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datatime: 2022-12-03 07:38:58 Author:UvrLaBUx

WHEN SIMON at last looked up to the source of the new voice, his tearful eyes widened in surprise. A child was walking toward him.

Simon dropped down to his sore knees, looking for something to stop this ghastly struggle, to halt the man's grunting and cursing, and the scratchy snarl of the beleaguered prisoner that punished his ears. Groping, he found the bow, but it was even lighter than it had looked, as though strung on marsh reed. An instant later his hand closed on a half-buried rock. He heaved, and it broke free from the clinging soil. He held it over his head.

What do you think, boy? What do you think God'd have us do with sprites an' imps an' devils when we catch 'em? Send'em back to hell with my good chopper, that'll tell you.

Oh, Daughter of the Mountains, the strange new voice said. This does not seem good.

What what are you going to do with him?

Simon should not have been surprised, but he was. He dropped helplessly to the ground and began to cry-great choking sobs of exhaustion and confusion and total despair.

The spotted sunlight had not finished rippling on the leaves where he had passed when Simon heard a buzz like an angry insect and felt a shadow flit across his face. An arrow stood out from a tree trunk beside him, quivering gradually back into visibility less than an arm's length from his head. He stared at it dully, wondering when the next one would strike him. It was a white arrow, shaft and feathers alike bright as a gull's wing. He waited for its inevitable successor. None came. That stand of trees was silent and motionless.

When he was able, he stood and turned to the Sithi-man, who again dangled quietly in the noose. The snaky tunic was laced with streamers of blood, and the feral eyes were dimmed, as though some internal curtain had rolled down to block the light within. As haltingly as a sleepwalker, Simon picked up the fallen axe and traced the taut rope up from the prisoner to where it wrapped around a high limb of the tree-a limb too high to reach. Simon, too numb for fear, worked the nicked blade-edge against the knot behind the Sitha's back. The Fair One winced as the noose pulled tighter, but made no sound.

WHEN SIMON at last looked up to the source of the new voice, his tearful eyes widened in surprise. A child was walking toward him.

Stop Neither combatant gave him even a flicker of notice. The woodsman now stood at arm's length, swiping at his swirling target, landing only glancing blows but continuing to draw blood. The Sitha's thin chest was heaving like a bellows; he was weakening quickly.

He was not a dwarf, like the fools and tumblers Simon had seen at court and in the Main Row of Erchester-although big-chested, he seemed otherwise well-proportioned. His clothes looked much like a Rimmersman's; jacket and leggings of some thick animal hide stitched with sinew, a fur collar turned up below his round face. A large skin bag hung bulging from a shoulder strap, and he held a walking stick that looked to be carved from some long, slender bone.

Mistrustful and wary, Simon nevertheless found himself rising to his feet. It was too much effort to not trust, for the moment; he no longer had the strength to stay on guard-a part of him wanted only to lie down and quietly die. He levered the arrow loose from the tree. The tiny man was already on the march, climbing back up the hillside above the cottage. The little house crouched as silently and tidily as if nothing had happened.

Simon could not stand the cruel spectacle any longer. Setting free the howl that had been coiling itself within him through all the interminable, terrifying days of his exile, he sprang forward, crossing the tiny clearing in a bound to bring the rock down on the back of the cotsman's head. A dull smack reverberated through the trees; the man seemed to go boneless in an instant. He pitched heavily forward onto his knees and then his face, a surge of red welling up through his matted hair. Staring down at the bloody wreckage, Simon felt his insides heave; he fell to his knees retching, bringing up nothing but a sour strand of spittle. He pressed his dizzy head against the damp ground and felt the forest sway and rock about him.

My trap the woodsman grinned. My damned trap-and there he be, too. Turning his back on Simon the man looked the dangling Sitha over coolly. I promised I'd stop their sneakinand spyin' and sourin' the milk, that I did. He reached out a hand and pushed the prisoner's shoulder, swinging him helplessly back and forth in a slow arc. The Sitha hissed, but it was an impotent sound. The woodsman laughed.

Who are you? Simon asked around another hiccough. He was wrung out, beaten flat like a shirt pounded dry on a rock. If this little man had come out of the trees snarling and waving a knife, he did not think he could have reacted any differently.

WHEN SIMON at last looked up to the source of the new voice, his tearful eyes widened in surprise. A child was walking toward him.

Mistrustful and wary, Simon nevertheless found himself rising to his feet. It was too much effort to not trust, for the moment; he no longer had the strength to stay on guard-a part of him wanted only to lie down and quietly die. He levered the arrow loose from the tree. The tiny man was already on the march, climbing back up the hillside above the cottage. The little house crouched as silently and tidily as if nothing had happened.

By the Tree, they got fight in 'em they do. Got fight.

What what are you going to do with him?

Stop Neither combatant gave him even a flicker of notice. The woodsman now stood at arm's length, swiping at his swirling target, landing only glancing blows but continuing to draw blood. The Sitha's thin chest was heaving like a bellows; he was weakening quickly.

After a long moment of scraping and rubbing, the slippery knot parted. The Sitha fell to the ground, legs buckling, and tumbled forward onto the motionless woodsman. He rolled away from the mute hulk immediately, as though burned, and began gathering up his scattered arrows. Holding them like a clutch of long-stemmed flowers, he picked up his bow in the other hand and paused to stare at Simon. His cold eyes glinted, stopping the words in Simon's mouth. For an instant the Sitha, injuries forgotten or ignored, stood poised and tense as a startled deer; then he was gone, a flash of brown and green that vanished into the trees, leaving Simon gape-jawed and deserted.

Oh, Daughter of the Mountains, the strange new voice said. This does not seem good.

You should take this, the little man said, and again his mouth widened in a froggy smile, baring for an instant a palisade of yellow teeth.

Kill him? Simon, ill and weak as he was, still felt a cold wash of shock. He tried to marshal his straggling thoughts. You're going to but you can't He's he's a

You should take this, the little man said, and again his mouth widened in a froggy smile, baring for an instant a palisade of yellow teeth.

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