Contrary to appearances, Bernard Black was a man who lived by strict rules. Not necessarily the same rules most other people abided by, but rules nevertheless. 'Never look too hard at a kebab' was one; 'never trust anyone over the age of seven whose name ends in a Y' was another. One that had stood him in particularly good stead over the years was 'never drink from a bottle without a label'.
Rules are made to be broken, however, and every one of Bernard's inviolable laws for living had certain circumstances in which exemptions might be made. In this particular case, for example, he had found himself bored and alone on a wet Sunday afternoon, with the wine unaccountably gone, and faced with a choice between an unlabelled bottle he'd found at the back of a cupboard, some Advocaat that Fran had bought three Christmasses ago, or sobriety. The unlabelled bottle had won.
God only knew what it was. All Bernard's half-dead tastebuds could work out was that it was a) disgusting, b) very strong, and c) tasted a bit like liquorice. This was no help at all, since almost every European country you cared to name had its own particular disgusting and very strong liquorice-flavoured spirit that it produced primarily to sell to credulous tourists. Luckily for the sake of Bernard's afternoon, he didn't really care if it was ouzo or sambuca or some liquidised Black Jacks strained through a tramp's sock; it was certainly alcoholic, and that was what mattered.
He was halfway through the bottle and nearly at the point where he could drink it without having to fight back his gag reflex, when the green fairy appeared.
"Oh, it's absinthe," Bernard said to himself, relieved to have solved that problem.
"Are you Bernard?" the fairy said, in a voice like the tinkling of empties being tossed into a recycling bin.
"I have to come to inform you of a matter of dire importance," the fairy said.
"Piss off, I'm busy," Bernard said, with a dismissive wave of his hand.
The fairy did not piss off. Instead it fluttered its wings in an agitated manner and came closer. "The fate of the bookshop is at stake, and you are the only one who can save it."
Bernard waved the bottle in the fairy's direction. "I said, I'm busy."
The fairy paid him no heed, instead grabbing hold of his sleeve and trying with all its might to pull him upright.
"Stop that!" Bernard said, trying to swat the fairy away and ending up slopping absinthe all over his lap. "Now look what you've done."
"Please, you must come with me." The fairy looked somewhat sheepish. "You can take the bottle with you."
Bernard sighed. "Fine. But make it quick."
The fairy flew away, trailing tacky-looking green sparkles in its wake, and Bernard did his best to stagger in roughly the same direction. The fairy led him into the depths of the shop, past the dusty shelves at the back where only the really intense customers who smelled like mothballs went, onwards to shelves even further back that Bernard wasn't entirely sure he recognised. On and on they went - he'd had no idea the shop was this large - the bookcases getting gradually taller and the air around them growing cold.
As he kept walking, Bernard became gradually aware that he could feel leaves crunching underfoot, and the bookcases on each side of him looked less like bookcases and more like trees that some pretentious gardener had bent into a roughly bookcase-ish shape. He reached out to take one of the books, and it came off with a loud snap, leaving behind a stem that oozed inky black sap.
"What the - where am I?" Bernard looked around, but the fairy was nowhere to be seen. "Come back, you little green bastard!"
He turned round and round until he felt sick and had to stop, but there was still no sign of the fairy. And then, just when he thought it couldn't get any worse, it did.
"Bernard! Thank god you're here!" cried a horribly familiar voice.
Bernard scowled. "What are you doing here?"
Manny was standing by one of the bookcase-trees, dressed in a woolly hat, a Hawaiian shirt with a moons-and-stars motif, and what appeared to be a pair of fun-fur trousers.
"I live here," Manny said, and bowed low, removing his hat to reveal a little pair of horns growing from his forehead. "My name is Mister White."
"What, are they remaking Reservoir Dogs with goblins?"
Manny straightened up. "I'm not a goblin, I'm a faun."
Bernard looked down and realised that what he had taken for trousers were in fact Manny's own revoltingly hairy legs, with cloven hooves instead of feet. He somehow wasn't at all surprised.
"That's no excuse for not wearing pants," he said. "What's going on? What is this place?"
"We are in the mystical land of The Bookshop," Manny said dramatically. Bernard could actually hear him pronouncing the capital letters. "And you are Bernard the Black, the king from beyond the shelves."
Bernard narrowed his eyes. "Have you been eating Marmite again? You know it gives you ideas."
Manny nodded deeply. "Ah yes, they said you would speak in riddles and insults. Come, Bernard. We have no time to waste."
"Yes we do, it's Sunday. And come where?"
But Manny was already clip-clopping away down the forest path. Bernard was going to let him go and head back the way he had come, but when he turned he found the way blocked by branches, with only a faint yellow glow in the distance to suggest that the bookshop he knew was still back there. He raised the bottle to his lips, but other than a few final drops, the absinthe was gone.
"Manny!" he shouted. Manny stopped and turned, looking surprised to see Bernard so far behind.
"Where we're going, is there wine?"
"Then I'm coming with you."
The journey seemed to take forever. Not that they could have walked for more than half a mile, if that, but Bernard's shoes were entirely suited to walking over hard and frosty ground, and Manny just wouldn't stop wittering on about how glad he was that Bernard was here and how they had so little time, without saying anything whatsoever to answer any of Bernard's questions. Bernard swiftly found himself tuning him out, maintaining his will to keep onwards only by the thought of the wine that would be greeting them at the end of the path.
At last, they came to a clearing in the forest where there were several small houses that seemed to be made largely out of cardboard and packing tape. The largest of these buildings had a sign above its entrance which seemed familiar for reasons Bernard couldn't quite put his finger on.
"Here we are," Manny said, gesturing towards it. "The Bleeding Bear Tavern."
"At last!" Bernard said, wasting no time in entering and approaching the bar. "Bring me a bucketful of house red."
"Right you are, guv," said the barman, a large and unusually hairy fairy with dainty pink wings sticking through holes cut in the back of his Millwall shirt. There was a puff of smoke, and a glass of wine the size of a small child appeared on the bartop. Bernard lifted it to his lips and slurped it greedily. Maybe there was something to be said for this place after all.
"Bernard," Manny said, nudging him. "There's somebody who wants to meet you."
He nodded across the room, to where a woman in a pointy hat sat warming herself by the glow of a novelty lamp.
"Fran?" Bernard said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. "You're here as well? Is this some kind of holiday you arranged and didn't tell me about?"
"Bernard, this is Katzenjammer, the Reasonably Good Witch of WC1," said Manny. "Katzenjammer, this is Bernard the Black."
"Is anyone ever going to answer any of my questions?" Bernard said.
"He's still a bit disorientated from the journey," Manny said in a stage whisper.
Fran stood. "Are you sure it's him? I thought he'd be taller."
"Hello? Can either of you hear me? I have questions! Questions that demand answers!" Bernard shouted.
But it was quite possible that they couldn't hear him, or didn't care. Fran paced around him in a circle, peering at him with great curiosity.
"I suppose it might not be him, but he does answer to Bernard, and he's the only person the Green Fairy managed to find beyond the shelves," Manny said. "He's dressed like they said he would be, and look -" He reached out and pushed aside Bernard's hair, just behind his right ear.
"The Mushrooms of Destiny!" Fran said.
"There's nothing wrong with the mushrooms. They're highly nutritious," Bernard said, defensively pulling his hair back to cover them.
"So you are Bernard the Black," Fran said. "And not a moment too soon."
"Will either of you ever tell me what you're blathering on about?" Bernard looked them both up and down. "Is this LARPing? Are we LARPing? Manny, I've told you I won't have any of that Lord of the Rings nonsense in my shop."
"Bernard," Fran said, gesturing for them all to sit down. "I know it's all a bit last-minute, but this is serious. The Bookshop is in danger."
"Yes, everyone keeps saying that, but nobody's told me why." Bernard tried to take another sip of his wine, and ended up getting half of it up his nose. "And can I have a straw for this?"
"Half a mo, guv," the barman said. There was another puff of smoke, and a long, curly plastic straw appeared in the glass.
Manny leaned forward so the lamplight shone underneath his chin and made him look even more ghoulish. "They call them... the Amazons," he said.
"Who do?" Bernard said.
"Oh, you know, the people that always call people things," Manny said, waving it off. "Anyway, they're a tribe of ferocious warriors who destroy everything in their path and never pay their taxes. They've already laid waste to the Borders, and even the giants of the Water Stones are scared of them."
"And they've got a new weapon," Fran said. "A magic book that can hold the words of many books, but the Amazons can take away the words whenever they feel like it."
"And what's this got to do with me?" Bernard said.
"If we don't stop the Amazons, the Bookshop will become bare and uninhabitable, and someone will come and buy the land and occupy it for themselves," Fran said. "We may be annexed by the men of Poundland, or become another outpost of the empire of Gregg."
"He is also known as... The Baker," Manny said ominously. "You must not partake of his cursed pastries!"
"Why not?" Bernard said.
"Well, they're not very good, and I always burn my mouth," Fran said. "Anyway, we're getting off-topic. The point is, you've got to save us."
"Have I?" Bernard frowned. "Who says?"
"Well, you're the king," Fran said, shrugging. "If you don't defeat the Amazons, then you'll be out of a job."
"Ah." Bernard took a long slurp at the curly straw. "Right then. How am I meant to defeat them?"
Fran and Manny exchanged glances. "We were hoping you could tell us."
Bernard thought for a moment, idly twirling the straw between his fingers. "Could we just tell them to sod off and leave us alone?"
Fran and Manny laughed bitterly.
"Okay, then, why don't we pay them to leave us alone?"
Fran shook her head. "They're already filthy rich. They've got whole mountains of gold stashed away in the secret chambers of the dwarves of Lucks-em-Berg."
"Well, I don't know! Why would I know? Nobody told me about this place when I signed the lease," Bernard said, throwing the straw away and downing the rest of his wine in one gulp.
There was a sudden jingling noise, and they turned to see the bartender ringing a tiny silver bell.
"It can't be last orders, it's not even three in the afternoon," Bernard protested.
"I just wanted to get your attention, guv," the barman said. "Had a spider pass me a message saying the Council want to see you."
"Already?" Manny said, alarmed.
The barman shrugged. "Apparently someone's already sighted the Amazons coming down the other side of the valley. Time's running out."
"Then we'd better be off," Fran said, getting to her feet. "Come on, everyone."
"But I haven't thought of any good ideas yet," Bernard said. "And I want to have an afternoon nap."
"There won't be anywhere to have an afternoon nap if you don't work something out soon," Fran snapped. "Get up. You'll just have to think of a solution on the way."
They left the Bleeding Bear and walked back into the forest. Around them all manner of fairies and goblins worked tending to the bookcase-trees, dusting the branches, sweeping up fallen pages, and tapping and bottling the ink.
"This is all very derivative," Bernard said, keeping an eye out for any sign of flying monkeys or rabbits with pocket-watches. "It's like being in a bad fanfiction or something. Any minute now one of you's going to try and snog me."
Fran and Manny both laughed awkwardly. "As if we'd ever dream of doing anything like that," Fran said, with a forced smile.
"Definitely not. Not ever. Yuck," Manny hastily added. Bernard gave them both a deeply suspicious look and buttoned his jacket up all the way to the collar, just in case.
As they walked, the forest began to clear and the ground began to slope, and Bernard saw a city in the valley below. At least, he assumed it was a city - as they came nearer, though, he realised it looked more like a comically oversized library. Instead of streets, it had giant bookcases, with tall, slender houses lined up along the shelves. The different levels were connected by spindly bridges and tall ladders, and cable cars that followed an erratic tangle of lines that looked more like cobwebs than any coherent urban transport system.
"You're really big on sticking to a theme here, aren't you?" Bernard said, with a bemused shake of his head. He'd given up on being confused or outraged by this place; now he was just beginning to find it all a bit twee.
"Well, what did you expect?" Fran said. "There's the village of Kitchen, over to the west; that looks a bit different to the rest of The Bookshop. But I wouldn't go there unless I had to."
"Aw, it's not that bad," Manny said. "As long as you take something for the rats to eat, and stay well away from the Sink swamps."
"What's wrong with the sink?" Bernard said.
"It's not so much the Sink itself, it's what lives in it," Fran said. "Some of the moulds are very aggressive."
"Not to mention The Beast In The Drain," Manny added.
Fran rolled her eyes. "Oh, that's not real. It's an urban myth."
"You said that about The Things Under The Bed until they ate your shoes," Manny replied.
Bernard actually remembered that. "Well, they were horrible shoes anyway, and it wouldn't have happened if you'd given it the bananas like Manny told you."
"See?" Manny said, looking vindicated.
"I thought we promised not to talk about it!" Fran said. "Anyway,we're here now."
They had stopped by a large building which looked very much like a giant desk, complete with a cash register and a number of discarded biros on top.
"This is the Bibliotheque," said Manny, "Home of the Council of The Bookshop." He glanced sidelong at Bernard. "You could at least try and look impressed."
"It's a giant desk, I get it," Bernard said. "You're the ones who've been telling me not to waste time. Come on, where's the way in?"
As it turned out, the doorway was built into one of the desk's legs; a winding spiral staircase led them up to a reception hall, and from there they were swiftly ushered into a conference room where a number of anatomical unfortunates were sat around a large round table. As Bernard and company entered the room, they all rose to their feet - that was, presuming they all had feet.
"Our most gracious welcome, Your Majesty," said a giant spider, performing an ornate curtsey. Bernard had to admit, much as he thought this place childish and silly, he could rather get used to this whole 'automatic deference' business. He graced the spider with a slight smile and his best attempt at that twirly-hand thing that royalty did instead of waving properly.
"Quick introductions," Fran said. "The Council is made up of representatives of the different creatures that live in The Bookshop. She's the Duchess of the Spiders, that's Lord Dust, he's the Head Booklouse, that's the Grand General of the Various Moulds, and last but no means least, that's the current Chief of Things That Have Fallen Down The Back Of Other Things."
"We're in an awful pickle," said the Chief of Things That Have Fallen Down The Back Of Other Things, an approximately humanoid creature made of string, old coins and pen tops. For some reason, it sounded a lot like Alan Bennett. "Apparently the Amazons are almost here already."
"You're our only hope," said the Head Booklouse, fidgeting with its attennae. "We've already seen so many other Bookshops disappear."
"We've spent too much time talking as it is!" said the Grand General of the Various Moulds, thumping her fist on the table (and leaving behind a horrible green mark). "Now is the time to fight!"
"But with what? We don't have the armies, or even the arms," said Lord Dust. "I think we should try and make a deal."
"We can't bargain with the Amazons," Fran said. "First they'll take tithes from our earnings, then they'll buy us wholesale. Don't you remember what they did to old Abe the Antiquarian? He's just their puppet now."
"Aye, but at least he's still alive," Lord Dust said. "We have to do something, or else we'll be destroyed."
"Perhaps we could form a strategic alliance?" suggested the Booklouse. "I've been talking with a diplomat from the Land of Costa..."
"No coffee!" Bernard shouted. Everyone turned to look at him.
"First you have coffee, and then they want sofas, and music, and central heating, and everyone's socialising," Bernard went on, spitting out the last word as if it was painful just to say it. "If people want coffee, they can go to a coffee shop. Bookshops are for books."
"You don't think that's a bit xenophobic?" the Booklouse said.
"He's quite right," the Chief of Things Etcetera nodded. "It would be rather a blow to our sovereignty. And I much prefer a nice cup of tea anyway."
"But we've got to do something," the Spider said. "None of us like it, but we have to face facts. We've got to change."
"Who says?" Bernard said.
"Well... it's obvious, isn't it?" the Spider said. "We certainly don't get very many visitors."
"Good," said Bernard. "Customers only make the place messy and ask stupid questions."
In the moment of silence that followed, there could clearly be heard the blaring of trumpets and voices chanting something that sounded very much like 'free super-saver delivery!'.
"Oh, heavens to Murgatroyd, that's them now," said the Chief of Things Etcetera. The Spider scuttled to the window.
"I can see them at the edge of the city," she said. "Bernard, what are we going to do?"
"What are we going to do?" Manny echoed, grabbing Bernard suddenly by the shirt. "Bernard! Bernard!"
"Get off me!" Bernard pushed Manny away and got up out of his seat, pacing restlessly up and down the room, muttering to himself as he thought. "No... no... we could - no... maybe? No... I've got it!"
Everyone looked at him expectantly.
"We..." Bernard said, slowly and carefully, "...are going to do nothing."
"Nothing?" everyone said in unison.
"We're going to be very still and very quiet, and if they ring the doorbell, we're not in."
Fran, Manny, and the Council did not seem impressed.
"Are you sure about this?" Manny said.
"Is that really the best thing you can think of?" Fran said.
"Excuse me, who's the king?" Bernard said. "If I say we're going to do nothing, nothing is what we're going to do. Now shut up and hide somewhere, they're nearly here."
And so, as the Amazons approached, the citizens of the land of The Bookshop all did their best to pretend they weren't there. Every light was turned off and every door bolted, and the great sign on the Front Door gatehouse flipped over to the side that said 'Sorry, We're Closed'.
In the Bibliotheque, Fran, Manny and the Council all hid underneath the table, while Bernard stood by the window, occasionally peeping out from behind a curtain. For long, agonising minutes they waited in silence. And then for some more, even longer, more agonising minutes.
"I'm beginning to get cramp," Manny muttered.
"Shh!" Bernard frantically waved an arm, gesturing for him to stay down. Something fluttered past the window, and Bernard hastily undid the latch and reached out to grab it. It was a small piece of glossy paper. "Twenty percent off a customised photo album," he read.
"That means they're gone!" cried Fran. "They always leave vouchers behind."
"Can we come out now?" Manny said.
"Eh, why not?" Bernard shrugged, opening the windows wide to look at the flurry of vouchers that drifted on the breeze. In the distance he could just about see the last of the Amazons vanishing over the crest of the hill.
"Your Majesty, you've saved us!" the Booklouse cried delightedly. "I'm sorry for ever doubting you, sir."
"How did you know they'd leave us alone if we kept quiet?" Manny said, stretching out his legs and brushing bits of mould and dust off his fur.
Bernard couldn't help but feel smug. "Because I'm the King of The Bookshop and I know that sort of thing," he said. "Really, why would they care about my bookshop? They can do their thing and I'll do mine. As long as I sell enough books to pay the rent and buy enough wine, we don't need any of that other fancy whatnot."
Fran looked doubtful. "I'm sure we could do more to attract customers."
"Yeah, probably, but it's too much like hard work," Bernard said. "Anyway, I just saved a kingdom. I think that calls for a celebration."
"Hooray!" said Manny, throwing his woolly hat into the air.
They partied long into the night, with ample supplies of wine, and cheese, and little sausages on sticks. Music played and tales were told, and people danced in the streets (though mercifully, nobody tried to make Bernard join in). Pretty elf girls came and draped him with garlands of paper and corks, and a swarm of fairy waiters made sure that his wine glass was never empty. People and creatures all patted him on the back and told him how brilliant he was, and at some point he was pretty sure he kissed both Fran and Manny and possibly also the Duchess of the Spiders, but none of it mattered because at last, at last, he had found a place where he was happy and appreciated.
The climax of the celebration came in a grand parade where he was carried through the streets and showered with confetti, with all the populace of The Bookshop cheering and applauding him on his way.
"Bernard! Bernard! Bernard!" the crowd chanted, delirious with joy.
"Bernard! Bernard!" He opened his eyes, and Fran was standing over him, shoving at his shoulder and repeating his name.
"What?" he said.
"You're alive!" he heard Manny say.
Bernard tried to sit up, and immediately wished he hadn't, because the slightest motion made his head pound like a troupe of clog dancers had rented out his skull as rehearsal space. He flopped back against the sofa and put his hands over his eyes.
"God, we were almost worried," Fran said. "You've been passed out there all morning. What have you been drinking?"
He tentatively opened one eye and saw Manny sniffing at the empty absinthe bottle. "It's either ouzo or paint thinner."
"Oh, Bernard," Fran sighed.
Bernard groaned. "I had the most awful dream," he said. "You were there, and Manny was there, and -"
"Yes, I'm sure we were," Fran said, grabbing his shoulders and starting to wrestle him into an upright position. "Come on."
"And I was the king!" Bernard went on, while Manny unlocked the door and turned the sign to 'Open'. "- and everybody loved me, and -"
"That's lovely, but it's ten o' clock on a Monday morning, and the shop's got to open some time," Fran said, setting Bernard upright and pushing him in the direction of the desk.
Bernard queasily flopped into his chair and reached in his drawer for some aspirin. Really, the whole thing had been a dream all along? He guessed it was an appropriately stupid and derivative ending to such a narratively unoriginal adventure, but he couldn't deny that he did feel a little bit disappointed. Just for a moment there, he'd been somebody important.
But unnoticed by him or anyone else, a little green fairy emerged from a gap between the shelves at the back of the shop and smiled. The bookshop was safe, the king was on his throne, and as much as it ever would be, all was well.