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Chapter 24




The men were gone-and Mother's Mother never showed surprise. She'd lived in a world of her own for years. She came back to reality long enough to organize the household. The women took her orders, perhaps because they were terrified.

She took time to hold Whandall as she might have held a small child. "You're the oldest now," she said. "Keep the Placehold! I've always been proud of you. You saved your brothers before; now you have to do it again. Keep the Placehold!"

It was as if she had waited half her life for this. Now, tasks done, she slipped away, back to some pleasant place that no one else could see.

Elriss was pregnant. She wept for Wanshig and stayed in the women's rooms. Mother was more practical. In the first light of the morning after the burning she found Whandall.

"I have to leave."

"Why?" he asked. They had never been very close. With a new baby every year she had little time for him even though too many died. He'd spent more time with Mother's Mother. "Will you be back?"

"I'll come back if I can," Mother said. "Elriss will take care of the youngest. You and Shastern can take care of yourselves. Whandall, there's no food and no water."

"We need you to get food from the Lords," Whandall said.

"Elriss and Wess and Mother-three's enough. The Lords won't give

any more than three can gather," Mother said. She lilted her carpet bag. "I'll be back it 1 can come back."

"But where will you be?"

She didn't answer. Whandall watched her go down the stairs. There she joined two other Placehold women, women who had both left babies in the Placehold's care. He watched them make their wary way out into the street, out into the Burning, and wondered if he'd ever see Mother again.

Three hours after first light Shastern and five younger boys came in pulling a cart. Each had an armful of stuff, clothing, enough rope to trade for a big cook pot if they could find someone who'd trade. There was a small cook pot in the cart. There was food amid the junk, but some of it was spoiled and the rest would have to be eaten in a hurry.

They traded whooping memories of the Burning. One by one they turned serious when they saw there were no men. The younger boys gathered around Whandall in the big room on the second floor. Girls came out to join them. They all stared at Whandall Placehold.

Shastern demanded, "Where are the men?"

"Gone," Whandall said. He didn't tell them what he suspected, that all including Wanshig had been blasted by Morth of Atlantis. Was there anything he could have done? If he'd stayed with Wanshig, would all the men have lived?

"But they'll be back," Shastern said. "They're just..." He saw Whandall's face. "What do we do?" Shastern asked. "When the word gets out, there'll be men come to gather the Placehold!"

"What do we eat?" Rubyflower asked. Her ten-year-old eyes were as big as dinner plates.

"How much food do we have?" Whandall asked.

Rubyflower shook her head. "I don't know. A week before Mother's Day we usually have more in the pantry than we have now."

"And it's two weeks to Mother's Day," Whandall mused. "Have you heard anything about Mother's Day? Will the Lords come? Will they bring the gifts?"

No one knew.

Whandall sent Ilthern to find out. "Don't talk," Whandall said. "Just listen. See what they're saying in Peacegiven Square. Listen to the Lordsmen and their clerks. Maybe they'll say something."

"It won't matter," Rubyflower said. "If they had Mother's Day tomorrow, we'd never get the cart back from Peacegiven Square! Someone would gather everything!"

The little girl was right, Whandall thought. Only four men in the Place-hold carried knives; only two wore tattoos. Placehold itself might be defended by barricading the stairs. It wouldn't burn; the Burning was already lading. "Bring up rocks," Whandall told Rubyflower. "Get the other girls. Boys too. Ecohar, you go with them. Bring up rocks."

"Here?"

"Here and on the roof. Try not to look frantic."

"And what do we eat, Whandall?" Shastern asked quietly when the smaller children were gone for rocks. "Rubyflower's right-we'll never get a cart home."

"Whandall will think of something." Wess spoke from behind him, possession and pride in her voice.

Vinspel had been killed in a knife fight, ten days back. They'd had to lei I Wess. No man would tell her, or tell any woman, that Vinspel had been lighting for another woman. The other Placehold women liked Wess too, but they would talk.

And now Whandall could only think that no man could keep her from him.

She was the oldest girl in the room. Mother's Mother was leader of the Placehold, but she was somewhere else inside her mind. Mother had been the real leader, usually, when she didn't have flasks and powders. But now she was gone. If Wanshig came back, Elriss would be leader. Now-

Now, Whandall's woman would have the job, honors and duties alike. It came to Whandall that he didn't really know what that meant. He knew that Mother's Mother, then Mother, had kept the keys to the pantry. Neither seemed to cook or sew or clean. Others did that. But without someone to make it happen, they didn't.

Two children began to wail. Wess grabbed the oldest, a six-year-old, and shook him. "Quiet. Let Whandall think," she said. "Go with Rubyflower and get some rocks. All of you, shoosh! Get rocks we can throw from the roof. Not you, Rainier. Get some water for the roof garden. Not drinking water; dirty water will do fine. Come on, all of you-let's get to work."

Whandall nodded. "Rocks. Good," he said. "Shastern, you help Wess. Find some way to barricade the stairway too. I'll be back as soon as I can."

"Where are you going?" Shastern asked.

"Pelzed."

He'd have to tell Pelzed how helpless the Placehold was. That would be dangerous, but Pelzed would find out anyway. Better to tell him straight off. Pelzed-Lord Pelzed-owed Whandall a favor. Would he remember? Would he care? But it was the only place Whandall could go.

Pelzed had led a band toward Lord's Town. Whandall couldn't follow there. He'd wait at Pelzed's roofless house.

But Pelzed was back.

Three of Pelzed's women were going through a stack of gatherings.

Pelzed shouted when he saw Whandall. "Whandall! Come have some lea!"

Whandall approached warily. He waved to indicate the loot. "From Lord's Town? Lord."

Pelzed grinned. "Not exactly," he said. "Sit down." ,

"Yes, Lord Pelzed."

"Heard you'd had some trouble," Pelzed said. "Wanshig's gone? Some of the other men."

"Yes, Lord. Lord, you once said you owed me a favor. We need help, Lord."

Pelzed poured tea and pushed the cup over to Whandall. "Tell me."

"All the men are gone, Lord," Whandall said. "There's only me and the younger boys. The women will try to find men, but. , ."

Pelzed nodded. There was no expression in his eyes, at all as he sat lost in thought. Finally he said, "Are you asking for my protection?"

"Yes, Lord."

"Why not ask the Lordsmen?"

"Lord, there are lines a hundred people long in front of every clerk in Peacegiven Square," Whandall said. "And what good would it do? Men come to gather the Placehold. We send for the Lordsmen, and maybe they come and maybe not, but they won't come in time to do us any good. We have our own Lord here. Why go to the Lords of Lordshills?"

"You learn fast," Pelzed said. "All right. We'll protect your cart on Mother's Day and I'll get the word out that anyone gathering at the Place-hold will have to answer to me. And I'll speak to the Lord's clerks in the Square. You'll be all right."

"Thank you, Lord."

"You'll have to control the Placehold. Don't make any new enemies. I can't fight new enemies," Pelzed said. "You remember that."

"Yes, Lord."

"How many boys do you have at Placehold?"

"Eleven, Lord, not including Shastern."

"They'll all join Serpent's Walk," Pelzed said. "Join knowing they owe us."

"Yes, Lord."

"Good." Pelzed sipped more tea. A crafty smile came to his lips. "Don't you want to know what happened?" he asked.

"Oh, yes, Lord," Whandall said. "I saw you going toward the Lordshills."

"So did the Bull Fizzles," Pelzed said. "They were following us. We couldn't shake them and there were too many to fight, so there we were, going out gathering with a bunch of Pizzles following right behind. I had a good plan-wear forester leathers. Wear leathers and make sure we didn't leave any dead behind. They'd never know it was us. But when we got closer we saw Lordsmen. Twenty, maybe more. They had armor, swords, spears, big shields, and we weren't about to gel past them. Kraemar and Roupend were feeling Yangin-Atep's power. They wanted to run in and gather. 1 couldn't control them much longer."

"Is that where you got all that?" Whandall asked. "Lord's Town?"

"No, what I did was let the Bull Fizzles get past me, then go back to the Fizzle streets," Pelzed said. "With our leathers on. Struck a bargain with the kinless there. Kraemar and Roupend got to burn some old houses and stores, the rest of us gathered all this, and the Bull Fizzles never came back. I may even have a new street for Serpent's Walk."

"Lord-was Chief Wulltid killed, then, Lord?"

"No, you know what he's like; he didn't go with his men. He stayed to take his pleasures in his own houses." Pelzed laughed. "I hope he enjoyed himself. He won't like my new arrangements." The grin was wider. "But the Lords will. Bull Fizzle isn't very popular with the Lords right now."

Whandall sipped tea and listened. He tried to imagine himself as Lord Whandall of Serpent's Walk. It was a good picture, and the more he thought about it, the more he liked it. It was a big job and he didn't know how to do it, but he could watch Pelzed and learn.

Wess had moved all his things into the big northeast room. Resalet's clothes were gone. His other things, bronze mirror, drinking cup, were laid out for Whandall's approval.

Wess was wearing a short wool skirt and a thin blouse that opened down to her navel.

Where did you get that? He knew he shouldn't ask. From Vinspel? His hands were on her shoulders. "Nice," he said, and repeated himself: "Nice. Wess, you're beautiful." She must have used the mirror, he thought, and he reached out for the magical thing and looked into it.

There was no trace, now, of that ring-shaped scar. The serpent tattoo was magnificent... alien.

"What did I look like?" he asked. "I stayed clear of you while I was healing." He'd let her see him once. The look in her eyes.

"That scar. I never thought it would heal."

"I found magic," he said. "Wess, I've got to talk to the rest of the house, but first, what have you got done?"

The children were being taken care of.

There was food. This evening's dinner would be huge: they were cooking everything that wouldn't keep. They'd eat as much as they could'. Tomorrow, who knew?

Stashes of rocks were on the roof, and children on guard. Invaders would expect rocks. There should be something else too. Something to startle a gathering band. Boiling water? Too complicated; too much work, and where would they get water? Think of something. Fire would burn on a roof.

The Placehold was nearly empty. Was there some way the place could look busier? All that showed from the street was a blank wall and a wide gate. What men he had, he could move them through that gate more often. "And I couldn't think of anything else," she said. "You?" "I've got Pelzed's protection. The only idea I had. Dark Man's Cup will do us some good, I think. Pelzed killed some friends for not keeping his promises there."












Chapter 23 | The Burning City | Chapter 25



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