‘We’ll do ‘er that way, Cap’n,’ Grock replied. Then he turned and went back across the meadow toward the creek-bed.
‘There’s something else we might want to think about Cap’n Skell,’ Rabbit said. ‘Longbow’s archers are coming through the mountains to join up with us here, and once they’re in place, the enemies won’t pester the men working on the wall, because they’ll be too busy dying.’
‘He’s got a point there, Skell,’ Padan agreed. ‘About the best we can do with spears and swords is bring things to a standstill. It’ll take the archers to turn the tide.’ He looked at Longbow. ‘Can you give us some kind of idea of just when your friends will get here?’
Longbow scratched his cheek. ‘Probably a couple of weeks,’ he speculated. ‘They’re coming through the mountains, and that can make for slow going.’
‘If cousin Sorgan and Commander Narasan sailed north when they said they were going to, they’re probably anchored down at the mouth of that little creek already,’ Skell said, ‘so as soon as Grock gets down there and tells them the way things stand up here now, they’ll start coming up. I’d say that they’ll be here inside two days, and then they can get started on our main fort here. A lot of things are still up in the air, but if everybody’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing, we’ll be in fair shape in two or three more days.’
The sun was going down behind the ragged mountain ridge to the west of the basin as they walked back toward the still-spouting geyser. Mountain sunsets were sort of pretty, maybe, but as far as Skell was concerned they were no match at all for sunsets out on the face of the rolling sea.
They built a fire some distance off from the geyser and Rabbit cooked a large pot of beans. The Omago stood up to put more wood on the fire, but he instinctively ducked as a bat came swooping in out of the twilight. ‘I wish they’d stop doing that!’ he complained.
‘It’s the fire, Omago,’ Nanton explained. ‘Firelight attracts bugs, and the bats are hungry.’
Longbow’s head came up sharply, and he reached for his bow.
‘Is something wrong?’ Rabbit asked, rising to his feet.
‘I’m not sure,’ Longbow replied. ‘There’s something that isn’t quite right.’ He looked around, his face suddenly bleak. ‘I think it might be time to take a closer look at the neighbors.’ He drew an arrow out of the quiver slanting up over his shoulder, set the arrow in place, drew his bow and released it. The arrow went straight and true, and a dead bat fell to the ground some distance from the fire.
Longbow went over and picked the dead bat up by its wingtips and held it up to take a closer look. ‘You’d better come here, friend Red-Beard,’ he said in a grim tone of voice.
‘Trouble?’ Red-Beard asked, standing up.
‘Look for yourself.’ Longbow held out the dead bat.
Red-Beard flinched back. ‘I think I’d better go see if I can find the archers,’ he said tersely.
‘What’s the trouble?’ Skell demanded.
‘This is,’ Longbow replied, turning to show Skell the dead bat.
Skell instinctively jerked back from the hideous creature. It had the wings of a bat, the usual fur-covered body and clawed feet, but its head was the head of a bee - or possibly an ant - with protruding mandibles jutting from its lower face. It also had bulging eyes and odd-looking feelers growing out of the top of its head.
‘Don’t touch it, friend Skell,’ Red-Beard cautioned. ‘I’m catching a faint smell of venom.’
‘Fangs and stingers again? Like the snake-men?’
‘I’m not really sure,’ Red-Beard replied, ‘but I don’t think it’d be , a good idea to probe around with your bare hands.’ He looked at | his friend. ‘It looks to me like they’ve beaten us to the battlefield again, doesn’t it, Longbow? I was sure we were ahead of them this ‘ time. What did they do that made you realize that they weren’t just ordinary bats?’
‘They weren’t really flying all that well, friend Red-Beard, and I saw a couple of them fly right past several flying bugs. A real bat wouldn’t have done that.’
‘How can we fight off a flying enemy?’ Padan exclaimed.
‘Longbow can shoot them right out of the sky,’ Rabbit told the frightened Trog. ‘I saw him shoot down a whole flock of geese once.’
‘I wouldn’t waste any time, friend Red-Beard,’ Longbow said. ‘It’s fairly obvious that the Vlagh’s been tampering with the natural order of things again, so we might need the archers here and not back in the mountains before long.’ He paused briefly, and a faint frown touched his face. ‘Now that I’ve had a moment or two to give this a bit of thought, things might not be as bad as they seemed at first. We didn’t see any of these particular creatures during the war in Zelana’s Domain, and that suggests that they’re a new experiment. If that’s true, they’re most likely still groping around, trying to discover why they’re here and what they’re supposed to do.’
‘Wouldn’t that also mean that they don’t know anything about fighting wars?’ Rabbit asked.
‘They won’t know how toe fight wars,’ Longbow agreed. ‘If this is really a new life-form, it’s going to take it at least twenty hatches before it fully understands what it’s capable of doing. They don’t live long enough to reach that level of understanding in one generation. I’d say that about all they’re capable of during the current hatch will be flying around and watching us.’
‘Scouts, you mean?’ Skell asked.
‘Exactly. They won’t live long enough to go much farther. Our shaman, One-Who-Heals, explained some things about the servants of the Vlagh to me quite a long time ago. They only live for about six weeks after they reach their final form - not long enough to learn very much. Their knowledge accumulates over the generations, so the ones we’ll encounter later will be much more clever than the ones we’ve seen so far.’
‘Maybe we should hide this dead one, then,’ Rabbit suggested, looking around quickly.
‘I didn’t quite follow you there, Rabbit,’ Keselo said.
‘If they don’t know what arrows can do to them, they’ll start making a lot of mistakes, won’t they? If they think a bow is just a stick, they won’t pay much attention when a couple hundred archers stand up and draw their bows. We could have dead bats raining down out of the sky for a week or two if they don’t understand what’s really happening.’