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

No nets came flying at Ehomba and Simna. Instead, they found themselves overwhelmed by another half hundred of the forceful Wall masters. The herdsman had hardly begun to lower his spear and Simna to draw his sword when rough hands fell upon them, wrenching their weapons out of their hands and reach. Hobbles were brought forth, and their hands were bound behind their backs. Thoroughly trussed and tethered, they were shoved rudely forward as their captors barked incomprehensible commands at them in the exotic Chlengguu tongue.

“I hope you enjoyed your breakfast,” Ehomba muttered as they were marched away from the farmhouse and into the fog.

“That I did, bruther.” Exhibiting considerable aplomb in the face of a less than sanguine situation, the swordsman studied their captors. “They’re not especially big, but the little buggers are fast.” He smiled amiably at the Chlengguu warrior striding along next to him. “Ugly, too.” Unable to understand, the soldier marched along stiffly, looking neither to left nor right and certainly not at the grimacing captive.

Behind the herdsman, dozens of warriors bore the frustrated, spitting Ahlitah aloft. So tightly wrapped and rolled in the steel net was the litah that he was unable to shift his limbs. Nor if they had any sense at all would his captors allow him the slightest range of movement. If so much as a single set of claws slipped free, Ehomba knew they would find their way into one of their abductors’ necks. Always cautious, the Chlengguu were taking no chances with the biggest and most powerful of their prisoners.

They were excessively thin, the herdsman saw. Slim enough that he looked bulky beside them, and Simna positively squat. They had narrow, sharply slanted eyes that were set almost vertically in their faces, long hooked noses, and small mouths. The two canines protruded very slightly down over the lower lip. Their ears were thin and pointed as well, and the narrow skulls showed no hair beneath their tight-fitting, embossed helmets. Many of these were decorated with long quills and spines appropriated, no doubt involuntarily, from sundry unknown animals.

Coupled with the narrowness of their skulls and faces, the slight natural downward curve of their jawlines gave them a permanently sour facial cast. In hue their skin shaded from dark beige to umber heavily tinged with yellow, as if they were all suffering from jaundice. Fingernails were long, thin, and painted silver. Their finely tooled leather jackets, leggings, and boots were engraved with diverse scenes of mass unpleasantness. The great majority of these were also tinted silver, but Ehomba saw gold, bronze, and bright red bobbing among the argent sea as well.

Most carried two or three tempered lances no thicker than his thumb. A finely honed sickle hung from each waist—a particularly nasty weapon in close-quarter combat. A few of the more discriminating soldiers favored slim-handled spike-studded maces over the more delicate lances.

“I wonder what they have in mind for us?”

“By Gnospeth’s teeth, not wining and dining, I’ll venture.” Simna continued to make faces at his guards, who resolutely ignored him. “Though there’s some dancing houris I wouldn’t mind introducing them to. Where’s the soul-sucking Eupupa when you need them?”

They were marched on in silence for more than an hour before the mist finally began to lift. Tents began to materialize around them. From time to time Chlengguu soldiers busy attending to their bivouac glanced up to examine the prisoners. Those that made the effort to do so generally ignored the two men in favor of the trussed and bound black litah.

Probably they think we are ordinary Queppa prisoners, Ehomba decided. Simna and I look not so very different from the poor people whose land they are stealing.

With sinking heart, he saw a familiar sight looming up in front of them. The Wall. They had lost all the distance they had gained during their flight of the night before.

They were paraded past several large and elaborately decorated tents until the officer in charge halted outside one that was a veritable villa of cloth and canvas. Multiple standards of red and gold flew from its poles. Ehomba was sickened to see the flayed skins of human bodies alternating with the silken pennants, the grisly trophies snapping noisomely in the wind.

The periphery of the ornate shelter was embellished with threads drawn from precious metals. Two unusually large Chlengguu flanked the twin support posts of an imposing rain flap. Silk drapery provided privacy to those within. Each pole, the herdsman noted expressionlessly, was grounded in the bleached skull of a great ape.

One of the few among their captors who was not clad in silver leather paused to speak to the guards. Conversation was brief, whereupon a bony hand jammed hard into Ehomba’s back, sending him stumbling forward. He heard Simna curse behind him as his companion was subjected to similar indelicate treatment. As for Ahlitah, the cat had been quiet for some time. Biding it, the herdsman decided.

If the outside of the tent had been designed to impress, the interior was calculated to overwhelm. Peaks of fabric soared overhead. Sewn into the material, fine jewels simulated the constellations of the night sky. There was richly carved furniture whose lines reflected the slenderness of its owners: tables, chairs, lounges, comfortable but not luxurious. The tent was located in an arena of war. While impressive, its furnishings were anything but dysfunctional.

A quartet of aged Chlengguu seated at an oval table looked on with interest as the prisoners were marched inside. Customarily slight of build, these withered specimens looked positively skeletal. But their sharp, inquisitive eyes belied their physical appearance. They muttered and mumbled among themselves while making cryptic gestures in the direction of the prisoners.

Ahlitah’s cortege did not depart until the big cat had been securely staked to the floor. Without even room in which to struggle, the muscular black specter lay still, with only the steady, infuriated heaving of his chest to show that he was alert and unharmed except in dignity.

Three Chlengguu rose from a table groaning under the weight of food, drink, maps, and assorted alien accouterments whose functions the provincial Ehomba did not recognize. One of them was female, though the extraordinary lankiness of the Chlengguu form made it difficult to sex them at first glance. Spidery fingers resting on all but nonexistent hips, the nearest of the trio cocked his head sideways to peer up into Ehomba’s face. The sharply angled eyes were unsettling. The herdsman had encountered eyes vertical and eyes horizontal, eyes round and eyes oval, but never before had he gazed back into angular oculi that were anything like those of the Chlengguu.

“Sirash coza mehroosh?”

Ehomba kept his face blank. “I do not understand you.”

The Chlengguu noble tested the same phrase on the silent Simna, who to his credit had sense enough to keep his extensive farrago of ready retorts locked away in a corner of his brain where they would, hopefully for the duration of the foreseeable future, not get him killed.

Retracing his steps to confront the much taller herdsman the noble asked, in the common voice of men, “Who are you and where do you come from?” His voice was as soft and prickly as hot grease. Gesturing at Simna, he added, “This one could be Queppa, but you—you are different. You have the look about you of someplace else.”

“We are both from the south,” Ehomba replied. “As is our pet.” Behind him he thought he heard the litah stir, but he did not turn to look. From the noble’s manner he surmised that turning away from him while he was engaged in his interrogation might be construed as an unforgivable insult. Judging from their extravagant surroundings and the carriage and posture of their interrogators, he and his companions would have to be careful not to give even the slightest offense.

“The south.” Daintily, the noble tapped the tip of a painted fingernail against one excessively long canine. “Why should I believe you?”

“Why should we lie?” Ehomba imperceptibly shifted his weight from one foot to the other, an instinctive herdsman’s adjustment. “The Queppa hate the south. Who of them would claim to come from where you are driving them?”

The corners of the nobleman’s tiny mouth twitched slightly upwards. “If you are not Queppa, how do you know what they hate or where we are driving them?”

“They told us.” Ehomba chanced a nod in the direction of his homeland. “Coming up from the south, we had to pass through them to get here.”

“You had to pass through more than the stupid Queppa to get here.” The female fairly spat the accusation. “The only way from south to north is over the Wall. That is not possible.”

“We did not go over the Wall,” Ehomba corrected her. “We came under it.”

This claim set the quartet of oldsters to arguing agitatedly over their table. It also prompted the third member of the interrogating trio to speak up. “No one is half-witted enough to try digging under the Wall.”

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster