The Goblin Wood - Part 17

Part 17


The Hedgewitch IN THE MORNING THEY undid the chain and took her to the priest's tent. They'd given her some water but no food. Combined with a wakeful night, it had left her light-headed. If her head was light, it should be easier to hold high, shouldn't it?

The big tent was unoccupied. As Makenna gazed around it, her eyes lingered on a row of beautifully bound books. They showed use, despite the care he took of them. She thought of the tattered collection of her mother had left her, and a surge of resentment burned away the last of her weakness.

When the priest came in, she met his eyes calmly. Why not? She no longer had anything to hide. The handsome boy, Jeriah, came in with him and sat at the desk, pulling out writing supplies, obviously prepared to take notes on the conversation.

"So." Master Lazur walked around her, like a farmer looking at a pig he was thinking of buying. She refused to twist her neck to look at him, even when he spoke behind her. "You weren't affected by my truth spell before. Let's see if you can do it again."

He laid his hand on the back of her neck, beneath her hair. The power of the spell churned through her and clenched around her gut. There'd be no evasion this time.

He made sure the spell was established before he moved around to lean against his desk, watching her with hard, cold eyes. "How did you resist my truth spell before? In particular, how did you do it without my sensing it?"

The answer swirled up in hera"she couldn't defeat it, so she didn't try. Let this cold, tricky, b.a.s.t.a.r.d know how careless he'd been. "I didn't resist it, you just didn't ask the right questions."

"What do you mean?" He was frowning now. Good.

"You asked if I knew the sorceress or some such thing, and there is no sorceress, so it was easy enough to say no."

He blinked in surprise. "But you are the sorceress. We saw you leading the goblins yesterday. I saw you in my scrying crystal, making plans. There's no doubta""

"Oh, I'm your enemy, all right. The one you've fought so long, sent so many men to kill. But I'm just a simple hedgewitch, not a sorceress at all."

"You're joking." But he knew she wasn't. His face filled with astonishment. "How could you . . ." His expression changed, a dozen perceptions rearranging themselves behind his eyes as he fitted things he thought he knew into new patterns. But his first words startled her. "What a pity."


"If you're not a sorceress, then you must be a very fine tactician, and we'll have great need of tacticians in the next few years. What a waste! I don't suppose . . ." She could see things rearranging themselves again in his mind.

"Sir." It was Jeriah, disapproval plain in his voice. "You can't do that! She's a murderess, how many times over? Shea""

"Five times," Makenna told him. "No, six. I killed five men and one unborn babe." She had no idea what the priest was thinking, but Jeriah seemed to, and she gazed at both of them curiously. There was no compulsion on her to answer Jeriah, but she added. "I'd kill all but the babe again, if I had the chance. They'd blood on their hands, every one of them."

"Goblin blood?" the priest asked.

"It's as red as yours," she told him. "And the tears their kin shed just as bitter. Aye, I'd kill them again, and a few more if I could get my hands on them."

"Then there's no chance you'd consider working for me?" He gazed at her expectantly. Jeriah shook his head.

"That's mad! How could I work for you?" Makenna asked.

"Because I can give you a cause worth abandoning whatever drove you to take up with those vermin."

He leaned forward, a fanatical gleam in his eyes.

He told her that the desert barbarians were going to invade all the Hierarch's realm. It sounded insane. She glanced at Jeriah for confirmation, and he nodded reluctantly. As the priest spoke on, of drought, famine, and defensible borders, it slowly began to make sense. Was this why the knight had deceived them? Aye, likely. He struck her as the sort to sacrifice all for a n.o.ble cause, and if you cared for humankind, this might seem like one.

"So you see, girl, we'll need leaders of your intelligence and ability in the coming years. You could live! Have no doubt, you've earned death for the men you've slain, even if your demon-drawn power hadn't condemned you. But you can live and serve a great cause, if you'll only work with us, instead of against us."

His voice was b.u.t.ter smooth, like a pitchman at a fair. It was a wonderful pitch, too, Makenna thought, with reluctant admiration. Flattery, honor, and fear, all used against her. But a pitchman was only a pitchman, and peasants learned early to be wary of them. On the other hand, there was one thing she wanted, and if he could give her that. . .

"What about my goblins?"

"What about them?"

"Will the church still be killing goblinkind? You've gone and put them into the same position you say the barbarians have put you ina"driven out of their homes, with no place to go. Can you put a stop to that?"

"My girl, goblins are lesser minions of the Dark One. As servants of the Seven Lords of Light, we must destroy them." So gentle, so rational. He probably even believed it himself, though with this man, you'd likely never be sure.

"My power's supposed to come from him, too, but you're willing to overlook that." It wasn't a question. He was a man willing to do anything to further his cause.

"Naturally, you'd have to forsake that power if you joined us." The priest frowned, his voice losing a little of its smoothness. "You must understanda"to revoke the Decree of Bright Magic would be to admit that the Hierarch made a mistake. Now, when we're asking the entire realm to abandon their homes and move, on the strength of the Hierarch's word, we can't afford the appearance of weakness. But if you gave up your allegiance to the Dark One and entered the service of light, you could be spared."

"Aye, I understand. And magic is something I might willingly give up. But I'll not serve you, priest. For I think you're a man who does great evil in the name of good, and if I served you, I'd likely end up doing far worse than killing five killers and one babe."

A flash of insight seized her, tightening her throat. This priest had become what he was because he let nothing stand in the way of saving his people, just as she had let nothing stand in the way of saving her goblins . . . and avenging her mother. Had she betrayed her mother's teaching when she sought vengeance for her death? If magic and life were part of each other, was dealing deatha"even to humansa"a betrayal of magic?

The priest shrugged. "Well, it was worth a try. Jeriah?"

The boy jumped. He'd been staring at his master, almost in a trance. Had she shown him something he hadn't seen before?

"Record that the prisoner confessed to six murders and showed no repentance."

Only for the babe. But she didn't say it. Why bother?

"She also confessed to serving the Dark One and refused to surrender that allegiance. She is therefore condemned to death, by my authority. There. I'll sign it now. As soon as we're certain the goblins aren't going to try to free her, we can carry out the sentence and get out of here. This has already taken far too much time."

"Wait a minute. You're keeping me alive because you're expecting my people to attack? You're using me as bait?" The answer was plain on both their faces, and something else as well. She cursed her loose tongue, but it was too late.

"Why? Don't you think they'll try for you?" the priest asked.

For the first time, Makenna fought the spell, but the fist around her gut squeezed and the words rose in her throat and burst out. "Of course they'll try. They'll likely not give up till I'm dead or they are." She gritted her teeth and choked the rest of it down, but the damage was done.

He asked her where the goblins were now and what plans they might make, but since she truly didn't know, they learned nothing more. Demon's teeth, they'd learned enough!

They broke camp shortly after that and set out for the settlement. Makenna kept her face impa.s.sive as they tied her to the saddle and tied the horse she rode between two others, but her mind seethed. How could she have been so foolish? If she'd just kept her mouth shut they might have killed her before the goblins had time to try anything. She had little hope that her forces would succeeda"all of them together wouldn't be able to defeat the men who guarded her now, and she'd been the one they relied on for the subtle, sneaky plans that had been so successful.

Now she knew why the settlers and explorers had kept coming, despite all her efforts. No wonder the knight said she couldn't raise the stakes high enough to send them elsewhere. There was no elsewhere!

Sooner or later the humans would fill this forest, and the goblins would be hunted and destroyed. All but the toughest and cleverest would die, as inevitably as the snow killed the gra.s.s. Even if she lived, there was nothing she could do to stop it.

The sun was going down. Makenna huddled against the log to which they'd chained her wrist, her head resting on her arms. She didn't look up as footsteps drew near. There had been plenty to come and gawk, once they reached the settlement. She had spent a full day and most of a night on horseback, and after they arrived at the settlement, no one bothered to give her more water. After a time she stopped replying to taunts, but the sound of human voices, haunting and alien, filled an emptiness within her, and she listened, though she didn't look up.

"So that's the sorceress." Goodwife Garron's voice? "I suppose she looks a little like our hired girl, but to say that she's the same one is ridiculous!"

"Aye. She did come to spy on us, but we spotted her and drove her off at once," the guard explained.

"Well, I'm glad we have men like you to protect us!"

Laughter swelled in Makenna's throat and she bit her lip, glad her arms concealed her face.

"Might I go closer?" Goodwife Garron continued. "I'd like to see if she really looks like the girl who worked for us. Not if it's dangerous, of course, though I'm sure you'd protect me."

"Ah, she's no danger now." A rough hand grabbed Makenna's hair, jerking her head back, and she stared up at Goodwife Garron. The small woman narrowed her eyes as if she was nearsighted, leaning very close, her body concealing a cloth-wrapped bundle that slipped from her hand and lit by Makenna's feet. The goodwife twitched her skirt over it. "My, she certainly is a messy creature. I see no close resemblance between her and the girl we hired, and so I shall tell folk." She took the guard's arm and pulled him away. "You wouldn't believe the malicious things people are saying." And she distracted him with a few of them while Makenna stretched out her feet and pulled the bundle closer. There was almost six feet of chain between her wrist and the log, and she could move easily enough. She would open it later, when it was dark.

They lit torches in a circle around her, after the sun set, but the six guards faced outward. Makenna investigated the bundle and found a jug of water, bread, and meat. She managed to drink and eat without them seeing her. As she ate, tears ran down her face for the first time since her capture. She had seen so much of human brutalitya"she'd all but forgotten that some of them practiced kindness.

Her mother would have liked Goodwife Garron. Would she have liked the woman her daughter had become? Makenna feared the answer.

She hid the remains of her meal under the log as best she could and settled back. The night wore on. Makenna was dozing when she heard the next voice. "I must speak to the prisonera"alone."

She looked up, her eyes widening, for in all the time she'd known him, through all the threats and fights, she'd never heard that haughty, authoritative tone in the lordling's voice.

He even looked different, with his armor glittering in the torchlight. He was clean, that was part of it, and shaved, but mostly it was his expression. She'd never seen him look arrogant before, and it sat oddly on his plain face.

The guards evidently didn't think so. They said, "Yes, Sir Tobin," nicely as trained dogs.

Of course. He was a hero now.

"So, wench." He sneered down at her. "We meet again. But this time it is I who have the upper hand!"

He'd gone mad. It was the only explanation she could think of. He leaned forward, the sneer still on his face, and hissed, "Demon's teeth, stop gaping at me and say something nasty! In about half a minute you have to attack me to cause a diversion so Cogswhallop can get under the log!" He straightened again and said loudly, "Not so sharp when you're the one in chains, are you?" And he kicked her anklea"hard.

Her mind sprang into motion, all at once. "Oh, aye. No doubt kicking a person in chains is your definition of a witty argument." Her heart raced. A torchlit ring in the very center of the settlement, and six guards. Were they all mad? But if they'd gotten this far, she'd no choice but to play along.

He drew back, and she prayed his exaggerated scowl wouldn't make the guards suspicious. She peered at them from the corners of her eyes. They'd drawn closer, listening avidly, approval on many of their faces. An army of goblins could have gathered in the darkness behind them.

"You . . . you . . ." He looked to be running short on insults, so she decided to help him out.

"Me, me," she mocked. "Aye, you've got the whip hand nowa"and you know a deal about whips, don't you?" Several of the guards gasped. Whatever he'd been flogged for was public knowledge, poor boy. "But you had to get an army to take me! When it was just you against me, I had you running in circles with your britches down! And oncea""

"You had an army, too!" A flush rose in his cheeks and the defensiveness in his voice was reala"much more convincing. "When it was just you against me, I captured you. If it hadn't been for the goblins ..." He remembered his role, and the unnatural smirk came over his face again. He was almost within her reach. "Soon there'll be no more goblins. If they try to save you now"a"his eyes narrowed on the worda""we'll capture them asa""

She sprang. The chain around her wrist barely let her reach him, but she did, clawing ineffectively at his face. Her instinct was to shout, but she didn't want to attract the attention of anyone but her guards, so she fought in silence.

He tried, equally ineffectively, to grab her hands, and he curseda"but not loudly. She thought they must look like squabbling children and was about to attack him in earnest when the guards grabbed her arms and kicked her feet from under her.

The knight stepped forward, lifting his hand, and then hesitated. No doubt he thought it dishonorable to strike both a woman and someone who couldn't hit back. Fool of a lordling, don't balk at it now! "You spineless muckworm, you couldn'ta""

He slapped her face twice, just hard enough to make it look real. It wouldn't have stopped her, had there been anything she really wanted to say, but she was certain the goblins had been given enough time. She also feared he was nearing the limit of his acting ability. When the guards released her, she subsided meekly against the log, protecting her face with her arms. Behind their shelter, she could see him glaring at the guards.

"What are you doing here?" he snapped. "This is a private conversation. Get back to the perimeter and keep watch. And I want to see you looking out, like guards, not peeking at me like gossiping grandmothers! Go!"

There was a pause while she continued to huddle, hiding her grin, and the guards withdrew. "They're watching," he murmured. "But they're out of earshot if we keep it down. Are you all right?"

"I'm fine. Unlike some, who seem to have gone mad! Lazur's not a fool. You'll never pull this off."

"Aye," said Cogswhallop's voice behind her. "But it's a lovely plan, gen'ral. Bring your wrist back where I can reach it and stop squirming!"

The knight scowled down at her. "Stop looking like that. Grovel or look angry or something. You look too happy."

"And you look far too nervous."

She fell Cogswhallop's hands pluck at the chains and heard him murmur, "Now, don't jangle, sweet ones."

"What are you doing, lordling? First you get me taken and now you're setting me free? Make sense!"

"It doesn't make sense to me anymore," he admitted. "When I planted the stone, I didn't know, didn't realize .... When I understood about the goblins, I got it back, but then I got sick, and then it was too late. So now"a"he took a deep breatha""I'm doing what I can to set it right."

Gazing at him as he spoke, she noticed that most of the b.u.t.tons on his fine, clean shirt were gone. That, more than anything, made the truth plain to her. "So now you're betraying your own folk for the sake of mine. Poor honorable knight."

"Stop looking at me like that! I don't know about honor anymore. I just know I have to do this." But he looked confused and miserable. She thought of Goodwife Garron's kindness and understood exactly how he felt. How long had it been since she sympathized with a human . . . with another human?

"No use," Cogswhallop grunted softly. "Can't pick it. I've got the twists in, but I'm not strong enough to break the chain. It's up to you, soldier."

The knight straightened abruptly and glared at the guards againa"several of them guiltily turned their eyes away. He threw back his cloak with a sweeping gesture. "How long will it take the Sleepers to affect them?" he asked nervously.

"You've got Sleepers out there?"

"Depends on the man," Cogswhallop answered. "How tired he is, how much natural resistance he has to that kind of spell, how much he wants to stay awake."

"What if some of them have spell-resistance charms?" Makenna hissed, feeling ignored. She'd always been in charge of rescues before. To be on the receiving end was unnerving.

"They don't," the knight told her. "That's one of the reasons we didn't do this sooner. We had to arrange for six unprotected men to be on guard at the same time."

His eyes widened and Makenna, looking where he looked, saw one of the guards sit down and lean against a tree, yawning.

"How in this world did you manage that?"

"Jeriah's in charge of setting up the guard." Was that pain in his eyes? "I just made a few suggestions. He's my brother."

Another guard lay down.

"Your brother! Buta""

"I know. He takes after my mother."

"I wasn't going to say that." She smiled, amused by the small flash of vanity. "Won't he be in trouble?"

Definitely pain. "I don't know."

Several more guards had gone down, and the last swayed on his feet. Even as they watched, he lay down on the ground.