It had been raining hard for two days. The Placehold would have camped in the courtyard for safety, but you couldn't have a Burning in the rain, could you? So the women and children were inside and the men were guarding the door in rotation.
But twenty-year-old Whandall was elsewhere, dripping wet in a windless rain, surrounded by seven sullen Lordkin in their thirties. A very bitter Alferth described what followed Arshur's beating:
A gathering horde of Lordkin flowed upstream along the Deerpiss and through the meadow, the Wedge. They damaged the gatehouse but couldn't be bothered to take the bricks apart. No mention was made of Toronexti guards: they must have joined the crowd.
Laborers saw human figures straggling out of the forest. Ten; twenty. They alerted Alferth. All the vintners, Lordkin and kinless, prepared to protect their holding. Only Tarnisos on the roof noticed the dust plume as hundreds of invaders surged up from the gatehouse.
They stomped the vines into mush. A few stopped to taste grapes for the first time. The rest stormed the wine house. It was deserted: Alferth and his people were fleeing through the forest, weaving a path among the deadly guardians of the redwoods, guided by what they had learned from Whandall Placehold.
The invaders found the vats in the basement and drank everything that would flow.
Alferth waited two days before he took his people back.
In the woods they found corpses slashed and mottled and swollen. Many who took that shortcut never reached the vineyards. Two hands more of bodies lay among the vats, killed by bludgeons and Lordkin knives, by wine and each other. The living had returned to town.
Whandall wasn't sorry to have missed that! Still, he gave thought to his own status. Alferth had been important to Pelzed and Serpent's Walk. Pelzed might see Whandall as more than Alferth's man, but Pelzed might equally consider that Whandall had held the Placehold with Pelzed's help, that all debts were paid.
Alferth was in his midthirties. Most of the boys he'd grown up with must be dead by now. What would it take to put him back together?
Whandall raised his voice above the rattle of raindrops. "Alferth, they didn't take what you know. You've still got that."
Alferth only looked grim. He was thinking like a victim. Freethspat found that disgusting and was starting to show it. Tarnisos was ready to kill someone. Anyone.
"You know how to make vines grow," Whandall said. "Alferth, you know how to make juice turn into wine and the wine into . .. well, respect. I don't know any of that. Almost nobody does."
"Kinless. They know it all," Alferth said.
"Find some land somewhere else."
"Time, you kinless fool. It takes time and work to make wine. A year before there's anything to drink, and that's after you have vines. Longer to grow vines. I'll be forgotten by then. Without wine I'm nothing."
Alferth was thinking like a kinless. "That's how we grew up," Whandall pointed out. "We have nothing except what we gather." He looked for support and saw smiles flicker. Not enough, and it wasn't quite true either. The child Alferth had had nothing, but he hadn't been old.
It came to Whandall that he had done what he could. Leave now....
A two-pony wagon came trotting up Straight Street.
Alferth and his men watched from the curb. It came near, through several silent minutes. The little bone-headed ponies were pulling hard: the wagon was heavy, though the bed held only a few coils of rope.
Whandall cursed in his mind. He smelled blood. They were next to a butcher shop, but Whandall could recognize an omen. Go home; get everyone into the courtyard. It's still raining, but the Burning is on us, I feel it... . But he'd shouted of the Burning six days ago, and nothing.
Tarnisos trotted a few paces west to an ash pit, a shop for farm gear five years ago. The rebuilding hadn't touched it. He came back with an arm's length of fence post charred at one end.
Alferth stepped casually into the road. Freethspat followed, then the
rest. Whandall hadn't moved. Without willing it, he became the fixed end of an arc across Straight Street.
The driver might have been dozing or hiding his face from the rain. He looked up far too late. Pulled on the reins, tried to turn the ponies. Far too late, as seven Lordkin swarmed over his wagon and wrestled his ponies to the ground.
He fought. He shouldn't have done that. Alferth took a solid blow to the head, and then the rest were on the driver, beating him.
"Aye, enough!" Whandall said. Louder, "Enough!"
Nobody chose to hear.
Whandall couldn't watch, couldn't interfere, dared not show his anguish. He turned to the cart instead. The bed was high, maybe too high. It carried coils of tarred rope, but not a lot of that. Had someone else taken to driving wine? Wine would distract them. He felt for a loose board, found a corner and lifted.
Three small faces. One mouth opened to scream. A child's hand covered the smaller child's mouth. Whandall put a finger to his lips, then set back the board, having seen very little ... but at least three children.
Tarnisos set himself as if in a whackball game and swung his fence post at the driver's head.
They were killing him. He'd been curled around himself on the ground, but at Tarnisos's blow he sprawled loose and sloppy. And Whandall felt a rage burning outward from his belly. Not since he'd cut Hartanbath had he felt like this . .. but he was helpless as Tarnisos wound up for another blow.
Whandall raised his hand and set Tarnisos's weapon afire.
Tarnisos dropped the flaming beam with a yell and a backward leap.
Yangin-Atep was real. Yangin-Atep was in Whandall as a jubilant rage. He pointed into the butcher shop and it caught with a flash and a roar. The men still kicking the wagoneer looked around at the sudden light, and knew.
The Burning had begun.
The butcher shop burned merrily in the rain, flames cradling the apartment above. Tarnisos picked up his torch and tried to set the shop next door alight. It was wet, and Whandall held his power back. The rest were kicking smoldering wooden walls into slats to make more torches.
The kinless driver looked dead. Moving him might kill him if he wasn't, but he wasn't safe here. Whandall crossed the man's arms and enclosed the man's elbows and torso with his own arms. Resalet taught his boys to do that, to hold in damaged innards. He eased the man into the wagon, nesting him in a coil of rope.
He got onto the seat, found the whip, and used it. The wagon lurched away.
Tarnisos yelled and came pelting after him.
The last Burning hue! happened in a drought This lime everyone had stored food. A handful of kinless children would not discommode the Placehold, Whandall thought. They could tend the house while the Burning lasted and then go home, if they still had a home.
But four strangers were now pelting along behind Tarnisos, and Tarnisos had caught the wagon and was pulling himself aboard. What did the man think he was doing?
Tarnisos pulled himself over the bench back and next to Whandall. "You felt it!" he crowed. "Yangin-Atep! Alferth thought I was crazy, but you feel it, right? Right?"
With the weight in children the ponies were pulling, Whandall wasn't going to outrun anything. He waved behind him. Six followed now, and one had swept up an armful of faggots. "Who're they?"
Tarnisos looked back. "Nobody. They saw you start the Burning, maybe."
Maybe. Maybe they recognized a false-bottomed wagon. They thought they were chasing wine! Better distract them.
It was like being drunk. Not words he never wanted to speak, but fire leaked from the joyful rage at his core. The bundle of sticks flamed at both ends, and the man carrying them whooped. He began passing them out in some haste.
This next turn would take him home, but Whandall drove straight on. Behind the running men, fires were catching. He could not lead this merry mob to his own front door! Let Freethspat warn them of what was coming.
"Why'd you take the-" Tarnisos rapped the probable corpse's skull. "Him?"
"Anything on him?" Best not to let Tarnisos know what he was hiding.
Tarnisos inspected the man. "Nothing anyone would want. He's dead. Why did you want the wagon?"
"I've got something in mind," Whandall said.
A much easier turn came up. He could follow it west and north toward the Black Pit, then north along the Coldwater until it branched into the Deerpiss-a route Whandall knew well. Two of the runners dropped back, and then all of the rest in a clump, barring one. They'd stopped to gather at a store, it looked like. But the last runner was pumping hard. Monumentally ugly, he was, a barbarian. Whandall picked him for a teller just arrived.
He kept driving.
Markets and large stores attracted unwanted attention; they were looted too often. Feller's Disenchanted Forest was big for Tep's Town. Now, ahead of the Burning and first of the local looters, Whandall pulled up in front and got out.
"Whandall, what is it you want?"
"Dunno. I've never been in here before."
A squinting clerk approached them. Behind him, kinless customers were moving briskly out of the store. The nearsighted clerk lost his smile, turned, and ran.
Whandall ignored them all. He selected two big axes, two long poles tipped with blades, blankets. Rope was already in the wagon. Thick leather sheets loosely bound by laces: one size fits all, adult or child. Wooden masks with slits for sight. He piled some into Tarnisos's arms and some into his own and led the way out into the rain.
The teller had caught up. He blocked Whandall's path and tried to speak, but he could do nothing but heave for breath. Whandall's look sent him stumbling back.
Tarnisos stopped in the doorway. "Nobody would want this stuff, Whandall!"
"I said I had something in mind." He dropped his load into the wagon and returned.
Tarnisos pushed his own load into Whandall's arms. "There's a stash of shells somewhere in there, and I want it." He jogged back in, pushing past the gasping teller.
Whandall dumped the stuff into the wagon. He'd watched woodsmen at work, long years ago. What had he forgotten? He had rope, severs and axes, sleeping gear, armor .. .
Lightning played through the black clouds. In this light the driver looked very dead. Whandall lifted the man out of the wagon bed and set him under the awning. Poor kinless, he'd gotten in the way at the wrong time. Other kinless would heal him or bury him.
Whandall boarded the wagon. A clattering approached...
A wagon rounded the corner on two wheels. Voices hailed Whandall to halt.
Whandall reached for his rage. The guard wagon flapped one great sheet of flame. Town guards screamed and baled out, hit the dirt and rolled.
The teller tried to talk to a fallen guard. The guard's stick whacked his shin; the teller danced. Whandall laughed, a sound like a maddened bird, startling himself.
Two guards were on their feet, running toward Whandall, waving sticks. The ponies were running better now, but they still wouldn't outrun men on foot.
Whandall's wave turned their regulation sticks into torches.
He waved behind him, setting one end of Feller's Disenchanted Forest on fire. The stairs had been at the other end. Tarnisos would have his chance to get out. Whandall didn't want him hurl; he would only to be rid of him.
It was quiet beyond the houses. Lightning flickered in black-bellied clouds. Whandall listened for children rustling beneath the wagon bed, but he heard nothing. It worried him. They could be suffocating. Whandall cursed. Being wet bothered him unreasonably.
He made for the Black Pit.