Lords and Ladies Page 34


There were some distant clankings, and then a twang.

“Miss Magrat?”

“Ask her,” said the elf, “if there is any food and water in there.”

“Miss, they say-”

One of the elves jerked him away. Two of them took up station either side of the doorway, and one put his pointed ear to it.

Then it knelt down and peered through the keyhole, taking care not to come too near the metal of the lock.

There was a sound no louder than a click. The elf remained motionless for a moment, and then keeled over gently, without a sound.

Shawn blinked.

There was about an inch of crossbow bolt sticking out of its eye. The feathers had been sheared off by its passage through the keyhole.

“Wow,” he said.

The armoury door swung open, revealing nothing but darkness.

One of the elves started to laugh.

“So much for him,” it said. “How stupid . . . Lady? Will you listen to your warrior?”

He gripped Shawn's broken arm, and twisted.

Shawn tried not to scream. Purple lights flashed in front of his eyes. He wondered what would happen if he passed out.

He wished his mum was here.

“Lady,” said the elf, “if you-”

“All right,” said Magrat's voice, from somewhere in the darkness. “I'm going to come out. You must promise not to hurt me.”

“Oh, indeed I do, lady.”

“And you'll let Shawn go.”

“Yes.”

The elves on either side of the doorway nodded at each other.

“Please?” Magrat pleaded.

“Yes.”

Shawn groaned. If it had been Mum or Mistress Weatherwax, they'd have fought to the death. Mum was right - Magrat always was the nice soft one . . .

. . . who'd just fired a crossbow through a keyhole.

Some eighth sense made Shawn shift his weight. If the elf relaxed his grip for just one second, Shawn was ready to stagger.

Magrat appeared in the doorway. She was carrying an ancient wooden box with the word “Candles” on the side in peeling paint.

Shawn looked hopefully along the corridor.

Magrat smiled brightly at the elf beside him. “This is for you,” she said, handing over the box. The elf took it automatically. “But you mustn't open it. And remember you promised not to hurt me.”

The elves closed in behind Magrat. One of them raised a hand, with a stone knife in it.

“Lady?” said the elf holding the box, which was rocking gently in its hands.

“Yes?” said Magrat, meekly.

“I lied to you.”

The knife plunged toward her back.

And shattered.

The elf looked at Magrat's innocent expression, and opened the box.

Greebo had spent an irritating two minutes in that box. Technically, a cat locked in a box may be alive or it may be dead. You never know until you look. In fact, the mere act of opening the box will determine the state of the cat, although in this case there were three determinate states the cat could be in: these being Alive, Dead, and Bloody Furious.

Shawn dived sideways as Greebo went off like a Claymore mine.

“Don't worry about him,” said Magrat dreamily, as the elf flailed at the maddened cat. “He's just a big softy.”

She drew a knife out of the folds of her dress, turned, and stabbed the elf behind her. It wasn't an accurate thrust, but it didn't have to be. Not with an iron blade.

She completed the movement by daintily raising the hem of her dress and kicking the third elf just under the knee.

Shawn saw a flash of metal as her foot retreated under the silk again.

She elbowed the screaming elf aside, trotted into the doorway, and came back with a crossbow.

“Shawn,” she said, “which one hurt you?”

“All of them,” said Shawn, weakly. “But the one fighting Greebo stabbed Diamanda.”

The elf pulled Greebo off his face. Green-blue blood was streaming from a dozen wounds and Greebo hung on to its arm as he was flailed against the wall.

“Stop it,” said Magrat.

The elf looked down at the bow, and froze.

“I will not beg for mercy,” it said.

“Good,” said Magrat, and fired.

That left one elf rolling in circles on the flagstones, clutching at its knee.

Magrat stepped daintily over the body of another elf, vanished into the armoury for a moment, and came back with an axe.

The elf stopped moving, and focused all its attention on her.

“Now,” said Magrat, conversationally, “I'm not going to lie to you about your chances, because you haven't got any. I'm going to ask you some questions. But first of all, I'm going to get your attention.”

The elf was expecting it, and managed to roll aside as the axe splintered the stones.

“Miss?” said Shawn weakly, as Magrat raised the axe again.

“Yes?”

“Mum says they don't feel pain, miss.”

“No? But they can certainly be put to inconvenience.”

Magrat lowered the axe.

“Of course, there's armour,” she said. “We could put this one in a suit of armour. How about it?”

“No!”

The elf tried to pull away across the floor.

“Why not?” said Magrat. “Better than axes, yes?”

“No!”

“Why not?”

“It is like being buried in the earth,” hissed the elf. “No eyes, no ears, no mouth!”

“Chain-mail, then,” said Magrat.

“No!”

“Where is the king? Where is everyone?”

“I will not say!”

“All right.”

Magrat vanished into the armoury again, and came back dragging a suit of chain-mail.

The elf tried to scramble away.

“You won't get it on,” said Shawn, from where he lay. “You'll never get it over its arms-”

Magrat picked up the axe.

“Oh, no,” said Shawn. “Miss!”

“You will never get him back,” said the elf. “She has him.”

“We shall see,” said Magrat. “All right, Shawn. What shall we do with it?”

In the end they dragged it into a storeroom next to the dungeon and manacled it to the bars of the window. It was still whimpering at the touch of the iron as Magrat slammed the door.

Shawn was trying to keep at a respectful distance. It was the way Magrat kept smiling all the time.

“Now let's have a look at that arm of yours,” she said.

“I'm all right,” said Shawn, “but they stabbed Diamanda in the kitchen.”

“Was it her I heard screaming?”

“Uh. Partly. Uh.” Shawn stared down in fascination at the dead elves as Magrat stepped over them.

“You killed them,” he said.

“Did I do it wrong?”

“Um. No,” said Shawn cautiously. “No, you did it . . . quite well, really.”

“And there's one in the pit,” said Magrat. “You know . . . the pit. What day is it?”

“Tuesday.”

“And you clean it out on . . . ?”

“Wednesdays. Only I missed last Wednesday because I had-”

“Then we probably don't need to worry about it. Are there anymore around?”

“I. . . don't think so. Uh. Miss Queen?”

“Yes, Shawn?”

“Could you put the axe down, please? I'd feel a lot better if you put the axe down. The axe. Miss Queen. You keep swinging it about. It could go off at any second.”

“What axe?”

“The one you're holding.”

“Oh, this axe.” Magrat appeared to notice it for the first time. “That arm looks bad. Let's get down to the kitchen and I'll splint it. Those fingers don't look good, either. Did they kill Diamanda?”

“I don't know. And I don't know why. I mean, she was helping them.”

“Yes. Wait a moment.” Magrat disappeared one more time into the armoury, and came back carrying a sack. “Come on. Greebo!”

Greebo gave her a sly look, and stopped washing himself.

“D'you know a funny thing about Lancre?” said Magrat, as they sidled down the stairs.

“What's that, miss?”

“We never throw anything away. And you know another thing?”

“No, miss.”

"They couldn't have painted her from life, of course. I mean, people didn't paint portraits in those days. But the armour . . . hah! All they had to do was look. And you know

what?"

Shawn suddenly felt frightened. He'd been scared before, but it had been immediate and physical. But Magrat, like this, frightened him more than the elves. It was like being charged by a sheep.

“No, miss?” he said.

“No one told me about her. You'd think it's all tapestry and walking around in long dresses!”

“What, miss?”

Magrat waved an arm expressively.

“All this!”

“Miss!” said Shawn, from knee level.

Magrat looked down.

“What?”

“Please put the axe down!”

“Oh. Sorry.”

Hodgesaargh spent his nights in a little shed adjoining the mews. He too had received an invitation to the wedding, but it had been snatched from his hand and eaten in mistake for one of his fingers by Lady Jane, an ancient and evil-tempered gyrfalcon. So he'd gone through his usual nightly routine, bathing his wounds and eating a meal of stale bread and ancient cheese and going to bed early to bleed gently by candlelight over a copy of Beaks and Talons.

He looked up at a sound from the mews, picked up the candlestick, and wandered out.

An elf was looking at the birds. It had Lady Jane perched on its arm.

Hodgesaargh, like Mr. Brooks, didn't take much interest in events beyond his immediate passion. He was aware that there were a lot of visitors in the castle and, as far as he was concerned, anyone looking at the hawks was a fellow enthusiast.

“That's my best bird,” he said proudly. “I've nearly got her trained. She's very good. I'm training her. She's very intelligent. She knows eleven words of command.”

The elf nodded solemnly. Then it slipped the hood off the bird's head, and nodded toward Hodgesaargh.

“Kill,” it commanded.

Lady Jane's eyes glittered in the torchlight. Then she leapt, and hit the elf full in the throat with two sets of talons and a beak.

“She does that with me, too,” said Hodgesaargh. “Sorry about that. She's very intelligent.”

* * *

Diamanda was lying on the kitchen floor, in a pool of blood. Magrat knelt beside her.

“She's still alive. Just.” She grabbed the hem of her dress, and tried to rip it.

“Damn the thing. Help me, Shawn.”

“Miss?”

“We need bandages!”

“But-”

“Oh, stop gawping.”

The skirt tore. A dozen lace roses unravelled.

Shawn had never been privy to what queens wore under their clothes, but even starting with certain observations concerning Millie Chillum and working his way up, he'd never considered metal underwear.

Magrat thumped the breastplate.

“Fairly good fit,” she said, defying Shawn to point out that in certain areas there was quite a lot of air between the metal and Magrat. “Not that a few tucks and a rivet here and there wouldn't help. Don't you think it looks good?”

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