In which Kira takes a road less travelled, Fred hitches a ride, and George tries out a new route.
Kira stood on top of a small rock outcrop and wondered why she had ever started on this stupid escape route. She was tired, hungry, thirsty, scratched, bruised and her head hurt. It was dark, although the moon was up and it had been much easier since she had been able to use it to find her way through the jumbled rock, tangled vegetation and small trees that were not much more than bushes. In front of her lay another few hundred yards of jumbled undergrowth and broken ground, but then there was a stream shimmering in the moonlight and on the other side a dark plain which stretched away into the distance. She fancied there was a small glow a few miles off, as if it was coming from the ground. She wondered whether it was a settlement where she could find shelter and maybe transport to Buckmore.
She had been surprised that there had been no shouts or pursuit party after she had started on the track going west, and at one point she wondered whether it was a dead end or a circular route so they knew they didn’t need to chase her. But the track steadily headed west, and she gathered speed and jogged along, carefully keeping within herself, at a pace she could keep up for a good while before she needed to rest.
The track petered out after an hour or so, but into an area of mature trees with short grass underneath them, so she carried on, hoping she wouldn’t leave too much of a trail for someone to follow. Then she had seen some rock outcrops off to the right and clambered up onto them, making her tracks harder to spot, although it slowed her down until she realised that she was on a huge slab of rock that tended northwest. She altered course and ran on a good flat surface with occasional crevasses that were nearly all narrow enough for her to take in her stride. About three hours into her journey she rested by a small lake and soaked her feet in it gratefully. She had eaten a few early berries, then picked herself up and walked on for a bit.
She found what looked like animal tracks leading away from the lake, which made sense, she thought, and she chose those that took her back on a general heading west, with the sun now in her eyes when it showed through broken cloud and the tree canopy. She picked up speed again and jogged along, finding a second wind as she thought about the situation at Arbor, her mind thinking on the problem while her feet automatically sped her on her way. As dusk fell she found herself climbing another area of rock, and it got more and more difficult to find a way through, especially as the deepening shadows hid gaps and cracks and rocks and snagging things. So when she got to a nice-looking outcrop she stopped for a rest, and had fallen asleep.
Judging from the moon she hadn’t fallen asleep for long, she thought, looking out over the plain. She was still tired, physically so, but apart from the headache (she didn’t recall banging it on anything, but it felt like she had), she was mentally alert again. She found herself musing on Arbor and is society. She was disgusted that Arbor needed to hoodwink passing male guests to maintain their population, and exiling resulting male children was to her mind barbaric. Apart from that they had a lot going for them. But how could people that seemed so nice be so cruel underneath? They might pride themselves on the breadth of their culture, but they were incredibly narrow-minded, she thought. She wondered whether Nimrod could help them find a way back into the modern age. Maybe they could be a demonstration to all that men and women were equally able to rule and manage and organise, as well as all the other traditional things that were divided by sex instead of ability.
She sighed, got to her feet again, identified the constellation above the distant glow, noted the position of the North Star for good measure, and started clambering down to the spring. She hoped she would get to the settlement, whatever it was, by dawn.
* * *
Fred stood at the three way junction of the tunnels to Castle Marsh, [the Inn of the] Seventh Happiness and the clearing, looking for signs of movement back the way he had come. He heard a shuffling, then some definite sounds of people making their way along the smooth road, and finally was delighted to see his companions on the escape from Arbor. An exhausted Sundance was being carried by Baker and Chad, two of the men of the 25th company that were stationed at Castle Marsh, and they were closely followed by a very tired Hunston.
Their departure from Arbor had been painless. They had slipped into the Queen’s apartments as the banquet was beginning in the Great Hall, having watched the Queen depart. Fred knew that they had to be prompt leaving, not delaying long enough for anyone to notice their absence. Sundance had been fascinated by the secret panel in the Queen’s room, and asked Fred if there was one in the same place in Buckmore. “I refuse to answer that,” he had said with a grin. With all eyes diverted from them, their main concern had been not to run into any security people that had been engaged with looking for the princesses, but their luck held, they had retrieved their gear from the rowan grove and headed back down the little cliff path towards the road to the tunnel entrance clearing. Sundance had started the journey gamely, but by the time they reached the clearing, he needed a rest.
Just as Fred had suggested, they chatted about whether to go back to Wash through the forest, or Marsh through the forest or the Inn of the Seventh Happiness by the tunnel while they walked. It had caused a lot of head scratching and calculating while they still had enough energy to do so. They had walked for more than ten minutes in complete silence when Fred stopped, raised his head and smiled at them.
“I’ve just remembered,” he said. “The 25th company were going to be working on the collapsed bit of the tunnel when I left Marsh. If they haven’t finished we can get help from them. It’ll be much quicker than going all the way back to either castle.”
“What if they’ve finished?” asked Hunston.
They did some calculations and decided the soldiers most probably hadn’t, although Hunston pointed out it was after normal working hours.
“They usually work through till they’ve finished something, and nap on the spot, though,” said Fred. “It’s worth the risk.”
Consequently he had run on ahead down the tunnel after the briefest of rests, with Hunston helping Sundance onwards at a slower pace. Fred had been delighted to find the 25th at work, albeit not hard at work, but they’d said they liked to pace themselves and working here underground it didn’t matter what time of day it was. He explained the situation to Haggis, who detailed Baker and Chad back along the forest tunnel to find Hunston and Sundance and bring them in. Meanwhile Fred had rested, given Haggis and Neeps a short summary of what was going on, and had a very welcome hot drink in return.
“So, the next thing is to get back to Buckmore as soon as possible,” Fred told them, “I’m so tired now I really can’t work out which way will be quickest.”
“Well, that’s easy enough, sir,” Haggis said. “We’ve got the cart here which’ll go as quick as a postbus, or quicker along this tunnel, it being nice and smooth and straight, sir. You can go straight to the Inn and get a proper coach there.”
“You won’t go off and do anything valiant at Arbor, will you?” Fred asked anxiously.
“We will await orders, sir,” Haggis had answered. “Which doesn’t mean that we might not do a little reconnaissance, sir, but no-one will know, rest assured.”
Fred had relaxed and eaten a very welcome bran cake that one of the others had given with him, and done some more thinking and calculating to the sound of the men doing more shovelling and shoring up round the corner.
Now they were re-united and Sundance was settled on some cushions on the cart, eating and drinking, while Hunston and Fred stood by it, finalising details with Haggis. Neeps was to drive them up the tunnel, so that he could return with the cart, and he could make good time on the way up and give the horse a bit of a rest before he came back slow. Fred suggested a few things that he might want to bring back from the market and the inn at Seventh Happiness, which pleased the men even more.
So as the night moved on towards a cold and dewy dawn above them, Fred, Hunston and Sundance lay down on the cart and tried to sleep as best they could on the long drive up the tunnel to the inn.
* * *
The coach had hardly drawn to a standstill before George was out of it and on the way to his laboratory. He looked through page after page of plans Victor showed him for the development and launch of the strawberry juice power plant while Victor stood there, well shifted from one foot to the other, anxiously waiting for approval.
“Th-ose ll-ook ab-sol-ute-ly per-fect,” he said . “Y-ou’ve d-one a gr-eat j-ob, Vic-tor.”
Victor stopped hopping and beamed at him.
George checked whether he had shown them to Lupin and Baden.
“Baden approved. That’s enough.”
George sometimes wondered whether someone should encourage Victor to speak better in longer sentences, but decided he was hardly one to instruct anyone else in talking at this stage. Then Pippin showed him all the blueprints, all finished and beautifully inscribed, with patent numbers (pending) written in, and authors and copyright all properly indicated.
“Th-ese a-re won-der-ful, Pip-pin,” he said, wondering how he would ever have done all that work on his own.
“Thank you, I really enjoy it. I’m glad I met you that time,” said Pippin, who seemed to have taken on a completely new personality since his time as a pirate. “Um, did Victor tell you about the paper?”
George indicated he hadn’t so they moved over to his writing area and showed him some suggested amendments to his paper. He looked through them, making notes, then pulled out his own version of the paper and shown them his amendments and further additions. After a little more discussion Victor took it all away to have everything put together just as George had decided, with a strange wink to Pippin just before he closed the door.
“Wh-at w-as th-at w-ink ab-out, Pip-pin?” he asked.
“Come this way!” Pippin responded with a grin.
A few minutes later they were standing at the side of the castle near the gate, where a stable block had been converted into a barn for a flying machine, and inside….
“A fly-ing mach-ine! Br-and new!” exclaimed George.
“I got old Jasper and his team to build it according to the plans, but I sneaked in the little fuel cell and set up the motor and everything. I tested it yesterday, well the engine and the flaps and everything, I didn’t dare take it out and run it around or off the ground though. I think it’s ok, do you want to test it?”
Pippin was full of glee at his work, and even happier at George’s expression. He was clearly delighted.
George climbed up into the machine and Pippin stood clear as he started it up. The fuel cell was silent but the whirly thing on the front that Miles had called the propeller started to spin round, gathering speed until it was moving so fast you couldn’t see it.
“This is re-ally go-od!” said George. “It-ss so qui-et!”
“Do you want to bring it out, sir?” called Pippin.
“Sha-ll I?” said George. “Ju-st for a lo-ok at how it m-oves?”
And Pippin flung wide the barn doors, George let off the brake, and the little machine moved silently forward.
“Is th-ere any-one on the ro-ad, Pip-pin?”
Pippin ran round the corner and looked. “No!” he called back, and George continued to bring the plane out. It was a still evening with no wind, so George thought he might just try it out. He brought the machine right up to the road and told Pippin he was going to go down the road, turn, then come up the road and hopefully take off.
“I’ll-ll do one cir-cuit, th-en l-and,” he said.
Pippin gave him the thumbs up, and went over to the end of the road where it turned to go into the gate.
George drove the machine slowly down the road, checking that all the controls seemed to be working properly. He was excited and also a bit nervous. He had only taken the controls of Miles’s machine once, but he thought he could do it.
He reached the end of the road by the bridge, turned, speeded up the engine, and sent it up the road at full speed.
Up in Lady Nimrod’s salon, Baden had joined Lady Nimrod, Kira and one of the elderly uncles called Roland, who always reminded Fred of his uncle Vlad, for their evening meal. Kira had apologised at the start of the meal that she might be a little quiet as she had not yet fully recovered from her long journey, and she ate politely, smiling at the conversation and paying great attention to anything Lady Nimrod said. They had finished their main course and were chatting whilst waiting for the dessert when a huge bird went past the window.
“What the deuce was that?” exclaimed Roland, and he and Baden got to their feet and ran over to the window.
“It’s that George,” laughed Baden. “I gave Pippin permission to build another machine from the plans, and I see George hasn’t wasted any time in trying it out!”
“You didn’t tell me, Baden,” said Nimrod, smiling hugely, and joining them at an adjacent window to get a good view. “I just hope he doesn’t kill himself, he still has work to do for us!”
Kira got up shyly and joined Nimrod at her window. She looked out and was amazed to see a wooden box with four planks sticking out from the sides, curving round the valley high above the ground. So that was what George was trying to explain about a flying machine! She had no idea, it looked really exciting. If only she’d paid more attention to him, she thought. She also remembered her mission. “Excuse me, Lady Nimrod,” she said in a low voice as they stood watching, “May I have a short word with you in private before you retire this evening?”
“Of course my dear, but are you sure you’re not too tired? Nothing wrong between you and Fred, I hope?” she asked in the same low tone.
“Oh, no,” said Kira, “nothing like that.” She smiled and looked out of the window again, where George was turning above the rock on the other side of the river and lining himself up to come up the road.
“This is the tricky bit, I’ll warrant,” said Roland gruffly. “You watch birds land, even they make a hash of it sometimes!”
They watched anxiously as the machine sank lower, and lower, and as the ground came up to meet the wheels they touched, jolted. The machine bounced, bounced again even higher, then bounced again, but lower this time and slower as well. With a few more bounces it arrived at the top of the road where Pippin was waiting with an anxious look and a large rope, which he threw around the wheels and held on till it dragged to a standstill. The onlookers breathed a collective sigh of relief and sat down to their raspberry confits, and Pippin breathed a sigh of relief and ran over to help George bring the machine back into the barn.
“That was brill-iant” said George, grinning from ear to ear. “Where shall we go tom-orrow?”
Kira hobbled to the edge of the crater in which the settlement was hidden, and looked down. It was late in the night now, maybe an hour before dawn, and there were just a few lights still shining, strung across the depression, linking the building at its centre to smaller sheds and covered stalls at the sides. She looked for a way down the cliff and found a place she thought she could scramble. After maybe ten feet she lost her footing and fell through the air, to land with a ripping sound in an awning above a market stall, which she then split and fell through onto a load of cloth. Something squelched under the cloth and she wondered what the stallholder would say in the morning. She got up, unhurt, although stiff and tired, and looked around. It looked decidedly like the Inn of the Seventh Happiness.
She went to the door of the inn and tried the handle. The door wasn’t locked and she went in, wondering what to do now. She didn’t really want to disturb anyone, but she did want a wash and some sleep. As she stood there, she heard some movement.
“Can I help you sir,” said a gentle voice behind her.
She turned round.
“Oh, sorry madam, I didn’t realise.”
“That’s all right, Gandy, I didn’t know whether anyone would be around at this hour.”
She was so relieved to see the gentle features of Argon’s old assistant that she started shaking.
“But madam, if you don’t mind me saying, have you had an accident? Let me fetch the master.”
Gandy moved towards the stair, looking concerned, but Kira stopped him and made herself relax.
“No, it’s all right, Gandy, thank you. It’s a long story but everyone is quite safe,” she said, hoping that was true. “Would it be possible to have a light snack, a wash and a bed?”
“Of course, madam, would soup be appropriate? Prince Lupin’s rooms are free, let me take you there.”
Kira followed Gandy to the familiar rooms, where she was able to wash, while Gandy brought some soup, calling to her as he left it, and she dragged herself over to eat it before lying down and sleeping the deepest sleep possible.
She woke around seven to the sound of people in the square. Coaches were being loaded and passengers were quarrelling about who was going to sit where. She smiled. So nice to be back in civilisation, she thought. Then she sat up in alarm, what time did the postbus to Buckmore leave? She got up and went to the window, looking out to see two buses standing, one with “Fortune-Dimerie” on the front and the other with “Humber-Wash”. She relaxed and thought about breakfast. She rang the small bell and brushed herself and made herself presentable. There was little outward sign of yesterday’s arduous journey left, she was pleased to note.
A knock came at the door and Argon himself put his head round the door.
“You rang, ma’am?”
“Hello, Argon, yes. What time does the bus for Buckmore leave?”
“At eight, ma’am. Would you like me to make arrangements for you to join it?”
“Yes, please. And could I have a light breakfast now and a picnic for it as well?”
“Of course, ma’am. Pardon me, ma’am, but didn’t you ride through with Princeling George yesterday morning? In Prince Lupin’s coach from the Prancing Pony? Did something happen on the journey?”
“Oh, no, that couldn’t have been me, Argon. I wonder who it was?” she said, being fairly sure she knew who it was, but she didn’t want to confuse the issue further. “Thank you, Argon,” and he left, looking puzzled.
If she left in an hour, she could be at Buckmore early this evening. But it sounded like her calculations of Jess’s movements were completely wrong. She had travelled yesterday, with George, in the coach they had travelled in from Buckmore, and come in from the Prancing Pony. Well, that would make sense if they had come from Marsh to Castle Wash and then in on the Humber-Wash line, she thought. What had happened to Fred? Why wasn’t he with her? She guessed that would occupy her for most of the journey, so she left it to puzzle over and attacked the breakfast that was brought in by Argon’s assistant.
As the hands of the clock in the square showed eight, she departed in the postbus to Buckmore.
Three hours later, a weary group arrived on a cart out of the little-used tunnel from Castle Marsh. They climbed down and thanked Neeps sincerely. Sundance was rather better than he had been the day before, although Fred and Hunston were definitely worse. They watched as Neeps unhitched the animal and gave it tender loving care, a special rub for an arduous journey completed, and led it away to a nice comfortable stable. They moved over to the inn and asked for Argon.
He was somewhat taken aback to see Fred, but listened courteously and showed them to Prince Lupin’s rooms, telling his assistant to prepare three full brunches and bring it to the room when ready. He went back to them carrying a bottle of wine and three glasses.
Fred looked at him questioningly.
“Begging your pardon sirs, we’ve not quite finished the lady’s room but I thought that would not inconvenience yourselves too much,” he said, pouring out the wine.
“Why? Who was here last night, Argon,” asked Fred.
“Why, your lady, Princess Kira, sir,” said Argon, handing the glasses round.
“Sit down Argon,” Fred said, “and explain more. Where is she now?”
“She took the postbus to Buckmore, sir. Due to arrive at eighteen hundred hours or six of the evening, sir.”
“They get their post even later than we do,” laughed Hunston.
“Oh, that’s their evening mail, sir, the overnight one gets it there for seven in the morning,” Argon explained. Hunston looked disappointed, or even jealous. Two deliveries!
“Was George not with her?” asked Fred.
“Well, sir, that’s the thing that confused me. I’m sure your brother went through in Prince Lupin’s coach the day before, with a lady that looked just like Princess Kira. Would have gone through around eleven, sir. Thought they’d stopped for coffee but I was looking at the market produce, so I didn’t serve them myself and Gandy was on last night so he won’t be in till later for me to ask him, sir. It’s not for me to be impertinent about your business sir, but I thought you should know.”
“Yes, Argon, thank you. Er, have a glass of wine and wait a minute, would you?”
He walked with Hunston into the other room where Sundance was sitting on the bed.
“Did you hear that?” he asked.
“Yes, what did you make of it?” said Sundance.
“The timing’s right for George and the false Kira to have gone through yesterday. So was it the real Kira this morning?” asked Hunston.
“The real Kira would have been polite, considerate,” Fred said.
They walked back to Argon.
“How would you describe Kira’s manner this morning, Argon?” Fred asked.
“Her usual friendly self, sir, not wishing to be impertinent again, but she is always a delight to serve, sir, as she was this morning. Gandy did say she had arrived in the middle of the night looking as if she’d been in an accident or something though. He was a little worried which was why I made sure I saw her myself this morning, sir.”
“An accident? Was she alright?”
“Yes sir, no sign of any injury or even disturbance when I saw her this morning. Neat as always, sir.” Argon reassured Fred, who nodded to him, thanked him for his attention, and Argon withdrew far enough to allow the huge breakfast or lunch be brought in, helped to serve it, then left, together with his assistant.
“So George and Kira lookalike have gone through to Buckmore, and real Kira is a day behind them. This should be interesting,” said Sundance. “When can we arrive, do you think?”
“Are you coming with us, Hunston?” asked Fred. “You’d be welcome.”
“I’m very tempted to, but I still have to be back at Wash by tomorrow evening,” replied Hunston.
“Well, let’s demolish this meal then look at methods of getting to Buckmore,” said Fred, and they set to as if they hadn’t had a proper meal for days, which was only partly true.
“It’s down there!” said Victor, pointing over George’s shoulder at a crater in the plain below them.
“I can see now!” said George. “Is-nt it strange, you can see lines lead-ing to-wards it. Do you think those are the tun-nels?”
“Probably,” said Victor. “They leave in right directions.”
“Where shall I land?”
“Over that side. Into the wind. Past the join of those two,” Victor replied, referring to two tracks that appeared to join a little way before they reached the crater. “There’s a ramp there. Lets us get up and down.”
George steered the flying machine around the crater, looking down into it and seeing the network of lights and flags strung across to the building in the centre, and behind the inn a strange structure that used to be used by children and visitors alike during the great energy drain.
He straightened up and started to lose height and speed. “Hold on tight ,Vic-tor,” he said, “this is on-ly my third time land-ing.”
He brought the machine lower and let the tail sag down a little, then cut the engine. The machine glided down, settled gently on its wheels, and rolled to a halt.
“Oh, that’s much ea-sier!” he said, relaxing again. “It’s ok when there’s plen-ty of space!”
“We’re close to ramp too,” said Victor. “Well done.”
They made their way down the ramp, across the square and into the inn.
Argon stared at them slack-jawed.
“Where did you come from?” he asked in astonishment as he stepped from behind the bar to hug his son. “Good morning sir,” he said to George, “or good afternoon, I don’t know whether we’ve gone past noon yet.”
“We flew in George’s machine, dad,” said Victor, eyes bright and sparkling. “We need a bottle of strawberry juice. To fill up and go home.”
Argon looked puzzled but agreed to a bottle of strawberry juice.
“But you probably don’t want to leave yet,” he said. “Your brother Prince Fred, sir, and his friends are upstairs.”
“Oh, good,” said George, and he followed Argon up the stairs, Victor following behind.
Argon knocked and put his head round the door.
“Excuse me, Prince Fred, I have a visitor for you.” He opened the door and let George in.
“George!” exclaimed Fred. “How did you get here?”
“I flew,” said George, with a smirk.