Thursday, January 4, 2024

In the Shadow of Her Majesty, Chapter Twelve

Chapter Twelve: Departing with the Anarchists

Having been pulled rather indelicately from the cabin of the Carriage, I struggled for a moment to regain my bearings, and to take stock of the circumstance in which I now found myself.

First and foremost, I ascertained that among the reasons my salvation had been possible was that most of the Caddiganites were gone; the majority of that bitter band had left the site of my downfall, and had rushed like slavering hyenas towards the greater prize that lay where the Firedrake’s remains had fallen several miles hence. The score of crude neanderthals that remained behind was easily overwhelmed, as for once that dreadful day, the Fates had chosen to show me favour.

Secondly, it was my desire to profusely thank my handsome rescuer, and to inquire about our next course of action, but the very moment after I was drawn from the wreck, he had turned without a word and stalked pantherlike off towards a crudely maintained antique internal combustion motor bike, one clearly designed to traverse even the roughest terrain untrammelled.

All about his steed, there were a dozen other such motor bikes, each with a rider and a passenger, upon which waited a motley array of black clad ragamuffins bearing an assortment of ancient rifles and grenade launchers. He strode among them as their Lord, for all he passed nodded obeisance; clearly, this was whatever might pass for a leader among such an odd bunch. Nearer still were a pair of midsized wheeled transports, each sufficient to carry a dozen men, into which several other black-clad souls were tossing the rifles of the slain Caddiganites, along with miscellaneous random items that had fallen from the Carriage.

This seemed oddly presumptuous, so I strode forward in hopes of catching the attention of the nameless Handsome One.

Before I could even call to him, however, his vehicle roared to a buzzing, clattering, smoky life, and an instant later, a ferocious, bemasked, and rifle-wielding young woman leapt upon the pillion behind him, and the two of them were away across the scrubland in a spray of dirt and smoke. The others followed suit, one after another, in a snarling, buzzing din, and together they raced of like madmen. Not a single one seemed interested in acknowledging me, or informing me of where or what I was expected to be doing. These were clearly not individuals for whom politeness or decorum had any value, and I was for a moment at loose ends about how to proceed.

“Milady. I am so pleased to find that you are alive.”

I turned in surprise, for I did not anticipate ever again hearing the voice that now rang welcome in my ears.

“Ernest! Dearest faithful Ernest!” There he was, stepping out from behind one of the transports, functioning and unharmed, and although his vestments hung about him in tatters, he was to me a source of sudden and great joy. I felt the wild urge to embrace him, but recognizing that such a breach of etiquette might trouble him, I did not do so.

“I am so glad to see you well! I was certain that you had perished with Bertrand when we first came under attack, and am overjoyed to be proven wrong. What…how did you come to be here?”

My stalwart Series 9 responded in his direct way. “I realised we were lost when the rotors were destroyed, milady. I leapt from the Carriage, and using my integrated thrusters and stabilisers, affected my own descent to a location nearby. It was clear that our assailants intended to take us, and I grasped that I could be of better service if I acted separately. During my descent, I noted a large group of collectivists observing the Caddiganites at a distance, and directed my flight to land near them, after which I approached them and requested their assistance.”

“So it is you that I must thank for my rescue. O Ernest, thank you. You have done an invaluable service to me, and to House Montgomery. I must ask: how did you persuade this peculiar bunch to effectuate my rescue?”

“An excellent question, milady. Like all servants of Her Majesty, I understand that among the baser human drives are animus and crude self-interest. From Our intelligences on the ethics and motivations of these particular anarchosyndicalist collectives, I knew that while they are no friends of the Crown, they bear an almost pathological hatred of the Brotherhood of Mjolnir. [By this, dear reader, Ernest was referring to the Caddiganites, for that is the name by which they call themselves.] As the theft and utilisation of the Royal Societies’ discoveries would give the Brotherhood a strategic advantage, they could be counted upon to rally to our aid, even if it was not for reasons of honour, duty, or virtue.”

Ernest’s reasoning was, of course, entirely sound. “An ally is an ally, I suppose, and one takes what one can get.”

“Indeed, milady.”

One of the anarchists approached us, a woman, although from her skulking demeanour and the shapeless, graceless functionality of the clothing that hung loose over her lean, whippet-like form, such a determination required rather more effort than one might expect.

“Hey. Grab what you need. We gotta be getting outta here. They’ll be back in force, and we need to be gone.” Her voice was one part fatigue, and one part exasperation, and after speaking, she made a blunt gesture towards the nearest transport, which I interpreted as an invitation to join them in their departure.

“Thank you so very much for informing us,” I said, stepping forward towards her and extending my hand in greetings, endeavouring to show as much grace as was possible. “And because I’ve not yet been given the opportunity to express our gratitude, please let me say that we do so appreciate your heroic efforts on our behalf. I am, by way of introduction, the Lady Rebecca Wexton-Hughes, Countess of Montgomery, and this is my servant and footman Ernest. I’m sorry, but I did not catch your name.”

She looked at me with the most odd expression on her face, as if I were an apparition or a talking horse, glanced at Ernest, and then shrugged. “Yeah. Whatever. You got two minutes, and we’re leaving.” She turned and stalked back to the transport.

Such consistent rudeness amongst these commoners, I mused, must rise from some particular source or misunderstanding, although I could not imagine what it might be, as neither I nor the Crown could conceivably have done anything to justify such disdain. I would pursue that matter with her further, but at this moment, her instructions had stirred in me the awareness that there were, indeed, certain things of great value that must not be left behind.

“Dearest Ernest, we must depart. Before we do so, can you please retrieve some items from the Carriage?”

The Carriage was, as I spoke, burning with an increasing intensity, and was beginning to resemble some perverse and hellish version of a festal bonfire; were I still within it, I would most certainly have already perished in the manner of Joan of Arc.

Ernest glanced at the conflagration, then nodded receptively. “Of course. What do you need, Milady?”

“Our needs are threefold. First, I feel that in our current circumstance it would be wise were I to be in possession of my target pistol, as well as as many of the boxes of ammunition you can recover. Second, I shall need any of the necessities of maintaining my appearance as might remain intact, as it is quite apparent that such will not be falling readily at hand in the near future, and we must maintain our. Third, and of most significance, if you are able, please recover the remains of dearest Amanda, as I do not wish her to become a prize for our assailants.”

“It shall be done, Milady.”

Moving with a swiftness born of urgency, he strode fearless into the inferno, which swiftly burned away the remnants of his uniform, but its hunger was harmless against his glistening carapace. He returned first with a charred leather purse, within which were my various toiletries, powders, tinctures, and lotions, and although the purse itself was no longer fit for use at any formal events, the contents thereof remained in serviceable order.

He then returned to the flames, entering them as materially untouched as if he were Shadrach, Meshach, or Abednego; a few moments later he returned bearing the Ruger and four boxes of ammunition, which by another of the Fates’ little mercies had not yet detonated. He set those by my feet, then said, “Be wary, milady, for these remain of a temperature that might cause you harm. Give them a moment before attempting to take them.”

“Thank you, Ernest.”

Then, for the final time, he returned to the Carriage cabin to retrieve our servant Amanda. The fire had risen, and the heat of it could now be felt even from my position many yards away. This effort was of more difficulty, evidently, for a long moment passed, and then another, and I gazed upon the rising holocaust with a deepening concern.

Finally, and to my great relief, Ernest’s form appeared from the fire, in all appearance as a seraph emerging from the light of Glory about the Divine, and he carried in his arms the limp unmoving remains of Amanda. He strode towards me effortlessly bearing her weight, whorls of smoke rising from about him from where the few lingering tatters of his blackened uniform still burned.

When he reached me, I gazed down upon my dear childhood servant, and tears welled in my eyes, for I felt in that instant the great loss of her care, a wound only magnified by the still greater loss of my beloved Father.

“Oh, Amanda,” I said softly, extending my hand tentatively towards the shattered porcelain of her visage; finding that while it was still hot to the touch, the heat was bearable, I placed it tenderly upon her broken forehead.

“Do you suppose there might be any chance that she might be made whole, Ernest?” I said, my voice thick with sorrow. “I do not know what I will do without her.”

“The damage to her systems is extensive and critical, milady. But while repair would be a severe challenge, and there is a significant probability of failure, it is not impossible. It might be done, milady.”

“Do you really think so, Ernest?”

“Yes, milady.”

I sighed. “Thank you for your kind reassurance, Ernest.”

“Of course, milady.”

Kneeling, I reached down to where Ernest had set the ammunition upon the dry ground, and there I placed the boxes into my purse of toiletries. My cooling Ruger also rested upon the parched earth, and, like Amanda’s forehead, it was slightly hot but not painful to the touch.

Taking the familiar grip of the pistol in my right hand, and the handle of my well-laden purse in my left, I rose and turned to walk to the anarchist transport. Ernest followed, bearing the singed wreck of Amanda.

I saw, at that moment, that standing between us and the transport was the peculiar woman with whom I had spoken before, along with two others I did not recognize; they had apparently been watching us the entire time.

There was now about the three of them a different affect than I had previously perceived, not so much disdain, but a new admixture of awe and deep wariness; I supposed, as a reasonable conjecture, that the flame-kissed Ernest and I were something of a sight.

“So,” I said, offering up to the woman a smile of the utmost pleasantness. “Thank you again for your generous patience as we gathered our necessaries. Shall we depart?”

There was a long pause.

“Suuuure,” she said finally, with a distinctly guarded narrowing of her eyes, and so, together, we did.