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THE LAST HAMLET or The Readiness Is All - 26 WELL MET BY MOONLIGHT

WELL MET BY MOONLIGHT

There were two of them, darkly cloaked and hooded, on the far side of the wall.

"Catch this!"

The King tossed up one end of a rope ladder which had loose cords attached to it. I stepped off the 'platform' onto the stoutest of the branches which overhung the wall. "I'll tie it here, sire."

"Make it fast."

"I know a knot or two, Your Majesty."

"Still got your cheek, then?"

"I expect so, sire."

There came a deep chuckling from the King's companion.

"It's alright for you, Master Scaffold - you don't have to climb it! Put your weight on the bottom rung."

With a huff and a puff or two King Hamlet reached the branch.

"Best to sit astride it, Your Majesty, and slide along. It'll be safer."

"Indeed."

His Majesty was soon sitting beside me in the heart of the great oak.

"Hungry, old chap?"

"Pretty much, sire."

From inside his cloak Hamlet produced a linen wrapped midnight feast, of cheese and onion sandwiches, hard boiled eggs, and apples. We began to tuck in.

"Mister Scaffold?" I asked.

"He's got his own grub. I was here last night, you know. Didn't really expect you, though, not that soon."

"Did you expect me to come sometime?"

"Well, not exactly expect. But I hoped. I thought you'd probably work it all out."

"It wasn't all that hard, really. I mean, having the play and all."

"Clever lad."

"I was very cross with you, sire. I was going to tell Nell."

"I couldn't have blamed you. She's been very good to you. Not like me."

"I thought you were just being kind - giving me the present."

"I couldn't think of any other way of getting in touch with you."

"It was clever, sire."

"Not as clever as you working it all out."

"I really wanted to tell her. I very nearly did, too."

"Why didn't you?"

I heard again in my mind those voices in the darkness and shivered at the memory of them.

"I'm sorry, old chap, you're cold. Here, take this." Hamlet took off his cloak and offered it to me. I hesitated. "Put it on." I wrapped myself in the warm wool. "What made you change your mind?"

I told him about Finola, and of how she had stopped me from barging in on the Archdraxite, and of the terror in the darkness. At the end of my account the King took my hand and squeezed it. "You poor boy," he said. "You poor children."

"Bluto was one of those men, Your Majesty."

After a sharp intake of breath Hamlet said, "Now, why am I not surprised?"

"Did you give him to her, sire?"

"As a gift, like with you, d'you mean? No, she took him when I wasn't looking!"

"You would't have bad people working for you, would you, sire? Not if you knew they were bad?"

"No, Diken if you will believe me."

"I do, sire. That's what I told Finola."

"Thank you, Diken Thank you very much indeed."

There were two sandwiches left and we took one each. We chewed in silence for a while before Hamlet asked, "Does you friend know you're here?"

"She knew of my plan, Your Majesty."

"She didn't try to stop you?"

"She's loved Nell for much longer than me - but she wanted me to come."

"She must be quite a person."

I tried hard not to cry, but the tears just welled up and ran. The King edged closer and put an arm around me. "You are very brave. Finola is very brave. In the morning you'll be able to tell her I said so."

"You're not going to take me away, then?"

"I'd like nothing better than to take you both away, after what you've told me. But first, there's something I'm going to have to ask you to have a go at doing for me, old chap."

"Back in Draxy Palace, sire?"

"Afraid so."

I was glad so, if I could be with Finola. But there was one ltlle problem. "I'm not sure I'm going to able to get back in again, Your Majesty, not withouT giving the game away."

"Well, if you can't go back the way you came, I might just have a little idea that might work. But first, my boy, you must tell me how you got out."

Although I had been rather too nervous to enjoy my break-out at the time I relished the telling of it; fortified by a good picnic, a snug cloak, and an admiring audience, I felt that life might be taking a turn for the better, following the grisliness of much of the past thirty six hours.

"That, my boy," said the King when I had finished, "was an epic! It deserves to be part of a tale, someday."

"One thing sort of led to another, sire."

"Indeed it did. I don't think even a Draxy novelist could have invented it! But now, old chap, we must get down to business, I'm afraid. You see, the Archdraxite is going to summon the Guardians, and I need to know where they're going to met her."

"What does she want with them, sire?"

"She is going to ask them to forbid a little expedition I'm trying to arrange. You see, your friends the scientists broke out of the Observatory - "

"Broke out, Your Majesty?"

"They were under house arrest. Nell came with the Army to the Palace, to arrest them."

"What had they done, sire?"

"Oh, only discovered the exact position in space of Hamlet the First's 'mystery' planet."

"Wow!"

"Wow, indeed! Of course, Nell's not at all happy about it. I mean, if we can get there, and find lots of Draxy, and bring it back with us - well, where would that leave her?"

"Can you get there, Your Majesty?"

"Oh, yes, if we can get hold of some Draxy. Problem is, Nell has it all in that little grey urn. When I told her we wanted some of it, she said she'd summon the Guardians."

"Why didn't she just say no?"

"She might just have been a little flustered."

"You flustered her, sire?"

"I think perhaps I did! You see, I'd refused to hand over the scientists - Master Scaffold also, who helped them escape from the Observatory - and she did not seem, well, quite her normal self."

"Well done, Your Majesty!"

"Why, thank you, Diken."

"But can't she just change her mind - I mean, about summoning the Guardians?"

"Too many people know about it. Backing down now would be seen as weakness on her part. She'd lose face. Besides, no summoning has ever been revoked. I think she would not like to be the first to do it.

"Now, my boy, unless I can be at the summoning the Guardians are going to hear only one side of the argument. I need to know where they are going to assemble, and when. Actually, the 'when' could be as early as tomorrow night, at full Moon. It is traditional, I gather. Look, old chap, it is asking an awful lot of you, but if I don't get to be there, then the only hope for a better life for our people could be gone for ever."

I was frightened by what the King had been saying. "And you want me to find out about the meeting, sire?"

"I'm afraid I do. You're my only hope."

"But how am I supposed to go about it?"

"I have absolutely no idea, Diken, no idea at all. Look, old chap, I'm probably asking you to attempt something that's not possible, for you or for anyone."

"You want me to keep my ear to the ground."

"Something like that. But I don't want you taking any risks."

"I think I may have taken a few of those already, Your Majesty."

"I'm sorry, Diken. Very sorry. Daft thing to say. Please forgive me."

That was alright then. I'd never been asked to forgive a king, before! "What's this idea of yours, sire, about me getting back inside?"

"Ah, yes. Now, if the ways of Nell's early morning sentries, as observed over several days through my binoculars, are anything like standard practice, this might just work."

Well, I'd heard some crazy ideas in my time, but this one just about took the cookie; but His Majesty was so pleased with it that I had neither the heart nor the rudeness to mock it!

"I'll give it a go, sire."

"Good man."

"If I learn anything, how shall I let you know?"

"There'll be someone on the other side of the wall all day tomorrow."

"Mister Scaffold?"

"Or Medoc. Depends on the time of day."

"When it's all over, sire, one way or another, will Finola and I be able to come out?"

"If things turn out badly, you might be safer in Draxy Palace - for a while, at least." I shivered. "Now, I must be going, old chap. Thank you for everything." We shook hands. "And good luck."

"What about your cloak, sire?"

"Keep it until it's time for you to go back in. Then chuck it over the wall."

With some grunting and gasping my old master - and new conspirator - went down, and off into the night. I undid the rope and tossed it down.

"Goodnight, Mister Scaffold."

"Night," came the gruff reply.

****

The coppice which the King had picked out with his spy glasses as a place of rest for me until Big Bertha shattered the morning peace shortly after the changing of the guard was ideally situated: it was about ten yards from the inwardly curving perimeter wall, and only a short stroll from the inner gatehouse.

I was woken by the second or third strike of the clock. I took off the King's cloak, bundled it up, ran with it to the wall, and threw it over.

What followed was pretty well move for move what Hamlet had observed. From my crouching position peering through the bracken at the edge ogf the clump of trees I could see two senries taking up their respective positions at the inner redoubt's carriage and pedestrian tunnels, two clambering to the battlements above, and two more ambling towards the outer bastion. Six sentries were relieving six sentries. I concentrated my attention upon the inner gatehouse, for it was there, if His Majesty was correct, that I would get my chance to go into the innocent early morning stroller routine which just might get me safely back home in time for breakfast.

When the six relieved men had left, I saw the pedestrian tunnel sentry vanishing through a doorway. A few minutes later he reappeared with six mugs of what was presumably tea, on a tray. When he had placed his burden on a low wall he was joined by his mate of the carriage tunnel, who picked up two of the mugs before setting off, at a leisuely pace, towards the outer gatehouse. There must have been at least a minute during which no one was even watching, never mind guarding the inner gatehouse tunnels!

Essential early morning brew providing duties done, the deliverers returned to their posts, having collected their own mugs, and the pedestrian sentry having taken charge of the tray. I waited about five minutes before beginning to saunter, with my hands buried deeply in my pockets, towards the inner gatehouse.

"What's this?" asked Sol, at the pedestrian tunnel.

"It's young Diken," said Sol's mate Thal, at the carriage tunnel.

"Morning, Sol, morning, Thal," I said, hoping that I sounded nice and cheery and laid back.

"What are you doing, lad?" Sol asked.

"I've been for a walk."

"What, all night?"

"Course not, Sol. I was awake early. Thought I'd have a stroll before breakfast."

"That's as maybe" - Sol was beginning to sound quite cross - "but how did you get out in the first place?"

"Through the tunnel, of course."

"Nah then, lad, don't let's try to be funny. You'd have been seen - I'd have seen you."

"Not if you were taking tea to your mates."

"Why, you little...!"

"He's got you there, Sol," said Thal. "Well, least said, soonest repaired, eh?"

The battlement sentries were enjoying the show, and they were having quite a laugh about it.

Sol was a nice man, and I had always liked him. He gave a big sigh, grinned not entirely involuntarily, and said, "Well, it's done now. Just don't tell anyone else about it, eh?"

"I won't say anything if none of you do."

"Yes, well, just don't do it again."

"Promise."

"Mind how you go," said Thal.

"I always do!"

Even Sol joined in the laughter.

Then, buzzing with the thrills of the night, and glowing with the perfect execution of King Hamlet's 'little idea', I went off to find Finola, before breakfast.