he sun filtered down through the birch trees, dappling the ground with the sort of effect that looks so tacky in Seventies discos, but which the sun, who has, after all, had more practice, can make look quite classy when he tries.
A rangy 16-year-old boy was riding, somewhat awkwardly, through the birch glades.
“Poor seat,” commented the Woodgnome.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Cobweb absently. “I thought it was . . . Oh, I see. Well, we know whose fault that is.”
The Woodgnome smiled, a little smugly. “Where is he now?” he asked.
“Not sure. This is the old model, it doesn’t have GPS. Hang on . . .”
A small parchment scroll effect floated across the bottom of the mirror, reading But half a league from Castell Tin Goch.
“Forgot I had the soothware upgraded,” admitted the Fay. “Not too long until the fun starts then. He must be eager, he’s made very good time.”
“He’ll be even more eager going in the opposite direction, once he finds out what’s in store for him.”
“You sound like a man who knows,” guessed Cobweb shrewdly.
The Woodgnome blushed. “I, er – well, I’d rather not talk about it.”
“Oh, come on, nothing will happen here for at least half an hour, and there are some mixed salted nuts around somewhere if you cough up.”
“No, I couldn’t, I only want to forget.”
“You can have all the cashews.”
“Well,” the Woodgnome admitted, eyes resolutely fixed on something of apparently absorbing interest at the bottom of his wineglass, “you know how touchy the Queen was after the whole Midsummergate scandal, everyone looking for scapegoats, the dryads from Special Branch going round questioning all the usual suspects at enormous length . . .”
Cobweb nodded. She knew.
“Well, I happened to make a couple of injudicious remarks about boyfriends who were hung like a donkey, and it got back to HM’s ears.”
The Fay winced.
“Exactly. So the Fairy Rade stopped by one night just so that the bitch could announce, in tones of the most honeyed venom, that she thought I was spending too much time alone and a new boyfriend of my own would do me good. Next thing I know I’m knocking on the door of Castell Tin Goch, asking for the patron and a boy to carry my cases up to my room.”
Cobweb sniggered. “Titania always was good at geasa. How long till it wore off?”
“Three months, and it seemed like three years. Actually it was three years in the end, but you can get used to anything. Oh, look!”
In the mirror the stripling’s horse paused at a shallow stream. On the far side the path wound up a steep bank, overhung by castle walls that frowned in a manner likely to produce wrinkles in anything less obdurate than granite.
As he urged his horse towards the water something that had previously appeared to be a mossy hump straightened itself halfway up and revealed itself to be a particularly unprepossessing old hag.
Cobweb swore, filthily.
“Sorry, but I hate it when Archetypes start manifesting in my stories without so much as a by-your-leave,” she said. “It’s that cow Peaseblossom, I bet. Just because I told Carabosse about the irregularities in her nectar expenses.”
“Help an old woman across the stream, young man?” creaked the apparition.
Nothing loath, the youth jumped down from the saddle. “You shall ride my horse, old crone,” he announced.
“Who are you calling a crone?” snapped the creature, waving her walking stick at him threateningly. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to make remarks about a lady’s age?”
“I – er – gracious lady, will you ride dry shod across the torrent on my mount?” said Luc, manfully trying again. It didn’t go like this in Malory or Chretien de Troyes.
“What, you expect me to do the splits on that great monster? Not a chance, boyo. You carry me across.”
Luc looked distinctly embarrassed at the prospect, but bent down so that the old woman could lace her arms around his neck. Having been well scrubbed by the naiad Minerale, he couldn’t help noticing that the old woman was distinctly ripe in the spring sunshine. Staggering, he straightened up, grabbing her legs, then nearly fell over again at the unexpected weight of his burden. Her rusty black dress rode up as he did so, exposing lace garters that might once have been white.
“Ooh, young man, and we’ve not even been introduced,” cackled the old biddy into his face.
“Oh puh-lease,” murmured the watching Woodgnome, looking almost as green as Luc turned under the blast of the old woman’s breath.
“I – I – I . . .” stammered the boy.
“Well get on with it,” she said. “Over we go. Can’t think of the last time a young lad gave me a ride.” She cackled again.
Luc splashed out into the water. He was making heavy weather of it by halfway, although possibly the amount of blood occupied keeping his face that interesting shade of vermilion under the hag’s continual barrage of ribald remarks left less to supply his muscles. At last, gasping, he deposited his burden on the bank and bowed, hands on his knees, trying to get his breath back.
“Hmm, maybe you’re right, not such a bad seat,” said the Woodgnome with the air of a connoisseur.
“I’m always right,” returned Cobweb absently. “Oh hang on, here it comes.” She picked up a brazil nut, muttering, and began to nibble at it in tiny, angry bites.
“Well done, thou true and noble knight to be,” said a voice. It was the sort of voice that suggests valuable metals of your choice, possibly with a small backing orchestra composed largely of strings and woodwinds.
Luc straightened, gaping. On the edge of the river stood a beauteous maiden clad in white samite. Well, all right, cotton. Have you ever tried to clean white samite in the boil wash? Then don’t criticise: white cotton is a lot more practical. Her long golden hair gleamed as only hair in shampoo adverts and cheap potboilers not a bit like the present literary effort can gleam.
Luc’s mouth hung open for so long that a passing squirrel briefly considered it as a pied à terre before deciding that he really wanted somewhere with gym membership and a better view.
“Lady,” he ventured at last.
“Luc,” she returned.
“Yes, I think we’ve established that,” she agreed with some asperity. “I’m the Lady, you’re Luc. You have carried me across the stream. Now I give you good advice. That’s how it works.”
Luc beamed. This was more like it. Only a few days into erranting and already he’d freed a beauteous maiden from a curse.
“Speak lady. Charge me with your quest.”
The watching Cobweb scowled, and nibbled her brazil nut harder. Curiously, the Woodgnome noted, the river bank under the beauteous maiden seemed to be crumbling with each bite.
“Go not to the ca- eek!” The undermined riverbank gave way, depositing the whiteclad visitor into several feet of muddy riverwater.
“Go not to the ceek? Be this some sort of riddle, lady?” said the bemused Luc. His only answer was a hand, clad in white – cotton – waving a walking stick from the depths.
“Nice bit of sympathetic magic,” said the Woodgnome.
“Thank you. Being a boy he wouldn’t have taken advice anyway, but I won’t have Symbols interfering without even the courtesy of asking.”
Luc was still frowning over the mysterious message. At length he slapped his thigh in what he evidently felt was an impressive manner, since he did it again, hard enough to make himself wince.
“I shall go to the castle, and enquire of the noble lord there about this ceek. No doubt it is a monster that ravageth the land, the which I shall slay and thus come to be knighted.”
His patient horse, which had made its own way across the shallow ford only a little down from where Luc had crossed, snuffled at him affectionately. He leaped into the saddle, only remembering too late that the Fay’s parting gift made this an unwise gesture.
Far off, two vast cool unsympathetic intellects laughed themselves silly, and poured some more Rioja as Luc wound his way up to the grim, black, iron-bound gates of Castell Tin Goch
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