Brightly shone the moon that night, and so it should considering all the time and money he'd spent transforming it into the biggest satellite television station in the universe. Good King, you see, was neither a description nor a rank to which he was entitled but the obvious and acutely sarcastic sobriquet for a rogue Czech who had bullied, cheated and bamboozled his way to the top of the most powerful television empire the 21st century was ever likely to see.
Sire Wenceslas, for such was he christened, had revelled in the ruthless cut-throat days of television at the turn of the century. Sport had been at the centre of this vicious battle and Sire was well suited to it for he had come to Britain as one of thousands of foreign footballers who flocked here after the restrictions were lifted in 1995-96.
The stroke of evil genius that made him was acquiring the rights to send television signals from the moon. His historic saying when he landed there - "One small step for man, one giant grip on mankind" - is still the slogan of Moon TV, which soon blasted all its rivals out of the skies with the help, some say, of some illicit laser-beaming.
Even as he admired how vividly the light from his moon illuminated the falling of the cruel frost, a movement caught his eye. From far to his left, a poor man came in sight gathering winter fuel. Times being hard, this was by no means a rarity, but there was something about the distant figure that drew Sire's attention closer. Despite the man's bedraggled appearance he had a distinctly proud bearing and there was a purposeful swivel of his neck as he scanned the landscape for the slightest sign of a piece of wood.
Suddenly he lunged, his tattered clothing a blur as his hands thrust searchingly into the snow. With a cry of triumph he pulled out a small branch, broke it over his knee and crammed the pieces into the pannier on his back in one smoothly flowing movement. "Page, come stand by me," ordered Wenceslas quietly. Page O'Blurbs, his personal assistant and a PR man so sinisterly gifted not even the political parties could afford him, moved swiftly to the window as his master spoke again. "Yonder peasant, who is he and where does he live?"
The answer came with the speed and assurance of a man trained to know everything:
"Sire, he lives a good way off. By the Mountain and Fountain pub, as it happens. Why do you ask?"
"There's something fascinating about him," answered Sire and they both stood silently watching as the wood-gatherer swooped here and there into the snow, never failing to emerge with a prime piece of precious kindling. "Does it strike a bell with you, Page?"
"I've seen videos of the young Paul Gascoigne and there is a definite resemblance. You don't think . . ."
"No, no, no," snapped Sire. "Don't you remember? Gascoigne was lynched by Rangers fans when he scored three own goals in the 1999 Scottish Cup final against Celtic. As a matter of fact, Celtic fans recovered his body and he was stuffed and mounted and is still on display in the lobby at Parkhead.
"I was referring more to the possibilities that come to mind when you see a mundane activity undertaken with such skill, such grace under pressure," Sire said.
Page cursed beneath his breath. He should have realised. The search for new sports had reached panic proportions. To think that at the end of the last century the world was abound with events that drew viewers by the billion. Then followed a sequence of tragedies at the hands of satellite television. They bought our main sports up, brightened them up and buggered them up. "The Dishes of Death", wrote one crusading sportswriter. He was never heard of again. Page knew that once television moguls had inveigled control from the governing bodies by the appalling subterfuge of dangling money in front of them, they inevitably tried to improve the dramatic quality of what they saw only as a product.
Rugby league was the first victim; tampered with until its finer points became trivialised and its best players transported to Australia. Amalgamation with union didn't help, for it, too, had lost players to the southern hemisphere, where the game grew so strong that matches against European countries were commercially unviable. An attempt to revitalise football by merging it with ice hockey failed because the foreigners kept trying to put their foot on the ball. The chilling truth was that the world was running out of sport.
"Wood-gathering," exclaimed Sire suddenly. "There are more wood-gatherers than footballers these days. That man could be the start of something big. Quick, Page, bring some meat and wine."
They made the 25-floor descent and went out into a howling blizzard, the puffing Page whingeing about his feet being cold as he struggled to keep up with his boss.
A N hour later they were back in the penthouse and with them was Will the wood-gatherer. The poor man, his pannier still on his back, was staring disbelievingly at the contract Sire had laid before him. "The world's first wood-gatherer to turn pro - I can't believe it," he gasped.
"You're going to be a massive star," promised Sire who had already taken the steps to ensure that. His employees at the IOC had already been informed that wood-gathering was a new Olympic sport. A defunct governing body - the Six-a-side Topless Snooker Association - had been reformed as the World Wood-gathering Council and they were already working on a points tariff: one for pine, four for oak, five for beech and so on. Soccer, rugby and cricket grounds were being transformed into wood-gathering arenas. Forests were chopped down to provide the raw material.
The world took to it avidly because every country had a wood-gathering tradition, but Will remained the supreme talent and, five years after that fateful night, he was ready for his greatest moment: the Olympic Championships in Central Park, New York, on Christmas Day. Bits of the world's rarest woods had been hidden around the park, special defences had been arranged, including muggers, and the television audience was the biggest ever for a sporting event.
The climactic seconds arrived when Will entered a clearing and spotted the piece of West African sapele he needed for victory. Perched on it was a robin, its beak sharpened like a razor and its claws edged with steel and coated with a deadly poison.
The robin snarled menacingly as Will set himself for his final lunge. But even as Will's body tensed and the world held its breath he couldn't suppress the feeling that Christmases used to be more fun than this.Reuse content