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Chapter 48

By now Whandall knew where most of the bandits were, at least those nearby. Fifty or so. There might be many more. A messenger was moving among them, but whatever his words, they were not "Attack!" Even a stranger's body language told him that.

They weren't waiting for anything in particular. They watched and envied. The shaman had known that in hours, or a day, they would run out of patience.

But Coyote had been waiting, and now Whandall knew why.

A pony whinnied. Then the others. Then the firelight showed Twisted Cloud walking proud and erect, with nothing to hide.

The ponies would have screamed their anger if she had lain with a man ... with, say, Whandall Placehold. But Twisted Cloud had lain with Coyote. She was carrying Coyote's child, freshly conceived.

The ponies went mad. They began to destroy the corral.

The bandits knew a distraction when they saw it. Without Twisted Cloud their attack might have come at any time. They'd already marked the locations of most of the caravan's guards. They charged in a scuffling run. The scouts ran about whacking laggards to get them moving.

And Whandall was behind them.

First things first. The nearest man was slow, and his back was turned. Whandall could have swung wide, but the man ahead of him had a fine knife with a big shiny leaf-shaped blade. Whandall would have to kill the first man before he fought the second.

The bandit never heard him. A backhand slash at a leg, draw across the thigh until it spurted blood, then bring the knife around and high and straight down to the join of neck and shoulder. He barely croaked as he fell.

But the second must have glimpsed something. He whirled around to see in the half moonlight a silent giant with a dripping knife. He screamed when he should have fought, and then the point was in his throat.

Hut Whandall's knife stuck in the bone. And again he'd been seen! The bandit to his left turned and charged and ran himself on the knife Whandall had taken from the man Coyote had killed. Whandall left his own knife where it stuck. He had two bandits' knives, each long and heavy, the hilt grooved for fingers, and with a guard! Treasure indeed in Serpent's Walk, and worth his life out here, maybe, because four or five bandits were spreading through the boulders to surround him.

Again! What were they seeing? A Lordkin should know how to lurk!

Elsewhere the bandits were converging on the wagons, yelling like Lordkin, each pretending he was a mob. Whandall had been told they would do this. Among the rocks, who could know how many there were?

Kettle Belly stood in the center of the wagon camp, surrounded by his sons and a dozen others, the trained young men he called his army. Others, men and women and adolescent children, went to defend their own wagons. Younger children scrambled under wagons.

Kettle Belly shouted orders-and was obeyed. At his command fifteen young men with spears and javelins formed a line and threw their javelins at the bandits they could see. The wrong band, the disorganized gatherers. Kettle Belly couldn't see the bandit lord, but Whandall could.

That one. His brighter colors flashing in moonlight, a burly bandit shouted orders to twenty companions who wore colorful sashes. Those hesitated, awaiting his word. The equivalent of Pelzed's guard, Whandall thought. But most of the horde were rushing toward the wagons, paying no attention to the big man.

Those were no threat. They were gatherers who would run if faced with real force. It was the bandit chief and his henchmen that the Bisons ought to fear.

Memories flooded through Whandall, riding the shouts of the bandits. Coyote had run with bandits too, and he knew them. Bandits didn't want to destroy a wagon train. They wanted loot, women, and a wagon to carry it all. Eight or ten bandits could snatch a wagon and pull it into the dark, if other bandits stayed to harry pursuit. Men could outrun a bison team.

Five bandits were coming at Whandall, spreading out to surround him. Not enough to slow the horde. Yelling wouldn't even be noticed, but- "Snake feet! Snake feet!" he screamed. He danced between two men and turned on one with slashing doubled blades and left him with both arms bleeding, then whirled to find the other much too close, stabbed him

through the heart, and delicately plucked his blade. "Serpent's Walk, you ignorant lookers!" and he ran.

Three still chased him. He was lucky to get any attention at all! He was only one man with a few corpses around him; over there was a wagon train rich with loot. These savages were going to kill a lot of people unless he could distract them.

Four of the front rank of gatherers went down before Bison Clan's spears. Two got up and limped away from the battle. Kettle Belly's army hefted spears in both hands and advanced toward the charging bandits. They hadn't seen the bandit chief and his guard moving toward the caravan at a jog, holding formation.

Whandall ran to intercept them. He'd guessed their target.

He could hear panting behind him. He turned once and slashed and was running again. Three behind him now, one wounded, and none of them really wanted to catch him. In the caravan, some of the defenders had noticed Whandall.

From somewhere behind them came a high-pitched song that sounded of rushing wind, of storms and joy and death. Twisted Cloud! Her voice carried courage to her friends, fear to her enemies, and more.

Gold! She would be carrying some of the river gold, empowered by its wild magic. What had she learned from her father? Her spells would be uncontrolled in the best of times, and now-Whandall didn't think he should put much trust in Twisted Cloud's spells. Still her song rang out, and a few of the rear rank of bandits melted away into the night behind them.

A wind was rising. The storm that had gathered above Hickamore was coming to Bison Clan.

Carver stood on Willow's wagon, Carter just behind him, their slings whirling. There wasn't much light, and if their stones hit anyone there was no sign of it.

It was a game. Coyote would call it a dance. The bandits wanted loot, women if they could get them. The wagonmaster wanted to limit his losses, keep his people safe, and inflict enough damage to make the bandits think again before attacking his wagon train. He would risk men to save women. He would risk all to save all the wagons, but he would not risk many men to save only one.

The bandits would choose the wagon least guarded, the lightest and easiest to move. Willow Ropewalker's wagon was small and near, defended by children.

And Whandall Placehold was behind them.

Coyote memories and Kettle Belly's training were overlaid on what he could see. What Coyote knew of bandits and raids was all scrambled up with memories of possession by Yangin-Atep. That was different. He'd been possessed of Yangin-Atep, but he had been Coyote. Coyote had opened his memory and doused him with knowledge and stories. Whandall would be days sorting out his own memories from Coyote's.

Three of the chieftain's score had been cut down by the caravan's defenders, but other freelance bandits were gathering around that core of men, increasing their number.

The corral splintered. The bonehead stallions ran mad through the camp, horns flashing in moonlight. Twisted Cloud ran behind them, flapping her arms, howling like a coyote, guiding them into the attackers. Bandits scattered ahead of them. One rose on a horn and was thrown flying, and one ran straight into Whandall's knife, stopped in mortal shock, and screamed only when he saw Whandall's face. Whandall moved among them, slashing. The ponies broke free and ran screaming from Twisted Cloud.

The bandit chief shouted more orders. Five of his guard and half a dozen other bandits heard, thought it over, and converged toward Whandall Place-hold. About time they noticed him! Whandall backed away from the horde that was coming at him; whirled and struck down the tired man at his back; turned back and saw them stop as if they'd hit a wall. Then half of them came on.

Too many. Too many were coming at him at once. If they swarmed ahead, they'd have him before he could deal with more than two.

The bandits knew that. No one wanted to be one of the two.

Whandall snatched up a cloak that a dead bandit had gathered from a wagon. He wound it around his arm with the skirt dangling, just in time to shield himself from a knife thrown from the shadows. It was still turning, and struck the cloak without penetration. Whandall leaped forward to slash and felt the chuk! of his blade striking bone.

Then he leaped atop a boulder.

Kettle Belly shouted orders. His spearmen moved forward at a trot, spears held waist high in an underhand grip. The bandit chief was between Kettle Belly's spears and a maniac dripping blood and marked with a serpent. His companions closed around their chief and shouted in a language Whandall had never heard before. He understood every word.

"Look what I got, Prairie Dog!"

"Fool! My brother is dead. It's not loot I want, it's blood."

"Drink alone, then."

"His face! His face! You said their shaman was dead!"

"Run away!"

They were pursued by worse than Kettle Belly's laughter.

Some had snatched clothing that Ropewalker wagon had set out to dry. A gale wind pulled at the cloth like sails, and they ran off balance and half blind. Whandall ran after them, striking down the slowest, who fell with a scream.

Two others turned, releasing what they carried, drawing knives as their loot flapped away like ghosts. Then one fell without a sound. The other dithered an instant, then came on alone. Whandall killed him.

He looked around to see a whirling sling, a triumphant grin. "The moon's come out!" Carver shouted.

His sling whirled. A bandit with a wooden chest in his arms cursed as the stone hit his back. He turned, dropping the chest. It shattered. Whandall caught up to him. Slash the leg, chop to the shoulder, run past, take another.

"Whandall!" Kettle Belly's voice, well behind, too far behind to be any help.

Carver laughed beside him. "Whandall! Do you know what your face is like?"

He'd seen himself in Morth's mirror. But Carver didn't wait for an answer. "You light up! Every time ... you kill a man ... the snake lights up ... in blue fire! Just for a breath, but... it scares them out of their minds! "

There must be magical power-manna-in murder. It was lighting up his magical tattoo. But only for an instant, and now each running man perceived Whandall in the dark behind him. A man clutching a big wood bucket with a handle turned and saw him, and shrieked. Whandall's utmost burst of speed still couldn't catch him, though his staccato scream was announcing his location all across the plain ...

Enough. "Carver!"

"They're getting away!"

"Leave some to tell the tale, Carver," Whandall commanded. "Come back to the wagons."

He had two fine new knives. He'd left his crude Lordkin knife some" where on the plain, stuck in a man's throat. Coyote spoke to him, from memory or from the shadows, not in words but in pictures, of a pack of coyotes running away to regroup and fall on a pair of pursuing dogs. He urged Carver into a run.

Chapter 47 | The Burning City | Chapter 49