One day a fire began in the brush behind a kinless house just outside Serpent's Walk territory. All the kinless in that area turned out. They brought a big wagon pulled by the small kinless ponies. It had a tank on it, and kinless men dipped water from it and threw it on the fire until it was out.
Whandall watched from behind a flowering hedge. On the way home he gathered an apple to give Resalet.
"Why do they bother? The fire would go out. Wouldn't it?" Whandall asked.
Resalet was in a mellow mood. "Kinless don't believe in Yangin-Atep," he said. "So Yangin-Atep doesn't always protect them. Against us, yes, unless there's a Burning. Sometimes against accidents. Not always, and the kinless don't wait to find out."
"They keep them in the stable area," Resalet said.
"What if the fire is too far away?"
Resalet shrugged. "I've seen them turn out with buckets when there's water in the River of Spirits."
The River of Spirits flowed out of the forest and down through Lordkin territory before it reached the kinless area. It stank. Whandall thought he'd rather see Placehold burn than have a fire put out with what was in that river.
There was much to learn about Yangin-Atep, and one could ask. Mother's Mother told him some. When she was a girl she had heard a tale that the kinless had once been warriors with a god of their own, before Yangin-Atep and the Lords brought the Lordkin to Tep's Town. She couldn't remember who had told her the story, and she thought the days were hotter than they used to be.
Days were long for Whandall. He was smaller than other boys his age, and the months spent healing, and afterward doing children's work, had lost him what friends he might have had. His best friend was his older brother Wan-shig, and Shig didn't always want a smaller boy hanging around with him.
There was little to do. His uncles were content to have him hang around Placehold in case of need, but that was no life.
His younger brother Shastern had grown while Whandall was recovering. Now anyone seeing them together took Shastern for the elder. Shastern was deeply involved in Serpent's Walk activities. He was leader of a band that gathered from the kinless in Owl Beak.
"Come with us, Whandall," Shastern urged. "Lord Pelzed wants us to look at a street in Bull Fizzle territory."
"Why? I can't run fast."
"No, but you can lurk. If you don't do it, I'll have to."
Whandall thought about that. "You didn't used to be very good at lurking."
"I'm learning. But you're better."
"What are we looking for?" Whandall asked.
"Dark Man's Cup Street. It's right at the border-"
"I know where it is," Whandall said. "There's nothing there! Shaz, there's nothing to gather. What would Lord Pelzed want with that place?"
Shastern shook his head. "He didn't tell me. He said to find who's living there now. When was the last time you were there?"
Whandall thought back. "Six weeks? I was following a kinless, but maybe he knew I was behind him." Whandall shrugged. "I lost him in the trash on that street. It's that bad."
"Come tell Lord Pelzed."
"I think he's mad at me-"
Shastern shook his head. "Not that I know of. Whandall, you have to see him sometime. This way you can do him a favor."
"All right." Whandall felt his heart beat faster. Suppose Pelzed-Lord Pelzed!-wanted him to pay for the cart and clothes? Or the roof Tras Preetror had promised? But Shastern was right-he had to know sometime.
Pelzed found time for the boys that afternoon. "Shastern says you followed a kinless to Dark Man's Cup," he said. "Have some tea."
The tea was weak and didn't do anything to Whandall's head. He sipped and found it good. "He was kinless," Whandall said, "but he didn't live there."
"I only saw some women."
"Yes. I think so," Whandall said. "Lord Pelzed, Dark Man's Cup looks
like there hasn't been a kinless there for years! It's all trash and weeds in
the street, and it stinks."
"Two babies," Whandall said. "Dirty, like their mothers."
"I didn't see any."
"Go find out," Pelzed said.
"Go find out. There'll be men. Find out who they are."
"Lord, why? There's nothing there!"
"But there could be," Pelzed said. "And I'll send Tumbanton with you. Have some more tea."
Dark Man's Cup lay on the other side of a small gully that had running water during the rainy season but was usually dry. The creek bed was filled with trash and sewage, and there was no bridge. Three boys and an older man picked their way through the trash, with Whandall in the lead.
Tumbanton was usually seen at Pelzed's right hand. He was the whip hand, the trainer, when a boy joined Serpent's Walk. He'd saved Pelzed's life twenty-six years ago, when they were both no more than gatherers. He'd defended their retreat when a raid on Maze Walkers went disastrously wrong. Six had died. Tumbanton and Pelzed had escaped. Tumbanton usually went without a shirt to show the maze of scars from that event. He loved to tell the story.
But he'd picked up a trace of a limp too, and a noisy, wobbly walk. His son Geravim, with no scars to speak of, seemed as clumsy as his father.
"What's Pelzed want with this place anyway?" Geravim asked as he shook filth off his sandals.
Tumbanton must know that, but he didn't speak.
"Maybe he thinks he can get the kinless to build a bridge," Shastern said.
"Wish they'd done it already," Geravim muttered.
And why would they, when the Lords and Lordkin would only gather what they built? But they did. Kinless did work, sometimes, and only men like Pelzed knew why.
Pelzed's family had never been important. How had he become Lord Pelzed?
Whandall caught a whiff of cooking meat. It was faint, nearly masked by the smells of sewage and decay, but it was there.
"Something?" Shastern asked.
"Probably not," Whandall said. "Wait here, I'll be right back."
There was no wind, but when he'd smelled the cook fire there had been pull of air from the south. Whandall went that way, downstream if there hail been any water in the gully. There were thickets of greasewood and
sharp plants like lordswords except these were smaller and didn't move to strike at him. Another patch looked like a variety of lordkiss, three leaves and white berries, but the leaves were sickly red. Ahead was a patch of holly, thorns, and berries. There was a tunnel in the thorns and rabbit droppings on the path. He sniffed. Fresh.
The way led steeply down. The center of the gully was deep, a dry streambed, but on the sides there were shelves of flat land fifty feet wide and nearly that far above the streambed. Above them were thickets all the way to the top of the gully and beyond, but the shelves themselves had I clear patches among the weeds and chaparral. The smell of cooking meat got stronger as he went south. When he reached the end of the narrow twisting passage through the holly bushes he stayed prone and used his
knife to part the weeds ahead of him so he could look without being seen.
He saw a cook fire. A slab of meat roasted on a spit above it. Behind the fire was a cave into the gully bank. The entrance was hidden from above and most other directions by holly bushes and scrub oak.
Three kinless men sat by the fire. They were sharpening axes. A kinless girl came out of the cave and put sticks on the fire.
A patch of hemp grew just beyond the camp area. These plants seemed different from the hemp that grew in the fields between Tep's Town and the Lordshills, taller and more lushly green. As the girl passed, Whandall saw the plants stir in a breeze he couldn't feel. Wild plants would have done that too.
Whandall couldn't make out what the kinless men were saying. He wriggled backward until he could turn around, then went back to Shastern and the others.
"Find something?" Shastern asked.
Whandall shook his head. He might have spoken, but Geravim and Tumbanton weren't relatives. The rogue kinless wouldn't have much worth gathering, but he'd keep this a secret for the family.
The gully had always been a no-man's-land, used as a garbage dump by Serpent's Walk and Bull Fizzle alike and serving as an easily recognized boundary. Dark Man's Cup was the first street on the other side, about a hundred feet from the gully. Beyond it was a tangle of streets and thistle fields mixed together before the town proper started again.
There were nine houses on Dark Man's Cup. Five had roofs. One of the roofless houses was stone and would be a good house if someone could make the kinless build a roof. Two of the roofless structures had been used as garbage dumps and outhouses, and only three of the houses with roofs seemed to be inhabited. Those stood apart, three houses together along a field partially cleared of weeds.
Every wall of every house, inhabited or not, had a Bull Pizzle mark. They watched a boy about Shastern's age repainting the Bull Fizzle mark on his front wall.
Whandall left Shastern and the others at the edge of the gully and crept through the trash piles in the yards behind the houses. Each household had a small cleared patch in back where they built the cook fires and another small area where children played. Weeds grew everywhere, even in the cleared patches. Everything stank. One house had a dog, but it didn't seem interested in anything outside its own yard.
There were snares in the animal paths behind the houses. Whandall automatically avoided them as he crept toward the inhabited area. He moved quickly but silently, and no one noticed him. Whandall grinned to himself. Watching the kinless woodsmen had been good practice.
Whandall saw only four men. Two were ancient and sat in toothless conversation near a cook fire in one of the yards. One was about twenty. The other was the boy who had repainted the Bull Fizzle sign.
Whandall watched to see if anyone else would come. Then he heard a rustling behind him.
He turned see Shastern coming. Shaz walked carelessly along a game path-
"Watch out! Traps," Whandall said. He tried to keep his voice low, but one of the old men must have kept his hearing.
"Spies!" the old man shouted. "Spies! Bull Fizzle! Spies!"
And the warning had done no good. Shastern was entangled in a snare. When it tripped him another snare caught his arm.
There were shouts from somewhere to the east.
Whandall ran back to Shastern. When he reached him, there were more shouts, louder.
"Bull Fizzles coming," Shastern said. "Cut me loose!"
It was hard to cut the leather thongs without hurting Shastern. Finally Whandall had his brother's arm free. Together they freed his legs. Shastern stood and grinned feebly.
"Now what?" Whandall asked.
"Now we run like hell, big brother!" Shastern said. He ran for a few yards, then went down as another snare caught him. By the time Whandall had helped cut him free, the shouts of the Bull Fizzle warriors were much closer. They couldn't see anyone, but it sounded like the warriors were just behind them. Shastern ran in bounding leaps, hoping to avoid the snares.
Whandall ran behind him, watching for traps, as Shastern got farther and farther ahead.
Geravim and Tumbanton were gone. Shastern was far ahead, and Whandall heard shouts behind him. He was nearly winded. They would catch him soon. Better to stop while he could still fight.
He looked for a place to stop. A corner would be best, but there weren't any. There weren't even walls here. The best refuge he could see was a holly bush. It would be useless against a spear but it would protect his back from knives. He ran to the holly bush, scooped a handful of dirt, jacket over his left arm, turned. The big Lordkin knife felt good in his hand and he tried to grin as he'd seen big Lordkin men do when they were menacing kinless.
There were only three of the Bull Fizzles. All were bigger than Whandall, the oldest probably twenty. He had seen none of them before. Whoever lived on Dark Man's Cup was content to let others defend it for them.
One had a knife. That didn't worry Whandall, but another had a big club studded with obsidian blades. The third boy had a rock tied onto a long rawhide thong. He swung it around his head in a lazy circle, the rock still moving fast enough that if it hit Whandall it would brain him.
As the first Bull Fizzle came toward him Whandall threw dirt into his face, then lunged forward, slashing, before retreating to his bush. Blood flowed from the Bull Pizzle's chest and the knifeman howled in pain.
The older boy had the club. He gestured to his companions to spread out. "He's fast, but he can't get us all." The Bull Fizzle leader grinned. A tattoo marked his left eye. "What you doing here, boy? Looking to get killed? What band marks itself with a target?"
Target? Oh, he meant the scar around Whandall's eye.
Whandall looked for a way out. There didn't seem to be one. "We were following a kinless for shells," Whandall said. "But we lost him, then my ... friend was caught in a snare. We did you no harm."
"You're in Pizzle territory," the older boy said, then glanced expertly at Whandall's hand. "We don't want Snakes here!" He gestured again, to spread the other two out farther. The boy with a knife had stopped snuffling when he found that his cut wasn't serious. Now he tried to rub the dirt from his eyes. He moved over to Whandall's left side, away from Whandall's knife. His knife was held clumsily. A beginner, Whandall thought. He'd be no problem at all.
The club worried him. It was long enough to reach him before he could strike. Whandall had never faced a club before. "You scared to use a knife?" Whandall taunted.
"No, just careful," the older boy said. "You want to give up?"
"What happens if I do?"
The club man shrugged. "Up to our chief," he said. "Don't know what
Wulltid will want to do with you. Can't be worse than what we'll do it you don't give up!"
The problem was, it could he. On the other hand, Pelzed might ransom him, since he'd been sent by Pelzed. There wasn't an active war with Bull Fizzle. But Pelzed wouldn't be happy...
"You going to give up?" the club wielder asked. "Running out of time-"
"I have lots of time," Whandall said. He'd caught his breath now. The situation was bad. The boy with the bola had moved well off to Whandall's right and was swinging it faster now.
The club man raised his weapon. "Last chance."
"Yangin-Atep!" Whandall shouted. "Yangin-Atep!"
The Bull Pizzle leader was startled for a moment. He looked around as if expecting the fire god to appear. Then he laughed. "Yangin-Atep loves Bull Pizzle as much as Snake Shit!" he roared.
"Which is not at all," the knifeman said. "Maddog, I don't care if he gives up-I get to cut him!"
"Yeah, I think so. Yangin-Atep! Yangin-Atep isn't going to wake for you."
Whandall didn't think so either, but it had been worth trying.
"Serpent's Walk!" The shout came from the gully.
"Snake Feet!" Whandall answered.
"Coming!" It was Shastern's voice. There was wild thrashing in the gully. "We're coming!"
Maddog listened. It sounded like half a dozen Serpent's Walk warriors, and he didn't like the odds. "Stay out of Pizzle territory!" he shouted. He gestured to the others, and they withdrew toward the east.
As soon as they were away, Whandall ran toward the gully and over the lip. Shastern was there alone. He had a tree branch and was bashing at the chaparral. "We're coming!"
"Good to see you, Shaz," Whandall said.
Shastern grinned. "Good to see you, big brother. Now let's run before they find out it's just me!"
"Geravim and Tumbanton?"