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Chapter 52

Whandall had heard of ancient highways built by magic to serve ancient empires in other lands. The Hemp Road was a wilderness compared to those; but it was a highway compared to the route to Great Hawk Bay.

It was hard work going uphill, harder going down, with everyone hanging back holding ropes to keep the wagons from plunging to their doom. The ground was rough in the valleys. They lost wheels.

The bird spent most of its days in flight and returned to the wagons at night.

Whandall had been a young man when last he guided a team of bison. He swung back into caravan routine with surprising ease. His Puma guide, Lilac, was a good driver and bison tender. There was work to be done, but in between you could be lazy as a Lordkin.

Along the Hemp Road they told stories of places where a simple summoning spell would bring all the game you wanted, meat every night. Partridges, rabbits, deer, they came when summoned, and old men remembered those times, or said they did.

Lilac sang in the evening dusk. Three rabbits came and sat on their haunches, waiting patiently for her to wring their necks. One short scream as the rabbit understood...

The track led through high grass, past stands of scrub oak trees. The air hung heavy in the mornings, heavy dew and swirling mists.

"No rain here," Lilac said. "The dew is all. Good for garlic and thistle, not much else."

From time to time they encountered a flock of crows. Seshmarls wheeled up to them, squawking in crow language, and they would fly away in terror. Sometimes the bird chased them, hut he always returned to Whandall's arm in the evening.

On the Hemp Road even a lazy Lordkin had to watch for gatherers from other bands: for bandits. On this route, bandits couldn't survive. There weren't enough wagon trains to support them. Towns were few, little more than hunting camps. Farming and hunting communities could survive ... and if a badly guarded caravan passed, why, farmers might gather some opportune treasure. One must still keep watch.

No one had ever heard of him here. The Feathersnake sign guarded his wagons on the Hemp Road, but not here.

On the tenth day he saw a restlessly stirring black mass ahead of the caravan.

He tried to guess what he was seeing.

He was driving. The bird Seshmarls perched beside his ear, gripping the edge of the roof above the driver's bench. From time to time it took wing to hunt. They were both enjoying themselves, and Whandall didn't want company. But after a time, reasoning that anything he couldn't identify might be dangerous, he called down into the covered wagon bed.

Lilac poked her head out. She was a pretty nineteen-year-old of Puma Tribe who had made this trip as a girl, twice. She traveled in Whandall's wagon rather than Green Stone's, at her mother's insistence. Those two found each other too interesting.

She watched for a time. She said, "Crows. Ravens. Something like that."

The bird rose from the roof and flapped toward the black mass. A crow colored like a flying bonfire, he had driven away half the flock when the wagons came in range. What the crows had hidden was the white-and-red bones of a beast bigger than any wagon.

Looking over Whandall's shoulder, Lilac said, "Mammoth."

"Are they common around here?"

She was awed. "Tribes around here dig pits for 'em. It's dinner for two days for a whole tribe and any guests. I heard of a war that stopped because Prairie Dog Tribe trapped a mammoth and invited the Terror Birds to share, but it doesn't happen often. No, they're not common. Nobody I know ever saw one alive. You?"

Fool Turkey, who drove the Wolf Tribe wagon for many years, told a tale of riding a mammoth for nearly the length of the road before slaughtering it to stave off a famine... but Fool Turkey was a champion liar. Whandall said, "No. You'd think they'd be too big to miss."

Lilac nodded.

"A pit could trap one, not just kill it."

"Got to dig them deep. If it lives through the fall it could climb out, and it comes out angry."

"So? I mean, it's big, but-" But the girl smiled and made an excuse to go back into the wagon.

Every tribe has its secrets, Whandall thought.

They rolled on toward the sunset. Then one night they could hear the sea, a sound Whandall had not heard for twenty-three years.

Chapter 51 | The Burning City | chapter 53