They rode down on the goblin homes. Their moon-flaming hooves broke through the roofs, and goblins ran from the doors like rabbits from a flooding burrow. When the horses trampled them, the silver flames licked up around their hooves and the goblins screamed.
He tried to find Onny's house, but he didn't know where it was. When he found Regg's house, the roof was broken in like a smashed sh.e.l.l, and he decided, shuddering, not to examine the nearby bodies.
He wanted to find Natter's house, but realized by the time he did, it would be too late. He had to stop the horses!
He ran among them, trying to find a rider, someone in charge, someone he could order to put a stop to this, but he found no riders. He grabbed one horse's bridle and tried to talk to it, but it tossed its head, throwing him aside. He sat, listening to the pounding hooves and the screaming, staring at the orange-brown moon . . . and suddenly he recognized it.
Tobin woke, gasping, his throat tight with the effort to scream. He stared frantically at the windows, but there was no moonlight, only a lighter patch of darkness and the drip of recent rain.
No moonlight! He wrapped his arms around his knees and buried his face in them, rocking, trying to calm himself. A nightmare, only a nightmare.
The Otherworld stone! How long had Master Lazur had to locate it? Three days? Four? Tobin reached for his crutches, but Natter had taken them. He cursed and pressed his foot tentatively against the floor. Pain answered, and the harder he pressed, the worse it grew. He couldn't walk.
But he couldn't leave the stone unshielded, either. Could he wait till morning and send Natter or one of the children? He looked at the windows, remembering the eerie dream light gleaming on the floor. No. Master Lazur could be searching for the stone right now. He wouldn't leave it there another hour.
He pulled off his blankets and crawled to the door. This time he left it open. If someone woke and noticed it, so much the better. They could reach the stone faster than he could.
It had rained earlier, and tiny drops were still misting down. He could see only vague humps in the darkness around him, but the familiar scent of rain, the wet earth, and the cold gra.s.s under his hands gave the goblin village a solid, rea.s.suring reality, and the nightmare began to fade.
Tobin kept crawling.
He recognized the irony of working so hard to retrieve the stone when he'd gone to so much trouble to plant it. He wondered if he was now actually committing the treason for which he'd been convicted before. If he was, at least he'd already gotten the punishment out of the way.
Right or wrong, treason or not, he couldn't aid in the destruction of these people. There had to be another way. And he'd find it, but first he had to get the stone back.
There were stickery weeds in the wet gra.s.s, and he stopped, cursing, to pick thorns out of his palms. It seemed much farther crawling than it had walking, but he didn't want to stop and rest. He was panting by the time he reached the bottom of the rise, and gasping by the time he crested the top and brushed damp hair out of his eyes.
There was the log, at the far side of the clearing. He crawled to it eagerly, ignoring the pain when he jarred his sore ankle. Fumbling in the dark with stinging hands, he found several other stones and was beginning to panic before his fingers closed over one of the right size and shape.
He pulled it out. He could barely make out the color in the dim light, but his fingers, remembering the smooth flat curves, confirmed it. Tears of relief filled his eyes. It was safe, back under the shield of the hiding charm chained to his neck. By Master Lazur's own admission, no priest would be able to find it now.
He'd never let it off his person again, he vowed, slipping it into his pocket and closing his fist on it. Not until he had a chance to grind it into dust. Perhaps Bocami could help with that, though it would be very awkward to explain this to the goblins. Natter had just begun to trust him, and many of the others still didn't.
He was too tired to decide now. His head throbbed, and the cool gra.s.s felt good against his heated body as he lowered himself down. He'd rest here, and then go back to the hut. He could decide whether or not to tell them about it in the morning, when his head was clearer.
He never remembered the goblins finding him there, for by then he was lost in a nightmare world where villages were about to be attacked and he could prevent it, if he only knew how.
Sometimes the moonlight horses trampled the village, but sometimes it was the desert barbarians who attacked his own peoplea"his home on fire, his sisters fleeing.
In one dream the goblins were mounted on the moon-flame horses, destroying a village of mice.
Occasionally he would wake, recognize the familiar walls of the earth hut, and check to be sure the stone was in his pocket.
Natter was always there when he wakened, with cold cloths for his forehead and bitter herbal drinks. When he was lucid he tried to explain, but it came out muddled and Natter hushed him in a gentle voice that worried him more than all her scolding.
He had no chance to explain until he wakened, aching in every muscle, with afternoon sunlight streaming through the windows, illuminating the circles and runes that marked the floor around him, and realized that she, the sorceress, the general, was back.
The Hedgewitch "THEY KNEW," SAID COGSWHALLOP FLATLY. "They knew exactly what we planned, in advance."
Makenna, perched on the log, stared out over the village. It was serene in the afternoon sunlight, but today the sight gave her no peace. She'd decided to hold this meeting here, where she had held so many others, hoping it would give her the strength to face what she had to, but there was no strength in her, just the weary pounding of guilt and loss.
"It's my fault," she told them. "I should have listened to you, should have let you burn the church from rafters to foundation. Ia"" I let them divide my loyalties. I should have known this would happen. You can't fight a war halfheartedly, especially if you're outmatched in every way.
Nine dead and more than thirty wounded. There'd been casualties in the past, but never this many. It was the first time one of her plans had failed. Divided loyalties.
I'm their commandera"how could I have forgotten my responsibility ? My fault.
"You're not listening!" snapped Cogswhallop. "They knew all our plans in advance! Most of the soldiers followed you off, but the rest were in hiding, waiting for us. They'd set traps exactly where we were attacking. I even heard one of them saying it was a good thing they'd been warned because we 'little demons' were so slippery. They knew!"
"Aye. I figured that out when I saw them at the ravine. I just didn't want to admit it. I told the knight about our plan. I didn't see any harm, because I didn't think he had any way to pa.s.s the information along."
There was a shocked murmur from the troop leaders. The remaining troop leaders. Makenna closed her eyes against tears.
"But he doesn't have a way to pa.s.s information," Cogswhallop protested. "He's been here the whole time since we left, with a hiding charm welded round his throat."
"I know. But he must have some way, because he was the only one who knew our plans. And they knew them, too.
Dismay grew in the faces around her.
"Gen'ral, if he's got some way to tell things to those priests, then we've got to find out how much he's told them and how he does it," said Cogswhallop. "Now!"
"I know," said Makenna. "That's why I ordered all but the wounded to come back fast. That's why I set the healing spells first thing, when I found him raving. We can't get sense out of him till his fever breaks. I've posted guards, two miles out. We'll keep them there till we find out how much information he's pa.s.sed on. If he truly doesn't know where this village is, we may still be safe, but we can't take chances on that."
"But that little bell only works if he talks," said Cogswhallop. "Suppose he just keeps his mouth shut?"
"Oh, my friend. Your folk are good people." She smiled bitterly. "There are plenty of ways to force a man to talk. Humans do it all the time."
She stood outside the door, taking deep breaths, trying to calm her stomach.
Cogswhallop stood beside her, carrying the brazier full of hot coals they'd borrowed from the troubled smith. Bocami had almost refused to lend it when they told him what it was for. He liked this human. Many of them did. Erebus had argued so pa.s.sionately she'd finally put a guard over him, fearing he'd do something foolish.
Natter hadn't argued, but her small face turned white as bleached linen, and she'd gone off to find the children and take them far away.
"There's no use putting this off, gen'ral," Cogswhallop told her. "It'll only get harder."
She couldn't read the expression on his face. He'd supported her decision- a"at least, he hadn't argued against it.
It didn't matter if he supported her or not. She was their commander, and she owed these people safety. Sometimes mercy, like honor, didn't get it done.
No doubt pa.s.sing her plans on to the enemy was a fine, honorable act. He was probably a hero. The thought made her furious, and she opened the door and went in.
The knight was sitting up, bound as she'd ordered, and there was no guilt on his face, the b.a.s.t.a.r.d. He looked more puzzled than frightened. Well, she'd change that!
"There's no need for this." He twitched his bound arms, his expression growing uncertain as he looked from one of their grim faces to the other. Make you nervous, do we, lordling?
"I wouldn't attack you. In fact, Ia"" He caught sight of the brazier and stopped, the color seeping out of his face.
She'd had to explain this to the goblins, but her fellow human understood it at once. How horrible, that this should be a thing she shared with them.
"Why?" His eyes searched her face, all baffled innocence.
"Oh, that's good, lordling. That's wonderful." She opened the spell book and began tracing runes on the floor. Cogswhallop set the brazier in the corner and started hanging the bell. "It wouldn't even cross your mind that we might want to know how you got word to the settlement about our plans. Or what else you've told them. Ora""
"What?" His voice was loud, indignant. "How could I pa.s.s on your plans? I was here all the time!"
"Aye, that's what we'd like to know." She bent to the second rune. When she opened the spell book, a familiar chill brushed her neck, the cold disapproval enveloping her like a damp cloak. Makenna forced the memory of her mother from her mind. This wasn't abuse of magic; this was plain human brutality.
"Wait." He tried to sound calm and controlled, but he didn't succeed very well. His face was white and strained. "Please, explain this to me. You say the settlement found out about your plan? How do you know?"
"Because nine are dead and thirty wounded." She crossed to begin the third rune. "Because they were waiting for us, with clever little traps, everywhere we went."
"But that doesn't prove Ia""
"Pigdung. Cogswhallop heard them talking. He heard them say they'd got warning in advance."
"But . . ." He swallowed and visibly mustered his courage. "You shouldn't use language like that, it's . . . demeaning. Why do you think it was me?"
Language! The prissy fool was fussing about her language! Cogswhallop was tending the brazier now, turning the small poker and tongs, heating them through. She shivered and turned on the knight in sudden fury.
"Because, O proper and honorable lordling, you were the only human besides me who knew those plans. Well? No protests? You're not going to say that one of the goblins could have betrayed us? Sold us out for a bowl of milk?"
"No." He gazed at the brazier, sick dread on his face. But there was thought there, too. "No, they wouldn't betray you. They're loyal."
Some thought seemed to strike him, for he fell silent as she completed the last few runes. She turned and faced him. "I believe you're innocent," she lied.
He jumped at the sound, and she smiled coldly, wishing she didn't feel so sick. "No point in silence this time, human. You'll talk, sooner or later, and we'll know truth from lies. The sooner or the later, that's up to you."
He took a deep breath. "I didn't tell anyone but Erebus about your plans."
The bell was silent.
"I have no idea how they found out, buta""
Color surged into his pale face. "All right, I have an idea, but it's just a theory, and I was goinga"I was thinking about telling you anyway!"
The bell was silent.
"Then you'd best tell us."
His eyes lowered. He was frowning.
"Now would be a very good time, lordling."
"Because you're in our village right now. You may not know where it is, but we can't be sure of that, not anymore." Was she demanding or pleading with him?
"So now we have to know it all. Especially if you're not sure how the information got out. Because if your friends find this place, it's not just nine lives that might be lost, but hundreds."
She thought he flinched, but she wasn't sure.
"I understand that," he said slowly. "And I want to keep this village safea"as much as I've ever wanted anything! But I have other duties, too. There are some things that, in honor, I can't tell you. I want to help you! Please ..." He stopped, seeming to have run out of words.
"You'll find you can't afford divided loyalties, lordling." Pity for him. Pity for herself. She made her voice harsh and cold. "I'm their commander. To keep these people safe, I must know all you know."
He shook his head, pressing his lips together. He'd said all he was going to . . . voluntarily.
"They've been driven from their homes, trapped and slaughtered!" Was she trying to convince him, or herself? "They have no one but me!" And they were all she had. She swallowed sickly and glanced at Cogswhallop, but his face was blank, giving her no help.
The knight was trying to look calm and determined, but his face was taut with fear. The pulse in his throat flashed like a weaver's shuttle with the pounding of his heart.
Trapped. He was trapped as surely as the goblins had been. And she was the trapper.
"No." Every muscle in her started to tremble, and she wrapped her arms around herself. "I won't do this." To torture a trapped creature because she feared others might be trapped and hurt in the future was madness. It was destroying the grapes for the sake of the apples. And she had no wish to be a destroyer. Not even of humans.
"This is wrong," she said aloud. "And nothing it might buy us in the future could make it right."
The knight blinked, astonished confusion in his face. But in Cogswhallop's face she saw relief, and a glimmer of respect.
"I didn't think you were that human," the goblin said with satisfaction.
"Well, you might have said something!" Her body's trembling had spread to her voice.
"Why? I knew you'd work it out. To kill in battle, to defend yourself, that's one thing. This isa""
He stopped abruptly and c.o.c.ked his head. She heard it, tooa"the deep thuds of someone beating frantically against a hollow tree. She felt the blood drain from her face. Another pounding joined it, and another.
"What's that?" the knight asked.
She was reaching for the door when it flew open and Miggy burst in, wild eyed and gasping. "Soldiers! On horses, with swords and armor. They've all got torches. They're coming from all around us, mistress. They know right where we are. They'll have us surrounded in minutes!"
"No!" It was the knight's voice, filled with a horror threats of torture hadn't put there. Makenna barely spared him a glance. The calm of battle filled her, decisions and plans flooding her mind. First things first.
"It's the evacuation plan, Miggy. The leaders will be at the center of the village in just a few minutes. You're the one who sounded the alarm?"