They crossed the valley at dawn. A lone black crow wheeled above them. They saw no children. They filled some bottles with water. Water going up, gold coming down. They panned a little gold in the stream. It was only a powder here. They stopped again at the bottom of the ancient mud flow. Whandall thought he saw color in the mud, not yellow, but the odd tints of gold salts.
And he felt the pressure of a lurk's eyes.
They kept climbing. Whandall looked about him, taking it all in, letting his mind find patterns. He didn't look for a face among weeds. That was not how you spotted a lurk.
The bird wheeled above them... and suddenly blazed with colors.
Vegetation was low and sparse, leaving little cover to hide a man. Flooding had left whole river bottoms sprawled across this slope; then years of rain had washed away the lightest particles of silt, leaving what was heaviest; and that must have happened over and over. Gold was everywhere.
Following the firebird's path, Whandall began collecting nuggets. Green Stone couldn't perceive gold until they'd been at it awhile, but then he caught the knack.
Seshmarls flapped uphill in a wide spiral. He was black again. Was he seeking the mad magic in gold, or just his dinner? The bird dwindled until they almost lost him. Then they saw his rainbow flare and followed.
Now Whandall had no thought for watching eyes, nor for anything hut gold. When their hell pouches were lull they emptied the gold into their packs. By sunset every muscle was screaming. Their empty bellies cried for food.
A half-moon gave them little light. It was good they'd brought water, but that was gone now. Unable to see to collect more gold, they began sifting the gold sand into bottles in the dark.
By moonset most of the bottles were full. There was no gold left in the packs, and no light at all.
Green Stone hefted his pack. "That's heavy!"
"Put it down. We can't walk in the dark."
"It'll still be heavy tomorrow. I'm cold, hungry. Father, what are we doing here?"
"Gold fever. We should have been on our way hours ago. Now we'll be here the night." With their gold sealed in cold iron, Whandall was having second thoughts. He thought his sanity had returned.
Green Stone said, "I wish Morth were here. He'd summon something to eat."
"Gold drives Morth crazy! We don't dare build a cook fire anyway."
"Well, we got his gold for him."
"Why does Morth want it?"
"I'm not supposed to tell."
"Not Morth's plans, no, but do you have a plan? Or did you come just to ride Behemoth?"
"Maybe I can find my fortune in Tep's Town, or earn it. Maybe it's my blood calling to me."
"Let me tell you about your blood," Whandall Feathersnake said, "and about Morth."
And they talked.
Whandall had first seen Morth of Atlantis from Lord Samorty's balcony, when he was learning how to lurk... .
One night during the trek to find Morth, Green Stone had crawled into Lilac's blanket and gotten himself a long and heated lecture involving one-horns, rumor, custom, and the rights of parents. Lilac was still ticked at his father for suggesting otherwise. So was Green Stone....
Whandall's father had died robbing Morth of Atlantis. The Placehold men had died because...
When the gold fever really did ease off, hours later, Whandall tried to remember the long mad night of laughter and horror. How much of this had he actually said? Things he'd never confessed.
But he had told his son how the Placehold men died while Whandall
stayed to gather a kinless woman and mutilate the man who tried to strangle her. Told him about ruling the Placehold until Mother came home with Freethspat. How Mother's lover made him a murderer. How Whandall made Freethspat carry garbage ... like a kinless ... and why that was funny ...
Green Stone was snoring gently.
Whandall wriggled around until his back was to his son's, head to foot, separated by backpacks stuffed with bottles. Dozing, he suddenly remembered a sense of being watched.
He swept an arm wide around, just above the packs. His hand smacked hard into a thin forearm, and closed. The arm tried to pull away. He followed through on the sweep, reached across, letting go to avoid a possible knife thrust, and had the other hand with a knife in it. Then Green Stone was twisting the intruder's head.
"Don't kill him," Whandall said quickly. The struggling shape went rigid.
Whandall took the intruder's knife. "Let me speak first," he said. "You're a very good lurk. We'll speak more on this. We need this gold for ourselves, but I can offer you something you'll never refuse. But I'm just not sure I want you yet. Let him speak, Stone."
A boy of twelve or thirteen cried out in anger and terror. "Who have you killed? "
"You're Whandall Feather snake!"
"Your face," Green Stone told his father. "It's glowing."
"That's wrong. I haven't killed anyone in six years!"
"Must be the raw gold," said Green Stone.
"Yes. I don't kill lightly, boy. What's your name?"
"Make one up. Never mind; we'll call you Lurk. Are you a bandit?" He didn't say bandit's son. Give the boy his dignity.
The boy said, "Yes. Do you need all of those bottles?"
"If the wizard would just talk to me, I might have an intelligent answer. Green Stone?"
"Father, Morth doesn't know how many he needs."
"Stay with us, Lurk," Whandall said. "I'm going to let go. In the morning we'll talk. If we don't need you, I'll send you home with the smallest of these bottles and a tale to make you famous. But if we need you, you'll ride Behemoth with us. I'm letting go now."
He let go.
The boy went to his belly and backed away. Whandall had expected that: he could have caught him. The boy hacked under a stand of thorns and was gone.
Again Whandall and his son stretched out head to foot and hack to hack. Green Stone said, "He heard everything."
"I'm not sure what you said. I must have dreamed some of that. Gold fever. Did you ever tell Mother any of that?"
"No! You don't either, right?"
"Right. Why do you want Lurk?"
Whandall wondered if the bandit boy was still out there. "I've been thinking. If ever we hope to trade in Tep's Town, we have to do something about the Toronexti. ..."
By late afternoon they had carried those fearsomely heavy packs up to Morth and Behemoth. They slept the rest of the day and most of the night.
Then up and off at first light, down to the river and up the far hill before Seshmarls' colors flared. Gold madness had them again. They'd have carried more gold, and saved a smidgen of weight, by piling gold sand loose in their packs. Whandall convinced Green Stone that it would drive them mad: they would try to carry a mountain's weight of gold, and it would kill them.
Again darkness caught them, and again they filled bottles by moonlight.
The moon sank. They curled back to back with the gold between them.
From the darkness, from beyond a knife's reach, came the voice of Lurk. "I think you lie about riding Behemoth."
"As you like," Whandall said.
"He's not so big as all that," Lurk said, "but he could crush a man with his foot, or his nose."
"How close did you get?"
"I touched his hind foot." When they didn't answer immediately, Lurk added, "His skin is rough. His smell is very strong. He opened one eye, and I smiled at him, and he watched me back away. You've wrapped his belly in-"
"Why did you touch him?"
"I got that close. Isn't that what you want?"
That was perceptive. "I need a man who sees all and is never seen. Did Morth see you?"
"No. You didn't see me either." Lurk laughed. "When you think you're safe, you sleep on your back, feet apart, your arms for a pillow. Do you have trouble breathing?"
"No, but I did once." Story for story, Whandall spoke his memory aloud: "1 was healing from what the Lordsmen did to me. Broken ribs, broken arm, bruises everywhere... knees, kidneys... they smashed my nose and cheek and some teeth. Had to breathe through my mouth. I'd try to sleep on my side and wake up suffocating, and when I tried to roll over, everything hurt. So I learned to sleep on my back. You listening, Green Stone? I tried to go where I wasn't wanted. It's dangerous in Tep's Town. Lurk, it's dangerous. You could stay here and be safe."
"What are you offering?"
"You'll serve the Feathersnake wagons."
"What do you have now? If you like what you have, what you are, then go home."
In the morning Lurk was there. They knew him: a thirteen-year-old boy, the oldest of the children on the hill. Straight black hair, brown eyes, red-brown skin, nose developing a hawk's prow. He wouldn't pass for Lord or Lordkin or kinless.
Lurk carried his share of gold-filled bottles as they made their way across the valley and up. By and by Lurk asked Whandall, "What are the Tornex to you?"
"Toronexti. They're gatherers who place themselves between me and what I want, between me and the Burning City." Whandall told him what he remembered. He could paint a verbal map of the Deerpiss, the Wedge, the guardhouse at the narrows. But the Toronexti... "If the Spotted Coyotes never gave anything for what they took, if they took whatever they wanted and there was no way around them, that's the Toronexti. None of us knew them well. I think it's always been one family, like the Placehold... my family. They walked and talked like Lordkin. But Lordkin don't have their own wealth. Where do they shop? Where do they get their mates? It isn't a Lordkin who rises from his blanket and goes to a guardhouse because it's time. Be he sleepy, or horny and a woman nearby, be his throat sore and his nose running and some fool waiting to yell in his face, a kinless goes because his Lord expects him. Lords do that too. A boy on a roof does that when the bugs are on the plants, and so does a Toronexti guard. They're weird. Lurk, I need someone to spy on them."
"And why should I come with you?"
"That's if Morth accepts you. You say Behemoth already has?"
"If you live, you will have stories your tribe will never believe and never forget. You ride Behemoth's hack with Whandall Feathersnake. A fire-colored bird wheels above you and waits to carry your messages. You learn what Whandall Feathersnake can teach. You'll watch me destroy the most powerful bandit tribe in the Burning City with your badly needed help. You'll help the last wizard of Atlantis destroy a water elemental. You'll get rich too, if everything goes right. I have never seen everything go right. You coming?"