nd now for the weather today in Atlantis City we go over to Rhadamanthus Fish. Rad, what sort of a day is it going to be?”
“Well, Minos, first I just want to reassure the lady who phoned in to say she’d heard sea conditions were going to be a bit rough today. No, we aren’t expecting any tidal waves, but . . .”
“Damn!” said Cobweb and the Woodgnome simultaneously.
“Sorry,” added the Fay. “I told you Carabosse wasn’t too good with technology. He’s recorded the next bit on the wrong channel again.”
“Not to worry,” said the Gnome. “I need to stretch my legs for 5 minutes, and I’ll get some more snacks while I’m at it. There’s a little place just next to the main ziggurat in Ur that does scrummy Chaldean Delight, if you fancy that, and I’ll get some coffee beans in Ethiopia on the way. Watching someone get it always gives me an appetite. Why don’t you see if you can find Luc on one of the rerun channels in the meantime?”
“Fair enough. And some more baklava?” She made doe eyes at the gnome.
“Shameless hussy. OK, some more baklava too.” He slipped out of the door of the cottage, stuck two fingers in his mouth, and whistled piercingly.
About 10 seconds later a black taxi cab materialised outside the cottage, narrowly missing Cobweb’s flowerbeds (which was fortunate for both parties).
“What took you so long?” asked the Woodgnome irritably.
“Sorry,” said the cab. “Traffic round Valhalla was absolutely shocking. Anyway, you should complain, it’s not as if you ever pay me.”
“Cheek,” huffed the Gnome as he opened the door and got in. “Who set you up in the first place, ingrate? What happened to ‘any time you want a lift, just whistle’?”
“When I said that,” returned the cab, “I didn’t expect you to take me up on it every single time you want to go anywhere, you lazy sod. Why can’t you fold Reality like all the others?”
“Because I’m a lazy sod,” said the Gnome, equably. “And doing 11-dimensional origami on spacetime is hard work.”
“Tell me about it. Where to, then, guv?” asked the cab in a resigned tone.
“Ur of the Chaldees, eventually. But first I want you to take me Castell Tin Goch, 9 days ago. I have a bit of sorting out to do.”
“Castell Tin Goch? Rather you than me. My rear end is steel, after all.”
“Hmm, speaking of which, I think you had better adopt your original form, which will be a good deal less conspicuous.”
“Do I have to?”
“Yes you do. And don’t whine.”
The cab metamorphosed under him into a rather plaintive looking grey donkey.
“Good, now let’s get going.”
The ass plodded out of the clearing, across a pedestrian crossing on Broadway (sending one driver to a monastery, and 36 others to their analysts), round a corner in Alexandria, and through a glade of mallorn trees. . .
“And you, buster!” shouted the Woodgnome in Sindarin, turning furiously back as they came out just by the gates of the castle. “Did you hear what those stuck-up Elvish bastards were saying? I’ve got a good mind . . .”
“Which you don’t use often enough,” said the donkey tartly. “You’re here. Can I go?”
“Not on your nelly. I need to talk to someone. Then we might need to go and see a man about a sword. Or not. Then we have to go shopping. Then you have to get me back to Cobweb’s just after we left, so she doesn’t get suspicious.”
“Suspicious of what? Are you up to no good again, Si?”
“I’m deeply wounded by your baseless suspicions of my motives, which are, as ever, pure as the driven snow. And I’ve told you I don’t go by that name anymore.”
“Whatever. So I wait?”
“You wait. Look, there’s some nice grass there.”
“Grass!” said the donkey, bitterly. “Bring the sod all this way and I get grass. Not even decent sweet hay. Grass, indeed.”
Ignoring the muttering, the Woodgnome slipped invisibly into the castle and made his way unerringly up the stairs to a narrow walkway in the shadow of one of the turrets. Slipping silently along it he found himself on a narrow expanse of flat roof between the turret wall and the main outer wall of the bailey. The sun had warmed the roof slates, and the two walls kept off the blustering wind, creating a haven of stillness. Beyond the walls the hills of Wales stretched blue into the distance. Somewhere high up a lark was singing. But the boy leaning awkwardly against the turret wall could not see the view, for his face was buried in his hands.
“I thought I might find you here,” said the Woodgnome quietly.
Startled, Luc dropped his hands from his tear-streaked face.
“You!” he said. “This is all your fault! I hate you!” He scowled horribly. “Leave me alone, I want to die!”
“OK,” said the Gnome. He leaned over the outer wall. “I’d say that was 70 or 80 feet onto stone. Quite enough to kill you. Over you go then.”
“Jump. Kill yourself. Put us all out of your misery. And do try not to use so many exclamation marks, it’s terribly vulgar, like making a little smiley face or a heart of the dot over your ‘i’s.”
Luc looked at him appalled. “You’re – horrible!” he said.
“I try my best,” said the Woodgnome smugly, and laughed and made a small bow. Possibly this was his mistake, because he didn’t see Luc’s rather wild punch coming until it was too late.
Fortunately it takes more than that inflict much damage to a Woodgnome so long marinated in sin and strong liquor, so the only harm done was to the Gnome’s vanity, which was such a large target that Luc could hardly have missed it.
“Ow!” said the furious sprite, ignoring his own strictures about exclamation marks. “What was that for, you little bastard?”
“You deserved it,” said Luc sulkily, then rather spoiled the effect by asking: “I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
“I note that while the toughening up process has commenced, it still has a way to go,” said the Woodgnome drily. “You took me by surprise, that’s all, otherwise you’d never have landed one on me. Who’s been teaching you to fight?”
“Ianto. Some of the others said things – well, I didn’t really understand what they said, to tell you the truth, especially as half of it was in Welsh, but then Ianto got into a fight with Idris and Gruffydd, and I tried to help but I wasn’t – I wasn’t very good,” he said shamefacedly. “So I asked Ianto to teach me.”
“You’d do better to ask Huw. He’s forgotten more ways of bringing a man down than most people ever learn.”
Luc’s face fell.
“I don’t think . . .” there was an excruciating pause.
“I don’t think Sir Huw likes me very much,” admitted Luc in a very small voice. His eyes filled again.
The Gnome sighed.
“I assure you that he must,” he said. “Otherwise he’d have sent you packing. Despite the, umm, somewhat over-enthusiastic approach to discipline, there’s a queue a mile long to get a place here. Gruffydd is the son of Prince Llewelyn, Huw’s liege lord. Ianto is the son of the Lady Rhiannon, the Steel Daffodil, who rules half of Dyfed in her own right with an iron hand in a particularly delicate glove. Lots of the others are nearly as well born. Get trained by Huw and you’ve really been trained. In all sorts of skills,” he added with a leer.
Luc was silent.
“What? Come on,” he added more gently, “what did Huw say to you?”
“He said – he said that my sword was two sizes too big, and not very good quality, so it would never hold an edge, but that it probably made no difference since I had no idea how to use it anyway. And then he said ‘Duw, boyo, you aren’t the sharpest sword in the pack yourself, are you’, and he ruffled my hair and laughed.”
“Fsht, is that all,” said the Woodgnome airily. “I must say you imitate him surprisingly well, though I wouldn’t let him hear you doing it. But it doesn’t sound to me like he doesn’t like you.”
“You don’t understand. He laughed at me. And he spanked me twice yesterday and it really hurts.”
The sprite shook his head. Teenagers. Emotions five sizes too big for them, and they would insist on taking themselves so seriously.
“Hmm,” he said. “So getting a better sword wouldn’t help?”
“How can I get a better sword, with every man’s hand against me?” said Luc tragically.
The Woodgnome rolled his eyes. This was going to be a long chapter.
“Because I’m going to help you. Now come on, we have to be going.”
“To the Hollow Hills, to pay a visit to the Tylwyth Teg.”
“The Good People. The Tuatha de Danaan. The sidhe folk.”
Luc’s eyes rounded.
“Magic? Adventure? A Quest?”
“If you like.”
“Yes please! Sir.” he added.
“No need to overdo it.”
“When are we going? Are we going right away? Do I need to bring anything?”
“Now. Yes. Only yourself and your manners. And do stop dancing around in that irritating way, boy.”
“Thank you, thank you. Oh wait till I tell Ianto.”
“No.” The Woodgnome’s voice held a tone that made Luc’s bottom twitch by reflex.
“No. If I agree to help you it must be our secret. As far as anyone else knows, you met – oh I don’t know, an old wizard in the wood and he helped you. Not a woodgnome, or anyone remotely resembling a woodgnome.”
“Why? Aren’t you supposed to?” asked Luc, shrewdly.
The Woodgnome glared at him. “You wouldn’t understand,” he said.
“I know I’m not terribly bright,” said Luc humbly. “But if you explain better I’ll probably find it easier to remember not to tell the truth.”
“I don’t want my part in this story known.”
“I’m going to be in a story? Like a hero?”
“Everyone is in a story. Every blade of grass is the hero of its own story. Everything you see and know and imagine is part of the Story that the Universe is very slowly telling to Herself to see how it comes out.”
“So why can’t you be part of this one?”
“I am. I just don’t want to be seen as a helpful part. It would ruin my image. I’ve been teasing Cobweb about how sentimental she is. If she knew I’d helped you I’d never hear the last of it. Because she was quite right, as she usually is. We did rather drop you in it.”
Luc looked at him.
“Yes,” he said slowly. “You did, didn’t you? I said it wasn’t fair and it wasn’t. It’s all your fault.”
“All right, I’ve said so, no need to harp on it,” snapped the Woodgnome.
“I won’t tell on you,” said Luc.
“Provided you agree to take my next spanking from Huw.”
“Well it’s only fair. I wouldn’t even be here except for you. You should be taking all my spankings.”
“Don’t push your luck.”
“Or I should spank you.”
“I said, don’t push it. Just because I don’t top, doesn’t mean that I can’t if I have to. You’ll be going over my knee in a minute, and just remember that you may be able to do Huw’s voice but I can do his body. Including his right arm.”
“Everyone gets to spank me and I never get to spank anybody,” he grumbled.
“You’re much too young. Wait till you’re older.”
“It’s not . . .”
“If I hear the words ‘not’ and ‘fair’ in the same sentence one more time today I might just smack you anyway,” warned the Gnome. “Now are you coming?”
“And don’t pout. Teenagers!”
Halfway down the stair, Luc suddenly froze.
“Wait!” he said breathlessly. “I can’t go. Sir Huw will be expecting me to attend on him at the evening meal.”
“Don’t worry about that. I may not be on such intimate terms with Time as my friend, but I know someone who is. We’ll have you back again before anyone notices you’re gone, no matter how long this takes.”
It was perhaps fortunate for Luc’s peace of mind that he could not see the fingers the Gnome had crossed behind his back as he said this.
Outside the castle, the youth looked around. “Where do we go?” he asked.
“Up,” said the Woodgnome, indicating the donkey which ambled amiably over to see if they had anything worth cadging.
“But that’s an ass!” protested Luc. “That’s a peasant’s steed. I can’t ride – ouch!”
“That’s an ass, too,” said the Woodgnome grimly, “and it will be a sore one in a minute if you don’t get on and stop questioning everything I tell you to do.”
Rubbing his bottom the unfortunate squire got astride the donkey. The Gnome rested his arm over the animal’s neck.
“Caer Sidi, nine times revolving, if you please. As quick as you like, old pal.”
“Old pal indeed,” muttered the donkey. “It’s donkey this, and donkey that, and donkey go away, but it’s thank you Mr Equine when the tops begin to play . . .”
“Very poor parody,” said the Gnome loftily, “can we get going please?”
Perhaps with malice aforethought, the ass took them via Antarctica.
It was a distinctly blue Woodgnome and Luc who knocked on the beautifully carved doors of Spiral Castle.
A small hatch opened amongst the riot of flora and fauna, and a face looked out.
“Is Govannan in?”
“No. Off at a conference. Bermuda.” The hatch slammed shut again. After a moment, as it became clear that this was not the prelude to the doors opening, the Woodgnome knocked again.
“Yes, what is it now?”
“When will he be back?”
“Do I look like his secretary? How should I know? Next time make an appointment. And if that animal makes a mess, make sure you shovel it up before you go.” The hatch slammed again, with great finality.
The Gnome turned back, muttering something about lookers, or was it muckers? Luc didn’t quite catch the words.
“Change of plan,” he said. “We’ll go and visit an old friend. Umm, donkey dear, are your hooves up to Vainola? Preferably not via anywhere with subzero temperatures.”
The donkey snorted.
“Don’t think you can sweet talk me,” it said.
“Peppermint? Trebor’s Extra Strong?”
“I’m not doing it for less than a whole packet.”
“Done,” said the Gnome, producing said accessory from a pocket.
“Can I have one?” asked Luc.
“No,” said the Gnome and the donkey, one half a beat behind the other.
“It’s not f. . .” began Luc, and then subsided when the Woodgnome gave him a Look. “Well, it isn’t,” he added very quietly, a comment the Sprite chose to ignore.
“Off we go,” said the donkey, in between loud crunching noises. “Hop aboard, Gnome.”
The Woodgnome leaped up in front of Luc. Surprisingly for such a small animal there was not only enough room for them both, but the donkey showed no particular signs of strain as it ambled off, cutting through somewhere where the sky was a deep lavender with two peach coloured moons visible (‘awful décor’ commented the Woodgnome), before ending up in a pleasantly sunny clearing surrounded by pine trees.
“Ah, here we are,” said the Gnome. “Let’s just see where Illy has got to.” He hopped off the donkey, placed his hands on his hips, and began to sing in a surprisingly rich and sweet baritone:
“Harken now ye pines and birches,
harken Vainola’s sweet grasslands:
very sure I am I know thee,
for I walked thy land aforetime.
In the forest and the swampland,
on the mountain, in the farmland,
nowhere is there that I know not,
nowhere is my call unanswered.
Tell me rocks of fair Vainola,
and you trees that clothe the northland,
whereabouts is Ilmarinen,
where the smith of Kalevala?”
The sound of his voice seemed to echo from all the trees around, as if a large number of people were all talking in an undertone at once.
Then another voice began singing among the trees, coming closer as it sang. This one was a bass.
“Who is this who works his magic,
sings his dark and cunning magic,
in the lands of Kalevala,
by the home of Ilmarinen?
Though he be in magic crafty,
yet my magic shall prove stronger,
he shall rue his hasty calling
on the smith of fair Vainola.
He who sings among the birch trees
soon shall feel their hot caresses,
soon shall sing a different story,
when his arse burns like a sauna.
Let the upstart vainly tremble,
I shall best him in the contest,
let him stand him forth and name him,
that I – oh, it’s you Woody!”
A tall, morose looking middle aged man with arms like a weightlifter’s stepped out of the trees. He wore a tunic and cross-gartered britches in well-worn leather. His cheekbones were broad and his grey eyes rather long and slanted.
“Sorry,” he added, “I thought it was another of those young punk heroes trying to challenge me to make a name for himself.” His voice was undoubtedly his best feature, rich and dark as the best chocolate.
The Gnome laughed. “Not to worry, Illy. How’s things?”
The other man sighed, his face falling. “Well, you know.”
“Look you aren’t still brooding over the Bride of Pohja, are you? You and she wouldn’t have lasted 5 minutes. She has her mother’s temper.”
Ilmarinen sighed again. “No,” he said. “I’ve come to the conclusion that I just have to learn to live alone. But sometimes I get a bit . . . you know. Anxious for company.”
The Gnome eyed him speculatively. “Hmm. Ilmarinen, meet –ah- Luuki. Luc meet Ilmarinen.”
Luc bowed prettily.
“Honoured to meet you, noble sir.”
Ilmarinen nodded, gruffly.
“Luc, take Mr Ilmarinen into the trees and show him what Ianto has been teaching you.”
Luc looked at the Gnome, startled. “Fighting?”
“No, idiot, the other stuff. Go on. Be nice to him. It’ll be good practice for you. Ilmarinen, I think you may have been looking in the wrong places. Place yourself in this young man’s hands, so to speak.”
Luc and the smith disappeared into the bushes. There was some rustling, a startled ‘what the!’ from Ilmarinen, then a lot more rustling and a few groans and gasps. The Woodgnome hummed to himself and fed the donkey the last of the peppermints.
Presently the two returned, Luc looking a little smug, with Ilmarinen’s burly arm around his shoulder. The smith was smiling.
“Woody, this Luuki is a splendid young fellow. Maybe I have been looking in the wrong place.”
“Well, next time a young upstart challenges you, you know what to force him to do. Only, make sure they can’t bite is my advice.”
Ilmarinen winced. “I shall put that in the song, don’t worry,” he said.
“Good. In fact, excellent. You see, I was wondering if you would be able to help us.”
“Young Luuki here would like to be a hero. But he needs a sword fit for a hero. And naturally, I thought of the most skilful smith of the Northlands.”
Ilmarinen looked thoughtful.
“A sword? Hmm. Quite a lot of work, that. Still . . . I suppose I could fit you in. Hold out your arm, young fellow, straight out. Hmm, yes. And the other please. No, more like, yes that’s it. Ah hah. Now touch your nose. And again please. Ten times, very fast. Excellent. Hah. As it happens, I think I have something that will do you nicely, with a bit of modification. Lemminkäinen asked me to make him one a couple of years ago, then decided he didn’t want it after all. He’s about the same height as this lad, so the swing will be right. Come with me.”
He led them through a winding track among the trees, until they reached what looked like a cave in the hillside that had been walled up with cunningly fitted stones, and a stout wooden door between two carved gate posts in the form of serpents winding up pillars.
“Just wait here, lads, won’t be a tick,” said the smith. He leant down to the lock and whispered something to it. The door promptly sprang open and the smith strolled into the dark interior. Luc made as if to follow but the Woodgnome caught him by the sleeve.
“Didn’t you hear him say to wait?” he said. “Smiths are touchy about these things. Besides, look at the doorpost.” One of the carved serpents had swung its head around and was staring at Luc in a distinctly forbidding manner.
Loud crashings and mutterings of ‘where did I put the damned thing’ came from the darkness, followed by a triumphant ‘ah-ha!’
“He uses exclamation marks,” pointed out Luc.
“He’s allowed. He’s too big to go across my knee. You aren’t.”
Luc flushed, but opted, perhaps wisely, for silent sulking.
Ilmarinen emerged from the darkness with a triumphant smile. In his hand he held a leather belt and scabbard, beautifully inlaid with scarlet and green figures and the sparkle of gold. He pulled from the scabbard a short sword with a blade that gleamed in the sunlight. The Gnome’s keen eyes noted the rippled lines of folded alloy work, the strong supporting tang with its leaf pattern, the way the grip was wrapped in sharkskin and leather so that it would not slip and yet remain comfortable in the hand.
“You do nice work, Illy, really nice,” he said.
The smith blushed. “Thanks, Woody.”
If Luc’s eyes bulged any further they would have been in danger of falling rather messily to the floor.
“Is that for me?” he asked. “Really?”
“If you want it.”
“Oh sir, how could anyone not? It’s the most wonderful thing in the world.” The light of adoration shone in the boy’s eyes.
Ilmarinen laughed, pleased. “Try it out,” he said, holding it carefully by the blade and offering the hilt to Luc. The boy took it, tentatively at first, and then with confidence. It felt like a live thing in his hand, warm and almost weightless. He swung it experimentally, heard the air thrum.
“It sings in my hand,” he said, reverentially.
Ilmarinen began to sing again.
“Now the hero’s sword is given,
freely given, freely taken,
let the sword of Lemminkäinen
now become the sword of Luuki.
Let it know its rightful master
that it never turn against him
that it keep him in the melee
from the swords of those who’d harm him.
Let its sharpness fail never
and its brightness always be there
bright as sunlight on Vainola
bright as all the stars of heaven.
Let it not be used in anger
nor be drawn except for justice
nor acquire a taste for bloodshed
but do its wielder rightful honour.”
The sword gave one great belling note (‘B sharp’ said the Gnome) and was silent.
“Wow,” said Luc. He still looked like someone who thought he might be dreaming and was reluctant to wake up.
“Wow indeed,” said the Woodgnome drily. “May I?” He took the sword from Luc, swung it experimentally. “Nice balance,” he said. Then he too chanted:
“Let us now thank Ilmarinen
Prince among the lords of iron
greatest smith in all the Northlands
for the gift that he has given.
Worthy of a king’s apparel
given to this passing stranger
let it spread the fame and honour
due such splendid work’s creator.”
Ilmarinen blushed. “No, really,” he protested. “My pleasure.”
“So just one thing remains,” said the Gnome, with a certain gleam in his eye. “It needs to be christened. Illy, will you . . .?”
The smith took the sword from him, grinning. “Oh yes,” he said.
“Luc,” said the Gnome. “Come here a moment.”
The youth was never entirely sure how he found himself, hose down, laid over the back of the donkey like a roll of carpet.
“But I haven’t done anything,” he wailed.
“Oh this isn’t punishment,” said the Gnome. “This is just a charming little ritual when a lad gets his first proper sword. Six of the best with the flat of it. Go on, Illy.”
The smith swung the supple metal onto the still reddened buttocks.
“OW! OW! Ow it’s not faaaaaaaaair! OW! OWUH! AH!” He was struggling to get up as a hand came down in a very hard slap. “Ow, what was that for? You said six.”
“I also told you what would happen if I heard ‘not fair’ again,” said the Gnome. “Now pull your hose up and thank Ilmarinen. No, not that way,” as Luc started to kneel, and then with a glance at the smith, “oh well, I suppose if . . . you are starting to get a taste for it, aren’t you? Come on donkey, I’ve never particularly enjoyed voyeurism.” He strolled off a little way, whistling something complicated in a minor key.
It was somewhat longer this time before the two rejoined him.
“Well, my lad, I suppose we’d better get you home. Illy, thanks again.”
“No, thank you. Bring Luuki again, any time.” He chucked the lad under the chin, and Luc blushed and lowered his eyes in a way that even the Woodgnome, under severe torture, would have confessed was cute.
“Up you go,” said the Gnome. Luc rubbed his rear. “Can’t I walk?” he asked, forlornly.
“Up,” said the relentless sprite. The boy mounted very carefully.
It seemed no time at all before Castell Tin Goch loomed before them, probably because it wasn’t. Was. Whatever.
“Right, in with you,” said the Gnome. Luc turned and flung his arms around the astonished elemental.
“Thank you,” he said.
“I – er – well, you know, it’s all right. Leave off the soppy stuff will you?”
“And I promise not to tell. That it was you I mean.”
“Good, now get in before you’re missed.”
“Thank you!” said Luc and skipped across into the castle. Just as he did so he bumped full tilt into Ianto.
“Luc! Where have you been? The castle is upside down looking for you.”
“But I – but he – he said that no-one would know I was gone.”
“You’ve been gone a whole day. We thought you’d run away like the others.”
“A whole day! But he promised!”
Luc opened his mouth, closed it again. If he had had a small angel on one shoulder and a small devil on the other, opposing desires could not have warred more clearly in his face. He opened his mouth again.
“Oh, no-one,” he said.
Ianto shook his head. “I’m afraid you’ll really catch it for this,” he said. “Sir Huw wanted to see you as soon as you were found. You’d better come with me.”
Far away, and a day earlier, a gnome laden with charmingly plaited palm baskets descended from a donkey outside Cobweb’s cottage.
“Did you bring the snacks?” she said.
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