I was supervising the kitchen staff in preparation for the St Valentine’s Day feast when I heard the herald’s horn blow from the hills beyond my Summer Palace. With an excited rush of anticipation, I ran to the lookout post and sure enough, I saw the long-awaited sight: the rebel fleet approaching!
Soon, the whole palace was in uproar: servants running two and fro, sending out for what festive items we could find to furnish the feast which was no longer just for St Valentine and the Royal Family, but now also for the approaching rebel army!
The children were most excited and kept lookout all morning long, watching as the sturdy ships approached the harbour. By lunchtime, the Royal cavalcade was prepared and with the King and children at my side, I rode out to meet them.
The ship carrying the leader of the rebel army and the fabled apothecary from Vaccinia was the first to put in to port. They alighted from the storm-tossed ship, undaunted by the trials of what had surely been a long and treacherous voyage. They bowed to me and presented me gifts from the Outlands: rare polished jewels mined from the mountains of that distant land. But the most precious gift of all was stowed in the hold of every single ship: the precious tincture from Vaccinia which would protect my people from pestilence. The apothecary (whose name is Hobbs) had given it the name of ‘vaccine.’
The King and I extended a most royal welcome, and we conveyed the rebels post-haste to the Summer Palace where the feasting would begin. I was sure they must have quite a tale to tell of their journey across the broad and inhospitable seas.
Tales of the sea
The rebel leader, Sir Nicholas, had such a gift for storytelling that we all listened spellbound as he recreated the voyage for the benefit of his audience. They set out from the port of Whitby Bay at the first break in the storm summoned by Brexicorax. Wild winds buffeted the sturdy ships and blew them off course for days on end. At one point they fought off an assault by pirates, who thought the ships held gold, not medicine. But they fought on through fair weather and foul to reach us. Sadly, their voyage was not without its casualties. In the telling of this part of the tale, Sir Nicholas’s voice darkened:
After several days’ voyage, a black dog appeared upon the deck of one of the vessels of the fleet. No one had given permission to carry pets aboard; for sure we would not be allowed to put into any harbour carrying a beast that might be rabid. It turned out to belong to the ship’s mate of that particular boat, and he promised to keep it below deck when we made land. Nevertheless, it came to be something of a nuisance from the time of the first full moon: howling the whole night through and waking the exhausted sailors. I had a mind to put it to death with my musket after a particularly disrupted night, but when I woke, the ship carrying the offending animal was eerily silent. I sent a small crew of my men aboard to investigate, and they came back white as sheets to a man. When I questioned them as to the reason for their change in humour, they described how they had found the whole crew dead, their throats ripped out, and no sign of the demon dog onboard.
It was a grizzly business, as we duly went aboard and sent the victims down to Davy Jones’s Locker, to rest where the Hellhound apparently already slept. How he had managed to carry out this bloodthirsty act, with the entire crew being armed, was a mystery of the highest order. No man wished to sail on the afflicted ship, and I had to threaten them with my musket in order to make them take charge of it. We put into the nearby port of Varna the next day, where we had planned to stop and take on supplies. Here we sold the wretched vessel and split its cargo between the remainder of the fleet. A wild and rabid dog was seen running through the town that afternoon, until someone euthanatised it. As we left port that evening, bats swirled around the masts of the ill-fated ship. This was a most curious and incongruous occurrence for the time of year. Perhaps it was an ill omen for the people of those lands, but we had no time to spare in worrying about this.
From that point on we sailed under clear skies and with a fair wind. And so we reach you, ready to defeat the evil overlord, once we have had the opportunity to rest and to recuperate.
Commencement of the Revels
After Sir Nicholas had told his tale, Hobbs called for ale and began the singing of the sea-shanties. Though they commenced nobly enough, I knew that in direct proportion to the amount of ale consumed, they would descend into bawdy songs, so I hurried the children to bed. They had been by turns mesmerised and terrified by Sir Nicholas’ tales of the high seas. I told them not to worry, this is why we have the phrase ‘there’s worse things happen at sea you know’ and here we are on land, and safe.
I retired to the Royal Chamber, tired from the day’s excitement, feasting and entertainment. The King joined the rebels in what was rapidly becoming a bacchanal: barrels of the finest wine were brought in from the local vineyards, and soon the palace walls were ringing to the rhyme of bawdy songs punctuated by the thud of pewter on the great oak table. I predicted quieter times to come the following morning.
I descended to the banqueting hall next morning to survey the damage, and could not help but be amused: the scene resembled a battlefield in which the conquering foe had been strong ale and wine. Such is the life of many a seafarer and, of course, the King was happy to join them and relive his battle-hardened days. There would be no rousing this vanquished army until much later in the day.
Just as the rebels were rising and nursing their throbbing heads, a runner burst in through the palace gates, all of a panic. I told him to tell me the news I feared to hear. It was worse than I thought:
Erasmus is killed by a cannon ball and his Castle taken by Koronin’s Army.
Where we had hoped to take the battle to Koronin, it appeared he was rapidly advancing his army towards us.
To be continued…
Read the story so far in the Chronicles of Lockdownia archives.