Simna nodded and was silent for several moments. Then he commented, “You really don’t know what you’re getting into, do you?”
“I never worry about such things. We are all fallen leaves drifting on the river of life, and we go where the current takes us.” The herdsman looked up at his friend. “Do you worry?”
The swordsman let his gaze rove out across the veldt. “I try to. I like to have some idea what I’m in for.” Pulling his gaze away from the veldt and whatever was out there, he looked back over at the herdsman. “That must be some treasure he’s guarding.”
Frustrated, Ehomba rolled over onto his side. “If what you just saw and experienced is not enough to convince you that I am not doing this for treasure, then it is certain nothing I can say will convince you otherwise.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” Simna declared. “The woman is certainly worth saving.” He whistled softly. “There are all kinds of treasure, even some that come wrapped in silk. Speaking of which, did you happen to notice that—”
“You are an impossible person, Simna ibn Sind.”
“I prefer incorrigible. All right, so my intentions are base. But my objectives are noble. I’ll help you rescue this Visioness Themaryl, if you’re bound and determined to return her to her family as you say you’ve sworn to do. But as my reward, or payment, or whatever you wish to call it, I claim for myself any gold or jewels we can plunder along the way.”
In the darkness, Ehomba smiled in spite of himself. “You would pit yourself against the figure we saw, against this Hymneth the Possessed, for mere wealth?”
“Take it from me, Etjole—there’s no such thing as ‘mere wealth.’ So he’s big and ugly and can throw sky fire from his fingertips. So what? I’ll bet he bleeds like any man.”
“I would not count on that. But I admire your bravery.”
“I’ve found that in the face of danger, greed is a wonderful motivator, Etjole. I suppose you’re fortunate that you’re immune to it.”
“I did not say that I was immune. It is just that we covet different things, you and I.”
“Fortunate for me, then.” Rising, the swordsman returned to his resting place and once again drew the embroidered blanket up around his body.
His companion was not quite ready for sleep. “Simna, have you ever contemplated a blade of grass?”
Already drifting off, the exhausted swordsman mumbled an indifferent reply. “Look, I’d rather believe that I’m traveling in the company of a sorcerer than a philosopher. You’re not going to philosophize at me now, are you? It’s late, it’s been a tiring time, and we need to get an early start tomorrow morning to cover as much ground as possible before the sun rises too high.”
“You should look forward to walking when the sun is high. It keeps the snakes in their lairs. In the cool of morning and evening is when they like to come out.”
“You’re sure of that, are you?” Something brushed the swordsman’s exposed left arm and he jumped slightly. But it was only, to his relief, a blade of grass being bent by the breeze.
“That is what they tell me.”
“Hares I can accept, but snakes? Not even magicians can talk to snakes. Snakes have no brains.”
He could almost see Ehomba scowling in the darkness. “I am sure there are many in this place, and I hope none of them overheard that.”
“Hoy, right,” Simna snorted softly.
“There is the universe we live in,” the herdsman went on, as if the colloquial conviviality of serpents had never been a question under discussion, “and then there is a blade of grass.” In the deepening shadows Simna saw his companion pluck a young green shoot from the ground and hold it above his reclining head, a tiny sliver of darker blackness against the star-filled sky.
“A wise man of our village, Maumuno Kaudom, once told me that there is a world whole and entire in everything we see, even in each blade of grass, and that if we could just make ourselves small enough we could walk around in it just as we walk around in this world.”
Rolling his eyes, Simna turned over on his side so that his back was facing his suddenly talkative friend. “Just assuming for a minute that your wise man knew what he was talking about and that he wasn’t speaking from the effects of too much homemade beer or garden-raised kif, and that you could ‘walk around’ inside the ‘world’ of a blade of grass, why would anyone want to? Everything there is to see in a grass blade can be seen now.” Reaching out from beneath his blanket, he ripped a small handful of stems from the soil and flung them over his side in the direction of his prone companion.
“Catch, bruther! See—I fling a whole fistful of worlds at you!”
A couple of the uprooted blades came to rest on Ehomba’s face. Idly, keeping his attention focused on the stem that he was holding, the herdsman flicked them aside. “One world at a time is enough to ponder, Simna.”
The swordsman rolled back to his original position. He was weary, and had had about enough learned discourse for the evening. “Good! At last we’re in agreement on something. Concentrate on this one, and forget about grass, except for the leagues of it we must march through tomorrow.”
“But, think a moment, Simna.”
The other man groaned. “Must I? It hurts my head.”
The herdsman refused to be dissuaded. “If Maumuno Kaudom is right, then perhaps this world, the one we inhabit, is to some larger being nothing more than another blade of grass, one among millions and millions, that can be held up to contemplation—or flicked aside in a moment of boredom or indifference.”
“They’d better not try it,” the swordsman growled. “Nobody tosses Simna ibn Sind aside in a moment of anything!”
Gratifyingly, it was the last thing Ehomba had to say. The silence of the night stole in upon them, pressing close on the sputtering embers of the dying campfire until it, too, went silent. In the rising coolness of the hour the enormity of what Ehomba had been saying eased itself unbidden into Simna’s thoughts.
What, just what, if the old village fakir his friend had been talking about was right? He wasn’t, of course, but just—what if? It would mean that a man’s efforts meant nothing, that all his exertions and enthusiasms were of such insignificance as to be less than noticeable to the rest of Creation.
Reaching down, he fingered another blade of grass that was struggling to emerge from the soil just beyond the edge of his blanket. Fingered it, but did not pull it. He could have done so easily, with the least amount of effort imaginable. Curl a finger around the insignificant stem and pull. That was all it would take, and the blade would die. What did that matter in the scheme of things? They were surrounded by uncountable billions of similar blades, many grown to maturity. And if this one was pulled, two more would spring up to claim its place in the sun.
But what if it contained a world, a world unto itself? Insignificant in the design of Creation, yes, meaningless in the context of the greater veldt, but perhaps not so meaningless to whatever unimaginable minuscule lives depended on it for their own continued existence and growth.
Absurd! he admonished himself. Preposterous and comical. His finger contracted around the blade even as his lips tightened slightly. It hung like that, the slightly sharp edge of the blade prominent against the inner skin of his forefinger.
Slowly, he withdrew his hand. The blade remained rooted in the earth. It was nothing more than that: a single finger-length strand of grass. No horse or hare would have been as forgiving, no hungry kudu or mouse would have hesitated before the small strip of nourishing greenery. But Simna ibn Sind did.
He was not sure why. He was only sure of one thing. The next time he and his impassive traveling companion were lying in some empty open place preparing for sleep, he was going to cram his bedsheet, or blanket, or if need be clods of earth, into his ears so as not to have to listen to what the herdsman had to say. It was an evil thing to play with a man’s mind, even if, as it appeared, Ehomba had done so unintentionally.
Blades of grass as individual worlds! This world as nothing more! What lunacy, what folly! Fortunately he, Simna ibn Sind, was immune to such rubbish. Slipping his forearms beneath his head to support it, he turned onto his belly and tried to get comfortable. As he did so, he found himself wondering how many blades of grass he was crushing beneath his chest. His closed eyes tightened as he vented a silent, mental scream.