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Chapter 50



Whandall just missed the bird. He was rooting around in the back of the cart while Green Stone drove. He heard Green Stone cry out. He wriggled backward out of the luggage space.

Whandall's second son was lean and rangy, taller than his father. He was standing precariously on the wobbling bench while the bison plodded ahead. "There! Did you see it? It was wonderful, a bird colored just like your tattoo, Father! It's behind those trees now."

"Watch where you're driving, Stone." The trees were bare, but Whandall still saw nothing. He didn't stand up. The winter wind cut like a forest of knives.

The Hemp Road continued north and east along the base of the low western hills. Whandall had set New Castle on one of those. Ahead was an open plain and river valley, where the Hemp Road ended.

Whandall fished out bread and cheese for their lunch. He could see dust ahead, at the horizon or beyond. He would not see more for another hour.

There was a fair-size town at the far end of the Hemp Road, a place for supplies and refitting, a market center for all of the caravans. Roads came together there, the coast road that led west to Great Hawk Bay, and another that wound through mountain passes north and east to valleys Whandall never expected to see.

In midwinter Road's End was six hours' travel from the New Castle. It would be faster in summer, slower in the spring mud. Nobody would

travel that distance twice in one day. Willow wouldn't expect him back for three or four.

There were just under a hundred wagons in the wagon yard. Forty bore the fiery-feathered serpent that had become the sign of Whandall Feather-snake. The count was uncertain: some wagons were only components. Wheels lay everywhere.

Mountain Cat lifted an axle into place for a Feathersnake wagon that had come home on skids. He'd have used the pulleys, but with Whandall watching, he preferred to show off his strength. "Whandall Feathersnake," he asked, "how runs your life?"

Whandall hefted the other end of the heavy beam. "No excitement."

"We want to thank you for the rug. Rutting Deer set it in our gossip den."

"Good." The public area. Unspoken: he would never see it there. Though the women stayed polite, Willow did not visit Rutting Deer.

Sometimes Whandall wondered. Had Rutting Deer gone to Mountain Cat's tent in fury because Whandall misused her name? Or was it the night of the battle, with Mountain Cat a wounded hero and the bonehead ponies all fled into the dark? Did she expect her father to bargain with unicorns for her? But Hickamore died, and still she might have married the man she was promised to; but one of the ponies had come back after the battle... .

So she'd married Mountain Cat. Without a wagon for a dowry, they'd settled in Road's End and found what work was there.

He could never ask. The Feathersnake family had to get along with a man who built their wheels and a woman who served their food. He said, "I just got here. What are the hot stories?"

"Plenty of work." Mountain Cat waved around. He told what he'd heard, a Bison Clan wagon lost to bandits this year and found in pieces. Pigeon's Wagon had lost control on the long hill from High Pines to the Great Valley and disintegrated; only the metal parts had come home.

"Did you see the bird? Rainbow colored. It circled us for hours. Looking for something, I think."

"No."

"Are you in a hurry for anything?"

"No, but tell me what's finished."

Whandall spent three days inspecting his own wagons, trading goods and tools and lore, trading stories too, as he had for a dozen years, and planning the summer's route with his firstborn son. Saber Tooth was just twenty. He'd been leading the wagons for three years now.

Whandall found himself wishing he were going too.

He had long since given up traveling to raise and guard his family, to build and maintain the New Castle, and to manage the details of trade. All

of these matters he delighted in, hut ... if only he could he two men. Let him set Seshmarl in charge of the New Castle while Whandall ran off down the Hemp Road with the caravan for one more summer.

They kept telling Whandall about the flame-colored bird. It had circled the sprawl of partly repaired wagons at Road's End three times, then flown off down the road. Whandall grew tired of hearing about the bird. Everyone had seen it but him.

Past the New Castle's entry sign, a horde of younger children came running to greet him: not just his and Willow's children and grandchildren, but Millers and Ropewalkers and servants' children too. The New Castle was getting crowded, Whandall thought, and then he heard what they were calling.

"The bird! The bird!"

"Well, what?" He scooped up Larkfeathers, Hammer Ropewalker's girl, who named herself for the startling yellow hair she had seen in a trader's mirror. "Did I miss the cursed thing again?"

"No, no, lookup!"

Nothing.

"At the sign, the sign!"

Behind him. He'd passed right underneath it.

The New Castle buildings were square-built, roomy but a bit drab. Willow didn't like to display their wealth. But she had let him sculpt and paint that sign, a great gaudy winged snake in all the colors of fire, and mount it high above the main gate as a signature and a warning.

The bird was perched on its head. Against those colors it was almost invisible. But the children were shouting, "Seshmarls! Come down, Seshmarls!"

The great bird took flight. It wheeled above them, flapping hard. Shadow-blackened with the sun behind it, it was clearly a crow. It cried, "I am Seshmarls!" in a voice that was eerily familiar.

It was too big to perch on a child's arm. It circled, thwarted, until Whandall lifted his own left arm, hardly believing. The bird settled crushingly.

The children cried, "Say it! Say it! 'I am Seshmarls!' "

By its shape, by its flight, it was a crow. Magic must have changed its colors. It could hardly be covered in paint and still fly! It turned its head to study Whandall, first with one eye, then the other.

It said, "Help me, Whandall Seshmarl! My hope lies in your shadow."

Whandall whispered, "Morth?"

The wizard's voice said, "Come to Rordray's Attic and Morth of Atlantis will make you rich!"

"I am rich," Whandall said.

The bird didn't have an answer for that. "I am Seshmarl's," it said. This lime Whandall heard the possessive. The children gurgled in delight.

"What else does it say?" Whandall asked them.

"Anything we want it to!" Larkfeathers shouted. "And it knows us by name! I can tell it to carry messages, to my sisters or to Glacier Water's Daughter Two, and it does, in my voice!"

"Where does it sleep?"

"Here, mostly, but Aunt Willow lets it in the house if it wants to come in. It's ever so nice a bird, Uncle Whandall."

It would have to be, Whandall thought. He turned back to the bird. "Morth of Atlantis?"

"Help me, Whandall Seshmarl! My hope lies in your shadow."

"Help how?"

"Come to Rordray's Attic."

"Why should I?"

"Morth of Atlantis will give you wealth and adventure."

"How?"

"Help me, Whandall Seshmarl! My hope lies in your shadow. Come to Rordray's Attic."

Green Stone laughed. "Not very smart."

"It's a bird."

"I meant the wizard who sent it," Stone said. "Offering you wealth and adventure! You're almost as rich as Chief Farthest Land, and you've had more adventure than a man can stand!"

"I suppose," Whandall said. He'd said it himself often enough. He looked back to the bird. "When?"

"Another messenger comes," the bird said. "Wait."

The kinless didn't like to display their wealth. The wonderful dresses Whandall had bought her Willow had at first worn only for him; then only when playing hostess inside her own house. What wealth showed was in the private areas of the house.

Willow met him at the door. She led him through toward the back, the bird on his shoulder; Willow draped softly along his other side.

She'd set up a roost in the bedroom. She must consider the bird immensely valuable. And they both knew what would happen next, but in front of the bird? He said, "You know it can talk."

"Just what someone teaches it. Oh. Seshmarls, should we cover its ears? Love, do birds have ears?"

"Willow, I think you'd better hear this." To the bird he said, enunciating, "Why should I?"

The- bird croaked, "Morth of Atlantis-" "Morth!" Willow exclaimed.

"-will give you wealth and adventure. Help me, Whandall Seshmarl-" Willow moved the roosting post out into the hall and they returned to the bedroom. A sense of priorities could be a valuable thing.

During the next few winter weeks their discussions formed a pattern.

Morth wanted to enter their lives again. Morth was not to be trusted! His wealth wasn't needed! As for Whandall leaving the New Castle, "Do you remember the last time you went with the caravan?"

"We nearly lost the New Castle," Whandall admitted. "I nearly lost you."

"Well, then."

During those first six years a legend had spread up and down the Hemp Road, of a grinning giant who wore a tattoo that flared with light when he killed. Then Whandall Feathersnake had retired. Three years later he'd led the summer caravan south. He returned to find invaders in the New Castle. A new tale joined the old, but Willow had extorted a promise.

Now he said, "Well then, they died. The story's all along the route. The farther you follow it back toward Tep's Town, the bigger the numbers get. Whandall Feathersnake was gone three years, seven, ten. Snuck back in as a beggar, covering this with mud," Whandall slapped his tattooed cheek, "depending on who's talking, or even shaved the skin off, leaving a hideous scar. Killed twenty, thirty, forty suitors who wanted to claim his wife and land-"

Nobody would dare try me now, he didn't say, but Willow heard the words between the words. She changed the subject. "I never liked it, you know. Sending you in that direction after I was pregnant. Back toward Tep's Town."

"Oh, that. No, love, I promised. But Rordray's Attic is on the coast, due west of us. Puma Tribe sends wagons every few years."

They'd told him of Rordray's Attic. It was a mythical place inhabited by shape changers, unreachable save by magic, the food touched with glamour unequaled anywhere. That food was mostly fish, it seemed, and Whandall had not been much tempted.

Later, as the caravan route was extended, he met a few who had seen the place. Then a pair of Puma who had spent a few days there and been served from Rordray's kitchen. Sometimes another wagon's primary heir rode with Puma. They didn't go to make themselves rich. Despite the difficulties of crossing two ranges of jagged hills, it was a training exercise, a lark, an adventure.

Now Whandall said, "I'd add a wagon to their train and take just Green Stone. Bring back fish, spelled or just dried. I never liked fish myself, but some do. Take....mm ... rope, everyone wants rope-"

"Dear-"

"Maybe Carver's feet are itching too."

"Whandall!"

"Yes, my most difficult gathering."

"I? Do purses leap out to claim you the way I did? But you do remember Morth. Ready to make me immortal, his for eternity, like it or not? Crazy as a bat Morth? Running up Mount Joy with a fat frothy wave struggling uphill behind him?"

Whandall soothed her. "Two bats."

"But you got us away from him. Now let's keep it that way!"

"Yes, dear." Wagons couldn't move in the winter anyway.









Book Two | The Burning City | Chapter 51



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