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chapter 53


A wave broke in white spume and rolled toward the children. Lilac and Green Stone danced back, not quick enough. Foam and seawater rolled over their legs. The wave receded and they followed it.

Dancing with the ocean.

Whandall watched from well back. He could swim in a river, but this ... he could almost sense the mass of water ready to roll a swimmer under.

Far across the calm waters of the bay, a score of boats bobbed about a cluster of drowned towers.

"There's a fair-size city down there under the water," Lilac told Green Stone. She turned and called to Whandall. "Wagonmaster? I suppose you could find drowned cities along any coastline after Atlantis sank...?"

"My brother would know." Whandall hadn't thought of Wanshig in many years.

What poked above the waves was a handful of ruins solid enough to moor boats to, and an extensive flat roof, crenellated, that stood four stories above the water. Waves had smashed the southern edge; a new wall had been bricked in.

Any storm would make the lower levels unusable, Whandall thought, but that left two stories and an extensive floor plan. He could see gardens on the roof, as with the Placehold.

It had been four years since Puma Tribe sent wagons.

He should stop thinking of these two as children. Lilac had proven an excellent guide.... "Lilac, we brought twice as many people as the Attic is used to. How do you think they'll handle it?"

"Simplest thing is just not to send a boat," Lilac said.

Green Stone asked, "Why didn't you send the bird ahead, Father?"

"I want to know if they fluster easily."

Behind them the sons and nephews and grandsons of Puma and Bison tribes were making camp, tending beasts, pulling the wagons into a defensive ring, working the spells that would give them safety and clean water, all under Carver Ropewalker's direction. Lilac and Green Stone went to join them. Whandall left them to it.

There were mountains in view. Any of those largest three . ..

"Are you really thinking of climbing a mountain?"

It was Carver. Whandall didn't answer.

Whandall was master of the caravans. Carver Ropewalker stayed home and made rope. This trip had firmed him up a bit. He bore marks of the kinless: round ears, pointy nose. Once these differences had been life itself. He looked across the water for a time before he spoke.

"Whandall, I've lost two belt knots and I'm stronger than I've been in years. I am glad I came. But do you believe Twisted Cloud?"

"Prophecy works as well as it ever did."

"The magic goes away. Prophecies go vague and cryptic. They tell you less. Twisted Cloud didn't say, 'Eat at Rordray's Attic and you'll be rich again.' " Carver closed his eyes to remember exactly. " 'In the old drowned tower your people will find what they need of sustenance.' Whandall, it's fifty years since Atlantis went under. Can you imagine how many drowned towers there are along this coast?"

"Be fun to search them out."

"They're sending us a boat."

Rordray's Attic, kitchen and restaurant, was the top floor of the old Carlem Marcle Civic Center's south tower. The roof could house an overflow. The next floor down was all guest rooms, Lilac said.

The restaurant was full of fishermen. Rordray and his son directed some of them to push tables together to accommodate Puma's thirty-three travelers. The sudden influx hadn't bothered Rordray and they hadn't run out of food or drink.

Thone had met them with the boat: a big blond man, Rordray's son. His smooth round strength and perpetual smile suggested one or another sea mammal. He described what his father had prepared for the noon meal, as if it were a string of amazing discoveries.

Thone's enthusiasm was infectious. Whandall took a bite of swordfish

with only the slightest of qualms. Lilac was watching him with a grin. She laughed loud at the look on Whandall's face.

"Good," Whandall said in amazement.

All the mers were watching him.

He said, "I don't think I've ever really tasted fish."

"Try the vegetables too."

In midafternoon the place was still half full, though most of Whandall's travelers had been rowed ashore. Rordray's customers liked to take their time. Many must be were creatures, Whandall thought. The huge, smoothly muscled guy had to be a mer whale. He had eaten twenty headsman crabs; he had picked up a table for ten all by himself.

Carver and Whandall loved the Attic on sight, but of course it was too small-

"Now, wait," Carver said. "You don't doubt Rordray can feed a caravan, do you?"

"After a meal like that? And I saw the size of his ovens. But-"

"Rooms? Most of a caravan would stay in the wagons anyway to save money. And he's got storage in those other buildings."

"Did you notice that everything came from the sea?"

"Spices. He's got spices from as far back as Beesh, and some root vegetables too."

Whandall said, "Caravan passengers demand every variety of diet known to man or beast. We get vegetarians. We get fat going for thin, thin going for fat, weird going for wizardry or lost youth or moral dominance games. Some won't touch fish. Some think fish is poisonous-Lion!" Their host was just emerging from the kitchen. Wait, now, Lion was a nickname! "Rordray, sir, can you favor us with a minute of your time?"

The Lion stopped by their table. The bird on Whandall's shoulder suddenly said, "Morth of Atlantis greets you, Rordray, and begs a favor."

Rordray laughed. "Whandall Feathersnake. I see the wizard's message reached you."

Whandall said, "Yes. Carver Ropewalker is my partner; Green Stone, my son. Lilac-"

"Good to see you again, Sir Lion," Lilac said.

"A pleasure, Lady Puma. You've grown well."

"Is Morth here?" asked Whandall.

Lion-Rordray-laughed. "Not likely! He was here twice. He loves the sea. He stayed a day too long, nineteen years ago-" Rordray's eyes questioned. What secrets should he spill here?

"The water sprite," Whandall said.

"It came on us here. Morth fled uphill. The wave washed away part of the restaurant." Shrug. "None of us drowned. Gentlemen, what have you brought me?"

Whandall showed him what spices would ride in a pouch. Rordray pinched, sniffed, tasted, approved. Carver described the rest. Cured deer meat, bison on the hoof, no mammoth. Sage. Rope. Brandy; the Puma scout hadn't asked for that. "Of course you can inspect all of this in the morning. What can we take back?"

They discussed it. Rordray could sell them sea salt. Morth needed a fishing net; Whandall was to pay for it-Rordray didn't know why. Rordray's crew could never get enough rope. Could the Bison Clan increase their shipments? But Puma had slacked off because of a dwindling market.

Perhaps a market could be developed along the Hemp Road, for fish? Shipping fresh and fresh-cooked fish east would require another talisman box. Morth of Atlantis would be the only possible source for that. We do need another trade route, Whandall told himself. "Is Morth hard to reach?"

"I wouldn't try it myself," Rordray said. "He settled on the peak of Mount Carlem, there to the south and east. No wagon can climb that. Whitecap Mountain can guide you, if you can climb."

Carver laughed. "What Whandall can't do is turn down a challenge."

Rosemary? Thyme? Bison Clan didn't know a source for those. Morth might. Whandall wouldn't even recognize these plants. Rordray fished out tiny brown paper pouches, pinched out samples, and rubbed them under his nose.

Lilac exclaimed, "Thyme? I know that. We passed it coming here. I've smelled it near the Stone Needles."

Meat of a terror bird? Puma had a hair-raising tale, and so did Whandall, but the point was made: Butchering a terror bird was a matter of happenstance... not a delicacy one could fully recommend, either, but as a curiosity ... as jerky? Or carry Morth's back breaker of a cold iron talisman box.

"The Hemp Road runs from the Drylands near Condigeo north past Firewoods opposite Tep's Town, down into the Great Valley past Farthest Land to Road's End, and back," Carver said. "Now we want to extend the route."

"You're successful, then."

"Until recently," Carver said, and Whandall said, "Fire's sake, Carver!"

Carver glared at him. "Yes. Successful. Our problem is, shall we build up the route west to Carlem Marcle and the Attic, or northeast for whatever we find? The rumor of Rordray's Attic would bring us custom all by itself, but it's not enough. And there's a road to build."

Rordray nodded, unsurprised. "I would never have room downstairs for so many, not unless the sea sinks by a few floors."

That wasn't likely. Was it? Morth would know. Without Morth. there was no trade route. They would have to speak with the wizard.

A man and two women emerged from the kitchen, all built on Rordray's own heroic scale. The older woman reached past Carver, set down a tray with a pitcher and eight small cups. Rordray waved. "My wife and daughter, Arilta and Estrayle. You've met Thone." They were pulling up their own chairs. The table had been roomy a moment ago.

Carver poured for them all, then sipped. Whandall sipped from his own cup, carefully. It was the brandy they'd brought from Zantaar Tribe, and it was deadly stuff.

He said, "Well, Carver, the prophecy holds. We've found sustenance." He saw his partner's glare and made haste to change the subject. "Rordray, when 1 was a child I learned to trade information and stories. Shall we talk about Morth? If he led a water sprite to you, I'm surprised you're still friends."

"Well, you know," the Lion said, "it was Morth who warned us out of the old castle in Minterl. Do you recall that there were two sinkings of Atlantis?"

The caravaners looked at each other. Talk eased off a bit among the remaining customers.

"Where you've lived, maybe you never knew. The ground shakes, then stops? Near the sea, we notice that," the Lion said. "We knew of Atlantis in Minterl. We knew when the land shook and the wave covered whole towns. I set up my first inn in the tip of a sunken tower in what was once Castle Minterl.

"We have always traded with Atlantis. Naturally the ocean is no barrier to us. There is little of trade in goods, but stories travel along the whale path. Word of that side of the world comes half a year late. We heard that the east side of the island had settled, drowning beaches and beach cities a third of the way around the island. These were fishing communities, so there were mers to rescue land dwellers. Not many died. The King declared a disaster and raised taxes.

"The second quake came half a lifetime later," Rordray said, "when nobody remembered Castle Minterl as anything but Rordray's Attic.

"Mers still ran the fishing industry around Atlantis, but ashore we'd lose the shape of men. Fishing requires boats, harbors, warehouses, weather prediction, and a little judicious guiding of the currents. The fishers' local wizard was a man nearing his thirties, named Morth.

"Word came with a pod of whales. Morth had foreseen a tidal wave that would wash away whole civilizations. Morth's warning went to many more than just my little Attic, but he saw the Attic's doom."

"Did he know that Atlantis would sink to make that wave?"

"Wizards can't see their own fate. But I guessed."

"So you left."

"No, no. We had barely heard of Morth! We consulted local shamans and performed our own spells. We saw enough to convince us. When the wave and the quake came, we were facing a different ocean."

The Lion poured Zantaar brandy. Whandall put his cup in his pocket. Lion said, "The wave had to circle the world to reach us here at Great Hawk Bay. Then came Morth in a ship that floated above the land, but so low that it must circle trees. We made him welcome.

"He told us of the magical thing that hunted him. I recalled the Burning City. We were loading his ship with provisions when a mountain of ice came floating toward us. Morth sailed away inland, the ice sailed south, and we knew no more for half of a man's lifetime."

"I assume he filled you in later," Whandall said.

Rordray grinned. "He claims holes in his memory after he found gold in riverbeds. You may still have tales to tell."

The evening had grown dark, and it seemed to be story time. A pointy-eared fisher ordered a round of beer for the house. "I am Omarn," he told the newcomers. "When Atlantis sank I was near Minterl in dolphin form. I saw water humping up behind me. I swam like mad, and when the wave passed me I was going fast enough to ride it. The ride of my life! I rode the wave almost to the mountains. I saw the Lion's old Attic smashed all in an instant. Mers don't drown, but if anyone was still in there, Rordray, I think he must have been smashed under the rocks."

"No, we were all clear," the innkeeper said.

Whandall asked, "Shall I tell what Morth of Atlantis was doing in Tep's Town? I saw some of that."

"Wait now, Whandall Feathersnake," the innkeeper said. "A tale has come to us of a tattooed caravan lord who came home to find himself pronounced dead and his wife attended by a host of suitors. Can you tell us the truth of this?"

So, Rordray would trade tales with a stranger, but he wanted to name the tale. Whandall hesitated... and saw instantly how they would take that. He must not seem to be hiding old murders.

He said, "I used a protection. If I tell you what I had, do not ask where I kept it."

He had everyone's attention now. Carver and Green Stone had heard his tale, but the rest had not. Whitey guessed: "A dagger?"

"No, it was a handful of gold sand. Raw gold right out of a river. Once upon a time I used it to save us from... well, Morth. Raw gold turns Morth crazy. I always carry raw gold with me."

They sipped and listened.

"This was nine years after I married Willow Ropewalker, and three

years since I rode with a caravan. I set up my life so I could stay home and raise my children. I visited nearby towns from time to time, and if anyone wanted me, he could find me.

"Burning Grass and Three Forks came to tell me that men on my wagon had cheated them. I asked around and decided it might be true. 1 told Willow I must ride with the caravan again.

"Angry Goose was running a game that uses a gold bead and three nut shells, and two friends sat in the game to protect him. It was a cheat. I threw them off and divided their goods. But Goose and his men should never have been allowed aboard.

"There was more. Everything went loose and sloppy when Black Kettle had to leave the caravan. I saw them camping in flood basins. I saw a man badger Twisted Cloud into changing a prediction. The guards held gambling parties.

"I saw that I'd have to ride the whole circuit. We were a long way back from the Firewoods at the southern end of the route before I was sure I'd straightened things out. I had some bruises. Caravaners are mighty fighters, and it must be easy to forget that what's given them to rule isn't theirs-"

"Did you have to kill anyone?"

"No."

"Good."

"Not then. I left the caravan at Warbler Flats. I stopped a couple of nights with friends, then rode on through Hip High Spring and home to the New Castle.

"My son Saber Tooth met me at the gate. He was only eight then. He carefully explained that the house was full of men who wanted to marry Mother, and Mother was afraid of them.

"I sent Saber Tooth in to find my wife and, if he could talk to her, tell her Father says to get ready to duck under something. Then come and tell me where everyone is. I told him where I'd be."

Whandall laughed and gestured at his cheek, shoulder, twisted arm. "I can't remember the last time I thought of disguising myself. There was nothing for it but to go right in, but I didn't have to go in the front door. I came by the hay chute-"

Rordray laughed. "What, is your house a barn too?"

"Yes. In by the hay chute, talk to the bison a bit so they don't raise a ruckus. I wasn't sure Saber Tooth could do it, so I wasn't going to wait very long. But he came to the hayrack and told me. Willow would be in the hidey closet with the four youngsters. Four men were terrorizing the kitchen staff.

"I gave Saber Tooth a knife and hid him in the hay. I went into the kitchen fast. Four men, right. Three were from Armadillo Wagon-Passenger Pigeon and his father and uncle-but the fourth was a stranger in Lordsman armor.

"I started to say, 'Welcome to the New Castle, gentlemen." But they went for weapons as soon as they saw me. Not meaning to be surrounded, I slashed first at the ones who didn't have armor. Bussard's Shadow went down spraying blood everywhere, and I slashed Pigeon's knife arm. Then the armored man stepped between them and me. The ones still standing snatched Bussard's Shadow and ran backward pulling his arms, while the Lordsman came at me.

"That was scary. But Lordsman armor doesn't cover everything. I got a chopping block between him and me, thinking I'd jab at his ankles. But he pushed it over and ran after the others.

"I got outside, carefully, not wanting to be ambushed. They were running into the Ropewalk, the two Armadillo Wagon men carrying the third, and the armored man walking backward after them. I started to wonder who of the Ropewalker family was in there, but the only thing to do about that was run in and look.

"Rordray, my wife's family doesn't let me in there. I saw it once, when it was new and near empty. It looked no different from a barn.

"Years had passed since then. The place stank of hot tar. The Ropewalk was stacked to near the ceiling with spools of rope, each about as big as a man. The Ropewalkers stack them on end so they won't roll. The aisle ran down the center. Back of it, at least five Armadillo men were getting themselves out of the way. Somebody yelled like a Lordkin on wine. It was Carter Ropewalker. He was lying down and wriggling. I guessed he was tied up.

"But mostly, three men in Lordsman armor were facing me in that pose they use with the shields locked edge to edge. I saw that once during a fair in Tep's Town. Nothing can get through that.

"Rordray, I sure couldn't fight them. I could outrun them, even moving backward, but they had Carter. What I did was climb the bales of rope and hop to the back of the building. The Armadillo men were still just staying clear. The armored men ran toward me, got close, and lockstepped their shields again. That gave me time to cut Carter loose and send him up the spools. He got a rope anchored in the smoke hole to the roof. He was pretty battered and not climbing very fast. I waited until he was through, then climbed up after him.

"Then I sprinkled my gold sand down into the Ropewalk.

"I kept a hand on Carter to keep him from looking into the smoke hole. We could have gone down the outside then if Passenger Pigeon hadn't been below us with a long knife. Left-handed, though. He yelled up and threatened to burn down the Ropewalk if we didn't surrender. I told him he should move the rope-weaving device out first. That's the actual Rope-walk, the most valuable single thing at the New Castle.

"We got some of the story out of him while we all circled around and waited for developments.

"The way Pigeon tells it, this all happened because three Lordsmen

look ship to escape the Lords in Tep's Town. Pigeon didn't know why. They took their armor with them. They offered to protect Armadillo Wagon on the Hemp Road, but Pigeon told them about a Lordkin gone missing, so they attacked the New Castle instead.

"Armadillo Wagon wouldn't have done this to anyone but a Lordkin. But, see, I'd been married nine years. Now I was going off. Lordkin don't come back! Everyone knows it. So Passenger Pigeon and his tribe set forth to marry the abandoned widow. Willow Feathersnake wasn't going anywhere until she agreed. There were the children for hostages. Pigeon told us he never threatened them. Later, Willow told me he did.

"By and by Carter and I decided that nobody was coming out of the Ropewalk. I went over the roof fast and slid down the other side and was in fighting stance before Pigeon could come around. He ran for the Rope-walk doors. They were closed. Carter and I blocked his path, but we let him pull a door open and look in.

"He backed away gobbling like a turkey."

Rordray's family were nodding. Mers were sophisticates in magic. And Whandall's family knew the tale, but horror looked out of Lilac's eyes.

"They were all strangled," Whandall said. "Pulled into shapes no sane man ever thought of. Nobody but Pigeon left to tell the tale. He sits at the south gate of Hip High Spring and warns you about hemp, even if you don't ask. Hemp is like that, you know? It wants to soothe you to sleep and lose you in dreams and then strangle you. And hemp rope on wild magic is a thing of nightmares."

Nobody seemed to want to top that story. It was full dark by now. The remaining fishers went up to the roof, and Whandall heard splashing. Then Estrayle led them down to their rooms.

The room was clean, the bed a bit damp. Still, it was luxury. He could not fall asleep at first, and could not think why.

Presently he realized that they didn't turn off the ocean at night. The shh, sss of the waves went on forever... and presently carried him away.











Chapter 52 | The Burning City | Chapter 54



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