The goblins had grabbed their bloody dinner and run. Gull was so angry he spit. 'Run, you thievin' bastards! Run, you louses!' What right did they have? These goblins and giants and soldiers and the bastardy wizards that fetched them? What right did they have to destroy a village that was home to so many good folk?

A thrashing, crashing, crushing of thorn bushes broke into his thoughts. The sky went black, as if a thunderhead passed.

A towering foot like a tree trunk stove in Beebalm's house.

Gull gawked. Rearing above him, tall and long as a barn, clomped a… wooden and sheet iron horse?

Was it alive? From underneath, it looked like a walking millworks. Instead of guts, the thing sported wheels and gears and leather straps over pulleys. A mechanical heart turned camshafts that rotated the legs at the hips, then fistfuls of couplings Gull couldn't follow. Nor did he see any power source: no steam, no fire, no falling water. Or anyone controlling it.

Yet the thing walked like a stiff-legged horse as it tried to pull free the leg trapped in the crumpled house. It must have been monstrously heavy, for its flanks were slabs of rusty sheet iron. Its head resembled a blunt-nosed horse, though the eyes were articulated cones. For the life of him, Gull couldn't tell if this clockwork beast had a brain locked in its boxy head or not. Could magic alone move something so massive?

Then he had to dodge, for the beast tore loose of the wreckage, sending shingles and dusty rafters flying. With clicks and whirs and hums, the mechanical monster stumped away toward whatever its part in the battle might be.

Red soldiers sent up a shout. They splintered their phalanx, for there were no more blue barbarians, only blue bodies leaking red blood.

With mounting horror, Gull watched the soldiers charge anew. Straight for the villagers on the eastern shore.


Villagers shrieked and scattered, some to the Wild Woods, some toward the village, others to random houses. Howling soldiers slashed at the first to come near, cutting them down without regard for sex or age. An elderly man, a child, a goodwife collapsed like wheat before scythes. A young woman who tried to defend them was yanked off her feet by her yellow hair, then belted senseless. Gull recognized her too: Cowslip, Badger's daughter. He yelped and roared helplessly.

Gull craned to glimpse his family, but saw only panicked people dashing every which way. He prayed for his father, who couldn't run with his damaged back, and prayed for his mother, too, who would never leave her husband's side.

And what could he do? He still had Greensleeves, and no place to hide her. And he himself couldn't run, for his bad knee was apt to cave in. Yet he must aid them. Desperately, he looked for shelter. Would Beebalm's root cellar be intact?

He spotted a hole torn through the wall of thorns by the clockwork. Whole bushes had been uprooted, forming shallow pockets. One would do.

'Come, Greensleeves!' He tried to think of something to reassure her, but even her befuddled brain noticed shrills across the river. 'Come, Sister! We'll play hide-and-seek! Here!'

Cursing, juggling his axe, yet gently lest she bolt like a deer and run to slaughter, he guided his kin to a gap in the wall. The smell of thornbush sap was bitter and green in his nostrils, the smell of fresh earth like an open grave. Pushing and cooing, he folded Greensleeves into a pocket like a baby rabbit.

Oddly, he noted the soil here was red, red as a sunset.

He caught her chin to make her focus. 'Stay here! Understand? Don't come out until you hear my voice! Or Mother's. Or Father's. Understand?'

The eyes stayed vacant as a cow's. Gull could have wept, but there wasn't time. 'Stay!' he finished, and turned.

Back to battle, whatever it brought.

Trying to watch everywhere at once-he'd seen more monsters and myths in a day than he'd heard of in a lifetime-Gull scuttled from' house to house. He knew them all, and their families: Catclaw's, Snowblossom's, Toad's. He'd played in these houses as a child, slept and eaten in most of them, fought boys and chased girls and been taught by their parents. The people of White Ridge were more than a village, they were almost a tribe, where debts and allegiances and feuds ran back generations.

Yet all this history might be wiped out today at the hands of wizards and their minions. Red soldiers fanned out after the villagers. Their only goal could be rape and slaughter, for the villagers owned little but their bodies and lives.

Gull raced to another house, his knee twanging at every jolt, stopped by the house of Snowblossom. Through an unshuttered window he heard a girl hissing and cursing. And a man's laugh.

In the dooryard before the tiny house he saw the scale-armored back of a soldier. He held a girl's hands aloft while another soldier tore at her clothing. The girl kicked, writhed, tried to bite, but the men were too strong for her to wriggle free. Growling in anger, Gull made up his mind.

He settled his long mulewhip in his weaker, finger-lacking left hand, for he'd learned to rein with his right. He caught a fresh grip on his slick-sweaty axe handle.

He'd never killed a man before. He prayed for the strength to do it now.

Rehearsing in his mind, he spun around the corner, hopped to get the proper distance. Two paces behind the rearmost soldier-the stretch from his sledge to Knothead's ear. Right, then…

'Hya-yah!' He shouted his muleteer's cry to bring the man's head up, and slashed his whip. Braided blacksnake sliced the air, looped around the man's neck. As the tail wrapped a second time, Gull set his brawny wrist and yanked.

Taken by surprise, suddenly strangling, the soldier was hoicked clean off his feet. Loosing the captive, he clutched for his throat, then Gull jerked him onto his back. He crashed with a metallic jangle.

The captive was Cowslip of the yellow hair, snatched across the river and dragged here, for her gown's hem was wet to the knees. Red-faced from screaming and snapping at the soldiers, she looked as stunned as they at the rescue. Then the red soldier behind her, black-bearded, bronzed by a distant sun, snatched at her hair and his sword pommel.

Gull could guess his plan. Use Cowslip as a shield. The woodcutter shouted, ' 'Slip, get down! Drop!'

Recognizing a friend, Cowslip threw herself flat. The soldier's hand closed on empty air. He roared an obscenity and squatted for his shield, propped against a hitching post.

But Gull was ready. Flicking his heavy axe over his shoulder, he pegged it square. Blade and haft whirled end over end, then one face of the double bits thudded into the soldier's chest.

Under different circumstances, Gull would have grinned. Tossing his axe was a favorite trick, something to while away rainy hours in a barn, something to awe children.

Never had he imagined he'd kill a man with it.

Incredibly, the soldier was not bowled over. He stood stunned and immobile, put a hand to the steel blade that split his armor and breastbone. Confused, he pushed at the blade and only shoved himself sideways.

A jerk pulled Gull half-over.

He'd forgotten the soldier at the end of his whip.

Like a monstrous scaly pike dying on shore, the man tugged wildly to free his throat. Gull had been so absorbed in the axe trick, he'd slacked his sweaty grip. But mostly he was astonished at having killed a man. The idea took getting used to.

The soldier didn't give him time. Thrashing, he rolled to his knees. Strong fingers had loosened the whip. Rasping, he rose and unsheathed his short sword, murder on his blackened face.

And Gull stood empty-handed.

Could he kick the man with his hickory clogs? His knee would buckle and he'd fall. Would that save him?

The soldier grinned evilly, drew his arm back for the stab, that quick death stroke that had felled the blue barbarians.

But the soldier never finished his stroke.

Instead he grunted, half turned, and fell.

Cowslip stood over him, grunting herself. She'd snatched up the other sword and plunged it two-handed into the man's back. The man twitched, cried out, clawed to get away, but Cowslip leaned on the pommel, shoved it

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