This was the 2015 Christmas Special.
The guard shoved Elizabeth Darcy into the cell and slammed the door on her. As she slumped down to the floor, there was a definite movement inside her. A kick of a tiny foot? Or a slither of a tiny tentacle? After six long years, a serial, a book and several increasingly confusing special episodes, Elizabeth Darcy was still none the wiser about the little companion in her womb. And the way things stood at the moment, it didn’t look as if the situation was going to become any clearer in the near future either.
She had no recollection of how she had arrived in the Citadel. One moment she had been dancing with happy feet at the Christmas Ball at Netherfield Hall and the next she was in this revolting prison in the middle of a desert on the other side of the world.
As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she noticed four other women staring at her.
‘That’s all we need,’ said one of them. ‘A bloody passenger.’
The others all hissed at her to be quiet. One of them came over to Elizabeth and squatted down next to her.
‘So when’s the sprog due?’ she said, pointing to Elizabeth’s belly.
‘Er… I’m not sure,’ said Lizzy.
‘Huh?’ said the woman, raising an eyebrow. ‘You must know when. Nine months after the action, right? Usually is in my experience, anyway.’ She mimed a lewd action and the other women laughed in a coarse manner.
‘No, no, no,’ said Lizzy. ‘You see, I’ve been carrying this babe for five years now. I think.’
‘Five years? Jeez. Must be some kinda mutant.’
‘Well, ’tis possible it has tentacles, yes.’
The woman gave a smile of recognition. ‘Ah. I see,’ she said. ‘You come from over Miller’s Peak, then? Get plenty mutants there.’
Lizzy nodded, anxious to end this line of conversation. ‘Yes, yes,’ she said. ‘That would be it.’
There was an awkward silence.
‘So who’s the daddy?’ said the other woman. ‘Can’t be one of Collins’s, ’cos he’s been trying with all four of us in turn for three an’ a half years an’ he ain’t managed yet.’
The other women sniggered. Lizzy shivered at the name.
‘Did you say Collins?’ she said.
‘Yeah. You must know him. Immortan Collins. Runs the Citadel. For the moment, anyways.’
‘Ah,’ said Lizzy with some relief. ‘Immortan Collins. He’s not a priest, is he?’
‘Nah. Although I heard a rumour once that he was a preacher before all this happened.’
‘Oh,’ said Lizzy. ‘All what happened?’
But at that moment there was a disturbance in the cell. The door crashed open and the guard stumbled through and collapsed on the floor. He writhed around for a few seconds and then stopped making any movement at all. After a brief inspection, Lizzy surmised that his unusual behaviour was due to the knife that had been inserted with some force in the back of his neck.
A woman strode into the room. She had close-cropped hair and black paint smeared over her forehead. She also appeared to have a significant part of one arm missing. She bent down and retrieved the knife.
She looked furious.
The women all immediately got to their feet and headed towards the door.
‘Who’s she?’ said Furious, eyeing Lizzy’s swollen belly. ‘Immortan hasn’t scored at last, has he?’
‘My name is Elizabeth Darcy,’ said Lizzy. ‘I come from Pemberley in England and I am carrying the child of my husband, Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy.’ She paused before adding, ‘Or possibly an alien impersonating him at the time.’
‘Yeah, whatever,’ said Furious. ‘Can you handle a weapon?’
‘I faced down a tentacled shape-shifting Martian once.’
‘That’ll do. Immortan’s going to be so pissed when he finds out we’ve stolen his baby carrier.’
Lizzy didn’t move.
‘Well, come on then!’ said Furious. ‘We gotta go.’
It was good to be out of the cell, but the new accommodation – in a secret compartment on a cart hidden underneath a heap of pig slurry – wasn’t a great improvement.
‘Don’t worry, Liz,’ said one of the other women. ‘We only need to hide in here until we’re clear of the Citadel.’
‘Won’t the Collins fellow come after us when he finds out we’ve escaped?’
‘We’ll still have the edge. Furious says her horses are the fastest in the land.’
If only we had Jennifer, thought Lizzy. Wickham’s horse could outrun any beast on the planet, especially when fed on Sir Humphry Davy’s special mixtures. But where was Wickham now? She no longer knew which narrative she was following any more. Mary and Robert had tried to explain it once, using words like ‘postmodernism’, ‘intertextuality’ and ‘post-anterior-deconstructionism’ but it had made her head spin and in the end she had to admit that her knowledge basically amounted to Foucault.
Was Mary still with Robert? Did Robert even exist? And if he did, which version?
Life could be so confusing sometimes.
She could feel the beat of the horses’ hooves pounding along the road as the carriage rattled away from Immortan Collins’s Citadel. Every furlong they travelled was a furlong closer to safety.
And then she slowly became aware of something else. There were a number of other sets of hooves heading their way.
‘Did you hear that?’ she said out loud.
‘Shush,’ said one of the other women. ‘Don’t let them know we’re in here.’
The other horses came closer and closer until finally there was the sound of battle being engaged above and in front of them. Several men and one woman could be heard screaming at each other in between thuds and crashes and the sound of miscellaneous things breaking.
Lizzy poked her head out from under the covers and noticed several horsemen bearing down on their cart. There was also a large carriage following hard on their heels. The carriage was one of the largest Lizzy had ever seen and needed eight horses to pull it. There was a constant sound of drums coming from it, as well as a lone banjo player seated atop its roof. The end of the banjo seemed to be on fire, for no good reason that Lizzy could discern.
She ducked back under and prayed for her life. The cart was now rocking violently from side to side and the shouting had intensified.
‘We need to help Furious,’ said Lizzy. ‘Don’t we?’
‘I think she can cope OK without us.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yeah. Just you wait.’
The battle continued for another few minutes and finally there was another loud sequence of bumps and bangs from the front of the cart before it slowed to a halt. Then there was silence. Even the drums and banjo ceased. After a brief pause, there was a knock on the side of the compartment.
‘OK, open up,’ came Furious’s voice. ‘Time for a break.’
The five women emerged into the open air and breathed in the fresh air. A man approached and they immediately huddled together for safety.
‘It’s OK,’ said Furious, sheathing her sword. ‘He’s cool.’ She gestured towards a heap of bodies to one side of the cart.
‘He killed all those?’ said one of the other women in wonder.
‘Yeah,’ said Furious. ‘He did OK.’ Then she pointed towards another pile of corpses, roughly three times the size of the first one. A smashed banjo lay carelessly on top of it. ‘Those are mine,’ she added.
‘Nice,’ said Lizzy. ‘Why’s he wearing a garden fork over his face?’
‘I think it’s some kind of contractual requirement,’ said Furious. ‘He says it’s the bane of his life.’
The man took off his mask and gave Lizzy a half smile. He was tough and hardy-looking, but there was also something oddly familiar about him. A vague memory of a man slashing through a mass of tentacles sprang to her mind and then vanished as quickly as it had arrived.
‘And who are you, may I ask?’ she said, blushing slightly.
‘They call me Wix,’ the man said. ‘I’m a bit mad, you know.’
‘Where are we going?’ said Lizzy to the other women when they were safely hidden away again under the slurry.
‘We’re supposed to be heading to Pig Town to trade this muck for food. But Furious is taking us to some green place instead where we can hang out and be safe from everyone.’
‘And this place is protected how?’ said Lizzy.
‘Dunno. Maybe that’s why she’s let Mad Wix come along. So he can help her reload her musket and stuff.’
‘He’s very quiet, isn’t he?’
‘Yeah, well, he’s only a minor character.’
The cart trundled on into the night and eventually they came to a stop again.
‘Everybody out,’ came Furious’s voice. ‘We’re here.’
The five women staggered out into the cold night.
‘This is it?’ said Lizzy.
‘Yeah,’ said Furious. ‘I know it looks a bit like a swamp, but – ’
‘That’s because it is a swamp, isn’t it?’ said one of the other women.
‘Do you ladies have names, by the way?’ said Lizzy.
‘Only if you look us up on IMDB,’ said the other.
A figure emerged out of the gloom. It was an octogenarian woman, dressed in grey rags.
‘You’ve come at last,’ she said in a quavering voice. ‘I knew you wouldn’t miss her birthday.’
‘Huh?’ said Furious.
‘Come this way, quickly,’ said the old woman. The six women and Mad Wix followed her until they came to a place where a table was set out in the open. Candles were lit and a couple of pig’s bladders had been inflated and hung from a nearby tree in a marginally festive manner. Several other old crones were seated around the table, as well as a younger woman in the place of honour at the head.
‘Good heavens!’ exclaimed Lizzy. ‘It’s you!’
‘It is indeed,’ said Jane Austen. ‘Welcome, Mrs Arsy. And welcome to you too, Mr Dickham,’ she added, turning towards Mad Wix, who flinched slightly. ‘You and I have some repair work to do, don’t you think, my dears?’