‘It’s yellow, Longbow, and you don’t come across very many yellow trees around here.’
The yellow cloud came rolling ponderously down the slope and then streamed on out over the barren Wasteland.
‘Good baby!’ Torl shouted up at the cloud. ‘Go pester the bug-men and stay away from here!’
Then the yellow cloud seemed almost to coalesce, sinking rapidly down to cover the Wasteland with a dense shroud of dull yellow. Then it seemed almost to sink into the sand itself.
And then it was gone - almost as if it had been sucked into the very sand.
The sun came out into the open again, and Longbow stared in utter disbelief at what now lay spread out as far as the northern horizon.
‘Good God!’ Torl gasped. ‘That’s gold out there! I thought it was just iron ore, but it’s gold!’
Longbow suddenly laughed. ‘Not exactly, friend Torl,’ he said. ‘It might look like gold, but it’s still iron. I’d say that our unknown friend has just baited her trap and she’ll probably catch about a half-million Trogites with it. I think life just got a lot brighter, don’t you?’
Narasan’s soldiers were all standing along the top of Gunda’s wall staring out at the glittering Wasteland in awed silence.
‘I think that maybe you should wake your men up, Narasan,’ Longbow suggested. ‘The creatures of the Wasteland are still coming up that slope, and if your men don’t hold them back, we’ll have company right up here.’
Narasan pulled his eyes away from the vast ocean of glittering yellow sand and looked around. ‘Get back to your posts!’ he barked at his men. ‘You’re not getting paid to look at the scenery!’ Then his expression became just a bit sheepish. ‘I’m not sure that’s going to work, Longbow. My own head’s starting to come unraveled at the sight of all that glittering sand out there.’
‘I think that’s the idea, friend Narasan. It might help if you keep reminding yourself that what you see out there is imitation gold, not the real thing. A lot of things are starting to come together now. First the farmers recited the story about the fellow who came up here and saw what we’re seeing right now. Then the church soldiers believed the story without any tangible proof, and came rushing up here to gather up something that didn’t exist until about a half-hour ago. Somebody out there’s tampering, and in spite of everything Zelana’s told me, I’m almost positive that it’s not the Vlagh.’
‘I certainly hope not,’ Narasan agreed. ‘If the Vlagh can create the kind of illusion that just came popping out of nowhere out in that desert I’m likely to lose my whole army.’
‘Commander Narasan!’ a soldier called from one of the other towers atop Gunda’s wall. ‘We’ve got pirates, coming up from behind us!’
Narasan and Longbow turned quickly to look off to the south. Narasan chuckled suddenly. ‘I think some help just arrived. That looks to me to be Sorgan Hook-Beak. Am I right or not?’
Longbow nodded. ‘He made good time getting back here. I’m just guessing, but I think Zelana’s been tampering again.’
‘There seems to be quite a lot of tampering going on around here, wouldn’t you say?’ Narasan suggested with a slight smile.
‘Not out loud, I wouldn’t,’ Longbow replied.
Sorgan Hook-Beak froze in his tracks when he reached the top of Gunda’s wall and caught his first glimpse of the vast ‘sea of gold’ lying off to the north. ‘Dear gods!’ he exclaimed, staring out over the glittering Wasteland.
‘It’s not real,’ Longbow told him. ‘It’s just more of that imitation gold Grock found when we were coming up through Nanton’s pass. Somebody out there’s playing games.’
‘I’m going to have to see some proof of that, Longbow,’ Sorgan declared. ‘It certainly looks like gold to me.’
‘Longbow’s certain that it’s just a hoax, Hook-Beak,’ Narasan explained, ‘but I think I’ll side with you this time. I want to see some proof that it’s not gold before I just shrug it off.’
‘Rabbit!’ Longbow called, ‘We need you!’
The little Maag came up the stairs to the central tower.
‘Can you tell from here if that glittery sand out there is real gold or just more of that fake gold?’ Sorgan demanded.
Rabbit squinted out at the Wasteland. ‘Not for certain sure, Cap’n,’ he replied. ‘I’d need to get my hands on some to be able to tell one way or the other.’
‘That might just be a little difficult right now,’ Narasan said. ‘We seem to have a very large number of unfriendly creatures standing in the way’
Rabbit squinted out at the Wasteland lying below. ‘I might just be able to drop a basket tied to the end of a rope down there from up on top of that west ridge, but I’m not sure just how much I’d be able to scoop up if I did that. What I’d really need is—’ He stopped suddenly and smacked his forehead with his hand. ‘I must be about half asleep,’ he said. ‘I’ve got something in my purse that’ll prove one way or another just exactly what that sand out there really is.’
‘Oh?’ Sorgan asked. ‘What’s that?’
‘I bought it from another smith once when we’d hauled into port at Kormo. He called it a “lodestone”. I’d heard about them, and I thought it might be sort of interesting, but I’ve never used it for anything serious. Any time it gets close to something made out of iron, it reaches out and grabs it.’
‘Have you ever seen that actually happen?’ Sorgan asked skeptically.
Rabbit grinned at his leader. ‘I surely have, Cap’n,’ he said. ‘When we’re in port, and I’m running low on money, I can almost always win a few tankards of good strong ale if I can find somebody who’s willing to bet that I don’t have a rock that knows how to jump.’ He untied his purse from his belt and fished around in it with his fingers. ‘Here she is,’ he said rather proudly, holding up a black lump of rock about the size of a man’s thumb. Then he took his knife from its sheath and held it a few inches above the stone. The black lump leaped up and stuck to Rabbit’s knife with a kind of clinking sound.
Sorgan blinked. ‘Now that’s something I’ve never seen before. I can see how you managed to win a lot of bets, Rabbit.’