he Gnome was uncharacteristically quiet on the way back, and it was only as Cobweb was preparing to make the final nick in Time to let them back into the clearing in front of her cottage that he suddenly stiffened and said:
“Of course! Cobweb, we have to go back to Imagination.”
“What, after coming all this way? Did you leave something behind?”
“My brain. We have to go back, I need to look in on someone who wasn’t at the party. Parties aren’t his sort of thing at all.”
Cobweb sighed. It had been a long day, but she knew from bitter experience that the Gnome would pester until he got what he wanted. Sometimes it was easiest to give a little.
“Where are we going?”
“The Diogenes Club. And you’ll have to change.”
A few moments later two elegantly attired gentlemen stepped into the lobby of the Diogenes Club. One adjusted his neckwear while the other murmured discreetly into the ear of a uniformed flunky, and dropped something onto his salver.
“I hate cravats,” said Cobweb. “How men have the nerve to complain about the complexities of women’s clothes I’ll never know.”
“Come here,” said the Gnome impatiently, adjusting her cravat and brushing a stray lock of hair off her forehead (incidentally scandalising most of the staff, and earning himself a wink from one of the waiters). “There, now don’t fiddle with it. You make quite a decent chap, as a matter of fact.”
“Thank you,” said Cobweb, somewhat amused. It appeared the Mother’s influence was stronger than she had realised.
“Not at all. Just remember to let me do the talking. You aren’t inclined to be bluff enough – ah, he’ll see us then. I rather thought he might. Come on, Cobbo.”
“No. Not Cobbo. Or Cobber. Cobs I will tolerate under protest, and on the understanding that I – or one of my staff – will get you for it in time.”
“Yes, Miss. Sir. Whatever,” said the Gnome with a wicked grin. They followed the flunky into a panelled room that smelled of cigar smoke underlain with faint hints of boiled cabbage and incontinence. In one corner a rather large gentleman was sitting reading the Times in a leather armchair and studiously ignoring the world.
“Good day, Mycroft,” said the Gnome, sitting down without troubling to wait for an invitation that he knew was unlikely to be forthcoming.
“You have the advantage of me, sir. Other than the obvious facts that you are an elemental, have spent some time in Greece and more recently in prison, and that you are of the Uranian persuasion, I know nothing about you.”
“I always felt that your brother did that better, Mycroft. But you are smarter than him.”
The man snorted. “Thank you. Beyond confirming statements of the blindingly obvious, what can I do for you?”
“I need the opinion of the finest mind in Anglia Ficta. Who are the three greatest sorcerers of the Island of Britain?”
“I take it from the phrasing of your question that you mean persons of male sex? That Nimuë and Morgan are excluded?”
“Hmmph. A fairly obvious choice then. Oberon, Merlinus Ambrosius, and Math ap Mathonwy.”
“Hmm. That was what I thought. Thank you, Mycroft. We won’t disturb you any further.”
“Hah.” The fat man returned to the Times, and ignored them completely as they walked out.
As the London pea-souper gave way again to the Mists of Time, Cobweb seized the Gnome by the shoulder.
“Would you mind telling me what that was all about?” he asked.
“It’s obvious,” said the Gnome. “While you were schmoozing Peter and his little pals . . .”
“I was not ‘schmoozing’. I’ve never schmoozed in my life.”
“While you were schmoozing,” repeated the Gnome firmly, “I was quizzed by Mycroft’s brother and the doctor, and something they said suddenly struck me as we were on our way home. I was telling them about the protection spell on Luc, and how subtle it was, and then about the scry-killer the bard was using, and one of them remarked that whoever we were up against was using high-grade magic. That was why I wanted to get Mycroft’s opinion. He’s rarely wrong about anything when he makes a definitive statement, so if he rates those three top, they probably are. And before you ask, I figured that three was the appropriate number, given Her involvement in the matter.”
“But why does that get us further forward? I mean, there are Gods and Powers coming out of the woodwork on this one . . .”
“Yes, yes, but don’t you see?” interrupted the Gnome impatiently. “Magic. We’ve been up against magic, and pretty hot magic at that. Gods don’t do magic.”
“Ohh . . .” Cobwebs expression suggested the sudden dawning of a fairly bright light. “No more they do. Gods will things.”
“Exactly. Gods shape Reality directly. They don’t need technology. Only lesser Powers and mortals use magic. So if our Perp . . .”
The Gnome blushed. “Sorry. If our Enemy. . .”
“. . . is using magic, he must belong in the latter category. Now, given just where in Story Luc is being fostered, I would lay odds our magic user is British.”
“Hence your question to Mycroft. I begin to see.” Not for the first time, Cobweb reminded herself that the Gnome was really rather bright. If he hadn’t been so lazy and self-indulgent, not to mention a minion of Disorder, he probably could have been running things rather than running from them. She stepped neatly out of Otherwhen into the clearing in front of the cottage.
“So which of the three do you fancy fits the b . . . Gnome? Damn him, where is he?” She stuck her head back into Otherwhen. A curl of mist drifted mockingly by, but there was no sign of the Woodgnome. Worried now, she stepped fully back into the grey world between the worlds.
“Gnome, where the hell are you?” Her voice was swallowed by the grey mist. “Damn it, he was right behind me, we were talking right up to the moment I opened the World. He can’t have got lost.” She was well aware that talking to herself was not supposed to be a good sign, but right at the moment she was getting that sick premonition of disaster every parent knows, that ‘lost-child’ feeling that dries the mouth and hollows the belly. Working for the Goddess had its disadvantages, she suddenly realised.
Taking a deep breath she held out her hands in a gesture of supplication.
“Lord Chronos, hear me. In the name of the Great Mother, I ask you: show me the Woodgnome, if he be here.”
The mists swirled thickly around her. When they cleared she saw an office desk, in cheaply-veneered MDF, its surface entirely obscured by higgledy-piggledy piles of paper in several shades; post-it notes; old yogurt pots and cracked mugs stuffed with scissors, pens in several colours, and pencils in various stages of sharpness; an in-tray with the label ‘This is NOT my In-tray’; a coaster heavily stained with coffee; a cup ditto; a box of assorted paperclips, pins, and several staplers (all broken); a hole punch; a plate with the remnants of a salmon and cream cheese bagel; a spider plant on its last legs; a snow-globe containing a miniature replica of the Eiffel Tower; a plastic spinning wheel with ‘A Souvenir of Llandudno’ stamped on the base, along with the words ‘Made in China’ in smaller and less Celtic lettering; a pack of business cards; several ring binders; a CD with no case; a mouse mat; and a packet of sherbet lemons.
“Cobweb, my dear, how nice to see you again,” said a voice from somewhere behind the debris.
“Psht. You know I prefer OFT, my dear.” Time stood up and ran a wrinkled hand over his bald pate. “We all have to move with the – well, with me, actually.”
“Time, I’m looking for my friend.”
“Yes, you said. And you’ve been promoted, I gather. Splendid. Can I offer you a cup of tea or something? I was about to have a snack.”
“Thank you, no.” Although she was on good terms with Time, the idea of sharing tea and biscuits with the Devourer of Empires and Consumer of All Things didn’t really appeal. “So is he here?”
“No, he isn’t, actually. He’s a slippery customer, that one, I’ve been watching his escapades with some amusement and not a little shock for a very long me. But although he passed through with you just a little while ago, he isn’t here any more.”
“But I can’t understand it. He was right with me, then as I stepped back out he was suddenly gone.”
Time’s grey eyes, so pale as to be almost white, gleamed. “Are you in trouble, my dear?” he asked with unexpected gentleness.
Cobweb looked vainly for a free corner of the desk to perch on.
“Yes and no,” she said. “It’s a long story.”
The swirling mists materialised a swivel chair behind her.
“I like long stories,” said Time. “Do carry on. After all, we have all the me in the world.”
“. . . and so just as we were coming back from the Diogenes Club he mysteriously vanished, and to be honest I’m getting increasingly worried.” Cobweb finished her story and took another sip of the tea, her dry mouth having persuaded her to take up Time’s offer of tea about the point where she had been telling of Luc’s first arrival at Castell Tin Goch. It was good tea, too, a first-leaf orange pekoe, accompanied by chocolate olivers on a Wedgewood dish.
“So you think your mysterious opponent may have – hah – nobbled the Woodgnome?” said Time. His eyes danced. “My goodness, this is all quite exciting, isn’t it?”
“Not to me. The Woodgnome is immortal of course, and downright sneaky, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t be caught, or that some rather unpleasant things couldn’t happen to him.”
“Unpleasant in the not-enjoyable sense you mean?”
“Exactly. Immortality isn’t always a boon – well, Prometheus and Tithonus learned that one from your son, didn’t they?”
Time winced. “Let’s not talk about unhappy families,” he said. “It’s not a pleasant subject, no matter what a certain Russian writer may have had to say on the subject.”
“Sorry. Relatives are always embarrassing, aren’t they? But are you sure you don’t know where he went?”
“No, I’m afraid not. Every time the Door opens, it makes a little ripple in things. I can – well, I suppose ‘hear’ is the nearest verb – I can hear that ripple, and I can know who is passing through and where they’re going. But if two Doors open simultaneously I can’t always pick out the details. The noise from one covers the noise from the other. That seems to be what happened here.”
“That would require good you-ing and a lot of knowledge to carry off,” mused Cobweb.
“Yes,” agreed Time. “Which would seem to bring you back to the list of suspects you and your little friend have drawn up. Any of those three could have done it.”
“Yes, except Oberon and Math have Dwindled, and Merlin is sleeping in the Crystal Cave.”
Time choked on his biscuit and had to be thumped vigorously on the back. Looking at her with reddened face and the winter-pale eyes still streaming he said:
“My dear, what on earth gave you that idea? Math is dead, though you and I both know that that isn’t really that much of a handicap in these parts, particularly to a demigod. But Merlin, the last I heard, was running a successful real-estate brokers in Florida – so much better for his rheumatism than that nasty cave – and Oberon! Well, whatever gave you the idea that he had Dwindled?”
“Well, Huon – now that you mention it, no-one ever did tell me that Oberon had gone. But Huon is King of the People of the Hills now, and I just assumed . . . I wasn’t around at the time of the coronation, I was dusting a thousand terracotta warriors for some emperor. I just thought that Oberon had Dwindled and Huon had been nominated as his successor.”
“Oh no, it was a bit of a scandal at the time. Oberon vanished, and it was given out that he had left instructions that Huon should become King in his place. Of course, suspicious minds – of which we have many – and malicious tongues – of which we have still more – suggested all sorts of improprieties, but the matter was approved by the High Powers so that was an end to it. Huon became King, many of the old court favourites lost their jobs, while a whole crop of new court favourites arose to take their places. Things changed, things stayed the same. You know how it is.”
“But – why do you say Oberon hasn’t Dwindled?”
Time smiled at her. “Your mistress, my ex-wife, sits on that council, my dear. Perhaps you should ask her.”
Cobweb dismissed that out of hand. She would rather stick her head in a blender than start interrogating the Lady. The pain would be less, and last a shorter time. Besides, Time was a lot more susceptible to her charms. She smiled mistily at him and sipped her tea.
“Oh all right, you needn’t look at me doe-eyed,” he said at last. “Honestly, Cobweb, you take advantage of me, you really do.”
“Of course I do,” she admitted cheerfully. “And you enjoy it.”
“Oberon did not Dwindle. He left Faery secretly by night carrying a bundle. No-one saw where he went – when an enchanter of that calibre wishes to be unobserved, you may take it that he will be. And no-one has seen him since. But his True Name is written on a leaf on a tree in a wood on an isle in a sea bounded by a wall wrapped in night and hidden among the stars, and that tree grows yet green and hale, and my hand is not on it. So you may take it that Oberon is not Dwindled in any respect. And you didn’t hear that from me,” he added, taking another sip of tea.
“Hmm. Of course not. A bundle, you say? What sort of a bundle?”
“I really couldn’t say.”
“A bundle about the size of a baby wrapped in a shawl, perhaps?”
“You might think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.”
“Right. Right. Oh damn. If it is Oberon, and he’s nobbled the Woodgnome, how am I going to find him? I don’t think his Master will be too happy at being called on to get him out of another scrape.”
“His Master would probably not mind too much. He’s used to it. However, I suspect that the Woodgnome would not forgive you for it. You may have gathered that there is a little – ah, strain – in that relationship. At least on one side.”
“Quite. The Woodgnome apparently finds it difficult to allow the word ‘love’ past his lips, let alone admit quite what depths of it he feels. Curious, I’ve never really understood why. I think he thinks it undermines his status as a creature of Mischief, not to mention as a Primordial, about which, despite protestations to the contrary, he is a dreadful snob.”
“I’d noticed,” agreed Cobweb drily.
“But he does love, and quite deeply. When he realised how deeply he had fallen for Dionysus, he ran.”
“What did Dionysus think?”
“He smiled in that irritatingly feline way of his and waited for the fish to reel himself back in. However, the Gnome appears to have been a little more resistant to my grandson’s charms than he anticipated. At least, he hasn’t returned to the Permanent Floating Crapulence Game yet, and it’s been a few centuries. They do each other favours now and again, but Silenos back in the train? Not yet, at any rate. It does the boy good to be thwarted once in a while, it’s one of the reasons I like the Gnome.”
Cobweb smiled despite herself. Yes, that was the Woodgnome all over, contrary even when it came to the will of the gods. He had been . . . Suddenly she was overcome with a wave of despair. She was thinking of him like someone lost, someone Dwindled. Who knew where he might be?
“Oh it isn’t that bad,” said Time shrewdly. “Sorry, but your expression gave you away,” he added.
“I don’t see how it could be much worse. I can’t overcome an enchanter of Oberon’s ability, except in certain very limited areas related to my job. And I don’t have the faintest idea where to find the Gnome.”
“Then go with the logic of Story, my dear,” said the old man. “You have a lost – er – what shall we call him? Protagonist, that’s suitably neutral. You have a proto-mediaeval setting. You have knights. What do you do?”
Cobweb stared at him.
“Are you serious?”
Time smiled. The mists swirled, and he was gone.
“He was serious. This is all I need. When I get my hands on that Gnome he’s going to be so sorry.” Cobweb muttered angrily under her breath all the way to the cottage. When she got there she disappeared into the closet, from which emerged various metallic sounds. “And I hate armour, it always leaves me smelling of rust. Ah, there it is.” She pulled out a mithril corselet, and slipped it over her head.
A mirror sidled up to her and she took a good look. Then she sighed and took the corselet off again.
“Maybe not,” she said to herself. A sensible skirt and walking shoes it was then.
“Maybe not what?” asked a familiar voice. Cobweb jumped, and quickly adjusted her expression to a nervous smile.
“Carabosse?” It wasn’t as if she’d done anything, so why did she feel guilty?
“Yes. What are you up to?”
“Oh come off it, I know you far better than that. Unless you want to spend tonight sleeping on your stomach you’d better come clean now, wench. Come to think of it, maybe I’d like you sleeping on your stomach anyway, so I could . . .” and he leant down and whispered something in her ear.
“Sorry,” she said, disentangling herself. “I’m afraid I have to go see a man about a gnome.”
“That damned Gnome can make a nuisance of himself even when he isn’t here,” said Carabosse crossly. Then, more kindly: “What? Sweetheart, what is it?”
It was the tenderness that did it. The dam broke. Sometimes it was just nice to let go, and have someone hold you and tell you that you needn’t worry, everything was going to be just fine, even when you knew perfectly well that it wasn’t true.
“And now I have to lead a quest to find him,” she complained tearfully. “With Huw and the boys.”
“And me,” said Carabosse firmly.
“You? But your job? And you don’t even like the Woodgnome.”
“I’m entitled to at least a century’s accumulated leave. And as for the Gnome – well, I don’t particularly like him, it’s true, though he can be amusing in a facile sort of way. He annoys me, because I hate to see talent wasted through laziness and pettiness. But he’s your friend, and I’m certainly not letting you go Questing for him without me to support you. And this expedition will need somebody sensible in charge.”
Cobweb stared at him through slightly reddened eyes, and thought of Huw. Then of Carabosse. Then of Huw again. The Woodgnome was going to be so pissed off when he heard he’d missed that meeting. And maybe, just maybe, they’d get on, and that was a combination she’d back against – well, quite a lot of things, actually. And having Luc along ought to act as insurance that nothing too awful would befall the expedition. For the first time since the Gnome’s disappearance she felt a glimmer of hope.
“I’m sure we can work something out,” she said
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