Ridge ever ventured near. The leaves and trees were too full of talk, of 'whispering,' for normal folk to abide: they hinted the voices came from monsters or devils or elves or other dark beings. The unending mumble and chatter and hush of the leaves had bothered Gull as a boy, but now he scarce heard it. It touched Greensleeves with less effect than rain.

Now, seizing his sister by the hand, he led her from the woods to see what was after their village, the only home they'd ever known.

Brush and briars grew thickest along the edge of the forest where the sunlight was strongest. Standing at the end of the trail, they were flanked by bracken taller than their heads. Shielded, Gull thought, and a good thing.

The valley called White Ridge was a crazy quilt of colors. Where the forest broke, running in strips here and there was meadow, tall yellow-green grass dotted with blue and yellow wildflowers. Between and all around were stretches of mossy rocks and hardscrabble ledge. Down the center were the only fertile tracts, pockets of rich riverbed loam left from when the valley's stream had been a mighty river. The stream ran still, circling rocks and rippling over streaks of lime that gave the divided village its name. Thirty cottages stood far apart, each surrounded by hip-high rock walls that protected the scanty gardens from animals. The cottages were stone, with roofs of thatch or shingles or sod. A mill astraddle the stream creaked to the south, and an alehouse trickled a plume of white smoke. A bony road ran from the northern ridges, crossed the stream on the one-cart bridge, then sank into the bogs to the south. Along its eastern edge, the valley sported another forest called the Wild Woods, yet one the villagers would visit.

All of Gull's twenty years, White Ridge had been a quiet place, where the biggest fight all year would be from Seal's sons stealing one of Bryony's hogs. No one knew what today would bring. The woodcutter saw his hunched father, Brown Bear, his back broken by the same tree that had crippled Gull, and the thin shape of his mother, Bittersweet. Ranged alongside were his brothers and sisters. Gull waved his axe, but his family didn't see. They watched the northern ridge, as did Gull.

Atop the lime-streaked ridge where the road dipped, perched like a herd of wolves, was a collection of colorful characters such as Gull had only heard of in legends.

Foremost was a stout woman in a robe of brown with jets of yellow along the sleeves and hems. Her head was bare, black glossy hair combed straight back. The woman raised beringed hands and pointed to an empty reach of meadow on her right.

Though Gull had never seen one before, he knew what this woman was. As the elders prayed, 'May the gods keep us hale and hearty, and spare us the ravages of any…

'… wizard.'

Alongside the wizard, lining the ridge, were two dozen soldiers in armor like fish scales. They wore tunics and kilts of red, and red-plumed helmets. Each carried a round burnished shield and short sword, and a javelin slung at his back. Gull had only seen three soldiers in his life: a motley diseased trio that passed through the village when he was young. The elders had hefted clubs to keep the rogues moving, but even so, a piglet and two chickens had gone missing. These red'garbed soldiers on the heights were different, looking strong and quiet and capable, deadly as snakes.

A force like that, Gull realized, could kill every person in White Ridge before they drew three breaths.

Yet odder still was what appeared in the meadow.

At first Gull saw nothing. Then Greensleeves chirped. Something… grew… amidst the grass.

Grew very quickly.

As Gull watched, a figure no taller than a child flickered among the nodding blue wildflowers. Then it was shoulder-high to them, then waist-high.

And in seconds, the figure was-Gull tried to guess-twenty feet high? A giant, something from the old stories. Fat around the middle, thick-legged and flat-footed, the giant wore clothing stitched of faded patches, most yellowed, but some painted with stripes and even a red dragon. In each enormous knotty hand, the giant carried a scarred tree branch for a club. Two clubs, thought Gull, to go with its two heads.

The heads were bald, sallow, slant-eyed, veined. One head frowned at the wizard. The other watched a murder of crows take off from the Wild Woods. Gull could see that this being was slow to think.

Yet there were more wonders, appearing all over the valley, until Gull thought he'd been brained by a widowmaker and dreamed it all. Yet no dream could match this amazing scene.

Cantering from the Wild Woods, in matching strides, came a pair of half-horse, half-humans. Centaurs, the word came. Their flanks were roan, reddish white, and warpainted with handprints and runes. Their torsos were hidden by fluted, painted breastplates and helmets. They carried feathered lances longer than their long loping bodies.

High above the army on the ridge, drifting on the wind, went the round bladder-and-basket thing and its jabbering crew. Screaming like monkeys, the rowdies let loose a rain of missiles, iron spikes. They jutted into the ground well short of the ridge, and red-clad soldiers hooted and waved their swords. The bladder sailed on, sinking lower, until it struck trees to the north. The minute warriors quarreled as they spilled through the trees. Even Gull could see they contributed little beyond amusement.

But if they were attacking the red soldiers, then who had loosed them?

Greensleeves bleated, and Gull gaped elsewhere. The festival on the ridge was only half the show.

Southward, nestled against the Whispering Woods, was another entourage equally as strange.

At the forefront was another gaudy wizard. This one had a head of stiff yellow curls and a brushy mustache, and a robe sewn in layers, dark blue at the bottom shading to yellow at the waist, then flowing like a rainbow to pink and red at the stiffened shoulders. Gull had the random thought: Where did wizards have their clothes made?

Behind this wizard was a wagon train like a gypsy camp. Five wagons formed a circle with retainers huddled at the center. Gull could pick out a fat woman, slender girls bright as birds, and hard men, armed, who leaned against the wagon seats to watch the action.

The muleteer noticed something had gone wrong. The horse and mule teams had been loosed from the traces, probably so they wouldn't panic and dash off with the wagons, then led out of harm's way farther along the wood's edge. Yet there were two smoking craters where the thunderbolts had struck. Stony soil and moss had been blasted clear down to bedrock. At the lip of one crater lay a dead horse, white, and the hindquarters of a bay. Of the other mounts there was no sign. Bolted, probably. Or blown out of existence.

There was more strangeness to come. In fact, Gull guessed, it had barely begun.

One of the floating bladder teams had already left the ground. Three more vehicles bobbed just above the ground, tethered like balky horses. Around them squabbled two dozen green-gray jokers with shocks of black or gray hair.

A weird cry ululated across the valley. The striped wizard held aloft a stone jar from which spiraled a vapor that slowly, slowly coalesced into a figure, a big one like the giant to the north. Yet this figure refused to take solid shape, remaining cloudlike, misty. And as the sky blue figure wafted over the stony mossy ground, it sprinkled cloud drops from its fingertips. Where they landed, there arose bluish warriors, male and female, with long white hair and curious curved swords or black-studded clubs: barbarians. A dozen, two dozen, three.

Beside Gull, Greensleeves made a chittering noise like a question. She had noticed a mousehole at their feet and bent to investigate.

Still, Gull answered her, framing his thoughts. 'A fight. There's going to be a big fight. A war. That's what wizards do, war on one another. And death and destruction follow in their shadow.'

He caught Greensleeves by the shoulder and tugged her upright. 'And we've got to cross to our family before all hell breaks loose. Come on!'

Clutching his axe in one hand and his sister's arm in the other, he loped from the woods. In the distance, his family finally noticed them, and villagers cheered encouragement and hope. Dashing, panting, they cleared the meadows and rocky reaches, gained the edge of the village, the first houses.

Too late.

With a roar, twoscore or more red soldiers mustered on the ridge, reinforcements brought to the fore. They raised their short swords, bellowed again, and charged down the ledge slope. The centaurs paced them at a gallop. To Gull's left, the blue barbarians sent up a hiss and surged forward, curved blades and clubs slashing like sickles after grain.

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