“Well, don’t worry. I’ll only expect for what I’ll earn. So you won’t mind if I keep company with you for a little while?”
“It may be more than a little while,” a somber Ehomba informed him. “As to you ‘tagging along,’ much as I might wish to do so, I cannot very well prevent it. I think you are like malaria: It can be made to go away for a while, but it always comes back to make a man sick and uneasy.”
Simna lengthened his own jaunty stride. “Flattery’ll get you nowhere, cattle-man. So this fortune you’re on the trail of, how big is it? Are we after gold, or works of art, or what?”
By evening Ehomba was almost ready to use the spear on his tirelessly garrulous new companion, but he was too weary. Simna ibn Sind prattled more than a convocation of women gathered for the village’s annual coming-of-puberty ceremony. The herdsman finally compared it to a forlorn steer bulling in the fields. Eventually and with an effort of will he was able to largely tune out the drone of the peripatetic swordsman’s voice.
Briefly, he considered abandoning the man while he slept. Attractive as he found the imagery, however, he could not quite bring himself to do it. Since he could not courteously lose the fellow, he decided that he would have to find some way to tolerate him. The prospect did not concern him overmuch.
Once they had trudged another couple of hundred leagues or so north without encountering any sign of treasure, he decided, Simna ibn Sind would undoubtedly dissolve their little company of his own accord.
HIS SUPPOSITION WAS CORRECT. NOT ABOUT SIMNA IBN SIND, but about the lay of the land ahead of them. There were more jungle-clad ridges, but they continued to grow smaller and less difficult to surmount, the rain forest that flourished on their flanks thinning out even as the knife-edged ridge tops became more manageable.
Then, without warning, there were no more tree-crowned summits to ascend.
They found themselves standing on the last ridge top looking out upon a sea of grass that stretched, utterly unbroken, to the northern horizon. No rocky knoll poked its stone-crowned head above that perfectly flat green-brown plain. Not a single tree thrust its trunk or lofted its branches over the endless emerald sward. Unobstructed sunlight did not glint off isolated lakes or ponds, or flash from the mirrored surface of some lazily meandering stream. There was nothing, nothing but the grass.
“The country ahead looks like it’s going to be easy to cross but difficult to hunt in.” Simna held his chin in his hand as he studied the terrain spread out before them.
“It may not be so easy to cross, either,” Ehomba commented. His eyes glistened. “What wonderful country!”
His companion gaped at him. “Wonderful?” He stretched out an arm to encompass the endless overgrown meadow. “You call that wonderful? There’s nothing there but Gopuy-bedamned grass!”
Ehomba looked sideways at Simna. “I am a herdsman from a dry country, my friend. To one responsible for the wellbeing of cattle and sheep, forced to move them from place to place just to keep them from starving, this would be an earthly kind of paradise. Not all people see riches only in gold.”
The swordsman eyed the tall southerner tolerantly. “You really are a simple guy with simple needs, aren’t you?” Ehomba nodded, and the other man responded with a sly, knowing smile. “I’ve got to hand it to you, Etjole. I’ve crossed paths with some shrewd, closed-mouthed types in my time, but you’re right up there with the best of them! How long do you think you can fool me with this ‘simple herdsman’ routine? Grass my ass! We both know what you’re after, and you’re not going to get rid of me that easily! It’ll take more than cheap, obviously phony claims of ignorance to fool Simna ibn Sind!” He edged nearer.
“Come on, Etjole—you can tell me now. What is it you’re after, really? A lost city like Damura-sese, only even richer? A bandit’s abandoned cache? Clandestine merchant gold?”
Ehomba sighed tolerantly. “It is a shame, Simna. Having so narrow a vision, you must miss much of what goes on in the world. You are like a horse with blinders.”
Annoyed, the swordsman stepped back. “Okay, okay. So don’t tell me. I know you must have your reasons, and that you’ll make everything clear when the time comes.”
“Yes,” Ehomba assured him candidly, “everything will become clear when the time comes.” He started down the slope. The last slope, for which he was grateful. Clambering over the jungle-wrapped ridges had been as tiring as it was dangerous. Seeking to change the subject, he said, “I would think you would know this country. Did you not come from here?”
Simna shook his head. Extraordinarily agile, he had an easy time picking his way down through the last trees. Where Ehomba had to step carefully, the stocky swordsman would simply hop or leap to the next clearing.
As they descended, the grass grew nearer—and taller. And thicker, and taller, until it became clear to both men that the country ahead was no ordinary veldt, and the grass they were approaching almighty unlike its humbler cousins elsewhere. They were unable to appreciate its true dimensions, in fact, until they were standing at the very bottom of the ridge.
“Nine feet high.” A contrite Simna stood before the wall of solid green. “Maybe ten. How in Gerooja are we going to get through that ?”
Stolid as ever, Ehomba regarded the seemingly impenetrable barrier. “We have blades. We will cut our way through. Make a path.” He nodded skyward. “I can navigate by the stars. A lone herdsman out in the pasturelands learns early how to do so.”
“That’s all well and good, it is,” Simna snorted, “but do you recall the panorama from the top of the ridge?” He nodded back at the slope they had just descended. “This extends farther than a man can see.” Taking a couple of steps forward, he felt of the nearest blade of grass. Soft and fibrous, it was as thick and wide as his hand. “You know how long it will take us to cut a league or so deep into this? If the plain reaches beyond the horizon, it could take us months just to cut a path halfway through. And what are we going to eat while we’re doing it? I’m no grazer.”
“There must be game,” Ehomba commented. “Surely so much rich forage does not go unutilized.”
A skeptical Simna waved at the wall. “Hunt—in this? How can you hunt something that might be standing right behind you without being visible? And anything that does live in there is bound to travel through it faster than a man.”
“What would you have us do?” With his spear, Ehomba gestured toward the top of the ridge. Back the way they had come. “Retrace our steps? Over every ridge and canyon? Or go back the way you came, toward the east?”
“I didn’t say that.” A frustrated Simna slumped down on a moss-covered rock and cupped his head in his hands. “Of course not. An ibn Sind never retreats. But I don’t like our prospects for advancing, either.”
“We could camp here until inspiration strikes.”
The swordsman managed a weak grin. “You mean like a rock to the head? If I thought it would do any good, I’d take the blow myself.” He eyed the unbroken, ten-foot-tall rampart of green. “I can resign myself to the necessary cutting. It’s the problem of finding food that worries me.”
“We will manage.” Reaching back over his shoulder, Ehomba unsheathed the sky-metal sword, the exposed blade gleaming grayly in the muted sunlight and glinting off the strange, sharp, parallel lines etched into the metal. Bringing back his arm, he prepared to begin the arduous task of cutting a lane through the overgrown veldt.
“Just a moment there, if you please.”
Pausing with the blade held over his head, the herdsman turned toward the sound of the voice. So did Simna, who had been steeling himself to join in the path-cutting effort.
Emerging from the towering greensward just to their right was a man—or a close relation. Stepping out from between two ten-foot-high blades, he turned to confront them, sharp-eyed and unafraid despite his small stature. He was maybe three feet tall, slim to the point of emaciation, with high pointed ears, eyes that were small round circles of intensity, a bare snub of a nose, and a cone-shaped head that more than anything else resembled small blades of grass slicked up in the manner of some dandified courtier and glued together to form a perfect point. He wore nothing but a green loincloth that had been braided from strips of grass, and went barefoot. Fastened to his loincloth by a single loop was a comparably sized scythe of sharpened bone.