The creeping, evil presence of Unther Margate slithered across the emerald fields and meadows of the realm of Legoland, oppressing alike both rich and poor with crippling burdens of taxation, privatisation and funky local radio. In every dwelling, from the meanest hovels to the graceful glass towers of the crystalline capital Campingas, Legolanders mourned the untimely death of Persil, their late ruler, whose last stand against Margate on the Plain of Glass Eyedroppers was still brutally fresh in their minds. It was a bare month since the massacre, and already Campingas’ streets echoed to the tread of the invaders’ feet; the segs of foreign jackboots crazed the fragile glass pavements and rang an awful curfew through the mazy passageways of the city. Unther Margate occupied the Vitrine Palace, and the traitor Badedas, Persil’s own brother, occupied the Mica Throne, a puppet to the tyrant.
Already the scene was ripe for revolution. From the muttering, repressed Legolanders, a torpid, slightly inept people unused to violence and unskilled in the art of war, a Titan must needs arise, a Meganthrop unstoppable to realise the unspoken deep-hearted needs of the populace, a human adze to smooth the tree of Legoland of its alien, parasitical growth.
A small band of Legoland nobles made the first step.
“Liss’n’er this,” called Badedas as he shovelled cornflakes into his enormous mouth. The combination of speaking and eating added more shredded material to the scum before him on the breakfast table, sending tiny ripples through the yellowing crusted milk to was against his elbows, propped on the table; two great buttresses rising from a moat, supporting the craggy, masticating head.
At the far end of the board, out of range of the Regent’s spluttering degustation, sat Unther Margate. The tyrant either ignored or did not hear the ejaculation; he remained immersed, face alight and intent on evil as he waithed for his morning egg to show some sign of life before he ordered it to be boiled. Badedas had to repeat his hoarse caw for attention several times until the enwrapt dictator looked up in irritation.
“What is it, dolt?” he glared. Badedas, nonplussed, moderated his voice to a screech and indicated the tattered copy of the Camingas Advertiser that lay before him, disintegrating in a sea of milk. A spume of half-masticated cereal hazed the air as he spoke, and a thin trickle of sugary milk dripped from his chins.
“Lissener this,” he choked, “It’s in the paper this morning, under ‘Help Wanted’. You gotter laugh…” he laughed, drenching a footman from wig to hose.
Margate tightened his thin lips in disgust and swiped at the top of his egg with a heavy silver spoon, stunning its awakening occupant.
“Lissener this. ‘Help Wanted. Situation vacant. Small oppressed country requires fearless champion. Fitness essential, own army preferred, or mercenaries by arrangement. Please apply in confidence to: Legoland Revolutionary Party, P.O. Box 12, Legoland.”
Badedas, exhausted by his literary excursion, slumed into a customary slouch and pulled the marmalade jar towards him through a curdling lake. As he pawed the sticky preserve onto his toast he enquired, “Shall we arrest them?”
Unther Margate, sickened by the swinish manners of his royal tool, rose from the table, unfolding his frame from the ornate chair until his full seven feet blocked out the level rays of the morning sun and brought a sudden chill to the room.
“Nothing will come of it. Arrest them yourself, if you can,” he grated, ducking his head to manoeuvre through the door.
Badedas waytched the newspaper return to pulp on the sodden tabletop and forgot about the advertisement immediately.
Far to the south of Legoland lay the dense tropical forests that shrouded the Equatorial Girdle.Within their steamy depths moved many strange forms of life; dragons, sloths and trolls, prowling, crushing and burning; gorgeously beautiful birds nipped strangely ugly insects from the air; men, and creatures almost men, spotted the murky jungle in colonies and tribes both fractious and belligerent. But in this primeval gloom a form of civilisation maintained a perilous toehold – the Wen-Pickers of Bogweasel.
Frapps approached the familiar clearing with a feeling of relief, glad to return from his wen-picking with a whole skin. It seemed that every time he went out into the forests a whole new set of dangers had been invented just for him.
Parting the last layers of foliage that screened the clearing Frapps saw before him the familiar curled Bakelite walls of Catenary Jones’ Bookshop and Trading Post. On the front porch lounged a few rough wen-pickers, some of them members of the Murraymint Clan, others belonging to the Mendips, Frapps’ own tribe. The latter greeted him with coarse gestures of fellowship, whilst the Murraymints shook their beards and muttered dark threats of friendly cordiality.
Inside the cabin the smoky atmosphere filled Frapps’ lungs with acid. Choking he stumpbled to the counter and threw down his leather satchel of wens. A round, diminutive individual with thin arms and spidery fingers appeared through the murk from the cobwebby corner of the General Stores section and began to pick at the buckles.
“’Noon, Catenary,” said Frapps. “Any chance of a cider?”
The trader grunted and left off scrabbling at the satchel to pull a noggin of rough cider from the leaking barrel at the end of the counter. He pushed the scummy tankard towards Frapps and resumed his attack on the buckles.
“Nozzeen u fer’a lon’time, Fra’ss,” Catenary Jones mumbled. “Thoreed gorrit frrommer trollersummin…”
“Naw; the old beats are clapped out. You gotter go further now ter get the best pickins… Blimey – what d’you put in this cider then?”
“Bomide,” coughed Catenary. “Some missionary bloke givvit I larst munf. ‘E seddit wuddenurtyer… oh, nice wens ‘ere, eh?”
The wens, revealed now in the opened satchel, were indeed very good. Frapps had travelled many miles, and braved considerable dangers to collect them – but Catenary, hardened to the tales of wen-pickers, forebore listening to the catalogue of disasters and brought out his purse.
“Senny-five wen at two’n’a-penny apiece… that’s se’n pun’ siss’een’n’three.” He counted out the money, deducting threepence for the cider and allowing a farthing for the bromide, which had not on the whole been a successful innovation. Fraps pocketed the cash and took himself and his satchel into the General Stores to replenish his provisions. First stop was at a large revolving wire display of lurid paperback novels. In the flickering light of the candle affixed affixed to the rack Frapps rummaged through the wax-spattered volumes, occasionally thumbing through a particularly promising story. The latest Conan adventure was a must. Then ‘1001 Things to do with a Wen’. Then…
Frapps froze. His blood ran cold; his lips pursed, and an angry, fearful whistle escaped from his armpit. In his hands he held a book, as lurid as any other in the rack; a book so new it had not yet gotten wax on it. The cover showed a wild-looking wen-picker straddling the globe, shattering crystal towers with a Bogweasel mace. The title, in 60 point Futura Bold Condensed, read, ‘Frapps The Barbarian’.
And it was he who bestrode the globe.
“Oy! Catenary!” Frapps strode to the counter, waving the book and calling for the trader in a shaky voice. Catenary Jones appeared from behind the cider cask; the honest old man had been adding water to the liquor in an attempt to dilute the bromide.
“’Old on, Fra’ss, ‘old on; don’ getcher nixinner twist…”
Frapps showed him the book. The trader peered myopically at the cover.
“Four ‘n’ six.”
“Naw, you berk – look at that. That’s me, that is!”
“Ee ar! So ‘tis! Five ‘n’ six then.”
Frapps riffled the pages. “Most of it’s blank. There’s hardly any story there.”
“Two ‘n’ nine,” said Jones sadly. Frapps gave up. He paid the two shillings and ninepence and went outside to read the mysterious book.
There was no preface. No author was credited. The blurb on the back said merely that this was ‘a tale of horror and adventure beyond belief’. Frapps sat down in a creaking rocker and began to read.
‘The creeping evil presence of Unther Margate crept across the emerald fields and meadows of Legoland…’
And the awful tale unfolded before his eyes. When he got to this point in the story he could see that the tale continued – print is even now appearing on the blank page… he drops the book in sheer terror…
The confused wen-picker sat for a few minutes, deep in thought. Was he to be the fearless champion of Legoland? He bent down and picked up the book. He opened it to this page and saw the word appear before his goggling eyes.
Paced in his satchel the book continued to be written. Frapps said goodbye to Catenary Jones and spat his farewells to the Mendips and the sullen Murraymints. His long trek to Legoland had begun.
Unther Margate stood, arms folded and knees akimbo, at the top of the tallest of the glass towers that puncutated the rippling walls of the palace. Below him the capital spread out shimmering in the sun, refracting and modifying its rays in a spray of rainbow hues. Beyond the city boundaries the land opened out in a green and golden spread of fields, etched with roads and tracks, each now patrolled by Margate’s leather-clad vandals. The tyrant was happy. His heart dripped the ice of cruel delight that kept his mind frosted with hatred for the people of the land.
The final triumph was, however, yet to be savoured: Unther, evil and full of violence as he was, yet desired to rule Legoland completely, irrevocably – legally. To this end he had kept the lout Badedas as Regent, had passed under that moron’s signature certain Acts that transformed the structure of the Government from a painfully slow four-House system to a speedy single Chamber, run by permanent Civil Servants behind figurehead Ministers, the whole tied to the Treasury over which Unther held sway. The Monarchy, however, was the savage tyrant’s ultimate goal; and to attain it, Badedas had to be disposed of.
Margate winced as a sticky spray of chocolate beat on the back of his neck. It was the man himself.
“Nice view, innit?” Badedas grinned, his teeth stained from after-dinner mints, his lips and chins black with chocolate. His left hand supported a huge paper bag, and his right stirred restlessly through the gooey contents.
“Ah, Badedas!” exclaimed Unther, a cold gleam in his eye belying the false joviality of his ejaculation. “Tell me, O Regent of Legoland – How would you like to be loaded down with precious metals?”
“Me? Me?” Badedas’ face lit with porcine greed. “Oh boy, yeah!”
Margate motioned to his Captain of Guards. “Take this pig away and clap him in irons.”
As he was dragged kicking to the stairway Badedas cried out, “Precious metals! You promised me!”
Unther Margate turned back to his cool appraisal of the land beneath. “You should see the price of iron nowadays,” he remarked softly.
Frapps laid about him savagely with a blunted machete, hacking and tearing at the dense forest growths. For two days he had been heading north, away from the narrow jungle trails that had been his stamping-ground for so many years, and now he was caught up in trackless, creepered rain-forest, country which had never seen a human being, where the wens that that gave Frapps his living were huge and distorted. At night the nearby noises of unfamiliar creatures hammered into the intrepid idiot’s sleep with calls that froze his blood and stimulated complex and unwanted nightmares. It was with profound relief that Frapps found the foliage thinning before him, and he broke through the last tangle of creepers, gazelle-grass and hamster’s-tooth fern to reveal the barren plains of the Temperate Zone. It was about time, he thought gratefully – that Equatorial Girdle was killing him.
He stepped out onto the wide plain, where the snap and rustle of forest foliage was replaced with the crackling of broken transistor radios underfoot, and the chirruping hum of heterodyning IF stages took over from the howls of the Buttered Brazils and the sad screeching of the Ecumenical Birds. As his first faltering steps scattered clouds of flea-like Diodes Frapps became conscious of the chaos of leaves and vines he was leaving behind, his home for all of his life. Would he ever enter that familiar foorest again?
But his destiny lay ahead. As the sun beat down upon his unprotected head – which reflected the rays right back again – Frapps fixed his eyes on a point on the far flat horizon began his weary trudge towards the future, whatever it might hold. The sinking sun, falling from its zenith, pushed out the small man’s shadow, and a stilted black giant mimicked Frapps until the sun dissolved in its golden sunset shower.
Night fell as Frapps approached the speck he had aimed for. Now it was an outline of a row of large sheds, from which the flicker of fluorescent lights cast pale gleams over the darkening plain. Beyond the cast of the light ravenous packs of ferrite Antennas circled warily, and Frapps struck matches to protet himself from their predations.
Passing through that hungry cordon, and pausing to swipe at a multi-legged Mosfet that scuttled up his trousers, our wen-picker found himself among a collection of corrugated cardboard hangars within which greasy, leather-clad Anthropomorphs disported themselves with chromed spanners. An ancient muscle-powered Concorde stood, nose drooping, in the shelter of the nearest of these vast buildings. A wild-eyed hairy mechanic sat astride the pedals, adjusting the chain with a wrench-monkey. As Frapps approached he cast his tools aside and leapt to the ground, straining his adenoids through an oxygen mask.
“Ooh, me nadgers!” he groaned, adjusting his parachute harness. “Oo’re you?”
“I am Frapps the Barbarian, fearless saviour of the oppressed people of Legoland,” boomed the one-time wen-picker.
“Pull the uvver one, granny,” said the rude mechanic. “You know anyfink about triple-expansion compound aero engines?”
“No, I don’t…”
“Push off then.”
But Frapps didn’t push off. Instead he cut towards the lout, shuffled around him and dealt him a blow over the heart. Almost instantly he found himself helpless in the mechanic’s grip. His opoonent caught him unawares with a spade, but Frapps countered quickly with a brace of clubs. Trumped, the mechanic fell senseless to the ground, a position little different from his normal predicament, while Frapps, breathing heavily, lit the last of his wens and leaned exhausted against the nose-wheel of the aircraft. With a soft sigh the decrepit airframe crumbled into dust.
In the Council Chamber Unther Margate held his puppet Ministers in the thrall of his voice. There were gasps of horror as he told them of his ultimate aims, ripples of shock when he told them that the Regent Badedas was now under lock and key in the plexiglass dungeons of the palace. The Ministers did not expect to receive another thunderbolt this day.
But Margate still held the floor. He knew how, even now, he held Legoland in his absolute power, how in his lawful capacity as Chancellor he ruled the country with an iron hand and a leather bladder. But despite this, the Monarchy still held the veto on the Government.
“Gentlemen,” continued Margate, his steely eyes piercing those of the Ministers before him who had not yet gone catatonic with shock from his previous announcements, “Gentlemen, it is my proud and humble duty to inform you that I and the Princess Amplex, heir apparent to the throne of Legoland, are to be married within the month.”
He noted with approval that he was still the oratorical equivalent of the neutron bomb.
In the suite of romms to which she had been confined the Princess Amplex, unaware for the moment of the foul Unther’s designs, passed her time teaching her budgerigar some new and entertaining phrases.
“Help,” she whispered.
“Polly wants a cracker,” said the bird, cocking its head and looking hopefully at its mistress.
“No, no – ‘help’, not ‘Polly wants a cracker’, you nit!”
“Polly wants a cracker…”
The Princess gave up on her pet, which returned to its mirror and started preening itself. It knew perfectly well what she wanted, but it also knew where it was well off.
The Princess drifted through her rooms, alone and aloof, touching an object here and there that she had been allowed to keep when Margate had moved her from her comfortable apartments on the third floor of the palace to these lofty and inescapable heights. She took up a white pawn from her chess set and carried it with her, rubbing her thumb along its carved ivory length. Its significance was, t her, quite clear. There was now no King in Legoland, no Queen. The knights were disarmed, the clergy powerless, the towers crumbled. All had fallen to the dictator. Only the pawns could move. Only the lowest could save her now.
As she mused thus the door or her apartment opened to admit Margate himself, fresh from his oratory.
“Ah, Amplex! Here you are!” he cried superfluously; after all, where else could she be? The Princess did not respond. “What? Not pleased to see me?” This remark too was rather redundant. Margate strode thrugh the rooms, poking and probing at the girl’s possessions until the distraught Amplex decided she had had enough.
“What do you want?” she demanded, the pawn still clenched in her fist.
“Get out!” The Princesss raised her hands, preparing to fend the tyrant off, but he simply stood and smiled a triumphant little smirk.
“Not yet,” he said. “I’ll not touch you, yet. First we have to make everything quite legal.”
“And just what do you mean by that?”
“Marriage?” suggested Margate smoothly. Amplex gasped at the man’s effrontery.
“I’d rather marry a leper.”
“Each to her own taste, normally. But in this case we both have to swallow our pride.”
“I’d rather die than marry you,” hissed Amplex, meaning every word.
“I’m afraid you don’t have that choice,” said Margate, opening the door. The Princess hurled the small white pawn with all her desperate strength; the missile caught Margate on the brow and flew off into a corner of the room. Unther winced as he passed his fingers over the cut. Blood crept into the corner of his eye.
“When we’re married, you’ll regret that,” he snarled, and the door slammed shut behind him, sealing Amplex in her unmerited prison.
She crossed the room to retrieve the pawn. It was smeared with blood. She didn’t wipe it off – this was the concrete symbol of her battle, the weak against the strong. Reverently Amplex replace the small soldier on the board and returned to aimless contemplation of the treasures of her youth.
Pressing a handkerchief against the wound on his head, Unther Margate crossed the central square of the palace on his way to the rooms that served as his command centre. On arrival he sent for his physician and for Gnu Rattfink, the General in charge of Margate’s Secret Police. Rattfink arrived first and pushed his misshapen head around the door.
“Gnu – what word on the State treasures?” growled Margate, pouring for himself and the General a brace of large Nitrates.
“Nowt,” said Rattfink bluntly, accepting the foaming brew. “There’s gold aplenty in t’vaults, sceptres an’ suchlike, all glitterin away like new, but t’crown… there’s no ‘ope of gettin’ ‘old o’ that.”
“Damn it, man,” cried Margate, throwing his Nitrate into the fireplace, where it exploded with great violence. “The crown is Legoland’s most precious possession! Gold I have, tons of it. I’ve got sceptres and swords and vessels from uncounted conquests. The crown is all I want!”
“Sir, I’ve lopped the ‘eads off of ‘undreds o’ citizens, but there’s no ‘int of the location of that ‘orrible crown…”
“Have you actually searched for it?” Margate looked askance at his henchman, not overlooking the obvious.
“Oh, yer ‘ighness!” Gnu was wounded. “All me men is out scourin’ for it!”
The physician entered and, spotting the cut, began to prepare lint and antiseptic. Margate and Rattfink ignored him.
“Your weevil-brained cretins couldn’t find wax in a candle,” sneered Margate, ppouring another Nitrate to replace his lost beverage. “Well, you’ll just have to get a shufti on, my lad; I’m getting married soon, and I’m going to need that crown…”
The physician looked up from his bag, a nervous puzzled look in his eyes.
“Crown?” he queried. “Like in ‘Royal Crown’?”
“Yes!” thundered both Margate and Rattfink, peeved.
“Oh,” mouthed the doctor. “I’ve heard about that.”
“What have you heard?” breathed Margate, and then he winced as antiseptic was applied to the cut.
“Oh, this and that.” The physician dabbed away, oblivious of the furore around him.
“Go on,” soothed Margate, evilly. Rattfink fingered his dagger, an adequate persuader most times, but one of which the doctor was, fortunately, unaware. All he was looking at was the wound.
“Well; apparently it’s very old,” he said, “and it’s supposed to have belonged to a creature called the Unicorn.”
“Yes, yes,” chaffed Margate, “but that’s superstition. No sensible man believes in myths… go on…”
“Mm. You should be glad you didn’t catch this in your eye.”
“Would you like to catch something in your eye?”
“Well. I did hear some citizens in the tavern recently. They believe it’s the Unicorn’s. They said it had powers. I couldn’t hear everything, of course; it’s a strangely-shaped tavern, and I was round the bend.”
“Not ‘arf,” muttered Rattfink, sitting down heavily. Patience was a virtue in a torturer.
“I think they said it had been thrown down the sewers when the old King was defeated. I know they laughed a lot about it…”
But he was talking to the air. Margate and Rattfink were already out the door, organising a full-scale search of the drainiage systems of Campingas.
“Oh dear,” he wondered. “Did I say something?”
A thin plexiglass dome separated Frapps from the lashing fury of a mighty downpour that, a thousand feet beneath him, speared the flatlands over which he soared, driving the tough grasses into the earth and creating lakes and bogs that no living creature could ever hope to cross on foot. The airplane, one of the few from the Hangars that could still fly, was out on a cargo flight. Its pilot, more tractable than the lout who had earlier challenged our hero, had gladly agreed to take Frapps as a passenger at no charge,for company’s sake. If he had known beforehand what a wen-pipcker in a confined space smelt like, the androcephalous aviator would probably have chosen solitude. As it was, he made the best of it; and the conversation reolved merrily upon topics of universal moment.
Frapps bellowed, over the roar of the rainstorm, “Lousy weather!”
“Naw,” negated the pilot, shaking his leather-clad head. “It’s greyat, mon! Wy’er waaterpreouf, tha’ naaws – an’ wy’er waater-poored an’ aahl!” He jerked his humb back towards the midsection and Frapps turned his head to see, through the bubble of the cockpit, the top of a swiftly-revolving water-wheel which transferred the power of the rain to the propellers.
“What happens when the rain stops?” queried Frapps.
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Frapps, a lowly wen-picker from the Equatorial Girdle, is overwhelmed when he picks up a paperback novel in Catenary Jones' Trading Post. Its cover depicts the gormless Frapps himself, bestride the Globe; and the title is Frapps the Barbarian... Flicking through he sees that most of the book is empty - but pages are being written as he reads. How could any red-blooded wen-picker resist? He sets out to defeat the foul Dictator Unther Margate and save the fair Princess Amplex. Making his farewells the intrepid idiot sets off for the distant city of Campingas. This short novella, the first in a brief series called The Knights of the Golden Drain, was written many years ago. It depicts a journey through great odds undertaken with the help of the All-Powerful. A journey we may all, idiot or not, embark upon.