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It is the very worst time to be in the woods.

 

Oisin’s plan is to come with his bow to help Aedan and Doona lead a party of children into the forest to gather the maidenhair seedlings his people would take across the sea as they flee the trolls who hunt them as prey. Maybe he can be back in time for supper. And if he only dares to dream, he might also be back in time to speak with Doona alone.

Dyr’s plan is an early evening head smash for the foolish Elves who think they can steal away to the sands of the endless eye sting water and build their strange float huts. They will make a glorious feast.

But on the way, Dyr’s brutes stumble across Oisin’s gathering party and attack, leaving Aedan mortally wounded and scattering Doona and the children to flee in terror into the dark mountain woods, only to be run down and captured by the bloodthirsty trolls.

Can Oisin find the bonfires of the trolls and rescue them before it’s too late? And what then? Will any of them live long enough to reach safety?

 

           

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It is the very worst time to be in the woods.

 Oisin’s plan is to come with his bow to help Aedan and Doona lead a party of children into the forest to gather the maidenhair seedlings his people would take across the sea as they flee the trolls who hunt them as prey. Maybe he can be back in time for supper. And if he only dares to dream, he might also be back in time to speak with Doona alone.

Dyr’s plan is an early evening head smash for the foolish Elves who think they can steal away to the sands of the endless eye sting water and build their strange float huts. They will make a glorious feast.

But on the way, Dyr’s brutes stumble across Oisin’s gathering party and attack, leaving Aedan mortally wounded and scattering Doona and the children to flee in terror into the dark mountain woods, only to be run down and captured by the bloodthirsty trolls.

Can Oisin find the bonfires of the trolls and rescue them before it’s too late? And what then? Will any of them live long enough to reach safety?

           

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PROLOGUE

“Please forgive the interruption, Sorceress,” said Budog, as he and the other guard hove their captive onto the slippery stone floor, “but he’s back again.”

“You and Mazhev had better…” said Demonica, turning aside from her prisoner on the torture table, writhing in his irons. “This had better be important.” Her ageless face seethed with fury in the wavering torchlight.

“This thing says he has some real information for you, this time,” said Budog, nodding at his captive.

“Oh, yes, yes!” pleaded the captive, as he sat up on his haunches. “This time I do have. This time I truly have what you want to know, Demonica, my love.”

“Never address me in that manner again!” she shrieked, as she kicked him in the gut, doubling him over to lie straining, cheek down on the clammy floor.

“Forgive me, Mistress!” he shouted, heaving in his first breath with a gasp. “Please! I quite forgot myself! I meant no disrespect! I swear!”

“Very well, Yann-Ber!” she barked, as she lunged at his face and spat. “What do you think you have to tell me?” She stood back to study her saliva, glistening on the mass of boils swelling his face. “You’d do well to hope you aren’t wasting my time, dearest.”

An agonized moan from the man on the table caught Yann-Ber’s eye. He shuddered at the sight of him, envying the wretched fellow’s nearness to death. Soon he’ll be free of this, he thought, and maybe I shall be free as well, if what I bring suffices…

“Out with it, you vile kaoc’h ki du!” she screamed, flinging her knee into his face to crush his nose with a resounding pop.

 Yann-Ber wailed out in pain and clapped his hands over his face, his eyes still bearing the strength to give his wife a look of hatred. “Your daughter is dead,” he sputtered from between his bloody hands. “And your granddaughter has ascended the throne of Goll…” He closed his eyes for a moment and reeled, coming to grips with his pain. “They say she’s got her hands on the Great Staff, you know, the Staff of Power, though no one seems to think that she uses it.”

“Just how sure are you?”

“I wouldn’t dare aggravate you with anything I was unsure of, Demonica.”

“So how do you know, Yann-kaoc’h?” she said, suddenly lifting her knee as though she were going to strike him again. He winced and fell sideways, catching himself on his elbow. She threw back her head and made the halls of the dungeon ring with her laughter. “You stinking pomander of pustules, just how is it that you manage to know this?”

“A few still deny that she has the Great Staff at all,” he said, pulling himselfupright, “but she certainly had no staff of any kind when she came to the throne, and then she suddenly had one, right when her mother died. Too many reliable people have seen it. And you said…”

“This time you’ve actually learnt something, Yann-Ber,” she said, suddenly brandishing a high spirited gloat. “So. Back to Norz-meurzouar it is again.”

She turned to Budog and Mazhev. “And you two finish up this mess for me,” she said, waving her manicured hand at the man on the torture table. “I have far more important business waiting on the Northern Continent.” She swept past Yann-Ber without a glance, heading for the door.

“Wait! Demonica, please!” cried Yann-Ber, lunging after her on knees swollen huge from boils, only to tumble forward onto his hands from the pain.

Demonica stopped in the doorway. “I don’t have time for this, Yann-Ber.”

“The curse!” he shouted through the blood on his face, as he rocked back and forth, coming to grasp with the pain in his knees. “You promised me! You gave me your word that if I found out the whereabouts of the Staff, then you’d end this curse. And she does have it. You’ll see. Please, Demonica! Have mercy! I’m your husband! You cared for me once. Please!”

“Are you certain you want that, Yann-Ber?” she said with a light in her eyes, as a ruby lipped smile spread across her face.

“What else could I want?” he rasped.

“So be it,” she said, making several signs in the air before turning crisply and walking out of sight.

“Demonica!” he shouted. “Nothing has changed! I still live! What treachery is this?”

The stony echo of her footsteps halted, then began again and stopped as she came back into view. “On the contrary, Yann-Ber, your death has been irrevocably scheduled, in spite of how slow and agonizing you may think it.” She threw her head back with a peal of laughter. “You see, dear heart, I always keep my promises.”

“But, so do I.”

“Ah! Ah! Ah! But not to me. Remember that it was your faithlessness to me that earned you your nightmare spell of boils. So, as I was saying, I do keep mine, and you will most assuredly be dead within the year, though it will seem such a long time to someone with your lack of patience,” she said, glancing at the crimson toes of her shoes as she adjusted the pleats down the front of her gown.

“I’ll kill myself.”

“You can try, Yann-Ber,” she said with a demure smile, “but unfortunately it will never work.” At once she turned and strode into the hallway, here and there erupting into laughter as her reverberating footfalls passed beyond hearing.

“You witch!” he screamed as he tottered onto his feet, only to be seized by the hair and thrown flat onto the floor by Budog who pinned him mercilessly with both knees, yanking his arm around backward until it snapped, making him wail out in pain.

“Hurt your little armsie, stinkfish?” he hissed through his rotten teeth. “Too bad that’s all I broke.” He yanked Yann-Ber to his feet by the hair and pointed him toward the torture table. “Thing is, you stink so much, I can’t concentrate on my work here.” He shoved him flailing for balance towards the door. “Now. If Mazhev or I even see you again, we’ll play with you awhile like that fellow on the table.”

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With both the Great Staff of Power and the Stone Heart in their hands at last, it seems that nothing can stop Demonica and Queen Spitemorta from crushing Niarg and conquering the entire world. King Hebraun of Niarg is dead and not a single Elf is left alive in the Jutwoods.

 Spitemorta’s husband, King James, tries to ride out of Castle Goll with her Great Staff of Power, but is tortured by Demonica and her and locked away to die in the fleas and fetid straw of the dungeon. He manages to escape across the Great Barrier Mountains, just as the army and people of Niarg are sent out into the countryside by Queen Minuet and Wizard Razzmorten, who flee to the Pitmaster’s Kettles in time for Spitemorta and Demonica to effortlessly destroy Castle Niarg. Is this the end of everything?

EXCERPT

Lance shifted on his saddle in the thick whirling snow and gathered his collar over his muffler as he peered from under his hat at the top of the mountain. “Well Abaddon,”he called out cheerfully over the wind, “we’ll be over the top directly and we’ll be getting out of this weather!”

 “My momma’s goin’ ‘o kill you for stealing me away from her,” said Abaddon with a baleful snarl. “And when I tell her all about it, she’ll hurt you a whole lot for a long, long time before she stops your heart.”

“Oh, she’ll have to catch us first,” said Lance buoyantly, as a shudder ran through him.

“She’ll catch you, all right! Oh, yes she will! And it’ll be a lot of fun!”

After five long days in the cold, it’s a mercy we won’t have to sleep out in this, thought Lance with another shudder as the unicorns stepped their way up, crunching loose shards of stone through the new layer of snow. Having grown up here, he was familiar with the sudden fierce winter storms up in the Pitmaster’s Kettles. He glanced aside at Abaddon. In spite of how good he’d always been with children, the boy unnerved him.

I’ll do it for James, he thought, wishing he did not have to. Abaddon looked up at himwith a red-eyed glower, as if he knew exactly what he had just been thinking, giving hima sudden bristle of goose flesh. He quickly turned away. Surely he doesn’t read thoughts. I’ve never heard that Spitemorta does. He looked back again to suddenly feel guilty for thinking all of this at the sight of Abaddon looking right at him with the innocent smile of a boy on an adventure. He smiled back and began searching for the path over the top.

“Here we go!” he called out. “Right yonder! Just keep Sheba close to Stepper and we’ll soon be out of the weather in the heart of this ol’ mountain!”

“What do you mean? You don’t mean we’re going clean inside it, do you?”

“Sure do,” said Lance with a nod. “This is a vulcan mountain. Its top was once a cauldron of melted red-hot rock. If it weren’t for the snow, you’d see frozen rivers of rock running down it’s sides from long ago. That’s what all the black rock between the trees was, ‘way back down below, before we ever started up here. The top of each one of these mountains for miles and miles is a deep pit. that’s why they’re called the Pitmaster’s Kettles. And here we are.” He slapped his hand onto his hat in the furious wind at the very top of the slope as his unicorn hesitated between a pair of boulders on the rim, stepping restlessly from side to side before finding his first steps of the steep decent beyond. “See out yonder? the whole top of this mountain is naught but a giant deep hole. And here we go, on the path right down into the mountain, but you watch out and keep Sheba close behind. I don’t want you falling off the side. It’s a long way down.”

 “I better not fall. My momma would kill you even worse if I did.”

 “Yea, and your dad wouldn’t be too happy either.”

 Abaddon gave a contemptuous snort, but quickly donned a look of excited expectancy in spite of himself. Soon they were below the wind, carefully finding their way down the narrow path, knocking loose rocks to go skittering and bounding off into the depths. He anxiously peered down into the crater, but strain as he might, he could not see the bottom. “Hey,” he demanded. “It’s gettin’ darker and darker. How are we going to see? In fact, what’s going to keep us from falling off?”

 “Stepper and Sheba. The unicorns see a lot better in the dark than we do and they’re completely sure-footed if you don’t rush them. They’ll find their way. Besides, it’ll get lighter before long.”

 “You’re crazy. It’s been getting darker and darker.”

 “Well, when you get down far enough, there’s quite a lot of glow lichen growing, though we’re not far enough to tell it yet. Have you noticed it getting warmer?”

 “The wind’s died down is all. It’s not any warmer.”

 “Well, what do you suppose happened to all the snow, Abby?”

 “You’re not allowed to say things like that! You’re supposed to call me ‘Your Highness!'”

 “Well, maybe when you earn it…”

 Abaddon drew a breath for a furious shout, but fell silent with a gasp at the sudden sight of a faint glow, far below in the blackness.

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Rose’s parents couldn’t be telling her everything. Frantic to find out if she really is the daughter of an evil sorceress, she makes a rash departure on a quest to the Chokewoods, a forest of horrors which no one in her kingdom dares to enter.

Her journey is beset with challenges. Her brother Lukus accosts her in the stables and blackmails her into traveling with him. Together they evade royal authorities, survive a cyclone, escape from the castle of her betrothed, and discover that trolls, Elves and cyclopses really do exist as do the perilous visions which they struggle with in the Valley of Illusions.

In the Chokewoods, they narrowly survive a horde of flesh eating devils, the fruit of the choke oak and a village of beasts who take them captive. As the beasts prepare to make a feast of them, a hag crashes through the treetops and rescues them, leading them away into a mad forest of her own where she turns them into thralls and taunts them with threats, telling them that they owe her.

Rose and Lukus soon find that life everywhere has become a desperate struggle with an evil seeking to conquer the world as liberty, privacy and fundamental human dignity become forbidden.