now tonight,” said Huw certainly, sniffing the air as he reined in the big stallion Gorfynt in the courtyard at Tin Goch. “And a good lot of it too, the way that wind smells.”
“That’s your horse,” said the Gnome tartly. He was not fond of horses, other than in the refined form of certain Belgian sausages, and the long ride over Bryn Fflangell on a raw December day that had never got properly light had not improved his disposition, especially as Barnabas was otherwise occupied and he had been forced to ride a rather flighty bay mare.
Huw only laughed. Riding his lands always put him in a good mood, particularly when, as today, he was able to hand out a little justice to a deserving rump or two along the way. The Gnome supposed he should be grateful that his lover’s present disposition had saved him from being one of them, since judging by one of the cases (the errant teenage son of an poor widow, who had been causing trouble in his village), Huw was in a mood for long, stingy implements today, like crops and canes. The Woodgnome hated long and stingy. Mind you, he wasn’t keen on broad and thuddy, either, which just goes to show that there is no pleasing some people.
Dismounting with a vault, the Lord of Ceryddol helped his lover dismount, with a pat to the backside which harsher critics might have thought sufficiently forceful to be called a good slap.
“Cheer up,” he said. “It’s Solstice Eve tomorrow. And then twelve days of feasting and carousing, and I won’t make you ride again. Though I shall insist on a walk each day, otherwise you’ll get frowsty and miserable.”
“Frowsty?” The Gnome’s eyebrows joined his voice somewhere in the stratosphere. “I’ve never been frowsty in my life.”
“You know what I mean. You get difficult when you’re cooped up too long, and I shall have to spank you for it.” He sighed at the prospect of this burden.
“You don’t have to do anything of the sort.”
“No, you’re right. I could get Guto to do it, or Iestyn the falconer. Or – the lord Carabosse and lady Cobweb are coming tonight. I could get one of them to do it.”
“Bossy and Cobs are coming? You rat, you didn’t tell me that!” The Gnome glared at his partner before relenting sufficiently to grin. “Bossy and Cobs. It’s weeks since they were here, I thought they’d forgotten us.”
“It is only five weeks since they were last here, and only two and a half weeks since you and Cobweb skipped your proper duties to go shopping and brought back a lot of unsuitable clothes, more books than any reasonable person could require in a year, three kinds of olive (of which no-one else got a taste), and an elephant howdah. For which, I may remind you, boyo, you were both properly punished. It’s only because it’s Solstice that Carabosse and I are relenting and allowing the two of you, against our better judgement, to mix.”
Despite his tone, which was severe, Huw’s brow remained unclouded
during this recitation of the Gnome’s ill-doings, so the latter thought it safe
to grin, hug the huge Welshman, and dance around the courtyard, mildly scandalising
those servants who had not already figured that my lord Huw’s
favourite oh, what the hell, that person, was a bit soft in the
“Bossy and Cobs are coming to town,” he carolled.
“And you aren’t allowed to call them that,” Huw called after him. “That’s at least 6 apiece.”
The Gnome stuck his tongue out, but only once he was safely out of reach. He would pay for it later, though probably not severely. He slipped in through the door of the West tower and headed for the castle kitchens.
The Gnome adored the kitchens, and was frequently to be found there. Having spent much of his elemental life in warmer climates, he was not fond of the chill, and it was at least 10 degrees warmer in the vast stone flagged room than anywhere else in the castle, barring the Gnome’s personal quarters. Besides, he felt at home with their pleasant aromas of cooking, their many foodstuffs laid out where enquiring hands and mouths could purloin and sample them, and their many, many opportunities for mischief.
Fortunately for Huw’s domestic harmony, the Chief Cook, Morwen
(universally known as ‘Mam’) had taken to the Gnome, and was not above putting
him to work if he was hanging about doing nothing, and be damned to the castle
hierarchy. Besides, no-one was clear where the Gnome fitted anyway: it wasn’t
he she it? was married to Lord Huw, even if she had borne
him a child.
“Hallo, Mam, I hear we have guests for Solstice.”
“Told you, then, has he? He was keeping it a secret, until the right time.”
“Yes, just now. He’s in a good mood today.”
There was a noticeable ripple of relaxation around the kitchen when this announcement was made. When Lord Huw wasn’t in a good mood, things tended to get a bit – painful.
“He might be now, but he won’t be if supper isn’t ready in time,” reminded Mam. “Hop to it, you lot. Eira, those greens should all have been washed and chopped by now. And why isn’t the fire lit under the soup on the side hearth?”
“Sorry, Mam, we’re out of kindling. Young Wren hasn’t brought it in yet.”
“That boy will be feeling the back of my wooden spoon if he doesn’t get a move on,” said Mam crossly. “I asked him to sort that out an hour ago. Where is he?”
Much mumbling and shrugging established that the miscreant in question had left, supposedly to collect the kindling, and did not seem to have been seen since.
“Wren is the shy, dark lad, rather undersized, hangs around with what’s his name from the stables?”
“With Meic, yes. That’s the one. His real name’s Bryn. They’re brothers, their mother’s dead. Their father’s Iestyn, the castle falconer.”
“Exactly. No love for anyone that one, except his precious birds. He was better before his Myfanwy died, but not much. Never knew what she saw in him, though it was clear enough what he saw in her: like a little bird herself, she was. Wren takes after her. Nice lad, I like him. But he’ll be for it if I can’t get that soup on soon.”
The Gnome gestured absent-mindedly at the logs in the side hearth, spoke a Word. Flame began to crackle merrily through the wood.
“Duw, that’s a useful trick,” said Mam, who had worked enough small culinary magics in her time to be unfazed by this. “Thank you, bach, that’ll see the soup on time. Now we just have to find the boy. If only we weren’t so busy.” She looked at him hard.
“All right, no need to oversalt it, I can take a hint,” said the Gnome, laughing. “I’ll find your miscreant for you.” He snatched a warm welshcake from a heaped platter on one of the big oak tables and departed, successfully dodging a swat with the aforementioned spoon.
There was no sign of the boy around the woodpiles stacked in the lee of the armoury wall, nor was he in the stables. The Gnome made his way into the warm, horsey-smelling dimness.
A rustle in one of the stalls and a ginger head popped itself around the door. “Yes? Oh, Sieur Gwydion, I didn’t see you come in.” He brushed hay from his tunic, and came forward, looking slightly uneasy. A tall gangling youth, about 17, with his father’s long, rather melancholy face, a fine crop of acne, and slightly protuberant green eyes.
“Hallo. I was looking for your brother as a matter of fact. Have you seen him?”
“No. Not at all, since this morning.” That had sounded rather emphatic, thought the Gnome, and wondered why.
“I – see.” He held the boy’s gaze a little longer, saw him flush and look down. “They are looking for him in the kitchen. If you see him, will you tell him so?”
“Of course, sir. Right away. Was – was there anything else?”
“No, I don’t think so,” said the Gnome. “For now, at any rate.” He smiled and left the stables deep in thought. He might not have Huw’s ear for the truth, but he was fairly certain that something wasn’t quite the way it should be here.
He was still pondering this when he bumped into Meurig.
“Oh, there you are,” said the senior squire a little crossly. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you. Your bath is drawn and heated, and Sir Huw bids me remind you that he doesn’t expect you to smell of horses and leather at tonight’s feast of welcome, unless you’d like a closer acquaintance with the latter.”
“Thank you, Meurig,” said the Gnome, with as much dignity as the message allowed him. Actually, a nice long soak would be good, and not only because Huw was quite capable of having his hose down and applying said leather in front of all the guests. Carabosse would probably enjoy that, he thought crossly. Damn her, Cobweb would probably enjoy it too.
Something landed on his cheek. It was cold and wet and smelled faintly like coal dust. Huw had been right. It was starting to snow.
“You aren’t going like that, are you?” asked Luc, vaguely scandalised.
“Why not?” asked the Gnome, surprised.
His son flushed, looked away. Parents were so embarrassing.
“Because you’re my mother. Why can’t you be like other people’s mothers, and dress properly?”
“Properly?” asked the Gnome, surveying his black velvet doublet with the slashed sleeves, that showed off the rich blue of the fine linen shirt below.
“In a nice dress. Something more suitable for your age.”
There was a loud silence of the kind that occurs when someone has just said what they think, instead of what normal social interaction allows.
“Firstly,” said the Gnome with commendable restraint, “dresses don’t do it for me except when I am in female form, and I decline to wear female form because your father only has to look at me for me to fall pregnant and I’m certainly not going through all that again. And secondly, you haven’t the faintest idea what my age is, or what would be appropriate dress.”
“Why do I have to have a mother who’s a boy?” asked Luc angrily. “And a qu. . .”
“Lugh Meredith ap Huw, if you say another syllable you are going to find yourself in more trouble than you can easily cope with, so I suggest you just button it,” snapped the Gnome. They glared at each other, but the Gnome had had a lot more practice, and it was Luc who broke the exchange, tossing his head and stamping out with a martyred sigh.
The Gnome heaved a sigh of his own. Luc had been delighted to discover that Huw was his father, but rather less so when he discovered that the ageing mother who had raised him in Lurgan, and the malicious sprite whose major role in life appeared to be to make things difficult for him were one and the same. Occasionally the Gnome had yielded and taken the form with which the boy was familiar, but it hadn’t really helped, since Luc obviously found him almost as embarrassing in that form as when he was Gwydion. Not grand enough, apparently, with her rather wild hair and simple peasant smocks. The Gnome had been unpleasantly surprised to find that that hurt. A lot.
So on the whole, he preferred to keep his male form. It had suited him for millennia, without any need for breasts and ovaries, and it certainly minimised the risk of unpleasant surprises like discovering you were pregnant right when you needed to Shift.
A sudden swirl in the surrounding magical potential advised him that Carabosse and Cobweb had just Folded into the courtyard. There had been a time, he reflected, when he wouldn’t have picked up on that, but magical abilities, just like physical ones, improved from regular training and exercise, and the 16 years of exile in Lurgan had given him plenty of time for practice. Not to mention accumulating sufficient power to do – what he had done – to Huw’s castle and lands, something his bottom was still paying off on the instalment plan.
“Time I was at my place in the hall,” he muttered. Huw was not likely to be forgiving if he wasn’t present to greet their guests. He Folded softly and silently down to the dais.
“You cut that fine,” said Huw.
The Gnome grinned.
“I am here, my lord, to help you greet our guests. What more could you ask from me?”
“Arrival 5 minutes early, on foot, instead of springing out of thin air like a candle flame leaping up?” suggested Huw.
The Gnome kissed him, then turned back to stand beside his lover, one hand on Huw’s massive arm, as the great doors were thrown back.
“The Lord Carabosse, and the Lady Cobweb!” announced the doorwarden portentously.
Wearing a red so dark that it was almost black, shot through with gleams of crimson like a candle through wine, a silver wrap, and with a long teardrop of ruby in each ear, Cobweb stared around her in amazement at the hall.
The walls and rafters were thick with aromatic pine and juniper, bound and garlanded with ivy and glossy, heavily-berried swags of holly. In the sconces torches burned with a clear, warm light and a smell of incense that owed more to enchantment than any natural quality of the wood. Two enormous pines on either side of the dais had been enthusiastically trimmed with silver and white flowers, moons, suns, stars, snowflakes, various good luck symbols, and candy canes. They were also wound about with emphatically twentieth century tinsel and fairy lights, twinkling among the dark foliage.
The great tables too had been decked, with forest green damask, and gold runners, with matching green, gold, and white flower arrangements.
“Very Martha Stewart,” said Carabosse drily. “The Gnome’s doing, I take it.”
“Well, you have to hand it to him,” said Cobweb as they walked up the central aisle, pulling a gardenia from one of the arrangements and popping it into Carabosse’s buttonhole as she passed, “He’s certainly made an effort.”
“Lady Cobweb, Lord Carabosse, be welcome to my hall at this Solstice time,” said Huw. He took Cobweb’s hand and kissed it, bowed to Carabosse in turn.
“Huw. Gnome.” Carabosse nodded.
“Hullo, Carabosse. Cobs, darling, you look wonderful.
“Thank you sweetie. Lord Huw, your gracious welcome does you honour.”
“Sit. Drink with us.” They did. Cobweb settled herself by her friend. “Where are Luc and Ianto?”
“Well, apparently there isn’t a ‘Luc and Ianto’ at the moment. They’re having some sort of spat again. I can’t keep track, to be honest, one minute they’re love’s young dream, the next it’s all ‘I never want to hear his name again’. Then they make up, and the cycle repeats. The trouble is that neither of them really knows what he wants.”
Cobweb looked sad.
“What’s the matter?”
“I was just thinking that I may be in the same boat. Oh, not about Bossy, I settled on him years ago. No, about my job.”
“Is that all still up in the air? I thought it had all been sorted out.”
“Well, the broad outlines, yes, but the devil is in the detail. And of course every bloody sibyl servant in the government is fighting his or her corner, with long lists of reasons why their little empire is a special case and they don’t need/shouldn’t have/can’t be fitted under Nemesis oversight.” She knocked back a healthy slug of wine, added bitterly: “Sometimes I just feel like saying: be damned to the whole pack of you, and walking out.”
The Gnome looked thoughtful. He had some experience of Cobweb’s moods and this seemed a little darker than usual. It made him wonder if she had ever, completely, left R’lyeh behind. He searched his head for some word of wisdom, or comfort.
“Have another,” he said at last, refilling her goblet.
“Thank you.” She waved a hand at the decorations. “Nice show. How did you get the fairy lights to work without electricity, by the way?”
“Real fairies,” said the Gnome, indicating the tiny glowing form in each glass bulb. “They’ve been promised if they behave and keep up a decent light show I’ll let them out on the Twelfth Night. Otherwise it’s up in the attic till next year.”
It was in the last knockings of the feat, somewhere between the flummery and the venison pasties, that the Gnome happened to glance down the hall and see Iestyn and Meic. It looked as if they were arguing, Iestyn’s face growing grimmer and colder and Meic’s redder and more flushed, until the older man backhanded his son across the mouth and knocked him sprawling to the rushes.
Huw had seen it too. He spoke briefly into the ear of the squire beside his chair, who sped down the hall with the dispatch that Huw’s servants soon learned. Presently he returned, with Iestyn and Meic in tow.
“Iestyn,” rumbled Huw with deceptive mildness. “Why are you brawling in my hall as if it was an alehouse?”
Iestyn looked down.
“Forgive me, my lord,” he said at last. “My son angered me. I had to discipline him. You should understand that, my lord.”
Uh-oh, wrong tack entirely, thought the Gnome. He could feel the faint stiffening of the big man beside him.
“Discipline is something I understand very well,” Huw said quietly. “As I understand the difference between discipline and brutality. And I will remind you,” he added, sudden winter in his tone, “that I decide the disciplines in my hall. Do you understand me, Iestyn?”
“Yes, lord.” Grudgingly, fear and resentment warring in the man’s face. The Gnome hardly noticed. He was looking at Meic, and remembering that afternoon’s conversation. Remembering too the errand he had never completed after being distracted by baths and arguments with his son. Something jarred his instincts, like a nail on a blackboard.
“Where is your other son, Iestyn?” he asked.
Not resentment but fury this time, and contempt.
“Elsewhere,” spat the man.
“Iestyn,” said Huw, “answer. Where is Bryn?”
The man’s face worked unreadably.
“Ask his get,” he hissed, with a jerk of his chin towards the Gnome.
“His get is my get,” said Huw, his voice gone flat and deadly. “And what has Luc to do with Bryn?”
“He was corrupting him!” wailed Iestyn. “I had to save him, toughen him up.”
Huw rose. It took a long time, there was a lot of him. He towered over the unfortunate falconer. “Guards, hold this man at my pleasure. And send for Luc.”
“Ie, syr!” One of the guards hurried out to summon Luc, while two of the others pinioned Iestyn’s arms. It looked, and almost certainly was, uncomfortable.
“Meic,” said the Gnome. “Where is your brother? What has happened?”
Meic, his lip bloodied and swollen, looked desperately at the Gnome and Sir Huw, then at his father. “I – I can’t. . .” he said.
“Boy, kneel,” said Huw. “Kneel I say!” Meic was on his knees in the straw without conscious thought. Huw in a rage had that effect on people. (Actually, Huw in another sort of mood entirely had that effect on people, but this is a family story, so we won’t go into that.) “I am your liege lord. My command is your law before God. Now you will tell me where Bryn is or I will have your hide from you.”
“He – I . . . he took the kindling from him and sent him up the mountain to gather fresh!” burst out Meic desperately.
“Up the mountain. In this weather?”
“I told him, I told him it was going to snow and Bryn would freeze, but he wouldn’t listen. Kept on about how the boy needed to shape up, obey his father, and keep away from his fancy friends with their unnatural ways.”
“Unnatural ways,” said Huw somberly. “Ah, Luc, how timely.”
“My l- father?” said Luc uncertainly. He looked worried, justifiably given that Huw was white with rage.
“What have you been doing with Bryn? The boy is only fourteen, for God’s sake.”
“Bryn?” Luc looked puzzled, then took in the tableau of Iestyn and Meic. “Oh, you mean Wren?”
“Yes, I mean Wren. Have you and he been bedfellows?”
“B-bedfellows?” A vast astonishment. “Wren? And me? But he’s just a little kid!”
Even the Gnome could hear the Truth in that. Huw certainly could. The ambient temperature, though still frigid, rose marginally.
“Then, what, pray, have you been doing with him?”
Luc flushed slightly. “He – he’s smart. For a kid. He wanted to look at the pictures in my book of hours. So I – I offered to teach him to read.”
“You see Lord!” roared Iestyn. “He admits it freely. Grammarye and spelling. These are no fit arts for a son of mine. I will not have him raised a clerk or worse.”
“You. Sent. Your. Son. To. Die. Of. Exposure. Because. He. Was. Learning. To. Read?” ground out Huw. “He is fourteen years old, man. Fourteen.”
“He was like her, his mother. Full of fancies, of nonsense,” said Iestyn, desperately. “I had to knock it out of him. For his own good. I tried beating him, but he still carried on. He had to learn. The world isn’t like that.”
“The world isn’t like what? The world changed overnight, Iestyn, or had you forgotten? There are palaces of the Tylwyth Teg beyond Cosb, and the tracks of strange beasts in the birchwoods. Spirits walk, and strange birds fly through the air. The world is not what we thought, Iestyn. The boy may find his way through this world better than you. Or he might have, had you not sent him to his death.” Suddenly, struck by a thought, he glanced questioningly at the Gnome.
“Yes,” said the sprite. “He will die. I told you, none of you is immortal. Yet. He has gone to his death.”
“Not to his death, I swear I never meant that.” Iestyn looked pleadingly at Huw.
“And still you sent him. I tell you this, Iestyn ap Iolo. Neither man nor hound will I send into the storm that lies on the land now. But when it stops, and light comes, I shall send men, and hounds. And when they find that boy’s body, as they surely will, you will hang outside my gates for the killing of him. Take him out of my sight,” he added savagely.
He turned back to Cobweb and Carabosse, who had been watching with interest. “Sieur Carabosse, my lady Cobweb. I apologise for this.”
“No need to apologise, Huw,” said Carabosse. “It needed sorting out, obviously. Perhaps we should retire from the feast now, in any case. Cobweb has had a long day.”
This was obviously news to Cobweb to judge from the startled glance she threw her Top, but she didn’t call him on it, merely took his proffered arm and rose, with a small curtsey to Huw. The Gnome made a mental note to get her to show him how it was done. Every time he tried it with a long dress he either strained the seams or nearly fell over. Often both.
He rose in his turn.
“If you will excuse me my lord, I will retire as well.”
Huw, still seething, granted leave distractedly. It was only afterwards that a puzzled frown crossed his brow, given that the Gnome was not particularly fond of early bedtimes. At least, not alone. But his heart was too full to make anything of it.
The Gnome hurried from the hall, caught up with Carabosse and Cobweb.
“Cobs, can I just have a quick word? Sorry, Carabosse, I won’t keep her long.”
“Make sure you don’t. The beds in places like these are never aired properly. I aim to make sure she’s in bed long enough before me to warm it up.” Carabosse grinned evilly at the face this provoked, and sauntered off down the corridor.
“Sorry. I may need you to cover for me. Can you do a fetch?”
“A doppelganger? Of you? Why?”
“Because I need to be seen to be safely tucked up in bed, when
in fact I’m no such thing.”
“What are you up to, and am I likely to have trouble sitting down afterwards if I help?”
“Um – I’m trying to save a boy’s life. And I don’t know. Does it matter?”
“Not with those stakes, no,” agreed Cobweb quietly. “But what can you do?”
“Personally, nothing. But when Huw said about men and dogs – well, of course mortal hounds wouldn’t get through this blizzard. But the Hunt might.”
“Herne? Of course, you know him, don’t you?”
“Yes. I think I can get his help. But there’s a price. There’s always a price. So I need a distraction while I’m sorting that out.”
“Hang on a minute. What sort of price?”
The Gnome flushed, looked down. “It varies. Always more than you’d like to pay, though not more than you can pay. In my case, usually, er – an intimate physical price, if you get my drift.”
Cobweb was silent for a moment.
“I thought you and Huw . . .” she began cautiously.
“Yes. One to one alone. And I have been. To be honest, I wouldn’t feel any differently about Huw no matter how many other men I slept with. Or how many he slept with. But that’s not the way his mind works.”
“I seem to remember that you weren’t too happy when you thought that Huw had slept with someone else,” Cobweb reminded him sharply. She was mostly over her annoyance about that incident. Mostly.
“No. I was unhappy when I thought he was in love with someone else,” the Gnome returned. “His heart’s desire, remember? He can screw the squires nightly as far as I’m concerned, provided I’m first and last in the queue, and the only one in his heart.”
“And you’ll still go with Herne?”
“And keep the guilt to myself. And that would be the true price, most likely.”
“I thought he was your friend?”
“As much as he has friends, I probably am. But he serves an Old Magic, something hardly tamed or safe. He has no more choice in it than I do. Are you going to help?”
Cobweb bit her lip.
“Yes,” she said. “On one condition. I’ll dop you if you dop me. We’ll go and summon the Wild Hunt together.”
The Gnome looked up, saw the glow of fire in her earrings and the set of her face, and realised that she was not going to budge on this one.
“OK,” he said reluctantly. “But hurry.”
A moment later, the Gnome and Cobweb bid each other good night and hurried to their respective bedrooms, leaving the Gnome and Cobweb behind them in the corridor.
“I hope Bossy doesn’t try to engage me in conversation,” said Cobweb worriedly, staring after her fetch. “Doppelgangers tend to be a bit limited on that front.”
“Well, once we’ve summoned Herne and done – what needs to be done – we can shave a bit of time off if Chronos is willing.”
“It’s a pity we can’t stop the boy being lost in the first place,” said Cobweb, “but I’ve already had enough grief from Chronos about violating historical causality that I suspect he wouldn’t let me.”
“Almost certainly not,” agreed the Gnome. “The gods don’t like it. They’re afraid they’ll go pop and never have existed. Come on, we need to get a move on. If we aren’t seen the Old Boy might let us come back to just after we left, which will save your fetch from having to discuss philosophy with Carabosse or whatever you do in the evenings.”
“Somewhere in the woods away from the castle. He doesn’t like built things, or gardens or tilled fields. Is that wrap warm, by the way? It’s bitter out there.”
For answer, Cobweb cast her wrap around them both. It was like being enveloped in a cloud of summer air and the Gnome sighed with pleasure as she Folded them into a clearing in the forest by a lightning-blasted oak. Thick flakes of snow swirled in the wind. You could hardly see for more than a few feet in either direction.
“Yuk,” muttered the Gnome. He spoke a few Words – Cobweb recognised part of a charm for calming horses, but strangely altered. The wind eased a little, and clear air appeared for several feet around and above them, as if they stood in an invisible bubble. At the same time a ball of werelight blossomed gently over the Gnome’s shoulder, although it did not do much to throw back the the howling, snow-filled darkness.
“That’s a bit better,” he said. “I hate the way it melts down the back of your neck. Now, I’d better do the summoning. Give me a bit of space.”
He stepped into the centre of the clearing, threw his head back, and howled.
It was a sound that made the hairs on the back of Cobweb’s neck stand stiffly to attention. A wolf might howl like that, if he were the last wolf in the world, crying for the loss of all his kind. There were no words in it, but things older than words: the wailing of the wind in the mountains with no-one to hear; the sound of falling water, and a land swathed in murmuring trees; sobs of loneliness, and yelps of pain; the sound that a life makes as it leaches from a torn throat.
It was a sound from the wild places of the world, terrible and sad, and yet she felt something in her respond to it, and remembered what the God had told her: she too was partly a Wild Thing now.
For a moment there was silence, a frozen silence as if the woods themselves were afraid to move after that sound. And then, high above, came a distant calling, like wild geese. It grew louder, and more doglike. Louder still. Something in it made you want to find a safe place and hide until it had passed.
Things began to move in the bushes, among the trees, circling them. Cobweb caught a glimpse of one: a dog, lean and sharp-muzzled, white, with sandy ears, and eyes that caught the light and glowed redly.
A tree stump moved, and was abruptly a man, a tall man, wearing a cloak of fur. On his head he wore the skinned head of a great stag, its antlers rising above his head, the skin of its neck slit into ribbons and braided into his long mane of brindled hair, tiger gold, glossy chestnut, all the colours in between. As he stepped forward into the light Cobweb could see that he was naked underneath the cloak, apparently unconscious of the cold. She thought he might be one of the most beautiful men she had ever seen, his body sculpted and honed to physical perfection, his face chiselled and serene. But his eyes, his eyes were inhuman: the eyes of something fierce and terrible, an owl or a wolf or some great hunting cat.
“Old One,” he said at last. His voice sounded a little hoarse and uncertain, as if he could hardly remember how to speak.
“Herne,” acknowledged the Gnome.
“Why do you summon the Wild Hunt?”
“I have need of you. I ask assistance.”
Herne stepped forward until he was very close to the Gnome. He was taller by a head, even without the headdress. His head dipped into the hollow of the Gnome’s neck, nostrils flaring.
“Faugh. You stink of houses, of built places. And Mother’s touch is on you.”
“I have been in the built places, for a time. The built places are where once the Wild Wood was. One day the houses of stone will be gone and the Wild Wood will come again, and I shall be there, too.”
Herne’s head dipped again to the Gnome’s neck. Judging by the startled reaction, this time he bit.
“Herne – time is against us. Will you aid me, as you have before?” There was a note of – not quite desperation, but definitely anxiety in the Gnome’s voice.”
“The choice must be made well,” said Herne. “Until it is made, no time passes. Look up.” They both did so, and saw the dance of the snowflakes held, motionless.
“Nonetheless, when the hunt begins there will be little time. Maybe it is already too late,” said the Gnome.
“What do you wish?”
“A child. A boy from the stone houses. He wanders lost in this snow, and I wish him found safe and restored to his home.”
Herne seemed to ponder this, turned away to look into the dark. Then he swung back.
“The price is pain and pleasure.”
The Gnome sighed. “Very well. I’ll just. . .”
“No. Both must pay.” The fierce alien gaze swung abruptly to Cobweb.
“Oh, but wait a minute. . .” said the Gnome, but Herne ignored him, stepped delicately forward to stand in front of Cobweb. “You are Mother’s daughter,” he said. “But Wild Wood is in you too. Not as deep as him, but still there.”
Cobweb stared him down. You didn’t show fear before a predator. “Yes,” she said. “And what of it?”
Abruptly he smiled. It was an eldritch smile, but a smile nonetheless.
“Good,” he said. “You are strong. You will offer pain, he will offer pleasure.” He laid a hand on the Gnome’s shoulder. She saw a sudden flash of grief in the Gnome’s eyes.
Herne swung on her. “Without payment, the Hunt cannot help.”
“The price will be paid. But for the sake of the Balance you may not take more than we can afford, and he cannot afford what you ask.” And neither can I, she added mentally. Carabosse will put up with a lot, but not someone else topping me. “So he will offer pain, and I will offer pleasure.”
Herne stared at her. The bright mad gaze held her, engulfed her, as if the world were reduced just to this, fire and darkness.
“Accepted,” he said at last. “Come.” He folded his cloak of skin around her, and led her into the dark. The Gnome stared after them, aghast and relieved in equal measure, and even, in some tiny part of him, slightly jealous.
It seemed like an awfully long wait, there in the bubble of suspended time, before Herne and a rather flushed Cobweb stepped back out of the darkness. Her hair was coming loose.
“My goodness,” she murmured. “Vigorous, isn’t he? I’ve never had to do that before.”
“Did he use the bear fat?”
The Gnome gave her a wry smile. “Smelly, isn’t it? But it does have some interesting properties. And I think you may have had the best of the bargain,” he said. Herne took his hand, and led him to the edge of the clearing. A tree had fallen long ago, its trunk now nearly horizontal and conveniently positioned at waist height.
“Take off your clothes,” Herne said. “Then bend over this tree.” The bright gaze was pitiless.
The Gnome bit his lip, and stripped. There were a few pink marks on his buttocks, presumably from his most recent encounter with Huw. He positioned himself over the fallen trunk. It was cold and wet and uncomfortable.
It got a lot more uncomfortable. Herne broke off a branch from a hazel. It was about two and a half feet long, and a good quarter inch in diameter. As he held it, it woke from its winter sleep, grew flexible and moist. He brought it down sharply on the Gnome’s exposed backside. And again, and again. It wasn’t anything like play: it was a flogging, and a brutal one. To his credit, the Gnome didn’t cry out audibly until the ninth or tenth stroke.
“Enough,” cried Cobweb as the rod kept coming down. “He’s taken enough!” The Gnome was crying out with pain at each stroke now, and there was blood on the pale flesh. “Herne the Hunter, stop it right now!”
Herne’s eyes glittered, his nostrils were wide at the blood scent. But there was enough of the Mother’s power in that last call to contend with the wildness and catch his attention. He paused, looked down at the sobbing Gnome, looked at the rod in his hand as if wondering how it came there, and threw it casually aside. Then he reached down, brought a bloodied fingertip delicately to his mouth.
“You are right,” he said. “It is enough. The price is paid, and paid fully.” He lifted the Gnome up effortlessly, wiped a tear from his face. “Your pain is sweet,” he whispered. “But you could have chosen pleasure.”
The Gnome shook his head, unwilling to meet anyone’s eye. “No,” he said. “That way is closed to me for now. My heart is shut up with a man in a stone house. I would have paid twice, and with greater pain than this. I am – content. Only find the child for me, Herne, before Winter does.”
Herne’s horned head dipped again, this time to kiss the Gnome on the mouth.
“If he lives still, the Hunt will bring him safe to the stone houses,” he said. “Farewell for now, Old One, Spinner.” He gave a great belling call, and the hounds all answered him. Something in Cobweb thrilled and shrank anew at that sound, as it rose about them, into the dark sky, and the released snowflakes blew wildly through the clearing again.
The Gnome fumbled with his hose. His concentration had lapsed and the wind was bitter.
“Pet, we need to get you back to Tin Goch and get something on those cuts. Arianrhod will have something to help you heal.”
The Gnome shrugged and pulled a face. “Didn’t I say: always more than you want to pay?” He carefully avoided asking just what had been demanded of Cobweb, though he could hazard a guess, knowing Herne’s tastes. But he accepted Cobweb’s wrap gratefully enough as she Folded them back. Given the state the Gnome was in – and Huw was not going to be happy about that, even if he wasn’t normally bothered at the prospect of someone else chastising his lover – there wasn’t much point in pretending that they hadn’t been out.
They stepped out into the relative warmth of the castle passageway with a sigh of relief.
“And just what do the pair of you think you’re up to?” demanded a furious voice.
Cobweb and the Gnome spun around, the latter not without a wince, to be confronted with a furious Carabosse and a white-nostrilled Huw.
“I- er – we, that is we just. . .” trailed off the Gnome.
“Doppelgangers? I mean, who did you think you were going to fool? Are you trying to be insulting, or something?”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” protested Cobweb feebly. “We didn’t want you to worry, and we were going to be right back. . .”
“Right back from where?” asked Huw. “And Gwydion, why are you standing like – is that blood on your hose?” His tone sharpened with anxiety.
“It’s nothing. I had – a price to pay.”
“Explain.” Huw’s expression was now distinctly dangerous.
“Cobweb and I – we summoned the Wild Hunt.”
It was almost worth it all just to see the look of horror on Carabosse’s face, thought the Gnome. At least until he saw the grim determination on Huw’s.
“Are you quite mad?” expostulated the Wicked Fairy. “Do you know just how dangerous that was?”
The Gnome drew himself up stiffly.
“I’ve done it before,” he said. “And Herne is a friend. Of sorts.”
Carabosse looked pointedly at the bloodstains on the Gnome’s hose. “Herne is a servant of the Old Wild Magic. It will tear friends apart as readily as foes.”
“You forget whom I serve,” snapped the Gnome. “You are of Order, naturally you fear Herne. But I –”
“Enough of this squabbling,” said Huw firmly. “Why did you do this thing?”
“For the boy. For Wren. Only the Hunt has a chance of finding the boy alive.”
“I see. Very well. Gwydion, go to your room and await my pleasure.”
The Gnome opened his mouth to say more but the Look he got was enough.
Hanging his head, he limped silently away.
“Don’t be too hard on him, Huw,” said Cobweb. “He took a ferocious beating as the price of finding the boy.”
“But the Hunt has not found the boy, has it?” pointed out Carabosse. “He must surely be dead by now.”
“If it was for nothing, it was still nobly done,” said Huw. “I do not fault his intent. But he must learn that he is mine, and I will not have what is mine so ill-used.” Seeing Cobweb’s face, he added more gently:
“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll let him heal first. I prefer to work on a blank canvas, and besides it will do him good to anticipate what he has coming. But you Lady, what was your part in this?”
“Yes,” said Carabosse. “What was your part in this, Cobweb?”
She had really hoped no-one was going to ask that question. Damn that Huw anyway.
“The price was pain and pleasure. The Gnome won’t sleep with anyone but Huw, and you won’t let anyone top me but you. So the roles we had to play were fairly clear.”
“I do not think I much care for this Herne the Hunter,” said Huw. “A Saxon name that is if I ever heard one, and a Saxon way of dealing. Arawn of Annwn would never make so ungentlemanly a bargain.”
“Well, Faery is largely a barter economy, service for service. And that kind of personal service is often acceptable. Huw – don’t look so scandalised.”
“Lady, I think I shall retire,” said the lord of Ceryddol, but at that moment Meurig came cannoning down the corridor and skidded to a halt.
“My lord, my lord, come quickly. There is a – a something at the gate.”
“Huw moves amazingly fast for such a big man, doesn’t he?” said Cobweb thoughtfully as the lord took the stairs three at a time. “Shall we Fold down there and see what’s happening?”
“I thought you’d never ask. But don’t think we won’t be returning to our earlier conversation my girl.”
Darkness. And torchlight. The snow had stopped falling, and lay thick and crisp on the landscape.
In front of the gates of Tin Goch a man stood, or something like a man. He wore a cloak of skins, and the head of a stag, and his eyes were like a wild thing of the woods. And in his arms he cradled something, a great white bundle like a shroud.
“The bargain is fulfilled,” he said.
Very carefully he laid down his burden on the ground outside the gate. When he stood up again his eyes caught the torchlight like fire, and the torches all blazed up. When the light died back, he was gone, as if he had been only a dream they had all shared. But the white bundle was still there, as white as the snow around.
His face set, Huw strode forward. It was a blanket, or so it seemed, of feathers, white swan feathers, all sewn to a sheet of fine lawn. And wrapped in it a sleeping boy, one stray flake of snow melting on his eyelashes even as Huw bent over him, his expression changing into one of hope and wonder.
The boy’s eyes opened sleepily.
“I had the strangest dream,” he said. “Oh, my Lord, I thought I was in bed. Where am I?”
“You shall be in bed soon, Wren,” promised Huw soothingly. “Here, come to me, I’ll take you myself.” He lifted the boy from the ground still wrapped in the blanket, put him over his shoulder, caught Cobweb’s eye.
“Lady, I thank you.”
“I don’t think it’s mainly me you should be thanking.”
“For the part you played, and the price you paid, I thank you nonetheless. I will have Arianrhod check that the boy is well, but I have no great fear of that now.”
“No. But you may find him changed. If I were you I’d look to see if any of the local bards need a prentice. Those touched by the Wild Magic often gain great insight and inspiration.”
“And that might be the best solution of all, to bring a reconciliation between his father and the boy. Not even Iestyn will balk at a bard studying. Thank you again.”
“You’re welcome. Oh, what’s this?” For something had worked loose from the folds of the swan blanket and fallen to the ground. It was a tiny pot, blue and ochre. Cobweb took off the lid and sniffed cautiously, pulled a face and laughed.
“What?” said Carabosse.
“Bear’s fat,” said Cobweb. “Here, Huw, I think this is for a certain absent friend. I imagine you’ll find that if it’s applied to his wheals they’ll heal abnormally fast, so you’ll be able to deal with him all over again.”
Huw’s grin was wolfish.
“Then I’ll apply it directly,” he said. “After all, no good deed should go unpunished.”
Cobweb leaned into Carabosse’s shoulder and felt him hug her tight.
“He’s spending entirely too much time with you,” she said sleepily. “You’re a bad influence.”
“Oh I do hope so,” said Carabosse, sweeping her up across his shoulder as Huw had done the boy and carrying her off (bad influence can run two ways). “I do hope so.”
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