In which our hero finds him a position, and not one entirely to his liking
he Woodgnome glanced up as a shadow overhead cut out the light.
“Hallo, is it going to rain?”
“No, we seem to have acquired chapter headings. Damned things. I’ll get some rubric conditioner and scrub them out later. Where’s my . . . ah, thank you. Intact, I note,” said Cobweb, as the Woodgnome handed him a glass of wine.
“Oh ye of little faith. As if I would drink from someone else’s glass,” said the Woodgnome mendaciously, trying to obscure the fact that both the glass and the bottle mysteriously contained more than they had when the Fay left, despite his depredations. There are some advantages to having once been a tutor to Dionysus. “Olive?”
“Are there any of the ones with coriander and garlic left, or have you scoffed the lot?” She poked through the offered remains with a mournful expression.
“Here. And do you mind not doing that?”
“Shifting genders between paragraphs. It’s confusing.”
“My house, my rules. Shh, I think we’re getting to the good bit.”
Slowly, Luc approached the gate. Having a naturally cheerful disposition and no great excess of brains, he was not much given to pondering, but something about the entrance to Castell Tin Goch would make even the cheeriest and dimmest soul ponder whether this was really where he wanted to be right now. It might have been the sinister black gleam of the iron bound doors, or the curious and rather rude knocker in the form of an open palm descending on a pair of buttocks. It might have been, if you were scholar enough to read it, the inscription above the gate:
FACILIS DESCENSUS AVERNO
which Luc, whose education had been erratic to say the least, rather thought was something about the lifts (or was it the garde-robes) being out of order.
It might have been any of these things, but was, in fact, more to do with the pike whose sharp end abruptly hovered about half an inch from the boy’s throat.
“What do you think of that, eh, jonker?” asked a cheery voice. “Caught him this morning, down in the millpond. No wonder the carp have all disappeared.”
“Very nice,” said Luc, his face going as green as the fishy slime that was dripping onto his best (and only) tunic.
“Nice!” exploded the fish-wielding figure. Five feet tall, five feet wide, clad in a rather shabby black robe, it was crowned by a face that rather resembled a strawberry topped by a shock of white hair, if only strawberries were bisected by enormous moustaches. “Verdomme, he’s a beauty. He’ll beat the county record or I’m a Dutchman. What’s the matter, don’t you like fish?”
“Er, no, not very much. At all.”
“Extraordinary.” The other man looked at him.
“And just who are you?”
“Luc. Luc de – de – Lisburn. Yes, de Lisburn.”
The Woodgnome raised an eyebrow at Cobweb.
“Pushing it, isn’t he?” he said.
The Fay shrugged his broad shoulders. “Worth six, I should imagine. The system will take care of it, as you well know. Who is this guy?”
“Another archetype, I think. He wasn’t there when I – um –”
“Were getting intimately acquainted with the view of the rushes on the floor while Huw warmed your backside for you?” cut in Cobweb a trifle sharply, having just noticed that the bottle of Rioja had refilled itself again. Not that she objected to the principle – it was quite a useful talent – but it was overflowing on her coffee table. “Well, I suppose we’ll leave him be for the moment. Mind you, if he even murmurs a word from Disney, he goes.”
The Woodgnome shrugged, and returned his attention pointedly to the conversation in the mirror.
“And what do you seek here, Master de Lisburn? Knowledge?”
“I am seeking a lord in whose service I may be bound.”
The old man looked at him affectionately.
“Well you’ve come to the right place. Bondage my lord can certainly do. I am Erasmus van der Humm, my lord Huw’s grammarian and clerk.”
“Reverend sir . . .”
“Pish, jonker, call me Erasmus. Well, come along, you won’t want to keep Sir Huw waiting. Not after the first time, at any rate.” A bewildered Luc followed the stout and energetic figure through a small door at the side into the great courtyard, across which they proceeded at speed, then through a maze of passageways and out into the tapestry-hung great hall.
Huw ap Meredith ap Map, lord of the cantref of Ceryddol, master of Tin Goch, Cosb, and Palfod, Warden of the Debatable March, praiseworthy among the great men of the Island of the Mighty, sat at his meat. Great was his stature as befitted a descendant of Olwen daughter to Ysbaddaden Pencawr, fair his brow as befitted a bard, strong his hand as befitted a lord stern in judgement, broad his shoulder . . .
“Can we skip the bardic titles?” asked the Woodgnome irritably. “Only I’d like to be home sometime before the century ends. Mind you,” he added reminiscently, “he is a fine figure of a man, wouldn’t you say?”
Cobweb gave the Gnome a rather old-fashioned look. “He certainly seems to have acquired a frightening resemblance to Martin Johnson,” she said drily. “Your doing, I suppose?”
The Woodgnome blushed. “Story is rather malleable when the likes of us get involved in it,” he admitted. “And – well, the Queen sent me there just after I’d been watching an England game.”
“No doubt someone somewhere is keeping your score,” said the Fay. “I’m just glad your primary accounts aren’t the direct responsibility of Nemesis, Brian or no Brian.”
The Woodgnome ignored this remark with the selective deaf ear of the hardened recidivist, as Luc was being led in front of the master of the castle.
“Pwy yw’r bachgen hwn?” rumbled Huw.
“Ysgwier newydd, arglwydd.”
“A new one? Did we lose another?” asked Huw in mild surprise. “Dammo, I was quite looking forward to training the last one. What’s your name, bach?”
“Luc de Lisburn, my lord.”
“De Lisburn, is it? A Goidel. Well, better than an English, I suppose. And you want to be a squire, then, is it?”
“If it please my lord.”
Huw stared at him appraisingly. A bit gangly, all limbs and embarrassment, but with the promise of muscle in the right places. And a pert little bottom that was just the shape of two cupped hands. Large hands.
The lord of the cantref of Ceryddol looked down at his own huge hands, calloused in all the places that the hands of men intimately familiar with the sword are calloused. Then he looked up and smiled, the flint grey eyes warming for the first time under the heavy brow.
It was a smile that men had given up their lives for, following him into battle. It was a smile for which both men and women had given up other things far more personal. Luc was no more immune to it than they had been.
He fell to his knees, holding out both hands.
“Accept my service, lord!”
“Well, bach, if you will have it so. Swear then. Only remember it was your choice, after.” The enormous hands closed around his, engulfing them up to the wrist, so that he could not have moved had he wanted to.
“I, Luc de Lisburn, swear to be your true and loyal squire, lord, to come and go in your service as I am bid, until you release me.”
“And I, Huw ap Meredith, swear that I shall repay loyalty with fealty, service with advancement, and wrongdoing with punishment. Up then, squire Luc.” He raised the boy effortlessly.
“Now then, bach, was there something you wanted to tell me?”
Luc looked at him puzzled. The sun had gone in again.
“de Lisburn, is it? I hear that you have gone by other names, bach. Swearing loyalty under a false name, there’s bad for you.”
Luc blushed a shade of crimson that clashed horribly with his doublet, while Cobweb turned to the gnome with a silently mouthed: told you so.
“I was trying it to see if it fitted,” he admitted in a small voice.
Huw laughed. “Well, it doesn’t.” Then his voice hardened. “And my squires do not lie to me. Well, not if they want to sit down any time soon.”
Luc’s head lifted in alarm, but by the time his brain had sent the message: run! to his legs, the legs were sending back the message: oh no, not again, as they found themselves dangling over Huw’s massive thigh. One hand yanked down the lad’s hose, snapping the lacets as it did so, while the other lay in the small of his back like a young mountain, a pressure and a presence that warned that escape was impossible.
Luc savoured the coolness of the air on his bare bottom. It was liable, he guessed, to be the last coolness he felt down there for a – oww!
“It’s not – agh! fair,” he said.
Huw laughed. On the white flesh the outline of his fingers blazed scarlet.
“Who told you the world was fair, boy? And anyway, are you questioning your lord’s judgement?” He accompanied that question with a fusillade of slaps to the lower portions of the lad’s backside, and was rewarded with a set of gasps and cries amongst which were repeated ‘no’s that he would have been graciously pleased to accept as an answer if only they had been accompanied by an appropriate ‘sir’, a concept he took some pains (or the infliction of some pains, at least) to explain at length to the unfortunate squire, before resuming the original punishment.
“Now while you are in my household, bach,” he added to the upturned bottom across his lap, “I shall train you in the arts of war, and Master Erasmus here will be your tutor in the liberal arts. You will find that he has strange ideas about teaching – eh, magister?” the old man smiled, “and will not beat you as you deserve, but you will obey him as you would obey me, and be learning properly, or I shall beat you in his stead.”
“The great Plato” said Erasmus solemnly, in between Luc’s yelps and cries, “tells us that of all animals the boy is the most unmanageable, but all animals in my experience respond well to kindness.”
“And am I not the soul of kindness? No-one – Duw, stop wriggling boy or you’ll get worse – could be more generous than me in correcting the faults of my squires.”
Luc had by now given up any pretence at adolescent dignity and was blubbing like a child, a stream of promises to be good and pleas for mercy tumbling form his lips between sobs as his bottom swelled under those iron hands into a rigidly swollen mass of scarlet and purple welts.
And at last the hands ceased to descend, and took instead to
rubbing the fevered flesh, until Luc’s sobs died away. One strong arm took him
and helped him to his feet, his hose in a puddle around his ankles, his face
nearly as red as the bottom he displayed heedlessly to interested onlookers.
Of whom quite a few seemed to have found reason to pass through the great hall,
once the word had spread round the castle that a new
victim squire had
been found to replace the runaways.
“Now then boyo,” said Huw, not unkindly, to the forlorn youth. “Go with one of these lads – Ianto, you’ll do. Show the boy to his quarters.”
The youth he addressed, a strapping lad of about 19 in the uniform of the castle guard, saluted smartly.
“Luc, you will have no duties for the rest of the day. You will attend on me at my rising tomorrow, and we’ll see how you ride and handle weapons, then Magister Erasmus will test you at your Latin and Greek.”
Luc looked alarmed at this last, but nodded and bowed. “Yes, sir,” he said, being, if not that bright, not entirely stupid either.
“Off you go then!”
The two young men hurried out of his presence, Luc pausing every so often to pull up the hose that threatened to fall down again.
Palmprint Huw rubbed his hands together. They glowed pleasantly warm from his favourite exercise.
“Bachgen, I think you’ll do me very well,” he said quietly to himself.”
The watching elementals turned to each other and laughed heartily.
“Oh that was priceless,” said the Woodgnome. “Did you see his . . .”
His mouth fell open, then quirked into a sickly grin.
“Oh, er, hello Carabosse, didn’t hear you come in. Gosh, is that the time, must be going . . .”
“So soon?” asked Carabosse with a quirk of one perfectly sculpted black eyebrow. “And what, pray, has amused you both so much that I could hear the laughter right down the path? And such well lubricated laughter, too,” he added, picking up the empty bottles of wine in turn to read the labels.
“You don’t have to go,” said Cobweb in a small voice to her friend. The Woodgnome shot her a look that said, as clear as anything: are you mad? I’m getting out of here!
“Just remembered a pot of ambrosia on the stove,” he said, sidling towards the door.
“Goodbye,” said Carabosse pleasantly. “Oh, by the way, I met some old friends of yours, looking for you. Three ladies. Brazen wings, iron hands, permanent bad hair day. Whips of scorpions. Ring any bells?”
“Eumenides,” hissed the Woodgnome in shock. His preferred form of a dark haired young man of indeterminate age wavered for a moment, flickering in brief succession into an old and very fat man with a red face and a broad-brimmed hat wreathed in vines, a supermarket shopping trolley, and something ancient and bloodstained and not very nice, before he recovered his shape.
“Did you – er – ?”
“I may have mentioned where you hang out these days. Nice to see you again,” he added to the back of the fleeing sprite, before turning with a chuckle to Cobweb.
“That wasn’t very nice,” she said.
“Oh it’s just the system dealing with a rather overdue account. And speaking of accounts,” he added, throwing off his long leather coat and rolling up his sleeves, “you have some explaining to do . . .”
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