They burned the city when Whandall Placehold was two years old, and again when he was seven.
At seven he saw and understood more. The women waited with the children in the courtyard through a day and a night and another day. The day sky was black and red. The night sky glowed red and orange, dazzling and strange. Across the street a granary burned like a huge torch. Strangers trying to fight the fire made shadow pictures.
The Placehold men came home with what they'd gathered: shells, clothing, cookware, furniture, jewelry, magical items, a cauldron that would heat up by itself. The excitement was infectious. Men and women paired off and fought over the pairings.
And Pothefit went out again with Resalet, but only Resalet came back.
Afterward Whandall went with the other boys to watch the loggers cutting redwoods for the rebuilding.
The forest cupped Tep's Town like a hand. There were stories, but nobody could tell Whandall what was beyond the forest where redwoods were pillars big enough to support the sky, big enough to replace a dozen houses. The great trees stood well apart, each guarding its turf. Lesser vegetation gathered around the base of each redwood like a malevolent army.
The army had many weapons. Some plants bristled with daggers; some had burrs to anchor seeds in hair or flesh; some secreted poison; some would whip a child across the face with their branches.
Loggers carried axes, and long poles with blades at the ends. Leather armor and wooden masks made them hard to recognize as men. With the poles they could reach out and under to cut the roots of the spiked or poisoned lesser plants and push them aside, until one tall redwood was left defenseless.
Then they bowed to it.
Then they chopped at the base until, in tremendous majesty and with a sound like the end of the world, it fell.
They never seemed to notice that they were being watched from cover by a swarm of children. The forest had dangers for city children, but being caught was not one of them. If you were caught spying in town you would be lucky to escape without broken bones. It was safer to spy on the loggers.
One morning Bansh and Ilther brushed a vine.
Bansh began scratching, and then Ilther; then thousands of bumps sprouted over Ilther's arm, and almost suddenly it was bigger than his leg. Bansh's hand and the ear he'd scratched were swelling like nightmares, and Ilther was on the ground, swelling everywhere and fighting hard to breathe.
Shastern wailed and ran before Whandall could catch him. He brushed past leaves like a bouquet of blades and was several paces beyond before he slowed, stopped, and turned to look at Whandall. What should I do now? His leathers were cut to ribbons across his chest and left arm, the blood spilling scarlet through the slashes.
The forest was not impenetrable. There were thorns and poison plants, but also open spaces. Stick with those, you could get through...it looked like you could get through without touching anything...almost. And the children were doing that, scattering, finding their own paths out.
But Whandall caught the screaming Shastern by his bloody wrist and towed him toward the loggers, because Shastern was his younger brother, because the loggers were close, because somebody would help a screaming child.
The woodsmen saw them -- saw them and turned away. But one dropped his ax and jogged toward the child in zigzag fashion, avoiding...what? Armory plants, a wildflower bed --
Shastern went quiet under the woodsman's intense gaze. The woodsman pulled the leather armor away and wrapped Shastern's wounds in strips of clean cloth, pulling it tight. Whandall was trying to tell him about the other children.
The woodsman looked up. "Who are you, boy?"
"I'm Whandall of Serpent's Walk." Nobody gave his family name.
"I'm Kreeg Miller. How many -- "
Whandall barely hesitated. "Two tens of us."
"Have they all got" -- he patted Shastern's armor -- "leathers?"
Kreeg picked up cloth, a leather bottle, some other things. Now one of the others was shouting angrily while trying not to look at the children. "Kreeg, what do you want with those candlestubs? We've got work to do!" Kreeg ignored him and followed the path as Whandall pointed it out.
There were hurt children, widely scattered. Kreeg dealt with them. Whandall didn't understand, until a long time later, why other loggers wouldn't help.
Whandall took Shastern home through Dirty Birds to avoid Bull Pizzles. In Dirty Birds a pair of adolescent Lordkin would not let them pass.
Whandall showed them three gaudy white blossoms bound up in a scrap of cloth. Careful not to touch them himself, he gave one to each of the boys and put the third away.
The boys sniffed the womanflowers' deep fragrance. "Way nice. What else have you got?"
"Nothing, Falcon brother." Dirty Birds liked to be called Falcons, so you did that. "Now go and wash your hands and face. Wash hard or you'll swell up like melons. We have to go."
The Falcons affected to be amused, but they went off toward the fountain. Whandall and Shastern ran through Dirty Birds into Serpent's Walk. Marks and signs showed when you passed from another district to Serpent's Walk, but Whandall would have known Serpent's Walk without them. There weren't as many trash piles, and burned-out houses were rebuilt faster.
The Placehold stood alone in its block, three stories of gray stone. Two older boys played with knives just outside the door. Inside, Uncle Totto lay asleep in the corridor where you had to step over him to get in. Whandall tried to creep past him.
"Huh? Whandall, my lad. What's going on here?" He looked at Shastern, saw bloody bandages, and shook his head. "Bad business. What's going on?"
"Shastern needs help!"
"I see that. What happened?"
Whandall tried to get past, but it was no use. Uncle Totto wanted to hear the whole story, and Shastern had been bleeding too long. Whandall started screaming. Totto raised his fist. Whandall pulled his brother upstairs. A sister was washing vegetables for dinner, and she shouted too. Women came yelling. Totto cursed and retreated.
Mother wasn't home that night. Mother's Mother -- Dargramnet, if you were speaking to strangers -- sent Wanshig to tell Bansh's family. She put Shastern in Mother's room and sat with him until he fell asleep. Then she came into the big second-floor Placehold room and sat in her big chair. Often that room was full of Placehold men, usually playful, but sometimes they shouted and fought. Children learned to hide in the smaller rooms, cling to women's skirts, or find errands to do. Tonight Dargramnet asked the men to help with the injured children, and they all left so that she was alone with Whandall. She held Whandall in her lap.
"They wouldn't help," he sobbed. "Only the one. Kreeg Miller. We could have saved Ilther -- it was too late for Bansh, but we could have saved Ilther, only they wouldn't help."
Mother's Mother nodded and petted him. "No, of course they wouldn't," she said. "Not now. When I was a girl, we helped each other. Not just kin, not just Lordkin." She had a faint smile, as if she saw things Whandall would never see, and liked them. "Men stayed home. Mothers taught girls and men taught boys, and there wasn't all this fighting."
"Not even in the Burnings?"
"Bonfires. We made bonfires for Yangin-Atep, and he helped us. Houses of ill luck, places of illness or murder, we burned those too. We knew how to serve Yangin-Atep then. When I was a girl there were wizards, real wizards."
"A wizard killed Pothefit," Whandall said gravely.
"Hush," Mother's mother said. "What's done is done. It won't do to think about Burnings."
"The fire god," Whandall said.
"Yangin-Atep sleeps," Mother's Mother said. "The fire god was stronger when I was a girl. In those days there were real wizards in Lord's Town, and they did real magic."
"Is that where Lords live?"
"No, Lords don't live there. Lords live in Lordshills. Over the hills, past the Black Pit, nearly all the way to the sea," Mother's Mother said, and smiled again. "And yes, it's beautiful. We used to go there sometimes."
He thought about the prettiest places he had seen. Peacegiven Square, when the kinless had swept it clean and set up their tents. The Flower Market, which he wasn't supposed to go to. Most of the town was dirty, with winding streets, houses falling down, and big houses that had been well built but were going to ruin. Not like Placehold. Placehold was stone, big, orderly, with roof gardens. Dargramnet made the women and children work to keep it clean, even bullied the men until they fixed the roof or broken stairs. Placehold was orderly, and that made it pretty to Whandall.
He tried to imagine another place of order, bigger than Placehold. It would have to be a long way, he thought. "Didn't that take a long time?"
"No, we'd go in a wagon in the morning. We'd be home that same night. Or sometimes the Lords came to our city. They'd come and sit in Peacegiven Square and listen to us."
"What's a Lord, Mother's Mother?"
"You always were the curious one. Brave too," she said, and petted him again. "The Lords showed us how to come here when my grandfather's father was young. Before that, our people were wanderers. My grandfather told me stories about living in wagons, always moving on."
"Grandfather?" Whandall asked.
"Your mother's father."
"But -- how could she know?" Whandall demanded. He thought that Pothefit had been his father, but he was never sure. Not sure the way Mother's Mother seemed to be.
Mother's Mother looked angry for a moment, but then her expression softened. "She knows because I know," Mother's Mother said. "Your grandfather and I were together a long time, years and years, until he was killed, and he was the father of all my children."
Whandall wanted to ask how she knew that, but he'd seen her angry look, and he was afraid. There were many things you didn't talk about. He asked, "Did he live in a wagon?"
"Maybe," Mother's Mother said. "Or maybe it was his grandfather. I've forgotten most of those stories now. I told them to your mother, but she didn't listen."
"I'll listen, Mother's Mother," Whandall said.
She brushed her fingers through his freshly washed hair. She'd used three days' water to wash Whandall and Shastern, and when Resalet said something about it she had shouted at him until he ran out of the Placehold. "Good," she said. "Someone ought to remember."
"What do Lords do?"
"They show us things, give us things, tell us what the law is," Mother's Mother said. "You don't see them much anymore. They used to come to Tep's Town. I remember when we were both young -- they chose your grandfather to talk to the Lords for the Placehold. I was so proud. And the Lords brought wizards with them, and made rain, and put a spell on our roof gardens so everything grew better." The dreamy smile came back. "Everything grew better; everyone helped each other. I'm so proud of you, Whandall; you didn't run and leave your brother -- you stayed to help." She stroked him, petting him the way his sisters petted the cat. Whandall almost purred.
She dozed off soon after. He thought about her stories and wondered how much was true. He couldn't remember when anyone helped anyone who wasn't close kin. Why would it have been different when Mother's Mother was young? And could it be that way again?
But he was seven, and the cat was playing with a ball of string. Whandall climbed off Mother's Mother's lap to watch.
Bansh and Ilther died. Shastern lived, but he kept the scars. In later years they passed for fighting scars.
Whandall watched them rebuild the city after the Burning. Stores and offices rose again, cheap wooden structures on winding streets. The kinless never seemed to work hard on rebuilding.
Smashed water courses were rebuilt. The places where people died -- kicked to death or burned or cut down with the long Lordkin knives -- remained empty for a time. Everybody was hungry until the Lords and the kinless could get food flowing in again.
None of the other children would return to the forest. They took to spying on strangers, ready to risk broken bones rather than the terrible plants. But the forest fascinated Whandall. He returned again and again. Mother didn't want him to go, but Mother wasn't there much. Mother's Mother only told him to be careful.
Old Resalet heard her. Now he laughed every time Whandall left the Placehold with leathers and mask.
Whandall went alone. He always followed the path of the logging, and that protected him a little. The forest became less dangerous as Kreeg Miller taught him more.
All the chaparral was dangerous, but the scrub that gathered round the redwoods was actively malevolent. Kreeg's father had told him that it was worse in his day: the generations had tamed these plants. There were blade-covered morningstars and armory plants, and lordkin's-kiss, and lordkiss with longer blades, and harmless-looking vines and flower beds and bushes all called touch-me and marked by five-bladed red or red-and-green leaves.
Poison plants came in other forms than touch-me. Any plant might take a whim to cover itself with daggers and poison them too. Nettles covered their leaves with thousands of needles that would burrow into flesh. Loggers cut under the morningstar bushes and touch-me flower beds with the bladed poles they called severs. Against lordwhips the only defense was a mask.
The foresters knew fruit trees the children hadn't found. "These yellow apples want to be eaten," Kreeg said, "seeds and all, so in a day or two the seeds are somewhere else, making more plants. If you don't eat the core, at least throw it as far as you can. But these red death bushes you stay away from -- far away -- because if you get close you'll eat the berries."
"Right. And they're poison. They want their seeds in your belly when you die, for fertilizer."
One wet morning after a lightning storm, loggers saw smoke reaching into the sky.
"Is that the city?" Whandall asked.
"No, that's part of the forest. Over by Wolverine territory. It'll go out," Kreeg assured the boy. "They always do. You find black patches here and there, big as a city block."
"The fire wakes Yangin-Atep," the boy surmised. "Then Yangin-Atep takes the fire for himself? So it goes out..." But instead of confirming, Kreeg only smiled indulgently. Whandall heard snickering.
The other loggers didn't believe, but..."Kreeg, don't you believe in Yangin-Atep either?"
"Not really," Kreeg said. "Some magic works, out here in the woods, but in town? Gods and magic, you hear a lot about them, but you see damn little."
"A magician killed Pothefit!"
Kreeg Miller shrugged.
Whandall was near tears. Pothefit had vanished during the Burning, just ten weeks ago. Pothefit was his father! But you didn't say that outside the family. Whandall cast about for better arguments. "You bow to the redwood before you cut it. I've seen you. Isn't that magic?"
"Yeah, well...why take chances? Why do the morningstars and laurel whips and touch-me and creepy-julia all protect the redwoods?"
"Like house guards," Whandall said, remembering that there were always men and boys on guard at Placehold.
"Maybe. Like the plants made some kind of bargain," Kreeg said, and laughed.
Mother's Mother had told him. Yangin-Atep led Whandall's ancestors to the Lords, and the Lords had led Whandall's ancestors through the forest to the Valley of Smokes where they defeated the kinless and built Tep's Town. Redwood seeds and firewands didn't sprout unless fire had passed through. Surely these woods belonged to the fire god!
But Kreeg Miller just couldn't see it.
They worked half the morning, hacking at the base of a vast redwood, ignoring the smoke that still rose northeast of them. Whandall carried water to them from a nearby stream. The other loggers were almost used to him now. They called him Candlestub.
When the sun was overhead, they broke for lunch.
Kreeg Miller had taken to sharing lunch with him. Whandall had managed to gather some cheese from the Placehold kitchen. Kreeg had a smoked rabbit from yesterday.
Whandall asked, "How many trees does it take to build the city back?"
Two loggers overheard and laughed. "They never burn the whole city," Kreeg told him. "Nobody could live through that, Whandall. Twenty or thirty stores and houses, a few blocks solid and some other places scattered, then they break off."
The Placehold men said that they'd burned down the whole city, and all of the children believed them.
A logger said, "We'll cut another tree after this one. We wouldn't need all four if Lord Qirinty didn't want a wing on his palace. Boy, do you remember your first Burning?"
"Some. I was only two years old." Whandall cast back in his mind. "The men were acting funny. They'd lash out if any children got too close. They yelled a lot, and the women yelled back. The women tried to keep the men away from us.
"Then one afternoon it all got very scary and confusing. There was shouting and whooping and heat and smoke and light. The women all huddled with us on the second floor. There were smells -- not just smoke, but stuff that made you gag, like an alchemist's shop. The men came in with things they'd gathered. Blankets, furniture, heaps of shells, stacks of cups and plates, odd things to eat.
"And afterward everyone seemed to calm down." Whandall's voice trailed off. The other woodsmen were looking at him like...like an enemy. Kreeg wouldn't look at him at all.
Copyright © 2000 by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
The Burning City
Set in the world of Niven's popular The Magic Goes Away, The Burning City transports readers to an enchanted ancient city that often bears a provocative resemblance to our own modem society. Here Yagen-Atep, the volatile and voracious god of fire, holds sway, alternately protecting and destroying the city's denizens. In Tep's Town, nothing can burn indoors and no fire can start: by accident -- except when the Burning comes upon the city. Then the people, possessed by Yagen-Atep, set their own town ablaze in a riotous orgy of destruction that often comes without warning.
Whandall Placehold has lived with the Burning all his life. Fighting his way to adulthood in the mean-but-magical streets of the city's most blighted neighborhoods, Whandall alone dreams of escaping the god's wrath to find a new and better life. But his best hope for freedom may lie with Morth of Atlantis, the enigmatic sorcerer who killed his father!
Both gritty and exotic, The Burning City is unique fantasy vision unlike any you have read before.