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Chapter 39

At dusk Whandall tried to start a cook fire, but the power had left him. There was plenty of cooked meat from Morth's feast, but there would be no more cooking until they could learn to make fire.

The absence of Yangin-Atep was loss and gain, like a toothache gone and the tooth with it.

Carver rejoined them by the light of a setting half-moon.

Whandall was ready to kill him even after he knew that the sound of a mare and wagon thrashing through brush wasn't a dozen coyotes. Fool kinless! Maybe the mare's magic led him through that maze of death.

Willow spoke before Whandall could. "Brother, have you been traveling through chaparral by dark?"

"Willow! I was worried-"

Her voice was low and her speech was refined, and Whandall listened in awe and dread. He never wanted to hear her speak to him that way.

Carver lay between them. In the night, when Willow might be asleep, he rolled toward Whandall and said, "I was afraid for her. I was afraid."

Whandall whispered, "I hear you."


"You missed all the excitement. I'll tell you tomorrow."

There were stretches of narrow beach. Elsewhere they could rock-hop or wade. But the moment came when they reached a deep pool with vertical walls on either side.

Carver said, "I'm going to teach you to swim."

At first it seemed the cold would kill him. Its bite eased quickly. The bottom was soft mud, a delight to the toes. The water came to his chin. He couldn't really drown. Still, for a time it felt like Carver and Willow had decided to drown him. Sweep your arms to push the water back and breathe in while the water isn't in your face. Breathe out anytime... .

He began to feel the how and why of it. But already the trees hid the sun, and he was exhausted and shaking with cold. And ahead was the river, with no way up the bank. They would have to go on. How far Whandall didn't know.

There was no fire. They ate cold meat and berries by the light of a growing moon.

The night closed down while the elders described their river trip, and the swimming lesson, amid much laughter.

Presently Whandall asked of nobody in particular, "What do you think is out there?"

"We never get lookers from the other side of the forest," Carver said. "Maybe there's nothing. Maybe nothing but farms or herdsmen."

"Or more forest, or nothing at all," Whandall said.

"No Lordkin, anyway," Willow said.

"Doesn't mean there can't be ..."-Carver searched for a better word, then gave up-". .. thieves. Or old stories about Lordkin. We don't know that they don't know about Lordkin. Tomorrow you stay with the children, Whandall. They couldn't keep up anyway-"

"Carver, I can swim! You taught me!"

"You learned fast too," Willow assured him. Her hand was on his arm; she hadn't done that before. "Now you know how to swim in a pool, Whandall. If you ever fall in the water, you might even get out alive. But we'll be wading in a running river-"

"You shouldn't come anyway," Carver said. "You shouldn't be seen."

"We'll take Carter and the severs . .. better leave you one sever for the coyotes, Whandall. We'll come back when we know where the river goes."

Whandall wished he could see their faces. He was just as glad that they couldn't see his.

For two days Whandall kept himself and the children busy widening the path to the river, giving them more safe space to roam. Whandall and Hammer found unwary prey at the edges of the scorch. Hammer knew how to fish. Me tried to teach Whandall, and Whandall caught two. They ate them raw.

Feeding the ponies was difficult. They couldn't be let loose to graze, because no one but Willow could catch them. Whandall gathered anything that looked like grass or straw, and the children carried the fodder up to where the ponies were tethered. They had to carry water as well. If Whandall came near the ponies, they menaced him with their horns and strained at the ropes holding them to trees. More than once Whandall was grateful that the Ropewalkers knew their craft.

But all three of the Ropewalker family were gone, leaving him with the four Miller children and one of the wagons. The wagon with the bottles and the gold.

Whandall knew nothing of kinless families, loyalties, infighting, grudges. It worried him.

Carver and Willow and Carter Ropewalker might cease to need him very soon. It might have happened already. A Lordkin with a knife would be all he was and all he had, for whatever that might mean to strangers on this side of the forest.

In Tep's Town, a Lordkin with a knife need be nothing more.

He could go back. What could stop him?

But strangers guarded the Placehold, men brought home by Placehold women during the past few years. They could protect the house if they had the nerve; they might have lost it already; they had little in common with Whandall Placehold. Elriss and Wanshig were friends, but they were together with their children most of the time. Wess had another man, and another after that, and never came back to Whandall. Other women were friends for a day or a week, never more. Alferth's wine wagons had nothing to carry. What was there to hold Whandall in Tep's Town?

Here on the other side of the forest, Lordkin might be unknown.

He did not know how he would survive where he could not simply gather what he needed. But kinless knew how to make things happen; it wasn't all luck and a Lordkin knife. They could teach Whandall, as they'd taught him to swim. He'd brought them out of the burning city. They owed him.

And there was Willow. If only. A Lordkin could have a kinless woman, but only by force, and he could not force Willow.

He could treat her-he had treated her-with the respect he would give a Lordkin woman. She seemed to have lost her fear of him, and he was glad of that. But why would Willow look at a Lordkin male?

It was not too late to go back. Take the Miller children. Give them over to the first kinless he met.

These thoughts played through his mind while he hunted food for the children and tried to keep them out of trouble. At the next noon the Ropewalkers were back.

"A road," Willow told them. "And a long way up the road are some houses."

"How far?" Whandall asked.

"We can be to the road tomorrow afternoon if we start now."

Whandall thought about that. "What are the people like?"

"We didn't see any people," Willow said.

"We didn't want to be seen," Carver said. "So we didn't get very close."

"What are the houses like?" Whandall asked.

"Squarish, made of wood. Solid looking, well made. Roofs like this." He held his hands to indicate a peaked roof, unlike the flat roofs that were more usual in Tep's Town. "Very solid."

"Interesting," Whandall said. "Like Lords' houses? Made by people not afraid of burning?"

"Yes!" Willow clapped her hands. "I never thought of that, but yes!"

Whandall got up. "I'll load the wagon. You'll have to hitch the ponies."

Chapter 38 | The Burning City | Chapter 40