There were three of them, individual homes sharing a small thorn-bush stockade. The gate was open wide, presenting no obstacle to their entry.
“Hoy!” Simna shouted, putting his hands together around his mouth. “Commander of a legion of legumes, come and greet your guests!” There was no response. With a shrug, the swordsman started for the entrance.
The first house had windows, but the glass was of poor quality and did not allow them to see clearly what lay within. An uneasy Ehomba held back.
“I do not like intruding on another man’s privacy.”
“What makes you think there’s anyone here? You can’t violate privacy if there’s no one present to claim it.” Simna opened the door.
Ahlitah hung back with Ehomba, not out of any respect for the intangible called privacy, but because the interior of human habitations held no interest for him. On the single occasion when he had been obliged to enter one, he had found the interior malodorous and claustrophobic. The occupants, however, had proven a good deal tastier than their surroundings.
Looking more puzzled than ever, the swordsman emerged several moments later. “Empty. More than empty, deserted. There’s food in lockers in the pantry, and dishes and clean linen stored neatly in cabinets. Beds are made but haven’t been slept in recently.” He eyed the surrounding trees with fresh concern. “The people who lived here left not long ago but with no immediate intention of returning. It’s my experience that folks don’t do that without a compelling reason, and it’s usually a disagreeable one.”
“Let us try the other houses,” Ehomba suggested.
This they did, only to find further evidence of well-planned departure.
“There must be a town somewhere nearby,” the herdsman conjectured when they had concluded the brief search. “Perhaps everyone has gone there.”
“Hoy, yes.” Simna tried to view their eerily silent surroundings with some optimism. “Maybe there’s a festival of some kind going on.” His expression brightened. “I could do with a little old-fashioned country excitement.”
“On the other side of the river, maybe.” Ehomba gestured with the point of his spear. “There are more farms, more fruit trees, and beyond that I think I see some hills. If the town is fortified, it would naturally be sited in an area affording the most natural protection.”
“Come on then.” With a growl, Ahlitah started toward the river. “If we’re going to have to swim, I’d just as soon get it over with while the sun’s still high enough to dry my pelt.”
But they did not have to swim. A perfectly adequate, well-maintained wooden bridge wide enough to accommodate an oxcart spanned the swift, high-banked waterway not far downstream. On the opposite side they encountered more of the tidily deserted habitations, some built of stone as well as wood that boasted several stories. Each showed similar signs of having been conscientiously abandoned by their inhabitants.
“Must be quite a festival.” Simna was not yet willing to concede that something untoward had happened to the occupants of the fastidiously tended farms and homesteads.
“I hope not.” Padding silently alongside them, the big cat flowed like black oil over the packed earth. “I don’t like a lot of noise—unless I’m the one making it.”
“Maybe it’s a carnival, or a jubilee.” Simna put more than his usual strut into his walk as they approached the first of the foothills. “I could do with making a bit of noise myself.”
As they entered the gentle, forested hills, the path they had been following widened into a narrow but serviceable road that showed evidence of having recently accommodated many wagon wheels and shoed feet. Before long they found themselves passing numerous transient camps filled with people of all ages and description. Men and women alike wore expressions that seldom varied between exhausted and sullen. Even the children were somber and reserved, watching the passing travelers from the haggard depths of eyes wide with silent hurt.
Old men sat motionless, resting stooped heads in wrinkled palms. Dogs chased wallabies around and beneath wagons and carts piled high with household goods, while cats posed imperiously atop piles of bound linens and towels. Cockatiels and gallahs, parrots and macaws squawked from within cages of wire and wicker, but even their normally boisterous cries seemed muted among their doleful surroundings.
Women cooked food over open fires built of wood taken from the surrounding forest. Ehomba saw no signs of starvation among the bands of wayfarers, or indeed any evidence of physical deprivation whatsoever. Except for their attitudes, all appeared to be in good health.
Some they passed even looked frustrated and angry enough to contemplate assaulting the travelers, but such attitudes underwent a rapid and radical change the instant the would-be aggressors caught sight of the brooding litah. For his part, the great cat ignored the increasingly dense clusters of humans, deigning to exchange glances only with the cats they kept as pets and companions. For their part, the house cats returned his gaze, affirming that each and every one of them knew their place in the hierarchy of felinity without a word, or a hiss, having to be spoken.
“What’s going on here?” An increasingly perplexed Simna kept glancing from right to left as they trudged northward past larger and larger concentrations of dour, depressed people. “Where have all these folks come from?” He gestured back down the road they were walking. “Not from the farms along the river. Those houses still contained all their goods and furniture. These people look like they’ve brought everything they own with them.” He scrutinized one face after another as they continued on, trying to divine from their disconsolate expressions what sort of calamity might have befallen them.
“Look at them—exhausted, dazed, like they have nowhere left to go and don’t know how they’re going to get there. I’ve seen people like this before. People at the end of their rope. Usually they’ve been driven from their homes by some natural disaster, or by some marauding hoard. But these—these folk still seem healthy and well fed. By Geesthema, it’s not natural. Even the children look as if for the past weeks they’ve been spoon-fed nothing but hopelessness and despair.”
Ehomba concurred. “And it still does not explain what happened to the farmers along the river who deserted their homes and fields.” He lifted his gaze to the winding road that led onward into the hills ahead. “Something peculiar is going on here, Simna my friend, and I fear it has nothing to do with a fair or celebration.”
“Hoy, bruther, one doesn’t have to be a keen reader of men to see that. But what?”
“Perhaps the answer lies over the next hill. Or the last.”
They marched on, the butt of Ehomba’s spear striking the ground methodically with each of the herdsman’s steps, marking their progress like the pendulum of a tall, thin clock. The range of hills was not high, but it was extensive. It took them almost a week to negotiate the entire length of the winding road.
The farther north they traveled, the more families and transients’ encampments they encountered, until the hills resembled anthills swarming with displaced farmers and townsfolk. Every time they tried to approach someone to ask the meaning of the unaccountable diaspora, the intended recipient of their questions caught sight of Ahlitah and beat a hasty retreat. Not wishing to panic any of the already obviously frightened migrants and believing it unwise to leave the always hungry litah out of their sight, they continued on, confident that sooner or later they would encounter someone willing to stand and deliver themselves of an explanation.
One, of a sort, manifested itself when they reached the crest of the last hill. The panorama spread out before them was not what they had hoped to descry.
As far as the eye could see, a vast, fertile plan stretched all the way to the northern horizon. Isolated clouds of towering whiteness marched across the sky like floating fortresses, and numerous small rivers and streams filigreed the earth like silver wire. Neatly spaced pockets of construction marked the borders of field and forest, and several towns were visible in lesser or greater detail depending on their distance from the hill.
But no one was tilling the vast patchwork of fields, or working in the towns, or plying the rivers in boats equipped with nets and lines. No pickers worked the orchards, no farm animals roamed the scrupulously fenced pastures. Smoke there was, but it rose not from chimneys but from the burned-out husks of abandoned homes and mills, workshops and granaries. The destruction had been selective and by no means total, as if the devastation had been imposed in a precise and disciplined manner.
In the midst of the robust, healthy pastures and towns there stretched a wall. A hundred feet high, it looked to be made of some yellowish stone. Twenty feet in width, its top was smooth and wide enough to drive wagons along. Or chariots, Simna thought, or cavalry. Armored figures in their hundreds, in their thousands, could be seen running back and forth to position themselves along its length, a length that extended as far to the east and west as they could see.