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Chapter 35




Daylight. Whandall, dreaming fire, snapped awake as if he were guarding the Placehold with only children for defenders. They were in the wagon, sleeping, most of them. One kinless boy was down by the fence.

Whandall went down to shore, walking wide of that black stuff that stuck to everything. The boy was Hammer Miller. Whandall hailed him from a safe distance.

Hammer turned without surprise, one hand hidden. The other held a milk pot. "I want to get some tar," he said.

"I can't let you go. Your sister would kill me."

"No, not Willow. Carver might. We can sell it."

"How do you know?"

"Everyone needs rope!"

"How much do you need?"

Hammer showed him a milk pot. "This much. I don't think I can lift it when it's full. I'll have to get Carver."

Whandall watched how they went about it.

First they talked the problem to death.

Carver and Willow tied a rope to Hammer's waist. Then, while Hammer danced with impatience, they tied another rope to the neck of the jar and let the rope trail.

Hammer went over the fence. He walked with some care and, twelve paces out, found his feet mired.

The coyote came out of nowhere, streaking for the mired boy. Whandall touched the beast with flame. A ring of flame flashed outward. Hammer shouted and ducked. The flame just singed him before it puffed out.

Carver was cursing him. Whandall said, "Didn't think. Sorry."

The coyote was gone. Hammer was still mired.

They pulled on the rope. He shouted. They left off long enough for him to scoop a mass of sticky black stuff into the jar, waist deep now and still sinking. They pulled again. It was hard work. Whandall joined them on the rope. Hammer tried to drag the jar after him, lost it, then caught the rope that tethered the jar and dragged it a little farther. When he could stand he braced himself and began pulling. Carver went over the fence, treading in the shallow footprints Hammer had left before he sank. Together they pulled the jar out half full.

"Enough," Carver said.

It wasn't that much different from a raid on some shop in Maze Walkers. Lurk, spy out the territory, test the defenses. Then go for it, gathering what you can. Anything unexpected has to be fixed on the fly. Settle for what you can gather in one pass; don't go back for more.

And this awful stuff, which had already ruined every scrap of clothing he could see, could be made into wealth by moving it somewhere else. How did they know? That was the hard part.

Now the wagon stank of tar, not of bodies long confined. The ponies pulled more strongly as they moved northwest. Whandall waited until he was moving up the Deerpiss before he made the Ropewalkers and Millers get under the floorboards. Tar pot on top. A guard would think hard before he lifted that.

The brick guardhouse was in sight, its gates closed. Opening them wouldn't be complicated...

A guard popped out, saw him, shouted, "Staxir!" Two more stepped out to study his approach. They all wore armor, but on this hot day none of them were fully protected, though they all wore masks.

They swung the gate open and retreated back under an awning.

What were Toronexti doing here? Though they looked edgy, weapons drawn, it looked like he could just drive on through.. ..

Nan. He stopped alongside the awning and, before any of them could speak, asked, "Staxir? What are you doing here? The vineyard's nothing but muck."

They laughed. They were older Lordkin, and wiser. "We're not here for Alferth!"

"We'll miss the wine, though, Stax-"

"This is the path. The Toronexti have to be here if the kinless want to leave."

Another surprise? Whandall asked, "The path goes right through the forest? Really?"

"No, but kinless still try it," Staxir said. "The Burning could start any hour, and don't they know it!"

"So we look in their wagons and take what looks good, and in a day they come back, and we take-"

"What're you carrying?"

Whandall said, "Stuff for cutting trees."

"What is that stink?"

"Tar. The woodsmen, they cover their hands with it to stop plant poisons. There're kinless out past here getting lumber, aren't there?"

"No," Staxir said.

Whandall scratched his head. "Well, there will be. The Burning is on, so I took this stuff. I can keep it in the wine house, day or two."

Men who might have taken some of his good tools a moment ago thought again. Eyes turned toward Tep's Town. Staxir said, "We gotta be here. Kinless'll be trying to get out again with everything they own."

"You don't need us all, Stax."

"Safer here. Dryer."

Sounds of disgust.

Whandall waved and drove on. He could guess the unspoken: a wagoneer who came this way with heavy gear to sell would be back with shells for a tax man's pockets. But Whandall didn't plan to come back.

Weeds were starting to cover the trampled vineyard. Whandall pulled the wagon behind the brick wine house. The roof wasn't brick; it had been timber and thatch, and it had burned. Whandall cursed. He was tired of being wet.

He got the children out of the wagon. Two youngsters were beginning to cry without sound. Whandall helped Willow out. Carver rejected his hand. He was still looking at Whandall like a dangerous animal. It was getting on his nerves.

A stub of blackened timber poked from the wine house roof. Whandall let a little of his rage leak into it. Against the black-bellied clouds it made orange-white light and a bit of heat.

Willow looked around her and said, "We're at the forest."

"What is this place?" Carver asked.

"Wine house," Whandall said. "The roof's gone, but the walls are still up." Shelter. But it was not yet noon, and he didn't want to stop. He looked at the malevolent forest across his path. Could they really get through that?

Carver walked toward the woods and into them.

"Careful!" Whandall called. He followed, with Willow just behind him.

The redwoods towered over them. These were young trees, though tall enough to cut the force of wind-driven rain. Deeper in, they would be

much bigger. A hundred varieties of thorns and poison plants clustered protectively around their bases.

Whandall spoke to Willow, hoping that Carver and the children would listen. You didn't lecture a grown man directly if you could avoid it. "Stay clear of this thorny stuff. It's too dark to see how close you are. At night you wouldn't move at all. These pine trees, they won't hurt you. Almost everything else will. Even the redwoods make you want to look up when you should be watching your feet-"

"Where did you learn about the forest?" the twelve-year-old asked.

"I used to watch the loggers, Carter. I carried water for them. Carver, do you think we can cut our way through here?"

"You brought those cutting things."

"Severs."

"Severs. We can use those," Carver said. "But the plants can always reach farther than you think. You think you've got clearance, but-I'm worried about the children."

"These leathers'll fit the older ones. And us." We could cut a path for children, Whandall thought, or a wider path for a wagon. But how far did the forest go? "It took an army half a year to get through, two hundred years ago," Whandall said.

"We only need enough for one wagon," Willow said briskly. "We go around what we can, cut when we have to. Sell the lumber gear when we get to the other side, and the tar, if there's anyone to buy. Did you bring a whetstone?"

"Whatever that is, I didn't bring it."

Whandall hadn't thought in terms of buying and selling. Kinless would know how to trade, how to work, how to find work. On the other side of the forest, Lordkin would not have license to take what they wanted.

He hadn't missed that point, but he was starting to feel its force.

But he felt the warmth stirring in his belly, not unlike lust, not unlike the heat that rose from wine. Alferth was wrong to call it anger.

"This was Yangin-Atep's path."

His arm reached forward and the heat ran through his fingertips, feeling out the old path, far beyond what his eyes could see. Yangin-Atep's trailing tail. The dream held for an instant and was gone again.

Brushwood caught. Vines and thorn plants burned in the rain. An eddy swirled the smoke around them and made them choke. Then the wind steadied, blowing it north ahead of them.








Chapter 34 | The Burning City | Chapter 36



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