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THE LAST HAMLET or The Readiness Is All - 50 ON THE STEPS OF THE TEMPLE OF DRAXY

ON THE STEPS OF THE TEMPLE OF DRAXY

We were now over the City. Beneath us was a teeming mass of people flowing and creeping and oozing through streets and squares and narrow lanes and alleys like the contents of a gigantic pot of treacle. Soon, having nimbly dodged its battlements, the ship was hovering over the Royal Palace. With the delicacy of a frost-shorn autumn leaf finding its gentle way to the ground, Darande put us down upon the newly mown, neatly striped grass of the Great Lawn.

When the royal couple stepped down from the ship, they were greeted by a guard of honour of faithful palace staff, whose delight at seeing the Queen alive, well, and free, knew no bounds. There was much shaking of hands and exchanging of greetings. Cilla had a special word with Hannibal, whose special 'readiness' on the night of her rescue and escape has become a treasured episode in our planet's history.

I am not sure that Finola was even supposed to be there, but anyway she came running from behind a box tree, sort of leapt at me, and gave me a big hug. It was awfully embarrassing! Then she accused me of deserting her. "You said that you weren't going with the King."

"Well, I'm back now."

"That's no answer, you silly boy! And you're not even pleased to see me."

"I am."

"Then prove it."

My pal held up her face to mine, puckered her lips, and closed her eyes. What else could I do but kiss her? I just hoped there was no one looking. When I glanced furtively towards Hamlet and Cilla and the ship's company, I saw that Finola and I were providing them with most amiable entertainment. I vowed never to marry.

The King spoke to me. "Now, Diken, I want you to stay here with the Queen and your friend, while the rest of us pay a visit to the other Palace."

I made no attempt to hide my disappointment - and oh, Darande, how I loved you then! "With respect, sire," the Commander asked, "has not young Diken earned the right to go along with us? After all, without him..."

"Yes, yes, yes, without him we might not have finished the job." Hamlet tousled my hair. "Or even started it, really. Just mind you stay close to me, you wretched boy!"

I basked in His Majesty's smile. Life was pretty darned wonderful!

"And I, husband, will also stay close to you. I believe I too have some rights in this affair."

"Good Draxy! I've only been back five minutes, and already I've been overruled twice. Well, Finola's certainly not going!"

The King laughed, the Queen laughed, everyone laughed - except me and Finola. With her standing next to me, I did not dare to!

"But I am not going dressed like this. Give me a few minutes." Her Majesty gathered together a little posse of household women, invited Finola to join them - which she did with remarkably good grace considering - and moved off briskly towards the palace buildings.

During the necessary pause in proceedings, Terson and Rollo gave Hamlet a brief account of the 'springing' of his wife. The King's admiration and gratitude was not without emotion.

"Listen, Your Majesty!" Darande exclaimed.

From beyond the outer walls came a chanting, which was growing ever greater in intensity: "We want Hamlet, Hamlet the Last! We want Hamlet, Hamlet the Great!"

When the Queen returned she was dressed not in any finery, but for the working day, in a gown of grey linen overlaid by a brown serge cloak fastened at the neck by a cord.

The gates were opened, and their majesties led the way out into the street. The excitement of the crowd was startling: this was not the ersatz enthusiasm assiociated with coronations and archdraxical acclamations; no, this was the real thing, a spontanoeous, heartfelt, unconditional outpouring of public joy, the like of which I suspect had never been known before amongst us.

There is man in an Ee-rth religious book who was said to 'speak with authoity, and not as the clerks'. Well, that was how it was when the King addressed the front rankers of the crowd. "Friends," he said, "I have business with the Archdraxite." As when a great hero in the afore mentioned volume was credited with parting the sea with a raised hand, so did Hamlet work the multitude on that glorious day; with Queen on his arm, and with the rest of us in good order behind, he walked with easy stride while all gave way before him.

When we reached the outer gatehouse of the other palace I saw that the duty sentries there were my old mates Sol and Thal, with whom I had exchanged banter at the end of my big night out. On this occasion we settled for merely an exchange of grins.

The King beckoned Terson to go before him.

"Sol and Thal" - the Captain's commanding tones brought the men to snappy attention - "His Majesty wishes to speak with the Archdraxite."

"I am sorry, Captain," said Sol, "but Her Grace is not here."

"Then where may she be found?"

"At the Temple, sir."

"It is is not the day of the Rite."

"No, sir, but that's where she went. The General was with her."

"Who's in charge here?"

"Lieutenant Alkan, sir. Your temporary replacement, Captain."

"Thank you, Sol."

"Thank you, sir. And welcome back!"

"Yes, Captain, welcome back!" Thal echoed.

"These are good man, Your Majesty," Terson said.

"I am sure they are."

"There are many good people here, sire. Now Sol, are any still kept prsioner?"

"I do not know, sir."

"Go now and find the lieutenant. Tell him that it is my order that any prisoners shall be released immediately."

"Aye, Captain." The happy Sol scampoered off.

"All will be well here, I think, Captain," Hamlet said. "Now, let's go find the Archdraxite, shall we?"

*

Standing at the top of the steps of Temple of Draxy were the twelve Protectors of the Sacred Urn, who would have only ever been seen before by those of us present at Nell's Acclamation. Not one of these fabled men - who had intially been chosen at the age of six for their potential for great physical staure, as well as for their pronouced forehead moles - could have been less than six and a half feet tall; and in their steel grey uniforms, brass breast plates, and spiked helmets, and brandishing their great two-edged swords, they presented a line of terrifying and implacable will and power.

"I wish to see the Archdraite." His Majesty was issuing a command, not making a request.

One of the two Protectors who were standing immediately in front of the Temple's massive ironclad door stepped forward, saluted by bringing his sword point to his chin, and said, "Your Majesty may pass - alone."

"Take care, sire," Terson warned.

"These are honourable men, Captain. They will not allow harm to befall me." And with that, His Majesty strode up the steps, passed through the line of Protectors, pushed open the heavy door, and went into the building. The door closed, seemingly of its own accord, behind him.

For me, at least, the waiting was awful. The utter silence which prevailed became intolerably oppressive.

After I do not know how long, the door opened again. There stood King Hamlet, looking like someone out of a nightmare. The veins protruding from his forehead seemed to shriek out the terrible rage which wracked his body. His eyes blazed anguish and despair. He began to lurch up and down the line of Protectors, demanding with increasing frenzy, "Why? WHY? WHY?

Twelve mouths remained tightly closed; twelve faces showed no emotion.

Hamlet turned to face us. His initially soft moaning became by crescendo a mighty roaring which seemed to embrace all the horrors there had ever been, in this or in any other world. He staggered to the edge of the steps, threatening to tumble down them. Terson, Rollo, and the Queen ran to help him, and between them they brought him with firm gentleness to safety.

A gasp rippled throught the crowd. Attention was now drawn away from the King, and towards the Protectors. Having removed their breastplates, they now unbuttoned their tunics to lay bare their chests. They took their swords in both hands and turned them points first, inwards to their bodies. Their spokeman addressed His Majesty. "It is our desire, great King, as it was theirs."

"Stand back!" Captain Terson shouted.

There was much scurrying around and behind me. Hands - I know not whose - grabbed me and dragged me backwards. Even now, ten years on, I can still frighten Finola, now and then, with my crying out during a nightmare reliving of what happened then. The twelve Protectors roared, "The spirit of Draxy go with us!" before falling forwards to impale themselves on their own swords.

*

The fire was still raging when Captian Terson, Rollo, and Darande came to the central hall of the Temple, and it was not until the next day that the pyre could properly be examined by volunteers wearing masks against the sickly smell of burnt human flesh. The charred remains were beyond any identification, or even a body count; but neither Nell, nor any Vestal, nor General Wishbone were ever seen again. It was presumed and hoped that they had been already dead by the time they were placed on the fire, presumably by the Protectors. Several bowls containing the remains of a colourless liquid were found well away from the reeking embers. A dead cat lay near one of the bowls, its face showing no signs of agony. May all who died there have received such mercy.

*

Bagwort was found the next day, hanging by his belt from a beam in the cellarage of Draxy Palace. Bluto lay curled up beneath him, hugging himself, and sobbing. He would never recover his wits.