The snow glimmered under the aurora and the frosty stars. A wind whispered faintly over a low hummock of snow, a mindless, chilling little ditty that presently resolved (in a minor key) into the hissing of runners and the faint jingle of harness.
In the distance a blur of motion drew near with terrible speed and became a sledge, a beautiful sledge that seemed to have been carved from a single huge piece of ivory, or the bone of some vast creature whose name has long been forgotten, and inset with silver and diamonds that glittered like the cold stars above. It was drawn by four great white wolves, and in the back, among furs the colour of moonlight, sat a tall woman who held their scarlet harness in one long white hand. Her arms were bare to the killing frost that bound the land, but she did not seem to care, and on her long black hair rested a high crown of ice. A high spiky crown of ice, inset with two great onyxes like black eyes, and with two elegantly curling silver antennae.
The sledge slowed as it drew near to the hummock.
"What is that ?" asked the woman in a voice as strong and lovely and cold as the winter itself. "Minion, investigate."
"Yes, Great Queen," said a rather shaggier and less tidy bundle of furs at her feet. It stuck a head (greenish) cautiously into the open, rather like a tortoise, revealing it to be that most untrustworthy of fays, a Woodgnome. It shuddered delicately at the temperature but a twitch in its mistress's foot sent it scurrying out across the snow. It knew, from long experience, that her patience was non-existent and her drop-kick was both powerful and accurate.
It picked its way across the snow muttering under its breath in Gnomish. It poked at the hummock in a desultory fashion.
"Well ?" called the woman.
"It - ah - it is, or rather was - a man, mistress. A son of Adam."
The woman's eyes widened and for a moment their cruel intensity wavered in what might have been fear, or perhaps something else.
"He is dead, then ?" It was impossible to be sure if that was relief or something else.
"Well, perhaps not," conceded the Woodgnome ungraciously. "Soon will be though, at this temperature. Shall we be getting on ?"
"Fool of a gnome ! If you do not wish to find yourself as a garden ornament, I suggest that you bring him here to me at once. And carefully ! I may have uses for this son of Adam."
Showing greater alacrity than it had before, the Woodgnome began to dig the man out of the snow into which he had collapsed. Like all the fairy folk it was a lot stronger than it looked and it soon had the unconscious traveller across its shoulder and back to the sledge.
The Queen looked at the stiffly bundled figure.
"Is he whole ?" she asked. "Has the frost damaged him ?"
The Woodgnome investigated. As its hands probed the more intimate regions inside the wrappings its eyes widened a little. "And aren't you a big boy ?" it remarked to itself.
"Nay mistress," it said at last. "The cold has not bitten him. His manhood is whole."
"I meant his hands, fool. His fingers. He will need strong and able hands. Though the other," she conceded, "is nice."
"His hands are unharmed, strong and hard," said the gnome, its face expressionless.
"Excellent ! Then my spell shall have power to revive him," she said. "And bind him to my will." Pretending not to hear the gnome mutter about "topping from the bottom" she looked at her prize and her red lips curved in a smile. It was not a nice expression. She brought a small silver phial out from among the furs, and removed the stopper. The contents smoked in the bitter air.
"A drop, just a drop now, on his lips," she ordered her servant, who taking the container with extreme caution did as he was bid.
The man shuddered convulsively, coughed, and opened his eyes. They were large, grey-green, and made, the Woodgnome reflected, rather a nice contrast against his tanned skin. He stared wildly up.
"Where am I ? Who are you ?"
The woman smiled.
"This is Prawnia," she said. "And I am the White Witch, Queen of this land."
"It must be the fumes," muttered the man. "Some kinda preservative. That's the last time I take any furniture off Benny Gulbenkian. Last time it was that Second Empire cabinet that had never been nearer France than Hoboken; now this - hallucinogenic wardrobes. Genuine British antique my ass. I shoulda known when I saw that damned lamp-post, in the middle of nowhere." Then he relapsed into unconsciousness.
"He raves," said the Queen, her eyes narrowing. "Still, no matter. Conversation I don't need. Bind him securely." The gnome complied with alacrity, producing spreader bars, handcuffs and chains from about its person, before settling somewhat reluctantly for a length of rope, with which it bound the comatose figure with a skill bespeaking lots of practice.
The woman, if that is what she was, shook the reins. "Hai ! Away, my beauties !" The wolves sprang forward, and the sledge shot away over the snow.
"What's for dinner ?" asked the Queen, as the landscape slid by like an advert for confectioner's sugar.
"Centaur," said the Woodgnome. "You finished the beavers last week."
"Oh, poo. I hate horsemeat."
"Oh, I don't know," muttered the Woodgnome absently, his gaze straying to the crotch of their well secured prisoner.
Presently a great castle drew near. The Woodgnome pressed a button on a small black box in its hand, and the portcullis rose about halfway before stopping with an unpleasant screeching noise. The sledge did not slow as it hissed across the drawbridge towards the gateway. With a negligent gesture the Queen blasted the portcullis to a fine silvery dust.
"I suppose you'll want me to replace that then," said the Woodgnome grumpily.
"If you'd mended it in the first place when I told you to you wouldn't have had to," said the Queen, drawing up with a great hissing wave of snow outside the door. She surveyed the courtyard, which was full of statues. "Is that a new one ?" she asked, with minimal interest, indicating a group of three indeterminate creatures with what looked like documents in their hands.
"Jehovah's Witnesses," replied the Woodgnome laconically. "Or maybe bailiffs, I forget."
"I think Fenris clipped his paw on one as we drew up. Have them moved to the Sculpture Garden."
"Yes, Great Queen. Will that be before or after I replace the portcullis and fix the dinner ?"
The Queen glared at him. "There might be room in the courtyard for another statue," she said. "A small one."
There was an awkward silence.
"Dinner first, then ?" said the gnome at last.
"Prepare our guest first," said the witch with a cruel smile. "Then dinner. While we are eating, and - ah - working off the calories afterwards, you can attend to these little outside tasks. Oh, and minion ?"
"Yes mistress ?"
"You won't be needing all those furs while you do it, so leave them inside. All that exercise will help you keep warm." And she laughed, a sound like glaciers crushing rock to powder in their advance, as she leaped from the sledge and entered the castle.
The Woodgnome scowled, but said nothing. There was really nothing it was safe to say. Throwing its prisoner over its shoulder like a sack of potatoes it stumped into the castle and made its way down to the dungeons, where it stripped the man and laid him out on a stone slab.
"Very nice," it said. "Very nice indeed." Its hand moved, as if magnetically attracted, to the stranger's crotch, where what promised to be a splendid endowment nestled like a baby bird in a nest of curling hair.
A large and muscular hand enveloped the gnome's arm up to the wrist. Another landed, astonishingly painfully, all things considered, in a powerful slap on the gnome’s bottom.
"Touch that without permission and I'll break your arms," said the stranger pleasantly. His gaze fixed the Woodgnome like a snake, the eyes really much greener than the gnome remembered. Really very green in that tanned face, surrounded by the mane of hair . . .
"You !" The Woodgnome fell to its knees. "My Lord, I never, I mean, she made me do it, it was all someone else's fault, and anyway I never did anything, not really. Are you really coming back ?"
"Yeah, I'm back, and this time I'm mad. If you don't want to find out personally just how mad, you'd better do what I tell you."
"I live to serve."
"Hmm, we'll find out about that a bit later. Right now, I plan to deal with the Seafood Queen up there, and you're going to help me."
"But she'll do the hand thing ! Zap, pow, send for a broom."
"Not if you . . ." and the leonine head bent down to whisper in the gnome's elegantly pointed ear (it went with his elegantly pointed head). A nasty grin spread across the fay's rat-like features as it listened.
* * *
"Your fifth course, Your Majesty," said the Woodgnome. It removed the silver cover from the dish with a flourish. The Queen looked at the glutinous dark brown pile underneath dubiously.
"And this would be ?" she asked.
"Spareribs, ma'am, with a particularly tasty barbecue sauce."
"And where are the fingerbowls ?" returned the witch with icy forebearance. She turned to the chained prisoner at her side.
"You'll have to excuse him," she said, "although why you should I'm not sure, as I certainly don't intend to. So difficult to get good staff here. FINGERBOWLS ! NOW !!" she added, turning back to the cowering gnome.
"Yes, Mistress," it cringed. "At once." Despite this, it showed no immediate disposition to leave.
"Those spareribs smell quite good," said the man, hastily.
"I'm sure you'd like some," said the witch silkily, retrieving a long and particularly succulent specimen from the pile. "Hmm, those centaurs certainly have fine intercostals." Her sharp teeth tore long strips of flesh from the sticky bone in her hand. "Mmffm afraid," she added through the mouthful, "that I need you lean and sharp for later."
"Haven't you gone yet ?" she added to the gnome. "Do you want me to have to zap you ? I'm warning you, you aren't irreplaceable."
"Huh, who else would put up with this for what you pay," muttered the gnome. Unfortunately, witches have sharp ears.
"That does it !" cried the Queen, rising from her seat in fury. She gestured at the gnome. There was a wet splatting sound, some blue sparks, and a sudden strong smell of sulphur.
"Oh, damn !" She made as if to put her fingers in her mouth to lick them, but another hand grasped hers first.
"What ! How did you get free ?" She struggled against the suddenly unbound man, but his strength was too great for her.
The gnome leaped up to help, waving a pair of silver handcuffs.
"Yes, quickly loyal gnome," panted the Queen. "Bind h . . . Oww ! Not me, him. Why, you lousy little rat. I'll . . ."
"You'll what ?" said the gnome in delight. "Right now, someone else is giving the orders around here. That silver will short-circuit any zapping you might have in mind for the foreseeable future."
"You treacherous little . . . When I get free you are going to be spending the rest of your miserable eternity as a worm, you hear me ?"
"Then we'll have to make sure you don't get free, won't we ?" said the man, his voice rich, kingly, and commanding. His eyes glowed green, his hair curled like a great mane of gold and smelled of spring flowers.
The witch's eyes widened in fear.
"Yes, me. Transam the Lion, rightful King of this poor land of Smarmia which you thought to rename Prawnia. My father, the Chief Executive Overseas, has restored my trustfund and sent me back to take over the operation. There are going to be a few changes around here. Starting with this." He nodded to the gnome, who produced a strap of supple black leather some two and a half feet long, and a rattan cane. Followed by a wooden spoon, a plastic bathbrush that gleamed with evil menace, a rubber-soled sneaker, a fraternity paddle, and some spline. (For the reader's own peace of mind, they are advised not to consider exactly where about his person the malevolent sprite had been concealing these items.)
"You wouldn't dare," hissed the erstwhile queen.
In reply, Transam merely smiled, drew a small and very sharp looking knife from somewhere, and inserted it into the top of her dress, slicing through the material with a faint, electric 'zip' before ripping the whole gown from her back, exposing some rather fetching cream silk underwear with a few delicate hints of lace.
"I'm going to enjoy this," he said, tapping the brush against the palm of his hand with an alarmingly solid sound. The witch closed her eyes and moaned, delicately.
"So am I," agreed the gnome.
The King swung around.
"What makes you think you get to watch ?" he asked.
"But I helped you !" expostulated the gnome.
"You helped her a lot longer. You are going to fix the portcullis, and tidy up the courtyard. Then you are going to report to my study. Every night this week. You've been a very naughty gnome, and you know what that means."
The gnome's eyes goggled as they fixed on that tapping brush in the king's hands.
"But you - she - "
"Oh, I'm an equal opportunities spanker," said Transam airily. "And - ah - everything else. I didn't say you couldn't ever touch - just that you don't do it without permission. We'll be discussing that, later. After I've dealt with her."
The Woodgnome scurried away, its faerie bottom already twinging in horrified anticipation.
"Now then," purred Transam. "Time to melt the ice, I think . . ."