It was winter in the land of Enchantra and the entire landscape was covered with a layer of pure white snow, the trees and bushes clad in their white mantles. As our story begins, the weather was cold but clear, the sort of weather which normally brings children outside in droves to throw snowballs at each other, build snowmen, slide down slopes on wooden trays . . . But there was no activity of any kind; the landscape seemed totally devoid of humanoid life. And dominating the landscape was a building which had long been a symbol of oppression - Castle Doomrock.
As she and her four children huddled around the fire burning in the central hearth in their one-room cottage, Mary Tussock recalled how things had been before the Goblin King Malthory Blackcape had arrived from the Darkwastes, bringing with him a vast army of trained goblin fighters, and set himself up as Lord of Enchantra. He and his army had taken over an abandoned castle, named it Castle Doomrock and began systematically rounding up whole families and forcing them to be their servants, slaving to keep Castle Doomrock in order, whipped, starved and ill-treated. Now, after almost twenty years under Malthory's rule, the Tussocks, a family of pixies, were among the last free Enchantrans.
Mary Tussock was a widow; her husband, Gromwell, had died in the one ill-fated attempt to rebel against Malthory's rule. At seventy-six, she was still fairly young by Enchantran standards, but had the careworn look of someone already well past her first century, a trace of grey visible in her brown hair. Pulling her shawl around her shoulders, she looked at each of her children in turn, wishing she could offer them a better future than the one which awaited them, that they could grow up in a land free from oppression and cruelty.
Paula, the eldest of the Tussock brood, was twenty-five years old (around ten or eleven by human standards) and, with her brown curls and green eyes, bore a close resemblance to Mary as a young girl. Next came her nineteen-year-old sister, Elsie, followed by Mary's only son, twelve-year-old Tim. At five years old, Mary's youngest, Nina, was at the same stage of physical development as a human two-and-a-half-year-old; during the first year of life, Enchantrans age at roughly the same rate as human babies, but the process slows down after that.
Suddenly, an insistent rapping on the door made all five pixies sit up. It was a sound they all dreaded, fearing it was a patrol from Castle Doomrock come to take them away. "Quick, children!" Mary whispered urgently. "Under the sacking. Paula, Elsie, keep Tim and Nina quiet."
As the Tussock children hurriedly concealed themselves under a pile of hessian sacks, the rapping on the door was heard again, louder this time.
"All right! I'm coming!"
"It's only me!" called a clear young voice from outside. "Hurry up and get this door open!"
"Agnes?" Mary opened the door a crack and peered through it. A young pixie-girl of Paula's age stood outside, hugging herself against the cold. She wore no scarf or gloves, only a scarlet tunic and boots, with white leggings. Mary opened the door and she walked in, kicking snow off her boots. "It's all right!" Mary called to her children. "It's only Agnes! You can come out now."
Agnes Copperkettle was a bright-eyed young pixie, who always had a smile on her face. But today she looked strangely solemn. "I came to warn you," she said, as she warmed her hands by the fire. "Malthory's got his soldiers out looking for slaves. Two of them - great big goblins they were - got my mother, but I managed to escape by hiding in the woodshed. When the coast was clear, I made my way over here."
Mary Tussock threw up her hands in despair. She and Agnes's mother, Becky Copperkettle, had been friends since they were girls and had both lost their husbands in the failed rebellion. The news that Becky had been taken made her realise that she would have to do what many others had done over the years - flee from Malthory's tyranny. But it was winter. Where could she go with four children (five with the addition of Agnes) in tow? Yet, if she didn't take the chance . . .
"Open up in the name of Malthory Blackcape!"
Before any of the pixies could move, someone kicked the door open and six goblins, all dressed entirely in black and with the pointed noses characteristic of their kind, burst into the cottage. One of them grabbed Paula and tied her wrists behind her back before she could resist, as Mary, Elsie and Agnes quickly found themselves in the same position. The goblins, who, at slightly over three feet tall, were taller than any of the pixies, worked quickly and efficiently and were soon ready to head back to Castle Doomrock.
Buskun, a fat goblin, peered at Tim and Nina, prodding them with his spear. "What do you want me to do with these?" he asked Bladno, the leader of the goblin patrol.
Bladno peered at the two little pixies, who were whimpering in terror. "Too small to do any useful work," he decided flatly, with no trace of emotion in his voice. "Let's take the prisoners and march them to Castle Doomrock."
"What about the brats?" asked Buskun.
"Leave them! The cold will finish them by morning!"
The snow began to fall heavily as the captives were led away to a life of forced labour. Inside the Tussock family's cottage, the fire guttered and went out. Terrified at having their mother and sisters taken away from them, Tim and Nina hugged each other for warmth and comfort, as the wind blew the door (which the goblins had not bothered to secure properly) open and snowflakes swirled round them.