There was water, but no stream was close enough to be a danger. It seemed a reasonable place to make camp. Morth opened one of the talisman boxes and took something out, faster than Whandall could shield his eyes. "Used up," he said. "I can't even reenchant it."
Lilac was looking too. The doll was crude, of barely human shape. It had a wild white beard and long white braided hair, blue beads for eyes, and something like Morth's color.
Whandall asked, "Does it lose magic if too many people see it? Is that why you didn't want to show it?"
Morth didn't answer.
"Or were you just embarrassed?"
Morth laughed. "I'm no artisan." He tossed it away. "I'll make another tomorrow."
Around sunset an animal stalked the camp half seen; and then Whitecap Mountain stood among them.
"You're in time," Whandall said, and among the company assembled, Whandall Feathersnake declared Green Stone Feathersnake mated to Lilac Puma. At this time he exercised his first wish, and Morth wove a blessing of good luck on the marriage.
Afterward he told Whandall, "You know the spell won't work except in the most barren of places."
"Then they'll know where to go when things go wrong. If Willow and I had known that, that first year..."
Morning. Morth bounded from his blanket, lean and bony and agile as a contortionist, and howled in joy. Whitecap Mountain snapped awake with a hair-raising snarl. Green Stone and Lilac came running to see what the commotion was. They'd made their bed in a thicket last night.
"No problems," Whandall shouted. "Just Morth-"
"Whandall! See this? Rosemary." Morth pointed out the plant he meant.
Lilac shouted, "We'll collect some, Father-found!" and they ran off.
Morth said, "I'm going up. Climb with me. Maybe we'll find thyme too."
Whandall looked up. The mountain seemed to rise forever, and this time there would be no magic to make it easier. "How high?"
"Not far. Manna's blazing all over this mountain. I'll be back before noon." Morth was bouncing around like a happy ten-year-old. As a hiking mate he would be a pain.
"If you find thyme, tell us. I'll pick what's here."
The wizard began running. Whandall shouted, "Hold up, Morth," and pointed to a plant. It seemed to be growing everywhere, knee high and pallid white. "What's this? How can a plant live if there's no green to it?"
"I don't know it." Morth picked a leaf and nibbled the edge. "It's nothing Rordray would want, but I taste magic."
Whandall half filled a pack with rosemary. No need to keep spices in a talisman box. He didn't doubt Green Stone and Lilac would collect more in their copious free time. Maybe he'd try it in his cooking. They'd have more than Rordray needed.
From time to time he ran across a stone spire. They were all over the place, growing thicker uphill.
Noon, and Morth wasn't back.
This wasn't the wild magic that drove Morth crazy. No gold around here. Was there? It didn't look like places where he had seen gold.
Whandall began climbing. Morth might have gotten lost or stepped on.
The view was wonderful. The breath in his lungs was clean and rare. Stone pillars stood about him. This was heady stuff even for a man with no magical sense.
He shouted, "Morth!" and "Morth of Atlantis, are you lost?" but never with real concern. He didn't think that anything here could hurt a wizard in his full power... except that any other magic thing would be in its full power. Behemoth, say, or last night's trumpeter, which might be another Behemoth.
A thousand huge stone spires protruded through the ground. They didn't
look like natural formations. Here and there stood a stone ridge looking almost like the rib cage of something ages dead. Bone-white primitive-looking scrub grew everywhere. Sage and rosemary grew too. Whandall picked some sage.
Once he looked down and was shocked at how high he'd climbed. Yet (he peak pulled him on.
The way grew more difficult. Then insanely difficult. Whandall kept climbing. It just didn't occur to him to turn back. The mountain grew more wonderful as it rose. Now he was finding steps in the most difficult places, stairs hacked at seeming random into the naked rock. No, not hacked: rock had flowed.
A man was watching him from high above.
The sun had burned him black ... like Morth on the mountain, Whandall thought, though his beard and hair were wild gold and he wasn't wearing any clothes at all. The Stone Needles Man watched in silence, and Whandall wondered what he would sound like.
"Thyme," he called up. "There's a plant called thyme, but I don't know what it looks like."
"Who are you?" The Stone Needles Man sounded raspy and unpracticed, a voice unused for a long time.
Whandall started to tell him. His mere name didn't seem adequate, so he told more; but wherever he tried to start his story, something earlier was needed-Morth, the Hemp Road, the caravan, the Firewoods-until he was babbling about kinless woodsmen in the redwoods around Tep's Town. He climbed as he spoke, and that had him gasping. The man watched and listened.
Even close, Whandall couldn't guess his age, wasn't even sure he was human. Something odd about his nose, or his scowl. Maybe he was were.
"Thyme," the old man said, "there," and pointed with his nose. "All through that patch of dragon nip."
"That's the white stuff?" Whandall had to go back down by a little to reach it.
"Um. I could call it mammoth nip; they like it too. Thyme is grayish green stuff, grows low to the ground. Yes, that. Rub a leaf in your fingers and sniff. Never forget that smell."
"I used it in the stew. Come eat." The old man started to climb higher yet. He turned once and said, "I want your lunch."
"Um. I get tired of goat. Keep changing the spices-it's still goat. What've you got?"
The man turned on him a look of baffled rage. Whandall felt ashamed. "I
didn't know I was going to keep climbing," he said, and that led him to wonder, Where do they think I went? He should do something about that. The wagon was a fantastic distance below him, and the sun was halfway down the sky.
But they'd climbed to the top of the world, and here was a small neat garden and a fireplace and an animal skin shelter set on poles. Stew was simmering. Whandall was suddenly ravenous.
Morth lay by the fire. He looked dead.
The Stone Needles Man pulled the stew off the coals. "Don't try to eat yet. Burn yourself."
"Morth?" Whandall knelt by the wizard. Morth was snoring. Whandall shook him. It was too much like shaking a corpse.
"What happened to him?"
"Got curious. You got a bowl? Cup? Good." He took Whandall's cup and scooped stew into it. Whandall blew to cool it. Tasted.
"Good!" Meat, carrots, corn, bell pepper, something else.
"Sage and parsley, this time. It's always the same except for the spices. I have to grow the parsley. The rest is all around us." And the old man chuckled.
"Feels like I've known you forever," Whandall said. "I was trying to remember your name."
"Born Cam-no, Catlony. Barbarians called me Cathalon. Later I called myself Tumbleweed. Just kept rolling along, following the manna. Wound up here. Call me Hermit."
"I was Whandall Placehold, and Seshmarl. Now Whandall Feather-snake. What happened to Morth?"
At the sound of his name, Morth rolled out of his sleep. "Hungry!" he said. He scooped a bowl of Hermit's stew. Whandall tried to talk to him, but Morth paid no attention.
Hermit said, "Came up here this morning. We talked. He's a braggart."
"He's got a lot to brag about."
"You know, I may be the safest man in the world. The oldest love spell in the world is parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. I grow the parsley and the rest of it covers the whole mountain. You're inside a love spell."
Whandall looked around him in surprise. "Great view too!"
"I never learned to talk to people. Reason I kept moving. Never liked anyone I met. They never liked me. Anyone who can reach me up here, he's welcome."
"I'm lucky you didn't send me back down for your lunch," Whandall said. "I'd have gone."
The old man's face twisted. "Idiot. You'd starve on the way! And be climbing in the dark!"
"Hah. You're inside a love spell too!"
The Hermit stared, horror widening his eyes. Whandall laughed affectionately. Me asked again, "What happened to Morth?"
"Hungry!" said Morth. "Burm my mouf. Curt!" He went on eating.
"Morth of Atlantis wanted manna," the Hermit said. "And food. I did eat his lunch, so I started some stew. But he wanted manna, so I said, 'Climb one of the fingers and touch the tip. Get yourself a real dose.' "
Hermit waved at a stone pillar twelve feet tall. "Morth heaved himself up to the top of that. When he floated down I could perceive the manna blazing up in him. He said, 'Yes! There's a god in there. Under. Feel a little sleepy.' And he curled up and stayed that way till now."
"Fingers? What's going on?" Suspicion... wouldn't come.
"Giant with ten thousand fingers. I've tried to feel its thoughts, but I can't. Too self-centered. I was that way when I came up here, and it's been so long. If I lost touch with the manna hereabouts, I'd dry up like an Egyptian corpse."
"But there's a god under the ground?"
"Feathersnake, did a god touch you? There's a trace in your aura."
"Yangin-Atep and Coyote both."
"So another touch wouldn't kill you."
A giant under the ground?
Suspicion would have made sense, but the Stone Needles Man wouldn't let him hurt himself, would he? He couldn't believe it. Whandall climbed the stone finger and laid the palm of his hand on top.
The land was in a coma of starvation.
Once these expanses of narcotic white weed had lured dragons out of the sky, down to the ridges where they could feed. Then stone fingers closed on them and they were lost. The bones of dragons remained, ossified stone ribs.
But dragons were gone now. Ten thousand huge fingers poked from the ground, questing for prey gone mythical. Flesh alone was not enough to feed a near god. Mammoths were big enough and had magic too, but they ate the dragon nip and avoided the fingers. A mammoth's long nose was perfect for that.
The Giant had been dying for ages, in a sleep as deep as death.
"Sleepy," Whandall said, stumbling back to the fire. "Hungry," as a whiff of stew reached him. He scooped more stew from the pot, working around Morth's hand, barely aware that they were both burning themselves. He ate and then slept.
"I remember when dragon nip grew taller," Hermit said. It was morning, and he wasn't likely to be interrupted. Morth and Whandall were eating. "Thousand years ago. I think it learned to grow shorter than what dragons could pull up. Plants do fight back, you know."
The pot was clean. Whandall licked his bowl. He wondered if he was being rude, but the Hermit was amazingly rude, and so what?
Morth asked, "What did you tell them, down there?"
"Nothing," Whandall said.
"They'll be going crazy. I'd better send a message."
The rainbow-colored crow came at his call. It settled on his shoulder, listened to a whispered message, then winged away.
Morth said, "We should be going too." He didn't stand up.
Hermit picked up a hollowed-out ram's horn. He asked, "Want to ride down?"
The Hermit blew into the horn. Morth and Whandall winced away from a blast of sound, the sound of Behemoth screaming. Faintly an echo rose from below. No, wait, that wasn't. ..
From behind a granite mass too small to hide him, Behemoth stepped into view, and reached. Whandall threw himself flat beneath nostrils big enough to swallow a wagon. "I believe I'll walk-"
"Yes, indeed," Morth babbled, "but thank you very much-"
"Come visit any time," Hermit said. "People do visit. They never hurt me or rob me. It's getting rid of them, that's the trick. They taught me to be rude."
"They did not," Morth, said immediately.
The Hermit snickered. "Well. No, but I get tired. The cursed language changes every few years and I have to learn to talk all over again. I do get lonely, though. Come again."
The wagon was in sight, and Green Stone was closer yet and climbing. Morth said, "It wasn't just different customs. He's crazy."
Whandall smiled. "Likable, though. He keeps giving things away. Anyone who comes here for the spices will have to climb, I think, and be glad he did."
Then Green Stone, gasping too hard to speak, was nonetheless demanding where they'd been for two days and nights.
Three bison-drawn wagons were in view, way off down the road.
When Whandall's wagon reached the flats, they were closer yet. His own bison were glad to stop and graze while they waited. Whitey loped off west to make contact.
Feathersnake's other wagon and two Puma wagons pulled up around sunset. Carver told him, "We were worried. A talking bird isn't a message we could verily."
"Did bandits give you any trouble?"
"No. This last village, there wasn't anyone in it. You didn't-"
"I never touched them! They just ran away. Must have thought you'd
bring Behemoth down on them."