At my command, the air exploded with phraxmusketfire, blinding white and deafeningly loud. A fettlelegger let out a strangulated cry and crumpled to the ground. A flathead fell a moment later. But the others kept coming, their eyes blazing and weapons brandished, bellowing like wild animals. I recharged my musket and fired again. A stocky woodtroll with a studden cudgel bit the dust…
‘Retreat!’ It was Hench the cloddertrog. I’d tried, and failed, to hit their ringleader. Now he was the one taking control of events. ‘Retreat!’
As quickly as they had appeared, so the renegade Defenders of the First Age disappeared. I could hear them rustling in the undergrowth, whispering – and caught sight of two of them dashing off along the lakeside to try and get round to the back of the hivehouse. If they made it, it could prove fatal.
Terrified by the sounds of battle, Vitus started screaming, and Lara left her post to comfort him. Bragsworn turned to me.
‘I know this lot,’ he said darkly. ‘They won’t easily give up.’
I shook my head. What we needed was a miracle – and, grizzly old cynic that I am, miracles are something I don’t believe in.
It was stalemate. We were under siege, with twenty or so Defenders waiting to launch a fresh attack. How long they would wait, I didn’t know. Until daybreak? Until we fell asleep – or grew weak with hunger? If Bragsworn was right, then we were in for a long haul.
But then, all at once, I noticed that events were moving. There was activity going on in the trees and my heart missed a beat when I realized what they were doing.
‘Bragsworn,’ I hissed, and pointed.
They had a primitive wooden catapult on wheels and enough blazing tallow logs to burn down a small town. The pair of us opened fire in the direction of the catapult. Our phraxbullets thudded into the ironwood strusts, but did little damage.
‘This is your last chance!’ came Hench’s gruff voice. ‘It’s the phrax-powered monstrosity we want to destroy. Give up now and your lives will be spared. Keep resisting, and you’ll be destroyed along with it! All of you! Even that young whelp I heard scream…’
His brutal threats abruptly fell still. There was a thudding noise, then another, and someone cried out. Fearing some kind of trap, I neither responded nor made a move. The next moment, Hench the cloddertrog came crashing out of the undergrowth. He was clutching at his chest and there was blood pouring over his hands as he stumbled towards us. He didn’t make it. With a low grunt, he toppled forward, fell heavily to the ground – and remained there.
‘Hedgethorn!’ I heard. ‘Hedgethorn, old friend, are you all right?’
I gasped. I recognized that voice. It was Forden. I stuck my head out of the window and, looking up, saw the Varis Lodd skimming the tops of the trees. And there, at the stern, his phraxmusket firing down at our attackers, was Forden Drew himself.
With their commander down, the rest of the Defenders showed little desire to keep fighting. And as the little phraxlighter came down low over the Farrow Lake, they scattered in all directions.
I raced outside, Bragsworn and Laria – with a now sleeping Vitus in her arms – following close behind. We stood in front of the little shack with the phraxloom we’d defended so bravely, and watched the vessel coming in to land. Captain Ironshank stepped down first, followed by Forden’s pet nameless one, Kultuft, who had grown even larger in the time that had passed since I’d last seen him. Finally, Forden Drew himself jumped to the ground.
‘Forden!’ I exclaimed, as we seized one another by the shoulders.
‘Hedgethorn!’ said Forden. ‘Looks like we arrived just in the nick of time.’ He grinned. ‘Still, all’s well that ends well. Whatever that lot were up to, they’ve got what they deserved. And I’m pleased to announce that our trip was also a success. I’ve got hold of five rods of phraxcrystal - more than enough for a dozen stilthouses!’
‘A dozen!’ I exclaimed. ‘The Third Age has finally arrived in our little settlement!’
Forden laughed delightedly. ‘And it only took six months to get here! I shall tell you of my adventures over a bottle of woodgrog…’
‘Six months,’ I said. ‘It it really that long?’ I shook my head. ‘It’s almost impossible to believe, Forden. You’re away for all that time, and arrive back just at the moment we need you most.’ And I laughed. ‘Maybe miracles can happen after all.’