For three years rain had been sparse. Even the trees with their deep roots showed the dryness. The reservoirs went dry. Some said that the fountains in the Lordshills were still running, others said they weren't, and no one really knew.
A few kinless purchased rain. Weather wizards were rarely successful, hut some sold the names of their clients: kinless who had money to throw away. There were beatings and robberies, leaving less to be spent on weather wizards.
The Deerpiss became a trickle, then dried up. Wells went dry. The Lords sent out a decree that water must be used only for drinking and washing. The kinless agreed, and demanded even stricter rationing. Lord-kin didn't listen to such stuff. They used water to cool themselves and their homes, until even drinking water was a trickle, and there would be none to douse fires. It was a dry season, without water, and that might have been what wakened the fire god, twelve days after Morth belittled him.
Whandall alone wasn't big enough to get water when bigger men were thirsty. That morning Wanshig and Whandall escorted the women and younger children across the central city to a working well. Resalet stayed in with a hangover. The other Placehold men were not to be found.
Elriss was new. She stayed at the periphery, helping to keep the older women in place and moving. Wanshig hovered close to her. He'd brought Elriss home twenty days past, and she had his heart and mind.
Mother's Mother hadn't been outside the walls in many years. Whandall heard her muttering at everything she saw. The dirt. Bud manners among the Lordkin. Sullen faces among the kinless.
At least thirty kinless were using the well. At the sight of the approaching Lordkin family, they drifted away in little clumps.
The bucket brought up a scant mouthful.
The kinless had taken it all! And that alone might have started the Burning. But Whandall, waiting for his turn to scoop up a handful of water for Mother's Mother, smelled smoke on the windless air. Too early for a cook fire ...
"Stay together," Wanshig snapped. "Get the women and children home."
The Burning had begun.
They had to go out of their way several times.
Fire was just catching in the message-service offices. Kinless were trying to get the horses out. Others were fighting the fire with wet blankets. The kinless fire wagon had just come when half a dozen Lordkin waded into the kinless with curses and long knives. Firefighters fell bleeding. Others ran. One Lordkin sat on a kinless man's head and beat on his chest with a rock. Another came over and kicked the kinless man and laughed.
Mother's Mother was leaning on Mother, gasping. "Monsters! We never killed! We only burned; we never killed!" Mother and Whandall led her rapidly away from the scene.
Whandall looked at Wanshig and didn't ask, Is it true or is she crazy?
"Maybe men didn't tell women everything. Even then," Wanshig said quietly.
It was peaceful on Angle Street, where the land humped a bit to hide the smoke southward. Faces turned curiously toward a crowd of women with only two men for escort, and Wanshig whispered, "Relax. Stroll. Just another dull morning, okay?"
And Whandall tried to feel that. Take it easy, nod at Mother's Mother's ranting and hope nobody hears. Elriss looks like she needs any strong man's help, but Mother's taking care of that, easing her back where she doesn't show.
Tras Preetror the teller hailed him. "Whandall! What are you doing? Don't you know what's happening?"
Wave at Tras Preetror, smile, walk toward him. "Hello, Tras." Breezy, a little bewildered: "What are you talking about?"
Tras made no effort to hide his delight. "Oh. Guarding the women, good idea. But why aren't"-he waved about him, voice rising-"they doing something? Isn't the Bur-"
Whandall slammed a quick punch at Preetror's heart. Shut off his breath! Tras was expecting it; he dodged and turned, sloughed the blow, backed out of reach. "Isn't the Burning supposed to happen all at once? Do you feel Yangin-Atep? Do you feel the rage?"
A teller's task isn't to keep the peace. All these years Whandall had known Tras Preetror without ever quite grasping that truth.
Too late now. Angle Street had heard his message. Lordkin were disappearing into shops. Kinless were fleeing, converging into a pack. Tras joined them, bubbling with news.
Wanshig had Whandall's arm. "Move out, Whandall. Through there. You lead; I'll trail. Elriss, follow Whandall."
Another street. Pelzed passed with nine Serpent's Walk men. "Whandall! Wanshig!" Pelzed shouted. "We're going to Lord's Town! Come with us."
Whandall waved to indicate the women.
Astonishingly, Pelzed nodded calmly, as if he understood the need. "We can't wait," he said, and gestured his Serpent's Walk warriors toward Sanvin Street. "You'll miss the best." Then they were gone, and the smell of smoke was thicker yet.
Three cross-streets later: the Burning had arrived before them. A handful of lookers confronted a pudgy Lordkin in his forties. Did he need help?
No, the barbarians were merely bewildered, and the Dirty Bird was shouting into their faces while his arms described expansive circles. "It's free! Take it-it's all ours!" Joyfully he tried to lead them into a shoemaker's shop, where a score of gatherers were already seated on the dirt floor, passing shoes back and forth, trying to find something to fit.
The party atmosphere called to Whandall, but Wanshig steered the Placehold women around that scene too.
And finally home, and upstairs to the more defensible second floor. Placehold had stone walls. The floors would burn, but they were thick wood, and it would take determined effort to get them blazing. No one in the past had ever taken the time. The women were as safe as they would ever be.
And Whandall asked, "Now?"
"Yes, O eager one-" Whandall was halfway down the stairs. All the fine loot would be gone! Wanshig shouted down at him. "Wait! Where are the rest of us?"
Whandall stopped himself with an effort. There was a surging in his blood and a heat in his loins. Both were familiar, but they had never been this strong. The Whandall who once sat on Mother's Mother's lap and listened to stories of a better time watched the rest of himself losing control and whispered its disapproval.
"Where are they?" Wanshig demanded. "Resalet, Shastern, the other men? The boys?"
"Whandall, I thought Resalet would wait!" Wanshig clambered down after him. "He's gone. All the men are gone."
"Shig, they're just out gathering and partying with everyone else."
"Resalet has been talking about Morth of Atlantis," Wanshig said. He looked up the stairs to see Elriss staring down at him.
"Come back," Elriss said.
"I think they went to Morth's shop," Wanshig said. With an effort he turned away from Elriss and followed Whandall outside. "I think they went as soon as the fires started."
"What would he want there?" Whandall demanded.
"Powders. Hemp," Wanshig said.
"Resalet hates that stuff!"
"Resalet's afraid of Morth," Whandall said. "What about 'Never remember a killing after the Burning?' "
They were back in the street. Where the granary had been, the new restaurant was burning: a hard-luck site. Eastward, a shouting match over who had first claim to an ornate desk was about to turn violent, while someone disappeared with the matching chair.
Wanshig looked back to the Placehold. "Who'll watch the women?" he demanded. "Someone has to stay." He looked at Whandall and saw almost uncontrolled eagerness. "And I know, I know, it won't be you, little brother."
A kinless hurried past pulling a cart. "Help me!" the kinless shouted. A dozen youths, Serpent's Walk, Flower Market, Bull Fizzle all mixed together, ran after him, shouting and laughing. The cart overturned almost at Wanshig's feet, and the kinless merchant ran on unencumbered. Rings with red stones spilled out of the wreckage and Wanshig scooped up several. He handed one to Whandall.
"Ours!" a Bull Fizzle shouted, but he was laughing. He saw Whandall's elaborate tattoo, looked up to the walls to see the Serpent's Walk signs, and eyed Whandall nervously. No one moved for a moment. Then the Bull Fizzle laughed again and dove into the mob at the cart. They tore the cart apart and left in a bunch, carrying dresses and trousers and a coil of rope.
There was smoke to the west. Wanshig turned that way, hurrying. "Whandall, you've been spying on Morth. Is there anything our fathers should know about him? Anything that might hurt them?"
That was why he'd gone to Morth, wasn't it? Months ago. Whandall thought he remembered other reasons. Morth was nearly a friend. But those memories conflicted with the fire in his veins. Whandall said, "He told me about the spell that killed Pothefit. He won't use that again. But you don't exactly ask a magician, 'Please tell me what you use to stop Lordkin from taking things.' "
"Then what exactly do you ask him?"
"I watch. I listen. Shig, some things he just picks up and sells. Other things he waves his hands or mutters under his breath. Some of those, it's never the same twice, so maybe he's bluffing. I can't tell you what to lake." He stopped, remembering. "Shig, I don't think Morth will be there at all."
"He lives at the shop."
"He'll be afraid. He didn't mean to hurt Pothefit!"
They were jogging now, moving wide around gatherers staggering under loads of valuables or trash. Whandall stopped suddenly.
Men his own age were gathering a kinless woman. It looked like fun. More: he knew her, Dream-Lotus Innkeep of the western edge, four years his elder and very lovely. He'd never quite worked up the nerve to approach her, to learn if she would have the love of a young Lordkin, and now he need not ask.
Wanshig tried to pull him away. Whandall resisted. "Come on, Shig-"
"No. Elriss would kill me." He looked into Whandall's face and gave up. "I'll go on ahead. Maybe I can get them to hold up." His grip closed like a vise on Whandall's arm. "You follow me, yes? You don't stop again."
"Yes, Shig, yes."