Carnivores of Darkness and Light: Journeys of the Catechist, Book 1 by Alan Dean Foster

Nor was the wall straight. Here it curved inward, rippling and twisting, to accommodate the path of a river flowing against its base, there it thrust out sharply to create an arrow-like salient. At quarter-mile intervals, battle towers rose another fifty or sixty feet higher than the rim of the wall itself.

Immediately behind it the travelers could see the brightly colored tents and flying pennons of an army on the march, though at this distance it was impossible to assign an identity to the marchers. The glint of sunlight on armor, however, was very much in evidence. Ahlitah could also make out, marshaled in temporary holding pens, much larger creatures clothed for war.

“Mastodons, I think.” The big cat had to squint, as the distance involved was a challenge even to his exceptional vision. “And glyptodonts. Other elephants, and some balucherium as well.”

Simna nodded. “Easy enough to see who they’re fighting.” He gestured toward the base of the hill.

Thousands of figures swarmed over the fields that had been tilled right to the base of the first incline, trampling the crops there, knocking down the neat wooden fences and hedgerows. There were people, of course. No doubt some of them called hastily forth from the first farms the travelers had encountered, called to arms to help defend their country against the invading host.

But there were also dwarves clad in traditional leather and coarse cotton, and arrets, the tall, thin, bark-brown forest people of the west. Among the crowd Ehomba thought he saw a giant or two, massive of brow and heavy of jaw. Unmistakable in their light armor were the chimps and apes, and the smaller monkeys were present in large numbers as well.

Evidently all had shared in the bounty of this land, and now all had gathered to defend it. But the field of battle made no sense, not even to a nonprofessional like the herdsman. On this side the many-varied citizens of the good and fertile country were drawn up in lines of defense, swarming back and forth as if hunting for a weak spot in the enemy-held wall, or for a purpose. But they were crowded in too tightly together, crammed between the wall and the hills.

“I know.” Simna was scrutinizing the battlefield intently. “It doesn’t look right, does it? Maybe the attackers just took the wall. Maybe it had been built by these people here to defend themselves against an assault from the south, and now they’ve been pushed back up and over their own defenses.”

“I thought of that,” the herdsman replied. “But if these people wanted to defend themselves from a southerly invasion, why would they exclude so much of their land? Why would they not build such a wall in the sand hills where we first saw the line of fruit trees, to protect that rich farmland and that country as well? Or at the very least, why not build the wall on this side of that river to the north in order to make use of it as a moat?”

“Don’t add up, do it?” The swordsman waved an arm at the field of battle. “Yet here’s this great huge long wall, stuck square in the middle of their fields and orchards. And in clear possession of the enemy. Or are these people we’ve been passing these past days the invaders, and the ones on the wall the defenders of their country?”

Ehomba shook his head. “I do not see it that way, Simna. Were they the defenders, it would not explain why certain farms and homes are burning on their side of the wall. The cultivated lands to the north are the ones that bear the hallmarks of having been invaded and despoiled, not those on this side of the barrier. And these people are the ones whose faces show the blank stare of the displaced.”

“I agree. So what’s going on here?”

Turning slowly to study the hills, Ehomba scanned the numerous encampments. Below, the assembled fighting forces of all the two-legged tribes in the vicinity were frantically trying to compose themselves for combat. Even from their location at the top of the hill, the travelers could see that chaos commanded more allegiance than order among the disorganized ranks below. Therefore they would have to seek explication elsewhere, among the unarmed and less intractable, whether the individual they settled on wished to prove tractable or not.

“We have to know what is going on,” he murmured. “Ahlitah, go and bring back a suitable person.”

Massive brows narrowed. “Why me?”

“Because I do not want to waste time arguing with several possibles, and I do not think they will argue with you.”

The great cat snarled once before whirling and dashing off toward the nearest encampment. There followed several moments during which Ehomba and Simna occupied themselves trying to make sense of the incongruous situation below before Ahlitah returned with a middle-aged man in tow. Or rather, with the scruff of his well-made embroidered shirt held firmly in the big cat’s jaws. The fellow was overweight but otherwise healthy, even prosperous in appearance. Perhaps he had bought himself out of the ongoing strife below.

As Ehomba had predicted, the man had chosen not to argue with the litah.

Disdainfully, the cat parted his jaws and let his prisoner drop. The man immediately prostrated himself before the two travelers. “Please, oh warriors of unknown provenance! I beg of you, spare an ignoble life!” Face pressed to the ground, arms extended before him, the poor man was shaking and trembling so violently Ehomba feared he would destabilize his brains. “I have a condition of the belly that prevents me from participating in the illustrious struggle. I swear by all the seed of my loins that this is so!” Raising his head hesitantly, he stole a glance first at Simna, then at Ehomba. Reaching into a vest pocket, he pulled out a rolled parchment and held it up, quivering, for the herdsman to see.

“Look! A draft of my physician’s statement, attesting to my piteous circumstance. Would that it were otherwise, and that I could join our brave citizens and allies in desperate conflict!”

Simna snorted softly. “He’s got a condition of the belly, all right. A condition of excess, I’d say.”

“Stand up.” Ehomba felt very uncomfortable. “Come on, man, get off your knees. Stand up and face us. We are not here to persecute you, and none of us cares in the least about your ‘condition’ or lack thereof. We need only to ask you some questions.”

Uncertain, and unsteady, the man climbed warily to his feet. He glanced nervously at Ahlitah. When he saw that the great cat was eyeing his prominent paunch with more than casual interest, the chosen unfortunate hurriedly looked away.

“Questions? I am but a modest and unassuming merchant of dry goods, and know little beyond my business and my family, who, even as we speak, must be sorely lamenting my enforced absence.”

“You can go back to them in a minute,” Ehomba assured him impatiently. “The questions we want to ask are not difficult.” Peering past the detainee, he pointed with his spear in the direction of the great wall and the roiling surge of opposing forces below.

“There is a war going on here. A big one. For days my friends and I have been passing through hills and little valleys filled with refugees. We have seen fine homes and farms abandoned, perhaps so their owners could join the fight while sending their families to a place of safety.”

“There is no place of safety from the Chlengguu,” the merchant moaned. Fresh curiosity somewhat muted his fear as he looked from Ehomba to the short swordsman standing at his side. The predatory gaze of the great and terrible litah he avoided altogether.

“Who are you people? Where are you from that you don’t know about the war with the Chlengguu?”

Ehomba gestured casually with his spear. “We come from the far south, friend. So you fight the Chlengguu. Never heard of them. Is this a new war, or an old one?”

“The Chlengguu have ceaselessly harassed the people of the Queppa, but by banding together we have always been able to fight them off. For centuries they have been a nuisance, with their raiding and stealing. They would mount and attack, we would pursue and give them a good hiding, and then there would be relative peace for many years until they felt strong enough to attack again. They would try new strategies, new weapons, and each time the farmers and merchants and townspeople of the Queppa would counter these and drive them off.” As his head dropped, so did his voice. “Until the Wall.”

Ehomba turned to look down in the direction of the line of combat. “It is an impressive wall, but though I am no soldier, it seems to me to be in a strange location. We thought that perhaps it was your wall, and that your enemies had captured it from you.”

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster