THE HALFSHAFT GAMES

 

 

 

Jonathan Pidduck

 

 

 

Copyright – Jonathan Pidduck – September 2013


 

 Prologue

 

  The last hidden camera was slotted into the tree-trunk. Everything was tested, and tested again.  They were expecting a truly huge audience for the Games this year. Nothing could be allowed to go wrong, with all those billions of people watching across the universes.

  Most of the Candidates had been chosen already. Trolls, witches, dwarfs, elves and the viewers’ favourites, a pair of barely-clothed Amazons. Now all they needed was a wizard. And not just any wizard either. They had one particular person in mind.

  In the meantime, their star wandered round the set, checking out camera angles, trying out the bolt-holes for size. Preparation was everything if you had any hope of survival, and their star had insisted on a number of safety precautions being added to their contract to tip the odds marginally in their favour. There was going to be something of a twist this year, though, a twist which would leave the viewing public in shock for weeks to come. Their star was blissfully oblivious to this, of course. They couldn’t risk a last minute resignation.

  Just a few more days now to the opening ceremony. The Games would be incredible, the best ever. There would be laughs, and there would be tears, and there would be a great many deaths. Lonely, frightened deaths, as the Candidates eliminated each other one at a time.

  So all they needed now was the wizard. And they knew exactly where to find him.


 

 

  The first thing Halfshaft noticed, when he got back to his quarters at Spartan Castle, was that he appeared to be there already. Which came as something of a shock.

  It had been a very long week. He had literally been to Hell and back, which was never a good thing. And now he was back home, all he wanted to do was put his feet up, puff on his pipe, and pay for several women of easy virtue to do whatever it was that women of easy virtue were prepared to do for gentlemen wizards of limited means. If they did it for long enough, it might just put Takina out of his mind, even if he was on a budget.

  When he entered his chamber and came face to face with himself, it was hard to know which of him was most surprised. The wizard in front of him was much younger than him - by maybe thirty or forty years he supposed; he was never very good at assessing the age of anyone still young enough to turn their noses up at cardigans – but it was definitely him all the same. The wizard’s hat, the bad temper masking insecurity, the guilty way he was attempting to tuck drawings of “Warlocks’ Wives” into the top drawer of his bedside cabinet.

  “Get out of my room!” demanded Young Halfshaft, furious that his favourite hobby had been so rudely interrupted by a strangely familiar wizard with the key to his quarters.

  “Our room,” Halfshaft corrected. “You’re me. Though I take no pride in that at all. I never realised how scrawny I used to be until now. And that’s a very sorry excuse for a beard, if you don’t mind me saying,”

  Young Halfshaft opened his mouth to retort that he would adopt whatever tone he wanted in his own quarters; that he wasn’t scrawny but leanly-muscled; and that if the old man didn’t like his beard he could bugger off to his own quarters or risk a sharp kick to the testicles. But the full import of his unwanted visitor’s words finally filtered through to his brain. He regarded the older wizard with more than a tinge of distaste.

  “I’m you? I don’t think so! You’re far too old to be me, and not nearly as good looking. And your beard’s all tatty and full of leaves. At least I give mine a rinse every month or two.”

  “I’m you from the future. And don’t me such a cheeky sod, I’m not that much older!”

  “How can you be me from the future? I’ve not had it yet.”

  “I’ve come back through a time tunnel. I’ve done great things. We’ve done great things, I should say. Mainly me, though, because you’re not there yet. We’ve saved the world twice.”

  Halfshaft paused to let the full import of his words soak in. This took longer than anticipated. Eventually, his younger self shrugged.

  “Oh.”

  “Oh? I tell you we’ve saved the world, and all you can say is “oh”? You could look a bit impressed. And grateful, come to that. You’ve been sitting here, knocking one out over your “Warlocks’ Wives”, while I’ve been vanquishing shape-shifters, fighting Amazons, escaping from psychopathic trolls. So when you reach the future, it’ll be completely safe. All you have to do is turn up and reap the rewards, knowing that I’ve done all the hard work for you already. Yet you get to share in all my glory. The least you could do is lend me those pictures for ten minutes, you ingrate. Oh, indeed!”

  Young Halfshaft regarded him thoughtfully for a while. “I can’t decide whether you’re a future me, a delusional maniac, or a bit of both. Saved the world twice, you reckon?”

  “Twice,” affirmed Halfshaft. “With my incredible magical powers. Powers that you haven’t got yet.”

  He thought he saw Young Halfshaft stifle a smirk, but it may have been his imagination. Maybe it was a sob. All this must have been a lot for the poor man to take in. He had always been a little slow on the uptake in his youth. Probably down to inhaling all that magic dust floating around his wizardry class-room as a boy.

  “There’s only one way I can tell whether you’re really me, or not.” Young Halfshaft announced. “Turn round.”

  “Okay,” Halfshaft replied dubiously. “But if you try any funny business, you’re going to get a smack in the face.”

  “Trust me,” he replied. “I’m you, remember. That’s not the bag we’re into.”

  Halfshaft turned around. “So what now? Are you just admiring my robes, or is there a point to this?”

  It was then that he was struck viciously across the back of the head with a half-full chamber-pot. He heard his younger self cackle as he sank to his knees, engulfed with dizziness and nausea. Fighting back the pain, he swore. He had always found vitriol to be a pretty good anaesthetic in the past.

  Young Halfshaft nodded in satisfaction, as the older man swayed from side to side in time with his own insults, as if dancing to them. He had a very impressive repertoire of swear-words, it had to be said.

  “Yes,” he said. “You’re me alright. No-one else could ridicule the size of my wedding tackle in quite so many ways as that.”

  It was then that the elderly wizard lost consciousness.

 

#

 

  When he came to, he was lying on the bed, with his relatively concerned younger self bending over him. The world was still shifting in directions in wasn’t really supposed to shift in, and he could smell sick in his beard, which ironically made him want to gag.

  “Sorry,” Young Halfshaft told him. “I thought you were some mad old man. I didn’t realise you were mad older me.””

  “Bastard,” Halfshaft replied, not without justification, as their parents had never married (although his father had at least been able to visit his mother on a regular basis, her price having dropped considerably during her pregnancy).

  “I can see it’s you, now I’ve had a good look at you. It’s me, rather. A very much older me, though.”

  “Bastard,” Halfshaft said again, feeling the comment to be every bit as justified the second time round. “Nasty little bastard,” he added, by way of clarification.

  “Put yourself in my shoes. That shouldn’t be difficult in the circumstances. If you were there, minding your own business, when a fifty-years-older version of you walked in, what would you think?”

  “Twenty years older.”

  “Whatever. What would you think, though?”

  “I’d think, I’m really pleased how well I’ve aged.”

  Young Halfshaft laughed. “Look, I’m sorry about what just happened. I feel bad about it, now I know who you are. Are you okay?”

  “My head hurts, I’ve chucked up into my own beard, and I’ve probably got irreversible brain damage, but other than that I’m hunky dory, thank you very much.”

  “Tell me I don’t use expressions like “Hunky dory” when I’m old!”

  “Bastard,” Halfshaft replied. It was his new favourite word.

  They lapsed into silence for a while. Halfshaft’s mood had plummeted. He had been ecstatic earlier. Despite being a particularly crap wizard, he had gone on a journey – two journeys in fact – which had seen him defeating the most powerful beings in the world, and saving all mankind in the process. But now he had gone back into the past, where no-one knew of his heroic feats, so he would have to start all over again, even supposing he still had the energy to do so. And worse still, he had been treacherously whacked on the head by his own past self when his back was turned. He had gone from elation to bad temper in the time it took to swing a chamber-pot (which was not very long at all).

  As Young Halfshaft washed his beard for him, he thought of Takina, his young Amazon friend. The only thing that had made his travels bearable was the fact that she had been with him pretty much the whole way through. She was young, and gorgeous, and brave, and gorgeous, and caring, and gorgeous and blonde. And gorgeous. And they were friends. He would have liked to have been more than that, but he knew that it could never be. She was very much younger than him, and could have any man she chose; to “mate” with, as she would have put it. But he would have done anything just for a bit of a cuddle.

  If it wasn’t for her, he would have stayed in the future. Or the present, as it was then. He would have been a hero there. He could have been King, he supposed, if he had really wanted to be. But now he was back in his past, and he was nothing again. Just an old man smelling of sick and –

  He sniffed. Now the vomit had been removed, there was another smell lingering furtively in the background.

  “Can I smell –?”

  “Sorry for that, too,” Young Halfshaft grimaced. “I hit you with a chamber-pot. It may have spilled out a bit on your robe.”

  Halfshaft opened his mouth to speak, but his younger self interrupted.

  “Bastard?” Young Halfshaft enquired.

  “Bastard,” the older man confirmed.

  “Take one of my robes. You may have wasted away a bit, what with your age and everything, so it might be a bit baggy, but it’s got to be better than lying there in your own -”

  He tailed off when he saw the expression on the older man’s face. Maybe it was best just to stay quiet, if he could remember how.

  Halfshaft went back to his own thoughts. They made more sense than the young wizard’s offensive ramblings. He was a little confused. He was in the past, but he could not remember this ever happening to him. If, as a young man, he had met his future self and whacked him across the back of the head with a potty full of urine, then surely that was something that would have stuck in his memory? Time travel was a strange and confusing thing, especially when you had concussion.

  He accepted the offer of a clean(ish) gown with poor grace. Young Halfshaft was looking increasingly apologetic. Good, he thought. So he bloody should! He thought his favourite word again.

  “Look,” Young Halfshaft told him. “I feel awful about this. But I know how to make it up to you. There’s a lottery taking place in the courtyard in about an hour. The winner will be rich and famous beyond our wildest dreams. Take my place. And you can have it all if you win. It’s my way of saying sorry.”

 Halfshaft thawed a little. This was the first remotely pleasant thing which had happened since his return. “You’d do that for me?”

  “I’d do it for us. I’ll be grateful for this in fifty years’ time.”

  “Twenty years.”

  The two Halfshafts embraced, friends again.

  “There is one other thing you could do for me, though, before I go,” Halfshaft told his younger self. “If it’s not too weird.”

  “Name it.”

  “Can I borrow your “Warlocks’ Wives” when you’re finished with them? And ten minutes on my own should be plenty.”

 

#

 

  Halfshaft was almost as bad at queuing as he was at wizardry. Considering that he had the magical ability of a comatose badger, this did not bode well for the person ahead of him as they queued up for their lottery numbers in the castle courtyard.

  He had been waiting there – almost patiently – for the last thirty minutes. There was a collapsible table up front, manned by a weary-looking clerk with half-rimmed glasses perched on the end of his nose. Between the wizard and his lottery number stood Ditherer, a man who was clearly in no rush at all to make his selection and move on. He had been asked to choose a number, and had spent the last few minutes deliberating, without showing any sign at all of reaching a decision. It was time to intervene.

   He tapped Ditherer on the shoulder, to give him some friendly encouragement. “Just checking you’re still alive.”

  “Oh, I’m still alive, all right,” the man assured him. “I can hear myself breathing. I’m just having a bit of a think, that’s all. I do that sometimes.”

  He went back to his deliberations. Halfshaft tutted without effect. He rolled his eyes theatrically to make it clear to everyone in the vicinity that he was not even remotely impressed at being kept waiting. He tutted some more. But all to no avail. It was time to intervene again.

  “Pick forty seven,” he said.

  “Sorry?” the man enquired, somewhat confused at this unexpected interruption to his thought processes.

  “Pick forty seven.”

  “Forty seven’s gone, I think you’ll find.”

  “Pick forty eight then!” Halfshaft snapped. “Pick forty eight, and sod off out of it so the rest of us can have a go.”

  “I don’t know if I like forty eight,” the man replied dubiosly.  “It’s not what you’d call a man’s number, is it?”

  “What?”

  “A man’s number. A number for men. Like eighty six.”

  “How is – Oh, never mind, Pick eighty six, then.”

  “I like the way you think, young wizard. Eighty six it shall be.”

  The clerk at the collapsible table shook his head. “Eighty six has gone, too. Men’s numbers always go quickly.”

  “Who had it?”

  “That woman over there; the one with the bosoms.” He gestured towards a striking brunette standing nearby, the proud possessor of more than her fair share of cleavage. “You can have forty eight, if you like. That’s more manly than some numbers I could mention. Some fellow only chose thirty one when we opened this morning!”

  “He doesn’t like forty eight,” the woman behind Halfshaft chipped in. “This wizard here was trying to bully him into choosing forty eight, but he wasn’t having it. Quite right, too. It’s the number of the Beast.”

  Halfshaft gave her a withering look. “I think you’ll find that’s six-six-six, you mad old tart.”

  “Forty eight is the Beast’s favourite number,” she insisted. “Always has been, always will be. Six-six-six my bottom!”

  “I like the sound of six-six-six,” mused the indecisive man at the front of the queue. “It sounds kind of nice, without being the sort of number a lady would choose. I’ll take it!”

  “We only goes up to three hundred and twelve,” the clerk shrugged. “Why not have forty eight, like this wizardly old gentleman suggested?”

  “Number of the Beast,” muttered the woman, who was determined not to let it lie.

  “You don’t think it’s a bit too – girly?” asked the man. “I don’t want people laughing at me for picking a lady’s number. Are you sure eighty six has gone?”

  Halfshaft pushed him aside, snatched up the clerk’s quill, dunked it in his ink pot, and scribbled “forty eight” on the blank parchment at the top of the pile.

  “Can you read?” he asked Ditherer.

  “Not so as you’d notice.”

  “Then that says eighty six, okay? The number you wanted. No-one’s going to laugh at you with a manly number like that. Happy?”

  Ditherer nodded, more satisfied than he had been since that glorious day thirty summers ago when he had spent a full twenty minutes alone with Bess Plowright behind the pig-pens (although if truth be told a good quarter an hour of their time together had been spent washing pig dung off his half-mast trousers). He was a man now, and everyone would know it with a number like this. Eighty six, no less! He gave the testy wizard a big sloppy kiss to show his manly gratitude.

  “Thank goodness for that,” the clerk sighed, as he moved off to show his number to anyone who cared to look. “I thought he was going to be here all day, and the ceremony starts any minute. What number will you have?”

  “Six-six-six,” bitched the woman behind him. “The number of the Beast, he reckons!”

  “What numbers have you got left?” Halfshaft asked, choosing to ignore her.

  “I could do you a one hundred and seventy six, if you like. Always very popular. Or forty nine if you have less conventional tastes.”

 “How often has one hundred and seventy six come up?”

  “Never.”

 “Forty nine will do me fine, then.”

  “That’s the number of the Beast, too” grumbled the woman behind him, but he paid her no heed. King Spartan had come out on to the balcony early. The draw was about to begin. And his younger self had assured him that he had friends in high places who could fix these things. Within the next fifteen minutes or so, he was going to be very rich indeed.

 

#

 

  King Spartan waved the crowd to silence, as he looked down upon them from his make-shift balcony. Halfshaft listened with ever-increasing incredulity as his monarch explained that he was here to supervise the selection of the Castle’s two contestants for the “Games”. It was to be done by ballot as usual. Everyone picked a number (except him, of course, as that would be just a little too democratic!). The two lucky people whose numbers came up would then represent Spartan Castle at the Games. There would be two competitors from the Amazon village as well, together with two from the Elves, two from the wood dwarfs, a pair of witches and a couple of trolls. There were also assorted hazards thrown in, just to make it interesting; wolves, psychopaths, touchy-feely lepers, that sort of thing.  The Amazons almost always won, of course. They were warriors of the first order. His own subjects, on the other hand, were cretins, who had on occasion even been known to pick up their swords by the wrong end.

  Halfshaft looked around to work on his escape routes, but every exit from the courtyard was sealed off by a brace of soldiers. He squirmed uncomfortably, cursing his treacherous younger self as the King droned on, explaining how the Games had been running for forty two years now, what an honour it would be to represent your King and country, how saddened he was that he was ineligible to take part himself. And how he had every faith that one or other of the Spartan Candidates would triumph over adversary, and be the first to make it into the second round. And all this said with a smug, regal face, safe in the knowledge that he would not be fighting to the death himself.

 Without further ado (his lunch was getting cold) he read out the first number, the number that was destined to send one of his subjects to a cruel and painful – but ever so slightly heroic – death.

  “Will the holder of number eighty six please step forward.”

 

#

 

  Halfshaft was not a happy bunny. He had taken his younger self’s place here to get rich, but he had been stitched up. Instead of getting his hands on a lottery jackpot, he had just signed up for some sort of combat-to-the-death event that he had not the slightest chance of winning. After everything he had survived, he was going to be murdered by Amazons for the entertainment of the King.

  Halfshaft watched as Ditherer from the queue burst into tears. Of course; he had wanted Number Eighty Six. He had positively insisted on it. Good luck with your “man’s number”, he chuckled to himself. Even better luck for me, though. My chances of staying alive have just doubled. And if I make it through this, then my younger self is going to get the biggest smack in the face we’ve ever had.

  Someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned round to see who it was. A woman. Young, very pretty, cleavage all over the place. The woman “with the bosoms” the clerk had pointed out earlier. He gave her his very best smile (which was not in fact an awful lot better than his wizardry if the truth be told, as it made him look like a crocodile with learning difficulties).

  “Hello, Madam,” he smarmed. “How might I be of assistance?”

  “That’s my room number,” she purred, thrusting a piece of paper into his hand, and closing his and over it. “Come and see me after we’ve finished here. There’s something I want to show you.”

  “And I’d be more than happy to look at it” he assured her.

  She winked at him, and slipped back into the crowd. Maybe the draw for the Games wasn’t so bad after all. The odds of survival were pretty high, after all.

  He looked back to the front. There was a soldier pushing his way through the crowd towards Ditherer, ready to send him off to the Games, never to be seen again. And all the while, Halfshaft would be up to his bare graized knees in the lusty young lady who had just succumbed to his wizardly good looks. Life was getting better all the time.

  He took a look at the piece of paper she had handed to him. There was a number on it. “Eighty six”. That was a coincidence; her room number was the same number as –

  Realisation dawned, leaving him nauseous with anxiety. She had planted the number on him which Spartan had just called out! He had been stitched up twice in an hour, and – to make matters worse – the second time had been by a strumpet with big tits! But how could she have the number: the man in front of him had Eighty Six, didn’t he? He thought back to the incident in the queue. He cursed. He had written out Ditherer’s number himself. He had told him it was Eighty Six, but he had given him Forty Eight instead.

  Halfshaft seized Ditherer, aware that the soldier would be on them within seconds. “Friend,” he whispered, pulling him close. “I see from your ring that you are a married man. But I’m single; expendable, you might say. Let me go in your place.”

  The man nodded in stupid gratitude. Halfshaft exchanged their parchments. He now had Forty Eight, whilst his new friend had Eighty Six. He was safe; if only by the skin of his yellowing teeth.

  The soldier arrived, pulling them apart (which was lucky, as the man was on the point of giving the wizard another sloppy and unwanted thank-you kiss).

  “Show me your number,” the soldier demanded. The man displayed the number which the wizard had just given to him, a relieved smile on his face.

  “Eighty six,” the soldier confirmed. “Congratulations; it’s your lucky day.”

  “No!” Ditherer shouted, shaking his head so violently that he was in danger of falling over. “This gentleman here has got that number, I think you’ll find.”

  Halfshaft feigned surprise. “Poor man,” he said. “Poor, delusional man. Good luck at the Games; don’t forget to send me a postcard.”

  The soldier seized Ditherer by the arm, and started him pulling him back towards Spartan. He struggled at first, but then went limp as he finally worked out what had just happened to him. “Why that sneaky little turd,” he declared. But the sneaky little turd was no longer around to hear him. He had gone in search of the woman who had come within seconds of sentencing him to death.

 

#

 

  Cherry was leaning nonchalantly against a wall, chatting up a pair of soldiers, when she was confronted by an irate wizard with a faint odour of stale urine.

  “So there’s something you want to show me, is there?” he ranted. “When will I learn never to trust a woman? It should be you up there, not him. And certainly not me! You could’ve killed me.”

  “Sorry,” she grinned. She touched his arm, and gave him a disarming smile. “Tell me what I can do to make it up to you.”

  Spartan was talking again, building up the suspense for the disclosure of the second number. Halfshaft ignored him. He had more important things to worry about, such as how to stay angry enough to get his revenge when she was being so tactile. He knew she was working him, but it was hard to plot his revenge when she was massaging his scrawny bicep like that. But he was immune to her charms; well, he would be once she stopped touching him like that.

  “You can take my number off me for a start. The least you can do is keep me safe, after what you just tried to do to me.”

  She rummaged in the pocket of his robe, plucked out the parchment, checked it, and tucked it into her cleavage with a satisfied nod.

  “What else?”

  “Tell me why you picked me. Why not give your number to someone else?”

  “You took my fancy.”

  “All the more reason not to sentence me to death!”

  “Sorry; I wasn’t thinking. You had me flustered.”

  He blushed. She smiled, and touched his arm again. He thawed a little more. He knew what she was thinking; men like him were so easy to manipulate. But he didn’t care. He was being touched by a good-looking woman, and it wasn’t costing him a penny this time.

  “It’s a pity,” she said. “There really was something I wanted to show you in my room.”

  “Well why don’t you? When all this is finished. I’ve got the time if you’ve got the inclination.”

  She gave him a wry grin. “Sorry,” she said. “I think you’re going to be otherwise engaged got a while.”

  And then the soldier was there.

  “Forty nine?” he asked her. “We’ve just called forty nine.”

  Halfshaft sighed. “Your number. I’m sorry. We could have been good together.”

  “Please don’t apologise,” she replied. “It’s your number, not mine.”

  “But you took it off me.”

  She unclothed that smile again. She produced the parchment, flashing it at the soldier who was standing impatiently by. It was forty eight, the number Ditherer had given him when they had swapped parchments earlier. “I think you’ll find he has forty nine in the left pocket of his robes.”

  The soldier delved into his pocket, and removed the parchment. “Forty nine,” he confirmed. “It’s your lucky day, Sir. You’ve just qualified for the Games.”

  Halfshaft rounded on Cherry, ready to berate her, expose her, grumble her into submission; whatever it took, in fact, to save himself. But it was too late. She had gone, leaving him to his fate. And she hadn’t even had the decency to take him to her room first.

 

#

 

  Despite his heroics of recent times, Halfshaft only had two spells to fall back upon in times of trouble. He could conjure up a birthday-candle-sized flame on his fingers, and he could produce a sufficient trickle of water to put it out again. Neither talent was likely to be sufficient to facilitate his escape from the dungeon into which he and Ditherer had been so unceremoniously bundled.

  The dungeon was dark, damp and cramped. Dirty grey mice threaded their way through the grubby straw on the ground. The place smelt worse than he did. But what really depressed him was that Ditherer kept trying to forgive him, when he really didn’t see that he had anything to be forgiven for.

  “You’ve done a very wicked thing,” said Ditherer, “but I’m ready to let bygones be bygones, and forgive you. What do you say, Uncle?”

  He held out the calloused hand of peace, which the wizard studiously ignored.

  “Uncle?” the man prompted.

  Halfshaft looked around theatrically, in search of the “uncle” to whom his cell-mate had referred. No; no sign of an elderly idiot in here, as far as he could see.

  The man waved his hand around insistently. Halfshaft wasn’t keen on touching it, yet alone shaking the thing.

  “Come on. Let’s be friends,” Ditherer prompted.

  Let’s not be friends, Halfshaft thought. Let’s just sit here in silence, wringing out the last few moments of peace and quiet from my sad and sorry life, before they chuck me in a forest and leave me to die a fast but painful death.

  Ditherer pouted. “Don’t you want to be my friend?”

  “Well of course I do!” spat the wizard. “I’m locked up in a dungeon; tired, cold and hungry, with only a day or two left to live. I’ve been manhandled, cheated, and smashed across the head with a potty full of the urine I passed half a century ago. But as long as we can be bestest chums, then everything’s going to be just peachy!”

  Ditherer smiled. “That’s all right then, Uncle. For a moment there, I didn’t think you liked me very much!”

 

#

 

  He wasn’t sure how long he had been locked up in the dungeon, but his legs were the only part of his body which had fallen asleep. Ditherer was snoring loudly, which didn’t help. But to be fair (which he was never keen on doing if he could help it) he wouldn’t have been sleepy anyway. He was too busy fretting about tomorrow.

  He had been in situations far worse than this before. Shape-shifters, trolls, wolves, proper wizards, chubby people in strange blue trousers; he had faced them all down without getting so much as a scratch. But previously, he had had his friends to help him. Rod (he of the blue trousers), Thane (the mercenary), even George (the pacifist cave-troll). But most of all, he had had Takina.

  Takina was fearless. And she made him fearless. When she was there, he felt the need to protect her. He also wanted to show her how brave he was, that he was a warrior she could be proud of, and that meant that he would do things to impress her that he would never have attempted on his own. But they had gone their separate ways, and now he had to face this ordeal all on his own. Well, worse than that, he thought bitterly. He had Ditherer for company. His brand new “friend”!

  He tried to think of a bright side, which took him another three quarters of an hour or so. The best he could manage was that his new companion was dressed differently from his previous one. Takina had looked stunning in her tiny little squirrel skin bikini; Ditherer would have looked shocking in an outfit like that. It was pretty pathetic as “bright sides” go, but it was all that he had.

  He thought of furry bikinis for another ten minutes or so, as it seemed to cheer him up a little. Then he thought of them for another ten minutes, and it seemed to cheer him up a lot. He shifted around uncomfortably. He was in the mood for love, even if it was the self-administered sort. Sharing a cell with a simple stranger made things a little tricky, though.

  He shuffled round so he had his back to Ditherer. Craning his head over his shoulder to keep an eye on his sleeping companion, he fumbled beneath his robe. It would only take a few minutes. Sure, it was a bit weird, but at least it would pass the time.

  Right, where was he? Takina. Furry bikini. Well, maybe just furry bikini bottoms. Well, maybe no bikini at all. And she was bending –

  “What are you doing?”

  Halfshaft leapt a couple feet into the air, which, from a sitting position, would have been rather impressive under different circumstances. Frantically readjusting his robes, he turned to find out who had just spoken. There was a man peering in at him through the barred window of the cell door, twenty years old at most. And he was giving the wizard a very disapproving look indeed.

  As always, Halfshaft decided that the best form of defence was abuse.

  “Pervert!” He screeched. “Spying on me like that!”

  “Pervert? That’s fine coming from you!”

  Ditherer woke up. “What’s going on? Who’s that at the door?”

  “Your friend here was touching himself. Quite briskly, I might add.”

  “I do tend to have that effect on people,” Ditherer replied. “Always have done. I think it must be my nose that does it. Look, Uncle, I’m very flattered, but you’re really not –”

  “I was not touching myself! I was just scratching my leg.” He rubbed his thigh vigorously through his robes, in an unconvincing effort to illustrate the point. “I can see how it might have appeared to you, but -”

  “Look!” cried the man at the door. “He’s doing it again!”

  “I’m just rubbing!” cried Halfshaft furiously, doing it all the more.

  “I bet you are. You’ll go blind.”

  “I’m a married man,” put in Ditherer, trying to let him down gently. “You can’t be doing that sort of thing for my benefit, Uncle, however gorgeous my nose might be.”

  Halfshaft stopped rubbing. It seemed to be making matters worse. “Bugger off,” he shouted instead, for want of a better strategy.

  “He’s obsessed!” said the man at the door, shaking his head in disgust. “First he wants to pleasure himself over you, now he wants to -”

  “I was not pleasuring myself!” screeched the wizard, beside himself with rage.

  “No, you were just rubbing yourself. Briskly. With your robes round your waist.”

  Ditherer winced. “Oh, that’s not nice, I don’t like the sound of that at all. And to think I nearly shook him by the hand. I’m glad I didn’t now.”

  Halfshaft could take no more. “Enough!” he cried. “I have nothing more to say on the matter. You’re both perverts, trying to bring me down to your own seedy level. You, at the door, tell me what you’re doing here, and then be on your way.”

  “I’ve come to torture you, on the King’s orders.”

  “Okay,” said the wizard. “Maybe we could talk about my little indiscretion for a while longer, after all.”

 

#

 

  The torturer introduced himself to Halfshaft as he tied him to a table in the torture chamber. His name was Ian, and this was his very first day. He had had no practical training, but he’d read a book called “Ladies Who Like It Rough”, which he felt had given him a fair idea of the basics. Torture and sadomasochism were pretty much the same thing, he theorised, except that torturers tended to keep their trousers on.

  He didn’t like the idea of people screaming – he was quite sensitive, deep down – so if the wizard could keep the noise down to a minimum, it would be much appreciated. Besides, there was a wine-bar above, and the Chief Torturer had told him the customers tended to complain if the howling reached a certain agonised pitch.

  He only had one table, so he would have to torture them one at a time. He would be grateful if Ditherer – whose name turned out to be Cartwright – did not try to escape, as he would have money docked from his wages if he had to call the soldiers out, and he was saving up for an engagement ring. He wasn’t quite sure whom he wanted to marry yet, as there were a number of girls who had caught his eye, and he wanted to check out what their mothers looked before popping the question as he had been told that this was the best way of finding out whether his bride would look like a heifer in middle-age.

  “Right, all secure. What do I do now?”

  Halfshaft stared at him. “What do you mean, “what do I do now”? You must have some idea. You’re a torturer.”

  “If you’d been listening, you’d know that this was my first day. I’ve never done this before. They just chose me because I’m a big lad, and they said that I’d need to be able to pull people up in to the air on a hoist. But I can’t find the hoist. It was hard enough finding the rope, if I’m honest.”

  “You’ve got no idea what you’re doing.”

  “None at all.”

  Halfshaft thought quickly. “Well,” he said, “it’s normal to just insult me a bit, tickle my feet a little, and then send me on my way.”

  Ian regarded him dubiously. “That doesn’t sound much like torture.”

  “Well it is. I’ve been tortured by the best. I went to Hell once.”

  “I’m not surprised, after what I caught you doing back there.”

  “I was just rubbing.”

  “Yes, yes, so you said.”

  “I think you may be wrong about the tickling,” put in Ditherer. “I was tortured once, for looking at the King’s mother’s bottom. She had all her clothes on and everything; I’m not a pervert like you. But I just glanced over in that direction, and the next thing I know they’re whacking my tackle with a pitchfork.”

  “That does sound more like torture,” Ian nodded thoughtfully. “And I’m sure we’ve got some garden implements around here somewhere. Good idea, Mr Cartwright. I’ll go easy on you when it’s your turn, as a little thank you.”

  “No, no, that’s not torture,” Halfshaft gabbled. “That was obviously a little joke on the part of the King’s mum. She obviously liked you, and wanted to do something to make you laugh, so she -”

  “Oh, it didn’t make me laugh,” Ditherer replied, shaking his head in sorrow. “Quite the reverse, actually. Have you ever been whacked about the testicles with a pitchfork?”

  “Not yet, he hasn’t,” Ian interjected.

  “Well, Uncle, I can tell you now that it bloody hurts. Fair brings tears to your eyes. And I haven’t had any more children since then, either.”

  “They beat you so hard that you couldn’t have children?”

  “No. I didn’t have any more children because my wife wouldn’t let me back into bed with her, cos I’d been caught having a crafty peak at the King’s mother’s bottom when I should have been checking hers out instead. But you’ve never seen my wife’s bottom, have you, Uncle? It would take a braver man than I to check out that bottom in broad daylight, I can tell you.”

  Ian disappeared for a few moments, returning with a rusty pitchfork. He spent a moment or two deliberating upon which end to use, but finally decided upon beating Halfshaft with the handle. “We’ll save the pointy end for later, just in case you don’t talk. Work our way up to a crescendo, so to speak.”

  The wizard whimpered. He had never been a great fan of physical pain. “What is it you want to know? I’ll tell you whatever you want. Just say the word.”

  Ian looked puzzled. “Do you know what; I hadn’t thought of that. Just torture the people in Cell Three, the King said. I don’t think he told me what it was he thought you would know. I guess I just keep whacking you until you tell me something important, and I then go and ask him whether that was it.”

  He took a swing at the wizard. The pitchfork struck Halfshaft across the thighs, causing him to yelp out in pain.

  “I need to work on my aim,” said Ian, shaking his head. “Still, at least you’ve got a genuine reason for rubbing yourself now.”

  “There’s something I need to tell you,” Ditherer exclaimed. “Something important.”

  “Not now. Save it for later, when I’m torturing you. If you tell me everything now, you’ll have nothing left to say when you’re on the table, and then we’d be going on for hours.”

  “Fair point.”

  Ian took another swing at Halfshaft. This time, the pitchfork smashed into his left hip.

  “Sorry. I reckon it’s the table. It’s too high; it’s spoiling my aim. I’ll use a lower one next time.”

  “Tell me what to say,” cried Halfshaft. “Anything you like. Just stop!”

  “I don’t think it works that way. I think you have to say stuff to me. Otherwise, there’d be no point in doing this. I could just think things up, get you to sign a confession, and do myself out of a job. I need to torture you a bit first.”

  “Ask me questions, then! You can’t just whack me with a stick without telling me what you want to know; it’s not fair!”

  “How can I ask you questions, when I don’t know what the answers are supposed to be? What to do? Okay, I know. You tell me three things that the King might find interesting, and we’ll call it a day. And then your friend here can have a turn. I can’t say fairer than that.”

  “But I don’t know three things. Well, I know three things, obviously, but not three things that the King would find -”

  The pitchfork came down again, but this time it found its target. Halfshaft screeched in pain. There would be no danger of a repetition of the incident in the cell for a very long time, he thought bitterly, with severely mashed testicles.

  “Confess!” ordered Ian, who was rather warming to his new job now he had been set a definite objective. “Confess, or get more of the same!”

  “Confess what?”

  “Confess anything! Three times. Like I just said.”

  He struck him again. The pitchfork found its mark a second time. Ian congratulated himself on his aim. Maybe he could make a game of it. Try and get five direct hits in a row, but if he missed one he would have to start again.

  “Okay, I confess, I confess!”

  “What do you confess?” asked the disappointed torturer. He had hoped that the wizard would have put up a better show, especially now the pitchfork –swinging thing was going so well.

  “I’m a spy!”

  “That does sound like something the King would want to know.”

  Ditherer butted in again. “I’ve been thinking that maybe I should tell you that thing I wanted to say. Now. Rather than waiting ‘til later.”

  “Are you a spy, Mr Cartwright?”

  “No, no, nothing like that, young man. It’s just that -”

  “Save it for your turn, then. I can’t interrogate two people at the same time, not with this being my first day and all. Right, you, old wizard, I said three things, and you’ve only told me one. So we’re going to have to come up with something else. Two more things please. No hurry, though. Take your time. It’s all good practice for me.”

  He struck the wizard with the pitchfork again. A particularly poor blow this time, right across the knees. Cartwright had put him right off.

  “I’m working for the Amazons!” shouted Halfshaft. It was the best he could come up with at short notice. “They sent me here.”

  “Okay,” nodded the disappointed torturer. “That’s two things. Hang on, though. The Amazons hate men. They’d never entrust a spying mission to you if you were a man.”

  “That’s the third thing I wanted to tell you,” in a soft voice.

  Ditherer stared. “You’re a lady?”

  Halfshaft nodded. He put on a rather unconvincing feminine voice.

  “Guilty as charged.”

  “Well, Mr Torturer,” you’d better let her off the table immediately,” Ditherer put in.

  “Why?” asked a bewildered Ian. “Isn’t it the done thing to torture women?”

  “No, no, there’s no law against that,” Ditherer replied. “Quite the reverse, in fact. But what’s the use of beating her about the testicles, if she hasn’t got any?”

  Halfshaft nodded furiously. “He’s right, you know. No use at all. Besides, I’ve told you three things now, just like you asked me to do. Spying; Amazons; being a lady. It’s his turn now. Cripple him instead.”

  Ian reluctantly untied him. He hadn’t had that much experience of women, but he could have sworn that having a beard was usually a sign of being a bloke. The prisoner had confessed under torture, though, so it must be true. He motioned for Ditherer to get on the table, and he duly obliged. He lay there, uncomplaining, as he was bound down, and did a very good job of suppressing his whimpering as Ian struck him several hefty blows with the pitchfork (determined to get in quickly before he confessed everything and ruined the torturer’s fun).

  “Right,” Ian got down to business. “You said there was something you had to tell me. Now’s your chance.”

  “Well, you know you said the King told you to go and torture the people in Cell Three.”

  “Yes. What of it.”

  “We were in Cell Four. Cell Three’s on the other side of the corridor. I think you’ve got the wrong people.”

  Ian went pale.

  Halfshaft spluttered in indignation. “You didn’t think to tell him that earlier? When he was torturing me?”

  “He asked me not to.”

  Halfshaft seized the pitchfork from Ian, and set upon Ditherer in a frenzy, proving time and time again that his aim was much better than the torturer’s had been. Ditherer squirmed, and groaned, and apologised, but all to no avail. The wizard kept going for a full two minutes, until his fury was spent.

  Ditherer stared at him in astonishment. “Who would have thought that an old lady could handle a pitchfork like that,” he marvelled. “And to think that they say that women are the gentle sex!”

 

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