Ekial laughed. “It seems that civilization is much more confusing than I’d thought.”
“The Trogs would probably be offended if you called us civilized,” Torl said. “Do you have many wars in the Land of Malavi?” he asked.
“A few, but only occasionally—usually when somebody tries to change the shape of the land. There were some fools a while back who wanted to try farming, but that didn’t turn out too well for them, since the horsemen kept burning off their crops. Then there was a clan just to the south of ours that dammed up a brook that had been our source of water for generations. I took a few friends along and we walked on up the streambed and tore their dam down. Now that I think about it, that’s the longest walk I’ve ever taken. The war lasted for a couple of years, but, since our land lay between their territory and the coast—where all the cattle-buyers do business—they couldn’t get rid of their cows. They gave up at that point.”
“Did you ever have to fight the Trogites?”
Ekial shrugged. “They invaded us once, but our clan-chiefs all went off to the coast and told the cattle-buyers that we wouldn’t sell them any cows until all their soldiers went home. That stopped their invasion right then and there. It would seem that the cattle-buyers pull a lot of weight in the empire, because the invading armies were ordered to go back home immediately.”
“Money is sort of important to the Trogs, I guess,” Torl agreed.
“Particularly when they can cheat people out of it,” Ekial added. Then he told Sorgan’s cousin about what young Keselo had told him about how much the Malavi should be demanding for their cows. “As soon as this war’s over, I’m quite sure that there’ll be quite a bit of weeping and wailing in the cattle-towns along the coast. When the price of a cow suddenly goes up to where it really ought to be, every cattle-buyer in those towns will break down and cry.”
“Poor babies,” Torl said with mock sympathy. Then he squinted at Ekial. “As I understand it, your horses are usually just wild animals—until you and your people tame them. Is taming a horse very hard?”
“That sort of depends on the horse,” Ekial replied. He told Torl about Beast and his nasty habits. “Poor old Beast died last year, and I sort of miss having him around,” he admitted.
“Nothing lasts forever, Ekial,” Torl replied, “—except for the sea, of course.”
The war in the basin above the Falls of Vash turned out to be much more complicated than Ekial had expected. The invasion of the bug-people was pretty much as Dahlaine had told him it would be—except that the bugs were larger but not quite so agile. Gunda’s wall and Keselo’s breastworks seemed to be doing what they were supposed to do, and the machines that threw fire at the enemies would have made horse-soldiers redundant.
It was the second invasion that involved Trogite soldiers which opened all sorts of possibilities. It seemed to Ekial that the second invasion almost invited the standard Malavi “slash-and-run” tactics. Foot soldiers sort of plodded along without paying too much attention to what was going on around them, and that would have made them almost perfect victims had there been any Malavi horsemen in the vicinity. Ekial frowned then and made a slight correction. If the red-uniformed Church soldiers had been carrying bows and quivers of arrows, a Malavi charge could have turned into an absolute disaster. A sudden storm of bronze-tipped arrows raining down on a charging body of Malavi would kill men and horses indiscriminately, and the charge would never reach its goal. He made a mental note of that. No horsemen should ever attempt a charge against an enemy armed with bows.
The thing that disturbed Ekial the most, however, was what Longbow called “The Sea of Gold.” Even after the little smith called Rabbit had more or less proved that it wasn’t gold, Ekial could not take his eyes off what appeared to be the greatest deposit of the precious metal in the entire world.
“Don’t keep looking at it, Ekial,” Keselo advised. “It might just scramble your brains if you look too long.”
“But it’s so pretty.”
“I think that was the whole idea, but it’s out there for the Church soldiers to look at—not you or me. We know that it’s almost worthless, but they don’t. I think that was the whole idea. The Church of Amar is filled to the brim with greed, and that imitation gold out there raises that greed to the boiling point. As far as we’ve been able to determine, the Church soldiers—and the priests—aren’t even thinking coherently anymore, and that seems to have been the idea. The Church people will charge down that slope right into the hands—or whatever—of the bug-people. The men will kill the bugs, and the bugs will kill the men. When it’s all over, there won’t be any enemies of either kind left alive. It’s nothing but an elaborate trap, and you don’t want to be one of those caught in it.”
“You speak very well, Keselo,” Ekial conceded. “Maybe I should go look at the mountains for a change.”
“I would, if I were you.”
Ekial found the discussions of “the unknown friend” more than a little confusing. It had seemed from the very beginning of this war in the southern part of the Land of Dhrall that Dahlaine and his family had been more or less in control of things, but it appeared that someone else had stepped in without any kind of warning, and this someone else could do things that were far beyond the capability of Dahlaine and the others. Dahlaine’s older sister seemed to take that as something in the nature of a personal insult, and Ekial found that to be a matter of great concern. He’d caught a few hints that Dahlaine and the others were nearing the end of what were called “cycles,” and they were no longer completely aware of what was happening.
He began to have some second thoughts about having anything to do with this ongoing war in the Land of Dhrall. The pay promised to be very good, but still—
The Maags and Trogites, with the help of Longbow and the archers, seemed to have things pretty much under control. The bug-people weren’t making much headway in their charges up the slope to the north of Gunda’s wall, and the soldiers of the Trogite Church were rushing up from the south with their minds shut down because of that “sea of gold.” The “unknown friend’s” command to stand aside made good sense to Ekial, but it seemed to stir up even more bickering and wild speculation among the leaders of the Land of Dhrall.