Knut & the Free Kingdom


In memory of what was, and who was there, and how lovely it used to be.

     Very many long years after it all happened, when Knut was an old man and would sit by the fire talking of past times to his great-grandchildren, nobody ever quite believed how he had come to be living in Port Gooth and had helped to save the Kingdom.  He would tell them the truth, that he had fallen asleep in his little fishing boat under a night sky of shooting stars and icy green fire, and had woken many miles from home under a  morning sky of flying white clouds and screaming seagulls, having been steered to safety by a black and white cat named Thom, but everyone who had managed to stay awake – most didn’t, because Knut had told this story many, many times, and they had heard it often – thought it was all the result of too much of Bridde’s fine berry beer, which Knut admitted, he had drunk several jugs of, that night.

Knut would look to his wife in her rocking chair, to confirm his story, but of course, she couldn’t, having not been there at the start of his journey.  She had, however, been there to wake him when he arrived, and she knew about the magnificent Thom, and the Violent Seagull, and Fortescue, and Bembleton-Frith-Bembleton, and the Snarky Bat, and the others, and how brave they had all been. So she would smile at Knut, and he would smile back at her, and they would know that it didn’t really matter what they did or said, because they were so old, nobody could really see them anymore, they were just figures by the fire, gone a bit funny in the head, smaller now than the people who walked busily around, and their hair was as white and fine as dandelion floss.

But when Knut looked at Morwenna he still saw long black plaits and round cheeks blushing pink as the inside of a strawberry, and when Morwenna looked at Knut she saw him open eyes as blue as the sky behind the clouds, and hair which stuck up spiky around his head, red-golden as sparks. So they would smile at each other, as everyone slept around them, and nobody thought to gather up the great-grandchildren and put them to bed, because when they were all together it was some great occasion – Christmas or Easter or August Bank Holiday – and Knut’s children and grandchildren didn’t want the day to end.  They would get up quietly and go outside to the kitchen or the garden to talk about the size of windows and the price of eggs, leaving the smaller people, the very young and the very old, curled up snoozing on chairs and sofas.

Except that not everyone was snoozing.  Knut and Morwenna were awake, and so was the oldest great grandchild, who crept close to Knut and leaned against Knut’s knees, which made little creaking noises when Knut moved them.  This child was very special to Knut and Morwenna, although sometimes they couldn’t remember his name, which just so happened to be Jack.  Jack called Morwenna ‘Gamma’.  But, although he was very small, he remembered to call Knut ‘Afi’, which is the Ice Landish word for ‘grandpa’.

Of course, like all nice old people, Knut and Morwenna loved all their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren just the same, and had no favourites, but – well, if they had had a favourite, it would have been Jack.  Jack had eyes as blue as the sky behind the clouds, cheeks as pink as the inside of a strawberry, and black hair which stuck up spiky around his head like sparks drawn in charcoal, so he reminded Knut and Morwenna of each other.  But best of all, just when Knut was beginning to go to sleep, a little sad that nobody wanted to hear his stories any more so he thought they would soon be forgotten, Jack would sigh happily, lean closer to his Afi’s legs, and ask:  “And then what happened?” So Knut could begin all over again.

He would clear his throat, and speak in his special, saga-telling voice.

“These were the days of The Silence, when the Four Lords of Nowhere, who dwelt in high beige towers across the Broad River, breakfasting on stolen lobster and chocolate and brandy, had taken all the farms of the Great Lands into thralldom, demanding obedience and a share of all the silver in the pockets, and crops of the fields, and fish of the sea.  And the people of the Kingdom groaned beneath their rule.  In those dark days – dark even when the sun shone – betrayal was in the highest places, and the people of the Kingdom wept and raged for fear they would never be free -”

Jack wriggled. “Yes, Afi, but how did you get here? And how did you meet Gamma?”

And because Knut wanted more than anything to make Jack happy, he started the story again, in his ordinary voice, this time.

It all began with a game of Bandy.

Bridde was a fine girl, and the most beautiful in Ratvik as everyone told Knut.  When he was with her it was easy to be distracted by her golden hair, and her eyes the pale blue of the milky pool beyond the rocks where he moored his boat in the days when the sea wasn’t frozen, and when she held his hand he felt his fingers thaw.  He knew he was lucky to have her, because, as she often told him, he had nothing and was the most boring man in all Ice Land, and the Viking Spirit had died in him.  But when she wasn’t there, his thoughts turned to Bandy and his friends would call, and then he would get out his bat and the hours flew by in friendship and he didn’t feel the cold at all and neither did he think of Bridde.

Thom, a cat of great solemnity, black and white and fat and sleek as a seal, who belonged to Knut as Knut belonged to him, would sit with his tail drifting in a slow wag, watching the players as the ice sprayed behind them when they ran, and then, when the game was won (or lost, it didn’t matter which) they would go to the back of the cabin where Bridde’s parents lived, where Knut lived too, and they would find the barrels of berry beer which finally reminded Knut of Bridde again.

On the day when Knut’s great adventure began, the sun was low in the sky as the game ended, because it was just past two o’clock in the afternoon, and almost the end of winter, which, in Ice Land, can be anything from September to June, but in this case was early May. There were only five of Knut’s friends with him, because it had been a short game to match the day, and they rolled one barrel of beer onto Knut’s boat which was named Fiskur, having it in mind to fish a little, and catch something special to bake on the stones by the hot spring, as a fine end to a fine time. While discussing this, it was easy to drink several jugs of the beer, which was sweet and a little warm because Bridde stored the barrels by the chimney-breast, and soon someone was singing and the big lamp on the mast was lit, which made faces glow even more than the sunset.

As Knut unfurled the sail, he heard a terrible shriek, as if Thom’s tail had been trodden on by a fisherman’s boot, but Thom sat by the tiller, unperturbed, whereas, coming down the slope to the water, was Bridde, dressed all in white, with a green wreath of cloudberries on her golden hair, and a line of friends behind her also in white, and, worse, her mother and father, with faces like thunder.  And Knut remembered, they had had an appointment that day, in the town.

He smiled at Bridde in a way which he hoped would tell her how sorry he was to have forgotten their wedding day, but which instead made her shriek again, and there was a sound of hasty movement and the rocking of Fiskur as Knut’s friends made themselves scarce.

“Ah, Bridde, my lovely girl,” he began, but he noticed that at that moment, she didn’t look very lovely at all, because her face was the colour of a hot brick, and behind her was her mother, whose face Knut had never liked – and at that instant, both faces creased into lines of rage, both shrieking, they looked identical, with the friends in a line all making angry honking noises, and Bridde’s father behind, as if herding fat white geese.

Thom stepped down from the tiller, arched his back, and rubbed his face against Bridde’s long white skirt in affection, and Bridde drew back her foot and kicked him, so hard he flew through the air, to land on the bottom of the boat, and Thom’s shriek was as loud in fear as Bridde’s had been in rage. And then there was a silence which was short, but still long enough for Knut to realise he was very glad that he had forgotten it was his wedding day.

Bridde burst into tears, which for once didn’t move Knut at all because he was more concerned with Thom.  He picked up the fat cat and stroked him, finding that after all he was unharmed. Knut looked at the angry girl he had very nearly married.

“There is nothing more to say,” he told her.  “I am sorry you were disappointed.”

Bridde’s mother put her arm around Bridde and again Knut saw how much alike they were.

“Disappointed?” The older woman sneered at him.  “This is the happiest day of her life – not to be tied to the most boring man in all Ice Land, with no money or family, not even a home to call his own. A lucky escape, Bridde, that’s what this is.”

And Bridde’s father herded all the women toward the cabin, returning moments later with a lantern and the big canvas bag from Knut’s room, which was all Knut owned apart from Fiskur.

“Best go, lad,” he said, and Knut thought he saw a gleam of sympathy in his eyes. “Don’t know where you can go, mind – but anywhere except here would be best.”

He bent and untied the rope which moored Fiskur to the little jetty and gave the prow a gentle shove, so the boat slipped into the stream which led to the sea, and it turned gently on the fast-flowing water so the prow faced south.

Knut was too dizzy – with the beer and the sudden change in circumstances – to say anything, not that he ever had much to say.  He thought for a moment of sailing just a little way along the headland to where he could see the lights of Ratvik, but Fiskur, it seemed, had other ideas: a small sharp wind caught the sail, which slapped as if impatient, and the tiller wrenched from his hand as they headed for the open sea. Ahead the weak sun finally flickered and disappeared below the black horizon and there was a moment of pure darkness before a green light shot across the sky, meeting another and another, until colours swirled above Fiskur like petrol on water.  The prow of Fiskur cut through the black sea with a hiss as the foam parted. And Knut lay down in the boat among the ropes and nets and watched as the lights danced above him. And if he was thinking anything – and it’s doubtful he was – it would have been that for the first time in his life he didn’t know where he was headed, and that this was altogether too exciting and adventurous for a man who, as Bridde had long told him, was the most boring man in all Ice Land.

He closed his eyes for a moment, and when he woke, the lights of Ratvik had disappeared and Fiskur was dancing on waves which first lifted the little boat then plunged her into a trough.  Sheet lightning drowned the northern lights, and Knut saw Thom was sitting by the tiller and, although it had fought his own hands, it was obeying Thom’s gentle touch as if the velvet paws were made of iron. The cat was quietly mewing, just heard above the rush of salt water.

To one side of Fiskur a spray of warm water jetted into the air, and Knut saw the gleam of silver on the mighty back of a whale following Fiskur, twice the size of the little boat, and the whale sang it’s song as it arched through the water. The beer-fog leaving his brain, Knut was afraid, because the North Sea is an angry sea, but tried to think brave thoughts because the North Sea hates a coward and swallows the fearful down into its frigid belly.

Fiskur’s timbers shivered as she struck the side of a black wall of water, and a wave of silver washed over Knut – a catch of herring which would have made his fortune on any day or night other than this – which flapped and thrashed about him, higher than his thighs. Knut was hurled against the mast, striking his head, and for an instant of darkness he knew nothing.  But Thom, though drenched, remained by the tiller, green eyes glowing upon his master, and Knut, when the lights returned to him, could hear his song:

“I’m Thom, I’m Thom, and I’ve been here so long, because I care, I’m always there…” and there seemed nothing strange to Knut in understanding the words his fat cat mewed.

The sheet lightning moved west, the Northern Lights swirled away to wherever the Northern Lights swirl, and the sea calmed to hills instead of mountains, with a fresh sou’westerly breeze filling Fiskur’s sail.

The whale still arched beside the boat, and Knut was not surprised when Thom called to it: “What lies South West of here?” and the whale’s song became the words “The Kingdom, and All Who Sail in It, just follow the moon” before turning North East toward where other whales danced their slow whale dance together among the ice-floes.

Knut, glad that Bridde couldn’t hear him, called out to the whale: “Do you have a name?”

And the whale sang to him in a pleasantly fluting voice: “I do, I do, I am Fortescue,” then was gone into the night.

“I don’t understand,” Knut said to Thom.  “What I mean is, I do understand, but I don’t know why.”

Thom bowed his black and white head in deference to Knut. “Such things happen at sea, I believe, Master,” he murmured, then he nudged the tiller and with a hiss Fiskur’s prow aligned with the rippling trail of blue and silver light cast by the moon. The old cat’s green eyes glowed.  “To the Kingdom and All Who Sail in It,” he said. “Sleep, Master, and I will wake you on our arrival.”

And because Knut could think of no sensible reply, that is exactly what he did.

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