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Chapter 47

Whandall Placehold came to himself in black night, shadowed by a boulder, kneeling in pooled blood above a dead man. He was holding his Lordkin knife, and it dripped. He stayed quite still-more still than the dead man, whose heel still jittered against the rock-and listened.

He heard not city noise but campground noise. Running water. Forty beasts and a hundred children and elders and men and women settled down for bed. The campground must be just the far side of this rock. Sounds announced a dozen Bison gone to gather water. Nobody did that alone; there might be bandits about.

A smallish bandit lay right at Whandall's feet. His throat had been cut. His knife was better than Whandall's, and he wore a sheath too. Whandall took both. The moon wasn't up yet, but there was starlight and campfire light, and in the west a wall of black clouds sputtered with continuous lightning. In that near darkness he could see lurkers who moved too often. In just these few breaths he'd seen too many to be mere spies.

Would they attack the caravan directly? Or the little water-gathering party? Where was Twisted Cloud? Safe? Where was Willow?

How had he come here? Memory was there to be fished up if he could find any kind of bait.

So. The dead man ....nd a chest-high rock. Rocks everywhere, hiding places everywhere, but Coyote must have . .. had seen this rock as the best. A bandit or two must be hiding there, so Coyote had crept from shadow to shadow until this shadow gave up its lurker. Coyote cut his throat, and now it was his hiding place. Then-

Then nothing. Only Whandall blinking in the dark.

Ah. He'd been counting on the gold! And it all came flooding back. ...

Coyote had become Whandall. Whandall had become Coyote. Whandall was gone.

Coyote held out his hand. Twisted Cloud took it and came into his arms with a laugh, her joy a near-intolerable glare.

Whandall shied back. That memory was too intense. It blinded him to the danger in the lightning-lit night. Women had loved Whandall for gifts, or for status, or for love alone, and one he had gathered; but he had never been adored.

Coyote expected it. He knew how to treat a worshipper.

Sending the girl into ecstasy was not the point. She might remain rapt, wandering in enlightenment while she grew old. He had to keep bringing her back, with humor, with sudden bursts of startling selfishness, or, for minutes at a time, by becoming Whandall Placehold, ignorant and lost, puzzled and horny. This Whandall was a mocking graffito, and the memory made Whandall's ears burn, but it snapped Twisted Cloud from nirvana into postcoital laughter.

Everything was funny to Coyote.

They'd loved in the freezing stream, an hour ahead of a flash flood, while plants went crazy all around the old shaman's body. Coyote loved the danger. Then they'd run downstream ahead of hard rain and a flurry of hail.

And while they ran, Coyote had run barefoot through Whandall's memories. Tracing Morth. Matching Whandall's life to sketchy tales he'd found in Hickamore's dying brain. Seeking more.

Whandall had guessed right. The shaman didn't know of a lurking spell. He hid in shadows like any Lordkin gatherer.

Coyote lurked in the same fashion, hiding in shadows, risking a too-keen eye. Of course a god need not be seen. But that was a cheat, as Morth's lurking spell was a cheat, Coyote thought contemptuously, even as he yearned to try Atlantean magic.

Whandall, remembering, saw what Coyote had forgotten: he must teach his skills. A god can't teach a god's power to his worshippers!

In Whandall only a trace remained of Yangin-Atep the torpid fire god, but Coyote sensed kinship. He saw a city of thieves and arsonists! And himself barred forever by his nature!

The stories. Coyote loved stories. He learned Wanshig's tale of Jack Rigenlord and the Port Waluu woman, and Tras Preetror confronting Lord

Pelzed's men, and others. The story he'd told Hickamore of a boy and girl on Samorty's balcony. Coyote balanced against Whandall's own memory.

He reveled in the performance, story and music and people pretending lo be what they were not. He lived it again while his body ran blind. Plants lashed Coyote, unnoticed, and now Whandall felt scratches and swellings across every exposed square inch of skin.

What he left behind...

Coyote remembered walking from the frozen east across a wilderness of ice that had been ocean, crossing stretches of water he ensorcelled to buoy his followers. Then south toward the sun, he and his people, six hundred years moving south under pressure of starvation. Setting fires to drive game into reach and to leave the forests free of undergrowth afterward. He had become Coyote while they wandered, but he bore other names elsewhere, and he was there still. Tribes encircling the world's cap of ice shared a trickster god, and another lived in the tundra, and in Atlantis another. In the Norse lands he was Loki, who was also a god of fire.

Gods of a same nature shared a life, and memories and experience were contagious. Loki the fire god was being tormented. Prometheus gave fire and knowledge to men and was punished by Zoosh. Birds tore at his liver. Yangin-Atep felt the same agony: his life leaked through the gash that was Lord's Town, an emptiness made by Lords with a Warlock's Wheel. Whandall Placehold had felt their agony in his sleep.

Coyote had kept his bargain. Story for story.

Urgency added spice. Coyote had never forgotten the bandits. He and Twisted Cloud stopped and spread their clothes on bare rock and loved again, and again lower down.

He said presently, "They've come to attack your caravan. They'll do it while the shaman's gone. Twisted Cloud, return to your folk. I will stop them."

"Please," Twisted Cloud said, "don't let Whandall be killed."

"I won't," Coyote promised. He had no idea whether the Lordkin would live.

Neither did Whandall. Lordkin's promise! Still, Twisted Cloud's last thought for him made him warm inside.

Every few breaths he saw more bandits in the rocks, in the dark. They had some skill, he decided. Whandall alone would have seen less of these lurkers in their native turf, and they'd have seen him. But something of Coyote's skills stayed with him.

Coyote had intended more. He moved ahead of Twisted Cloud, lurking shadow to shadow.

Twisted Cloud moved toward the camp, slowing as she came. With skills taught by her father, she would remain hidden from bandits; but Coyote knew what would happen when she reached the caravan. Perhaps she did too.

Coyote passed lurking bandits and left them alive save one who just wouldn't get out of the way. He passed through the caravan's ring of guards. They patrolled in pairs. The boy Hammer and the young man Carver were on duty.

The rest of the Miller and Ropewalker families were on guard around their own wagon.

By now most of them should have been asleep. Little Iris Miller was out like a doused flame, but the rest were up and edgy. This was going to be difficult. Twisted Cloud was perhaps twenty-five minutes away; Coyote would have that long.

He needn't escape with gold! Coyote only needed to touch it, but for several seconds. He needed a disguise ... wait. Why not pass himself off as Whandall Placehold?

He slid out of their vicinity, circled and came back from the uphill direction, a Lordkin stumbling just a bit in the wild sputtering dark. "Willow, you still up? Carter? I saw Hammer on sentry duty."

She said, "Whandall, good-"

Carter broke in. "Yeah, well, the entire caravan knows what we're carrying, thanks to you. We don't just have bandits to worry about-it's everyone."

Carter was disappointed in Whandall. Coyote was enjoying himself immensely.

"My first good chance to teach you how to hide what you've gathered, and I failed you. Poor child. Now hear this," he said with the authoritative rasp Whandall Placehold had spent years perfecting. Heads snapped up. "We are not gatherers. If we were gatherers, we wouldn't know what to gather and what to leave alone, because we're among strangers. Town or caravan, we'd be caught and hanged the first time we tried. But none of that matters, because we are not gatherers."

Willow was smiling radiantly; Coyote saw that without looking at her. The smaller children looked mutinous, but Carter's jaw hung slack. Coyote held his eye until he nodded. Then he went to the wagon.

They'd closed up the floor. Coyote made as if to inspect it. "Did Kettle Belly count this?"

"Yes, Whandall," Willow said.

"Good!" But he was reaching for the manna. No need to open the false bed. Wood planks wouldn't stop the flow.

No need indeed. Two wizards had sucked all the power out of all that gold. It was as dead inside the wagon bed as so many rocks.

Twisted Cloud was ten minutes away.

Any attempt to delay her would eat his time too, and he didn't have lime. Coyote-as-Whandall stalked away saying, "I'll go patrol. I bet Hammer's ready for a nap."

Willow stared after him. "Be careful," she called. "Be careful."

Out beyond the firelight, he melted into the shadows. He'd needed wild gold! Coyote was going to miss the battle! And all he could do now was set this fool Lordkin in place.

Chapter 46 | The Burning City | Chapter 48