Ehomba glanced back at him, only half his face visible in the enveloping darkness. “Perhaps not, but presented with such a circumstance I would have a worry for my soul.”
Simna trailed behind in silence for a while before venturing to inquire uncertainly, “Are you sure you’re just a herdsman?”
“Cattle and sheep, with the occasional moa,” Ehomba assured him. “I miss them even as we speak.”
“Hoy, well, better you than me, bruther. Meself, I prefer the companions of my days and nights slimmer, smoother, and better smelling. Watch your step,” he added solicitously. “Remember that big rock that sticks out of the floor near the entrance.”
They emerged into sunlight that, mist-shrouded and dimmed as it was, seemed brighter than any either man had ever encountered before. Without a word, Ehomba turned to his right and began to make his way along the flank of the mountain, keeping to the open spaces in the rain forest while heading north.
“Hoy, wait a minute!” Surprised by the abruptness of the other man’s departure, Simna ibn Sind hurried to catch up to him. “Where are you going?”
Without slowing or looking back at the swordsman, who continued to pace him, Ehomba replied succinctly, “North.”
“North?” Simna echoed. “That’s it? Just ‘north’? North to where? North for what?” Somewhere nearby a flock of very large and throaty birds trilled in chorus like a carillon of silver bells.
“Just north.” The herdsman stepped over a root that hugged the ground like a petrified snake. “You would not believe my purpose if I told it to you.”
Licking his lips, Simna pressed close on the other man’s heels. “Okay, okay, look—I’ll tell you what I was really doing here, and then you tell me, okay? We’ll each tell the other the truth.” He eyed the tall herdsman eagerly. When no response was forthcoming to his offer, he added enthusiastically, “I’ll go first.
“You say that you’re going north? Well, I was heading south. Way south. Further south than a sensible man might be expected to want to go.” He took a deep breath, framing his imminent revelation. “I’m looking for Damura-sese.”
Surrounded by steep jungle, Ehomba halted and peered over at the swordsman. “That is too bad. I happen to be from the south, and as a southerner I can tell you that there is no such place as Damura-sese. All that exists of it is the name. I have heard about it all my life, and I can tell you with complete confidence that no such place exists on the face of this Earth.”
Simna’s expression turned sly. “Ah, but that’s what they all say. I figure it’s because anyone who knows anything about the place wants to keep it a secret until they can mount an expedition to find it for themselves.” He slammed his closed fist against his chest. “Well, I’m an expedition! I’m going to find it, and all the riches the old legends say it holds, and buy myself a khanate or a kingdom. And then when the norics who’ve been hounding my heart come looking for me, I’ll send a battalion of my household cavalry to harry them into the nearest river.”
Ehomba listened to all this in silence. “Better to secure yourself an honest and stable position with some noble courtier, or learn a distinguished trade. You might even consider farming.” His eyes seemed to change focus, to see far off into the mist-murky distance. “There is much to be said for working in close contact with the earth.”
“You keep close to it.” Simna tersely jerked a thumb back the way they had come. “Didn’t you get close enough to the earth back there?”
“That was not the earth, but its dross.” Again he looked over at his companion. “I tell you there is no Damura-sese, Simna ibn Sind. There are only stories that mothers use to amuse their children and see them off to sleep. That too is a sort of magic, but not the kind you seek. If you think you will make your fortune by finding it, you might as well try to market your dreams.”
“Don’t try to talk me out of it, because you can’t.” The swordsman pushed through a line of leafy branches, keeping a careful eye out for stinging insects as he bashed his way through. “Okay, now I’ve done my part and told you of my intentions. Now it’s your turn. And since I’ve been pretty forthcoming, I think you owe me more in the way of detail than ‘I’m going north.’”
Ehomba sighed heavily. Good-natured though he might be, the swordsman was tenacious as a leech. Clearly he was not going to let the matter rest until he heard something that would satisfy him. So the herdsman explained his purpose, and his intentions, in making his way northward, eventually to take ship to the unknown west.
Simna listened to it all in silence, occasionally nodding sagely as Ehomba made his points. When the herdsman finished, the swordsman grinned crookedly up at him and commented, “That’s some story.” He sidled closer and lowered his voice, as if there were someone besides bugs and birds present to overhear. “Now really—what are you up to? You’re after treasure too, aren’t you? Everyone’s looking for treasure. Or you’ve been given some secret assignment by a high wizard, or better yet, by a banker. There’s a lot of gold at stake here. I can tell. There has to be, or you wouldn’t have come this far and gone through everything that you have already.” He gave the taller man a comradely nudge in the ribs. “Come on, Etjole. You can tell old Simna. What are you after, really?”
Ehomba did not look over or break stride. Another steep-sided ridge loomed ahead, clad in its familiar coat of rain-forest green. “What I told you was the truth. The whole truth. There is nothing else.”
The swordsman chortled aloud. “You’re good, I’ll give you that. One of the better liars I’ve encountered in my time. But not the best, not by a long shot. See, I’ve been around, Etjole. I can tell when a man’s having me on and when he’s telling the truth just by studying the way his cheeks twitch and his lips quiver. I look them right in the eye and I can tell. You’re good, but you can’t fool me.”
Stolid and determined, Ehomba strode on. “You are right,” he replied imperturbably. “I cannot fool you. You are too perceptive for me.”
Simna beamed, well pleased with himself. “See? I knew better! Now then, what is it that you’re on to? A sunken merchant vessel laden with scarce trade goods? A spice merchant’s caravan on its way from far Narinchu? A pirate’s abandoned lair, or jewels guarded by the spirit-wraith of a dead queen?”
“Something like that,” Ehomba replied noncommittally. The ridge ahead looked less imposing than the last several he had crossed. Perhaps the mountains were beginning to subside. It would be good to travel on level ground once again. He was tired of climbing.
Simna pouted. “Fine then! Be that way. Keep the truth to yourself. I’m sure you’ll tell me when the time comes.”
Frowning, Ehomba looked over at him. “Tell you? Do you think you are coming with me? I thought you were bent on finding Damura-sese?”
“One expedition at a time,” the swordsman replied. “Truth be told, bruther, when speaking of directions, ‘south’ is pretty generalized and offers little in the way of direction. You, on the other hand, seem to have a definite destination in mind.”
“Not as definite as you seem to believe.” Ehomba kicked aside a fallen branch that was decorated with spotted blue liverworts.
“More definite than mine, anyway. Wherever it is, Damura-sese isn’t going anywhere. So I had this notion that I might tag along with you for a while.” He indicated the knife at his belt and the remaining longsword slung against his back. “I can hold my own against any half dozen men in a fight, keep a dragon at bay, satisfy three women at once, outdrink the biggest primate in a tavern, and ride all day and all night while asleep in the saddle. I’m a boon companion with more stories to tell than any two professional guides, better songs than a tintinnabulation of troubadours, and I won’t run out on a man in a tight spot. You’ll do well to keep me in your company.”
Ehomba could not repress a slight smile. “If you can handle that sword as well as you do your tongue, truly you would be a good man to have at one’s back in a fight. But I do not need, or want, any company.”
“Oh.” Simna was momentarily crestfallen. But his irrepressible good spirits rapidly returned. “Want to keep all the treasure to yourself, eh?”
The herdsman’s gaze rolled heavenward. “Yes, that is it. I want to keep all the treasure to myself.”