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Chapter 36




The land ran generally uphill. The flame-path didn't cramp them, but it wasn't quite a road. There were stumps Whandall had to burn out. The horses were grown visibly stronger. They pulled with little effort, but they shied at Carver's touch on the reins.

Whandall tried it. Both ponies stopped and turned to look at him along spiral spears as long as a forearm. Willow took the reins from his unresisting hands, and the ponies turned and began to pull.

That first night they stripped a dozen crabapple trees for their dinner. Children didn't need to be instructed to hurl the cores away: they did it by instinct.

Carver suggested that Whandall sleep between the wagon and the vineyards. Lordkin might follow the scorched path, he said. Carver was trying to protect Willow. Whandall went along with that.

But in the morning he told Carver, "We don't need a guard at night. Only a madman would walk through the forest in the dark." He pointed back down the trail. A blackened ruin, ash and mud, with a few flecks of green growing into it. It wasn't straight, and it certainly wasn't inviting.

"That's odd," Carver said. He pointed ahead. The trail remained black, no traces of green at all.

The redwoods stood like pillars holding up the black-bellied clouds. Their shadows made a twilight even at noon.

Where Whandall's fire had gone, they saw nothing of predators and nothing of prey. They had to strike out sideways to their path to find anything to cut.

Willow picked an apronful of small red berries for them. Delicious. Whandall watched her mind wrestle with itself before she warned him. "Whandall, don't eat these berries if they're growing near a redwood."

"I know. We need to keep the kids away from any berry patch. The poison patches look too much like red berries."

Carver made slings, a weapon new to Whandall. It would send a stone flying at uncanny speed. Carver was good with a sling; Carter was even better; Whandall developed some skill. They were able to feed themselves and the children and to fend off coyotes.

Kinless with weapons. Kinless skilled with weapons. He half remembered the Lords talking of an old war fought against the kinless. How had kinless fought? Had they used slings? Why had they lost?

He dreamed that night, of Lords with helmets and armor and spears leading a horde of Lordkin with knives. They fought a smaller, slimmer people who used slings and small javelins. The stones rattled against the Lords' shields. A few mad Lordkin held their hands out, and sheets of fire flowed into the kinless ranks.

And every one of the fire-wielding Lordkin looked like Whandall.

In rain they had slept under the wagon. They'd left the rain behind, and now they could sleep in the wagon, off the ground. Fire was easy: half-burned charcoal was everywhere. They dug a midden and laid a ridge of dirt from the midden to the wagon. In the dark a child could follow it by feel.

Whandall watched them, studying how the kinless worked, how the kinless thought. How they talked. Always they talked.

Their third morning brought them to the crest of the mountains. Downhill, the land was blackened and almost bare. Plants were growing back. Whandall hadn't done this; it was half a year old. But the going looked easy and the path was clear. Whandall's new burn switch backed through the half-grown plants like a black snake.

"Whandall, this is easy traveling, and we don't need your fire. Let's go back for another wagon."

"Who, Carver?" he asked, knowing Carver would never leave Whandall with Willow. Lordkin men (some, anyway) guarded their women no less than Carver did.

"You and me. Willow, you can keep the wagon moving, can't you? The ponies won't mind anyone else anyway. If you get into trouble, just stop."

Green creepers were sprouting everywhere along the path, poking through the ash of Whandall's burning. Between dawn and sunset Carver and Whandall retraced their path through the burned woods.

A wagon had been left near the loading dock. One of the mares had wandered into view. She was smaller than the stallion ponies, and her horn was just a nub.

They watched the wine house through sunset until midnight before they believed that it was deserted. Then Carver approached the mare and was able to put a bridle on her.

They found hundreds of little flasks heaped against a wall. "Empty," Whandall pointed out.

"Well made, though. They won't leak. Maybe we can sell them on the other side."

They heaped the wagon with flasks and cut some grass for the mare too. They slept in the ruined wine house.

In the morning Whandall rode facing backward, wary that something might follow, while Carver drove.

Carver grumbled, "We didn't see anyone following us!"

"Lordkin know how to lurk." Some half-suspected danger tapped at the floor of Whandall's mind. He watched their back path.

It wasn't black anymore; it was green. "This ash must make wonderful fertilizer," he said.

Carver turned around. "You can almost see it growing!"

Ahead of them was only blackened dirt.

"Yangin-Atep," Whandall said, "wants us gone."

Carver snapped, "When did your fire god become a fertility goddess?"

"Not Yangin-Atep, then, but something wants us gone. The forest?" Whandall remembered days in Morth's shop, Morth reading his palm, mumbling about Whandall's destiny. Could a god read destiny too? "I think that's it. I'm carrying fire through a forest."

"We're being expelled," Carver said.

Whandall shook his head, smiling. "You're escaping. I'm being expelled." And even as he watched the trail behind seemed to grow more creepers.

Travel went fast. The mare grew stronger as they traveled, and larger, but she wasn't giving them any trouble. Behind them the trail's outline blurred with green.

Coyotes had discovered the travelers' abandoned middens. That was scary. That evening Whandall and Carver crawled under the wagon to sleep, back to back and armed.

A voice in the dark. "This magician who killed your lather. Did you try to kill him?"

"No, Carver."

"Good."

Whandall believed he had nothing to hide from Carver: nothing so monstrous as the open truth of what he was. Still, sharing secrets outside the family seemed unnatural.

Into the quiet dark Carver said, "Did you know that plague is a kind of living thing? Wizards can see it. Wizards can kill it and heal the client. Otherwise it grows. Without a wizard, other people get sick too, more and more. We need wizards. But wizards don't like the Valley of Smokes."

" 'Course not. No magic."

The dark was silent a while longer. Then Carver asked, "Why not?"

"Kill Morth? Why?"

"Your father."

"Morth did what kinless do. Sorry, taxpayers. What we do too. If Pothefit caught a looker taking the cook pot from the Placehold courtyard, he'd've killed him."

It was too dark to see Carver's expression. Whandall said, "The Burning killed Pothefit. In the Burning you can have anything you can take. They couldn't take Morth's shop."

Silence from Carver. The woods stirred: something died violently.

"That's what I was trying to remember," Whandall said suddenly. "Morth could follow us. I keep forgetting Morth. Carver, we wouldn't see him. That lurk spell."

Near sunset of the next day they reached the crest of the mountains and found two dead coyotes near a dead campfire.

Carver ran.

Whandall watched him disappear into the rocks. He almost followed. Coyotes might menace Willow and the children! But Whandall was trying to learn kinless ways, and what about the wagon?

Unhitching the mare wasn't easy. She tried to pull the rope out of his hands. He hung on long enough to tie it to a tree stump. The length of it would let her reach forage. She had her horn if coyotes came back.

Then-but wait. What had killed these beasts?

He stooped over one of the corpses. Not a mark on them. Wide blood-red eyes, mouths wide, tongues protruding. He touched the slicked-down fur, expecting to find it wet, but it wasn't.

He caught Carver far down slope at the next dead campfire. There they slowed to a walk, blowing hard. Willow and the wagon must have taken a full day to cover this distance. Carver's hands held his sling and a handful of rocks cracked to get sharp edges. He said, "I wish 1 had a knife."

Whandall said, "With that you don't have to let them so close. I wish I had a sever."

Day was dying. They smelled meat cooking, and they slowed.

They saw the fire first, and a young looker standing tall and straight, backlit, with orange-red hair falling to his shoulders. Willow had the horses tied and a fire going. Then a whiff of corruption showed an arc of dead coyotes at their feet.

Willow saw two men coming at a grim half-run, Whandall's knife point, Carver's whirling sling. She leaped up from her cooking and stepped quickly to the man's side.

"He saved us!" she shouted. "The coyotes would have torn us apart!"

Carver's sling drooped. He said, "Morth?"

Morth smiled faintly.

"Morth, you're young!"

"Yes, I found this!" Morth held out a handful of yellow lumps. Whandall had never before seen the magician gleeful. "Gold!" he said. "In the river!" He stepped forward past Whandall's knifepoint and pushed the gold into Whandall's unresisting hand.

Whandall said, "This is dangerous, isn't it? Wild magic."

"No, no, this gold is refined. I've taken the magic," Morth said. "Can't you see? Shall we race? Shall I stand on my head for you? I'm young!"

Carver backed up a bit, and so did Willow. Here was no lurking spell. Morth wanted to be noticed. He babbled, "Gold is magic. It reinforces other magic. Look!" He leaped straight up and kept rising until he could grasp a branch twice Whandall's height above him. He shouted down, "Not just young! I used to fly!"

He dropped lightly. "Give gold to a wizard, most of the power leaches from the gold. After that it's refined gold, harmless. People use it as if it has value, but the original meaning was, I gave gold to a wizard to touch. A wizard owes me. Whandall, keep the gold. Morth of Atlantis owes you."

Whandall put the nuggets in the pouch beneath his waistband. He asked, "Why?"

Morth laughed. "You're guiding me out."

Whandall's fingers brushed his cheek: the tattoo he couldn't see. "And every wizard in the world can track me?"

"Every Atlantean wizard," Morth said, and laughed like a lunatic.
















Chapter 35 | The Burning City | Chapter 37



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