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Chapter 81



It was barely light when Wess came. Wess's son looked nothing like Shastern. He was a small boy, big eyes, a thoughtful look. "Like I remember you were," Wess said. "But he's smaller than you were. Take care of him, Whandall."

"Things will be different here," Whandall said. "Maybe-" "Not that different that soon," Wess said. "Please." "He can come with us, Wess, but we have to get past the Toronexti. If that goes bad-" He thought for a moment. "If that goes bad I'll send him home with one of the Lordsmen. Sandry has been to the Placehold. He'll take him." "All right." Wess kissed her son. He stared with big eyes at her, then at Whandall. "Good-bye." She turned and ran.

"Burning Tower, this is Shastern," Whandall said. "Keep him out of trouble. Shastern, you stay with her." And just maybe, Whandall thought, that will keep both of you out of the fight.

Thirty-seven of Whandall's tested bottle throwers came at dawn. Ten were kinless. All carried large sacks, all the possessions they would be taking outside. They chattered eagerly of a new life.

"Who's missing?" Whandall asked. "I thought everyone would come."

Fubgire had endured the knife lessons and thrown his bottle. He said, "Wanshig was persuasive. They went to gather at Granite Knob. The rest of us are here, Lord."

"I'm not a Lord. We have no Lords. I'm Wagonmaster."

"Close enough for me, Lord." But Fubgire was laughing.

"All of you, stay together." Whandall said. "Green Stone will tell you what to do."

A couple of the Lordkin muttered.

"Get used to that!" Whandall snapped. "Working with us means following instructions. The way to win in a fight is to stay together and act together. Green Stone knows your language. Listen to him!

"I ask you to walk alongside the last wagon. Keep your weapons ready, don't hide them, but don't threaten anyone. If you have to raise a weapon, use it. We're going to see if the Lords can talk us past the Toronexti. I don't expect them to do it."

"We'll have to fight, then?" Hammer Miller asked. '

"I think so, Hammer. Don't you?"

"Yes." He turned to the ten kinless who were coming out with them. "You all have your slings." It wasn't a question, and they all did: the ceremonial nooses around their necks came off quickly.

"Be sure you have a good supply of rocks."

The Lordkin frowned. Kinless without nooses, kinless with weapons.

The wagon train left as soon as it was light enough to see, but Waterman had his men on the road first. The Lordsmen marched on ahead. Whandall glimpsed Lurk and Shastern in the last wagon and thought no more of it. He had larger concerns.

There were seven chariots, Sandry and his friends. Every chariot held a driver and a spear thrower. The charioteers tried to stay with the wagon train, but horses hated to match a bison's pace. They learned to hang back, then dash ahead to catch up:

It was enough of an escort that no one wanted trouble. Word had spread: Wolverines had attacked the wagons, and the Lordsmen had killed Wolverines. Leave the wagon train alone! Even the stupidest of Lordkin could understand that. The bison moved at their slow pace through streets deceptively quiet.

Near noon, an old man hobbled out of the shade of the biggest tree. He leaned heavily on a giant. The giant was elderly, gone to fat, and his smile was more goofy than challenging. Still, a giant. They approached without fear. Bent and twisted as the master was, Whandall wondered at his equally goofy grin. Like a Lordkin springing a trap?

Then Whandall recognized him. "Tras!"

"Whandall Feathersnake. Always surprising. I much prefer this to your last surprise."

"I-"

"Shall I tell you how I got myself off your land alive? After I crawled back into the crypt, I fainted. When my man Hejak-"

"Hold up, Tras. Arshur?"

"Arshur the Magnificent," the giant confirmed. "Not sure I remember you. Got a drink?"

"I was with Alferth when you got your first drink here. You getting beaten up, that started the Burning twenty-odd years back. I thought you'd be leaving on the next ship."

"I like it here."

They rounded the last bend. The Toronexti were ahead.

The caravan moved toward them. Whandall's merchants moved to the tailgates, ready to jump down. The new recruits huddled around Green Stone. They would be at the gatehouse in minutes.

Hobbling along with his stick in one hand, the other on Arshur's arm, Tras was still keeping up with the burdened bison. "Hejak gave up on me and was leaving when I crawled out, but I-"

Whandall said in some haste, "Tras, I'm just too busy right now, but can you climb a tree?"

Tras Preetror gaped. "Do I look-?"

"He can climb a tree," Arshur said. "Or I can throw him up a tree. Should I do that?"

"Both of you." Watchman had pounded Arshur's head with sticks. The treatment seemed to have done some permanent damage.

Now Tras Preetror saw the armored Toronexti ahead. "That officer-I know how he hurt his hand."

"I've stopped caring."

"Three Lordsmen wanted out of Tep's Town, with their armor. The tax men tried to stop them. They wanted one suit of armor."

"Tras, you two are about to see a really good story happen right in front of you."

"They're more careful now. Do you mean..." Tras was finally seeing the danger. "Story. May I call it 'The Death of Whandall Feather-snake'?"

"If that's what you see, that's what you tell, but see it from a height, Tras, and in hiding. If you live, you owe me."

The kinless bonehead ponies were getting larger, horns growing as they approached the forest. That hadn't happened this close to Tep's Town last time, Whandall remembered. Yangin-Atep was myth. Whoever saw the implications first would make fortunes.

Waterman was ahead of them, his band grown to nearly fifty men drawn up in three ranks. An officer's tent was set up behind them. Whandall didn't recognize the Lord, but Sundry rode up alongside the wagon. "My lather," he said. He whipped up his horses to go to his lather's tent.

The wagons reached the Toronexti gale.

The big Toronexti officer with the injured hand was waiting. There were more of the masked and armored tax collectors, fifty that Whandall could see, more in the tollgate building, probably some behind the building. Whandall waited.

Sandry brought his chariot up. "Let them pass."

"Now why should I do that?" Half Hand demanded.

"Orders from the Lord Chief Witness. This wagon train passes without taxes."

"Now does it? Chief Clerk!"

The shuttered door on the second floor of the brick gatehouse popped open. There stood Egon Forigaft, and a glimpse of dark ancient tapestries behind him. He leaned far out over the ten-foot drop to put daylight on the sheet of parchment in his hands. A Toronexti guard held his sash.

"Decree of Lord Chief Witness Harcarth: the Toronexti shall have the right of taxation on all goods departing through the forest. There is more."

"Enough, I think," the scarred officer said. "Younglord, we have a charter. Witnessed and signed, Younglord. Witnessed and signed."

Sandry shrugged helplessly. Toronexti moved forward.

Whandall said, "Hey, harpy!"

The fighting men of the wagon train leaped down to join the Lordkin and kinless walking alongside the wagons. Together they made a formidable band. Women took over the reins, closed the gaps in the wagon covers.

"You want our goods? Come and take them!" Whandall shouted.

"A decree!" Egon Forigaft shouted. "The Lords will assist the Toronexti when they are attacked by outsiders."

"Who's an outsider?" Whandall jumped to a wagon roof and stripped off his shirt. "I am Whandall of Serpent's Walk! Who dares say I am not Lordkin?"

No one moved. Sandry laughed. "What does it say about Lordkin, Clerk?"

Egon found it. "The Toronexti shall protect the Lords and their agents from civil unrest."

Sandry said, "We owe you no protection from Lordkin. You protect us, you misbegotten goblins!"

One of the Toronexti threw a stone. It struck Sandry's spearman in the stomach. The spearman bent over, retching.

Sandry gave a wide grin and lifted his spear.

"A proclamation of Lord Qirinthal the First!" Egon shouted from his upper story. "There shall be truce between Lords and Toronexti so long us this charter endures. If Toronexti shall strike a Lordsman, that Toronexti shall he liable for double the injury in blood, two eyes for an eye, two limbs for a limb, two lives for a life, and this be paid, the truce shall endure!"

"We pay!" the Toronexti officer shouted. "Bring me that man!" He pointed to the window, though the man who had thrown the stone had vanished. Two Toronexti dragged him over. The officer hit him in the stomach with all his strength, then again. "Do the Lords demand another man be punished?" he shouted.

Sandry turned away in disgust.

"It's that stack of old parchments, isn't it?" Whandall said.

Sandry nodded.

"What if it were to burn?"

Sandry grinned.

"Go! Stone! Distract them while I get that paper!" Whandall shouted. The Toronexti wouldn't understand the language of the Hemp Road.

Stone led his band toward the Toronexti. Whandall charged forward to dash inside the gatehouse, but someone inside saw what he intended. The gatehouse door slammed shut with a crash.

"Greathand! Break the door!"

Greathand had a sword in one hand and a hammer in the other. He ran forward. Whandall ran with him, his cloak wrapped around his arm to protect them both. He blocked a slash, felt his cloak yield to a sharp blade. A Toronexti moved toward them, then fell to Hammer Miller's sling. Now a dozen slingers were in action, and stones fell among the Toronexti. They held up their arms to protect their heads. Two more fell.

Twenty of the tax men came around the building. They held shields and moved in behind them in a rattle of stones from the kinless slings. They got between the other Toronexti and the slingers.

Whandall's Lordkin stalwarts rushed forward, but despite all Stone could do, they didn't stay together. They came in ones and twos, and in ones and twos they were cut down. Whandall saw a dozen of his men on the ground to half that many enemies.

"Smoke!" One of the Toronexti gibbered and pointed. A black cloud of smoke rose over Granite Knob. "Smoke! That's our homes!"

Whandall smiled grimly.

"We have to protect our homes!"

"Stand fast!" Half Hand shouted. "It's a trick! It's just smoke to draw us away! Stand fast!"

Greathand pounded on the door with his hammer. The door did not yield. "I need an ax!" he shouted.

Hammer Miller ran to a wagon and got an ax. He ran toward Greathand

with a tax man behind him. Hammer swung the ax. The Toronexti ducked and lashed out with his Lordkin knife. Hammer fell in a shapeless heap.

"See, Younglords, how we protect you!" The Toronexti officer gestured to send ten armored men to face Whandall, Greathand, and four others at the door. One of the newcomers took the ax from Hammer Miller, started forward, and went down under a Toronexti knife. Greathand shouted defiance and moved toward the ax. The battle surged around him. Four men charged. Greathand turned and struck two men with his hammer before he was beaten to his knees. More Toronexti moved toward Whandall, moving together, carefully and slowly-

Whandall's wagon curtain opened, and Burning Tower ran out.

Right. Whandall had foisted Shastern on her, but she'd passed the boy on to Nothing Was Seen, and now she was free to run at the Toronexti line with a torch in her hand. She leaped onto the back of one of the bison, over his head, and down to the ground. Before laughing Toronexti could catch her, she reached the flagstaff in front of the building and climbed it. From the top she leaped across to the open doorway where Egon Forigaft stood. She waved her torch in triumph.

The Toronexti officer roared in laughter. "Torches inside, here, on Yangin-Atep's spine!" His laughter turned to horror as Burning Tower put her

torch to the thin parchments Egon Forigaft was holding. They blazed. She

whirled the torch about, and ancient ceremonial tapestries were burning,

flames everywhere. . ;

"There!" she shouted. "Where's your charter now? Read it now!" She kicked blazing parchment out of the doorway. "It's gone. Sandry!" Then she was out of the doorway, climbing toward the roof, two Toronexti chasing her.

Sandry shouted. "Waterman!"

"Sir!"

"Clean out these vermin!"

"Sir! Lock shields! Spears high! Forward!"

The line of Lordsmen moved toward the Toronexti.

Sandry grabbed the throwing spear from his crippled spearman. It arched high. The Toronexti on the roof screamed and fell. Burning Tower stood on the roof and shouted. "Good throw, Sandry!"

And six more chariots were charging the Toronexti line. Javelins flew, and now there was only Whandall and the Toronexti leader with the ruined hand. Half Hand backed away. Whandall feinted high, then drove his knife point just below the line of the man's leather armor. It went in to the hilt.

He turned to see everyone staring at him.

"Your face." ten-year-old Shastern said in awe. "It lit up!"

"For the last time," Whandall said. "I hope." What did they see?

There were eleven dead, four from the wagon train. "Six more probably won't make it," Green Stone said. "Three times that if we don't get out to a healer pretty quick. Too bad we don't have Morth."

"We'll go," Whandall said. "The way's clear. Get loaded up."

"Shall I come with you?" Sandry asked.

"Aren't you needed here?"

Sandry looked at the piled bodies. "It will all be different now. Yes, sir, I may be needed. But-"

"She'll be back," Whandall said. "In a year. If you still remember her-"

"He will," Burning Tower said from behind him. "I will!"

"We'll know that next year," Whandall said. "Stone, are we loaded?"

"We are."

"Move them out." Whandall looked back. Tep's Town wasn't visible from here, but there was dark smoke over the hill below Granite Knob. Not many of the Toronexti would be going home to defend Wolverine territory.

Smoke rose elsewhere too. Wanshig hadn't done that, and the time of Yangin-Atep's Burning was over. But...

Tep's Town was only now discovering that fires would burn indoors.

Given their lack of faith in the fire god, kinless didn't have the habit of leaving flammable trash about. Lordkin did. Sailors didn't. A few days from now, the Placehold might be the last stronghold unburned.

And it wasn't Feathersnake's problem. "Move them out, Stone. It's your wagon route. Not too soon for you to take charge of it. I'm going home."








Chapter 80 | The Burning City | AFTERWARD



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