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Chapter 49



Nobody slept. Conversations clustered around the wounded. There was wine. Whandall was treated as a hero, except that nobody offered him wine. He said nothing, and looked.

Many were heroes that night, and great was the praise they received, but only the wounded were drinking wine. That actually made sense, he thought. Wine dulls pain.

Everybody had a story. They all wanted to hear Whandall's, but they didn't want to shut up.

"We've been counting on you, you know. We wanted to see how a harpy would fight." This from a man who remained cheerful as his wife bound up a deep slash across his back. He'd never spoken to Whandall before. "After Hickamore went off with you, we were all twitchy, waiting for the attack, wondering when it would come, why Hickamore would leave us now, why he'd taken the harpy. Thinking he must be crazy."

"He was crazy," Whandall affirmed.

"Yeah?"

"Gold fever."

"Ah." The wounded man found his train of thought. "Then the ponies all went crazy. We near jumped out of our skins. We saw Twisted Cloud come back alone, and bandits running out of the dark, and guards running ahead of them to get into position. Everyone armed was running somewhere; anyone else was looking for weapons. Twisted Cloud saw what was happening, and she ran around flapping her arms at the ponies-"

"They were miming away from me," Twisted Cloud said, "and I thought I could steer them into the bandits. It worked, a little, but they wrecked a lot too, and I wouldn't count on their coming back." She seemed unhurt. She smiled at Whandall, a sudden bedroom smile, and he couldn't help leering back. She told Kettle Belly, "I carry Coyote's child. That's what they were afraid of."

Fawn and Rutting Deer were tending Mountain Cat. That looked like a near miss, a wide bloody knife stroke across his ribs and chest, an inch above cutting his belly open. His arm was bleeding too. Fawn glared at Whandall (and, interestingly, Rutting Deer didn't) but Mountain Cat didn't notice.

"You saved me," he said, "know it or not. That son of a broke-horned pony cut me and was going into his backslash. That would have opened me like a salmon. Then, out there on the desert, you pulled your knife out of some poor bastard and looked at us like a hell-blue glowing snake, and he just couldn't look away. And I did! I think I sliced up his eye. Anyway, he ran."

Rutting Deer seemed bewildered. She caught Whandall looking and shrugged helplessly. "I never saw anything. Just you killing someone in the dark, and poor Mountain Cat fighting for us."

"I can't see it either," Whandall told her.

By midnight it was over. Kettle Belly's men took a tally by dim firelight and intermittent moonlight, not straying too far and never separating.

The score was twenty dead bandits against one old man who died of a heart attack and one young boy who was out after stream water. They found him facedown in the water, his head bashed in and his bucket missing. Some rope, clothing, a few pots, one mirror, some harnesses, a couple of spears; they lost very little and got some of it back. Most agreed that it would be a while before these bandits attacked the Bison Clan again.

"But there are other bandits," Kettle Belly said, "All along the trail." As Whandall crossed between fires, the man had moved smoothly into place beside him. "Winning this kind of fight can be really expensive. It wasn't, but it could have been."

Whandall waited.

"Hammer saw you and Carver running into the dark and out of sight! We thought they'd killed you!"

"We chased them."

"You have wagons to defend. You could get lost. They could double back around you!" Kettle Belly studied him. "It doesn't make sense to risk everything like that. We couldn't go after you, you know, and then you wouldn't be there next time.

"Look, harpy, this is how it's supposed to work. The bandits give up trying to gel a wagon as soon as we show them some blood. Then they grab anything they can and run. Typically you'll see a couple of bandits lacing off against a wagon family, and nobody really wants a fight. The owners shout for help. A couple of neighbors come, and the bandits run away and hit some other wagon."

Whandall began to doubt. Had he broken some law? "Kettle Belly, do we have some kind of bargain with them? A treaty?"

"With bandits? No!"

"Then it doesn't make sense to follow their rules. We gave them no guarantees, right? They're not holding back to keep some bargain, are they? Let's shake them up a little. They want rules? Let them come and ask for rules."

Kettle Belly sighed. "Hickamore said bandits wouldn't know what to make of you. He was right. You're more interested in killing them than in protecting the wagons. Now you're telling me you were following a plan?"

"Plan. Well. I did what I've been taught. The Placehold never makes half of a war."

Whandall dreaded the moment when he must face Willow . .. but when the moment came it didn't matter.

Hickamore's storm swept over Bison Clan. They were soaked and blinded. The rain was gone as quickly as it came, leaving them in a howling hot wind.

Kettle Belly and Twisted Cloud drove them to work. The flood was coming just behind!

The wagons were already on high ground, trust Kettle Belly for that, but everything had to be tied down, anchored. There was the risk that bandits would strike again under cover of the storm ....nd in the midst of all that, he and Willow could only glimpse each other at a half-blind run.

In a moon-shrouded moment they almost ran into each other. Willow blinked, then gripped his shoulders and bellowed, "Was it the fire god?"

"No, it was Coyote! You heard-"

"I was afraid she might be wrong!" She was gone.

Dawn showed the wagons on islands in a flood. Bandits would drown before they could gather anything. It seemed safe to sleep ... and everyone posted a guard anyway.

Iris Miller had slept. She started to complain, but Willow touched her cheek and asked, "Who else could we trust?" and Iris went.

And they slept.

Whandall woke near noon. Traces of breakfast remained: the rest of the

caravan hadn't been up long. He could see several of them out on the

damp plain finding treasure the bandits had dropped.

Whandall had been thinking. Willow certainly knew, as the whole caravan knew, that Twisted Cloud was pregnant by Coyote where the only living man-shape was Whandall's. Whandall was prepared to spend months or years explaining to Willow that it was Willow he loved. He would be patient. He must satisfy her brothers too: not just Carver-who had fought beside him joyfully, who might be ready to accept him-but Carter too. It might take forever. So be it...

But Twisted Cloud was pregnant by his doing, and that was another matter. Whandall had heard too many Lordkin say "possessed" and known it for a threadbare excuse. If Twisted Cloud claimed him, he must marry her.

Two wives were rare among the Bison people.

But while Whandall was thinking, Kettle Belly acted.

At high noon Kettle Belly led Twisted Cloud to a table, helped her up, and joined her. Whandall saw no other signal, but conversations chopped off. Bison Clan gathered around them.

Kettle Belly's voice rolled like a Lord's. "Twisted Cloud will bear the grandchild of our shaman and the child of Coyote himself!"

Twisted Cloud glowed with pride.

Willow Ropewalker stepped up beside Whandall.

"What man is worthy of raising such a child? Coyote's son or daughter-"

"Daughter," Twisted Cloud shouted happily.

"-will be powerful and willful and prone to mischief. Twisted Cloud's man must control the child long enough to teach her-"

Willow called, "Kettle Belly? Wagonmaster?"

A ripple of discontent. Kettle Belly looked down, displeased.

"I claim Whandall Placehold as mine."

Whandall turned to look at her. Willow met his eyes, forcing herself.

Kettle Belly said, "Fine," and dismissed her.

Whandall couldn't think of an intelligent question. But if she didn't mean it, he was going to die.

"Women talk about being courted," Willow told him carefully, "and I liked that. And you gave me a dowry so I'd have a choice. And it's been fun, Whandall," she held both of his hands now, "you courting me and not knowing how, and of course my brothers had to get used to you, but-"

"Willow-"

"-but I thought she might claim you! You made her pregnant!"

"Listen, that was-"

"So I got in first."

Whandall couldn't stop grinning. He dared squeeze her hands, then pull

her into his arms. They turned thus to watch the ceremony. She clung to

him, stroked his tattoo, ran her hand down his left arm to touch the misshapen wrist bones. Then she looked at him and smiled again.

After a long time, Whandall became aware of the rest of the world.

What was Kettle Belly doing? Holding an auction?

"She does not seem eager to claim me," he observed.

"You're disappointed? Because I just-"

"No!"

"-just realized. You can't see your own tattoo glowing? Rutting Deer can't see it either, but anyone else must be keeping his mouth shut, because it means he doesn't have shaman's blood. You can't raise Coyote's child."

"Oops."

"But Orange Blossom- Hello, Carter. Did you-"

"I heard. My shy sister. Now I suppose you never will teach us how to gather," Carter said to Whandall.

Whandall said, "No."

"But you can teach us how to fight."

"You do fine."

Stag Rampant, a young man of Leather smith Wagon, claimed Twisted Cloud. Whandall had seen the man's doubts, but they were gone now.

She would certainly be Bison Clan's religious leader until her daughter had gained maturity, and maybe beyond. And the rustle of activity was Bison Clan gearing up to travel. Late as it was, they could still make First Pines by evening.










Chapter 48 | The Burning City | Book Two



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