Painting by Numbers

“He’ll kill me,” said Cobweb, bluntly. Huw shook his head.

“Lady, you know as well as I do that he will throw against you all sorts of threats, but that you can trust him absolutely.”

Her eyebrows climbed so far up her forehead that they required pitons and karabiners. “Huw, I wouldn’t trust that Woodgnome if he told me the Time.”

Huw leaned back and sighed. “He would lie over something of no importance; he would swindle and mislead you for pure amusement; in anything that mattered. . .”

“In anything that mattered, I can rely on him absolutely. I just don’t think that he considers his birthday to matter. We got away with giving him a birthday present last year; you know as well as I do that he says he doesn’t ‘do’ birthdays and that if I try to give him a gift he’ll sulk.”

“So I am giving him a gift. You are merely wrapping it up for me.”

She gazed into the Mirror at the evidence of his gift. “I’m sure he said you didn’t do that,” she observed, weakening.

“I do not. I cleave to him and I expect him to cleave to me. That is why I ask you to find a Plot to make this happen with no possibility of bedding until I reclaim him.”

“But a whole team?”

“How many times has he told us that he could handle a whole team? What he actually means is that he would like to be handled by a whole team. As to that, I do not mind.”

She considered. “It’ll mean housework and you know how he feels about that. He may not mind the action but he would hate the ironing. He would never forgive me for making him do ironing. And I believe he would have to clean the oven.”

Their eyes met.

Once upon a time in what should have been spring but seemed unseasonably cold and wet, a queen sat at a window sewing and whilst she was sewing and looking out of the window, she pricked her finger with the needle and three drops of blood fell, and the woman lolling in the window-seat with a glass of cava said, “Well, that will teach you to pay attention to what you’re doing and not stare out of windows daydreaming. Suck it, for pity’s sake, you’ll smear it on the embroidery and a bloodstain never comes out.”

“You’ve got no sense of romance, Cobweb,” complained the queen. “I was about to say: would that I had a child as white as the snow, as red as the blood and as black as the ebony of the window frame.”

Cobweb lifted one eyebrow. “It isn’t actually snowing, I don’t think, it’s only sleet – sleet! This late in the year! – and it’s not lying. Not really white, just grey and dirty. And that window frame isn’t ebony – have you any idea what ebony would cost? – it’s PVCu.”

“What’s PVCu?”

“It’s UPVC, or it was.”

“I wish I hadn’t asked. You think that’s not a good wish to put to a Godmother, then?”

“Not really, darling, no.”

The queen made a face and returned to her sewing, and presently she said, quietly, “Cobweb? You’ll look after my child, when I. . . you know.” For even a queen in a fairy tale, who knows that she will be recycled to another tale, doesn’t care to consider her own death.

“Darling, of course I will. I did before, I will again.”

“Well then,” said the queen, with weary resignation, and let her embroidery fall into her lap. “I’m tired, Cobweb. This should be my last multi-coloured baby. I’ve applied for a transfer; all I’ve done for years is have babies and die.”

“What are you going to do instead?”

“I’m going to be a witch for a bit. Gingerbread housing; I’m a good cook, you know, but queens aren’t allowed to faff about with confectionery. You don’t have to be burnt to death in your own oven any more, they’ve decided that it’s delinquency on the part of the children. They just chase you into the forest now. I’m looking forward to it.”

“Sounds fun,” agreed Cobweb, calmly, casting a professional glance at the swollen body. Wouldn’t be long now. Time to sort out a baby. A very particular baby.

“No,” said the Gnome, firmly. “That would be responsibility, and I don’t Do responsibility. Also I’ve done all the dealing with children that I’m going to do. I’m not doing the nappies and milk and getting up in the middle of the night and nursery rhymes and. . .”

“Yes,” interrupted Cobweb hastily, since he was clearly ready to list all the downsides of child-rearing, of which she was quite prepared to believe that there were many. “But you wouldn’t be having to do them, not from the parental side. You would be the one eating chocolate and rousing the whole household when you had stomach-ache. You could cause chaos and confusion to your heart’s desire.” She didn’t mention the nappies. She and the Gnome had agreed at an early stage that there were things they Didn’t Do, not even in fiction.

“Why do you want me to anyway?”

“Because for some reason which I can’t quite grasp (although when I find out who it is doesn’t understand Minimum Stock Re-Ordering Levels, I shall Godmother them), we haven’t got a baby for this Story, and the queen’s due to drop her sprog any minute. Oh go on, Gnome, please: it won’t be for long. You just have to make it to a marriageable age and then the Handsome Prince comes to get you.”

“Oooooh. Well. Now you’re talking. I can’t do it, though; Huw has Ideas about monotony, I mean monogamy, and I won’t have him hurt.”

“I’ve spoken to Huw and he says you may go if I need you, provided there’s no Wild Stuff. Come on, Gnome, please? I’ll have you out of there by the time you’re 17 and back to Huw at your proper age and it won’t take more than a week. You won’t miss anything, Huw will be beating his bounds which means he won’t be at home – um – there’s a line there which is too obvious even for us. Huw will be away. You won’t miss him because you won’t remember him until afterwards.”

If the Gnome had been paying attention, it might have occurred to him that it was most unlike Cobweb to make a mistake as basic as the non-provision of a baby in a Story requiring one; normally her paperwork would have ensured a baby lined up and ready to go with four weeks of the pregnancy still to run. It might even have occurred to him that although she would be well aware that he would do what she wanted, she would also be well aware that it would take hours of coaxing, promises of olives and cava, and probably half an hour of telling him how clever he was – and that she might well decide that it would be easier to send Branks. As it was, his pleasure at having her owing him a favour – a favour he had every intention of claiming back several times and to a much greater degree than was warranted – allowed him to miss both her look of satisfaction, and the wink she exchanged with Huw as she left.

Soon after that the queen had a baby – son. Well, the Gnome had put his foot down about changing sex again; he had done it once, he said, and that was enough for anyFairy, even Cobweb, and the Spank Fairy, who knew a losing battle when she saw one, let it go. Apparently. In point of fact, Cobweb had known all along that this baby was a boy, and her argument had been purely cosmetic. The baby, most unusually for a baby of this type, had skin a sort of pinky-beige, lips a shade or two darker, and hair of an undistinguished shade of mouse, although since it all rubbed off in the crib over the next fortnight, it didn’t seem to signify much. The Court dressmaker, when asked, said that a proper name for the baby would be Écru-Taupe; this had taken hold by the time that Cobweb tracked it to its source, and explained carefully that nicknames were allocated by courtiers, not couturiers and that the infant’s name was – she hesitated – Paulinus, and since she was swinging a wicked looking switch at the time, everybody agreed that this was a good name and would do perfectly well, and then continued to call the baby Écru-Taupe as soon as she had gone away again. And when the child was born the queen died.

So the world turned and it was some 17 years later, or about Thursday, depending on your point of view, that the Story changed enough for Branks to notice the little flashing paddle icon, and print out the schedule, and leave it on Cobweb’s desk, together with a hairbrush of a new design which he had spotted in his lunch-break shopping trip. Thus it was that Cobweb knocked at the door of the solar, and was granted entrance by the royal steward.

“My lady? Are we in” (gulp) “need of your attention?”

“Don’t think so, Alun, I’ve just come to see the queen.”

For it was known that the king had taken to himself another companion, of exceeding good looks but proud and haughty. The steward winced.

“You heard that in the yard, didn’t you? That’s those damn squires again, and frankly, my lady, if you can spare a little time to get among them I can think of several of us who would be grateful. This way, please.”

The figure by the fire was tall, elegantly proportioned, extremely pleasing to the eye, and not known to Cobweb, except by reputation.

“My lady Nemesis, you are welcome.”

“And you are the queen here?”

“I’m fighting that allegation. I’m particular in my habits and perhaps a little precious in my speech, I’ll go that far, but I don’t think I’m particularly a queen.”

Cobweb smirked smugly. Getting Story to accept a male partner for the king had been more difficult than she cared to admit, but she had managed it in the end.

“I’m sorry, Carabosse didn’t give me your name.”

“Erling. Technically, I’m not a Wicked Fairy, I’m a Foawr.”

Indeed, thought Cobweb, admiring the muscled torso and powerful thighs, I just bet you are. She accepted a glass of wine. “So how did you get to be on Bossy’s books?”

“I got half way through my Foawr training and they told me that what we were to specialise in was ravishing cattle.”

Quite a lot of wine went up her nose. “In what?”

“I think they probably meant driving them off and stealing them, but I didn’t feel inclined to hang around to find out. Carabosse was advertising, and I liked the clothes for wicked fairying better than for gianting, so I thought I’d have a go with the Carabossieri. Besides, Carabosse said I could be called Erling. My real name is Mollyvoirrey, which is. . . well, it might be a good enough name for a queen, but I don’t like it.”

“And are you enjoying the work?”

“Oh, yes, thanks, I was until quite recently, only. . . is it meant to go like this?”

“As long as it all happens to the end, we aren’t too particular about the details,” Cobweb reassured him.

“Don’t you mean ‘in the end’ rather than ‘to the end’?”

She looked puzzled. “I don’t think so.”

Wisely, he poured more wine and let the matter drop. “Anyway, how can I be of assistance?”

“The child is old enough to complete the Story, yes?”

“Seventeen next week, and believe me, if you’re going to take him on to the next Chapter, I’ll throw a party for you.”

“Bratty, is he?”

“Just adolescent. He’s an elemental, I believe?”

Cobweb nodded. “I’ve known him for years. Been behaving like one?”

“I’ve not seen it take quite this form before. I mean, we’re getting the usual teenager stuff, stroppy attitude, nobody knows anything about anything except him, nobody has ever been treated so badly before, we don’t understand him, the usual sort of thing.”

She nodded again. “The problem being that in fact you understand him very well indeed. What have you done about it?”

“I put the bolshy little tyke over my knee,” said the Foawr, grimly. “I told him that if he argued with me, you were likely to put in an appearance, and somehow he seemed to think that stone hands or not, I would be preferable. He knew he didn’t want to see the Spank Fairy, although I don’t think he was quite sure why not.” There was the faintest possible question there.

“We go back a long way together, and as a general rule, he doesn’t do F/M, that would be the why of that. Given a free choice between you and me, he’ll pick you every time. Mind you, he’ll complain about it.”

“And then some!”

“What did you get him for?”

“Borrowing my clothes. Well, not borrowing – ‘borrowing’ implies asking, and returning, doesn’t it? Wearing my clothes. It’s a mistake, he’s not half tall enough to wear my styles, and he has to alter everything to fit him, so I get them back the wrong size and reeking of stale Magick. Only black things, oddly. Fashion at the moment is for peacock colours but he wants everything in black, or at least very dark red or very dark green. He’s taken to a most peculiar make-up, too – sheet white face, and then huge black rings round the eyes, and black lips as well. Makes him look like a corpse.”

Cobweb frowned. In all the time she had known the Gnome, she couldn’t ever remember him wearing make-up. Well, except when he did part-time cover on that Christmas thing, but that hardly counted. It might, of course, just be the white-as-snow, red-as-blood thing forcing its way back into Story; mind you, black clothing and a black-and-white maquillage rang a faint bell with her.

“Does he wear jewellery?” because the Gnome never did. Not ever never.

“Jewellery? He’s falling down with it. Great big pieces, mostly silver. A lot of spider webs,” (that was interesting, thought Cobweb, maybe he did remember who had put him where he was) “and things like dog collars with spikes on.”

“Ah. Hair?”

“Like a black haystack. You ask me, my lady – oh, thank you, Cobweb, then – if you ask me, he looks abso-bloody-lutely ridiculous. Then he strikes attitudes and reads bad poetry and horror stories and tries to persuade the minstrels to play very loud and incomprehensible music, and he says he’s a German.”

“Does he indeed? He’s nearly right. He’s a Goth. Don’t worry about it, Erling, apparently they almost all grow up to be lawyers and accountants.”

“Yes? But it makes things difficult. I’m supposed to be jealous of his looks but frankly, I can’t imagine myself dressing up that way, and – well – look, I don’t mean to sound vain, but the plain fact is, I am better looking than he is and I always will be.”

Cobweb glanced around. “Have you got a talking mirror?”

The Foawr shook his head. “Wish I did. I went techno and bought a Gooseberry instead. Have you got one? No? Don’t. I’m telling you, the attitude on that thing is nothing ordinary.”

“How much attitude can you have with ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?’”

“Bloody thing has an opinion.”

“Sorry, Molly. . . Erling. Of course it has an opinion, it’s supposed to have an opinion. It’s supposed to tell you that the Gno. . . that Écru-Taupe is better looking than you.”

“And it won’t. It says it has its pride and we can’t make it tell lies. It says that if he got a better haircut and perhaps went for autumn colours rather than black all the time, he would look much better. It says condescendingly that he hasn’t grown into his hands and feet yet and that he walks like a hound puppy. It suggested that I should take him shopping.”

Cobweb was having some difficulty controlling her laughter; the Foawr laughed a little himself and tossed the Gooseberry over to her. “Go on, you try.”

She passed her hand across the magical blackness. “Gooseberry, Gooseberry on the table, who’s the prettiest in this fable?”

There was a faint spark in the depths and a musical voice said acidly, “Well, it isn’t you, Nemesis. I will say that for you, you’ve never been particularly vain about your looks. But you really want to – ”

“To get my weight down, I know. Come on, who’s the pretty one?”


The Foawr leaned over her shoulder. “Erling. My name’s Erling, remember?”

“Your name’s Molly and always has been. But you’re better looking than Nemesis or that teenager.”

Erling glanced at Cobweb. “See? I can’t throw the boy out for being better looking than me, because basically he isn’t.”

Cobweb frowned. “You’re supposed to tell the huntsman off to cut his heart out in the forest.”

“Well, I won’t. Nasty, vulgar theatricals. Look, Cobweb, there he is, see, in the courtyard? He’s not a – what’s he wearing? What is he wearing? Is that my best black doublet? It is! It bloody is! I’ll kill the little bastard!”

Cobweb watched through the window as the Foawr hurled himself across the courtyard at his step-son, whose languid attitude underwent a sudden transformation, and who demonstrated a sudden and surprising turn of speed under the gatehouse arch and towards the first markings of the Old Forest.

“That will do as a death threat, won’t it?” enquired the Gooseberry. “You can work with that. Come on, Nemesis, where’s he going? And I know who he is, too, and I bet he isn’t going anywhere near the dwarfs, not if you’re involved. What Story is this really?”

She had never heard a Gooseberry laugh itself into hiccups before.

The boy had been wandering in the forest for some time when he heard the rumble of the cart behind him. He was lost. How could he be lost? He had lived here all his life, explored every inch of this forest from the first time he was allowed out on his own. Only the forest had – changed – somehow, he didn’t know how, and he was tired and hungry and his feet hurt (he wished he had been wearing his own boots, but his stepfa- his stepmo-. . . but Erling’s boots were just so gorgeous) and –

“Hey? Do you want a lift?”

The woman in the cart was definitely not somebody he had seen before, so why did he feel that he ought to know her?

“I don’t know where I am.” To his embarrassment his voice quivered a little.

“No? Don’t worry about it. I do. I always do. Mistress of Space and Time, that’s me.”

“You look more like a. . . a shop.” Actually, that didn’t sound particularly polite and he spared a moment to wonder if he should be worried about it. The last time his manners had deserted him, his dignity had too, in the face of Molly’s annoyance. His stepfa- stepmo- his step-parent had dreadfully hard hands. He would have said that Somebody Up There, Somebody in charge of Making Things Happen had no care for his dignity. Somebody couldn’t be trusted with his pride, not as far as he could spit a rat. Occasionally he wondered who it was.

“We are a shop.”

We? There was only her. Well, unless she meant the donkey, but why would she mean the donkey? It was only a plain little donkey, so why did he feel that it was laughing at him?

“Look, do you want a lift or not?”

“I – where are you going? I don’t even know which way is home.”

“I can take you somewhere you’ll be. . . Well. You would be looking to get the audience you deserve, yes?”

“Oh, that would be lovely. Can you take me there?”

“Most certainly. Hop up.”

They travelled until it was almost evening; then they saw lights ahead.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a cottage and if you crack one joke about it. . .”

She sounded rather frightening and for a moment he thought again of Molly, of Molly making threats about how the Nemessaries would come for him if he didn’t behave. Not that he believed in the Nemessaries. It simply wasn’t true that everybody’s sins found them out sooner or later, that everybody, at some point, got what they deserved.

Anyway, it wasn’t a cottage, it was too big to be a cottage. It was a cabin. A cabin in the woods. Why did that idea make him feel uneasy?

“This, Paulinus, is where you ought to be.”

“How did you know my name? I didn’t tell you.”

“I’ve known you since – well, I’ve known you for a long time. I knew your mother, too.”


“No, your own mother. I promised her I would keep an eye on you.”

“Here, are you my fairy Godmother?”

She gave him a rather odd smile. “In a manner of speaking.”

“Aren’t you supposed to have given me some really good Naming Day presents then?”

“Not in this Story. In this Story, I give you some really good Coming of Age presents.”

“Wow! What are you going to give me? It’s my Coming of Age next week. And what is this Story, anyway?”

“This, Paulinus, is the Story of Écru-Taupe and the Rugby Sevens, and I’m going to give you your very own rugby team.”

His sigh was blissful.

Inside the cottage everything was smaller and neater and cleaner than can be. . . actually, it wasn’t. Inside the cottage was absolute Pandemonium (well, not quite as hellish as that. It was as hellish as a small town, not an absolute capital city). There was a table on which was a cover which had once been white, and seven dirty plates, and on each plate was a dirty spoon; moreover there were seven dirty knives and forks and seven beer mugs in which were growing seven new sorts of mould which would have fascinated Alexander Fleming, and horrified Kim and Aggie (look them up). Against the wall stood seven unmade beds which. . . No, thought Cobweb, she didn’t quite like that. Four, yes, four maybe but not seven. Along the suddenly rebuilt wall appeared seven doors, leading to seven squalid but definitely private bedrooms amply provided with rank socks, week old underpants, shirts recovered from the laundry basket as the least worst available and worn another day, torn crisp packets and half eaten bacon sandwiches under the beds, empty milk cartons and magazines of a type that she wasn’t sure she wanted to investigate more closely.

Écru-Taupe gazed round with the unadulterated horror of someone after whom somebody else had always cleared up.

“What. . . there’s been a. . . what’s happened here? Some sort of fight? I can’t stay here! It’s horrible! It’s. . . Who’s that? Who” and his voice cracked with unadulterated teenage lust, “is that?”

“Like it? Them?” hinted Cobweb. “That’s Baz. And Taz. And Gaz and Jaz and Laz and Raz. And Hippo. I promised you a rugby team, and this is it.” She carefully didn’t mention what she had promised the rugby team. “Would you like to stay here, away from your Wicked Stepmother?”

“Oh yes,” he breathed. “Why do they call him Hippo?”

“Because he’s hung like a. . . I have no idea. Anyway down you hop. Gaz! Gaz! I’ve got stuff for you.”

Right. She had said she was a shop. Round the back of the cart, she was unloading boxes, and muttering instructions to one of the big men. The teenager paid no more attention to her; she wasn’t half as interesting as the other big man. Or the other big man. Or the other. . .

“Here! You! What’s your name?”

“Pau. . . Écr. . . Wyverex Deep-Evil.”

“Right, Daz, come and help. All this stuff has to go inside.”

Cobweb was cheerfully gathering fruit into a basket, and selecting domestic hardware of a very specific type from the shop fittings which she had caused to unfold from the back of the cart.

“Gaz? Make sure Paulinus – all right, make sure Daz eats some apples. It’s in the Plot. If he doesn’t eat apples something horrible will happen. Right. Apples, salad, pears, grapes. Artichokes. Cheese. Bread, butter, coffee. Ham. A hairbrush. One pair slippers, one pair plimsolls, one wooden spoon, one nylon spatula. One wooden ruler.”

Such an odd selection of things for a rugby team to be buying.

“Oh, and one bath brush. Mustn’t forget the bath brush.”

Why did that make him so uneasy?

“Paulinus? I’m off. The boys here will look after you for a week – well, stands to reason, seven of them, a week works. They’ll tell you what they want you to do.”

Oh yes. Oooooooooooooooh yeeeeessssssss. He was just dying to find out what they wanted him to do. He had read about that sort of thing. He had dreamed about that sort of thing. (Mind you, it was usually Cobweb who wrote about that sort of thing. She had no shame.)

He barely noticed her leave; the seven big men were far more interesting, specially Gaz. Was he Gaz?

“Right. You. She said you needed somewhere to live for a week.”

“Yes, please.”

“And she said you would be willing to oblige us in some ways in exchange.”

He gurgled something which might have been agreement.

“Good. In that case, if you start with the dishes, Jaz is on supper duty and he’ll cook.”

He must have looked rather blank because Gaz expounded. “If you’re here rent free, then we need something by way of service in exchange.”

“Um. . . I thought you wanted. . .”

“No, she said we mustn’t. She says that she’ll be back Looking for any of us who. . . well, anyway, she said we mustn’t. So it’s cleaning the cooker for you.”

The teenage lower lip protruded in a manner which would have induced an instant response from Mollyvoirrey, never mind Cobweb, nor indeed Huw. “I won’t.”

“You can start with the laundry if you’d rather.”

“I won’t. I WON’T!”

“Excuse me, I’m the captain here and I say you will. Dishes, cooker or socks. Pick one.”

“I don’t want to!”

“Taz? Where did that hairbrush go? Thanks. Now. I’m asking once more. Dishes, cooker or socks?”

“Not any of them. No! I wo- ow! Ow! OW! Ow!

It is a mistake to assume that because a Rugby Sevens player plays only two seven minute halves, he isn’t as strong as the player who turns out for 80 minutes. The Sevens player is usually just finishing the season with a match or two long enough to justify going to the pub afterwards and short enough not to encroach on decent drinking time.  He is as big and as powerful as his counterpart on the Firsts – in point of fact, he usually is one of the Firsts. A bolshy and workshy teenager hasn’t a hope of escaping him. Not that this one tried particularly hard; had anybody bothered to ask him he would have said that he couldn’t get away, but fortunately nobody did ask him, it being, as Fats Waller used to say, a sin to tell a lie. Ten minutes later the dishes were being washed by a somewhat startled-looking teenager who stood rather stiffly, and who was pinker around the eyes than he had been.

He viewed his supper with some suspicion. Jaz was no doubt an excellent winger, but he was a lousy cook. Still, it had been a long day and he had the standard appetite of the young. Afterwards he considered refusing when Gaz told him to clear the table and wash up again, but Gaz cast another glance at the hairbrush, and he thought better of it. Tomorrow. Tomorrow would be a better day for establishing that he was the king’s son (where in all of this was the king? He must speak to. . . no, that was silly, wasn’t it? He must have been day-dreaming. He had suddenly thought that he should speak to the woman with the cart about sorting out absent fathers in fairy tales. Ridiculous. A ridiculous notion in itself, and ridiculous to think that a travelling saleswoman would be able to do anything about it). He was royal. Royal princes did not wash dishes, nor were they subject to being upturned and spanked by rugby players. He would have to make that quite plain.

In fact, his chance to do so came that very evening. “Daz? Trot along and make the beds, will you? The guys need their kip.”

“Now look, I think we need to sort out what’s going on here. I’m a prince, not a skivvy. I don’t Do housework. I have people to Do it for me.”

“I don’t see them; look, why did you come here?” That was Hippo.

“My step. . . step-something threatened to kill me, so I ran away into the forest, and then that woman brought me here. She said I would be safe with you.”

“Right. She told us that you would take care of our house, cook, make the beds, wash, sew, knit and keep everything neat and clean.”

They looked at each other in blind incomprehension. “Why would she have told you that? I don’t do those.”

“Yes you do,” said Gaz sharply. “That was the deal. You do housework, you live here, we keep our hands off you.”

It wasn’t dignified for a royal prince to whine that way.

“So you will do housework, and Hippo, he can share your bed and you’ll just Not, OK? Not unless you want to answer to Her. Tomorrow, you can stay home with him and keep an eye on stuff. Make him clean the oven.”

“Clean the. . . No. Absolutely not. I am NOT cleaning the oven.”

Which was why by lunchtime the next day, he was cleaning the oven. He had said repeatedly that he wouldn’t, but apparently the new nylon spatula had been for Hippo, and Hippo, who was a prop, had demonstrated the link between Not Cleaning the Oven and new kitchen equipment. What he hadn’t been prepared to demonstrate was any other sort of link. Écru-Taupe had been more than willing to be linked to, snuggled up against the very large Hippo in a single bed. A day later, Taz, the other prop, decided that even a royal prince ought to be able to produce a meal for a rugby team, and that a convincing argument in favour of cookery could be made with a wooden spoon. Baz, the hooker, stayed home for laundry day. He couldn’t think of any link between laundry and a wooden ruler, but nobody said a hooker had to have a reason for everything. Well, Écru-Taupe tried to say so, but Baz demonstrated that a ruler was a reason.

Raz the scrum-half had drawn sweeping the floor and seemed to think the house guest should help; unfortunately he started by clearing the debris from the floor, and thereby revealed the plimsolls. Plimsolls seemed to be a most effective means of persuading a young man to help with domestic tasks. Laz the fly-half had drawn the duty of cleaning the bathroom; it was during the morning that Écru-Taupe discovered why he had been so uneasy about the bath-brush. Jaz the winger decided that all the beds ought to be changed; he seemed to be a quiet and placid man, and his charge thought that he would be the most sympathetic to the plaint that a royal prince should not be called upon to carry out scut work. Unfortunately it seemed that Jaz didn’t agree; removing the covers from his own bed revealed his fine new slippers underneath, and Écru-Taupe was very shortly brought to the conviction that a royal prince had arms long enough to manage a duvet cover and the common sense to use them.

Gaz, who was both captain and centre, took his own share of the work, and his share was general tidying up. By this time even the teenager had grasped the link between Refusing To Help In The House and Inspecting The Carpet From Close Quarters, and made no difficulty about ironing. The effort nearly killed him and in point of fact it served no useful purpose; Gaz shouted for him mid-morning and when he went through to the captain’s room, he found himself airborne and doubled over a powerful thigh at once.

“I didn’t say anything! I didn’t do anything! I mean I did! I did! I cleared the table and I’ve been ironing! IRONING! Me! No! Not the hairbrush again! What did I do?”

“Nothing in particular,” the powerful man above him assured him. “No, I just thought, everybody else got a go, why not me?”

“You had a go! You had a go before everybody else!”

“Oh, that doesn’t count. Stop wriggling. Keep still. I said, keep still! I just like doing this. And you like me doing it.”

“I don’t!”

“No, that’s a lie. Lying is Bad. Anyway, I’m just making sure that the Necessary Elements are covered.”

The dismayed teenager spared a corner of his mind to consider that his own Necessary Elements had hardly been covered in a week: he seemed to have spent far too much time having his Necessary Elements revealed to the atmosphere.


“You see, the Spank Fairy said. . .”


“Nemesis. The Spank Fairy? The woman who brought you here? She said that there was a checklist and I had to make sure you completed it. There was to be red, white and black and an apple.”


“Well, look, you’re nice and white here. At the moment. Pale as milk. Pretty. I expect that counts. And we need red. Let’s do red.”

“Ow! OW! OW! OW!

(This was repeated da capo for some time.)

“There. Red. Red is good. I don’t know how we’re going to manage black. Any ideas?”

“No!” wailed the teenager, who had one perfectly sound idea about black in an unholy collaboration with blue and who wished not to share it. He was quite prepared to believe that red had been adequately accounted for, his backside was blazing and he. . . and he. . . and actually, whatever Gaz was doing now was rather soothing. Pleasant. Interesting. Yes. Interesting.

“Come on. Let’s have a drink and think about how we can manage black.”

Which was how Cobweb found them a couple of hours later, wrapped around each other in the unmade bed.

“Oh, Goddess. Tell me you didn’t. Please tell me you didn’t. We are both so dead if you did.”

“No,” said the teenager sulkily. “We didn’t. I wanted to, but he said we mustn’t and when I tried to persuade him he just had another drink and another drink and then he tried and couldn’t and then he went to sleep.”

“Have you eaten your apple?”

He rolled, still sulking, onto his face and said into the pillow, “Don’t want an apple.”

“If you haven’t eaten the apple, why did Story call me? Plot isn’t wrapped up until you’ve eaten the apple. Red, white, black and an apple. It’s not finished until they’re all ticked off.”

He didn’t answer her, a failure of courtesy which he rapidly learned to be a mistake as her palm cracked smartly on one of the spots already effectively covered by Gaz. His high-pitched yelp made her smile.

“Right then. The colours are done, obviously.”

“Only red and white,” he muttered. “He couldn’t think of anything black.”

She sighed, with the theatrical exaggeration which in another several lives she had learned from him. “Sweetheart, he’s an All-Black, haven’t you noticed? Now come and eat an apple and I’ll get you a Handsome. . . Welshman.”

“I don’t want an apple.”

“Nothing new there, then. The only fruit that interests you is expensive or fermented. . . Fermented? What have you two been drinking?”

“Some sort of scrumpy. It was fairly disgusting, actually.”

She leaned over the flagon and sniffed cautiously. “Smells foul, but unmistakeably apples. O.K. That’s everything covered. Come on, then, and I’ll give you that Handsome Welshman.”

“Shan’t. I’m not going anywhere with you. You got me into this mess and I don’t trust you. Why should I go with you? What’s in it for me?”

She sighed. That one, she supposed, she should have seen coming. She considered: what was left in the Plot that she could improvise around?

“What about a black and silver lace up doublet?”

It was a very Gothic doublet, with spiky silver embroidery and a twisted silver cord in place of stay laces. The teenager gazed longingly at it.

“No. If I put that on you’ll pull the lacing tight and I’ll pass out and then you’ll have your wicked way with me.”

She shuddered inadvertently at the very idea. “No, darling, look, it doesn’t go that tight. Anyway, put it on, and if you put your finger there, then I can’t pull it up too much.”

It was irresistible; he eased it on, keeping one hand suspiciously over the knotted cord.

“That’s right. Just. . . Hells. I’m not good with knots. Can you just put your finger on that. . . thanks. Then I can. . .”

“Here! What are you – no!” For the Wicked Spank Fairy, who had been lying when she said she wasn’t good with knots, although generally it was Carabosse who tied them and she who struggled, had neatly fastened his wrists together with the silver lace.

“Good. Right. Now, I’m supposed to do something with a comb as well, but I’ve had enough of this and Huw will be home any minute and Bossy’s coming up too for your birthday dinner, so we’ll skip the comb. We’ll just take the hairbrush” (she slipped it inside the doublet) “and get the Hells out of here.”

He struggled, but Cobweb had dealt with struggling teenagers before, and the Fold wrapped itself around them both.

Huw, riding the last few miles back to Tin Goch, had fallen into company with Carabosse; they crested the rise above the village just as the Fold opened at the castle gatehouse. One of the characters within seemed to be shouting and struggling with some sort of black garment; the other broke free of him and headed down the hill.

“My lord Carabosse, is that not your lady?”

“Looks like her, certainly. She’ll never keep up that pace, she’s not a natural runner. See, he’s gaining on her. There, I told you so. What’s on the other side of that wall?”

“The mill pond. Do you think we should perhaps. . . no, too late. Ah, she can swim, I trust?”

“She’s competent rather than anything else. Although. . . that is the outflow, isn’t it? Not the leat leading to the wheel? Oh well, she can certainly swim well enough to get out of that. Still, he ought not to have done it, wouldn’t you say? Are you going to allow him to throw people in mill ponds?”

Huw shook his head, smiling. “I think I should perhaps call him to our rooms and explain to him that birthday or no, he does not throw a lady in a mill pond. That is, if you will excuse me, my lord Carabosse; but you know you are welcome in our home. Treat it as your own.”

“Oh, I intend to,” agreed the Wicked Fairy absently, watching his dripping consort climb the hill. “She’s obviously cold. Very cold. You could hang a coat. . . Huw, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll just see to Cobweb. She ought not to hang about in wet clothes.”

“We have had a bath-house installed since you were here last; there is a. . . I believe Gwydion called it a ‘rugby bath’. The stair by your usual room leads directly down to it. A hot bath will perhaps do the lady good.”

Carabosse grinned wolfishly. “She’ll be warm enough before she gets anywhere near the bath, I’m telling you.”

Huw glanced back over his shoulder with an answering spark.

“So will he.”

They rode cheerfully towards the gatehouse, in the happy contemplation of birthday celebrations and festive scarlets and crimsons. And where they would best be displayed. And on whom.

Idris the Dragon

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© , 2006