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THE WOODIKIN TOOK Talen, River, and Harnock to another level of the tanglewood and locked them in a tiny, one-room hut that looked like a hollowed-out onion. When they entered, a single green lizard scampered up a wall and out a small window. The hut itself was so small none of them could stand up. They barely had room for all of them to sit.

Like all the other structures they’d seen, this one had been grown from the fat limb of the tanglewood tree it rested upon. It appeared the builders had first grown four limbs straight out from the side of the branch. These became the main beams for the floor. Smaller limbs had then been urged to grow from the sides of these four to tangle together, filling in the gaps to form a solid floor. A similar technique had been used to grow the walls. The small window at the back and another in the door provided ventilation.

River ran her hand over the smoothed wood. “How do they do this?”

Harnock shook his head. “I don’t know. Grafts maybe. There must be some lore to make the tree sprout a limb precisely where they want it to.”

“You’d think our carpenters would want a look here,” said Talen. “I don’t understand why we don’t let the tanglewood trees grow on the coast.”

“Because you don’t have tanglewoods without woodikin coming to live in them,” said Harnock.

“It’s a shame,” said Talen.

Harnock scratched the fur on his chest. “I think the early settlers would have said different.”

Talen looked at Harnock. He had turned all attention away from Talen in the meeting with the Queen. “You saved us back there,” Talen said. “Saved me again. I thank you.”

Harnock groaned. “Here we go again. I thought I told you I didn’t want your thanks.”

“I’m sorry, but this is twice now.”

“Three times, actually,” said Harnock. “That’s all I ever seem to do nowadays. But you can save your breath, Hogan’s son. Your sister’s put us into a precarious position. That weave may yet kill one of them, including the queen. We’re not safe until we’re well away from here.”

“You told the queen you were fighting the Mokaddians,” River said. “Does that mean you’ve changed your mind? Are you coming back with us?”

“She has the Book. We need to get it back. Which means you have to return. Which means I’m going to stick with you until you do.”

“I have a good feeling about this,” River said.

“I don’t,” Harnock said. “Do you know what you just promised them?”

“We are natural allies.”

Harnock shook his head. “You don’t know woodikin.”

“I’m amazed at the queen’s command of Mokaddian,” River said. “Where did she learn the language?”

“Human hunters and youths wander over the borders. When they do, the woodikin capture them. This queen is known for wanting her skinmen alive. She wants to know her enemy, so she makes them tutor her. Sometimes they live. Sometimes they die. Sometimes she trades them off to other tanglewoods.”

Talen tried to imagine living among the woodikin. “Are there human slaves here now?”

“Who knows?”

“Do you think she will actually let us go?” asked River.

“The Spiderhawks used to be the ruling tribe. But most of their tanglewoods were out along the coast. It was Spiderhawks who fought most against the early colonists. And so when Mokad finally beat them back, the Divines gave weaves of might to the Orange Slayers, their enemies. The Orange Slayers took out their revenge, stole Spiderhawk tanglewoods, slaughtered their warriors. But I’m sure the queen is motivated by more than hate. The Great Mothers of these tribes are shrewd. I’m positive she has some long game.”

“What about the Orange Slayer dreadmen?” Talen asked. “The woodikin are powerful creatures without any lore. I can’t imagine them with it.”

“Their ring warriors are horrors, but we don’t have to worry too much about that right now. Every year the Orange Slayers meet with the Divine of Mokad and his priests at a place a few miles inside The Wilds. The woodikin give Mokad valuables and renew their promises to stay clear of the borders. They also bring three woodikin with them for sacrifice.”

Talen already knew where this was leading. “And Lumen, or whoever the Divine was, would drain the sacrificial woodikin of their Fire and refill the Orange Slayer weaves with it.”

“Exactly,” said Harnock. “So Lumen was killed. The annual meeting that was to occur many months ago never happened. The weaves weren’t replenished. And now I suspect the Orange Slayers weaves are running dry. They might be completely empty. It’s a huge blow for them. The warriors and promises of healing helped the Orange Slayers maintain their power. Quite a number of the vassal tribes are bound to them because someone important fell sick and the Orange Slayers healed them with the weaves. And now that source of power is gone.”

River said, “I think alliances would shift very quickly if another tribe had the lore. Think of the possibility of an alliance between the woodikin and the Groves.”

“The only reason the woodikin stay out of skinmen lands is because they are dependent on us,” Harnock said. “Remove that dependence, raise up a tribe of ring warriors, and you just murdered half of the clans.”

“Not if Shim rises.”

Harnock grunted.

Talen said, “So if the weaves were only given to Orange Slayers, how did this queen get hers?”

“That’s an interesting question,” Harnock said. “I don’t know. But you can be sure the Spiderhawk queen is thinking right now how she can bring her tribe back to power. Although she still could trade us to win some concession from the Orange Slayers. My bet is the warrior dies, and we end up having our eyes plucked out. But this is enough talk. We need to eat and sleep while we have the chance. Who knows what the next hour might bring?”

Food sounded mighty good to Talen. He’d been hungry for hours. The woodikin had searched their packs, keeping their weapons, the Book, the other weaves, and wurm egg, but they had returned their food and bedding. They had also supplied them with a large wooden jug of the tree water. Harnock opened the jug and began to drink. River pulled weevil out of a pack.

As River handed him his portion, their fingers brushed, and he smelled her soul. He sighed and took the grubs from her. His thirst was still raging, but he popped one of the weevil in his mouth and chewed. He was surprised how much better they tasted the second time. Or maybe they tasted the same, but he was just that much more hungry.

Harnock passed the jug to him, and Talen took a long drink of the sappy water. They continued to pass the water and weevil until the jug of tree water was dry and their supplies of grub were mostly gone. The meal didn’t totally slake his hunger and thirst, but it was enough. He lay back on the wooden floor and looked out the small window. River settled up against the wall. Harnock lay on his side and draped an arm over one pack.

The sound of the tanglewood about them came in through the windows. In the distance, there was music and squeals of delight, hoots, and drums. He looked out and saw, through the tanglewood limbs above, the first stars appearing in the evening sky.

He turned on his side and soon fell into that relaxation that comes before full sleep. While he still wanted River to weave him a governor, he felt much more in control of his Fire. Weeks ago, it had responded clumsily. Now, except for the effects of the king’s collar earlier, he could multiply and diminish now almost as easily as he could raise and lower his arm. He lowered his Fire so it was only slightly elevated, which would help him recover during sleep.

As he relaxed, he smelled the soul and Fire in River and Harnock. Running with the woodikin, he’d been frightened and stressed, and hadn’t paid those senses much attention. But now, with the three of them packed into the small hut, the scent filled the place.

Talen scooted as far away from both of them as he could and tried to think of other things. He thought of the wonders he’d seen today among the woodikin. The wurms, the orange skir, and the attack on his roamling. He wished Nettle were whole so he could tell him all.

An insect flew in, buzzed around the small hut twice, then flew back out. And Talen’s mind drifted to River and Harnock and the tempting smell of their souls.

Da had always said that when you ran from your fears, you only gave them power. So he wasn’t going to run. He had to face them. But not here. There was a whole tanglewood to explore. He breathed out and released his roamlings from his wrists and entered the yellow world.

The room looked different, felt different. He could feel the life in the wood, smell its soul and Fire. He tested the floor and walls, probed them, and found the wood wasn’t solid. However, no matter how he pushed, the Fire in the wood seemed to elude him. He explored the hut a moment more, then floated over River and looked down upon her. He looked down upon Harnock with another roamling, which shone with a faint luminescence.

Talen moved his roamlings closer to Harnock. He felt the life beneath the fur and skin. There was a pattern to it all. An urge to touch it swelled in him. Maybe if he was careful—he brushed against Harnock, and his desire for Harnock’s soul rose. He told himself he should pull back, but he followed Harnock’s pattern instead. It was said all living things were weaves, and he could now see it was true.

Harnock stirred.

Talen paused. He realized the weaves down by Harnock’s wrists were different, and so he moved down Harnock’s arms and probed there, wrapping himself around Harnock’s wrist. He could almost taste Harnock’s Fire. He knew he shouldn’t be here. Knew he should back away. But maybe he could get insight into the thralls. The first step in controlling weaves was to see the pattern. If he could see the pattern, maybe he could change it. Maybe he—

“Hogan’s son,” Harnock growled.

Talen pulled back.

Harnock cracked an eye. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” said Talen.

“What’s going on?” asked River.

“Something is here,” said Harnock. “I felt it at the doors of my soul, scrabbling to get in.”

Talen’s mouth went dry. What was he doing? Harnock was going to kill him for sure.

“Frights?” River asked.

“I don’t know,” Harnock said and pushed himself up on one elbow. He pinned Talen with a suspicious gaze. “What’s out there, Hogan’s son? What’s in the yellow world?”

Talen lay petrified. “Give me a moment,” he said, then pretended to send his roamlings out. “The room’s empty,” he reported. But, of course, that was a lie. He was there. “Whatever was here must have fled.”

“It had better have fled,” Harnock said and lay back down.

Talen closed his eyes in relief. He had to get out, get away from the two of them. He needed to focus his mind on something else. So he sent his two roamlings out through the window and past a woodikin guarding the door to the hut.

The trees of the tanglewood were lovely in the yellow world. They glistened unlike any other tree he’d seen so far. Talen sent one roamling to the canopy of the trees to look at the stars that shone in the lavender-tinged sky and search for orange skir. He found no orange skir, but he did see a group of pale blue creatures far above the tanglewood, flying across the yellow sky.

Back by the hut, his other roamling moved in close to examine the woodikin guard and sniff his soul.

No, Talen thought. Stop. This was the whole ale house thing Harnock had been talking about. He wasn’t going to tempt himself. Of course, how was he not going to tempt himself? There were a hundred things alive around him. The trees, animals on the forest floor, the moths. But he turned his roamling away from the guard nevertheless. If things went wrong, they’d need an escape route, a quick way to the forest floor. He could scout that now. That was a good task to keep his mind clear.

Talen moved out into the tanglewood with his roamlings, exploring the trees. There were branches with many huts that had been grown along them. There were roads. Pens for animals and birds. He found in addition to a variety of birds, the woodikin kept squirrels, snakes, frogs, and various insects as well. He searched for a path down. While many roads crisscrossed up in the trees, very few led to the forest floor. He supposed that was one way to keep the trees more secure from attack. In fact, many of the tree trunks had wooden platforms built just under the first set of branches with woodikin guard on them.

Talen followed the paths about his hut, backtracked, and finally found a way down. He dropped his roamlings to the forest floor. There were some small gossamer butterfly creatures clinging to one tree. He suspected they were soul, for things housed in flesh had an aura about them. He watched them for a time, then moved out between the trees. There were a scattering of plants, but the growth down here was thin. He soon found a footpath and snaked along it.

He passed a cluster of rats gnawing on the bones and carrion skin of a small deer long dead. He passed through a half-woven spider web. Then he saw a weem, one of the long, many-footed creatures, that lays its eggs in its victims.

Talen moved in close, smelled its Fire and soul. The weem seemed to be sniffing something itself, following some trail. This one wasn’t as big as some of those in the stories, maybe only a span in size, but maybe it would lead him to others. Talen snaked along with it, examining it ever closer, smelling the Fire and soul within it. He attached his roamling to it, felt its weave like fabric in his hand. It was finely textured, but not all smooth. He found a small snag, a rent. Saw the pattern.

Talen pulled on the rent. The weem froze. Talen pulled again, making it wider. The weem flinched, tried to shake him. Talen pulled again.

From the tear, Fire sprayed into the night, and before he could think, he breathed it in. The taste thrilled him; it was like drinking water flavored by apple slices and strawberries after a long thirst.

Talen knew he should pull back, but he tore at the rent again. The weem thrashed, but it couldn’t throw him. Talen tore the rent wider, and a spray of Fire gushed forth along with a flicker of something shining. Talen’s roamling, like a fish, gulped in the Fire and that shining with it.

The weem spasmed and shuddered, then lay still on the forest floor.

Talen sniffed at it, but the soul and Fire he’d smelled before was gone. The weem was dead.

Talen paused, shocked.

He’d just stolen Fire. His mind reeled. And that shining—had he eaten its soul? That’s the last thing he needed, to start growing insect eyes and chitin skin.

Holy creators, he thought.

But his hunger surged; he wanted to feed again. It had been so . . . delicious.

Back in the hut, another small roamling exited his wrist. Then another. They hovered over River.

No! Talen thought. No! He fought the two new roamlings, pulled them back into his wrists, then pulled the others back as well. He dragged all his parts back in and slammed his doors shut.

He opened his eyes to the darkness of the hut and held up his arms. What were these things? His mind cast back to the battle with the Devourer and the monster stuffing his parts back in. Had it stuffed a part of itself back in with him?

The Devourer had said the Glory would oversee the harvest of souls. He hadn’t known exactly what that meant. But he knew he desired it.

He’d been bred to be a butcher. The truth of that sounded through him—he’d been bred to be a butcher, and to go at it with an appetite.

Sleep fled him, and he lay in the dark hut, listening to the breathing of Harnock and River, holding his roamlings tight in his flesh. His blend was awakening. Surely tonight he’d crossed some line. How long would it be before he lost control?

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