By Tom Holt

Formats and Prices




ebook (Digital original)


ebook (Digital original) $2.99

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around September 4, 2012. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Fifteen hundred years have passed and the Holy Grail is still missing, presumed ineffable. The knights have dumped the quest and now deliver pizzas, while the sinister financial services of the lost kingdom of Atlantis threatens the universe with fiscal Armageddon.


It is quite some storm.
It had started out with a perfectly ordinary squall on the strings, but then the brass had joined in, followed shortly afterwards by the entire woodwind section, and now the tubas and the double-basses are in full cry, with the trombones in the background doing the lightning effects. It is also slashing down with rain.
A flash of brilliant electric whiteness cleaves the darkness and reflects, painfully bright, off a man in armour staggering up the steep escarpment of the fell. His visor is up, and his face is lined with agony. He is an idiot. You can tell, just by looking at him. It’s not so much his tall, youthful, athletic build or the sopping wet golden hair plastered like seaweed down his forehead that gives him away; it’s just that nobody with anything substantial between his ears would climb up a steep mountain in full armour in a thunderstorm.
True, there is supposed to be a sleeping princess at the top of this mountain, whom a kiss will awaken from a century of enchanted sleep. True, this princess is alleged to be beautiful, wise and extremely rich, and quite likely to be well-disposed towards the man who wakes her up. But common sense, even if it can handle the concept of sleeping princesses on mountain-tops, must surely insist that if she’s been up there for a hundred years she’s probably still going to be there in the morning, when it’ll have stopped raining and a chap can see where he’s putting his feet.
The knight stumbles on, and something - fool’s luck, probably - guides his footsteps clear of the anthills, tussocks of heather and other natural obstacles which would send him and his fifty pounds of sheet steel slithering back down the hillside like a heavy-duty toboggan. The lightning forks from the sky again, and instead of electrocuting him chooses to illuminate the mountain-top. In fact it goes further, setting a wind-twisted thorn tree nicely on fire, so that the knight can make out the figure of a sleeping human under the lee of a rocky outcrop. Short of providing an illuminated sign saying YOU ARE HERE, there’s not much more anybody could do to make things easy.
‘Ha!’ says the knight.
He lays down his shield and his spear and kneels for a moment, lost in wonder and awe. A sheep, huddling under a nearby gorse bush and chewing a ling root, gives him a look of utter contempt.
The sleeper remains motionless. The funny thing is that, for somebody who’s been asleep on a mountain-top for a hundred years, she’s in a pretty good state of preservation. When one thinks what happens to a perfectly ordinary pair of corduroy trousers when they inadvertently get left outside on the washing line overnight, one is amazed at how tidy she is. But of course, the idiot doesn’t notice this. In fact, he’s praying. He doesn’t half choose some funny moments.
And now it has stopped raining, and the dawn pokes its rosy toe outside the duvet of the clouds and shudders. A single exquisite sunbeam picks out the scene. The knight’s armour rusts quietly. Somebody is going to have to go over it later with a wire brush and a tin of metal polish, but you can guess, can’t you, that it isn’t going to be the knight.
Finally, having said quite a few paternosters and the odd Te Deum, the knight rises to his feet and approaches the sleeping figure. Dawn is now in full swing, and as he lifts the veil off her face - please note that some unseen force has protected the veil from mildew and mould for over a century - the sun lets fly with enormous quantities of atmospheric pink light. Creaking slightly, the knight bends down and plants a chaste, dry little kiss on the sleeper’s cheek.
She stirs. Languidly, she opens her eyes. Consider how you feel first thing in the morning, and multiply that thirty-six thousand, five hundred times. Correct; you’d feel like death, wouldn’t you? And the first thing you’d say would be, ‘Nnnggrh,’ surely. Not a bit of it.
‘Hail, oh sun,’ she says, ‘hail, oh light, hail, oh daw...’
Then she checks herself. She blinks.
‘Hang on,’ she says.
The knight remains kneeling. He has that utterly idiotic expression on his face that you only see in Pre-Raphaelite paintings.
‘Who are you?’ says the princess.
The knight clears his throat. ‘I,’ he says, ‘am Prince Boamund, eldest son of King Ipsimar of Northgales, and I have come—’
The knight raises both eyebrows, like someone by Burne-Jones who’s just trodden on something sharp. ‘I am Prince Boamund, eldest son of King—’
‘That’s right,’ says the knight, ‘Boamund, eldest son of—’
‘How do you spell that?’
The knight looks worried. Where he comes from you can take advanced falconry, or you can take spelling; not both. Guess which one he opted for.
‘Bee,’ he says, and hesitates. ‘Oh. Ee...’
The princess has a curious expression on her face (which is, of course, divinely beautiful). ‘Are you being funny or something?’ she says.
‘Kidding about,’ she replies. ‘Practical joke, that sort of thing.’ She considers the situation for a moment. ‘You’re not, are you?’
‘No,’ says Boamund. He thinks hard. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘I am Boamund, eldest son of King Ipsimar of Northgales, and you are Kriemhild the Fair, and you have been sleeping an enchanted sleep on top of this mountain ever since the foul magician Dunthor cast a spell on you, and I’ve just woken you up with a kiss. Agreed?’
The princess nods.
‘Right, then,’ says Boamund.
‘What do you mean, so?’ says Boamund, flushing pink. ‘I mean, it’s supposed to be... well...’
‘Well what?’
Kriemhild gives him another peculiar look and reaches under a nearby stone for her cardy. It is, of course, pristinely clean.
‘I mean,’ she says, ‘yes, you qualify, yes, you’re a prince and all that, but ... well, there seems to have been some mistake, that’s all.’
‘Mistake. Look,’ she says, ‘who told you? About me being here and everything?’
Boamund thinks hard. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘there was this man in a tavern, if you must know.’
‘A knight?’
Boamund scratches his head. Imagine a knight by Alma-Tadema who’s somehow managed to fall off the picture and is wondering how to get back in without breaking the glass. ‘I suppose he might have been a knight, yes. We were playing cards, and I won.’
Kriemhild’s roseate lips have set in a firm line. ‘Oh yes?’ she says.
‘Yes,’ replies Boamund, ‘and when I asked him to pay up he said he was terribly sorry but he didn’t have any money. And I was just about to get pretty angry with him when he said that he could put me on to a pretty good thing instead, if I was interested. Well, I reckoned that I didn’t have much choice, so...’
‘I see,’ says Kriemhild icily. ‘Tell me, this knight, was he sort of dark, good-looking in a blah sort of way, long nose, hair fluffed up at the back...?’
‘Yes,’ says Boamund, surprised. ‘Do you know him? I mean, how can you, you’ve been asleep...’
‘Just wait till I get my hands on him, the treacherous little rat,’ says Kriemhild, vigorously. ‘I should have guessed, I really should.’
‘You do know him, then?’
Kriemhild laughs bitterly. ‘Oh yes,’ she says, ‘I know Tancred de la Grange all right. The little weasel,’ she adds. ‘I shall have a thing or two to say to Messire de la Grange when he finally condescends to get here.’
Something sinks into Boamund’s slowly grinding brain. ‘Oh,’ he says. ‘So you’re going to, er...’
‘And you’re, um, not going to...’
‘No.’ Kriemhild takes off her cardy, rolls it into a ball and puts her head on it. ‘Please replace my veil before you go,’ she says firmly. ‘Good night.’
‘Oh,’ says Boamund. ‘Right you are, then.’ He stoops awkwardly down and picks up the veil, not noticing that he’s standing on one corner of it. There is a tearing sound. ‘Sorry,’ he says, and drapes it as best he can over the face of the princess, who is now fast asleep once more. She grunts.
‘Damn,’ says Boamund, faintly; then, with a shrug which makes his vamplates crunch rustily, he sets off slowly down the mountain.
He’s about a third of the way down when it starts raining again.
Fortunately there is a small cave nearby, its entrance half hidden by a wind-twisted thorn tree, and he squelches heavily towards it. Just inside he sees a dwarf, sitting cross-legged and munching a drumstick.
‘Hello, dwarf,’ says Boamund.
‘Wotcher, tosh,’ replies the dwarf, not looking up.
‘Still pissing down out there, is it?’
‘Um,’ says Boamund. ‘Yes.’
‘Rotten bloody climate, isn’t it?’ says the dwarf. ‘I suppose you’re coming in.’
‘If you don’t mind.’
‘Suit yourself,’ says the dwarf. ‘I suppose you want a drink, an’ all.’
Boamund’s face lights up under his sodden fringe. ‘Have you got any milk?’ he asks.
The dwarf favours him with a look of distilled scorn and indicates a big leather bottle. ‘Help yourself,’ he says, with his mouth full.
It’s a strange drink. Boamund thinks there are probably herbs in it; cold herbal tea or something. Then he suddenly feels terribly, terribly sleepy.
When he’s fast asleep the dwarf jettisons his chicken leg, grins unpleasantly, makes a cabalistic sign and gets up to leave. A thought crosses his mind and he turns back. Having stolen Boamund’s purse, penknife with corkscrew attachment and handkerchief, he leaves, and soon he has vanished completely.
Boamund sleeps.
Quite some time later he woke up.
Localised heavy rain, perhaps; or else someone had just emptied a bucket of water over him. He tried to move, but couldn’t. Something creaked.
‘It’s all right,’ said a voice somewhere overhead. That was probably God, Boamund thought; in which case, what he’d always suspected was true. God did indeed come from the West Riding of Yorkshire.
‘You’re not paralysed or anything like that,’ the voice went on, ‘it’s just that your armour’s rusted solid. Really solid,’ the voice added, with just a touch of awe. ‘We’re going to need more than just tinsnips to get you out of there.’
Boamund tried to see who was talking - probably not God after all - but the best he could do was crane his eyes. Result, a close-up of the bottom edge of his visor. ‘Where am I?’ he asked.
‘In a cave,’ replied the voice, and then continued, ‘You’ve been here for some time, actually, sorry about that.’
Boamund cast his mind back. A fiery mountain. A maiden. A dwarf. Milk that tasted funny. Something his mother had told him, many, many years ago, about not accepting milk from strange dwarves.
‘What’s going on?’ he asked.
‘Ah,’ replied the voice. ‘You’re the perceptive type, I can see that. Maybe all it needs is a dab of penetrating oil. Hold still.’
This injunction was, of course, somewhat redundant, but at least Boamund caught a very brief glimpse of someone small, in a purple hood, darting across his restricted line of vision. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘you’re the dwarf, aren’t you? The one who...’
‘Close,’ said the dwarf, ‘but not quite.’
‘Hang on,’ Boamund remonstrated. ‘Either you are or you...’
‘I’m not the dwarf you’re thinking of,’ replied the dwarf, ‘but I’m a relative of his.’
‘A relative...’
‘Yes.’ A small, ugly, wide grin floated across Boamund’s sight-plane for an instant and then vanished again. ‘A relative. In fact...’
‘Um.’ A scuttling noise. ‘A direct relative.’ There was a curious swooshing sound near Boamund’s left knee. ‘Try that.’
Boamund made an attempt to flex his leg, without results.
‘Give it another go,’ said the dwarf. ‘Brilliant stuff, this WD-40, but you’ve got to let it have time to seep through.’
Something began to tick inside Boamund’s head. ‘How long have I been here, exactly?’ he asked. ‘If my armour’s really rusted solid, I must have been here...’ He considered. ‘Weeks,’ he said.
‘Try that.’
‘Of course I’m...’
Sound of intake of dwarfish breath. As well as being notorious for their alliance with enchanters, sorcerers and other malign agencies, dwarves are celebrated blacksmiths and metalworkers. This means that they have that profoundly irritating knack, familiar to anyone who’s ever taken a car to a garage to have an inexplicable squeak sorted out, of drawing their breath in through a gap in their teeth instead of answering questions. The gap in the teeth, so current research would indicate, is usually the result of getting a smack in the mouth from telling a short-tempered customer that you can’t get the parts.
‘You’re stuck solid there, chum,’ said the dwarf. ‘Absolutely solid. Never seen anything like it.’
Boamund felt a tiny twinge of panic, deep down inside his digestive apparatus. ‘What do you mean,’ he said, ‘solid?’
The dwarf seemed not to have heard him. ‘Not really surprising, though, amount of time you’ve been here. Suppose we could give it a try with the old cold chisel, but I’m not promising anything.’
‘Hey!’ said Boamund; and the next moment the entire universe began to vibrate loudly.
‘Thought not,’ said the dwarf, after a while. ‘Helmet’s rusted solid on to your vambrace. Looks like a hacksaw job to me. Stay there a minute, will you?’
In an ideal world Boamund would have pointed out, very wittily, that he didn’t have much choice in the matter; however, since the world he was in fact inhabiting was still badly polluted with the after-effects of the dwarf attacking his helmet with hammer and chisel, Boamund didn’t bother. What he in fact said was, ‘Aaaagh.’
‘Right then,’ said the dwarf at his side. ‘I’ve got the hacksaw, the big hammer, crowbar and the oxy-acetylene cutter. Hold still a minute while I just...’
‘What’s an oxy-whatever you said?’
‘Oh yes.’ The dwarf was silent for a moment. ‘You know I said I was a relative of that other dwarf?’
‘Well,’ the dwarf replied, ‘the fact is, I’m his ... Just a tick.’ The dwarf muttered under his breath. He was counting.
‘You’re his what?’
‘I’m his great- great- great- great- great- great- great-great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great-great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great-great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great-great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great-great-grandson,’ said the dwarf, ‘approximately. I’m basing that on, say, fifteen hundred years, thirty-five-odd years per generation. You get the idea.’
There was, for the space of several minutes, a very profound silence in the cave, broken only by the sound of the dwarf having a go at the hinge-bolt of Boamund’s visor with a triangular-section rasp.
‘What did you just say?’ Boamund asked.
‘I’m the great- great- great- great- great- great- great-great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great-great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great-great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great-great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great-great-grandson of the other dwarf,’ said the dwarf, ‘the one you mentioned just now. And my name is Toenail. Ah, that’s better, I think we’re getting somewhere.’
Boamund made a gurgling noise, like a blocked hotel drain. ‘What was that you said,’ he asked, ‘about fifteen hundred years?’
Toenail looked up from his raspwork. ‘Say fifteen hundred years,’ he replied, ‘give or take a year or so. That’s your actual oral tradition for you, you see, handed down by word of mouth across forty generations. Approximately forty generations, anyway. Hold on a second.’
There was a crash, and something gave. A moment later, Toenail proudly displayed a corroded brown lump. ‘Your visor,’ he explained. ‘Now for the tricky bit.’
‘I’ve been here for fifteen hundred years?’
‘We’ll call it that,’ said the dwarf, ‘for ready money, so to speak. You got enchanted.’
‘I’d guessed that.’
‘It was the milk,’ Toenail continued. ‘Big tradition in our family, how Toenail the First put the Foolish Knight to sleep with a drugged posset. About the only exciting thing that’s ever happened to us, in fact. Fifteen hundred years of unbroken linear descent we’ve got - there’s just the three of us, actually, now that Mum’s passed on, rest her soul, that’s me, our Chilblain and our Hangnail - fifteen hundred years and what’ve we got to show for it? One drugged knight, and a couple of hundred thousand kettles mended and lawnmower blades sharpened. Continuity, they call it.’
‘Hold still.’
There was a terrific creak, and then something hit Boamund very hard on the point of his chin. When he next came to, his head was mobile again and there was something looking like a big brown coal-scuttle lying beside him.
‘Your helmet,’ said Toenail, proudly. ‘Welcome to the twentieth century, by the way.’
‘The what?’
‘Oh yes,’ Toenail replied, ‘I forgot, back in your day they hadn’t started counting them yet. I wouldn’t worry,’ he added, ‘you haven’t missed anything much.’
‘Haven’t I?’
Toenail considered. ‘Nah,’ he said. ‘Right, it’s the torch for that breastplate, I reckon.’
In spite of what Toenail had said, Boamund felt he’d definitely missed out on the development of the oxy-acetylene cutter.
‘What the hell,’ he said, when his voice was functional once more, ‘was that?’
‘I’ll explain it all later,’ Toenail replied. ‘Just think of it as a portable dragon, okay?’ He lifted off a section of breastplate and tossed it aside. It clanged and disintegrated in a cloud of brown snowflakes.
‘Basically,’ Toenail went on, ‘you’ve had your Dark Ages, your Middle Ages, your Renaissance, your Age of Enlightenment, your Industrial Revolution and your World Wars. Apart from that, it’s been business pretty much as usual. Only,’ he added, ‘they don’t call it Albion any more, they call it Great Britain.’
Boamund gurgled again. ‘Great...?’
‘Britain. Or the United Kingdom. Or UK. You know, like in Kawaguchi Industries (UK) plc. But it’s basically the same thing; they’ve changed the names a bit, that’s all. We’ll sort it all out later. Hold tight.’
Boamund would have enquired further, but Toenail turned the oxy-acetylene back on and so he was rather too tied up with blind fear to pursue the matter. At one stage he felt sure that the terrible white-blue flame had gone clean through his arm.
‘Try that,’ Toenail said.
Boamund made a further noise, rather harder to reproduce in syllabic form but indicative of terror. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ said the dwarf. ‘Just count yourself lucky I didn’t think to bring the laser.’
‘What’s a...?’
‘Forget it. You can move your arms now, if you like.’
For a moment, Boamund felt that this was a black lie; and then he found he could. Then one and a half millenniums’ worth of pins and needles began to catch up with him, and he screamed.
‘Good sign, that,’ Toenail shouted above the noise, ‘shows the old blood’s beginning to circulate again. You’ll be up and about in no time, mark my words.’
‘And the first thing I’ll do,’ Boamund yelled at him, ‘I’ll take that oxy thing and ...’
Toenail grinned and went to work with the torch on Boamund’s leg-armour. Wisely, Boamund decided not to watch.
‘Anyway,’ Toenail said as he guided the terrible flame, ‘I bet that what you’re dying to ask me is, Why was I put to sleep for fifteen hundred years in a cave with all my armour on? I’m right, aren’t I?’
‘Well,’ said the dwarf, ‘oops, sorry, lost my concentration there for a minute. The armour was a mistake, I reckon, personally. Bit slapdash by old Toenail the First, if you ask me.’ The dwarf grinned pleasantly. ‘The actual going-to-sleep bit, though, that was your destiny.’
‘Butterfingers,’ muttered the dwarf. ‘Sorry. The way I heard it, anyway, you’re destined to be this, like, great hero or something. Like the old legends, you know, Alfred the Great, Sir Francis Drake—’
‘After your time, I suppose. Like the great national hero who is not dead but only sleeping and will come again when his country needs him, that sort of thing.’
‘Like Anbilant de Ganes?’ Boamund suggested. ‘Or Sir Persiflant the—’
‘Sir Persiflant the Grey,’ said Boamund wretchedly.
‘You must have heard of him, he was supposed to be asleep under Suilven Crag, and if ever the King of Benwick sets foot on Albion soil, he’ll come again and...’
Toenail grinned and shook his head. ‘Sorry, old son,’ he said. ‘Guess he forgot to set the alarm. Anyway, you get the idea. That’s you.’
‘You. Not,’ Toenail admitted, ‘that there’s much going on just at the moment. I mean, they say on the telly that unless someone does something about interest rates pretty soon it’s going to mean curtains for small businesses up and down the country, but that’s not really your line of work, I wouldn’t have thought. Maybe you’re going to do something about standards in primary school education. That it, you reckon?’
‘What’s a school?’
‘Maybe not,’ said Toenail. ‘What else could it be?’ He paused. ‘You’re not a fast left-arm bowler, by any chance?’
‘What’s a...?’
‘Pity, we could really do with one of those. Anyway, whatever it is we need, apparently you’re it. Try your feet.’
‘Champion,’ Toenail said. ‘We’ll give it a minute, and then you can try getting up.’
Boamund shifted slightly and discovered that he’d spent the last fifteen hundred years lying on a small but jagged stone. ‘Ow,’ he said.
Toenail was packing tools away in a small canvas bag. ‘I’ll say this,’ he said, ‘they made stuff to last in those days. Fifteen-hundred-year-old steel, eh?’ He picked up a massive armguard and poked his finger through it. ‘Should be in a museum or something, by rights. There’s probably people who’d pay good money...’
Boamund gave up the effort and lay back, wondering if you could die of pins and needles. Outside there was a noise; it had been there a while but he now perceived it for the first time. A low, ominous growling, like an animal - no, like a huge swarm of bees. Only these bees would have to be eight feet long to make a noise like that.
Toenail grinned at him.
‘What you can hear,’ he said, ‘is the M62. Don’t worry about it.’
‘Is it safe?’
Toenail considered. ‘Depends,’ he said. ‘But as far as you’re concerned right now, yes. Try standing up.’
He reached out a hand and Boamund grabbed it. A moment later he was putting his weight on his fifteen-hundred-year-old shoes. Oddly enough, they were fine. A spot of polish wouldn’t hurt, mind.
‘My clothes,’ said Boamund. ‘Why aren’t they...?’
‘Enchanted,’ Toenail replied. ‘Keeps them all nice and fresh. Come on, we’re running late as it is.’
Boamund followed Toenail to the door of the cave, looked out, and screamed.


On Sale
Sep 4, 2012
Page Count
368 pages

Tom Holt

About the Author

Tom Holt was born in London in 1961. At Oxford he studied bar billiards, ancient Greek agriculture and the care and feeding of small, temperamental Japanese motorcycle engines interests which led him, perhaps inevitably, to qualify as a solicitor and emigrate to Somerset, where he specialized in death and taxes for seven years before going straight in 1995. He lives in Chard, Somerset, with his wife and daughter.

Learn more about this author