he Gnome paused.
“Umm, you go on,” he said. “I really need to wash my hair.”
Huw looked at him. There was a lie in there somewhere, but it could not be denied – the Gnome did need to wash his hair. Despite his personal fastidiousness, Huw was no stranger to, and had no real objection to, a bit of sweat and grime in the right place. But the Gnome’s usually glossy black hair was spiked with something that smelled like day-old fish, and kissing it last night had nearly brought Huw’s rather generous supper back up again.
“Don’t be too long,” he warned. “Ten minutes, or I come looking for you, and you won’t enjoy that at all. The – what did you call it? Forking wooden bath brush? I can see no fork in it – is still at hand.”
The Gnome sidled off to the bathroom without even a snappy retort. Cobweb looked worried.
“He’s still not right,” she said.
“Give it time, lady.”
“Give it time, Lady Cobweb. Even your kind must take some time to heal, I think, and his wounds are still fresh.” He offered her his arm, and they headed for the stairwell.
In the bathroom the Gnome turned the shower on full blast and stood naked under the pummelling water. In the roaring streams of blessedly warm liquid his tears vanished as silently as the sobs that tore him. Not the easy, half-feigned tears he’d offered his lovers so many times (usually hanging head downwards over their knee). These were true sobs, the sobs of someone who has forgotten how to cry. Each one tore its way out of him as if it were coated in ground glass. He felt as if he might never be quite clean again.
Presently, he mastered himself again, turned off the water, and hastily dried himself and dressed. The last thing he needed was Huw coming up to arrange another interview with the Fucking Wooden Bath Brush. In fact – he snapped his fingers, and with a splintering sound the handle of the FWBB broke. If an implement could have looked reproachful, it would have.
“Hah!” muttered the Gnome. The small and petty act of vengeance lifted his mood for a moment.
The smell of freshly brewed coffee led him to the castle kitchen. The others were sitting around a vast, scarred wooden table with the debris of breakfast scattered around them.
“Hallo Gnome,” said Cobweb. “There’s fresh bread and butter, or croissants and Danish pastries if you prefer, and coffee and orange juice, which the boys seem to think is disgusting. They’ve had milk, of which I seem to remember you have a similar opinion.”
“Cow’s piss,” said the Gnome succinctly. “Only fit for eating once it has gone rotten and been made into cheese.”
“Remind me to give you the five minute basic biology lecture on the difference between mammaries and ureters,” she replied. “Anyway, help yourself.”
“Where did all this come from?” asked the Gnome suspiciously.
“I think your boss provided it. It was just here.”
“Then watch those Danish pastries.”
Carabosse looked up in alarm. He had rather a sweet tooth and had eaten two.
“Why? Are they dangerous?”
“Only to your waistline. Why do you think I put on so much weight as Silenos?” The Gnome helped himself to a large mug of coffee and a slice of white bread still slightly warm from its baking, thickly spread with butter. Cobweb bit her lip on the comment that that wouldn’t do his waistline much good either, uncertain just how it might be received right now. She watched as the Gnome sat down, winced, and got up again. Carabosse smiled wolfishly.
“Now,” he said. “I believe you had something to say about Oberon. Or not,” he added.
Huw cleared his throat.
“Was there not something else, first?” he enquired with deceptive mildness.
The Gnome bit his lip. His hair was drying into a puffball, and since Cobweb had whisked away his own tunic to at least rinse, he had borrowed Huw’s surcoat, which was far too big for him. Together they made him look disarmingly young and vulnerable, and Cobweb had to restrain her mothering instincts by reminding herself that he was both older and wickeder than her.
The Gnome made a few abortive efforts to speak, like someone struggling to say something he really didn’t want to say at all. At last he managed:
“Yes. I do, that is I want to tell you about that. But, um. Before. That is, there’s something else I need to say.”
Carabosse raised a sardonic eyebrow and Cobweb frowned. This was not the fluent and subtle, if totally untrustworthy, Gnome they knew.
“I want. . .” began the Gnome, and trailed off uncertainly.
“Yes?” said Cobweb encouragingly.
“I want to apologise to you all. It was my fault you all had to go through this, and Huw nearly got k-killed.” The last few words tumbled out in a rush.
Carabosse blinked, and Cobweb’s jaw dropped a little. Only Huw remained impassive.
“It wasn’t entirely your fault you got snatched,” offered Carabosse at last, generously. “Nor that we chose to come after you, nor that Oberon used Brathog.”
“I. . . thank you,” said the Gnome, drinking the full cup of his humiliation. His eyes gleamed suspiciously bright. “But for whatever part I did play, I’m sorry, and I ask your forgiveness.”
What on earth did Huw use on you to make you do this? wondered Cobweb, and then was ashamed of her lack of charity. No, whatever persuasion, physical or emotional, had been applied was beside the point. That had come from the heart. What was it the God had said? Neither of you is what you once were.
Carabosse silently held out his hand, and after a moment’s hesitation, the Gnome took it and shook it. However, Cobweb noticed that her lover had not actually said that he forgave the Gnome. “For my part,” said Huw, “I will settle any accounts I have with you in the way you know well. I hold no grudges.” A ham sized hand ruffled the Gnome’s hair.
The Gnome turned to Cobweb. “Friends again?” he asked.
“We were never anything else,” she said. Then throwing caution to the winds she gave the Gnome the hug she had so wanted to offer him last night. But there was a moment’s stiffness and awkwardness in his response, and she released him rather more quickly than she had intended.
“Now then,” said Carabosse. “I think it’s time you explained yourself.”
The Gnome sighed. “Yes,” he agreed. “I’m afraid we’ve been rather stupid. You see, when I – I k-killed Oberon. That is, who we thought was Oberon. Well, he wasn’t. He didn’t go back far enough. And at the end, he was so t-terrified he was quite open to me, and I could read him all. He wasn’t Oberon. He was something much worse.”
Cobweb bit her lip, and Carabosse looked really concerned.
“My lady,” rumbled Huw, “what is this?”
“A gebbeth, Huw, is a shell. A person, mortal or elemental, that has been hollowed out, eaten from the inside, so that they are but a puppet of flesh for the thing that controls them.”
“Yes. It’s not a nice thing to do, to make a gebbeth. But Gnome, surely you aren’t saying that someone made a gebbeth of Oberon?”
“No, I don’t think it was his shell. It had been given some of his history, but it was some other fay, I don’t know who. Someone fairly old, for he kept up with me for many millennia. There wasn’t enough personality left to read, I’m afraid.”
Carabosse’s expression had grown more and more grave.
“That’s it then,” he said. “This has got to be reported to Higher Up. Neither of you is equipped to deal with someone who makes gebbeths.”
“But. . .” began Cobweb.
“I haven’t finished,” said the Gnome, raising his voice. “If you’ll allow me,” he added in a more normal tone.
For a moment the air between Carabosse and the Gnome crackled as their gazes met. Then the Wicked Fairy nodded curtly.
“Thank you. You see, I think we’ve all – well, Cobs and I, anyway, we didn’t think it through. We thought Oberon fitted the frame. But really, the thing that struck me when I was in that cell was how bad my captor was at understanding, er, love. Friendship. The things that move people. And frankly, while Oberon had his faults, I never heard that a lack of feeling was one of them. The reverse, if anything.”
Cobweb frowned. “Yes,” she said slowly. “And again, with the whole business with Sir Huon. Practically guaranteed to make me keep at it. That was why I wondered if it was a double bluff, that whoever was doing it wanted me to persevere.”
“Yes. I now think that we were being too clever for our own good there. It wasn’t deliberate, it was a lack of understanding.”
“Explain,” said Carabosse. Instead, the Gnome beckoned Luc, who had been watching wide eyed with Ianto, over to him.
“Luc, look here,” he said. He held up something shiny, a fragment of mirror, to the boy’s face. Luc obligingly looked. . . and froze, motionless as a statue.
Ianto, Huw, and Cobweb all took a threatening step towards the Gnome, but Carabosse held up a hand, and raised an interrogative eyebrow.
“He’s quite all right,” said the Gnome. “Just frozen between one instant and the next. Because – and I’m not saying this is the case, I just wanted to be absolutely certain – I started to wonder whether anyone other than Luc might be using his eyes and ears. And I don’t want to share what I say next outside this room.”
“Gods, you have a nasty suspicious mind,” said Cobweb.
“Thank you.” said the Gnome, a trifle smugly, before continuing.
“Who, because his father was a demon, famously had trouble with human emotions, to the extent that they undid half his work in the end? Who was a famous manipulator of the great, and a magician of legendary skill? Most importantly, who has form in stealing a babe and fostering him away until his time came to be revealed?”
“Oh bugger,” said Cobweb. “You think it’s Merlin.”
“All fits, doesn’t it? For the God’s sake, the boy even got the sword in Estonia.”
Cobweb pulled a face at the bad pun, but Carabosse was nodding. “Yes,” he said soberly. “It does fit. And if I was unhappy about you tangling with Oberon, I’m definitely not letting the pair of you get into a fight with Merlin. This whole enterprise stops here.”
“Excuse me?” said Cobweb sharply. “Did I fall asleep and miss the bit where you get to give me orders?”
“Cobweb, this is really dangerous. I won’t,” he just caught himself in time, his jaw snapping shut on “let you do it” before it escaped.
Cobweb had gone pink and mutinous. She had heard the unspoken words quite clearly, thank you, and she was not about to let the matter drop. The Gnome, with the benefit of long experience, recognised a serious rift in the lute developing, the sort that all concerned can see thundering towards them but seem powerless to avoid.
“I doubt it can be much more risky than nearly getting yourself locked up in Ginnungagap nick for pretending to be my lawyer,” he said brightly.
“You did WHAT?” said Carabosse, seizing the diversion.
“I, er. . .” muttered Cobweb. She threw the Gnome a Look, but it was weakened by guilt, and had less than the desired effect.
“Oh Cobs, you didn’t miss that bit out, did you? She was splendid, threatening policemen left right and centre, and lied quite convincingly until Sir Huon turned up and threatened not to let her out. Ever. That did seem to take the wind out of her sails, I admit.”
“You impersonated a lawyer? Cobweb, what sort of representative of Order are you? You are spending entirely too much time in the wrong sort of company” – this with a glare at the Gnome. Only the Gnome, who was facing the senior Fay, could see the silent ‘thank you’ that Carabosse mouthed simultaneously – “and I think it’s clear that you and I need to have a Talk.”
“Don’t mind us,” said the Gnome brightly.
“Boys, go and tend to the horses,” said Huw quickly. “Gnome, unfreeze Luc. Thank you. Ianto, take him. The bathroom is free, my lord, if you need it. My companion and I need to have a talk of our own.”
“What? What did I do?” asked the Gnome. “Oh, by the way Cobs, I’m afraid your bath brush is broken. Sorry, I think Huw must have used it with too much vigour.”
“I shall mend it, don’t worry,” promised Carabosse grimly. The Gnome winced as Carabosse led Cobweb away to her doom.
“What did I do?” asked the Gnome again.
“It isn’t so much what you have just done, although we shall have a talk in a minute about dropping your friends in it, as what you did before.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Say to me: ‘I killed Oberon’.”
The Gnome’s face closed up, suddenly stony. Huw slapped him, hard.
“Don’t. Don’t you dare close yourself off from me. Say it.”
“I k-killed Oberon. Only it wasn’t, I explained. . .”
“Yes.” Again, Huw noticed the betraying hesitation on the word, the hesitation he had noticed earlier, that had aroused his acute instincts. “How many men – or things – have you killed?”
“Thousands,” said the Gnome airily. “Mind you, they were ants.”
“Don’t be light with me, either, or you’ll answer in the position you were in this morning. How many!”
The Gnome hesitated. “One,” he said at last. “As the Chernobog – the tree thing you saw – I received sacrifices, but I never killed myself. Until now.” He swallowed convulsively.
“Are you proud of yourself?”
“Proud?” For the first time there was genuine astonishment in the Gnome’s voice. He felt many things about what he had done, but it had never occurred to him to feel proud. “No, I – it . . . no. Not proud. Not proud at all.” His voice half broke on that last word. I will not cry, he thought. I will not. Not in front of someone else. Not in front of him.
“Good. It is no light thing to take a life. I have done so fifteen times, and boyo, I remember each one of them. The man who takes life without thinking about it, without worrying about it, is no man but a wild beast, to be feared and shunned. You did what was needed, when it was needed. Now you must learn to forgive yourself.”
“But you see, it’s worse for us,” said the Gnome. “We don’t – well, I suppose the church would say we don’t have souls. In practice, we don’t normally get a life after death. Mortals do. Sometimes several, depending on what god you answer to. For us, there is only life or nothingness. I told you once that only some of us develop into true Persons. For those that do there can be no going back. We either continue indefinitely, or we can Dwindle. . .”
“A sort of fading to death. It often happens to gods, when they lose all their believers. It can happen to major fay if they lose their role and can’t find a new one – Carabosse was worried about Cobweb until she got a promotion, recently. But although we may Dwindle, it’s almost unheard of for one of us to be killed. What happened here will resonate throughout our world. I may – have difficulties – over it, although I think Carabosse will probably stand witness that it was in self defence.”
“I thought you were under the protection of – your god.”
“If I called, He would come, and then I could go with Him. But I would have to go where He willed, not where I wished, and I couldn’t come back again. Once you let gods into your life, Huw, they’re awfully hard to get rid of. Look how they’ve started interfering in this business.”
“He’s very beautiful.” There was a strange note in Huw’s voice.
“Beautiful as a god, yes.”
“Do you love him?”
There was a long pause, then the Gnome sighed. “Yes. But I can’t live with Him. Not now. Not yet. Maybe not ever. And the truth is, I have other loves.”
The Marcher lord raised his eyebrows interrogatively.
“Oh don’t fish,” said the Gnome irritably. “I told you last night. I suppose you want me to say it again.”
Huw just carried on looking at him.
“Oh very well, yes, I love you. Satisfied?” And do you realise, he added mentally, what it means for one of us to love a mortal? How we must watch, helpless, as Time takes your youth, your beauty, your strength, and in the end your life? But those thoughts the Gnome kept to himself.
Huw grinned. “Keep practising. I wasn’t entirely convinced.”
“Very funny. We’d better go and find the boys. They’ve probably managed to lose half your luggage by now.”
“Just a minute.” The big man caught him effortlessly by the arm. “I told you, I want a word with you about how you served the lady Cobweb just now.”
“But I . . . but she . . . but Huw. . . ow, no please, not bare, ow Huwwwwwwww!” The Gnome’s pleas had no discernible effect as he rapidly found himself across Huw’s lap with his hose around his ankles, and the Welshman’s huge hand descending on his still-bruised rear. “But I saved her!” wailed the Gnome from somewhere by Huw’s feet.
“I’m sure she has a different perspective on that right now,” said Huw. “I’m well aware that you prevented a lover’s quarrel, but it is not your place to interfere.”
“But inter–ow–fering’s what I –ah!– do.”
“Then it’s time you started doing something else.” Huw drove this message home with a fusillade of slaps, concentrating first on the upper and then on the lower part of the Gnome’s nether cheeks. The earlier depredations of the FWBB were awakened to new life, giving the implement a sort of posthumous revenge for the damage the Gnome had earlier done it.
It was a rather stiff-legged and red-cheeked (both sets) Gnome that sidled out of the main gate of Castle Adamant, to bump into and equally stiff-legged and red-cheeked Cobweb.
“You evil sod,” she said. “You knew I wouldn’t have told Carabosse about that part of the Ginnungagap business, didn’t you?”
The Gnome smiled ruefully. “Believe me, I’ve just had it explained to me at length why letting that slip was a bad idea.”
“Good. Serves you right.”
There was a moment’s pause, then the Gnome offered:
“That bath brush is a bastard, isn’t it?”
“Tell me about it.” They looked at each other gravely, then the corner of Cobweb’s mouth twitched, and the Gnome twinkled in return. Suddenly, it all seemed too ridiculous for words, and the pair of them fell, laughing, into each others’ arms.
“Thank you for everything,” whispered the Gnome as he hugged her, this time with no restraint. “And I didn’t say that, of course.”
“Of course. You keep my secrets, and I’ll keep yours,” she returned.
“It’s a deal.”
“Cobweb, Gnome, come on!” said Carabosse impatiently. He was already mounted on Glaurung. “The sooner we’re back home, the better.”
“Well, that should be no problem, now we can Fold,” said Cobweb. Not surprisingly, she declined to mount, and instead took the great white stallion’s bridle to lead him. He nuzzled her, affectionately. “Home, Barnabas.” She opened the Way, and the party rode away into the shimmering portal with a faint sound of bells.
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