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Chapter 71



They left Firewoods Town at dawn of the third day. At noon they came to a side road that led steeply downhill and off to the west.

A score of locals had been overjoyed to find there was suddenly employment in the Feathersnake wagon trains. Where the road forked, they watched in astonishment as four wagons were separated out.

Fallen Wolf had been hired to replace a guard who was going with Whandall. "That's where you came up from the river, twenty years and more ago," he said. "You'd felled some trees. Big ones."

Whandall remembered. Two trees had blocked the wagons. It had taken all day to cut them, and he'd been much younger and stronger then. "I'd hate doing it again," he said.

"My Uncle Badwater found them," he said. "You'd already started a road in. Uncle logged them out, and that's been a logging road ever since."

Whandall frowned. "Does it go all the way to Tep's Town, then?"

"Great Coyote, no!" Fallen Wolf was horrified. "Down and along the stream, up the other side of the hill, then the creepers start. Creepers and vines, and stuff that wants to kill you!"

"And no one has explored farther?"

Fallen Wolf looked from Whandall to Saber Tooth and back. Thinking. "Okay, you hired me, you hired what I know. When I was about sixteen, maybe nine years ago, there was a lot of smoke out of the Valley of

Smokes. A lot more than usual. Me and three friends put on leather stuff, took axes and food, and tried to get in.

"The creepers were bad enough; they'll be worse now. We hid from three armored men who were coming out. Four days we cut our way through, chopping tangled crap you'll be glad to find gone. Then we saw a wall. Big stone house. Masked men in leathers, spears. Saw them just in time. We ran. They came after us. We brushed some stuff we'd avoided going in. Got away, but I sure wouldn't want to go back! We were a month getting over the itch."

"Want to come with us now?" Whandall asked.

"You all going?"

"Just four wagons," Whandall said. "With me."

"So it's true."

"What's true?" Saber Tooth demanded.

"Crazy old woman in town, babbling that Whandall Feathersnake is going home," Fallen Wolf said. "Look, all my life I wanted to work in the Feathersnake wagon trains, but if it's all the same to you, I'll stay with the main wagon train. I'd hate to get killed my first trip out!"

Fighting Cat's wagon came by. "Not going farther than the Springs?" he called. "I see you haven't lost your skill."

"Farther south. Thank you."

"And good luck. Wish I were going in with you; Mother would love to know."

"I'll visit her afterward."

Fighting Cat went on. He wasn't expecting Whandall back. He'd heard about Tep's Town all his life.

Of thirty-one volunteers, Whandall rejected five. That gave him twenty-eight fighters counting himself and Green Stone, one spy-he'd better not count on Lurk to fight-and one wizard.

They had four wagons. He took leathers, axes, long poles to make severs. Morth gathered herbs to make remedies against touch-me and thorns.

They carried weapons, but not to sell. A mixed bag for trade goods, a sampling of things based on old memories. Memory said that clay and metal pots would be best, but they had few because there were good markets for those along the Hemp Road. Mostly they had anything that should have sold somewhere but hadn't.

Saber Tooth stood by as Whandall's band turned off down the logging road. "Farewell. Good trading."

Whandall waved. Then all his attention was taken with guiding the bison down the old road. When he looked back, Saber Tooth and the Feathersnake wagon train were gone.

They reached the stream by evening and made camp high. "It reached you

in three clays last time," Whandall told Morth. "How long until it finds you?"

Morth shook his head. "There's no knowing. But I wouldn't stay here very long."

"I don't intend to."

At dawn he sent Lurk and Hammer Miller ahead to scout out the old route up the hill, then a crew with axes and brush hooks to clear the way. They were moving up the stream by noon, the wagons jouncing along the old streambed.

"A big flood cleared out many of the boulders," Whandall said. "I suppose that was your flood, Morth?" There was no way to know, but bison moved up the streambed as fast as the boneheads had taken them down. By nightfall they were ready to climb up the embankment, and Whandall had torches lit. He would not let them camp until they were high above the water.

And he remembered what he had learned while he was eldest in the Placehold: everyone complains to the Lord, and they do it all the time.

They found the first of the touch-me creepers just over the brow of the hill. The trail Whandall had burned through the forest was clear of big trees, but vines had grown into it. One rustled slightly as the bison approached it. The bison stopped. Could it sense danger? Or did it feel Whandall's thoughts?

But the way didn't seem too bad. There was more creeper than anything else. Here and there were the bright flowers of lordkin's-kiss and the duller lavender of creepy-julia, but the plants mostly defended the big trees. The road they would take wound through those. A few redwoods had sprouted up and were now a dozen years and more tall, still small among the giants. Small armies grew around their bases.

It would be tedious but not impossible.

Whandall halted the wagon train and drew everyone around.

"I've told you of touch-me before. This is what it looks like."

"Does it strangle you?" Lurk asked.

"No, but the poisons can make you wish it had," Whandall said. "And it doesn't just lie there; it can come after you. That's lordkiss over there. Stay away from it. Lizard, serve out the tools, and lash blades to the poles we brought. I'll show you how to deal with lordkiss.

"All of you, I don't know what this stuff will do to a bison, but I don't think we want to find out. We certainly don't want to brush up against a bison who's got the oils on his coat. Remember that when you're clearing the path.

"This"-whack, his palm against a slim trunk-"is an apple tree. You can eat the fruit. There's other stuff you can eat, trees and bushes and patches of brambles, but most of them are poison. Ask Morth or me. Morth can see poison."

"Yes, Father-"

"Burning Tower, you were supposed to go on with Saber Tooth!"

"Did I say I would?"

Of course she had never agreed, and it was too late to send her back now. Whandall looked into her triumphant smile, remembering Willow's nightmares.

That first year he'd grown used to waking in Willow's grip. Coming out of a nightmare, she would wrap herself around him for reassurance. Yes, you're here; I'm out of the city, I'm free. The nightmares faded over the second and third years ... and she faced the old terrors when she named her third child.

If something happened to Burning Tower, Willow would be long getting over the loss. So would he.

"Use rakes," Whandall said. "Never touch it with your hands, and use the yellow blankets we brought to clean tools. Wear leathers, and don't touch the leathers when you're taking them off or putting them on. When you do begin to itch, see Morth, and don't put that off."

"Don't forget, we may want to come out fast, with heavy loads and enemies behind," Green Stone reminded them. "So make the way smooth now. Now let's get to it."

It felt good, at first, to swing an ax again. He left the creeper to the younger men and women, and took Greathand to attack the first tree to bar their way. It was a small redwood, no more than ten years old, perhaps less. They used severs to clear away the defending brush. Greathand stepped forward with his ax.

"Wait," Whandall said. He approached the tree and bowed. "I'm sorry you're in our way," he said. He bowed again. "Now."

Greathand chopped through the arm-thick trunk in one blow.

When Burning Tower found a patch of redberry brambles, she called him. He was unspeakably relieved. "Drop all your weapons here," he told the assembled workers. "Yes, the knives too. Now go look." They walked cautiously closer to the brambles. Then the magic reached them and they surged forward. They gorged, fighting like children for the berries, and left only twigs.

Hours later he held them back from a darker bramble patch. "Poison," he told Burning Tower, raising his voice so others would hear. "The creepers'll wind around your ankles and hold you while you die. They want your body for fertilizer. The only thing that can eat those berries is a kind of bird. Those." Little and yellow, with scarlet wings, fluttering among the brambles. "Watch for the flushers. Flushers and thornberries, they made a deal, long ago. The flushers swallow the seeds and carry them-"

"Father? How do you know?"

What was he remembering? "Coyote," he said. "Coyote made the bargain. He can eat thornberries too." Would that protect Whandall? Not bloody likely, he decided.

They made camp in the wagons, in a wider area they had cleared. It was not wide enough to allow them to unload the wagon boxes. Whandall was hungry. Chopping wood and vines was harder work than he was used to.

But dinner was delayed.

"Father!" Burning Tower called. "All the fires are out! I can't light the brazier."

"Curse. Of course you can't," Whandall said. He called for Greathand. "You'll have to strike fire for us. Keep it outside. From here on, fire won't burn inside a house or a home, and our wagons must seem too much like houses to Yangin-Atep."

"It may be more than that," Morth said.

"You have a vision?"

"No. But does Yangin-Atep? I've lost most of my perception, Whandall."

The Toronexti were waiting for them.

Just after first light on the fifth day, the wagon train rounded a curve to see a thick wedge of grass cleared of creeper and brash, leading like a funnel to a brick gatehouse. Seven men in leathers, wearing fancy hats with tassels perched ridiculously above their leather masks, stood in a line in front of the brick gatehouse. More were on the roof, and Whandall thought there were others concealed in the thick chaparral on both sides of the' road. The seven were armed but their weapons were sheathed. Whandall couldn't see the men in the gatehouse. Beyond the gatehouse four men tended a big cook fire with an iron pot suspended over it.

As the last wagon rounded the bend, Lurk dropped away from the wagon train.

"Sure you can find us?" Whandall asked.

"I know the language. How can you hide a wagon train?" Nothing Was Seen asked reasonably. "Tonight or tomorrow."

"I don't remember their acting like this," Hammer said. He had come up to walk beside Whandall as others drove their wagons. His sling was barely concealed and he had a bag full of rocks.

"Nor I. Don't show our strength yet."

The Toronexti seemed to be engaged in a ritual. One came forward holding a leather strip. Something was wrong with the hand that held it. Two fingers were missing right to the wrist.

Because he was hidden beneath the masks and leathers, there was no other way to identify him at all.

He unrolled the leather strip and held it in Iron! of him as he spoke. "Greetings, strangers to our land. This is Top's Town. We are the Toronexti, spokespeople and servants to the Lord's Witnesses of Lordshills, Lord's Town, and Tep's Town. You are welcome here. Your trade goods are safe here.

"We regret that there is a small charge for this protection, and another for passage through our territory. Our inspectors will assess the charges depending on what goods you are carrying.

"Do you submit to the authority of the Lord's Witnesses?"

"You have some proof of your authority?" Morth asked dryly.

The Toronexti spokesman beamed. "We do! We have a charter from the Lord's Witnesses."

"Ah." Morth seemed boundlessly amused. "May I see it?"

"Whatever for?" Whandall demanded.

Morth shrugged.

Half Hand turned to his colleagues. They huddled. Finally the spokesman emerged and said, "One of you may approach the charter. It is kept inside the gatehouse."

"Inside," Whandall said to Morth. "So it won't burn? I'm guessing."

"A reasonable guess," Morth said. "Note the cook fire, to placate Yangin-Atep." Louder he said, "I will approach. I am Morth of Atlantis, wizard to the wagon train of Whandall Feathersnake, whose fame is known to the four winds."

Morth went inside. Whandall conferred with Hammer and Insolent Lizard. "Did anyone see them last night?"

Lizard said, "I thought I heard something up the road, but nobody came close, and I'd swear no one came through the forest."

"So they knew wagons were coming, but not how many," Whandall said. "Maybe they didn't bring their whole strength-"

Greathand was shouting. "Hey, harpy!"

The wagon train boiled with activity. Every armed man turned out. The women slammed the wagon covers closed. Hammer and Insolent Lizard were already running toward Greathand's wagon before Whandall could react to the traditional shout of a wagonman for help.

Two Toronexti stood menaced by Greathand and his hammer. Four more had drawn swords, and another held a spear. Greathand was shouting, the Toronexti were shouting, and no one understood a word . ..

"What is this?" Whandall demanded.

"We are Toronexti inspectors, and this man is resisting," one of the Toronexti said.

"Hold off, Greathand," Whandall said. "If you please." To the Toronexti: "Our wizard is inspecting your documents. Surely you can wait

for this? Please go back to your guardhouse for instructions from your

officers!"

Interestingly, they did.

"Not Lordkin," Hammer said. "Not as I remember Lordkin, anyway."

"It's an old puzzle." Lordkin wouldn't acknowledge any authority of officers and wouldn't worry about charters in the first place. But he knew Toronexti only from the Lordkin's viewpoint.

Whandall drew his wagon owners around him. "This could be tricky. Watch me, and be careful. We do not want to fight. Stone, go see what's keeping Morth."

Green Stone returned a few minutes later. "He's looking at an enormous pile of parchment," Stone said. "They won't let him touch it, but one of them, a crazy-looking guy in a robe and a funny hat, is spreading out the stuff on a table. One of the sheets has huge writing that says 'witnesseth' and then some other stuff I wasn't close enough to see."

"You can read it?" Greathand asked.

Willow had taught all the children to read the languages of the Hemp Road, but-

"Sure, it's in that language Mother and Dad use when they don't want us kids to understand them," Stone said. "Morth taught me that speech. And the letters are the same as we use."

"Did Morth say how long he'd be?"

"He said give him a quarter hour, but it wouldn't make much difference. Whatever that means. Dad, there was something else scrawled across the ceiling in big black letters. 'I killed Sapphire my wife. I burned my house to hide her corpse, but Yangin-Atep's rage took me and I burned more. Fire surrounded and killed me. But I am not Yangin-Atep's! I am kinless!' "

Some old memory was knocking at his skull, demanding entry, but there just wasn't time. "All right. Time to get ready. We'll have to let them inspect the wagons," Whandall said. "The only thing we have to hide is gold, and that's hidden as well as it can be."

"Those bottles aren't hidden," Hammer said. "A whole wagonload!"

"Leave those to me."

Morth returned chuckling. "It's a charter all right. And regulations. What they can collect, what they can't. In theory they're limited to one part in ten, except they can collect up to nine parts in ten of any tar being imported."

"No one would bring tar into Tep's Town," Whandall protested.

Green Stone said, "One part in ten isn't all that bad-"

"Then there are the exceptions," Morth said. "Whandall, that document seems to have grown over the fifty years or so when there was still trade from outside into Tep's Town."

"I don't remember there ever being any land trade," Hammer protested.

"Neither do they, nor does anyone living," Morth said. "But there are still regulations and rules, and what it amounts to is they can take anything they want if they read it all closely enough."

"And they're sure to have read it," Whandall said.

"Well, no, they haven't," Morth said. "They can't read. Except for that one, the odd one with the robe, who keeps babbling about old crimes. Egon Forigaft."

"Forigaft." A Lordkin name. Again, the old memory would not come.

"He appears to be their clerk. They treat him with an elaborate respect that he does not deserve, but Whandall, he is the only one of them who can read. They don't care what that charter says, I think. They will take what they believe is in their best interest."

"Maybe that's why these costumes, and showing us the charter," Whandall mused. "They've never seen foreign trade. Let's find out."

He strolled rapidly up to the gatehouse. "Noble Toronexti," he said. He'd learned long ago flattery was cheap goods. "We are the first of our kind in many years. Others will come, bearing many goods, cook pots, pottery of the finest make, skins of exotic animals. Furs and feathers and gems to adorn your women, all this can we bring, but none will come if we do not return happy."

The Toronexti officer grinned behind his mask. "And what do you bring this time?"

"Little of value, for this is an exploration. But we do have these, as gifts for your officers." He waved, and one of the boys brought a cheap carpet, laid it down, and unrolled it. Three bronze knives lay there, with half a dozen showy rings with glass stones, the kind that Whandall was accustomed to giving Hemp Road children as trinkets.

The Toronexti scooped them up eagerly, carpet and all. The officer eyed Whandall's knife. "Yours is even more elaborate-"

"Take it if you like." The Toronexti was already stepping forward as Whandall said, "That's how I got it."

The Toronexti officer stopped. He eyed Whandall's ears, then his tattoo. "You have been here before."

Whandall said nothing.

"A good way to get a knife," the Toronexti said. "What more have you brought?"

"There will be more of value when we leave," Whandall said.

"If you trade well."

"We will." Whandall sighed. "I show you the most valuable thing we have." He waved again, and Green Stone brought another cheap carpet.

Curse, Whandall thought. I should have realized they have no real carpets here. They'll all want them!

Stone unrolled the carpet. Twelve black glass bottles were nested in wood shavings.

"I know the people of Lord's Town will pay well for these," he said. "Let's think, now. The Lord's Town kinless will give me more for these bottles than they'd give you. A lot more. Because I don't work for the Lords." Whandall watched the tax man's face: was that still an insult? And would the man see past it, to see that Whandall was right?

"With," the tax man said. "Work with. Show me those two." He pointed to the smallest bottles.

"The little ones?"

"They're finer work."

Whandall's face didn't change as he realized the Toronexti had nothing like glass bottles. They were common enough outside, but he had never seen a glass bottle in Tep's Town! They must not be in the sea trade.

And they liked the smallest ones. Whandall remembered Green Stone's tale of the spirals of bottles made by Morth's magic. They'd left thousands of bottles smaller than these! What might they be worth here?

Later. Carefully Whandall lifted out the two tiny bottles. As he put one in the Toronexti's hand, he winked at Morth.

The wizard did nothing Whandall could see, but the bottle broke into a paste of sand and putrid liquid that ran on the officer's fingers.

"Curse!" Whandall exclaimed.

"Curse indeed. What is that?" the Toronexti demanded.

"Extract from civet cat glands," Whandall said. "It is used to make perfume."

"Perfume? That?" He reached for the other bottle. It too broke into putrescence.

Whandall stared, bug-eyed, and cried out as if strangling. Then he put a third bottle in the tax man's limp hand. Again the glass crumbled into sand and stinking liquid. The Toronexti flung it away with a curse. The other tax man broke into wild laughter. "Magic? Magic doesn't work here, you fool!"

Morth said, "I'm sorry, Feathersnake! These magic bottles will disintegrate at the touch of anyone in this cursed town. They'll have to be emptied over a basin!"

"You say the kinless of Lord's Town will pay for this? To make perfume?" the Toronexti officer demanded.

"Well, they do in Condigeo!"

"Then let them do it! We certainly don't want that stuff. The bottles now-'

"Another lime," Morth said. "They can be made without magic. I had not realized the backwardness of this place."

"Backward? Us?" But the Toronexti guard was laughing. "So what else do you have?"

"Little, for we thought those the best things to sell."

"Why'd you think that?" the Toronexti asked craftily.

"We speak to ship captains," Whandall said. "We learn. What, would you know all the secrets of a master trader?" He smiled broadly.

Behind him his wagoneers had arrayed themselves. Greathand leaned on a two-handed sword, point down. Hammer and some of the younger kinless idly held slings and rocks. Green Stone held an ax and wore a big Lordkin knife. They all smiled and listened to their wagonmaster. And stood with weapons ready.

Whandall had no trouble reading the Toronexti leader's thoughts. The wagoneers might be telling truth-there were more and richer trains to come if this one came out whole. There were thirty armed men, more than the strength the Toronexti had brought today. The wagon train would be more valuable coming out than going in, and it would come at a time when they could bring their entire strength.

"Do you have more of those rings?"

"A dozen, as a gift," Whandall said.

"Food?"

Whandall threw down a box of dried bison meat.

The Toronexti grinned. "Pass, friends."











Chapter 70 | The Burning City | Chapter 72



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