Something nudged his right thigh, and he froze. Probably some harmless creature of the dunes come exploring under cover of night. A large desert beetle, black and preoccupied, or one of Ahlitah’s scurrying snacks unwittingly tempting fate. But the drylands of his native country were home to their share of less benign nocturnal creatures, and in terrain as harsh as this there were bound to be hunters of the dark that used poison and fang and sting.
So he moved only his neck and head as he rose slightly to see what was repeatedly thumping his thigh through the blanket. Even with the slight movement he expected whatever it was to react: either by turning and racing off or pausing in its activity or skittering away from the movement and retreating in the direction of his feet.
He did not expect it to look back at him.
The warrior’s diminutive form was clad in rough brown fabric woven from sisal or some similar plant. From fringed pants that reached to just below the knobby knees, short legs protruded, terminating in disproportionately large, splayed feet that were bare of any covering. The correspondingly undersized arms were gnarled and muscled. In his right hand the tiny fighter held a slim spear or lance. Bits of carved bone gleamed whitely against cuirass and shirt, serving to decorate as well as armor the upper body.
The head was a slightly squashed oval instead of round. Commensurate with the rest of the squat body, it gave the warrior the appearance of one who had been stepped on and had his whole self compressed and flattened out. The mouth was inordinately wide, the lips thin to the point of nonexistence, the eyes deep-set and intelligent. An oversized cap of finely woven natural fiber flopped down over the forehead. As a wide-eyed, motionless Simna watched in fascination, the soldier pushed the thick front of the cap farther back on his head, revealing the first tight curls of red-gold hair beneath.
His ears were remarkable: oversized, protuberant organs that stuck out from underneath the cap and rose to points higher than the head. They were also immoderately hairy. Unlike the curls that emerged from beneath the rim of the heavy cap, these hairs were straight as needles. But they were equally red.
Softly snapping something in a tongue Simna had never heard before, the warrior gestured brusquely with the lance. Taken in concert, the meaning of his tone and movement were unmistakable. Slowly, Simna sat up and raised his hands. He was wary, but far from intimidated.
After all, the fearless fighter was only five inches tall.
As soon as Simna complied with the order, his captor advanced toward him on his mount. This was a running bird of a kind that was also new to the swordsman. A mottled, spotted brown with flecks of white, it had a very long, broad tail, a slim bill, a tall topknot, and a highly intelligent gaze. Whenever it moved forward, its head dipped, the long tail stretched out behind it, and the topknot flared upward like a weathervane taking the mood of the wind.
Seated on the bird’s back, the diminutive soldier rode on a perfectly miniaturized saddle. From bridle to stirrup, every fragment of avian tack was downsized to the point of airiness. An intrigued Simna noted that the arrangement would preclude any possibility of flight. Apparently the warrior’s mount was a bird that preferred running to flying.
“I give up.” He raised his hands even higher. “You’ve got me.”
“Soh,” the wee fighter responded curtly, “you speak that language.” His voice was not as high and thin as Simna would have expected. Raising his six-inch-long lance over his head, he stood up in the stirrups, turned in the saddle, and ululated loudly.
Ehomba awoke to find the camp invaded by forty or so of the bantam night riders. The intruders darted back and forth in the quick, short bursts of speed that characterized their mounts’ natural agility. They looked and acted quite confident—until Ahlitah yawned and stood up. Eyes drooping and tired, the great cat frowned at the intrusion, sniffed once, and opened oculi that were two yellow moons flanking the night.
“Ah, how considerate—a midnight snack.”
“Back, get back!” The warrior who had awakened Simna was screeching frantically at his comrades. Observing the retreat, the swordsman discreetly lowered his hands. There had really been no reason to raise them in the first place, and besides, his shoulders were getting tired.
Swinging his legs out from beneath the blanket, Ehomba sat up and contemplated their visitors. He addressed them with the same respect he would have accorded a squadron of full-sized men, even though the arrivals were neither full sized nor men.
“I am Etjole Ehomba. These are my traveling companions, the swordsman Simna ibn Sind and the litah Ahlitah.” He eyed the big cat disapprovingly. “Put your tongue back in your mouth. Guests are not for eating.”
“Hmph.” Disappointed, the litah slumped back onto his belly. “My late-night entertainments are more fun than yours.”
The diminutive callers gradually relaxed. Trotting forward on his feathered mount, the one who had awakened Simna confronted the herdsman. “I am Loswee, Son of the Patriarch Roosagin, of the Swick—the People of the Sand.” His gaze narrowed and the hairy oversized ears inclined ever so slightly forward. “You are not agents of the Dunawake?”
Herdsman and swordsman exchanged a glance while Ahlitah remained relaxed, unmoving, and uninterested. Long legs crossed, Ehomba looked back down at their interrogator. Loswee’s mount was pecking curiously at the underside of the southerner’s well-worn leather sandal.
“What is a Dunawake?”
“Not ‘a’ Dunawake,” the miniature warrior corrected him. “The Dunawake.” In the subdued silver shimmer of the moon, his shudder was clearly visible. “I don’t even like to consider the possibility that there might be more than one.” Wide eyes looked up at the infinitely larger visitor.
“The Dunawake is a Terrible. There are many Terribles in the world, but the Dunawake o’ertops them all. You can’t fight it. All you can do is get out of its way. And you’d better get out of its way, or you’ll be mushed. Obliterated, my friend, even such giants as yourselves, as deftly as I would pulp a sweet ant. So we move. It’s aching and arduous work, but we have no choice. There are those who are not as skillful or agile as we, and these suffer the unmentionable fate that befalls all victims of the Dunawake.” He sat a little straighter in his avian saddle. “So far we have succeeded in keeping ahead of it. We Swick are quick.
“We would fight it, if we had the weapons. But spears and arrows are less than raindrops to the Dunawake. We need something stronger.”
Simna considered. “Bigger spears, bigger arrows?”
Loswee’s gaze narrowed, tugged down by heavy brows, and Ehomba was quick to intercede. “You must excuse my friend. His muscles and his determination are both stronger than his imagination. What would you need to fight this Dunawake?”
“Magic,” the Swick replied promptly. “Magic such as you possess.”
Ehomba blinked. “We have no magic. I am a herder of cattle and sheep, my friends unpretentious wanderers. We are not magicians.” He was aware that Simna was watching him as closely as was Loswee.
“If you are not magicians,” the Swick countered, pointing with the tip of his spear, “then how do you explain that?”
He had singled out the half-full pond that hovered behind the travelers. A few minnows still swam in its reduced depths.
Ehomba smiled gently. “We did not conjure the floating water, nor can I explain it. We found it and many thousands like it in a land to the south of here, and brought it with us so that we would have enough to drink in this dry country. You could do the same.”
“To the south, you say?” Loswee reflected. “This is as far south as the Swick have ever come. And we would not have done so had the Dunawake not forced the journeying upon us.” He squinted at the pond, which was tied to a rock outcropping so that it would not drift away during the night. “I’m not sure I believe you. I think you have more magic than you’re admitting to.”
Ehomba shook his head. “I wish you were right and I untruthful. There have been times when I could have done with a little magic.”
Turning in his saddle, Loswee barked something at his squadron of armed fighters, then turned back to Ehomba. “Perhaps after we have talked further, you will feel like being more forthcoming.”
“We have no objection to talking,” Ehomba assured him noncommittally.
“Good. I see that you are traveling light, so you must be ready for a real meal.”
“Giquina knows that’s true!” Simna agreed heartily.
Ehomba frowned at his friend. “Look at this country, and the size of these people. They cannot have much to eat, far less anything to spare for visitors of our size.”