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Chapter 55

Morth stopped at a shallow rain-etched dip in the rock, damp at the bottom, to pick up a bucket. Then he led them to the edge of an abrupt drop. He pointed down along a bare rock face.

"See the streak where the rock changes color? That's overflow from the spring."

Whitey said, "Right."

Morth dropped over the edge.

Whandall could have caught his robe-would have, were he a child or a friend. But Morth wasn't falling. He was running down the mountain's side, weaving through the rubble. Once Whandall would not have believed what he saw. Morth dropped as fast as a falling man, zigzagging toward the gleam of water that marked the spring. He ran past it, dragging the bucket, and was already moving uphill, laughing like a maniac.

Water splashed up after him. Morth led it, still faster than a man, but he had been moving faster yesterday.

The men threw themselves backward as the wave came over the crest. Morth ran across the dip, emptying his bucket halfway, then turned and gestured. The wave crashed into the dip.

Morth was panting hard as they came up, but he was laughing too. Water half filled the dip. It lay almost still, rippling as if in a strong wind.

Whitey asked, "Wouldn't you love to be watching, first time he tried that?"

"I take it you can't trap it?" Whandall asked Morth.

"No, and enchanting the spring doesn't trap it either. A water elemental is a fundamental thing, and exceedingly slippery."

"All right. If this works, you'll owe Puma Tribe and my family too. Puma you can pay in refined gold," Whandall said. "Right, Whitey?"

Whitey nodded. "But ask Lilac. We change any oaths by mutual agreement only."

"My family might ask other things," Whandall said. "Tattoos, for instance. If we can get you as far as Road's End, the New Castle will ask three boons."

"I don't believe I can duplicate that tattoo."

Green Stone's disappointment didn't show at all. The boy was a natural trader. Whandall said. "We'll think of something. You pay in magic. Three tasks."

"I offered one."

"Did I accept? It got pretty sleepy last night."

Morth looked into Whandall's grin and decided not to make that claim. He said, "One when I'm free of the mountain. One at Road's End. One when the sprite is myth."

"Morth, you have no reason to think you can myth out a water elemental!"

Morth said nothing.

It's two wishes, then. "Done. It's... midmorning? And the sprite wouldn't stop us from going down? Whitey?"

"It stops Morth. Only trouble I ever had," the Puma said, "I tried to stop at the spring for a drink. Wagonmaster, I still think you should have taken gold. Wizard, we'll be down before nightfall. The wagon will move at first light, north to the trail and then east. We don't stop."

"If I don't get down alive, the talisman box is yours, and the provisions in it. I renewed the spell. I'll enchant this one too before I go down."

Whandall said, "That's settled. Now tell the bird. Seshmarls?"

"Help me, Whandall Seshmarl-"

"Good bird. Morth, you tell the wagons-"

"Whandall let me teach you how to make the bird carry your messages."

Whandall listened. He mimicked the bird's secret name, then spoke a few words. The bird looked at him in disgust.

Whandall grumbled, "My children learned all by themselves. Why don't I?"

"You have less magical talent than anyone I ever met," Morth said. "Interesting that your children don't share that disability."


Morth grinned. "You're an emptiness any god can fill. You just can't keep them out. Feathersnake Inn! And you'll never be a wizard, of course, but this you can learn."

Whandall practiced the bird's secret name, blowing the syllables out

with pulled checks, then curling his tongue for the shrill whistle that ended it. He spoke his messages. "Tell the Puma wagons to return at their own pace. Whitecap Mountain has gold to pay them for their trouble. Rordray will get his boxes late. Late and loaded with red meat-mammoth if we can get it, elk or antelope or bison otherwise-and spices. Maybe we can find spices in the Stone Needles-"

"Keep messages simple," Morth, said.

"Was that-"

"It's getting too long. Say, 'Message ends. Seshmarls, go.' "

"Message ends. Seshmarls, go."

"My hope lies in your shadow," the bird said, and took flight.

Whandall and the others began their descent. The sooner they were down, the better.

Lilac drove. Brush grew everywhere and the land was uneven. She had to be exceedingly careful until they reached flat ground, and wary after that. They wouldn't reach the trade road until after noon. A man on foot could run circles around them, Whandall figured, let alone a wizard.

They saw a column of mist drifting down the mountain and guessed at the waterfall within it.

Near the foot of the mountain Lilac made out a dot moving just enough to catch her attention. Whandall said, "Whitey? He might need help."

"Shall I hold his hand while he drowns?"

Whandall swung down from the wagon.

"I'll go. Tend your wagon." Whitecap Mountain dropped beside him and jogged away. Whandall lost track of him in some brush, and after that he was harder to see and moving faster.

There was something about weres, Whandall speculated. Did their magic-did all magic-work better when nobody watched? There must be things, processes, that an observer could not watch without altering them... .

Morth would know. Whandall jogged back to the wagon.

Sometime later Whitey strolled up carrying Morth's pack. Whitey stowed it and loped off to rejoin Morth.

Whandall wasn't sure they'd reached the trade road until late afternoon. Several times he was minded to ask Lilac to stop. The closer Morth got, the more those dots moved like a pair of cripples.

No danger showed. But Whandall could picture water flowing out of the ground into a mountainous bubble, over the wagon, bison drowning, Lilac and Green Stone drowning... . They should have brought a mer. A mer underwater could still act.

They came closer. Morth leaned heavily on Whitecap Mountain.

Whitey wasn't enjoying this at all. Morth looked like an old man dying of exertion. Dirty gray hair and beard, skin like cured leather, eyes too weary to look up. He was still moving taster than the wagon, but enough was enough. Whandall told Lilac to stop and let the bison graze.

They laid Morth in the wagon bed.

The sun was setting, but a full moon had crested the horizon. Whandall remembered a stream within their reach if they could keep going by night.

They were trying to reach water while they fled a water elemental. The irony did not escape Whandall's attention. Men could carry water, but bison must have a pool or stream. The path to Great Hawk Bay followed the water sources.

Ask Morth.... Morth was looking better already, but best to let him sleep.

Chapter 54 | The Burning City | Chapter 56