Ill Met By Moonlight
by O Yardley
From the moment they entered the wood it was oddly quiet. Deep layers of leaf mould covered the ground below the fiery canopy of a beech, bright circular patches of pale green moss providing contrast to its orange-brown, ablaze in dappled late afternoon sun. Sound of their quarry seemed to have faded, absorbed by the deadening quality of the heavy air, still beneath motionless trees.
Puzzled, Doyle turned an enquiring eye upon his partner; Bodie had spent long enough in the past boasting of skills learned in African bush, today he could have the privilege of demonstrating just how good he was.
Bodie was just as much at a loss as Doyle and was about to say so when a certain, sardonic twist to the full mouth made him change his mind and point firmly ahead where the ground appeared to slope precipitously away from them, details hidden by the ground-trailing branches of the ancient trees.
Doyle's eye followed the pointing finger sceptically but he made no open comment, contenting himself with an unseen shrug as he fell in beside his confidently striding partner.
Their progress was slow, hampered by fallen trunks, and branches that whipped back in their faces as they struggled persistently downward. Neither of them spoke but Doyle's eyes turned often towards Bodie, and the sardonic twist to his mouth grew more pronounced. If Bodie was doing any more than pretend to be following the trail he'd eat Cowley's best Sunday hat... galumphing through the woods like some off-course steam roller, kicking up a din that could be heard fifty miles away...
Except that they weren't, he realised with breath-shortening sureness. Not even the most careless release of a branch produced more than a gentle sigh of sound.
Startled, he began to turn towards Bodie to comment on the peculiarity of this phenomenon, tripped over an unseen tree root, grabbed Bodie's arm to break his fall and succeeded in taking him down as well, rolling and tumbling with him down the soft, springy ground, senses unexpectedly whirling, light-headed, giddy...
Naked skin purple-shadows he stood, still as the straight tall silvered trunk beside him, arrogant mouth curling in malicious anticipation.
"Indeed, my Robin, you have chosen well, Little One."
Out of deeper shadows a second figure moved, came to his side a-quiver with mingled pride and mischief.
"I led them a merry dance, Lord. Up and down, up and down, I have led them up and down..."
"Yes, yes!" his master interrupted irritably. He'd heard the boastful chant too often over the centuries to applaud it now.
The full mouth dropped in silent disappointment, the humble tilt of the head belied by the glint of green peeping through the wild tangle of curls.
Eyes blue as grape-bloom gazed sternly down at him beneath frowning pointed brows before the expressive mouth twisted into a smile for this, his most disobedient but most treasured servant. The round face stretched responsively into a snaggle-toothed and engaging grin.
"Lord Oberon is pleased with me?"
Blunt-tipped fingers ruffled the wild hair. "I am pleased, Little One. Come, it is time."
An imperious gesture bade the slighter figure follow his master as Oberon strode on silent, naked feet to meet the humans in their headlong fall - meet, dissolve into shadow beside, flickering into smoky unreality within the tumbling bodies, leaving again as they came to rest at the foot of the long, steep slope.
Oberon straightened, adjusting the leather jacket neatly about his person.
Green eyes, on a level with his own now, stared at him with solemn approval, a twinkle lurking deep in them.
"My Lord looks well, if a little more solid-fleshed."
Oberon shook his head admonishingly. "Those extra inches seem to have gone to your head already, Robin Goodfellow."
The wild curls bounced in delighted agreement as he stood, shoulder by shoulder now with his master.
"Well, King of Shadows, shall we go and see how these humans live now?" he asked perkily.
Oberon was investigating the startling object nestled in his left armpit. He drew the Browning Hi-power out and surveyed it gloomily.
"By violence, Little One, it would seem. I suggest you move warily; it would not do to return these bodies to their owners in a damaged condition."
Robin's smile gleamed, brighter than before, more mischievous...
Doyle rolled to a stop at last, uncomfortably aware of a broken twig pressing persistently into the tender skin below his ribs; he reached up to remove it and shot bolt upright, shocked by the sudden realisation that he was naked, not a stitch of clothing left. Outraged, his eyes involuntarily turned to inspect his partner who was pushing himself up on slightly-shaking forearms.
"What the hell -- " Bodie looked down at his bared body in open-mouthed astonishment, scarcely able to take in the abrupt change in his condition; one minute respectably and decently clothed for the everyday task of chasing an escaping gunman through the Warwickshire countryside, the next being knocked off his feet by that irresponsibly clumsy oaf alongside him, sent into a crashing, disorienting fall that had left him winded and nauseated at the foot of the steep slope, crowing for breath and temporarily helpless.
But not unconscious.
One thing he was absolutely certain of, not for one second had he lost consciousness -- so how the hell had he come to lose all his clothes without being aware of the process?
He glared down at Doyle, sure of his being responsible without being able to imagine how the little swine could have managed it.
Doyle glared back from his position below Bodie. How the devil his partner had done it he didn't know, but once he'd got his breath back he was going to twist the bugger's balls off for this.
"What've you done with 'em?" he demanded, staring at the ground about him and then, having failed to find any sign of his missing garments, up at the trees above him as if expecting to find them perched like so many birds in their branches.
"What have I -- " Bodie began. "Look, mate, this is nothing to do with me. You're the one with the childish sense of humour this time."
"Not me." Doyle shook his head in furious denial. "Oh no, sunshine, this is just your style so don't try and kid me with that innocent look because it's never worked yet and it's not going to start today."
"Don't talk fuckin' stupid," Bodie snarled, angered by his embarrassment at his nakedness and making a conscious effort to appear unperturbed as he scrambled to his feet, "how would I set up a thing like this, fer chrissake?"
"'n how would I!" Doyle retorted, already aware of being disadvantaged by his lower position down the slope and not prepared to let Bodie gain any further psychological ascendancy. He got to his feet as well, moved the couple of steps necessary to bring him level with Bodie... and found his nose pointed directly at Bodie's chest.
"Wha -- !"
The sound was almost a wail and he swayed, off-balance, wondering how the ground beneath his feet came to be so weirdly uneven.
Perplexed, Doyle's eyes roamed the level area at the foot of the long, precipitous slope. Flat as a bleedin' pancake in every direction. His gaze travelled upwards, dismayingly far, to encounter Bodie's equally shattered expression.
"You standin' in a hole or something?" Bodie demanded, cold sensations of pure panic running down his spine like winter raindrops.
"No, I am not standin' in a soddin' 'ole," Doyle roared. It had been his last hope as well.
"Well don't look now," Bodie told him faintly, "but you must have had your bathwater too hot this morning, mate, 'cause you've shrunk!"
Doyle's fist swung out, catching Bodie unexpectedly and distressingly low. The bigger man doubled over, wheezing and clutching at Doyle for support. His flailing arm missed the narrow shoulders by inches, closing instead around the riotously curled head, and a moment later they were both back on the ground in a tangle of hard arms and painfully knobbly legs.
Furious, with a rage that covered pure panic, Doyle struck out again and again.
Finally finding a leverage, Bodie got himself wrapped around his belligerent partner like sellotape around a parcel and held him in fierce restraint.
"Give over fighting me," he hissed. "Whatever's happened it's not my fault, you idiot. I may be a genius at most things but even I don't know how to make a bloke shrink a couple of feet, short of choppin' both his legs down, and you've still got your feet on 'cause I could feel 'em kicking me just now."
Doyle lay still, acknowledging the truth of that. "So what's goin' on then?"
"Search me," Bodie shrugged. "How about lettin' me get up again so we can have a look around? Dunno about you but I feel one hell of an idiot rollin' about here with no clothes on."
Abruptly aware of his nudity plastered with such devoted cowardice all down his unfortunate partner, Doyle loosened his grip and peeled himself away. They staggered upright.
"'tisn't a couple of feet," Doyle said critically, measuring himself against his partner, "more like nine inches I'd say, wouldn't you?"
Although feeling that the actual number of inches Doyle had apparently shed was totally irrelevant (any difference, however slight, was fantastic enough) Bodie retained sufficient sense not to say so out loud.
"Yeah," he said deeply, doing his best to sound reassuring, "maybe not even as much as that." He stared down at the top of that familiar curly mop, noting abstractedly how richly red it shone in the autumn sunlight.
Doyle was eyeing him in his turn. "I'm not the only one who's shrunk," he said, wondering whether the small quiver in his voice presaged laughter or a humiliating burst of tears, "only you've done it horizontally instead of vertically."
"Huh?" Bodie squinted down at himself, unable to see anything very different about his body at first.
"Must have lost, oh! nearly three stone, I'd say," Doyle told him, surprised at how shocking it was to see Bodie's solidity reduced to this slender near-fragility. "Look at your arms, then you'll see."
Bodie blinked at them bemusedly.
"I wish someone'd tell us what's going on," he muttered plaintively, turning his eyes back to his partner; his expression changed.
"Your scars've gone, too," he whispered, remembering the patchwork battlefield created there a year or so ago. He tried to see over his own shoulder.
Doyle peered up at it for him. "Yours has gone," he confirmed nervously, "and your hair's longer. Touches your shoulders nearly at the back."
Their eyes searched each other's face, noting tiny differences, nothing startling, nothing they would have recognised so soon had it not been for the notable and shocking alterations in height and weight.
A small, breathy sound escaped Bodie.
"Cheekbone's still got that bashed-in dent," he said in answer to the look of wary enquiry. He caught Doyle's eye, opened his mouth, started to speak, stopped, cleared his throat and began again.
"What the 'ell do we do now?"
Having not the least idea, Doyle shrugged helplessly. "Find some clothes?" he suggested.
"Good idea," Bodie agreed, content for the moment to deal with practicalities. "Where?" He looked around him vaguely, half hoping to see a convenient washing line slung between the trees and prepared to wrap himself in a tablecloth or even a lace doyley if there was nothing better.
"Local supermarket?" Doyle offered. "Must be a branch of Tesco's somewhere." He giggled on a high-pitched note. "Branch -- get it?"
Bodie's face pleaded patience and forbearing from somewhere but seemed resigned to obtaining neither. "I s'pose we can always try makin' do with a handful of leaves," he said dubiously.
Doyle eyed him with scornful disdain. "How're you gonna keep 'em on then -- stick 'em to you with mud and keep praying'? Or build a sort of bird's nest with twigs? Look a right couple paradin' around dressed like that, won't we!"
Bodie hung on to his own fast-vanishing temper with extreme forbearance. "Either way we're not going to get anywhere standing about here. We'll have to get back to the car. There's a rug in the boot and a pair of Wellingtons."
"Wear one each and share the rug, will we!" Doyle said sarcastically. "Bodie, the car's over three miles away and parked in the middle of a housing estate."
Bodie glared at him. "Well, you come up with a better idea."
Scratching at the leaf-mould with a thoughtful and very grimy big toe, Doyle conceded grudgingly: "Can wait until it gets dark before we try it. One thing, it isn't cold."
The day seemed, if anything, warmer now the sun was going down than it had been earlier; even Bodie who, unlike some people, did not at the drop of a hat strip off every stitch he could decently get away with, was quite comfortable save for the feeling of vulnerability that nudity always produced in him.
"Won't be all that long before it's dark now," he said. "Better get to the edge of the wood before then or we could wander around in circles for hours."
He took the bottom of the steep slope at a run.
"Could chase our own tails in daylight too," Doyle yelled, following his partner and wishing irritatedly that he would not go so ruddy fast; he was having the devil's own job to keep up with him.
"With me around to guide you -- no way!" Bodie called back, happily confident.
"Oy!" Doyle spared a breathless glance for the speedily receding backside ahead of him. "Wait for me!"
Looking around in surprise at the request, Bodie let the cheerful insult he had ready die on his lips as a huge well of protective affection surged through him at the sight of Doyle, always lean but now scrawny to the point of emaciation, all eyes and curls and apparently some twenty years younger as well, struggling manfully up the hill in hopeful pursuit.
"Little One!" he murmured fondly, caught himself saying it and stood, slack-jawed at the sentiment. If Doyle had heard him... He might not be able to reach his partner's jaw any more but he was dangerously well-placed for other more vulnerable features. Bodie pulled himself together.
"Sorry, mate," he muttered as Doyle came panting up to him. "Forgot."
Doyle glared. "Forgot what?"
"That you'd -- that you were -- that..." Bodie finally gave up trying to think of a tactful way to put it. "That you're so little now," he said, dodging backwards to avoid the foot viciously aimed at his ankle. "'n you c'n stop that," he added severely. "No call to go bashin' me up just because I'm the only one around to take out your bad temper on. Far too fond of doing that, you are."
Abashed, knowing it to be the truth, Doyle's anger faded and his eyes slid away. Awkwardly he said: "Sorry. Bodie, what d'you think's happened?"
His partner could only think of answers that he wouldn't voice short of an offer of a million quid or a direct order from Cowley.
"Haven't the vaguest idea, sunshine, except I expect I'll wake up any minute when the alarm goes off."
"Be nice, won't it," Doyle agreed. "Hope it happens soon though. This place gives me the willies."
"Oh, I dunno -- " Bodie felt argumentative. "I think it's rather pretty."
"You won't think that when the light's gone," Doyle told him grimly, "'n the mist starts creepin' through the trees."
"Won't be here then, mate. Come on, follow your Uncle Bodie and I'll lead you safely back to civilisation."
Unsure whether he really wanted to face civilisation in his present condition but unable to think of any alternative save staying hidden here for the rest of his life, Doyle went with his partner.
Half an hour later the light was disappearing fast under the trees, leaching everything of colour and deepening the shadows in the undergrowth.
Bodie stopped abruptly on the edge of a clearing. "Might as well admit it," he said wearily, "I haven't the least idea where we are."
Since he had been aware of that for the last twenty minutes and more Doyle evinced no surprise. He sank onto a convenient bank, glad to sit down.
"Come on, 'ave a rest for a minute, take the weight off your plates. No point in floggin' ourselves to death, is there."
Bodie came to join him, flopping down inelegantly. He sniffed. "Something smells nice -- reminds me of roast turkey and Christmas. What is it?"
Doyle picked a sprig of the springy plant that grew in profusion over the bank. "Wild thyme. Nice, innit?"
"Yeah." Bodie lay back, arms folded behind his head. "Very nice. Tell you what..."
"When the stars come out we can navigate by them."
Doyle looked up at the small patch of sky over the clearing; a bright but solitary star winked back, mocking him.
"If we could see 'em properly, yes, we could -- if we knew what we were doing," he agreed sourly.
A drooped eyelid opened a scant millimetre. "You mean you were never in the Scouts? Fat lot of use you are."
"Neither were you -- were you?" Doyle was assailed by a sudden doubt;
"Nah -- Boys' Brigade."
For some reason that tickled Doyle's unpredictable funny bone and he dissolved into helpless laughter, letting it take him over. It was that or cry. He put his arm up over his face until such time as it was safe to emerge.
Bodie was shaking his arm urgently, had been shaking it for a few seconds, Doyle realised, surfacing some little while later.
He blinked. "What's up?"
"Saw someone," Bodie hissed. "Someone movin' over there." He jerked his head.
Trying to peer through the growing dusk Doyle said hopefully: "D'you think he'll have a spare pair of trousers on 'im?"
"Not if he's female," Bodie said, drawing his knees up defensively just in case. "Bloody hell!" He clutched at Doyle again, forgetting his partner's new lightness and almost pulling him down.
"Give over," Doyle said in annoyance, extracting his nose from Bodie's armpit.
Aggravated, Bodie shook him. "Look!"
"Where?" Doyle looked all around him, still seeing nothing.
"Over there." A large hand gripped his head and turned it. "By that huge oak the other side of the clearing."
Doyle looked. "It's a deer," he said, not very certainly.
The shadow moved, walked out onto the short grass.
It was not a deer.
But it was very definitely masculine.
The two CI5 agents looked from the naked apparition to each other and back again. This time it was Doyle who clutched Bodie. The new arrival had been noiselessly joined by anything from fifty to a hundred others, all walking their way.
"Bloody 'ell," Bodie said weakly. "Issa bleedin' convention!"
"Bit late in the day for sun-bashin', innit?" Doyle said, not even trying to control the quaver in his voice.
They got slowly to their feet.
Not one of the new arrivals, Bodie realised on a rising tendency to giggle, was taller than his partner presently stood, and they all bore the same type of urchin features, solemn now, under heads of crazily curling hair. They advanced in total silence, not even a whisper of sound as they moved, their eyes fixed unnervingly on Bodie.
Just as he was beginning to feel he couldn't possibly bear it one second longer and was about to turn and run like hell, dragging his partner with him before he lost him in this sea of dishevelled lookalikes, they stopped all together, as if at some unseen, unheard signal, and sank to their knees, holding their arms out as if in supplication.
"Hail, Lord Oberon, all hail!"
The sound was the rustle of leaves in the breeze, twitter of birds high in a summer sky, rush of water over pebbles, but the words were there, clear as a bell.
"Hail, Lord Oberon, all hail!"
Eyes starting from his head, Bodie looked around wildly for the object of their attention, turned back to find expectant eyes still fixed unerringly, unblinkingly on him.
"Er...hail," he said feebly.
A small, derisive snort sounded somewhere down by his left elbow.
"All right," he sulked out of the corner of his mouth, "see if you can do any better."
"Oh no, you carry on, mate, I wouldn't dream of interferin'," Doyle assured him, a tight bubble of mirth constricting his diaphragm. One of those in the front row of the crowd was pulling a hideous face at him; he pulled one back and promptly ducked behind Bodie -- just in case. Pity it was the new, slimline model of course, but he was reassuringly large compared with everyone else around here. He prodded a skinny but muscled leg.
"Tell 'em to piss off," he hissed.
"What?" Bodie wasn't sure he'd heard that.
"Tell 'em to go away," Doyle urged.
Just like that? Well, it was worth a try. He waved an unconvincing a rm.
"Er -- go away," he said, doing his best not to let it sound like a question.
A myriad huge eyes, gleaming cat-like in the starlight, blinked in puzzled unison.
"Leave us," he said, improvising frantically, "we -- er -- we want to be alone.
Seconds later they were gone, melted into the thickening dusk as silently as they had come.
Doyle emerged from behind him. "Thought so," he said smugly.
"Thought what?" Bodie demanded, completely fogged.
"That they'd go if you told 'em to -- it was what they called you," he explained. "You know -- Oberon."
"Who's Oberon?" Bodie watched the birth and slow growth of the malicious grin with resignation. "Come on, who is he?"
"Di'nt you 'ave no education?" Doyle shook his head sorrowfully.
"It didn't take," Bodie said sweetly. "Now, who is Oberon -- and before I get my hands around that scraggy little neck and forget me own strength."
Doyle was going to enjoy this. Eyes innocent-wide, he looked up soulfully. "King of the Fairies," he said.
"King of..." Bodie controlled his urge to take Doyle apart as some scrap of long-forgotten memory resurfaced and he recalled the play their ineffectual English teacher had tried so desperately to get them to take seriously.
"Well if I'm Oberon," he said sardonically, "you must be -- "
"I beg your pardon?" Bodie tilted a shocked eyebrow.
"I said Puck," Doyle repeated more loudly.
"That's what I thought you said," Bodie assured him with perfect truth. He sighed. "Are you going crazy or am I?"
"I dunno but -- " Doyle looked down at the spot where they were standing. "I think we ought to get out of here, mate."
"Why? What's wrong?"
A naked foot kicked at the wiry-stemmed herb, making the scent of it stronger on the air. "I know a bank where the wild thyme grows...
"What's that supposed to mean?" Bodie, ever suspicious.
"Where oxlips and the nodding violet blows..."
"Look, if you're just going to..."
"Quite over-canopied with lush woodbine..."
"...Spout poetry at me..."
"With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine..." Doyle pointed to the briar with its entangling convolvulus.
"...then I'm going to..."
"There sleeps Titania some time of the night..."
"...start getting pissed off with..."
"Lulled in these flowers by dances and..."
Doyle abandoned his poetry voice for a more normal tone. "Bloody 'ell," said Bodie, "she's..."
"Your wife," Doyle nodded.
Bodie surveyed his panting partner with a jaundiced eye. "Thought Puck was supposed to be able to put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes?"
He received a pained look. "Even bleedin' Concorde's not that fast." Doyle looked over his shoulder. "Wonder where that lot back there got to."
"Crept into acorn cups most likely," Bodie said on a rising note. Quite convinced by now that he was dreaming, his brain had gone from numbness to hilarity. "Shall we try it as well? Probably fit you OK."
Elbows that looked to have been sharpened to points bristled aggressively as Doyle stuck his hands on his hips and glared at his aggravating partner. "Y'know, I think I'm gonna get fed up with that in a minute."
"Oh?" Bodie too could look supremely innocent. "Thought you already were. OK, OK, truce!"
"Take your life in your 'ands sometimes, you do," Doyle told him, not at all disarmed by the grin he was offered. "Where to now -- back to the car? Be easier, perhaps, through the housing estate now it's dark."
With a doubtful shake of his head Bodie said slowly: "Somehow I don't think we'll find our way out of here just yet."
"What?" Doyle was surprised. "You givin' up or something?"
"'s not that..."
"Looks remarkably like it, mate."
"Look," Bodie gathered what control he still had, "you can say what you like and you undoubtedly will, but I'm good at finding my way around somewhere like this. I ought to have got us out of here ages ago..."
"I know." A sotto voce interpolation. Doyle, too, could play with fire.
The provocation was ignored.
"...and this wood's not that big, either -- thought I was goin' dotty earlier on when we seemed to be goin' round in circles, because I knew we weren't."
"What're you trying to say?" Doyle had a hollow feeling he already knew.
"That whoever or whatever's responsible for this," Bodie's hand flickered in a gesture that encompassed their altered bodies, "is making damn sure we can't get out of this wood until they're good and ready for us to."
Soberly rueful, Doyle nodded in agreement. "So you reckon we just have to make the best of it for the moment?"
"Don't see what else we can do. I'll have another go at trying to get us out if you like, but I don't think it'll be any use."
If Bodie was that sure there was no point in Doyle arguing. He shrugged. "Just wish we knew what they had in mind to do with us."
"I've no doubt we'll find out in time." There was a grimness about Bodie's resignation which echoed Doyle's own less than charitable thoughts.
"Most likely, if we're them -- they're us. Wonder how Cowley will like having a couple of fairies working for him!"
A somewhat grim smile was his only answer. Maybe, in a hundred years or so, Bodie would find the notion amusing.
"Let's hope they don't get us killed," he commented drily.
Pondering that a while, Doyle decided there was little he could do about it and put the idea firmly to one side.
"So what-do we do now?" he asked again. "Try and keep out of trouble until we're free to go? That could be easier said than done, given what it looks as though we're up against."
About to argue, Bodie said suddenly: "Oh Christ! this is ridiculous -- just listen to the two of us discussin' this as though we really believe it's happening when any minute now we're gonna wake up in our own beds. I mean, it can't be real -- can it?"
The last two words were a distinct question.
Doyle looked down at himself and then up at Bodie. "Can't it?"
His voice shook.
All the well-hidden protectiveness Bodie felt for his partner surfaced at once and, without thinking, he threw one arm about the smaller man in a consoling hug; finding the altered body so terrifying in its seeming fragility he ended up gripping it as much for his own reassurance as Doyle's, and oddly comforted by the way a pathetically stick-like arm closed on his own much-reduced frame. Not wanting to discover who was propping up whom he closed his eyes, content for the moment to forget the impossibility of their situation.
"You feel real enough anyway," Doyle said.
"Mmmm." Slightly off balance, Bodie shifted position and opened his eyes to find two pairs of curious green ones staring unblinkingly their way from among the branches of a near-by oak. He prodded his partner, silently indicating the watchers.
Arm falling away, Doyle stepped back, mildly confused without quite understanding why and openly annoyed at the grins that spread across both grimy faces. He affected a haughty look that occasioned one of the onlookers to nudge the other in a very human fashion and their puzzled expressions to intensify.
Do we know you? they seemed to say. There's something odd about you ...
Doyle's hand crept out to grab Bodie and pull him away from the spot, met Bodie's coming his way on a precisely similar errand. Their fingers brushed, finding comfort in the fleeting contact.
The watchers giggled, hiding their mouths behind grimy, broken-nailed hands.
"Ignore 'em," Doyle muttered, feeling Bodie tense beside him. "Come on. No point in hanging around here, is there!"
They swung around, only to find a further audience behind them -- feminine this time though, and as naked as their tiny brothers save for the extra modesty afforded by their hair which fell in soft, clouded clusters about their slender frames.
For a moment Bodie panicked, until he saw that the new arrivals were more scared than he was; he pulled himself together, drew Doyle to his side with a lordly gesture and slid a hand onto the skinny neck.
The females scattered, almost too quickly for his eye to see them move.
"Can't we get away from them anywhere?" he demanded plaintively.
Now it was fully dark the wood, which had seemed so friendly when they had first seen it in the bright afternoon sun, appeared more sinister than any other spot Bodie had ever encountered; given a choice he'd have settled for the African bush and the company of Krivas and his mates. Setting a course at random he directed Doyle away to their right, seeking out an area where the undergrowth was thicker, more reassuringly concealing.
"Good job it's a warm night," he commented gloomily. "Be just our luck if it started to rain or we had the first frost of the year, wouldn't it!"
"Are you sure it's a warm night?" There was an odd note in Doyle's voice.
"What d'you mean?"
"Well, I don't know if you realised it but that was a blackberry bush you just led us through," Doyle pointed out, patiently long-suffering.
"What?" Bodie paused, noting that he must have been extraordinarily lucky for he had not a single mark anywhere upon him. "Scratched yourself, have you?" he asked with spurious concern.
"No -- and considering the way you dragged us right through the middle of it, doesn't that strike you as odd? I mean, we're not exactly dressed in thorn-proof tweed, are we!"
"So how come..."
"Perhaps our -- their -- skins don't get scratched." Doyle rubbed at his reflectively, wondering if he really did feel any different or whether he would be unable to tell since that was not his hand, so to speak, that he was feeling with but the one that belonged to this body and would naturally find it quite normal to the touch.
Having reached the same, unsatisfactory conclusion, Bodie preferred not to take unnecessary chances. "Better be careful, just in case."
But Doyle was past caring about anything much by now. He shrugged. "I dunno, always wanted to be able to get at the best blackberries right at the middle of the bush, haven't you?"
Bodie had to concede it was a tempting thought but he pointed out a snag.
"It's dark. How the hell d'you expect to be able to pick blackberries at night?"
"The light's not that bad, is it -- or maybe we can see in the dark now or something. Look, there're some beauties just by your head."
Present stature forgotten, Doyle reached over, pausing in chagrin when his hand did not come within a foot of the tempting fruit.
Bodie grinned and pulled the branch down for him.
For a while they feasted in contented silence, finding that just as Doyle had predicted their skin was no longer susceptible to blackberry thorns. They ought to have realised something like it from the way they'd both been happily running about barefooted without once treading on something painful, but Bodie was prepared to excuse himself for being so thick; after all, they'd both had a lot of other things on their minds for the last hour or so.
"Oy!" Bony fingers caught him smartly between the third and fourth ribs, making him wince. "Stop being a selfish bugger an' hoggin' all the best ones up there. I'd like a few off the top of the bush as well."
"Aah!" Bodie resisted the temptation to pat the springy hair above the pugnaciously scowling face; instead he stretched up and pulled a tangle of brambles towards Doyle, who snatched greedily at the whole bunch.
"Haven't eaten since breakfast," he reminded his partner, stuffing a huge handful in and chewing inelegantly, careless of the spatter of pink juice about his chin and fingers. From the look of these hands this character didn't go in much for personal hygiene as a general rule so Doyle didn't feel obliged to try and keep the body looking beautiful for its owner. Besides, as Bodie had said, sooner or later he'd wake up in the sanctuary of his own bed and could give up worrying altogether.
Nice thought that, Doyle -- hang on to it! I've a feeling you might need it.
"Filling things, blackberries," Bodie said after a while, licking his fingers with sleepy pleasure. "I feel really pogged."
"Mm! me too," Doyle agreed thickly, interrupted in the middle of sucking a recalcitrant seed from between two molars while absently collecting another handful of berries. "Hey! pull that lot there down for me, will you? I can't quite reach 'em and... What's up? Oh, Christ!"
Cosily ensconced in the small bower created by the fallen trunk, the couple appeared frozen in mid-action, his head twisted to look behind him, her eyes huge in a shock-paled face.
"They can't see us," Doyle hissed, peering out from under Bodie's elbow. "We're bleedin' invisible. We've got to be."
"Have we?" Much as Bodie would have liked Doyle's vehement statement to be factual the horrified and fascinated faces staring their way told their own, contradictory tale; the lovers could see them very clearly indeed, and now that the first shock of discovery had passed had had time to assimilate the intruders' less than conventional appearance and draw their own far from comforting deductions.
Watching the girl fill her lungs prior to a healthy burst of hysterical screaming Bodie decided discretion was the better part of valour and rather than stay and vainly attempt to reassure her they were not a couple of mad rapists out looking for prey but were themselves the sinned-against victims of two fairies somehow left over from an earlier (and possibly more credulous) age, he simply said: "Sorry, mate!" in as calm a voice as he could manage and backed out as hurriedly as was feasible.
Sadly for him, the dignity of his retreat was marred by Doyle's presence both closer to him and more directly under his feet than he was used to, and in the process of doing his best not to squash him he caught his foot in a tangle of brambles and went crashing with more emphasis than elegance into the middle of the bush.
A burst of fine Anglo-Saxon hit the purple-shaded evening.
Doyle put out a hand and gravely helped him up, bestowing a would-be engaging grin upon the lovers as he did so, shying like a startled fawn as the girl finally got her lungs filled to her satisfaction and began to scream upon a high, thin note guaranteed to shatter glass at sixty paces.
Clapping hands to ears now over-sensitive to such sounds Doyle reeled back and, casting an agonised, beseeching look Bodie's way started to run.
Not unwilling, Bodie joined him.
After a few minutes he said conversationally: "Where're we off to then?"
"Does it matter?" Doyle retorted curtly, maintaining the swift pace.
"Only in case you hadn't realised, you're taking us round in a circle," Bodie told him, "and you'll have us back with love's young dream any minute now.
That did bring his partner to a stop just as he'd thought it would.
Doyle turned and looked at him, eyes wary in a face that was still doing its best to come to terms with their increasingly impossible situation.
"Wouldn't want to do that," he agreed solemnly. "Worst moment of my life when I found those two starin' at the pair of us as though we were a couple of 'ideous ghosts just walked out of the woodwork."
"You sure we're not?"
"Very visible ghosts," Doyle commented drily; he poked at Bodie's ribs with a bony, jagged-nailed finger. "Pretty solid, too."
"Oh, very whimsical," Bodie said with heavy sarcasm, "but I'd go along with it you're no ghost. Bit too earthy looking, if you follow me."
Doyle tucked his chin into his neck to stare down at his indisputably grubby frame. "Could do with a bath," he conceded. "Wonder when this bloke had one last."
"Shakespeare's time by the look of you." Unwisely, Bodie smirked and was promptly subjected to a piercing and detailed scrutiny of his person that had him squirming with ill-concealed embarrassment long before Doyle relented and let his gaze slide away.
About to relax, Bodie stiffened once more as Doyle observed reflectively: "One good thing, they seem to be pretty well-endowed fairies, don't they! 's a bit of a relief really. Dunno I could face meself if I'd found something missing, so to speak."
Summoning up his nearly-extinguished savoir-faire Bodie looked down at himself with creditable ease. "You speak for yourself," he drawled, "me, I reckon I've been short-changed."
Never easy to embarrass Doyle rose to the challenge without hesitation.
"That so?" he said, tone and eye both respectful as he bent to peer even more closely at the relevant portion of Bodie's anatomy.
A prominent ear was readily available for use as a handle and Bodie made good use of it to haul his partner unceremoniously upright. From away to their right a chuckle assaulted their ears and, simultaneously, they swung around -- Bodie having fortunately let go of Doyle's ear first -- and peered into the gloom beneath an ancient beech's sagging boughs. Doyle was not sure but thought he recognised one of the three spectators as the one who had been making such a hideous face at him earlier on; driven by a gutter-snipe instinct that obstinately still surfaced occasionally despite all his efforts to quell it he contorted his own features into the most ghastly grimace he could manage, sticking his thumbs in his ears and waggling his fingers in mocking derision.
Bodie cast a blank look his way and essayed dignity.
Raising a lordly arm he ordered sternly: "Go away! I thought I told you we want to be alone tonight."
Six eyes blinked in that same, uncanny unison.
"But, King of Shadows," one of them ventured tentatively, "your Lady Titania is passing wroth at your absence."
Without realising what he was doing, Bodie took a step towards the comforting familiarity beside his partner. So far as he was concerned the further he could keep away from the whole of this tribe until they found a way out of this fantastic and idiotic nightmare the better he would like it -- and that most emphatically included his reputed wife, whose closer acquaintance he had no desire at all to make. There was no way he was going to be able to kid her along that everything was normal when he had no way of knowing what normal was for fairies.
The ludicrous nature of their predicament suddenly struck him and without warning he began to laugh, hugely and immoderately, holding his sides and crowing until he was breathless and aching.
His three followers' eyes widened so far it seemed impossible they should not fall from their sockets and they eyed one another nervously, then by tacit consent they turned and fled, pausing only once to look back and nearly falling over themselves to get away when that set Bodie off laughing even harder.
Doyle was little help; the look, first startled then peeved, on his urchin face only served to make Bodie struggle for breath every time he caught sight of it.
Eventually, as is inevitable, the relentless giggles got to Doyle as well and his face creased into a broad even though unwilling smile before he too succumbed and began to snigger. In the end they were literally holding each other up as they whooped and howled and gurgled until their eyes were wet and their noses in dire need of blowing.
Having no pocket presently upon his person in which to keep a decent clean handkerchief, Bodie settled for a long, luscious sniff to solve his problem; Doyle, less inhibited, drew the back of his hand moistly across his nose and rubbed it furtively on one, hollowed flank.
"That settles it," Bodie declared, a gleam appearing in his eye as a new light-heartedness took him, "a bath is what you need and a bath is what you're going to get!"
"What?" Doyle backed off warily. He knew Bodie only too well once he got that look in his eye; once his partner had made up his mind about something no one, not even Cowley, could turn him from his purpose.
"Next stream we find," Bodie promised him, "there's got to be one around here somewhere. There might be a pond if we're lucky." He set off along what just might have been a track between the trees with a look of determination and an imperious gesture demanding that Doyle follow him.
"Might even be no water at all if I'm really lucky," Doyle muttered balefully under his breath, having more sense than to let Bodie know how little he relished the proposed ablutions; their unexpected encounter just now had shaken him more than he realised and he was conscious of an almost overwhelming urge to find somewhere to hide and stay there until everything was back to normal and it was safe to come out.
Bodie, on the other hand, seemed to be positively enjoying himself all of a sudden and to have acquired a rollicking good humour that pronounced him ripe for mischief of any sort. Not being stupid, Doyle mistrusted him in this mood.
"The thing to do," Bodie said, having reached this satisfactory conclusion within his own mind, "is not to keep on making a fuss and getting all hot'n bothered about what's happening, but to get on and enjoy it. I mean, some folk pay good money to go to nudist camps 'n troll about starkers -- we've been given the chance to do it for nothing, and I reckon we should make the most of it, don't you?"
He paused, expecting a reply and, getting none, looked over his shoulder to find that once again his longer legs had drawn him steadily ahead of his partner who was trudging along behind him, a heavily truculent scowl etched upon the uneven features.
Bodie watched him, that surge of protective affection once again gripping him. It was uncanny how right Doyle looked in this setting -- at home and natural, as though Bodie saw him like this every day of their lives. He leaned against a convenient tree trunk, waiting for Doyle to catch up.
"What are you grinning at?" Doyle demanded, panting ostentatiously.
"Nothing much." Bodie kept his voice casual. "Just thinking you'd found your ideal setting at last, mate."
Doyle glared. "And just what d'you mean by that?"
"Fit right in to all this, don't you! Just like one of the natives."
The glare intensified. "'n I suppose you think you don't."
"Huh? Me? I don't look like all the other little fairies, do I, and if you try'n kick me just once more I'll put you over my knee'n tan your hide until it's scarlet," he promised without pausing.
With a muffled snort, Doyle swung himself onto one of the low-hanging branches and contemplated his partner silently while making up his mind which of the many ready insults that sprang to mind would be most appropriate.
"Overdoing the lordly bit rather, aren't you? Come here! Do this! Get that... taking to it like the manner born, you are."
"Just a natural leader," Bodie retorted smoothly, doing his best to look regal.
Doyle slid up another couple of branches.
"Ordering me about, telling me I need a bath..."
"Well, you do," Bodie interpolated. "Been needing one for about three hundred years by the look of you."
He would have gone on to elaborate upon this theme at a most satisfying length had he not suddenly found himself wearing Doyle's new, light-boned feather-heavy body as sort of necklace and was too deeply engaged in trying to extricate himself from its somewhat smothering grip to have time to think of anything else.
It was doubly frustrating for Doyle, who had expected to send his partner flying when he launched himself upon him, to find that his abrupt arrival on Bodie's shoulders did not even make him stagger a little, let alone lose his balance. He kicked out in annoyance and promptly had both sparrow-thin ankles taken in the same, large, capable hand and firmly held down.
He wriggled, said: "Ouch!" rather plaintively and desisted.
Bodie sniggered. "Well you shouldn't bounce your balls on my shoulder, should you. Not such a well-endowed little fairy as you are, anyway. Bound to do yourself an injury like that."
Doyle became still. "Put me down then," he said, quietly reasonable,
Instead, Bodie swung him unexpectedly down and round and upwards, tossing him onto his shoulder like a child.
"Ferchrissake, Bodie!" Doyle clutched at the dark head in involuntary panic, ducking because his own curly pate was in imminent danger of being knocked from its customary moorings by a sturdy branch as Bodie staggered.
"Get your bloody great mitts from over me eyes then," Bodie demanded, aggrieved. "Can't see a ruddy thing, can I, with you clutching at me like that. Leggo!"
"Nothing you'd want to see around here anyway," Doyle sulked, but he removed his hands all the same. Pointless to give Bodie a genuine excuse to drop him when he was perfectly capable of manufacturing a plausible one without assistance. "Come on, put me down, you idiot."
"Nope," Bodie refused cheerfully, setting off through the wood at a cracking pace, Doyle still perched high on one shoulder. For one thing he could tease Ray for years about this if he handled it right, for another it seemed more sensible they should stick together and this was the easiest way to make sure they did so. With his own new, lightweight frame he was capable of a faster turn of speed than was normal for him, making it increasingly difficult to keep his pace down to that dictated by his partner's unaccustomedly shortened limbs.
Resigned to his fate, Doyle settled himself as comfortably as he could on the broad shoulder and stared curiously down at the top of his partner's head.
During their peregrinations about the wood the moon had arisen; to Doyle's now differently perceiving eyes it shone with an unnatural intensity, illuminating the forest just as brightly as the daytime sun but with silver instead of golden light, and it gleamed on Bodie's dark cap of hair, lending it a bluish haze that echoed the sloe-blue of the eyes turning to laugh up at him as Bodie marched cheerily along.
"Get you for this," Doyle promised, but there was no menace in the threat and a laugh hovered about his own mouth. "Where are we off to then in such a hurry?"
"Dunno," Bodie said vaguely. "To see what we can find?"
"OK." Doyle made himself relax, feeling no end of an idiot perched up in such an undignified fashion but determined not to make a fuss which would only make Bodie more aggravating than ever; he remained where he was, wondering just how old he'd been the last time anyone had carried him like this -- most likely to have been his dad though he had no recollection of it. It was a novel sensation to say the least, and not one he cared for.
Bodie tightened his grip about the bony knees. "What's the view like from up there -- see anything interesting, can you?"
"Nothing much worth seeing in a wood usually," Doyle said gloomily, looking about them. "A lot of trees all doing the same thing -- grow, grow, grow all the time. 's not exactly as thrilling as Coronation Street, y'know. Oh!"
"What is it?"
"Something way over there, some kind of wall, I think. Want to go and take a butcher's?"
"Why not? Over where?"
"That way." Doyle leant down and pointed so Bodie could see. "Down in that hollow.
"Got it." Bodie swung in that direction and started off.
"Watch it!" Doyle hurriedly ducked a second time, having to bend himself virtually double to avoid the branches that threatened his head. "And watch your footing. It's muddy down here and I don't fancy rolling around in it with you."
"Always enjoy mud-wrestling myself." Bodie chuckled filthily.
"Watchin' it's one thing, doing it with you's quite another."
Doyle was right, it was exceedingly muddy down here; Bodie's feet sank up to his ankles with every step he took but this body he now inhabited seemed innately sure-footed and he squelched along without apparent difficulty or hesitation.
"It is wet just here, great puddles all over the shop, look."
Aware of a faint eeriness in the atmosphere, Doyle shivered. "Is that a stream?"
"That way." Again Doyle leant down so Bodie could see where he was pointing.
"Yes, it is. But where does it come from? It looks as though it flows out of the puddle." Bodie splodged himself around through 360 to see. "Doesn't appear to come from anywhere, does it?"
"Maybe you're right and it comes from the puddle," Doyle suggested. "All this lot could be a well seeping up through the ground."
Bodie wrinkled his nose as he surveyed the waterlogged scene. "Not very beautiful, is it. Be a lot prettier if it was bubbling up in a spring, wouldn't it!"
Doyle agreed wholeheartedly and, disinclined to linger for some reason he didn't comprehend, said: "Well, come on then, let's go and have a look at this wall. Just follow the water; it seems to be going in that direction."
Indeed, it did run that way and within a surprisingly short distance had become quite a respectable little, fast-flowing rivulet.
As they got closer they could see that the wall was only short and was not a wall as such, being only about fifteen feet long and one side of an enclosure of some kind, Doyle thought. It was old, how old he wouldn't have liked to hazard, and it attracted and repelled in equal measure, begging you to seek out its secrets while at the same time seeming to say you could well regret it if you did. He shivered again and gazed furtively behind him.
"You cold?" Bodie questioned, surprised. Having become used amazingly quickly to his present state of unconventional undress Bodie was rather enjoying the sense of freedom it gave him and was still comfortably warm.
"No. Goose walked over me grave," Doyle said shortly, not wanting to discuss it.
"Can you see over the top?" Bodie asked, unable to see Doyle's uneasy glances at the ancient stones.
His partner wasn't by any means sure he wanted to see inside or even approach any closer for that matter.
"Course I can," he said scornfully, having pulled himself together by the simple expedient of pretending George Cowley was the other side of the moss-draped stonework and listening with his own brand of sarcastic concentration to every word they uttered. "Course I can see over the top -- and it's quite OK. You've got nothing to worry about yet."
"What d'you mean?"
Doyle's grubby hand skimmed the blue-black head, just as short-cropped on top as on its more familiar owner's, differing only in the flowing elf-locks that now brushed the broad, pale shoulders!
"No sign of dandruff or bald spots," he said in indulgent reassurance. Then he added thoughtfully: "Of course, that's his head, not yours. Oberon's, I mean. You could be going bald as a badger on top for all I can tell from looking at the head you're wearing right this minute, couldn't you!"
"Very amusing," Bodie commented drily. "And what's over the other side of the wall?"
"Dunno, can't see over. We'll have to go around."
It was a rectangular enclosure they found, about fifteen feet long by ten wide and the stream led them right to it, disappearing beneath a low arch at the bottom of the wall ahead of them; they could hear it splashing down a low fall beyond, out of sight.
"Odd," Bodie remarked, pausing to stare down at it. "Why build something over a stream?"
Doyle shrugged and rebalanced himself as Bodie set off again, turning along one of the shorter sides where the ground sloped away.
At first it seemed there was no entrance for it wasn't until they turned the third corner that they were able to see any sign of a break in the rough stonework.
Bodie approached the shadowed gap and peered curiously in.
The moon was high overhead, slanting in to light two walls of the interior; against one, a long slab of stone was set on two low supports to make a primitive bench; halfway along the other, the stones were built up to form an alcove and within its moss-and-fern-garnished dimness the stream came pouring noisily in, falling about eighteen inches into a shallow basin some three feet across whence it was led away along a stone channel around the walls and out at the corner beyond the entrance.
Doyle clutched at Bodie's head in involuntary but silent dissent as his partner stepped over the stone threshold and onto the flaking paving within.
"Quit that! You're pulling me ruddy ears off," Bodie demanded plaintively.
"There's nothing to see," Doyle said, not eager to voice his unease aloud.
"Not a lot, no," Bodie agreed casually, walking slowly over to the shallow basin, a purposeful gleam in his eye and a small smile playing about his mouth.
Caught up in his odd reaction to the place Doyle was slow to realise Bodie's intent until the muscular arm curled around his waist and pulled him forwards and down, cradling him infant-fashion.
"Gerroff!" Doyle yelled. "Leggo, Bodie, you great ape. Put me down!"
"I'm just about to," Bodie promised, grinning broadly. "There you go! Don't forget to wash behind the ears, will you."
And with that he sat Doyle down in the basin, pushing him backwards at the same time until his head was under the tiny waterfall, then with his free hand he scooped up what water he could and began scrubbing at the dusty smudges marring the round cheeks.
Doyle spluttered and wriggled, kicking out in furious protest at this ignominious treatment but quickly realised resistance was futile; even under normal circumstances Bodie's superior weight gave him a slight advantage, under existing conditions. Doyle simply didn't stand a chance of fighting him off and he abandoned the attempt, selecting instead to wind his arms tightly about the strong neck and pull Bodie off balance to land with a healthy splash and a vulgar exclamation beside him in the water.
"Tut-tut!" Doyle admonished, grinning as he scrambled to his knees and slapped his hand flat-palmed onto the surface, creating a small fountain that cascaded across Bodie's legs as he struggled to regain his equilibrium and sit up.
"Scrub-a-dub-dub, two men in a tub," Doyle chanted on a high falsetto, happily substituting hands and fingernails for the missing soap and nailbrush required as he splashed and rubbed up and down the heaving ribs.
"Stop it -- ouch! Ray, that tickles! Don't -- ferchrissake, Ray -- " Bodie gulped and choked and gurgled as he did his utmost to wriggle away from the busy little fingers, squirming, thrashing and giggling all with equal fervour.
Doyle had always enjoyed Bodie's laughter and found it infectious. Chuckling himself now, his attack lost its cutting edge and, seeing that Bodie was recovering, he sat back on his heels, a broad smile still creasing his face.
"Little bastard!" Bodie said, with feeling, leaning back against the stone in a careless pose as close to something in classical marble as he could manage.
Eyes crinkling appreciatively, Doyle flicked water at him, finger and thumb delicately precise.
The droplets landed on Bodie's shoulder but that did not stop him ostentatiously wiping his eye with pained exaggeration and mildly requesting Doyle to pack it in and get himself clean before Bodie took over and did it for him.
A sly look slid his way. "You can take a horse to water but a pencil has to be lead."
Bodie's automatic groan was deep and loud and rumbled through water and stone to tickle deep inside Doyle, making him jump and shiver and utter a small sound somewhere between a gasp and a laugh. Bodie took advantage of the momentary distraction to clasp one skinny arm in a firm though carefully not painful grip and begin washing away some of the dust and grime accumulated on Doyle's face and neck.
Resigned to his fate, Doyle submitted meekly enough; there'd be opportunity for revenge sooner or later and it would be sweet when it came. For now, he contented himself with a little gentle splashing of any bit of Bodie he could reach.
"My Lord has surely taken leave of his senses."
The high, glass-brittle voice cut the quiet night.
Bodie was on his feet in one fluid movement, heart pounding, a cold chill flashing down his stiffening spine.
With an instinct that did not come from his own experience, Doyle knelt, cowering behind Bodie and curling an arm around Bodie's leg like a bewildered toddler clutching at his mother in a crowded supermarket. From this position of precarious security he peeped out, eyes widening as they lighted on the speaker.
Willow-leaf slim, tall as Bodie himself and fully as arrogant as that young man at his imperious worst, she stared unblinkingly at Bodie, mouth set in an angry line, eyes glinting in the moonlight like ice catching the sun. Behind her were ranged a group of the tiny female creatures they had seen earlier, also staring, many of them whispering behind their hands.
"And has my Lord nothing to say for himself?" she asked, tone tart as lemon, setting Doyle's back teeth aching as if their very fillings resonated in sympathy.
Bodie's glance slid wildly about him, vainly seeking aid. With difficulty he resisted the urge to shuffle his feet in the water that lapped about his ankles, seldom having felt so foolish or at such a loss as he did now, nor so exposed, his short-lived confidence seared away by the unblinking stares of a dozen equally unclothed females, none of them tall enough to reach any higher than his navel, affording the uneasy impression of his having gatecrashed an indecorously unclad Sunday School picnic.
"Er..." he began, clearing his throat to fill in time. "Ahem... er..."
Such eloquence! Doyle marvelled. Such wit and quick thinking!
He rolled his eyes heavenwards and refrained from pinching Bodie as he longed to do, since he had little hope it would galvanise superbrain there into knowing what to do or say.
But his reaction had been noted and the Queen was visibly displeased, frowning mightily upon him and stamping her tiny foot angrily on the stones as she gestured towards the entry.
"Insolent sprite -- begone at once e'er you feel my wrath!"
Doyle hugged the security of Bodie's leg harder than ever and gazed up at him in horror; they'd have to drag him away by brute force it they wanted him to leave. Christ! if he and Bodie got separated would they ever find each other again in this crazy place?
Bodie dropped a protective hand onto his partner's head and succumbed willingly to the pleading written large on the piteously upturned face.
"My servant stays with me," he said as firmly as he could -- sadly, not very.
If he had thought her eyes showed anger before it was as nothing compared to the cold rage that lit them now.
"You prefer that... creature's company to your Queen's?"
Shrill, incredulous, her voice sliced at their eardrums, making them both wince and draw back.
Bodie recovered his poise with commendable swiftness however; needing to protect his partner always sharpened his reflexes, helped him to think on his feet with ice-cold clarity. His hand patted the curls beneath his palm in unconscious reassurance.
"For tonight -- yes, I prefer his company."
Tone and voice dared her to argue with his edict; his stance one of contained animosity, he outstared her.
Watching her attendants Doyle saw the astonished, almost awed way they looked at Bodie; he gave his partner a silent cheer of encouragement and sat down in the water, firmly resuming his interrupted ablutions.
Their audience gasped, an indrawn, sighing breath made audible in unison; even the Queen's imperious face bore a disconcerted look and she darted a quick glance about her before she spoke, her voice low-pitched now, as if she feared to be overheard.
"Here, my Lord? You allow him to sully the water here?" Again that quick involuntary glance.
Ice poured down Doyle's spine and he shrank even closer to his partner Not knowing what else to do, Bodie brazened it out.
"Here," he confirmed, squaring his shoulders defiantly. Titania's eyes fell before his; Bodie saw fury in them, swiftly suppressed beneath a veneer of meekness. He made a mental note; he'd trust this one less than a hundredth the distance he could throw her fragility.
"My Lord will want me to leave."
It was not a question but Bodie answered it just the same.
"Your Lord commands you to leave."
He put all the hauteur he could muster into the word and immediately looked away, as if silently assuming argument to be at an end.
The ploy was effective. She turned, gesturing to her attendants to precede her. They did so; a whispering rustle of fleet motion, the ripple of moonbeams silvering the shadow of their hair as they went.
In the entrance Titania paused and looked back curiously.
Aloof and austere, Bodie met the look, body as still as the stone behind him.
Then she was gone.
Doyle let out a long, whistling exhalation of relief and released his grip on Bodie.
"Let's get out of here."
"Why? 's the one place we're safe from 'em now, for God's sake," Bodie protested.
"'n the one place they know to look for us," Doyle pointed out. "Besides -- " he paused sheepishly, "bloody place gives me the heebie-jeebies if you must know."
And that was only the half of it.
Mildly surprised -- as far as he was concerned he found the ancient walls about them reassuring -- Bodie gave in without argument, stepping down from the shallow basin and holding out a hand for Doyle to take.
Mouth set in a carefully neutral line Doyle paused only a split second before deciding to take it with a regal dignity that married poorly with his ragamuffin look.
"Your Lordship is too kind."
The fluting modulation of Doyle's rough-hewn voice started a muscle twitching in Bodie's cheek.
"My Lordship'll thump you if you don't pack it in."
"To hear is to obey." Soulfully docile, Doyle tucked his hand cosily into Bodie's. A softly whispered: "Big bully!" floated upwards and was studiously ignored.
"Where now then? Any suggestions?"
"Back the way we came -- back up the hill?"
"If we can find it -- dunno about you but I don't seem to have seen the same spot twice all the time we've been here." Despite his effort to speak lightly, gloom pervaded Bodie's voice.
"Hey -- we'll be OK." Softly squeezing the fingers in his, Doyle added: "Been through worse than this together, haven't we?"
Worse -- possibly. Weirder -- never. Bodie expressed this reaction forcibly.
When he finally ran out of steam he found Doyle grinning up at him. Bodie waited, and when no comment was forthcoming, made one himself.
"At least you seem to have cheered up a bit."
"Me? Always 'appy 'n bright, I am," Doyle assured him.
A vulgar snort answered the barefaced lie.
"We are goin' uphill anyway," Doyle observed. "That's something, innit!"
"Ah, but is it the same hill?"
Doyle made no attempt to answer that one.
They climbed in silence, both a little more hot and bothered than they cared to admit. All this time and they still had not found a way out of this wretched wood.
"Tell you one thing," Doyle murmured as they neared the top of the slope, "this is the weirdest bloody dream I've ever had, don't know about you."
A grin flashed his way. "Say it isn't a dream -- s'pose it's for real, what're you going to do then?"
But even that didn't affect the cheerful buoyancy Doyle had acquired since leaving the well below them. "Once I know it's us for real, dive into the nearest bar and get legless." He slanted a look Bodie's way, enjoying the wistful expression.
"Think it is for real, do you?" Bodie enquired.
Doyle sighed. "Nah. Course not."
"Me neither. Don't even remember my dreams; do you?"
"Not often. Pity, that. Some of 'em must have been real corkers!" Doyle sighed again.
"There's just one thing bothering me." Bodie's brow puckered thoughtfully.
"Only one? What's that?"
"Which one of us is having this dream?"
Doyle took the last few yards of the climb at a run, turned and looked back; haloed by the moon shining brilliantly down upon the wide clearing at the top of the hill he appeared pagan, exotic, skinny flanks outlined in bluish silver, torso veiled in shadow.
"Neither of us. It's obvious, Bodie. Should've thought of it before.
"Thought of what?" Bodie asked, confused.
"It's not our dream -- somehow we've got into one of Cowley's."
Bodie lunged for him, hands closing on empty air as Doyle jumped swiftly back.
"Come here," Bodie said, voice silken with invitation.
"Not fuckin' likely," his partner retorted, ever elegant, and he capered a few steps further over the night-damp grass. "Try 'n get me," he invited, looking back white-toothed.
"Wouldn't have you as a gift," lied Bodie.
He made another lunge for the elusive form; watched it evade him again,, chuckling.
"You'll be sorry," Bodie promised. "'n put that tongue away, it's revoltin'."
"Can't catch me-e," Doyle chanted, reverting to childhood.
"Wanna bet?" Bodie stood still, watchful, poised.
Breath catching in his throat, Doyle said unwarily: "You look -- "
"Yeah?" Predator eyes gleamed at him, daring him to reply. "How do I look?"
One word answered him, offered in disarming honesty.
Disconcerted, Bodie gaped at him, flat-footed and unready.
"But you still can't catch me!" Doyle crowed, spinning on his toes to flee just retribution. Uneven grass snared him, catching his toe. He fell, rolling.
And Bodie was on him, laughing, triumphant.
Large hands clamped themselves on his ribs, winding him; solid form held him, pressing him down into dew-soaked grass; hard fingers dug mercilessly into his ribs.
Incoherent, Doyle struggled to breathe, desperate to escape, shrieking and yelping whenever he could draw breath enough to do so. But when Bodie's hands at last slid away, Doyle's eyes focussed once more and the brief flood of amusement drained away as his brain took in the circle of watching faces.
"Bodie!" The word emerged in a panicked croak.
"Yeah, what is it... oh Christ!" Bodie groaned and rolled onto his back. "You lot again? What does it take to persuade you to go away and leave us alone?"
For one, hopeful second he thought they were actually leaving, but they were only falling back to allow Titania to make a stately approach.
Elbow-propped, Bodie said out of the corner of his mouth: "Dunno 'bout you, sunshine, but I'd feel a lot better facing this on my feet." He hauled Doyle up with him, maintaining a hand-hold on him for his own security.
"It is not like my Lord to walk unwarily."
The high, clear voice was tinged with mockery, making Bodie glance about him uneasily.
"Walk -- unwarily?" he questioned.
A flare of anger gleamed. "It is unwise to jest, my Fairy Lord. Even your powers are dimmed within the circle's influence."
Trying to disguise his bewilderment Bodie stared back at her.
The anger deepened. "Are you so lost to reason you do not even know where you stand?"
Puzzled, Bodie looked down at his feet.
"Bodie!" Doyle was shaking urgently at his arm. "Bodie, look!
That's what she's on about."
For a moment Bodie could see nothing out of the ordinary but then his eyes made out the tussocks of over-long grass on which Doyle had tripped -- part, as he now saw, of an unbroken line extending all the way around where they stood.
A fairy ring?
But it was only -- only -- fungus or something like that, Bodie told himself. It couldn't matter -- could it? Only one way to find out. His hand tightened on Doyle's.
"Come on, sunshine, we'll get out of here, shall we?"
"Yeah!" Heartfelt agreement loaded the single word. "Let's!"
They stepped towards the darker grass together, faltering as Titania laughed, cold and clear sound thrilling down their spines. They took another step.
"Foolish!" She spat the word out. "It will never let you go unless I will it so. And I intend you should stay where you have so blindly wandered."
Never let them go?
Their eyes met, determination strengthening.
"We'll see about that," Bodie said.
They reached the boundary...
"Lord," Robin gasped. "Look here!"
Mind abstracted, thoughts still on the past night's happenings, Oberon looked where his servant pointed.
Robin Goodfellow ducked behind him; always wary of the Queen's anger, it was his favourite refuge.
Oberon frowned heavily, annoyed that the deception seemed to have been found out; the Queen would not hesitate to make the most of any advantage she could fain from his temporary humiliation, and there were too many long-waited favours she would beg for his peace of mind. He drew Robin back into the shadows, awaiting events.
The venom in her voice startled him -- surely his offence was not so serious that she could contemplate imprisoning these unfortunate humans for ever?
A small hand touched him; Robin had been having a brief , murmured colloquy with one of his kin.
"Lord, the Queen does not know they are not us."
Hope flared; so there was still a chance they could just hold the Queen's attention for long enough to release her prisoners.
"My gentle Puck, distract thy mistress, give me time to work my will on her."
Puck darted forward, his longer legs taking him swiftly dancing, obedient to Oberon's command.
The movement caught her eye as Oberon had intended and as her concentration faltered, he took control, shattering the barriers she had woven about the two humans, augmenting the simple power of the ring.
Titania whirled around wrathfully, anger and attention centred on seeking out the wretch who dared challenger her will and overcome it; and in that moment Oberon and Robin seized their opportunity, dissolving, smoke flickering, dizzily reclaiming their own lives, leaching the nights memories from their unwitting, unwilling replacements and offering in their stead the knowledge of what passed out in the mortal world.
And as full understanding of the heap of trouble that had been piled up for them here filled their minds, King and Servant turned horrified eyes upon each other.
Reputation gone -- good name blown to the four winds -- how could Oberon deal with this? What excuses, reasons could he offer that would not be dismissed with derision and unbelief? Even Robin Goodfellow quailed at the enormity of what the humans had so casually, unknowingly done.
"Not there, Lord of Shadows, not there!" he wailed. "Surely they must have known..."
"How could they?" Oberon said heavily. "How could they know that the Well Hall is most sacred to our kind, that no one, not even the King himself, pollutes the purity of its water in that way?"
"But, Lord, they believe that it was ... that it was you and I..."
But not even bold Robin Goodfellow, irreverent, careless, could finish the sentence aloud; his Queen would make him pay dearly for this supposed sacrilege. He uttered a low wail.
"What will we do, King of Shadows?" he quavered, fear etched plainly on the unnaturally clean features.
Oberon laid a comforting arm about him. "I will look after you, Little One," he promised.
Together they went to face his wife.
...and stepped over it without hindrance, both slightly puzzled as to what the fuss was all about.
The scene wavered, faded, slipped away.
Bodie blinked, momentarily dizzy and off balance and wondering why a perfectly ordinary wood should be expected to be anything other than normal. He caught a fleeting look of equal panic on Doyle's face, gone just as suddenly.
"I thought -- " Doyle stopped, shaking his head. "I dunno. 's gone again. You see anything?"
"Nope. Nothing to see," Bodie said shortly. "Come on, Ray, we're wasting our time here. If Turner was ever here he's long gone."
"Yeah." Doyle turned away, oddly reluctant to leave, tired though he was after the long hours they'd put in. "Cowley was in a good mood tonight, wasn't he," he commented, falling in beside Bodie and setting off across the field that bordered the wood.
"Blue-eyed boys, that's us," Bodie agreed complacently. "We're a good team, you know that. So does Cowley."
Warm-toned, reinforced by an inimitable smirk, the confident opinion did not meet with its expected response, Doyle's thoughts being elsewhere, certain that somewhere, somehow, something was missing.
Trouble was, he had no idea what it could be. He found Bodie watching him. "Something wrong?"
He shrugged, smiling. "No, of course not. Why should there be?"
"Dunno," Bodie said doubtfully. "Seemed to me we should be..."
"Should be what?"
"I dunno." It was Bodie's turn to shrug, expression growing sheepish. "Must be losing my grip -- forgetting things..."
"Old age takes you like that," Doyle said sorrowfully. He slipped an arm comfortably around his partner's shoulders. "Come on, Granpa, let's get back to base and report. There's nothing out of the way around here."
"Nothing," Bodie agreed.
But they both looked back as they walked away.
-- THE END --