amn,” said Cobweb. “Looks like the easy way is closed.”
“So we go on foot – or on hoof,” said Carabosse, with a shrug. “I thought that Oberon wouldn’t leave such an obvious opening.”
“Neither foot nor hoof in your case, I think,” said Cobweb. “But that’s not really what worries me. I should be able to get to the Gnome. It goes with the job. If I can’t beat him with that one, what chance do we have when it comes to a showdown?”
“Lady, the battle you think you cannot win is a battle already lost,” rumbled Huw. Cobweb jumped, not having realised that Huw was in earshot.
“That may be . . .”
“I am no enchanter,” said Huw. “But tactics, strategy, those I know, and I tell you that if you go into this with that thought in your head, you will surely lose. And whatever your power be over my name, I will not take these children into a lost battle where they would be no more than targets for the enemy.” He gave a sideways nod in the direction of Luc and Ianto, who were standing uncertainly by the horses, then fixed her firmly with an uncompromising stare.
“I . . .” can see what the Gnome sees in Huw, thought Cobweb. He’s really quite impressive when he gets masterful. “I will not bring you into harm.”
“Me? Duw, I’m good for a battle, though these aren’t my weapons. It’s them I worry about.”
“There may be dangers in this quest, though so far our Enemy has been careful to do no-one any permanent harm, and I have done what I can to ward us. But whatever happens, Luc is safer than any of us. And Ianto is probably quite safe while he’s with Luc. The rest of us must just take our chances.”
Huw held her gaze a moment longer, then nodded. “Very well, then. But think on what I say.” He walked over to the two younger men, leaving Cobweb and Carabosse alone.
“He is right, you know,” said Carabosse. “Are you sure you don’t want to . . . no, all right, I already know the answer.”
“You don’t have to be here,” Cobweb pointed out, crossly.
“Let’s not go through that again, sweetheart. I am not leaving you to do this on your own, and that’s final.” He tapped her bottom affectionately, just hard enough to make the point. Feeling oddly reassured, she drew herself up to her full, admittedly not that impressive, height.
“Right,” she said. “Let’s get this thing under way.”
“Fine,” said Carabosse. “Umm – where to?”
Cobweb closed her eyes, felt the tug in her spanking hand.
“That way,” she said.
“I’m sure we’ve been through this bit before,” said Luc.
“Don’t be – actually, it does look a bit familiar,” agreed Ianto. “I think I remember that fallen willow.”
“Yes, I remember Sir Huw eyeing it, and I got a bit worried. Willow switches sting!”
“You mean like on the way to Cosb when he gave you 12 for mucking about and falling in the river? I should think it did sting from the way you hooted and hopped.”
“I did not hoot,” said Luc with immense dignity. “I may have said ‘ouch’ a bit.”
Ianto grinned at his lover. “You howled like a wolf cub,” he retorted. “And jumped like a flea.”
“You’ll be jumping in a minute,” said Luc, and edged his horse near enough to the willow to bend low in the saddle and break off one of the flexible lower branches. He put on Sir Huw’s rich Welsh tones. “Come here, you Welsh brat.”
“Catch me!” exclaimed Ianto with glee, edging his horse with some speed down a side path among the ferny braes.
“You’re for it when I do,” said Luc, urging the mare after him.
“Boys?” said Huw, turning in his saddle. “White Christ!”
At the expletive the two Fay turned to see what was wrong.
“We have lost them!” said Huw grimly. “They were behind me a moment gone, and they have vanished. This is dark glamourie of the worst kind.”
His stallion reared and spun as he spurred back along the trail.
“Huw, wait . . . oh Powers, this is going horribly wrong already. Bossy darling, your mount is faster, can you . . .”
“Of course. Give me some room, Barnabas, and you might want not to look if you’re skittish.”
The horse under Carabosse blurred and twisted. Great spiked wings, iridescent with silver-green scales, and a serpentine body ending in a viciously barbed tail. A long, horse-like head with reptilian jaws and teeth. Front legs, scaled and mailed, and armed with vicious claws. No rear legs – a wyvern, then. Deep golden eyes, slitted like a cat’s, alive with a most un-beastlike intelligence. Barnabas looked away hurriedly – few can escape who look into a dragon’s eyes. A trickle of smoke rose from its nostrils.
“Up, Glaurung!” cried Carabosse. In a blast of wings that filled the air with twigs, leaves, dust and the odd unwary small mammal, the wyrm took to the air and sped away after Huw.
“Well, this is a great start to things,” said Cobweb bitterly as a sudden silence fell in the empty glade.
“Yes,” agreed Barnabas. “A little too convenient, isn’t it? I’d say you’re under a Bewrayment.”
“A confusion spell? That would account for things, I agree. Let me have a look in my bag, I’ve got a geasa counter.” She rummaged in the capacious leather bag hanging at her side, briefly retrieving and then returning a pair of scissors, a trouser press, a remote-control, a packet of sweets, a conductor’s baton, wet wipes, a strip of plaster, some of Arianrhod’s salve, three shades of lipstick, two paperback novels and a tax form. At last, with a triumphant ‘ha!’ she pulled out a small grey box with a digital readout at one end and a set of buttons at the other.
She pressed the button marked ‘On/Reset’ and immediately the box gave out a loud purring squeal and the reading shot up, stabilising at around ‘245’.
“Well, that pretty well confirms it,” she said. “Well spotted, Barnabas. Those charms usually have a physical locus – if we can locate it I may be able to . . . ah!” The squeal became more emphatic as she moved towards the end of the glade, faded as she moved left, strengthened as she went to the right . . .
“Found it!” she exclaimed in glee. A broken willow withe, entwined with a green ribbon and a jay’s feather and woven into a ring, hung from a low branch, spinning in the breeze.
“Careful, Miss Cobweb,” warned Barnabas. “It might be booby trapped.”
“Don’t worry, Barnabas. You’d be amazed at some of the things I’ve cleared up when I was in domestic service.” She pulled out a pair of nail scissors, leaned carefully in, and snipped the green ribbon very precisely between two twists of willow.
Then she leaned back and brushed away a bead of sweat from her forehead. Despite her brave words to Barnabas it had been a while since she had had to defuse a charm like that, and never without backup.
Looking up she heard the thunder of hooves as Ianto’s pony trotted into the clearing followed by a flushed and laughing Luc on his mare, waving a willow switch.
“And just where do you two think you’ve been?” she demanded, hands on hips. “Don’t you realise that everyone has been worried sick about you? Sir Huw and Carabosse are out looking for you now.”
The amusement faded from the boys’ faces, to be replaced by apprehension. Sir Huw was bad enough, but to have the Spank Fairy’s stern looking companion on the warpath too! And rumour had it that he had even spanked the Spank Fairy herself.
Luc swallowed uneasily.
“Sorry, Miss Cobweb, really, we were just . . .”
“Yes, you were just . . .”
The sound of more hooves announced Huw and Carabosse, the latter having restored the glamour on his mount once he had found the Marcher lord, in order not to spook his horse.
“So our miscreants are found,” said Sir Huw. “I think we need a little talk. And it looks as Luc has foreseen my need.” He reached down and took the willow switch from Luc’s limp hand.
“I agree,” said Carabosse grimly. “I have – oh – a dozen things to say to the pair of them, as have you my lord, no doubt.” He and Huw exchanged a complicit look, and nodded. A riding crop magically appeared in his hand. Each of the men took one of the unfortunate youths my the scruff of the neck and dragged them over to a nearby stump.
As the sound of howls and thrashed rumps filled the air Cobweb closed her eyes and consulted that inner sense. Yes, the Gnome was still there, a little nearer now, but if they were going to face these sort of problems all the way it was going to be a long quest.
The Gnome was getting decidedly bored. The cell wasn’t quite as damp or as foul as some he’d been in, but it wasn’t exactly comfortable, either, and the sight of four stone walls with only a slit, high up on one side, to admit daylight, was beginning to pall. His back ached, he was cold and hungry, and he would kill, or at least do a moderate amount of bodily harm, for a decent glass of wine. He would definitely kill for a good book. He thought longingly of his own library, which contained sufficient information to produce a Pratchett singularity, that localised warping of space-time only seen in large libraries and second-hand bookshops, and in which it was therefore possible to get lost for days.
He pinged the wards again with a small trickle of power, only to have it bounced painfully back at him. He winced, but carried on probing in different ways, and with varying degrees of subtlety. No luck. Something moved in the corner of the cell – a rat?
Several rats. Soberly dressed, in long black robes with lace collars, hats, and carrying bundles of pamphlets.
“Hello,” squeaked the first rat, taking off its hat politely.
“Good evening,” returned the bemused Gnome.
“We’d like to talk to you about making a place for God in your life,” said the first rat. “Have you ever considered Life after Death?”
“Actually, I’m more interested in Life before Death,” said the Gnome. “And which God? I know quite a few of them, and quite frankly I’m much happier when they keep out of my life.”
“Ooh, blasphemy,” squealed the first rat. “Hellfire awaits the blasphemer, you know.”
“Oh piss off,” said the Gnome uncharitably. “Bloody Jove’s Witnesses.” The rats ostentatiously shook the dust from their sandals in the Gnome’s general direction before returning disconsolately back towards their hole. Only as the last one was preparing to disappear did the Gnome come to his senses.
“Hey, wait! I mean, I want to hear about your God, I’m really interested. I’ll read your pamphlets, I promise. Come back and chat – oh damn!” he added as the tip of a vanishing tail flicked towards him in a gesture that was clearly secular in nature.
About half an hour later one of them returned. Unlike the confident procession before, there was something – furtive – about this one. The Gnome, from long personal experience, recognised someone doing something he ought not to do.
“Hello,” he said, as gently as he could manage.
“Umm, hello. Listen, what you said . . .”
The Gnome raised an interrogative eyebrow. At this stage it would be a mistake to commit himself to anything definitive until he found out what the rat wanted him to say. Half the art of a good lie lay in telling people what they really wanted or expected to hear.
“Well, I was just wondering.” The rat scuffed a sandal moodily in the straw, not meeting his eye.
“About . . . ?”
“God. You said you’d met God.”
“I’ve met a – yes, that’s true.”
“Only, you see, I get these sort of – well, doubts and things. Brother Chrysostom says everything is in Scripture, and if we study it enough we’ll find out what we need to know, and anything that isn’t in Scripture we’re not supposed to know and it’s blasphemy to wonder about it, but I can’t help wondering, I really can’t.”
The Gnome bestowed a kindly gaze upon the young rat.
“What would you like to know?” he said.
“Well, like – do people go to the toilet in Heaven? I mean, if Heaven is made of cheese and chocolate, and all you have to do is break off a piece and eat it whenever you’re hungry, what happens then? And do people sleep? Brother Chrysostom says we shall sleep not, but ceaselessly praise God. Me, I like a good snooze, so if you never sleep and then wake up in a comfy warm nest knowing you don’t have to go out foraging just yet, that wouldn’t be much of a heaven, would it? And if all the cats are going to Hell, why did God make them in the first place? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I think the sneaky buggers deserve it, but it doesn’t quite seem fair that God made them to chase us, and then burns them in hellfire for it. And then there’s . . .”
“All right, all right, one thing at a time,” interrupted the Gnome hastily. This was a tricky one. He’d never been to Heaven, though he had once vacationed in Nirvana when he felt he needed a complete break from everything. Being immortal he hadn’t much time for Life After Death, and both Annwn and the Elysian Fields had struck him as having a close resemblance to the sort of small town where everything is always shut, teenagers sniff glue in the bus shelter, and the posters in the post office window are bleached an unpleasant khaki and 15 years out of date.
“On the toilet thing, no,” he announced definitively. “The pleasures of the body are experienced, but there are no corporeal consequences.” That was a fairly safe bet. “Same for sleeping – you won’t need to, but you can experience all the pleasures of sleeping and none of the waking up with bad hair and a mouth that feels like a litter tray.” The cat thing was a genuine theological conundrum, though. In the Gnome’s experience, many gods were quite cruel enough to create a whole species and then tell it its fundamental behaviour patterns were evil and it must be punished for them – after all, they were always doing it to humans – but he felt that this might not sit well with the rat. It seemed a concerned soul, and might not like to think that it was in the hands of Infinite Power and Infinite Sadism.
“The cat business is more tricky,” he said slowly. “I’m not sure I can answer your question, not being a god myself. But I know who might know the answer.”
“Who?” the rat asked eagerly.
“My friend Cobweb. She knows much more about God,” – well, Goddess, if you want to be picky – “than I do. If only she knew where I was, I’m sure she’d be delighted to drop by and answer your questions.”
“Is she a prophetess, then?”
“Umm – in a manner of speaking,” said the Gnome. “You might call her that. Generally when she tells people what is about to happen to them, it’s worth taking her warning seriously. And she certainly has a way of finding out what people have done.”
“Well, more God’s paperwork – no, never mind. Anyway, if you were to slip out and let her know where I am, I’m sure she’d be the person to give you a fuller answer to your doubts.”
“I – don’t know. Brother Chrysostom says we shouldn’t leave the castle. We’re waiting for a sign of the Apocalypse.”
“Oh, when Cobweb gets here I don’t doubt you’ll get an Apocalypse. For somebody, anyway.”
After a while, they had worked out a sort of routine. Huw sorted out the Black Knights, unhorsing them with great panache and driving them off with the flat of his sword on their unarmoured rears. Carabosse and Cobweb dealt with spells and monsters, although a particularly persistent afanc eventually required Huw’s aid to chop its head off. Luc and Ianto, being relatively innocent if not quite virginal (and certainly the nearest thing available) handled Chapels in the Green and maidens in distress, with Huw keeping a careful eye on them in case the latter turned out to be lamias.
It was late in the evening on the third day of the Quest. It felt like the thirtieth. Cobweb stood staring into the flames of the campfire and stretched.
Strong hands slipped around her and began massaging her shoulders.
“Ooh, yes, just a little lower Bossy – yes, just there – oh, marvellous.” She relaxed into him, blissful in the warmth of his long clever hands as they eased her knotted muscles.
“How are you holding out?” he asked quietly, so the others couldn’t hear.
“Better than I expected, to be honest. I’m stiff, and that last cantrip was a stinker, took me more effort to undo than I would have liked, but I’m not feeling bad. In fact, I’m really starting to think we can do it.”
“Are we far now, can you tell?”
“No, it can’t be that far. The Gnome’s presence nags at me now, like a missing tooth, you know the way you can’t keep your tongue from going to the gap? It’s a frustrating feeling, but for it to be this strong we must be within a day’s ride of him. The problem will be finding him when we do get there. The place he’s being held is bound to be under a powerful glamour.”
“Leave that to me. You know the carabossieri use glamours all the time, so the training involves quite a lot of advanced study on how to make them and break them. No, that’s not what worries me.”
Cobweb stiffened a little under his hands.
“And what is?” she asked.
“It’s just – well, as you said, whoever is behind this hasn’t really hurt anyone so far, has gone out of their way to avoid it in fact, but when he’s cornered – well, cornered rats bite.”
“And wouldn’t you?” squeaked a new voice at their feet. Both Carabosse and Cobweb jumped, though Carabosse recovered better. A rat, a small rat in a black Puritan robe with a really rather nice if slightly grubby lace collar and a broad brimmed hat with a buckle.
“Are you the Lady Cobweb?” asked the rat.
“Umm, yes,” agreed Cobweb. “And you are?”
“Brother Athanasius, at your service and the Lord’s. I have a message for you from the Woodgnome.”
“The Woodgnome. How is he? Where is he? Is he all right?”
“He is imprisoned in Castle Adamant, in the middle of the poison lake Llyn Diadar, that no fish can swim in, no bird fly over, and no boat can cross.”
“Promising start. How did you get here then?”
“Oh, I took the tube. You know, the Underground.”
“Of course,” said Cobweb faintly. “Umm, so is the nearest station far from here?”
The feeling of imminent storm that accompanied a visit filled the Gnome’s cell.
“As I predicted,” said his captor, “they have given up. Gone from hill and forest, nowhere to be seen.”
The Gnome was silent. If there was one thing he was certain of it was that Cobweb wouldn’t just give up. She was far too stubborn for that, and if his gaoler thought that she had, it only revealed his weakness. So much the better.
“It won’t do you any good,” he pointed out, wearily. “By snatching me, you only revealed yourself.”
“But lacking you, Nemesis will falter in the pursuit. She doubts herself. Without you to encourage her, and with Carabosse to discourage her, she will turn to those matters more properly in her purview and leave this matter lie.”
Oh boy, are you a bad judge of character, thought the Gnome. Carabosse might not care two hoots for me, but he’ll support Cobs to the hilt in anything she really feels she has to do. And she won’t let her friends be hijacked without so much as a by-your-leave. It would deprive her of people to moan at. He wondered how it was that he had come to feel so warmly towards – not even in the privacy of his head was he going to use the word ‘love’, and it would have required branding irons to drag even the first admission from him in public – a mad Celtic fairy with dubious taste in hair colouring. And one that was habitually of the wrong sex, too.
“And then what?” he challenged. “Now that they have given up the pursuit, what will you do with me?”
There was a pause. Perhaps the Adversary hadn’t thought that far ahead.
“You will remain here,” his captor said at last. “While the long years pass, numberless as the stars or the leaves of trees, until you are utterly forgotten. Until you Dwindle. You have proved an inconvenience. You will be so no longer.”
“Now have you all got your ticket?” asked Cobweb for the third time.
“Yes, Miss,” patiently chorused the others.
“Is this ours, Athanasius?” she asked the rat, as a string of carriages drawn by two sturdy rabbits drew up at the platform.
“Yes, everybody on,” said the rat. They piled aboard the carriage. Huw and the boys had taken to being shrunken with surprising insouciance, thought Cobweb. But then, given all the other things that had happened to them on this quest, she supposed it was not too much to take in their stride.
Huw politely stood and offered his place to a stout rat matron, who simpered fetchingly, and flirted her tail at him. It seemed that sexiness transcended species borders. The train rattled off into the darkened tunnel, while the passengers practised that bland unfocussed gaze of commuters everywhere that allows one to tune out the other passengers and switched their brains off. All except Cobweb. She worried. She was good at it and she liked to keep in practice.
“I suppose this would be a bad time to tell you I’m claustrophobic,” murmured Carabosse. Cobweb looked up in shock, saw the mocking grin, and hit him, quite gently, in the chest. It had, however, the effect that he had intended, since it jogged her mind away from what might happen to what was happening.
What was actually happening was that the train was drawing in to another station.
“We need to get out here,” said Athanasius.
“Right, Huw, boys, everyone out, please,” said Cobweb, counting legs and dividing by two. Well, she tended to notice legs, since, in her professional capacity, faces were usually upside down. Once she had assured herself that all her charges were safely off the train, she descended herself, taking Carabosse’s offered hand with a regal assurance that she was far from feeling. If she couldn’t entirely take Huw’s advice about winning battles, there was no sense in worrying the others.
“So this is – um Charnel Cross?”
“Yes,” said Athanasius. “It connects with the old catacombs under the castle. From there you should be able to get up into the dungeons. Come on, I’ll show you the way. But Miss Cobweb?”
“The Gnome said you could answer some of my questions. He said you were a prophetess.”
“Questions? What sort of questions?”
“God. Yes. I see. Well, dear, I’m not a prophetess in the regular sense of the word, although I can tell you what is going to happen to that Gnome. But . . .” she held up a hand to forestall a protest from Athanasius, “I promise you that as soon as we have this sorted out, I’ll invite you to tea with a god. How will that do?”
Athanasius’ eyes bulged. “T-tea? With God?”
“With a god. Not necessarily yours, He must be very busy.”
Athanasius nodded slowly, apparently dumbstruck. Then without a word he beckoned and set off along the platform towards the exit.
“Come along everyone, do keep up. Bossy darling, will you lead with me? And Huw, bring up the rear and make sure no-one dawdles.”
Huw grinned, and took up his position. The boys looked a little nervous and increased their pace.
The tunnels seemed to go on for ever.
The Gnome had been testing the wards with a patience that would have astonished anyone who thought they knew him. Standing close enough to hear their harmonies he could feel the prickle of raw power, like incipient sunburn, and knew he would pay for it later.
“Just as long as someone else pays first,” he muttered. Wards were Pattern, imposed on Energy and Matter. He was a creature of Chaos and Entropy. Eventually, even the strongest ward had to give a little, lose the perfect alignment it relied on for its function. That was what Entropy did. Methodically he pinged the wards around the cell, one by one, accepting the stinging backlash as they bounced his charm back at him without reaction other than the occasional wince. Until at last . . .
“Ah!” One of them had bent, a sour note in the endless song running within it. He began to hum, a little off-key, matching that subtle disharmony, striving to widen it. The ward oscillated between its original harmony and the new, atonal music the Gnome was offering it, a silent shriek of discord that set his teeth on edge, growing wilder and wilder until quite suddenly it gave up the ghost and burned out, with a sharp odour of ozone.
Hastily, he set up a new ward, under his own control. To a casual inspection it would look as if the cell was as securely warded as before, but the difference was that this time there was a door, and the Woodgnome held the key.
“Now,” he said to himself. “I need to get out of here.” A quick trial satisfied him that the walls were imbued with some charm that prevented Folding, and he had neither the time nor the inclination to try to break that one. On foot then.
“If this is the dungeon level, then I need to go up,” he reasoned. The door of the cell was unlocked, his captor having relied on the wards to hold him, so he slipped out into the ill-lit passageways of Castle Adamant.
“We need to go up,” announced Cobweb suddenly.
“But this is the dungeon level,” said a bewildered Athanasius. They had reverted to their normal size, and he was riding on her shoulder.
“I know,” said Cobweb irritably. “But I also know, very urgently, that we need to go up.”
Athanasius looked as if he might be about to say something else but Carabosse leaned over and whispered: “God’s Voice speaks to her.” He wasn’t sure how the Lady would take being referred to as God so he offered a silent apology, just in case.
They proceeded cautiously up a staircase. Huw and the boys had their swords drawn, which, Cobweb reflected, might be no bad thing. That much cold iron ought to help protect them against any stray charms aimed in their direction, and whatever protective spell the Gnome had arranged to put into Luc’s sword was also active –she could hear the deep subliminal chant in that relentlessly irritating metre though she could not make out any words. Not that the boy, of all of them, should need protection, but sometimes things went astray in battles, and innocents got hurt. No! She was not going to think about that.
The stairway suddenly ended at a large double door.
“This leads into some great hall, I doubt not,” said Huw. “Do we go in, Lady?”
Cobweb consulted that inner voice.
“Yes,” she said. She hoped that she sounded more certain than she was.
Huw threw open the doors.
On the far side of the great hall, sneaking out the side of the dais towards the courtyard, the Gnome froze.
“Woodgnome!” said Cobweb.
“Cobs! Huw! And, er, Carabosse, how nice. And the boys.”
“Gnome, I want a word with you,” said three voices simultaneously.
“What? What?” said the Gnome, mystified.
“What a charming little reunion,” said a new voice.
On the dais stood a figure in a hooded robe. He threw it back to reveal a face they all knew, with the beautifully sculpted cheekbones, and the famously curly hair with the tips of two small and elegant horns poking out.
“Nemesis, Carabosse. Welcome to Castle Adamant, although I don’t in fact remember issuing an invitation. And these would be the mortals.”
“One is only half mortal, I think you’ll find,” said the Gnome.
The old king grimaced. “You really are a terrible bore on that subject,” he said. “If you’d only left the subject alone as good manners decree, all this unpleasantness could have been avoided.”
“And what good manners include foisting a cuckoo on a man you have never met?” asked Huw suddenly, his voice flat and dangerous.
“I should have thought you would be glad enough to have an heir, my lord. You have proved – a little lacking in that department, shall we say?”
Ouch, thought Cobweb. That was cruel. Huw’s eyes slitted and he advanced towards the dais, sword in hand. She moved to intercept him before he did anything foolish, and Carabosse moved to cover her.
“Stay back, all of you!” A spear suddenly appeared in Oberon’s hand. It hummed and trembled like a live thing. “This is the spear Brathog, that never was loosed but it found its target. I’d hate to have to spit you all, but if you threaten me I will.”
Cobweb caught sight of Carabosse’s face and blanched. If he’d ever looked at her like that she would have gone and hid in an alternate Reality for, oh, maybe a few millennia would do it.
“You won’t get away with this,” she said. “It’s out now, the whole story. Unless you kill us all, everyone is going to know what you’ve done.”
“Nemesis indeed,” he hissed. “Then perhaps I should kill you all.”
“You have not killed so far. You haven’t even done anyone any real harm,” said Carabosse more moderately, that wonderful voice silken with persuasion. “Nothing is irretrievable.”
Indecision was evident on Oberon’s face. Then slowly he shook his head.
“No, Carabosse. I’m not sure that I can trust any of you.”
“And I’m not sure that you are willing to kill, Lord Oberon. I’m not sure that you can.”
Oh no, and you were doing so well, thought Cobweb. Don’t challenge him.
Oberon’s face hardened. “You doubt me? Shall I make an example?”
The spear tip swung to point at each of them in turn. Carabosse stepped in front of Cobweb, and Huw in front of the boys without conscious decision.
“That will do you no good, it never misses its target,” reminded the old king. “And you seem eager to die, my lord Huw.” He stepped forwards on the dais, but as he moved a cloud of dust stirred by his robe sprang up around him, and he burst into violent coughing. It was unclear whether he really meant to let go of the spear or whether it was an accident.
The spear hung motionless in the air for a terrible half second. Then with a sound like a gong it sprang forwards and impaled Huw right in the middle of his chest. He had a moment to look surprised, then he fell backwards, and the spear sprang back to the hand of its master.
“Noooooooooooooooooooooooo!” The eldritch scream froze them all in place. All but the one who made it.
Everyone had forgotten about the Woodgnome, who had watched the whole thing with growing horror. As Huw fell he screamed in pure rage and fell upon Oberon, pinioning him tightly in his arms. The smell of burning flesh filled the air as the enchanter’s personal wards struggled to throw him off. A curious blurred immobility surrounded the two of them, as if they were a slightly out-of-focus statue.
“What is he – the crazy fool!” exclaimed Carabosse. Cobweb looked up from Huw’s side.
“The Gnome. He’s using fugue. It’s an Old One’s trick, I haven’t seen it done since the days of Gwyn ap Nudd. He’s dragging the two of them back down their personal timelines.”
“Meaning that eventually they’ll reach a point before which one of them – well, isn’t. The Gnome had just better hope that Oberon didn’t have a whole career before kingship that we don’t know about.
The figures on the dais had changed, she realised. The Gnome was a dark-skinned man in a lot of turquoise and silver jewellery and a coyote mask and not much else. Even as they watched that faded into the satyr she had seen before, the silenos. Oberon too had changed, though not as much. But he looked younger, much younger, and desperate. He must realise what the Gnome was doing but he was unable to break that maniacal grip. Abruptly the Gnome was a grim black thing, half tree, half troll, with things hanging from its branches. Cobweb was rather glad that she couldn’t see exactly what they were. It tightened its wooden arms with crushing strength on the Fay, and grinned with too many teeth. Oberon was now a youth, slim and beautiful, a prince of the Tuatha de Danaan, but the thing that the Gnome used to be was unmoved by youth or beauty. Back, back. Suddenly. . .
“My gods! What’s that?”
“I rather think it’s the Gnome’s original form. He did say he was originally from a very long way away,” said Cobweb faintly. The thing that now held Oberon was something like a barrage balloon and something like a squid crossed with a spider, and something like neither of those things. It was also huge. It filled the hall so they all had to duck. It held Oberon effortlessly in one of its tentacles and drew him up towards the cluster of manipulators and complicated mouthparts at one end. Oberon was screaming, silently. He looked about 4 years old now.
“This has gone far enough,” said Cobweb. “I won’t have children eaten in my presence.” An eye the size of a dinner plate rolled towards her. It was impossible to tell if it understood, but the movement towards the mouth ceased. Oberon was a toddler; then he was a squalling babe.
There was a soft pop, and a rushing wind howled through the chamber. On the dais lay the Woodgnome, himself again, gasping in exhaustion and pain.
“Well, that was a surprise,” said Carabosse, crouching to lift his head with surprising gentleness and put a folded cloak underneath it. “Not least to Oberon. No, don’t try to get up just yet. You won’t have the energy to even walk for a day.”
“Wasn’t Oberon,” muttered the exhausted Gnome. “Cobweb, the others . . .”
“We’re all fine.” What did he mean, wasn’t Oberon? The Gnome must be delirious. “Everyone’s fine now.”
“Not Huw,” whispered the Gnome. Despite himself, a tear rolled silently down his cheek and he closed his eyes to try to keep the rest in. A shadow cut off the light.
“I’m not so bad, boyo,” said a familiar voice. “A bit sore.”
The Woodgnome’s eyelids sprang open, and he looked into the face of the marcher lord. Abruptly his eyes rolled back in his head, and for the first and last time in his life, the Woodgnome fainted.
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