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Chapter 40


The ponies were as big as Lords' horses now, and each had a spiral horn, larger than a Lordkin knife, growing from his forehead. Outside conditions had bleached them: they were as white as chalk, with long silky manes. They looked nothing like the kinless ponies they'd been. The mare was nearly as big as the stallions, but her horn was smaller, and she hadn't lost the gray coloring. She was tame.

The stallions were not tame. They went frantic when Whandall or Carver approached them. They wouldn't attack the children, but only Willow could bridle them and hitch them to the wagon. If she tried to ride on the wagon they stopped and waited until she walked ahead again.

One more night on the river. Whandall sat and stared at the water. What would they find ahead? What would Willow do? She lay asleep next to her brother. Her straight black hair was a tangle and she slept from exhaustion, and Whandall thought her the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He wondered at that. Magic?

They started early the next day, and at noon they came to a bend in the river. Carter pointed excitedly. "The road is just up there." He pointed up the steep slope.

There were trees in the way. Whandall scouted out a route to the road. By going around they could avoid most of the trees, but finally there was no choice. They'd have to cut two trees to get through.

Neither tree seemed to be guarded by other plants. There were few plants in the forest, and those were just hushes and leafy plants, without thorns. They didn't move when approached.

This tree was broad-leafed, the trunk thinner than a man's body. Whandall bowed to it as he'd seen Kreeg Miller do, then chopped a deep notch on one side in the direction he wanted it to fall. Then he and Carver chopped on the other side until it fell, not quite where he wanted, but out of the way.

The other, larger tree dropped exactly where Whandall aimed it, and they were free to go to the road. Willow brought up the horses and wagon. "You bowed to the tree," she said.

Whandall shrugged. "Woodsmen do that."

Willow giggled. "To redwoods," she said. "Not to all the trees. Just redwoods."

"There aren't any redwoods here."

Willow's smile faded slightly. "I know."

"You care?"

She said, "Grandmother loved them. I think we protected each other, humans and redwoods, before the Lordkin came. Here they're gone."

"Maybe we'll find more," Whandall said. He looked at the trees he'd felled. "We won't run out of wood, anyway. Maybe someone will have a fire."

"I hope so," Willow said. "Bathing in cold water. Ugh."

Kinless women took baths every day, Whandall had learned, even when there wasn't soap or hot water, nothing but a stream. It seemed a strange custom. He'd jumped in himself, and whooped and thrashed like the others, to show that he too could stand cold.

The road was no more than a deeply rutted track, but while the river itself wandered in sweeping curves like a snake, the road was straight. Here and there the river had changed course to undermine the road. There the road curved away from the river, then straightened out again.

They had jerked meat, and bread they'd baked when they had fire. Evening found them on the road. Just after dusk Carver looked at the night sky. "We're going north," he said.

"How do you know that?" Whandall asked.

"Stars," Willow said. "Father taught Carver how to read stars."

"It's hard," Carver said. "I looked last night, and I couldn't tell. There are more stars here. Lots more, too many to recognize! This early in the evening it looks right. But when it's dark there are thousands and thousands of stars."

"What are stars?" Carter asked.

"Dargramnet..." Whandall hesitated. "My mother's mother. She said the stars are cook fires of our ancestors. Cook fires and bonfires to Yangin-Atep."

"You hesitated," Willow said. "You do that when you speak of your family. Why?"

"We-the Lordkin-don't talk about families to strangers," Whandall said. "Or even close friends."

"Why not?"

Whandall shook his head. "We just don't. I think part of it is certainty. You know who your mother is, but not always your father, and your mother might go off anytime. Even when you think you know-but you know, don't you? How?"

"Whandall, girls don't sleep with men until they're married," Willow said.

Sleeping wasn't what made babies, but this seemed to be a language thing. Did she really mean ...? Whandall asked, "What happens if they do?"

"No one will marry them," Willow said. Pink was flooding into her neck and cheeks. "Even if it's not their fault. There was a girl, the daughter of a friend of Mother's. Dream-Lotus was a few years older than me, old enough to be ... attractive, during the last Burning. Some Lordkin men caught her. They almost killed her. Maybe it would have been better if they did."

Whandall's voice came out funny. "Why?"

"She had a baby," Willow said. "It wasn't her fault-everyone knew that-but she had a baby, and no man would have her. Her father died, and then her brother drank himself to death."

"What happened to her?" Whandall asked. He didn't dare ask about the baby.

"We don't know. After Mother died we lost track of Dream-Lotus. She always wanted a job in the Lordshills. Maybe she went there."

They came to the edge of the town at noon the next day.

First there were the dogs. They ran barking toward Willow. One got too close, and the rightside pony lowered his horn and lunged. The dog ran away howling. The barking and howling brought two townsmen.

They were big men, dark of complexion, each with long straight black hair braided in a queue hanging down his back. One held a leather sling in one hand and a rock in the other. The other man had an ax. They shouted something unintelligible, first at Whandall, then at the howling dog. The dog came over to them, and the man with the ax bent to examine it. He spoke without getting up, and the other man nodded. Whandall's thumbnail brushed the big Lordkin knife at his belt, just to know where it was.

The men looked from Whandall on the wagon to Willow walking ahead of the horses, frowned, and one said something to the other. Then they pointed to the horses and one laughed.

"Hello," Whandall said. "Where are we?" No response. He repeated himself in Condigeano.

The man with the leather sling said something, saw Whandall didn't uncle-island, and pointed up the road. They culled their dugs and watched until Willow had led the wagon out of sight.

Whandall counted twenty houses before he stopped trying to count them. There were at least that many more, strung along three parallel dusty streets. The largest house was about the size of a good Lordkin house in Tep's Town, but they had flower gardens in front, and a few had fenced yards. They didn't look as elegant as Lords' houses, but they were not crude, and they were clearly built to last a generation and more, some wood, some baked clay, none stone.

At the far end of town was a wagon camp, a dozen or more big covered wagons drawn into a circle. Just before the wagon circle there was a wooden rail corral holding a hundred or more great shaggy beasts. They seemed to have no necks. Their eyes stared out of a big collar of fur, and they had short curved horns and lashing tails. They stood in a circle, the biggest ones on the outside, smaller ones inside, and they munched on baled hay while staring malevolently at Whandall and his wagon.

When Willow tried to speak to a gaudily dressed lady on the dusty town main street, she didn't seem unfriendly, but she only laughed and pointed to the wagon circle.

"My feet hurt," Willow said.

Two boys came out of the wagon train circle and shouted something. Whandall gestured helplessly. They laughed and went back inside, and in a moment a large man of around forty came out. His face was weathered and he had a bit of a squint.

He was lighter of complexion than the men they'd seen earlier. He was dressed in leather, long trousers, long-sleeved pullover tunic, soft leather boots. A big red moon was painted on the left breast of his tunic. Red and blue animals chased each other in a circle around the moon. A dark red sun blazed on his back, and below it, warriors with spears chased a herd of the same ugly beasts they'd seen in the corral. His hair was black with some gray at the temples, plaited into a queue that hung halfway down his back. There were feathers in his hair, and he wore a bright silver ring with a big blue-green stone. Another silver and blue-green design hung on a thong around his neck. His belt held a very serviceable-looking knife with a fancily carved bone handle. The blade was not as long as Whandall's Lordkin knife.

"Hi yo. Keenm his ho?"

Whandall shook his head. "Whandall," he said. "From Tep's Town."

The man considered that. "Know Condigeano?"

"I speak good Condigeano," Whandall said excitedly.

"Good. I don't speak your tongue. Not much contact with the Valley of Smokes," he said. "How'd you get here?"

"We cut a path through the forest," Whandall said.

"I'm impressed." He looked from Whandall to Willow, looked at the ponies, looked at the children on the wagon. "Don't think I ever met anyone who got out that way. There's a few harpies in Condigeo, but they got there by ship."

Willow looked back at Whandall. "Harpies?" she said.

"I guess he means us," Whandall said.

Willow shuddered. "Tell him-" She caught herself.

"Fine-looking one-horns," the man said. "Looking to sell them?"

"No, I don't think so," Whandall said.

"Well, all right. That your sister?"

Whandall choked back the automatic rage at the impertinent question. "No."

"Um. You hungry? My name's Black Kettle, by the way." He patted his ample paunch. "But everybody calls me Kettle Belly." He swept his hand to indicate the wagon train. "This is the Bison Clan."

"I am Whandall." Clan? That was too complicated. "And that's Willow. Her brothers Carver and Carter. The children are cousins," Whandall said.

"Ah. Your girl?"

I already told you more than you have to know! But the question seemed innocent enough. Maybe people here talked about such things. Tras Preetror had.

Willow wouldn't understand him. Whandall said, "I hope so."

Kettle Belly smiled. "Good. Fine-looking girl. Here, follow me. We'll get you something to eat."

"Thanks. We could use fire too."

Kettle Belly laughed heartily. "A Valley of Smokes harpy can't make fire?"

Whandall wanted to resent that, but Kettle Belly seemed so friendly and well intentioned that he couldn't. Instead he laughed. "Never learned how...ever needed to."

"Guess I understand that all right," Kettle Belly said. "You come on with me, then." He turned to one of the children. "Number Three-"

"I'm Four."

Kettle Belly roared laughter again, and gave instructions. He turned back to Whandall. "I told him to let Mother know we've got company. And he'll look up Haj Fishhawk's wife. She came from the Valley of Smokes; she'll be able to talk to your friends. When you're ready to trade those one-horns, let me know; I'll give you a good price and show you how to drive bison."

"Why would I want to sell them?"

Kettle Belly smiled indulgently. "Well... something might come up."

Ruby Fishhawk was at least fifty, a kinless woman with soft eyes and long fluffy hair gone white. As soon as she met Willow she began asking questions about family. Who was Willow's mother? Who was her father's mother? In minutes she found that Willow's father's mother had married Ruby's aunt's brother, and Willow's mother's brother was Ruby's cousin.

"But you're tired. Kettle Belly says you don't have fire! How long?"

"Three days," Willow said.

"You poor thing! Come with me; I have a bathtub. I love my husband, I love the trader folk, but they don't bathe properly! Sweat lodges are all very well, but there's nothing like a proper bath! Come on; I'll show you-"

"What about the horses?" Willow asked. "Whandall can't handle them ..."

Ruby grinned as if Willow had made a good joke. "We'll take care of that." She spoke rapidly to Kettle Belly.

He nodded and pointed to a second and larger corral beyond the circle of wagons. There were two of the one-horned stallions. Each stood in his own part of the corral. One had the company of two gray shorthorn mares. The other was alone. They eyed Whandall's team and snuffled. Whandall's mare whinnied.

Girls younger than Willow carried fodder to the corral. One of the girls was watching the strangers with evident curiosity. Kettle Belly gestured and she came over to them. She was shapely, a little younger than Willow and just beginning to show as a woman. Whandall found her pretty in an exotic way. Her hair was long and straight, tied with a bow of orange ribbon, and she smiled at Whandall.

Kettle Belly spoke rapidly, finally saying "Whandall." The girl smiled, and nodded to Whandall. "Her name translates to Orange Blossom," Kettle Belly said. "You'll learn to say it, but not now. I think she likes you."

Orange Blossom smiled shyly.

"She'll take care of your one-horns. Your wagon will be safe enough here next to mine."

Orange Blossom began to unhitch the horses. Whandall watched, wondering what to do. The horses and wagon were all they owned. He saw that Kettle Belly was watching him with wry amusement.

"It'll be all right, lad," Kettle Belly said. "Think about it, we're Bison Clan wagon traders. Everyone knows who we are. If we were thieves, would any town trust us? It's not like we could run! Not with bison pulling the wagons!"

Orange Blossom slipped a bridle on the mare. She didn't bother with the stallions. She led the mare toward the corral, and the stallions followed docilely.

"Young colts," Kettle Belly said. "Give them another year, they'll fight. Right now they won't be any problem."

Ruby was still talking. "Well, that's all settled, then. Come, Willow." She led Willow off into the circle of wagons.

"She hasn't heard her own language since the last time we went to Condigeo," Kettle Belly said. "She has kinfolk there. Kinfolk as she reckons them, anyway. Well, come on, lad, there's better things than bathtubs! Tell the youngsters to go with Number Four there; he'll find them something to eat."

"Number Four?" Whandall asked.

"Ho, we don't give boys names like they do in the cities," Kettle Belly said. "When they're old enough, they find their names. Until then we just call them by their father's name, unless there's so many they have to have numbers. Anyway, Four will see the kids are fed. You come with me."

Whandall explained to the Ropewalkers and Millers who had been listening without comprehension.

Carver thought he should stay with the children. Carter had a different idea. He wanted to go with Whandall. Whandall was about to say it was all right with him when he saw that Carver didn't approve. "You'd better help your kin," Whandall said.

"All right, Whandall," Carter said.

Kettle Belly led Whandall to one of the big wagons. The wagons were roofed over with hoops covered with some kind of cloth. The roof was high enough that Whandall thought he would be able to stand under it, but they didn't go inside. Kettle Belly led him around the wagon and into the circle.

An awning had been attached to the top of the wagon and led out to poles, so that it made a high-roofed shed to shade them from the sun. Large boxes made low walls around the covered area. The area under the roof was carpeted, and there was a bench just outside it. Kettle Belly sat on the bench and began pulling off his boots. He indicated that Whandall should do the same.

"We mostly take off our shoes before we go in," he said. "Saves the women some work."

Whandall considered that. It was a new way of looking at things.

The carpet felt strange to his bare feet. He had seen carpets in Lordshills, but he'd never walked on one. These were brighter in color and seemed sturdy. He thought the Lords would pay well for one. "How are these made?" he asked.

"What, the carpets? Woven," Kettle Belly said. "From wool. This one was done by hill shepherds. They weave them in winter." He turned back a corner of the carpet. The underside was covered with thousands of small knots.

"It must take a long time."

"It docs," Kettle Belly said. "This one probably took eight or ten years to make. You can get cheaper ones in towns. Weave won't be as close, flax and hemp threads in the wool. There may be some for sale here when the market opens tomorrow. Have a seat."

They sat on wool-stuffed pillows. The pillows were woven of a coarse material like the carpets, but they had different designs. Kettle Belly sat with his legs out, his back against one of the wagon boxes.

If you had to live out of a wagon, carpets were a good idea, Whandall thought. "Do they sell good carpets here?"

Kettle Belly smiled. "Well, I wouldn't want the Firewoods Town people to hear me say," he said. He watched Whandall react to that and grinned. "Marsyl carpets look all right, but Marsyl Town doesn't get cold enough in winter. Sheep here don't have the best wool. We buy Marsyl carpets when we're headed south and we don't have a full load. They sell all right down Condigeo way."

"You're not going south," Whandall guessed. Tras Preetror had said that Condigeo was six days' sail south of Tep's Town.

"Right."

Kettle Belly clapped his hands. A woman about his age came out from behind the wagon boxes. She was darker than Kettle Belly and considerably thinner. Her skirts were leather with designs tattooed on them in bright colors. Some of the tattoos were emphasized by colored thread sewn into patterns. Her dark hair was pulled back and tied with a ribbon but not plaited like the men wore theirs.

Kettle Belly stood when the woman came into the enclosed area, and after a moment Whandall did too.

"Whandall, my wife Mirime. I'm afraid she doesn't speak much Condigeano." Kettle Belly spoke rapidly in a tongue that meant nothing to Whandall, but he thought he heard the word harpy. Mirime didn't look happy with her new guest, but finally she nodded and went out between the boxes to what must have been another room. In a moment she returned carrying a tray with two cups and a bottle. She set it down on the carpet, bowed slightly, and left.

Kettle Belly waved Whandall to the cushions. He filled both cups and handed one of them to Whandall. The cup reminded Whandall of the thin-walled cups the Lords used, and like the Lords' cups it had figures painted on it. There was a ship on one side, and a woman with a fishtail on the other.

It was filled with a wine that smelled wonderful. Whandall was about to gulp it down when he saw that Kettle Belly sipped at his, then watched Whandall. Whandall sipped too. It was smooth and sweet, nothing like the wines he'd had in Tep's Town. He sipped again. In moments the cup was empty.

Kettle Belly refilled the cup from the stone jug. "We saw big smoke last week," he said. "Burning?"

Whandall nodded. "Yes."

Kettle Belly clucked. "Never did understand that. Why would you want to burn your city down?"

"Not everyone wants to," Whandall said.

"Sure. Ruby Fishhawk told me. There's two kinds of harpies, ones like her who put the fires out and the other kind."

"Kinless and Lordkin," Whandall said.

"Yep, that's what she called them."

"Lordkin follow Yangin-Atep," Whandall said. "When the fire god takes a man, the Burning starts." The wine cup was empty again. Kettle Belly filled it without being asked. Whandall drank more.

"Lordkin do other things," Whandall said morosely.

"Thieves, aren't they?"

"We gather. In Tep's Town that's not stealing. Not for Lordkin."

"It is here," Kettle Belly said.

"Willow is kinless," Whandall said. He hesitated. The wine burned in his stomach. "So are the others. But I'm Lordkin."

"Well, of course you are," Kettle Belly said. The laughter was back in his voice, and his smile was broad.

"You knew?"

Kettle Belly roared with laughter. "Whandall, Whandall, everybody knows."

Whandall frowned. "How?"

For answer, Kettle Belly called out, "Mirime! Bring the mirror."

The woman came back in carrying a bronze mirror that Kettle Belly polished with a clean soft cloth, then handed to Whandall. "You don't have a mirror, do you?"

Whandall looked.

He saw a bright feathered serpent with a man's face under it.

"Other places, other customs," Kettle Belly said. "Tep's Town isn't the only place that has tattoos. But they're said to be gaudier among the Lord-kin harpies, and Whandall, no place have I seen anything like that! It's why no one was afraid of you, you know."

"I don't understand." Whandall found the wine buzzing in his head and heard his speech thicken. "The tattoo, it's prob'ly Atlantis."

"Atlantis! But you're not from Atlantis."

"No, no ... made friends with an Atlantis wizard," Whandall said, wondering why he was talking so much to this stranger.

"Well, he did you proud. But Whandall, anyplace you go, anything you do, it'll he known all up and down the road in weeks." Kettle Belly said. "You're the easiest man to describe on the Hemp Road!"

"Is it ugly?" Whandall asked.

"Takes getting used to, I'll say that," Kettle Belly said. "But once you do, it's sort of pretty."

Whandall drained his cup and held it out again. Kettle Belly leaned over to fill it, then stopped. "Sure?"

"No. Dumb." Whandall's fist closed, hiding the cup. "But this, my brother was looking for this."

"Meaning?"

"Good wine. Wanshig was sure. Never tasted anything like this, but he was sure. Like I was sure there's a way out an' I finally found it."

Kettle Belly nodded understanding. "Question is, can you hold it?"

It wasn't a familiar term to Whandall. It? Wine. "Sure."

"I hope so," Kettle Belly said. "Lad, I hope so. You're not the first, you know."

Whandall frowned the question.

"Other Lordkin harpies come out. Why do you think we call you harpies? Most don't last. The lucky ones get put back. Most get killed when it's too much trouble to put them back."

"What happens to the rest?"

"There aren't many. You met Ruby Fishhawk. There are two harpy guards with Lonesome Crow's wagon train, and I hear tell of a harpy leather smith up in Paradise Valley. Not sure I know of any others. Maybe a few more women."

Whandall thought about that. "There's no way to put me back."

"I knew you were smart. You can control yourself too. Sober, you can, anyway."

How would he know that? What magic did they have here?

"Tell you what, let's have some water," Kettle Belly said. "More wine with dinner. First let me show you around."









Chapter 39 | The Burning City | Chapter 41



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