S06 THE WRECKER AND THE RESCUER*

 

1

 

I was alone in my room, lying on my bed, reading Kidnapped, when a quiet cough made me roll over quickly. Sherlock Holmes was sitting at my desk, punching buttons on a gadget like a small e-book reader. He said, “I have a mission for you, James,” and gave me the thing.

He’d set the display on its screen:
Title: The Prince and the Pauper
Author: Mark Twain
Edition: 1881
Page: 150.
The thing was an incorporator. If I hit the button marked Go, it would take me to that place in that story.

I asked, “What’s the problem?”

“Our detectors report that someone has visited that story without permission. We suspect a Wrecker. You will investigate.”

Wreckers visit stories, and try to spoil them, usually by nobbling the hero. Sherlock Holmes is the leader of the Guardians, who try to stop the Wreckers. I wangled a job as a junior Guardian, for children’s stories.

I asked, “What’s that story about?”

“Have you not read it?”

“Not yet. Since I got the job, I’ve started reading these old stories.” I waved Kidnapped at him.

“Your ignorance never ceases to amaze me. The story is set in England in the year 1547. The heroes are Prince Edward and a beggar boy. They are both 9 years of age, and look remarkably similar. In a spirit of fun, they exchange clothes. Before they can change back, they are separated.”

“Did the author….” I checked the screen. “Mark Twain, expect people to believe that?”

“James, it is not your place to criticise stories. Both boys protest the change, but they are considered mad. As the Prince wanders the country in the beggar’s rags, he learns that his father is dead. He is now King Edward VI. I suspect that the Wrecker has targeted him. You must defend him.”

“How?”

“If I had seen evidence that you have any intelligence I would urge you to use that. But delay no more. While you lie there, asking foolish questions, the boy may be attacked.”

“I don’t like it.” But I pressed Go.

2

Next instant, I was standing in a forest. It was dull and cold, like late afternoon on a winter’s day. Bushes were dark shadows between bare trees. No birds sang, but a dog howled in the distance. All it needed to make it really spooky was an owl hooting. I couldn’t see or hear anybody.

The incorporator always gives gear to suit the story. In the gloom, I couldn’t see mine, but it felt ragged, and it didn’t do much to keep out the cold. An owl hooted. I shivered, and sneaked behind a bush.

I reset the incorporator for the ‘story’ that would take me home, then looked cautiously around. What now? If the Wrecker was here….

A faint rustling, somewhere to my left. I dropped flat onto the (cold, wet) ground, listening tensely.

The rustling came closer, and somebody panting. The Wrecker! He was muttering under his breath: he wasn’t enjoying his gloomy tramp through the forest.

I lay still, trying to judge where he’d pass me. Maybe I could follow him, and…. He pushed through the bush, and fell over me.

3

I threw myself on him as he started to get up. I forced him onto his back – more easily than I expected – and sat on his chest. Most of the young Wreckers are 14 or 15, a year or two older than me, but this one was smaller.

He called, “Release me this instant!”

“You’re joking, kid. I’ll make sure you won’t do any more wrecking.” I reached into my pocket for my incorporator. That’d deliver us to Sherlock Holmes, who would take him away. I was chuffed: this was an easy job.

But, before I pressed Go, he said, “Release me, else I shall order thee flogged.”

A horrible thought made me ask, “Who do you think you are?”

“I know who I am. I am Edward, King of England. I command thee to release me immediately.”

“I… I’m sorry, your majesty.” I quickly got off him. “I heard that enemies are lurking in this forest, waiting to attack you. I… I came to protect you.”

“Wouldst thou protect thy king by assaulting him?”

“I… I thought you were the… the criminal.”

“Hmm. What is thy name?”

“James, your majesty. James Rodger.”

“Thou mayst serve me now, James. I am cold and tired and hungry. Prithee take me to the nearest shelter.”

“Yes, your majesty.” That was the easiest way to make him stay with me, although I hadn’t the foggiest idea where to go. “But, first, let’s find something to defend ourselves.” I felt around on the shadowy ground until I found two broken branches. I kept one, about a metre long and as thick as my wrist, and gave a shorter, thicker one to the king. “Take that.”

He swung it. “’Tis thick, but I trust not its strength.”

“It’ll do fine,” I said. “Now follow me, and keep quiet.”

“Dost thou tell thy king to keep quiet?”

“We don’t want your enemies to hear us.”

He muttered a bit, then shut up. We crept through the forest as the daylight faded. It wasn’t much fun: I kept falling over trailing branches and briars. The king kept whispering, “James, where is the shelter which thou promised?” and I kept answering, “It’s not much farther, your majesty. Please be quiet.”

He wasn’t my favourite person when, at last, I pushed through a bush and reached a small clearing in the forest, with a ramshackle log hut. The yellow glow of a candle came through the tiny window. A thin column of smoke drifted from a hole at one end of the roof, into the dark grey sky. Somebody was living there.

The king would’ve blundered out into the open. “That is a poor shelter to offer a king.”

I held him back. “Wait, your majesty. Your enemies may be lying in wait for you there. I’ll check it first.”

Deep shadows surrounded the hut, but I didn’t fancy crossing the open ground to reach them. I took a deep breath, and sprinted to the side of the hut, near the window. I let out the breath and crouched there nervously. Everything was silent, until the owl hooted again.

I crept forward, to peep in the window but, before I reached it, someone jumped me from behind. “Got you!”

Maybe he was a local robber, maybe he was the Wrecker, but he was bigger and stronger than me. I wriggled and fought, but he forced me onto my back, and sat on my chest. “Say your prayers, your majesty!”

“I… I’m not the king.”

He laughed quietly. “Do you expect me to believe that?” He lifted his right hand, with a dagger blade gleaming in it.

4

Until a cracking noise came through the gloom, and he collapsed over me.

I scrambled out from under him, to find the king, standing with half his branch in his hand. “As I suspected, the branch thou gavest me was weak. It broke.”

“It was strong enough,” I said. “Thanks, your majesty.”

“Thou wert a poor guide, James, but I believe thou didst thy best for me. I could not let that knave harm thee.”

The Wrecker was a boy of about 15. His pulse was fine; he was only stunned. I rolled him onto his back, and felt the incorporator in his pocket. The king crept along to peep in the hut window. “’Tis the dwelling of a holy hermit. ’Tis humble, but ’tis safe. I am indeed fortunate.”

“You go on, your majesty. I’ll take this guy away.”

As soon as the king disappeared round the end of the hut, I sat on the Wrecker’s chest, put my arms round him, and pressed Go on my own incorporator.

5

In an instant, we were on the floor in my room.

Sherlock Holmes, sitting on the bed, put down Kidnapped. “Ah, James. That is more efficient than I expected of you. Did you rescue the king from this fellow?”

“Er… yes,” I said. “I… I won’t bother you with the details.”