Two flaps and a space between made up the Placehold's front door. A man going in or out would not take all the Placehold's warm air with him. They didn't build that way in the Valley of Smokes because it never got that cold ... and because too fine a house made too fine a gathering.
On a fine, clear, cold morning, Whandall stood in the double door and looked past the outer flap.
It looked like you could start now, take the wagons and run.
From the gate floated the voices of Saber Tooth and Green Stone. Whandall heard "Tattoo..." and tried to ignore the rest.
"Morth! Gave Father ... us too!" That was Stone.
"Not us. You, if you like." Saber Tooth.
Whandall sipped from a dipper of orange juice. The air was clear and cold; the animals were not quite awake. Sound carried amazingly well.
"What if Morth..."
"... wizard wants something. Know that. Pay with a tattoo?"
"Mother won't let him go."
Willow spoke at his ear. "Our sons are misinformed. Whandall Feather-snake doesn't obey worth a curse."
Whandall didn't trust his voice. She'd startled him badly.
"Why does Stone want that tattoo so much?" Willow wondered.
He cleared his throat and said, "It's not just the tattoo. Stone would be my second in command on that trek. He could talk to a wizard. See the ocean. Taste food Saber Tooth has only heard about. At the end he'd have something his brother doesn't. Saber Tooth, now, lie thinks he doesn't want a tattoo, but he knows he'll be riding toward the Firewoods with the caravan come spring, and nowhere near the ocean, wherever his brother might be."
"I wish he'd give it a rest. Talk to him?"
"And say what?"
"The only thing that ever scared Morth was water! And now he claims to be at a seaside inn? It's some kind of trap! Seshmarls!"
The bird was on her shoulder. "I am Seshmarl's," it responded.
"I finally remembered. Seshmarl is the name you used to lie to Morth! Morth of Atlantis! "
"Help me, Whandall Seshmarl! My hope lies in your shadow," the bird croaked. "Come to Rordray's Attic and Morth of Atlantis will make you rich!"
"He's afraid," Willow said.
"Sounds like it." Whandall sipped at his orange juice.
"Afraid of what?"
"It's hard not to wonder."
Wagons couldn't move in the spring mud, either. Two ranges of hills stood between New Castle and the sea, but the plain between was flat and well watered. Life was giving birth to life all up and down the Hemp Road. The tribes worked on the wagons and waited.
The Lion's messenger was a small man with an odd look to his jaw. He came alone, making his way downhill wearing nothing but a backpack. When the Placehold's men had come to meet him he had dressed in a breechcloth and a shorthaired yellow hide.
"You're Puma Tribe, aren't you?" Green Stone asked him.
"Well, Puma's got five wagons in repair at Road's End. This's the New Castle. That higher hill south, that's Chief Farthest Land."
"New Castle, right. I'm to see Whandall Feathersnake," the stranger said. "Got a contract for him, and you ain't him."
"You're hard to fool. I'm his second son."
"You're not wearing his tattoo. I talked to the guy that gave it to him."
"Wait here at the gate," Stone said, and ran for the house.
The pack bore thick straps intricately knotted about his shoulders. It would be difficult to remove, Whandall thought, if you only had paws to work with. The tattoos on his cheeks-"Puma?"
The man grinned at the ambiguity. "Yes and yes."
The tribal names had been more than names once. From time to time a shape changer turned up. Saucer Clouds, Twisted Cloud's first son, was claimed to he a werebison. Wolf Tribe had thrown up a werewolf; they were watching him grow with some unease.
"That'd explain why you travel alone... ?"
"Why and how. Name's Whitecap Mountain, and I'm here to offer a contract."
"Rordray, called the Lion. He's a were too-they all are at the Attic, but they're seaweres, they're mers. Can you read?"
"Rordray sends refined gold." Whitecap Mountain reached into his pack.
"Hold up," Whandall said. "My wife should hear this." And others should not! Whandall led him down the path and through the main double door.
Willow greeted him and served hot lemon water. She was punctilious if not, perhaps, cordial.
Whitecap Mountain generally traveled with Puma wagons, he said, but this trip he'd been sent for Whandall Feathersnake. The refined gold in his pack was a flat sheet with the letters of a message pounded into it. "Yours. More on arrival; depends on what you bring. Shall I read it to you? Rordray wants a noonmarch of rope. Two sides of bison, smoked. Mammoth if you can get it anywhere near fresh. Black pepper, sage, basil, rosemary, and thyme. Wood for construction. He'll send back fish raw or cooked. Rordray's the best cook known to men, weres, or gods. Also, he has sea salt, and the mers sometimes bring him treasure from lost ships."
"Sea salt," Willow mused. "We're nearly out." She caught herself. "But-"
Whandall nodded, grinned slightly. Salt was rare enough on the Hemp Road, and the salt found in dry lakes didn't have the proper savor. Something was missing that was found in sea salt, according to Twisted Cloud. Without it your throat could swell up, or your children could grow up stupid or twisted.
It sounded like two wagons' worth of goods. Better take four, Whandall thought. Rordray was paying enough, and Whandall didn't know the traveling conditions. Two of his own traveling with two of Puma's should be safe enough. Pay them whatever it takes, /fhe was going at all. He looked at Willow, but she wasn't sending any kind of signal.
So he negotiated. "But fish, now, what if I can't sell it? Not a lot of us eat fish, and those that do, they say they like it fresh."
"Absolutely fresh and spelled to stay that way," the Puma said.
"You've got a wizard?" Innocent smile, think Seshmarl, but cups rattled on Willow's tray.
The Puma said, "I only saw him once. He never comes down the mountain."
Green Stone made a nuisance of himself during dinner. The children had been hearing about Morth of Atlantis since they were little. Stone wanted to know everything. The Puma obliged.
"I went up with the talisman box filled with Rordray's cooking, and brought the box back down next morning with the spell renewed. I never slept at all that night. That wizard, he really wants to talk. And he's got stories! I can't figure why he stays up there."
Whandall only nodded. If Morth hadn't told him about the water sprite, the tale wasn't Whandall's to give away.
They took Whitecap Mountain to their guesthouse and settled him in. When they moved to the bedroom, Whandall expected to talk all night.
"Now we know," he said. "That poor looker. The water thing has him trapped on a mountain, all alone. He told me once how lonely it was to be the last Atlantis wizard in Tep's Town."
"Why would he think you can help?"
"Had a vision? Magic. No point trying to guess that."
"You wouldn't miss Hawk In Flight's wedding?" The household was gearing up to marry their eldest daughter to the second son of Farthest Land: a major coup.
Whandall said, "That's in spring. We could leave right after. The ocean, it's only a third as far as the Firewoods ..." at the other end of the Hemp Road.
Whandall said, "Daughters and sons are different problems. I think Night Horse will ask for Twisted Tree. Do we accept?"
"We'd best. She's ready."
"This isn't Tep's Town. Girls aren't afraid to be girls where people can see them. They grow up faster this way."
Whandall had never quite believed in this form of cause and effect. He said, "Sons are easier. Saber Tooth will be wagonmaster. Green Stone is shaping up nicely. Twisted Tree is a little young-"
"You had a point?"
"Yes, dear. Fourteen Miller and Ropewalker boys, ten of 'em nephews. We may get more. Half of 'em work the Feathersnake wagons. Half of them are married already. The Ropewalk is only so big. So is the Hemp Road, love, though that's not so easy to see. There won't be work for everyone by ... by the time we're fifty."
"They'll find lives. We raised them right." Willow looked at him coolly. "Or are you thinking of taking over some of Puma turf?"
"No! That's not the right answer, but I think I should look at extending
the caravan route. Travel with Puma for guides. Sec another route. See if I could tell them how to do it better. It might give me ideas for cooperation."
"I suppose I'll have to let you go," Willow said. "Stone won't let me rest until I say yes."
"No, love, you don't have to put up with that. It would be very easy for me to say that this tattoo-look at me?-this tattoo is mine, and no other soul shall wear it. I could make that stick. Do you ... you like it on me, right? You're used to it?"
She stroked his cheek as if smoothing feathers. He had to shave often or his beard would cover the tattoo. He said, "Because maybe Morth could take it off."
"But maybe you just hate the thought of seeing it on Stone?"
"It's more like he's growing up too fast. I know that's silly. Men wear tattoos. But if he comes back with a tattoo that good, he'd better be bringing one for Saber Tooth, or there'll be trouble."
"I asked Twisted Cloud about this."
"You did? What did she say?"
Willow's eyes unfocused as she tried to remember exactly. She said, " 'In the old drowned tower your people will find what they need of sustenance.' So she says you're going."