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Chapter 43



The water in their camp well was cool and sweet. Whandall drank his fill, then splashed himself clean in the washing pool next to the well. The afternoon was hot. It had been a long day, starting before the sun came up.

He found shade in a thicket near the wagon and stretched out for a nap.

The sun was still high when he was awakened by someone moving. He looked out through the thicket, moving just his head. Old habits die hard.

Willow was tightening a rope four feet above the ground. For practice she liked it high enough that a fall would hurt, but not so high that she'd break bones. She tugged on the rope, nodded in satisfaction, and went into the wagon. Whandall waited for her to come out. He liked to watch her, although Willow didn't want anyone to watch her practice.

She came out wearing bright feathers. When they'd skinned the terror bird, Whandall had given the feathers to Willow. He hadn't known she had made a costume from them. It looked good on her, gold and green and orange feathers sewed into the cotton and linen cloth most townspeople wove and sold. It fit her tightly, showing the curve of her hips and breasts, and stopped short at the knees to show her perfect calves. Whandall stifled his approval. She might be angry with him for watching her. When Willow got angry, she got more and more quiet, and if he asked her what was wrong, she would mutter, "Nothing." It drove him crazy.

She vaulted onto the rope and did a quick back somersault, then a handstand, the feathered skirt tumbling down to show more feathers and a few

inches of thighs. Wagon train women and townswomen never allowed anyone lo see them when they weren't fully clothed... unless they were performing, like Orange Blossom riding the ponies. Then they wanted everyone to see them. Girls were confusing.

Willow came off the handstand and dove forward. Whatever she attempted, she missed, and nearly fell, just catching the rope. She used it to swing upward and back onto it, then did a forward somersault.

"Bravo!" Carver came around the side of the wagon.

"You startled me," Willow said. "Coming up?"

"No. I've lost the knack," Carver said.

"Brother, you just need practice."

"No, I've really lost it. Besides, no one wants to see me do ropewalking. They want to see pretty girls."

"That was nice. Do you really think I'm pretty?"

"Yes. Whandall thinks so too."

"Maybe." She jumped lightly to the ground. "Well, if you aren't going to be part of the act, I'll have to work out a new routine."

"You'll do fine," Carver said. "Mother always said you were really good."

"I miss her," Willow said.

"Dad too."

"Well, sure, but-yeah, Dad too."

Carter and Hammer came out of the wagon. "Hi. Hey, you look great," Carter said. "Did you make that?"

"Well, I sewed it," Willow said. "Ruby Fishhawk helped."

Carter fingered the feathered skirt. "That sure was something to see. Whandall saw that bird looking at you and pow! He was right there, that big knife out, that blanket-did you see what that bird did to the blanket? It would have torn Whandall the same way, only he was too fast for it. And strong. You ever seen anyone stronger?"

"Will you stop with that?" Carver said.

"Why should I?"

Whandall lay still, wondering what to do now. Lurking was natural, but this...

"Wasn't he, Willow?" Carter demanded. "Wasn't he wonderful?"

Willow nodded but didn't say anything.

"Ah, you think Whandall can't do anything wrong," Carver said. "But what does he really know how to do? He can't tame ponies. Even my mare runs away from him. He can't make rope. What can he do?"

"He can fight!"

"Lordkin can fight," Carver said. "And he's a Lordkin."

"He's not," Carter said. "He's not Lordkin and we're not kinless! Not out here."

"Then what are we?" Hammer asked.

"I guess we're just people," Carter said. "Rich people." •

"Whandall's rich," Carver said. "We're not. Morth gave that gold to Whandall, not us. We don't even own the wagon, not if Whandall says we don't."

Hammer had been listening with attention. "But it's ours," Hammer said. "Well, yours. But one of the ponies was my dad's, so that makes it mine."

"Yours if Whandall says it is," Carver said.

"It's mine anyway!" Hammer said. "If that Lordkin harpy won't give it to me, I'll-"

Carter laughed. "You won't do anything!"

"I'll get help," Hammer said. "Carver will help. And the wagon master. And the blacksmith. They'll make him give me my pony!"

Carter laughed again. "You think everyone in this wagon train could take something away from Whandall if he didn't want to give it? He could kill everyone here!"

"Well, maybe not," Carver said. "But you're right-he'd be pretty hard to take out. They won't try it. The wagon train can't afford to lose that many people dead or hurt. Unless we get him in his sleep."

"You won't do that!" Carter said. "Why are you all mad at Whandall? He saved Willow from that bird! He saved us all. We'd never have got out of that forest. We'd still be in Tep's Town if it wasn't for Whandall, and he never did any of us any harm. Willow, you're the oldest; make him stop talking like that."

"We still don't know what happened to Father," Carver said.

"Whandall didn't hurt him," Carter said.

"He says he didn't," Willow said.

"You believe him?" Carver demanded.

"Yes. Yes, I do. Anyway, he was possessed of Yangin-Atep," Willow said slowly. "Yangin-Atep could do anything. It wouldn't be Whandall's fault."

"You believe in Yangin-Atep now?" Carver asked.

"Don't you? Morth does. You saw what Morth could do with magic, and Morth was afraid of Yangin-Atep!"

"Yangin-Atep can't take Whandall again," Carter said. "We're safe here."

"We don't know that," Willow said. "We don't know what gods there are, or what they'll take a whim to do. But I think we're safe from Whandall."

"He's still Lordkin," Carver said.

"Why do you keep saying that?" Carter asked.

"Because that's what everyone says. Everyone in the wagon train."

"Does Kettle Belly say it?" Willow asked.

"No-"

"Hickamore?" She was holding back a laugh. .

"I never asked him."

"Who have you been listening to?" Willow asked.

"Yeah, who's everybody?" Hammer chimed in.

Carver was turning belligerent. "Rutting Deer. And Fawn, the blacksmith's older daughter. They say he's a Lordkin boor."

Willow laughed merrily, and Whandall's heart danced inside him. She said, "You don't know much about girls, do you, little brother?"

Carver gaped at his sister. That hurt.

"I already heard that story," Willow said. "Ruby Fishhawk told me. Rutting Deer-"

"Her mother had a vision," Hammer snickered. "Can you picture it?"

"Hush. Rutting Deer and Fawn are together all the time, and they both had their eyes on Whandall after he killed the terror bird-"

"So did you!" Carter laughed. "I saw you."

"So they tried to flirt with him." Willow forged on: "Carver, Fawn's not as good looking as Rutting Deer, is she? But she's not promised. Rutting Deer is promised to a boy in another wagon train. They both think it's fun to flirt. That poor boy, Mountain Cat-anyway, Whandall just couldn't believe that name!"

"I can understand that," Carver said. "I can hardly make myself say that in front of a girl. Even if it's her name."

"He thought he'd heard wrong. Whandall called her Running Deer. But he got them mixed up and called Fawn Running Deer. Now they both want his liver," Willow said.

"He's still a Lordkin," Carver said stubbornly.

"And Mountain Cat is still their toy doll, but you could take his place if you say what they want."

Whandall would have paid a high price to be somewhere else. No outsider should hear any of this.

"Us. The wagon," Carver said. His face was very red, and he was forcing the words out. "The team. Who owns any of this? Whandall already gave away one part in ten-"

"That was a good deal!" Carter said. "Everyone else pays more."

"Yes, but he made the deal for all of us," Carver said. "He didn't ask us. Like it's all his."

"So you'd give Kettle Belly twice as much. More. He wanted a quarter! You're very free with the family goods." Willow turned away. "It's time to start dinner. Whandall will be hungry. Carter, Hammer, go find us some wood."

Whandall crawled out through the thicket, staying with the shadows, sliding through branches without bending them. He knew how to hide from kinless. There was a lot to think about as he walked back to the main camp.

Rutting Deer. Fawn. Got them mixed up in the dark. Whandall thought. Names were important. In Tep's Town you never lei anyone know your true name, so whatever name people called you wasn't real to begin with. Out here, your name was your self. Rutting Deer?

Flirting. Willow said Rutting Deer and Fawn were flirting. He didn't know that word. What had they been doing before they turned cold?

They'd been talking about dowries.

What's a dowry?

Whandall glanced up at the sun. Still high. Hours to dinner. Time to find out. There was a person he could ask....

He bought half a dozen ripe tangerines in the Orangetown market. Mother's Mother had liked those when she could get them. He took them to Ruby Fishhawk's wagon. She didn't hesitate before inviting him into the wagon box tent for tea. It was automatic to take off his boots before going in. He'd learned that much.

Ruby fussed with tea things, poured a cup, and sat on a cushion across from Whandall. "Now. What is this about?"

"I need help," Whandall said. "I don't know anything about girls."

"A boy your age? I don't believe it," Ruby said. She grinned to make it clear what she thought.

"Girls here," Whandall said. "And Willow."

"Willow. Oh. Yes, of course. I keep forgetting that you're Lordkin."

"Forgetting?" Whandall leered out of a rainbow-colored snake.

"Well, it's more I forget what Lordkin are," Ruby said. "And you're not like the ones I remember. Well, usually you aren't. The way you went after that terror bird, now that's how I remember Lordkin. Fearless. Strong. When I was a girl I used to wonder about Lordkin men, what it would be like to have a protector like you." She grinned. "That was a long time ago. You like Willow, do you?"

"Yes." Whandall found it hard to speak about Willow. What could he say? "She's the most beautiful woman I ever saw."

"My. Have you told her that?"

"No."

"Why don't you?"

"I don't know how."

"You just told me," Ruby said. She chuckled. "Whandall, are you asking me how to court her?"

"What does court mean? Like flirt?"

"Well, courting is serious flirting," Ruby said. "If a boy only wants a girl's attention, he flirts. If he's thinking of marriage, he goes courting."

Whandall digested that. "Is that what girls do too? Flirting isn't serious? Courting is?"

"Well, yes. It's a little more complicated than that, but yes."

"Then I want to know how to court her."

"You can't," Ruby said. "No, wait, you're the only one who could, and she knows that, and girls like to think they have a choice. They usually don't, but they like to think they do."

Whandall repeated what he almost understood. "Why am I the only one who can court her?"

"She doesn't have a dowry." Ruby reached over and poured more tea. "That won't matter to you, but it will to all the other boys."

"Yes! What's a dowry?"

Ruby grinned mysteriously. "A dowry is a fortune. Money. A wagon. Rugs. Things girls bring to a marriage, Whandall."

"You mean boys court girls for what they own?" Whandall was being shown a whole new evil. "Lordkin would never do that!"

"They wouldn't, would they?" Ruby said, "I'd forgotten that too. The boys here don't think that way. Think on it, Whandall. A dowry belongs to the woman! If her husband mistreats her or throws her out, she takes it back with her. Ideally it will be enough to live on, to support any children she might have. And a husband thinks hard about getting rid of his wife if it means he has to hire out as a laborer." She laughed. "I had to have it explained to me, you know. Kinless don't think that way either. A girl's dowry in Tep's Town, some Lordkin buck would gather it:"

"Oh-"

"Not you, dear. We don't have kinless and Lordkin here."

"That's what Carter says." Whandall mused. "What does Willow need to make a dowry?"

"A wagon and team, if she's going to live on the road. Money. Clothes. Rugs. The more the better, Whandall."

"The wagon is hers," Whandall said. "It always was, but I guess she doesn't know that. If she has a dowry, anyone can court her?"

"Well," Ruby said, looking at Whandall's thick arms and bulging muscles, "they can, but some will be afraid to as long as they think you're involved. But that's all right, Whandall. Willow will understand that." She chuckled. "Of course any boy might find his courage. And Willow is a lovely girl."

"What do I do after she has her dowry?"

"Give her presents-"

"I did. A dress, and a necklace. She thanked me, but she never wore them."

"Did you ask her to wear them for you?"

"No-"

"Lund's sake, boy!"

"But-"

"You want her to wear them for someone else?"

"No!"

"Well, then, you have to ask her," Ruby said. "Whandall, Willow grew up kinless. Kinless never show anyone what they have. It took me a year before I wore my nicest clothes outside the wagon tent! It's not something you think about; it's just the way kinless live."

Kinless were drab; he'd thought it was their nature. Now he began to understand. "And if I ask her to wear the things I bought her, and she says no?"

"You'll know you need to do some more courting," Ruby said. She winked. "Give her a little time, Whandall."

"I will," Whandall said, but as he walked back to his-Willow's- wagon, he saw Orange Blossom smiling at him, and two other girls sat with their legs showing, and he wondered just how long he could wait. It had been hard, learning to be a Lordkin, but at least he'd understood what he wanted to be.

Supper was ready when he got to the wagon, and then Hickamore wanted a story. There was no chance to talk to the Ropewalkers and Millers.
























Chapter 42 | The Burning City | Chapter 44



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