‘Can they actually talk?’ that surprised Skell a bit.
‘The ones I came across could. They claimed that they were traders, but I didn’t believe them. I think they were just snooping around.’
Skell squinted at the river. ‘How far upstream is that waterfall?’ he asked.
‘About twice as far as it is from here to the house of Veltan. We won’t be going that far upriver from the streambed that leads up to the top, but the river calms down after she gets out of the mountains.’
‘Good. We’ll be able to row my ship and my brother’s on up to that streambed, and I’ll take ten or fifteen men on up to the top. We’ll look around a bit, and then I’ll send somebody back down to lead the rest of the men on up there to join us.’
‘It’ll probably work out better that way,’ Nanton agreed.
‘Is your flock up there, Nanton?’ Omago asked.
‘For the time being, yes. If there’s going to be a war up there, though, I’ll move them to a safer meadow.’
‘It sounds to me like you’re very familiar with those mountains,’ Skell said.
‘I’ve spent most of my life up there - at least in the summer. I bring my flock back down in the autumn.’
‘Wouldn’t it be easier if you just kept them down here in the lowland?’ Skell asked him.
‘Maybe, but the grass up in the mountains is better, and I don’t have to spend all my time chasing the sheep away from farmland. Farmers always seem to get very worried when they see a few hundred hungry sheep coming over the hill.’
‘I wonder why,’ Skell said with no hint of a smile.
It took them a couple of days to row the two ships up the gently flowing River Vash to the place where Nanton’s little stream came down out of the mountains. Skell anchored the Shark on the upriver side of the stream and then rowed his skiff over to the Lark to confer with his brother. ‘I’m catching a strong feeling that Omago’s friend doesn’t really want a crowd trailing along behind when he leads us on up to the area we need to scout, so I think I’d better keep things fairly tight. Nan ton knows the lay of the land up there, so he can save me a lot of time if I stay on the good side of him.’
‘We’re going back to “don’t offend the natives”, I take it,’ Torl noted.
‘Let’s keep things quiet as long as we can. Why don’t you stay here? Put the men to work building docks along the bank of the river here. There’ll be a lot of ships coming upriver before long, and they’ll be unloading sizeable numbers of men. Let’s make it easy enough so that we don’t have Trog ships backed up all the way down to the river mouth.’
‘Who all are you going to take with you?’
‘Nanton, of course, and Omago,’ Skell replied, squinting at the narrow little stream, ‘and I definitely want Longbow and Red-Beard. Narasan wants Padan to mark the trail, so he’ll go along, too.’
‘That’s all? Aren’t you cutting it just a little fine, Skell?’
Skell shrugged. ‘We’re just going up there to look, little brother,’ he said. ‘I’ll take Grock as well - just in case I need to get word back down here to you if things start getting wormy up there, and we’ll round it out with Rabbit and Keselo. Those two work with Longbow very well, so they might be useful. I want to move fast and quiet, and I think that’ll be as many men as I’ll need.’
‘That’s pretty skimpy, Skell.’
‘It’s enough to get the job done, little brother. Let’s not clutter things up if we don’t have to.’
Skell and his small party started up the narrow gorge at first light the following morning and it soon became quite obvious that this would not be just a casual stroll. The brush along the sides of the little brook was dense, and the tall evergreen trees blocked out the sunshine to the point that Skell’s party moved in what was almost a perpetual twilight. Grock, the Shark’s first mate, had been clever enough to bring along a coil of rope, and they’d gone no more than a quarter of a mile before it became quite obvious that they’d be using it frequently, since the brook tumbled rather than flowed. It seemed to Skell that there was a frothy little waterfall every fifty feet or so. Fortunately, Rabbit was a very agile little fellow, and he could scramble up those rocky spots with Grock’s rope coil slung over his shoulder, tie the end to a large tree and then drop the rope to the men behind him. It seemed to Skell that by midday he’d spent more time going up the rope hand over hand than he’d spent walking. ‘How in the world can you drive a herd of sheep up through all of this?’ he asked the shepherd.
The bearded Nanton smiled faintly. ‘When a sheep really wants something - fresh grass, or a female sheep who’s lonesome for company - he can come very close to climbing up a sheer rock face. Of course, he’s got four feet and very sharp hooves.’
‘You like your sheep, don’t you?’
‘Tending sheep is much easier than digging and planting, and I’ve always felt that “easy” is nicer than “hard”. Wouldn’t you agree?’
‘I’d go along with you on that,’ Skell agreed, ‘but it seems to me that all this clambering over rocks and climbing up a rope goes off in the direction of “hard”, don’t you think?’
‘It’s better than doing honest work, wouldn’t you say?’ Nanton replied mildly.
The sun started to move on down toward the western horizon a few hours later, and Skell called a halt at that point. ‘Let’s call it a day,’ he said. ‘I don’t think crashing around in the bushes would be a very good idea after dark. There might not be any bug-people in the vicinity, but let’s not take any chances.’
‘Good thinking,’ Rabbit agreed.
The small group of scouts rose early the following morning, and after they’d eaten, they continued the tiresome business of going hand over hand up Grock’s coil of rope. Padan occasionally looped bits of yellow twine around the limbs of various trees and bushes to mark the path for Nanton’s army that’d soon be coming this way. ‘This is just a suggestion, Captain Skell,’ the young Trog called Keselo said about mid-morning, ‘but I think Commander Narasan’s army could move up through this gorge more quickly if we were to string ropes up along the steeper places. That coil of rope Grock brought along has been very useful.’