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THE COLD RIVER water dripped out of Talen’s saturated clothes and onto the ground. His Fire raged. He’d multiplied himself far beyond where he’d ever gone. He was ready to attack. Ready to flee. He said, “How are we going to get out of this?”

“We?” asked Harnock. “I’m not human; they’re not looking to eat my liver.”

“Harnock,” River reprimanded.

“I don’t know if I can save even you,” Harnock said to her. “So be quiet.”

Down by the river, the fighting broke off, and it sounded like the Orange Slayers were retreating to the bank on the far side. In front of Talen, the Spiderhawk woodikin leader folded his arms. He swayed from side to side, thinking. His collar was resplendent with the shining carapaces of a multitude of jewel bugs that glistened in lines of turquoise, gold, and green.

“You will come with us,” said the leader. “You fight, we will kill you.”

“We will not fight,” said Harnock.

“You try to escape, we will kill you.”

“We will not try,” Harnock said. “We will talk of trade.”

“Yes,” the leader said. “You owe plenty.”

The leader said something in woodikin, and three of the soldiers walked forward with cords.

“Let them bind you,” said Harnock.

The three woodikin came forward, teeth bared, moving with a smooth grace. These wore necklaces strung with the bodies of jewel bugs and the fat pincers of black, tree scorpions. Talen expected the woodikin to stink, but they smelled vaguely of pine.

The woodikin bound Talen’s hands behind his back. They did the same to the others. Then they searched them all and took their packs. One of the woodikin found the wurm’s egg Harnock had stolen, and the other woodikin soldiers chirped a loud approval. The woodikin leader came forward, took the egg, and smiled.

When the other woodikin finished searching the trio and their belongings, the leader walked up to Talen. A long white moustache fell past both edges of his mouth to his jaw. Three rings pierced one of his ears. He stood only as high as Talen’s chest, but he was thick-limbed, powerfully built.

He slapped Talen’s chest, prodded his belly, felt his arms. He walked around behind and prodded him where his liver would be and pinched him as if gauging his quality. He shouted something in woodikin. The other woodikin hooted soft and low.

“What did he say?” asked Talen.

“He said they’d probably have to make jerky out of you to make you palatable.”

“Yes,” Talen said addressing the leader. “I’m very bad meat.”

The leader struck Talen in the side, the pain sending Talen to one knee.

“You will be quiet,” said the leader.

“Chot,” said Harnock inclining his head in respect. “He is a stupid boy.”

“So says the man-lion,” said the leader. His face curled in disgust. “The friend of the Orange Slayers.”

“I would be a Spiderhawk friend,” said Harnock.

“Ssa!” said the woodikin and held up his hand for Harnock to be quiet. “You will run now. And you will not try to escape.”

* * *

Talen and the others did run. Their path followed a worn trail that took them deeper into the Wilds. Before and behind them loped the woodikin warriors, sometimes on two legs, sometimes using their long arms as a third and fourth leg. As they ran, other troops appeared out of the woods and joined them until it seemed the woods and trees surged with Spiderhawks.

River stumbled once, tumbling into the dust. Harnock told the woodikin she was sick, but the Spiderhawks didn’t care. They hauled her to her feet and prodded her until she was running again as fast as they had gone before. They led their captives up and down hills, along hollows. As they ran the miles, Talen’s bindings chafed. And because he couldn’t move his arms freely, they began to fall asleep.

They skirted a small lake where a group of woodikin fished with nets. After the lake, the woods changed, showing more signs of cultivation and more woodikin. More than he would have imagined.

The group ran alongside a large tango nut orchard, woodikin high up in the trees shouting down to the troop that hustled Talen and the others along. Talen’s thirst and hunger grew. He kept waiting for a chance to escape, for Harnock to do something, but he realized their best chance had been at the river. So he diminished his Fire until it was elevated just enough for him to keep up with the troop.

And that was another puzzling thing. The woodikin ran with great speed, but didn’t seem to be multiplied. He looked for signs of lore, but none of the woodikin wore anything that remotely looked like a weave. They were running under their own power.

Above him, a woodikin took a flying leap from the fat branch of a large tree. The branch was at least twenty feet off the ground, but the woodikin landed with a roll and was immediately up and running. He saw another younger, smaller woodikin do the same not one minute later.

Talen was astounded. What human could match that without being multiplied? He ran on, pondering the strength of these creatures.

The autumn wind blew through the woods and swirled a light rain of bright fluttering leaves upon them. Soon the trail widened into a main thoroughfare. Up ahead in the distance, a huge mass of giant trees rose above the rest of the forest. The tree trunks were dark at the bottom but lightened as they rose until the wood at the top seemed white. The leaves were a deep blue green. The span of their branches stretched out dozens of yards on either side.

“A tanglewood,” said River.

“Aye,” said Harnock.

Talen was in awe. He’d known tanglewoods were supposed to be large, but this one looked like it stretched a mile wide, maybe more. And each of the trees reached hundreds of feet into the air. Some tribes of woodikin lived in burrows in the ground. But the majority of woodikin lived in towns built in the giant tanglewood trees. The trees were evergreen, but not of the pine family. Instead, their leaves were flat and arranged into large fan shapes. At one time, mature tanglewoods had existed out on the coast in the human lands, but after the wars with the woodikin ended, the Divines had ordered them cut down. Ever since that time, every Mokaddian and Koramite was duty bound to chop down any tanglewood tree they found. Over the decades, tanglewood trees had become scarce in the settled lands.

Talen avoided a stone in the path. He said, “Is this a major tanglewood?”

“The Spiderhawks are a powerful tribe,” said Harnock. “Their territory stretches past the southern end of the clan lands. They have five tanglewoods. This is their largest; it’s the queen’s seat.”

“How many woodikin live here?”

“Ten, twenty thousand,” said Harnock.

The woodikin leader smacked Talen with a rod. “Ssa!” he said. “You will be quiet.”

Talen shut his mouth and looked down at the ground, running with his hands still tied behind his back.

The leader said, “You will go to the queen, then I will get you, skinman. I will make your hide into fine leather. This winter you will keep me warm.” Then he hooted and ran to the head of the warriors.

Wonderful, Talen thought, watching the leader’s back. I hope my skin gives you enough for shirt and trousers. He looked over at River, but she appeared not to have heard the brief exchange. She was tiring. He wanted to comfort her, but didn’t dare open his mouth.

They continued to follow the wide thoroughfare toward the tanglewood. As they approached, more woodikin flocked to the sides of the roads to view them. Only then did the leader slow the procession. Then the forest gave way to patches of open land.

Talen had not expected the woodikin to farm, but autumn fields and gardens surrounded the tanglewood. However, the gardens were planted in clumps and masses, not in straight lines like those of the Clans.

Up ahead, a few dozen woodikin worked on the side of the road braiding ropes. In a tree above the braiders, small woodikin children played some game that involved a pig bladder. As Talen jogged past, he saw the children were no taller than the calf of his leg. A bit farther down the road, they passed a group of woodikin pulling crocks out of a large clay oven. The crocks were stuffed with some kind of baked insect. One of the woodikin there wore a shawl of feathers, black at the shoulders and white below. All over the fields hundreds of woodikin worked.

Talen was amazed at what he was seeing. He’d never imagined there were so many bloodthirsty brutes just beyond the borders. Of course, he could see why few who ventured deep into the Wilds ever came back to tell the tale.

A cluster of eight smaller tanglewood trees stood off the side of the road. Talen and the others jogged under the shade of the soaring branches. Each tree was of a different height, the dark bark running to white high above. Ropes and odd bridges connected many branches.

The main tree in this tiny tangle was immense. Twelve people might hold hands and still not reach around its circumference. A small flock of birds wheeled around the upper portion of the tree, but he could not see the top. He was trying to gauge how far up the birds were, when a woodikin leapt out of the tanglewood tree into the air.

“Goh,” he said.

Talen waited for the woodikin to plummet to its death. A twenty foot drop was one thing, but that woodikin had to be over a hundred feet in the air. However, the woodikin didn’t fall. It extended its arms and legs and, with some fabric that made it look like a flying squirrel, glided to a platform on another tree.

“Did you see that?” Talen asked.

“They weave those wings from some kind of silk,” said Harnock. “And so woodikin can, for short distances, fly.”

Talen was astounded yet again.

They continued forward, moving beyond the small tangle, woodikin coming to get a look at them. Some tried to throw things at Talen and the others, but the troop leader hollered at them, and the hazing stopped. They crossed a stream, then proceeded up the road leading to the massive tanglewood.

The shouts and hoots of many creatures came from the tanglewood. A flock of birds wheeled about the canopy of leaves. In the heights, woodikin moved along ropes and platforms that led between lines of small, low huts that were cantilevered out from a number of thick branches. In the higher branches of the tanglewood, all was light and activity. Below on the ground was different. The thick tangle of branches above crowded out the light, plunging the floor of the wood into a deep gloom, allowing very little to grow there.

Talen and the others came to the outer edge of the wood, and the leader halted them. The many woodikin who had continued to follow them gathered around, watching. The woodikin troop leader yelled at the crowd. He yelled again, and the crowd moved back.

The lowest branches of this part of the tanglewood soared forty feet above the ground. Woodikin on one of the largest branches threw down a dozen ropes that were knotted every foot or so. A number of the warriors that had captured Talen and the others began to swarm up the ropes.

The leader watched them climb, then produced a knife and turned to Talen and the others. He licked his lips. “You will climb,” he said. “You will follow me. If you run, I will kill you. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” said Harnock.

“Agreed?” the leader prompted again, looking at Talen and River.

“Agreed,” Talen and River both said.

The leader bared his teeth, stroked his long moustache, then walked up to each of them and untied their bonds. He stepped back, watching them as if he expected them to run.

Talen rolled his back and shoulders. He rubbed his wrists where the cords had bit into them and swung his arms trying to get the feeling back into his fingers. He was parched. His spittle had dried at the corners of his mouth and around his lips. “Do you have water?” he asked the leader.

“You will not speak,” said the leader. “You will climb.”

Talen’s tongue was sticking to the roof of his dry mouth. But he didn’t want to provoke the leader. Nor did he want to fall. So despite his thirst, he began to increase his Fire.

“Up,” said the leader and motioned toward the branch.

Harnock motioned for Talen and River to take a rope.

Talen grabbed one that was close; he grasped the knots with his hands, pressed down on others with the soles of his feet, and began to climb. The leader watched them for a while, then took another rope. Like the other woodikin, he seemed to race up the rope with great ease. He beat Talen to the top and climbed onto the wide branch just as Harnock did.

Talen climbed onto the branch, then turned to help River up. She was sweating and grimacing and clearly not yet fully recovered from her brush with death.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

She gritted her teeth. “I’ll make it,” she said.

But he took her hand anyway to keep her from falling.

The top of the fat tree branch was lined with a crisscrossed runner of thin rope, almost like a long mat. As they walked, he became grateful for the traction it provided. There were also guide ropes looped through small sturdy branches that seemed to have been grown just for that purpose. However, the guide ropes were built for woodikin and were too low to use without crouching.

Talen looked down at the ground forty feet below and the crowd of woodikin looking up at them. Hundreds of feet above, woodikin traversed rope bridges and branches. It made him dizzy, and he focused on the branch in front of him.

“Come,” said the leader.

They followed the fat branch to the trunk of the massive tree, walked straight through a tunnel to the other side and followed another branch leading away. The branches did indeed tangle, growing from one tree to the next, wrapping and intertwining. However, it appeared that the growth wasn’t haphazard. There was an order to it. In the distance a perfectly arched bridge spanned a gap in the tanglewood. The arched bridge was still alive with greenery. In fact, the whole length was covered with living wood that had been trained into lattices.

They came to a branch that sloped from the lower branch to a higher one. Rope mats lined the surface. Guide posts grew out of the sides to hold the safety ropes. There were also bumps protruding at even intervals along the upper length of the branch. They weren’t blocky human stairs, but the leader and the other woodikin scrambled up the branch using them as steps. Talen and the others followed.

They traveled along another branch that split, up a bridge, across another branch, up a rope, another bridge—always up. Talen was sweating and panting from the climb. He watched River, making sure she didn’t stumble.

They finally joined a wide road, formed where numerous branches from two parallel curving lines of trees met. The road was wide and flat on the top, wide enough for ten woodikin to run abreast with ease. Supporting branches grew in arches above the road. Branches acting as struts grew up to it from beneath. As before, the rope mats lined the wood walkway although the rope here was more worn. He looked over the side of the railing to the gloom below. They were at least a hundred and fifty feet in the air.

Half of him was scared to death of what the woodikin might do to them. But the other half looked about in wonder at what the woodikin did with their tanglewood trees. From the outside, he’d expected all to be a dense wild tangle, like a huge briar. But here it was all graceful order. Great open spaces reached to the the sky and let in the light. There were houses, walkways, flowers and fronds growing in the crooks of limbs, and other plants growing into the flesh of the tanglewood tree itself. Tree limbs had been trained into a variety of shapes.

He passed a branch that led away from this main road to a line of huts standing perhaps twenty yards away on another branch. The huts had been, not built, but grown from a curving lattice of limbs and daubed with something to make them tight. A small flock of bright red and white birds perched atop a limb that grew out of one of the houses. They startled and took flight.

To the side of another house grew a knot of branches. A small woodikin child played among them. As they walked, the sound of odd pipes or flutes carried to them from the distance as did the hoots and chattering of other woodikin.

They finally came to the massive trunk of a tree and stopped. In the crook of a branch was a dry oval basin. Wooden cups were tied to the railing. The leader unplugged a tube that was embedded into the bark of the tree above the dry basin. Water flowed out of the tube. He filled his cup and drank. There were four other tubes. The warriors unplugged these and drank as well. Talen wondered how much water moved up and down the length of such a massive tree.

Talen tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry. He despaired that the leader would refuse them a drink, but when all the warriors had finished, the leader motioned Talen and the others forward.

Talen took the cup from the leader’s hand and filled it. The sap was clear and fluid as water, but when he drank it, there was a slight bitter and leafy taste to it. Nevertheless, it was cool and felt wonderful on his throat.

He went to fill his cup again, but the leader plugged the tube.

Talen bowed. “Thank you,” he said, wanting so much to beg him to unplug the tube again.

The leader glared at him. “You will move.”

Talen and the others continued along this wide road, deeper and deeper into the wood, until they came to a place where an oval gap in the trees stretched at least fifty yards across. On the ground at the bottom way below, a few woodikin tended a small herd of spotted boar. From there to the top of the tanglewood, the branches of the trees surrounding the gap were filled with woodikin structures. Many were larger than the huts he’d seen to this point. However one at the top stood out from all the rest.

Up another level from Talen, at the top of a gigantic tree, grew a building five times the size of any of the others. Its limbs had been trained into graceful whirls and fanciful shapes. There was a wildcat, a bear, a flock of birds, a snake, and one bough that wrapped around the whole thing that looked like a trailing swarm of wasps. Flowers and vines grew from crooks and crannies, trailing down into the air below, although some had turned brown with the change in season.

Armed woodikin stood on platforms below and around this building. The only path to the entrance was to follow a short bridge, wide enough for only one person, to a platform, and then a wider path from that first platform to another at the front of the house.

The leader left them and ascended to the house. As they waited, Talen listened to an odd but beautiful tune being played on some kind of flute in the distance with drums and then to a noisy flock of birds that flew into a tree only to rush out again.

The leader soon returned. He said, “You will put your hands behind your backs.”

Talen and the others did so. The leader bound them tightly with cords. “When you see the Great Queen, you will go upon the floor. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” said Talen and the others.

The leader grunted and walked up the bridge to the first platform. Harnock and River followed. Talen brought up the rear, but with his hands tied behind his back, it was difficult to keep his balance. He tried to soften his focus so he couldn’t see how far below the ground was. He watched River, hoping she didn’t fall. From a variety of positions around the clearing, a number of inhabitants of the tanglewood stopped to watch Talen and the others. The leader ascended to the second platform in front of the large house. Talen and the others followed and found a number of warriors standing there as well as some woodikin females.

On a large branch to the side of the platform sat a woodikin wearing a mantle of black feathers worked with others that were cornflower blue. A rope festooned with silver bangles hung at his waist. Behind him was a long rent in the tree. Wasps flew in and out of it, and Talen suspected the woodikin was one of the famed wasp lords.

The troop leader halted them in the middle of the platform before the house. It was obviously an audience area. Now that Talen was closer to the house, he saw that the figures of the wasps and other animals around the house had not been carved in the wood. The wood had instead been grown into those shapes. The skill to do such a thing was amazing. A silken cushion lay on a raised dais in front of the house. Behind that stood a door beautifully carved in filigree.

A large woodikin stood by the cushion. He and the troop leader exchanged words, and then the troop leader turned to Talen and the others. “You will go down.”

Harnock knelt on the platform. Talen and River followed his lead.

“Down,” said the leader and pushed their heads to the floor.

“Leave the talking to me,” said Harnock.

As they prostrated themselves, a shrunken old female arrayed in bright, multi-colored feathers appeared from one side of the wide recess and took her seat on the silken cushion. The woodikin on the platform bowed.

The old queen spoke to the troop leader for a few minutes. He presented her with the wurm’s egg. A number of the woodikin chirped at the sight of it. Then she turned to Talen and the others. “We finally meet, Strange Trader. The trees favor those who love them.”

Talen was surprised, not only to hear her speak Mokaddian, but that she spoke it so clearly. She had an accent, but he’d heard Mokaddian uplanders that were harder to understand than she.

“We cannot love like those who dance in their boughs, but we respect,” said Harnock.

“Maybe,” said the queen. “But maybe you still deserve death.”

Harnock did not reply.

“What did you and these other skinmen do to anger the Orange Slayers?”

One of the woodikin females spoke in low tones to the others on the platform. Talen suspected she was translating for the other woodikin.

Harnock did not look up, but spoke to the floor in front of his face. “I did nothing, Great Mother. The Orange Slayers are excrement eaters and do not honor their obligations.”

“Some would argue woodikin are fools to bind themselves to skinmen. Honor is not in a skinman’s nature. We might as well bind ourselves to toads.”

“I am not so wise as to be able to argue with a Great Mother,” said Harnock, still looking down.

“True,” she said. “And who are these with you?”

“A wife, Great One,” said Harnock. “And her brother.”

“Just a brother?”

“Nothing more,” said Harnock.

“And that is how easily skinmen lie,” said the queen. “The Orange Slayers seek him for their masters.”

Talen swallowed.

From the side of his eye, Harnock glanced over at Talen. He paused, made some decision, and addressed the floor in front of him again. “I ask you Great Mother to look at him. He’s a sack of skin and bones. A skinman child. If the Orange Slayers said they want him, I believe they did it to mislead you.”

“And why would they do that, Strange Trader.”

Harnock’s face turned bitter. He glanced over at Talen. “To hide the true thing they value.”

“And what is that?”

“Me,” Harnock lied.


“What do they offer?” asked Harnock. “I’m sure I can pay you more.”

“Why do they want you?”

“Because they fear me,” said Harnock.

“And yet you run from them. Besides, you are an Orange Slayer friend. Why should they fear a friend?”

“There is a war among the skinmen, Great One. Me and mine fight against Mokad. Against those who raised your Orange Face enemies to power. The woodikin do not want me. Their masters do. Have your spies look. They will see Mokaddian warriors in your lands. They will see a Divine who uses two crows for eyes.”

“No Divine is supposed to come into our lands. That is the land agreement.”

“Nevertheless, he is there. You will see. You will see his crows. Help us, and we can strike a blow against your enemies.”

The queen thought. “Or I can give you to them to show our goodwill. I can make an ally.”

“Mokad does not make allies,” said Harnock. “Mokad only makes slaves. Just as it has made a slave of the Great Mother of the Orange Slayers.”

The translator finished Harnock’s words. Murmurs rose among the woodikin on the platform. The queen hooted once and silenced them.

Harnock said, “The Great Mother of the Orange Slayers wears a collar made by skinmen. The skinmen of Mokad use this to bind the wearer to its master. But not with the obligations of the woodikin. It binds the wearer against her will. Turns her traitor to all but the collar’s will.”

The queen considered Harnock for a moment. She said, “I have seen this collar you speak of. It gives the Orange Face Mother great power. But I have seen no master.”

“Do you think those who slaughtered your ancestors would give great power without a great price?”

The translator finished Harnock’s statement and the platform fell silent. In the distance, woodikin chattered and howled.

“Great Mother, what is their offer? I’ll give you more.”

She ignored him and said something in woodikin to the troop leader. Moments later he and a few of the warriors brought forward the packs Talen and the others had carried. They spread the contents out on the floor in front of the queen.

There was netting for hammock beds, some rope, food, flint for starting fires. All of the normal things travelers would carry. The leader opened Harnock’s sack and pulled out the small rough box Talen had seen and a sack with a few other things that looked like jewelry, but what were probably weaves.

The queen stood and surveyed the contents spread out on the floor. She opened the rough box with her toe to reveal another box of silver inlaid with graceful loops and whirls of gold. That had to be the Book of Hismayas. The queen picked it up.

“I beg the Great Mother to be careful,” said Harnock. “There is an evil power in that thing. It has killed many skinmen.”

The queen turned it over in her hands. It wasn’t like a regular codex with a spine and pages. Nor was it a scroll. Uncle Argoth had told him stories of those who had died trying to open it. Talen’s own father had barely escaped that fate.

“What is this?” the queen asked.

Talen glanced at River.

Harnock said, “It carries the soul of a dead one who had great power. We go to deliver it to those that can set it free. I beg the Great Mother to close it up again. To put the evil away.”

The queen ran her hand over the silver and gold pattern once more. Then she put the book back. She looked at the other weaves and stirred them with her toe. She motioned at the contents of the packs on the floor. “This is what you offer? I can get more from those that live in holes.”

“I can get you wurm eggs,” he said.

She dismissed him. “You will go to the Orange Slayers.”

“Great Mother,” Harnock said, but she was walking away, back into her splendid house.

River spoke. “I can give you one of the black rings,” she said. “The ones that turn the Orange Face warriors into terrors.”

The queen stopped.

“River,” Harnock warned.

“I can make you a ring,” River said.

The translator finished this statement. There was a pause, a silence, and then the woodikin on the platform began to hoot and jabber loudly in their language. The queen considered River for a moment, then silenced the other woodikin on the platform. “Skinwoman, do you think I am a stupid grub?”

“It is a bold claim,” said River. “But it is true.”

The queen bared her teeth. “And I must trust your word alone that you can do this thing?”

“I do not make promises I cannot keep,” said River.

“That is what you say,” scoffed the queen. The wasp lord said something in a low voice to the queen. The queen considered it. “If you can make a ring, then you can awaken one.”

“Here we go,” said Harnock under his breath.

“I will give you a chance to prove you do not lie. Bring this to life.” The queen reached in the folds of her silken tunic and produced a small ring.

The queen motioned for the troop leader to take the ring to River. The metal was gold. Not a speck of black on it. If it was a weave of might, its Fire had run dry.

“You stole this from the Orange Slayers?” asked Harnock.

“It is not important how we got it,” said the queen. “What is important is that you fix it.”

“Put it in my hand,” River said. The leader looked to the queen who nodded her approval. He placed the small ring in River’s hand behind her back.

“You’re going to get us all killed,” Harnock said under his breath.

“No,” said River. “I’m going to win us an ally.”

Talen knew that you couldn’t put a human weave on an animal. Each kind of beast required a slightly different pattern. And just because you knew one pattern, didn’t mean you knew another.

River bowed her head, closed her eyes. The whole platform of woodikin waited in silence, every eye focused on her. The warriors stood ready with their knives should any of them try some trick.

“Is it even a weave of might?” Harnock asked.

“What are you saying?” the queen asked.

“A moment, Great One,” River said. She concentrated. A minute passed, then two, and three. The wait seemed to stretch on forever. Then River raised her head. “It is done.”

The troop leader bent over and plucked the ring from her hand and held it up for all to see. A thin line of black now ran around the ring.

“I have placed power into it,” River said. “Put it on. You will see.”

When the translator finished this statement, a number of the woodikin stood and shouted angrily, pointing at River. The queen exchanged words with them, then turned to her. “They say you want to bind me, make me a slave. They say you just confessed that’s what these do. That this is a trick.”

“This is not a thrall,” said River. “But do not take my word. Let one of your people test it.”

The queen turned to the troop leader.

The troop leader bowed to the queen. He tossed his knife to another warrior, apparently so he wouldn’t have a weapon should the ring enslave him, then slipped the ring onto his thumb and waited.

A moment later he startled, looked down at his hand.

“So it begins,” said River. “The power is now flowing into him. Into his arms. Into his legs.”

The troop leader bared his teeth at her, flinched and cried out as if someone had stabbed him in the back. Pain and fear wracked his face.

“It’s his first time,” River said, “and it’s a full dreadman’s weave. It’s to be expected.”

“What is dreadman?” asked the queen.

“Skinmen ring warriors.”

“Oh, that’s splendid,” Harnock said. “You’re just going to force him and kill him out right.”

The troop leader fell to his knees, gritting his teeth and panting.

“What have you done?” the queen asked.

“Power does not come easily, Great Mother. Give him time to adjust. A few moments more.”

Talen looked at River; there was a good chance this woodikin would die. But River had her eyes closed, and Talen knew she was praying to the ancestors.

One of the other woodikin warriors on the platform bared his teeth and drew his wooden dirk. Other warriors put their hands on their dirks and knives, waiting for an order.

“If you lie to me,” the Queen said, “we will string your guts for the birds.”

Talen swallowed.

The troop leader said something, but it was too soft to understand.

The queen asked him a question in woodikin. The troop leader spoke louder this time. And then he looked up, a gleam of intensity in his eyes.

“The firejoy,” Talen said.

The troop leader rose to his feet. He held his arms out, looked down at his body, and grinned. With a hoot, he sprung high into the air, flipped and landed on his feet again, but only barely. There was a clumsiness to him. He shook his arms, rubbed them as if they were cold. He bounced on the balls of his feet. Then he darted away from the platform, along the bridge that led from the queen’s hall. He ran on all four limbs, picking up speed. He reached the edge, sprang to the guard railing, and leapt.

Talen’s heart dropped. That woodikin had gone mad and just jumped to his death. This was the end for all of them.

But the woodikin didn’t fall to his death. He flew in a huge arc and landed on a branch a few dozen yards away. He turned, shouted in triumph and scampered up the branch like a squirrel. Moments later he dropped from a great height down to the wide tree-limb road below, landing in a crouch. The woodikin on the platform murmured their amazement.

The troop leader returned to the platform. He was shaking a little bit, breathing quickly, but he walked across the platform to where the queen stood, removed the ring from his thumb, and held it out to her.

The queen took the ring. She asked the troop leader a question in woodikin. He answered. She asked another. He answered again.

“So, Great Mother,” River said, “you see I do not lie.”

The queen looked at the three of them. “The Orange Slayers have ten rings,” she said. “I want a hundred.”

“Great Mother,” said River, “that would kill me. Though you threatened me and all I love with death, I cannot provide such a number.”

“How many?”

“Why do you want to depend on us? We fight a common enemy. Give us our freedom; give us safe passage through your lands, become our friends, and we will not only give you weaves, we will teach you how to make your own without the need of any skinman.”

The woodikin translator finished River’s statement. There was a pause, and then the woodikin on the platform erupted.

“River,” Harnock groaned under his breath. “What are you doing? Now they’ll never let us leave.”

“Won’t they?” she asked. “Do you think they want to be subjected to the Devourers any more than we do? Now is a time for new alliances. We need all the help we can get.”

The woodikin on the platform quieted down. The troop leader bared his teeth. “The female lies,” he said. “All skinmen lie. She will not return. She will teach us nothing.”

“I do not lie,” River said.

“Ssa!” the troop leader said.

The queen continued to sit and think. Finally, she came to a decision. “When will you teach,” she asked, “if you are running? You must stay here.”

“Great Mother,” Harnock said, “those chasing us are powerful. They will waken the rings of the Orange Slayers. They know you took us and will come here. You do not want the Orange Slayers coming here with their ring warriors. They will take the great skinwoman from you. If you let us go, you can say instead we escaped by our evil magics. The Orange Slayers will not punish you. Later, when you have many rings of your own making, you can rise up and resist them.”

The queen thought it over. “Chot is right; you will not return.”

“Send a troop of your mightiest warriors to watch us,” Harnock said.

“There must be more,” said the queen. “You must leave something of great worth behind.” She looked at Talen for a moment, then the contents of their packs. Her eyes fell on the Book of Hismayas. She reached out with her foot and brought it to her. “This I will keep.”

“Great Mother,” Harnock said, “it is a terrible danger.”

“I will keep it,” the queen said.

Talen, Harnock, and River exchanged glances.

Harnock pitched his voice low. “Hundreds of our people died to obtain that, and we’re going to lose it to the woodikin?”

“What other option do we have?” River asked.

“None,” Harnock said. He sighed in frustration, then said, “Great Mother, you will return it when the mighty skinwoman comes back to teach you. Is it agreed?”

“It is agreed,” said the Queen.

“Faa,” said the troop leader in disgust.

“She will stay with you for one month and teach you every day how to make the rings. Agreed?”

“She will come back in fourteen days and will stay until the winter snows leave,” said the Queen. “And she will answer all my questions with truth.”

“Agreed,” River said.

“Good,” said the Queen. “I will wait until morning. I will watch to see what happens with those that wear this skinman ring. If they live, my warriors will see you back to your lands. If not, then I will trade you to the Orange Slayers.”

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