Copyright © Ian Irvine 2010
Chapter 1. You Fool!
Why couldn’t Ike have kept his mouth shut?
Things were going to get really bad anyway, about as bad as things can get. But if only he had kept silent, Ike would not have had to poke an imp’s purple brain back in through its ear hole with his finger.
He would not have gone blind, then been carried by an enraged demon called Spleen, upside down and with his bum hanging out, all the way across Grimmery.
He would not have been turned into a night-gaunt, the creature he feared more than anything in the world. Nor would he – it – have attacked his best friend.
And, most definitely, he would not have died.
Oh, yes, Ike dies in this story.
Dead as a doughnut, he is at one stage.
Chapter 2. Nothing Can Stop Us Now
They were nearly home and Ike, knowing that nothing could possibly go wrong now, ran his daydream through again.
From the top of Ghast Gizzard Gap, the hundred silver and sapphire towers of Ambra, the capital of Grimmery, shone in the distance. Before nightfall Ike, Mellie and Monty would be escorting Princess Aurora into the city in triumph. No one was calling him useless Ike now. Ike was a true hero.
That very night, on the dais beside the princess, he would shake hands with the Lord Chancellor and the nobles of Grimmery. In the city square, the common folk would roar, ‘Ike, Ike, Ike!’ He might even get a medal. After all, it wasn’t every day that one rescued a princess from the Fey Queen, Emajicka, who was trying to kill her and take over her country.
Moreover, the blonde, blue-eyed princess was exceedingly pretty – she was the loveliest girl Ike had ever seen. At the thought of standing beside her Ike felt a heavy, choking feeling in his chest.
Perhaps (and Ike knew he was fantasising now) Aurora would give him a kiss on the cheek. He had never been kissed by a girl, and wasn’t sure how he felt about that kind of thing, but … she was a princess. And so sad, for Emajicka had murdered her mother, the queen, just ten days ago.
‘What’s the matter, Ike?’ said his friend Mellie. ‘You’ve gone all red in the face.’
Ike felt his cheeks burning. ‘Nothing.’
‘Really?’ She chuckled knowingly.
He strode up to the princess, who was riding Naggerly, Lord Monty’s red-eyed, sabre-toothed and wickedly carnivorous horse.
‘Nothing can stop us now, Princess,’ said Ike. ‘We’ll have you back at the palace for dinner.’
Aurora ignored him. She was staring at a stone obelisk beside the track, knotting her pale fingers around the reins.
‘Why did you have to say that?’ said Mellie, limping up to Ike. She had twisted her ankle during the rescue three days ago, but it was beneath the princess’s dignity to walkand let Mellie ride Naggerly. ‘You’ve jinxed us now.’
‘Rubbish,’ said Ike cheerfully. ‘Princess, would you like me to lead the way into the city?’
Aurora wrenched on the reins. ‘You, boy?’
Mellie exchanged glances with Monty, the headless highwayman. At least, Mellie looked at the hat sitting on sword-hacked stump of Monty’s neck, and the hat’s crown crinkled meaningfully.
‘Is something the matter, Princess?’ said Monty in the squeaking and rumbling voice that always made Ike smile.
Aurora looked as if she’d smelled something unpleasant, as was probably the case. Having no head, Lord Monty had no choice but to use the lower orifice. His speech was, inevitably, accompanied by the emission of a flux of gas though, out of politeness, everyone pretended that he spoke like other people.
Almost everyone. The vicious guard-imp Nuckl had delighted in drawing attention to Monty’s disability. But, thankfully, Nuckl would never find them.
‘I cannot do it!’ cried Aurora.
‘What can’t you do, my dear Princess?’ said Monty. ‘If there’s any way –’
She looked down her nose at him. ‘I must become queen. The survival of Grimmery depends on me.’
‘And the sooner you’re back in the palace –’ Monty began.
‘How can I return to Ambra escorted by you lot?’ Aurora said wildly. ‘I will be a laughing stock.’
Mellie hurled her bag to the ground. Ike caught her arm, afraid she was going to explode again, for Mellie had a fiery temper.
She slapped his hand away, counted to seventeen, then said, stiffly, ‘What do you mean, Princess?’
‘Some escort,’ sneered the princess. ‘A headless highwayman who speaks via his sphincter –’
‘Oh, I say!’ cried Monty, scandalised. ‘Princess, in polite circles –’
‘Smelly Mellie,’ Aurora went on, ‘a pint-sized pickpocket who steals her clothes from scarecrows –’
That was unfair. Mellie was normally neat and pixie-pretty, but after a week on the road, battling firewyrms and wading through troll-bottom swamps, a degree of wear and tear had to be expected.
‘Mellie is really nice,’ Ike cried helplessly.
‘Nice?’ Mellie muttered. ‘My best friend bats his eyelashes at the princess day and night, and all he can say about me is I’m nice?’
Aurora took several deep breaths, winding herself up for another onslaught. ‘As for the horse –’
Naggerly’s black head swung round and one grapefruit-sized eye fixed on her. He bared the sabre teeth that he used for disembowelling hares, small deer and, occasionally, annoying riders. ‘Yes, Princess?’
‘Nothing,’ she said hastily.
Aurora reached out to pat his muzzle. Snap! She was lucky to save her fingers. Lifting his club-tail, Naggerly expressed his disdain with a steaming dollop of oniony manure.
As the princess turned towards Ike, the warmth faded from the sun. She’d saved him till last.
‘Least of all,’ she said with shrivelling scorn, ‘the colossal dunderpate who betrayed me in the first place. A cretin so … cretaceous he must have been drenched in night-gaunt’s blood at birth.’
Mellie let out a strangled gasp.
‘The lallygagging lardhead who lost the precious Book of Grimmery,’ Aurora went on, ‘though he knew I could not be crowned without it.’
‘I didn’t lose it,’ Ike whispered. ‘Emajicka blasted it out of your hand, then spell-hid it.’
‘I ordered you to get it back!’ she snapped.
‘The queen and the night-gaunt were attacking. And Nuckl.’
‘It’s always excuses with you.’ Aurora put on a pathetic, whining voice. ‘Sorry, Princess, I didn’t mean to betray you to death. Princess, it was too hard to get the book back, so I didn’t try.’
Ike was not good with words and did not know how to defend himself. He was going to get the book back – he had given his word to Monty – though Ike did not know where to begin.
‘That’s a disgusting lie,’ said Mellie. ‘Ike did his best.’
The princess lowered her voice, aiming each word like a knife stroke. ‘How would you know? You had already run like the cowardly thief you are.’
‘That’s not true,’ Ike burst out. ‘Mellie is the bravest person I know.’
‘Considering the trash you hang around with,’ sniffed the princess, ‘that is not saying much.’ She swept one hand in a circle, as if winding herself up, then went on.
‘And then – then you drew that magic door on the troll’s backside and dragged me into its huge, flabby … stinking … ugh!’ Aurora turned away, gagging, then swung back, her blue eyes bright with fury. ‘You’re a treacherous Gate Guardian, just like your dead, traitor parents.’
Ike wasn’t taking that from anyone. ‘I am like my parents,’ he said proudly. ‘I’m the last Gate Guardian, and I’m going to clear their names.’
Though he had no idea where to begin there either.
Chapter 3. Cat Fight
‘When I am queen,’ hissed Aurora, ‘you will get a life sentence, shovelling pig dung. It is all you are good for.’
Ike reeled at her fury. His first blunder had left Aurora in Emajicka’s hands, though since then he had risked his life many times to save the princess. However, in the face of her rage, he could not get a word out.
Not so Mellie. ‘You vile, vicious, stuck-up snot! How dare you attack my friends!’
‘Your friends reflect you.’ Aurora stood tall in the saddle to intimidate the smaller girl. ‘Grubby little thief.’
‘Smelly sewer swabber! You’re not royal at all – you’re commoner than I am.’
Aurora paled. ‘Watch your tongue. Grimmery has to have a queen.’
‘Not you! Once I tell the Lord Chancellor what you’ve done, he won’t crown you even if the survival of Grimmery depends on it.’
‘Mellie?’ said Monty feebly. ‘Princess? Can’t you shake hands –’
Aurora shrieked and launched herself out of Naggerly’s saddle at Mellie, who was nearly a head shorter but equally fierce. Mellie shook the princess until her sinuses squeaked.
They fell to the ground, screeching and clawing. Aurora rubbed Mellie’s nose in the dirt. Mellie tore out a clump of blonde hair, roots and all. Aurora thumped her.
‘Girls, er, Princess,’ said Monty, tottering back and forth. Though he had fought pirates, defended castles and even robbed the Fey Queen’s personal courier, he was helpless here. He lifted the princess to her feet. ‘Aurora, please.’
‘Unhand me, you domeless dolt!’
‘Princess, I must protest –’
Aurora buried her fist in his belly, up to the wrist.
It was a toss-up who was more surprised, Lord Monty or the princess. He doubled over, the hat flew off, and a series of groaning pops issued from his trouser end. Monty turned away hastily, his stump flushing scarlet.
‘You disrespectful trugg!’ roared Mellie, swinging at the princess.
Aurora ducked, then slapped Mellie across the face. Mellie kicked the princess’s legs from under her, caught her by the feet and heaved her towards Naggerly’s steaming manure.
‘No,’ Aurora wailed. ‘Please. You can have anything you want.’
‘Anything at all?’ Mellie kept dragging her.
‘When I become queen, I will make you a princess.’
‘What about Ike?’ said Mellie.
‘Reward him?’ sneered Aurora. ‘I’d sooner die.’
‘That can be arranged.’ Mellie gave Aurora another heave. Then another, until the manure mound was breathing foetid fumes on her hair.
‘Mellie?’ Ike said hoarsely.
She ignored him.
‘Mellie, it’s all right,’ lied Ike. ‘I don’t mind being called a dung shoveller, really.’
‘Shut up!’ snarled Mellie. ‘Stand up for yourself, for once.’ Another heave.
‘All right!’ sobbed Aurora. ‘I will make him one too.’
‘A princess?’ said Mellie, left eyebrow raised.
‘Yes! No! A prince, stupid!’
Aurora crossed her fingers as she said it, and Mellie noticed. ‘I’ll give you Smelly Mellie,’ she snarled, and heaved the princess on to the mound of manure.
‘Noooo!’ Aurora bawled.
After dragging the princess back and forth until she was weeping with humiliation, Mellie turned away.
‘There’s a horrible smell around here,’ she said to Ike. ‘Wait, it must be the guttersnipe who wants us to think she’s a princess.’
The princess forced herself to her feet, the gruesome gunge gliding down her garments. ‘Oh, how you’re going to pay!’
She snatched the black burglar’s wand Mellie had stolen from her father, pointed it at Mellie and Ike and, with a sizzle of fire, they were tossed off their feet.
Aurora passed the wand tip over her clothes and the worst of the stains vanished. ‘Once I am queen,’ she said with an imperious sniff, ‘I will hang every member of your family, by their intestines.’
She heaved herself on to Naggerly and sent a blast of fire singing over his head, to bounce off the obelisk and shoot up like a beacon. The great horse reared, whinnying furiously, then bolted down the track into the wind-twisted trees.