Part the. . . 20, you say? Well, I dunno, but if you wanted to make a cup of coffee, go to the bathroom and phone your mother, you should have done it in the last break.
ll was not well in Story. Far from it. The Questing party had returned to the Website, and the remainder of the day had been spent mostly in conversation, with little practical result. The boys had been handed over to Minerale (who had quite a lot to say to Cobweb later on the subject of being used as a baby-sitting service) and had spent the day in typical teenage play in and around the water. And mud. The others had dredged from their memories everything they knew, thought they knew or imagined about Merlin. Curiously the source of the greatest part of the information was Barnabas, who had reverted to donkey, but who said that Glaurung had spent the previous night telling stories about the great enchanter to entertain the equines. Glaurung, who had reverted to his previous position in Cobweb’s ear, said nothing.
“The dragon,” rumbled Huw, “presumably has sources of his own?”
“I think all the dragons are loosely related, so the Dinas Bran story probably involves his cousins. I have a vague idea that his mother was a firedrake, and certainly I know that he has both red and white dragons in his circle of friends” agreed Carabosse.
He was being. . . careful. . . in his dealings with Cobweb, and she with him. They were polite, and the Gnome didn’t quite find it convincing. He rather hoped it was just the aftermath of the nearly quarrel, and something that would pass when everybody else had gone away and the pair of them had a chance to. . . well, to do whatever they did after a row and a spanking. He didn’t particularly mind having had one of his own from Huw, but having set himself up for it, he would hate to feel that it had been wasted.
“I think,” said Carabosse, tiredly, “that perhaps we do nothing for a short while. I will report all this Further Up, and we’ll see. If we all go about our lawful occasions” was that a glance at the gnome? “and Huw keeps an eye on the boy, we can decide later what, if anything, needs to be done.”
Neither Cobweb nor the Gnome liked that idea much, but Huw was nodding, and neither of them felt much like another discussion of the type that had started the day. Not yet, at any rate.
“Will one of you oblige me by taking my party home? Back to Cosb? I have a Progress to complete, and responsibilities. You can find me easily enough should events require it. And should I need you, how can I reach you?”
“I’m coming with you,” said the Gnome. “I can get to Cobs. . .” “Cobweb” corrected Huw, making the Gnome yelp by landing a smart slap on a still tender thigh, “. . .Cobweb if we need to. When we need to.”
In fact, Cobweb came to him. It had been nearly a month, and she appeared in the courtyard of the tiny fortified tower at Palfod, and sent the bewildered squire who had seen her arrive to present her compliments to the lord Huw, and to ask if he would receive her.
The Gnome and the soldier came out to her.
“Lady, why so formal? You are welcome in my hall, always. You do not need to wait at my door.”
“I no longer have the standing that permits me to go where I please, my lord Huw. I come and go by the grace of the lord of the place.”
“Then come. Come within, lady, and tell us all.”
The Gnome didn’t like it. Cobweb looked. . . well, looked wrong. She had circles under her eyes, and her mouth was tight, and her stance was rigid. He had seen her angry, he had seen her drunk, he had seen her frightened. He had never seen her broken, but he suddenly thought that it might be what he was seeing now. She hadn’t coloured her hair in the month, he thought, and the extent of the need for it was apparent. She looked old. Well, she was old – not as old as him, but old enough. And she had no earrings on. The Gnome found himself as shocked as if she had appeared topless. Cobweb never had no earrings on.
“No. Thank you.”
He stepped behind her, and made panicky gestures for Huw to see. Cobweb, refusing a drink? Presumably this was the arrival of The End Of All Things. Ragnarok was upon them. Then he realised that he could see through her hands.
“Cobweb, why aren’t you here?”
“Because I’ve got something to tell you, and I can’t do it if you can touch me.”
“Excuse me,” said Huw, politely. “There were no words in that which I didn’t understand, but it didn’t make sense.”
“She’s not physically here, Huw. It’s a Sending. She’s Sent her appearance so that she can talk to us. Look, I can put my hand right through her.”
Huw shuddered. “Please don’t. It makes my stomach go odd. Lady, do you sit?”
The Sending sat down, not quite accurately.
“I’ve come to say goodbye. I’m leaving.”
“Leaving what?” asked the startled Gnome.
“Everything. I can’t live with Carabosse any more, and I can’t live at the Website any more, and I’ve lost my job. I’m sorry, but I can’t help with looking out for Luc now, so you’ll have to manage it between you. I’ve just. . . I don’t. . . I’m sorry. So goodbye.”
“No!” snapped Huw. “Not enough. We are entitled to more than that. Start with the lord Carabosse. Why can you not live with him?”
“He tried again to forbid me to interfere – he called it interfering with things above my head. And we quarrelled. We’ve been quarrelling since you all left us. And in the end I gave in, and I promised that I wouldn’t, because I couldn’t bear to be at odds with him. And now I find that I can’t bear that either. If I look after Luc I’m foresworn with Carabosse, and if I obey Carabosse I’m foresworn with Luc. And I explained that to Bos. . . to my lord Carabosse, and I asked him to free me from my promise and he won’t. So I can’t stay with him. He hasn’t been home properly for a fortnight; he just comes in for clean wings and shouts at me when he can’t find them. I don’t know where he’s sleeping, or eating, or anything.”
The Gnome made some noise like “Pish”. “Lovers’ quarrel, my dear. It will pass. Stay home until he arrives and then give him hells. You know what they say: ‘never go to bed mad. Stay up and spank’.”
Huw tapped him on the bottom, very lightly, but with the Look that suggested that shutting up would be the desirable option.
“Must you leave your home, lady?”
“It’s his, not mine. He’s lived there since he was a minor Spite. I moved out the day before yesterday. He hasn’t noticed yet. I’m not there now.”
The Gnome made the noise again. “You’ve lived with him long enough to claim it as Hellimoney, haven’t you?”
The tap was slightly harder this time.
“But the job? I have been hearing all the bits of the Story that did not involve me, and I understood that your Goddess had confirmed you in office.”
“Vote of no confidence from the staff, followed by official notification from the Board. I was visited personally by the Chief Executives, and formally asked for my resignation. I wouldn’t give it, so They fired me. They said They were sympathetic but that the Nemesis organisation was bigger than any Spank Fairy. And then They broke my switch, and cancelled my rights to Find and Punish. It’s taken me three days to find you; I’ve been round all your castles and baileys.”
Huw did not, perhaps, understand the extent of this humiliation, but the Gnome did.
“Cobs” – no, this was not the time for that – “Cobweb, what are you going to do?”
“Supply work? Are you quite mad? With your qualifications?”
“I don’t see what else is available to me. No reference, no fixed address.”
“What is this?” asked Huw plaintively.
“She’s going to do the equivalent of supply teaching in an inner city comprehensive.”
“No, sorry, that didn’t help.”
“Think of it as she’s going to be a mercenary, Huw, and not a serious career soldier, but a wolfshead. Except that she’s going to be a cheap cover priestess for small shrines and unattended temples.”
“Lady, must you?”
The icy control slipped, and the Sending turned away, but not before both Huw and the Gnome had seen the brown eyes overflow. When she spoke again it was in the flat, tight voice of one who would not cry in public, and the sentences were broken in odd places as she fought for control.
“I must. Whatever I do has become something which I know to be wrong. I promised not to touch Luc, and I can’t touch Carabosse and I don’t have anything else. I hadn’t enough power to Find you without using Nemesis facilities. When they took my Nemesis skills, I found I haven’t enough power left even to go back to domestics. I’m going. I don’t have a place any more to do what I can or what I wish, so I’ll do what I must.”
“Cobs. . . Cobweb, no! You’ll end up in the twenty-first century running a New Age shop with bad poetry and aromatherapy candles and pictures of Tinkerbell and cheap pot pourri.”
“You mean I’ll Dwindle. Yes. I know. Let me go. You know that won’t work.” For the Gnome was trying to cast a spell of compulsion over the Sending.
Huw came forward, freeing his sword as he did. “Lady, can you touch me?”
“No. Nor can you touch me.”
“Well, it can be done before a witness. I don’t think the actual contact is needful. Lady, give me your hands. Hold them out. Prince Llewelyn is my liege lord and I am sworn to him. But there is nothing to stop me pledging elsewhere, when that does not affect the safety of Wales. So I swear my faith, on this my sword, to you. My lady Cobweb, you are my liege lady, and I will follow you, fight for you, defend your honour as my own. When you call me, I will come.”
Cobweb had ceased to pretend that she was not weeping. “Why would you do such a thing?”
“Because you gave me my heart’s desire, lady. And because you seem to me to be worth following.”
Behind him the door slammed. Cobweb lowered her head. “No, my lord Huw. I will not have such a thing. I cannot believe in it.” Her Sending broke up like a reflection when something falls into the water. Huw stood a moment in thought, and then set off for his courtyard. The first squire he found was sent with a list of errands – my lord’s horse, my lord’s companion’s horse, my lord’s squire Luc and guard Ianto, blankets and supplies, and all by an hour ago at the latest. The panicked squire turned and ran into the side of a small and insignificant looking donkey.
“Barnabas! We’re off again. Are you coming?”
“Don’t know yet. To find the lady Cobweb.”
“Ah! Yes! About that. . .”
But Huw was gone, back into the gateway and up the stairs. Barnabas sighed and looked for somewhere private to Change. Horse again.
In the comfortable room at the top of the tower, a furiously angry Gnome was heaving clothing into a bag and talking to himself. Huw’s eruption into the room seemed to make the walls close in a little further than was quite comfortable.
“Have you packed for me too? We can be gone in an hour if we give our minds to it. Have you any idea where she is if she isn’t at her cottage? And what on earth has got into the lord Carabosse?”
“Presumably he worked it out faster than I did,” snarled the Gnome savagely.
“What? Do you think he knows where she is?”
“Perhaps he doesn’t care? Any more than I do?”
“How could you? How could she? She knew what I. . . what you. . . She knew. And you knew she was my friend. How could you? Either of you? Of course I knew you did, otherwise the story about Luc wouldn’t stand up, but I thought that since I. . . since we. . .”
Huw stared at him. “You seriously think that the lady Cobweb and I. . .”
“Your liege lady? You’ll defend her honour as your own? Neither of you has any! And she gave you your heart’s desire? She did?”
“You know she did!”
The Gnome hit him. It wasn’t very convincing, but the sheer surprise of it kept Huw two paces behind on the stairs until the pair of them burst into the courtyard and ran straight into Barnabas’s glossy silver flank.
“What is it here with not looking where you’re going? Are we ready?”
“Barnabas, take me home!”
“Barnabas, talk to him!”
“What are you two talking about?”
They both talked at once, angrily, turning on each other to shout abuse. Squires and guards came to watch, and then made decisions on the relative values of discretion and valour, and retired to the safety of the barbican. Barnabas listened with one ear pinned forward and the other back, and then stepped delicately forward, placing himself carefully behind Huw as the marcher leaned over the Gnome yelling into his face. The powerful hindquarters lifted, and two solid hooves slammed into Huw’s backside. The Gnome, with a great deal more experience in avoiding blows, was running before Huw hit the ground, but Barnabas had greater acceleration over short distances, and could catch up, spin and kick before the Gnome made it to the gate.
There was a somewhat stunned silence, and Huw said, rather shakily, “What was that for?”
“Rank stupidity. Unbelievable stupidity. Even by the Gnome’s standards. I cannot believe that all you humans and humanoids can be so stupid.”
Huw’s normal good humour reasserted itself. He sat down, carefully, and not without a wince, on a mounting block. “Very well. I am stupid. Tell me why.”
The Gnome was just beginning to Fold when Barnabas’s teeth met in the shoulder of his tunic. He found himself flung back into the centre of the courtyard. “Sit down there and shut up.”
He sat, cautiously.
“Have you seen Luc and Ianto today?”
Huw thought about it. “Not since breakfast, I don’t think.”
“Ianto has a black eye, and Luc has a cut hand. I saw them twenty minutes ago. Apparently Ianto was telling people in Welsh about how Luc is in bed. Or so Luc understood.”
“Lovers’ quarrels,” said the Gnome airily. It seemed to him that he had said that before, today.
“Oh yes? And what was that row that made you two look like something from pantomime?”
“What’s pantomime?” asked Huw, always willing to improve his mind.
“Never mind,” snarled the Gnome, suddenly reminded about his injury. “Huw’s been playing Sheathe the Dagger with Cobweb.”
“I bloody haven’t,” defended Huw. “Although if you’re going to be like that, I wish I had.”
The Gnome took a deep breath to accuse again, and Barnabas stamped. The sound of horseshoe on cobbles made both Huw and the Gnome flinch.
“Why do you think he has? Shut up, Huw, let’s hear how his warped little mind works.”
The Gnome looked down. This hurt. “He’s sworn himself to her.”
“As her liege man, that’s all! Not as her bedmate! I’m sworn to Prince Llewelyn too and I’m not bedding him either! And anyway, she refused me. If you had hung about a little longer, you’d have seen – she refused my service. She didn’t believe me. She said so.”
“You said she gave you your heart’s desire!”
“She did. At Castle Adamant. I don’t fully understand even now what she did that day, and I didn’t understand that either, but I can be grateful for it.”
The Gnome gave a little whine of sheer pain. Huw suddenly understood.
“Oh, no! Never that! But you wouldn’t talk to me and you wouldn’t look at me, and I thought, well, then, I shall not go to him, I shall wait until he sends for me. And you wouldn’t have done, would you? You’re too proud. But she sent for me. I don’t know how she did it.”
“She made a Singing Magic,” said the Gnome, unsteadily. “It’s a very old form, and I’ve never seen it done quite like that. It tends to be women’s magic, wild magic. Hedge witch stuff. I wouldn’t have expected her to be able to do it. I still don’t know how she did. The net was quite a simple trick, and she ought not to have been able to combine the two, they’re quite different sorts of magic, but when she did, you hadn’t a chance.”
“And you had only one, and she was it. I would have gone if you had sent me away. And I think I would not have come back.”
The Gnome leaned forward, very gently, and rested his forehead against Huw’s chest. “It’s not her?”
“Never. She scares me. Even when I do look at women, I look at them smaller and softer than her. Gentler. And I have never” punctuating his sentence with a shake of the scruff of the Gnome’s neck, “never, never, taken my lovers other than one at a time.”
“Can we” interjected Barnabas, “temporarily abandon this touching but rather Mills and Boon reconciliation, and get to the important stuff?”
The Gnome, rather unwillingly, sat up. “Which is?”
“Why you should have thought it to be true. And why, even if the grossly idiotic idea crossed your mind, given what the Spank Fairy said about Martin Johnson and Iestyn Harris (or was it Daniel Vettori?), you didn’t simply ask for an explanation rather than throwing all your hay out of the manger. Why did you think Huw would do that? Why did you think Cobweb would do it?”
The Gnome dipped his head, and rubbed his cheek against Huw’s tunic. Barnabas leaned over and huffed into his face.
“I’m going to bite somebody in a minute. I’m serious, Gnome. Think. With your brains, rather than your balls, as Cobweb would say.”
“Does she say that?” asked Huw, interested.
“Often,” assured the Gnome. “She has no very great opinion of men. I’m not absolutely sure why she’s hetero at all, except that she always has to do everything the hard way. I mean the difficult way. Yes, Barnabas, I’m thinking. I – don’t know. I know Huw doesn’t keep a harem. Cobweb and I had a conversation about it once. And although the basis of her relationship with Carabosse isn’t precisely exclusive (I mean, she’s mistress of Time and Space apart from anything else), she doesn’t let anybody else top her. And she certainly doesn’t poach, and never has.”
“So your brains know that it’s a silly suggestion?”
“Oh yes,” agreed the Gnome, smiling mistily at Huw. Barnabas bit him.
“Pay attention! It’s not just silly, it’s offensive. If Cobweb finds out that you thought about it seriously, she’ll do the thing with the Barbara Cartland.”
“What is this?” asked Huw, plaintively.
“Serious torture,” the Gnome assured him. “No moral fighting man would do such a thing.”
“Why,” interposed the horse again, “did you believe it?”
“But you did.”
“Next question. Why did she refuse Huw’s service? What could she lose by having the lord of Ceryddol as her liege man?”
They both thought about that. “She said,” said Huw, remembering, “that she couldn’t believe in it. Couldn’t believe in my pledged word?”
“Stop there,” said Barnabas, hastily, seeing another offence being taken. “Now, where is Carabosse?”
“Cobweb didn’t know.”
“She didn’t know. And those two have been together since when?”
“Since Princess Narcolepsy’s time.”
“And he’s left home, and she’s left him. Over what? A quarrel that could have been sorted with a little flexibility. She would have promised not to do anything without involving him too. Why is Carabosse, who isn’t exactly young and isn’t exactly stupid, giving orders like a Top in his first scene?”
“All right” snapped the Gnome. “So you’re so bright and we’re so dim, but get to the point. If there is one.”
Barnabas sighed. “The point is that a month ago you were talking about someone who didn’t understand how relationships worked. But at a guess, what he understands is how they don’t work. And he’s making them not work. Cobweb’s job has gone hoof to belly because her staff don’t trust her. Her home life has gone because Carabosse won’t trust her judgement and she can’t trust his. Now it looks as if she can’t trust her own, if she won’t accept Huw’s service. He’s offended with her because she doubted his good faith, you were offended with him because you doubted his fidelity and with her because you’re stupid. Oh all right, because you misunderstood. Luc’s huffy with Ianto because he’s feeling insecure. The humans and nearly humans aren’t feeling it as much as the elementals. Luc’s half-and-half, so he’s fairly miffed. Huw’s human but he has the Sight, so he’s a bit irked. You’re elemental, and so is Cobweb and Carabosse, and you aren’t making any sense at all, and I’m outside the scope of this investigation so my brains work. Do you see?”
“Anyway, where were you going at such speed? Why did you ask me if I were going to look for her, Huw?”
Huw suddenly remembered. “I didn’t like the look of her.”
The Gnome smiled mistily again, but only to himself.
“I just thought. . .” said Huw, working it out as he spoke – he had been running on the fighting man’s instincts, and it was difficult to explain it to people who weren’t soldiers – “that part of the point of having a lot of people on a Quest was to allow everybody to have a little wobble. So there’s always somebody else to say ‘oh, we’ll think of something’ when it goes wrong for one of us. And it’s gone wrong for her. Why didn’t she come to us?”
“Pride,” said the Gnome succinctly, in the definite tone of one who knew all about misplaced pride, having enough of his own to go round without having to borrow from Cobweb.
“Well, she’s in danger. I could see that before she spoke. She’d got that look that. . . well, all soldiers know it, and it isn’t good.”
Barnabas flattened his ears. “We’ll need more than that. More nouns, more adjectives, please. What look?”
Huw struggled to find words for it. “I’ve seen it in men who had been on campaign. Too many battles, too much death. If you see the look, you try not to have them in your front line. Some of them break, and the ones that don’t tend to be. . . well, not to be good for a great deal when they go home. And I saw it once when we broke a siege and we found one of our men in a dungeon. He had been there for a long time, and the castellan had a torturer. His body would have mended – he wasn’t that badly hurt – but he had given up. There’s a look about them, like I said. And they. . . well.”
The Gnome was paying attention now.
“They what, Huw?”
Huw didn’t answer.
“Huw, what do they do?”
“Usually, they die. Not of anything, except of not living any more. I don’t know how it works for an elemental, and I don’t particularly think that I want to find out. The lady may not have accepted my service but I’m pledged to it, and my honour” (and the Gnome received a glare telling him that the remark about Huw’s lack of honour had been noted and would presently have to be paid for) “requires me to provide it. That is why I am going to look for her. You” and another glare “may come or stay as you please.”
The Gnome opened his mouth, but whatever he had intended to say was drowned by the thunderclap, and Carabosse was there. He was twice his normal size and his unfurling wings filled the courtyard, throwing a fountain of startled ravens into the air. Even Barnabas plunged and backed, and Huw’s stallion, tethered to a wall, screamed. The Gnome found himself pinned against the wall, with his feet off the ground, and what appeared to be a demon with a death wish – that is, a wish for the Gnome’s death – peering into his face from slightly too close to focus.
“WHERE. IS. SHE?”
Huw had his sword in his hand and ran forward, but a huge black wing knocked him off his feet. He twisted under the leathery covering in time to be knocked flat again as Barnabas, recovering his composure, repeated his party trick and sent Carabosse (and the Gnome, but we don’t care about that. Oh, do we?) staggering across the cobbles. All three of them landed in a heap, with Barnabas’s hooves braced on Carabosse’s chest.
The horse spoke first. Fast. “She isn’t here. She hasn’t been here. And you should calm down and listen to what we’ve worked out and to what we’re going to do. Because I haven’t told you the worst bit yet.”
“Taxi drivers hear things, you know? We talk to each other. We know who’s a bad payer,” a glance at the Gnome “and who tips well, and what trips aren’t worth doing. It isn’t all ‘not going south of the Lethe at this time of night’. And there are trips we don’t do. But somebody has been asking for a cab to take a lady and her luggage rather further than most of us will go. I don’t think she’s going willingly – she would Fold, she doesn’t need a cab, and she knows that I would take her anywhere she didn’t want to Fold to – but I don’t know if they’ve coerced her or if they’re just intending to bop her on the bonce and send the body. I’ve been asking around, and there are people who know me who are trying to find out who’s been calling and where the pickup point is. But it’s the destination I don’t like. It sounds like exactly the sort of place that a priestess could end up if top people wanted her lost.”
“Where?” asked Carabosse, ominously.
The party was lined up at Huw’s gate. Luc and Ianto had required separating in the end, as their squabbles had not abated even after Huw had spanked them both very publicly and smartly. They were now sulking towards him, and they had never liked Carabosse much, even when he was smaller and less sulphuric, and the Gnome was presumably responsible for any bad things not the purview of the Wicked Fairy, so they weren’t speaking to him either. Carabosse still had a small cloud of smoke following him, and was annoyed with Huw for drawing his sword against him, and Huw was miffed at having been winged in his own courtyard, and the Gnome had a tendency to cough theatrically and rub his throat where the marks of the Wicked Fairy’s talons were beginning to show as bruises. Barnabas had trodden on Huw’s foot when Huw showed signs of taking the Gnome back inside to talk about this and other things, including honour, and lack of trust. In fact, nobody was speaking to anybody else, and Barnabas was wondering about biting them all one at a time.
“Which way shall we go?” asked Huw.
“Well, you were the one who intended to tallyhoot off to the rescue,” pointed out the Gnome, crossly. “Pick a direction. I haven’t got a clue.”
There was a mutter of “nothing new there then”, but the Gnome wasn’t quick enough turning to see who had said it. They all looked equally sulky.
Huw looked round. “If we’re Questing again, there will be a sign. That’s in the rules, isn’t it? So I say, that way.”
The horses moved off, past the old stonework of the tower, and past the corner of the wall in which Huw had spotted a complete and undamaged cobweb.
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