t had been a pleasant spring, even by the standards of Faery, which were fairly demanding. Less good had been the quarrelling and squabbling going on among the various departments of the sibyl service, which had eventually resulted in Cobweb saying a Word – not a word of power, but a word of extreme obscenity. Offence had been caused, huffs had been taken, and the entire Nemesis extension operation was in abeyance. The Gnome, who was inclined to feel that at least some of the credit for the original idea was his, was equally annoyed with Cobweb and for her, although Huw, whose notions of statecraft and politicking were extremely advanced given that he had at least been born human, had been heard to say that it might yet prove to be a good thing.
“You’re always saying, cariad, that they had been messing her about more than she should have stood. It won’t hurt for them to see that she won’t accept any more of it. She has some very important friends now, and something will be sorted out. It will do no harm for it to be seen that the arrangements must be on her terms and not theirs. Just be patient.”
“But Huw, it isn’t good for her not to have a job. Look at her: she’s putting on weight again. And did you see the earrings? She’s bored.”
“Yes, and look at what else is happening here. You sat through my hearings yesterday and last week, didn’t you? How many complaints did I hear?”
“Well, I don’t know. You seemed to be very busy.”
“I was. I heard one grievance after another, and many of them petty. I would never have expected to hear so many. I never did before.”
The Gnome grinned. “Well, you didn’t seem to be flagging when you dealt with them. There were enough upturned bottoms to satisfy even you.” He dodged a slap, but allowed the second one to connect, and carefully failed to escape as his lord dragged him down onto their bed, muttering something about one bottom which had not been upturned in twenty-four hours, to the obvious detriment of its owner. It was some forty minutes later before Huw, no longer wearing the rich green clothing in which he had started the day, but draped instead in a temporarily sated Gnome, returned to his point.
“The lady Cobweb is a part of Order, is she not?”
“Less than she used to be, but more or less, yes. What of it?”
Huw shrugged. “Order is. . . not breaking down, that would be too extreme, but. . . fraying? Unravelling? I am aware of it in my people, and I have heard the same from some of the. . . what do you call the people who come by?”
“I call them people. If by that you mean the elementals.”
“Yes. Them. It is being said that Consequences are not being enforced and the elementals don’t like it. My people, who are still nearer human (and I think I want to talk to you about that. Yes, again. Well, there are a lot of people who used to be human and aren’t any more and you are going to pay for every single one. Like this)... what were we talking about?
“You,” said the Gnome, hastily rubbing a sore spot, “were talking about Cobweb and consequences.”
“Well, people are Getting Away With Things. And although everybody used to complain about Cobweb and her staff and what they did, they’re complaining a good deal more now that they aren’t doing it. Because it isn’t just her who isn’t doing it. Apparently none of her people is doing it either, because she was the only one who really understood how to do the paperwork, so when she stopped doing it the whole thing fell apart. And people don’t like that.”
“Why not? I’d have thought that humans would have just loved getting away with things.”
Huw sighed. “It’s one of these irregular verbs. You know, like ‘I have an affectionate nature, you are not very discriminating, he’s a promiscuous polecat’. This one is ‘I am entitled to behave in an unusual manner, you are asking for a smack, he wants a bloody good hiding’. Humans like to get away with things personally, they just don’t like to think that anybody else is getting away with anything. Everybody complained about Nemesis and the whiprechauns when one of them arrived on your own doorstep, but we liked to know they were there. And within my own people. . . well.”
“But Cobweb said she didn’t have to do much on your lands. She said you already did it.”
“Well, it’s getting known that she doesn’t now, and I’m finding that I have to do more. And that’s entirely apart from dealing with you, which is enough for any man. Well, not quite enough. I could stand to have you do that some more. But I’m telling you, Gwydion, do not interfere with Nemesis. If I know anything about it, the whole system will come down around their ears quite soon, and then the lady will be able to pick out the bits she wants to do and abandon the rest, and they will be crawling to her feet and thanking her for it. A little faster. . . that’s nice, yes.”
The Gnome distracted himself from the task in hand – in both hands and some of Arianrhod’s sweet oil - long enough to say, “She’ll be absolutely insufferable if they grovel to her. Like she isn’t now. Ow!”
“The lord Carabosse will deal with that. But you will Mind Your Own Business, hear me?”
“Yes, Huw,” said the Gnome, obediently, carefully not adding that in his view, Cobweb’s happiness was, at least in part, his business.
Cobweb had come to stay. Carabosse had gone to a conference (the thought of so many Wicked Folk gathered together gave even the Gnome a slight feeling of inferiority) and Huw, who was going to Direidi to oversee the llys, suggested that the Gnome, who was not keen on going anywhere so completely devoid of a library, should invite his friend to visit.
“Try not to get into trouble while I’m away. I do not wish to have to ride all the way back simply in order to spank you.”
The Gnome considered this statement. He opened his mouth several times, having in his mind: I don’t get into trouble deliberately; it isn’t actually necessary that I should be spanked; you wouldn’t have to ride if you would stop being so bloody stubborn and let me teach you to Fold. None of these, on second thoughts, seemed like sensible things to say, since Huw patently didn’t believe either of the first two, and the third took everybody back into the realms of what he had done to the borders, and he had already discussed that with Huw twice this week. And several times the week before.
“I’m sure we’ll have no trouble finding virtuous things to do,” he said in the end. “And we might go shopping.”
Huw gave him a hard stare, leaning down from his horse to kiss him farewell.
“My compliments to the lady, then, when she arrives. Tell her that my home is hers.”
Huw threw up a hand, acknowledging a hit. “Our home. And if you do go shopping, have a care. The lord Carabosse said nothing to me about what you bought last time, but you do not know how he might feel about the lady spending so heavily on her wardrobe.”
The Gnome merely smiled and waved. Actually, he did know. Carabosse thought that how Cobweb spent her own money was no business of his, and in any event, she didn’t spend it on her wardrobe. On the previous occasion, she had been very quick to follow the Gnome’s lead and claim half of the rich fabrics as her purchases, but the price had been an unfair share of the olives. She lost interest in clothes shops very rapidly, she hated shoe shops because nothing ever fitted her, and she had viewed the quantity of what she called ‘designer gubbins’ that he had bought, with a jaundiced eye. He had completely failed to convince her of the desirability of big names in clothing or accessories, and when they had returned to Tin Goch, her acquiescence with Huw’s casual assumption that half of the packages were Cobweb’s had resulted in both of them being subjected to some teasing for mild extravagance, rather than in the Gnome himself being subjected to Huw’s rather stringent (and usually stinging) views on wastefulness.
She arrived an hour behind Huw, kicking a small suitcase in front of her, and balancing a cake tin on a large cardboard box. One of the older squires, who had been on her list and wasn’t quite certain that he believed this tale about her retiring, hastened to help her, and called a junior to carry the case to her room, himself bearing the boxes to Huw’ solar, while Cobweb and the Gnome both talked at once about what they had been doing, and followed him.
“Wine,” said the Gnome happily, as the squire politely took his leave, relieved from his fears by Cobweb’s smile, “and what’s in the boxes?”
“Cake. I wondered what to bring, there being little point in bringing you a bottle of wine, and settled on cake. The big box is books. I was having a clear out and came across things, oh you know how it is, second copies of stuff, and things I’ve borrowed from you and not given back (and before you get shirty about that, what have you done with my Virgil?) and things I thought you might like. Read what you like and pass on the rest.”
“Wonderful woman. We’ll do the same at this end before you go home, and you can take some stuff back. It has the added advantage that when Huw and Carabosse say ‘have you been buying books?’. . .”
“We can truthfully deny it. Absolutely. No lies. . . Go on, cut the cake, and give me a glass of wine and tell me what’s new. How is Luc going on? And is Luc-and-Ianto on or off, before I put my foot in it?”
“Off. I think. Luc has been studying hard through the winter, and Ianto went out a lot with Huw. They seem to have reached some accommodation that allows them to be friendly at least. Oh yes, Luc wants to talk to you.”
“Well, of course Huw has no clerk now that Erasmus is. . . isn’t. . . wasn’t. . . Luc has been acting as clerk for Huw, but they’ll have to get somebody else as well, it’s too much work for Luc when he’s training as well. And he’s got himself into a muddle about the restoration of the North Tower. He says that you said that the stonemasons’ wages had to be split between the repairs and the new bits, but he can’t remember how or why.”
“Capitalisation of revenue costs. I’ll find time to help him.
They had settled in the window seat, each of them at one end facing the other with their legs entwined and the wine and cake in easy reach. Each of them noticed, too, the careful wince with which the other sat, and they caught each other’s eye and grinned.
“Go on,” invited the Gnome. “What for?”
“Just in case, I think. Just to tide me over until Bossy comes home. He’s really miffed about the loss of the dragonhide paddle.”
“It’s lost? Oh joy unconfined. How did you do it?”
“What makes you think I did?”
The Gnome just looked at her.
“Well, I did, of course. I’ll tell you later. Anyway, you seem a little tender yourself. What brought that on?”
“Oh, he’s still adding something occasionally about the borders.”
“Only when he can’t think of anything else. This last was for generalised mischief, and for sitting up too late reading.”
“I wouldn’t have expected Huw to object to you reading.”
“He doesn’t. What he objects to is that I let the fire go out and then I come to bed an hour after he’s gone, with cold feet which I tuck against him. I know it’s been a mild spring, but the stone floors are chilly at midnight.”
“Ah. So cold feet at night. . .”
“Are not my lord’s delight, no. I actually woke him up last night, and he said that since my body was obviously failing to produce its own heat, he would help. He took twenty minutes about it. And. . . um. . . we need to talk.”
“Shouldn’t you have talked before he left?”
“Not him and me, stupid! Me and you.”
“If we talk much more the world will run out of words. About what?”
The Gnome looked uneasy.
“There was story telling in the Great Hall a couple of nights ago, and Huw took a turn. He told the tale of the Pencawr Protection.”
“I asked him about it, later. He said he’d known the tale since he was a child. I pressed him, and he admitted that he didn’t know if he’d known the tale last month since he was a child.”
“No, he probably didn’t.”
“Uh-huh. So the Fairy Damart was you, wasn’t she?”
“Oh, yes. Who else would it have been?”
“O.K. Tell me how you worked the timing to make it happen with Herne a couple of hundred years ago before you were introduced three months ago and while Luc was a baby seventeen years ago which was eight months ago. And don’t use any long words.”
Cobweb laughed. “Yes, when you put it like that, it is a bit horrible, isn’t it? Basically it was OFT; it was absolutely beyond me otherwise. It wasn’t just being creative with time. He explained it to me three times, but I was none the wiser afterwards. I wasn’t even sure that it was afterwards. I thought I understood it while he was talking, but when he stopped, it was like all the words melted together and leaked away.”
The Gnome nodded. “It has the same effect on me when you talk about debits and credits.”
“Well, it started when I went to talk to him after Luc was born. He wasn’t happy about an inconsistency left, which was apparently the Protection. The Pencawrs didn’t have it, and then they did, and it made a lump, or a bubble or something, in Time. He wanted it fixed, and he. . . have you ever seen the Cauldron?”
“Cauldron of Time? No. You’ve mentioned it before, but I’ve only seen OFT the Hims I went with you, oh and once when I went to pay my respects and show Him the baby. You remember, He had said He wanted to hear about the end of the Story. And before you ask, yes, I did make the termination payment on the lease. Nearly dislocated my jaw, too. And we won’t mention it to Huw, if you don’t mind. That was before we made our agreement, and what he doesn’t know. . .”
“Oh, absolutely. But you know what the Cauldron is. All Time is in it and it’s how He makes sure that there’s enough Time for everything. When He’s short, He boils it up a bit and it expands, when there’s too much, He scoops some out. I think. Or there may be more to it. I believe Time goes into one of those odd lattices, sometimes. Like buckyballs. Anyway, there was a lump. And He wanted it dealt with, because apparently if these anomalies don’t melt, they can make the whole thing go solid and inflexible, and OFT knew that that wouldn’t do, because we needed it all kept moving. Thixotropic, that’s the word I want. So once we spotted what it was, I said I would provide the Protection to keep it all square. I mean, it was obviously my job, because you were busy with the baby, and it was an admin thing. But I couldn’t quite work out how to do it. We were all a bit. . . overwrought, after your confinement, and I absolutely couldn’t think of anything.”
“Hungover, were we?”
She stuck out her tongue at him. “For about four months I wasn’t sober enough to be hungover. And you weren’t the only one on leave, either. There were a couple of maenads on secondment, and the PAYE. . . well! So I said to OFT that I couldn’t see how to do it, and we had a think, and basically He gave me a teaspoon and said ‘When you’ve worked it out, come and stir the cauldron until all the times come together’.”
The Gnome looked blank.
“Well, you see, if you stir it, it’s like thick sauce, and you can sort of stir a figure eight and get lots of bits to join up, so you can hop from one time not just to another but to several others.”
The Gnome was interested. “Do you think that’s what we – Erasmus – was doing?”
“I think it might be. But I went away and worked out what to do about the Protection. I worked it out after the Solstice, that if Herne would help again. . .”
The Gnome looked sombre. “I’m surprised you wanted to risk it. I. . . um. . . That was what I wanted to talk to you about. We haven’t had a chance to talk properly since then, not without one of the others there. And I didn’t get to talk to you before you left at Solstice time.”
“Well, you weren’t fit. And I wasn’t in the best of form myself.”
“No. I thought you might not have been. Huw had quite a lot to say on that subject.”
“Huw? How was it his business? You’re his lookout, but I’m not. Was he very. . . I tried to persuade him to be. . . ”
The Gnome sighed again. “He wanted all the details from me, and as far as my own side of it went, he was fairly gentle. He’d deny it, mind you. He chewed my ears off, he told me what I could expect, which gave me a bad couple of days apprehension, and then he stayed his hand.”
“What, he let you off?”
“Don’t be daft, of course he didn’t. Big hard hands, he’s got, and he used them, but no real backlift. You know the sort of thing – it’s enough to make you yell while it’s happening, but the effects don’t last long.”
Cobweb nodded. She knew about that.
“But that was on my own account. He wanted to know what you had done, and he wasn’t having it when I said that I didn’t know, so he made me guess, and then he started thinking that he had hardly ever seen you male, and. . . well, you see?”
Cobweb did. “You mean he thought that I hadn’t understood what Herne was likely to want.”
“We went round precisely what I had said, and precisely what you had said, and had you understood, and had I explained, and when he sees you he’s going to ask what you had understood, and I’m in it right up to my eyebrows if you give the wrong answer.”
She laughed. “What answer do you want me to give him?”
The Gnome was surprised by the rush of relief he felt.
“Well, I wasn’t quite sure myself if you had understood.”
“Shall we say, I hoped I was wrong, but I wasn’t surprised not to be.”
“You didn’t want to.”
“Wanting to didn’t come into it. It was the price. I’ve done it, and liked it well enough, when I’m male, so I knew what to do to make it. . . tolerable. Do I want to do it female? No. Trust me on this, it’s different. Did I enjoy it? No. On the other hand, when he did it the other way. . .”
The Gnome choked on his wine. “Twice? You weren’t gone long enough for twice!”
“His reload is remarkably fast. And he wasn’t unkind. He took his pleasure, surely, but he was careful not to hurt me, presumably because that wasn’t in the deal, and the second time, it was better because – well, because that is what I do. I don’t begrudge it. And I don’t blame you for it, although I’ll tell Huw I do if you want.”
“What about Carabosse?”
“Carabosse wasn’t actually bothered, provided Herne didn’t top. He knows what I did, he knows it isn’t what I would usually do, he knows why I did it. He spanked me for it, but as you say, just for form and without backlift. And for once he doesn’t think it was your fault.”
The Gnome shut his eyes. He really was surprised by the extent of the relief he felt.
“Anyway,” went on Cobweb, “Leaving all that to one side, I thought that I could sort out the Protection, provided that I had some apparent danger from which to run.”
Why, wondered the Gnome, would she not say ‘to run from’ like anybody else? She really was the outside of enough.
“And I did think of getting Bossy, or Glaurung, but Bossy was away and I don’t get on awfully well with dragons. My accent isn’t good and I’m never quite sure they’ve understood me. And I thought that getting Gwyn eaten by a dragon would probably not help. So Herne came to mind. He’s been past a couple of times since. . . since, and left venison, and rabbit once or twice, and I’ve taken to leaving a bucket of water at the bottom of the orchard for the hounds. And I knew that what I wanted wasn’t serious, and I knew he was a. . . a. . . that you and he go back a long way, and even after what had happened I thought it would be worth asking. Because I wasn’t asking for anything to do with the Hunt, anyway. I really just wanted him to appear and look uncanny. So I went outside, and Called – Mother stuff – and he came and I explained what I needed. But he said there was a price, and it was a Motherhood price. Well, I’m not to be had the same way twice, and I demanded details, and he told me, and I thought I could do it.”
“What?” asked the Gnome, fascinated.
“I’ll come to that. Well, if Huw told the family tale, I dare say you know most of the rest. Herne chased me through the woods, Gwyn ‘rescued’ me, Balance was maintained and I gave him the Protection. Then I went back to Herne.”
“Quite a lot later, from the family tale,” interposed the Gnome, cattily. “After giving them the notion of the name Huw, and after spending the afternoon with Gwyn, and putting all sorts of ideas into his head.”
“All of the above,” agreed the Fay, placidly. “It was fun, too. I enjoyed it. But I went back to Herne to pay. He had a dead bitch and a live pup and no mother in milk. So I Shifted to hound, and fed the pup for a week until another hound whelped and adopted it, and if you have jokes on the subject of me being such a bitch, let’s have them all now and get them over with.”
The Gnome, who had indeed been planning them, thought better of it. But he could see a difficulty. “I realise that you’re the Motherhood expert, although my own experience is perhaps a little more hands on than yours, but I was under the impression that you can’t have lactation without parturition.”
“There are ways. And I don’t recommend doing it in canine shape. Herne looked after me very well and the work wasn’t difficult – feed, wash, sleep, keep warm. But, well, you said, the price always comes out a little more than you want to pay. Personally, I would have said: a little other than what you expect. When I went back to my own shape I had a lot of trouble for a week with ghosting – you know, reverberations of the shape I’d been. It was a real effort to go to bed, because I knew I wasn’t allowed to sleep on the furniture. All that raw venison had a disastrous effect on my digestion, and combined with the worming pill that I really thought would be a good idea. . . well! And I kept finding that I was heading for the door rather than the bathroom, because a properly housetrained hound. . .”
The Gnome was trying hard, unsuccessfully, not to laugh.
“And it felt as if none of my clothes fitted properly, because even in a week I had got used to having more than two breasts. And when Bossy came home he ended up hitting me with a rolled up copy of New Sorcerer, because of where I stuck my nose.”
“Do you know, Cobweb, since I met you my life has been just one continuous surprise. You’ve actually made me spill my wine.”
“I know, darling, I’m surprised by it myself. But that’s how it was done. Oh, and that’s where the paddle went. Herne came by a little later to show me how well the pup was going on (I suppose I’m godmother again!) and I just dropped the paddle among the hounds all accidental-done-on-purpose, and they tore it to bits. There wasn’t anything left to see. You needn’t tell Carabosse.”
They sat for some time in a companionable silence, as the short afternoon turned to dusk. It was perhaps significant that the Gnome was looking out into the courtyard, rather than at his friend, when he spoke next.
“Cobweb? Can I ask you something?”
“You not only can, you may.”
“Pedant. It’s rather personal, so don’t answer if you’d rather not. It’s just. . . Well, you’re female more or less all the time now, aren’t you, but you used to switch quite a lot, from what you’ve said.”
“Used to, yes.”
“But you like female better.”
“It feels natural, yes.”
“Well, when you and Carabosse. . . No, that’s not it. When Huw and I... No, that’s not it either. Oh, hells, why am I blushing?”
“I don’t know, dear. We’re talking about sex, are we?”
The Gnome cringed. “Yes.”
“Just bear in mind that we probably already know the worst about each other. Just about the only thing we haven’t done is sleep with each other.”
Their eyes met. Then they both laughed. “Pour some more wine, and tell me what it is. Or we can play twenty questions if you like. This is about you and Huw? Yes. When you are male? No. Female. Are you being female regularly for Huw?”
“Not as regularly as Huw would like. It’s. . . well, it’s difficult.”
“When you do, you are taking proper precautions, aren’t you?”
“Oh yes. Every advantage that the medical knowledge of a much later period can provide. I’m very careful. No, it’s not that. I just. . . well, Huw has always liked it better than I did when I was female, and he would like me to do it more than I do. And I do like it, only not as much as I like being male.”
“What’s new? Most of us have a preferred sex and orientation.”
“I know, only. . . I’m missing something. I don’t know what. It’s not. . . not as much fun as it was to start with and. . . Cobweb, it seems to be awfully hard work.”
“Ah. Your body has caught up with you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that once you’ve stopped finding it thrilling because it’s new, it can be hard work. Frankly, the female body is a lousy piece of design.”
“No, the body is a lousy piece of design. Think how vulnerable all my important places are. Any competent engineer would have added some sort of protective facility.”
“True. And any competent engineer would have put the important female spot somewhere that standard activity touched it, rather than where it is. Lousy design.”
“It’s not just me then.”
“No, dear, not just you. Not by any means. All of us.”
“Well, that’s a relief. Huw’s very. . . it sounds nasty to say very capable, or competent, but. . .”
“Well, he’s had a lot more experience than you that way. He knows what he’s doing. Never mind what it sounds like. I won’t misunderstand you. Considerate, that’s probably the word you want.”
“Yes. Very. And imaginative, too. Tries all the options. But I do tend to worry that he has to.”
“Don’t. That’s just the way it is for you, obviously. Find one you both like, and don’t worry about the others.”
“Well, that shouldn’t be difficult. . .”
The Gnome had obviously been giving more thought to being female; he tried it several times over the following week, culminating in a furious row with Luc. Cobweb had spent an entire afternoon comforting both of them: Luc from a sharp and unexpected (although well-deserved) punishment, the Gnome having finally demonstrated the accuracy of his statement that although he didn’t top, he could, and the Gnome himself (he having reverted to type) from guilt and misery. Luc was easy: he was still sufficiently in awe of her that when she knocked on his door he would not deny her entry. The Gnome, on the other hand, had shut himself in his room and Warded the door. Cobweb knocked, and then Knocked, and then sat down in the corridor with her back to his door, and enough Power leaning against it that he would know she was there. Eventually, he let her in, easily as red eyed and miserable as his son.
“He wants me to be female and then he doesn’t like it when I am!” he wailed in despair. Cobweb silently poured wine and thrust the glass into her friend’s hand.
“What did all this start with?” she asked gently.
“It’s the way I look. He’s ashamed of me.”
“I don’t think it’s quite that. . .”
“He’s always complaining about the way I look.”
“What does Huw say?”
“I’m not sure how much of it he’s seen. He knows we aren’t getting on, but he’s not interfering.”
“Do you dress like that for Huw?”
“No! Of course not! I want Huw to fancy me and he won’t if I look like that.”
“Then why do you do it for Luc?”
“Because I’m his mother! He shouldn’t be ashamed of his mother!”
Cobweb actually laughed aloud. “Of course, you didn’t have one, sweetheart, did you? You hatched, or mutated or something. Darling, all teenagers are ashamed of both their parents. I think it’s in the rules. You are his mother, and therefore you know nothing about anything, your clothes are weird, your choice of music and books is deeply undesirable and your behaviour is intended to embarrass your son.”
“You’re saying I shouldn’t have spanked him. I’ve spoiled it all! He’ll never love me again!”
“I’m saying that if you don’t stop behaving like a drama queen, I’ll spank you. I’ve done it before, remember. No, dear, he had that coming. Perhaps not quite for the reason you gave it to him. Fortunately, he was so busy quarrelling with you that he wasn’t listening when you shouted at him. I told him that he got that walloping for being disrespectful, and I think he believed me.”
“But he thinks I’m not smart enough for him!”
“And he’s right.”
“Honey, I know we’ve always said he wasn’t terrifically bright, but he’s bright enough for that. He’s quite sharp enough to understand that suitable for Lurgan isn’t suitable for here, and vice versa. He is also quite sharp enough to see that you make an effort to look attractive for Huw, but for him you dress Lurgan. What does that tell him? That Huw is more important to you than he is.”
“But I don’t want to be attractive to Luc! He’s my son!”
Cobweb sighed. This was more difficult than she had expected. “He doesn’t want you to be attractive. He wants you to be inconspicuous. And somewhere like this, inconspicuous isn’t an option. So if you have to be conspicuous, at least be conspicuous for the right reasons. When you go female, it’s all very well being a sex goddess for Huw, but be a mother for Luc. Remember, ones children don’t like to think that their parents have sex. They may understand that you must have done it once, but you have no business still doing it. He wants you to be his mother, not Huw’s lover. But that’s not the point. You don’t let him dress the way he did in Lurgan, so why do you do it?”
The Gnome gazed at her, and his lip trembled. He pretended it hadn’t. “Huw’s coming home tonight,” he said unsteadily, “and I don’t know who to be or what to wear. And Luc hates me.”
Cobweb heaved another sigh. “You’re going to be Niniane for both of them. And Huw is going to dribble when he looks at you, and Luc is going to tell his friends that yes, that’s his mother. And Auntie Cobweb is going to help. Send down for your bathwater. And Shift.”
There was a great deal of giggling from the Gnome’s rooms that afternoon. They raided Arianrhod’s stores, in a manner likely to get them both into trouble later, for everything nice smelling that could be rubbed in, soaked in, poured over and dabbed on. The Gnome made a mental note that future attempts at Cheering Cobweb Up should perhaps not involve shopping for clothes, but for serious shower gel. Her insistence that he should shave his legs (and carry out various other arcane rituals) was met with some resistance, until she made him Shift and strip and look at herself in the large mirror which she conjured into the corner. The response of the mirror (“well, dear, you have let yourself go, haven’t you?”) was enough to make the Gnome put herself into Cobweb’s hands without reserve.
“The grey highlights are startlingly unattractive and totally unnecessary. Lose them.”
“I couldn’t live in Lurgan and not appear to get older. . .”
“I understand that. You’re not in Lurgan now. Lose them. And thin is good, but this is skinny. Better. Now, clothes.”
They decided in the end on a dress of a muted teal colour, the fabric of which reflected rainbow flashes in the light. Cobweb was quite well aware that Luc would only see the dull silk, and quite capable of casting a small anti-glamour to ensure it.
“Now tuck the lace inside the neckline.”
“Can’t I show a bit of skin for Huw?”
“No need. Luc will see that you’re decently covered all the way up your throat. At his age, what rings the bells is the unsubtle presentation of skin, so if you aren’t doing that, you must be decent. Huw, on the other hand, is old enough and subtle enough to enjoy unwrapping the package. Suggestion, rather than blatant staging, will make it work.”
“What are you going to wear?”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter. I’ll find something inconspicuous; I won’t steal your thunder.”
“Huw will suss that at once. He’ll reckon we’re up to something.”
“Hmmm. You might be right. I’ll tell you what; we’ll do two birds. I’ll Shift too, and if Huw sees me comfortably male, perhaps he’ll let the other thing go. How’s that?”
“You’ll be an absolute wow in the Great Hall, but myself, I would add clothes.”
“Fussy, aren’t you ? These ones will do.”
“They won’t. Dull, dull, dull. Choose again.”
They settled on an outfit for Cobweb of a rich, deep chocolate brown slashed with copper, just in time to hear the clatter of hooves in the courtyard. Cobweb offered his arm to the Gnome, and they emerged into the corridor just in time to meet Luc, who looked subdued, and still rather red eyed.
“Even better,” said Cobweb, briskly. “Luc, give your lady mother your arm downstairs to pay your respects to my lord your father. I shall follow.”
Luc gulped a little, obviously unsure of his reception by the Gnome. “Madam?”
“Yes, dear. Your arm, please. And don’t rush.”
Huw was obviously impressed, and dinner in the Great Hall was rather more comfortable than several previous meals had been. The Gnome was one of the first to rise, with a wistful glance at Huw. Cobweb leaned over to grip her wrist.
“Go and talk to Guto. Let Luc see that you can manage to be in Huw’s presence without attempting to tear his clothes off.”
Huw seemed pleased by this arrangement too. “My lady Cobweb. . . my lord Cobweb. . .”
“Huw, I’ve told you before. Cobweb will do. Much easier.”
“Ye-es. I need to talk to you.”
“Oh yes? Why?”
“That matter at Solstice. . .”
“That matter at Solstice is finished.”
“Did Gwydion mislead you? About Herne the Hunter?”
“Was the price. . .”
“Huw, the price that Gwydion paid may be your concern. The price that I paid is not. I have no complaint. Herne and I understand each other; your grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather saw that.”
“In that case, I need your advice on another matter. Niniane, as she is tonight, is not. . . she doesn’t care to. . . I do not make her happy. Not in our chamber. I can’t. . . she doesn’t. . .”
Cobweb rescued him. “I understand you.”
He looked up sharply. “Has she spoken to you of this?”
Cobweb draped one hand over the edge of the table to cross his fingers unseen.
“No. Certainly not.” Anyway, it wasn’t a lie. She hadn’t. He had.
“But I don’t know what to do. I know how to give a lady pleasure, Cobweb. I know how to do it for a man. But she tries too hard.”
“I’ll think about it, Huw. I’m sure it’s quite easy to put right. It wasn’t so to begin with, was it? It was a difficult time for her while she was raising Luc, and I think she’s just suffering from a delayed reaction. She just needs to remember how to play.”
The Gnome left the lower table to catch Cobweb. “What did he want to talk to you about?”
Cobweb was vague. “Oh, just politenesses.”
“He wasn’t talking about. . . about what I said?”
This time Cobweb left both hands in full view, looked the Gnome squarely in the eye and lied.
“No. Nothing important. Now, you could retire. He is not going to follow you at once. He’s going to talk to Luc, so that Luc doesn’t think that all you two ever do is screw. You are going to dab some more of that lemon geranium oil in all the places you did before, and wait for him. Don’t take anything off. Let Huw do it. Better still, make Huw do it. With his teeth. . . I’m just going to nip home. I’ve got something I want to show Huw tomorrow.”
The next day, Cobweb called upon Huw before the Gnome had made it out of bed, and after five minutes of her conversation, Huw called a squire to watch his door and to deny entry to anyone, even my lord’s son or my lord’s um. . . what’s-his-name. She returned to the Gnome later.
“What on earth were you doing? We could hear Huw laughing all the way down the stairs.”
“I was introducing him to the concept of the mail order catalogue. He’s decided that he wants to get you a birthday present. Or two.”
“What on earth for?”
“For your birthday.”
“Allow me to point out to you that not having a mother also means that I don’t have a birthday.”
“Well, you’re getting one now. We’ve decided that since you probably hatched or something, we’re giving you one in the spring. Just roll with it.”
Cobweb had gone home before the Gnome managed to get in to search Huw’s rooms for the catalogue. It was something of a surprise to him to find it folded back, and with several items marked – surely neither Cobweb nor Huw could possibly believe that he wanted an exercise bicycle. Could they?
“Bossy? Is that you?”
“Who else would be crashing about in the kitchen in the middle of the night? I got away early and I wanted to come home. What have I fallen over? Have you been buying stuff off the internet again?”
“Yes, but it’s not for me. The kitchen stuff is basically a bribe for Huw’s cook, because I want her to do a birthday feast for the Gnome. And the other stuff is for Huw and the Gnome. Believe me, you don’t need to know about that.”
“Oh, go on. Everything fell out. I’ve sorted it all back again into the boxes, but. . .”
“Well, you saw what it was. There’s nothing there you haven’t seen before. They’ve been having trouble when the Gnome’s female, and you are not under any circumstances to let them know that you know.”
“You won’t get batteries in this part of Story. Give them some extra imps to go in the vibrator. And did you have to get one such a dreadful colour?”
“You didn’t see the choices. The highlight marker pink was the best of the options. Otherwise it was dayglo yellow, blue or green.”
“Apparently the green one glowed in the dark. I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”
“Where’s your one? And the little chain with the loops in it?”
“With the collar, I think. No, next drawer down. And. . . what’s that?”
“Well, since we appear to have - shall we say ‘lost’? – our nice paddle, I found some time to make a new one.”
“And in fact I made two. So I can give the Gnome one for his birthday.”
“Do you think he would like one of the wing ribs as well?”
“No, neither do I. So that’s what he’s getting. Pass the wrapping paper. And you won’t need those pyjamas now that I’m back. You aren’t going to be cold. Not once I’ve finished with you. I’m sure you’ve done something you shouldn’t while I was away; let’s see if I can persuade you to tell me what it was.”
The Gnome’s birthday celebration was something of a hit. Cobweb had enough sense to ask permission to enter Morwen’s kitchen, to address her very respectfully, and to suggest and request rather than ordering. The two of them reached an accommodation quite quickly, once Cobweb wondered aloud if Mistress Morwen would be interested in sharing her recipe for baked lemon cheesecake. Since even in Huw’s lands it was known that Mistress Cobweb did not give away favourite recipes unless she believed the recipient to be very, very deserving, this was identified as a peace offering of the highest calibre.
Luc and the squires spent a giggly afternoon decorating the Great Hall with spring greenery, and when Cobweb, who had been called in to praise and approve, suggested some sort of table centre, and described some she had seen, it was Luc who came up with the idea of the ice fountain, and went to see his godmother Minerale to ask her to arrange it. The Gnome had been banished back to his own house so that he wouldn’t see anything before all was ready, but Cobweb flipped in and out to borrow things and to confer with his Brownie, who was a great help to Mam in knowing precisely how to make certain favourite dishes.
The party itself was discussed and dissected for weeks afterwards by all those who had attended it. Particularly popular were Huw’s request for Cobweb and Carabosse to give a jive masterclass, and Barnabas’s motorcycle trips around the courtyard, which were very much safer than they felt.
Carabosse and Cobweb had arrived bearing gifts, but the Gnome’s desire to open the parcels (one of which was very large) was thwarted by Huw, who advised against it, advised strongly against it, flatly forbade it, and eventually, when the Gnome nagged, allowed him to open the one from Carabosse to demonstrate why, even on his birthday, obedience would be a Good Thing. “Everybody knows, Gwydion, that a birthday gift must be tried at once, as soon as the package is opened. So touch your toes, and let’s try the paddle.”
“Awwwwwww, Huw. . . Not the paddle. . .”
“No? The other thing, then?”
“Very unlucky to leave a gift untried. Choose one. Rib or paddle?”
“Paddle. I hate you.”
“Shall I call the Sieur Carabosse to see the success of his gift? Or the lady Cobweb?”
“No, please, Huw, don’t.”
“Hose down, then. The lady Cobweb was telling me that in some parts of the world there is a tradition that the birthday boy should get a spank for every year of his life, and a big one to grow on. How old did you say you were?”
“I didn’t. . . You know – ow! – that I’m not human! Ow!”
“Well, then, just enough to make you. . . know that you are mine, and that I will have obedience. Will I not?”
“Yeeeessss, I promise. Owww! I don’t know why I stay with you, honestly I don’t.”
“Because I spank you when you need it, and because I do this.”
“Oh. Oh yes. Oh Huw. Oh, love. . .”
“Oh, yes, and the lady Cobweb said you are to be female tonight.”
“Oh, Huw, must I?”
“I think so. And then the birthday girl can have a spanking too.”
“Awwwwwww, Huw! You’re ganging up on me! It isn’t fair!”
“What does the lady say about ‘not fair’?”
It was well past midnight when a rather giggly Gnome was swept off to bed by Huw, and finally allowed to open her birthday presents.
“Huw? Do you know what’s in these?”
“I haven’t seen the contents, no, but the lady Cobweb explained about them to me. Start where you like.”
“The big one, then. It’s. . . it’s an exercise bicycle. How very. . . unlike Cobweb. I’m sure it will be. . . um. . .”
“Oh yes. She said that it went with this tiny parcel.”
“Two weighted ping pong balls held together with string. What is it, some new contact sport?”
“She said, put the balls inside. . .”
“Inside you, and then ride the bicycle. Ignore the instructions with the balls, she said, because if you go out they make such a lot of noise that people turn and look.”
“She’s mad. Totally. What’s in this one? A vibrator? Well, might be interesting. And spare imps, how thoughtful. It’s very pink, isn’t it? And a tube of some other pink stuff.”
“She said I was to tell you it had the same effect as toothpaste, only not as extreme. She seemed to think you would understand that. What’s toothpaste?”
“Never mind. What on earth are these? Lumpy tubular. . . oh, I see! I like the look of that one.”
“Are those the things that she said I should put on my. . .”
“No, I think I should put them on your. . . It’s a tight fit, isn’t it? But I fancy trying them. And a bottle of gloppy stuff, saying ‘does not stain’. I’ve heard Cobweb on the subject of that before. Apparently it’s a lie. What in the name of all the Gods is that?”
“Now, I don’t remember her mentioning that one. I didn’t see it in the catalogue, either. What on earth can it be for?”
“It’s awfully big. Which end are we supposed to use? The rubber ball, or the. . . the flower thing? And how?”
“Can’t imagine, Ninny. No ideas at all. Come down here and after we’ve tried all the other things, we’ll see what occurs to us. Pass the pink minty stuff, and let me put some on you. What about here?”
At the Website, Carabosse and Cobweb were sharing the bath (which had not been in the bathroom when they came home) and a bottle of Cava. It was a large bath, which was fortunate, given what Carabosse wanted to do in it.
“Darling? You know those things you gave the Gnome?”
“You said there was nothing I hadn’t seen before. But there was. A big black and grey thing.”
“A sort of. . . well, like this. . . go on, you know what I like you to do with that. . . only with a very swollen black head, and the other end was splayed out into fat tines. We haven’t got one of those.”
Cobweb stared at him blankly. “I didn’t give the Gnome anything like that.”
“You did. It was in the box. I picked it up off the floor and put it in the box.”
She thought for a moment, and then gave a crow of delight. “You didn’t! I wonder if they’re using it? Can we go and look?”
Carabosse was shocked. “Certainly not! You’ve been spending far too much time with that Gnome, you know, you used to be a properly modest representative of Order, and now look at you! I hardly recognise you! You seem to have no inhibitions at all! And you aren’t to ask them about it either. Why haven’t we got one of those?”
“Oh, that one was going to be ours. It shouldn’t have gone to Tin Goch. I wanted to keep it.”
“Sorry, that was my fault, then. Anyway, what is it?”
“It’s a high-tech potato masher. I wonder what they’re doing with it?”
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