48 Cliff Road, Cowes, IOW, PO31 8BN, England
Paul@paulbirch.net and http://www.paulbirch.net
It was a busy time of year for Callum, with twice as many Christmases as usual, so when the first whispers went the rounds he barely noticed them. MacRobert's premier Christmas Specialist had better things to do than go on a quest for a missing mystic sword. His friend Jane Grey, the Stavenger librarian, disagreed. "This is going to be big. Listen to this." Her image slid sideways to leave room for a newscast.
"… a glowing blade that scythed through the adamant walls of the towering keep of Praseodymium like a hot knife through margarine or a New Dutchman through the plum pudding. The ghastly figure then vanished, leaving the bewildered keep-folk wondering what they had done to merit such a Christmas visitation."
"A filler piece!" Callum protested. "Someone mucking about with holograms."
"It's more than that," said Jane. "I've been looking it up. That swordsman has made more than fifty separate appearances in the past three months — and left tangible evidence behind. He's made the major headlines ninety-three times. I found three thousand six hundred and twenty two mentions of the Sword of Christmas myth on the current affairs programmes and chat shows and the cyber forums are buzzing with speculation."
Callum pricked up his ears. "The Sword of Christmas? I've never heard of it."
"So shut up and I'll tell you," the librarian said.
Long ago, so the story went, a knight of a secret order, custodian of the Sword of Christmas, fled from Home and brought the sacred blade to the new-built suprajovian planet of MacRobert's, hiding it deep within the geosphere. Some said it was MacRobert Himself who bore it, some a survivor of the legendary Knights Templar, and some a scion of King Arthur or Joseph of Arimathea. Why the sword or its keeper had to leave Earth was never clear, but there were hints of rivalries among the secret societies and hidden rulers of the world, of their age-long struggle for domination and of a deadly shift in the balance of power.
Standard conspiracy theory, really. Entertaining — but no one in his right mind would take it seriously, thought Callum. Particularly since no one had ever heard of the Sword until a few months ago, some two hundred years after it was all supposed to have happened.
And the Sword itself, what of that? Some thought it was Excalibur, the ward and emblem of Camelot; some the weapon that St Peter used to cut off the Roman soldier's ear. Others claimed that it was actually the light sabre Luke Skywalker killed Darth Vader with — or else Obi wan Kenobi's blue one. Sceptics said that was silly. Star Wars was only a film, and King Arthur only a legend, and as for St Peter's sword, well, maybe that was real enough, but if so it must have been an ordinary Greek or Roman short sword, rusted into uselessness two thousand years ago.
The most popular theory identified it with the flaming sword that once barred the way to the Garden of Eden. "I suppose that fits the news reports," Callum admitted. "But I don't believe it."
"You still don't get it," said Jane. "You don't have to believe it to cash in on it." That was true enough, though Callum was a bit shocked that his friend should propose anything so out of keeping with her academic ethics. The old party games were getting stale, the episode of the collapsing giant snowman had seriously dented his reputation and the competition was baying at his heels. Even Christmas Specialists have to stay on the ball. Or, in the case of MacRobert's World, the biggest ball in Epsilon Eridani's solar system, under it.
"You're a showman in need of a new angle," Jane added. What better angle could there be than searching for the Sword of Christmas?
"All right," said Callum. "But you'll have to write the script." Then she won't be able to sneer at my commercialism later, he thought. His clients would be more than willing to suspend disbelief if the hunt were exciting enough.
"Okay." The librarian seemed to read his mind. "Most books are fiction, anyway. Even the non-fiction ones."
"In the year 1473 AD the Sword was removed from Valetta, where it was believed to be under threat from the Turk, and installed in the Most Serene Republic of San Marino. Before long, however, the Pope, Innocent VIII … " The guide's voice droned on and the revellers' eyes began to glaze over.
"Hunt the thimble would be more exciting," muttered one. "When do we get to start?"
The guide glared at him. "Pay attention! Who knows what arcane knowledge will be necessary to unravel the clues? The Order does not yield its secrets lightly and the Enemy may yet seek to deceive us with false clues, I've already said clues, what was the other word, leads, that was it … deceive us with false leads."
"What does this sword thingy look like, anyhow?"
"The Sword of Christmas is a knightly sword, two-handed and double-edged. The damascene pattern-welded blade is forty-eight inches in length and three inches in width at the ricasso, with a triple fuller on either face. The hilt, which has a simple 12 inch crossguard, is a further twelve inches to the pommiform pommel. Hilt, guard and pommel are richly encrusted with jewels, but the scabbard is plain poplar, wrapped in red leather, stamped in gold with the Apple of the Order, finished with a bronze chafe and mouthpiece."
Callum had had problems there. The swordsmiths he'd approached told him it was too big and too heavy, and that sticking all those jewels on was naff. Callum insisted that it had to be big and flashy or the paying public would feel cheated. "Your money," they'd said, and quoted him prices that left him gasping.
"Seek for the sword that was hidden, In inner parts it dwells, Deep in the halls forbidden, At Home they would call them hells ..."
"That's easy. The Habitat Authority's Underworlds. There's one under the At Last Mountains out there, about fifty miles away."
"They won't just let us in, will they?"
"First you must find the door key, And then you must find the door, For there's only one valid entry, and that lies in the floor."
"The refectory! The pattern on the floor. A zodiac of star clusters, none of them with more than nine stars. It must be an access code."
"Thus far you've come, now further go, To where the air is thin, Upon the seas of Paradise, Where you have been before."
"It doesn't make any sense."
"No, look, it doesn't rhyme! It's a false lead!"
"… There may be rain, there may be snow, But that's the one way in."
"Aha! That's the real clue. Obviously, we have to climb the mountain."
"Not on foot, surely? Why couldn't they have let us use this door?"
"More fun this way. Symbolic too. Come on, the feeble ones can follow by jopper."
"So now like justice you must roll, Like righteousness as well, With penitence imbue your soul, And journey into hell."
"I don't believe this! We've got to slide down that water chute? How far down does it go?"
"Miles, I should think … But why won't the gate lift? I'm sitting on the mat, all right."
"You're not penitent enough. Lie down, face forwards."
"… Oh lumme! That was scary."
"Fun too, though!"
"Serene upon the sea the sword, Beneath the foeman's head. Now look where innocence gave word, and do just what he said."
"Who writes these things? What foeman?"
"Over that doorway! That's a Turk's head knot, I'm sure. What does the sign say?"
"Cloaca? That's Latin for sewer."
"The sword's gone down the toilet?"
"Where does innocence come in, then? Could that be the Pope?"
"Of course. Pope Innocent in the Vatican."
"Well, we can't go all the way to Rome. Is there a Vatican on MacRobert's?"
"Oh no! Sewer, toilet! A vat i' the can! That is the most awful pun I have ever heard. Is there a vat in there?"
"I guess this is it, set in the floor. Look, it's got an apple on the lid!"
"The world revolves, the sword upsets The number of the beast, Combine forgiveness' count and let, The answer be the least."
"Okay. Upset six six six and get … nine nine nine?"
"Could be. What's forgiveness's count?"
"Seventy times seven, of course. Er … four hundred and ninety."
"How many digits do we need?"
"There's six twiddly things. Nine nine nine four nine nought?"
"No, four nine nought nine nine nine! It's smaller — the least."
"Open it, quick!"
"The sword, the sword!"
Down in the depths of the geosphere, nearly two kilometres below Callum's party, His Excellency Sir John, Ambassador Extraordinaire to the Knights of Malta, Member of the Illuminati and Mason of the Ninth Degree, drew the Christmas Sword from its pearly scabbard. He pressed a concealed button on its hilt and the six inch stub became a sword of light six feet long. Idly he swung it to and fro through a huge baulk of timber, then threw the cut logs onto his Yuletide fire. His friend and Companion, Sir Bartholomew of the Still Waters, took up the Sword of Epiphany, brother to the first. "En garde!" he called. Sir John swung in quarte and was smoothly blocked. The long blades clashed, red against blue, and their subliminal humming whined up the scale as immaterial edges pushed against each other. "Sir John," said Sir Bartholomew, making a quick cut in prime and binding over. "Was the Angel of the Lord really Darth Vader, do you think?"
© Paul Birch, 20th Dec. 2006.