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Chapter 38




For a time the wagon moved easily downhill with Willow at the reins. Then they had to use the severs, sliding the poles under nettles and morningstars and lordkin's-kiss to cut the roots with the blades, to shape a path wide enough for children and a wagon. They could have used Carver's help, but Carver had gone back for the mare and second wagon.

Willow spoke: "This yellow blanket, this we use to clean the severs, to get the poison sap off. Use the rough side only. You don't ever touch it, right, Hammer? Iris? Hyacinth? Opal?" The children nodded. "This one blanket, because there's nothing else that color. The blanket hangs here on the wagon tongue, never moves, so anyone can find it."

They saw problems before they happened. Looked for them. They lectured each other as easily as they lectured a Lordkin male.

Carter and Hammer were assigned to hold the other children together. They moved fairly rapidly. Half a morning later, Whandall remembered part of the deer left in the wagon from last night. He dropped the sever, stood up-

"Whandall. Don't try to save work. Touch-me venom can stay on a blade and brush off on the wagon and then on a child. Someone could sit on it. It's clean when it leaves your hands, every time," Willow said. "Understand?"

A blank face hid his rage. Whandall picked up the sever and wiped the blade clean. Willow had treated him like a child, a bad child, in front of Morth and the children. Carter and Morth both had the grace to be paying attention to something else. If Carver had been here, Whandall might have had to hurt him.

In a later, calmer moment, it came to him that she hadn't spoken by chance. Willow had been watching, waiting for him to do what he did.

A stand of lordkiss blocked Whandall's scorch-path, its leaves barely singed. Morth called, "Whandall! Don't burn it! You'd strangle us all. The smoke is poisonous."

Whandall had reached for Yangin-Atep's rage and found only a dying ember. The fire god was leaving him.

They had to dig a path around the lordkiss. He thought of it as showing off his strength, to make it feel less like work.

In early afternoon they broke through the undergrowth above running water.

Through sparse branches Whandall saw a far distant mass floating in the sky: a cone with its base in cloud, gray rock and green-tinged black capped with blazing white.

Morth gaped. "What is that? "

"The legends said it would be there," Carter mused. "Before the Lord-kin came, there was a path through the forest."

"Mount Joy," Willow whispered. "But the story said you could only see it if you were worthy. One of the heroes-"

"Holaman," Carter said.

"Yes. He spent a lifetime searching for this vision," Willow said. "Are we blessed?"

"With good weather," Morth said. "But I think my path leads there." He held his arm out, palm down, and looked along it, first with his fingers together, then spread.

"Magic?" Carter asked.

"No, navigation. If your stories are right, we won't see this again, so I'm looking for landmarks in line with it."

"Looks hard to reach," Carter said. Whandall was thinking, Impossible. But for a wizard?

Morth said, "The world's most inaccessible places are the places where wizards have never used up the manna. I have to go there. Gold would keep me alive, but the magic in gold is chaotic. I was too long in Tep's Town." Morth ran his hand distractedly through his hair. "I need the magic in nature to fully heal. Too much gold would drive me crazy."

He looked at the fistful of red and white strands he was holding and whooped laughter. "Too little is bad too!"

Willow led the stallions. The wagon lurched, and sometimes the children had to heave up on the downside to keep it from rolling over. Still, matters had improved: nothing ahead of them seemed to need cutting. The vegetation grew right up against the shore, and it was touch-me all the way. But the river ran shallow at the edges, and the wagon wheels would only run a few hands deep.

Willow said, "We'll find easier traveling if we follow the river."

Whandall waited for Morth's reaction. He'd been treating Morth like a friend who sniffs white powder: a dubious ally. This might be the chance to be rid of him. But Morth only said, "You can't stay with the river long."

"No, of course not. Wagons don't go on water, do they, Whandall?"

Surprised to be asked his opinion, Whandall said, "Willow, people don't go on water either."

The way she looked at him, he flushed. She asked, "Whandall, can't you swim?"

"No. My brother can."

"I meant," Morth said gently, "that the sprite can't get to me right away, but he must know I'm here. Let's see how far we can get."

The river continued shallow. The wagon bumped over rocks. They had to run slow, where the still growing ponies wanted to run. Carter and Willow couldn't leave them without their becoming restive. They'd grown large and dangerous, as big as Lords' horses, with horns that would outreach Whandall's Lordkin knife.

"I could spell them," Morth said. "Gentle them."

"No." Morth was as twitchy as the ponies; Whandall didn't trust his magic.

"Well, at least I can dispel the stink of tar!" He gestured, but nothing happened. The smell was still there. Morth frowned, then danced ahead, vanished out of sight. A fat lot of help he was ... but it could be said that he was scouting terrain, springing traps that would otherwise wait for children and a wagon.

The ponies and wagon plodded on, veering around deeper pools, rolling over rocks, wobbling, tilting, held from rolling over only by a Lordkin's strong shoulder, whenever Whandall hoped to leave this snail's trek and follow the magician.

Carver wouldn't have much trouble catching up, Whandall decided. He'd find a path carved ahead of him.

They were halfway down the mountain when Morth came bounding back, bellowing, "Don't any of you lordspawns get hungry?" He gestured and sang, and suddenly Whandall's clothes were clean. Even the tar stains were gone. "Now to eat!"

The children chorused their agreement. Morth roared laughter. "I could eat... the gods know what I could eat!" He faced the woods and raised his hands as if they held invisible threads. "Let's just see. Seshmarl, a fire!"

Whandall gathered an armful of dry brush and set a few fallen limbs on it. His touch raised no more than a wisp of smoke.

It was not that he enjoyed being ordered about like a kinless! But Whandall preferred to hide how weakly the power of Yangin-Atep ran in him. And Morth's hands still waved their messages into the forest, while white chased red in waves down Morth's luxuriant mane and beard. Whandall coaxed the smoldering kindling until flame rose toward his fingertips. When Morth turned from the woods, there was fire.

Animals came trooping out of the wood. A gopher, a turkey, a fawn, a red-tailed hawk, a half-starved cat as big as Hammer, and a family of six raccoons all filed up to Morth and sorted themselves by size. The cat was smaller than the ghosts of the Black Pit, and it didn't have those huge dagger teeth.

Whandall made a sound of disgust. An animal might be meat, but it should be hunted! Altering its mind was-

(Hadn't Morth said that once?)

But the animals were strangling. All but the raccoons were reaching for air and not finding it, thrashing, gaping, dying. The bird tried to reach Morth, and would have if he hadn't dodged, and then it was dead too.

Drowned. And a burbling chuckle leaked out of Morth.

Whandall reached for his knife. It wasn't needed. He and the kinless watched as two adult and four half-grown raccoons stripped the feathers from the bird and butchered the drowned animals with their clawed hands, skewered the meat and set it broiling. The children watched in fascination.

The raccoons all spasmed at once, looked, and instantly disappeared into the chaparral.

Hawk had a miserable taste, but everyone tried it. Willow convinced the children that they'd brag about this for the rest of their lives. Turkey and deer were very good, and gopher could be eaten. They had safe fruit Morth had found, with his ability to see poison. It struck Whandall that he had not eaten this well since Lord Samorty's kitchen.

In early afternoon Morth suddenly said, "Here!" and waded into the stream.

Whandall was startled. "Morth? Aren't you afraid of water?"

"We've hours before the sprite can get here." Morth bent above the purling water with his arms elbow deep, fingers spread just above the river bed. Whandall saw golden sand flow toward him, merging into a lump.

"Ah," he said. He picked up a mass the size of his head as if it were no heavier than a ball of feathers. For a time he stood holding the gold against his chest, with his eyes half closed and the look of a man breathing brown

powder smoke from a clay pot. Then he handed it to Whandall. "Again, for my debt. Put this in the wagon."

Whandall took it. He wasn't prepared for its weight. It would have smashed his toes and fingers if he'd been a bit less agile.

Morth was helpless on the ground, laughing almost silently, Hk, hk, hk.

With every eye on him, Whandall set himself, lifted, hugged the gold to his chest, and carried it toward the wagon.

Morth rolled over and stood up. Mud covered his sopping wet robe. He'd lost weight: his ribs showed through the cloth. His hair was red and thick and curly. His long, smooth, bony face wore a feral look, like a young Lordkin about to test his knife skills for the first time.

"That's better," he said. "Little more of that." He walked back into the river and began wading downstream.

Willow repacked the wagon, Whandall helping, while the children put out the fire and wrapped the remaining deer meat in grass. Whandall said, "He never helps."

Willow looked startled. "You don't either."

"I'm helping now."

"Well, yes, thank you. You don't do it often. Well, it's because the ponies don't like you."

"What I meant was, you don't seem to notice," Whandall said. "Morth has lived in Tep's Town longer than I've been alive, but he's a looker. Do you see him as a ... ?"

"Yes. Maybe." Willow laughed uneasily. "He's a funny-looking Lord-kin? Crazy and dangerous, and sometimes he can do something we can't."

They set off with the wagon. They saw Morth rock hopping downstream until the river turned.

Late afternoon. Whandall heaved upward while the ponies pulled. The wagon lurched, rolled, and was back into riverbed that was shallow and flat.

"I quit," Willow said.

Whandall looked up. She was riding, he was walking ... but she was exhausted. The restive ponies had worn her out.

"We have to get the wagon on shore," he said.

"Do we really?"

"The water thing that hunts Morth, it's coming up the river. We don't want to be in the way. And there isn't any shore yet..."

So they wrestled the wagon through another eighty paces of rough water. Then there was a strip of sand and a sloping bank they could push the wagon up, and Willow could sleep forty feet above the water.

Whandall had worked hard too. Had worked. He was new to that.

It was good to lie down on warm earth. The children lay about him, all asleep. Willow was curled up with a tree root for a pillow, comfortably distant from the Lordkin, with ponies tethered on either side, one rope strung between two trees. Whandall watched her for a time, his mind adrift.

The ponies looked up at him. He felt the heat of their stare.

They stood. They pulled in opposite directions, a steady pressure. The rope parted silently. They walked directly toward him.

Whandall scrambled to his feet, already choosing a tree to climb, but a stallion trotted to block it. He picked another and that was blocked. The rocks? Yes, the rock slope behind him: he ran toward it ahead of a pair of ponies charging at full tilt, their horns lowered.

It all had a dreadful familiarity. He knew exactly what to do because the ponies behaved exactly like a pair of Bull Fizzle bullies, and if he couldn't get around them he'd be dead. He was climbing the rocks before they reached him, and then the rocks impeded their hooves. But the slope was steep. Stones rolled-a pony screamed-he kicked a few loose on purpose, and now he was high above them. He'd have taunted them like frustrated Bull Fizzle Lordkin-

But ponies didn't act like this!

Ensorcelled?

He reached into his pants, into the concealed pouch, and found Morth's handful of gold dust. He tossed a cloud of gold over them.

The ponies went mad, scrambling at the slope, risking their hooves and their bones and their lives. Then they paused... looked at each other . .. turned and trotted, then galloped back toward the wagon.

Wild magic would strengthen a spell but disrupt it too, Morth had said. But who could have spelled these ponies if not Morth of Atlantis? Whandall scrambled down the slope, chasing the bonehead ponies.

Willow was standing in the wagon bed holding a sever. Morth stood out of range, laughing, ignoring the ponies who were now menacing him. The air around him seemed to sizzle.

Whandall called, "Willow!"

She was near tears and glad to see him. "He wanted-I don't know what he wanted, I didn't let him get that far."

Morth was offended. "No woman would have reason to be insulted! I'd never have offered if I hadn't seen something of lost Atlantis in you. I have gold!" He held a yellow chunk the size of a child's head in each hand. He stood as if bracketed by suns.

"Willow Ropewalker, I have power! I can protect you from whatever dangers await us. Can you hold a man when you lose your youth? You don't have to get old! And I don't either!"

The heat rose up in Whandall, hut only the merest flicker. He reached for Yangin-Atep, but Yangin-Atep was gone. He drew his knife. He saw Morth's hands rise. Willow raised the sever as if she would throw it. "Stop!" she commanded.

Morth turned toward her, his back toward Whandall. "What must 1 do to convince you I mean no harm? Willow, forget what I spoke-"

"Leave her mind alone!"

Morth laughed. His hands wove invisible threads. A great calm settled on Whandall. He knew that this was the spell that had killed his father.

Smiling gently, he strolled toward Morth. Morth watched with interest. Whandall was well within range. Now... but first he gave warning.

"Morth, do you think that I can't kill a man without getting angry first?"

"Seshmarl, you surprise me."

"Leave us. We've helped each other, but you don't need us anymore."

"Oh, you need me," Morth said. His eyes flicked away and back, and he laughed again. Whandall held his pose. Morth would be dead before he had spat out the first syllable of a spell.

"You need me elsewhere, Seshmarl! So, here is more gold, refined." Morth dropped the gold and danced away. He was ten paces uphill from Whandall's reflexive lunge, dancing between bouquets of swords and slashing laurels faster than the plants could move. In the gathering dusk he paused on the rocky crest and shouted downstream.

"You!"

A wave was rolling up the river.

Tidal bore, a later age would call such a thing. It followed the river's meandering path, growing taller as it came. It would drown this camp. Morth watched it and laughed.

"You! Aquarius!" Morth was tiny with distance, but they heard him clearly. "You great stupid wall of water, do you know that you've made me rich? Now see if you can follow me!" And Morth ran.

The fastest Lordkin chased by the most savage band had never run so fast as Morth. The wave left the river's course and tried to follow him, straight up a hillside and along the crest, dwindling, slumping. Morth's manic laughter followed him down a hill and up another, straight toward the distant white-topped cone of Mount Joy, until he was no more than a bright dot on the mind's eye.

They waited until evening before going to the river for drinking water. The river roiled with white froth and weird currents even where there were no rocks.















Chapter 37 | The Burning City | Chapter 39



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