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Chapter 68


Saber Tooth and five strong men came down the mountain carrying heavy bags. Morth was with them. They brought the bags into Clever Squirrel's tent, and then Saber Tooth sent them away.

Above the village Behemoth came to his senses, shook his great head, and turned back to the mountains.

"Father, you'll have to talk to them," Saber Tooth said. No need to explain who he meant. The crowd outside was larger than ever.

"How long have you been here?" Whandall asked.

"We came in yesterday morning."

High noon now. "You were just setting up the market?"

Saber Tooth nodded.

"Good. Finish doing that, set up the tightrope and get your sister ready to perform, and set up a stage to talk from. Tell everyone to come in two hours. Morth, can you show them Behemoth again?"

"Show? Yes, of course," Morth said. "As long as no one wants to ride him!"

"Good. One more thing, I doubt anyone would try to steal from Clever Squirrel..."

She grinned. There were tales from when she was five and six and eight.

"But just in case, have a couple of reliable men sit right here, next to those bags. Squirrel, can we meet here for supper? Good. As soon as the market closes. Now let's give these rubes a show."

"But Father, what will you tell them?" Saber Tooth demanded.

"I'm not going to tell them anything," Whandall said. "You're going to tell them how you brought them the greatest show ever."

"But what will you do?" Saber Tooth asked.

"Why should I do anything? It's your wagon train and your show," Whandall said. "Tell you what. I'll catch for your sister. I'm still strong enough for that. You do the rest."

Burning Tower had grown in the months since Whandall had last seen her. The terror bird costume Willow had made for her was tighter, and what it revealed was no longer a little girl. Whandall stood beneath her tightrope, a rope set higher than Willow had ever dared, and hoped she wouldn't fall. He was aware of the stares of all the young men, wagoneers as well as townsfolk.

They were going to need more jobs! No question about it.

Her mother had taught her well. Forward somersaults, back flips, and a grand finale that involved spiraling down the left-hand pole to land on one foot, back arched, high kick to her forehead. Then she was away to the changing tent.

Morth appeared on the platform in a cloud of fog. He gestured to the hills. Behemoth came over the brow of a hill far away, bigger than the hill, as large as the mountain beyond. He reared high, then stood on one leg, kicking high with the other in a hilarious imitation of Burning Tower's finale. The crowd went wild... .

Supper was local jackrabbit stewed with spices from Stone Needles. Whandall insisted they finish eating before they talked. Then he sent out all but family members, Morth, and Lurk.

Saber Tooth was relaxed and smiling. "I don't think we ever made this much profit at Firewoods," he said.

Burning Tower grinned. "We'll sell them more tomorrow when they come back to find out which story we told today is true...."

"If any," Lurk said.

Whandall stood. Carefully he opened one of the bags and spread black glass bottles out with his fingers. Clever Squirrel gasped.

"You can tell what's in them?" Morth demanded.

"The iron is thin on that one," Squirrel said. She set it aside. "And I saw how heavy they were."

Morth looked worried.

"What are they, Squirrel?" Saber Tooth demanded.

She laughed. "Gold! Wild gold aflame with magic and chaos!"

"Gold?" Saber Tooth looked at the bags. "All of that? No wonder my arms ache! Father, this is more than we'll make in two years! Three, if the Leather men keep moving their wagons ahead of ours! Gold!" He reached for the flawed bottle.

"No, son," Whandall said. "Listen first. I have a talc to tell." He laughed and said, "And I don't know the ending yet! I don't even know what the wizard intends with these cursed bottles, and you can't tell me, can you, Morth? We'll have to make an ending.

"But I need Lurk. I need the wizard, and he needs all of these wonderful bottles."

"What can you do that's worth three years' profits?" Saber Tooth demanded.

"A new trade route," Whandall said.

Saber Tooth frowned. "Like the one to Quaking Aspen?"

Whandall laughed. "I grant you that was costly, but we'll make it back."

"In about seven years," Saber Tooth muttered. "So where this time?"

"To the Burning City."

At least Green Stone had the wit to keep unspoken his I'm going and you're not! while Saber Tooth thought that through. "Wow. Are we taking the whole caravan?"

"Not worried about the profits?" Burning Tower asked innocently.

Saber Tooth struggled with his dignity before putting his tongue out at his sister.

"I can't risk taking the whole caravan," Whandall said. "Not this time. I need four wagons, and son, I can leave you refined gold to hire more, but I'll need the best traders and fighters you have ... no, not quite the best. The most ambitious."

"Same people, curse you."

"We need trade goods, anything that can't get to Tep's Town by ship. Terror bird feathers. Grain. Cooking pots. Nothing magical, not for Tep's Town. We'll pick as many Miller and Ropewalker kids as we can get, because they've got relatives in there. I have more refined gold, and that's a lot more valuable in Tep's Town than out here."

"But what do the harpies have that we need?" Saber Tooth demanded.

Burning Tower giggled. "We're harpies too, brother!"

Saber Tooth grinned at her. "Sure, but it's still a good question."

"I don't know," Whandall said. "Whatever we buy, we'll have storage after we get rid of Morth's bottles... ."

After that, they all talked at once.










Chapter 67 | The Burning City | Chapter 69



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