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

“What can we do? We cannot fight a Wall that moves. If our soldiers try to outflank it, it grows another length, another extension, until our people are stretched so thin they cannot be supplied. Then the Chlengguu pour down off their Wall and slaughter the flanking party. These hills are our last hope.” Once more he peered downward. “The Wall can march. We pray it cannot climb.”

Ehomba nodded, then smiled as gently as he could. “Go back to your family, friend. And thank you.”

Much relieved, the merchant nodded and turned to go. Then he paused to glance back, frowning. “What will you do now?”

The herdsman had turned away from him and was staring at the terrain below. “To find passage across the Semordria I have to find a ship capable of crossing it. If all that you have said is true, to do that I must cross this Aboqua Sea and reach the lands to the north. So we will keep going north.”

“But you can’t!” Licking thick lips, the merchant found his attention torn between his nearby encampment and the eccentric travelers. “You’ll never get over the Wall, or around it. Your situation is the same as ours, now. You can only go back.” His jawline tightened. “At least your home is safely distant to the south, and you know how to survive in the desert. The people of the Queppa do not.”

“Nevertheless, we will continue northward.” Ehomba turned to regard him. “Go back to your family, friend, and do not worry about us. You do not have enough worry to spare for strangers.”

“There is truth in that.” The merchant hesitated briefly, then raised a hand in a gesture that was both salute and farewell. “Good fortune to you, seekers of a sudden end. I wish you luck in your foolishness.” With that he turned and hurried off as fast as his thick, heavy legs would carry him.

Simna sidled close to his companion. “I’ve no more desire to turn and go back the way we came than anyone, but he has a point. How do we get over the Wall?” The swordsman nodded toward the imposing barrier. “I count a pair of guards for every thirty feet of parapet and fire baskets or lamps for light every forty. We’ll have to try it at night anyway. We wouldn’t have a chance in daylight.” He nodded at the third member of the group.

“And what about our great black smelly eminence here? Cats can climb well, but a smooth-faced vertical wall is another matter. You and I can go up a scaling rope, if we can borrow or steal one from this disheartened mob of defenders, but what about him?”

The dark-maned head turned to face the swordsman. “I’ll get up and over. One way or another, I will do it.”

“You won’t have to.” Ehomba was not looking at either of them, but at the Wall.

Simna squinted at him. “Say what?” Then his expression brightened. “Hoy, right! You’ll use your alchemical gifts. By Gyuwin, I’d forgotten about that.”

“You cannot forget something that was not there to know,” Ehomba corrected him. “As I have told you repeatedly, I have no alchemical gifts to use.” Lowering his spear, he gestured with the point. “We will go down among the Queppa defenders and find a place to ourselves, one unsuited to fighting. The next time the Wall rises to advance, we will race beneath it to the other side. It needs longer than a moment to take its step—more than enough time for us to run underneath.” Lifting his spear, he smiled confidently at Simna.

“It will be easy. The only care we must take is that no one trips and falls. There will not be enough time for the others to help him up.”

“Underneath?” Gazing afresh down at the Wall, Simna swallowed, trying to envision hundreds of tons of yellow mass hovering just over his head. He marked his companion’s words well. Anyone who tripped and went down during the crossing might not have enough time to rise and scramble to safety. The Wall would descend upon its hundreds of feet, crushing him, smashing him flat as a crêpe.

Ehomba put a hand on his shoulder, bringing him out of his sickly reverie. “Do not worry, my friend. There will be enough time. Remember—as we run to the north, the Wall will be moving one giant step to the south.”

“Hoy, that’s right.” Simna found himself nodding in agreement. “Yes, we can do it.”

“Easier than climbing,” the litah pointed out, “and no guards to dispose of while making the passage.”

“Okay, okay.” Simna had grown almost cheerful. “A quick sprint, no fighting, and we’re through. And these Chlengguu won’t be looking for anyone to do something that daring.” A sudden thought made him hesitate. “Hoy, if it’s so easy and obvious, why haven’t these Queppa folk tried it? Ghalastan knows they’re desperate enough.”

“Any group of soldiers large enough to make a difference in the fight would surely be spotted from the ramparts by the Chlengguu lookouts,” Ehomba surmised. “Since they control the Wall, they could simply command it to cut short its advance and relax, thereby smashing any counterattacking force beneath its weight. It may be that the Queppa have already made the attempt and met such results.”

“Yeah.” Subject as he was to abrupt swings of mood, Simna was suddenly subdued. “Poor bastards. Having to fight every day and move their women and kids at the same time.” His face was grim as he stared downward. “If that Wall can come up these hills then they haven’t got a chance. And after seeing the size and number of those hooves, I don’t see these gentle slopes being any problem for it.”

Ehomba’s eyes danced. “Why Simna ibn Sind—one would almost think you were ready to stand and fight on behalf of these people.”

The swordsman laughed derisively. “There are certain diseases I fear, Etjole. Among them are the chills and fever the mosquito brings, the swelling of the limbs one gets from an infestation of certain worms, the closure of the bowels, the clap, the spotted death, leprosy, and altruism. I count the last among the most deadly.” He glared over at his companion. “I don’t see you volunteering to help these pitiful sods.”

“We do not have the time.” Looking away, the herdsman once more considered the Wall they were about to attempt. “I have family and friends of my own. One man cannot save the world, or even particularly significant portions of it.”

“Hoy, it’s thoughts like that that keep us together, bruther.” The swordsman glanced at the third member of their party. “I don’t suppose you have any thoughts on the matter?”

“Snzzz … what?” Ahlitah looked up, blinking. “I was cat-napping.”

“I thought as much. Go back to your rest, maestro of the long tooth. You’ll need your strength for running.”

Once more the litah dropped his great head onto his forepaws. “I could make the dash ten times back and forth before you arrived on the other side. Look to your own legs, man, and don’t worry about me.” The yellow eyes closed.

“Get up,” Ehomba chided him. “We need to make ready.” Poling the ground with the butt of his spear, he started downward, trailed by Simna and a reluctant, yawning Ahlitah.

None of the dispirited Queppa who saw the unusual trio pass did more than glance in their direction. With so much of their land under siege by the Chlengguu, allies from many townships and counties had been thrown together. Men fought alongside apes they had never met before, and monkeys did battle in the shadow of lightly armored chimps. In such conditions, under such circumstances, the presence of one imposing, long-legged feline was not considered extraordinary.

The travelers descended until they were close enough to the base of the Wall to easily make out individual sentries patrolling the parapet. Turning eastward, they walked until they found themselves among an outcropping of jagged rocks. No Queppa soldiers were present. Such rugged, uneven terrain rendered siege engines and scaling ladders useless. Having the spot to themselves, they settled down to eat an evening meal from their limited stores.

Less than a hundred feet away, the base of the wall loomed. It had the appearance of limestone that had been washed or stuccoed with some thick yellow paste. To look at it one would never suspect it harbored within the underside of its substance hundreds of hooves the size of elephants.

Tearing off a mouthful of dried fish from the whitish lump he held in his fist, Simna chewed slowly and stared at the imposing barrier. “We’ll have to be damn careful. These rocks will make for treacherous running.”

“Only between here and the Wall.” Ehomba sat nearby, arms resting on his angular knees, his mouth hardly moving as he masticated his supper. “Beneath it the rocks will have been crushed flat. With luck, it will be like running on a gravel road.”

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster