By Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell
Random House Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell
All right reserved. ISBN: 0385750838
They marched on all through that dismal grey morning and on into a rain-sodden afternoon. Few spoke; even the chants of the sky pirates up in front tailed off, and the only sounds were the barks and yelps of the prowlgrins and the relentless slap, slap, slap of mud-shoes on mire mud.
The grey afternoon gave way to the dim half-light of evening, and the wind grew stronger once more, pelting them with heavy rain that stung their faces and soaked them to the skin.
'That's the Edgeland wind,' called back the librarian on the library sledge. 'We must be getting close!' He cracked the whip and urged the yelping prowlgrins on.
The rope round Rook's middle jerked taut, forcing him to quicken his pace. All round him, the air was filled with curses and moans as the marchers struggled to keep up.
Suddenly, rising above it all, there came the noise of squelching mud, and a curious plaff-plaff sound. Rook looked up. To the left of the column, a cluster of low mud-dunes seemed to be approaching, rising and falling in a slippery rhythm as they did so.
The cry went up from the back of the column, where the Ghosts of Screetown had obviously spotted the danger.
The rope suddenly tugged Rook violently to the right as the librarian on the library sledge battledto control the panicking prowlgrins. Ahead, the four other sledges were in equal trouble. The low shapes were gathering and, from their path, it was obvious that the closely harnessed packs of prowlgrins were their intended prey.
Felix and his ghosts appeared out of the gloom on all sides. Fenbrus Lodd, Cowlquape beside him, shouted desperately to his son.
'The library sledges! Felix!' he screamed. 'They're after the sledges!'
Rook was running now, with Xanth and the banderbears dragged behind him, as the library sledge careered across the mud.
'Cut yourselves loose!' shouted Felix to Rook and the other librarians, 'and follow the braziers of the sky pirates.'
With a grunt, Rook tore at the knotted rope round his middle and slid to a halt as it fell free.
'There!' shouted Xanth, beside him. He pointed.
Ahead, Deadbolt stood on a mud-dune, waving a flaming purple brazier over his head as if possessed. 'Rally to me, Undertowners!' he roared. 'Rally!'
The huge library sledges slewed and skidded away to the right, the yelping screams of the prowlgrin teams drowning out the cries of their drivers. The mud-dunes seethed and boiled with the low, flapping shapes of the half-hidden muglumps in pursuit.
Panting, Rook reached Deadbolt, who was now surrounded by a huge crowd of mud-spattered and bewildered Undertowners. Xanth and the banderbears came lumbering up behind him.
'There lie the Edgelands, Sky help us! We'll regroup there!' shouted Deadbolt above the howling winds, and pointing to a low, grey ridge in the middle distance. 'Mothers and young'uns first!'
The Undertowners surged forwards across the glistening wind-flattened expanse of mud ahead, all eyes fixed on the distant ridge. Every one of them was driven by a desperate, half-mad frenzy to get out of the clinging mire mud and onto dry land. Rook was jostled and bumped as Undertowner after Undertowner barged past.
'You heard him,' Xanth shouted. 'Come on. We're nearly there, Rook!'
But Rook shook his head. 'I'm a librarian knight,' he said in a low voice, his words almost lost in the gusting wind. 'My place is with the library.'
He turned back towards the library sledges. Xanth and the banderbears hesitated. It was obvious from their eyes that they shared the Undertowners' mire-madness. Every fibre of their beings longed to be rid of the terrible white mud.
'And our place is with you,' said Xanth.
They turned and fought their way through the crowd, and back out into the Mire. The library sledges, like huge lumbering beasts, were away to the right, and had halted their mad dash. Now they seemed marooned, their tops bristling with librarians like hairs on a hammelhorn. As they approached, Rook could see why.
Felix and the ghosts were busy cutting the traces that harnessed the prowlgrin teams, while his father waved his hands in the air wildly, from on top of one of the sledges.
'Stop! Stop!' he was bellowing, but Felix ignored him as he cut through another tilderleather strap.
The slithering mounds had congregated in a flapping, slurping reef round the sledges, kept at bay for the moment by brazier-wielding ghosts - but inching closer by the second.
Rook stopped. If they went any further, they risked straying into the midst of the muglump pack. He shook his head miserably. There was nothing they could do; they were helpless spectators. He sank to his knees in the cold white mud. How he hated the oozing filth that seemed to cling so, pulling you down, smothering the life out of you, until you were so weary you just didn't care any more...
All at once, the mire mud erupted in front of him. Felix had cut the last harness and given the signal. With piercing screams, the prowlgrins - all two hundred and fifty of them - stampeded out across the mudflats.
The mud-dunes closed in around them. Up out of the mud, the muglumps reared, in plain sight at last. Rook stared, transfixed with horror. The last time he'd seen a muglump was with Felix, in the sewers of old Undertown - but that sewerage-dweller seemed tame compared to these monsters. The size of a bull hammelhorn, with six thick-set limbs and a long whiplash tail, each muglump slithered through the soft mire mud just below the surface, breathing through flapped nostrils.
Now, with a bone-scraping screech, they pounced on the hapless prowlgrins...
The Free Glades have stood as a beacon of hope for all in the Edgeworld. But the goblin leader - Hemtuft Battleaxe - has other plans for the Freegladers, as this extract from a meeting of the clan chiefs shows...
A vast crowd had assembled outside the great open-sided clan-hut of the long-hairs; a crowd packed with goblins of every description, all crushed together so tightly it was difficult even to breathe. Flat-heads and hammerheads, pink-eyed and scaly goblins; long-haired and tufted goblins, snag-toothed, saw-toothed and underbiter goblins; all were represented.
Inside the clan-hut, on a raised stage, sat Hemtuft Battleaxe of the long-hair goblin clan, leader of the Goblin Nations. Preening his shryke feathercloak, the grey-haired Battleaxe looked down from his carved wooden throne placed on top of a pile of skulls of deceased clan elders. On the platform before him stood the leaders of the four other clans, their heads bowed in supplication.
Rootrott Underbiter, clan chief of the tusked goblins, was the first to look up, his two massive canines glinting, his yellow eyes impassive. As leader of one of the larger clans, there was a look of sullen insolence on his face, despite his thin, twitching smile.
Next to him stood Lytugg, leader of the hammerhead clan, and granddaughter of the old mercenary, General Tytugg of Undertown. For one so young, she boasted an impressive array of battle scars as befitted the leader of the most warlike of all the goblin nations.
Beside her, sat the old, hunched figure of Meegmewl the Grey, clan chief of the lop-ears, as sharp-witted as he was ancient. Although the least warlike of the clans, the lop-ears were the most numerous by far, and Meegmewl was not to be underestimated.
Nor, for that matter, was Grossmother Nectarsweet the Second, clan chief of the symbites. She spoke for the gyle, tree, webfooted and gnokgoblins of the nations - the symbites who were responsible for such a rich array of products, everything from gyle-honey and dew-milk, to teasewood rope and lullabee grubs. Her five chins wobbled in a languid ripple as she raised her huge head and met Hemtuft's gaze levelly.
Hemtuft Battleaxe waved a hairy hand. As leader of the long-hairs and most senior of the goblin clans, his word was law. He knew though that, without the support of the other clans, the Goblin Nations would disintegrate and return to the roving, warring tribes they had been before. And that was something no one wanted.
'I understand, of course I do,' he said, as the crowd around the clan-hut jostled closer, trying to catch every word. 'Your lop-ear clan has paid a heavy price in supplying the labour to the Foundry Glades, and yet it is a price we must pay for the spears, the ploughs, the cooking-pots, and everything else that none of us would do without.'
'Say the word, and my hammerhead war bands could overrun the Foundry Glades like that,' said Lytugg, with a snap of her bony fingers.
Hemtuft shook his head. 'Lytugg, Lytugg. How many times must we go over this?' he said wearily. 'It is pointless to use force against the Foundry Glades. Hemuel Spume and the Furnace Masters would die before they revealed the secrets of their forges and workshops to us. And then where would we be? In charge of a lot of useless machinery that none of us could operate. No, if we are to succeed, we must pay the price the Furnace Masters demand of us...'
The skeletons of the old clan chief's predecessors, hanging- from the rafters of the huge thatched roof, clinked like bone wind-chimes in the breeze.
'But why must we pay it alone,' Meegmewl the Grey croaked, turning his milky eyes to the ceiling.
'Because there are so many of you,' retorted Rootrott Underbiter nastily.
'... And no hammerhead or flat-head shall stoke a furnace!' Lytugg snarled fiercely. 'We are warriors!'
Around Lob and Lummel, the hammerhead and flat-head goblins cheered and brandished their hefty clubs and spears.
'But things can't go on like this!' Grossmother Nectarsweet's huge, wobbly voice proclaimed, silencing the cheering.
'And nor shall they!' Hemtuft roared, getting to his feet and spreading his arms wide, until, in his feathered cloak, he resembled a large bird of prey. 'For if we attack the Free Glades and enslave them, then never again will goblins have to be sent to work the foundries. Slavegladers will go in their stead!'
Lob and Lummel turned to one another, eyebrows raised. All round them, the crowd exploded with noise, and a chant got up.
'Slave Glades! Slave Glades! Slave Glades!'
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Freeglader by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell Excerpted by permission.
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