“What would you want me to give you for a dozen or so of these?” Athlan asked, holding up the bronze arrowhead.
Rabbit shrugged. “Nothing. I’ve come here to help you fight the bug-people, so the arrowheads are a gift.” Rabbit shuddered. “I can’t believe I just said that,” he told Longbow.
“It sounded all right to me,” Longbow replied.
“I’m not the only one in the tribe who’ll need these new arrowheads,” Athlan said. “It’s likely to take you a long time to make enough of them for us, don’t you think?”
“I won’t be working alone,” Rabbit said. “There’s a smith on every ship in the fleet. Back in the war last spring we set up what we called the ‘arrow factory’ while we were waiting for the snow to melt off. We made enough arrowheads there to give every archer in Zelana’s Domain all that he needed.”
“I think this one just got a lot taller, Longbow,” Athlan said. “I might have to twist a few arms to persuade the other men in the tribe that these new arrowheads are better than stone, but I’m sure they’ll get my point.”
“Let’s go talk with Dahlaine, Athlan,” Longbow said. “There are a few things you need to know so that you can pass them on to Kathlak.”
“Lead the way, friend Longbow,” Athlan replied.
“All creatures change with the passage of time, Athlan,” Dahlaine told Longbow’s friend. “The changes usually take so long that the creatures aren’t even aware of them. The Vlagh has been tampering with the natural order of things here lately, though. When one of the creatures who serve the Vlagh sees a characteristic that might be useful, that characteristic will probably appear in the next hatch. During the war in the south, the Vlagh added turtle shells to a new hatch to protect them from the arrows my sister’s archers had been using to kill them. Back before these wars, the servants of the Vlagh were all very much the same, but now we’re facing six or eight varieties of enemies—that we know about. For all we know, there could be several new varieties when we encounter them here.”
“Are you certain that they’ll attack our part of Dhrall next?” Athlan asked.
Dahlaine shook his head. “They could come north,” he said, “but they might go east instead. We don’t know for sure yet, so we’re covering both areas.”
“That makes sense,” Athlan agreed. “I think that maybe we should go on up to Statha now. It might be best if Kathlak hears about this as soon as possible, and we’ve had another problem that you should know about. The Reindeer Hunter Tribes started breaking the rules while you were off to the south. We drove them off, so they’ve more or less started to behave themselves. They might just be waiting until we go to war with the creatures of the Wasteland so that they can attack us when we’re not looking.”
Dahlaine’s face blanched, and he stood up. “Let’s go to Statha,” he said. “I need to get to the bottom of this.”
The region to the east of the fishing village was marshy, with thick grass at the water’s edge, and dead trees sticking up out of shallow, brown water. Rabbit was more than a little startled when he saw that the swamp seemed to be on fire. It wasn’t an ordinary fire, though. Most of the fires Rabbit had seen were orange or red, but this one was blue.
“Don’t be concerned, friends,” Athlan told them. “That’s just swamp-fire. It shows up in these marshy areas all the time.”
“How do you go about setting a swamp on fire?” Ox asked. “Swamps are mostly water, aren’t they? And I don’t think I’ve ever come across a patch of water that burns.”
“It’s not the water that’s on fire,” Keselo explained. “I’ve heard about this, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen it. Our instructors told us that there’s a gas called ‘methane’ that rises up out of stagnant water. I guess it also shows up in coal mines. Swamp-fires aren’t really very dangerous, but a fire in a coal mine can turn into a disaster.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen blue fire before,” Ox said.
“It is sort of pretty, though,” Rabbit observed.
“I’ll stick to red fire,” Ox said. “Blue fire looks kind of spooky to me.”
“It does frighten the native population in some parts of the world,” Keselo told him. “They believe that blue flame is a sign that there are ghosts in the vicinity, and they won’t go near a burning marsh.”
“Why would anybody want to wander around in a swamp?” Sorgan demanded.
“It might be a good place to hide, Cap’n,” Rabbit said. “If somebody happens to be chasing you, and he believes that blue fire means that the swamp’s haunted, he won’t go near it.”
“I think I’ll stick to open water,” Sorgan said.
“I burn coal in my forge,” Rabbit told Keselo, “but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it burn blue.”
“It probably wouldn’t,” Keselo said. “The methane sort of grows out of the coal when there isn’t very much fresh air around. The people who dig coal up out of the ground are really afraid of it. I’ve heard that there’s one coal mine in the southern part of the empire that’s been burning for about seventy years now. The owners of the mine have tried everything they can think of to put the fire out, but it’s still burning all their coal, and that turns their profit into smoke.”
The village of Statha was almost as big as the original village of Lattash had been, but unlike Lattash, it stood in a deep forest of huge trees. Rabbit saw a certain practicality there. The trees protected the lodges from the wind and weather to some degree, but the mud-and-wattle structures were widely scattered, since nobody in his right mind would try to chop down a tree with a stone axe when the tree was thirty feet thick at the butt. There was a rambling sort of quality about the village that made it almost impossible to determine just exactly where it started or where the end might be.
“Interesting idea,” Keselo murmured as they followed Longbow’s friend toward the center of Statha. “If this region’s periodically struck by cyclones, those huge trees would offer a great deal of protection, and the people who live here were clever enough to lash their lodges to the trees with strong ropes. They might lose a roof once in a while, but it looks to me like the walls will stay intact.”