Gull and Greensleeves were caught square in the middle.

The woodcutter skidded to a halt, too breathless to curse. They'd gained the village, but the only place to safely cross the stream was the bridge, and within minutes the red soldiers would pass it.

Nor could they stay in the village long, for the blue fighters closed.

'Bells of Kormus! Back! We've got to get back!' The woodcutter whipped around, aiming for the sheltering woods. Greensleeves skipped and jogged alongside, half-flying.

It wasn't a hundred yards back to the woods, and Gull pounded flat out. Yet something twinkled in the air before him, like rain dropping through sunshine. A wall of it, glittering brighter, then turning dark and murky. Brown, like muddy water.

Before his eyes, a wall of thorns cut off their retreat.

It wasn't an orderly wall. It was more a mound such as overgrew a ruin or barrow. But it was high, taller than Gull could reach with his axe, so thick he could not see through it. Brambles, they were, gray-brown and dead near the roots, curling green and soft in the upper branches. Impassable to anything larger than a chipmunk.

Swearing bitterly, the woodcutter hunted a way around. But the wall zigzagged from the northern ridge to the river's edge. The wall even hooked along the ridge face, behind the red soldiers, cutting them off from their wizard. The southern striped wizard must have conjured it, Gull thought. He's boxed them nicely. And us.

Now where?

Gull cast about. He could hide in a stone house, but instinct told him that would be unwise-even a rabbit dug two bolt-holes. He could splash across the river, but he'd have to drag Greensleeves, and she hated swimming.

With a roar and clatter, the armies clashed not a hundred yards away.

Even Gull, who knew nothing of wars except what he'd heard in stories, could see that the red soldiers were professionals and the blue barbarians untrained savages. The red soldiers maintained a tight phalanx, two deep, that bristled with steel. They tramped to war, in unison, round shields forming a wall, and chanted a war song as they marched.

The blue fighters, who Gull saw were both dyed and tattooed blue, were long-jawed and tusked, with long white hair in various braids. Men and women alike wore tanned hides painted in fantastic patterns. Their mode of attack was to outshriek one another, slash the air and then their opponents with curved swords, or else bludgeon them with obsidian-headed war clubs.

Yet their blood ran scarlet. The red soldiers worked in teams, one partner covering the other. Gull saw a blue warrior lock on to a round shield, slice low for a red soldier's greaves covering his shins. The soldier's partner delivered a short stab to a blue throat that sprayed blood over all of them. At the same time, the first soldier shot his blade to keep back another blue warrior, who lost a hand to the partner's quick chop. That laid two blue fighters on the turf with no damage to the red.

So it went up and down the line. The blue valued bravery and bravado, the red cold-eyed teamwork. One blue barbarian leaped like a deer to clamber over the shield wall. Rather than resist, red soldiers in the front rank ducked, fobbed her high in the air, delivering her to the soldiers behind, who sank swords in her belly. Yet even dying the blue barbarian fought, and her black stone war club slammed a red-clad neck. The stricken soldier was propped by his fellows in the rear as blue barbarians fell like wheat.

Gull feared the red soldiers would dispatch the barbarians, then fall on whoever else was near. He didn't waste time gawping, but grabbed his sister again-she pointed at something in the sky, murmuring-and dragged her south along the wall of thorns. They could make for the river, try to cross, or perhaps find a gap in the thorn wall, a pocket to hide in.

Except Gull discovered what Greensleeves found so interesting up above.

Iron stakes rained on the ground before them. Spikes bounced off rocks with clangs, quivered in dirt, chopped thorns. Gull looked up.

Not thirty feet above were two flying bladders. Up close, Gull saw contraptions that were ill assembled, with the bladders much patched, the ropes badly spliced, the baskets dinged and splintered from rough landings. Gray-green titches with pointed ears, some bald, some gray-haired, dressed in crude hides from goats and raccoons and skunks and others, leered at them. Scrawny and ugly as they were, Gull couldn't tell if they were male or female or neither. They'd dumped a wicker basket full of spikes, which dropped straight as arrows to pierce a victim's skull-had they bothered to aim.

There were six or more goons in each basket. Goblins, Gull thought, mischievous villains from children's stories.

A basket immediately above found trouble. A pointy-headed goblin raised a stake to hurl down, but pierced the bladder overhead instead. Other goblins shrieked at him, slapped his head, wrestled for holds in the ropes, screamed as the bladder deflated.

Abruptly, it split, a long rent zipping to the top. The jury-rigged mess collapsed. It crashed half on the wall of thorns, spilling wailing occupants like chicks tumbled from a nest. The other bladder floated serenely away, its crew jeering their fallen companions. One even threw a stake into their midst with a laugh, and another leaned overside to piss on them. Yet that one screamed when someone behind booted him half out of the basket.

Gull could only gape in wonder. These idiots were more dangerous to their own side.

He changed his mind quickly.

Tough as wildcats, the handful of goblins bounced and recovered, then snatched weapons from their belts: flint knives and knotty clubs. One bony female pointed at Greensleeves and shrieked.



Small, stupid, and squabbly they might be, but Gull found that these gray-green goblins were fast.

Bounding like a fox, a fiend leaped onto Greensleeves's breast. Clutching at her shawl, the goblin bit at her neck. The girl screamed and beat with fluttering hands, and both fell.

Gull swore. He could hardly swing an axe at his sister. Instead he caught the goblin by the neck, tore the thing off the girl. He could smell the creature now, musty as an old haystack or worm-eaten carcass. Her hairline was dotted with fleabites. He waggled the goblin, twisted, tried to snap her neck like a chicken. But the goblin was tough as rawhide, and raked filthy claws down the woodcutter's arm. Shocked, he let go.

More goblins rushed, most from behind.

'Greensleeves, stay down!' he roared, and prayed she'd obey.

Whirling in a circle, the woodcutter swung his axe. The heavy blade sliced the air-and three goblins.

The first tried to dodge and had an arm nipped off. Rolling over and over, howling, the wretch sprayed greenish blood. The second ducked but lost the top of his skull. He reached up a questing hand and touched leaking brains. The third was cut clean in half, and left her legs standing while her trunk flopped behind.

The remaining four didn't pause. They ran like rats in all directions. One plunged straight into the thorn hedge, half-impaling himself.

Greensleeves trembled like a rabbit, whimpering. Gull didn't bother to console her, just jerked her upright and ran.

Noise and stink filled the valley. Warbling war cries rang out, and a horse's scream. Through a thorn hedge Gull heard more goblins squabbling, and a heavy, steady thumping he couldn't identify. He smelled blood on the wind, and the acrid tang of sweat. And everywhere, smoke that was not cooking fires.

Dashing along the thorn wall, Gull hoisted a leg over a stone wall around Beebalm's house. Thorns had buried one corner, but he hoped to slip behind the house and get out of sight. Fumbling with his heavy axe, he caught Greensleeves around the waist and lifted her over the wall.

And cursed. He'd interrupted a pair of goblins gutting a brown goat.

The animal's glazed eye blinked as the pair hacked out its dripping innards. Anger flooded through Gull. That goat had been a pet of Beebalm's, raised by hand when its mother was taken by wolves. The woodcutter kicked at the goblins, but his bad knee betrayed him and he crashed atop the wall. Stones rolled underfoot and he landed on his rump. He hoped he hadn't snapped his arrows and bow. Fuming, he struggled to his feet.

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