“That was my only whater.” Ehomba gestured at the half-full floating pond Ahlitah continued to tow. “We had better hope we always find good water from now on, because I have nothing left with which to launder the undrinkable.”
“You did the right thing, Etjole. By Girimza, you did!” The swordsman clapped his friend reassuringly on the back. “Clean water’s no good to a corpse.”
“Hold up.” Ahlitah lifted a paw and sniffed the air. “We are still not alone here.”
Startled, Simna reached instinctively for his sword even though it had proven ineffectual against their last opponent. Then he relaxed. Relaxed, even though he was no less disconcerted.
Ehomba handled the unexpected confrontation with his usual sangfroid, smiling and nodding at the figure that now blocked their path.
“Hello, Loswee. I did not expect to see you again.”
As the Swick’s feathered mount advanced toward the travelers, a dozen other miniature mounted warriors trotted out from their place of concealment behind a pile of sand-swept rocks. Brightly tinted pennants flew from the tips of their lances, and they were clad in decorative ceremonial armor.
Leaning forward in his saddle, Loswee stared at the travelers for a long moment before sitting back and gesturing at something behind them. “For not-a-magician you seem to have not-dealt pretty well with the is-no-more Dunawake.”
“It wasn’t him,” Simna interjected sarcastically. “It was just a bottle of whater that did that.”
“Thum,” murmured the Swick fighter. “It would be pointless for me to argue with you about your true natures. The People of the Sands do not care. What matters is that the Dunawake is done and the dreadful, persistent threat of it has been removed. For this deed you will live forever in the hearts of the Swick. One last time, I salute you.”
He raised his lance as high as if he wished to pierce the sky itself. Behind him, his resplendent escort echoed the gesture. Five times they did this, each time giving forth a piercing ululation that seemed to rise up from the depths of the surrounding sand itself. Then they turned to go.
“Strange the ways of coincidence, is it not?” Ehomba watched the long tail feathers of the warriors’ mounts bob up and down as they filed back behind the rocks from where they had emerged.
“What?” A bemused Simna turned to look up at his friend. “What coincidence?”
With a sigh, the herdsman started forward, formally resuming their trek northward and using his spear for support, like a tall walking stick. “The little people wanted us to fight the Dunawake for them. We refused, and so after wining and dining us they graciously bid us on our way. They even told us the easiest way to go to reach the lands to the north. Told us even though we did not ask directions from them. Soon after leaving, we run right into the Dunawake.” Glancing over at the swordsman, he did something Simna had not seen him do very often. He laughed aloud: not only with his mouth, but with his eyes.
“Face it, my friend. We have been played the way a master musician plays his flute.”
Simna’s expression darkened. “Are you telling me, bruther … ?”
“That we have been the victims of a Swick trick.” And the herdsman chortled afresh.
Realization landed on the swordsman like the news of an unwanted pregnancy. “Why, those miserable little, lying-lipped, arse-mouthed, flat-faced fuggers!” Raising his voice, eyes wild, Simna drew his sword and rushed toward the pile of rocks where the diminutive warriors had disappeared. “I’ll kill you all! I’ll cut off your hairy ears and feed them to the scorpions!”
With an indifferent snuffle, Ahlitah changed direction until he was pacing the long-striding Ehomba. “He doesn’t get it, does he?”
The herdsman shrugged diffidently. “Simna’s a good man. He is just a little impulsive.”
“A little too human, you mean.” The big cat sniffed derisively. The penetrating yellow eyes of a great feline predator peered into Ehomba’s face from only a foot away. Hunting, searching. “And you?”
The herdsman pursed his lips. “I do not follow you.”
“What are you, Etjole Ehomba? Are you all human? Or is this a mask you choose to wear to fool the rest of us? I am thinking that the Swick are not the only ones who are good at tricks.”
The rangy southerner smiled comfortingly as he poled the hard ground with the butt of his long spear the way a sailor would dig his paddle into water. “I am only a man, Ahlitah. I am only what you see here walking beside you.”
“I will accept that—for now.” With that, the litah moved away, the hovering pond bobbing along behind him as he put a little distance between them. Ehomba watched him with interest. For one who slept as long and often as the litah, very little escaped the big cat’s notice.
Simna ranted and raged among the rocks for only a moment or two before resigning himself to the fact that his intended quarry had fled. More than fled, they had disappeared, utterly vanished from sight. Even the footprints of their mounts had evaporated like mist in the desert air. Muttering to himself as he resheathed his sword, he rejoined his companions.
“The little buggers are fast, but I didn’t think they were that fast.” He shook an angry fist at the dunes and wadi behind them. “What I wouldn’t give for one small gray neck under my fingers!”
“Yes, they are fast.” Ahlitah’s black lower lip curled upward. “That’d make it a quick slick Swick trick, wouldn’t it?”
“Oh, shut up, you imprecise venter of stinking bodily fluids!”
Still grinning in its sly cat fashion, the litah did not respond.
“They did what they felt was necessary for their survival.” Ehomba tried to mollify his companion.
“Their survival?” The swordsman jabbed a thumb into his chest. “They didn’t give a sparrow’s fart for our survival!”
“The grand welcome they gave us, mere passing strangers. The escorts and the tours, the singing and the feasts, giving freely, even extravagantly, of their food and drink. Did you think that was all done out of impulsive friendship?”
Simna’s anger dissipated as he considered the herdsman’s words. Eventually, he nodded agreement. “Yes, you’re right, Etjole. I, of all people, should have known better. I suppose it was their size that fooled me. Who would have guessed that their appetite for treachery was as great as their ability to build structures out of sand?” With that admission the last of his fury fled as effortlessly as it had originally consumed him, and he was his old self again.
“Clever little dumplings, weren’t they? I’ll know better next time. From now on I, Simna ibn Sind, won’t accept hospitality from a mouse without first questioning its ulterior motives.”
“I understand why they did what they did.”
The swordsman glanced up at his friend. “You take their side? ‘What they did’ nearly got us killed!”
“I know. But if it was my village at stake, my family, all my friends, everyone I had ever known, I would also do whatever was necessary to save it. At such times, under such circumstances, expediency always takes precedence over honor.”
Simna drew himself up to his full height. “For a true hero, nothing takes place over honor!”
“Then you can be the hero, Simna. I want only to discharge my obligation and return as quickly as possible to my family and to my village. That is what is important to me. That is what I have built my life around. Not abstract notions of what may or may not be considered acceptable behavior among those I do not care for and do not know.” He nodded back the way they had come, back toward the silent dunes and their sand-locked, unseen mysteries. “That is how the Swick believe. I cannot condemn them for acting exactly as I would have under similar circumstances.”
The swordsman snorted. “Then you’ll never be a hero, Etjole. You’ll never ride in triumph through the streets of a great city, acknowledging the acclamation of the crowd and the eyes of pretty women. You’ll never be a noble in your own land, much less a king lording it over others.”
The lanky southerner was not in the least offended by his companion’s dismissive summation. “I have no desire to lord it over even my children, friend Simna. As for drawing the eyes of pretty women, I have never thought myself the type to do so, and would not know how to react if I did. Besides, I already have the eyes of the one woman who means anything to me. As for riding through the streets of a great city, I am content to walk, and am satisfied in place of cheers to receive the occasional ‘Good morning’ and ‘How are you?’ These things are enough for me.”
“You have no ambition, bruther,” the swordsman groused at him.