“Our wall?” The merchant laughed bitterly. “Would that it were so! For if that were the case we would use it to push these murderous Chlengguu into the sea.”
Ehomba started slightly. “The sea? We are near the ocean?” Strain as he might to see past the western horizon, he could detect no sign of the Semordria. He was surprised at how his heart ached at the mere mention of it. It had been far too long since he had set eyes on its dancing waves and green depths.
“You mean the Semordria?” the merchant asked. When Ehomba nodded with quiet eagerness the other man could only shake his head. “You really are far from your home, aren’t you?” Raising one beringed hand, he pointed to the west. “The Semordria lies a great distance off toward the setting sun. I myself, though a man of modest means and varied interests, have never seen it.” His arm swung northward.
“That way lies the Sea of Aboqua, a substantial body of water to be sure, but modest when compared to the unbounded Semordria. Upon its waters ships of many cities and states ply numerous trade routes. I am told that at several locations it enters into and merges with the Semordria, but I myself have never seen these places. I have only heard other merchants speak of them. And I have never heard of a trading vessel with captain and crew brave or foolhardy enough to venture out upon the measureless reaches of the Semordria itself.”
Ehomba slumped slightly. “There is something I must do that requires me to cross the Semordria.”
The merchant’s heavy eyebrows rose. “Cross the Semordria? You are a brave man indeed.”
“But if no ship will do that,” Simna put in, “how are we supposed to make this crossing? I’m a good swimmer, but no fish.”
“From the tales I have heard of the monsters and terrors that swarm in the depths of the Semordria, I believe it a journey even fish would be reluctant to take.” The man rubbed his chin whiskers. “But it is rumored that in the rich lands on the far side of the Aboqua there are ports from whence sail ships grander than any that ply the smaller sea. Who knows? You might even find shipmaster and sailors stupid enough to attempt such a passage. Tell me, what do you hope to find on the other side of the Semordria, anyway?”
“Closure,” Ehomba told him. “Now, about this Wall. It is a very impressive wall. Behind it I see fields and buildings, some of which have been burned. If it is not yours, then it must be a construction of these Chlengguu. But why build it here, and how did they manage to trap all of you on this side instead of the other, where your homes and villages lie?”
The merchant looked over his shoulder. “My poor family must be in an agony of apprehension at my absence.”
Simna fingered the hilt of his sword. “Let ’em agonize a little while longer. Answer the question.”
“You really don’t know, do you?” The man heaved a deep sigh. “The Wall was not built here.” Turning, he pointed to the northwest. “When it first appeared on the outskirts of Mectin Township, no one could believe that the Chlengguu had managed to raise so massive a structure in so short a time. Its true nature was not immediately apparent to the people of the Queppa. That we learned all too soon.
“There was nothing we could do. Our young men and women fought bravely, but the Wall is so high and strong it cannot be breached. The Chlengguu we fought to a standstill, but we could not stop the Wall.”
Simna blinked at him, glanced sharply down at the line of battle then back at the merchant. “Are you telling us that these Chlengguu keep moving the Wall forward?” He stared at the unbroken barrier that stretched from far west to distant east. “The whole Wall? That’s impossible!”
“Would that it were so, traveler,” the other man agreed, “but the Chlengguu do not move the Wall. Each time it advances, it pins us tighter and tighter against the desert lands. That is why you passed so many people, so many refugees. We have nowhere else to go. We are squeezed between the Wall and the desert.” He cast a sorrowful gaze downward. “These Relibaria Hills are our last refuge, our final hope. We pray that the Wall cannot surmount them. If it can—” He broke off, momentarily choked. “If it can, then we will be pushed out into the desert, where most of us will surely die, and the fertile lands of the Queppa will belong forever to the Chlengguu.”
“I do not understand,” Ehomba confessed. “If the Chlengguu do not move the Wall, then how … ?”
“See, see!” Gesturing with a trembling hand, the merchant was pointing downward. “Look upon the abomination, and understand!”
Below, activity had increased from the frantic to a frenzy. Scaling ladders were brought forth as the ragtag citizen soldiery of the united Queppa peoples mounted yet another assault on the Wall. Fusillades of arrows flew like hummingbirds but because of the Wall’s height were hard-pressed to wreak much havoc among its well-protected defenders. Catapults and siege engines heaved rocks and bales of burning, oil-soaked straw at the crest of the tawny palisade. They were not entirely ineffective. Ehomba saw figures topple from the battlements, to fall spinning and tumbling into the melee of furious fighters below.
From the top of the escarpment the Chlengguu hurled spears and stones and arrows of their own at the attackers below. More ladders were brought up, and mobile siege towers as high as the Wall itself trundled forward. A few Queppa, battling madly, even succeeded in reaching the top of the Wall and pushing back some of its defenders. To Ehomba it looked as if, in one or two places along the line of battle, they might have a chance to overwhelm the Wall’s defenders and push them back.
As he and his companions looked on, the Wall began to shiver slightly. At a distance it was difficult to tell if it was really happening. Ehomba rubbed at his eyes, Simna squinted doubtfully, and the singular activity even brought the largely indifferent Ahlitah out of his feline stupor.
There it was again.
“What was that?” Simna muttered uncertainly. “What just happened there?” Reaching out, he grabbed the merchant firmly by the shoulder, sinking his fingers into the soft flesh hard enough to hurt. But the other man just ignored him, staring, his gaze vacant with lost hope.
“There!” Ehomba pointed. “Look there.” Alongside him, Ahlitah was on his feet now, growling deep in his throat.
Below, the people of Queppa began to retreat, pulling back their siege engines and all their assembled forces. Atop the Wall, the hard-pressed Chlengguu quickly regained all they had lost. They lined the battlements, jumping up and down, their armor shimmering, yelling and screaming and taunting their fleeing, dispirited quarry. Those Queppa fighters who had taken parts of the Wall were surrounded and butchered, their bodies thrown like so much garbage over the parapets to land among their fleeing comrades.
Then the Wall stood up, all hundred feet and more high of it, all along its considerable impressive length, and took one giant step forward.
SIMNA TRIED TO BELIEVE WHAT HE WAS SEEING, SHAKING HIS head more than once as if that would make it go away. The hair on Ahlitah’s back bristled and his lips curled in a snarl. Ehomba stood between them, holding firmly to his spear, staring at the inconceivable, improbable sight. Nearby, the distraught merchant wrung his hands and wept in silence.
Having advanced one step, the Wall hunkered down. Dust rose from its base as a long, drawn-out Boooom echoed across the hills. Atop the battlements, the victorious Chlengguu howled and pranced a while longer. Then, except for the few assigned to the watch, they drew away from the edge, filtering back down stairways on the other side of the barrier to the numerous tented camps that served to house their multitudes. Soon campfires could be seen smoking among the ranked canopies, inviting the advancing night. The abundant serpentine coils of smoke gave the land the aspect of a vast plantation for snakes.
In his mind Ehomba replayed the impossible spectacle he had just witnessed. All along its length the Wall had risen and sprouted hooves. Dark gray, bristle-haired, cloven hooves, with gigantic toes and glistening, untrimmed nails. Hooves whose ankles disappeared into the underside of the Wall. In unison, they had risen as much as they were able and stepped forward, in a one-step march of fleeting but irresistible duration. The merchant had been telling the truth. The Chlengguu had not moved the Wall. The Wall had moved itself.
The heavyset man was watching him. “You see what has befallen us. From the first appearance of the Wall we were doomed. The people of the Queppa have been dying a slow death. The Wall is relentless and invincible. We attack, and sometimes we force back the Chlengguu. But then the Wall moves, overwhelming our war engines, dumping and smashing our siege ladders, forcing us always back, back, until now we are trapped here between it and the desert.” Helplessly, he spread his hands.