The Curmudgeon


Saturday, December 29, 2012

29 December 1170

It was nearly the hour of closing at the Gallows and Glockenspiel. At the card-players' table Limbless Fred had just won most of somebody's internal organs, but an argument had broken out over whether he could legitimately collect his winnings when he owed somebody else his teeth. Pippa Twelve Toes had found a pair of pliers and was doing her best to confuse the issue, and Hooligan Motts was just about to announce, "Twenty-ninth of December, eleven seventy. Nearly closing time," when four figures in cloaks and chain-mail came clattering in. The cloaks were brightly coloured, but stained with blood and worse; as they swished past Granny Forbus she bared an appreciative gumscape.

The knights strode to the bar and leaned against it in four different attitudes of exhaustion, each according to his height and girth. The biggest knight removed his right gauntlet, clenched his hairy fist, and proceeded to communicate, in the universal argot of the hard-pressed would-be drinker, that he and his companions were ready to be served.

"Nearly closing time," said Hooligan Motts, once the bar had stopped vibrating.
"We are here on the king's business," said the biggest knight; "therefore give us drink, and be quick about it."
"King's business, indeed?" said Pippa Twelve Toes, who had wandered across with some vague idea that her pliers might be useful on chain mail; "it went well, I hope?"
"As well as can be expected," said the second biggest knight.
"Messy on the cloaks, I see," observed Malvolio Quabbage tactfully.
"Messy in a lot of ways," said the smallest knight, who was also the knight with the messiest cloak. "And it's far from certain that the king will stand by us when he learns what we have done. The Pope certainly will not like it. We'll probably spend the rest of our lives fighting Saracens on penitential pilgrimage."
"I don't think I would mind that so much," said the second smallest knight, who was also the second widest. "Chopping up infidels for God: that's something an honest man can understand. These royal commissions are such a complicated business."

Hooligan Motts served them four pints of Punter's Ghastly Pale Ale, and three of them immediately started gulping. The biggest knight bestowed a curt nod and a silver coin upon Hooligan Motts; bestowed a suspicious glare upon the glazed earthenware mug with its brand logo showing old Silas Punter rampant guardant; and started gulping with the rest.

Pippa Twelve Toes took her pliers to the smallest knight's chain mail while he wasn't looking. "I thought knights in armour were supposed to wear armour," she said. "Why have you got washers stuck all over yourself?"
The smallest knight saw what she was doing, choked on his drink and took a step backwards, squashing the foot of Malvolio Quabbage inadvertently but agonisingly. "You are too free with your attentions, lady," the smallest knight said.
"There's no need to be like that about it," sniffed Pippa Twelve Toes; "you'll need someone to get you out of your ironmongery, especially if you carry on drinking that stuff. You don't want to burst one of your pipes."
"We have our squires outside, thank you," said the smallest knight, and pulled away a little further, smiling as if the thought of fighting Saracens on a penitential pilgrimage was beginning to acquire a certain charm.

"So this commission of yours," said Melon Head Myrtle to the biggest knight; "a princess, was it?"
"Not exactly," said the second smallest knight.
"Shut up, Richie," said the biggest knight.
"Shut up yourself, Reggie," said the second smallest knight.
"Both of you shut up," said the second biggest knight. "What's done is done; there's nothing to be gained by chattering about it."
"Shut up yourself, Willie," said the second smallest knight. "You were the one that called it a noble and virtuous enterprise, so where's the harm in telling?"
"I never called it that," said the second biggest knight.
"You called it exactly that," said the second smallest knight. "You said it on the ship coming over. At least, I assume you were referring to the king's commission rather than to the activity you were engaged in at the time, namely bestowing the contents of your stomach upon the inhabitants of the English Channel."
The smallest knight laughed, but not in a small way. "Shut up, Hugh," said the other three, and Melon Head Myrtle decided that the repartee might be more sophisticated elsewhere and asked Pippa Twelve Toes where she had got her pliers.

"Anyway," the second biggest knight was saying to the second smallest knight, "if I said anything about noble and virtuous enterprises it was serving the king I meant, not slicing the craniums off clerics."
"I was aiming for his neck," said the second smallest knight irritably. "A nice clean beheading, so we'd have proof of our labours to take back for the king. Hardly my fault the idiot decided to duck his way out of the trophy business."
"Dashed messy business any way you look at it," grunted the second biggest knight.
"Especially if you look at Hugh's cloak," said the second smallest knight, and they both started giggling until the biggest knight glared at them.
"Anyway," said the second biggest knight, "at least we've rid the king of a turbulent priest and shown him we're not miserable drones and traitors, even if we are the kind of men who'll chop up an archbishop in his own cathedral. That must count for something."
"A penitential pilgrimage," said the smallest knight, taking a long pull on his Punter's Ghastly Pale, "or worse. Let's get out of here; I need my squire to open a trap-door for me."

"Give 'em hell," exhorted Granny Forbus as they went out.


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