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Chapter 73



Whandall raised his hand above his head and brought his arm around in a wide circle. "Circle the wagons," but with only four they made a square.

There were wagons-small flatbeds, with no roofs, in the kinless style-at the far end of the square. Waterman went over to them. Whandall was just unhitching the bison when Waterman returned leading a young man. He was shaven clean, no tattoos, and no more than twenty, perhaps less. It was difficult to tell his age because of his clothing. He wore a dark robe and a close-fitting cap that came down over his forehead and was low enough to cover his ears.

"Witness Clerk Sandry," Waterman said. "I present you to Wagonmaster Whandall Feathersnake. Wagonmaster, Clerk Sandry is here to assist you. Any questions you may have, any requests, he'll help you."

"Thank you, Master Peacevoice." As Waterman went back to his troops, Whandall inspected the younger man. He was taller than Whandall remembered any Witness Clerk as being, and of course Whandall had been younger and shorter then. Most of his body was hidden by the loose robe, but where his arms showed they were more muscular than any clerk's. His cap wasn't new, but it didn't fit him very well. Whandall's expression didn't change. "Welcome, Clerk Sandry."

"Just Sandry will do, sir."

"Very well. I presume you can read."

"Yes, sir, I can read and calculate."

"Good. Find us a place to corral the bison. Then find where we can buy

fodder for them. Bison eat a lot, Clerk Sundry. More than you would expect. We'll want a full wagonload of hay or straw."

"As you wish, sir," Sandry said. He inspected the trickle of water from the fountain. "Might I also suggest a water wagon? Sir."

"What will that cost us?"

"I'll find out, sir. But not so much if it's river water. Only for animals, of course."

Whandall remembered the stinking water of the rivers in Tep's Town. He'd been glad enough of it at one time. Now he was used to better, and the memory of that water choked him. The fountain water wasn't good, but it had to be better than river water.

"Please arrange it."

"Yes, sir."

Green Stone came up to watch Sandry walking across the square. Whandall explained.

"Who do you think he is, Father?" Green Stone asked.

Whandall shook his head. "I never knew that much about the Lords and Witnesses and their clerks. He may be just what he says he is, but I doubt it. Remember that he can read. Don't leave anything around he shouldn't see."

"I never do," Stone said.

"Of course you don't."

"Handsome boy," Burning Tower said from behind him.

"Too old for you, Blazes," Green Stone said.

"Well, maybe," Burning Tower said. "And maybe not."

"Don't you two have work to do?" Whandall Placehold Feathersnake asked.

At the far end of the square kinless workmen set up a camp for Waterman and his Lordsmen guards. One of the kinless, a boy about fifteen, came over to Whandall. He took off his cap and shuffled from one foot to the other. Whandall stared in confusion, then embarrassing memories returned. A kinless who wanted to speak to a Lordkin but was afraid.

"Talk to me."

"Master Peacevoice Waterman said I was to ask if you need workers to help setting up camp."

"No, thank you. We're used to doing it ourselves."

The kinless boy watched as Whandall's people unloaded wagon boxes. He seemed astonished.

Of course. There was Green Stone, with a Lordkin's ears, carrying a box with one of the Miller boys. The Millers all looked kinless, except for those who looked like Bison tribesmen, and Mother Quail, daughter to a Bison man and the younger Miller girl, an exotic mix whose beauty edged

the supernatural. Burning Tower looked like a slim young Lordkin girl. And they all worked together.

"Firewood," Whandall said. "We'll pay for firewood."

The kinless boy nodded. "We can get you some." He seemed hesitant.

"Spit it out, lad," Whandall said.

The boy flinched.

"Come on-what is it?"

"My name is Adz Weaver."

"Weaver. Ah. You'll be kin to my wife, then?"

"It's true? You married Willow Ropewalker?"

"More than twenty years now," Whandall said. "Stone," he called. "Green Stone is our second son. Stone, this is Adz Weaver. He'll be some kind of cousin."

Stone held up his hand in greeting. Whandall nodded approval. It was a Hemp Road gesture not used in Tep's Town, but then in Tep's Town there wasn't any gesture a Lordkin would use to greet a kinless.

Adz Weaver glanced around, obviously aware that a knot of Lordkin were watching from the Serpent's Walk side of Peacegiven Square. "You're welcome here," Whandall said. "But it might be best if you come back after we have the walls up. No sense in gathering Lordkins' attention. And we do need firewood."

"Yes, sir," Weaver said. Whandall smiled to himself. Adz Weaver had used the tone that kinless used when addressing an older relative, not the more obsequious falling tone used to address Lordkin.

Progress.

Well before the Lordsmen guards' camp was up, the wagon boxes had been offloaded, carpets unrolled, awnings erected, and the bison corralled in a nearby vacant lot. Sandry appeared with kinless driving a wagonload of hay and another wagon with a water tank. Whandall recognized one of the fire prevention wagons kinless used. More kinless brought firewood. When Stone offered a kinless the smallest fleck of gold they had for a heap of wood, it was obvious that they'd paid far too much. Whandall negotiated for shells and was pleased: they bought several bags of shells, too many to count, for one gold nugget.

Trading would be good here.

Whandall's travel nest was divided into two rooms. The inner was more ornate than most, as befitted a wealthy merchant prince. Willow worried about that, so the outer sides of Whandall's wagon boxes were scarred and unfinished, and the outer room was plain. In the inner room the wood was polished, rubbed with the shells of laq beetles until it shone. Two mirrors hung so that

they faced each other, making a magical display the children never tired of. Wool for his carpets came from highland sheep sheared alter a hard winter, and his cushions were tilled with wool and down. Outside was poverty, but inside the nest everything said "I can afford to ignore your inadequate offer."

Dinner was locally bought chicken stewed with local vegetables. Between what the Toronexti took and what they'd sold here, there wasn't any more bison jerky or fruit. Whandall had just filled his bowl for a second helping when Stone came into the nest. "There's an old man wants to see you."

"You should be specific," Whandall said. "Kinless, Lordkin, Lordsman. Witness. Lord even. Not just man."

"I can't tell," Stone said patiently. "He has a knife."

"Lordkin," Whandall said. "Old?"

"A lot older than you, Father. No teeth, not much hair."

"I'll come out."

Old described him. The Lordkin still stood erect and proud and wore his big Lordkin knife defiantly, but Whandall thought he'd better have sons with him if he wanted to walk far in Tep's Town.

Whandall held out his hand, Lordkin to Lordkin. They slapped palms. The old man's eyes twinkled. "Don't know me, do you, Whandall?"

Whandall frowned.

"Know anything about wine?"

"Alferth!"

"That's me."

"Come in; have some tea," Whandall said. He led him into the outer nest. No point in giving too much away-

Alferth looked around and laughed. "Tarnisos said you took a kinless wagon, and I heard you married a kinless. Now you live like one?" He grinned. "You must be rich."

"I am," Whandall admitted. "How is Tarnisos?"

"Dead. Most everyone you knew is dead, Whandall."

Lordkin killed each other. Even men who lived here forgot.

"Something I've wondered about all these years," Alferth said. "Tarnisos said you really were possessed by Yangin-Atep. Burned a torch right out of his hand! Was he lying?"

"No, I did that." Whandall tried to remember that time. Alferth and the others beating a kinless man-Willow's father!-into something unidentifiable. The rage that filled his mind and flowed through his fingers... was gone. "I burned our way through the forest."

"I always hoped it was true," Alferth said. "Never happened to me. I mocked Yangin-Atep, pretended to be possessed when I wasn't." He shrugged. 'Too old now, I think. Why would Yangin-Atep be interested in an old man?"

He looks twenty years older than me, Whandall thought. But it can't be more than five. '

"Hungry?" Whandall asked.

"Nearly always," Alferth admitted.

Whandall clapped his hands. "Stone, please ask Burning Tower to bring dinner for my friend. Alferth, this is my son, Green Stone."

Alferth stared.

Son, Whandall thought. I said son, and Alferth isn't kin.

Alferth came to himself and nodded greeting. He'd been studying Green Stone's ears. Of course he would. Well, the Lordkin could just damned well get used to it!

Burning Tower brought in a pot of stew. Alferth took a carved wooden cup from his belt and held it out. She filled it, not bothering to hide her curiosity about this strange man who sat as a friend in her father's nest.

"Things have not been good?" Whandall asked.

"Not good, not since the year we had two Burnings."

"In one year?"

"Yeah. Nine years ago now. First Burning, that was fun, but the second was bad. We burned things we needed. That's when Peacegiven Square went, with half the city."

"How did it start?"

Alferth shrugged. "I never did know, Whandall, because I never really believed in Yangin-Atep. But that time, that second Burning, everyone was possessed! They ran around pointing and fires roared up, and we all went damn near mad gathering. I went right into a fire and came out with an armload of burning bath towels! Took me half a year healing from the burns. I'll never have a beard again, this side. Pelzed smelled roasting meat and ran into a burning butcher shop and staggered out hugging a side of ox. His heart quit."

"Lord Pelzed is dead, then?" Whandall wasn't much surprised.

"Sure-hey, Whandall, your brother is Lord of Serpent's Walk now."

"Shastern?"

Alferth's face wrinkled. "Shastern? Oh, him, naw, he's been dead what, fifteen years? No, the old one, Lord Wanshig, he's Lord of Serpent's Walk now. Matter of fact that's why I'm here-be sure it's really you."

And see how the land lies, Whandall thought. "Tell my brother-tell Lord Wanshig I'm delighted. And I would like to see him again, here or anywhere he'd like."

Alferth's face twisted into a grin. "Thought you would be." He looked around the plain boxes. He leaned close and dropped his voice. "I could help you find a better place to feed him."

Whandall stood. "Let me try first," he said. He pushed aside a tall man's height of boxes that turned out to be nailed together, and led Alferth into the inner nest.

"Yangin-Atep's eyes! You do live fancy," he said. "So those stories are all true-you went off and got rich!"

"There's a lot more," Whandall said. He gestured eastward. "Out there. I can bring more in. Except I can't."

"Hmm?"

"Toronexti. They took a lot of what we brought. They'll take more going out." Testing, Whandall said, "I'd kill them all if I could." Alferth had felt that way once.

"Thought of it myself," Alferth said. "I hired Toronexti to guard Lord Quintana's grapes and move his wine that he put in my charge. They let • some Lordkin gather one of our wagons, just what they was supposed to stop, and two of them dead and the rest screaming at me. That was you and Freethspat, wasn't it, Whandall?"

"Sure."

"And we all took our lumps, Quintana and the Toronexti and me, and let it go. But, you know, strong as they were supposed to be, they shouldn't let go so easily. I should have known. But I kept my Toronexti guards, and paid them high out of what I was getting, and when that wave of gatherers came out of Tep's Town, they ran. They let that mob into the vineyards and the vats. Some of 'em were in the mob! Quintana had a price on my head for a year, and he never spoke to me again. Sure I'd like to kill the Toronexti, but you can't fight Lords."

"Lords protect Toronexti? Which Toronexti?"

"All. Whandall, everyone knows that. They collect for the Lords. Well, maybe you don't know it," Alferth conceded. "But everyone who ever tried to make anything of himself knows it. If you nose around their territory, the Lords take a big interest in you."

"Toronexti have a territory? Is this something everyone knows too? We only knew-"

Alferth held out his empty cup. Whandall clapped and waited for Burning Tower to fill the cup again. He said, "We only knew about the Deerpiss and the gatehouse. We never knew where they lived."

Alferth said, "They don't talk. But I knew they had a territory. They must. They hide their faces. The leathers they always wear, that must hide a band mark. There had to be a way to hurt them. What else could I think about while I hid? I asked around, and I thought. Then the search got hotter and I had to stop looking. I had to leave Serpent's Walk. I live on the beach at Sea Cliffs, and nobody knows anything there.".

"That sounds-"

"But before they shut me down, I learned some. Foot of Granite Knob. That's theirs."

"Them? Alferth, no. The Wolverines don't live near the Deerpiss."

"I'd bet my patch of dry sand on it, against the rest of this stew."

Not a heavy bet. Whandall thought back. He'd never been on Wolverine turf. Children were told to avoid it. It was over toward the forest, backed up against a chaparral-covered granite hill, not isolated but easily defended, near two hours' walk from the Deerpiss. No one ever went there uninvited, and there weren't many invitations.

You saw Wolverines raiding, but rarely, and in big packs. Funny, nobody ever wondered... nobody but a merchant would ever wonder how bands that big could gather enough to share. Like they did it just to fight, just for practice... .

Wolverine territory. "You're pretty near guessing," Whandall said.

"Whandall, do you remember those crazies who could read? At your party they got too much of your powder-"

"Got into a graveyard. Heads full of ghosts. Pelzed traded them to the Wolverines for a wagonload of oranges. That used to itch at me. How did he get anyone to take them at all?"

A slow grin, four teeth in it. Alferth asked, "Why would Wolverines want readers too crazy to remember secrets?"

"Forigaft."

"Right."

The brothers Forigaft. Egon was the youngest, sold to the Wolverines and now clerk to the Toronexti! I owe you, Alferth. "Have an orange? Show your belly some variety."

"Yeah!"

"Does my brother live in Pelzed's old house?" Whandall asked.

"He let Pelzed's women keep it," Alferth said. "Lord Wanshig lives in that big stone place you come from. I think his lady Wess didn't want to move."

Wess. Whandall felt a twinge in his loins. Wess was alive. She'd be the first lady of the Placehold. Alferth wouldn't know about that.

They talked until well after dark. When Alferth left, Whandall noticed that four young Lordkin were waiting under a torch. He merged with them; they doused the torch and all merged into the shadows.

Then one of the shadows became Lurk.

Lurk glided in almost supernatural silence, but slowly, sideways and twisted over. One arm was swollen into a red pillow streaked with purple. Whandall knew those marks. He didn't touch them. He set him down on a burlap sheet and sent for Morth.

Morth looked ancient, worse than Alferth. He came leaning heavily on Sundry's arm. The wizard examined Nothing Was Seen without touching the boy. He muttered words in a language none of them knew. They watched, fearing to interrupt.

Morth snarled, "I sold ointments for plant poisons for near thirty years! Now I'll have to make more on the spot! Clerk Sandry, I need any breed of belladonna. Tomato, bell pepper, potato, chilis-"

Sandry was slow to react... as if he weren't used to taking orders. Then, "At once, Sage."

They could hear him speaking rapidly to someone outside. Morth moved them out of the nest. Under the awning outside he tended a firepot, set water to boiling, added chipped dried roots and some leaves from the forest, soaked a clean shirt. "Wash yourself, if you can stay awake. What were you doing in the chaparral, boy?"

Lurk looked to Whandall. Speak in front of the wizard? Whandall said, "Go ahead."

"Whandall set me to watch the tax men." Lurk's voice was slurred. "A wagon came out of those low woods, a tiny wagon with a tiny pony driving it. I tried to follow it home. They went straight into the woods. There was just a trace of path. I know that wagon was wider than I am, and it got through, but it wasn't trying to hide too." He scrubbed his arm, tenderly. "When my arm swelled up I was deep in the woods and getting dizzy. Here, something scratched me here too before I could get out." Three puffy parallel lines along his hip. "I swear it reached out."

"Wash that too, idiot!" the wizard snarled. "Get your clothes off. We'll have to bury them."

Whandall said, "They reach. You remember what I told you going through the forest? It's the same stuff. It wants to kill you. You were smart not to go in very far."

"Lucky, too," Lurk said. "But I lost them." He sounded disgusted.

Sandry was back with a double handful of bell peppers. Morth went to work.

"They were carrying a big pile of stuff, that stack Morth was looking at in their gatehouse," Lurk said. "They loaded it in that wagon, and maybe ten of them went with it, like it was the most valuable thing they had."

"What did they do with it?" Whandall asked.

"Don't know. I told you. Got away." Lurk's voice was fading fast.

"What do you think they were doing, Clerk Sandry?" Whandall asked.

Sundry's face was a mask to match Whandall's trading face. "No idea, sir. None at all."

"I see." Whandall turned back to Lurk and said, softly, "Maybe I found them at the other end."

Lurk looked less puzzled than dizzy. But Whandall was making maps in his head. Do it on parchment later, check it out... .

No one had ever walked it, really, but it must be near two hours from Alferth's grape fields down the Deerpiss and across to Wolverine turf ... by the streets. Those streets curved around a knob of hill covered with chaparral thickening to dwarf forest. But as the crow flies-

How could he have seen Staxir's armor and Kreeg Miller's leathers and never made the connection? They go into the woods. Kinless woodsmen can do that, and so can I. The Toronexti have to, to move what they take!

"Which way did they go?" Whandall asked. "Show me on a map." He called for lamps and parchment.

While they waited, Morth wrapped paste-covered cloths around puffy red blotches on Nothing Was Seen's arm and lower belly. "And drink this."

Lurk sipped. He protested, "Man, that's coffee!"

"Sorry. If I had honey... oh, just drink it."

"I will send for honey," Sandry said.

And we were speaking Condigeo, which Sandry hasn't admitted knowing, Whandall thought. "Thank you."

With Stone and Morth and Sandry at his elbows, Whandall drew maps of Tep's Town. Whandall gave his attention to Wolverine turf and the Deerpiss, and the streets that curved around a peninsula of forest. Through the forest was much shorter, but slower too if a man didn't want to die horribly.

But Morth was concentrating his efforts from the Black Pit west toward the sea, sketching in detail on a path that evaded the Lordshills, otherwise following the lowlands.

When Sandry refused to help them work on Lord's Town, Morth protested. "These have to be accurate. I'll need them later. And at least twenty of your Lordkin, Whandall-"

"I tire of your hints. Maps won't help," Whandall said. "Morth, no Lordkin knows maps." He turned to the kinless boy huddled at the outer edge of the band. "Adz Weaver, do you understand maps?"

"No, sir; I never saw anything like that," the young kinless said. "But I've been watching; I think I have the idea. You're making a picture of where we are?"

Whandall was startled. "Yes! Come here; help us mark this."

They watched Adz draw detail into kinless territory.

And it was all filling in nicely. "If he can learn that quickly, so can others," Morth said.

Whandall nodded. It kinless could learn. Lordkin could learn. Lordkin were smarter than kinless. He said, "Nothing Was Seen."

Lurk stood with difficulty. He leaned on his arms above the map. "Is this the big stone gatehouse that blocks the way to the forest? They went along here, up the Deerpiss. About here they went off the road and uphill, and I last saw them here, bush getting thick-"

Whandall grinned. "Good."

"Good? I lost them!"

"Up and across!" Whandall's fingertip ran through the mapped forest to the suburb of Granite Knob.

"I'll go see."

"Wait for dawn."

"No," Lurk said.

Stone would have stopped him, but Whandall shook his head. It would be a matter of pride with Lurk. Let him go.... "Not into the forest, understand? I only want to know where they come out."

Lurk nodded, then faded.

They worked on maps all night.









Chapter 72 | The Burning City | Chapter 74



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