkeeper and slapping a handful of broadsheets down on the counter. “Keep a sharp eye out for Shandy. Nail these up inside and on your door.” He surveyed Meg and his gaze sharpened. “The rogue kissed you against your will, eh, wench?”
“No, your lordship,” said Meg.
“He didn’t kiss you?”
“No, your lordship,” said Meg again, curtsying a bit this time.
“What exactly does she mean?” whispered one of the soldiers. “Does she mean, no, he didn’t kiss her, or, no, he did kiss her?”
“I don’t know,” said another soldier, “but I wouldn’t mind myself.”
The door banged shut behind the captain and the soldiers and the tavern was silent for a moment. Meg stirred a bit at her end of the counter, but her uncle didn’t look up. He was staring pop-eyed at the broadsheets in front of him.
“One hundred gold sovereigns for Malix Shandy!” he said. “Dead or alive! One hundred gold sovereigns! Can you imagine what I could do with that much gold?”
“No, I can’t,” said Meg. “What I can imagine, however, is what Aunt Belinda will say about this mess when she gets back from her tea.”
“Belinda!” said her uncle in horror, looking around the shambles of the tavern. He squinted at the hourglass on the wall. “It must be past eight o’clock already. No, maybe it’s already close on nine o’clock. Blast it all! Who forgot to turn the hourglass over? Meg, you clean up. I have important work to do in my office.”
With that, he swept up the handful of broadsheets and a pitcher of ale and vanished through a door behind the bar. Meg sighed and wistfully looked around the room. It was a large room, as far as taverns went, and it was in a total shambles.
“Alright,” she said. “You can come out now.”
Malix Shandy, the man in black, poked his head out from under the bar counter. He looked remarkably unscathed for being the center of a recent and quite large tavern brawl. He straightened his collar and smiled. His teeth were irritatingly straight and his eyes snapped and sparkled.
“Thank you for hiding me,” said Malix. “You really are an angel, aren’t you, Peg?”
“I’m certainly not an angel,” she said, “And my name is Meg, not Peg.” She pulled some knitting out from under the counter and began to knit in a fairly irritated manner.
“Meg, if you must,” he said airily. “Both names suit you nicely enough. You might as well use both. Be flexible. One hundred gold sovereigns! That’s a tidy sum of money. You should turn me in yourself.”
“I don’t want one hundred gold sovereigns. How on earth did you manage a fight like that without getting a single hair out of place?”
“That was nothing,” said Malix, glancing at himself in a shard of mirror. “I’m the youngest of seven brothers. I was fighting even before I learned how to crawl. Aha!” He bent down and picked up a broadsheet from the floor. “Quite a nice likeness. Though, the artist really didn’t capture the way my hair waves in the front. Hmm. I’m much handsomer in person.”
“Are you knitting me something? A nice, warm sweater, perhaps? Or a scarf?”
“I wonder why the King wants my head? Perhaps that ruby necklace I removed from the lissome neck of Baroness Swann?”
“I find the word lissome strangely irritating,” said Meg.
“Or maybe it was that Lord whatsisname fellow I dueled with last Thursday. Quite a pompous fathead. I stuck him through the brisket with my sword. Let the air right out of him. He whistled like a boiling tea kettle.”
“You should be careful about sticking people with swords,” said Meg, punctuating her words by jabbing a knitting needle into her ball of yarn. “That can become a bad habit.”
Malix snapped his fingers. “I know! Sir Percy Pelliver! He’s some sort of nephew three times removed of the Queen, more her bad luck to be related to a wet fish like Pelliver. I fleeced him at cards the other night, in the back room of the Flying Duck. Won his horse, his sword, and all his clothes off him as well. He went scurrying off in his underclothes. Straight to his aunt, no doubt, to pour out his tale of woe.”
“Can’t you find a normal job?”
“A normal job?” Malix managed to look surprised, appalled and amused, all at the same time. “Why on earth would I want a normal job? Normal jobs are for normal people.”
“Well, I have a normal job to do,” said Meg somewhat grumpily.
She seized a broom and began sweeping the floor.
“And an excellent job you’re doing,” said Malix cheerfully. “There’s a bit of glass over there you missed. No, not that bit. That other bit. Ah, I think I’ll let myself out. You look like you need some time alone.”
Malix closed the door of the tavern behind him and took a deep breath of cool night air. A light rain was falling and the cobblestone street shone under the moonlight.
“An excellent night,” he said.
A heavy hand fell on his shoulder. “Excellent indeed. Malix Shandy, you’re under arrest by order of the Crown.”