sideways to slice his liver and lights. The soldier dropped like a poleaxed steer. Cowslip ripped the blade free and whacked him alongside the ear, splitting skin to the bone. But he was dead.

Behind her, the axed man had finally fallen. Stepping around the protruding haft of Gull's axe, Cowslip took aim and chopped his throat. A farm girl who'd slaughtered pigs and chickens and cows had no qualms about spilling the blood of a rapist.

Blood ran off the sword like a butcher's blade. Cowslip faced Gull, then clutched her shorn gown together, blushing. She and Gull and all the village youngsters had always bathed nude in the swimming hole below the ledge, had seen each other naked a hundred times, but Cowslip was suddenly shy. She asked, 'Are you all right?'

Gull averted his eyes from her torn bodice. 'I, uh, should ask you that…' Funny, he'd known Cowslip all his life, yet had never noticed how pretty she was, how strong and capable and smart. He had the odd thought: She'd make a fine wife.

'I'm fine. Better than them.' She spit on the whipped man, but Gull thought she did it rather than face him. 'But what shall we do now?'

Gull blinked again. Oh, yes, he remembered, there was a battle on. Two battles: wizards' army against army, and the villagers against all. Shaking his head, he retrieved his whip and axe. There was a nick in the blade's edge, and he felt again that irrational anger. He'd forged this axe himself, and the soldiers had spoiled it. And rats were digging in Snowblossom's barn! Where were the dogs that should have killed them?

With a start he recalled his family. His mind was wandering, like Greensleeves's.

'We must…' he tried to sort through confusion, 'I don't know, gather who we can and hie for the woods, I suppose.' Cowslip clutched her new-won sword and ragged dress and waited. Why, he wondered, did she attend his ideas? He didn't know what to do. 'These wizards will ravage the village, fill it with death.'

A sizzling in the sky cut him off. Both craned to look.

Up on the ridge, above the new thorn wall, the brown-and-yellow-robed wizard raised a curved horn like a ram's. The wizard called something, then blew into the mouthpiece. From the bell belched a fireball big as a melon. The sizzling sounded again. Gull and Cowslip tracked the burning path. Gull recalled two earlier fireballs had blasted dirt from bedrock, killed a brace of horses. Where would this fall?

A whiff of smoke floated to his nose. Sap, bitter and green, burned. A crackling sounded close.

Gull dashed around the house.

The wall of thorns was afire in three places.


Gull dashed headlong for Beebalm's house, galloped around to the mangled thorn hedges. Fire crackled amidst brambles. He felt its heat on his sweating cheeks and forehead. Smoke choked him, burned his eyes. He kept his axe aloft lest he blunder into his sister fleeing the fire.

'Greensleeves! Greenie, where are you?'

Thorns scratched his hands and arms and legs. They stung on his forearm where the goblin had raked him. Cursing, fumbling, he swatted at smoke and shorn branches to find the hollow where he'd hidden his sister.

She was gone.

It was the right hollow, for stooping showed her footprints. But where she'd gone he couldn't tell. There weren't even drops of blood from thorn pricks.

Gull backed from the smoke, wiped streaming eyes. What now, by the gods? Where to look? What to do?

As if the gods answered, thunder rolled. Gull glanced up. Clouds had swept in, thickened, deepened. This thunder was real. Maybe the rain would douse the fires. Maybe the town could yet be saved.

Yet the gods today were mischievous, vindictive, out to bedevil him. The earth under his feet jumped.

Distant screams, close-by crackling, the bleating of a goat all ceased.

Gull breathed low in the quiet. He'd felt this before. Once, as a child.

Groaning sounded all around. Pebbles by his feet jittered and danced. The groaning became a grinding, and the world trembled.


The ground trembled so hard Gull could barely keep his feet. He felt his guts rumbling, his teeth chattering, imagined his spine crumbling and brain swimming. Then the earth bucked harder and he fell. Yet as he landed, the soil stopped moving.

How long could the earth shiver like this before it crumbled entirely?

Shaking all over, Gull scrambled upright. Of all the frights he'd ever endured, this was the worst. If the very earth could turn traitor, what could be counted upon?

Silence rang in his ears. A child cried out once and was hushed. Was there more, or…?

The full force of the quake hit.

The ground jumped as if someone had snapped a carpet. Gull flipped completely over onto his rump. He dropped his weapons and clutched the quivering soil. A roar like a waterfall threatened to drown him. The stone wall around Beebalm's smashed house spilled apart. A crack opened near his foot. Another crack rippled by his hand along the edge of the thorn hedge.

In a flash Gull understood something of magic: the wizard had not merely conjured the thorn hedge, he'd actually transported a stretch of brambled earth from some distant place to here. Part of another village, another valley, had been shoehorned into his. Thus a crack erupted where the local black soil met the hedge's red soil. What power these wizards controlled!

Including the power to move the earth.

Gull could do no more than cling like a fly to a cowpat. He looked around for anything solid, but even the sky shook. Or perhaps his eyes jiggled in their sockets.

Above the primeval roar came the splintering of house beams and the ringing of roof slates crashing on stone. The woodcutter recognized them: house beams rending. Stones rumbled, roof slates shattered like glass.

Then it was quiet and still.

A temblor or two rippled by, but that was all.

Gull rose, but had to clutch his thighs. His legs shook as if the earthquake still lingered in his bones.

He cast about, to see how the village had fared, what damage there was.

But the village was gone.

Of thirty cottages scattered throughout the valley, only one or two still stood. A few more made of wood had their roofs stove in. But most were heaps of rubbish, stone and wood and thatch mashed together. Stone walls were scattered over gardens and pathways and dooryards. Cracks in the earth ran everywhere, some a handspan wide, some long and deep enough to swallow a cow. Even the river was gone, the watercourse dried to a trickle. The quake must have split the riverbed somewhere north of the ridge. And they needed water badly. Cooking fires shaken by rubble set many houses smoldering, then fanned by a rising breeze, ignited.

White Ridge, his home, was no more.

In white-hot, impotent anger, Gull clutched his axe haft so hard it should have broken. Wizards had done this, destroyed his home in their senseless battle.

Raising his tool-turned-weapon, Gull swore, 'On my honor, I will kill any wizard I meet, without pause, without mercy! You hear me, you mercenary bastards?'

As if in answer, lightning split the sky, yellow forks scattered 'round the compass. Rain slashed down, cold and hard, drops denting the ruined earth.

Yet the battle raged on.

Through a gap in the thorn hedge, uprooted and tumbled and jumbled as everything else, Gull heard a frightful banging and clanging. Dazed, he turned to see through the haze of hard rain.

The two-headed giant had run into something its own size, the clockwork beast. Rain soaked the giant's clothes and ran rust down the iron flanks of the construct. A club in each hand, the giant pounded the sheet iron and wooden monster as if flailing grain. The beast ignored, or did not feel, the blows. With no offensive weapons of its own, it could only march at the giant and butt with its boxy head. It mashed its nose against the giant's middle, where particolored sails were clumsily stitched, and shoved. With two legs against four, the giant gave ground, both heads frowning, clubbing all the while. He bashed off a jutting wooden ear, splintered a beam along its spine, but did little other harm. The mechanical beast pushed and pushed, four legs churning and clumping, internal gears whirring, and the giant was steadily backed toward the Whispering Woods. Every blow of the tree-

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