Merry Christmas, Mr Woodgnome. Love from Cobweb. I don’t know why I let you get me into these tangles, I really don’t.

It was quite remarkable, thought Cobweb with some amusement, how often the Gnome turned up in her kitchen as Christmas approached. He had access to a perfectly good kitchen at Huw’s, and Mam had been known to permit him to cook something in it; his own house, in which he still spent occasional weekends, had a kitchen which she would not admit aloud to envying. On the other hand, the contents of her cupboards seemed to be tidier and easier to find than she remembered; she had a sneaking suspicion that the Gnome’s Brownie was moonlighting at the Website. She must remember to leave a bowl of milk out, and perhaps a slice of cake. No, there was something about Christmas cooking (or Yule cooking, or Midwinter cooking or Modranect or Geol or Saturnalia cooking – she refused to accept Winterval and the first person to wish her ‘Happy Holidays’ would be lining up for a smacking) which was better done in company. He would simply turn up, get in the way, criticise her recipes, sniff at her ingredients and then eat whatever she didn’t wrench from his fingers and put into a tin for later. On the other hand she could trust him to remind her that her mince pies were about to burn, or even, if she had gone out of the kitchen, to remove them from the oven himself, although he did then insist on a tithe.

“There,” she said, reasonably cheerfully, finishing the last of the washing up. If she had inherited a part-time Brownie, she wasn’t leaving her kitchen in a mess for it to see. Even in Faery, the rules about cleaning up before the cleaner comes apply. “What shall we do now?” She came to sit down at the kitchen table, and leaned across to remove the wine bottle from the Gnome’s vicinity. There might be plenty in it, but he’d been putting it away fairly steadily since he arrived and she rather fancied half a glass herself before he laid claim to the lot.

“What about an evening off?” he asked, with a shrewd look. Cobweb was having one of those stretches which everybody gets, with too many things to do and none of them getting finished. It was no secret that she hated that, nor that when her ‘things to do urgent’ reached the stage of having to have lists of the lists, it was time for a break.

“And do what?”

“Fancy a trip to the ballet? Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is on again. We’d have to put the tiniest pleat in Time, we’d never get tickets any other way, and then afterwards there’s a restaurant I’ve found which I think you would like. If I go back to the autumn I could book the ballet, we can go in a fortnight, and then I’ll take you to the restaurant at the start of December before the Christmas rush starts. Go on, wash your face and put on a clean shirt and some lipstick and let’s just go.”

“I’m not going with you unless you change. No way am I going into 21st century London with a man dressed like that. You’ll be arrested. Where have you been anyway?”

“Roman Britain, and I’ll have you know that for Roman Britain this is the height of sophistication.”

“What were you doing there?”

He wrinkled his nose. “Chasing down an errant Plot. There was a Story there, oh, ages ago, which hinted that it might have a Sequel, but you know how it is: one misplaced Word, the Plot gallops off kicking its heels in the air and squealing, and pop goes the Sequel.”

She nodded. “Well, I’ll grant you have the legs for the tunic but you also appear to have a hefty coating of mud and possibly horse muck. I appreciate you leaving the sandals outside (although you know I don’t care about that) but I’m not sure that it made a great deal of difference. You go to the theatre like that and they won’t let us in, I’m telling you.”

“You might be right. All right, look, I’ll go home and make the bookings, and we’ve both got time for a bath, and I’ll be back for you a week on Wednesday in forty minutes, how’s that?”

“Make it an hour and I can wash my hair. We’re not dressing up, are we?”

“Not for 21st century London. And it’s none too warm out, so put on a coat.”

It was only after he had gone and she had run herself a bath that she realised he had taken the bottle of wine. She had to conjure her own, and while she would never have admitted it anywhere he could hear her, it wasn’t as dry as he could do.

The ballet was at least as good as they both remembered – the man with the leather trousers and the whip still brought about an atmosphere in the theatre composed of more or less neat pheromones, and the Gnome commented afterwards that he couldn’t understand why more ballets didn’t have something similar – and there was enough spare Power at a tube station with the appropriate name of Angel for them to manage a sliding Fold to make their dinner reservation three weeks and several hours earlier. Afterwards, they stepped out into a lively looking town centre, and wandered happily enough down a broad shop-lined street towards what appeared to be the main square.

“Where is this, anyway? You didn’t say.”

“Don’t you recognise it?”

“Should I? All these county towns look much the same to me. And the shops are all much of a muchness. Unless. . . Is this Barchester? It is, isn’t it? I don’t think I’ve ever actually been here before, you know.”

“Pretty, isn’t it? Look, that’s the cathedral, and. . . hello, what’s going on here? A funfair, and. . . what’s happening?”

“Turning on the Christmas lights,” said a man behind them. “Excuse me, madam, you might want to tuck your bag inside your coat. We’ve had some trouble here lately with pickpockets.” He smiled at her, and turned back to his own companion, a tall dark woman with a camera hung round her neck.

“Gnome? Was that. . .?”

His eyebrows went up in amused surprise. “I think it must have been. Look, let’s go round the outside and see if we can spot any of the others.”

“Are we allowed?”

“Well, it’s not as if they’ll recognise us, is it? And what harm can it do?”

They moved through the fair, not in the least as swans move over lakes, ignoring the Mayor who was on a dais thanking various worthies for something, and presently the Gnome put his elbow in Cobweb’s ribs and pointed wordlessly towards a broad red-haired man sharing a can of beer with a shorter, slighter, blond companion.

“So where do you reckon the other two are?”

“Must be here somewhere, surely? And given the size of them, they’d stand out like. . . Look! Can’t mistake that nose, can you?”

“So where’s. . .” only at that moment the mayor said something incomprehensible into the microphone, and a tall blond man on the dais came forward smiling. Cobweb sighed. “He really is a bit gorgeous, isn’t he?” she whispered as he leaned to the microphone and asked cheerfully, “Ready? O.K.! Come on, everybody! Ten! – Nine!”

The crowd joined in enthusiastically, and Cobweb felt that prickle on her skin which lives at the heart of most major religions, and which comes with large numbers of people chanting. “Eight! – Seven!” The hairs at the back of her neck lifted, and she turned uneasily towards the Gnome. “Six! – Five! – Four!” He obviously felt it too; he leaned close enough to shout in her ear, “I wonder if we should get –” “Three! – Two! – One!” “out of here?”

The blond man on the raised stage threw the switch, there was a surge of both power and Power, the lights came on and there was a silent, and to non-Elementals, unnoticeable implosion. The crowd cheered, the blond man waved and jumped down from the stage, and everybody in Barchester town square clapped and ooohed at the lights and wondered about getting a hot dog and going to the fair for half an hour.

Somewhere Else, a couple of stunned Elementals were lying in a tangle on rather stony ground. Cobweb, who was conscious of a ringing in her ears, began to think about getting up, preferably without putting any pressure on that particular part of the Gnome which she had just discovered to be underneath her head, and ideally, in fact, without him noticing. The Gnome, meanwhile, was carefully releasing the death-grip which he had found himself to have on Cobweb’s. . . on bits of Cobweb. They rolled apart without looking at each other, and sat up cautiously.

What was that?” asked the Gnome in some confusion.

Cobweb simply looked at him blankly. He didn’t normally sing at her, and she wasn’t sure she liked it. “Damned if I know,” she said carefully, and clapped a hand over her mouth. “Who did that?”

“We did,” said a trio behind her. “Or rather, you did. What did you do it for?”

It was by no means a new experience for either Cobweb or the Gnome to be asked why they had done something, or what they were doing, usually by someone whose tone implied ‘and stop it at once’. They therefore ignored the question completely in favour of identifying the questioner. Questioners. Three of them. Women. But not, curiously enough, the women they generally encountered in threes.

The Gnome stared at them for a moment. “Oh, it’s you,” he said – sang –  rather flatly. “Um, why three? Why not just one? Or all of you? And where the. . . where are we? And why?”

Cobweb was inclined to be more cautious in an unknown place, when facing unknown Beings. “Um, good evening? My name is Cobweb, could I ask –”

“We know who you are, Nemesis.” They sounded rather well matched: a high treble, a mezzo-soprano and a rounded contralto. “We know where you came from. We are curious to see how you will get out.”

That didn’t sound particularly encouraging. “Excuse me, but where are we?” Her own voice sounded thin in comparison with theirs. Also, how come they spoke and she sang? “And what happened? How did we get here? And forgive me, but who are you?”

The three women exchanged glances. “We are Calliope, Polyhymnia and Euterpe,” said the contralto. “Your friend here knows our sisters.”

Muses,” sang the Gnome, crossly. “And look, is it absolutely necessary for us to sound like a set of mismatched organ pipes?”

Three disapproving faces turned to him; Cobweb kicked him smartly on the ankle. He never did know how to hold his tongue, or be even a little conciliatory.

Right,” she agreed, slightly below the note. “I see. Excuse me, but you said you knew where we came from? Do you know what happened?”

The mezzo made a gesture like an orchestral conductor; for a moment Cobweb could see a treble clef hanging in the air, and when she spoke again, it was in her normal tones. “I mean, one minute we’re visiting Reality and the next. . .”

The treble frowned at her. “Why do you insist on doing that? You must know that visits to Reality aren’t encouraged and they almost always cause trouble. Why can’t you just stay in Faery where you belong?”

“Listen, sister,” snarled the Gnome; Cobweb stood heavily on his foot.

“But what happened?” she asked again.

“My dear Cobweb, you must have realised that where you were, the border of Reality is very thin. I don’t suppose you were more than five leagues from the Slope-Arabin interface. You bring your own Power to somewhere that sensitive, which induces a Trolloop, and then you hang about in the presence of six characters who are in no particular need of an author, thereby setting up a closed Pirandelloop. Add in a surge of normal electricity together with human excitement and the short circuit is guaranteed to land any elementals within range somewhere other than they want to be.”

She considered a sharp response and thought better of it. “Right. And we are where, exactly?”

The contralto took the solo line. “Here.”

Helpful. Not. “Well, I’m sorry you were troubled; we’ll just get along out. . .” and she reached for the Gnome’s hand and for the edges of a Fold.

“Oh, you can’t go. You’re in, now. You have to complete the opus.”

“Opus?” questioned the Gnome, sharply. She could feel him grasping the edges of the Fold, and failing, as she had done, to pull one close enough to use. “That sounds suspiciously. . . Quest-like. We don’t do Quests any more.” Not since what Bossy and Huw had said about the last one, and the length of time it had take for the welts to go down.

The women were fading as he spoke; the mezzo smiled at Cobweb. “I’m sure you can work it out. You’re supposed to be good with Story; I would suggest that at this time of year something from my back catalogue would be your best bet.”

“And as soon as it’s complete we can go home?”

“Certainly.” That was no more than a whisper, a fading melody of breeze and stream and starlight, a. . .

“Oh, bollocks,” snarled the Gnome. “We’re in a Songfic.”

Half a dozen failed Folds later they had settled down with that irritable application so typical of them.

“Right,” considered Cobweb. “What did she mean about her back catalogue?”

“I haven’t the first idea. Even for a Muse – and they aren’t precisely known for being reliable and helpful – that was vague.”

They sat and thought a little longer. Then the Gnome said, “I ought to know – I do know, if I put my mind to it, what they’re the Muses of. I mean, specifically. Thing is, it’s the sisters I know better, Thalia and Erato. But one of the musical ones is the Muse of lyric song and. . . and one of them of. . . of epic song, I think. What’s the third, Cobweb? Tell me some types of music.”

Cobweb looked a bit blank. “Jazz? Country and no, not likely. Stride piano with a walking bass? Blues? Baroque? Early English Choral? Madrigals. Rock and roll. Opera. Oratorio.” Something a little too deep for hearing hummed; they both felt it. “Oratorio? That’s connecting somewhere. What oratorios do we know?”

“The Creation? Israel in Egypt? The Messiah. The Christmas Oratorio. . . hear that? We’re on the right lines. Christmas. . .” The humming was louder. “The bloody Snowman as if it’s so clever to be walking in the air. Oh, please, please, not Christmas Number Ones Through the Ages.” The humming died away again.

“Church music?” ventured Cobweb, and staggered under the volume of the swelling chords. The Gnome nodded. “Sacred music,” he bellowed. “She’s sacred music.”

“So she said. . . she said ‘this time of year’, and her ‘back catalogue’. Christmas carols?”

The sound stopped with a startling suddenness. Cobweb found herself shouting, and hastened to lower her voice.

“We have to marry a Christmas carol, and Story?”

“Not so much ‘marry’,” said the Gnome, slowly. “Think artificial insemination.”

Silas King was unpacking his van; around Christmas, he couldn’t count on his staff to do anything properly. From about December 20th to January 3rd, they were either too drunk or too hungover to manage anything unless he gave very specific, very slow instructions. It was his busiest time, and he was surrounded by idiots, and WS King Catering had an overdraft slightly larger in his imagination than the national debt.

(“Cobs? Are you sure his name is Silas? It’s not a very common name in England any more.”

“His first name is Wayne. He doesn’t use it.”

“Wayne Silas. . . right, I see where you’re going with it. But why does he not call himself Wayne, other than because it’s a chav name?”

“If you were called Wayne King. . .”

“I would have started using Silas the minute I left school. Yes. I see. And does he have to be a caterer? Haven’t we seen Christmas caterers before?”

“Christmas. Food. Celebration. I can make it go with a caterer, but if you want to take charge and do something else?”

“No, no, caterers it is, no problem. Are you O.K. to take the first verse?”)

Silas King had a job to do; he had a party to cater. His mate Stephen had a Boxing Day party every year, and he was prepared to pay big money not to have to spend the day making bruschettas and feta twists. The corollary to that was that Silas did have to spend the day making. . . and he had just lost his three most experienced waiters. Pillocks, all of them. Look, he wasn’t necessarily the most moral of men himself – his attitude to VAT was that if nobody mentioned it to him, he wasn’t going to ask, and when he estimated tips and gratuities for the tax man he was perhaps inclined to think of a lower number than. . . never mind. But there were some things he wasn’t having, and drug dealing by his staff was one of them. He’d thought better of them, of Dilip and Crispin and Eve. Not just a handful of tablets, but cocaine? No, they went. He wasn’t having that.

Oh, bugger it, some of Stephen’s friends were drunk already. What was it about a certain type of man, that all some of them could think of when they had been drinking was to drop their trousers and dance in the garden? They were going to get bloody frostbite in their important places, not that he cared. Not his problem. His problem was to keep them fed and watered, fuelled up for another hour or so.

“Excuse me? Could I get a refill here?”

“Sorry, of course. What can I get you?”

“Some more of the mulled wine, please. It’s very good, not as sweet as they usually are. And I’ll have some of the cheese pastry things. Thanks.”

Silas looked after him as he moved away again. Nice looking bloke, and the dinner jacket wasn’t something you saw at a party so often now. Mind you, the way the guy was dodging down the mulled wine. . . Stephen always insisted on half a bottle of vodka being added to the pan, which certainly gave it a kick, but given that most people assumed the stuff was more or less non-alcoholic, also tended to give it a kick in the head later. Silas wondered if he had any chance of discovering the guy’s name and address before the end of the evening. Like while he could still remember them.

(“Cobs? Does he get a name? And. . . isn’t he a bit smartly dressed for a pauper?”

“He’s not a pauper. We may be in Songfic but I’m not abandoning all my principles; I don’t care for Damaged Brat and I’m not having it. I don’t see why he needs to be a pauper.”

“Um. . . because the words say he’s one?”

“Slur your consonants a bit. He’s not a poor man, he’s a doorman. He’s a bouncer. That’s why he’s dressed like that – he’s come straight from work. What I have to admit I can’t see is how to introduce them.”

“Well, we just need somebody who knows him. That’s party stuff, I can do that.”)

The thing about being a caterer, thought Silas, was that he always knew somebody at a party, left over from a previous party. There was sure to be somebody here who would tell him who the good-looking bloke was, whether he was boringly straight, and how he felt about getting his kit off in company with a man who might feed him truffles afterwards. What there probably wouldn’t be was anyone who could tell him how the good-looking bloke felt about a couple of dozen laid on smartly with a slipper.

(“Gnome, it’s surely going to be easier if we don’t make it that sort of Story. Can’t they just have hot sex and skip the spanking?”


“Why not?”

“Because that’s the sort of Story I do, and I’m not being told otherwise by a. . . a Chorus. They could have got us out perfectly well; they were just being difficult. Frankly, I reckon it’s because of what you did to that opera.”

“That was months ago!”

“And my guess is they’ve been waiting for the chance ever since.”

“So this is my fault?”

“Well, I dare say that if we made it Phil’s fault somebody would enjoy dealing with it. Look, let’s get Silas informed about Owen, and just get on. I can’t get a drink here. . . unless. . . Cobs, let’s go to the party.”

“But if we can’t Fold. . .”

“The party – the Story – must be here in the Songfic, and so are we, so we should be able to get there. Through here, maybe?”)

“Hello, Silas, how’s tricks?”

There. Somebody he knew who might be able to tell him about the handsome man. . . and presently he would remember her name. He was certain he knew her quite well; he was also certain that he had never seen her before in his life. And her name was. . .

“Heather Page,” insinuated a voice beside him. “You’ve known her for ever. And I’m Stan Baillamé.  You’ve known me for ever too. What was it you wanted to know?”

He – what? Something seemed to be going on rather fast, and not quite the way he expected. Absently he poured a glass of mulled wine for Heather Page. Stan Thing could pour his own. “I was wondering about that man over there. I, um, I think I know him from somewhere, and you know how it is, I can’t think of his name or where I’ve met him or where he lives, or anything.”

“Owen Lackpenny. He lives up the back of Hillside Rugby League ground, on the corner of Forestgate and St Agnes Road.”

“Gay as a cage of monkeys, likes spanking,” added Stan, helpfully. “What? What? I’m just trying to keep everything moving. Oh, excuse me, apparently I’m going over here, dragged by my cuff.”

“What are you doing? For Her sake, will you stop trying to shove it along at that rate?”

“Why? I want to go home, Cobs. I don’t care about mulled wine much, although that’s better than usual, he hasn’t started with a cheap red, and there’s quite a lot of some spirit in it, and he hasn’t let it boil, and his food’s good but even I don’t need any more to eat after that dinner. Come on, get them introduced and humping and we can go home, preferably before Bossy and Huw notice we’re late.”

Actually, that was a good point. A very good point. “Well, look, you go and drag Owen over here and I’ll think of some way to get them talking.”

She thought it might be a good idea to mingle a little, perhaps to vanish into the crowd. She didn’t, after all, want people later comparing notes and deciding that there had been gatecrashers; easiest way around that was to socialise. If enough people talked to Heather Page, then they would be certain that somebody had invited her. And even if the Gnome didn’t care about mulled wine, she quite liked it, as long as it was heavily spiced. She would just have a little more, and maybe chat up that slender boy who looked like a matinée idol. It was the Gnome who always wanted characters large and muscular; her preference was for slighter, more elegant types. . . Somehow it was nearly thirty minutes before it occurred to her that the Gnome hadn’t returned with the bouncer, and another ten before her increasingly panicky search of the house failed to discover him at all.

The Gnome, meanwhile, had problems of his own. It had been relatively simple to pull Owen into conversation; almost at once, though, it had begun to go wrong, and in the privacy of his head, he conceded that Cobweb had been correct about the inadvisability of rushing the Plot through in under 4000 words, not that all the mares of Diomedes would have dragged that admission from him. He had been in too much of a hurry and now. . .

And now, he thought rather damply and incoherently, now a bouncer was apparently trying to suck his face off, while at the same time giving him friction burns on his delicate places by pinning him against a wall and grinding their hips together. It might perhaps have been a mistake to have followed the man outside; it had certainly been a mistake not to have sobered Lackpenny up before trying to explain to him that there was somebody at the party who fancied him rotten and wouldn’t be averse to a bit of action later. Lackpenny had been quick enough to grasp the idea; he had also been quick enough to grasp the Gnome, and the Gnome was finding it remarkably difficult to get ungrasped.

“Not me, you stupid arse!”

“Y’haven’t got a stupid arse, y’ve got a lovely arse. Jus’ needs to be warmed up a bit an’ then bounced up an’ down. Lil kiss or two, lil drink or two an then we can go back to my place, lil fuck or two. Lil spanking, lil screw, yeah?”

“No, you pillock, not me!”

“Plenty pillows at home, darlin’, no problem, nice soft pillow under lil spanked bottom, lil kiss and cuddle?”

The Gnome felt himself weakening. All things considered, it wasn’t a bad offer, and Huw needn’t find out, and – actually, that was a mistake, wasn’t it? If he left Cobweb here while he went off with one of the Characters, she would (a) kill him herself and then (b) hand over the temporarily resuscitated body to Huw to be killed all over again.

“No! Get off!” Hells, what was that thing Cobs did? You just wind Time around your finger, she said, and. . .

“That,” said Cobweb, a century or so later, when she had fought her way through the wilderness which had been a suburban garden, “wasn’t at all bad for a first attempt, but perhaps a little heavy handed? On a par with Pictish Tokay. It should be no more than a flick of the finger. Not to worry, too much is better than not enough. What’s the problem?”

“This one’s a Top. I thought you said the other one was Top? He is also extremely drunk and inclined to be excessively amorous.”

“Bugger, he’s not, is he? One of them will have to be Bottom. And actually, I don’t think we want him here. I think we want him to go home and for Silas to follow him.”

“Well, think of something. And actually, while you’re thinking, could you just slacken Time enough for me to be able to get his hand out of. . . thank you. Believe me, a hundred years is not the sort of time you want to spend with a strange man’s hand in your. . . there. And if you mention it to Huw, I shall tell Carabosse that you were trying to pull the pretty boy in the kitchen.”

He observed her blush with some satisfaction; that had been a shot in the dark, but obviously he had hit something.

“Let’s make this one Bottom,” she said hastily. “In fact, if he’s had too much to drink, he can be Brat. And. . . I know, I can see how it goes. Where did you pull Time? O.K., I see. Do you want to rewind it? Just for the practice? Look, push there. Gently. Gently! That’s the way.”

Silas headed for the door; he felt a little odd. Too many late nights, he chided himself, and although he hadn’t been drinking, he hadn’t been eating either and he was maybe a little light headed. It had felt as if the ground had shifted suddenly beneath him, as if the universe had fractured suddenly and then repaired itself, and he could almost imagine that he had heard a voice saying, “No, just ease it. Time’s flexible, but it’ll snap on the recoil if you’re not gentle.” Stupid. Made no sense. Just a breath of air and then he would clear up and go home. The bloke in the bow tie had long since vanished. . . the bloke in the bow tie was leaning against the wall and groaning.

“Hello? Is something wrong?”

Dumb question, and the glance he got told him so. “Look, are you actually ill, or was it just too much to drink?”

The face that turned to him was very pale, and sweating profusely; in the darkness behind the greenhouse, Cobweb dug the Gnome in the ribs. “Are you sure you didn’t give him too much?”

“No, I’m not, but given that there isn’t technically any way to sober up a human other than to fill him with fluids and wait for it to wear off, I think you should count yourself lucky that he’s on his feet at all, and that he’s only been sick twice. It works for me – I reduced it for him not being an elemental and for him not being as old as me, but it might still have been a bit much. Anyway, it’s working, isn’t it?”

It was. Silas had gone back into the kitchen for a glass of water, and was rubbing the back of the other man and making soothing noises, among which could be heard, “Come on, I’ll take you home in the van.”

“But there won’t be any action tonight,” added the Gnome mournfully. “Not either sort.”

“I reckon we can get them in the morning, though. Is he going to have a hangover?” The Gnome, after all, could be expected to know about such things.

“Do we care? Stupid sod deserves one.”

“Would be easier and quicker to finish if he didn’t. . .” she said carefully.

He rolled his eyes at her, and made a swift gesture with one hand. “He’ll sleep it off and wake up sober and unhungover. And please, please, can you twitch time a bit so that it happens tomorrow mid-morning in about ten minutes?”

She could. In fact, as she pointed out, she had to, since the night was supposed to be dark even if they were having it in the morning.

Story stuck again in the morning, for some reason which neither she nor the Gnome could see. Silas King seemed inclined to spend the morning in his own bed, and when the Gnome dug an invisible finger into his ribs, he merely rolled over and muttered something about sick pay.

“Cobs? We’ll have to push him along a bit. Shall I take a verse?”

She might have known that the Gnome’s idea of taking a verse would be to land her doing all the work. She put her finger on Silas’s doorbell and kept it there.

“Um. . . Heather? Hello. Did you want something?”

“Yes. I want you to make up a hamper and we’ll take it over to Owen Lackpenny’s. The silly sod hasn’t got a thing to eat in that flat of his, and it’s none too warm either.” Her gaze was hypnotic, and he found himself in his kitchen putting together a basket of sausage rolls and ham palmiers, together with coleslaw (why did his mind keep telling him ‘Boleslaw’?) and sliding a bottle of rioja – he could have sworn there as was no rioja in his kitchen – under a linen napkin.

“And add a wooden spoon. What’s it made of?”

He didn’t bother to ask why she wanted to know. His life was confusing enough as it was.

“Beech. Or that one’s olive.”

“No pine? We really need pine.”

“Pine’s too soft for kitchen utensils, and anyway the resin would taint the food.”

“Suppose it would, yes. Well, technically we ought to take something pine but I reckon beech will do. Olive won’t: the line won’t scan. O.K., pack it up and let’s go. Put a coat on, it’s cold out.”

It was extremely cold out. It was snowing in a manner very unusual for England although relatively common in Bohemia; that might have been why the van wouldn’t start, although Cobweb was more inclined to blame the Gnome. Well, it was certainly his doing; she hastened to lengthen her coat and add boots, before Silas could notice.

“We’ll have to walk then,” she said bitterly, “whether we like it or not – was that you?”


She made a mental note to review the rules of Songfic when she got home; she was of the opinion that it wasn’t necessary to include every single phrase, and since she had forced in ‘bitter weather’, the Gnome’s choice of ‘rude wind’ was one she felt she could have done without, particularly since some texts offered only ‘cold wind’. The snow reached blizzard proportions, and she grumbled under her breath, eventually falling a little behind the longer-legged man striding up the High Street.

“Psssst! Cobs!”

She turned and squinted into the half light, the snow building upon her eyelashes.


“Can you Shift?”

“What for? I’ve just about had this, Gnome, I can’t go on with it much further.”

“Excellent, that’s the way. Sorry, I need you to be male for the next bit.”

“Gnome, if I change sex on Silas, he’ll notice.”

“He won’t, he’s an Idiot Top; they never notice anything. Anyway, tweak his memory again. Just lose Heather Page.”

“And can I come into your bubble then? Out of the wind?”

He shook his head in unconvincing regret. “Not yet, darling. He still needs somebody with him. Just not Heather Page.”

“Who, then?”

“Mark Page.”

“Mark. . . oh, I see. Well, look, you do his memory. And turn your back, please; you know I don’t like to be watched while I’m Shifting.”

A minute later a short dark man hurried through the snow, following the trail of footprints and raging at the winter weather. He caught up, just as Silas reached the door of the tenement and ran his finger down the list of names by the entry-phone.

“Oh, Mark, thanks for coming with me, I’d never have found this without you, but if you want to get off now. . .”

“No, mate, the one who’s going to be getting off is you. Believe me, it is.”

Later, they called it ‘that magical Christmas when we met’, but then both Silas King and Owen Lackpenny were romantics at heart. Owen, who had been reviewing the contents of his kitchen cupboards with a marked lack of enthusiasm, opened the door of his flat to find that nice man from the party who had brought him home and put him safely to bed. Even given the embarrassment of having been seen in such a state the night before, it seemed only civil to invite him in and offer him a cup of coffee.

“If it’s no trouble. . . we only came to see how you were.”


“Me and Mark. He’s gone on, said he has things to do. He’s doing a Master’s degree and he said something about steps to be taken before the start of term.”

“Mark Page? He’s. . . weird. Did you know that half the time he dresses up as a woman and calls himself Heather?”

“He doesn’t! Really?”

“I’ve seen him myself. Actually, he’s more convincing as a woman than a man, but – did you hear anything? Like a thump and a yelp?”

Round the corner the Gnome was sitting in the snow and nursing a boxed ear.

“Anyway, I thought you might do with a sort of brunch? And maybe we could get to know each other a little better?”

“Don’t touch, Gnome!”

“Aw, I want to go home!”

“So do I, but you know how much we disapprove of Stories where the relationship rushes on too fast.”

The Gnome turned a look of panic on her. “You’re not going to stop them getting it on just because it’s a first date?”

“No, I’m not. They aren’t real, after all. But honestly, I think they could have something to eat and a cup of coffee before they start getting their kit off.”

“Thought you made him bring a bottle of wine?”

“I did, but they ought not to drink so early in the day. We, on the other hand, know that it isn’t early in the day, it’s late at night, so I lifted the bottle out of the basket; I thought you would have a corkscrew and this close to the end, I reckoned we could conjure glasses.”

“Good thinking. If we sit on the steps I can do the bubble thing again, keep the wind off. And look, I’ll put a seduction loop in, make sure we can hear what’s going on.”

What was going on was food and drink, and getting-to-know-you, and establishing what one would like to do, and that another would be willing to try that, and that a small amount of kink didn’t bring anybody up in a rash or send them screaming into the snow. By the time Cobweb and the Gnome were halfway down their second glasses of wine, Silas had remembered that he had, for some unknown reason, brought a wooden spoon with him, and was demonstrating its use amid a great deal of laughter and mock squealing. That seemed to go on rather longer than either of the Elementals had expected: they were peering at the dregs in the bottle and considering the desirability of refilling it when the yelping faded to breathy half sentences, and soft words. A few of those words were audible to the listeners outside: “God, that’s hot. Beautiful,” and “You sod! You’ve left handprints!” and presently a gentle murmur of pleasure.

Down on the stone steps, two rather cold elementals rose from their cramped positions and stretched, propping a decidedly empty wine bottle and a couple of dirty glasses on the flat part of the banister.

“Reckon that’s enough?”

“Well, I can feel the edge of a Fold, although I can’t quite reach it. Tell you what, Gnome, it’s damn cold here. If we walk back down the hill, there’s a taxi rank opposite the supermarket and we can call Barnabas to take us home.”

“There’s an idea. He can go Anywhere; once the Folds are open he’ll know where we are. Mind you. . .”


“Do you think we did enough?”

Cobweb fell off the kerb in her astonishment. The Gnome asking if they had done enough work? The Gnome? “We covered all the important points, didn’t we?”

“I just wondered about the last bit, that’s all. Finding blessings. Somebody ought to have found, or recognised, or something, a blessing, or blessings. Do you think it matters?”

“I don’t suppose it’s significant, no. It’ll just be a ‘count your blessings’ sort of thing, I expect.” She hooked her arm through his, and he grinned at her. “Got any blessings to count, pet?”

He wasn’t, apparently, looking for an answer, so she didn’t give him one. Not out loud, at least. Well, he accused her often enough of being sentimental; it wasn’t like him to miss the time that she was and it served some useful purpose. In her head, though, she said, softly, “Polyhymnia? Friendship. I’m counting that as a blessing. Is it big enough?”

The Salvation Army Band in the supermarket car park went fa-la-la-la-la, so presumably it was.

Idris the Dragon

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© , 2006