ancient road leading through the rubble showed where it had been, and it was only under protest that the yackers could be compelled to make their way across the jagged bits of broken stone. Garth's war beast paid this minor inconvenience no heed whatsoever.

Once inside the wall, there was little immediate improvement in their surroundings. On either side of the road stood nothing but ruins. Gaping holes half-filled with rubble showed where cellars had been of old, sometimes rimmed with uneven remnants of walls of stone or wood or plaster, and between these pits were the broken pieces of buildings that had had no cellars and now lay in heaps upon bare earth.

Galt commented, in a careful whisper, 'Hardly the awesome fortress that our ancestors described.'

Larth, in a rather less cautious mutter, replied, 'Who can tell in this darkness? It looks deserted; Garth, are you sure this is Skelleth?'

'Yes, I'm sure; only the central portion is still inhabited. When the wars ended so did the town's reason for existence, and so did the supply trains from the south that kept it going. It's been slowly dying ever since. That's why I think the people will welcome trade, even if it's with overmen.'

'I hope so.' Larth's voice sank into an, incoherent mumble.

The party moved on, and around them the buildings became less ruinous; on either side stood sagging, abandoned houses and shops-derelict, but still upright. Rotting shutters hung from bent hinges; broken doors stood open, revealing only blackness. Then, as they approached the surviving center, more and more doors were closed, even barred, and fewer shutters missing or broken. Before too long the only openings on either side were other streets, rather than empty lots where buildings had been razed or had fallen in. Everything was dark, however; the people of Skelleth were clearly all still abed.

Finally the street debouched into the market square that occupied the town's exact center; it, too, was dark, silent, and empty. Garth was pleased to see that the Baron's mansion, which occupied the entire north side of the square, was as dark as any other building. He stopped his warbeast in the center of the market and motioned for Galt to join him. When Galt obeyed, he whispered. 'This is the place, trader; that is the seat of the local government. Where would you suggest we set up?'

Galt studied the square carefully, and finally pointed to the southeast corner. 'That looks good.'

Garth nodded. 'Then you three set up there. It occurs to me that a warbeast will not be a welcome sight in Skelleth, and I am going to put Koros and my weapons somewhere out of sight. I would suggest that you do the same with the yackers; just tie them up in an alley somewhere, where they won't upset the merchants. Koros, I think, had best go somewhere further out; I'll find a ruin somewhere on the West Road.'

'As you wish.'

'I'll be right back. Just remember, keep it peaceful.'

Galt nodded. Garth turned and rode back along the route they had just come, while the others made their way to the southeast corner of the market and dismounted, stiff from their long ride.

Galt studied the location with a practiced eye, then indicated a spot in front of a tightly shuttered shop, just beside the mouth of a narrow street. His apprentice immediately hauled a bundle off one of the yackers and began spreading blankets on the ground designated. Larth stood nearby, peering apprehensively about in the gloom, and Galt found himself grateful that Garth had made sure the party was unarmed; Larth was plainly nervous enough to have drawn sword at the slightest sound, which would simply not do.

Of course, that was Larth. He himself was not so easily bothered, nor so easily commanded. The dagger in his boot was simply a sensible precaution, and none of Garth's business.

Leaving Larth to his anxiety, he began hauling bundles off yackers. In a matter of moments the ugly beasts were unburdened. Galt whispered to his apprentice, 'Tand, you start spreading out our wares. Get Larth to help you if you can, but don't start an argument. I'll be back in a moment.'

He gathered up the lead ropes from the six harnesses and began coaxing the yackers down the narrow street, out of the market. The beasts were not actively uncooperative, but it was still difficult to manage all six of them, so that he was several minutes at the task.

Finally he managed to get them arranged in a circle, their lead ropes tied together. Although they could still move about, they were far too stupid to move all in the same direction; this arrangement should keep them more or less in the same place for quite some time. It did block the street, but Galt hoped that wouldn't matter much. It didn't look like a major thoroughfare. Besides, that meant that the overmen could not be taken from behind by enemies coming up this street; even if they got past the yackers, the inevitable noise would serve as a warning.

The yackers were a new problem for him. Though he was a master trader, all his previous experience had been gained on expeditions to Lagur, since that was the only place the overmen of the Northern Waste currently traded. There were no yackers used on such expeditions, since all trade with Lagur went by sea.

Once the beasts were taken care of, he returned to the square. He could hear the sounds of furs being unpacked; either Tand was working incredibly fast, or he had gotten Larth to help him, judging by the noise.

Then, just as he was about to turn the corner into the market, the sounds stopped abruptly. So did he. Something was happening, obviously. Peaceful, peaceful, he reminded himself; he fixed his most nearly human smile upon his face and strolled forward as casually as he could.

Larth and Tand knelt motionless amid heaps of furs and carved whalebone, staring off to their right. Following their gaze he saw a ragged human farmer, pulling a rickety cart half-full of squash, standing motionless in a street opening into the eastern end of the market. The farmer's mouth hung open and his eyes were wide, the whites palely visible in the first light of morning-light which had crept up while Galt was securing the yackers without his noticing it. It appeared very much as if this man had never seen an overman before, and quite possibly he hadn't. Larth and Tand were also staring, and it occurred to Galt that it might well be that neither of them had ever seen a human being before.

This, Galt knew, was the decisive moment. Secrecy was gone. Now, if their mission was to succeed, they needed to convince the humans that there was nothing out of the ordinary about overmen trading in their marketplace. Garth had hired him as an expert on dealing with humans, and he knew that humans could be convinced of anything if only approached properly.

He waved gaily, broadened his smile, and called, 'Greetings, good sir! Would you care to see our wares?'

The man turned his gaze from the others to Galt, but his mouth remained open and his eyes wide.

Galt gestured at the heaps of trade goods. 'We have fine furs, such as are rarely seen in these lands; we have fine carved implements of use in any home. Come and look, friend!'

The man's mouth slowly closed. He swallowed, and looked back and forth between the overmen. His eyes roved around the market square and found no one else and nothing out of the ordinary-except the party of overmen. Galt judged him to be recovered from his shock and considering the situation. He would not turn and run, because that would mean abandoning his cart; it had been a stroke of luck that the first human to find them had been so encumbered. He had two sensible options; he could behave as if the overmen belonged there, or he could raise an alarm. It was Galt's job to convince him the former was the better course.

Still smiling, he called, 'It costs nothing to look, sir, and should something catch your eye, our prices are reasonable.' They certainly were! This trip was, not expected to make a profit, nor break even, but only to establish an opening; accordingly, he and Garth had agreed that they would refuse no serious offer-though they would haggle, of course; that was expected, and suspicion would be aroused if they did not-and would even give away goods free if it seemed advisable. 'If you haven't brought any money, we might trade for those fine vegetables.'

That decided him. The man found his voice and called, 'Wait a moment, and I'll come look.' He began moving again, wheeling his creaking cart into the square.

As he did, a shuttered window in the second story of the building the overmen had chosen to set up in front of opened, and a head was thrust out. 'What's all the yelling? It's not yet dawn!'

Galt doffed his hat politely and called up, 'My apologies, good lady; it was thoughtless of me to bellow so.'

The head, which was indeed female-Galt hadn't been completely certain-turned to look at him. There was a moment of silence save for the creaking of cart wheels as the farmer positioned his wares. Then the woman asked, conversationally but in an unsteady voice, 'You're an overman, aren't you?'

'Yes, good lady, my companions and myself are overmen, come to trade peacefully. We have fine furs

Вы читаете The Seven Altars of Dusarra
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