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Chapter 42

After dinner he left the Ropewalkers and Millers working on the wagon. Carver sent a dirty look after him, a look he was meant to catch. He stopped. He said, "Carter, maybe you'd better come with me."

Carter trotted to Whandall's side, but, "This is work," Carver said, as if Whandall might not recognize it on sight. "We need all the hands we can get."

"I made a bargain with Hickamore, the wizard," Whandall informed them all. "If I don't keep it, we'll be paying Kettle Belly a fourth of what we own. So I'm going to tell him stories about Morth-"

"But why Carter? He doesn't speak Condigeano!"

"Carter might have seen things about Morth that I didn't. The younger children would miss anything subtle, and you weren't there, Carver. While Willow and I were dealing with Morth, you were a day's walk away dealing with a cart and mare that you had left behind. But I could take Willow instead."

"Oh, Whandall, I think they need me here," Willow said with apparent regret. "Take Carter."

Carver began pounding a post into the ground. Carter and Whandall went to Hickamore's wagon.

The shaman and his family sat under the stars. They must have had first choice of campsites; the circle of rocks around his fire was almost too convenient as a conversation pit.

"My children, these are Whandall and Carter, surely the most unusual of visitors to our home." How had Hickamore known Carter's name?

Magic. "Folk, greet my daughters Rutting Deer and Twisted Cloud, and their friends Fawn and Mountain Cat."

Twisted Cloud was just turned fourteen, quite pretty in the local fashion, high cheekbones and arched brows and straight dark hair. She had Carter's full attention. Running Deer (the shaman couldn't have said Rutting Deer, could he?) was seventeen, with that same look, exotic to Whandall. Fawn didn't say, but she looked to be the same age. Fawn was pretty enough, but Running Deer was Twisted Cloud made mature: tall and lovely, with dark straight hair sculpted into a single braid. Mountain Cat was eighteen or nineteen and finely dressed. He was with Fawn or with Twisted Cloud-it was difficult to tell which-but he didn't want the barbarians near either of them.

Whandall sat aside. Even among lookers he knew how to avoid knife play.

The girls chattered. "Willow," Twisted Cloud said. "Why is she named Willow?"

"It's their way," Fawn said. "Like Ruby. Something precious."

Twisted Cloud nodded understanding. "It's hard to find. Maybe they don't have any in the Valley of Smokes?"

The old man offered Whandall wine. Whandall asked for river water instead. Twisted Cloud scowled, knowing she'd be sent to the cistern to fetch it, and she was.

Hickamore asked, "When did you first see Morth of Atlantis?"

"He was in Lord Samorty's courtyard below Shanda's balcony, talking to the Lords. He looked decrepit, then, and amused. I was only a little boy, but even I could see that he thought they were all fools. They saw it too, I think, but they thought he was wearing it. A wizard's attitude, like the Lords' attitudes they all wore like masks. But it wasn't."

"He did think they were fools, then. Why?"

"They used something that burned up all the magic right through their whole town. Magic didn't work there. Morth was dying for lack of magic-"

"A Warlock's Wheel?"

Whandall shrugged.

Hickamore was excited. "What did it look like?"

"I never saw it. What's it supposed to look like?"

But in the distraction of Twisted Cloud's return, the question got lost. Whandall drank, then thanked her, and Hickamore asked, "What was a Lordkin boy doing on a Lord's balcony?"

Whandall told of crawling over the wall, meeting Shanda, the exchange of clothes.... Running Deer, Fawn, and Twisted Cloud were listening, rapt. Mountain Cat had forgotten all his suspicions under the lure of a good story.

Hiding on the balcony watching an opera. The Black Pit at night. The magic forest: Hickamore wanted to know more about hemp.

"It wants to kill you," Whandall said. "Everyone knows that. You can't walk through a hemp field without tailing asleep, and it will strangle you by morning."

"Not here," Mountain Cat said.

"Ropewalkers," Hickamore said. "How do they make rope if the hemp tries to kill them?"

Whandall looked to Carter. "Carter, the shaman asks-"

Carter said in broken Condigeano, "Old men know. Never teach me."

At Hickamore's urging, Whandall described taking Shanda through the chaparral, being caught by Samorty's people, the mock beating. Hickamore wanted to know more about maps. Whandall drew Tep's Town in the dust, by firelight. Hickamore gave him colored sand to improve it.

Then Hickamore added Whandall's improvements to a map he must have drawn earlier. Grinning, he watched Whandall's face as the map came to life. A green-sand forest bowed and rippled to a yellow windstorm. Cobalt river tracks glittered. Bison no bigger than ants ran before the orange sparkle of a prairie fire. Within the fire a bird's beak showed for an instant, there and gone, and something else, a bird as large as a bison, ran ahead of the fire and vanished.

Carter was yawning, and that gave Whandall his excuse to depart. Bringing Carter had been a good idea.

Hitching up bison was a pain, but driving them turned out to be easier. The beasts were not very smart. They wanted to follow their leaders. They were hitched four to a wagon. As long as a team of bison could see the team in front of them they followed docilely. Kettle Belly drove the lead wagon.

The road took them steadily north. They crossed two small streams, then the road led steadily upward.

The first sign of the terror bird was a high, piercing shriek. Then a scream from a woman in the lead wagon. Then more of the alien shrieking. Then a coyote burst from the chaparral, followed by something bright green and orange, and big.

Whandall had never seen its like. It ran on two legs like a chicken, but the eyes were a head higher than Whandall's and it hadn't even straightened up! The head was too big for its body, mounted on a thick and powerful neck. The beak was most of the head, and it wasn't shaped like a chicken's. It was curved and hooked, built for murder. The legs were thick and stumpy, thighs nearly as big around as Whandall's, and covered with feathers. A plume of tail feathers fanned out behind it.

Whandall gaped. It was clearly a bird, but those weren't wings! The forearms ended in what looked like Lordkin knives, with no pretense at flight.

The coyote ran in terror. An astonished camp dog sprang alter it just too late, and the beast shrieked again and charged the dog. The dog dodged by a hairbreadth. The beak snapped shut on nothing, striking timber from a wagon's side. The howling dog dove under the wagon.

The apparition darted after it.

Bison panicked. The lead wagon jolted as the bison broke into a cumbersome canter. Others followed. In seconds the orderly wagon train was a mass of stampeding bison pulling wagons, and the bird was in the middle of it.

Willow and Orange Blossom were seated on the tailgate of their wagon, clinging to ropes as the wagon lurched away. The bird hesitated, then charged them.

Whandall snatched a blanket from a wagon seat and ran forward, waving his Lordkin knife, shouting a wordless challenge.

Ponies tried to block the thing, but it evaded their horns and aimed a kick powerful enough to stagger the larger stallion. Then it ran toward Willow. It was faster than Whandall. Whandall flapped the blanket at its eye.

The bright blanket got the terror bird's attention. It turned to charge Whandall, its eyes fixed on the blanket. Whandall kept the blanket in front of him until it was nearly on him, then stretched out his blanket-covered left arm and raised it while turning to his left. The bird stretched out its neck and dove into the blanket. Whandall brought down the big Lordkin knife at the base of its neck.

The neck was too thick. The bird ran a circle around Whandall, blinded and trying to tear through the blanket, while Whandall sawed at the neck with his knife. Turning the edge forward got it under the feathers. Round and round, but that had to be bone, and he was getting through it, and then the head was bent back but the bird was still running. It ran Whandall into the side of a wagon. He spun off and lay dazed.

The bird was hellishly fast, but its head flopped loose now, and here came Carter and Carver with a rope stretched between them. The bird's random path veered toward them. They pulled the rope taut and tripped it. As it thrashed they ran round it, wrapping the legs so it couldn't get up.

The spear-claw forearms thrashed for ten minutes. By the time the beast was still, Kettle Belly and the other drivers had halted the wagon train. Now they all gathered around Whandall and the Ropewalkers and the dead bird.

"What in the hell is that?" Whandall demanded.

"Terror bird," Kettle Belly said. "They're rare."

"Let's keep it that way," Whandall said, but he was grinning. Victory felt good. And Willow was looking at him in a way she never had before. So were the other girls of the wagon train, all of them. That felt good too.

The terror bird made soup to feed the whole train, in a row of the big bronze pots that most of the wagons carried. The train gathered around Hickamore's ring of rocks to share it. The meat was tough, and red, less like bird than bison.

As they ate, Hickamore asked Whandall about his tattoo. Whandall had learned some of the local speech by now, but it went better with Ruby Fishhawk to translate from his own language.

"I know now that Morth of Atlantis made it for me, and enchanted it, so that he could follow me out of the Burning City. I believe it killed all the men in my family...."

Gradually the folk around them went silent. Hickamore's daughters listened, and the Ropewalkers and Millers too, and Willow. They'd never asked him about the feathered snake tattoo. What had they known of Lord-kin? They might not know this tattoo was unusual.

Whandall felt good. If Willow hadn't been there he might not have stuck to river water. The party broke up far too early.

The road led up to another pass. Orangetown was in a vale there, and unlike Marsyl, Orangetown had walls.

The town gates were set into stone gate towers, and the walls were stone for a hundred paces to each side of the gates. Elsewhere they became a wooden palisade, logs sharpened at the top and set into low stone walls, chest high to Whandall. Whandall thought Orangetown was smaller than Lordstown. It was certainly tiny compared to Tep's Town.

There were permanent corrals outside the walls, with pens for the bison and another fenced area for the ponies. A steady wind blew from the northeast and the pens were downwind of both the town and the campground. The campground itself had wells and fountains and stone-lined walks. There were feed stores and warehouses adjacent to the animal pens. A large field with wooden seats filled the area between the campgrounds and the animal pens.

Kettle Belly and a dozen of his younger relatives-sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, and cousins-came to help Whandall and the Ropewalkers unhitch their animals and set up camp. "You'll be here," Kettle Belly said, indicating an area among the low trees. "That's your well. The toilet trench is in the grove there. Use it, and clean up any animal droppings. They're sticky about that here."

Whandall smiled to himself. Not everyone had a well and a fireplace at his campsite. The area Kettle Belly picked for Whandall was nearly as large as Hickamore's, and certainly nicer than what the Fishhawks got. "The town looks organized," Whandall said.

"We'll pay for it, but yes, they're organized. One thing. Catch up on sleep. It's safe here. When we set out north again we'll stand night watches until we get to the Big Valley." He eyed Whandall's big Lordkin knife. "Wouldn't surprise me if you got a chance to use that again."

"More of those birds?"

"I'm hearing rumors of two bandit tribes in the hills."

Carter fingered the sling he wore openly around his neck and displayed a bag of stream-rounded stones. "We'll be ready!"

Whandall smiled thinly. He'd never seen a kinless with a sling until Carter took to wearing one. Carter had a knife too. He was clumsy with it, but the kinless were good with slings. More than ever, Whandall thought he knew why Lordkin turned up missing from time to time back in Tep's Town. ...

"Bandits have seen slings before," Kettle Belly said.

"Bet they never saw anyone like Whandall before!"

Kettle Belly eyed the orange feathers Whandall wore in his plaited hair and the gaudy feathered serpent crawling up his arm and across his cheek and eye. "Now there you may be right."

"I heard Morth say, 'What if a magician vouched for you?' I had no idea he was there, and I wasn't even surprised. Morth called it a lurk spell," Whandall said.

He took a strawberry. The shaman had set out a platter of big red strawberries. Whandall hadn't seen anyone picking them. "Shaman, where did you get these?"

"Treeswinger Town, before we met you," Hickamore said. He saw Whandall's astonishment. "My magic preserves many kinds of food. One of the ways in which I earn my keep."

Whandall ate another strawberry, then drank. He lifted the water bottle to show Twisted Cloud. "Brought my own. You won't have to leave this time."

The girl giggled.

She did too much of that. Whandall didn't know how to deal with a giggler. He continued, 'Two huge dagger-toothed cats made of fog and smoke were playing around Morth's feet. His hair was going white to pink and back again, like cloud shadows. He had magic to make him young, but it wanted power.

"I had to hold back. I wanted to kill him. No reason at all. Yangin-Atep was in me, and Yangin-Atep is a fire god, and Morth is a water wizard. Morth backed away. The kinless children were still giving me plenty of room ..."

Hickamore held out the wine flask.

He had only made that gesture once, the first night of storytelling. After that, he'd kept the bottle. Whandall took the bottle and drank.

It wasn't watered. Better not do that again!

Mountain Cat reached. Whandall passed the bottle.

Whandall asked Carter for his own memories of Morth, and then Willow's and Carver's. Carter laughed. He said that Willow had thought Morth might protect them from the Lordkin who threw fire. Hammer had found Whandall awesome, because he frightened Carver; but Morth tended to lecture, like his father.

Whandall didn't take the bottle again, but he could feel its effect burning in his blood. He spoke on. The fire track through the forest, Morth suddenly among them... Tell them about gold in the riverbed? Not yet.

Twisted Cloud went to bed. Mountain Cat made his excuses and departed. Carter was asleep.

Whandall picked the boy up in his arms and made his farewells.

The campfire lit his way, barely. He became aware that both older girls were walking with him. One spoke in a teasing voice. "Mountain cats made of smoke? Is any of that true?"

Whandall kept walking, because Carter was heavy. He said, "I wouldn't lie. Also, I wouldn't lie to a shaman until I knew his power."

"Why do you bring the boy with you? You almost never ask him anything. Is he your ----?"

"He is under my protection. What was that word?"

"Stays with you so that a woman can't get you in trouble, so that another woman's dowry is safe. Does Willow Ropewalker fear for her dowry? She doesn't have one!"

"Running Deer, what is that word, dowry!"

But the girls were gone, so abruptly that Whandall wondered just how much wine he'd taken. One full swallow; it had burned his throat going down. Maybe some wines were stronger than others.

Chapter 41 | The Burning City | Chapter 43