Episode 5

Thehe Woodgnome hesitated behind the tree for some time. Before he committed himself to knocking on Cobweb’s door, he really, really wanted to know where Carabosse was. He was concentrating hard on the clearing in front of him, which may have been why he failed to notice the materialisation happening to his rear. The slap made him jump and yelp.

“You again,” said Carabosse, cheerfully. “Yes, you might be exactly what she needs. It’s quite safe. I’m just going, and I don’t expect to be back before the weekend. I’ve got a maiden with serious hair to imprison in a doorless tower. I ought to be female by now, but Cobweb likes me to be male when I kiss her goodbye. Actually, Cobweb just likes me to be male, but that’s by the by. She’s been away for ten days, and she’s flattened. I had to promise to get all the Welsh soapwort opera recorded for the pair of you, and I think I did. She only got back half an hour ago, and I chased her up to Minerale’s place to lie in the hot spring; she’s pulled a muscle in her shoulder. Not Rioja, please, Gnome. It stains the carpet. I know who taught you about alcohol, and I know what he was before, so I know what you can do. He’s been a general vegetation god, so you can do juniper and lemon, and you and he have both been water sprites, so you can do fizzy. If you ask Minerale nicely, she’ll give you ice. Cobweb needs a big, big gin and tonic, or possibly two. Then if you must drink yourselves stupid, you have what you like, but get her a really dry Cava. She needs cheering up. Don’t let her be male for a day or two. She’s getting confused.”

“How am I supposed to stop her?”

“Think of something. Yes, you’ll be much better than leaving her alone. She would only listen to her Leonard Cohen CDs if she were left alone, and I’m never convinced that’s a good idea when she’s tired. Oh yes, I forgot. I appreciate that you can’t tell your Master what to do, but try to lead him away from the cottage. That period when he does moist warmth, you know, to get the grapes going? It’s playing Dis with the thatch. We got away with it this time, because Mithras came by on a Mystery Tour, and there’s nothing like Sol Invictus to get things dry, but it’s a fire risk. Now, run and play. She’s still in the bath, so you can go up there if you want, or call Minerale to deliver the first gin and tonic. Whatever. I never know quite what you and she. . . And I don’t think I want to, either. Yes, you’ll be much better for her than Minerale. She’s a nice girl, but a bit wet.”

The disgruntled Gnome wandered up the hill and peered delicately over the lip into the little valley full of running water. “Minerale? Are you there?”

“Hello, Gnome. Haven’t seen you about lately. Cobweb’s here. Were you looking for her?”

“I’ve got a drink for her. Can you put ice in it? Thanks. Do you want one yourself? You’re welcome. Is she decent?”

“No, of course she. . . oh, physically? Yes, she’s in right up to her throat, and I put lots of that frothy stuff in. Go on down.”

The Fairy had her head on a pillow of moss, and her eyes shut. She looked grey and dusty. The Gnome considered how to address her and decided on the flat statement of the important.


The eyes opened and a hand emerged from the soapy water. Hands do that in this sort of tale, but normally for swords, not cocktails.

“You’re a hero.”

“No, I’m a woodgnome. Hero, big guy with muscles and sharp sword. Woodgnome, alcohol provider with strong sense of physical danger. Different. What happened to you, then?”

“Ireland. There was a cattle raid, and the Morrigan put everybody, but everybody, on report. And of course, you know the sort of influence she wields, so she wanted the boss, not the general staff. Two hundred and ten of them I’ve done. Pommy’s gone home in a sulk: I’ve used every switch she possessed. My shoulder hurts, and my left leg’s gone dead. One of them was wearing his skin backwards.”

“What on earth for?”

“I have no idea. I couldn’t work out what to smack – you know, where his bum was, or where it ought to be.”

“What did you do?”

“Laced both his hands instead. He’ll be the only one who can sit down today, assuming he could before, but he won’t be able to hold a sword. It was all I could think of. Anyway, how are you? How did you get on with the Black Goddesses?”

The Gnome winced. “I ran for it, but it wasn’t hugely successful. I can’t think how I could have been so stupid: I mean, we can all Shift, I do it myself, after all, and you had been doing it all evening, so I should have had it in my mind, but since Carabosse said brazen wings, iron hands, that’s what I was looking for. So when I saw a big dog, I thought it would be one of Herne’s, and he’s a. . . I’ve known him for years. I thought he’d help, so I patted the dog on the head and said ‘nice doggy, where’s Herne, then?’ and then it all went collywest.”

The Fairy thought about this, frowning, and then her eyes widened. “You patted one of the Erinnyes on the head and called her a nice doggy?”

“Alecto,” confirmed the Gnome, mournfully. “And she’s such a bitch. I really don’t want to think about it. How did you get on with Carabosse? Did you get what you had coming?”

A faint reminiscent smile crossed the Fay’s face, and she shifted in the water as one recollecting discomfort. “Oh, yes, thanks, and then some. You should have stayed. He was in really good form. It’s the voice as much as anything: he speaks so slowly that you really have a chance to appreciate being told to ‘come here’. Did you see Brian? I haven’t had a chance to talk to him since I got back.”

“No. After Alecto had finished with me, even Brian said I wasn’t fit. We’ve rescheduled. Anyway, drink up. Do you want another of those?”

“Yes, please. There’s been nothing but Guinness for ten days. I love it, but sometimes only gin will do. Carabosse says he taped Huw Llaw Gyffes for us, but he isn’t brilliant with technology, so it might have the start and end of the episodes cut off. I’m a bit worried about it, to tell the truth. I think we might have overdone things.”

“Can you overdo things?”

“Well, we all know that you don’t think so, but Luc is very young after all, and he didn’t have a good day to start off, did he? I mean, you smacked him, and I swished him twice (and one of those ought to have been yours), and then Huw got him.”

“And me,” interjected Minerale, who had been listening. The other two turned to her in surprise. “Well, he was being difficult about washing behind his ears, so I dropped him over a rock and spanked him.”

“Damn, we missed that,” said Cobweb in some dudgeon. “He’d have been wet, too, which is always good. Did he wriggle?”

“Oh, yes, lots,” confirmed the Naiad.

“Yes, BUT,” interrupted the Gnome, trying to keep them to the point. “Is that too much for a snotty adolescent?”

“Well, not us, obviously. Not what we did. He had that coming. But Huw was a bit rough. That’ll have left bruises. I just thought, when I started, Carabosse wasn’t nearly that rough, not until I knew what I was about.”

“But he asked for it, trying to deceive about where he came from.”

“I don’t know how he hoped to get away with it. I mean, Lisburn? He isn’t half posh enough for Lisburn. He might as well have said Hollywood. Or Dunmurry. Nobody was going to believe him. I can see him trying to give up Lurgan, and I don’t blame him, but he needs to think smaller. Carryduff, perhaps.”

“Do you think he’ll change again?”

“Doubt it, not after that walloping. I know he isn’t very bright, but he does seem to be able to avoid being had the same way twice. Unlike you, who seem to have an ambition to be had in as many ways and as many times as possible.”

“That’s below the belt!”

“Yes, that’s what I said.”

“Bitch. You do tease. I don’t know how Carabosse puts up with it.”

“Oh, he doesn’t, as you know perfectly well.”

“I shouldn’t worry. Huw knows what he’s doing. Oh, gods, yes, he knows what he’s doing.”

“Don’t let your mouth hang open like that, you look bird-witted. We all know that you just loved being with Huw, but the point is that Luc hasn’t your experience. And for all we know, Luc doesn’t care for Martin Johnson.”

“You needn’t think I didn’t see the way you were looking at Ianto.”

“Oh well, he and I have history.”

“But you must be twice his age!”

“Yes, and Huw must be three times Luc’s age. Anyway, what has that to do with anything? Ianto is on my list, and you know how I do time (and doesn’t Time just love it, too!). I dealt with him about two years ago his time and about eight hundred years ago mine. His name came up in my very first week, and he’s a sweetie. I don’t generally have to bother once they get to Huw, he’s already dealing with everybody more thoroughly than I can on my budget, but Ianto wasn’t there yet, and he had stolen a loaf of bread. He was only seventeen, and he hadn’t grown into his legs or his cheekbones. He looked like a young Bryan Ferry. I sorted him out and he cried. He was the first one who cried rather than swearing at me, but he was dreadfully ashamed of himself because his mother brought him up properly not to steal, so I. . . um. . .”

“You really are sentimental, you know that? It’s disgraceful in a fairy of your experience. You took him to bed, didn’t you? Was he any good?”

“He was very enthusiastic, I remember that. And there was no faulting his stamina. The technique was a little rough, but that was just lack of experience.”

“Which way round were you?”

“Oh, we tried all sorts. . .”

“No, I mean is he going to object if Story tries to match him with Luc?”

“I don’t think so. I mean, I was female when he saw me, but he wouldn’t be with Huw if he objected to dealing from the bottom of the pack. Look, we all know that Huw is going to teach Luc several lessons of a painful sort, and very probably several others that he likes better, but I worry about a long term relationship between them. Luc isn’t nearly smart enough to keep Huw’s attention for long. Huw has lots and lots of brains, and Luc has almost none. He’s going to come unstuck at once, because he has no Greek and almost no Latin, he’s going to be too sore to sit that horse with any conviction, and his sword is two sizes too big and not very good quality. We’ll need to do something about that, too. He can’t go off learning to be a knight errant with that sword. Weland won’t help, I don’t suppose, because he says Wales isn’t his business, but you could ask Govannan.”

“Me? Why me?”

“I just thought you would like to. Do you know him?”

“We’ve never met.”

“Well, he’s primarily a brewer, so you should have things in common, and he doubles as a smith, so he’s built like a fullback. I think you and he might get on, and you might be able to persuade him to make Luc a sword.”

“Oh, well, introduce us then. But to get back to the education thing, Erasmus won’t hurt Luc, and he’ll have to learn his Greek, won’t he?”

“No, it seems Erasmus just likes to watch, not play, but if he has any sense he’ll skip Greek completely except for algebra.”

“Al. . .”

“The boy’s not a linguist, he’s a mathematician. He can figure. He writes a reasonably good hand, and he can keep accounts.”

“Oh yes? Since when? Ten days ago he didn’t know how many hands he had.”

“Well, I pushed a bit before I went to Ireland. I just thought that we were perhaps getting a little above ourselves on the language front. ”

“Hah! So you thought you would show off a bit! Just because you know why the tax year begins on the 6th of April.”

“Yes, and I told Carabosse, and I paid for it, so there. And there. And there as well, actually, look, I’ve still got the marks. And bear in mind that as Head of Nemesis, I’m technically exempt, so I didn’t need to do that. But it was fun. . .”

The Woodgnome averted his gaze. He really didn’t need to be shown. “What do you think it will do?”

“I just think that although Luc will be nuts about Huw, because people are, he’ll need someone to look after him a bit, and love him. And I think it might be Ianto. I’m not saying it will be, just that it might be. All things considered, I’d be very surprised if Ianto hasn’t smarted a bit himself, and he’ll be sympathetic. He has a lot going for him.”

There was a rather sulky silence, and then the Woodgnome said slowly, “When you say he has a lot going for him. . .”

Cobweb made a gesture of great clarity and startling obscenity.

“Ah. . . Well, that might be different, I suppose. It’s a bit soppy, though, isn’t it?”

“I like romances. It’s the language thing again.”

“Um, no, I don’t think that’s what they actually mean by ‘Romance Languages’.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, let’s just go and see, rather than trying to second guess Story. I’m getting out. My skin’s gone all soggy.”

“No!” cried the Woodgnome, hastily. “At least let me turn my back!”

“Oh, sorry. Do you want me to Shift? I’ll be male if you’d rather.”

“Don’t trouble on my account. Look, here’s your towel. I’ll go back to the cottage and get some food in, shall I? While you put some clothes on. Please put some clothes on. What do you fancy to eat? It’s my turn to bring in the takeaway.”

The Fairy thought about it. “Greek,” she decided. “Can you do Greek?”

“Excuse me? Are these vine leaves in my hair? What sort of sprite do you think I am? Greek it is, then. Anything special?”

“You know the big queen olives? The ones the size of your thumb, with almonds inside? Get lots. And if you don’t mind, can we drink something other than retsina? I don’t like it much.”

“I’ve got,” said the Gnome, mindful of his instructions and the likely consequences of disobeying them, “some rather good Cava. That’ll cheer you up.”

By the time the Fairy was dry and dressed, the Gnome had booted the mirror, which was misbehaving again. “Don’t kick it! Here, I’ll do it. The glasses are in that cupboard. Mmm, it is good Cava, isn’t it?”

“Thank you. I try to please.”

“Rubbish. You try to displease and live by the consequences. And you’re good at it, I admit. Right, where’s Luc de. . . what do you think we should search for him by?”

“Probably by his arse. Try for Luc Cul Rouge. See? Told you so. That’s him. What did Carabosse file him under?”

“CobGnomeSmack. I suppose we should have expected it.”

“Oh well. What’s he doing?”

“Ianto’s taking him to supper, I think.”

“Did you see the way he sat down? Gods, but Huw’s good.”

“Did you notice how many of the others sat down the same way? He’s a busy bunny, Palmprint Huw, isn’t he?”

“Oh yes, always was. Hang on, what’s made Luc look so horrified?”

“Sound, please, Mirror.”

“He’ll expect me to do what?”

“Don’t worry about it, Luc. He won’t make you swallow if you really don’t like it.”

“But I don’t.. I mean, I’ve never. . . I mean, I can’t. . .”

“What, never? What about. . .” and Ianto made a gesture of an obscenity to match Cobweb’s.

“No!” wailed Luc, who was obviously beginning to wonder what sort of household he had joined. He should have thought of that before. Typical teenage boy, feet first into a mess, and looking for someone else to get him out of it.

“Oh, well, he’ll love that. But as for the other, I think you should learn. He isn’t keen on inexperience of that sort. Somebody bit him once, and I thought we would never hear the end of it. It had a truly dreadful effect on his temper.”

The poor youth merely gazed at him. He didn’t care to think of the Lord Huw in a dreadful temper. He was still feeling the effects of Huw in a relatively good temper, and it smarted more than he liked.

“Eat your bread. Any of us will be pleased to teach you, won’t we, Magister Erasmus?”

“Indeed, indeed. Learning by doing, best way. Practice, very desirable.”

“Ianto, do you do that for him?”

“Not so often now, but a year or so ago, it was my job. I was taught young.”

(The Woodgnome cast a startled glance at Cobweb, who blushed and shrugged. “Why do you think his ears stick out?” “What, both ways?” “Oh yes, he was really good when I was female. Really, really good. He could. . .” “No! I don’t want to know the details! I believe you!”)

“Can you teach me? Please?”

Several men in the Great Hall sighed enviously and cast resentful glances at Ianto. He got all the fun jobs.

“I’ll show you. It’s not difficult. I’ll tell you what, why don’t you take the spare bed in my room? Bran wants to move out, so he could have Joscelin’s room and you can move in with me.”

Twenty minutes later, Luc was gazing at a rather narrow and hard bed, and wondering mournfully if he would be able to lie other than on his face. That came as a consequence, he was aware, of lying to someone else’s face.

“Luc? I asked Arianrhod in the still-room for some ointment for you. We all have some, it’s standard issue. You’ll need it. It’s sovereign against bruises. Put some on now. Shall I do it for you?”

(“Pushy, isn’t he?” asked the Gnome disapprovingly.)

“You said everybody had some of this?” asked Luc sadly, allowing Ianto to push him onto his bed, and ease down his hose.

“Oh yes. Look, I’ve got bruises too. See?”

(“Oh my,” said the Woodgnome, weakly. “As you say, a lot going for him. How did I miss him?”)

“Now, turn on your back.”

“I. . .Ow! No! I don’t think I can.”

“Um. O.K. Stand up. Lean against the wall. Now, look, if I kneel down. . .”

“What are you. . .oh! Is that what you. . . Yes, I see. That’s. . . Um. . . Are you all right down there?”

Ianto, whose mother had always told him never to speak with his mouth full, nodded vigorously, and Luc squeaked.

(“Pass the olives, please. Gnome? Gnome? Oh never mind, I’ll just stretch. Do you want any of the dolmades? No?”. . . . . . . . . “Here, where did all the dolmades go?” “I ate them. About fifteen minutes ago. I did ask, but you weren’t paying attention. Is there any more Cava?”)

“Wow. That was. . .”

“Now it’s your turn. Gently. No, you’ll gag if you try to do that straight off. Yes, that’s good. Nothing wrong with you that a little practice won’t cure, is there?”

(“Pass the tsatsiki, please. Thanks. Have we finished the bread? Ooh, you got baklava as well. Do you want your bit? I’ll just leave it here for you, shall I? Your mouth’s hanging open again. Have some more Cava. I don’t know, he looks a bit rough to me.” “Leave him alone. He’s doing very well for a novice. Mind you, he’s got enough to practice on. . . Lucky sod.” “I know. I’ve always been very fond of Ianto. Mind you, I hadn’t realised he would turn out so good-looking. Moves like a dancer. Very comfortable in his own body. And very interesting in mine. . .” “Oh, please, do you have to? That is just too much information.”)

“Ianto! Ianto! Are you in there?”

“Oh hell. What is it, Emrys?”

“You’re in charge of the keys tonight, remember? You should have been on duty to lock up half an hour ago, and the Lord Huw desires your immediate attendance. He’s not pleased. And he said that if I found out who was keeping you from your proper place, I was to bring them too. He says that everybody knows how he feels about punctuality, and he’s going to make you feel it too. I would come quick, if I were you.”

(“Good advice,” added the gnome, “in both senses. Well, there’s one followed. Look, he does swallow. Nice, isn’t it, that Story doesn’t have to trouble with all that Safe Sex stuff? I’ll tell you for nothing, Huw is not going to accept this as an excuse. Ten minutes, I reckon, and both those lads will be howling. There are going to be a couple of very well heated bottoms shortly.”

“You reckon? You don’t think Huw will let Luc off because he’s been done once already today?”

“Well, you didn’t let him off, did you? So why would Huw? Reckon you’re right, though. It’ll be two sorry boys by bedtime, and if they don’t end up comforting each other, well. . . Did Carabosse get the whole scene on tape for us, or does it fade to the next bit?”)


Idris the Dragon

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