hat was perhaps not the best way to announce your return to rude health,” said Cobweb, with some self-control. “What are you wearing?” As she spoke, she turned the Gnome into the recovery position, and shook her own cloak over his body.
“I presume it’s some sort of chain mail under your shirt?”
“Um. . . no. It’s a Protection. It’s been in my family for years.”
“A. . . The Pencawr Protection! You’ve got it? I thought it had been lost for a century!”
Carabosse raised a beautifully sculpted eyebrow. “I presume you two know what you’re talking about, but we three don’t.”
“Sorry,” apologised Huw. “There’s a spell of protection on my family. We earned it a couple of hundred years ago, for the usual reason – some service done to a Power, although we don’t talk about what, or to whom. The Protection looked like a silk undershirt and acts against weapons. Every time it saves us, it frays a little, and there isn’t much of it left since my grandfather’s day, and the reiving along the Marches – basically just a panel. I had it sewn into my shirt before we left. I didn’t know whether to wear it front or back, because this sort of Questing isn’t my thing, and I couldn’t guess whether the attacks would be things we could face or things that would sneak up on us, so in the end I just guessed. Seems I guessed right.”
“Lucky for you,” agreed Cobweb soberly. Then she hurled her arms round his neck and hugged him.
“Thank you,” he said, straightening his tunic. “What was that for?”
“Because I’m too much of a lady to smack you in front of the children, in case it damaged your standing with them, and you frightened me. And because the Gnome isn’t fit to do it.”
“Yes, about that,” interjected Carabosse. “I don’t want to worry anybody, but I can’t bring him round. And I don’t think he’s foxing.”
Huw and Cobweb came to look. The Gnome was breathing steadily, and his colour was returning, but he showed no sign of rousing.
“I think it’s probably just exhaustion and stress,” said Cobweb, uncertainly. “He doesn’t seem to be distressed. Do you think we should just let him sleep it off?”
“It wouldn’t hurt to let him rest while we explore this place and see if we can find a way out,” agreed Carabosse. “I’m a little worried about what the Gnome said about that not being Oberon, because in that case I think we should assume that the normal Faery rules about escape and so on don’t apply. I think perhaps Huw should look after the Gnome, and you and I should each take one of the boys and search.”
“Surely safer if the lady stays and I go,” said Huw, faintly scandalised. “She isn’t armed and I am.”
Cobweb thought of making a remark about political correctness and allowing her to take her own risks, and thought better of it. “Actually, I think it would be best if Luc stayed with the Gnome, because if this all rebounds on us, he should still be safest, and you and I, Huw, make one pair, and Ianto and Carabosse the other. Then each pair has steel and sorcery. And perhaps,” she added hastily, suddenly remembering the rat, “Athanasius would act as runner between us.”
The rat’s whiskers twitched. “Is this” he asked suspiciously, “heresy and deviation?”
Cobweb thought about it. “We’ve had a certain amount of deviation,” she agreed, “but I don’t think this is it. Will you help?”
“Does God want me to?”
“Well, I want you to, and I’m answerable to. . . to God.”
“I’ll help, then. If I can.”
“Irrelevant, unfortunately,” snapped Carabosse, who had gone to explore the doors at the far end of the hall. “We’re trapped.”
The others turned to stare at him. Ianto followed him back to the dais. “It’s true,” he confirmed. “No matter which door you leave through, you come back in through one of the others. Oh, except that one. That one leads to a room full of white stuff.”
Cobweb glanced at Carabosse and raised an eyebrow. “It’s a twentieth century bathroom. Presently I’ll introduce Huw and the boys to the concept of the trap valve and the ballcock. But the plain fact is that as far as I can tell, we can’t get out via either magic or muscle.”
Naturally, the inability to escape had become one of those things over which nobody was prepared to take anybody else’s word. Each of them had explored each door in turn and it had been the best part of an hour before they assembled at the dais again, convinced that they couldn’t get out. Even the rat’s tunnels turned on themselves.
“Now what?” asked Huw, gloomily.
“I’m going for a bath. Assuming there’s any hot water. I think best in the bath.”
Cobweb wandered through the doorway and stopped in some puzzlement. Then she came back.
“I think the bath idea is right.”
“Why?” asked Carabosse.
“Come and see.”
The bathroom had altered. There was a rugby club bath in there now, full of hot water.
“Anybody coming in with me?”
Huw’s hopeful “Yes” was hastily overruled by Carabosse’s “No,” although the Wicked Fairy did give way to the extent of “not unless you Shift. One woman in a rugby club bath with four men belongs in a completely different Story, and Athanasius would be quite entitled to call it deviant”.
(A long way away in a completely different dimension, a handsome but sexless winged being in white raiment watched this, while the tears poured down its cheeks. . .)
Cobweb came back to check on the Gnome, Shifting as he did so; the bruises and backlash burns on the Old One’s skin were looking worryingly nasty, and there was still so sign of him waking. Still, the best thing for that would be to get them all out, and that meant thinking. He went to the bath, sliding in between the boys, and resting his head on the edge. The water was very hot, and he shut his eyes, and just for a moment, luxuriated in physical comfort. Over his head, Luc and Ianto were exchanging shocked glances – obviously, from the bruises, it was true: my lord Carabosse spanked the Spank Fairy. Scary.
“I’ve tested the borders, and I can’t get anything in or out. The wards here are something else again. I don’t have the sort of skill to deal with that, and nor does Carabosse. . .”
“Lady. . . Lord, you’re doing it again.”
“You tell us, again and again, what you can’t do. You won’t win your battles like that.”
“But Huw, I’ve got the wrong weapons for this battle.”
“No such thing. You just haven’t worked out how to use them yet. Mistress. . . Master, I cannot go to war complaining that I haven’t got this or that. I take my inventory of what I have got, and then I decide how to use it to my advantage. When I have siege engines, I besiege. When I have cavalry, I charge. When I have archers, I ambush. You are trying to ambush with cavalry. Don’t tell me what you can’t do. The rules of Questing are that you have sufficient skills for the task, or so at least I always understood from the Bards. You simply have to find them. Tell me what you can do. You said you couldn’t find the way here, and then you found a way to do it. You used your skill as Scourge. What other skills have you? Or your companion?”
“Not me, I think,” said Carabosse, regretfully. “I think this Quest is for Cobweb and the Gnome. I have Power, and TrueSight, but I think, darling, that Huw is right. This is your task, and you have the tools for it. Just find them.”
“I can Find. I can Punish. I have the support of the Lady, although I have an. . . odd. . . feeling about that. I don’t think I’m supposed to ask Her to get me out of this.”
“No,” agreed Huw. “Traditionally, the Gods don’t help us unless we have attempted to help ourselves.”
Above his head, Athanasius, who had been eating the soap, nodded in agreement. Then his whiskers trembled.
“Excuse me? Who is the Lady?”
Cobweb opened his eyes. “My Goddess. The others answer to different ones. The Gnome’s God. . . his God said. . . said that He would stand my friend. Now, He could get us out. But I don’t know how to call on Him, or what it might cost.”
He lay back again in the water, and the others were silent. Presently, Cobweb’s form began to shimmer from male to female and back. Carabosse sighed, and threw a flannel at her. “You’re Shifting. Pick one.”
Huw came across the bath. “Change places with me. If you sit with lord Carabosse, you can be female and the water will preserve your dignity.”
Cobweb smiled at him. He was such a gentleman. She went on thinking. Presently, Huw chased the boys out, and left her with Carabosse.
“He’s smart, that Welshman, isn’t he? And unhappy.”
She twisted, to look at her partner. “You saw that? He’s worried about the Gnome. He won’t say so, but he’s counting on me to do something, and I don’t know what! I don’t know what to do! I haven’t got. . . Get a grip, Cobweb. Huw’s right, isn’t he? I have got the skills to do this. I just don’t know what they are. The best I can think of is to try to call the Gnome’s God.”
“Do that then. Come on, get out. Let’s not go calling on Gods when we’re wet and naked.”
“How do you call on a God, Athanasius? It’s your business really.”
“We pour a libation and cry to heaven.”
“Does it work?”
“Oh yes! Or so I’m told.”
“But you’ve never seen it done.”
“No. But Brother Chrysostom wouldn’t lie, would he?”
“Goldmouth John? He would. . .” She caught the rat’s anxious glance, and smiled at him. “I have no reason to think he would be other than truthful,” she agreed gently. There was no need to be cynical just for the sake of it. Libations. “Did anybody bring a pack inside? All I brought was my handbag and I want some wine.”
“Duw, so do we all. But we left all the packs with the horses.”
“The Gnome can do tricks with wine. No sign of him coming round, I suppose? No? Well, I’ve seen him do it often enough. Luc, can you bring me a glass of water from the bathroom? Thank you. Now, he stares at it, and he told me once that he calls to the vines and then. . .”
There was a nasty whine that put Cobweb on her knees, and made the humans’ teeth hurt, but the contents of the glass were definitely not what they had been. Carabosse picked it up, and sniffed cautiously, and then took an even more cautious sip. Cobweb watched him anxiously.
“Of course, darling, he’s had a lot more practice than you, and I rather think he has a better palate, too. But for a first attempt, it’s very. . . I think it’s. . . I’m sorry, darling, it appears to be Pictish Tokay.”
Ianto helped Cobweb to her feet. She took the glass from Carabosse and sniffed and tasted in her turn. Her control was less good than his; she made a face. “I think the sort of God who turned up for a libation of that is not the sort of God whose help we want. No, that won’t do. Think of something else.”
Huw interposed again. “Are you sure? Does it need to be something quite different? That was better, by my standards, Lady, that was using the skills of elementals, but again, you are trying to use his, not your own. Have you no ability yourself, to use, rather than copying his?”
“I can’t think of one. But I must have it. If I can find it.”
She sat on the edge of the dais and sank her head in her hands. The rat coughed politely. “Do I understand that you are trying to summon a God not your own?”
“Yes,” agreed Carabosse, equally courteously. “Cobweb is trying to attract the attention of the Lord of the Vines.”
“Vines? You mean raisins? Oooh, I could really follow a God like that. . .”
His voice broke to a squeak as Cobweb snatched him from the floor and waltzed round with him in her hands. “Athanasius, you’re a poppet, you’re a sweetie, you’re the business! Vines! Raisins! What can I have to work on? Has anybody got any bread?”
The rest of the party gazed at her. She had come undone, obviously. The brains had gone walkabout. It might be safest to humour her. The rat obliged. “There’s a small piece, about half a slice, behind the wall. It’s rather old, but it was there when I looked earlier. But I thought humans didn’t like bread that we had found.”
“Please, Athanasius, may I have it?”
She took the stale bread, and laid it on the edge of the dais. Then she shut her eyes and concentrated. She couldn’t do this with wine, but she knew her kitchen, and she knew Cooking. And Baking. Behind her eyes, she measured butter and sugar. She pictured fruit, in a jar. She was tempted to pour the fruit straight into the bowl, but a small voice said ‘Gods like to see you work’, and with a sigh, she spread the vine fruits across a plate, and mentally picked out seeds and stalks. Within the confines of her head, she beat eggs and grated fresh nutmeg, and sieved flour. She mixed almonds and sugar and more eggs and brandy, and rolled out marzipan.
In the hall, the Questing party watched her hands move through the air. Magic crackled around her, and Carabosse came close enough to put his hand on her shoulder and to focus his own power into her. There was the metallic smell of raw magic that began to transform to the wholesome smell of. . . of cake? The bread swelled, grew, coloured. On top of the cake, Cobweb placed marzipan vine leaves, and with a final blast of power, toasted them. Then she fell over backwards.
Ianto, unprompted, brought her a glass of water, while she lay gasping on Carabosse’s shoulder. The cake sat richly at her feet.
“Vine fruits,” she said hoarsely. “Offering. Lord of the Vine, hear me.”
There was, to an ear that could hear such a thing, a faint sound of drums, but it faded away. It was not enough.
Cobweb opened her eyes. More. She would have to do more. And she didn’t know what more she could do.
“I don’t know how he does this!” she wailed. “Not for someone else’s God.”
“How do you do it for your own?” asked Huw, practically.
“Effectively, I give a cry of ‘Mummy!’”
“So what does he call?”
“Probably ‘Let’s party!’”
“Can you do that?”
“I can. . . I could. . . Luc, what can you sing?”
Luc was astonished. “Madrigals, catches. . . what would you like?”
“What do you know that doesn’t sound like anything else you know? The stuff I smacked you for. I promise I won’t smack you this time.”
“I don’t understand the question.”
Luc sang. “No. Not that one. Another. Not that one either. Another. No. No. No. Another. No. No. Yes, that one. Faster. Sharper. Listen, like this.”
Carabosse looked bewildered. “Darling, how are you going to attract Him with a Status Quo cover version?”
“You’re going to help. Dance with me, Bossy. Properly, with all the lifts.”
As she spoke, she was Altering her clothes. Her skirt shortened, her practical boots reverted to high heeled strappy shoes, from which rose sheer nylons.
Carabosse grinned. “Have you remembered the drawback of your last skirt?”
“Have I. . .”
“Lifts, darling. If I turn you upside down. . .”
“Oh! Yes! Thank you.”
“I mean, I don’t suppose it would be anything Huw hadn’t seen before, but the boys. . .”
“He hasn’t seen mine, thanks. O.K., ready? Sing, Luc.”
Huw watched fascinated, regretting that the Gnome was not awake to explain this to him. He had seen couples dance before – he could dance himself – but this was a style he had never seen. The American Jive was a new experience for him. And they did it properly – turkey trot, Cuban breaks, open breaks, New Yorkers, pretzels, syncopation and all the lifts. Cobweb seemed to be off the ground as much as she was on it, and when she did that twisting thing, her skirt rose to display some sort of points attachment to her hose, which didn’t go all the way to the top. He wasn’t actually sure that it was decent, but it looked a lot of fun. Definitely something that one should learn to do at a party.
Luc, out of breath, stopped singing, and he and Ianto and Luc clapped as Carabosse swung his partner round his back and placed her delicately on the floor.
“Very nicely done indeed,” approved a golden voice behind them. They all turned, and Cobweb and Carabosse made appropriate obeisances. Huw and the boys hastened to follow.
“Music, dancing, things to eat (nice cake, Cobweb), and something to - Pictish Tokay? Why that, my dear?”
“It was just what I got, Lord. I’ve never done it before.”
“Mmm. The cake was a better idea. I felt the cake from some distance. I should leave the wine. I don’t think you have the touch for it. Anyway, why did you want Me?”
Cobweb stepped aside and the God’s gaze fell on the sleeping Gnome. “I can’t get him out of here, Lord. I don’t think” she hastened to add, “that there’s much wrong with him that can’t be cured by a meal and a drink and a sleep, but I think we should be somewhere else.”
The golden gaze fell on her and scorched her skin.
“I shall take him.”
“You say no to Me?”
Cobweb flinched. “Lord, he will return to You, we both know that. But not yet. He isn’t ready. And there are others with a claim. Not as good as Yours, perhaps, but as honestly felt.”
She could feel Huw behind her.
“I can take him and cure him.”
“Lord, you don’t need to. I can cure him. Not as fast, but. . . if You take him, he will run again.”
The almond eyes considered her, and she felt her clothes shift again. She glanced down to find herself dressed as a nurse from a dubious film. A flush mantled her cheeks. “I haven’t the legs for this, Lord, and we both know it. I look ridiculous.”
“But if I say that it is the price for leaving him?”
“I can pay that.”
There was a moment’s pause, and then gentle laughter. Her clothes resumed their normal state. The cake turned to ash, and the wine slopped to the floor.
“I believe you would, too. You are neither of you what you were, are you? Silenos has been pushed into displaying affection, and you have been forced into knowing what you can do. Come then. I accept your offering and I will arrange your escape from this place. But if I leave him, what price will you give Me for that?”
“You could claim another in his place.”
“Athanasius? This is the God of Raisins. Where He goes, there are Wild Things, grapes, cocktail sausages, cubes of cheese on sticks, crisps and garlic bread. At worst. Frequently there are better things. How do you feel about being an acolyte?”
The rat squeaked adoringly.
“Athanasius is a seeker after truth. I think Your truth might suit him better than the one he’s been working on.”
“Athanasius? I can’t take him with that name. Be Arius, and be Mine.”
The air rushed from Cobweb’s lungs. It looked as though she was going to get away with this.
“I will free you from this place tomorrow. You will stay tonight. Silenos will wake within the hour. I will leave you food and drink. Cobweb, Silenos is Mine, you acknowledge that?”
“But as you say, others have claims. He will be. . . difficult about that. You will ensure that those claims are honoured. I want him to be happy. Make it so.”
“How on earth do I. . . yes, Lord.”
“You think you can do it?”
“I’ll think of something.”
“Well done. The Welshman is quite right, you know. According to Questing Rules, you have the abilities you need. You just have to find them. If all you have are domestic skills, then domestic skills will suffice. You will find that having Called once on Me, your talents may become a little wild. You are at least partly a Wild Thing yourself, now. Believe.” The drums were closer now, and the God turned, and turned back.
“In the matter of everybody’s dealings with My Silenos. . . it appears that rather a lot of people want to punish him.”
Carabosse shifted under the bright eyes. “I suppose we can give that up.”
The slanted eyebrows rose. “Good grief, that would be a bit excessive, wouldn’t it? No, just not tonight. Tomorrow will do. And Cobweb, I really think I must forbid the worst of your excesses.”
“The butter,” confirmed Cobweb gloomily.
“No, dear, not the butter. Although goose grease would be better. If you can catch him, and hold him down, you’re free to try. But I really must forbid the ironing. My followers don’t iron. Ever.”
“Not the ironing then. But the reading?”
“If you feel that you absolutely must. But I’m sure that you won’t need to. Now, food. Wine. And a place to sleep. Tomorrow, you will find that the doors will open for you.”
He pointed across the room, and they all automatically turned to look. When they turned back, He was gone, but the drums were for a moment very close.
Huw went cautiously to explore the trestle table which had appeared against the wall. “Bread,” he said cheerfully, “cheese, grapes, apricots. And some sludgy green stuff and little hard triangles. And a yellow wine, rather sweet, but good.”
“Well,” agreed Carabosse, “food and drink, and traditional cocktail dips, and decent plumbing. We can manage until the morning, although it will be uncomfortable sleeping.”
“I don’t think so,” commented Cobweb, who was watching the vines grow down the walls. “I think we’re going to do rather well. All this greenstuff should be quite springy and comfortable, and have you noticed the way the clematis is making walls?”
It was late in the day when the Fay slipped between the green walls to reach her friend. He was lying on a bed of ferns, but he was not asleep. He was in a particularly bad temper.
“Gnome? Are you alone?”
“Naturally. I wouldn’t be anything else, would I.”
It wasn’t a question. Cobweb was careful not to let any hint of a smile cross her face. The Gnome had refused to catch Huw’s eye ever since he woke up, and after several attempts to speak with him, Huw had called for a huff and gone off in it. Carabosse had carefully held his tongue, showing a greater generosity of spirit that Cobweb felt the Gnome had any right to expect, but Luc had started several times to ask questions. Once she had trodden on his foot, and once Ianto, who seemed to have a better ear for the unspoken, had dug him in the ribs, and finally Huw had leaned over him and spoken very softly in his ear, cutting off any further sentence.
“Are you in pain?”
“Yes. And I don’t know what’s going on. Why did you call Him?”
Cobweb had more sense than to say, “Because I was scared for you.” “Because I thought He could get us out, and I didn’t see who else could. And He promised me that He would.”
“Yes. Why? Are you jealous?”
The Gnome denied it in the martyred tone of one telling a whopping lie. Then he squirmed uncomfortably on his bed. “Cobweb, about Oberon. . .”
“No, Gnome, not now. Tomorrow will do. It’ll give you nightmares to talk about it now.”
“Nightmares! Nonsense! I’m not ashamed of what I did! I had to protect you all. . .”
Cobweb let that pass. “All right, it would give me nightmares. Please, Gnome, not tonight. Apart from anything else, the boys are asleep, and I’m not sure that Carabosse isn’t. There’s no point in you telling me tonight and then having to go over it all again tomorrow. The morning will do.”
“Oh, all right. You’d better go to bed then, if everybody’s already gone.”
“So I will, presently, but you look dreadful, and you’ll sleep better if we make you more comfortable.”
“I’m all right, don’t fuss so. . .”
“Look, we both know that I’m going to have my own way over this, so let’s just do it without the argument, shall we? You’re not all right. You’ve already admitted to being in pain. What hurts?” (Apart from your pride and your heart, neither of which you’ll admit?)
“My back, mostly. That was a very small cell, and a most uncomfortable bed. And I’m filthy, but I’m too tired to get up and go for a bath.”
“I’ll get my bag.”
Outside, she caught Huw’s eye, and jerked her head towards the Gnome’s green bower. Huw stared at her expressionlessly and then turned his head away. She sighed, and picked up her bag, and returned to the Gnome. Although she had told him not to argue, she was rather worried that he didn’t – it wasn’t like him at all.
She couldn’t find what she wanted, and ended up tipping half the contents of the bag onto the floor. The Gnome was fascinated. “How does it all fit?”
“The bag was specially made for me.” She turned it over so that he could see the Tardis logo. “Bossy ordered it for an anniversary present.”
“What the hell’s that for?”
“The collar? I put it on transgressors, and use it to hold them still.”
“That sounds awfully like a lie.”
“Well, if you know better, why did you ask? Here we are, wet wipes. Let’s get the dirt and the blood off you. There, that’s better, isn’t it? Now, sit up and I’ll do something about your hair. It’s full of bits of. . . do you know, I don’t think I want to know what it’s full of bits of. Lean back against me and I’ll comb it.”
She was seriously worried now by the easy compliance; she had never known the Gnome so complaisant. He must be exhausted, and she could feel the misery and apprehension in the set of his shoulders. She opened her thoughts slightly – she would never attempt to read the depraved obscenity that he called his mind, not without his knowledge and consent (and safety equipment and protective clothing), but he was giving off confused emotions that even a human could have read. She had never seen such a comprehensive sulk. Anything anybody said to him was going to be wrong – as far as he was concerned, if they referred to his relationship with Huw they were interfering, and if they didn’t they were patronising. He had revealed himself, and in the absence of the protective carapace, every emotion hurt. She ached for him. Her instinct was to take him into her arms, as she would in his place want to have been taken, to cry or hide or swear, but she really couldn’t tell if he was too far gone for Mothering. She started to ease the comb through his hair, and worried. She had promised the God that the Gnome would be reconciled with Huw, but she had absolutely no clue about how to make it happen. Still, if she had learned anything on this Quest, it was that she could Make Things Happen. She had the technology. In a manner of speaking.
The Gnome shut his eyes. Never would he have admitted to needing, wanting, enjoying the small comforts that Cobweb provided, not even to himself. And if she made one remark, just one, about Huw, he might forget what was due to good manners and to friendship, and slap her a sharp one. But she was silent, and very gentle. There was nothing about which he could complain, so he felt inclined to complain about that. He would have picked a quarrel with her, had he not suspected that she would have understood, and humoured him. And as for Huw! How dare he go away when the Gnome told him to! The Gnome didn’t want to talk to him ever again, so why wasn’t the bastard here? What was he doing out there when he should be here being told that he wasn’t wanted?
Cobweb watched her own hand holding the comb, and felt carefully around with her mind until she located Huw. He was nearly as unhappy as the Gnome. Yes, well, she would have to think of something. She pulled a small tangle of loose hair from the comb, and at the back of her mind, a drum throbbed. Tangle. Web. Net. She smiled. She was good at sympathetic magic, even the Gnome said so. And particularly at anything involving webs. But she didn’t have the accompanying Words. She had the Desire that formed the base of any magic, but not the Dicta. Well, so improvise. The God had said she knew how. Huw had said she knew how. Carabosse had said she knew how. Three of them, which presumably meant that the Lady had said. . .
“That’s a bit better. Now, let’s have a look at your bruises, and those burns. Take your tunic off. Oh, come on, this is no time to go coy on me. I’ve got Arianrhod’s salve here. It’ll stop the burns itching, and we all know it’s good for bruises. Is that better? Now, lie down again and I’ll see what we can do about your back. Where does it hurt?”
“Low down. And I’ve got a stiff neck.”
“Right. I’m just going to put a little charm on the salve, just for warmth, O.K.? You’ll feel the magic. Shut your eyes.”
The Gnome did as he was told. He could indeed feel her making a small magic. She was strong, certainly – well, her work tended to build up muscle in the shoulder and forearm, so when she gave a back rub, the recipient knew about it.
Under cover of the heating charm, Cobweb made her own magic. She believed that the precise words no longer mattered, provided the Desire existed. Her magic was becoming wilder, less confined. She believed that she could find Words of her own. Or more precisely, that Words of enough power could be used even if they were not hers. She needed to calm the Gnome, to stop his thoughts and emotions from circling the trap of his head. And then she needed to capture the focus of those emotions.
The Gnome became aware that she was singing, very softly, in a muted mezzo. It took him a little time (he was sleepy) to identify the song, but presently he recognised Gershwin. It did not surprise him that Cobweb knew the standards; he would have been very surprised (as would Ira Gershwin) had he realised that she could run Power through the Words.
Although he may not be the man some
girls think of as handsome,
to my heart he carries the key.
He felt her take one hand from his back for a moment, and had he been able to look over his shoulder, he would have seen her lift the little tangle of his hair and flick it into the air. In another part of the hall, a delicate and invisible net dropped over the head of Huw, who was attempting to drink himself insensible on what Carabosse had assured him was now rather good Tokay, and there was the faintest imaginable pull towards the green wall.
Won’t you tell him please to put on some speed,
follow my lead;
oh, how I need
someone to watch over me.
Cobweb twisted the gossamer line around her finger, and pulled again, and her catch came closer. She drew him in.
The Gnome felt Cobweb touch his shoulder, and opened a bleary eye. Her hand was too close for him to focus properly, but he had a slow and vague thought that when all this was over, he would buy her some really good hand cream. She didn’t take care of her hands, her nails were short and she never painted them, but surely her skin needn’t look like that. And he had never realised that her wrists were so large, or her hands so tanned. It took nearly a full minute before he understood that the hand working at the muscles of his shoulder and arm belonged to Huw, and by then his body, which had known before, told him it was too late.
“The lady Cobweb”, whispered a voice in his ear, “apparently drew me here in order that I should do something. Now what do you think she wants me to do? Because I warn you, boyo, I have found disobliging that lady to be a most unhealthy thing.”
“Whatever she wants, she can’t have it. Carabosse was right. I’m not going to be able to get up until the morning.”
He felt, rather than heard, the chuckle against his skin.
Elsewhere in the hall, Carabosse sat up as Cobweb came to bed.
“Did you manage it?”
“I got them both there. Short of drawing them a diagram, I don’t see that there’s any more I can do.”
“I can think of something.”
“Well, Huw and your nitwit of a friend are tucked up, and those two teenagers seemed very keen to get off to bed, and I was just wondering about the possibilities of. . .” and he leaned over to whisper.
“Sounds good to me. And tomorrow morning, first thing, we’ll have to let the Gnome talk. He’s worrying about this Oberon thing.”
“No, first thing we’re all going to have a little chat with him. We have permission – we pretty well have instructions – from his God. I put something new in your bag the other day and I forgot to tell you – we can try it out.”
“It’s called a cactus brush. It comes from the Body Shop; it’s just a wooden bath brush. I liked the heft of it. It’s a better size than a hairbrush, although they sell something called a paddle brush that looks good, too. You let him get away with too much, Cobweb, honestly you do, and I’m not going to, no matter what he did today. So that first thing. Then second thing, he can talk about Oberon.”
“Do you know, I love it when you’re masterful.”
“I know you do. And I thought I said that we were going to do various things that didn’t involve talking about the Gnome? Let me show you.”
No relationship is ever perfect, and Cobweb had never been enthusiastic about her lover’s behaviour in the early morning. He had learned, the hard way, that she did not wish to be woken by exploring and hopeful hands (or other things). So when Carabosse woke, he slid from under the cloaks and went to see what was currently available in the bathroom without disturbing her. In another green space, Luc and Ianto were talking softly, but Huw was standing by a basin, peering into a cupboard with some lack of understanding.
“Good morning. I was hoping to find the means to shave, but there’s nothing here I recognise.”
Carabosse reached past him. “Swivel head twin blade. It’s this you want. Look, like this. I was hoping to catch you. Is the Gnome still asleep?”
“Yes, but he was rousing when I got up.”
“Cobweb’s good for another hour or so. Is he fit?”
Huw smirked. “I should think so. He’s certainly better than he was.”
“Well, there is the little matter of how Cobweb feels about the way he’s been behaving. And how I feel about it. And you seemed to think you had some complaints of your own.”
“I’ll deal with that in due course. You two wanted to go first.”
“Cobweb won’t, now. She’s always inclined to threaten him and then not deliver, or deliver via. . . do you know about Brian? Bryony? Good, that would have been a horrible complication. But after yesterday’s little occurrences, she won’t. I, on the other hand, think better of him than I did, but he made Cobweb cry, and I’m not having that. And it was his fault that she ended up on her knees to you, and I’m not having that either. However, if you will give me your word that you will deal faithfully with both things, I will cede my place to you.”
“On my honour, then. When I get an opportunity.”
“No, I won’t wait for that. I’ll make an opportunity for you. I will take those two boys back across the lake for the horses – I expect that we’ll find that there’s some way to cross the water now, probably a troll bridge – and you can sort everything out while we’re gone. Oh, and have these. I took them from Cobweb’s bag.”
“Look, he had a bad day yesterday. You don’t think this will wait?”
“No. I know it won’t. You saw how he was when he woke up. From what Cobweb tells me, he doesn’t do emotion. He knows that we all know now how things are between you and him, and when he sees us all again, somebody’s sure to say the wrong thing – you know, like ‘hello’ or ‘pass the salt’ – and he’s going to throw a hissy fit of mammoth proportions. He’ll pick a quarrel with somebody, and it’s most likely to be with Cobweb. And either she won’t stand up to him, and she’ll be hurt, or she will and everybody will be hurt. I don’t like either of those possibilities. Either way, their friendship won’t survive it. And I don’t think we have time to coax him out of a tantrum, so we have to pre-empt it. That means you, although I don’t mind you saying that it’s my fault, if that makes things easier. I’m a wicked fairy: I supposed to be horrible to everybody. The Gnome is going to spend the day thinking about how he feels, so give him something immediate to occupy his mind. Let him feel. Hard.”
“I see. Pass the brushes.”
Cobweb woke enough to be aware that someone, somewhere, was doing her job for her. She could hear Huw’s bass rumble, and presumably one of the boys. . . Five minutes later she roused further. That wasn’t Luc, and it didn’t sound like Ianto, either. They were both inclined to forget that their voices had broken when Huw caught up with them. She was sufficiently interested to get up, although she decided on the bathroom as a primary destination.
On her return, she lifted a curtain of ivy and found herself presented with a view of the Gnome that she had not expected. She watched critically for a few moments – actually, Huw’s technique was rather good, wasn’t it? Although the Gnome seemed less than enthusiastic. Huw became aware of her presence.
“Good morning, lady. Forgive me if I don’t get up.”
“Good morning, Huw. Good morning, Gnome. Is that my hairbrush?”
“Yes, do you need it?”
“Not right this minute. Do carry on.”
The Gnome said something towards the floor.
“Sorry, I didn’t catch that.”
“I said, go away. Ow!”
“Be polite to the lady, now. Otherwise I will think that when you assured me five minutes ago that your manners were much improved, you were mistaken and I need to repeat that lesson.”
“NO! I’m sorry!”
“Where were we then? We had touched on Not Dropping Your Friends In It. I mentioned that the lord Carabosse was very vexed about you making the lady cry, didn’t I?”
“Ow! Yes, Huw! I underow! I understand that!”
“He was also a little exercised about you putting the lady to the trouble of having to beg me for assistance. He asked me to mention it.”
“Ow! Cobweb didn’t mind!”
Huw glanced up at Cobweb. She shrugged. “I wasn’t best pleased at the time, but I’ve got over it.”
“Well, we’ll just cover it anyway, shall we? Don’t wriggle so. Carabosse did mind, apparently. He minded quite a lot.”
Cobweb watched placidly as the extent to which Carabosse had minded was explained to the part of the Gnome most likely to remember not to do it again.
“PLEASE, Cobs, go away!”
“Was there anything else that annoyed you, lady?”
“He isn’t allowed to call me Cobs. Can you just. . . yes, that’s probably enough. Otherwise, you seem to have touched on all the main points, thank you, Huw. And you know, I don’t think you need to go on calling me ‘lady’. We’ve shared a bath, after all.”
There was a squawk of jealous outrage from the Gnome, which earned him several more of Huw’s best attentions.
“Now, on my own account, there was what you did to my cellar.”
“You dealt with that befooooore! It’s not (ow!) fair!”
Cobweb placed one careful slap of her own. “What do we know about ‘not fair’?”
“But he did! Ow! He can’t get me for drinking his cellar (ow!) again!”
“Not drinking it, boyo. Replacing it.”
Cobweb slipped away. This bit wasn’t her business. She found the remains of the apricots and made a rather scanty breakfast, and then started to tidy up, gathering cloaks from the slightly wizened greenery, and cleaning the bathroom. It seemed only polite to leave the place as they had found it. After half an hour or so, the sounds of Huw educating the Gnome in the social graces died away, and Cobweb sat down against a wall and rummaged in her bag for her paperback. She had carefully left the cloaks in the space the Gnome had been using, together with the salve, and she was equally careful not to listen. That bit wasn’t her business either, although when the Gnome made that much noise about it, it was hard not to wonder. . . Huw must be good.
By the time the outdoor party returned, all was quiet. Luc came to greet her. “Good morning, lady. We had a small explore of the castle, and we’ve found the kitchen, and your. . . the gentleman said ‘his compliments to you and to Sir Huw, and hello to Thingy, and he’s making coffee and tea downstairs. And then we can hear about Oberon if Thingy can be persuaded to make any sense on the subject.’”
Huw emerged from the bower. “Luc, when we go home, remind me to teach you about messages and how to tidy them up.”
Luc looked worried. “But, my lord, that’s what. . .”
“I don’t doubt that it’s what he said, Luc, and accurately passed on, but sometimes statecraft requires that you make it a little more flowery. I’ll teach you. Tell the lord Carabosse that we’ll be down in a minute. And what are these coffee and tea?”
Cobweb laughed. “Come and find out. GNOME! COFFEE!”
The Gnome appeared.
“Did you make it?”
“Good, because frankly you make awful coffee, probably because you don’t drink it. Ow! Huw! What was that for?”
“Rudeness. Now, let’s go, shall we?”
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