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Chapter 5

When it was light, he waited outside Shanda's door. It seemed like a long time until she came out, but the sun was still very low in the east. He fidgeted, and finally said, "I have to piss, and I don't know where, and-"

She giggled. "I told you- -the room is at the far end of the hall under the stairs. Didn't I tell you?"

He didn't remember. Certainly he hadn't understood. He thanked her and ran toward the stairs.

"Lock the door when you're inside," she whisper-called.

The room below the stairs had windows too high up to look out, and a door with a latch. Inside a stream washed into a basin at his chest level, then spilled over into a trough on the floor. It was all clean, and nothing smelled. When he came out, there was a man waiting outside the door. He had the round ears of a kinless, and he looked like the man who had brought Samorty's armor. He didn't say anything to Whandall as he went inside.

They ate in the kitchen. Serana fussed over them and didn't seem surprised to find Whandall was still there.

"We're going to play in the big park," Shanda told Serana. "Will you tell Miss Batty for me?"

Serana made disapproving sounds. "I'll tell Miss Bertrana you called her that." She didn't sound like she meant it. "You'll need a lunch. I'll fix up something. You be back by suppertime."

They went to the courtyard where the clothes were drying, and Whandall selected a length of rope. He went to the tree branch and threw the rope over it and tied knots in the rope. With the rope there, he felt safer, because he thought that once he was over the wall no one could catch him in the chaparral. Not without magic.

The Lords did magic. Everyone said so. Lord Qirinty made cups dance and pulled a dagger from thin air, but it was Lord Qirinty who had wished they could do real magic. But the stove was magic. It all made Whandall's head hurt. Learning things was not the same as understanding them . ..

He started to climb the rope. When he got on the branch, he saw Shanda was climbing up. She wasn't good at climbing.

"Help me up," she said.

He reached down and took her hand and pulled her up to the branch. Then he looked around. One of the men with shovels had seen them climb up, but he only went back to work.

"Can I get back in this way?" she asked.

"You're not going out."

"Yes, I am."

"Shanda, the chaparral is dangerous. You'll get hurt and your stepfather will kill me."

"I won't get hurt if you show me what to do."

"No." He crawled along the tree limb until he was over the wall. She came right behind him. "No," he said again, but he knew it was no use. "Go back and pull the rope to the outside of the wall."

Just near the wall the plants seemed weak and almost lifeless, but farther away they grew thicker. In a mile they'd be luxurious. Two miles farther were the first of the redwoods. "Those are wonderful," he told her. "Wait till you see them close."

But she wasn't avoiding the plants. He stopped her. He showed her lord's-kiss and nettles and thorn bushes, and three kinds of touch-me. "Three leaves," he said. "Three leaves and white berries, and it doesn't just sit there. Watch." He saw a stick on the ground and examined it carefully before he picked it up. Then he rubbed his hands on one end and held it by the other end, moving it closer and closer to a large vine. At a hand's distance, the vine moved just enough to brush the stick.

Whandall showed her an oily smear on the stick. "You wouldn't want to touch that."

"Would it kill you?"

"No, it just makes you swell up in bumps. The vine can kill you. Things it touches only hurt you."

She still wanted to move too fast. He showed her some of the scars the plants had left on him when he was with the foresters. He made her follow just in his footsteps, and whenever she wanted to look at something, he slopped.

There wasn't the ghost of a chance they would reach the redwoods today.

At noon they stopped and ate lunch, then started hack. Whandall took his time, pointing out plants even if she'd seen them before. He 'd forgotten often enough, and Kreeg had had to remind him...

She held a branch at the broken end. Glossy red-and-green leaves grew at the tip. "What would happen if I rub that stick on my stepmother's chair?"

"Not the stick, the leaves. Shanda, really?"

She nodded, grinning.

"Well, she won't die. She'll itch and scratch."

"It's magic?" Shanda asked. "If it's magic it won't work at all inside the walls. That's what my stepfather says."

That would explain the cook fires, Whandall thought. But not Qirinty's dancing cups.

"I'm going to try it," she said.

He stood under the rope as she climbed it, in case she fell. She waved from the top and was gone.

It had been a glorious day.

He was out of the chaparral before the light of sunset died, but the night was turning misty. When Whandall reached the hilltops, he could see fog curling in from where the harbor had been. He watched it for a time, humped above the land. Then he heard shouts. Had someone seen him? Water Devils, perhaps someone worse. He couldn't see anyone, but he ran into the fog, running as hard as he could until he was exhausted.

Fog was all around him as he caught the stench of the Black Pit. The Pit itself was not to be seen. What he saw was dark shadows racing toward him.

He ran back the way he had come, but he was too tired to run far. When his breath ran out he trailed to a stop.

He hadn't heard a sound.

He'd seen... what had he seen? Dogs or wolves, but huge. But nothing chased him now. He had to get past the Pit to get home, and someone had chased him up the hill. A band was more dangerous than shadows.

The shadows came again as he crested the hill. This time he watched. Bent to pick up a sharp-edged rock in each fist, and watched again. He wished with all his heart that he already had his Lordkin knife. He had outrun them before and he could again... but they were only shadows. Wolf-shaped shadows, and something much larger, racing silently toward him.

They were less real as they came near. Whandall yelled and swung his rocks to smash skulls, and then he was among them, in them, and breath-

less with wonder. They were pockets in the fog: half a dozen wolf shapes all merged now into one thrashing bubble of clear air. The larger shape was a cat as big as Placehold's communal bedroom, armed with a pair of lungs very like Lordkin knives. Then that too was part of the bubble, thrashing as it fought the wolves, and Whandall could watch the shadow shapes of huge birds wheeling above the misty slaughter. They'll never believe me. But what a day!

Chapter 4 | The Burning City | Chapter 6