“The Eupupa do that. They make you dizzy, and stare into the depths of your eyes until they have disoriented you, so that you stumble away from water instead of toward it, or walk in circles, or ignore the signs that would lead a dying man to salvation. And then they feed, beating even the vultures and the dragonets to the corpse, until they have sucked out its soul.”
“Gwythyn’s children,” the swordsman muttered. “Too close, that was.” He frowned. “But the ladies. Not Eupupa. Surely not Eupupa. If these are creatures that can’t be seen, then the ladies couldn’t have been these invisible ghoul-things.” A part of him twitched at the burning memory of those naked, unconditional invitations. “Because I sure as Gelell’s goblet could see them, bruther.”
His mouth tightening, Ehomba dropped his gaze to the gratifyingly solid ground on which they now stood. “So could I, my friend. It was impossible not to see them. That was the Eupupa’s intent, to use them to draw such as us into the deepest part of the mirage, where they could set upon us without having to wait for us to die. Where they could suck out our souls even while we still lived.” He looked up.
“Those exquisite, sad houris. They were the souls of women who died in the desert. From thirst, from neglect, in childbirth, by falling over a cliff and striking their heads—from any and all means. They were the unlucky ones, whose souls were caught up and stolen by the Eupupa before they could escape spontaneously. Captured, and brought here to be kept in that mirage to serve them that we cannot see.” He was gritting his teeth now.
“It is a most unnatural way to not-die, but there is nothing you or I or anyone else can do about it. No wonder they were so frantic for us to take them away. They are souls that want desperately to rest.” He shut his eyes. “By what means those like the Eupupa can force a soul to do their bidding I do not know. I do not want to know.” Opening his eyes, he turned away from the eastern horizon to look once more to the north.
“Let us leave this place, and try our best to think no more about what we have seen here.”
“But wait!” Ehomba did not, and Simna had to hurry to catch up to the herdsman as he resumed walking. “They were all so ravishing, every one of them. No, they were more than ravishing. They were radiant. Surely not all the women who die in the desert are beautiful. Or do the Eupupa choose them that way so they’ll make better bait for the unwary—like us?”
Striding along, tireless and exact as always, Ehomba did not answer immediately. When he did, it was with a feeling of disappointment. Not in their narrow escape, but in his companion who had asked the question.
“Simna ibn Sind, my friend. You who claim to know so much about women, and to have known so many of them in person. Did you not know that that is how every woman sees herself—inside?” Lengthening his stride, he pushed on ahead, forcing the pace as if he wanted to put not only their recent experience but also the memory of the experience out of his mind.
Simna considered his companion’s words, frowned, shook his head, and caught up to the third member of the party. “Well, that’s the first time I’ve had to try and fight something I couldn’t see. It was lucky for us you’ve seen these Eupupa before.”
The litah spoke without turning his massive head. Both jaws, Simna noted for the first time, were stained dark beyond the black. Occasionally the thick tongue flicked out to lick at them.
“I never saw such before.”
Simna blinked in surprise. “Then how did you know what to fight? How did you know they were even there?”
The wide, yellow eyes turned to meet the swordsman’s. “Don’t you ever see anything outside yourself, man? Haven’t you ever watched a cat, any cat, suddenly tense and strike at what to you seems to be empty air? We see things, man.” Killer eyes flashed. “There’s a lot out there, everywhere, that men don’t perceive. We do. Some of it is to be ignored, some of it is for play, and some of it”—he snarled under his breath—“some of it is to be killed.” With that he lengthened his stride and jogged on ahead.
Left scratching at his chin, Simna watched the tufted, switching tail move out in front of him. “Well I’m glad I’m fugging visible, that’s all I have to say!” With a shrug he moved to match the herdsman’s elevated pace.
Once he thought he felt something brush his face. It was just the wind against his cheek, but he swatted hard at it nonetheless, and looked around, and saw nothing.
Nattering cat, he thought irritably. Filling a man’s head with narsty scrawl. Ahead, he thought he could make out a line of trees, the first they had seen in many a night. With the sight of fresh foliage to boost his spirits, he held his head a little higher as he strode onward, and tried to forget all about the dismal events of the past hours.
“Cats and sorcerers,” he muttered under his breath. A more morose and melancholy pair of traveling companions he would have had difficulty imagining.
LACKING IN INNER SENSITIVITY HE MIGHT BE, BUT THERE WAS nothing wrong with the swordsman’s superb vision. The line of trees he had espied from a significant distance was no mirage.
“At last,” Ehomba murmured as they started down a final, gentle slope. Ahead lay a narrow but deep river lined on both sides with small farms and orchards. The leafy crowns Simna had spotted were fruit trees, pungent with blossoms, each verdant upheaval a small galaxy of exploding yellow and white flowers.
The swordsman eyed his friend. “What do you mean, ‘at last’? Why should you be so elated by such a sight? I thought you were the dry-country type.”
“It is true that I love the land where I live.” Dirt slid away beneath the herdsman’s sandals. “But that does not mean I cannot love this more. Any man can love a distant destination more than his homeland without forsaking the latter.”
“Then why don’t you move?” Simna asked him directly. “Why not bring your family, your whole village, up here, where there’s plenty of water and good soil for raising crops?”
“Because obliging as this place may be, it is not our home.” The southerner spoke as if that settled the matter. “Much as plentiful water and fertile land are to be desired, they do not make a home.”
“Then what does?”
“Ancestors. Tradition. A warmth of place that cannot be transplanted like an onion. Certain smells, and sights. The air.” He felt of the sack of beach pebbles in his kilt pocket. “The feel of especial places underfoot. The wildlife you live with.” He glanced surreptitiously at Ahlitah, who was padding silently alongside. “The wildlife you fight with. In a new place all these things are different, alien, foreign. People are the easiest thing to pick up and move. The others—the others are much more difficult.”
Simna shook his head sadly. “I feel sorry for you, bruther. My home is wherever I park my carcass. Preferably a place with good cooking, a soft bed, and a friendly lady. Or a soft lady and a friendly bed.”
Ehomba squinted down at him. “Should I feel sorry for you—or should you feel sorry for me?”
“I feel sorry for all three of us.” Ahlitah did not look up. “You two, for being clumsy, chattering, two-legged hairless apes, and me for having to put up with you.” Turning away, he snorted wearily. “Next time save some other cat’s life.”
“I will try to remember,” the herdsman replied.
They were following a marked path now. No more than a foot wide, it wound like a smashed snake through a leafy field of taro and yam. Yuca bushes shaded the more sun-sensitive young plants.
“Strange.” Shading his eyes, Ehomba scanned the numerous fenced plots and the neatly pruned fruit trees they were approaching. “You would think someone would have emerged to challenge us by now. These fields are well tended. Surely there are wild animals here that would feast on these healthy vegetables if the farmers did not keep them away. And the appearance of three strangers in a tillage ought to provoke some kind of reaction. We could be thieves come to steal their crops.”
“Yes.” With a mixture of curiosity and wariness, Simna studied the luxuriant acreage through which they were traipsing. “If this was my farm and orchard I’d have been out here with arrow notched and ready as soon as anyone showed themselves atop that last ridge we crossed.”
“House,” Ahlitah interjected curtly. Raising a paw, he pointed.