Sorry, everyone, for the lateness of this week's installment. I am having problems with my computer. It says irq less than equal. Not only is it mistaken about that, it can't spell; my irk is more than equal.
Please stay tuned...
The farmers fought with the vigor and enthusiasm seen only in absolutely green troops. They took big risks. They charged without being told. Fourteen of them were killed. So were all the goblins.
Dickson noted with approval that the corporals had taught the farm boys to form a line, but had not told them much else, relying instead on the volunteers' familiarity with their own weapons, the axes and bows they had brought from home.
Dickson was thereafter too busy to notice more, for the battle was thick and heavy around him, and he was busy with his sword and buckler.
The goblins' leader, the hobgoblin, lived for some minutes after the battle, though he was badly wounded. Hobgoblins take a lot of killing. He muttered and raved in his own language. Dickson did not know what he was saying but the word "Ahnna" was in it repeatedly.
"You were looking for Ahnna?" Dickson said. "Speak up, for you are our prisoner."
The goblin answered in human speech. "Orders...reward. I no find her, Ahnna. Damn. Found fighters instead."
"Why were you looking for her?"
The hobgoblin opened an enormous eye and examined Dickson. "Why tell you, ugly human sack of skruck?"
"Oh, I understand," said Dickson. "I'm a soldier too. You're just a dumb flunky with orders you know nothing about. No doubt your masters did not see fit to tell you the reason. Sad they treat us like that, but they thought you were too stupid to trust."
"Not true, human buttface. She's magic. That's dangerous. Kill her because she is magic. Now leave me alone, go away, I must rest. Or bring me beer."
The hobgoblin then closed his eye and said no more, breathing noisily and raggedy for a quarter of an hour before he finally stopped breathing.
"These won't have been the only goblins looking for her," Dickson said. "Now we begin the search anew."
Bonfort planned to besiege the castle. But the defenders abandoned it and poured into the countryside. Bonfort smiled grimly.
"This is a new kind of war, Harkins," Bonfort said to his Farwalker aide. "We have eyes in the sky, flying creatures to observe the enemy and report back. I think that's going to change everything."
"The enemy, no doubt, has such aid as well," said the Farwalker.
"Well, blow the trumpets and bang the drums, get everyone turned around and headed after the enemy, for we'll be fighting in the field, not attacking a castle."
"Ahnna, do you hear it?" said Bonfie. "There's an army about. There's about to be a battle, a big one. We better find a place to hide."
"No question which way to go now," she said. "Away from the fighting, is all." She sounded tired and afraid.
"We're lucky, remember? Come on, all we have to do is put the sound to our backs and keep to the trees. Say, do you climb trees?"
"As well as any boy," she said.
"Yeah? We'll just see about that. Anyway, we might have a chance to climb a tree and see the battle! Wouldn't that be grand?"
"Grand? Why?" she said. "I just want to get out of here."
Dickson and his trackers fanned out, seeking for footprints. They sought back the way they had come, reasoning that Ahnna, though she had been ahead of them, never got to the ambush point--she must have deviated from her straight-line course. But why?
"This is getting us nowhere," said Dickson. "We've lost the trail." He sat down on a rock to think. Far in the distance he heard the horns and drums of an army. Was it Bonfort or the enemy? Or was it both?
He clapped a hand to his head and laughed. "Of course!" he said. He blew his whistle to call in the trackers. When they had gathered around, he said, "You hear the sounds of war coming this way. We've lost the trail, but we are following someone taught to keep out of harm's way. Time to do some mind tracking."
"We have no firm starting point to begin from," said a tracker. "But she must be in this general area, and will move away from the din. That still leaves us a broad area, for 'away' could be any direction that is generally away. Anywhere between northwest and southwest."
"The choice will become narrower as the battle draws nearer," said Dickson. "She'll want to put as much distance as she cam between herself and the fighting. Well, fan out again and look for sign, this time restricting the search--between northwest and southwest. You all know the look of her tracks by now, and her little friend's. We'll narrow our search when the army is nearer."
"They aren't massing to fight," said Bonfort. "They're fanning out instead, and running for it. That makes no sense. Our horsemen can catch up to them easily. All their goblins are on foot. Some of their men are mounted, and their eldritch friends--well, who knows? Some are fast, some can fly, but the giants are slow plodders."
"Could be a trap," said Harkins. "Lure us into pursuit, then fold the files together, turning files into ranks, and catch us in the middle."
"Well, after them," said Bonfort. "We'll watch out for that stratagem. I wouldn't think goblins smart enough for it, but you know what they say about underestimating your enemy. And who knows what sort of loathsome intelligence is doing the planning for them?"
At length an element of Bonfort's cavalry caught up to a group of goblins. The goblins turned at bay. But instead of drawing in to attack the cavalry, the other goblins continued to scatter and flee.
"King Bonfort! King Bonfort!" cried a voice above Bonfort's head. He looked up as Luren glided in for a landing on her strange steed. "The enemy army is breaking up, but they are not routed. If they were, they would be going every which way, but the paths of all are bending westward, after they get out of your sight. There is some plan to their movement. I think they're going to regroup."
"Pleasant to see you again, Lady Luren," said Bonfort. "Thanks. All right, what strong points are there around here, places where they could go to rally, and perhaps make a stand?
"I don't know, but Dickson is out that way--the way they're headed. I saw him. He beat the goblins he found, but now it looks like all of them are headed his way."
"Get the army turned around again, Harkins," said Bonfort.
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Ahnna slipped on a stone while crossing a stream. Bonfie helped her up.
"That water is icy cold!" said Ahnna.
"If you have something dry to put on, you'd better change into it. Otherwise we ought to have a fire: It's chilly and you can't go around wet," said Bonfie.
"Oh no!" said Ahnna. "I've lost it!"
"The pathfinder stone. We must find it. Help me look."
But the stone was not to be found. They knelt on stones and groped with numb hands in the frigid water, but found only smooth pebbles.
"Now we really do need a fire," Bonfie said. "My hands won't work right."
But he found he could neither rub tinder nor strike his flint, so cold were his hands. "Oh, no," he said. "We must warm up. But how can we? We'll catch our deaths."
Ahnna, shivering, managed to paw together some sticks and with a word, set them ablaze.
"How did you do that? And wait, you did it before, in the grue cave."
"It's magic. And you must not tell anyone ever, for it's a secret," she said.
"Are you like a witchgirl or something?"
"If I told you I was a magical royal princess, you wouldn't believe me anyway. I've tried. So think what you like." She rubbed her hands over the fire. "We'll need more wood."
They warmed themselves by the fire. She said, "We ought to look for the stone again. Stones that show your way are very rare and ridiculously valuable. I shouldn't like to tell Mother I've lost it."
But in the end it was as before: they found nothing, and again ended up warming numbed and aching hands at the fire. They made some tea and drank it, enjoying the warmth of it. "Well," said Bonfie, "Remember the spot and maybe we can come back and look some more another time--when it's warmer, I hope."
"But what of our journey?" Ahnna said. "How will we find our way?"
"That part's all right--I've been watching the way we've been taking. I can lead us the same way we've been going."
They could think of no other course of action, so when they were well warmed, they put out their fire and set out again.
Dickson, measuring with his tracking stick, carefully traced the children's path. It would not do to make any mistake. His security detail, consisting of a hundred farm boys, followed behind the trackers and would surely obliterate the children's tracks. Any missed clues would be gone forever.
"They're going straight as a string," said one of Dickson's Farwalker companions. "Odd, that. Even when they detour to go around some obstacle, they come right back onto their straight course."
After hours of tracking they came to a stream. "Someone fell, right here," said Dickson. "See the scraped moss, the disturbed rock. Then, who knows why, it looks like two children on their knees, bending over the water, there and there."
Shortly he found the remains of the fire. "Good," he said. "They dried out before continuing."
"Over here are some used tea leaves, boss," said one of the trackers. "They knew to get something warm inside 'em, after a chill."
Some miles ahead, the goblins lay in ambush, exactly on the course line Ahnna and Bonfie were following. The monsters lay silent and concealed, deep in the shadows, each with his weapon beside him.
"So," said Bonfie. "Tell me more about this fire trick. That's really useful. Can you teach me how to do it?"
"Probably not. You have to be born with something, it's like an extra sense, like you can feel magic and sense its presence."
"I'm pretty sure I don't have that. What does it feel like?"
"It's hard to explain," Ahnna said. It's...well, it's a little like feeling a wind blow past you and around you, or like recognizing a flavor you've tasted before. Only there isn't anything there."
"Hmm. Well, I'm not magical. Speaking of tasting things, let's stop for lunch."
"What have we got left?"
"Just some whistle balls, and some of those wild onions from the other day," he said.
"You know what I'd like?" Ahnna said. "Roast duck. Cabbage slaw. Pickles. Fresh baked bread with lots of butter."
"Pie," said Bonfie. "Apple pie. After the duck, of course. But before the cream trifle."
Bonfie boiled up the dumplings and onions. "My, what nice roast duck," he said. "Will you have a slice of the breast, milady, or would you rather have a leg?"
"Some of the breast, if you please, and pass the dish of pickles and relishes."
They laughed, but then Ahnna looked sad, and began to weep. "Oh, Bonfie, what's to become of us?"
"Huh? It's like you said, we go to the capital, to the big palace everyone's heard of, and ask them for some duck."
"Polly, she's the cook there, makes the best roast duck in the whole world. Though an assistant does it most times--she has lots of helpers, and a whole hall of nothing but pantries, and..."
"Oh, nothing," she said. "I was just going to say, I hope I see her again."
"Sure you will," Bonfie said. "We've gotten this far. We've had good luck, like you were saying. Are you ready for the pie yet, or would you like more of this succulent roasted fowl?"
"You're a good sort, Bonfie."
"You're all right too, for a girl. Can you do any other magic, besides the fire thing?"
"Sometimes I can," she said. "I'm just starting my training, and that one is my greatest gift. But I can move things. Sometimes only tiny things that don't weigh much, sometimes bigger things, only not very big. I'm still working on that. Like this." She concentrated for a moment, drawing her eyebrows together, then a pebble sailed up off the ground and into the air, hovered for a moment, then fell at Bonfie's feet. He stared. She said, "Someone who is really good at that can lift a sword and wield it, using only the power of magic. I'm not nearly at that point yet."
"Wow, a magician!" said Bonfie.
After lunch they resumed their trek. Bonfie led them confidently onward. "Of course I'm sure which way," he told Ahnna, in answer to her question. "This is the same direction we've been going for days. Why, they'd better get busy plucking that duck, because we'll be there before you know it."
But it was not as he said. By evening they had circled back to the same stream, and the same crossing, where they had started. "Oh, Bonfie," Ahnna said.
"Well. I dunno. It looked like the same direction."
Dickson saw signs on the ground that alarmed him greatly. "Alert the security party and tell them to get ready to fight." For he had crossed the trail of a goblin war party and it led straight ahead. "Don't worry about preserving the trail. Trample it -- we need speed!"
The goblins had left many tracks and heavy ones, so it was a speedy job to follow them. Dickson found where the goblins were hiding. They were concealed at the edge of a little clearing. He had no time to divide his forces for a hammer-and-anvil attack, or an encirclement either, and in any case had no idea whether the rustics he led could understand and carry out such orders. Into the clearing he charged, with a handful of trained soldiers at his back, and a milling mob of confused and frightened farmers.
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Chapter 41: "Grand Alliance." In an unlikely alliance, eldritch creatures in great number join King Bonfort's army. The horses of Bonfort's army are panicked by the newcomers and flee. A messenger from Queen Goronla comes with the otherworldly troops, bringing a book for the wizard Lu. With the help of the book, Lu hopes to decipher the strange writing found in the region's tunnels.
Chapter 42: "Weird Army." The army of men and magical beings gets underway. Bonfort shows himself to the populace and his heralds proclaim him king before them. His forces are ambushed and the eldritch folk come into the fight. The locals see this and think Bonfort is in league with dark forces. Bonfort disappears and reappears during the ambush, for he has forgotten about his magical pendant and the power of the Old Roads. This leads observers to believe that he really is a ghost, just the opposite of what Bonfort is trying to tell them.
Chapter 43: "Old Books Are Best." Lu the wizard and Ingdor the elf work to understand the strange and ancient book Queen Goronla has sent to help them. Their location, Lord Brunn's stronghold, comes under attack by goblins. The main hall is destroyed, but the goblins are routed by night creatures, some of the forces sent by Goronla. The book is rescued from the fire by magic.
Chapter 44: "Grueslayer." Princess Ahnna and her friend, the orphan boy Bonfie Twelvepersons, are underground, hiding in tunnels and caves. They are charged at by a grue, a subterranean monster. Bonfie kills it with a lucky thrust, but is unnerved by the attack. Then a larger grue arrives. The children flee, and in so doing, pass into another world, by means of a magic they do not understand.
Bonfort continues to travel around the countryside, and begins to win over local opinion, at least among some of the people.
Chapter 45: "Luren." Lady Luren travels on an errand to return a horse to its rightful owners and, she admits to herself, she travels also in hopes of seeing her former lover, the rebellious Count Candrew. She encounters him but the meeting does not go well. She is aided in her journey by a hippogriff, a half horse, half griffin creature.
Chapter 46: "The Mock People." Luren returns to find Brunn's compound was attacked the previous night and the main hall burned down.
Bonfort begins his march westward to war, and finds he has a band of new followers, farm youths looking for adventure. Dickson, chief of the Farwalkers, wishes they were not tagging along; Bonfort hopes for the best.
Chapter 47: "The Light of Magic." Bonfort speculates on the nature of lineal magic and Princess Ahnna's gift for doing magical things. Could the magic have returned in Ahnna, that once empowered his house to do great things? He thinks over a prophecy he half remembers, that might have something to do with Ahnna--though he doubts it does. Concerned that she may have become a target in the war, however, he decides to check on things at Lurbridge Castle.
Chapter 48: "The Highest Star." Bonfie and Ahnna, frightened by the sight of a cavalcade of hideous riders, decide to leave the world they have found themselves in and return the tunnels and caverns they previously left. They find that Ahnna can return at will but Bonfie cannot, unless Ahnna holds his hand. After they return, Ahnna knights Bonfie as her knight-champion and protector.
Queen Jessica dies at Lurbridge Castle.
Chapter 49: "Jessica's Dagger." Bonfort and his army approach Lurbridge. A messenger brings Bonfort word that Jessica has been killed and Ahnna is at large in the countryside, fleeing goblins. Unable, in honor, to leave his place with the army, Bonfort sends Dickson to look for Ahnna.
Ahnna proposes a risky course of action, that she and Bonfie walk cross country to the capital at Murran Court, where, she thinks, they will be safe.
Chapter 50: "The Farmers." Dickson finds Ahnna's tracks as she heads westward, and pursues. The farm youths who had tagged along with the army are put to work setting things right on the ruined farms in the area and protecting the locals.
The goblins plan to ambush and kill Ahnna as she flees westward; Dickson is on her trail and hurrying to catch up.
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Ahnna said, "The pathfinder stone always points home, so we can go all the way there and never get lost."
Bonfie was not sure he trusted the stone to show them the way. But Ahnna was probably right when she said they they needed trust to their luck; luck had been with them so far. "Do we have all the food we can carry?" he said.
"We have all that's left."
Dickson, with his small party of Farwalkers, stood at the secret tunnel exit from Lurbridge Castle.
"Any tracks will be faded and gone, from when she first came out," said Dickson. "We may find later tracks. We are looking for a girl about so high." He gestured with his hand. "She's a little above average weight. That'll give you approximate length of stride and depth of tracks. Walks with feet slightly splayed; this increases going uphill--I've tracked her before."
The trackers fanned out. In a few hours they came back with their reports. There were tracks many children wandering about, the newest footprints very recent, made within a day.
"We'll hope our girl had the sense to get out of the throng and go to ground. We'll head for the deep woods, as a first try." Dickson looked at a map. "Hilly a few miles southwest of here, and hills are better for hiding in than flat country. Southwest then--alert the irregulars."
In an hour they came to the hills. "There may be caves about, from the look of the country. Look for them," said Dickson.
But one of the trackers whistled and all of them came to a stop. "Two children, walking together," he said. "Two days ago, it looks like. No, three." The tracker held a stick in his hand, with a thin band of stretchy fabric tied around it. He rolled the fabric along the stick until the distance from the band to the end of the stick matched the length of the smaller child's stride. Then, stick along the ground, he found the next footprint easily, for it was about the same distance ahead of the last. He tracked in this way until he found a clear footprint, and called out, "Boss! The kid has a tack in one heel."
Dickson came over to look. The footprint showed the impression of a broad-headed tack stuck into the heel, far back. "That's my little angel," he said. "The Farwalker heel code. 'Going a long way to the west' it says. The capital, probably--the tack's all the way to the back of the heel."
"But sir, that takes her into enemy territory."
"We shall have to catch up to her," said Dickson. "And quickly. It's all enemy territory, these days. Even here: We've arrived, but we haven't conquered yet. After her, and quickly, while the light lasts."
Farmer Millard found himself in awkward straits, hundreds of children to look after and no farm. He, and his neighbors, tried to look after the little refugees. But goblins were abroad, burning and despoiling and killing. Not all of the children had survived. Not all the neighbors had, either.
Doing what they could, the farmers had taken up arms and led the children wherever seemed safest: here and there to out of the way corners of the countryside. The farmers shot some deer: those were soon eaten. They grubbed up forest roots, not palatable but edible. Those too were now in short supply.
Millard was thrilled to hear--but no, did he really hear it? Yes he did! An old Royal Army marching tune, one that everyone knew, and being sung by many men. And here they came down the road. He went out waving to meet them. But they were not soldiers; they were country boys in their work clothes, led by Army corporals.
But they were here to help, and that meant worlds to the farmer. He soon explained his plight. "I had grain and to spare in my granaries, but they got burned, down to the staddles. Animals killed or run off. I don't know if anything can be salvaged."
When the farm boy volunteers saw children in rags, and hungry, some frowned, many looked away, and a few wept, for this was not the heroic face of war they had come to see. This was terrible. But they knew what needed doing.
It turned out that some, at least, of the grain could be saved, for it was in clay crocks. Some was scorched and much had spilled into the fires and been lost. Enough grain remained to do substantial good, but there was no way to grind it. The millstones were broken, smashed into pieces.
"My uncle, he made a pair of millstones once, and I helped," said one of the farm lads. So he was put in charge of millstones.
There was just one battle with goblins. It was sharp but short, for the goblins ran away when they found they were outnumbered. If the farm lads swung their axes with especial vigor, and shot their bows with no more feeling than if they had been shooting at rabbits, who can blame them? For they knew it is a sin to desecrate a farm; life itself depends on the soil and its tilling, and on the livestock.
The chief hobgoblin of the district consulted a map. On it, he had marked with blotty ink spots the locations of spy reports. Spies: Small flying faerie creatures, rebellious to their queen, brought him news. They reminded him of insects; they looked tasty. Two children traveled together, they said, one a blonde girl... The sightings lay in a straight line leading west. He called for his goblins.
"Look here," he said. "What do you see?"
"Paper, picture." said one goblin.
"It's a map," said another, proud of his knowledge.
"A map, very good," said the hobgoblin. "Do you know what it is for? No? It's a picture of the world."
He laboriously explained his discovery. The children were traveling in a straight line. Therefore, to catch them, all the goblins needed to do was get ahead of them, and wait.
"Ah, ambush!" said the bright goblin.
"That is right," said the hobgoblin. "And we get all the reward beads for catching girl." He thought to himself that he would keep most of the reward for himself, but he didn't mention that part to his goblins. "Remember very carefully. Do not eat the girl. We must bring body back, to show we got right child, this time."
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"Untie her," said King Bonfort. "I know her. She's on the castle's staff."
"Yes sir. We found her in the woods near here. Says she has a message for you alone. We didn't know..."
"I see," said Bonfort. "Marcia, are you all right?"
"Nothing much scuffed but my pride, lord. Your lookouts are efficient, but not gentle. I am so glad to see you. They said you were dead, but I didn't believe it."
"Bring her food and hot wine," said Bonfort to those who stood about. To Marcia, he said "You must have been out all day and all night, to get here. Sit by the fire."
"Not so," said Marcia. "For I bear ill tidings, and those were best spoken at once. In private."
Some time later, Bonfort emerged from his tent, his face rigid. "Send me the cutler," he said. "Pivens, I think his name is." The man was soon found.
Bonfort took from his pocket a dagger's hilt, without a blade. He gave it to the craftsman, saying, "I want a blade for this. My wife sent it to me, a token of reconciliation, but she is now dead. I want a blade to avenge her. An envenomed blade, if possible. You know how to do that?"
"Yes, my lord, but it is against your own law."
"I hadn't thought of that. You're right, of course. Find me a triangular blade of good length, then, or make one." The cutler bowed and left.
"The castle was taken by subterfuge. Jessica is dead. Ahnna got away, but goblins are scouring the land looking for blonde girl children."
"Thanks, Dickson. Condolences later, though. Right now I need to figure out what to do. I'm pulled in several directions at once."
"What does your heart tell you?"
"To go looking for my daughter. I can't. My place, and duty, is at the head of the army."
"Send me, then. I'll go after Ahnna. You can spare me; my guys can run their operations without me. Trained that way, just in case. Harkins will ride with you and implement your orders."
"Go then," said the king. "You are the best woodsman and tracker in the realm, and Ahnna knows you. In fact, you're a better man for the job than I am."
"I'll want about fifty sergeants or corporals from the army," said Dickson. "And give me the thousand-odd ragtag farm boys who have come along, unasked. I didn't want them, but they're useful now."
So it was decided. As Dickson rode away, Bonfort wondered if he would ever see his daughter or his friend again. He felt cold and very weary.
Ahnna and Bonfie lay on a hill, camouflaged with dirt on faces and hands, and covered with vines and leaves, and looked about. The Millard farm was a burned ruin. Bonfie said, "I wonder where the other kids have gotten too. If they're not..."
"We must hope," said Ahnna. "We must. Good fortune follows the good, though they suffer much. Good wins in the end, though the way is hard."
"You talk like a book."
"But it's true. Look how much good luck we've had."
"So, we're good, then?" Bonfie sounded like he was about to make a wisecrack.
"Well, we're not goblins. The bad people are against us, so we must be somehow good."
At this, Bonfie was unsure what to say. He had been about to say something like, maybe if they had been better children, they would have had better luck, but it would be pointless to joke, for Ahnna was dead serious.
Ahnna rummaged in her pack. "Good. I haven't lost it."
"What is that?"
"It's a pathfinder stone. They are rare. It shows you how to get somewhere. This one is virtued to show the way to my daddy's big castle at Murran Court. See? The bright spot moves around the edge so it always points home."
"Huh! I never saw one. I thought they were just stories."
"My mother put it in the pack for me, so she must have thought I needed it. We can't stay around here, Bonfie. Not with goblins burning farms and...and...looking for little blonde girls. It's the wrong time of year for a walking trip, and a long way to go. But our luck has held so far. I say we follow the stone and go where my daddy has a big castle and slews of knights and soldiers."
"Does that thing really work?" said Bonfie.
Dickson divided the farm boys into groups of about twenty and gave an officer to each group. Their job was simple. They were to travel around the district's farms and freeholds and keep their eyes open. Country people themselves, they would know when things were out of place, or wrong somehow. They were to put things right where they could: repairing things, routing out goblins, gathering survivors.
The rest of his plan depended on Ahnna remembering her lessons. He had taught her himself, about hiding and surviving. If she had kept her head, she would be miles away from the trouble's center, making faces as she ate root soup and smiling when she found some late berries.
Half a dozen Farwalkers had accompanied him. He took with him about a hundred of the rustic irregulars for a security force, and began the search.
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Princess Ahnna sat on the grass with her friend Bonfie. They were reading together. Bonfie was still learning how, but he was making quick progress.
"Say, what does this mean, Ahnna? 'Drawn and quartered.' I never heard of that before."
"I heard my father say once that he wished he could draw and quarter the King of Lormeen. What I suppose it means is, you have a portrait made of someone, like the ones of famous people, and you give him an apartment in the palace."
"Ah, it must be a grand thing, to be royalty!" said Bonfie. He had long since come to terms with the idea that Ahnna thought herself the princess: not that he believed it. But she believed it. There was no sense in arguing the point.
Bonfie heard something. He put his finger to his lips. Then he put his ear to the ground. "Horsemen, lots of them. Maybe we should go and meet them--make friends."
"I don't have a good feeling about this, Bonfie. We're strangers here. How do we know they're friendly?"
Reluctantly Bonfie saw the reason in this, for he secretly hoped for grownups to find them and take them somewhere safe, but after all that had happened... "Yeah, I guess so. Let's at least get a look at them." They hid in a bush and watched the road.
Moments later, Bonfie was glad they had hidden. A hideous cavalcade thundered past, led by a hunchback wearing an antlered crown. All manner of horribly disfigured men and women rode behind, bloated, emaciated, headless, maimed or deformed.
The children were silent long after the riders were out of sight. Ahnna was shaking. Bonfie was sweating.
"You're right, they don't look friendly."
Ahnna gave a little laugh. "No, I wouldn't say so."
They remained in hiding for a long time after the last hoofbeats died away.
"Bonfie, I think we should go back. Maybe the grues have gone away."
He found he had no objection. They made their way back. "We came out here," he said. "Right where the road dead ends, at the rock face." He walked confidently forward only to run smack into the stone wall. He stepped back, eyes watering. "Ow! My nose!"
"We went through without any trouble before," said Ahnna. "Let me try."
Bonfie watched as she walked up to the stone wall and vanished into it. Minutes passed and Bonfie realized, uncomfortably, that he was alone on a strange world.
Then Ahnna was back, stepping out of the stone with no more trouble than if stepping through a curtain. She sat down to think, chin on hand. "I went through and you didn't. Before, we both went through. That's odd."
"None around, but something--I suppose it was the other one we saw--has picked clean the bones of the dead one."
"Maybe you have to go through first," said Bonfie. "That's the way it was before. You were in front and I was right behind you." So they tried it. Once again, Ahnna passed through and Bonfie was stopped with a bump.
Again Bonfie waited for her, this time longer than before, but she reappeared with a bag of provisions. "It'll be time for dinner soon," she said.
They cooked dinner and ate it. Then they curled up in their blankets and slept, well out of sight of the road.
In the morning, Ahnna prodded Bonfie awake, saying, "I've thought of it. The answer I mean. How we both got through. No time for breakfast, I want to try it." And holding him by the hand she led him through the stone. As before, he felt a tingle all over his body and then--they were back in the cool, dark caves.
"What happened?" he said.
"I remembered that before, I tried to stop, so I wouldn't run into the wall; you ran into me from behind and we stumbled through together. I don't know why, but you have to touch me, or it doesn't work. It's often said, 'sleep shall bring new counsel,' and sure enough, I thought of it in the morning."
"Well, I'm glad you didn't leave me behind back there--wherever there was."
"I wouldn't ever do that," she said. "You are my luck, and my Grueslayer. I never would have gotten this far without you." She held his hands in hers.
"Uh...I guess so. You're welcome and all. Anytime."
"I want you to promise me something, Bonfie. I want you to be my knight champion. Promise me, Bonfie, by the highest star, that you will always be my protector."
"Uh, sure. Of course I'll look out for you."
"Swear it, Bonfie. By the star."
"All right, I swear by the highest star."
"And now you must give me your sword and kneel down," she said.
It was best to humor her, when she was off on one of these royal jags. He gave her his long dagger and knelt.
She touched his shoulders with the blade and said, "I, Ahnna, Princess, and High Queen to come, the true shoot of the Tree of the West, a scion of Lermo the Great, the daughter of Bonfort and Jessica, do trust and declare you, Bonfie Grueslayer, to be true knight and my champion."
Bonfie felt something odd, as if this were suddenly no game to humor a mad little friend; it was like the feeling of grand words from a book, or the stirring pride when the regiment marched out. He felt...
"You can get up now, Bonfie."
"Oh. Yeah. Gimmee my dagger back." He put it away in its scabbard and said, "I figure we should take a look around, up above. Something's bound to be happening in the wide world, and we don't know what. For all we know, the war is over by now."
Through hill and dale, and by mountain passes, Bonfort and his army closed slowly upon the territory and ancient castle of Lurbridge.
In the castle, Queen Jessica had spent a miserable night, as usual. Her dungeon cell stank, it was damp, and she was deeply and utterly angry. She hurt all over. She, a queen, treated this way! She had, moreover, a thoroughly unwelcome visitor.
The hairy black spider, big as a mastiff, told her, "You have been very uncooperative, Jessica. I could almost believe you, that you do not know where the princess went. For all our trying, we have gotten nothing out of you."
"Read the Lessons of Lermo," she snarled. "'The one way to keep a secret.'"
"Ah, that again," came the dry, crackly voice of the monster. "You can't tell us because you do not know. It might even be true. In any case we can't drag the answer out of you. Look at you, in chains and webs, but still defiant. Worse luck for you, but you can be of service to me another way."
"Oh, but you will, this time. I do not speak of information. There is an enemy army headed this way, and it is time for me to leave."
"Good riddance and to hell and gone with you."
"Such a way to speak, Jessica, Jessica. No, there will be no further questioning. For my journey I need sustenance." The beast advanced upon her. From its body, huge penetrating beak unfolded on a stalk. It pierced Jessica's body, passing upward into the abdomen, as Jessica gave one last shriek, and died.
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For reasons I have not yet figured out, yesterday's installment of The Ghost King did not go out to the people subscribed via email. Those subscribed via RSS got theirs okay.
You can find out what happened in the story by visiting this link. I hope the problem was a one time incident. If you get this message in an email it indicates that the problem, whatever it was, has cleared up. A lot of what happens on the Internet these days is a matter of third party programs cooperating (or not) over vast distances. Sometimes they do not act as one expects.
While you are on the site you may notice that the subscription widget has changed. The old one stopped working and needed to be removed from the site. Details are sketchy at this point as to just what happened to cause the widget to fail.
I apologize for the inconvenience: for the delay in getting you the latest. That link again is: 47: The Ghost King -- The Light of Magic
P.S. I'm blaming Mograsom.
Again, sorry for the delay.
King Bonfort was puzzled. "Why do the faerie folk call us the 'mock people'?"
"I asked them about that," said Dickson. "It's because of their eyes. Magic is the light they see by. We human beings have no magic in us, so we look a bit hazy and indistinct to them. But sometimes our choices and actions invoke deep magic: We cooperate with the Great Mystery. Then we snap into sharp focus."
"What? They don't see the light of the sun?"
"They do, but they don't. The sun and moon are powerful sources of magic, they tell me, and shine brightly in their sky as well. The sun makes crops grow, they say--what could be more magical?"
"Some humans have magic in them. It runs in royal families, but it's hit or miss. It skipped me," said Bonfort.
They rode on for a while without speaking. The pale sun of winter made sparkling jewel troves of the icy trees. Bonfort wondered it the sun might indeed be magical.
"That reminds me of something," said Dickson at last. "The old Chronicles say Mograsom was defeated, last time, by your family's lineal magic."
"Defeated by Lermo, yes, that's the view of the leading historians. He used magic, in the end."
"How were you thinking of defeating him, my lord?"
"Eh? Hadn't thought that far ahead. Build an army, foment resistance, watch for my chance. Not by magic. I haven't any."
|Sling bullets, of lead, from ancient times|
"Your wedding day was the best day of the realm, Bonfort. Lifelong enemies were exchanging gifts and buying each other beer and brandy."
"For most, I'm sure it was. Anyway, it's a huge political mess over and done with."
The two old friends rode on in silence. They had been brother officers, long before events unforeseen brought Bonfort to the throne.
"I remember, my lord, the first time we spoke after you became High King. 'Remember one thing,' you told me, 'I have become king now, but I am still a cavalry officer, and know more about horse manure than any man else. Far too much of it flying around the court. I lay upon you this day a royal charge to say what you think regardless, to me at least.'"
Bonfort laughed. "I remember. Not very regal in the early days, was I? And I have gotten all I bargained for in straight talk!"
About a mile went by beneath their horses' hooves. "So, Dickson, what are you thinking?"
"It might be crazy, but are you sure the family magic's not the way? I'm thinking about little Ahnna. Awfully keen for the wizard's lessons, and she can do things. Odd things. Why..."
"I've seen it too. Small things. Well, I can't do anything of the sort, but it isn't as if she's Lermo the Great."
"She is his umpteenth-great granddaughter. On both sides," said Dickson.
"True, but I have trouble thinking my little daughter will grow up to be a spell-warrior, like those of old, considering her greatest magic was levitating biscuits she shouldn't have."
"She is young, yet. Could Lermo do more at that age? Could anyone? Furthermore, she has had a pampered life--pardon me for the truth--and has never been forced to exert herself in anything."
"I grant it's remotely possible," said Bonfort. "The old sundered family line spliced back together, her talent for magic and keen interest in it--and Lu tells me she does have a real talent. Hmm."
"Last thought, my liege, then I'll shut my yap. If we can think of these things, right or wrong, so can our enemies. She might become a target. They may have heard she has a gift: they have had spies everywhere, even in the court at Murran."
"Unsettling thought, to a father," Bonfort said. "Still, she's at Lurbridge now, safest place in the realm, and the queen has a big garrison. The castle at Lurbridge has never fallen while true men guarded it."
Again they rode in silence. Bonfort was absorbed with his own thoughts. Dickson admired the view. He liked the mountains. In fact he liked anyplace away from the smells, and intrigues, of cities and courts and palaces.
They had ridden a league and were well into a second when Bonfort stopped his horse and held up his hand. Horns blew, and the army stopped behind him. "Turn the army, Dickson. We're going to Lurbridge."
Getting signals sent, then uncrossed, and sending messengers to and fro, took the rest of the day, but before dark, Dickson was able to report the army would advance toward its new destination on the morrow. "So it's all set, including the scouts and the flank force of...our other friends. It feels like the right move, but may I ask what caused you to decide thus?"
"It was all you said, and something else besides. Do you remember the prophecy of the river woman? Oh, of course not, you weren't there at the time. I've been running it over in my mind. A very strange woman came to me with a shadowy message. Luren thinks it was a soothsayer, long known to the locals around the river, and Lu thinks the message is likely authentic, as well. These the words I remember:
Your kinsmen will not aid you'Tree of the West' is an old name for my family, or was: It has not been much used since the War of the Four. I wonder... Is that the tree to be split? My family? If so, is Ahnna the shoot growing up?"
And all allies will be worthless.
An ancient tree will be split by the coming storm
But the shoot growing up from it will prove strongest.
"I'm no student of prophecy," said Dickson.
"Nor am I, but if all is well, it won't take us more than a fortnight's extra travel to go to Arvan's Crossing by way of Lurbridge. There was more the river woman said to me besides, but the words made no sense and I do not now remember them clearly. There was something about a golden-haired girl, and destiny, disturbing words, words of strong portent. But was it Ahnna the words referred to? Likely not, for after all, she's only a child. Anyway, I sense I'm doing the right thing. Onward to Lurbridge."
A gnome said to his friend, a wraith: "Hey, what's up with the king, tonight? I see him sharp and clear and bright! Something magical is ado, or I'm a bugbear's bugaboo!"
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|Illustration courtesy http://harrypotter.wikia.com; released to the public domain|
"That can't be good news," said the beast. It circled the camp and they saw that the main hall, built with so much labor, had burned, leaving only a part of one wall and a bit of a corner standing. "I don't see any enemies about now, though," said the hippogriff. It glided in and landed, its feet trotting in midair a moment before touchdown.
"Smooth landing!" said Luren.
"Well, I have been doing this all my life," it said.
Luren found Oscar, her father's enormous lieutenant. He told her what had happened. "Suprise raid in the night. Puckersore goblins, but they got creamed, but good. Spookies got 'em. Be surprised if any goblins got away."
"Nobody killed, for a blessing, on our side. I'm not even sure the ghoulies can die. But we have some people, human people I mean, folks like us, wounded and a few with burns. We were lucky."
The camp cook walked by, chuckling to himself. Luren looked at him and raised her eyebrows. He said, "That Lu! He's a character. You know what he told me? 'I don't like to critical, as a rule,' says he, ' but I rather thought I'd tell you my supper last night was burned, and so was everyone else's.' An' he said it with a straight face, like, but then we both started laughing. I've been laughing about it since."
"How are we fixed for meals now?" said Oscar.
"Well, it's going to be rough and plain, for a while. No linen tablecloth routine, I'm afraid, but the storehouses out back weren't harmed. I've got some porridge and bacon coming up, in half an hour, cookout style. Maybe I can scavenge enough bricks for a bread oven...we'll get by."
Though Bonfort had told them not to come, quite a number of the country people followed him into the mountains. There were perhaps a thousand, most of them farm youths, looking for adventure. Many, Bonfort supposed, would turn back when the going became harder, and probably all of them would leave in time to get back for spring planting.
"They'll stay long enough to get some stories to tell and then that'll be enough," said Dickson. "In a few generations, every bumpkin tagging along will be remembered as a great knight in the king's service!"
"At least they cannot soon speak ill of me," said Bonfort. "They think--most of them--that I am real and no ghost, and that's to the good."
"I just hope they don't blunder into something they can't handle, and get themselves killed. They're farm boys, not soldiers. Hardly a sword amongst the lot. They've got woodcutter's axes, hunting bows; why, I even saw a fellow packing a pitchfork. They've not a whit of training, of course."
"Who was it that said, 'Great heart will not be denied?'" said Bonfort.
"Don't recall, it's in some some offworld historian. It's a pretty obscure quote, but I've heard it. I see what you mean, but our informal escort of pimply goatherds cannot leave soon enough to suit me. I feel responsible for them, though they out are here against against your word and my own. They haven't counted the cost."
"Perhaps, Dickson, they will serve some role in honor, none the less, and gain great names for themselves."
"I'm sure they'd all like to think so," said Dickson.
The way into the mountains was steep and cold. Snow and ice underfoot caused stumbling of men and horses. The satyrs, with their sharp little hooves, had the best of the bad going, their feet digging into the ice as they skipped merrily along.
A mirror flashed in the distance. "We should slow down, Lord," said Dickson. "We're getting ahead of our flanking force of hoodoos."
"Hmm. Yes, make it so, but don't use that word, not even between ourselves. It is a bad habit to get into--the word might slip out when it could cause trouble."
"Yes sir. No 'G' word, no 'H' word. But have you heard what they call us?"
"What's that, Dickson?"
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