‘The Very Strange Adventures of a Travelling Knight: Part Eight – A Meeting at the Court of Never Could Be’
Phillip flew through threw the now open window, the window that reminded him of the chapel at home, and he wondered how the priest would react if he could see him now. Would the old man call him an angel or a demon? Which would he see first, the wings or the claws? Though there had always been rumours spread around the castle by children and old men that the priest was a regular visitor to the wine cellar, so perhaps he would just have chalked it up to hallucination.
The space beyond the window was pure white. Marble walls and columns, a marble floor uncluttered by furniture. If he did look like an angel now, thought Phillip, then this could be a room in heaven. He half expected to hear a choir singing. All he could in fact hear was a low rumbling noise from behind a wooden door – also white – in the far wall.
The Giantess was waiting for him by the door. He flew across the room – certain for a moment that he passed a cloud bearing a nun – and landed at the Giantess’ feet. The rumbling from behind the door continued.
‘The Court of Never Could is just making itself comfortable’ she said. ‘There’s always disagreement over who gets the biggest plinth. Librarians and their squabbles, you know’
She looked at him in silence for a few moments.
‘How are you finding life in stone?’ she asked, sounding concerned.
‘Did you know this would happen to me?’ he demanded.
She shook her head.
‘Not for certain. You might have died instead. I’m very glad you didn’t’
He sighed and the sound in his new throat had a grating quality.
‘So am I. But how do I get back to how I was before?’
‘Is that what you really want? To be as you were before?’
He wanted to say ‘Yes’ and ‘Of course’ but something stopped the words in his mouth. Because his old life – the one he had known less than two days ago – seemed so distant now. And he wasn’t sure. He just wasn’t sure if he did want it back. How he loved being able to fly.
The Giantess turned and pointed at the door. There was no sound coming from it now.
‘Speak to them. They will help you’
He walked to the door and stopped just within reach of it.
‘I still haven’t learnt anything about the Goblin’s book’ he said. ‘And I’ve met three people already’
He heard the Giantess lean forward and felt her huge hand on his stone shoulder.
‘You will meet a fourth soon. You will need to be very brave Phillip, as you have been already’
Her hand pushed him gently forward. Phillip reached out for the handle, opened the door and stepped through into the Court of Never Could Be.
The Lions were waiting for him. Dozens upon dozens of stone lions, some grey, some green, some red. They lay motionless on massive stone plinths, cushions piled all around them and on the floors. Above them was a great dome of purple glass. Beyond the glass, Phillip could make out the twisted, intertwined forms of tree roots through which fragments of light gleamed. The walls of the circular chamber were lined with bookshelves and more wooden doors.
Phillip looked at the closest lion – a red fellow with a rather ragged mane – and saw that words were forming on the plinth it sat on.
Go to the middle of the room.
And so Phillip moved through the pride of Lions, taking care to tread softly. He knew that, like him, these were living stone creatures. And he knew from the first one that he had met that they could do him harm if they wished. On he went, past one plinth and then another, each time checking to see if there were any messages carved for him and finding none. At last he reach the centre of the room. It was a circular space, the floor covered by a green rug decorated with a pattern of birds’ wings. On top of the rug were stretched out the long, relaxed forms of two green Lions, their bodies somehow more ancient than any of the others. The one on the right held in its outstretched paws a stone book. Hesitantly Phillip approached them, wondering what would happen if a stone paw hit a stone man’s body.
He stood between the two Lions. Nothing happened. They had no plinths and there were no words forming in the fabric of the rug. So how could they communicate with him? Phillip looked around for inspiration and saw, between the rows of lions, the bookshelf on the far wall. Of course, he thought.
Phillip turned to the Lion on his right, the one holding the stone book. As he had had expected, words were forming on the carved pages. Upside down words so he could read them without clambering on to the Lion and risking being swatted by a paw.
Welcome to the Court of Never Could Be.
‘Thank you’ said Phillip. ‘I have met one of your kind before, is he here?’
Yes he is here. We are all here. The Court of Never Could Be, the Librarians of the Library since time began, are all gathered here to meet you.
Phillip found that his stone stomach could still knot in fear. Did they expect a report from him on his mission to find the Goblin’s book? Would they punish him for failure? Was he to be torn apart?
Do not be afraid. Honestly.
Easier said than done, Phillip thought. Out loud he said ‘I’m still looking for the book. I’m trying to find it, but it’s not been easy’
You have seen many things on the way to us.
‘You could say that’ he said and then wondered how lions felt about sarcasm.
You have seen the tortured insect, the imprisoned wise woman, the mad warrior divided against himself. And before that, the destroyed land of the flower.
‘Yes. All of that’
All of them came from the same time and land. All of them were brought here by us to be healed or set free.
Phillip remembered Sepi’s twin bodies collapsing to dust. Some healing. But then perhaps that was the only freedom Sepi could ever have known.
‘I think I managed to help them a little bit’ said Phillip. ‘I did what I could’
You did what was needed. And you won’t be surprised to hear that more is needed from you.
Again, Phillip felt the unpleasant dread in his stomach. Something bad was ahead, he was sure.
‘What do I have to do?’ he asked quietly.
New words formed.
The time and land that they all came from home was now at always as it has become. Once it was a meeting of magic and nature and mechanism. It spread its influence across the world and everything began to be remade for the better. For a while.
The stone page went blank. When words began to appear again, they were narrow and sharp, as though scrawled by angry claws.
There were men who wished to destroy it all for no other reason than to see it destroyed. Men who feared the changes they saw and let that fear turn to fury. They tortured the insects for sport. They imprisoned the wisest of women and told them they were ugly. They forced tired old soldiers into battle. They set the world on fire and it has been burning without ever end ever since.
Phillip once more remembered the terrifying vision that the Flower had shown him. A world that knew only suffering and rage. His stone body shuddered.
‘And I have to find the book to stop it’ he said. ‘I’ve tried but I can’t! Things keep getting in the way’
He held out his stone arms and stretched out his wings.
‘I’m not the man I was’ he breathed.
The page again went blank. When the words formed now, the shapes were fuller and kinder.
You are the man we need you to be and that is enough. There is a fourth person you must meet now. He has been held here alone since long before the other three. You must speak to him
‘Held’ repeated Phillip, ‘Is he a prisoner?’
Yes. He is one of the men who set the world on fire.
From behind Phillip, there came a noise like an aching groan. He turned to see that the plinth of a grey Lion behind him was shaking. As the sound grew louder, the front of the plinth swung outwards and upwards to reveal a stone staircase leading down into a dark space with a faint glimmer of light at its bottom.
Phillip turned back to the two green Lions and found they had vanished. The room seemed to be growing darker, less light coming through the roots above the dome. One by one, the Lions were fading into the shadows.
Only one way to go then, thought Phillip. He walked to the open plinth and began, slowly, carefully, to descend the steps. They were uneven beneath his feet and sometimes made worrying creaking noises as he stepped on them. Phillip was entirely unsurprised when just as he was about hallway down and the light ahead seemed to be growing stronger, the stone door above him slammed shut with a reverberating boom. His wings weren’t going to be much good to him down here he thought and found himself stretching out his claws in readiness.
Further down he went, closer and closer to the light, until he emerged into a long, stone vault. There were no windows, but there were bricked up arched openings that suggested there once had been. From the high ceiling hung chandeliers of curious glowing fruit with skins like glass. Chains hung from the ceiling as well. Long thick chains that met in the middle of the room and wrapped around the single occupant that sat hunched on the damp floor.
He was taller than Phillip. Taller even than the Giantess. His thick body was clad in bronze armour. From between the gaps in the armour and from circular, grill covered openings in his chest, thick plumes of steam hissed furiously. The man had no face. He didn’t even have a head to speak of. Instead, sitting atop of the armoured neck was a great, transparent globe within which green clouds of smoke heaved like a storm about to break.
From the monstrous globe, a heavy, dragging voice boomed ‘Have you come here for a fight?’ The chains about him seemed to shake as he spoke.
Phillip was no fool. This figure might be chained but he could almost certainly still be dangerous.
‘No’ he said quickly. ‘I’m not here to fight. I’ve been sent here to talk to you’
The smoke within the globe pulsed and the man made a chocking sound that might have been a laugh, if a laugh were drained of any trace of happiness.
‘Talking? What good is talking? Fighting’
And a metal fist pounded the stone floor in fury as it repeated ‘Fighting!’
Phillip wanted to turn his back on this monster and walk away then and there but he couldn’t. He had been sent here. Besides, the door at the top of the stairs was closed. There were no other doorways except for the one he had entered by.
‘There’s no point saying that’ said Phillip. ‘How could we fight? You’re chained up in case you hadn’t noticed’
The armoured giant flexed his bulbous arms against the chains as though trying to prove him wrong and, failing, slumped a little further into itself. The globed head drooped for a moment. Then it rose and the voice was fiercer than ever.
‘Why don’t you come here and say that?’
Phillip laughed without meaning to. What a stupid thing to say! Near or far from the giant, the chains were still there! He strode closer.
‘Alright’ he said. ‘If that’s what you want’
Steam hissed again from the openings in the metal armour and the clouds in the globe seemed to concentrate into the centre. The great voice spoke again, though this time his tone was softer. Almost friendly.
‘Oh you can come nearer than that. You know you can. Nothing you for you to fear, is there?’
No, thought Phillip. Come to think of it, he was quite safe. The man was chained and had no weapons. The only thing that might trouble Phillip was the smoke from his armour. It smelled so heavy and yet so sweet. It made Phillip’s head feel light, as though it too were full of clouds. At least he knew being made of stone hadn’t affected his sense of smell. Yes, he would step a little closer. Why not?
He was close enough to the giant now that he could feel the heat from his body. It was like a great fire consuming a rotten building at its heart.
‘What’s your name?’ purred the metal man.
He had to think for a moment before he could remember. The sweetness was so strong now. It was horrible but it made him want to keep breathing it down all the same, deep into his stone lungs.
‘Ah. An old name from before corruption. My name is Bodnar. I made my slaves call me Bodnar the Bountiful before I killed them. It was a kind of joke. But you can call me Bodnar’
‘Bodnar’ repeated Phillip dully. Bodnar’s voice, so loud before, was now like a whisper borne on the wind, like steam from a kettle about to boil.
‘And have you always been as you are now Phillip? A stone angel? Were you carved by men? I made things once, you know. Toys for children. Clever, intricate toys. They loved them, the children did. Until they didn’t. Are you a toy made by men?’
Phillip was struggling to recall life before he entered this room. Was he a toy? No, he remembered…he remembered…a giant blue woman…a dancing insect…a goblin.
‘No’ he managed to croak. ‘I was a man once. I came here and was changed’
‘Hah!’ Bodnar’s voice was booming once more. ‘Changed by magic? By those who switch the shape of their bodies at will, I suppose?’
Magic. He hadn’t thought of it like that but it must have all been done by magic. What was it the Lion had told him? A land where magic and nature and mechanism had met.
The soft voice now: ‘They filled my world with their magic, you know Phillip. I and my toys were left forgotten. And so I and others like me reminded them who we were. Reminded them with fire’
The sky bursting…
‘And I was brought here in chains. Phillip, can you imagine that? After all the wrong I had suffered, to be chained up down here. Alone in the dark’
Bodnar raised his gauntleted hands. A padlock hung between them.
‘But you could set me free, Phillip. You could put everything to rights. Just use those claws of yours. Why else do you think you were given them?
Yes, he had been given the claws. He remembered that. A gift and a thank you. Given them for a purpose though he couldn’t remember what. There was so much smoke from the armour now he couldn’t see anything except the padlock being dangled in front of his face.
He reached out with his claws.
‘Yes’ whispered Bodnar. ‘That’s right. Clever Phillip. You like to help people, don’t you? I can tell, even under all that stone, you want to help people. Help me. It would be good to help me. The best thing’
He pressed his claws into the keyhole even as a part of his mind was screaming at him not to, telling him to stop before it was too late. The mechanism clicked and shifted beneath his claws. He couldn’t see it but he could feel its shape. Could feel it moving and releasing.
‘With all the magical skills, they thought they didn’t need us Phillip. They offered to take us with them to other places but we preferred to watch them burn’
The lock clicked open. A huge hand thrust Phillip backwards. He lay dazed and winded, the room tumbling about his head. Bodnar was on his feet now, wrenching the chains from his body. The sweet smell was gone in. In its place, a stench like blackened meat.
Phillip staggered to his feet and stumbled backwards. I’m going to die, he thought. I’ve done something stupid and now Bodnar is going to kill me. His head was clearing now the sweet, hypnotising smell was gone. He had been fooled so easily. What kind of a hero could he ever have been?
The last chain fell to the floor with a clang. Bodnar flexed out his arms and the great globe seemed to glare down at Phillip with malicious, joyless pleasure. Everything within it was a boiling mass of red now.
‘Stupid, stupid boy’ he roared. ‘I’ll come back for you last of all. When everything here is burning’
With that, he leapt at one of the bricked up openings. The stone wall burst apart as he impacted with it, bricks tumbling down in an avalanche of dust and smoke. Phillip flew upwards to escape the worst of it, seeking shelter as close to the ceiling as he dared fly.
What had he done?
When the smoke had cleared, he saw through the now revealed opening a floor of red and black panels. He flew carefully through and found himself once more under the dome of many doors. He was back where his adventure had started from. He turned his head from side to side to try and find Bodnar. No sign. Then he saw something else. Something that made his cold skin even colder. A blue skinned form wrapped in a silver gown lay sprawled on the floor.
He flew towards the Giantess. He could see a bruise on her beautiful face. Her eyes were closed. Was she breathing?
Phillip landed close by her. He didn’t know her name he suddenly thought. Why had he never asked?
‘Are you alright?’ he said breathlessly, thinking please, please don’t be dead.
One purple eye opened and then another. She sat slowly upwards. A hand rose and she pointed to the vast dome above them.
‘He’s climbing up there, Phillip. To the Waiting Room. Get there before him’
And now Phillip could see a single door had opened in the dome. And on one of the columns, a bulbous headed figure was climbing upwards, towards the dome and the open door.
‘Go’ said the Giantess and there was no doubt it was a command.
‘But will you be alright’
‘Yes, of course. He only struck me a glancing blow. Now please hurry!’
‘What’s your name?’ asked Phillip.
‘I’ll tell you when you get back’
‘I promise. Now fly!’
And with her promise in his ears, he took flight towards the open door. He wondered if he ever would come back.