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THE LAST HAMLET or The Readiness Is All - 44 CHANGING PLACES

CHANGING PLACES

It was about ten minutes to ten when Nell and Terson arrived at the guardroom.

"Good evening, Shug. Good evening, Moby."

"Good evening, Your Grace," came the unison reply.

"Shug, Captain Terson and I are here to see the Queen."

"Very good, Your Grace, I'll take you both along."

"You're off at ten, aren't you?" Terson asked.

"That's right, sir."

"Look, let me have the key to the Queen's cell. Then you can get away as soon as your relief comes."

"That's good of you, Captain. Thank you very much, sir."

"Tell your replacement - Narbon, isn't it?"

"It is, sir."
.
"Just tell him I'll let him have the key when we leave."

"Very good, sir."

*

"To discuss with you, Your Grace? Oh, I think not - but I certainly have something to tell you."

"Madam?"

"I mean to be you, for a while."

"What...!"

A hand clamped firmly over her mouth, and an arm tight about her neck, cut Nell short.

"You will remove your gown and your helmet," Terson ordered. "And you will be perfectly silent while you're doing it. Any sound from you at all, and I shall knock you out!" This was no idle threat, and Nell knew it; besides, her clever Captain had contrived a separation between her and the guards which no amount of shouting would have overcome.

Soon, with her blonde locks concealed inside the archdraxical helmet, Her Majesty looked as much like Her Grace as she was ever going to. Nell, meanwhile, was being tied wrists and ankles to the chair with the short lengths of rope Terson had concealed about his person. A kerchief gag tied behind her head completed her helplessness. Neither the Queen nor the Captain felt much inclined to feel particularly sorry for the changeling.

Cell door locked behind them, Queen and Captain moved swiftly down the passage towards the flight of steps which led up to the reception landing. Cilla, holding up the front of a gown which might have tripped her with its full length, kept close to the left hand wall, with Terson masking her as best he could. The duty guards sprang to attention at the arrival of their mistress and their immediate boss. Her Majesty, with head lowered, passed quickly through the area to the corridor beyond. Terson handed over the key and said, "No one is to go near the Queen's cell until it is time for her breakfast. That is Her Grace's personal command."

"Very good, sir," said the guards.

"You off at six, Moby?"

"Yes, Captain."

"Just make sure your relief understands the order."

"Yes, sir. Of course, sir."

So far so good, again.

*

Draxy Palace generally kept early hours, and the first person fugitive and rescuer met after leaving the prison was by appointment. Rollo, standing by the door of the games room, said, "Good evening, Your Grace. Good evening, Captain. Your Grace, I am sorry to trouble you at this late hour, but there is something about which I feel you ought to be appraised."

"What is it, Rollo?" The Queen's deep voiced impression of the Archdraxite earned the surprise and admiration of her fellow conspirators.

"There has been a radio communication from the General, Your Grace."

This and subsequent dialogue was meant, of course, for public consumption, in the event of there being anyone about.

"We shall go and see to it, then"

Rollo began to lead the way, but Cilla, being sure that Nell would not be accustomed to following behind anyone, pushed past him. Any doubts as to Her Majesty's readiness for all this were quickly being dispelled.

The Queen strode ahead down the broad central corridor of the building, even though she had no idea where they were actually supposed to be going. Eventually, after passing Nell's quarters and the school, and having proceeded through the inner courtyard, a whispered, "Here!" from the Captain brought her to a halt outside a door emblazoned with the legend, AUTHORISED PERSONNEL ONLY. Terson opened the door, made way for Cilla, then followed her into the radio room. Rollo remained outside to 'keep cave', as he understood the procedure to be!

The Captain went over to the radio desk. "Everything in order, Marlo?" he asked.

"Everything is nice and quiet, sir."

"There's been no news of Ullyses, then?"

"No, sir. Do you think there's going to be any?"

"It's not likely. But you never know."

"No, sir."

*

The inner gatehouse loomed close. Time for more public conversation.

"Your Grace, the General would not have radioed at this hour had the matter not been of some urgency."

"Indeed, Captain."

"It could wait until the morning, I suppose. But it might help to keep people on their toes if..."

"If I were to descend upon them tonight?" Cilla was beginning to enjoy herself.

"Precisely so,Your Grace.

Terson went ahead into the gatehouse and soon emerged with a sentry, who unlocked the pedestrian gate. Cilla returned the man's salute with a wafting hand movement which effectively covered her features.

There remained only the outer gatehouse. The Moon was up, but it was way past its fullness, and wispy clouds dulled it. Rush lamps cast convenient shadows whose security Her Majesty was happy to seek. An old friend of mine was on sentry duty. "Her Grace has received a call from the Space Centre," Terson told him.

"Are they back, sir?"

"I do not know, Sol. And I must ask you not to speculate."

"No, sir. Very good, sir."

"General Wishbone is sending his carriage. We will meet it on the road. Do not expect our return until morning."

"Very good, sir. Goodnight, sir."

*

Queen, Captain and Butler walked through the City - not towards the Space Centre, but in the direction of the Royal Palace; with no people about, only the yowling of cat, and the oddly comforting hooting of an owl, accompanied their progress.

The Palace loomed.

"What happens now?" Cilla asked.

"Horses, madam," Rollo said.

"Do you ride?"

"When I was a boy, madam, I was said to have a pretty good seat for a pony."

"We shall have three horses from the royal stables," Terson said.

"What's wrong with her - with my horses?"

"Flue, madam," Rolo said.

"A sudden epidemic," Terson added.

"Will they believe that?"

"They will if it is Your Grace who tells them so."

"Where are we going - once we have the horses?"

"I know a little place, madam," the Captain said.

The party reached the gatehouse. Terson looked in vain for anyone on the battlements. He took his fists to the gates. There was a surprised grunt from inside, followed by, "Oo the eck's this, at this time o' night?"

"Get up on your wall, where you should be," Terson roared, "and you'll see who it is, soldier!"

Booted feet ran up the stone steps. A breathless head appeared. "Blimey, it's 'Er Grace!" it said.

"Yes, you itching crumb, it is! Why do you not keep proper watch?"

"I...er..."

"Get these gates open, man, and be quick about it!"

"Sir!"

The massive ironclad wooden gates began to swing inwards. When the gap between them was just large enough for human access, Cilla took charge of things by sweeping through imperiously, causing the sentry and his mate - both Wishbone's men, Her Majesty noted with disgust - to fall back in alarm and disarray.

"I think a word in the General's ear might be in order, Your Grace."

"See to it, Captain."

"Aye, Your Grace."

"We're very sorry, Captain," said number two sentry.

"We wasn't hexpectin' nothin', sir," said the other,

"A good soldier expects everything, even when he's expecting nothing," Terson said. "Now, run along to the Chief Groom. Tell him that Her Grace requires three of of his best horses saddled immediately."

"Likely 'es hasleep, sir. Hearly to bed is 'Annibal."

"Then wake him up, man!"

"Yes, sir. Would 'Er Grace be requirin' side saddle, sir?"

In a deep rasping voice, Cilla barked, "Don't be absurd, man! Who do you think I am, Her Majesty the Queen?"

Terson turned away to hide his involuntary grin, while Rollo had trouble with his throat.

The solder went off, leaving his mate standing to attention.

"You might close the gates, in the mean time!" Terson snapped.

"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir"

The waiting was awful for our conspirators. It seemed more like an hour, rather than the fifteen minutes or so it probably was, before Hannibal and two ostlers arrived leading three saddled up mares. Cilla chose the smallest of them, and mounted it with as much style as the long billowing gown would allow. When all three were up, Hannibal said to Terson, "Trouble with your own, eh, Capatin?"

"The most severe flu."

"What, the whole stable?"

"Epidemic. None fit to ride."

"Well, I've never heard the like, and that's a fact."

"Get these gates open!" Terson ordered. As the soldiers hastened to obey, one of them ran in front of the Queen's mount, causing it to rear up nervously. Cilla was a good horsewoman, and she had things well under control even before Hannibal could come to her aid. As the Groom held the bridle, and patted the mare's neck, he found himself looking up into the eyes of Cilla, Queen of Steefax. "Bless you, madam," he whispered. "Oh, bless you."

The soldiers stood aside as Queen Cilla, Captain Terson, and Mister Rollo rode out. As they clattered through the City they aroused enough interest of enough curious window peepers to provide certain proof that the fugitives rode east, in the direction of the coastal plain.

Half a mile or so beyond the City boundary the party turned south, then west, towards Captain Terson's 'little place.'