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Chapter 33

The Pit was changed. Only the stink was the same. The gate was open, but much of the fence was in ruins, half rebuilt, but not as neatly as Whandall remembered. As he pulled the ponies to a stop, he found no mist around him, and no misty monsters. He was alone but for the black and silver pools that made up the Pit, and a scrawny coyote pacing the shore not far away, eyeing him distrustfully.

Here was no protection at all. Whandall kept an eye for rioters and rivals and city guards. But the coyote would have fled such invaders.

He found the wagon bed's loose corner and pulled it up. He thought of the long knife he hadn't drawn, and the way he'd seen rats react to being trapped.

The children didn't move. By the wave of body odor, they'd been in there for some time. Their big eyes watched him in wariness and fear. They snorted at the alien stench of the Pit. Seven of them were packed in with hardly a wine flask's worth of empty space to share.

The youngest might be four and five. Two were hardly children at all. The older boy might have been a Lordkin of nineteen; the girl, sixteen; though Lordkin would have been at Whandall's throat by now. The girl was trying not to meet his eyes.

She was as beautiful as any woman he'd ever seen. She was slender, tall for a girl, her legs long and smooth. Surely there were Lordkin among her ancestors. The lines did blur between Lordkin and kinless. Sometimes the results were wonderful. His whole body and mind were ready to drown in the dark deeps of her eyes.

Me held buck. He could guess how he must look lo a kinless. She was

already terrified. '

"I'm Whandall," he said. "The man who was driving you was killed."

The girl's shoulders slumped. "I knew it," she whispered.

Whandall couldn't take his eyes off her. She started to cry, tears welling despite her efforts at control. The man must have been her father, but of course Whandall couldn't ask. He desperately sought for something to say that wouldn't offend her, wouldn't scare her away. Nothing came to him so he turned to the boy.

"Who are you?"

"Carver Ropewalker," the boy said.

"Your sister?" Whandall asked.

Carver Ropewalker nodded and sat up. "What are you going to do?" He was trying to sound brave, but the fear came through in his voice, and he kept glancing at Whandall's big Lordkin knife.

"I'm not sure. I got you out of the Burning," Whandall said. 1 saved you! You could at least thank me! But now what? "You could wait here-"

"Here? This is the Black Pit!"

Whandall was listening to the boy, but he was watching the girl as both climbed out of the wagon. The younger children stayed in the compartment, their eyes enormous. The girl was crying but trying not to show it, afraid but not terrified. And who wouldn't be afraid of the Black Pit? "Stay here with me. I can't go back yet. I'm possessed of Yangin-Atep."

Carver Ropewalker looked at him in disbelief and a scorn he was trying to swallow. The girl seemed more frightened than ever. "We'll be all right here," she said. She wouldn't meet Whandall's eyes or even look at him.

Whandall realized she was more afraid of him than the Pit. A kinless girl, unmarried, her father dead, the city burning despite the rain. Now she faced a Lordkin babbling that he was possessed of the fire god!

"I didn't hurt the driver," he said, in case she feared that too. "I tried to save him, but he was dying before I could get him in the wagon." He didn't think they believed him. Yangin-Atep's anger rose in a surge. Who did they think they were? These were kinless, kinless at his mercy, and the Burning had begun!

"You can leave us here," Carver said. He wasn't quite demanding and not quite pleading. "Don't worry about us. We'll get back-"

"There'll be nothing to go back to!" the girl wailed. "I smelled hemp smoke after we got in the wagon compartment." She peered through the gloom and rain toward the city she couldn't see. "You should hurry back," she said. "You'll be missing the fun."

Yangin-Atep's fire rose higher in Whandall Placehold. She hated him.

They all hated him. She was his if he wanted her, and he did, as he had never before wanted a woman.

They were all staring at Whandall now. Carver tried to get between Whandall and the girl. Brave and futile, a silly gesture. Carver Ropewalker was no threat, none at all. Yangin-Atep or someone laughed within him, and Whandall moved forward, his control stretched to its limits.

Something growled behind him. Whandall turned gladly to face a new threat.

There was no threat. There were only these pools of black water, and the snarling coyote.

Not water. It was wave less black stuff that didn't reflect, and scattered silver pools of water on top, and a deer's head ... no, a terrified deer struggling neck deep, its antlers jittering. That was what held the coyote's attention: the coyote was trying to decide whether to go after the deer. It snarled at Whandall: Mine!

Yeah ? Whandall focused on the far side of the black pool, where the coyote was glaring at him like a rival, and let a little of his rage leak out. He thought the coyote's fur might puff into flame. He wasn't expecting what happened.

An acre of black goo flamed and rose into a mushroom of fire.

The deer screamed and thrashed. The coyote ran. Shadows in the flame formed a pair of dagger-toothed cats who menaced the drowning deer.

Carver Ropewalker gaped at the fireball.

"I'm possessed of Yangin-Atep," Whandall repeated. "What will the Burning be like if I'm not there? It might-I don't-" Whandall's hands were trying to speak for him. He kept secrets better than he told them.

The girl wouldn't meet his eyes. Whandall felt the girl's fear. He suddenly understood what Arshur the Magnificent had tried to tell them: the women of Tep's Town wouldn't play at sex. They were afraid to be noticed.

He forced out, "I don't like burning down my city every few years. It makes a mess. People die. Mother's Mother says they never used to, but they do now." Again he was speaking to Carver, but he was watching the girl. Did she look just a little less afraid? But she still hated him.

"Father is dead, then?" Carver Ropewalker asked.

"The driver? Carver, I'm not sure. I left him where he could get help or burial."

He could see Carver swallowing that: dealing not just with his father's death but his own new responsibility and the ambiguous, dangerous presence of a fire-casting Lordkin. Presently he nodded.

"Father got in trouble," he said. "The Lordkin, you know what they've been like since the guards beat up that barbarian. We have a ropewalk in the Pond District-"

"Yeah?" The Pond had once belonged to the kinless. Now the populace was mostly Lordkin; the only kinless were those who couldn't afford to get out. They must have felt like mammoths in a roc nest.

"And Father lost his temper."

"How do I name you?" Whandall asked.

Willow Ropewalker was the older girl, Carver's sister. She finally elected to look at him but not to smile. Their brother Carter was twelve or so. His hand was hidden, certainly holding a weapon. The younger ones were children of Carver's father's sister: Hammer, Ms, Hyacinth, and Opal Miller.

Carver and Willow and Whandall got the younger children out of the wagon. Two were crying without sound. Willow looked around her and into the Pit.

The fire-cats had become shadow-cats in smoke. They were stalking a dead tree, like house cats the size of houses. Whandall said, "They won't hurt us. They're only ghosts, but they'll scare everyone else off. This is a good place to wait."

"This is the Black Pit!"

"Yes, Carver, I know."

Carver said, "All right, Whandall; it's nothing I'd have thought of. I guess those fences will keep the kids out of the tar-"

Oh, that was it. The Black Pit smelled ferociously of rope! It was tar, not magic, though there must be magic here.

"Tar," the boy Hammer said. "Carver, we-"

"Stay away! These ghosts-don't you know how they died?" Whandall didn't; he listened. Carver said, "The tar sucked them down! Prey and killer together. Thousands of skeletons all down there in the tar, their ghosts in battle until the end of time."

The rain fell more heavily. The tar fires went out, but black smoke hung over them, and the rain was sooty. Willow tried to cover the children.

Carver said urgently, "Hey, Whandall. These blankets, we can spread them for an awning? Tilt 'em so they can drip?"

"Go ahead."

For an instant Carver was at a loss. Then he and the children began to look along shore for dead trees, poles, props for blanket-awnings. His voice drifted back. "Then what, Lordkin? How long will the Burning last?"

Whandall didn't want to talk to them. It was enough to control the rage. But the boy deserved an answer. "There's no telling. Yangin-Atep could take someone else. You'll have to wait. If the sky clears up, look for smoke. If there's no smoke over Tep's Town, go home."

The boy Hammer Miller was still in the wagon. "The ponies have gotten bigger," he said.

Whandall had wondered if it was his imagination. The beasts had pulled more strongly as they ran toward the Black Fit. Now they shuffled with nervous energy. They'd eaten every plain in reach. They were bigger, yes, and the projections in their foreheads were horns long enough to hurt a man.

Hammer asked, "What is all this stuff you brought?"

Whandall spoke his heart's desire. "Or we could cut our way through the forest."

Carver said, "You're joking?" But Willow Ropewalker ran to the wagon bed and began running her hands through the loot.

"Carver, he isn't! Axes . .. saws . .. leathers... up the Coldwater would take us right to the forest edge. We can-we can leave! That's what Father wanted. The Burning was coming. He-" She glared at Whandall. "Oh, fine, and now we'll be taking the Burning with us! I don't suppose you know how to swing an ax?"

Whandall smiled at her. Her beauty would make him drunk if he let it. "I don't know, Willow. Kreeg Miller never let me hold an ax, but I watched. I can drive ponies, and I couldn't do that once."

But his plans-daydreams, really-hadn't run past this moment.

He said, "Lady." He tasted the word. Pelzed's woman liked to be called that. "Lady, there's a world out there. What do you think? Could we get through?"

"Father thought so," said Willow. "Your army came through the forest with the Lords leading you. Those old Lordkin must have chopped their way through. Whandall, you'd better learn to use an ax."

"You're both crazy," Carver said.

Whandall recognized the way Willow looked at her older brother: a contempt born of too much knowledge. "We can't stay, Carver! Whatever we have is all gone. There's a world out there-"

"I've been on the docks," Carver said.

Willow just looked. Huh? Whandall said, "My brother was a sailor. What's your point?"

"I've met sailors and lookers and tellers from all up and down the coast and farther yet. All they know is, this is the town they burn down. Willow-Whandall-they don't know kinless from Lordkin from Lords. They can't tell the difference. We go out there, we go as thieves. Forgive me- you say gatherers, don't you?"

It came to Whandall that he had never believed it in the first place. He wasn't disappointed, then, to know that Carver was right. That Wanshig had told him the same. Wanshig, who held a post for three years and was then put back on the docks in Tep's Town, because he couldn't stop gathering, because he was Lordkin.

But the blood was draining from his face, and he could only look at the ground and nod.

Morth asked, "What if a magician vouched for you?"

Whandall looked up. He felt that he should he startled, somehow.

Morth of Atlantis looked no older than the last time Whandall had seen him. His clothes were inconspicuous but finer than what he had worn in Tep's Town. His hair was going gray. White to gray, waves of orange-red running through it like cloud-shadows as Whandall watched.

"Morth," Whandall said.

"My word should be enough, I think," Morth said. "And it would be wise if we did not get closer together."

A magician. A water magician. Whandall felt Yangin-Atep's rage. Fear came back to Willow's eyes, and Whandall fought with Yangin-Atep. Morth must have felt the struggle. He moved away.

"So why would some random barbarian trust you?" Whandall shouted. "For that matter-" Something odd here. "Where did you come from?"

Bubbles in drifting smoke, a mere suggestion of huge dagger-toothed cats, were playing around Morth's feet.

"A lurking spell. It worked?" Morth looked around him, very pleased at the signs of astonishment. "There's still manna around this place. Good. We'll be safe here until we decide."

Whandall left his knife where it was, pushed through the leather sleeve in his belt, but he hadn't forgotten it. He said, "Morth, you don't just happen to be here."

"No, of course not. I came here because I thought you would. I almost followed you, but I guessed you must be in the middle of the Burning, so-" Smile, shrug. He saw no answering understanding, so he said, "The tattoo. I prepared it after I saw the lines in your hand. I can follow its pattern anywhere in the world. I'm hoping to follow you out."

Willow exclaimed, "Out! Then you think so too! It's possible! Whandall-" She said his name almost defiantly. "Whandall, is he really a wizard?"

"Morth of Atlantis, meet the Ropewalkers and the Millers. Yes, Willow." Her name didn't come easily. "He's a wizard. Once a famous one. I mean, look at his hair. Did you ever see such a color on an ordinary man? Morth, where have you been since-since you lost your shop?"

"I moved to the edge of the Lordshills, as a teacher. It seemed to me that Yangin-Atep had cost me everything, Burning after Burning. I had better go to where a god could find no magic. I never built another shop."

"I saw the ash pit. Some burned skulls."

Morth must have sensed that there was more to this than curiosity. "Yes. And in the ashes did you see an iron pot with a lid?"

"No. Wait, my brother saw that. Is it important?"

"It was my plan to get out! It was my last treasure!" Morth's fists were

clenched at his sides. "I thought cold iron was all I needed to protect it. The Burning City! It never crossed my mind that cold iron can he heated!"

The Ropewalkers and Millers were fascinated. Truly, so was Whandall.

"Well." Morth had regained control of himself. "I never sensed the Burning. I was fooling myself about that. That afternoon I was eating lunch at my counter when I looked out the door at eight Lordkin running straight at my shop! I saw the big one cast fire from his hand, and that was all I needed. I went out the back.

"My last treasure was two Atlantean gold coins rich in manna. Get those out of Tep's Town and I'm a wizard again. They would have lost all magic if I hadn't stored them in a cold iron pot with a spelled lid. It was too heavy for one man to carry. I cut the handles off and made myself believe that nobody could steal-sorry, Seshmarl-gather it."

Carver said, "Seshmarl?"

"It's Whandall," Whandall admitted.

Morth said, "Whandall, then. The Lordkin charged into my shop. I looked back. They weren't chasing me; I slowed and watched. The big man, he picked up my pot in his two arms. I just have trouble believing how strong you Lordkin are."

Whandall nodded. Morth said, "I'd seen him start fires. He was possessed of Yangin-Atep."

Carver and Willow looked at each other.

"I still didn't think he could get the pot open until he caused the iron to burn. Hot iron doesn't stop manna flow. I saw him lift the lid and look inside. Two gold coins must have been the last thing he ever saw."

He hardly needed to say, And then all the magical power left behind by sunken Atlantis roared into a man possessed of the fire god.

"You just don't seem to have very good luck," Whandall said, "with the Placehold men." And that was how he knew he was leaving: he had spoken his family's name among strangers.

Chapter 32 | The Burning City | Chapter 34