Not surprisingly, its voice was all breathiness and barely checked thunder.
“What is this? Are you so anxious to end your life, man, that you presume to confront me? Before I suck you up and drink you like a twig, I would like to know why.” It held its position, neither advancing nor retreating, swirling in place as it glared down at Ehomba from a height of hundreds of feet.
“I do not know what sort of deviate contest you are engaged in with this poor animal.” Ehomba gestured back at the great cat, who had paused to try to gather its strength and lick at a cut on its left flank. “But it is a patently unfair one, for you have all the sky to draw upon for energy while it has only legs and muscle.”
A gust of wind blew in the herdsman’s face: a tiny gust, a mere puff of air, really—but it was enough to knock him from his stance, and make him stumble.
“I was told of the creature’s boasting,” the tornado replied, “that it claimed it could run faster than the wind. So it was he who set the challenge, and not I.”
Ehomba turned to eye the cat questioningly. Undaunted by either the herdsman’s stare or the column of frenzied air hovering behind him, it replied in a voice that was notably less barbaric than those cat-tongues with which the southerner was conversant. How and where it had learned to speak the language of man was a matter for further discussion, under less adverse climatic conditions.
“The wind demon speaks the truth. I did say that.” Yellow eyes rose past Ehomba to fixate on the column of air. “Because it’s true. I am faster than the wind.”
“There! You see!” Screaming, the storm corkscrewed violently against the Earth. “As weather goes, I am among the least patient of its constituents. How could I let such an impertinent claim go unchallenged—or unpunished?”
The calm before the storm, Ehomba queried the cat. “I mean no offense, or disrespect, but you will pardon me for saying that given the current state of affairs it does not appear to me, anyway, that you are faster than the wind.”
“I am!” Turning to face both the herdsman and the storm, the cat was spent but unbowed. “But I am only flesh and blood and cat-gut.” It glared furiously at the towering, watchful column. “I can and did outrun it, for a day and a night. It tried, but could not catch me. But, unlike it, I need to stop to feed, and to drink, while it can draw sustenance directly from the clouds themselves. Its food follows it, while mine wanders, and does its best to avoid me.”
“Sensible food,” Ehomba murmured knowingly.
The cat took a faltering but proud step in his direction. “This twisting thing refuses to accept the result of that day. Now it pursues me with murder in mind.”
“Nature does not like to be embarrassed,” Ehomba explained quietly. He turned back to confront the waiting storm. “Is what the cat says true?”
“A day, two days, a month—what does it matter? Nothing can outrun the wind!”
“Not even for a day and a night?” The herdsman cocked his head to one side and eyed the writhing tornado.
“This is not a matter for discussion!” The wind that blasted from the swirling pillar of constipated atmosphere threatened to implode Ehomba’s eardrums. “I am fastest, I am swiftest, I am eternally triumphant! And now you, man, will die too. Not because you anger me, not because you take the side of the blasphemer, but simply because you are here, and unlucky enough to be in my way. I will rip your limbs from your torso and scatter them within my body like the summer flowers that decorate the shores of distant rivers, and I will not feel it.”
“You know,” Ehomba replied as he reached back over his shoulder for a sword, “not only are you not the fastest, but you’re not even the greatest of winds. Against the greater gales you are nothing but a wisp of air, a summer zephyr, less than a child’s sneeze.”
“You are brave,” the storm told him, “or demented. Either way it makes no difference. The death of a madman is still a death. Upon the face of the Earth nothing can stand against me. I cut my own path through typhoons, and dominate storms strident with thunder or silent with snow. Tropical downpours part at my arrival, and williwaws steal in haste from my sight.” It resumed its advance, tearing up the ground before it.
Unable to run anymore, its hind legs paralyzed by muscle cramps, the cat could only stand and watch as Ehomba held his ground, plunged his spear point down in the dirt, and with both hands held the dull gray sword out in front of him. The storm is right, fatigued feline thoughts ran. The man is mad.
The tornado could not laugh, and if it could, the difference between laughter and its habitual ground-shaking howl would not have been perceptible. But it did manage to convey something of amusement.
“What are you going to do, man? Cut me? Take a bite out of my air?”
“You are right, storm,” the herdsman yelled back. “Nothing can stand against you—on the face of the Earth. But anyone who looks at the night sky knows that this is not the only Earth, that there are many others out there in the great spaces between points of light. Hundreds, perhaps. I have spent many nights looking up at them and thinking about what they might be like, and have talked often about it with the wise men and women of the Naumkib.”
A glow was beginning to emerge from his sword, but it was unlike any glow the cat had ever seen. Neither yellow, nor white, nor red, it was a peculiar shade of gray, a cold metallic radiance that was traveling slowly from the tip of the weapon toward its haft. Silent now, the cat stood on tottering legs and stared, its pain and exhaustion completely forgotten. There was a wonder taking place before his eyes, and he wanted to miss none of it.
“The wise ones say that the Great Emptiness that spreads over our heads, even over yours, is not as empty as it appears at night. It is full of incomprehensible but miraculous things. Bits of forgotten worlds, the memories of long-lost peoples, energies greater than a veldt fire, beings vaster and more wise than a woman of a hundred years. All that, and more.”
“I am not impressed or dissuaded by the ravings of madmen.” The tornado inched closer, teasing the grass, toying with the lone human standing before it.
By now the gray glow had enveloped the entire sword, which was quivering like a live thing in the herdsman’s powerful grasp. Ehomba held it high, presenting its flat side to the surging column of tormented air.
“Then be impressed by this. Storm, meet your relations, your distant cousins and brothers and sisters—the winds that blow between the stars!”
HAD HE BEEN ABLE TO, A DUMBSTRUCK SIMNA WOULD HAVE shut his eyes against the blast that came out of the herdsman’s sword. But he could not. The thread of intergalactic cyclone blew his eyelids up toward his forehead and kept them there. It caused the grass for leagues in every direction to bow down away from it, and knocked the muscular black cat right off its feet as easily as if it were a house kitten. Rooted as they were in the ground from which they sprang, the very rocks of the kopje trembled and threatened to blow free, and the sky was instantly cleared of birds and clouds for a hundred miles around.
Fortuitously trapped within the rock-walled alcove like a bee in its hive, Simna found himself pinned flat back against the rocks, his arms spread out to either side of him, and knew that he was experiencing only the feeblest of side effects from the wind his friend had called forth. Knew because the strength of that wind, its full force and energy, was directed straight out from the sword, directly at the inimical advancing storm.
It was an unnatural wind not only in its strength. It brought with it an intense biting cold that threatened to freeze his skin as solid as a shallow lake in the taiga, and an odor—an odor of alien distances that clotted in his nostrils and threatened to blunt his sense of smell permanently.
Crackling with energies exotic and inexplicable, the wind from between the stars struck the tornado foursquare in the center of its boiling column—and ripped it apart. Overwhelmed by forces beyond imagining, from beyond the Earth, brought forth through the medium of a sword forged from metal that itself had been subject to the whims of the intergalactic winds, the mere column of air could not stand.