ell” (the Gnome began) “after I’d left you I went for a walk in the Wood beyond the World, because I wanted to clear my head and have a think. It’s always quiet there, and you almost never see anybody except trees and the odd squirrel – and most of the squirrels there are very odd indeed, because the high level of background magic and general tree-ishness has turned them green.
“Also, it’s a useful place for travelling if you have the trick of it, because each of the pools is a shortcut into a different worldline. One of the things you learn when you’re as old as I am is never to waste your own magic doing things when there are alternatives available for free, so I quite often use the Wood when I want to go somewhere.
“So anyway, I was strolling along, pondering what you’d said about the Magic Tea Shop when I heard someone moving about. As I said – it’s very rare indeed to see anyone else there, because most people are put off by the risk of falling asleep and sleeping till the End of Things. Actually it’s quite easy to get round that if you know the trick.”
“Which is?” asked Cobweb, interested.
“As long as you’re on friendly terms with the trees, it’s quite safe to take a nap. Just ask one of them if they’d mind waking you after a few hours. A little fertiliser never hurts, just some fixed nitrogen to show your appreciation.”
“You mean you carry fertiliser with you – oh!”
“Exactly. Easier if you are, or Shift into, male form, of course.”
“Yes. Bit different from a bottle of wine and some chocolates, but the principle’s the same, I suppose.”
“Yeah. Actually, you can have the bottle of wine yourself, beforehand, and then offer it. Anyway, I could hear someone moving through the woods not that far away, and with everything that’s been going on I wasn’t too sure I wanted to meet them. So I hid.”
“Became a tree. I haven’t done it for a while but I used to be rather good at it and you never really forget how. I once spent a whole winter as a pine tree in Alaska – teasing out the odd bit of nitrogen from the earth in that sleepy way trees do in winter, enjoying a little low-level photosynthesis (nothing like the frantic rush of summer when it’s all eat, dig, grow, leaf, seed) – a very relaxing interlude. I recommend it when you want to get away from it all. And it’s generally a good way of hiding in a forest.
“So I became one of the trees of the Wood, with just enough loosely-tethered awareness to see who it was, but not enough that anyone could easily sense me.
“And out of the bushes he came, skulking in his characteristic fashion.”
The Gnome paused maliciously for dramatic effect.
“Donkey, dear, you haven’t got anything to eat in here, have you? I’m famished.”
“There will be a half-opened packet of mints and a piece of butterscotch rather past its best in the glove compartment,” said Cobweb authoritatively.
“How do you know?” asked the Gnome.
“There always are. It’s a universal property of glove compartments. Now I am not, you notice, asking you who it was you saw in the Wood. However, I would like to remind you that I’ve had a trying day, and my temper is not of the best. So if you go on stringing it out, things may degenerate rapidly, even if you are one of my best friends.”
“You have no sense of drama,” complained the Gnome half-heartedly. “Well as it happens, while I was hunting our mysterious bard, it appears he was hunting me. Because it was that slimy little creep Gwion, or Taliesin as he likes to call himself these days.”
“Ah, so that’s who it was at the castle.”
“Yes. But there’s more to this. As soon as I saw who it was of course, I realised that he must be the one who’d been sniffing around. He always was a terrible sneak.”
“Not one of your favourite people then?”
“Is he anyone’s? With that permatan, and all the heavy gold torcs, and that big cheesy grin, not to mention the way he slavers over anyone in authority if he thinks he can get anything out of it. He stole a really nice Cauldron of Inspiration off Cerridwen, who’s a very good friend of mine, although we were never able to prove that it was her material he was using, and now he puts it about he’s the King of Bards. Pah!”
“Hey, no spitting in the cab!” complained Barnabas.
“Just a sound effect. Anyway, as soon as I saw him I thought: right laddy, you’re mine. So I transformed back into myself.
“He screamed like a girl, turned into a hare, and was off. So we did the usual transformations – I became a hound, so he did the fish thing, I did otter, and then I thought I’d catch him out, so when he turned into a bird, I turned into a bloody great net and tangled him up.”
“‘Ooh, that’s not fair’, he said, you’re supposed to become a hawk.”
“‘You never did have any imagination,’ I said. ‘I was going to become a keeper with a 12-bore, so think yourself lucky. I want a word with you.’
“Well he tried to brazen it out, but a few well-placed blows and some Chinese burns later he was ready to tell me anything.”
“Hmph, that doesn’t sound so terrifying,” snorted the cab.
“Yes, well my Chinese burns do involve the use of the fire drug, as the Jade Emperor used to call it. A little gunpowder trailed over sensitive parts of the body and set light to is very persuasive.”
“You are a very wicked woodgnome,” said Cobweb, but the grin on her face made it hard for her to sound too annoyed.
“And you love me for it,” retorted the sprite. “Anyway, in between the gibbering and pleas I was able to discover that he had been hired by Sir Huon to find out what was going on.
“‘So,’ I said, ‘Huon is behind it all, is he?’
“‘Oh no,’ snivels Laughing Boy, trying to get into my good books (as if I’d give him a place in my library!) – ‘someone else has asked Sir Huon to take an interest, and I don’t think he was very keen on getting involved.’
“Now that was interesting, because the sort of people who can ask Huon to do them favours you can count on your digits without needing to take your socks off.
“‘Well who was it?’ says I. ‘And remember, there’s plenty more gunpowder where the last lot came from. Your beard is a little singed on the left, and might look better if we evened it up a bit.’
“‘No, please, ah, don’t do that. I’d tell you if I knew, of course I would, but I don’t know. Stop, please!’
“Well, I generally know a lie when I hear one . . .”
“That’s because you tell so many,” chorused Barnabas and Cobweb together.
“You have no conception of art,” said the Gnome loftily, “Those aren’t lies, they’re improvements on Reality. Anyway, take it that I thought he was telling the truth.
“‘So you really have no idea who put Huon up to it?’ I said.
“‘No. Only that while I was there he was called away to take a private message, and when he came back he was shaking his head and muttering some lines about ‘uneasy lies the head’. Sounded like complete gibberish, I’m afraid, very poor prosody.’
“‘You wouldn’t know poor prosody if it bit you on the arse,’ I said. ‘Now I suggest you flag down the Lyonesse Tea Shop when it’s passing, and cosy up to whichever waitress it is that’s being nice to you because you’ve told her you can get her a career in showbiz’ – that was a guess, but his expression showed me I’d struck gold – ‘and lie low for a very long while. This part of Faery is going to be distinctly unhealthy for you for a long time.’”
“How did he take that?” asked Cobweb. “Here, you want the last mint?”
“Thanks. He just seemed grateful to get away. I thought he might try a satire once he got to a safe distance – not that his satires can raise more than the odd blush, and even I can manage one that will raise welts – but no, he just hightailed it out of there.”
“It was only after he’d gone that I realised I had completely forgotten to ask him if he knew anything about Luc.”
“Oh really,” said Cobweb, “you are hopeless. Never send a man to do a woman’s job.”
“Well, it slipped my mind while I was tort– persuading Gwion to tell me about who’d hired him. I don’t think he knew anything – he wouldn’t have needed to ask around if he had.”
“I suppose so. Anyway, you still haven’t told me how you came to get arrested.”
“Yes, I was coming to that. I was in a pretty good mood after dealing with that pipsqueak, but I was annoyed that I’d forgotten to ask about Luc, so I thought I’d better go and check up on him. I found a convenient pool that led out not far from the castle gate and jumped in.
“When I banged on the door, Meurig answered, looking very glum, so I asked what the matter was. Turned out that Huw had gone on his progress to sort out the hag of the dribble, and Meurig had been left behind for disciplinary reasons.
“‘That’s not like Huw – his disciplines are usually much shorter and sharper’ I said.
“‘That’s why I’m here,’ he admitted. ‘I was so sore, I couldn’t ride when they left, so Sir Huw left me in charge of the younger boys, whom he didn’t think it safe to bring.’
“I’m afraid I laughed at that, but I was soon laughing on the other side of my face. Just as we were chatting, Meurig stiffened.
‘What is it?’ I said, but the poor lad was ensorcelled solid. I took a quick look around and the whole of the castle courtyard was frozen in the same way, pulled out of the timestream neat as netting fish. Only I was rather afraid it was another fish that was wanted. I started to Fold away, but out leaped half a dozen policemen and our old friend Gwion, wittering:
‘That’s the fellow, officers, the brute who falsely imprisoned and tortured me.’
“Well, I did my best to make a break for it, and I think if I hadn’t swerved to give Gwion a swift kick where it would do the most good I might even have got away with it, but six against one was a bit much. And they had a nasty way with those truncheons in the van afterwards, as well.”
“You probably asked for it,” said Barnabas.
“Did I ask for your opinion? It was sheer police brutality, my backside still has the bruises.”
“Hardly a novel situation,” commented the cab drily.
“Hah. I was deprived of my inhuman rights. Not even a lawyer or a phone call – straight down to Ginnungagap. I managed to grab a birch leaf while they were arresting me, and whispered into it that I was being arrested and for the wild things to tell my Master, but I wasn’t sure if I’d be heard, or if he would come. Capricious is his middle name.”
“I see where you get it from, then,” said Cobweb. “Word did get about at Court, though, because Carabosse heard and told me.”
“That was decent of him,” acknowledged the Gnome. “But I’m afraid it only puts both of us in deeper. I am going to be very very unpopular after this little escapade – that police station was supposed to be able to hold anything up to an Ice Giant or a full-fledged Dark Lord, and now it’s completely wrecked. And no-one is going to be sending the bill to my Master, but they might think it should be taken out of my hide. And you have a Department and a budget to look after, and perhaps shouldn’t be associated with me.”
“We said we were in this together, and we are,” said Cobweb mulishly. “And if they think what happened to Ginnungagap was bad, just wait until we get into our stride.”
The Gnome looked at her, then grinned.
“For a representative of Order, you make a very nice avatar of Chaos,” he said. “Barnabas, do you still have a cooler in here?”
For answer, the leather between two of the seats popped open, revealing a small refrigerator containing a bottle of champagne and two flutes.
“Excellent,” said the Gnome, opening the champagne almost silently and without losing a drop. “Champagne for our real friends, and real pain for our sham friends.”
“I’ll drink to that,” said Cobweb.
It was a much more cheerful pair who staggered through the door of Cobweb’s cottage, to be confronted with a rather harassed looking Carabosse.
“There you are!” he exclaimed. “Thank goodness. I don’t know what the pair of you have been up to, but Cobweb, you just got this.” He handed her a thick piece of parchment. The air above it sizzled with power.
Suddenly a lot more sober, she unfolded it, read it a couple of times, then folded it very carefully again, sighed, and put it on the sideboard, where it scorched the varnish.
“What is it?” asked the Gnome.
“I’ve got to go and see the Boss.”
“Epona? She’s a decent enough type, if a bit inclined to run on about point-to-point and hunting.”
“No, you don’t understand. The Boss. The Chief Exec. Her.”
There was a long silence.
“Ah,” said the Woodgnome at last.
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