Dirty old rascal: a novel


The very beginning

I cooked my King an exquisite dish of a little sparrow stuffed inside a blackbird, but he spat it out into my face. I shat myself. After much investigative probing, he had found a tiny bone in the sparrow’s wing that we had overlooked. Fortunately, this error was not my fault: I could in all honesty say that an undercook, identified as number thirty-four, was responsible. He was taken away and the King’s Torturer boned him; reportedly he had several big bones still left in him before he gratefully escaped into oblivion. At first I thought it to be a rather excessive reaction, but the King is a king and we can do what he likes. It put the wind up me, I can tell you, but at least everyone was a great deal more careful about bones from then on. So perhaps the King was right. Perhaps his great and benevolent wisdom had enabled him to see that the kitchen was getting sloppy, and that we needed an example, so that we would never forget about bones again.

An excerpt from later

Today was the launch of the new flying contraption. We gathered in a field by the Castle to watch. Wolfgang, the First Engineer, was very proud of his new device, and very impressive it looked too, with eight huge wings and massive propellers at the front and back. Every piece of metal on it had been polished so much that the reflections of the sun dazzled us. It must be said that some of us were sceptical; it didn’t look like any bird we’d seen around the Castle, and it looked far too heavy to stay in the air for long. Things didn’t look much better when one of our few remaining knights stepped in, weighed down by a full suit of armour. Wolfgang called him the “pilot”. But the King and Heinrich were enthusiastic, because if the machine did fly, such a miracle would clearly greatly advance our cause in the south. What an advantage in battle our knights would have, if they could control the skies! They could go anywhere and see everything! Though why we should want to do that was a mystery to me. I was no longer certain whether we were at war or peace. And it was said by some that one day we might even be thinking of sending these machines out over the great sea to the west.

It was a lovely clear summer’s day. Swallows swooped low over the field, and a hobby took one right in front of my nose. We sat in little chairs, and after a little while in the warm sun I started to feel quite sleepy. The King sat at the front, clapping occasionally, drinking malmsey. The pilot was strapped into the contraption, the harness straining over the metal of his armour. An engineer passed a few little bombs he called “grenades” to Sir Knight, who secured them to a rack by his side.

Eventually, everything was ready. The machine was precariously balanced on a pair of wheels that looked far too small for the contraption. A team of packhorses pulled the flying machine back to the edge of the field; they were then led to safety, as a team of engineers rushed out and made some last minute adjustments. Then Wolfgang and another engineer took large cranks and stuck them in holes beside the propellers at the front and back. Someone blew a whistle, and they started cranking the motors. The first few times nothing happened; even from a distance I could see the beads of sweat glisten on Wolfgang’s brow, whether from fear or exertion I couldn’t say. But then on the fifth or sixth attempt, the back motor started, and the next turn, the front one started up too. What a deafening racket! What a smell! Smoke leaked from the front of the machine, which I took to be a bad sign. Wolfgang and his comrade ran clear. The knight started fiddling with the complicated array of instruments in front of him. He pulled his helmet down over his face, and pulled a lever.

Slowly, the strange machine edged forward, crossing the cut wheat on four wheels. Gradually, it picked up pace, and then got faster and faster. The wings started moving up and down, and the blades of the propellers became just a blur. It was tearing across the field, starting to bounce and vibrate. A flock of geese took to the air in alarm. And then suddenly –

At first I thought it was my imagination; was it bouncing along a couple of inches off the ground? But then it was clear that it really was skimming the surface of the earth, and then it was a foot off, and then two, and then suddenly it shot up, and before you could blink, it was above the height of the highest turret of the Castle!

We cheered. We threw our hats in the air. It was incredible. I really was amazed to see this happen; we had never witnessed such a sight before. Wolfgang was clearly a genius.

The machine turned. Sir Pilot waved. He seemed to be pulling some levers. A grenade fell from his plane. We watched it scream to earth, heading straight for the middle of a large red cross painted onto a piece of canvas at the far end of the field. It landed not far from the middle, and with a deafening boom detonated on hitting the ground. Sods of soil were thrown high into the air. The second grenade landed a bit further away, but the third scored a bull’s eye. Fragments of canvas flew everywhere.

I looked at the King. He was roaring with pleasure. We were all hoarse with cheering now. Engineers were slapping Wolfgang on the back, and he was red with pleasure.

The pilot waved. Then he pulled a control back, and the contraption shot steeply upward.

Suddenly, we all fell silent. What was happening? The machine carried ongoing up, until it was almost vertical, and then –