Lurk gripped the fishnet like a dead man in rigor mortis. His face was buried deep in a patch of lank and matted brown hair. But Behemoth's ride was smooth, and by and by he looked up.
By and by he was sitting upright. Then he was pointing out landmarks.
When they stopped that evening, Lurk vanished.
Whandall set about making camp. He tried to think like a Hemp Road bandit. He wished he knew how far they had traveled. They'd come a good way... maybe farther than a bandit's child might find allies. Did bandits still fear Whandall Feathersnake? Or was he legend going myth?
It wouldn't matter. Whatever the truth of the stories, whether First Pines harbored bandits in exchange for a share of their loot, none would risk robbing Whandall Feathersnake without assurance that the tale would never be told.
But Lurk returned unseen bearing rabbits and a fat squirrel, and a coyote that was only stunned. "Some folk hold to a coyote totem," he said.
Good point. "Let it go," Whandall said. The beast limped away.
Morth summoned. Raccoons came. Watching raccoons skin the other creatures cost Lurk his appetite, but it surged back with the smell of broiling meat.
"Languages," Whandall said. "If we are to trade in Tep's Town, we need more who can speak the language. Morth, can you teach Green Stone and Lurk?"
"Yes, but to what point? Magic doesn't work in Tep's Town. The knowledge would fade like dreams."
"But if you teach them here, and they practice here? They'll remember
what they practiced, even when the magic goes away."
Morth nodded sagely. "Well thought. That should work. We need u safe place."
"All three of you must sleep," Morth said. "Understand, there may be effects we do not know. They may gather some of your memories as well as your knowledge of the language."
"You know the language," Whandall said. "Use yourself as model."
"Never, and for the same reason."
"Oh." Whandall thought on it. "So be it."
And afterward, on the journey south, they spoke only the language of Tep's Town, but curiously, not as Lordkin and not as kinless. They sounded like Lords ....lmost.
Stone and Lurk were speaking as an eleven-year-old Whandall Place-hold understood Lords to speak. "Your mind does not accept that these two are Lordkin," Morth speculated. "Hah! But can they pass?"
"Not for Lords, not for kinless, not for Lordkin. Lookers. Lurk, Green Stone, you know enough to trade, or you might even pose as tellers. In a pinch, talk Condigeano."
The ridge had descended, but the company perched on Behemoth's back still had a god's-eye view of Firewoods Town.
Several new houses had appeared since Whandall Placehold came out of that forest. Sixty houses, half adobe and the rest wood, all built for mass and durability and looking much alike, like an art form, planned, were strung along three parallel dusty streets. Fenced yards. Flower gardens. All very impressive to a Lordkin boy.
All the townspeople were gathered at the north end of town, around and among fifteen big covered wagons drawn in a wide circle. There were tents. A hundred hands were pointing up, up at Behemoth.
Lurk whispered, "Do you think they see us as giants?"
Whandall said, "Morth?"
"I don't know. Ask."
The Firewoods Wheel was turning.
It was not much more than a wide flat disk mounted horizontally. Twenty children crowded onto it. Adults and older children were pushing it around.
"The first go-round wheels ran themselves," Morth said.
"But what's it for?" Lurk asked.
"Altered state of consciousness," said the wizard. "In the old days anyone
could sense magic. It was everywhere, talking animals, gods in every pond and tree. Stars and comets would shift position to follow events on Earth. Our ancestors missed that sense, so they invented wine and stage magic and the powders and foxglove I used to sell in Tep's Town, and the go-round wheel. Now too much of the magic is gone. It only makes us dizzy."
They watched. The folk below watched back; the wheel slowed. Green Stone said, "Nobody's coming up to help us move this stuff, are they?"
The wheel had Whandall mesmerized. He could almost remember... .
He shook himself. "Morth, stay here with Behemoth. We'll go down and get someone to carry."
A crowd of merchants and townsfolk watched them come. The wheel slowed with their inattention.
Whandall shouted, "This is Lurk. He's with me." He moved through the crowd a little faster than anyone could talk to them, he and Green Stone bracketing Lurk. They jogged to catch up with the rim of the wheel and began to push. Lurk caught a handhold and pushed too.
Children piled on and crawled inward to reach the padded handles. Others took the easy way, crawling under the wheel, emerging in the hole near the hub. They sought to hang on, if only to each other, to resist being thrown off onto the grass, until they got too dizzy or the adults were worn out.
Whandall ran and pushed, showing off his strength. Forty-three, but not frail. But a memory came flooding back with a terrible sadness, and he said, "There was one of these in Tep's Town. ..."
He told it in gasps. Whandall and others of Serpent's Walk arrived while Lordsmen were anchoring the wheel. Kinless were already there. Lordsmen used bulk and muscle to start the wheel turning. Children surged onto it. The armored Lordsmen went back to guarding while older children and parents ran round and round the outside of the wheel.
Now Serpent's Walk children bent their efforts to picking purses, because it would go hard for them if they didn't. But the day wore on, and the kinless were careful of their purses, and the wheel looked like fun.
It happened all in a surge: the Lordkin children moved in and piled on and chased the kinless children off the wheel.
And the wheel slowed and stopped.
"I wasn't really confused here," Whandall panted. The Firewoods Wheel was turning nicely. "They were pushing it." Townsfolk were still looking uphill toward Behemoth, but a few were starting to push again. "The Lords let us think that-magic was turning the wheel, and hey-I was just a little boy. But the kinless wouldn't push if there weren't any kinless on it. If nobody pushes, it stops! We barely had time to feel what it
was like. So we went buck to picking pockets-und the kinless took their
children and went away."
There were plenty of hands turning the wheel now. From those who had run out of breath and dropped out, Whandall picked out a big woman from the Feathersnake wagons. "Hidden Spice, where's Saber Tooth?"
She wanted to talk. He insisted. She pointed.
That was Saber Tooth ....nd everyone wanted to talk. Hard to guess which had more of the crowd's attention: Behemoth, or Whandall Feather-snake sprung up suddenly in their midst, or the bandit boy. They forged a path through the crowd.
Above the noise, Saber Tooth demanded, "Father, how did you get here? Why?"
"I'm here to protect your brother. Green Stone is here following Morth of Atlantis. My son, what the wizard's doing is the really interesting part. But... you've heard me talk about new markets? I think I've finally got a handle on that."
"Father, you can't mean what I think you mean."
"We'll talk. Maybe I'll come to my senses. Maybe your brother will too. Meanwhile, Saber Tooth, I need some muscle," he said. "About six of your men to go up the hill to where you see Behemoth. They're to do what a red-haired wizard tells them. They'll be coming down with heavy loads. I need those bottles protected. They're glass, and what's inside is dangerous, so don't bounce them. Then we can talk, but this is urgent, and those bottles are valuable."
"I'll go myself."
"Thank you. And where's Clever Squirrel?"
Saber Tooth waved. "See the one-horns?"
"Right." The one-horns had all drifted into one corner of the corral. "I should talk to her. Lurk, Green Stone, come with me."
"The one-horns don't want to be near her." Green Stone laughed. "See, Lurk, this is Coyote's daughter. Special. As a little girl she got to know the one-horns. The young colts, they thought she was their older sister. One morning when she was fifteen-she's a season older than Saber Tooth, two years older than me-she went out to the corral and the one-horns freaked. She stormed right back at them. She's got them cowed. They don't like it, but if she had to ride one, he'd carry her. Hi, Squirrelly!"
"Stones! Have you been riding Behemoth? Father-found, I'm not surprised, but Stones?"
"I can ride Behemoth and you can't!" Green Stone cried. They hugged each other hard, then the girl turned to the others.
"Clever Squirrel, meet Lurk," Whandall said.
"My name is Nothing Was Seen," the bandit boy said shyly.
Clever Squirrel had deployed her travel nest, with her dowry wagon for one wall and boxes of trade goods for the rest. She even had a little fire going, and she set a teapot on it, with Lurk trying to help.
They found each other interesting, Whandall thought. Should he be protective? They should at least know something of each other.
So. "Squirrelly, he wouldn't tell us his name. Nothing Was Seen, how did you find your name?"
"I became the best lurk in Red Canyon Tribe." He told Squirrel how he had spied on Whandall Feathersnake and the wizard who rode Behemoth. He told a minimum of what he had heard that first night. Whandall was glad of that.
Squirrel asked, "Father-found, what are you doing here?"
"Waiting for Saber Tooth and Morth of Atlantis, just now. We're going into the Burning City to see if we can kill a water elemental and set up a trade route." She lit up and he said, "No, I can't deprive the caravan of their medicine woman, and I have a wizard."
"Mother-found Willow will kill you."
She had to raise her voice above a rising background murmur. Her travel nest must be surrounded by most of the caravan and half the townsfolk, all asking each other what Whandall and Green Stone Feathersnake were doing here riding Behemoth! "Back into the Burning City? With Stones and not me?"
"Sorry. If I can really get a trade route going-"
"Show me your hand. Curse! Stones? Curse! The lines all disappear!"
"Then we're really going!" Green Stone was jubilant. He must have had his doubts.
"Well, then, what is it like to ride Behemoth, Stones?"
Green Stone said, "You never feel a bump."
"We had to stop off to collect wild gold," Whandall said. "I have no idea why the wizard wants that, but what bothers me is, why was it still there? Your mother has known where that gold is since the night you were conceived."
In the roar of rumor outside the wall of cargo boxes, Clever Squirrel didn't even drop her voice. "I'll answer if you'll tell me about that night. All about that night."
She laughed. "Mother tells everyone else she never found the place again. She was outside her mind with ecstasy. The gold wasn't there anyway. The whole story's fiction.
"She told me different. She's tried to refine raw gold. She gets some in
payment for a cure or a prophecy. But she never learned lo block the flow of... chaos manna?" Whandall nodded, Lurk merely listened, and she went on. "Gold lever does things to Mother. She always winds up getting
Whandall said, "That-" and his memory felt his wife's fingertips brushing his lips closed.
Too late. Coyote's daughter laughed and said, "Yes, that explains how I come to have five sibs! Five times she's refined gold, five children plus me. A woman who knows can take a man without getting a child, but not around gold, not Mother! Even during her time of blood, the gold changes her. That's how she got Hairy Egg. After Father went away-"
Nothing Was Seen was staring at Whandall.
Clever Squirrel laughed. "No, no, not Father-found," she said. "I mean Stag Rampant. He knew Mother had conceived me before they were married. No one dared put horns on him for Coyote's child! But my other sibs were too much for him. And after he left, Mother gave up men entirely.
"Can you guess what would happen if Mother led a man up that gold-covered hill? There are stories only the men tell, but I know them. Now tell me of my siring."
"I first saw that hill in black night with your mother pulling me along at a dead run," Whandall began. Are you listening, Lurk? I will not answer for advice not taken. She's Coyote's daughter and Feathersnake's too! Treat her well and warily.