Like his loincloth and his surroundings, he was bright green, from pointy head to tiny-toed foot. No wonder they hadn’t seen him until he had elected to emerge from hiding. Looking upon him, Ehomba decided their visitor might be a hundred years old, or two, but certainly no less than fifty. Of course, he was using the only referents he knew, which were human. The small green manikin was surely something else.
This their unexpected visitor proceeded to confirm, in prompt response to Simna’s diplomatic inquiry of “What the hell are you?”
The figure drew himself up to his full, if unprepossessing, height. “I am Boruba-Ban-Beylok, sangoma of the Tlach Folk, the People of the Grass.” He glared at Ehomba. “The grass gives life, the grass gives protection, the grass is the carpet on which the world treads. We do not take indifferently to its wanton cutting.”
Hand on sword hilt, an uneasy Simna studied the impenetrable wall of high green and wondered if the blade might have found itself cutting down something more mobile and less indifferent than grass. There could be a hundred tiny green warriors hiding in there, a thousand, and he would not have known it. His senses were acute, but he saw and heard nothing. As near as he could tell, the only intruder that was rustling the grass was the wind. But he was on full alert now, trusting in his unassuming companion to defuse the situation. Simna was smart enough to know when to keep his mouth shut, aware that his chronic intemperance was more likely to exacerbate than ease the confrontation.
Ehomba lowered his blade but did not put it up. Instead, he let it hang loose from his right hand. “I was not being wanton.” With his other hand he gestured at the green escarpment. “We are traveling to the north. The grass is in the way. If we could fly, we would choose that method of travel. But we are only human, so we must walk. To walk, we must make a path.”
Boruba-Ban-Beylok shook his head disapprovingly. “Human you are, to think always of going through things. Never around.”
“Very well.” Ehomba was perfectly agreeable. “We will not cut the grass.” Simna stared at his friend, but continued to keep his opinions and suggestions to himself.
Approaching the greensward, the herdsman pushed one blade of grass aside. Another was immediately behind it. “Show us how.”
“You mock me,” the little green sangoma snarled. Or at least tried to snarl. Like the rest of him, his voice was not very deep.
“Not at all,” Ehomba replied. “I do not know how to go around the grass. If that is what you wish us to do, show us how. We will be glad to comply.” He swung his blade in a short arc. “Cutting grass of any height is hard work. I would be delighted to be able to avoid it.”
“And so you shall,” the sangoma informed him, “if you can answer for me three riddles.”
With a heavy sigh, Simna resumed his seat on the rock. “I knew there was a catch in this somewhere. When you’re dealing with sangomas and shamans and witch doctors and spirit women, there’s always a catch.” Resignation underlay his words. “Sometimes it’s deeds that have to be performed, or a magic crystal that needs recovering, or a sacred icon that has to be returned to its altar. Or bridges to be crossed, wells to be plumbed, cliffs to be scaled—but it’s always something.”
“What happens if we cannot answer your riddles?” Ehomba asked quietly.
The sangoma took a short hop forward. He was smiling now. “Then you’ll have to go back the way you came, you will. Have to go back, or a fate worse than any you can imagine will spring out at you from between the very blades of grass you seek to pass and rend you to fragments small enough for the beetles to feast upon, rend you with fang and claw and poison stinger.”
Alarmed by this augury, Simna rose and retreated until he could stand with his back against a solid rock that protruded vertically from the base of the ridge. He held his sword at the ready and redoubled his continuous scrutiny of the green barrier.
If Ehomba was at all taken aback by the naked threat, he did not show it. “Ask your three riddles, then, Tlach-man.”
Clearly enjoying himself and his role as ambassador of confrontation, Boruba-Ban-Beylok rubbed tiny green hands together as he primed himself. As they made contact with each other, the sliding palms generated a sound like bark being sanded. The sky did not darken and thunder did not roll—the Tlach sangoma was not a very big sangoma, after all—but the crests of the nearest grass blades tilted forward as if eavesdropping on the proceedings, and the rustling within momentarily grew louder than the slight breeze alone could have inspired.
“Listen close, listen careful, human.” Trenchant green eyes stared deeply into Ehomba’s. “First riddle: In the morning comes the sun, in the night comes the moon. But what comes at midday and is midwife to both? Riddle second: A fish is to a frog as a heron is to a crow. What is a Tlach to? Third riddle and last: The name of a man is how a man is known to others, but by what other means may he introduce himself?” With a confident smirk, the sangoma rested his hands on skinny green-skinned hips and waited for the tall trespasser to respond.
Observing scene and byplay, Simna had already resigned himself to finding a way back through the mountains. Sick as he was of climbing and descending, of fording rock-filled jungle streams and fighting off bugs and thorns, he struggled to accommodate them in his mind. Because it was clear that his simple, kindly friend, while a boon companion and pleasant fellow, was no towering intellect. In contrast, Simna was highly conversant with puzzles and conundrums of many kinds and origins. Quick-witted as he was, though, the solution to the three riddles of the Tlach was beyond him.
He eyed the impossibly lofty wall of grass apprehensively. If as seemed certain Ehomba failed to answer the riddles and they attempted to press on through the high veldt, Boruba-Ban-Beylok had all but promised them encounters with apparitions unpleasant. He studied the green escarpment intently, searching for signs of the brooding monstrosities the sangoma had assured them were lurking within, waiting for the right moment to spring upon unfortunate travelers. Just because he could not see anything did not mean there was nothing there. If it was green, like the sangoma, it could be standing right in front of them while remaining virtually invisible.
Ehomba stood quietly as he pondered the Tlach’s questions. Then he slowly raised the sky-metal blade he was holding and silently aimed the point at the sangoma’s chest. Simna tensed, while Boruba-Ban-Beylok eyed the much bigger man warily but did not turn and run.
“You cannot imagine what fate will befall you if you harm me,” he growled darkly.
“I do not intend to harm you, but to answer your riddles.” The herdsman advanced the tip of the sword ever so slightly nearer the sangoma’s throat. “This blade is forged from metal that fell from the sky. See how strangely the sunlight shines on it? That makes it midwife to both the sun and the moon. As to your second riddle, a Tlach is close to Death, if he should come too close to such a blade. And it answers your last query as well, for with this sword I provide another way of introducing myself than by using my name.” With surgical precision, he touched the sharp point of the weapon to the sangoma’s neck, dimpling the green flesh just above the bulging Adam’s apple.
“Boruba-Ban-Beylok, sangoma to the Tlach, meet the metal that comes from the stars.”
The sangoma swallowed—not too hard, lest he awkwardly impact the location of the blade. Behind them both, Simna put a hand on the hilt of his own weapon as he tried to divide his attention between the two figures and the still quiescent wall of grass. At any moment he expected something huge and horrific to spring forth from between the stems. But the greensward remained still.
“Am I supposed to offer a greeting in return?” Eyes narrowing, the sangoma fixed the contentious interloper with a threatening stare. “I warned you. Now you must accept the consequences.”
“I am prepared to do that,” Ehomba assured him. “That is why I am still standing here holding this weapon at your throat instead of running away. I have never run from a confrontation in my life, and I do not intend to start now.” He nodded at the grassy escarpment. “I have vowed to travel north until I can find a ship to take me westward across the Semordria, and north I will go in spite of spew, spirits, or spiteful sangomas.”