“With luck,” a skeptical Simna murmured. “Well, once on the other side we should be fine. Might be an occasional Chlengguu pillaging party to avoid, but that shouldn’t present much of a problem. We’ll just give them plenty of room.”
Nearby, Ahlitah sighed sleepily. “Should be lots of livestock running free. Easy kill, fresh meat.” He growled softly in anticipation.
“Stay alert,” the herdsman advised him. “We need to be ready to move at the first sign of activity from the Wall.”
“Don’t worry about me,” the big cat assured him. “Just look after your own skinny, inadequate selves.”
It was already dark when they heard, not saw, the first indications of movement: a deep-seated grinding and rumbling that emerged from the base of the Wall itself, spreading outward as a vibration in the rocks beneath them.
To all outward appearances sound asleep, Ahlitah was first on his feet, awake and alert, tail flicking back and forth in agitation as he glared at the Wall. Ehomba and Simna were not far behind in scrambling erect.
To left and right they heard the yells and screams of the Queppa defenders, and, behind them, up in the hills, the distraught cries of their families and other noncombatants. Once more, showers of arrows rose from the massed defenders while gobbets of blazing brush and oil were flung against the Wall. It was all to no avail, but Ehomba suspected the citizen soldiers felt they had to do something, to try. The flaming missiles did no more damage to the Wall than they would have to any stone monument, and up atop the quivering, trembling barrier the Chlengguu despoilers merely hunkered down out of reach and range.
“It’s moving,” Simna hissed as he stood watching. “Be ready!”
So near, the raising up of the Wall was infinitely more impressive than it had been from the top of the hill. Dirt and bits of weed and brush were carried upward by its bottom edge, a slow vertical heaving of unimaginable mass. Living stone groaned as it ascended on many multiples of hooves to reveal gigantic nails and pads.
The travelers were racing forward well before the Wall had risen to its full stepping height, arrowing down a slight gap in the rocks. Ehomba sprang lithely from one slab of sharp basalt to another, while Simna bounced from stone to stone like a lump of rubber that had been formed into the shape of a man. As for the litah, it leaped nimbly from one outcropping to the next, clearing in an instant spans that mere humans had to traverse painstakingly on foot.
They sprinted beneath the overhanging awe of the Wall and were swallowed beneath its gargantuan mass. Ehomba could sense the volume above him, millions of tons of solid material balanced on pillarlike but still imperfect toes. Barely visible through shadow and darkness, a few lines of brightness ran through the underside of the barrier, though whether they were fractures in the rock or flowing veins he could not tell.
They raced past one of the immense hooves as it rose up and started forward, an action matched by every alternate hoof under the length of the Wall. When they descended in unison, so would the Wall itself, swallowing them up once again together with everything and anything too slow to get out of its way. But by the time those hundreds of cloven hooves had begun their downward step, Ehomba and his companions had already emerged on the far side of the barrier.
Pausing to catch their breath, they stood and watched as it completed its ponderous single-stride advance, descending quietly to ground with a single long, exhausted Whoooom. Dust rose again, scattered, and began to settle. It was done. They were through, across, under.
“Nothing to it,” quipped Simna. He was, however, showing more perspiration than the short sprint and tepid evening ought to have generated.
“No room for mistakes there.” Tilting back his head, the herdsman gazed up at the top of the Wall. No shapes or bodies were to be seen. The Chlengguu were all on the far side, watching for mischief among the Queppa. No need for them to guard their impenetrable rear. “Let us go.”
Turning, they headed north, traveling at an easy trot. No one came forth to question their presence or challenge their progress.
They found an abandoned farm and, without any sense of guilt, made themselves at home in the comfortable surroundings presently denied to the rightful owner. Discovering a still-intact and unpillaged pen of domesticated razorbacks, Ahlitah quickly and effortlessly supplied a feast not only for himself but for his companions. With so many structures still smoldering throughout the length and breadth of the Queppa lands, Ehomba conceded a fire to Simna, who refused to eat his pork uncooked.
There were fine, soft beds in the house, and linen. While the delighted swordsman guilelessly availed himself of the former, Ehomba discovered he could not go to sleep on anything so yielding. He found peace by wrapping himself in a blanket on the wooden floor and trying not to think of the fate of the thousands being squeezed between the Wall and the eternal sands of the south. Thousands for whom such pleasures as a simple good night’s rest were denied.
MORNING WAS FULL OF MIST, AS IF THE SUN HAD BEEN surprised in its bath and risen too quickly, spilling a blanket of saturated sunlight upon the world.
It induced the travelers to linger longer in their appropriated beds, a condition with which the always sleepy Ahlitah was wholly in accord. When Ehomba finally awoke and ascertained the true position of the fog-obscured daystar, he found himself unsettled in mind.
“What’s wrong now, wizard of worries?” Sitting up in the elegant, carved bed, a well-rested Simna ibn Sind stretched and then scratched unashamedly at his groin. “We did our running, and all went well. Why don’t you try relaxing for a change? Who knows? You might even find the sensation agreeable.”
Quietly agitated, the herdsman was staring out a many-paned window at the farm’s mist-swathed environs. “I will rest when we are out of this ill-starred country and safe aboard a ship bound for the far side of the Aboqua. Not before.” He looked back. “Get up and cover your ass. We should be away from here.”
“All right, all right.” Grumbling, the swordsman slid his legs out from beneath the heavy wefted bed sheets and began fumbling with his attire. “But not before breakfast. Who knows when we may again have a chance to eat like this? And for free.”
“Very well.” Ehomba was reluctant, but understanding. “After breakfast.”
While most of the dairy products that had not been looted from the forsaken farm stank of spoilage, there remained a substantial quantity of dried and smoked meats. Another section of the walk-in larder was filled from floor to ceiling with jars of preserved fruits and vegetables. Rummaging through the stores, Simna found a couple of loaves of bread decorated by only a few spots of opportunistic mold.
“We should fill our packs.” He bit enthusiastically into a mouthful of meat and bread.
“This is not our food.” Though uncomfortable at rifling another man’s pantry, Ehomba consoled himself with the realization that if they did not eat the bread and other perishables, they would go either to the Chlengguu or to waste.
“Hoy, that’s right—leave it for the despoilers. Misplaced good intentions have been the death of many a man, bruther. But not me!” Daring the herdsman to take exception, he began stuffing strips of dried meat and small jars of olives and pickles into his pack. Ehomba simply turned away.
When at last all was in readiness they stepped out into the fog. If anything, the herdsman thought, it had grown thicker since they had arisen. It would be difficult to tell north from any other direction. But he was not about to linger in the homestead until the mist lifted. If they could see any patrolling Chlengguu clearly, then the Chlengguu could see them. Better to take their chances under cover of the low-hanging vapors.
He was only a few yards from the house, turning in the direction where he imagined north to lie, when a thunderous roar shattered the tenuous silence. Whirling, he saw only the last flash of motion as the heavy net landed atop Ahlitah. The great cat bellowed furiously, claws ripping at the material, powerful jaws snapping, but to no avail. Whoever had designed the ambush had made their preparations well: The mesh was made of metal, woven into finger-thick cords like rope. Ahlitah could dent but not tear it.
Chlengguu seemed to come from everywhere: back of the farmhouse, behind bushes, over fence rails, everywhere but straight up out of the ground. Dozens more dropped from the roof to clutch frantically at the fringes of the net, for while the litah was unable to break it, his convulsions were sending panicked Chlengguu flying in all directions. It took forty of them finally to pin down the net and the outraged, wild-eyed feline within.