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ABOUT A MILE from the white ridge beyond the wurm vale, Harnock halted at a rock face that wept clear water. Talen slurped a number of mouthfuls of the sweet and cold water off the rock, then found a spot where the water dripped off a ledge, unstopped his waterskin, and began to fill it.

Harnock retrieved more of his cooked grubs. He didn’t eat them one by one, but took a handful and tossed them in his mouth, chewing them, bead heads and all, like a normal person might eat a handful of nuts. “This was Moon’s recipe,” he said. “Nobody made them better.”

Talen was going to say that was because nobody else made them at all, but he kept his mouth shut.

“What about the crows?” asked River.

“If those two pests find us, the woodikin have birds that can deal with them,” said Harnock. His fur was damp with sweat, and Talen could smell him in the breeze. He was pungent. He didn’t smell as strongly as a wet dog or horse, but he smelled. Talen wondered if Harnock bathed like a man or a cat. The ridiculous image of Harnock licking himself with that rough tongue made Talen smile.

“What’s so funny?” Harnock asked.

“Nothing,” Talen said. “I’m just in shock. Here I am in the Wilds, eating grubs with a sleth who stirs up wurms for entertainment.”

Harnock grunted. “You keep that smile off your face when we meet with the woodikin. There’s more than grubs they like to eat.”

“I’ll be sober as a cow,” said Talen. “And when we’re done, even if you don’t want our gratitude, we will repay your efforts.”

“You’ll bring back my peace and solitude, will you?”

“I’ll do my best.”

Harnock looked at River and shook his head. “If anyone gets us killed,” he said, “it’ll be that one.”

“Give him a chance,” said River.

“He’s hopeless,” Harnock said. “But you”—he reached out and took her gently by the jaw as if appreciating a flower—“you’re another matter.”

River politely, but firmly moved his hand away. “We should get moving,” she said.

Harnock grunted, then turned to his pack. “Indeed.”

Talen said, “I don’t understand why we’re running from them. You’re more powerful than any dreadman. More powerful than that Divine.”

Harnock shook his head. “You know nothing, Hogan’s son.”

“Then educate me.”

In the distance a squirrel chittered.

Harnock batted a horsefly away from the back of his arm. “The lion is strong. He’s changed everything. My skin, my eyes, the power of my nostrils. He turned my muscles and sinews into iron. I can do things no man, no dreadman could ever dream of. Lumen wanted brawn and brains, cunning and ruthlessness. And he got it. He figured it out, something few Divines have managed, although he killed plenty of us before he twisted me. But as strong as this twist is, I was his creature. The Divines always work something into a thrall to bind what they’ve wrought, to keep it in their control. Which is why I cannot fight this Nashrud. He’ll know my weakness. He’ll know how to pick up my chain. And then it won’t matter—man or lion, I will not be my own. And neither will you.”

“Nashrud didn’t enthrall me.”

“He didn’t have to. Where were you going to run? What were you going to do? He was probably forbidden to make you his thrall. In fact, I’m sure of it. You were destined to be at the end of someone else’s chain.”

“Can’t you fight a thrall?”

“I’ve tried closing my doors, but there’s something in the weave of the tattoos.” He pulled back the fur at his neck to reveal a tattoo there. He held out his wrist. “Neck, chest, wrist—it doesn’t matter. They enter the flesh there. That’s what a thrall does. It comes in, inserts itself into you, mind and soul, and takes command.”

Harnock’s wrists were tattooed in the normal Koramite fashion, but there were scars all over them. “Are those scars part of your thrall?”

“When Lumen had me, I thought if I could break the pattern of the tattoo, I could break his control, but the tattoo is not just ink. The thrall weave grows deep, all the way down to the bone. You can’t just cut it out. I’ve tried.”

Talen looked down at his own wrists. Harnock was right. The tattoos weren’t just brands—they were living things. And his had been changing, growing.

River spoke. “You have to wonder why the Divines seed every child with them. We’re not all thralls. So what other purpose do they serve?”

Harnock shrugged. “There are insects like the weem that lay their eggs in the bodies of their prey. Is that what the Divines are doing for their masters? Or is it something else? I don’t know.”

“Surely, there has to be a way to diminish a thrall’s power,” Talen said.

“Distance,” said Harnock. “For some reason, the pull lessens when the distance between the master and thrall increases, but it doesn’t disappear altogether.”

“But you broke Lumen’s thrall upon you.”

“Lumen wasn’t my direct master. Mine was a lazy-eyed priest Lumen had chosen. One day he choked on a hard bit of bread. Choked good and died. When he did, the link broke, and I ran. And because Lumen could not catch me, he could not shackle me with his own fetter.”

“But the Devourer said I was not a thrall. She said thralls were only good to be used and then devoured.”

“And you believed that creature? Why create a blend if you cannot control it? Do not deceive yourself. You’re a horse, all bridled and saddled up, waiting for a rider. Somewhere, something wants to take hold of the reins to your soul. And the best thing to do is avoid them.”

Talen and River finished filling their waterskins. When he hung his over his shoulder, a bird’s shadow passed over the rock. Talen looked up, expecting to see the crows, but saw a vulture high up instead.

“We’re getting close now to some woodikin orchards,” Harnock said. “Don’t take anything. Don’t say or do anything unless I tell you. Do you understand?”

Talen and River nodded.

“This tribe owes me. I’ll get you through their lands, and then you’re on your own.”

“Why don’t you come back with us, back to the settlements?” River asked.

Harnock looked at her. “Why don’t you stay with me instead?”

“This is the Grove’s moment,” River replied.

“No man will make you happier,” Harnock said.

“War is not the time to wed.”

Harnock shook his head. “Come on, then. Time to meet some grub-eating friends.”

They set off at a pace that was fast, but Talen’s Fire was responding better now, and he was able to keep up.

Talen had never seen a woodikin. Decades ago, woodikin and humans had spilled much of each other’s blood when the first settlers came to the New Lands. It was said that when you killed one woodikin, you obligated whole tribes and families to come after you. But they never really fought in open formal battle. Instead, the woodikin loved to ambush. They’d surprise a company of men, attacking from tree tops, sending in swarms of hornets and wasps. They’d sneak in at night with their poison darts and stone knives and murder you as you slept. But they’d mostly destroyed farms and crops, killed cattle, absconded with chickens, and sometimes children. There was a two-year stretch in that long war when the early settlers, having been starved nearly to death, had almost lost.

But with the coming of a Divine, the woodikin were beaten back, and the hostilities ceased. A line had been drawn and marked with the giant border obelisks. Woodikin and humans were to have no contact unless approved by the Divine. Only a few families were given charters to trade, and most of these were temporary. Furthermore, the families were allowed to trade only with the Orange Slayer woodikin, the most powerful tribe.

Talen and River followed Harnock for perhaps another mile or three, but Talen couldn’t tell for sure because the Wilds were nothing more than an endless puzzle of hills, ravines, and hollows. Distance was hard to gauge. As they ran, his anticipation grew. He was about to be one of the few humans to ever see the woodikin in their tree villages.

They crossed yet another creek, walked partway up a gentle wooded slope, and then Harnock stopped. “We’re here,” he said.

Talen looked around. This didn’t look like any orchard. “I thought the woodikin ate bugs.”

“They eat a lot of things,” said Harnock, “but they love tango nuts. They farm them just as we farm carrots or apples.”

Talen had been expecting neat rows, but this didn’t look any different than the rest of the woods. Then he saw a regularity of one type of tree growing among all the others.

Harnock pointed. “The woodikin have paths up there. You see the other trees between the tango nuts. They use the branches as walkways.”

Now that he’d pointed it out, Talen did see them. The closer Talen looked, the more signs he saw of cultivation. He even saw ropes and a platform up in one of the bridge trees. A number of wooden collars ringed some of the trees’ trunks. Talen asked what they were for, and was told they were there to keep other animals from climbing up and getting the fruit.

Talen remembered River saying that Moon was a smuggler. “You trade with them despite the restrictions, don’t you?”

“You think I’m going to follow the law set down by some Mokaddian Divine?”

“That’s how you made a living with your wife, smuggling woodikin goods outside.”

Harnock gave him a look and said nothing.

Talen continued, “Which means you’ve got a contact out on the coast. But I thought you didn’t want to get close to the settlements. I thought you said that was dangerous.”

Harnock looked at River. “Does he always talk this much?”

“Yes,” she said.

Harnock grunted, then said, “Follow me, and keep quiet.” Then he began to walk up through the orchard.

As they walked, Talen spotted many more ropes and platforms in the distance and realized the orchard was large, even if it wasn’t kept in the fashion of the clans. And they didn’t have to walk far before Talen saw his first woodikin. The creature sat high up in a tree, watching them. It was hairy, but wore some kind of tunic and carried a small bow. It had a mane of white fur.

Harnock shouted up to it in a language Talen did not understand. The woodikin blew a whistle of sorts, then continued to watch them.

“What do we do now?” asked Talen.

“We wait. There will be some discussion and barter, but this tribe of Orange Slayers owes me. They’ll give us passage through the borders of their tanglewood and out to the other side.”

The woodikin tribes and nations named themselves for various things. There were the Long-bodies, Bear Eaters, Toadmen, and dozens of others. The Orange Slayers were named after a giant hornet with an orange head. The hornet sometimes grew as long as a man’s palm and had a wing span of almost five inches. They looked like sparrows when they flew. Everyone knew about orange slayers and their dagger stings—it’s what the woodikin had sent against the humans in the old wars.

Which was why the clans destroyed their nests whenever they were found. In the old wars, some of the Koramite settlers had died from the stings, but in battle the woodikin wasp lords had used them more to strike fear in the hearts of their enemies, distracting them, injuring them, breaking their lines, making it easy for the woodikin warriors to pick them off. How the woodikin controlled the wasps, nobody knew.

Talen himself had seen the bodies of a small nest of wild orange slayers. A farmer had destroyed the nest at night by knocking it into a large barrel of water, putting a lid on it, and drowning the creatures. Afterwards, the farmer had cooked some up for eating and sold others for a fine price. At the time, the sight of the wasps’ large bodies and stingers and powerful-looking jaws had filled Talen with dread. He couldn’t imagine facing a swarm of thousands of the creatures. The old settlers had worn thick clothing and special hats with netting as defenses, but even those sometimes failed. Talen had nothing of the sort here—just his tunic and trousers. Furthermore, his head, neck, arms, and feet were bare. He began to feel very exposed.

“What do we do if they send their hornets at us?” Talen asked.

“We run,” said Harnock.

Talen looked at River in alarm.

“Relax,” River said. “I doubt they use wasp lords to protect orchards.”

“Not unless they’re expecting a raid from an enemy tribe,” said Harnock. “We’re very close to Spiderhawk territory.”

“Spiderhawks?” Talen asked.

“Another tribe, named after the black wasps that attack large spiders and drag them down into their holes.”

An insect flew by, and Talen jumped, but it was just a plain old fly.

Above them the woodikin made more calls. Flute-like whistles responded from deeper within the forest. A look of concern crossed Harnock’s face. He yelled up to the woodikin watching them from above. His voice seemed full of anger.

The woodikin yelled back down.

“He says we’re thieves, and that we are now property of their queen,” said Harnock.

“We didn’t touch anything,” said Talen.

“Of course, we didn’t,” said Harnock.

In the tops of the branches in the distance, a troop of woodikin moved into view. They were carrying sticks. Then Talen realized they weren’t sticks. They were blow pipes. The woodikin were famous for their poison darts.

Talen increased his Fire.

Harnock yelled up at the woodikin again. They exchanged a number of words. Then Harnock grimaced. All the while, the troop of armed woodikin came closer. “He says to give up the boy, and our debt will be paid.”

“You can’t be serious,” said Talen.

“It’s tempting,” Harnock said.

“What would woodikin want with Talen?” asked River.

“Woodikin like human slaves,” said Harnock. “It’s a status thing. They might put him to work on the ground in their orchards. Or turn him into a pack animal and make him haul things about. But my bet is they’d use him in their weapons practice. They’d pit their ring warriors against him in a spectacle. He’d be released when he was dead.”

“Ring warriors?” Talen asked.

“You ever wonder why the woodikin stay out of our lands? It’s not just the threat of Skir Masters blowing their hornets away. Mokad buys them off with weaves of might.”

“They have dreadmen?” Talen asked.

“Some, but they also use the weaves for healing.”

“Do they give weaves to all the tribes?”

“Oh, no. Just the Orange Slayers. It’s what keeps the Orange Slayers in power, and the other tribes in submission.”

The woodikin above them yelled down again.

“They want the boy,” Harnock said.

River said, “This isn’t about slaves and spectacles, is it? Could they know about Talen? Could they have been sent word?”

“How would they have gotten word?”

“The crows?” River offered. “A patrol?”

“Gah,” Harnock said and sighed in frustration.

“That troop is getting close,” Talen said.

“You think I can’t see?” Harnock growled.

The woodikin yelled down at them again.

Harnock replied with a strange arm gesture.

“What was that?” asked Talen.

“That’s how woodikin say ‘I’m going to eat your grandmother’s brain you worthless bird-copulator.’”

“That’s a lot for one gesture,” Talen said.

The woodikin in the tree answered by bringing up its small bow and letting loose one if its shafts.

They all scrambled for cover. Talen darted behind a tree. Harnock behind another. The short arrow thocked into the tree a few inches from Harnock’s hand.

“Hogan’s son,” Harnock said, “you are a massive boil on my arse.”

“That wasn’t my strategy,” Talen replied.

“I don’t think boils have strategies,” Harnock said. “They just are.”

“We can talk about beauty treatments later,” River said. “I think now’s the time for an exit.”

“Those rotted hairy blighters,” Harnock said. “I healed their chief tree warrior. They’re going to pay.”

“Not now,” said River. “And don’t you think of sending us out on our own. We have no idea where to run.”

“We’re running down to the river,” Harnock said. “Now, stick close. This is going to be tight.” Then he bolted back down the path. River followed. Talen ran after them. He glanced back at the woodikin only to realize the creature had loosed another arrow. He tried to jump out of the way, but was too late. The arrow sank into the pack on his back. If it hadn’t been for the folded-up blanket inside, he was sure it would have gone all the way through. Talen’s heart thumped in his throat.

Talen had already multiplied himself beyond what he was used to with the candidate weave. But he was not going to be left behind. He increased his Fire. Then increased it a bit more, and flew down the gentle slope, dodging past the trees, trying to catch up to Harnock and River.

Behind them, the woodikin began shouting and hooting, blowing their whistles, filling the trees with noise. A number began to run along the branches after them, sometimes making great leaps from one branch to the next.

Talen caught up to River, the packs and quivers jostling about him, and broke from the last tango nut tree to a clearing by a creek.

Harnock stood ready with a sling and a number of stones the size of bird eggs.

“Should I string the bows?” Talen asked.

“Run,” Harnock said. “Follow the creek to the river!”

River sprinted along the creek trail. Talen followed.

Behind them, Harnock yelled something in woodikin and slung his first stone. The stone whistled through the air. Moments later a woodikin cried out.

“Maggot bird-lovers,” Harnock said and slung another stone.

River and Talen whipped through branches and brush. Harnock and his insults faded behind them; however, the hoots of the woodikin in the woods grew more numerous. There was the original troop back where Harnock was, but a new group began shouting up the slope to the right. Another blew whistles somewhere else in the forest. That group was farther away, but it didn’t take any great brains to know that the woodikin were trying to get ahead of them and cut them off.

They flew down the trail for what must have been a quarter of a mile, the hoots and hollering of the woodikin growing. Then the creek emptied into a river that was maybe fifty yards across.

River charged into it, splashing in water that came up to her calves. Talen followed. The bottom here was a shelf of stone, and the small rocks that lay on top of it hurt his feet.

Talen had only run halfway into the river when something splashed into the water behind them. He glanced back, and saw Harnock high-stepping it through the water.

The calls of the woodikin grew close. A number leapt in the heights of the trees behind Harnock. Talen picked up his pace. Suddenly, River sank under the surface. A moment later she bobbed back up again. Then he too came to the end of the rock shelf and the bottom dropped out from underneath him. He tried to keep the bows high, but plunged beneath the cold current.

The river ran much faster here in the channel and carried him along. He kicked and broke the surface, shrugged out of his pack. Soon it and the wicker quivers would fill with water and begin to drag on him.

In front of him, River pushed her pack along as she swam. Then one of the wicker quivers broke free, floating away. He turned to swim after it, but Harnock yelled from behind. “Let it go!”

A short arrow zipped into the water not two yards from where Talen labored. Back on the bank of the river, woodikin poured out of the wood and charged out into the water.

Talen kicked as hard as he could, and swam for the far bank. The earth there was shorn away by the current. But there were plenty of exposed tree roots and shrubbery to grab onto. Ahead of him, River grabbed a thick root and pulled herself out of the cold water. Then she jumped to her feet and immediately strung her bow. A short woodikin arrow snicked into the brush by her. Others cut into the water next to Talen.

She fetched out three arrows, gave them a sharp tap to knock the water out of the feathers, then nocked one, drew, and released. The feathers and bow string were still wet, and the arrow didn’t fly as hard or as straight as it should have.

River moved to the side, refusing to give them a stationary target and shot another arrow. Two more arrows snicked into the brush beside her.

Talen kicked hard for the bank. He wanted a tree root and aimed for one, but the current was too fast. He missed and got a handful of scrub instead. He pulled on it, but it broke away in his hands, and he splashed back down into the water. He grabbed another handful of branches, and this time felt a shove from behind as Harnock sent him flying up and over the edge.

Talen rolled in the bushes with his packs and quiver. He turned to help Harnock up, but Harnock was already heaving himself out of the water. “Into the trees!” he bellowed.

River and Talen turned and sped up the bank.

Behind Harnock the woodikin raced across the shallow portion of the river.

“Keep going!” Harnock yelled.

An arrow struck the quiver Talen held in his hand. Another came flying for him, and he dodged, then ran for the wall of thick foliage at the top of the river’s bank. He scrambled up through the trees a number of yards, then plowed into River who was standing frozen.

In front of her, three dozen woodikin were arrayed in a semicircle with bows up and ready to be drawn, ready to release a flurry of what surely were poisoned arrows.

Most of these woodikin were a lighter brown than those in the orchard. Some had the white mane. Others had two white streaks that ran up the neck and rose to a point on either side of their heads. They wore necklaces of feathers and some type of breast armor made of wooden and metal slats sewn onto leather.

Harnock crashed up behind Talen. “What are you doing?” he growled in anger.

“Um,” Talen said and pointed at the woodikin.

Harnock stopped.

There were too many woodikin behind them crossing the river. Too many bows in front pointed at their chests.

A woodikin who was bedecked in a collar encrusted with iridescent jewel bugs hooted once loudly and made a hand gesture. The line of woodikin immediately yelled and raced forward.

Talen drew his knife and took a defensive position. There was no way they were going to survive this. Not unless Harnock truly was a nightmare. But Harnock put his hand on Talen’s shoulder and pulled him back.

The woodikin streamed around Talen and the others toward the river. They disappeared into the brush. Moments later the cries and barks of the woodikin changed in pitch, then turned into a racket as this new woodikin troop began to engage the one on the other side of the river.

Talen turned back around. A dozen woodikin remained where Talen had first spotted them.

“You!” said the leader and pointed at Harnock. “Today you are lucky.” He spoke his Mokaddian with such a thick accent and different cadence that Talen could barely make out what he was saying.

“No,” Harnock said.

“Yes,” said the woodikin. “Today you owe plenty.”

Harnock let out a sigh. “Lords and lice,” he said.

“Who is he?” asked Talen.

“A Spiderhawk,” said Harnock. “Sworn enemy of the Orange Slayers.”

“That sounds good,” said Talen.

“Unless you’re a human,” said Harnock, “because then all they really want to do is eat your liver.”

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