Page 18 of Stardust

The three lords of Stormhold got out of the coach and stretched their cramped legs. Faces peered at them through the bottle-glass windows of the inn.

The innkeeper, who was a choleric gnome of poor disposition, looked out of the door. “We’ll need beds aired and a pot of mutton stew on the fire,” he called.

“How many beds to be aired?” asked Letitia the chambermaid, from the stairwell.

“Three,” said the gnome. “I’ll wager they’ll have their coachman sleep with the horses.”

“Three indeed,” whispered Tilly, the pot-girl, to Lacey, the ostler, “when anyone could see a full seven of those fine gentlemen standing in the road.”But when the lords of Stormhold entered there were but three of them, and they announced that their coachman would sleep in the stables.

Dinner was mutton stew, and bread loaves so hot and fresh they exhaled steam as they were cracked open, and each of the lords took an unopened bottle of the finest Baragundian wine (for none of the lords would share a bottle with his fellows, nor even permit the wine to be poured from the bottle into a goblet).

This scandalized the gnome, who was of the opinion — not, however, uttered in the hearing of his guests — that the wine should be permitted to breathe.

Their coachman ate his bowl of stew, and drank two pots of ale, and went to sleep in the stables. The three brothers went to their respective rooms and barred the doors.

Tertius had slipped a silver coin to Letitia the chambermaid when she had brought him the warming-pan for his bed, so he was not surprised at all when, shortly before midnight, there came a tap-tapping on his door.

She wore a one-piece white chemise, and curtsied to him as he opened the door, and smiled, shyly. She held a bottle of wine in her hand.

He locked the door behind him and led her to the bed, where, having first made her remove her chemise, and having examined her face and body by candlelight, and having kissed her on the forehead, lips, ni**les, navel and toes, and having extinguished the candle, he made love to her, without speaking, in the pale moonlight.

After some time, he grunted, and was still.

“There, lovey, was that good, now?” asked Letitia.

“Yes,” said Tertius, warily, as if her words guarded some trap. “It was.”

“Would you be wanting another turn, before I leave?”In reply, Tertius pointed between his legs. Letitia giggled. “We can have him upstanding again in a twinkling,” she said. And she pulled out the cork from the bottle of wine she had carried in, and had placed beside the bed, and passed it to Tertius.

He grinned at her, and gulped down some wine, then pulled her to him.

“I bet that feels good,” she said to him. “Now, lovey, this time let me show you how I like it . . . why, whatever is the matter?” For Lord Tertius of Stormhold was writhing back and forth on the bed, his eyes wide, his breathing labored.

“That wine?” he gasped. “Where did you get it?”

“Your brother,” said Letty. “I met him on the stairs. He told me it was a fine restorative and stiffener, and it would provide us with a night we should never forget.”

“And so it has,” breathed Tertius, and he twitched, once, twice, three times, and then was stiff. And very still.

Tertius heard Letitia begin to scream, as if from a very long way away. He was conscious of four familiar presences standing with him in the shadows beside the wall.

“She was very beautiful,” whispered Secundus, and Letitia thought she heard the curtains rustle.

“Septimus is most crafty,” said Quintus. “That was the self-same preparation of baneberries he slipped into my dish of eels,” and Letitia thought she heard the wind howling down from the mountain crags.

She opened the door to the household, woken by her screams, and a search ensued. Lord Septimus, however, was nowhere to be found, and one of the black stallions was gone from the stable (in which the coachman slept and snored and could not be wakened).

Lord Primus was in a foul mood when he arose the next morning.

He declined to have Letitia put to death, stating she was as much a victim of Septimus’s craft as Tertius had been, but ordered that she accompany Tertius’s body back to the castle of Stormhold.

He left her one black horse to carry the body, and a pouch of silver coins. It was enough to pay a villager of Nottaway to travel with her — to ensure no wolves made off with the horse or his brother’s remains — and to pay off the coachman when finally he awoke.

And then, alone in the coach, pulled by a team of four coal-black stallions, Lord Primus left the village of Nottaway, in significantly worse temper than he had arrived there. Brevis arrived at the crossroads tugging at a rope. The rope was attached to a bearded, horned, evil-eyed billy goat which Brevis was taking to market to sell.

That morning, Brevis’s mother had placed a single radish upon the table in front of him and had said, “Brevis, son.

This radish was all I was able to pull from the ground today. All our crops have failed, and all our food has gone.

We’ve nothing to sell but the billy goat. So I want you to halter the goat, and take him to the market, and sell him to a farmer. And with the coins you get for the goat — and you’ll take nothing less than a florin, mark you — buy a hen, and buy corn, and turnips; and perhaps we shall not starve.”So Brevis had chewed his radish, which was woody, and peppery to the tongue, and spent the rest of the morning chasing the goat about its pen, sustaining a bruise to the rib and a bite to the thigh in the process, and, eventually, and with the help of a passing tinker, he had subdued the goat enough to have it haltered, and, leaving his mother to bandage the tinker’s goat-inflicted injuries, he dragged the billy goat toward the market.

Sometimes the goat would take it into his head to charge on ahead, and Brevis would be dragged behind him, the heels of his boots grinding into the dried mud of the roadway, until the goat would decide — suddenly and without warning, for no reason Brevis was able to discern — to stop. Then Brevis would pick himself up and return to dragging the beast.

He reached the crossroads on the edge of the wood, sweaty and hungry and bruised, pulling an uncooperative goat. There was a tall woman standing at the crossroads. A circlet of silver sat in the crimson headpiece that surrounded her dark hair, and her dress was as scarlet as her lips.

“What do they call you, boy?” she asked, in a voice like musky brown honey.

“They call me Brevis, ma’am,” said Brevis, observing something strange behind the woman. It was a small cart, but there was nothing harnessed between the shafts. He wondered how it had ever got there.