Alan felt the cold, damp air on his face and examined the room he was trapped in. He was in a large hall, much like you would expect to find in a medieval castle. He was sitting in a chair at the side of the hall. To his right he could see large wooden doors guarded by two soldiers in elaborate armour. To his left, nearer the centre of the hall, he could see a huge golden throne. Sitting on the throne was a large man dressed in kingly clothes; they were richly decorated, adorned with countless precious gems, and there was a golden crown on his head.
All around the edge of the room there were many different people who were sitting in chairs just like Alan. They were all looking distressed, but made no sound. Beside Alan was the harp, and he noticed that most of the other people had something with them as well. Some had musical instruments, others juggling balls or books of poetry. Most disturbing of all was at the very centre of the hall, where an executioner was standing on a wooden platform, sharpening his axe in front of some menacing looking instruments of torture; each one looked very well used. Alan felt it in his best interests to remain quiet.
“Who’s next?” bellowed the fat king, his voice echoing throughout the hall.
A tall, anaemic looking thin man stood up and edged his way sheepishly towards the centre of the room. He was dressed like a jester. He stood in front of the king, dwarfed by the hugely excessive throne.
“Come on then!” snapped the king as he tucked into a ham from a table next to him piled high with food. Alan noticed that all of the people around the room looked in some way malnourished. The jester looked terrified, and much to Alan’s surprise he began to tell a joke.
“What did the hen say to the farmer, having found that he’d painted faces on all of her eggs and taken them to an orphanage to be fostered by weasels?” he said, nervously.
“I don’t know!” said the king loudly. “What did the hen say?”
The jester looked so small and fragile standing in the middle of the great hall in front of the huge throne. His next words fell reluctantly from his lips, and then faded away hopelessly.
“Cluck, cluck,” he said.
No one made a sound in the hall; they were awaiting the inevitable. The king remained silent for a moment. He stared at the jester, and a wry smile formed on his bloated, fearsome face.
“I’ll tell you what would be funny,” announced the king.
He nodded towards the executioner, who threw a thick rope around the jester’s neck and dragged him up onto the platform. The jester was no match for the burly executioner, and he soon found himself strapped to a thick wooden table, his arms and legs out stretched.
“Now tell me a funny joke,” said the king. “You have… oh, let’s say… thirty seconds.”
The jester struggled with the ties, but it was no use. His quick, heavy breaths of panic echoed around the room. Right above his head the executioner stood holding his axe, ready for action.
“Tell me a funny joke!” repeated the king, this time much louder.
“T… two nun… two nuns walk into a monastery… and err… one says to the other, AAAAAAAAAAARGH!”
The king let out a great and terrible laugh. “An aaaaaaaargh!” he bellowed. “That is good!”
The executioner had lopped off one of the jester’s arms as he’d tried to tell the joke. Alan then watched in horror as the executioner continued to cut off the rest of the jester’s limbs, one by one, until only his head remained attached to his body. The jester had no strength left to scream, his life was flowing out of him.
“I’ll tell you a good joke,” continued the king. “Why didn’t the jester tell any more jokes?” The onlookers remained silent, only the guards were smiling. “Because he had lost his head!” With one final blow, the executioner took off the jester’s head.
When the king had finally stopped laughing, he resumed his little game.
“Who’s next?” he shouted. Alan looked around the room, but no one was getting up from their seats. He then looked at the king, and was startled to find that the king was staring directly at him; everyone was now silently staring at Alan. His heart raced; he looked at the harp and gave a deep and heavy sigh. His only comfort was to think that it was all a dream, and that he couldn’t be harmed. He remembered when he felt that someone was watching over him, and he repeated over and over in his head the words, ‘I cannot be hurt’. He then rose from his seat and marched confidently into the middle of the hall.
“Ah,” said the king. “A musician.”
“Not really,” Alan replied. “It sort of plays itself.”
“Quiet!” snapped the king. “I do not want you to talk. Entertain me! Play me some music. I want a song that is all about me.”
Alan couldn’t sing; there were demons in the darkest pits of hell that had a better singing voice than he did; so he decided to make up a rhyme instead. He strummed the harp, which instantly began playing a gentle tune. As the harp filled the room with its music, a verse came into Alan’s mind.
Once upon a throne of gold,
There sat a king, strong and bold.
His graciousness drew much acclaim,
Just and fair had been his reign.
Although he was hiding it well, Alan had not been this afraid for a long time. Not even when he had fallen from the shelf in the Heavens Store had he felt such fear. He searched his mind for more words, but his fear seemed to be blocking them. His mind was a mess. He looked up at the king, who seemed somehow chivalrous in appearance, more like you might expect a great king to be. His presence now commanded great respect instead of fear and hatred, and he was smiling.
Alan’s fear eased, and as he began to realise his own power, a new confidence came over him. He saw that the king’s smile was fading, and wickedness was beginning to return to his features, so he strummed the harp again. The music changed slightly, and more verses became clear in his mind.
Wickedness has bent his face,
A grimace filled with spite and hate.
He’s merely ugly, cruel and fat.
Even as he spoke, Alan could see his words take effect. The kings features twisted, his belly bloated, his spine distorted.
Vast and somber hall of grey,
Where innocents he likes to slay.
Soon his vicious rule will end,
And all the land will thus amend.
A new hope began to fill the room. All of the people were muttering between themselves. Some were laughing and pointing at the cruel king, his entire character twisted by hate. The sight of the wretched king on his golden throne now seemed farcical.
“Stop him!” shouted the king, struggling to talk through his bloated features. “Destroy the harp!”
Those that would have obeyed the king could not make it in time, as Alan had already begun to recite another punishing verse.
First his throne will disappear,
Whilst all his subjects laugh and jeer.
Then his kingly clothes will fade,
His cruelty soon to be repaid.
The guards by the door, and even the executioner, were now laughing with the rest of the people in the hall. The King’s throne melted beneath him and seeped through the wooden floor. His rich clothing faded away, leaving him naked and whimpering on the cold ground.
Finally his pride is lost,
And into darkness he’ll be tossed.
People shout and cry for more,
A punishment to even the score.
None of this felt real to Alan; it now felt like his own story, one that he was writing. None of the people were real, none of the surroundings were real; he felt omnipotent in his imagined world. If things had felt more real to him, then perhaps he would have acted in a more merciful way as he delivered his final verse.
Broken man, kneeling and bare,
The wretched king who hadn’t a care.
Full of shame, he takes out a knife,
Thrusts to the gut, and takes his own life.
As Alan watched the king’s life slip away, he wondered if he had taken it too far. All around him people were laughing and pointing as this naked and terrified man was forced into his final act. Perhaps he deserved it, perhaps it was justice, but Alan was not satisfied. He felt no better than the king, sitting on his golden throne, torturing others for his own amusement.
He’d had enough, he wanted to escape, and an opportunity had arisen for him to let himself out. With the rhymes he could control his world, so all he needed to do was make one more short verse. He strummed the harp one last time.
The great hall began to fade,
As Alan’s final path was laid.
Cornish cliffs came into sight,
Back by the sea on that very same night.
Whilst Alan was speaking the words he closed his eyes, and when he had finished the verse he kept them closed. If his rhyme had failed to take effect, then he was afraid to find out; and if it had succeeded he was also afraid. He tried to remember where he had been before the adventure began. He felt a gentle breeze on his face and opened his eyes slowly, it was dark.
He noticed a flashing light making its way across the darkness in front of him. It was an aeroplane, he was looking up at the clear night sky. Sitting up, Alan realised he was back on the cliff, back where he had started.