ossy, I’m worried about the Gnome,” said Cobweb.
“That’s a novelty,” said her partner, not looking up from his perusal of the cryptic crossword in that Tuesday’s ‘Necromancer’.
“I mean it. I was just – um. . .”
“Spying is the word you were looking for.”
“. . .keeping an eye on her in the mirror, as I promised Huw. She’s so thin! And worn. I told you what Huw said about working magic every night. I think she’s overdoing it.”
“Then send her a fée-mail. Tell her she’ll be getting a double dose of the paddle if she doesn’t lighten up.”
“But I want to know what she’s up to. You know how devious she is –why does she need all this practice?”
“I’ve no idea.” Carabosse folded his paper with a sigh, and inspected the breakfast table mournfully for any remaining crumbs of croissant. “She’ll be home tomorrow, why don’t you ask her?”
“Oh, and about that. My boss wants us to throw her a party for her return.”
“Your boss would throw a party for the opening of an envelope. But I suppose she deserves it. I never thought she’d go through with the whole thing to be honest with you. Good job she had you looking out for her.”
“Hmm. And who was it who just happened to arrange for record crops of mushrooms in the field by her house, just because you know she loves them? And turned a party of witch burners into standing stones so she wouldn’t have to deal with them herself?”
Carabosse didn’t quite blush but he went a little pink. “I didn’t know you knew about that one,” he admitted. “It was only because several of them were knights, and I thought that that much cold iron might be a problem for her.”
“Of course,” agreed Cobweb blandly.
“So, this party,” said Carabosse hurriedly.
“Yes. At Tin Goch. Huw’s so excited, you can’t imagine.”
“Hmm. Actually, I can. It’s been a week, after all. Speaking of which,” he made a grab in her direction, “it’s been a few hours round here too.”
“Carabosse! Oh. Oh, that’s very. . . yes, do that again. Yes, just there. Oh, Carrrrrabosse.”
Cobweb had just popped into the Gnome’s temple, on which she had been keeping an eye while her friend was away, to take back a book she had borrowed, when a noise from the kitchen made her jump.
“Brownie, is that. . . Excuse me, who the hell are you and what are you doing here?”
The skinny, rather grubby woman with long grey-streaked hair spun around.
“Gnome? I – I’m sorry, I didn’t recognise you for a moment.”
“Oh, damn, sorry, I’ve still got the Glamour running. Here, is that better?”
An ageless, but still long haired and rather grubby, Gnome appeared before her.
“Yes, that’s more like it. Although you really must get a decent cut. And a bath wouldn’t come amiss either.”
“Sorry if I don’t meet your elevated standards,” said the Gnome rather huffily. “The local hairdressing facilities were a bit lacking. And when you have to get all the water from the well and heat it every time you want to wash, I’m afraid you do tend to skimp on it a little. Besides, we had to blend in.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” said Cobweb soothingly, unwilling to begin with an argument. “When did you get back?”
“Just now. I waved my son off on his quest, packed everything up, had a last walk up to the top of the hill to enjoy the view, and left. Never, I fervently hope, to return.”
“Was it that bad?”
“Oh, there were good moments, many of them. Unfortunately there were a lot of not so good ones, too. Next time I decide to give directions to some passing youth I shall make sure he’s from somewhere with more to do in the evenings.”
“It must have been difficult.”
“You’ve no idea. There were times when I thought that I might go mad from boredom. I can’t tell you how only having someone for company whose idea of a good time is having ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff’ read to them for the 784th time, with all the voices, and the emphasis in exactly the same place otherwise it’s wrong and you have to start again, can wear on you.”
Cobweb made a sympathetic sound. “Still, you’ve brought up a fine son,” she said. “He’s a credit to you.”
“Phsht. He’s as thick as a brick. Sweet and willing, I admit, but stupid. Haven’t we said so all along?”
“I think that’s a bit harsh. Mostly, he’s naïve about the ways of the world. No, I don’t mean that as a criticism,” she said hurriedly, as the Gnome looked daggers at her. “What I’m saying is that you may be setting rather a high standard for him to meet. He rarely has to be told twice – well, I wouldn’t expect so, considering who his parents are. I think you can be proud of him.”
A shy but genuine smile appeared on the Gnome’s face.
“Do you really think so? I am, of course, but I thought I might be biased.”
“I do. And you should be proud of yourself. In fact, you deserve a party.”
The Gnome shook her head. “I was thinking more along the lines of a quiet night in.”
“You must be joking. We weren’t expecting you back quite so soon, but everyone’s preparing for a huge bash at Tin Goch to welcome you. . . oh look, don’t cry, sweetheart.”
“I’m sorry. I’m just not used to company, and parties, and people doing things for me any more.”
Heedless of the grime, Cobweb swept her friend into an embrace. “There, there. Everything will feel better once you’ve cleaned up and got your hair done and put on some warpaint. Trust me on this.”
“I seem to remember you telling me that about having the baby in the first place,” snuffled the Gnome.
“And I was right, wasn’t I?”
“I suppose you were.” The Gnome wiped her eyes, and blew her nose on her sleeve. “Sorry,” she added, catching Cobweb’s aghast expression. “Standards really have dropped, haven’t they?”
“I suppose I should feel grateful it was your sleeve and not mine,” said Cobweb. “Come along now, and I’ll run you a bath.”
“I’m not sure a bath will be enough,” lamented the Gnome. “Some of this is ground in. Hang on a minute.”
There was a sort of shivering thrill in the air, and where the Gnome had been a huge serpent coiled itself heavily. Cobweb took an involuntary half-step backwards.
“Ssssorry,” it hissed. “Didn’t mean to ssstartle you. Jussst need to sshed.” It began to rub its head against the rough wood of one of the legs of the Gnome’s huge, scarred farmhouse kitchen table, and presently strips of its skin began to peel away. Regaining her equilibrium at this demonstration of unexpected new abilities, Cobweb began to help, peeling away great strips of the stuff like some ophidian bubble wrap. Underneath the new skin was glossy and beautifully patterned.
“Thanksss,” hissed the Gnome. “I can Ssshift back now, I think.”
Standing in front of her, looking as if he had never been away, stood her old friend.
“Put something on, you’ll catch your death,” she said immediately, in full Mother mode.
“Ah. I think your Patronage has just shifted back.”
“Oh no, it can’t have! But I’m in the middle of organising a party. That’s the worst possible timing.”
She looked at an empty milk bottle standing by the sink. It started to fill with good Rioja.
“No, look, see, I’m still with Him.”
“Strange, I thought. . .” He looked at the bottle. Its contents abruptly shifted colour to a pale straw. He picked it up. “New Zealand sauvignon blanc,” he said. “No, I’m definitely back. So you must be. . . who cleaned this sink? It’s all grubby. Hang on, I think there’s some bleach underneath. . . what?”
Cobweb’s hand had gone to her mouth.
“You aren’t back,” she said. “You’re shared. And so am I.”
“Shared? But the gods never share their. . . oh. Oh. We have made a muddle of things, haven’t we?”
He sat down, having absent mindedly wrapped a kitchen towel around his midriff. It didn’t do much for his modesty (but then modesty was never his strong point). Still, it was better than nothing.
“Yes,” agreed Cobweb flatly. “She and He have been in meetings all week while you’ve been away. There’s some sort of big shake-up going on at the top levels, and I think we’re the cause. Which is going to win us lots of friends in government. Not.”
“Yes, Sir Huon did mention something of the sort before I left. And it’s worse than you think: Chronos is involved, too, and I heard a whisper while I was away that there might be other top level players who were concerning themselves with matters.”
“That’s all we need. And we haven’t even sorted out the Merlin business, either.”
“No. So this party?”
“Gods, yes, I must dash. Have a soak, get dressed up, and I’ll be back for you in an hour or two. Are you staying like that?”
“I intend to make up for 15 years of abstinence with the lord of Ceryddol tonight. And I don’t want any more consequences like the last time. Once bitten.”
Cobweb laughed. “Well, there are precautions you can take.”
“I know, and I’ve taken them by staying in this form. I’d almost forgotten how it feels to wear your reproductive equipment on the outside. Now I intend to go and have the pleasure of emptying my bladder standing up.”
“I’m going, I’m going,” said Cobweb hastily. “I’ll see you in a couple of hours. Oh, and Gnome?”
She leaned forward and kissed him.
“Good to have you back.”
“Gwydion!” Huw’s bellow cut through the hubbub of the great hall like a bell, leaving a resonant silence behind it for a moment. Careless of his dignity, he ran to throw his arms around the Gnome and swing him around like a doll.
“Careful, big boy, you’ll ruin my best tunic,” said the Gnome into his ear, between kisses.
“Oh sweet, I am glad to see you in my court again. I feared you might change your mind again and not return.”
“Oh, not that, never that. But you have other guests to welcome, my lord.”
“Indeed.” He released the Gnome but kept tight hold of his hand. “Lady Cobweb, Lord Carabosse, you are welcome as ever to my halls.”
Carabosse swept him an elegant bow, and Cobweb a deep curtsey. Given that Cobweb had spent most of the day here organising things, and Carabosse had been in and out on transportation duties, it was a little difficult to maintain the requisite formality, but these things had to be done properly.
“Where is our son?” asked the Gnome, peering at the crowds.
“Around with Ianto, somewhere,” said Huw, waving vaguely. “Probably raiding the food.”
“He’s better not make a mess of my subtleties,” warned Cobweb, “or he’ll be providing the entertainment, hose down.”
“Over my dead body,” snapped the Gnome instantly, then smiled apologetically.
“Sorry, I’m so used to being defensive of him. But I’ll punish him myself if it becomes necessary.”
Huw frowned. “That is a discourtesy to a dear friend, which I will discuss with you later unless you had rather provide the entertainment yourself. You have many years of wrongdoing to account for, I have no doubt.”
“Do you argue with me?”
“Good. Come, let us enjoy the party.” They began to circulate, arm in arm.
“What is wrong with her – him?” hissed Cobweb to Carabosse. “He’s as jumpy as a cat.”
“Do you see the way he keeps scanning the crowds? He’s looking for someone at a guess.”
“Possibly. I think he was upset Luc wasn’t here to greet him. But of course Luc doesn’t know yet that the Gnome is his mother.”
“I’m amazed he didn’t recognise her when he first saw her transformed.”
“You wouldn’t be if you saw her when she got back. I didn’t recognise her myself, and I’d been watching her on and off in the mirror. A really solid and subtle Glamour, self sustaining, to make her look like an ageing mortal woman who’s had a hard life. I don’t think she could have done that a week and 16 years ago.”
Carabosse indicated the door at one side of the dais. Ianto had just come in, but rather than Luc, there was a rather friendly young lady leaning against him in such a way as to give him a splendid view of her assets.
“So if he’s not with Luc, where is the boy? Oh damn.” The Gnome had spotted Ianto, and was heading through the crowd with a face like thunder. “Quick, come and help me stop this before the Gnome turns him into anything unfortunate. We’d have a full-scale civil war if anything happens to him.” Huw was also pursuing his errant partner, but being considerably larger, and a lot more polite, was handicapped in making his way through the crowd at such speed.
Ianto jumped. “Yes, sir, I didn’t do anything – oh, it’s you.”
“May I ask you who your friend is?” enquired the Gnome silkily. “And where your former friend Luc is?”
The unfortunate Ianto went scarlet, then white as Huw materialised behind the Gnome, accompanied by a grim-faced Cobweb and sardonic Carabosse. The girl gave a little squeak and shrank behind Ianto.
“It’s just – I, he, I can’t say. I promised!” wailed the unhappy youth.
“Ianto,” rumbled Huw. “You gave oaths of obedience to me. You have no right to give promises that violate those oaths. So I will ask this just the once, boyo. What is going on?”
“It’s Luc. He wanted – he asked me what it was like with a girl, if it was any different.”
There was a long pause. “And?” prompted Cobweb, gently.
“I asked Heulwen here and her sister Eira to – er- keep us company. And Luc and Eira seemed to be getting on well, so we, um, left them to it.”
“Left them to it?” The Gnome opened his mouth to explain just what he thought of this arrangement, but Huw’s hand descended on his shoulder.
“That was very – generous – of you,” said Huw. “But I really think that this is not wise. You are both young. You do not have the means to support children, should you get them.”
“Ch –children?” squeaked Ianto, sounding rather like a child himself.
“Children?” echoed the girl faintly.
“Oh yes, dear,” agreed the Gnome. “And of course Luc comes from a very fertile line. Practically only have to look at you and you’re knocked up.” Huw’s hand squeezed warningly, but the Gnome was on a roll. “And it’s all right for them, but for the girls there are all the risks of childbirth of course, the terrible pain, especially when they cut you open with poultry shears to give the baby more room to get out” – the girl’s eyes widened with horror and Huw’s grip became distinctly painful at this point – “the way it ruins your figure, the lack of support afterwards, the way you’ll have to spend all your days and nights for years and years looking after the child. It’s no picnic, I can tell you.”
“You – you utter swine,” said the girl to Ianto. “Eira, I’m coming.” She slapped him in the face and ran off crying, leaving the bewildered youth rubbing his reddened cheek.
“That went well,” said the Gnome brightly.
“That was very unkind,” said Cobweb trying not to laugh.
“Only passing on the womanly wisdom that you passed on to me,” said the Gnome with an evil grin. “Ianto, where are they?”
“In our room,” said Ianto. “What did I do? What did I say?” Carabosse, shaking his head, patted him on the shoulder as he passed. Whatever you might think about the Gnome, it couldn’t be denied that there was always good entertainment to be had in his vicinity.
In the stairwell the sounds of an angry female argument, in rapid-fire Welsh, could be heard.
“Sounds like the sisters have found one another,” said the Gnome.
“Yes. My goodness,” added Huw. “Where did she learn that word?”
They paused at the door of the boys’ room. It looked as if a hurricane had hit it.
“What happened here? Where is Luc?”
The two girls turned to face them, and seeing their liege lord curtseyed very low in great confusion.
“My lord,” said Heulwen, “he has gone.”
“So I see. How many of them were there? Was anyone hurt in the struggle?”
“Struggle? There was no struggle my lord,” said Eira.
“But all this. . .?”
“Oh the room was like that when we got here. Boys aren’t very tidy, are they?” she added, dimpling demurely.
“That’s quite enough of that, miss,” said the Gnome sharply. “Just keep to the facts, please. You were here with my - with Luc. Where is he now?”
“Oh, he went with the man.”
“My lord’s servant. The clerk.”
“Erasmus? What? What is it?” The Gnome had gone completely white, and for a moment they thought he would faint.
“WHERE DID THEY GO?” he asked. It was asked quite quietly, but there was something terrible in the voice. The girl heard it, surely, for she cringed.
“He didn’t say. He just said something about a lesson.”
“The schoolroom,” hissed the Gnome, Folded, and was gone so quickly that the rush of air into the space he had occupied rattled the horn windows.
“What the . . .” began Carabosse but Cobweb had hit herself hard on the forehead.
“Idiot!” she said. “Of course it had to be. That’s why he’s always scarce when I’m here, in case he gives himself away. Huw, quickly, where is this schoolroom?”
“In the west tower, the second floor. Magister Erasmus has his bedroom at the top, a room for his experiments below, and the schoolroom below that.”
“Right. Carabosse, you and Huw follow by the conventional route in case he’s got a redirection spell running.” She too Folded and stepped. . .
. . . into a spacious room with high windows on one side, filled with expensive glass rather than cheaper horn. There were high wooden desks there, and a large table on a sort of raised dais at the front of the room, opposite the windows.
On the table, unconscious, lay Luc. A flickering aura around him proved, on closer inspection, to be thousands of tiny numbers made of light, swarming in complex orbits, some of which spiralled in towards him to stream into his ears and nose.
The Gnome and Magister Erasmus faced one another across the table. The magister looked exactly as he had in the mirror: stout, red-faced, kindly. The Gnome – the Gnome looked anything but. A pale ghostly fire wrapped him, streamed from his head like a candle flame, dripped in a deathly glitter from his outstretched hands. As Cobweb stepped forward she could hear the sizzle of enormous magical energies scarcely contained, of probabilities running screaming in the other direction. A pot of flowers on a shelf abruptly grew legs and tried to do the same, until a twitch of the Gnome’s little finger launched a bolt of white flame that shattered it into dust and left a smoking hole through the wall.
Apart from that action, it appeared that neither of them was doing very much. To those who had eyes that could See, as Cobweb could, however, it was obvious that a silent, invisible, but nonetheless deadly battle of wills was going on. So far, Erasmus was managing to keep the invisible wall of his defences intact against the pressure of the Gnome’s Art, but the strain was telling. He was growing redder by the minute, and the sweat was pouring from his brow.
“Release my son, Erasmus – or should I say Merlin?” said the Gnome in that same soft deadly tone.
“Verdomme, you have it all worked out, you think?” said Erasmus.
“I had a long time to think about it. How our enemy was always ahead of us, always outthinking us. I knew he would be somewhere, disguised, listening and plotting. Somewhere he could keep an eye on the boy. For a little while I feared it might be Ianto. But then I thought about you. You turned up out of nowhere, for no apparent reason. You weren’t around when I was first here. And you were never around when Cobweb or I came calling, either. Hiding in plain sight. Making fools of us all.” A particularly vicious surge of will sent Erasmus stumbling backwards. His defensive wall flickered for a moment before he regained control.
“Almost – had you there,” gasped the Gnome.
“Luck,” hissed Erasmus. “And what you have not explained is why I should interest myself in your byblow.”
For the first time, the Gnome looked a little uncertain. Erasmus’ defences expanded a little.
“I don’t know and I don’t care what your evil scheme is, Merlin. All I know is that it stops here.”
“I’m going to – what?”
“You’re right. It does stop here. Everything that was necessary has been done.”
“No. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go.”
Erasmus threw back his head and laughed. There was something, Cobweb reflected, awfully familiar about that laughter.
“What, I’m supposed to say: curse you copper, you’ll never take me alive?” he asked.
“Stop confusing me,” hissed the Gnome. “You’re going to pay for everything you did.”
“Which was what exactly? Looking after your son? A few protection charms, a bit of mischief.”
“You kidnapped me and put me in a dungeon. You ruined Cobweb’s job and sent her to R’lyeh.”
“Actually, she sent herself,” said Erasmus. Something odd seemed to be happening to him. His already stout body seemed to be expanding, stretching oddly. “Both of you were entirely too self-satisfied. You needed taking down a peg or two.”
His voice seemed to be changing. That last had sounded like. . .
“It’s you!” gasped Cobweb and the Gnome simultaneously. For where Erasmus had stood they now faced – themselves.
“Yes, dears. We are you. Well, you as you will be, a little bit along the timeline. You didn’t think that interference with time only worked one way, did you?”
“But, but, but,” said a flabbergasted Gnome, as his power abruptly fizzled and died.
“Oh for heaven’s sake, can’t you manage a more scintillating comment than that?” asked his future self.
“But you made a gebbeth,” managed the Gnome.
“Nonsense,” said his future self briskly. “A mere golem, a rude mechanical. Really, you need to brush up on Possession and Creation if you can’t tell the difference.”
“Never mind that, what are you doing to Luc?” asked current Cobweb, ever the pragmatist.
“That? Oh, we’re just helping the boy develop his numerical skills. He really is good with numbers. And numbers, in the end, are the building blocks of everything. But we’re finished now. Let’s send him back to bed.” The future Gnome snapped his fingers, and Luc vanished, to a tiny cry of dismay from his parent.
“Oh yes,” said the future Cobweb. “And he’s going to need the skills number can give. Of course, you all have so many interesting things coming up. You’ll need all the help you can get. There’s all that business with the dragons, of course, and the Iolanthe affair, and the time that you got into such trouble over Hermes’ rap career. And there’s so much to do here, of course.” She looked at her co-conspirator. “Particularly after they redraw the. . .”
“I don’t think we should tell them about that,” he said firmly. “That needs to happen spontaneously. Ish.”
She smiled, and mouthed something which her current version couldn’t see, not being in the right position.
“And you need to get rid of all that power you’ve built up,” future Gnome advised his bemused younger self. “Otherwise you’ll do yourself a mischief. Instead of someone else. Or somewhere else.”
The Gnome stared at him. “Oh,” he said finally. “You mean. . . Will it work, then?”
“You’ll never know unless you try. Now, we really must be going.”
The door smashed inwards, and Huw and Carabosse appeared.
“I think you need to confess,” said the Gnome. “That all of this has been down to the two of us – I mean, you.”
He smiled serenely, took future Cobweb’s hand, and the two of them – faded. It wasn’t a Fold. It wasn’t Cobweb’s usual trick with Time, either. It was something else.
“Where? What? Who?”
“He’s gone. They’ve gone. We’ve gone. It wasn’t Merlin after all,” said Cobweb. “Oh dear, this is going to get nasty, I can tell.”
A tiny window in space opened, and future Cobweb poked her head through. “Hi Huw, Bossy,” she said. “I almost forgot. You’re going to need these. Catch.” Two objects arched through the air to rattle on the floor. “And Cobweb: we didn’t say that, did we?”
“What is going on?” asked a frowning Huw, bending to pick up a long, black, tapering rod, of some hard but flexible material. It looked uncannily like – it was, the Gnome realised with alarm – the rib from one of Carabosse’s discarded wings, an implement he had once heard Cobweb describe with a shudder as ‘like a particularly severe cane, but with none of the pleasant characteristics that description suggests’.
“You’ve taken the words right out of my mouth, Huw,” said Carabosse, picking up the dragonhide paddle. “What was all this about the two of you being responsible for everything?”
“Well, it seems Erasmus was – that is, that we, that at some time in the future, we – oh, the hell with it,” said the Gnome. “Things didn’t turn out to be quite what I’d expected. And there’s something else I have to do.” He turned to the window and looked out on the serene vista of Huw’s lands. Then with a wicked smile he gathered up his power and Pulled. There was a groan and rumble through all the fabric of Reality, followed by an ominous silence.
“What have you done?” cried Carabosse. He and Cobweb rushed to the window in their turn, feeling the approach of Something.
“Huw? Come my love, and watch,” said the Gnome. Huw, still frowning, came to stand beside him.
Outside, something like a great dark wave, full of stars, gathered on the horizon. Even as they watched it raced towards them, over the valley of the Clewten, past Cosb, engulfing the rich barley fields of Palfod and the deer-haunted forests of Bryn Fflangell. On it came, and a curious music seemed to come with it.
Huw thought that perhaps he should be frightened, but he was not. His heart beat within him with excitement, as if something wonderful were about to happen. The Gnome looked up at him, his eyes shining.
“Kiss me, my lord,” he said, and Huw obliged, as the wave swept over them with music and singing and a feeling like the end of everything and the beginning of something new. And when they broke off, at long, long last, with the Sight of his line Huw looked around him and saw everything exactly as it had been, and yet totally transformed.
“You have moved the borders of Faery,” said Carabosse, in an awestruck voice. “My God,” – the Gnome tried hard not to think just Who that might be – “you’ve redrawn the borders of Faery. I didn’t know one could do that.”
“Yes. Huw and all his lands are part of the Lands Beyond the Lands Men Know, now. And he and his are no longer subject to Time and Death, at least not in the way they were before.”
“And don’t you think you might have asked us first?” said Huw. “Did I, at any time, say that I wanted to be immortal? And Unreal?”
“Well, I’m Unreal. Do you love me any the less for it? And you aren’t immortal. Not yet. It takes time, and practice, to get out of the habit of dying. You won’t age, but you can still be killed, so you have to be careful. Understand this, Huw. You chose me, now you’ve got me. I won’t give you up for anyone, not even Death. I’ll share you, but I won’t give you up.”
“Excuse me. Am I some cake to be divided? Some horse to be sold?”
The Gnome opened his mouth, but Cobweb got there first.
“Don’t go there, Gnome,” she said. “We’re both in enough trouble already. Remember what he’s holding, and take my advice. Don’t go there.”
The Gnome looked at her, and then they both fell into peals of helpless laughter. The laughter lasted long enough for the two of them to be bared and bent over the table by their respective partners.
The Gnome reached out and grasped his friend’s fingers. “Friends for ever?”
“Friends for ever. OW! OW! OW!”
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