verybody agreed it was a splendid christening.
The ceremony itself was mercifully brief, since the parents (with helpful interventions from Cobweb, Carabosse, Barnabas, and any passing visitor with too much time and too little sense) had proved scarcely able to agree what the baby should be named, let alone under Whose auspices the naming should take place. However, common sense, and an application of the dragonhide paddle, prevailed, and Lugh Meredith ap Huw was duly presented to the world and a surprisingly large crowd.
The sun shone, the Gnome’s garden, which had been discreetly enlarged for the occasion, had never looked lovelier, the jasmine and philadelphus perfuming the air, and the rambling roses in the cypress, determined not to be outdone, showering the passers by with gentle trickles of fragrant white petals. There was food – oh Gods, was there food, for Cobweb had excelled herself in the catering, raiding the cuisines of all major continents, not to mention every specialist foodshop and delicatessen within a considerable radius. There was drink too, of course, the sort of wines that people remember with affection and a little sigh twenty years later, for the God had sent his benison on the occasion. There was a great deal of laughter and conversation, as well as music and dancing for those who wanted it, and quiet corners with comfortable chairs, or even a camomile seat, for those who fancied a little snooze after their excesses.
The godparents gave their Gifts; the Gnome was particularly touched by Minerale’s promise that water would be a friend to Lugh all his life, hoping that this would make frequent bathing less of a battle during the teenage years. Carabosse made his Entry in inimitable style, driving a chariot pulled by Glaurung and his mate, and duly cursed the child to be exiled from Faery, never to return until his mother should strike him unknown to both of them, a condition so improbable that everyone realised that it was bound to happen (the cognoscenti, and the careful reader, being aware that it had already occurred at the start of this seemingly interminable saga). Cobweb, resplendent in a deep green gown with a crown of ivy in red-gold set on her newly auburn hair, and a pair of matching earrings (they had appeared in the drinks cabinet, a gift from her new, if temporary, Master) promptly added her own godmotherly Gifts: that young Lugh should always be in the right place at the right time (the Gnome opened her mouth to comment that this didn’t seem to have saved Luc’s backside from any number of beatings when she realised that Cobweb had carefully not specified what he would be in the right place for), and that he should always be justly loved, which made his mother’s eyes brim.
The Gnome, dressed in a vivid blue shift-dress, with a golden birch leaf hanging in each ear, and a matching necklace, wandered through the crowds in a sort of daze of happiness, accepting compliments as her due, and showing the sleepy child in her arms to anyone who asked. She looked over to Huw, who was deep in a conversation with Chronos about the care and feeding of glatisaunts, and smiled tenderly. Carabosse tapped her on the shoulder and passed her a glass of pink champagne.
“Here, Cobweb’s compliments, and how do you get champagne out of limestone floor tiles?”
“With difficulty. And the help of a friendly brownie. Thank you. She’s getting the hang of the trick, this one isn’t bad. I didn’t like to say, but her first effort was more Asti Spumante.”
“Yes, I’ve told her she can practise on me every evening until she gets it just right.”
“Actually, I want a word with you about her.”
“Should I be listening to this?”
“Yes. Cobweb has been through a tough time. I’ve been able to keep her distracted, looking after me. . .”
“I beg your pardon? Are you saying that you didn’t need her?”
“No, I very much did. She was the only thing that got me through all this, and I’m properly grateful. But – well, let’s say that there were occasions when I could have managed perfectly well on my own, and chose not to. But now the baby’s born, and for better or worse I have to look after it on my own. And without me to worry about, Cobweb may start to worry about other things. Like her lack of gainful employment once she stops being PA to my Master.”
“I – see.”
“I hope you do. I want you to take this.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a Key. Unfold it and you can step through to a little house on a hill in Arcadia, and leave your worries behind for a while. I want you to take it, and take Cobweb, and give her a nice long holiday somewhere where the most complicated decision you have to make is whether to have stuffed vine leaves or grilled bream for lunch. I promised Cobweb in R’lyeh that I would take her there, but events overtook us, and I’m sure she’d rather go with you anyway.”
“Well – thank you, Gnome. I will.”
“Good. And one more thing, if you would.”
“Take that fucking dragonhide paddle with you.”
Carabosse roared with laughter, and kissed the Gnome on the cheek. “Just for you,” he promised. “But I’m giving it back to Huw afterwards.”
The Gnome smiled and patted him on the shoulder. Somebody else took his place.
“Well, Trickster, it seems you have learned a new trick.”
“Sir Huon. I wondered if you would come.”
The ruler of the People of the Hills smiled a little wanly. “I was surprised to be invited, to be frank, for we didn’t part on the best of terms. I’m glad to have the opportunity to put that right.” He held out a beautifully manicured hand and the Gnome shook it.
“I really don’t think it’s me you have to put things right with, though,” she said quietly.
“No. No, you’re right of course. Where is Cobweb?”
“Around. But I’m not sure she’ll talk to you.”
Sir Huon grimaced. “Look, ask her to call me, will you? I appreciate that I may not be her favourite person just now, but you have no idea the sort of pressure I was under.”
“Actually, I rather think I do, and from whom.”
“Well, there you are then. But now I have Very Important Powers on my case about her case. Gnome, it’s a complete nightmare. Not only has the Board said that She intends to hold an internal investigation into the management of the Nemesis department and its need for independence from, and oversight of, other departments, which I think means that she wants to put Nemesis in charge – in charge! – of disciplining other departments of government, but your Master says that he wants to see an official enquiry into our personnel handling, and Chronos of all people has left a message with my people saying that it’s high him that Cobweb’s sterling qualities received the recognition they deserve with a suitably senior department. Chronos! I can’t remember the last time that he and the Lady agreed on anything.”
The baby wriggled in her arms and blew a bubble at her. Her arms were getting cramp from holding him so long.
“Here, take the baby a moment, will you,” she said, passing him gratefully to an alarmed Huon. “I just need to – oh, poppet, what have you done? Oh, I think it’s just a little sick, I’m sure it will come out of your Armani with a damp cloth, Sir Huon.”
It was a little before dawn when the Gnome stirred. Huw was still sound asleep at her side, and the baby, thank the God, was asleep for the moment and not demanding to be fed again. She stealthily clambered out of bed, paused to look into the cot.
Her own face softened as she stared at the tiny, perfect features.
“Sleep on, sweets,” she whispered to it. “Mummy just has some things to collect, and then we have to be on the road.” She reached down and picked up something she had left in the corner unobserved earlier that evening.
She slipped down the corridor and into the library, avoiding the pillars of books stacked all over the floor, shelves, and tables with the skill of unconscious familiarity. Moonlight was streaming through the big french windows from the little sunken terrace where she liked to sit with a book and a glass of chilled Viognier in warm weather. One of the herms was standing in the garden, still holding a balloon left over from the christening, and wearing the uniform it had insisted on putting on when she asked the pair of them to be ushers.
“Really Cobweb, you’ve ruined my staff,” she laughed to herself.
With a reflexive glance into the shadows, she touched one of the bookcases and spoke a Word. The bookcase swung silently away from the wall, revealing a tiny, windowless room beyond. Despite the lack of outlook, a dim sourceless glow filled the room. A dozen large books, bound in what appeared to be rather unorthodox materials, were chained to 3 of the walls, while against the fourth stood what was either a very strange bookcase or a high security storage locker for fissile materials. A low, feral growl filled the air as she entered, and one of the books snapped its cover irritably.
“Hush, now. Go back to sleep,” said the Gnome again, this time letting power run through the words. The growl subsided. “Ha, I’m starting to get the hang of this Mothering thing,” she muttered. She took the thing she carried, which turned out to be a carpet bag with the famous ‘Poppins’ double-P clasp, and set it in the middle of the floor, open.
“Now,” she said aloud. “Let’s hope this works or they are going to find an awful multidimensional pretzel to clean up in the morning.”
She reached out towards one corner of the room, unhooked it, did the same to the other corners in turn, folded it neatly, and dropped it into the bag, which promptly snapped shut.
“Well, what do you know,” said a delighted Gnome staring around the fuzzy null-space that was left. “It does work. If I ever see that salesman again I must remember to tell him.” She slipped back out into the main library, and closed the bookcase behind her, then made her stealthy way back to her room.
The quality of the silence in there was wrong.
“You’re awake then,” she said quietly.
“Yes. And you’re slipping away again. What did I tell you about that last time?”
“Something to do with doxies and purses. Or was it poxes and hearses?” said the Gnome with a lightness she didn’t feel.
“I told you that you had hurt me,” said Huw with steely emphasis. Now you want to deal me a worse blow. My lady, I want to see my son grow. I want to be there when he first walks. I want to be there to hear him say ‘Dadda’. I want to teach him how to hunt, and fight, and do the things that fathers and sons do.”
The misery in his voice made the Gnome’s eyes fill. She sat on the bed, took his hand and held it to her lips.
“My love, we’ve been through all this. I want nothing more than that, too. For you, I will be gone a week, ten days. For me, our parting will last sixteen years. Sixteen years, Huw. As a single mother, with a boy to raise.”
“Sixteen years to forget me. Your heart will change.”
“Huw, I am so old that your mind could not encompass it. Sixteen years is no more to me against that than an hour is to you. And I promise you this. Not a day will pass when I don’t miss you. Not a night will pass when I don’t dream of having you in my bed.”
“Why waste time in regrets? Let me come with you. Let us raise our son together, maybe have other sons.”
“Hold your horses,” said the Gnome. “One was quite enough.”
“I never expected even one. I never expected you, Gwydion, Woodgnome, whatever your name is now.”
“Niniane. Cobweb suggested it. I wasn’t keen at first but it’s growing on me. And it’s a gift from my friend, about the only one I can take with me.”
“Then, beloved, come back to Tin Goch with me, and rule my lands at my side as my lady. Niniane of the March. Or as my favourite, if that is your preference. I love you in either form. And let us raise our son together as a Marcher lord to be.”
She kissed his hand again, held it against her cheek.
“My love,” she said sadly, “I wish I could. But this part of our story has already been written. I can’t change that.”
“Why not? You have power. . .”
“It took the power of two of the Great Gods to gain us even this much, and that was only a re-interpretation. I don’t think Cobweb had the faintest idea what she was asking for, or how close to the wind she, and more importantly our Patrons, were sailing. Completely changing what has already been is forbidden even to them. The Universe doesn’t permit it.”
“Propagation of instability up and down the timeline. Things that had always been would suddenly be not. Things that had not been would always have been. People wouldn’t be who they always were. You might not exist. I might not exist. Most likely, we would never meet. It is bitter, but this is the best we are allowed, this partial, fractured love.”
“And my son must grow up fatherless.”
“Yes. Luc doesn’t remember having a . . .” she paused. “I wonder. Huw, what’s your earliest memory?”
“Being put up on my father’s horse, one May morning, in front of his men. I cried, I was afraid I’d fall.”
“And you would have been how old?”
“Three, maybe. Perhaps four.”
“Then perhaps we can have a little time together. I suppose that you could live with me for – oh, a year and a day. To see us settled. That ought to be fairly safe.”
“In – what was the name of the place?”
“An Lorgain. Lurgan, they have it in the other tongue. But a year and a day only, mind.”
“And when I return?”
“A day will have passed. Just like all those tales the bards tell, where a night in fairyland is a century in the world, only the other way around. But my love – a year will still have passed for you. A year of your life, and it can’t be replaced. One less year in the world, before. . .” her voice went husky, suddenly, and she broke off.
“Before I die?” Huw asked gently. “You can say the word, love. I know it must come to me.”
The Gnome sank desperately into his embrace, as if she was trying to burrow into his chest.
“It’s so unfair.”
“Oh, cariad, it’s just the way of things. I wouldn’t want to go on forever, getting bored. I don’t know how you manage.”
The Gnome raised her face to his. The track of a tear glimmered on her cheek like a snail trail.
“The secret of living a very long life successfully is the same as that of living a very short one,” she said, slowly. “You live in each moment, taking it for itself, and valuing it, for it will not come again.”
“Then let us live the moments we have together, and value them.”
She looked into his face, as if trying to read something there. Whatever she saw seemed to reassure her, for she smiled waterily.
“Very well, my lord. Gather your things, for it is time to go.”
“I’m an old soldier, sweets. I can be ready in five minutes.”
It was more like ten, actually. “Huw, what are you doing?”
“I’m looking for that – paddle thing – that Lord Carabosse gave me. I’m determined to learn how to use it to maximum effect without breaking the skin.”
“I’m afraid it isn’t here. Lord Carabosse has taken it back with my blessing. I expect Cobweb is finding that out right about now.”
As Time’s mist rose around them, Huw’s voice could just be heard saying:
“Remind me to talk to you about personal property, and not touching it without my permission. . .”
After they were gone, something stirred in the house. A dark, hairy hand from behind the settee whisked something from the floor. It was the Gnome’s handkerchief, accidentally dropped on the floor in departing.
Over the nighttime creaks and noises of the house you might almost have missed the faint sound of weeping.
The Gnome spun around, hand half lifted as if to cast a spell, and subsided.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said.
Cobweb raised an eyebrow.
“Is that how we greet an old friend whom we haven’t seen for a year?” she asked.
“I’m sorry,” said the Gnome. “I thought you were those wretched brats up from the village again.”
“Been having trouble with the locals?”
“Nothing Huw and I can’t handle, thank you. Look at you, you look really well. Did you lose some weight?”
“A bit. Despite all the wine, the diet was really rather healthy, lots of grilled fish and salads, and Carabosse walked the legs off me. Thank you so much for loaning us the place.”
“A pleasure. Come in, come in. Huw’s off hunting at the moment,
and Lugh is asleep, but I can offer you a cup of mint tea.”
“Thank you. My, hasn’t Lugh grown? How are you getting on?”
The Gnome ran a hand over her face and brushed her hair, which was rather long and untidy, out of her face.
“Oh, so-so,” she said. “I won’t pretend it’s been easy. I’ve done a lot of things in a very long life, and I have to say that raising a child is not among the easier of them. How do mortals manage?”
“Invincible ignorance, fretting, and a lot of prayers, in my observation,” said Cobweb. “Are you and Huw. . .?”
“Still happy, though I won’t deny we’ve had one or two battles royal as well. It hasn’t been easy for him, either, giving up his lands and position and living like this, although he’s done very well, bless him. He can’t really come to terms with non-parallel timestreams, and he’s inclined to worry about what’s happening in Ceryddol while he’s away, despite my reminding him that it isn’t. But he adores Lugh. He’s even learned to change nappies, and to wash them. And he can cook quite well, too – campfire cuisine, really, but tasty. Yes, he’s been my rock.”
Cobweb shifted uncomfortably, cleared her throat.
“Yes, about that,” she said. “I have a message from the Lady and the God.”
“More tea?” asked the Gnome brightly. “We grow the mint ourselves, although the climate doesn’t lend itself to basil or oregano. Luckily, dear Barnabas has been a godsend. He has a – well, an understanding with a Sainsbury’s delivery truck, they’ve been seeing each other on and off for years, so I give him my grocery list each week and he drops it off when he visits the next time.”
“I said. . .”
“Yes. I heard you. And I know what it is. I haven’t lost track of the calendar, thank you.”
“You know he has to go back. Luc – Lugh - can’t be allowed to remember his father, or the whole Story will come unwound.”
“Yes, well if someone hadn’t decided to be Clever, I wouldn’t be in this mess.”
“And if someone hadn’t been so eager to open her legs. . .” began Cobweb tartly, and stopped. There was an awkward pause.
“I’m sorry,” said the Gnome grudgingly at last. “I know he has to go back. I told him a year and a day, and it’s been almost that.”
“Tomorrow, Gnome. His time is up tomorrow. That’s what They told me to tell you.”
The Gnome bit her lip. “I should have obeyed my first instinct and sneaked off,” she said. “It would have been a lot less painful.”
“Not once Huw caught up with you again, it wouldn’t have been,” observed Cobweb. “Carabosse has dropped the paddle off at his castle. Oh and thank you so much for that little surprise. He produced it on the third day of our holiday after we had a little dispute about the relative merits of a nap under the vine arbour and a walk in the hills, after which any prospect of lying back comfortably in a hammock was gone. Bitch,” she added without heat.
The Gnome grinned at her. “Serves you right. It was your idea to supply the thing in the first place, I just thought you needed a taste of your own medicine.”
“Ladies! Lady Cobweb, you honour us. We have long missed you.” Huw swept her a deep bow, then picked the Gnome up bodily and kissed her.
“Huw, good to see you too. Don’t I get a kiss then?” Huw grinned, and bent to kiss her cheek. “Bossy and I have been on holiday for three weeks, courtesy of our friend here.”
“Three weeks? – Ah, this would be the time rivers – no, streams, my sweet Ninny is always speaking of, is it? Three weeks for you, a year for us.”
The Gnome, who had kicked him when he called her Ninny (it was obviously a standing joke) bit her lip. Huw had been watching the calendar too, it seemed.
“Yes. But I can’t stay, I have to go and sort out Carabosse’s dinner. I just dropped by to say thank you for the loan of the house in Arcadia. It was really a good holiday.”
“You deserved it. Mind you, you deserved the paddle too.”
“Let me escort you a little way, Lady,” rumbled Huw. “We have hardly had time to speak.”
“As far as the top of the hill then. You have a nice view of the lough here, I must say.”
“Yes, and being below the brow we are sheltered from the worst of the wind. Come, let me show you.”
As they walked down the path, arm in arm, Cobweb asked quietly:
“What was it you didn’t want her to hear?”
“Was it that obvious? Sorry. You know that I have been here a year exactly? And that tomorrow I must return to my own place?”
“Yes. I’m really sorry Huw, but there’s nothing I can do about that.”
“Lady, I understand that duty must sometimes come before love. But not always. I will not go.”
“Huw. . .”
“No, hear me out. The child is but a year of age. His memory will scarcely be formed these next two years. I might easily stay three years here to help her. No god or power set that limit of a year and a day – it was only a fancy of Niniane’s.”
“It was, but it was Heard, and Agreed, where what is willed must be. I’m afraid it has to be tomorrow. Believe me, if there were any way around it, I would pester the gods to gain it for you, but they are adamant. I think they are afraid.”
“Of the consequences, for all of us including them. Not even gods get to have it all their own way.”
“Then – if I must go, will you promise me to give her such aid as you can? She will wear herself out, looking after the child all day, and working magic all night.”
“Did you not know? She brought books – strange, dangerous books – with her, hidden in a bag. At night, when she believes the child and I are both asleep, she studies them like a woman driven by a terrible urgency and fear.”
Cobweb pondered this for a moment.
“I don’t think she plans anything silly,” she said at last. “The old Gnome might have, but it seems she takes her responsibilities to the child, and to you, far more seriously than I would have believed possible of the old Gnome. It may be that our adventures showed her that her skills are a bit rusty. If she’s been brushing them up, perhaps it’s no harm. She’s always been lazy, and High Magic, ritual magic, takes it out of you. But I will speak to her about burning the candle at both ends, and Carabosse and I will keep a discreet eye on her as often as we can. And Barnabas, of course. What would we all do without Barnabas?”
“A noble soul, whether on wheels or legs,” agreed Huw. “Farewell, lady.”
“Farewell, Huw. Use tonight well. You will see your love again in under a week. She won’t see hers for years. Be kind to her. Give her a night to remember.”
He smiled, a little smugly. “All our nights are,” he said.
“Men!” muttered Cobweb, as she vanished.
“It’s been lovely having you come to visit so often since Huw went back, and I don’t want you and Carabosse to take this the wrong way, but I think it would be better if you didn’t come and see me and Lugh any more.”
Despite herself, Cobweb was cut to the quick.
“But we’re his godparents.”
“I know, but he’s three now. If you come much more he’s going to remember you when he sees you, and that would never do.”
“We could come invisibly.”
“Don’t make this any harder,” wailed the Gnome. “He has to have a normal mortal upbringing for this time and place. Well, as normal as possible,” she qualified hastily. “He still has to wash daily, and I have no intention of giving up on pesto and Thai green curry, or on the washing machine, though I do at least keep that Folded into an alternate dimension when I’m not using it. But I can’t have too much magical stuff going on around him. It isn’t fair. One day he’ll have to live a mortal life, and he’ll need to know how to do it.”
“But – will you be all right? Here, on your own. I mean, Lurgan!”
“Oh, I’ll manage fine, so I will.”
Cobweb swallowed an internal guffaw. The Gnome’s elegant RP tones, quite unconsciously, were developing tinges of an Ulster accent. Then she sobered, abruptly.
“I’m serious,” she said. “If anything happens, anything at all, you call, and Bossy and I will come.”
“I’ll be fine, really. Most of the neighbours are pleasant enough, especially since I cured someone’s child of whooping cough, and the others have mostly learned to leave me alone. I’m already getting a bit of a reputation.”
“As what?” asked her friend with heavy irony, which the Gnome ignored.
“The Wise Woman of the Hill. Or the Hag of the Crag, depending on whom you ask. But the best one, for a select group, is Saint Niniane the Anchoress.”
“I beg your pardon? You, a saint?”
“There was a ship got into trouble on the lough last winter. I don’t normally approve of weather magic – the whole system is so complex that producing sunshine in one place is liable to lead to hurricanes somewhere else – but under the circumstances I couldn’t really let it founder. So I calmed the waves and drew it into shore. Turned out the ship was full of monks, who now pray for me daily, and more usefully send me honey and one or two herbs I can’t grow here from the monastery gardens. So yes, a saint, if a minor Celtic one.”
“Well, now I really have heard everything.”
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