The Prologue: Fairy Tale

(This is where it all started. Blame Cobweb.)

Yeses, of course Iím a fairy. What about it? Youíve seen one before, havenít you? You havenít. Oh. That makes things a bit more difficult. You wonít know why Iím here. No, Iím working. Didnít you know? Fairies are not the pink-and-white pointy-eared long winged nitwits you seem to expect. We are the Old People. The Elementals. We were here before you and we fully expect to be here when you have gone, if you can be stopped from tearing the world to bits in the meantime. We are the Workforce. Fairies have jobs. We keep the system running.†

What? Oh, the jobs. Well, thereís the Santa Claus team, of course. Technical bods mostly, toy creation, time dilation, spatial mathematicians and so on. Then there are gremlins and the like, under various names. The ones who hide the car keys. Nowadays thereís a big sub-group in computers. Oh, you knew that? Tooth fairy, house brownie, foot-fetish elves, and the rest.

Some of the jobs are more specialised. Weíre also responsible for muses, various forms of inspiration and so on. Who? Paulus the what? Woodgnome? No, I donít know anybody by that name. I donít think he can be an elemental. Probably human.

Look, let me tell you a bit about fairies, then, because you people seem to have some very odd ideas. For a start, fairies come in two sexes, just like humans. The difference is that ours arenít fixed. Iím sorry, this isnít my first language, so youíll have to stop me if I donít make myself clear. I donít think I mean sex, do I? I mean gender. Iíll come to sex later. We are born male or female, like you, which is sex, but we donít have to stay that way, which is gender. We can switch. No, nowadays they call it toggling, donít they, when you flick from one state to another? Most of us flick from male to female and back according to what we fancy, or who we fancy. Shifting, we call it. By the time weíre a couple of thousand years old, we tend to have settled with one or the other, but itís a matter of personal preference.

Sexual activity is also a matter of personal preference. Weíve got the same possibilities as you do: male/female, male/male, female/female, but in our case, obviously, itís easier to arrange. If Iím being male, and I meet another male who prefers male/female, Iíll become female. Or he will. I must admit, I rather like female. There are so many more sensitive bits. But I donít want to breed, so Iíve got to be careful. When weíre breeding we canít Shift, but we donít breed often. But we see sex and orientation as optional. Yes, I know, some of you do too. And of course, we can play with you too. Most of us do, at least once in a while.

Look, we arenít getting on here, and Iíve got appointments. Boy, have I got appointments! And there arenít as many of us to shift the work as there used to be. Iím head of Nemesis. In fact, to be frank, there isnít much to be head of, but thatís the modern world for you. We used to be the Fates, Kismet, and about six other departments. By the way, thatís something you donít seem to have grasped. In most cases, our names arenít names, theyíre job titles, or they used to be. My nameís Cobweb. Pleased to meet you. Iíve had a lot to do with humans in my time. That guy with the bald head saw us, and he knew me. William something. Brakespear? He put me in a play; I was on holiday at the time. I started off as a household fairy, hence the name. I rather liked it, so Iíve held onto it, even though itís a long time since I did housework stuff. Yes, all right, in those days I was a dust bunny. And my associate over there, the big guy with the muscles, heís Briony. Well, when heís female, heís Briony. When heís male he likes to be Brian. I ask you! What sort of name is Brian for a male fairy?

What? Oh. If you say so.

Where was I? Oh yes, Kismet. Well, you know in the fairy tales, the bad guys were unhelpful to the old crone, and in exchange they got eaten by the monster. The good guy drew the water, and shared the lunch and was generally polite, and in exchange the aforementioned crone provided the password to the treasure chamber, or the important artefact that ensured not being eaten by the monster. Yes? Well, the crone was one of ours. Actually, so was the monster. It was a Bugginsí turn appointment, but it was important, because it ensured that being polite to old ladies and gentlemen became known as a desirable behaviour pattern. Good manners became genetically transmissible, because the ill-mannered tended to be eaten before they could marry and breed.

Basically, we are the fairies of Consequences. We ensure that you get what you have been asking for, although you may not know that you have been asking. If you are generally a nice person, good things happen. If you are a brat, bad things happen. Now I appreciate that it isnít often obvious, but we provide the consequences: what we canít do any more is make them transparent. If youíre a horror at work, I may not be able to give you financial meltdown any more (they think I over-reached myself with Enron), but I can generally provide an ulcer. If youíve been playing away, I can provide an embarrassing rash in all sorts of interesting places. And in a small number of cases, such as yours, I can deal more directly.

How did I get to this from housework? Boy, do you ask questions!

Well, once upon a time, I was the domestic fairy at a castle, and I was pretty pissed off. I had applied for a transfer to Fairy Godmothering, and they had taken me on for a trial period, and then I got fired. I still think that was unfair. I had just been trying to bring Godmothering into the twelfth century, for pityís sake. There was a team of us, in charge of Gifts for Babies. You know what I mean? We turned up for christenings (well, naming ceremonies, really) and provided Gifts. All I said was that the Gifts were dated and stupid and Eurocentric and we should provide more practical ones, so I did. The traditional ones were hair as black as coal or as gold as corn for girls, together with skin as white as whatever, and lips as red as, well you know the stuff. The boys tended to get sword skills and the ability to be loved by their people. Unfortunately, after a while somebody got wise to what I was doing. I had done a whole batch of practical Gifts. Several girls got the ability to tell when men were lying to them. A couple of boys got the ability to engage their brains before their mouths. The two that got me in the drink were the girl who could manage not to say ĎI told you soí, even though she had, and the boy who was able to look for things with some hope of finding them, rather than waiting for some woman to do it.

I got busted back to domestics and sent off to a castle in the back end of beyond. There was only me, and it was a big castle, and a lot of work, and I was in a big rage. And in the fullness of time, there was a baby, and a gathering and the Godmothers came. The baby was a girl, and there were twelve Godmothers, which I think is excessive, personally, and the Gifts were the usual rubbish: a sweet singing voice, beauty to make your nose run or something, the ability to dance all night (like teenagers canít do that anyway, and like anybody else wants to). Not a decent trust fund among them. And I had a headache like you get before thunder, and a distinct feeling that there was something up, and the Godmothers were sneering at me, and Carabosse turned up.

Carabosse is the villain. The Wicked Fairy. Actually, the one who keeps the Story moving; itís a very responsible job, and itís always given to a very senior elemental. No, there isnít just one Carabosse, thereís a whole team. But for some reason, there had to be a hold up in this Story; itís to do with genetics. The princess had to be stopped from marrying the prince who would have turned up in due course, because of some weird chromosomal abnormality, and had to be provided with another one. And we, or rather they, didnít have a spare. So the obvious thing to do was to shift her into either a parallel normality or an alternative time line.

Look, Iím sorry if you donít have the vocabulary for this, but Iím doing my best.

Carabosse did the traditional thunder and lightning, peals of evil laughter and a really great ďI wasnít invited to the partyĒ speech. Frankly, Iíve seen it done a dozen times, but that Carabosse was easily the best I ever met. Think of Alan Rickman on good form. Try not to dribble. Yes, I know, Alan Rickman does that to me, too. The princess was on target to prick her finger on a spindle on her sixteenth birthday, and die.

Then the twelfth Godmother pops up to ameliorate the situation. The princess will not die, but will sleep for a hundred years until the prince comes to wake her with a kiss.

Then thereís a big party for the humans, and Iím trying to keep an eye on the kitchen staff because anything they donít do, I have to. And there was another big party for the magical people, and about the only good thing was that I got it together with Carabosse big time, and he ended up staying for nearly a month before his next engagement. He was a lovely bloke, and a charming girl, and he went like a train, as you people say, both ways. I liked him best as a male, and he was equally good whether I was male or female. And he liked to... Iíve forgotten what you call it. Oh, I know! He was a Top! Iíd never done that before and it was a lot of fun.

You know that. You seem to know a lot of things... No, honestly, I really donít know anybody called Paulus the anything. I donít know any woodgnomes. Iím sure he isnít an elemental.

Now you would have thought that the family would spend quite a lot of time training this princess in spindle recognition, so that on her sixteenth birthday, she doesnít prick her finger and all the rest of it. It is actually possible to buck the storyline if you try hard enough. After all, itís only a standard phallo-centric virginity myth, nothing out of the ordinary. But no, they just ban the things, so suddenly you canít spin your own thread anywhere in the kingdom, and all wool has to be exported, at a poor price because neighbouring kingdoms have heard the Story, and re-imported as cloth at an exorbitant price for the same reason. And in due course, Carabosse comes back, the princess pricks her finger, and the whole household is locked in slumber for a hundred years. I hadnít expected that: I hadnít realised that it would be basically everybody except Carabosse, me, and the cats. Well, of course the cats donít count. They have their own magic and disregard ours.

Big plus: Carabosse stayed another month, and I didnít, technically, have to do any housework because there wasnít anybody except him and me to do it for. This gave me a lot of time to think of things to do with him and to him, and we didnít have to worry about letting other jobs slide. We just played. Well, the sort of games that couples do play. Well, like pretending that the housework did matter, so that when I didnít sweep the stairs, he followed me up them, making me sweep each step in turn and then touch my toes for a spank with the brush. There are two hundred and forty six steps from the cellar to the guardroom, and I should know. It took most of an afternoon, and I slept on my face afterwards. Oh yes, I enjoyed it; there were six landings as well as all those stairs, and we spent some time on each landing.

Eventually, though, Carabosse had to go, because he was doubling for the evil magician in that Story involving the swans, and I looked forward to a hundred years in the castle, with nothing to do except housework. Dull, or what? At least in Beauty and the Beast, thereís a sizeable invisible staff. This time, there was only me. But there was no point in repining, so I set up a schedule to get round all the castle at least once a year, and just got on with it. Fortunately, outside wasnít my responsibility. The Godmother had set up a gardening scheme which grew a huge hawthorn hedge, and the grass was kept at its original height, and that was it. I had plenty of time to think about Carabosse, and to accept that I wasnít likely to see much more of him. It had been a fling, but basically he was slumming it with me. Heís a lot older than me, and very high in court circles. I hadnít much chance of being promoted into the upper ranks, given the castle job, and being a household fairy. But I came to terms with that, and I looked after the place, and I was, I suppose, not happy precisely, but contented.

Only I began to grow up a bit. I thought about Carabosse, and I began to wonder whether what we had been doing was as much fun from his point of view as it had been from mine. I had occasional days off: even a working fairy has a contract, after all, and I went exploring the countryside. I made friends with a couple of naiads and dryads, and I had a brief relationship with one of them. She was an apple tree, and very affectionate. I introduced her to all the things that Carabosse had taught me, only this time I was Top, and she seemed to enjoy them. Does that make me a Middle? Like I said, this isnít my first language and technical terms are always difficult.

It must have been a good fifteen years into the Story when Carabosse came back. Apparently the swan thing had gone badly and he had been required to stay and help sort it out. Something to do with lead fishing weights? Does that sound likely? He was exhausted and far too thin, so I kept him with me for a while until he looked better, and this time when we played, I topped. He said I could be quite good at it if I practised, but he wouldnít let me practise as much as I would like, and when I tried to insist, he practised himself, and I smarted for it. It was such fun.

He called in every couple of years after that, and played merry Dis with my cleaning schedule, and punished me for not washing the windows or whatever, and I began to keep the castle really nice, not because he would spank me if I didnít but because it was easier to free up time to misbehave if everything were up to date. We never had any trouble finding something I hadnít done that he could punish me for. The hundred years went by really quite fast, in the end.

And one day I woke up and thought, ďI reckon itís today.Ē You get a feel for these things after a while. I knew Carabosse would be back for the big closing scene, and I could feel him somewhere about. You know how sometimes humans get headachy and tetchy when thereís a storm coming? I get sensitive in the rear, if you follow me, when Carabosse is in the vicinity. Like pins and needles in the behind. So I shot round and checked all the floors and made sure there was nothing left on the stairs for a prince to fall over, and unlocked the doors, and waited. These things usually happen at noon, because that makes the administration easier, so by half past one, I was in a flat spin. In the end I went out to look for the prince. I wasnít going to spend the next hundred years as a household brownie on account of some inbred airhead with a poor sense of punctuality, and I knew the princess was rousing, because she had turned over in bed when I looked in.

He was sitting in the damn orchard, and his horse was eating windfall apples! I mean, how stupid can you get? He was just sitting there, not doing anything, while his horse was working up to a serious colic! What? Well, apples arenít very good for horses, not eaten in bulk. I was furious! I materialised in front of him, having at least the wit to bring on the right costume Ė pink and frilly and sparkly Ė and told him I was the twelfth Fairy Godmother, which was a lie, but the bitch should have been there to deal with this, and that he should get his arse in gear for rescuing the princess. Well, no, of course I didnít word it like that. It was all thee and thou and pretty phrases. And the half-wit had the nerve to say that he wasnít sure about that, because he wasnít marrying any princess without seeing her first, like he had the choice!

Sorry, didnít you know? All fairy tale characters know in advance. Itís a contractual thing. I know itís difficult for you to understand, because the princess effectively has to sign up before sheís born, but thatís how it works. Time isnít quite as fixed for us as for you. We can run it both ways. He had signed up to marry the princess and he was damn well going to marry the princess because I was the one who would be in trouble otherwise.

So I shot back up the stairs Ė I had to do this using plain muscle because thereís so much loose magic in the castle that I couldnít materialise accurately inside - and shook the princess until her head rattled and of course she didnít wake up because Iím not the handsome prince, am I. Except that the little cow was already awake, because it was time. She was just pretending. There was no point being the Pink Fairy for her, I had to pique her interest, so I did Handsome Hunk for her. Tunic, leggings, long boots. I put on something of Carabosseís looks, very Alan Rickman. Only she knew, because I wouldnít kiss her. Not my job.

So I went back downstairs and had another go at the prince. And then up for another go at the princess. And† down. And up. And down. And of course sheís in the topmost tower, because itís in the specification, and the stairs are really beginning to get me in the ankles and thighs. And my temper was getting shorter and shorter, and at one point I got the Shift wrong and forgot to change the clothes, and did one circuit as the Handsome Hunk in a long cerise frock, elbow length gloves and silver stilettos, and the Pink Fairy with a bouffant hairdo and full make-up dressed as a Captain of Horse. They both looked a bit bewildered by that, and I canít say that I blame them.

I was at the bottom in the orchard for the fifth time when I lost the rag completely. The prince had turned onto his face and was asleep in the long grass. Upstairs, the princess had gone back to bed. So I shrieked. I stood in the middle of the orchard and I let rip. The prince, snotty little brat, pretended not to hear, but Pommy heard. Sheís the apple tree I mentioned? She is absolutely sweet, but she is also absolutely not stupid. She had apparently been watching, and she leaned her tree over my head, and said ďCobweb darling, would you have any use for one of these?Ē, and she dropped a long slender applewood switch at my feet.

I just love intelligent women, donít you? Even when they are fruit trees. I had that switch in my hand and was legging it over towards the prince in slightly less than no time. He was still face down in the grass, pretending to be asleep, and I caught him two smart ones across the seat of the hose before he had a chance to move. My, but he squealed! And of course he tried to jump up, but thereís almost no means of getting up from face down that doesnít involve lifting the arse into the air first, and I got him twice more. And I abandoned both the Pink Fairy look and the Handsome Hunk look, and went for the one that scared me when Carabosse wore it, of leather trousers and a plain white shirt and black boots and a long leather coat, and I left my own face on top, which is fairly androgynous, and basically I snarled at him that if he werenít heading for the castle in two seconds he would know about it, and I flourished the switch, and he ran. At least he ran in the right direction.

The stories tell you that the hedge drew back to let him in, but it isnít actually true. He attempted to hurdle it, and I could see that he wasnít going to make it, so I shrieked again and Hawthorn, whoís a friend of Pommyís and who had been watching and laughing like a drain, lay down as flat as he could go, which was about three feet, and I applied the switch a fifth time to the seat of the royal pants, and just lifted him over. Then I rocketed past him and started up the stairs for about the sixth time.

At the top I stopped to wheeze and cough, and thought about changing back to either Handsome Hunk or Pink Fairy, only I couldnít remember which one warranted which character, and then I thought ďBugger it! They can both have Cobweb,Ē and threw the door open. The princess was leaning out of the window, obviously having been watching what had been going on, and the target was too much to resist. I wound my hand in her sash to stop her tipping straight out, and I applied the switch to her rear as smartly as I had done to her intended, and she scrabbled back in through the window howling and bit me on the wrist. Well, I wasnít having that, so I planted one foot in the window embrasure and the little madam went across my knee and became more closely acquainted with the switch. I donít think she found it a relationship worth sustaining. And then I pushed her towards the door and told her to go downstairs if she didnít want some more of the same, and down I went again.

The prince, who obviously wasnít quite as stupid as he had been making out, had made it to the third floor. Unfortunately, which was stupid, he had stopped to lean over the banister and wheeze. He found as I passed that in fact his wind was sound enough for another floor without a pause. Indeed, he was taking the stairs two at a time, because every time he slowed, I laid another cut across his bum. I went back to the top, and chased Her Royal Pain down a couple of floors using a technique of alternating forehand and backhand, and they clashed on a landing outside the main bedrooms. They both knew what was required of the Story, and she had both arms round his neck and her tongue in his mouth before he could even introduce himself.

I staggered to the bottom, wondering if fairies could die of exhaustion, and opened the main door and looked out into the face of Sir Huon and half the court of the King of Faery, and said, ďOh fuck,Ē and shut the door again. That was wrong. I admit it. One of the equerries opened the door again, and they all looked in at me sitting on the bottom step and there was a horrible silence. Then all the exercise caught up with me, and I rolled back to my feet and pushed past Sir Huon in a manner he obviously didnít expect, and threw up in the flowerbed. That got their attention, although I wasnít grateful. If Iím going to heave, I prefer not to have an audience, particularly not one of the great and good. But by the time I was able to sit up and take notice,† most of them had gone into the castle, where people were beginning to wake up, and by the time my breathing had steadied, there was only Carabosse left outside. He was wearing the full outfit, ready to be formally thwarted and banished, and he looked like... he looked like... well, if my stomach hadnít hurt and my chest hadnít hurt and my legs hadnít hurt, I would have put him flat on his back in the grass and never mind who was watching.

He eyed me up and down, and was graciously pleased to approve the theory behind my clothes, although they were now spattered with grass clippings and sodden with perspiration, and enquired delicately what precisely I had thought I was doing. So I explained it all to him, and he listened attentively and tried hard not to laugh, and asked to be introduced to Pommy and Hawthorn. He made clear to me carefully that as a household fairy I had no business interfering with the running of the Story and that he would naturally have to spank me for it later, and I agreed happily that this was so. Then Sir Huon bellowed for him and he went off at a run to be thwarted, and I sat on the grass, and viewed the ruin of my career.

When I gathered my courage and went inside, the celebration was going on. In view of the fact that the prince and princess had apparently retired to a bedroom to compare stripes the moment I left them, the wedding had been informal and extremely hasty. The humans were trying to find out exactly what had happened to their political standing in the region in the last hundred years, and the elementals were just working up to a good party. I arrived in time to hear Carabosse telling the tale of what I had done, and making a damn good story of it. Sir Huon laughed so much that he fell off his chair, and he insisted on seeing the Pink Hunk and the Handsome Fairy outfits, and I began to think that I would be the court joke for the next hundred years, which might or might not be an improvement on being a dust bunny. And at that point, the blasted Pink Fairy turned up, bleating ďOh dear, am I late? Did it go off all right?Ē

Carabosse prised my fingers off her throat before I could do any real harm (and used my own switch later to persuade me that throttling a senior fairy was a bad idea). Sir Huon tactfully pretended not to have seen (apparently he canít stand the woman and thought I had every provocation)† and assured her as she coughed that although she was indeed a little late, Cobweb had improvised a very suitable happy ending for all concerned. Well, we had achieved what we ought to, and as far as I could see the only loser was likely to be me. Except that Sir Huon suddenly leaned forward to address me.

ďCobweb, is domestic service a vocational thing for you? Or could we persuade you to a change of career? A promotion? Weíve been reviewing the Nemesis files lately, and you seem to me to have exactly the Ďmake-it-happení attitude we want at the top. Come and talk to me about it tomorrow.Ē

And I did, and here I am. I got Carabosse on a permanent basis, and I got my promotion and I am Head of Nemesis. Itís a fancy name for what I am. Iím the Spank Fairy, sunshine, and I love my work, and you are in deep... Oh! Iíve just thought! I do know your Paulus! A woodgnome? Is that what he is? I thought he was a... well, a... arenít woodgnomes usually quite respectable? Are you sure thatís what he is? He isnít human, certainly, so he must be some sort of elemental, I suppose. I donít know him well; heís on Brionyís list. He likes Brian better than me. Do you remember, Brian? You got him last week for doing something stupid to the hard drive. And the week before for excessive use of the internet. And the week before that for... I forget. Between you and me, I think that heís deliberately provoking Brian, and Brian knows it, but they do all the paperwork properly, so I donít interfere.

Donít try to distract me. I am your own personal Spank Fairy, provided with weaponry by Pomona Apple Switches Ltd. (Purveyors to the Royal Court), and we are going to discuss the precise lie you told the insurance company about the speed you were doing when you slid the car into the ditch. Yes, it was a lie. Yes, it was. Look, Iím going to use this switch for that lie, and if you keep insisting that it wasnít a lie, I can give you a spanking for insubordination as well. Do you want me male or female? As you prefer. Do you wish to go over my knee, or to bend over your kitchen stool? No, those are your only choices. Can you please remove all barrier clothing? No, it neednít all come right off, just give me access to the target area. Thank you. One dozen.



Idris the Dragon

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