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Chapter 41

The wagons weren't like Whandall's. They were well designed and bigger. There were cargo wagons and wagons to hold bales of hay and fodder, but every family had one that was like a house on wheels. Those were covered by a roof of closely woven cloth held up by metal hoops, and they had a complicated harness arrangement to attach them to the weirdly shaped bison.

"Keeps our Greathand busy," Kettle Belly said. "The blacksmith. And lots of leatherwork. But there's no magic needed. Lots of people on the road. Magic runs thin along the Hemp Road. Best not to depend on magic too much."

Whandall nodded. "There's not much magic in Tep's Town."

"That's what they tell me," Kettle Belly said.

"You call it the Hemp Road."

Kettle Belly shrugged. "There's other commerce. Probably as much wool as anything else. But hemp's a stable product. Always a demand for good hemp. Fiber, rope, smoking flowers, hemp tea, hemp flower gum. You can always get a good price for good hemp."

"Doesn't it try to kill you?" Whandall asked.

"What, hemp?"

"Maybe it forgot how," Whandall muttered. Kettle Belly looked at him strangely but didn't say anything.

The wagons they lived out of were bare inside. Kettle Belly explained, "We don't so much live in the wagons as just outside of them. The wagon boxes nearly till the wagons when we're on the road, and make the walls when we're in camp. See, some of the boxes open from the side, some from the top. Stack the boxes, spread the canopy roof, spread the carpets, lash everything down, and you've got your travel nest. We can be done an hour after we make camp if everyone works together."

It was all new to Whandall. No Lordkin, no kinless. Just people who worked like kinless but kept what they made... .

"Who owns all this?" Whandall asked.

"Well, that's complicated," Kettle Belly said. "Lot of this stuff is owned by the wagon train. Most families own a cargo wagon; a few own two; I own three. And every family owns a house wagon and team of bison. That's the bride's dowry." He grimaced. "Five girls I've had. Married off two. Three to go, three more outfits to buy! But my girls get the best. You should see what I'm having made for Orange Blossom. There's a smithy fifty leagues up the road, makes great wagons. Like this one. We'll collect hers next time we're through there, sometime this summer. She'll have to beat the boys away with a stick after they see that rig!"

Like kinless, Whandall thought. Kinless men took care of their daughters. Lordkin men seldom knew who their children were. A boy could look like his mother's man, and then it was pretty clear, but you never knew with girls.

Dowry. A new word, and Kettle Belly talked so fast Whandall wasn't sure of everything he had said. There was too much to learn. And yet. Whandall grinned broadly. He had learned one thing-he had a chance here. A real chance.

The market area was a field beyond the town. There were tents and wagons with platforms, and an air of messiness as townsfolk and wagoneers hastened to set up the fairgrounds. "It'll look pretty good in the morning," Kettle Belly said. He led the way to a large tent at one corner of the field. Orange Blossom supervised as four children worked to lay out carpets, set up tables, and generally make preparations.

"So, Whandall, got anything to sell?" Kettle Belly asked.

"You can see the wagon's empty-"

"Mostly I see it's got a false bottom." Kettle Belly chuckled. "No telling what you've got in there. Of course that's the idea. Anyway, I won't charge you much to set you up a table in my tent."

"Is this a good place to sell?" Whandall asked.

Kettle Belly shook his head. "Depends on what you're selling. Oh, well, not really. Not a lot to buy here, either, other than food and hay, leastways not going north in spring. We'll buy some berries. Crops ripen here quicker than they do up north; sometimes you can turn a good profit moving berries north while people are sick of winter food. But they won't have much, and you have to be careful. Berries spoil fast if you hit u stretch where the magic's weak."

"Then why do you stop here?"

"Heh, lad, we don't have any choice. The bison go only so far, then they stop for a couple of days. Have to let them rest up and fill their bellies. That's most of this town's excuse for existence, wagon stop on the Hemp Road." He eyed Whandall critically. "And now we have to come to some agreement."

"What does that mean?" Whandall turned wary, and crouched slightly.

"Knife fighter. Lonesome Crow tells me you harpies are good at knife fighting," Kettle Belly said.

"Good enough," Whandall said. "What kind of agreement?"

"Boy, you keep asking for information. It cost me to learn what you want to know. Should I tell you for free?"

Whandall considered that. "Wizards trade information," he said. "Tellers trade stories. I studied with a teller."

"Yes, but you don't know anything I need to know," Kettle Belly said. "Leastwise I doubt you do. Stories are good. You can eat off good stories. Any night you have a good story, dinner's free. But what do you know that I need to know?" By now he must have seen Whandall's grin.

"Great Hawk Bay," Whandall said. "They'll pay well for herbs and spices."

"Depends on the spices," Kettle Belly said. "We don't get that far west. There's a market in Golden Valley that pays better than Great Hawk, for that matter. Great Hawk's on the sea, they get ship trade. Whandall, do you have Valley of Smokes spices in that wagon bottom?"

Whandall considered his options. None of them seemed very good. Might as well tell the truth. "Some."

"Hold on to them. Golden Valley's the place to sell those. If you can get there."

"Why would that be a problem?" Whandall asked.

Orange Blossom giggled behind them. "It won't, if you stay with us," she said. She was using a broom to sweep off the carpet.

"It can get tricky," Kettle Belly said. "Bandits. Maybe you can fight them off, but generally there's more than one. Then there's the tax collectors. Every town wants a cut. They'll take all they can get from a lone traveler. You go alone, you won't get two hundred miles."

Whandall didn't say anything.

"You're tough," Kettle Belly said. "And damned mean looking to boot. But one man alone isn't enough to fight off tax collectors."

Whandall thought of the Toronexti. "Are you making an offer?"

"I'm thinking about it."

"Do, Father," Orange Blossom said.

"Yep. Whandall, you travel with us to Golden Valley. II (here's fighting to do, you'll fight on our side. You pay your own travel expenses, that's food and fodder. We pay the taxes. You keep up with us. It costs you a third."

"Father!" Orange Blossom said.

"Hush, child!"

"A third of what?"

"Of the value of everything you have when we get to Golden Valley."

"What does everyone else pay?" Whandall asked.

"A fifth. But you'll be a lot more trouble than they are."

"Starting from Condigeo," Whandall guessed. "They pay that starting from Condigeo." He wasn't used to bargaining. But a Lordkin must have guile....

"Well, you have a point," Kettle Belly said. "And besides, my daughter likes you. A quarter, Whandall, and that's my best offer. A quarter of what you're worth when we get to Golden Valley." He paused. "You won't get a better offer."

Supper was a big affair. A huge pot of stew bubbled over an open fire in the middle of the wagon camp. Carpets and cushions were spread out around it. Men and older women sat while children and younger women served out bowls of stew and small pots of a thin wine generously watered.

Kettle Belly waited until Whandall had finished a bowl of stew, then came over to introduce him around the wagon circle.

First he was taken to a wagon with a cover painted like the sky. An odd funnel-shaped cloud reached from the top of the canopy to the bottom of the wagon bed. It was so real that Whandall thought he could see it move if he looked away from it. If he stared at it, it stayed still.

The wagon was tended by two women as old as Ruby Fishhawk, and a girl about Willow's age. The girl stared at Whandall until Kettle Belly spoke rapidly, and one of the women went inside. She came out with a man.

"Hickamore," Kettle Belly said. He spoke rapidly, then turned to Whandall. "This is Hickamore, shaman of this wagon train. I've told him that I have invited you to join the wagon train."

Hickamore was ageless, his dark skin like the leather he was dressed in, his eyes set deep in his head. He might have been thirty or ninety. He stared at Whandall, then looked past him into the distant hills. Whandall started to say something, but Kettle Belly gestured impatiently for silence. They stood and waited while Hickamore stared at nothing. Finally the shaman spoke in Condigeano.

"Whandall Placehold," he said.

Whandall jumped.

"This is your name?" Hickamore made it a question.

"Yes, Sage, but I have not told it to anyone here."

Hickamore nodded. "I was not sure. You will have other names, all known to the world. You will not again have or need a secret name."

"You see the future."

"Sometimes, when it is strong enough."

"Will I meet Morth of Atlantis again?"

Hickamore stared into the distance. "So the story is true. An Atlantis wizard lives! I met one long ago, before Atlantis sank, but I know little of Atlantis. I would know more."

Whandall said nothing. A shrewd light came into the old shaman's eyes. "Black Kettle, am I an honest man?"

"None more so," Kettle Belly said.

"None here, anyway. Whandall Placehold, I make you a trade. Black Kettle will charge you half the traveler fee he demands, and you will tell me all you know of Morth of Atlantis."

"Now, Hickamore-"

"Black Kettle, do you dispute my right?"

"No, Sage." Kettle Belly shrugged. "He hadn't accepted my offer."

"He does now," Hickamore said. "One part in ten."

Kettle Belly howled. "One in eight is half what I offered!"

Hickamore stared at him.

"Robbery," Kettle Belly said. "Robbery. You'll ruin us all! Oh, all right, one part in ten, but you must satisfy the Sage, Whandall!"

It was all happening too fast, and Whandall still felt the effects of the wine. Were they stealing from him? Was all this staged? Pelzed had done that. And the Lords, with their circuses and shows. They were certainly treating him like a child, arguing over his goods.

His and Willow's. And the children. One part in ten would be half what anyone else paid. And they didn't know about the gold. A Lordkin must have guile... . "Thank you," Whandall said. "We accept."

Greathand the blacksmith was nearly as big as Whandall, much bigger than anyone else in the wagon train, with arms as big as Black Kettle's thighs. He eyed Whandall suspiciously and spoke mostly in grunts, but he didn't object to Whandall's joining the wagon train.

After Black Kettle introduced Whandall around the circle of wagons, Ruby Fishhawk took Willow and the others on the same tour. The evening ended with wine and singing, and Whandall fell asleep staring at the blaze of stars overhead.

The market tents were set up in a field next to the wagon camp. Not all the Bison Clan families had tents. Some shared, two families with tables

in one lent. Everyone displayed something for sale; that was a rule Kettle Belly insisted on. liven overpriced goods made the fair look larger.

Across the field from the wagon train tents the townsfolk set up their own market. Their tents were less colorful than the Bison Clan's, and there were not many goods for sale. Mostly the town dealt in food stocks and fodder.

Kettle Belly went with Whandall to inspect the town's goods.

One tent sold rugs. Warned by Kettle Belly, Whandall inspected these closely. There were fewer knots on the underside of the carpet, and the patterns were not as bright or as well done.

As they walked away Kettle Belly muttered, "Overpriced. Far too high for this time of year. I wonder if they know something."

"What might that be?"

"Cold winter. Wind off the high glaciers. Have to ask Hickamore."

"We need rugs," Whandall said. "I don't mind sleeping on the ground, but Willow isn't used to it. The children aren't."

'Tell her to hold on a couple of weeks," Kettle Belly said. He pointed north. "Beyond the pass at the end of this valley we start up into the mountains. Not the real mountains, but they're high enough that the wool's better. We'll be in German in two weeks. Look for rugs there. They won't be as good as mine, but they'll do. Use them on the road, buy better in Golden Valley, and sell the Gorman rugs in Last Pines next year. You'll get at least what you paid for them."

Orange Blossom had harnessed and bridled two pony stallions. Streamers flowed from their horns. In the scantiest of clothing Orange Blossom stood on their backs, one foot on each, and rode through the town to bring the townsfolk to the market field. A stream of young men followed her back to the market.

Willow caught him gaping. "She does that well," Whandall said.

Willow only nodded. Then she went to find her brother, and together they went to the Fishhawk tent. They came back with two of the Fishhawk boys and two posts twice as long as Whandall was tall. Carter dived into the hidden compartment of their wagon and came out with ropes. They stood the posts eight paces apart, and used ropes and stakes to hold them upright. Then they strung a rope from one post to the next and tightened it with a stick twisted into the rope.

Willow vanished into their tent. She came out wearing skintight trousers and tunic. "Catch me," she shouted to Whandall. Then she climbed agilely to the top of one of the poles and stood on it. "Catch me!" she shouted again.

Carter moved beside Whandall. "She wants you to stand beneath her in case she falls. If she falls, you catch her."

"Oh." Memories came back. "You're the ropewalkers!"

Carter stared.

"I mean I saw you before, before I knew what your name was," Whandall said. He remembered the man who had stood beneath the ropewalking girl during Pelzed's show. That must have been her lather! Whandall moved out under the rope, his eyes fixed on Willow. She was both beautiful and vulnerable.

Willow smiled down at him. "I'll probably fall. I haven't done this in a long time," she said. "But you're strong."

"I'd suit up," Carter said, "only there's nothing to wear."

"Next time," Willow said. "I'll work alone today." She walked out onto the rope.

Whandall stayed under her. It wasn't easy. She did backward somersaults, stood on her hands on the rope, jumped and caught herself. She seemed less graceful than the little girl Whandall remembered, but she got the attention of the spectators.

A mixed crowd of villagers and wagon train boys gathered to watch. They all stared at Willow. She smiled back at them and did a forward somersault. I Carver was standing by one of the posts. "Wow."

Whandall looked at him.

"Forward's a lot harder than backward. You can't see," Carver said. "She's still the best-"

Willow attempted something complicated. She was falling before he quite realized that it wasn't an act. She had the rope and lost it, but it slowed her for a moment, and then Whandall was under her. Whandall braced himself.

She fell limply into his arms. He caught her and they both went down, knocking the wind out of his chest. They lay on the ground, Willow atop him. Despite the pain, it felt good to Whandall. She was well muscled, soft at the shoulders-his hands moved involuntarily.

Willow smiled and deftly got up. "Thanks. My hero." She said it half mockingly-but only half-and she smiled. Then she bowed to the crowd and went into their tent.

Kettle Belly came over to their wagon after dinner. "I feel better about the deal you made," he told Whandall. "You didn't tell me Willow could perform."

"Carter can too," Whandall said, remembering. "He needs practice, though."

"They'll have the chance. A good show is worth a lot, Whandall. They'll draw crowds out in Stone Needles country. Golden Valley too. Whandall, we're moving out tomorrow. How will you move your wagons?"

"The ponies-"

"They'll be slow. Willow can still lead them?"

"Well, I suppose so, I don't know why she couldn't."

Kettle Belly grinned knowingly. "Good. But it won't do. They won't move faster than the girls can walk. Most of the way is uphill. The girls will gel tired and slow us down, even if Orange Blossom takes turns with Willow. Willow will be too tired to practice. And what about your mare?"

"Carver can still handle her. She'll pull a cart if he drives it." Whandall shrugged. "Not me. That mare wants me dead."

Kettle Belly grinned again. "Okay. Good. Carver drives the wagon with the mare. The other wagon's a different matter. I'll bring over some bison in the morning, and Number Three will show you how to hitch them up."

"What about our ponies?"

"They'll follow the girls. Willow and Orange Blossom can ride at the tailgate of your wagon, and all the one-horns will follow them. Darned things are more trouble than they're worth, but they're popular in Golden Valley."

Chapter 40 | The Burning City | Chapter 42