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With some effort, Rune forced himself up and sat with his back against the brick wall. Three young children stared at him, wide-eyed. They moved closer.
“Fall down,” the dwarf girl announced grimly.
“That’s right, Holda,” the boy said. “He fell down.”
Holda pondered the situation. She set her heavy jaw and took another step forward. She offered Rune the cookie she’d been holding, part of the stash Tinka had brought from the mission.
Rune accepted the gift and said, “Thank you.” Holda clambered unbidden into his lap.
“Where’s Tinka?” Lolly asked.
“And that big guy?” the boy, Sketch, added.
Something rustled above them. Rune craned his neck to see the gap where Tinka said she’d escaped the first time. As if on cue, her green Santa hat popped into view.
“Sister!” Lolly squealed. Tinka and Rune both shushed her.
“Those men are looking for your sister,” Rune explained as Holda poked at his nose. “We can’t let them find her.”
Lolly slapped a hand over her mouth.
“Who are those men? How did you get here?”
“They were waiting,” Sketch said.
Rune puzzled at this, but Tinka explained. “We were running away. Our parents said it wasn’t safe anymore and we had to go.”
“The King of Shadows was mad at them.” She slinked through the opening and dropped to the floor. “That’s all they would say.”
“Stars above,” Rune said. The King of Shadows was one of the most powerful rulers on the other side, and one of the most ruthless. If he was angry with you, leaving—quickly—was the smartest thing to do.
It’s what Rune himself had done when he’d defected from the King’s service.
“But that doesn’t explain…,” he waved around at the cell, the grate, the camp toilet, “this.”
“Mr. Elmanzer sent us here,” Lolly said through tears. Holda fell back against Rune’s chest and grabbed hold of the lapel of his bomber jacket.
“He didn’t mean to,” Sketch said. “At least, I don’t think he did.”
“Mr. Elmanzer?” Rune said. “Your parents bargained with a waymaker to send you across?”
Sketch nodded, holding back tears. “They said it had to be at Midwinter ‘cause it would be easier to cross. Mr. Elmanzer knew the way. Mom and Dad said they’d come after us as soon as they could.”
“But when we crossed, those two brothers were waiting for us,” Tinka added. “They corraled us in a barb-wire fence, and the big, dumb one grabbed us and threw us in their carriage.”
Rune remembered the white van in the driveway.
“He shot me with that zappy thing,” Sketch complained. “And now he’s got you, too!”
“Not for long,” Rune vowed.
Something moved outside the grate. Rune gently lifted Holda to her feet so he could stand up. A rat appeared from behind the bookcase and scampered to the middle of the room, where it blurred and morphed and expanded to take on the size and shape of a troll in a dark brown long coat.
Rune said, “What kept you?”
“Just checking the place out,” he said. “This placed looked empty from the outside, but that’s just ‘cause the lights were off. It’s actually pretty homey up there.”
“Well, now that you’re here, we’ve got to get these children out of here.”
“And go home?” Sketch said.
Rune frowned because he knew that home was no longer an option. “Children shouldn’t have to run from a murderous king, especially not at Yuletide.” He looked at Janks. “I’m going to take them to Goblintown.”
“Is it far?” Tinka said. “Holda’s legs are little, and she’s too heavy to carry.” Holda had sidled up next to Rune. Now she wrapped an arm around his leg and looked up at him with big, brown eyes.
“Not far at all,” Rune said. “It’s just beneath the city and one world over.” He looked back at Janks and said, “I think I can get there through Cave Hill Cemetery.”
The troll considered this. “The boundary should still be thin enough. But then what?”
“I know some people there. People I trust. And they’re used to taking care of children.”
“Will they know where our parents are?” Tinka asked.
“I’ll bet they can find out,” Rune said. And if they couldn’t, the Brackwaters would do everything they could to find a place the children could stay.
“Then what are we waiting for?” Janks said. “Let’s figure out how to get you all out of there.”
“I have an idea about that,” Rune said. He knelt down to speak to the children. “Now listen carefully… and don’t be afraid.”