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  1. The Simian Scourge Arthur cradled his mug of mulled wine and cast a venomous glare at his magician. "I'm tired of being cold, Merlin. Can't you magic up a decent way to heat this stone pile?" "Sadly, no, Highness. Central heating won't be invented for another thousand years -- maybe longer." "Damn," whined the king. "Any damned serf has a warmer hovel than this place. Why can't I live in a turf hut? Something that can actually be heated." "Tradition, sire." Merlin tucked cold fingers into his armpits, causing the upper part of his robe to slide down. Cursing quietly, he rearranged the fabric, trying without much success to keep warm. He thought longingly of his forest cave. At the back, beyond the Sucking Pool of Death, but before the Direful Pit, he'd walled off a neat little room, complete with a clever charcoal brazier and the delightful Lady Nimue. The brazier was to keep her warm so she could keep him warm. He'd go there immediately after the morning court session was over. "Anybody got new business?" asked the King's Speaker, a short knight named Whizkid. Running somewhat to fat and cursed with a weak backhand, Whiz earned his keep by chairing court sessions, trials, hangings, beheadings, and jousts. He had a loud voice and a truculent manner. Sir Galahad strode forward, bellowing. "I have a captive to bring before the King!" The self-important twit was followed by a strange figure dressed in mottled forest colors. Two men-at-arms nudged the prisoner out of the shadows. "Caught him skulking about near the Dolorus Glade." "Wasn't skulking," objected the prisoner. "Practicing Silent Sneaking. Got lost." Interested, the King got up and pushed Galahad aside. "What is it? Who is it?" "I'm a person," said the creature. "Name's Stag." He glanced around. "Um -- Stag of the Simians." This Stag-person was the tallest man (if man he was) they had ever seen. Even Lancelot was a scrawny, sawed off runt in comparison. The ladies all thought Lancelot was a huge hunk of man (and a talented swordsman). God only knew what they might make of this giant. Merlin silently thanked the gods that Nimue wasn't in court. "You speak strangely," said Arthur. "I've never heard of Simians. From whence do you come -- and where are you headed?" "Um -- ." Stag tried to think of a plausible story. Failing that, he tried to recall what he could of Malory's fantasy and various other lying fables he'd been forced to read in school. "I -- that is we Simians come from the Isle of Thule." "Ah," chorused the assembled throng. No one knew what he was talking about. The knights stroked their chins and nodded as if he had named a tavern every man recalled drinking and wenching therein. Stag thought of something else that might be good to claim. "I'm on a quest." Arthur's knights were reputed to engage in quests involving killer rabbits and hand grenades, if memory served. "A quest?" Arthur sighed and trudged back to his cold throne. "Everyone seems intent on traveling the land looking for -- for something. What do you seek, Sir Stag?" "Um -- ." Stag started to claim a search for an honest man, but he seemed to recall that someone else had already laid claim to that quest. A search for truth, justice, and the British way wouldn't fly either, judging from the gathering of unwashed thugs before him. "I seek a treasure, sire. A chrome-plated shield hidden in a -- um -- in a lake. Yeah, that's the ticket. First I have to find a lady -- a Lady of the Lake. She has the shield." Laughter filled the room. A red-faced lout banged his mug on the table round and stood up. "Chrome shields! Magic swords! Next it will be copper toothpicks or magic rings. I'm sick to death of all this spell-besotted ironmongery. It's a conspiracy, I tell you. The lakes and ponds and even large puddles abound with tarts bearing magic geegaws." "Sit down, Bedivere," ordered Arthur. "Drink some wine. Your talk of politics is of no help to Sir Stag. He will discover the difficulties of a quest on his own." Bedivere growled something obscene and reached for the wine jug. Stag saw that the knight had only one hand. His left arm was tipped with a vicious hook. "It's true that you will have difficulty sorting out one Lady of the Lake from the next," said Arthur. "But let not hardship keep you from the task." "Drag up a chair," cried a man dressed in tattered purple finery. "Bring Sir Stag a mug -- and a wench." He stuck out a grimy paw. "Percival is my name." "Wait!" screeched Galahad, stamping his foot. "Sir Stag is my prisoner. I'm due a ransom. I have expenses, you know." "Oh, take a load off," said Arthur. "Sir Stag can pay the blood money later. Standard rates?" Galahad looked as if he wanted to argue, but after a moment he sat down. "What's the standard ransom?" asked Stag. Sir Whizkid handed the Simian a mug. "A knight's ransom be two denari, unless ya be French, then it's one copper. Are ya French?" "Not that I know of. There aren't many French in Thule." Stag watched as Whizkid poured mud-colored wine into the mug. Several odd lumps surfaced in the mug. One moved feebly. "I -- ah -- I'm not thirsty." "No problemo," said Whiz. "The wench'll be along in a bit. She's out feedin' hogs. An' I think Gawain had first dibs on her nohow." "Gawain? Which is he?" Whiz nodded toward a hulking brute guzzling in a dark corner. "That be him. A bad man to cross is our Gawain. Seen him walk two days and two nights just to kill a fool what heckled him at a joust." "That's hard," agreed Stag. "Who was the guy?" "Not a guy. His sister." Whiz shook his head. "Killed her clean. One stab in the heart. Didn't cut her to pieces slow -- like he most general does. Musta liked the wench, even if she was only his father's by-blow off a tavern slut." "Yeah, sounds like." Stag looked around. "Gawain can have my turn with the wench. You can have the wine. I gotta keep up my strength. For the quest, you know." Whiz guzzled the booze before replying. He wiped his mouth with a dirty sleeve. "Thanks. I needed that." The main door slammed back, admitting a gust of snow-laden air. Several heavily cloaked figures stumbled inside, greeted by a barrage of curses. The foul talk died away as one of the newcomers shoved the door shut. Stag waited expectantly. At this point in the tale Gunny should arrive. Or Old Guy. Or even Stans. He hoped whoever showed up managed to bring weapons -- an assault rifle or two would be fine. A light machine gun would be even better. The face that emerged from a dark cloak was definitely familiar. "Donnie? What in hell are you doing here? What did you bring?" "Huh? I was just going to check the mail when I turned a corner and ran into these guys." He peered around the dimly lit room. "Where are the dames? They said there would be dames -- dames with big boobs." "Dames? Boobs? We need some firepower. What did you bring?" "Firepower?" Donnie gestured at his middle. "I brung all the firepower I need." He dug into a pocket. "I do have a couple candy bars. You hungry?" (tbc)
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