ne crisis at a time” gasped Cobweb, forcing the earring into place. “Hold on, Barnabas, I’m coming! Kick the bastard in the nuts!”
“I don’t know where they are!” screamed the horse.
“Then Shift! Shift!”
There was a dreadful sound of tortured metal and Barnabas screamed again, as his bumper was wrenched away from his bodywork.
The tentacled horror cringed as Barnabas produced headlights, and then with a sudden grasp of what Cobweb meant, fog lights and rally lights. It began to slither away from him and down the steps; Cobweb followed it with an enraged blast of power, aided by the still shocked Gnome. She slammed the temple door behind it, with a sound as of. . . well, as of a slamming temple door in a place like R’lyeh. There’s no point in getting into ridiculous flights of description here.
“Cobweb,” quavered the Gnome, “Can you hear that? That sound of something opening its lid?”
“Yes, thanks. I’ll deal with it in a minute.”
“What? Do you know how?”
“No. I’ll think of something. Just let me get my breath back and find out how these earrings work.”
“What do they do?”
“They channel power from the Mother, I think. It isn’t my power, but I can use it. It’s like driving somebody else’s car. You know that all the usual controls must be there somewhere, but everything’s on the wrong side and it tends to spray screenwash everywhere when you try to find the indicators. And it’s a huge engine, bigger than anything I’ve ever driven before. Just calm down. The baby will get agitated if you’re upset. That door will hold everybody for a little while. Barnabas, how badly are you hurt? And you’re such a hero. I want to graze with you and have your foals.”
“My bumper’s all bent, and the chrome’s scratched, and I think the rivets are all out at that end. It hurts like Hades.”
“What will happen if you Shift like that, pet?”
“I’ll bleed on everything.”
“Barnabas, do you have a god?”
“Oh yes, I answer to Vulcan, mostly. Why?”
“Because if I Heal this, I want to know who’s likely to take offence. Or do you want to do it yourself?”
“I don’t think I can. And Vulcan isn’t a healing god, he’s the God of screaming metal in accidents. We don’t tend to call on him much except in crashes. Anyway, I’m allowed to choose. I can have Epona when I’m horse.”
“Oh, well, that’s all right then. We know how that works. Come over this way a little. Can you shine your headlights on the wall? It’s a nice wet one so we’ll get plenty of reflection and diffraction and the other thing and I’ll be able to see what I’m doing. Gnome, can you come and help?”
“I. . . um. . . is there blood?”
“What? No! Just loose rivets and. . .”
“I’m going to be sick.”
“Sorry, I don’t think I can help. I just feel so sick. Sorry, Barnabas.”
“Oh, for Goddess’ sake! Here, sit down on the altar step. Put your head between your knees. And if Huw had stuck to that in the first place. . .”
“Cobweb! We didn’t do that!”
“Oh, well, then you’ve got a treat in store. O.K., Barnabas, this will hurt a bit. I’ll have to bend it. Ready?”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, it’s done. It’s a bit dented, but it’s in place. Now, what can I do about the rivets? I don’t do metalwork, I don’t know how. I can do this, though, can’t I? If what I have is domestic, then domestic will cover everything. Various gods and the like said so. Oh! I know. This isn’t what I do, it’s what you do. Listen, what I need you to do is Shift to horse, and yell ‘Mummy! It hurts!’ Wait a minute. Oh, Goddess, I need my bag and I haven’t got it. I haven’t seen it in weeks.”
“It’s in the boot.”
“It’s in the boot. I felt it arrive just now. And I would like you both to understand that I am not accustomed to being touched up by goddesses and I don’t think I like it.”
Cobweb walked round to Barnabas’s rear, and hesitated.
“May I open the boot?”
He revved. “The Gnome never asks, he just does it. Yes, you may.”
She came back, clutching her Tardis bag like a talisman. Possibly it was a talisman. “Plasters. Antiseptic wipes. Oh, look, somebody’s replaced my wet wipes, how kind. Right, ready?”
The cab Shifted to horse, there was a yell of pain, and the Gnome looked up to see blood trickling down the white leg. She leaned over again, and retched.
“All right, sweetheart, mummy will make it better. You just need to be a brave colt for a minute while I get it clean and put a plaster on it. There, that’s all right now.”
“Hold it up and I’ll kiss it better. Now, how’s that?”
“Bloody amazing. Abso-bloody-lutely amazing. It doesn’t hurt at all.”
“Well, you’ll have to keep the plaster on it until it goes all manky and grubby and falls off of its own accord, that’s the rules. Whether or not you pick the scab off is up to you.”
The Gnome retched again.
“Right, now you. Let me wipe my hands. There are some biscuits in here somewhere.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t eat anything. . . Ever again.”
“It’s just a ginger biscuit. Ginger’s very good against nausea. Try, dear. Good girl. Now, I would say that a couple of deep breaths and you’ll feel better, but in here that isn’t true, so let’s get the fuck out.”
“I haven’t the faintest idea. And that lid’s still creaking, so we’ll have to think of something quick, and I’m so tired. I can feel the power, but it’s overlying something like the hangover from a nine day bender.”
“Then you need to be cleaner.”
“Motherhood, your business. Nine day bender, mine. Large glass of water, ten minutes in a power shower, compulsory breakfast. Couple of painkillers. Can we do any of those?”
“No. As temples go, this one is woefully underprovided with even the most basic facilities. There isn’t even a tap.”
“Um, ladies? There’s a bottle of water in my boot. I shouldn’t drink it if I were you, I carry it for the radiator, but if you wanted a wash. . .”
“Barnabas darling, I really, really want to have your foals. How big a bottle?”
“Two litre. It’s only for emergencies. And you said you had wet wipes. Only hurry up, for Anybody’s sake, that sarcophagus sounds awfully open.”
“Gnome? Would you just. . . here, I don’t need to ask you to turn your back, do I?”
“No. Look, stand still, and I’ll. . . you’re bigger than me! When did you get to be bigger than me? No, never mind. Kneel down and I’ll scrub. We’ll use the water on your hair. Do I want to know what you’ve got in it?”
“About as much as I wanted to know what you had in yours. Just slosh the water through (Goddess, that’s cold!) and get the worst of it out. I’ve always been lucky with my hair, and it won’t take any time to dry, it’s so short. Now, wipes. You’re right, I do feel better. Now, priorities. That’s a mummy thing. What do we have to do first?”
“The door!” whimpered Barnabas, forgetting that he was a horse and that horses don’t whimper.
“Yes, I think so. Gnome, what were you planning to do? If you had been able to Shift?”
“Um. . . I would have fought it. Him. It. I hadn’t any other ideas. Although that one doesn’t seem so bright now. And you can’t do that.”
“No. But your Master said I didn’t have to.”
“At Castle Adamant. He said that the rules of Questing were being applied and that if I only had domestic skills, then domestics would do. And if I’m wearing Her jewellery, domestic may be all I have, but it’s DOMESTIC. So I could. . . I could. . . Gnome, will you let me into your head?”
The Gnome stared, and opened her mouth to refuse. Let another elemental in her head? Poking about reading the mail and borrowing CDs without asking? Reading a chapter of her book, and leaving the bookmark in the wrong place? Peering into wardrobes and cupboards? Possibly looking in that box under the bed? Knowing what lived in the bathroom cabinet at the back?
“The door’s open,” said Barnabas, unnecessarily.
“Come in! Excuse the mess! Where do you want to look?”
“At Shifting, please. Ooh, I’ve got that memory, too! And the neurosis! That’s a good neurosis, it’s lasted me for years. I want to see how you Shift to look like a chthonic monster. Right, I can do that. I’m going out there, I may be some time. No, actually, that’s a bad line. If I’m not back in five minutes, get the hells out of here and tell the Mother it was too difficult. And tell Carabosse. . . tell Carabosse. . .”
The Gnome burst into tears, and Barnabas pushed his muzzle into Cobweb’s cleavage. “It would be better if you took care to come back, and then you can tell him yourself. We’ll wait.” He carefully didn’t say that they would have to – if he couldn’t find his way out, the Gnome certainly couldn’t, and he doubted if even Cobweb could.
“Cobweb, be careful!” sobbed the Gnome. “I don’t know how to be pregnant and I’m damn sure Huw doesn’t and Carabosse doesn’t like me and who’s going to help me if you aren’t there?”
“I’ll be there. I just don’t know how many tentacles I’ll have. Turn your backs, please, and keep the door shut while I’m gone.”
They heard the ghastly sucking noise on the steps, and she was gone. Barnabas backed up to the door and set his hindquarters against it to push it shut. The Gnome came rather hastily to help.
“Are you supposed to do that? In your condition?”
“I’m more likely to miscarry from being eaten by a membranous monster than from pushing, I think. What’s she doing? What’s she doing?”
They clung to each other (well, the Gnome clung to the horse and the horse pushed his nose against the Gnome) and listened to the gelatinous slobberings outside. Then there was an eldritch shriek and a disharmonious stereophony which seemed to go on for aeons. The Gnome buried her head in Barnabas’s neck. The sound slid to a weird whine and quietened, and the
came again and they froze, listening desperately as the slushing noise approached the door again.
“Let me in, for Goddess’ sake. Get out of the way, I daren’t Shift back until I’m out of sight of the Innsmouth lot. They don’t know what I am, but they’ll know what I’m not.”
She slurped across the floor, and the Gnome and the horse fled backwards out of her way. The Shift back to her normal shape obviously took most of her remaining energy, and she knelt, panting, on the dirty flagstones.
“What did you do? He’d woken up, hadn’t he? What did you do?”
“I Mothered,” she gasped. “I hope never to have to Mother like it again. I asked him what he thought he was doing up at this time of aeon, and then I ordered him back into his depths, and then I gave in and gave him three of the Spawn for a late supper, and tucked him up in the tenebrous loathsomeness and promised him that we would do something frenzied when he woke up. And I really think we should go now. Barnabas?”
“Nothing doing. It’s all wrong still. It’s not as wrong as it was, but I can’t do it. I can’t do it!”
The other two felt around. The Folds felt greasy and plastic in their minds, and slid away from them. The Gnome wiped her hands on her trousers, hastily. “If we could get up the hill again, and perhaps out of town. . . What’s outside?”
“Toad-men. Lots of them. Innsmouth and Arkham. The Spawn have withdrawn a bit, probably because they don’t want to be eaten.”
“Well, do something! Think of something domestic and do it!”
“They don’t lend themselves to domestic! I’m all domesticked out! What else can we do? And for pity’s sake stop snivelling! I never thought you were such a wet hen!”
“I’m so-orry! I can’t help it! I know I’m not being any help!”
“Oh, there, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it. It’s just the hormones, honestly. It’ll pass in a month or so. You’re doing beautifully, given that you’ve never been female before. It’s not as easy as it looks, is it? Now, let’s just be calm, shall we? I don’t think domestic will help, so let’s try something else. I don’t think Scourge is the answer, either. But I must be able to do something. What else am I good at? Cook them to death? Moan at them? Administration, that’s my forte. . .”
“Paperwork. You’re good at paperwork.”
“Thank you and goodnight. Bang on the money, Gnome, I’m good at paperwork. And there isn’t a Being in the Multiverse who can’t be daunted by a sibyl servant with a clipboard and a form to fill in. Right, I can’t do it in these robes, I’ll just. . . you can have NO idea how awful it’s been not having enough power to arrange clean clothes. Suit. Heels. Lipstick. The rest will have to do. Your suit is good, but you need heels too.”
They watched the Gnome attempt to master stiletto heels. After a moment or two, Cobweb changed her mind. “No, O.K., try slingbacks and lower. That’s better. Don’t stride. Smaller steps. Don’t walk as if you were wearing a nappy – keep your knees closer together. You aren’t John Wayne. Right. Clipboard. There’s sure to be one in my bag. Here, you have it. Pen. Barnabas, can you be a fork-lift truck? Then do. Are we ready? Let me do the talking. Go, go, go!”
“Gentlemen? Is there somebody here who’s in charge? I am Doctor Cobweb, from the Miskatonic Office of the Elf and Safety Executive. I’m here to carry out a preliminary inspection relating to Cyclopean Geometric Masonry, Malign Antiquity, Cosmic Daemons and. . . and. . .”
“Non-Euclidean Dimensions, Doctor.”
“Thank you, Miss Wood, Non-Euclidean Dimensions. My assistant, Miss Wood. Now, you should have had notification of our arrival from Professor Carabosse, and I was expecting someone to meet us and provide us with copies of the relevant reports. Who would that have been?”
There was an uneasy shuffling among the batrachian populace, and the tide of bodies drew back to leave one item of jetsam.
“It would be you, then, sir? And you are?”
“Thank you, Mr Marsh. Could I trouble you to walk a little way with us and explain to me some of the details that we need for our forms? And why the local authorities here in R’lyeh have failed to submit the required information as specified by Order in Council 3559/224(a) (Elimination and Pain).”
The salientian figure flinched.
“Now just before we start, we need some personal details, just for our records. Miss Wood will take notes for me. Of course there’s no question of you being identified from the details in the questionnaire, and no information will be passed to the Costumes and Excess, the Undead Revenue, National Insurgence departments, the Commonelf Office or the like. None at all.”
Huw would have been proud of her, the Gnome thought. There wasn’t a single lie in that statement, and even the Gnome, who knew it to be true, didn’t believe it.
“So if we could just have your first name, middle name, father’s first name, mother’s maiden name, inside leg measurement, date of birth, weight at birth, names of all your siblings and details of which ones you have carnal knowledge of, current stomach contents, relationship with recombinant sky-spawn, tax number, postcode and precise details of why you have failed to complete forms P11, P11d, P9, P14, P35, and P60, your basis for believing that you are not due to pay any tax and copies of your financial statements for the last five years SHIFT BARNABAS AND KICK HIM IN THE NUTS THEY’RE WHERE YOU WOULD EXPECT NOW EVERYBODY RUN LIKE BUGGERY!”
It was a rather untidy Fold, and it took them to the Gnome’s temple. They sat on the steps, wheezing, and leaning on each other, while Barnabas hung his head against Cobweb’s shoulder. The Gnome was first to recover.
“Food. Drink. Cleanliness. And then finding the others. We’ll have to Time it if they aren’t to be too worried, but I’m not going to see Huw with chthonic mess all over my clothes. And if I take you back looking like that, Carabosse will have my. . . what do they have when you haven’t got any of the other things? Or does he just keep looking, with those big claws, until he finds something he likes?”
Cobweb ignored the babbling and fixed on the important bits. “You go and have a shower while I see to Barnabas, and then I would really like to borrow your bathroom for about a week. And I don’t know where any of my clothes are. They picked up my luggage, but it never arrived in R’lyeh.”
“It’s in Leng,” said Barnabas unexpectedly. “There’s a minicab service which has been complaining about it sitting in their offices. I’ll get it brought back. Do you want it here or at the Website?”
The Gnome caught sight of Cobweb’s face and hastened to intervene. “Get it here and we’ll sort it later. Don’t you want first bath, Cobs?”
“No. I want to be able to use all the hot water without feeling guilty. You go. And don’t have it too hot.”
“Oh, there’s plenty for both of us. . .”
“It’ll make you feel faint if you have the water too hot. Just be careful. Have you got any brushes for Barnabas?”
The Gnome stared at her blankly. Barnabas sniggered. “Gnomes don’t think of that sort of thing. It doesn’t matter, I’ll be fine. . .”
“Look, I can feel the Mother in the back of my head, and you can just imagine what She thinks about people going to bed without brushing their hair. Shift to cab and I’ll wash your bodywork, and we’ll sweep out your footwells. We can probably leave vacuuming the boot and cleaning your wheel spokes until tomorrow.”
By the time Cobweb emerged from the Gnome’s bathroom, wrapped in a borrowed robe and smelling strongly of clean, the Gnome had laid out a meal on the kitchen table and was just sitting down.
“It’s a bit picnic, but I’m starving. Here, what are you doing? What are you doing?”
“No alcohol, Gnome, not until you’ve seen the doctor and I suspect not even then.”
“Well, you’re older than me, and I’m over thirty-five. You’re an elderly primagravida, and you’ve got to take care. If the doctor says it’s all right, you may have one small glass twice a week. No spirits. And stout would be better than wine.”
“And I don’t think you should eat the pâté.”
“Oh, and no soft cheese. And no blue cheese.”
“And no eggs unless they’ve been cooked hard. No soufflé. No omelettes. No meringues. Did you make the mayonnaise yourself?”
“Oh, well, then that’s probably. . . did the Brownie make it? It did, didn’t it? Raw eggs. You can’t have that either. Brownie? The master’s pregnant. No undercooked anything except vegetables. Lots of spinach and broccoli, apricots, nuts but not salted ones. Folic acid. Iron rich vegetables, but not liver any more. Frankly I think you should drink milk, but yogurt will do if you can’t. Calcium, you know.”
“And lots of fruit. You’ll need to keep your iron levels up, and that tends to clog up your digestion. You’ll need the roughage.”
“Cobweeeeebbbb. . .”
“I know, darling, but honestly, I’m right. When you sign up for the Mother, you have to do a basic National Elf midwifery course. You can go to someone else if you want, but you’ll get the same advice.”
“I can’t do this!”
“Of course you can. I’ll help. If you want me to. Or we can talk to some people and get you a different midwife if you want. It’s up to you – do you want me to see all your bits, or would you rather have a stranger? Your choice.”
“Do I have to have one?”
“No, you can have a male doctor who will know even less about the mechanics than you do, and who will talk about ‘discomfort’ when you’re in labour, or a female doctor who won’t sweat and bleed when you do, and who will make you feel inadequate. I really recommend a midwife.”
“I want an abortion!”
“Then I’ll find you someone to talk to you about that, but do you really? Huw’s baby, Gnome.”
There was a long silence. “Can you do it, Cobweb? Do you know how?”
“Trust me, dear. I know how. Eat your. . . there isn’t much here, is there? Oh, thank you, Brownie. Cold chicken and salad. See, Gnome, your Brownie will look after you. It’ll be fine.”
They finished their meal, but Cobweb’s head was drooping by the time the Brownie had cleared the table. The Gnome tapped her on the shoulder. “Bed. You look like bottled death. And I’m tired too. Come on. You can have this room. I’m just next door. Go to bed, and I’ll. . . I’ve just got a couple of things to do, and I’m going to bed too.”
There was something in the tone that rang a warning bell in Cobweb’s head. “No alcohol, Gnome.”
“No, no, wouldn’t think of it.”
“I mean it. If you go back for a drink, I shall find out. And I shall be very angry. And you know what happens when I’m very angry.”
“You can’t. You haven’t got” the Gnome’s mouth was running ahead of her brain. She could hear her own voice being about to say something very terrible, and a huge social brick: “the authority any more. Brian doesn’t answer to you now.” If she hadn’t been tired, and emotional, and sober, and PREGNANT she would never have said such a thing.
“I’m not talking about Nemesis. I’m talking about Cobweb. If I discover you’ve been drinking, you won’t sit down comfortably in a week. I shall see to it personally. I’m bigger than you now, and I’ve got lots and lots of experience. Lots and lots and lots of experience. Is that quite clearly understood?”
Cobweb was woken soon after moonrise by a dark, wire-tendoned and hairy hand pulling at the bedclothes. Being a bad waker-up, her first panicked thought was “werewolf!”, and she scrabbled herself upright in the bed with her heart pounding. The Jamesian hand helpfully poured a glass of water from the carafe which had not been on the bedside table when she went to sleep, and passed it to her. Then it crooked a finger and beckoned to her.
Come, beckoned the hand again. She got up, and the hand closed around hers. She looked down, but the hirsute arm disappeared into a murky gloom. There was no body to be seen. She was led to the door of the next room, which was pushed open, and the hand slid onto the back of her thigh and propelled her inside. The Gnome was lying in bed, but the unnatural rigidity of her body made it plain that she wasn’t asleep.
“Gnome? What’s wrong?”
“Cobweb? I thought you would have slept the sundial round.”
“The Brownie woke me. I think it’s worried about you. What’s the matter?”
“I. . . nothing. Nothing at all. I’m fine.” The voice trembled. Cobweb came closer.
“You’re not. Your staff wouldn’t have woken me had you been fine. Something’s the matter.” She sat down on the edge of the bed, and leaned over to touch the Gnome’s hand. There was a moment’s hesitation and then the cold fingers wove into her own.
“It’s nothing. I’m just a little. . . a little nervy. Go back to bed. I’m fine.”
Cobweb sighed. Then she crawled across the covers, and gathered a rigid Gnome into her arms. She waited.
“Honestly, Cobweb, I’m fine. I’m fine.”
Cobweb dropped her face against the dark hair and waited again.
“Oh, God, Cobweb, I’m so scared!”
“Tell me, dear.”
“I don’t know how to DO this! And Huw won’t love me when I’m fat and ugly! And I need a drink and even if I’m not in the Master’s train, I’m supposed to keep up standards and I can’t ’cos you won’t let me, and what am I going to do? And it’s going to hurt!”
Cobweb sighed. “You don’t need to know how to do it. You didn’t know how to do the thing that got you into this mess in the first place, but you did it. It just comes naturally. Honestly, pet, it isn’t hard to do. Just look at the people they allow to have babies. Any fool can do it. Your body knows, if you trust it.”
“But Huw knew how to. . . how to do the other stuff!”
“And I know how to do the midwifery stuff. And remember, Huw got a bit touchy with ‘Oberon’ about cuckoos – so he’s going to love being a daddy. And he’s nuts about you, you know he is. You don’t get ugly when you’re pregnant. That’s a myth. You’re going to bloom, and be as vain as you like.”
There was a rather watery giggle.
“What about the Master?”
“Well, I don’t know, but tomorrow we’ll go and get you checked in for ante-natal care and we’ll see what we can think of. For Fields’ sake, Gnome, probably one pregnancy in four is a result of a drunken evening. He must have met it before; it won’t come as a surprise to Him.”
“It’ll come as a surprise that it’s me.”
“Well, yes, I suppose it might. But it won’t hurt even a God to be surprised. And He did say that neither of us was what we had been, so you’re just carrying on a proper Dionysian habit of excess. And yes, I’m afraid it will hurt a bit, but there are things we can do about it.”
“You won’t leave me?”
The Gnome sighed, and rested her head against her friend’s shoulder. Presently she said sleepily, “You’re cold. Come in. There’s room for us both.”
The Gnome woke relatively late the next morning, and turned over to find her bed full of a soundly sleeping Cobweb. There was a dreadful moment in which things came back to her memory in uneven stages, as ‘Bloody hellfire, why am I sleeping with Cobweb, I don’t do that, unless she was a man when I went to bed, but I still don’t do that, oh, no, I’m a woman, why am I sleeping with Cobweb, I don’t do that, unless she was a man when I went to bed, but I still don’t do that, am I a lesbian then? Oh no, I’m pregnant!”
Having established that to her own dissatisfaction, she decided on coffee as the next necessity, and whispered an order to the air of the room. The Brownie had plainly been listening at the door, because the Gnome came back from her bathroom to find the tray on the bedside table. She nudged Cobweb until the sleepy brown eyes opened.
“Tea. I presume the Brownie knew you didn’t want coffee.”
“Who the f. . . oh, Gnome. Yes. What? Tea?”
She struggled up and reached desperately for the mug. The Gnome picked up her own, took a mouthful and made a face.
“That is absolutely vile. Brownie? What’s with the coffee? It’s disgusting.”
There was an offended rattle from the kitchen.
“Well, can I have some more? There’s something wrong with this.”
Cobweb engaged her brain, and leaned over to take the mug. She sniffed the contents, and sipped.
“Brownie? Ignore that. The coffee’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with it. Bring the Gnome some tea.”
“I don’t want tea, I want coffee, and that cup tastes. . . oh, no. Oh, no. Tell me it isn’t so. I can’t bear it.”
“I’m sorry, dear. It’ll go away once the baby’s born. Probably. And it won’t do you any harm to drink it, it’ll just taste a little odd. Quite common, you know, finding that you don’t like coffee when you’re pregnant.”
The howl of despairing misery could be heard as far as the Website, and small animals fled from the sounds of rage and blame.
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