he Woodgnome stirred awkwardly on his heap of cushions and winced.
“Blow by blow is an all too accurate way of putting it,” he said. “Gods, but that man has hard hands. I always thought ‘I’m going to spank you until you can’t sit down’ was a bit of Topsical hyperbole, but I literally couldn’t for a couple of hours.”
“You aren’t trying to tell me you got away with just a spanking are you?” said Cobweb.
“Sadly, no. No, after you’d gone he gave me a Look and said: Well? in that irritating Toppish way that makes you wonder just which of the things you’ve done they know about. You know how it goes.”
Cobweb took a swig of the white Rioja and nodded. She knew.
“I hung my head and shuffled my feet and pretended I felt bad. Actually I did feel bad – not just because I knew what I had coming to me, but because I really hadn’t meant to just vanish like that without a word. It was. . . well, you’ll hear in a minute. So I mumbled something about being very sorry, and I hadn’t meant to do it and so on.
“‘Didn’t mean to do it? Didn’t mean to empty the winecellar? Didn’t mean to leave without a word, without a note, me thinking something terrible had happened to you – at least until I saw my winecellar and realised that the terrible thing had happened to me, not you? Duw, boyo, sorry doesn’t begin to cover it.’
“‘Huw, I really didn’t mean to leave you that way. And the wine was. . . well, I like a drink with my meals. Besides, it wasn’t empty, there were several hogsheads left.’
“‘Of small wine, which is drinkable but no more. And a cask of sack that had turned to vinegar when we broached it, and how you knew to leave that one I’d like to know too. All the good stuff my father brought back from Cyprus and the Levant was gone.’
“‘Umm, actually I think he was stiffed, it wasn’t that good. Except some of the wine of the Commanderie, that was. . .’ and then I realised that I was digging my own grave and Huw’s expression was getting blacker and blacker and I shut up. Too late.” The Woodgnome paused for dramatic effect, and to stuff his face with a few more spoonfuls of aromatic couscous, shiny with butter. “Mmm, veeeery good. Remind me to tell you about the mansaf I once had with Abu ben Adhem (may his tribe increase).”
“Thank you, but never mind that,” said Cobweb impatiently. “Cut to the chase.”
“Well that’s exactly what it was. He lunged for me, I managed to dodge, and he chased me round the solar till he caught me. He was so mad he literally ripped my hose in two, pulled the tattered rags of them to my ankles, stuck his knee out and turned me bare-arsed across it, and started to spank me.”
“I said considerably more than ‘ooh’, let me tell you. I mean, it was sexy as hell, but only in retrospect. He’s alarmingly strong, and he was very, very, vexed.”
“Yeah. Likewise ‘ouch’. And ‘please’ and ‘stop’ and ‘I’ll never do it again’ and similar endearments. Which only made him determined to continue, of course.”
“And did he?”
“For an hour, more or less without stopping. One of the disadvantages of a very fit Top is that they can carry on for a long time without getting winded. One of the disadvantages of a very fit swordsman Top is that their hands are heavily calloused, and they don’t feel it nearly as much as you do.”
Cobweb refilled the Gnome’s glass and then her own, with a sympathetic expression.
“And that was it?”
“No, that was just the appetiser. Then he used a switch. Repeatedly, with me slammed across the table and dared to move on pain of worse.”
“And then he beat me with his belt,” added the sprite with a martyred expression and a deeply wounded tone.
“Then the switch again on the tops of my legs, which I hate.”
“Dear me,” said Cobweb, struggling to keep a straight face.
“Yes. He said it was for the pain I’d caused by going missing. Fortunately, even Huw needed a breather after that.”
“So I was weeping freely after that last remark. I don’t blub when I’m whacked as a rule, but emotional blackmail combined with a sore tail has a sort of cumulative effect. He was still mad, but he could tell that had hit home. So he started to – soothe the raging flesh, and soon we both had an entirely different sort of raging flesh.”
“Well, there’s always been rather a spark there, I won’t deny, for both of us. By the way, he looks a bit less like Martin Johnson now, though he still has the same build. Your doing, or the natural elasticity of Story?”
Cobweb, her mouth full of lamb, spread her hands in denial.
“Doesn’t matter, Huw’s a hunk of man whatever state his features are in. So obviously matters progressed to their natural conclusion – and I have to say that I didn’t know at some points if I was yelling in ecstasy or agony, because my backside was about twice the size of normal, and so sore that I couldn’t lie on my back at all. Huw, bless him, took no account of that whatsoever. And that was sexy in itself.”
They shared a glance of complete understanding and some more almonds (although the Gnome, who was a pig for salted almonds, did, as promised, grab far more than his fair share).
“This is all very nice,” said the Fay as they moved on to the merlot. “But did you get anything useful out of him?”
“Wait, there’s loads more to tell. I was on a natural high by this time, and I think that’s how I made my mistake.”
Suddenly alert, Cobweb sat up straight.
“Mistake?” she said sharply.
“Yes,” admitted the Gnome reluctantly. “There was a salver with a jug of wine and a cup, I suppose in case he got thirsty – the water’s a bit dodgy there. And I – well, without really noticing what was happening, almost unconsciously, I did the refill thing.”
“Oh, you complete idiot!”
“I know. Huw reached for his cup, sniffed, drank a mouthful, looked surprised, drank several more mouthfuls, then put it down. Looked into the jug, then placed one of his hands his hands very gently around my throat and the other somewhere a good deal more sensitive, and said in a voice I’d never heard him use before and hope never to hear again: ‘And just what are you, exactly?’”
Cobweb muttered something very rude under her breath. “Did he hurt you?”
“No. Just held me in those huge hands in an ‘I could tear you up into little pieces but I’m not going to. Yet.’ manner. And for whatever reason, I told him the Truth.”
“The Truth?” asked Cobweb, hearing the capital letter and overcome with a faint premonition of impending doom.
“All of it. Which I am now about to retail to you, and I’ll thank you to be careful who you tell it to, if you don’t mind.”
The Fay made a noncommital but faintly encouraging sound and took a deep gulp of her wine.
“‘Huw’ I said, ‘I’m not sure you would understand.’
“‘Well. Everything that we are: you, I, everything around you, everything you think and dream even, is all part of a Story. That Story begins with the First Cause, and continues until the End of Everything.’
“‘Who is telling this story, then, boyo?’
“‘The Universe. She tells the story to see what will happen, for even She doesn’t know how it will come out until it does. And so Her power fills the Story, is the Power of Story. And she has given to Life, which plays a starring role, the Gift.’”
“Oh Gnome, you didn’t? You know mortals aren’t supposed to know about the Gift.”
“Oh come off it, half of the cleverer ones have an inkling. Anyway, will you shut up and let me tell this? So he looked marginally more encouraging, though his hands didn’t move, and I went on to explain that living things, especially thinking things, shape the Power into form through the Gift, and that those forms then take on a life of their own, and can shape Story, and the lives of mortals, in return, though they lack the Gift and cannot create themselves.
“‘So the fay, and the gods men worship, and the devils and monsters they fear, angels and spirits, ghosts and sprites, are all forms of the Power, shaped by mortal Gift. By belief and longing and need.’
“‘And you’re one of them?’
“‘Yes, my lord. But there’s more to this. Most of the forms don’t have much personality, especially at first. One fay or angel is very much like another. When belief or fashion changes, they take on a new role, and because they never really existed as a person they don’t really remember what they were before. Whole pantheons get recycled that way – the Universe is a great believer in tidiness. But some forms – well, resonate, is the best word. They may take on new roles, but they don’t fade like the others. They have a character. Athene and Apollo will never fade, because they have loads of personality. The major fay, people like Cobweb – the Lady who brought me here – and the Chief Carabosse, whom you haven’t met and wouldn’t want to, are also true personalities, for the most part.’
“‘This is all very fascinating, and like most of the conversations I have with you it leaves my head hurting.’” (“I know exactly what he meant,” muttered Cobweb.) “ ‘And you still have not answered my question. What are you?’”
“‘I’m one of the forms that doesn’t get recycled,’ I said. ‘And I’ve been around for a very long time, in one guise or another. I am not, I think, the First. But I am one of the First. Before this world cooled from the creating fire, I was already ancient. Others, not men, in another place entirely, worshipped me, in a form that would scare the living daylights out of you if you saw it. Long, long ago my former home was destroyed, and I drifted for countless centuries across the black depths between the worlds until I was washed up here. I have been a rude god of stock and stone, and a Trickster spirit for painted men, and then a satyr, serving one far greater than me, for though I am old, I am not mighty. And lastly I have been a woodgnome, a simple spirit of forest and wooded dell. Or deli, for preference.’
“‘And a lover with a beguiling tongue – in more ways than one – and a taste for mischief.’
“‘The love is – just a simple fact, that we both acknowledge. I wouldn’t have hurt you for the world, and I would have refilled your cellar with something rather better, but I was called away urgently on an errand for my former Master, and I owe him debts of gratitude and love even greater than those I owe to you. And the mischief goes with my present role,’ says I. ‘Besides you know how to deal with mischief, as my poor behind is telling me.’
“And at last he let go of me, and he laughed.’”
There was a long silence. The Gnome seemed to have found something particularly interesting to inspect in the bottom of his wineglass.
“Well,” said Cobweb at last. “I didn’t realise that I was hobnobbing with a Primordial. I mean, I knew you were older than you like to admit, but I didn’t realise that you were quite that old.” She sounded a bit hurt, and a bit cross.
“Please don’t be angry with me, Cobs. OK, I don’t go round boasting about it – you know how some of them are about lineage, I don’t want all the snobs in Faery suddenly turning up on my doorstep. Besides, someone might think I should be at Court, or in court, and I really don’t want to go there. I want to be liked for me, not for how many pantheons I’ve seen come and go.”
“I’m not angry with you – well not about that, anyway. It isn’t nearly as important as you make out, not to me or to anyone with any common sense. But you’ve put me in a very difficult position by telling Huw all this and then telling me you’ve done it. I ought to report you by rights. You were supposed to be getting information from him, not vice versa.”
“Oh, that’s not fair. Not entirely, anyway,” conceded the Gnome grudgingly. “I did find out something.”
“Someone else has been asking about Luc, and about you and me. Huw said that shortly before you arrived, a travelling bard appeared, and started questioning the squires and the servants and anyone else about what had been going on. I think your enquiries in the datageis might have stirred something or someone up. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you didn’t get leant on by someone at Court next, to keep out of it. Or they might try to put pressure on you through Carabosse, though I doubt they’ll have much luck there.”
“I think anyone who asked would have him for an enemy, which is definitely something you don’t want. And I doubt he’d try to pressure me, even if he thought it was something I should keep out of. He knows me too well.”
“Yes. I think he knows about me, too. That’s one reason he makes me uncomfortable.”
Cobweb shrugged. It would have been more convenient if her friend and her lover had got on better, but she was wise enough to realise that just because you like two people there is no reason why they should like one another.
“Who was this bard? Did you get a look at him?”
“No, Huw’s people are well trained and they ran him off. And when I tried scrying him I couldn’t pick anything up at all. High quality cloaking magic, because though I do say so myself I’m a pretty good scry.”
“I’m not going to dignify that by a reply. Did anything else happen?”
“Well he spanked me all over again, for not telling him who I was in the first place, and then we . . . oh, you mean, anything Luc-related?”
“Yes, that’s what I mean,” said Cobweb giving the Gnome her best Look.
“OK, no need to get heavy,” protested the Gnome. “One thing, and I’m not sure what to make of it. I gave Huw, in general terms, the picture, i.e. that we wanted to know how Luc came to be of interest in the Great Game. And he looked at me, and just said: ‘cherchez l’homme’. What do you think he meant by – oh, I’ve just realised. I must have been tired not to see it once. Huw obviously did.”
“The father. The mysterious, conveniently out-of-the-picture father, and I’m suddenly wondering if he’s as dead as made out. Or as human as made out.”
“But if Luc was Somebody’s child he’d be in the register . . . oh.”
“I wonder if that’s why all this cloak and dagger business is going on? I mean, a demimortal child is supposed to be registered with the Changeling Protection Agency. But if someone important had a child and didn’t tell the CPA – well, if the Moon, or one of the other tabloids got hold of it, it would be a political scandal that could ruin a career.”
“You mean we’re being used to carry out someone else’s paternal duties for them? I think I rather resent that.”
“That may not be it at all. But I think I need to go chat to a few people.”
“Let’s finish dinner first,” said the Gnome. “There’s nothing so urgent that it can’t wait for good cheesecake.”
“Twist my arm then.”
“Huw did that, too,” said the Woodgnome, a trifle smugly. “Up against the wall. And then he forced me to . . .”
“Yes, yes. I get the picture. Finish the last of the lamb, and I’ll get the brownie to take these dishes away. Brownie, I’ll just put these behind the sofa so we won’t have to look, if you wouldn’t mind. Do take the last of the almonds for yourself.”
“Here, I would have had those. You are attempting to seduce my domestics,” said the Gnome. “That herm positively simpers when he sees you now.”
“I see that you subscribe to the view that being old excuses you from good manners,” replied his friend tartly. “No need to be nasty to the staff.”
“I’m not. You can’t keep good staff if you do. But I don’t hold with talking to them.”
A small swirl in Cobweb’s wineglass resolved itself into teeny tiny writing. his bark is worse than his bite it said. take no notice, we don’t She hid her smile, and took another sip.
It did indeed prove to be good cheesecake.
Click on Idris the Dragon to go back or here for the next episode
All material © , 2005