Moving more swiftly than Ehomba had ever seen their kind travel, these humble creatures spread thick, viscid trails wherever they went. Other Swick riding large, sucker-toed geckoes followed behind, using long-handled brushes to spread and position the natural glue before it could harden. Looking up and to the side, he observed one crew working on the ceiling, the Swick hanging upside down in their saddles and harnesses.
Reaching over, Simna felt a nearby castle wall. Though nothing but fine yellow-red sand that glistened in the light of the many town lamps, it was firm and rigid to the touch.
Loswee was watching him. “Go ahead—try it.”
Simna hesitated, then pushed hard with a finger, and then with his entire hand. To his astonishment, the wall held firm against his giant’s push.
“You could stand on it.” Loswee’s words were suffused with pride. “The Swick build thick.”
They were coming to a central square. Beneath their feet, sand sifted by color and brilliance had been collected in minuscule molds. Framed and then glued in place, it gave the plaza the appearance of having been paved with multicolored stone. Tall buildings topped with cylindrical towers rose around them, some soaring to heights that would enable a Swick to look down even on Ehomba. Overhead, the dome peaked at twenty feet, allowing the visitors to stand freely.
Multiple street lamps formed a glowing necklace around the plaza, whose fringes were now filling with curious Swick anxious for a look at the giant guests. The mounted warriors of Barrick filed away through a gate off to the right, leaving only Loswee behind. Trotting up to Ehomba’s feet, he tilted back his head and raised his spear in salute.
“I go to announce your presence to the Elected and to arrange for your proper reception. I will be back in a moment.” With that he turned and sped off, his mount sprinting out of sight in seconds.
The travelers settled down to wait, Ahlitah pacing three tight circles before settling down against himself. Looking out at the inquisitive Swick staring back up at them from the edges of the plaza, the swordsman whispered to his phlegmatic companion, “Wonder what he meant by ‘proper reception’?”
“I would imagine food, like he promised.” Ehomba looked around sharply to face his friend. “I thought you did not believe that these people posed any threat to us.”
“That was when we were outside, bruther.” Simna studied their surroundings, which were much more spacious than the entrance tunnel but still confining. “In here, we’re trapped. Any folk that can train snails to do masonry for them could have all sorts of surprising tricks up their smelly little sleeves.”
Ehomba chuckled softly. “You are too suspicious, my friend.”
“Hoy yes. I’m also still alive.”
“And noisy.” Behind them, the litah fully extended his remarkably long legs and stretched. “Why don’t you shut up for a while?”
“Long bruther, why don’t you—” Simna started to retort, but he was interrupted by the return of Loswee.
“That did not take very long,” Ehomba ventured in greeting.
The Swick officer dismounted, leaving his bird tethered nearby. “Arrangements are being realized even as we speak. Prepare yourselves for a true Swick feast, my friends! The bites may be small, but you will find the quality and satisfaction unsurpassed.”
Breakfast arrived on sand sleds pulled by teams of running birds yoked in pairs. And arrived, and kept on arriving. Where the Swick stored such copious quantities of food Ehomba did not know, but despite his unease he accepted Loswee’s assurance that the banquet would in no way impoverish the community or impact adversely on its stores.
There was finely cooked and flavored meat, the origins of which Simna chose not to question. There were wild berries and nuts, desert melon, and a dozen different varieties of edible fungi, all basted and broasted and sauced to a turn. There were insects, cooked crisp in oil, and even cracker-sized loaves of bread made from wild grains. After days of living on jerked antelope and fish and what they could scavenge from their surroundings, the travelers soon put aside all pretense at politeness and gladly gave themselves over to Loswee’s invitation to indulge.
When tankard-sized barrels of home-brewed beer appeared, Simna was all but ready to apply for transient citizenship.
“Not such a bad place, by Gyofah.” Wearing a contented smile, he surveyed their splendid if shrunken surroundings. “A man could get used to it, if they put in a few windows.”
“I believe the idea is to hide from danger,” Ehomba commented dryly, “and not give it a way to look in.” He considered the endless and apparently untiring line of heavily laden sleds that continued to funnel food and drink to him and his companions. “I am so full I can hardly keep my eyes open. I wonder if one of us should stand guard while the others sleep?”
Simna tossed back a cup-sized barrel of beer and blinked at him. “Now who’s being suspicious? I thought you trusted these people.”
“I trust everyone to a degree, but in a new country among unknown people it is better to trust no one completely. Not at first.”
“So maybe you’re smarter than your sheep after all.” The swordsman grinned.
“Go ahead and rest.” Both men turned to where Ahlitah lay on his side, having eaten his fill. The great cat’s eyes were shut tight. “My kind sleeps long but lightly lest we miss the footsteps of passing prey. Trust me. If our hosts prove duplicitous, I will be up and on my feet in an instant.”
“Remarkable,” Simna murmured.
One yellow eye popped halfway open. “That I should rest so lightly?”
“No. That you’d use a word like ‘duplicitous,’” the swordsman replied. “What’s it mean, anyway?”
“One who articulates with the apposite orifice.” The eye closed. “Shut up and go to sleep.”
“Might as well.” Stretching out prone on the paved plaza, Simna found himself regarding the domed sand ceiling. “Can’t tell whether it’s day or night in here anyway. Can you, Etjole?”
But the herdsman, never one to waste the opportunity, was already locked fast in slumber.
* * * *
In the morning they were taken to another part of the underground castle-city to see how the Swick were able to extend and expand their living space. The method was not at all what Ehomba had envisioned. There were plenty of shovels in evidence, and teams of birds hauling away sled-loads of excavated sand, and slug and snail supervisors shoring up the finished walls, but the initial removal was accomplished not by digging but by a small choir around which the rest of the engineering activity centered.
“I wondered how you had managed to burrow all this out.” Ehomba gestured around him. “If I had tried to do so, fresh sand would simply spill into any hole I tried to dig.”
“See,” Loswee advised him. “They are working on extending that small service tunnel.”
The choir faced a small hole in the wall. As the visitors looked on, the choir master raised his stubby arms and brought them down. Simple, single notes poured from several dozen petite Swick throats. High and sharply pitched, the consequent tone was astonishingly loud to have been produced by such downsized lungs.
As the travelers looked on in bemusement, the sand in the back of the hole began to disappear. No, Ehomba noted as he bent over for a closer look. Not disappear. It was retreating, compacting away from the singing as if propelled by an invisible shovel. As the tunnel deepened and widened, the slime spreaders moved in to cement and stabilize the new walls. Meanwhile, the choir continued to pour forth high, extended notes. Among the Naumkib Ehomba was reckoned a fine singer in his own right, but at his best he could not have matched the staying power of the weakest of the Swick singers. Not only natural talent but also much strenuous vocal training was being put to use.
“Where is the sand going?” he asked their host. Eyeing him, Simna shook his head sadly.
“Who cares? Do you always have to ask questions? Must you know everything? Do you have any idea how exasperating that is to those around you?”
“Yes, hopefully. I know but cannot help it,” the herdsman replied.
“The sand is not going anywhere.” Loswee ignored the byplay between his guests. “Look more closely. The same number of grains are present. It is the air between them that is being disappeared. Have you ever slid down a dune and listened to it roar?” Ehomba nodded while Simna shook his head energetically. Ahlitah ignored them, bored with the entire matter and wishing they were back outside.
“That roaring,” Loswee went on, “is caused by the movement of air trapped between the particles of sand. Our singing disturbs the air and pushes it out from between the grains. The sand that remains behind becomes consolidated. This not only opens up living space but helps to stabilize the sand. Our masons complete the task of stabilization before air can seep back between the grains and expand the pile or wall once again.”