‘It don’t really matter what kind of excuse we come up with, Cap’n,’ Grock advised. ‘All that’s really important is getting those rowdies out of the village afore the natives kill ever’body in the fleet.’
‘We did hire on to fight a war, didn’t we, Cap’n?’ Baldar Club-Foot suggested.
‘That’s what cousin Sorgan told me,’ Skell agreed.
‘Soljers as does their war-fighting on dry land almost always spend a whole lot of their time a-building forts or barricades, I’ve heard tell. Since the enemy’s going to be coming this way from the east, and that river that comes down out of the mountings above town runs through a narrow ravine, we could tell all the other ship-cap’ns that your cousin Sorgan told you to go up a ways and build a fort to hold the enemy back.’
‘He didn’t really say anything like that, Club-Foot,’ Skell objected.
‘Lie to ‘em, Cap’n,’ Baldar suggested. ‘What we’re really trying to do is to keep them all from getting kilt, ain’t it?’
‘That comes close, yes.’
‘Lying might not be very nice, but if it keeps ‘em alive, it’ll be worth the trouble.’
‘And, if you tell the other ship Cap’ns that they won’t get paid if the fort ain’t good enough, they’ll hustle right along, I’ll bet,’ Grock added.
‘I guess it’s worth a try,’ Skell conceded a bit dubiously.
When Sorgan’s fleet finally arrived, their employer, the beautiful Lady Zelana, evidently decided that a bit of honesty might be in order. First off, one of the old headmen of the assorted tribes described the annual spring flood. That really disturbed Skell, since most of his men were up in the ravine where they’d be trapped - and drowned - if the old chief’s description of the yearly disaster came anywhere close to being accurate.
Then there was the issue of venom. Skell had heard stories about poisonous snakes, but he’d never actually seen one - and he really wanted to keep it that way.
Lady Zelana’s bleak-faced bodyguard, Longbow, put Skell somewhat at his ease, however, with his description of the process whereby he’d used the enemy’s venom to kill other enemies. It seemed to Skell that there was a certain justice involved there.
Skell would be the first to admit that he hadn’t once encountered one of what his cousin colorfully called ‘the snake-men’, largely because he’d spent most of his time in Zelana’s Domain building an impregnable fort to prevent any intruding enemy force from reaching the village of Lattash. He’d seen a few of them, but when something’s a half-mile away it doesn’t usually pose much of a threat.
The thing that had really disturbed Skell during the war in Lady Zelana’s Domain had been their alliance with the Trogs. There was no question about the fact that Commander Narasan’s men were very good soldiers and that they’d been a great help, but it had just seemed so unnatural to Skell to have Trogs for allies.
The natives had warned them that the flood - which had been very useful - was an annual event in the region, so Skell had finally accepted it as a more or less natural phenomenon, but the sudden appearance of two volcanos at the head of the ravine - just when they’d really needed them - was an entirely different matter. The natives had hinted around the edges of some very unlikely explanations, but Skell had been fairly sure that Lady Zelana had been at the bottom of it. That raised a somewhat unsettling question, however. If Lady Zelana could make mountains explode whenever it suited her, why did she need an army?
By the time it was all over and the invaders had been obliterated, cousin Sorgan and the Trog commander had become close friends, and Sorgan offered his assistance in the war the Trogs had been hired to fight. Skell had been more than a little dubious about that - until Lady Zelana and her brother had made a very generous offer of even more gold.
Skell decided that he might as well go along at that point.
It was early summer when the combined fleet of Maags and Trogs sailed south to the Domain of Lady Zelana’s younger brother Veltan, and that made Skell a bit more comfortable. Bad weather was seldom a problem in the summertime.
After they’d passed a somewhat indeterminate boundary, Skell observed that Veltan’s Domain was primarily farmland. There did appear to be mountains up near the northern part of the region, but they were quite a long ways off.
The fleet turned toward the east when it reached the southern coast of the Land of Dhrall, and then they swung north, following a rather irregular coast.
Veltan’s scruffy-looking little fishing sloop was leading the fleet, and evidently the men on board the sloop - Longbow, Red-Beard, Rabbit, and Keselo - had been looking for a certain landmark, because the sloop abruptly turned shoreward, and she was beached without much warning. Skell muttered a few choice curses under his breath as the Shark heeled over very sharply when Grock jerked on the tiller.
The white sand beach seemed much cleaner than most of the beaches Skell had seen in his lifetime at sea, and the wheatfields on the gentle slope rising from the beach were an almost luminous green. There was no getting around the fact that this was beautiful country, but Skell still preferred the open sea. He prudently ordered his men to drop the anchor some distance out from the beach. The Shark drew more water than Veltan’s sloop, and Skell wasn’t in the mood to take any chances.
Commander Narasan and several other people went ashore to meet with Lady Zelana’s younger brother, but for some reason, cousin Sorgan held back just a bit. That puzzled Skell, but then it occurred to him that Sorgan was trying to be polite. ‘What an unnatural sort of thing,’ he muttered to himself. Evidently Sorgan had been spending far too much time with the Trogs, and some of their customs had rubbed off on him.
After a while, Sorgan finally went ashore, and Skell left Grock in charge and rowed on into the beach to see if he could find out just exactly what was in the wind. He hung back a bit, quietly observing and listening. Sorgan and the Trogs seemed a bit surprised that a farmer named Omago had gathered up a sizeable number of other farmers to help in the defense of Veltan’s Domain. Skell was a bit dubious about that. If the local people here in the Land of Dhrall could hold off the enemy all by themselves, why had Lady Zelana and her relatives gone to all the trouble and expense of hiring professionals from various other lands to do the fighting?
Then Veltan suggested that they should all go to his house to have a look at his ‘lumpy map’. Evidently, the Trogs had found Red-Beard’s miniature imitation of the ravine above Lattash very useful.