"The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail."Louis L’Amour
A Peep at the Wall
The Great Escarpment edged World along its northern marge, from the Hill Country in the far west to the eastern verge of the shortgrass prairie. But there, an unexpected southward spur pinched World into a narrow waist through which all men must pass should they travel east or west. It was no great surprise to Teodorq sunna Nagarajan the Ironhand, who was cunning in all matters relating to stalking and ambush, to find the neck between sheer cliffs and steaming swamplands stoppered by a stronghold nestled against the flank of the escarpment. But never had he seen a fastness so large and built entirely of great stone blocks. Atop the walls men in iron kept watch on east and west and – of greater immediate interest to Teodorq and his companion – south. But being wise in the ways of camouflage, Nagarajan’s son remained hidden from their gaze in a grove of trees a gallop south of the cliffs while he considered ways in which that happy state could be continued and his eastward journey resumed.
Round about the stronghold huddled scores of lesser dwellings, cattle and sheep pens, yapping dogs, curling smoke from under which issued irregular clangs. Smells of dung and compost floated with the burnt tang of the smoke. Beyond the settlement a waterfall plummeted from the very lip of the plateau, and from that direction issued a steady thump, as if a frost giant strode the earth.
Earlier that morning several wagons bearing men with farming implements had ridden west under a mounted escort. A practiced eye – and Teodorq possessed two such – estimated upwards of four hundred habitants in the settlement, the largest village he had ever seen.
Even though most of the villagers were not warriors – Their farmers needed guards against the shortgrassmen! – Teodorq doubted he could take them all, especially those wearing iron shirts and carrying long iron swords. Not even with Sammi o’ th’ Eagles to help.
“Hey,” he whispered to his companion, “you hillmen build stone houses, don’t ya?”
Sammi shrugged without moving. “Not so big.” The hillmen were anciently enemies of Teodorq’s people, but the two young men were alike strangers in a strange land and had perforce become allies.
“Least now we know why the shortgrassers call ’em the ironmen. Must get hot in them outfits come summer.”
“Maybe star-folk, like Jamly tell us find?” suggested Sammi. “Big magic, pile stones so high.”
Teodorq studied on that some. Farther west, where the shortgrass prairie gave way to the Great Grass he had once called home, he and Sammi had come upon an ancient wreck, a “shuttle” that had tumbled down from the sky in the long ago. Jamly, a drawing that somehow moved and spoke and who had been custodian of the shuttle, had sent them forth to find the settlements of Iabran and Varucciyamen, so that the starmen might come and salvage what remained.
For Teodorq, seeking out the star-folk had a better ring than fleeing from the Serpentines who pursued him. “Don’t think so,” he finally decided. “That shuttle was made of pottery – whatcha call it, esramig? – not stone. And when Jamly killed them Serps following me, she used a buzzing fast stonethrower, which I don’t see they got over there. Hey, hillman, how do you build a stone house?”
Sammi glanced at him. “With stones?”
“Yah, you lay one row on top another row. Yonder –” He nodded toward the stronghold. “– they forgot to stop adding rows. So, no magic. Least not shuttle-magic.” He wondered how they lifted the blocks onto the highest rows. Maybe that was a giant he heard hammering away in the distance.
Sammi grunted. “Jamly Ghost say much kenning lost since big-fight-in-sky. Stupid plainsmen forget most; hillmen not so much. Maybe ironmen forget less.” He pursed his lips. “We stay in trees, iron hats no see us. Sneak past stone house, then ride like hell.”
The woods they lurked within contained more trees than Teodorq had ever imagined grew on World. But he did not suppose that the men in the iron hats were stupid, and he expected the trees would soon give way to cleared ground. What man would build a stronghold to guard the passage and then allow trees to screen passers-by?
“I dunno, hillman,” said Teodorq, pointing toward the distant wall. “Them sidemen up there, we know why they’re watching the west. Shortgrassmen don’t like they come down off’n the cliffs and taken their prairie. But they’re studying on the east, too. And before we ‘ride like hell’ into it, I wanna know what they’re so keen on spotting.”
Sammi looked at him. “Sometimes, for plainsman, you not so stupid.”
“Beside,” Teodorq said, “I wouldn’t mind sneaking in there and getting me one of them swords.”
“Sammi take back what he say.”
They watched a while longer in science. Then Sammi sighed. “How you plan get one?”
“First… We need to find a way into that stone house.”
Behind them they heard a click.
Teodorq looked at Sammi. “That can’t be good.”
They turned to see a mounted figure dressed in dun leather and aiming a crossbow at them. “Be pinned to the spot, sodbusters, or be pinned to it.”
It was a woman’s voice and spoke the plavver of the shortgrassmen with an odd accent, harder on the final consonants, careless of the vowels, and swallowing the liquids in the throat. Teodorq said to Sammi in the long-grass sprock, “Only one bolt.”
The hillman shrugged. “Sammi always remember kindness of stupid plainsman.”
“You bigger. She shoot you first. Sammi get away while reload.”
As if intuiting their discussion, the woman whistled sharply and four men emerged from the trees, one of them leading the horses and pack mule Teodorq and Sammi had picketed in a hidden meadow. “Turn you right about now and start you a-walking toward yon sawak.” When Teodorq feigned incomprehension, she gestured with the crossbow, indicating by signs what they were to do.
“Awright, babe, we get it. C’mon Sammi, let’s go.” The two turned and began walking toward the stone house, striding for all of World as if they were leading the others home.
Sammi commented dryly in the hill country lingo. “First part of plan working. Got second part?”
Teodorq shrugged. “Not yet.”
The next episode, "Against the Green," will appear in the next episode: Jul/Aug 2014.