o tell me what Huw was saying about protective spells and so on,” said Cobweb.
“Well, it did make me wonder why we hadn’t thought of it ourselves, you know. Huw wanted to know why we were taking an interest in Luc. He still hasn’t worked out who I am – well, no reason why he should, after all – but he identified you as a Power, and Luc told him where you fit in.”
“It’s a good question, isn’t it? You’re quite right, we should have thought of that ourselves. We’re moving Luc about like nobody’s business, but it’s not the sort of thing I would usually do. I just smack ‘em and let ‘em go. So who’s jerking our chains?”
They looked at each other blankly. Cobweb recovered first. “My money would be on Sir Huon. He’s such a politician.”
“How can we find out? Would Carabosse know?”
“I doubt it, but I’ll certainly start there. And you know, I wonder if we could perhaps throw a couple of caltrops of our own too. Let’s start looking for places where the edges don’t quite fit, and seeing what we can unravel. What do we actually know about Luc? Let’s start there. I never bothered to ask before. Damn, I knew I should have brought the portamirror. Can we hack into the Nemesis mainfairy with this thing?”
“I’d rather not try, if you don’t mind,” said the Gnome. “I got a wyrm the last time I went on the Web (present company. . .) and it’s done something odd to all the settings. I don’t want to go on again until I’ve found out what’s happened. But he said de Lurgan first, didn’t he, and you found him on the system as that.”
“Yes, I did, and I should have been suspicious on the spot, shouldn’t I? Why would a teenager from Lurgan, of all places, appear on the list of the senior Spank Fairy? He ought to be on Mustardseed’s list. I mean, Ianto and Meurig and so on are entitled to call on me because of their families: I’m an inherited characteristic, and I take my share of the others, but Luc is so obviously an innocent that he shouldn’t be with me at all. Let’s face it, what has he been whacked for so far? Rudeness, lying and disobedience. Not exactly major sins, are they? Pure teenage behaviour. No, Gnome, we’re missing something here. That’s the first thing. We need to know more about Luc.”
“And there’s something about Huw, too. I said Huw wouldn’t force the boy, but he wouldn’t be averse to some play with a willing partner, either. And can you see Luc being unwilling, if Huw were gentle? I can think of worse people for Luc’s first time. I agree with what you said before: it wouldn’t do long term, but Huw’s got enough experience to give the boy a fling, show him what his body can do, and then let him think that it was his own idea to move on. So why didn’t he do it? Did you see his face when Luc came in with Ianto? He didn’t mind, exactly, but there was some regret there.”
“I’ll take your word for it. Certainly, his reputation for that sort of thing is perfectly good, isn’t it? I had no qualms about sending him to Castell Tin Goch, but I think if Huw had been known as predatory, I wouldn’t have done it, no matter what the system said about him having been wrongly allocated. After all, how many humans start off thinking they’re one way, and end up knowing they’re the other? Or even that they don’t mind much and are happy to look both ways? He’s young enough that in a year or so he would have worked it out for himself. So somebody has been manipulating me, and very neatly too.”
The Gnome made a face. “And at a guess, me too. What’s the likelihood of that child stopping me to ask for directions? He would never have come to your attention except that I sent him to you, but basically once I had seen him, it was inevitable that he would end up at the cottage, because I wouldn’t let pass an obvious misallocation and I know that however much you grumble, you would deal with it. This is X-Files Conspiracy stuff.”
“But better lit, I hope. It always annoyed me that so much of that went on in the dark. And I really fancied the big bald one. He looked so toppish. Topic? I never know what the adjectives should be.”
“Don’t dither. Do you know, when you go home, I think it might be worth interrogating the system for Luc’s coat of arms.”
“You are full of bright ideas tonight, aren’t you? I wonder if Huw knows anything that he hasn’t told us. He certainly gives the impression that all his candles are lit. How can we pick his brains?”
“Not we. You. You’re on your own here.”
“Anything more on the ink?”
“Don’t think so. It’s just the squires, training – look, they’re going to the tilt yard. That horse has certainly done Luc the power of good, hasn’t she?”
“Mmm. By the way, the buffet delivery was made by his old horse. It seems to be enjoying the work. And the sword has helped, too. He’s nearly competent! Even Guto’s pleased. Aw, look at Ianto! He’s trying so hard not to look proud. He’d be better off watching what he’s doing himself, you know, he’ll be off that horse in a minute.”
“Gruffydd’s got a face like a wet weekend, though. He’s jealous, see it a mile off.”
“Now what’s his problem? Did he want Ianto?”
“Don’t think so. I reckon he wanted Huw.”
“So why is he looking at Luc like that? They must all know by now that Huw and Luc aren’t. . . don’t. . .”
The Gnome enjoyed her struggle for a moment. Then he gave in.
“Probably what Ianto said. If Huw’s teaching Luc and not Gruffydd, there will be a semi-royal Welsh nose out of joint. Gruffydd is one of the Llewelyn brood, remember.”
“Do I not! That litter of cubs must be about a quarter of my workload. No sense and no manners. Here! Did you see that?”
Gruffydd had sidled his own horse over towards Luc’s, and the end of his scabbard had dug Luc’s mare in the ribs. She, understandably, had lunged sideways, leaving Luc sitting briefly and unsustainably in mid-air.
The Woodgnome winced. “Spiteful little trollop, isn’t he? Did Guto see that?”
“Don’t think so. He’s got away with it.”
“Actually, I bet that hurt. Remember, he’s had a tanning from Huw, and a pleasant evening yesterday with Ianto, and ones first time tends to leave one a little. . .um. . . how shall I put it?”
“Yes, well, the way Ianto was putting it, I don’t doubt you. Falling on his bum now is probably something he was hoping to avoid. Still, he’s up again. Amazing! He didn’t say it wasn’t fair! He’s learning, isn’t he?”
“Oh, look, they’re going to do the thing with the Saracen’s head and the bag of flour. What do they call it? The quintain? Emrys is good at it, isn’t he? He’s very quick. Ianto’s too tall, really, he has to duck so far that his balance is all wrong. Mind you, he’s only there for the company, isn’t he? He’s not a squire himself, he’s in the guard. Luc should be good at this, I’d have thought. He’s fairly neat, although he’s a bit puppyish still.”
“No, look, he’s off again. Ouch. Here, can you rewind that bit and do it in slow motion? What was going on under that horse’s feet? Look, Gnome, there. Rewind it again.”
“It’s a stone, isn’t it? Somebody shied a stone at the mare just as Luc was leaning over. Let’s have it frame by frame, as if we needed to. Yes, look. It’s Gruffydd again. That really is spiteful. He’d better be careful Guto doesn’t see him – he’s not as sophisticated as Huw, but if he thinks one of the squires is misbehaving, he’ll have him over the tilt rail and lay a strap across him.”
“Would he tell Huw?” asked Cobweb, doubtfully.
“Petty squabbles in the tilt yard? I shouldn’t think so.”
“Hmm. I wonder if that might be useful. Gruffydd is on my list, so I could, if I felt so inclined, take notice of that. We’ll just bear it in mind, in case we need an excuse to go visiting, shall we?”
They sat quietly, working their way steadily down the zinfandel and thinking. Presently the Gnome frowned. “Who told Huw that Luc had been tallyhooting around the countryside under another name? I mean, who knew, other than us?”
“Oh! I missed that too! Do you know, I’m beginning to wonder just how stupid I really am. I always thought I was quite smart, but I’m beginning to have my doubts. Huw knows more than he’s telling, then. He doesn’t know it all, or he wouldn’t be asking about Luc’s family, but he knows something. How on earth are we going to find out?”
The Gnome laughed. “Huw is not known for giving information away. He thinks information is power, and you don’t get to be a Marcher lord for as long as he has without knowing all about the uses of power. You won’t get anything from him without a quid pro quo.”
“Mmm. So we’ve got to give him a pound’s worth of something he really wants.”
“That goes without saying. But what does he want that we’ve got?”
Cobweb simply smiled at him.
“Oh, no! No. Absolutely not. I am not going to Castell Tin Goch. I will go eventually, but not while there’s so much going on. And certainly not when Luc might see. No. Think of something else.”
“Well, I don’t know! I’ve had all the bright ideas tonight. Why would I be prepared to go? Give me one. . . give me three good reasons why I would go.”
“One, Huw is hung like a stallion. Two, Huw goes like a stallion. And three, Huw has promised you a hiding you will remember all your days.”
“Yes, well, when you put it like that. . . No. I’m not going. What’s in it for me, other than. . . what you said?”
“Now who’s gone coy? I’ll cook. I’ll do lamb and apricots.”
“With almonds in butter.”
“And that lemon cheesecake that I made for the dryads’ party.”
“Ooooh. Well. . . still no.”
“I’ll tell you a rather nice story about a physicist and a fitness instructor. And I’ll let you watch the reruns on the mirror. There’s quite a lot of leather involved, some of it applied to the physicist’s rear. And a motorbike.”
“Well. . .”
“And I’ll arrange it that Luc is fully occupied somewhere else. How’s that?”
“Oh, all right. I really hope Carabosse gives you a hard time over this.”
“I don’t doubt that he will, in both senses. Now, does Huw know who you are? Or more precisely, what you are?”
“Good heavens, no. He thought I was human.”
“Right. So why would you go back? You wouldn’t really, would you? I think you’ll have to be ‘taken’ back.”
“Mm. That makes it your department. You would have to imply that I was on your list and that your choice of punishment was to give me to Huw. I don’t recommend telling any more actual lies than you must: Huw is very, very good at hearing them. Well, you saw what he did with Luc.”
“It’s sound practice, sure enough: no lies if the truth will do. But then do we ask directly about Luc, or do we leave it for you to pump Huw?”
The Gnome smirked in his turn.
“Oh, really. . . interrogate Huw. Find out via pillow talk. Actually, you know, that might work. You could go for jealousy, who’s this teenage upstart and so on. Would he tell you?”
“Not if he thought I was staying, but if you told him you were coming back to collect me, he might think I wasn’t really part of the Story, and let something slip. You know, I don’t do this. I don’t. . . well, do it for rewards. It’s not quite nice.”
“Morals? Ethics from you? Can I have another glass of wine? And possibly two aspirin and a lie down? No, all right, we’ll think of something else. I take your point. It is a bit sleazy.”
“Oh, no, we’ll do it. I just wanted to lodge an objection. Then you’ll feel that you owe me, and you’ll let me have more than my fair share of the almonds. It’s my turn to be hero, and I’ll get Huw as well. Can’t lose.”
“Good man. Sprite. Whatever. What are the boys doing? Are they still at training? Yes? Let’s get you in, then, before they come back and Luc recognises you. I’ll come back and tidy up here. How long do you want?”
“Give it a day. If I can’t find out in a day, I probably can’t at all. And I don’t think I’m good for more than a day of Huw without getting into training. We’re none of us as young as we used to be.”
“Come on, then, let’s go. Where are my shoes? Oh, hang on, I’ll need the dress again, won’t I? Right, ready?”
“As ready as one ever is for Palmprint Huw. . .”
Huw, sitting in his solar trying to put together an itinerary
for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, or whatever beknighted places he wanted
to visit, was intrigued to see Infinity open in front of him, and an irate Spank
Fairy step through, gripping a young man tightly by the scruff of his neck.
His amazed recognition of the
sacrif vict volunteer distracted
him just sufficiently that he failed to observe the carefully bent knees by
which the Gnome was permitting his rather shorter friend to maintain her grip,
and the equally choreographed struggling by which he was so signally failing
“Ah, my lord of Ceryddol. I believe that this may belong to you.”
“Mistress Cobweb, is it not? You are a frequent visitor, of a sudden.”
“My dear Sir Huw, this escapade involving the young man. . . ‘Luc’. . . has placed extra demands on us all, as you are quite well aware. However, I am managing to fit my own work around the. . . um, what shall we call it? Godmothering? I’m finding that there are rather too many calls upon my time. Keep still, you, and stop wriggling! This. . . individual is steeped in wrongdoing” (no lie there), “and I believe that you had a cause of complaint against him” (ditto), “so it occurred to me that you might care to deal directly, rather than through me. Call it a reward for your discretion over my identity the other day.”
“Oh, yes,” confirmed Huw, in tones of deep satisfaction. The Gnome shuddered artistically.
“I’m not really supposed to subcontract – it involves tax certificates and reams of paperwork – so. . .”
“You may count on my silence, lady. Although probably not on his.” This time the shudder was real.
“Excellent. Twenty-four hours, my lord. I shall return for the reprobate tomorrow.” She released the Gnome and sent him towards Huw with a slap that resounded like a ricochet, despite the fact that the ricochet was not due to be invented for some considerable time. He squealed obligingly.
Cobweb swept down the stairs. Well, it had been her job before she was a Spank Fairy, and plainly nobody else had swept the stairs in weeks. At the bottom she stopped to consider. What still needed to be done? Distraction for Luc, which meant Ianto. If she knew anything about teenagers, it was just a matter of getting them back into bed, and they would stay there until crowbarred out. She proceeded, deep in thought, to the Great Hall, where the squires, chattering and jostling, had arrived from their training. Meurig saw her first.
“Oh shiiiiiit! I didn’t do anything!”
“No, Meurig, for once you didn’t.”
Reassured that it wasn’t his tail in jeopardy, Meurig collected his wits and remembered how a senior squire was expected to behave.
“Um. . . My lady. Sir Huw would wish me to bid you welcome to his hall. Shall I fetch him for you? And will you take wine?”
“Probably, but not here and now. Thank you, Meurig, Sir Huw knows I am here. He is rather occupied at the moment” (if she knew anything at all about the Woodgnome, that was no lie either). “No, I am here in my capacity as the Scourge of the Wrongdoer.” A swift glance around showed her several guilty faces – she didn’t need the details, teenagers were always guilty of something. “Idris, I know what you’ve been doing” (she didn’t but plainly he did, and knew he shouldn’t have been). “Stop it at once. If I hear about it again there will be trouble. Gruffydd, go down to the tilt yard and wait for me. We’re going to have a little chat about bullying, and I’m going to show you the way I do it if you do. Dai, you’re on a final warning too” (he looked so guilty that it might be worth finding out just what he had been doing).
She moved through the hall among the nervous squires. It was worth remembering that long skirts made that sort of sound and moved that way. The squires were all plainly unnerved, and if she were truthful, she had to admit that the short leather outfits so in vogue were really intended for younger and much thinner fairies. Also, of course, a long skirt disguised the fact that ones heels were no more than three inches, and she really couldn’t walk in anything higher. One could proceed properly in a big skirt. Where was Luc? Ah, pinned against the wall again, and trying to be invisible. But Ianto looked unbelievably guilty. What on earth was troubling his conscience? Now that might work. “Ianto! Come here! What have you got to say for yourself?” (Adult speak for ‘what have you done that I haven’t found out about yet?’)
“Awwww. . . I said I was sorry! It was only a joke, and I never thought Luc would take me seriously, not once he’d thought about it. And he got me back, and we’ve made it up.”
Oh. Well, all right, if he felt guilty about that, she could work with it. “It was a very unkind thing to do, and might have got Luc into all sorts of trouble with Sir Huw.”
Luc unfroze suddenly and came forward to his. . . friend’s. . . defence. “But it didn’t, Miss. . . madam, Sir Huw thought it was funny, and he told me how to fix it. Ianto didn’t mean any harm, and I don’t mind any more.”
Ea-sy, ea-sy! Those boys would be back in bed in twenty minutes. “Nonetheless, Luc, Ianto will have to be punished for it. But since you were the victim, you can do it. Take him back upstairs and spank him. Hard as you like. You’ll know when he’s had enough. Don’t run! Don’t run! You know you aren’t allowed to run on the stairs! I said, don’t. . . oh, never mind, I don’t suppose they can hear me. Right, anybody else have anything they ought to confess? No? Don’t believe that for a moment. Get back to your duties, please.” See? Nothing to this Fairy Godmothering. It was just a matter of making people happy. Luc was happy. Huw was happy. Ianto was probably happyish. The Woodgnome was probably very unhappy at this precise moment, but that would pass. Job well done.
Shortly afterwards, a sorry and subdued Gruffydd made his way rather stiffly through the hall. The cow in the frock was wicked with that switch, she really was. And she hadn’t needed to be quite so sarcastic! He’d felt enough of a fool bent over the tilt rail with his hose round his knees without her making sharp remarks. And of course, Guto had seen and had wanted to know what it was all about, and the bitch had told him, and after she had gone, Guto had laid on half a dozen of his own, and he was bound to tell Huw, and Huw was never one to hold back on his own punishment just because somebody else had already delivered one. He tiptoed past the solar, stopping briefly to listen. Well, one comfort was that from the sound of things, somebody in there was getting it hotter than he had. . . He hoped it was Luc.
Back at the temple, Cobweb was gathering together plates and glasses. She found a light modern kitchen in which a sink already contained soapy water; who had done that, then? “Has the Gnome got a Brownie?” A cupboard door banged. “Right. If I start the dishes, can you bring the rest of them through? I won’t turn round.” Housework was awfully dull, but it did free the mind for planning and thought. Not fair to leave it all for the Brownie. She must put out bread and milk for it. The Brownie? Domestic staff heard everything, Cobweb knew that from experience. “Um. . . I’m turning round.” There was a scuttle in a corner, but nothing to be seen. “Where does the Gnome keep his plates, please? This cupboard with the swinging door? Thank you. Look, there’s some of the venison left, and plenty of potato. Why don’t you eat that before it’s quite cold, and then I can wash up the dishes. And have the last of the zinfandel, too. I’m not looking, I’m washing up. I’ll just dry these things and leave them on the worktop, because I don’t know where anything goes. It’s good venison, isn’t it? The Gnome and I have been looking into Lucien de Lurgan; we would be terrifically interested in anything anybody heard. Have some of the chocolate cake too, and put some cream on it. Shall I leave the rest of it for the household? Does the Gnome have a cake tin? Oh yes, I see it. Right, I’ll just have some clean water for the glasses.” Presently she began to sing to herself, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that she had not lied to Luc: she wasn’t a soloist and she did know all the words to ‘The Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives To Me’. So, she discovered, did the Brownie, which was obviously not used to zinfandel; she was having some difficulty in not seeing it, and some of its harmonies were a little odd.
“Right. I’m off. I’ll be back tomorrow with the dinner, and Sir won’t be back tonight, so you can lock up when I’m gone. Where’s my basket gone? Oh, thank you, on the table, I see it.”
In the portico, she found one of the herms trying on her pashmina and admiring his reflection in the polished marble floor. “You know, I’m sure he doesn’t allow you to do that. No, I won’t tell him, but don’t do it again. And if you hear anything about Lucien de Lurgan from the garden statuary, I should like to know. Don’t blush, pink marble is so last year.”
She Folded her way home, and arrived just as the last of the carabossieri was leaving. Rather to her surprise, the cottage did not look like the aftermath of a Rugby Club dinner. “Who cleared up? That’s not usual.”
Her own Carabosse, who had plainly had quite a lot to drink, smiled at her and pulled her down to sit on his lap. “We’ve had two promotions. Robin and a pale blue girl whose name I didn’t get. Apparently they were both on your list until their new positions came through, and they both had sufficient recollection of your temper that they washed all the glasses and emptied the bin. Have you had a good evening?”
He was beginning to unfasten the lacings of her bodice, having, in the traditional manner of the domestic male, completely failed to notice that she had gone out in trousers and come home in an evening dress. She turned slightly to facilitate the work: there were forty eyelets in each side of the lacing and it would take him ten minutes, but he was having so much fun that it would be ungracious to tell him that there was a zip at the back. “Yes, thanks. We’re going to have dinner again tomorrow while you’re at court. What’s going on at the moment? Anything interesting?”
The following morning (well, you don’t need to know. Yes, it was good, but it wasn’t germane to the plot), she did imaginative things with cubed lamb and then sat down to her mirror. Heraldry for beginners. “Luc de Lurgan. What have you got on him? Print it please. Thank you. Now, back to Portals™ Whacks. Luc de Lurgan again. Now try Luc de Craigavon. Luc de Lisburn. What was the one I thought of? Oh yes. Luc de Carryduff. Print that too. Right, now, we need to find that version of me in Reality who writes down the stories. Send her a fée-mail. Ask her to write down the whole story of Jerry and the accident and the bike and Ross, because I’ve forgotten some of the details, and to make it steamy. Tell her it’s for the Woodgnome; she knows what he’s like. And what he likes. And find the disk with the pictures on. Save it all.”
She went to the temple in the early evening and rang the bell; one of the Herms was now dressed as a member of the Household Cavalry. “Is that for my benefit? It’s very smart. Will the Brownie let me in, or do I need to Fold my way to the kitchen? Thank you. I’ll leave my cape with you, if I may. Good evening, Brownie, I’m just going to get the dinner going and then I shall fetch the Gnome. Do you know, I think it might be a good idea to gather all the cushions onto the sofa at one end. He may need them. If I’m not back in ten minutes, will you take these out of the oven? They go bitter if they’re more than golden. And is there any sea salt for the almonds? In here? Thank you.”
She put everything in order, and then Folded to Huw’s solar again. Huw was slouched in his chair, looking smug, and rather tired. He tried to rise, politely (as he always would for a lady, having been bi all his life), but she waved him down and sat opposite him. “Well, my lord?”
“Very well, lady. Very well indeed. Your degenerate is still next door. I am infinitely obliged to you; that was extremely satisfactory.”
“Well, if you’re done with him, I’ll put him back where I found him. Will you call him?”
The Woodgnome staggered through the door. He had large circles under his eyes and an expression of smugness that exceeded even Huw’s. “I want to go home,” he said, weakly. Cobweb swung her cape around him. “Until next time, my lord Huw.”
“Madam, I am your very grateful servant.”
“Now, that I doubt. Goodbye.”
She Folded directly back into the sitting room; the Gnome was going to fall down if she asked him to walk the length of his own hall. He dropped onto the sofa, bounced up again with a squeak and settled more cautiously. “Feed me,” he said plaintively. “Huw’s a fighting man. He can go twenty-four hours without food. I can’t. And I want a drink.”
“I’ve got it all in hand. I found one of those tiny bottles of fizz, and I thought you would probably need strengthening and building up, so we’ll have Black Velvets. I don’t really approve of them: spoil two perfectly good drinks, but once in a while. . . Here, Brownie, there’s half a can of Guinness going begging here. Did you take the tray. . . oh, you did. Look, Gnome, home made cheese straws. Everything else is ready when you are. Lamb and apricots, couscous with cinnamon and cardamom, almonds, broccoli and sugar snaps. And the cheesecake is still warm. Californian Merlot, or a white Rioja if you prefer, it’s solid enough to take lamb and goes rather well with the cardamoms. Of course we could drink both.”
“I have every intention of drinking both, and several other things. I also have every intention of eating a great deal more than my fair share. Push the cheese straws over this way, I’m not getting up. Ever again, I suspect. What’s happened? How many hundred years was I away? And don’t think that I’ve forgotten that you owe me the tale of the physicist and the motorbike, because I’ve damn well earned it.”
“Well, Carabosse doesn’t know anything about Luc. I’m sure of that. But I took your advice and looked up the Ordinary of Arms. I’ve got the printout somewhere – I just printed the blazon, because I hadn’t a colour cartridge and I thought if I read you the blazon you could draw the emblazon – you can draw, can’t you? Let’s have a look. . . Oh, my. We’ve been had again, Gnome. I didn’t look at this, I just folded it up and stuffed it in my basket. We don’t need to draw it, it’s quite simple. Argent between three right hands sables apaumies, a fesse rayonné gules. I don’t believe that, do you?”
“Not bloody likely. Three black palms on a silver background? That’s you and me and Huw, isn’t it? What was the other bit? A fesse? Bilingual puns. That’s to my address. A red stripe, flaming. A flaming stripe? More cheese straws. I bet that wasn’t in the Ordinary a month ago. Somebody’s taking the piss.”
“That’s certainly my conclusion. I also looked the boy up in Whacks. He’s there, sure enough, Lucien de Lurgan. He’s also there as de Craigavon, de Lisburn and de Carryduff. I’m inclined to think that I could find him as Luc de Strangford, de Portaferry and de Tillysburn Roundabout if I looked. He’s going to be there for me to find, no matter what name I use. He was intended to be on my list, regardless. So that griffin won’t fight. Are you ready for your lamb? I presume you won’t want to sit up at the table? No, silly question. I’ll just give you some of everything, shall I? I made lots. Now, tell me how you got on with Huw; I want the blow by blow account.”
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