Malthory Blackcape marched up and down his throne-room, which was by far the largest room in Castle Doomrock. As they had often done in the past, his boney feet followed a well-trodden path along a carpet which had once been red, but was now faded to a nondescript brownish colour, the pile worn thin after years of Malthory's pacing. The throne stood on a dais with two steps leading up to it; its armrests had been carved to resemble two fierce dragons that looked as though they might come to life at any moment. On the wall behind hung a vast tapestry glorifying the goblin race with scenes of war and slavery, the words Conquer! Slay! Oppress! incorporated into the design. Malthory had long ago adopted this saying as his personal motto.
Nearby, a young pixie-girl was down on her knees, scrubbing the floor for all she was worth, a wooden bucket at her side. Katie Thistlespear was her name and, like the rest of Malthory's slaves, hard work and ill-treatment had taken their toll on her. Once a beautiful pixie, she was now a drudge in a ragged grey dress, her long golden hair matted and unkempt, her face bruised from when Bladno had slapped her two days earlier for failing to fold his tunic properly.
Malthory casually strode past, kicking Katie's bucket over as he did so and causing soapy water to spill everywhere. "Stupid slave!" the Goblin King raged. "Get that cleaned up immediately!"
"But I didn't do anything!" protested Katie.
"Don't answer me back! Clean up that mess - or it's the Deepcell for you!"
Hearing this threat, Katie hurried to do as Malthory ordered. The Deepcell was the name given to the deepest cell in Castle Doomrock's dungeons; it consisted of a pit into which slaves were thrown if they became rebellious or if their work wasn't up to the goblins' satisfaction. The goblins had designed it in such a way that there was no way a slave could escape once they were put down there. The walls were too steep and smooth to climb and the only other way out was guarded by a fierce "pet" which Malthory had brought with him from the Darkwastes. Few of the slaves who were thrown into the Deepcell ever saw the outside world again.
But, under her veneer of compliance, Katie was seething with resentment. One day, she promised herself, she was going to get out of here and, when she did, Malthory was going to pay.
The shout from one of the goblin guards sent Malthory hurrying to the front gate of the Castle. Bladno's party had returned and, as the portcullis was opened to admit them, Malthory noted with some satisfaction that they had managed to capture four new slaves. He walked among the captives, studying them closely, mentally deciding what work they would be best suited to. "Ah, new slaves," he said to Bladno. "Female pixies, I see. Where did you find them?"
"In a cottage to the south of here," Bladno replied. "We found six of them in total," he added after a moment's thought, cringing at the bellow from Malthory which followed.
"WHAT?! You found six?! But there are only four with you! Why did you not capture the other two?!"
"No disrespect, Lord Malthory, but the other two were hardly more than infants, too small to be of any use to you. I decided to leave them to the mercy of the cold . . . if you know what I mean."
"Very well," Malthory said, ignoring the tears tracing their way down Mary Tussock's face at the thought of Tim and Nina freezing to death in an empty cottage. "Take these four with you and find them some useful work. Then you may report back to the barracks."
Moonfilly Silverhoof was on a mission. Carrying a pannier on her palomino hindquarters, the centaur made her way through the snowy landscape, her hooves leaving a trail in the snow. She was on her way to see the Tussock family, who were old friends of hers to offer them the chance to escape from the tyranny of Castle Doomrock. Normally, centaurs do not involve themselves in the affairs of other races, but Moonfilly was different; ever since Malthory had seized power, she had been secretly helping the inhabitants of Enchantra by keeping them supplied with food and fuel. However, since the failed rebellion four years earlier, Malthory had tightened his already powerful grip on the land, with more and more families taken as slaves. Now Moonfilly was needed for a new task, offering shelter to those few who had managed to escape.
When she arrived at the Tussocks' cottage, she stopped short. The door was open, but there didn't seem to be anyone about. The centaur peered in through the entrance, noting as she did so that the fire was out and had been for some time. Not only that, snow had blown into the cottage and was now drifted in the corner. There was no sign of Mary Tussock or her four children and Moonfilly needed no-one to tell her what had happened. The goblins had been here before her.
Realising there was nothing she could do, Moonfilly turned to leave. But, as she did so, a whimper from inside the cottage caught her attention and she entered to take a closer look. In the far corner, hidden in the shadows, Tim and Nina Tussock were huddled together, vainly trying to keep each other warm. Tim was just barely conscious and was feebly shaking his little sister as she drifted closer to the sleep of oblivion.
"Nina! Nina wake up! It's cold!"
Moonfilly lifted up the two young pixies, wondering as she did so how anyone (including Malthory's goblins) could be cruel enough to leave defenceless children in the bitter cold, and wrapped them in a blanket from her pannier. Nina, she noted, was already pretty far gone, but she was not going to give up on the child, not while there was still life in her. And there was a good chance that she might at least be able to save Tim. "Come on," she whispered to the two little pixies. "Let's get you somewhere warm - and away from Malthory."
Thus did Moonfilly Silverhoof find the two pixie-children abandoned by the goblins.
Exhausted after hours spent slaving away in Castle Doomrock, Paula Tussock leaned on her mop and sighed. She had not seen Mary, Agnes or Elsie since they arrived here and she wondered where they were now and what they were doing. Probably much the same as her, she thought to herself. And, then, there was Tim and Nina, abandoned at Bladno's whim. Would she ever see them again?
A goblin crept up behind her. It was Buskun, one of the six who had raided the Tussocks' cottage, and he delivered a hard kick at the pixie-girl. "No idling!" he yelled. "You're in this Castle to work, pixie, and I'm here to make sure you do!" With that, he marched off, leaving Paula sprawled where she had fallen onto the frozen cobbles.
As soon as Buskun was out of sight, another pixie-girl hurried over and helped Paula to her feet. "That was daft," she said, smiling slightly. "Letting one of the goblins catch you slacking. Just be glad it was Buskun - any of the others would have given you a flogging at the least. By the way, my name's Katie Thistlespear. What's yours?"
"Paula - Paula Tussock."
The two pixie-girls studied each other closely. Katie, Paula noted, seemed to be slightly older than her, though she was not sure how many years separated them. However, Katie didn't look more than thirty years old, still a child but just beginning her adolescent years; Enchantrans come of age when they reach forty-five, an age roughly equivalent to eighteen years old for a human. There was also a certain toughness about her, a resiliance which had kept her going no matter how badly the goblins treated her. But Katie had no friends among her fellow slaves; all her friends were far away in her home village.
But, by helping Paula up when Buskun kicked her, Katie began what would become a life-long friendship, a friendship which would soon extend to include Agnes.
Tim and Nina soon revived when they felt the warmth of the fire Moonfilly had built in the cave where she and the little pixies had taken shelter. Nina, who had placed nearest the fire since she was the one who needed the warmth most, opened her eyes to find herself in completely unfamiliar surroundings and looked around, bewildered. The last thing she remembered was those bad goblins bursting into the Tussocks' cottage and taking away everyone except herself and Tim.
Tim . . . Tim was sitting beside her and hugging her. "Nina!" he said, smiling. "You're awake!" He hugged the little pixie-girl again and she giggled, glad that she at least had her brother. At that moment, Moonfilly walked in, causing Nina to cling to Tim with a start; Nina had never seen a centaur before and even Tim had not seen their rescuer properly while she was carrying them away from the abandoned cottage.
"It's all right," Moonfilly whispered, trying to soothe the young pixies. "I'm Moonfilly Silverhoof, a friend of your mother's, but you won't remember me. You were just a baby when I last saw your family," she said to Tim. "And Nina wasn't even born. Anyway, I was the one who found you. I was too late for the rest of your family, but I decided I had to save you two at least."
"Where are you taking us?" asked Tim.
"To the Longwoods," Moonfilly replied. "That's where I'd planned to take you and you family, only . . ." She paused, thinking of Mary Tussock and her two oldest daughters - if only she had reached the Tussocks' cottage earlier, they could all have been saved. But she knew better than to dwell on things that could not be changed. "Anyway, there are others there already, others who've fled from the goblins, and we've been making plans to fight."
She looked away from the two pixies for a moment and gazed into the fire. "I feel that Malthory's days are numbered and Enchantra will be freed one day," she added.
Agnes and Elsie had been put to work sweeping the main corridor, the draughtiest place in Castle Doomrock. The fact that it was currently winter and there was a cold wind blowing in through the windows (which consisted of narrow slits with no glass in them) didn't help matters. But, worst of all, Creepy, the goblin who was overseeing them, thought it was a huge joke to sneak behind them and, for no reason other than the fact that he felt like it, crack them on the back with his whip. If the impact caused one of them to fall, he would haul whoever it was up and snarl: "Get back to work, you snivelling little wretch!"
After a while, Agnes had had enough. It was time, she decided, to give Creepy a taste of his own medicine. Holding her broom as though it was a weapon, she crept up behind the goblin and, before he could turn round, thrust the handle in the direction of his backside. Creepy yelled and leapt into the air, as Agnes hurried tried to look as though she was merely sweeping the floor. But she wasn't fast enough.
"Think you're clever, do you?!" Creepy demanded. He seized the young pixie and wrestled her to the ground, lashing her with his whip several times before she could get back on her feet. Then, still smarting with humiliation, he dragged Agnes off and hauled her before Malthory himself. For a slave to be brought before the Goblin King on their first day was unprecedented, but what followed wasn't. Agnes's "trial" was short, consisting only of Creepy telling Malthory the charges against her (attacking a guard) followed by the inevitable "guilty" verdict. Then came the sentence.
"Take her to the Deepcell and forget her!" Malthory ordered. "The last thing I want right now is an impudent slave!"
But, as Agnes was led away to her fate, neither she nor the goblins were aware that someone had overheard the whole "trial". Nor were they aware that that someone was Katie Thistlespear, who, on hearing Malthory condemn Agnes to the Deepcell, decided she had to do something to help. It was risky - any slave caught aiding another slave who had been thrown into the Deepcell risked ending up down there themselves - but she had to take the chance. She sneaked into the cellar which contained the goblins' foodstores (strictly out of bounds to slaves, who risked a flogging and/or a stint in the Deepcell if they were caught anywhere near it) and stole a whole loaf, hoping desperately that it would not be missed by any of the goblins. If that happened, every slave in Castle Doomrock would be punished for theft and that was the last thing Katie wanted.
Concealing the loaf under her dress, Katie crept down the long and winding passageways until she finally reached the deepest part of Castle Doomrock. She had never ventured here before; none of the slaves came here unless they had been condemned to the Deepcell. The only source of light came from the torches set on the walls at intervals and even these were placed so far apart that much of the passage was in near total darkness. Her heart pounding, Katie made her way down the passage until she reached the Deepcell.
Agnes had shouted herself hoarse and tried repeatedly to scale the walls of the Deepcell to reach the rim of the pit into which she had been thrown. Each attempt had ended with her slipping and falling into a small pool of water. Presently she had given up trying and, huddled by the Castle's foundation stone, she cried bitterly, cold, frightened and hungry. If only she had tried to attack Creepy, she would still be a slave, but at least she wouldn't be trapped in this foresaken pit. There was no doubt in her mind that Malthory had meant exactly what he said when he ordered his goblins to "forget her" . . .
Agnes wiped away tears and looked up in the direction of the voice. A young face peered down at her over the rim of the Deepcell, that of another pixie-girl. "Who . . . who are you?" Agnes asked, surprised by this unexpected visitor. Whoever this pixie-girl was, she had to be another of Malthory slaves, but what was she doing down here?
"I've brought you some food," explained Katie, tossing the loaf into the Deepcell. "I'm called Katie Thistlespear and I'm one of Malthory's slaves too."
"Is there any way out of here?" Agnes asked, picking up the loaf from where it had landed on the floor of the Deepcell.
"No," replied Katie. "The only way out apart from the hole you were thrown into is guarded by Malthory's pet Manticore. Nothing can get past that creature. Just be brave; I'll bring you more food tomorrow." With that, she turned to go, unable to risk staying here any longer.
Katie turned at the sound of the voice. "What?"
"My name - it's Agnes Copperkettle. Thank you."