uc hovered nervously in the doorway, his arms full of discarded tunics that smelled – well, of Huw. He’d never noticed before the way that clothes took on some of the personality, some of the essence of the person that wore them. These were big, scary clothes. He thought they were wonderful, but he didn’t know where he was with them.
“Duw, boy, are you going to hover there with my laundry all night?” asked Sir Huw, amused. “Lay them in the baskets there and come to me.”
“Y-yes my lord.” He tripped over his own foot, righted himself. D-blow it! he thought, remembering just in time that good boys didn’t use that word. Why couldn’t he be more like Sir Huw, strong and confident? Why was he so clumsy and stupid? He hurried to put the clothes where he had been directed, quite certain that if he got that wrong the consequences for his bottom would be painful.
Huw sat at the edge of his great bed and watched the boy with a keen, professional eye. There would never be his own massive muscular power and endurance there; rather, he thought, a lithe, supple strength like a dancer. The boy bustled about, tidying things that he had already tidied, until Huw took pity on him.
“I’ll just . . .”
“Luc. Come here.”
Instant obedience. That much, at least, he had already learned. The boy was not, after all, quite as stupid as Huw had feared. Just frighteningly young, and incredibly naïve.
“Magister Erasmus tells me you are a wizard with the figures, then.”
“I – it’s quite easy really. I can just see what’s right.”
“Hmm. Not so with the languages, is it?”
Luc flushed. It was one of his charms, reflected the marcher lord, how easy the boy was to read. Every thought, every emotion was reflected on that guileless face. It made him feel quite – well, old, for one thing, but, fatherly was the other. Oh sweet Mother of Heaven. That was bad, then.
“Luc, have you a binding on you? A spell of protection?”
The youth’s head shot up, the eyes big with surprise.
“No, my lord!”
“No faery blood in the family, protective ancestral ghosts, cribside blessings, nothing like that?”
“Oh no, sir. We weren’t nearly grand enough for that. At least . . .”
“At least . . .?”
“I don’t think so. My mother said my father was a poor but honest knight. I never knew him, he died in the Holy Land, and his family took all the lands.”
“Hmm. Maybe the paternal blessings of a knight who died in the service of the Faith would do it. There’s something about you, that’s for sure. You are a most unremarkable youth – pretty enough, or you will be, but not especially beautiful or good or skilled or clever or interesting.” Luc looked a little put out. “And yet everyone seems compelled to help you. An unsavoury character in the woods gets you a sword. A belle dame sans mercy pretends to be your fairy godmother to get you a horse . . .”
“That she was rather more than she pretended to be? Duw, boy, the Sight runs strong as blazes in my line, and I know a Power when I see one. She didn’t fool me, and I don’t think she much cared if I did see through her. What is she then?”
“The Spank Fairy,” admitted Luc, uneasily.
Huw’s eyes widened with delight. “A whiprechaun? One of the People of Dom?”
“Not a spank fairy. The Spank Fairy. Their boss. At least, I think so. They talk a lot over my head, I think they think I don’t understand. Well, I don’t mostly,” he added, honestly enough.
The lord’s lips pursed in a silent whistle.
“If Nemesis herself has taken an interest in you, I think I see how you ended up here,” he said at last. He took the boy’s two hands in his own, chafed them absently.
“You’re trembling,” he said.
“I . . . sir, I don’t know what to – what you want me to . . . I mean I’ve never, you know . . .”
Huw looked at him blankly.
“Done it,” admitted Luc in a very small voice.
“Done it. Done wh. . . oh Duw, boy what have the other squires been saying to you? And you fell for it too?” Luc went a most peculiar colour, and a look of deepest distress mixed with a depth of humiliation only teenagers can know filled his face. Huw bit his lip to keep from laughing out loud.
“Luc,” he said as gently as he could. “What sort of monster do you think I am? Sometimes I have taken lovers from among my companions, by our mutual will, but I’ve never forced anyone in my life, and to take advantage of a helpless boy in my care – well, how would that redound to my honour, then?”
“I’m not a boy,” said Luc indignantly, fixing on the important bit. “I’m seventeen. Next birthday.”
The doorbell rang.
“Bugger it,” said the Woodgnome. “Why does that always happen just as you’re getting to the good bits?” The bell rang again, and he stumped to the door, muttering angrily under his breath.
“About time,” said Cobweb. “Here, take this basket, it’s heavy.”
“You’re late,” said the Gnome ungraciously. “Program’s already started.”
“Sorry, bit of a panic. The catering for the Carabossieri got in an awful muddle and I had to whisk in a silver service buffet from the Lusitania at the last minute to replace them. He’s furious – I wouldn’t want to be in Flora’s shoes tomorrow.”
“Flora? You used Flora’s Fairy Banquets?” The Gnome laughed. “No wonder. She’s a hopeless lush – can’t remember what century it is, never mind what orders she’s taken, most of the time.”
“I did tell him I thought she seemed disorganised,” agreed Cobweb, kicking her shoes off in the elegant Doric portico of the old temple, and handing her wrap to one of the startling well-endowed statues on either side of the door when it offered a marble hand to take it.
“Nice Herms, by the way. Have you redecorated?”
“Actually they’ve been in storage for years but I met a young man the other day who . . . well, something reminded me of them, and I thought that it was about time I dusted them off. I have redone the living room since you were here last, though. Come through.”
“Thanks. Something smells good.”
“Venison. Herne stopped by with some fresh collops, so I’ve braised them with wild garlic, blackcurrant, red wine, and a hint of liquorice. They’ve been in for hours so they should be nice and tender. And I thought either a saffron mash or champ to go with it. It’s turned unseasonally chilly out there, and I decided something ribsticking was called for. Hah, you must have known,” he added, withdrawing a bottle of shiraz from the basket. “This will go with it perfectly.”
“There’s some zinfandel in there too, a decent one,” she said cheerfully. “And a very rich and fudgy chocolate cake for afters. Also cashew nuts and some rice crackers for in-between nibbles.”
“What a splendid fay you are,” said the Gnome, his good humour restored. “Have a seat. You don’t mind eating off a tray in front of the show do you?”
“Thanks,” said Cobweb sinking into a large and very comfortable sofa. “No, I don’t mind at all – in fact it’s a rare treat. Carabosse is very hot on eating properly at a table – unless there’s something he wants to watch of course.”
“Tops,” said the Gnome, raising his eyes.
“Men, you mean,” said the Fay. “Present company excepted. Where’s the – oh my, I haven’t seen one of those for years.” She looked with interest at the pool of ink in the large bowl on the coffee table. “Can you actually get all the channels on it?”
“Oh yes,” said the Gnome airily. “I had so much trouble with the last mirror that I sent it back and installed Phoenix on this old thing. It can’t cope with the latest versions of Portals™ but Phoenix works like a dream and has much more functionality.”
“Gods, you are good at languages, aren’t you?” said the Fay drily. “Pure technobabble. No wonder you prefer male forms, you are clearly of the male gender through and through.”
“Sexist,” returned the Gnome, not a bit put out. “Anyway, the bottom line – so to speak – is that it works. And you’ve probably made me miss the good bit. Huw has just let Luc in on the joke the others have been playing on him.”
“About sleeping with him. He may look like a Neanderthal, but Huw’s quite discriminating in his tastes, and they don’t run to rape. If something develops between them then fair enough, but he won’t force the lad into anything he doesn’t want to do. And frankly I doubt that boy has the faintest idea what the equipment is for, let alone what he wants to do with it.”
“He took to Ianto’s little tricks quickly enough.”
“Nonetheless. Also – as far as you know, does the boy have any sort of protective spell around him?”
“Shouldn’t think so, considering the amount of damage that’s been done to his backside. Why do you ask?”
“Just something Huw said. As you said, he’s remarkably savvy for a mortal. He saw though you, for one thing.”
Cobweb shrugged. “That was always a risk, given that so many in the hall knew me in my other role. As long as he’s not inclined to make something of it.”
“Doubt it, he’s too shrewd a fox for that. Oh look, something’s happening. Let me just turn the sound up.”
Huw woke instantly from sleep, and almost without conscious thought was standing beside his bed, a small and business-like dagger in his hand. The faint sound that had woken him came again, and he tilted his head, then shook it ruefully.
On the narrow cot at the foot of his great bed Luc whimpered again in his dreams, like one of Huw’s hounds hunting rabbits in his sleep. His skinny body shivered under the coverlets, twitched. His face screwed up, as if in fear, but he was still deep in sleep. When the mighty arms lifted him from the cot he did not really wake, merely burrowed blindly into the warmth of the broad chest, and grew quiet again.
So it was that he woke in the morning, as the first sunlight streamed through the expensive imported glass in the window slits and set the tapestries aglow.
For a moment Luc luxuriated in the softness of the bed, the warmth of the massive body twined against his. Then he sat up, eyes wide, making a sound that can only be described as ‘eep!’
“Good morning, Luc.” Huw’s voice rang sleepy and cheerful.
“Good – I – oh gosh.”
“Now you’re awake, you can go and get washed, then bring me some hot water for my own wash and shave.” A firm hand swatted his rump harder than he would have liked, despite the impediment of bedclothes, to speed him on his way. “And make sure you wash properly mind, you know how I feel about that.” Luc did – all the castle staff did. It was one of Huw’s famous eccentricities, this idea that daily washing was good for you, instead of being, as everyone knew, a dangerous breeder of agues and phlegms. Failure to display a clean neck and hands on demand soon led to exposure of less noble body parts and the application of Huw’s sign manual.
He paused at the door.
“Did I – I mean did we – did you . . .”
Huw looked at him opaquely. “Surely it can’t have been that bad?” he said. “You haven’t – forgotten already?” He sounded rather hurt.
Luc fled, face crimson. Behind him Huw pressed his face into his pillow and laughed himself sick.
“That was unkind,” said the Gnome, grinning.
“Even Luc will eventually realise his leg is being pulled. I hope,” added Cobweb.
It was unclear if the lad had figured it out by the time he brought a ewer of hot water, cloths, and a razor. Certainly he was unusually quiet that morning at breakfast, until:
“So how was your first night with Lord Huw?” asked a smirking Gruffydd. “Still able to sit, are we?” It was clear from the vulgar accompanying gesture that it was not merely chastisement he was referring to.
Luc looked at him, peculiarly, then said:
“Well, it is rather nice waking up in someone’s arms.”
Gruffydd choked on his bread, and had to be very vigorously slapped on the back by his companions. Ianto looked from the sputtering Gruffydd to Luc and said:
“You – ah – woke in Lord Huw’s arms?”
“Yes. He said he hoped he’d given me a night I wouldn’t forget.”
Gruffydd went into another paroxysm, and Ianto ran his hand over his face, bemused.
“Duw, I bet he did,” he said.
One of the older men raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think he’s had a favourite like that since before my time, that lad he was mad over that emptied the wine cellar and left him heartbroken.”
Cobweb raised an eyebrow at the Woodgnome, who had the grace to blush.
“Heartbroken?” asked one of the others.
“Yes,” agreed Ianto, “there were vintages in that cellar that Huw’s father brought back from the Holy Land. From what I hear there was weeping and wailing from top to bottom of the castle, every offence got double punishment for a month, and the offender’s name is never ever to be spoken in the castle on pain of the most severe punishments Sir Huw can dream up.” He shuddered a little at the thought.
“So what was his name?” asked Luc innocently.
“Oh no you don’t my lad,” said Ianto. “I’ll tell you outside the castle, if you’re good.” His face fell. “That is, if you still want to be my friend.”
“Don’t be silly, Ianto, you’re my best friend. Of course I want to be friends with you, why wouldn’t I?”
“Now you and Sir Huw are . . .”
“Are . . .?” Luc’s face was at its most guileless and open.
“You know – what you did last night.”
Ianto blushed slightly.
“Well, you did tell me it was part of my duties, and I’m going to do my best to do all my duties properly.”
“Oh Duw,” said Ianto with feeling. “Look, Luc, I know I said – well, that is, I didn’t exactly mean you had to, to . . .”
Luc smiled at him, blandly unhelpful.
“Take it up the arse?” suggested someone, crudely.
“Yes. No! Damn it, Emrys, that wasn’t what I . . .”
“It was though, wasn’t it?” said Luc in a calm voice, as if enquiring if there were more marmalade. “That’s a very rude way of putting it, by the way,” he added primly.
“Luc, it was a joke,” wailed a despairing Ianto. “We didn’t think you’d do it.”
“It wasn’t a very nice joke to play on a friend though, was it?” asked Luc.
“No,” agreed a crestfallen Ianto. “I suppose it wasn’t. Maybe,” he added, “it was for the best though. Now you and Huw are . . .my Lord!”
There was a general scraping of chairs as the young men rose to bow to Huw.
“Luc,” said Huw. “Time for your – weapons – practice.” He drawled the operative word with enough sleazy emphasis for even the dimmest to work out the double entendre.
Luc sprang up with a happy smile.
“Oh yes, my lord,” he said. The lord put a bear-like arm around his shoulder and led him away, leaving a gaggle of open-mouthed young men in his wake.
“Well?” said Huw, as soon as they were out of earshot.
“Oh yes, my lord,” said Luc, his face shining with laughter. “Just as you said. Hook, line, and sinker.”
The watching sprites exchanged meaningful glances. “He is coming along, isn’t he?” said the Gnome thoughtfully. “I wouldn’t have thought he had it in him, even with Huw to coach him.”
“As long as he doesn’t get too good at it. He may be able to play the other lads for fools, but if he tries it on with me he’ll get a sharp reminder.”
“Look at the two of them, though. If that boy isn’t in love with Huw yet, he soon will be, and then we will have trouble.” Luc was positively basking in the glow of the marcher lord’s attention, and judging by his responses the older man was amused and pleased by such unfeigned adoration.
“That will last,” predicted Cobweb, “precisely until his next spanking.”
“We’ll see,” said the unconvinced Gnome. “Some venison?”
“Mm, yes please. Lovely. Would you like some of the potato? Thanks. Oh, yes please, fill her up.”
It was not until after their leisurely meal was concluded that they did indeed see. Luc’s sword practice had gone rather well at first, for with a good well-balanced sword he found his initial clumsiness much reduced, and some of the drills and movements started to make sense at last. However, when Huw’s master-at-arms tripped him and sent him sprawling for the third time, adolescent temper flared into a shouting match that attracted the lord’s attention.
“Luc, what is this?” asked Sir Huw with dangerous calm.
“It’s not fair. He cheated.”
“Cheated?” Ignoring the growing thunder on Huw’s brow, or perhaps believing himself immune, Luc added:
“Yes, he tripped me, and it’s not fair, and it’s not how a gentleman should fight. It’s base-born villeiny.”
Huw’s paw gripped his shoulder, not hard, but in a way that suggested that hard might follow any time now.
“This is Wales, boyo, Cymru, the land of comrades. We don’t have villeins here. Guto is a free man, same as you, see, and you apologise to him right now.”
Luc’s face darkened.
“Oh no,” said one of the watchers. “He’s going to . . .”
Teenage rebellion overrode sense of self-preservation once again.
“I won’t,” it announced, perhaps a little more loudly than it had intended. A sudden awful silence seemed to follow, in which Self-Preservation could be heard quite distinctly muttering: ‘I told you so, but would you listen? No, you never do. Well I hope your bottom is happy with the consequences, young man.’
“I think you had better come with me,” said Huw quietly. “You and I are going to have a long discussion about manners, and obeying orders, and then you are going to come down here and apologise to Guto.”
It was a much more subdued Luc who limped back into the room he shared with Ianto.
“Luc, what’s the matter?”
“He used his belt. And a hairbrush. I’ve got blisters,” wailed Luc.
“Oh dear. Let me look – ouch, that looks nasty. Lie down and I’ll put some salve on it.”
Luc flopped onto his bed, dropping his hose around his ankles. Ianto began to work the soothing cream into the throbbing buttocks. Presently his hand slid between them.
“Sorry,” said Ianto insincerely. “Being my lord’s” he deleted the word he first thought of and substituted “special friend, doesn’t save your arse then?”
Luc muttered something indistinct into the pallet beneath him.
“I said I’m not. I just said that to get my own back on you all.”
“You mean – you didn’t sleep with Sir Huw?”
“Oh yes. I slept with him.”
“Then I don’t understand.”
“We slept, that’s all we did, and it was nice. He was nice. We didn’t do any of that other stuff, not even the thing you showed me. But now it’s all ruined, and it’s all my fault.” He began to sob.
“Hey, hey, there. Things aren’t that bad. So at breakfast, that was all . . .” he began to laugh. “You certainly caught me. And Gruffydd.” He laughed harder.
“I didn’t lie,” said Luc sulkily. “You just assumed when I said ‘slept’ that I meant other things.”
“Yes we did, didn’t we? And Sir Huw played along too, by the saints, asking if you were ready for weapons’ practice that way. I suppose he thought we deserved it.”
“Yes. He told me what I should do, not to tell a lie but to let people’s assumptions fool them.”
“Duw, he must like you.”
“Like me? After this?” He indicated his throbbing bottom, something Ianto shrugged off.
“Yes. He’s teaching you statecraft. He doesn’t do that for everyone. Gruffydd has been on at him for ages to teach him.”
“How do you think I knew? It’s Huw’s first lesson. Never lie when the truth will serve.” His hands resumed their rubbing of Luc’s bottom, began to knead deeper. Luc felt strange. The pain in his bottom had become heat, and the heat felt as if it was soaking into him, melting something inside him. He wanted to tell Ianto to stop and at the same time wanted to beg him to keep on for ever. The strong young hands were pulling at him now, spreading him . . .
“Ianto,” he said, in sudden panic, afraid and terribly, terribly excited.
“Shh, it’s all right,” said a voice in his ear. Ianto began to kiss the nape of his neck, his breath warm in Luc’s hair. The kisses seemed to tingle all the way through him, to fill him with light. He wanted something, he wasn’t sure . . .
“Ohh.” He moved to his side, felt Ianto’s mouth close on his, clung to him as a drowning man clings to a spar.
“Ianto, I want . . .”
“Yes. I know. Shh, come here, and take that off . . .”
“Are they allowed to broadcast this?” asked the Gnome. “It’s pretty steamy.”
“Sianel Pimp?” asked Cobweb, making an Anglo-Welsh pun for which, had there been true justice, she should have suffered.
“Even on Channel 5. Oh, I see. Hardy-har-har. Oh my goodness. Can he possibly manage that as first timer – oh, he can. Well, what an adaptable young man. That Ianto is good, isn’t he?”
“Told you,” said Cobweb smugly.
“I think I need something to cool off. Ice cream?”
“Mango. Home made.”
“It’s a deal.”
When the Gnome returned with the promised ice cream, plus some macadamia nut brittle over the top, Cobweb was leaning forwards over the bowl of ink, absorbed.
“Do not touch the surface,” said the Gnome portentously.
“Why? Magical flashback?”
“You’ll get ink all over you. What’s happening? Oh my,” added the Gnome faintly as she shifted so he could see for himself. “I take it back, it looks like he does know what he wants to do with the equipment, after all.”
It was a somewhat disarrayed but glowing Luc and Ianto who entered the Great Hall at supper that night, arm in arm.
Huw’s shrewd eyes saw the change in them, the lack of space between them. So that was how the wind blew, then. Ah well. Stick to fatherly. Probably best, all things considered. He smiled a little lop-sidedly and beckoned them over.
“I’m thinking its time I made a progress. There’s a bit of trouble up beyond Cosb.”
“Trouble, my lord?” asked Ianto.
“Yes. A gwrach y rhibyn has take residence in the waterfall there, and is scaring the locals away from their washing pools. I thought we’d roust her out.”
“What’s a goorakaribbon?” Luc imitated the Welsh as best he could.
“A hag of the dribble. Water sprite, bad dentition, wails a lot, washes bloody shrouds at the ford, foretells doom, that sort of thing. Also I want to look in on Mavis.”
“Yes, the Ousel of Cilgwri. One of the Ancients of the Island of Britain, you know. Her chest isn’t what it was, now she’s getting on, and I like to look in on her now and again for a chat, and to drop in some of Arianrhod’s cough syrup.” He smiled at the two of them.
“Would you like to come?”
Luc’s eyes rounded. A real adventure. And no woodgnomes or fairies to tell him off. But:
“Both of us?”
“Well, you come as a pair, don’t you?” observed Huw, and watched Ianto blush, even as the double meaning sailed right over Luc’s head.
“Yes, my lord,” said Ianto.
“Oh yes,” agreed Luc. “Yes indeed.”
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