The Goblin Wood - Part 1

Part 1

The Goblin Wood.

Hilari Bell.

This book is dedicated to my father, who loved Makenna because he despised "wimpy" heroines.

Thanks, Dad, for everything.


The Hedgewitch.

MAKENNA HAD TO STRETCH onto her toes to reach the small stone lamp, for the shelf that held it was higher than a grown woman's head, and she was only eleven. She'd drawn the fire rune in the sweet-smelling sawdust that littered the floor of Goodman Branno's workshop. Now she set the lamp in its center and murmured the word, the essential name of fire.

Nothing. She clenched her hands to still their trembling and lifted the lamp. Carefully she smoothed the sawdust and drew the rune again. It was hard to get the lines right, in dark. Replacing the lamp, she repeated the word, a call this time, almost a prayer. A tiny orange spark glowed before her. She leaned forward and blew on the wick, and the flame flickered to life.

The light bloomed slowly, filling the toolshed, spilling out the cracks in its walls and under the door. It was dangerous if anyone saw it they might guess she was there, for Goodman Branno, the carpenter, was sound asleep at this hour. But Makenna's hatred flared stronger than the light. Let them come. Likely she could kill a few before she was taken.

She stared around the shed at the tools that covered the walls-a"she wasn't sure what she'd need. Finally she chose a saw, a hammer and chisel, and a hatchet. Surely one of them would be sufficient to cut through the thick screw.

The tools were awkward, too large for her hands as she packed them into the big grain sack that already held her mother's spell books. She snuffed the light and hauled the heavy sack out of the shed; it clanked when she b.u.mped against the door frame and Grulf, the carpenter's dog, gave a tentative bark.

Her heart thumping, Makenna called to him softlya" if he raised an alarm it would draw people more quickly than the light!

Grulf whined, and Makenna hurried over to rea.s.sure him that she was a known, good person. No spells of calming needed here; she knew every dog in this village, where she'd grown up.

Hate rolled and boiled in her stomach, making her feel sick and fearless and strong. There wasn't a man or woman in that mob that her mother hadn't healed or helpeda"either them, or someone in their families. Branno himselfa"she'd cured his infected thumb just last year, and she'd charmed the weevils out of the meal bin when his youngest daughter left the lid off. But that was before Mistress Manoc came.

Branno had started suckling up to the new priest immediately, but Makenna's mother had seen through Mistress Manoc, right from the start.

"She speaks against the goblins," Ardis said thoughtfully, the whisper of the spinning wheel making music under her words. "By St. Spiratu, they're pesty enough! But if we stop putting out the goblin bowls, they'll only get more pesty. Besides, goblinkind and ours have been living together since the beginning. It's dangerous to meddle with things like that, Makennie love. Upsets balances you can't even see, turns nature against you. And besides ..."

Makenna blotted out the rest of the memory, angrily wiping away tears. She needed to be strong, not weak and weeping.

She gave Grulf a final pat and made her way to the back of the work yard. The light of the near-full moon sifted through the newly leafed branches, making it easy to avoid the stacks of cut timber. But hauling the big sack over the wall was awkward, and her skirt tore resoundingly. She froze, knowing her dark brown hair and faded clothes would blend with the shadows. No dogs barked. No neighbor stuck his head out the window to see what was going on.

She wasn't dressed for this kind of scrambling thievery, but when she'd put on her clothes this morning she'd expected nothing more from the day than her ordinary and the fascinating struggle of a magic lesson.

Tears crept down her face again, and she wiped them away, sniffing. She'd have thought there'd be no tears left in her, but they kept coming. Well, let them come. They didn't matter. Nothing mattered anymore except to lift the gate and cut the screw.

She couldn't go back to her own home. They were watching it. But Krick's house was only a few doors down. He was almost her size, and his mother was lazy about taking in the wash. Makenna's mother had cured their baby's croup a few months ago.

She stole a pair of Krick's britches off the drying rack and put them on. A dark shirt that belonged to his brother was only a little too big. There was a heavy cape on the hook by the doora"almost a cloak for hera"and she took it, too.

She was almost out of the village when she realized that she ought to steal some food as wella"once she had cut the screw, she would leave. And after that? Her mind boggled over the questiona"she was too tired to think. After she cut the screw, she would eat and rest and plan for the future.

She chose the house of Goodwife Marra, whose apple trees her mother had cured of a blight. The back door was latched, but the shutters on the kitchen window were open. She left her sack outside and wiggled through easily in her stolen britches.

Inside the kitchen she paused a moment to let her eyes adjust. After the bright moonlight outside, the small square of silver that came from the window and the glow of the banked fire seemed very dim.

Bread, hard yellow cheese, and the last of the dried apples went out the window to join the spell books and tools. She was fumbling at the back of a high shelf for the tight-sewn bags that held strips of dried meat when her elbow tapped a bowl. It fell to the floor and shattered.

Makenna froze, staring at the fragments of pottery. Her mother had dropped the scrying bowl that morning.

It had begun with the chiming of the tiny copper bell on the mantle, warning them someone was pa.s.sing the ward stone her mother had placed on the path to their house. They lived almost a quarter mile from the village. Hedgewitches needed more privacy than most, because folk didn't always want their neighborsa"or the priesta"to know they'd gone to a hedgewitch for aid. Ardis liked to have a bit of warning when someone was coming, but her lined face held only cheerful curiosity as she wiped the dough off her hands and poured water into the big clay bowl she used for scrying.

Makenna watched as her mother drew the runes and murmured the words that turned sight through water into Sight through water. Makenna couldn't make runes in water, though she'd often tried.

Light flickered from the bowl, casting faint upward shadows on her mother's face. Then her expression had changed, stiffened, and she leapt to her feet. The bowl fell and shattered, spilling the water in a widening pool on the floor.

The faint creak of a door hinge brought Makenna back to the present with a rush. She heard steps on the boards over her head. Someone had been wakened by the crash and was coming to investigate. Makenna spun toward the window, but the window could be seen from the stairs! No time.

She raced silently to hide in the dark corner by the heartha"not good enough, especially if someone lit a lamp.

With shaking hands she raked a handful of cold ashes from the corner of the hearth, flinching as a live ember singed her fingers. Plain dust was the best essential object for this spell, but any powdery substance would do.

The footsteps had almost reached the bottom of the stairs. She flung the ashes on the floor in front of her and blew to create an even layera"no time to do this spell over and over until she got it right.

She traced the rune, an eye outside a circle, and whispered the last of the words as Goodwife Marra stepped into the kitchen.

Several pieces of broken bowl lay in the square of moonlight, and the goodwife went to them, hopping and muttering a curse as she stepped on a piece in her bare feet.

Then she came over to the hearth. Makenna held her breath. The look-away spell worked better if you didn't move or make any noise.

Goodwife Marra lit a candle and stood gazing around the kitchen. Aside from the broken bowl, Makenna saw nothing out of placea"and evidently Marra didn't, either. She muttered something about accursed cats and went to latch the shutters.

When she returned the candle to the hearth, her eyes pa.s.sed right over Makenna, and she didn't even blink.

Makenna listened to her footsteps going up the stairs and waited until Marra had had time to go back to sleep before unfolding her fear-stiffened legs. She took two bags of dried meat and let herself out the kitchen door, leaving it wide with a quiet wish that every cat in the village would invade the place.

On her way out the back gate she kicked over the goblin bowl. She flinched reflexively as it tipped, but of course there had been no milk or table in the goblin bowls for months nowa"no bad luck, likely, from tipping over an empty bowl.

But the fragment of memory she had suppressed earlier swirled through her mind. "It's dangerous to meddle with things like that . . . upsets balances . . . turns nature against you. And besides . . . if she's getting rid of the goblins, likely we hedgewitches will be next."

Makenna clung to the side of the road where the scruffy bushes promised some cover. It was hard going, hauling the now-stuffed grain sack through the brush. The village was in the center of a vast area of reclaimed marshland. The soil was rich, the lake behind the dike provided sufficient water even in the driest years, and the land was almost completely flat. You could see several miles down the road from the village. Makenna was taking no chances, not now, with her goal so close.

She'd come almost far enough to walk on the road without being seen when a stick, concealed in last year's dead gra.s.s, caught her foot and she fell. She lit soft, but she had fallen earlier and skinned her kneesa"it was the memory as much as the pain that made her breath catch on a sob.

Her arms overflowing with the large, untidy collection of her mother's spell books, she hadn't even seen the rock that turned under her foot. She was running, so she fell hard, the books exploding out of her arms, sending loose sheets of parchment flying among the willows that ringed the house.

"Hide the spell books," her mother had whispered fiercely, piling them into her hands. "They're my life's work, love. Hide them and keep them safe. Use them."

Scrambling on bleeding knees after the notes and fragments of spells, herbals, of granny lore, and even ordinary recipes that her mother not only inherited from her mother, but had gathered from every pa.s.sing tinker and vagabond hedge-witch, Makenna was still near enough to peer through the screen of branches when the mob reached the house.

They had milled uneasily outside the door, some looking down as if to conceal their faces, but she knew them all, oh, yes, she knew them. Including their most recent resident. Mistress Manoc looked sober, except when she forgot to control her expression. Then a smug look twitched over her face and lingered until she banished it.

Makenna heard Goodman Branno's voice raised to shrillness. "Come out, Ardis. You're accused of sorcery. Your power comes from demons, and you know their names."

That had stunned Makenna, for her mother knew no more of demons' names than anyone else in the village. In fact, she'd sometimes wondered if her mother believed in demonsa"or even the Dark One.

She could barely hear her mother's quiet voice replying, soothing, delaying them while Makenna got the books away. She'd been told to save the books, so she'd gathered them and hidden them, wasting time she might have spent thinking ahead, finding tools to cut a chain, finding a weapon. . . .

Makenna's stomach was twisting again. Her eyes stung, but she refused to weep anymore. Weeping wouldn't get it done.

She stood and hauled the sack onto the road. She hated these books now, but her mother had told her to save them and she would. They were her mother's life's worka"the fragments of knowledge she had s.n.a.t.c.hed up and preserved, despite the church's decree that only priests could possess any knowledge of magic. It had not occurred to Makenna until much later that in sending her to save the books, her mother had been saving her as well.

It was easier walking on the road, and she made good time. Better time than she had made that morning, crawling through the bushes on the far side of the dike, striving desperately to get to the long dock that hung over the lake in time.

Now as she drew near the dike, she missed the rhythmic thudding of the pump that started every dawn when old Haren hitched the oxen to the wheel. The noise of the pump, pulling the night's seepage back up to the lake, was as much a part of the dike as the scent of muda"its absence made her feel like a stranger in an unfamiliar place. She'd thought she and her mother had a place in the village. Friends. It was dangerous to disobey a priest, for the teachings of the Hierarch's church were backed by the swords of the Hierarch's guards. But the villagers could have warned them! Not one had. So much for friendship.

With the hatchet, it took only a few minutes to reduce the pump's cog pins to splinters. They would never get it working in time.

She turned off the road before reaching the dock, for she knew she couldn't face the sight of it, and cut across a field of new corn, carelessly trampling the tender shoots. It was a hard scramble up the dike, for the sluice gate was set where the land was lowest. At the top, the fresh wind that blew off the lake struck her like a slap. The sound of the waves lapping the sh.o.r.e brought everything hurtling back.

She had watched them from behind a screen of brush and gra.s.s as they dragged her mother, struggling now, over the dock's rough boards. It took two men to carry the heavy chains and shackles. They always drowned a sorceress, so she couldn't use the power of her dying breath to summon demons or to curse.

As soon as the last man had moved onto the dock, Makenna scrambled underneath it and ran forward. By now the men who held her mother had reached the end. She heard the thudding of their feet as her mother fought.

The water met Makenna halfway. She was in it up to her knees before the thought struck hera"what was she going to do? She couldn't fight. Then the scream rose, a terrible, wavering shriek, and her mother's body flashed down, wreathed with chains, her face mindless with terror, like an animal caught in a trap.

A tremendous splash and a swirl of bubbles cut off the sound.

Makenna was swimming then, hearing the feet tramping overhead, not caring anymore if they heard her.

When she reached the end of the dock the water was still, and she stared helplessly at its softly heaving surface.

What could she do? She could dive for her mother, but the water was deep here. Even if she reached her, she had no way to break or unfasten the chain. And no swimmer could haul up that weight.

The desire to scream rose in her, to scream and scream and go on screaming until the world was blotted out by the sound. It took all her will to suppress it.

Screaming was useless. Her mother was dead.

She moaned, clinging to the rough wood pillar that supported the dock. Then some instinct for survival stirred and, though she clung there, drifting in the light wash of the waves for a long time, she made no further sound.

Makenna shuddered, pulling herself out of the past, and went to the wheel, that twisted the screw, that lifted the sluice gate. It took all her strength, but once she got it turning, it spun easily.

The dike shivered under her feet with the violence of the current surging beneath it. Only when the screw reached the top of its length and jammed did she look down at the water shooting out, rushing through the ditches, already swamping the low end of the fields and covering the base of the pump. The sight gave her intense satisfaction, and she realized that, for the first time that day, she felt no desire to cry.

Looking carefully at the thick wooden screw, she decided the saw would be quickest. She set the blade as low as she could, where the screw vanished into the gate mechanism. At first, the saw jerked and buckled, but she struggled on, and soon each thrust bit deeper into the wood. When the saw broke through, she twisted the top part of the screw free and threw it into the pond, which was deepening rapidly at the base of the dike. It already stretched over several fields. Makenna could no longer see the water spurting in, but the surface beneath her feet roiled furiously. Good, the gate was underwater. With the screw cut, they wouldn't be able to get it closed for days . . . maybe never.

Makenna looked back at the sleeping village. When the lake reclaimed its own, most of those houses would be under water, destroying the food stored in their cellars. The rooftops would be the only dry places.

The water would rise gradually. Only a few might drown. But fields under water would grow no crops, and much of the livestock that made it to sh.o.r.e would escape. They would all be left with nothing. All would suffer. All would grieve. The thought warmed the chilled place inside her, and Makenna smiled.

"May the Dark One devour the lot of you," she whispered. It was the worst curse she knew. She wished she knew the Dark One's name, so she could call on him with real effect.

Makenna turned and dragged her sack of spell books along the dike toward the highland. She wanted to be a long way off by sunrise.


The Hedgewitch.

MAKENNA DRIFTED NORTH. She wasn't sure why she chose that direction, but she wanted to leave her old life behind, and the deep woods and soft, rolling hills were completely different from the flat, open land she'd known. Her mother had traveled in her youth. She'd told Makenna that staying in one place, in a village where you knew folks, and they knew you, was safer.

At first Makenna's grief for her mother felt like tearing claws, and she cried herself to sleep each night. But after the first few days, the difficulties of survival occupied more and more of her attention.

She stole food from the villages she pa.s.sed. Soon she grew bolder and acquired better clothes, a knife, a bedroll, and a big oilcloth sheet she could hang when it rained.

She felt no guilta"the empty goblin bowls told her that the villagers she robbed had fallen in with the priests' demands. Makenna wondered what the goblins did, with no more table set out for them. Thinking of the mischief they could make, she almost felt sorry for the villagers. Almost.

Makenna took care never to be seen, and she moved on quickly, never robbing any village twice. And one of the first things she did was to twist some stolen bronze wire into a hiding charm so no one could find her with magic. It took her more than a dozen attempts to set the magic into the bronze, and she wept again for her mother, who had so easily made these charms for poachers.

In the beginning Makenna had intended to live by trapping small game. Krick and Rolan, near her own age, had taught her how to set snares in the days when they'd run wild together. When they'd been . . . when they had pretended to be her friends. But the first time her wire captured a squirrel, the sight of its frantic struggles made something twist inside her. She couldn't kill it. She soon discovered that she couldn't kill anything in a trap, although she had no qualms about eating the meat she stole.

As the weeks pa.s.sed into months, Makenna began to look for snares in the forest around the villages. If they were empty, she sprung them. If there were animals in them, she set them free. Sometimes her spell of calming failed and she was clawed or bitten, but freeing trapped creatures became something that she had to do.

As the first gold touched the leaves, she realized it was nearly harvest month and that she had had a birthday a few months back. She was twelve now. It didn't seem to matter. Birthdays were a part of humanity, and she hardly considered herself human anymore.

But harvest would soon be followed by winter. She'd need better gear, perhaps even a permanent shelter. She began to look for an area where she might stay. It had to be within raiding distance of at least three villages, but not so close to any of them that she was likely to be discovered.

She traveled almost another week. The sun was sinking behind the hills when she came across a barn that looked promising. The blackened ruins of a farmhouse nearby explained why it had been abandoned, but the barn looked strong and in good repair. The people who owned the well-tended orchards that surrounded it probably stored things there, but the harvest was past; they might not go near it till spring.

Makenna couldn't see anyone among the trees now, but she knew better than to take chances. She found a clump of bushes from which she could watch, and waited for moonrise.

It was several hours after darkness had fallen, and the moon was high above the trees before she moved, slowly and carefully, toward the darkened barn. The trails she'd found in the gra.s.s seemed to indicate that the farmhouse had been moved downstream a bit and behind a hilla"out of sight, but not necessarily out of hearing. Makenna had seen no sign of a dog, either, but that didn't mean there wasn't one, so she had the well-chewed bone she used as an essential object for her calming charm ready to hand.

There was no lock on the door, just a big latch, which probably meant they stored nothing of value here. Good. But the door's great iron hinges moved with the silence of grease and use, which meant they opened this door a lot. Bad. Or at least, a puzzle. The barn was dark, only a few small windows catching the moonlight. The old straw on the floor would subst.i.tute for sawdust. Makenna knelt and charmed fire into the wick of one of her stolen candles. The spell was coming easier, now that she worked it every night for campfires.

The light revealed the barn's plain plank walls. No animals moved restlessly in the stalls at the coming of light; only their scents lingered in the cool air. They must have moved the livestock to be nearer to the new house. The stalls held the tools of farm and harvest: baskets for gathering, which were cheap enough, but also steel tools, saws for cutting dead wood, hoes, and shovels. And at the far end was a cider press, and in the stalls near it, dozens of new barrels, their strapping gleaming in the candlelight. Makenna scowled. Either folk around here were more honest than any she'd ever known, or she was missing something. Could she have tripped some magical alarm without sensing it? But magical wards were usually harder to come by, and more expensive, than a doga"more expensive than a cider press and the new barrels warranted.

She was reaching out with her other senses, letting her eyes stray, when she saw ita"just a glimpse of a long-nosed brown face, about the size of a small melon, peering down from one of the eaves. It was gone in an instant, but Makenna jumped back, tripped over a in the straw covered floor, and fell.

This barn was far from unguarded. Her heart started to pound. "I didn't take anything," she said rapidly. "I didn't hurt anything. I'm leaving now, and I've done you and yours no harm. All right?"