“That was sort of what we had in mind,” Athlan said. “How long would you say it’s going to take Longbow and his friends to get here?”
“No more than a week,” Dahlaine replied. “There’ll be some others coming as well, but it might take them quite a while to get here. I’m sure they’ll surprise everybody in this part of the world. They’ve managed to tame an animal called ‘the horse,’ and they sit on his back when they want to go somewhere.”
“You mean that they’re too lazy to walk?” Kathlak asked.
“Not really. It’s just that horses run very fast, so those people can go from here to there much, much faster than just about anybody else. They’re very good warriors, so I’m sure that they’ll be useful when our enemies invade our part of the Land of Dhrall.”
Athlan went on down to the temporary village the fish hunters of the tribe set up on the coast every summer. Fish meat didn’t taste as good as deer meat, but once it had been dried, it didn’t rot, and it kept the tribe eating regularly during the winter.
The outlander boats came up the coast a few days later and Athlan was surprised by the size of them, and by the fact that the outlanders didn’t use paddles to move their boats. They’d come up with a way to put the wind to work, and their boats moved very fast.
The boats came closer to the fish hunter village, and Athlan saw his friend standing at the front of the leading boat. He pushed his canoe off the bank and paddled on out to greet his old friend. When he climbed up the rope ladder, Longbow introduced him to a small man who appeared to be playing with a fire for some reason that Athlan couldn’t understand. Then Longbow and his little friend showed Athlan something so remarkable that the world seemed almost to turn itself upside down. It was an arrowhead unlike any other one he’d ever seen, and he saw its value almost immediately. Then the man called Rabbit advised him that there would soon be more of those arrowheads available than he could even count—and that they’d be a gift.
Then Longbow advised him that Dahlaine wanted to speak with him.
After Athlan told Dahlaine that the Reindeer Hunters Tribe would probably continue their attacks, Dahlaine decided that it was time to get to the bottom of that.
The strangers seemed to be quite surprised by the swamp-fires dancing over one of the marshes, but the young soldier called Keselo explained it, using some terms Athlan had never heard before.
When they reached Statha, Kathlak was waiting for them in one of the Nation Lodges, and he and Dahlaine spoke at some length about the attacks of the Reindeer Hunters Tribe to the north, and then Dahlaine’s sister told them that she’d drift on up to that part of the Tonthakan Nation to find out just why the Reindeer Hunters had suddenly decided to go to war.
“I don’t really think that’s a very good idea, Longbow,” Athlan said to his friend, “particularly not if she’s going up there alone. It could be dangerous for her up there, you know.”
“I wouldn’t be too concerned, Athlan,” Longbow replied. “Our Zelana can listen without being seen. She’ll be able to find out what’s really going on up there, and the Reindeer Hunters won’t even know that she’s been there.”
“I take it that she doesn’t ride a thunderbolt like Dahlaine does,” Athlan said.
“She rides the wind instead,” Longbow replied. “It’s not as fast as a thunderbolt, but it’s a lot quieter.”
“Just exactly when was it that she decided to leave that island where she was hiding?”
“Last winter. She and her little girl chased me down and persuaded me to help when she went on over to the Land of the Maags to hire an army to fight the creatures of the Wasteland.”
“I’ve heard a few things about that war, but it seemed to me that there might have been a lot of exaggeration in those stories.”
“They probably were understatements, Athlan,” Longbow said. “There was a fire-mountain that cooked thousands of the creatures of the Wasteland, and later there was a flood that drowned even more of them.”
“Did Zelana do that?”
“No, actually, Eleria and Yaltar did it. Have you heard the old story about ‘the Dreamers’?”
“When I was younger, yes.” Athlan blinked. “Are you trying to tell me that the story was really true?”
“It came very close, my friend. So far, we’ve won two wars that we couldn’t possibly have won if it hadn’t been for the Dreamers—and with the help of somebody we didn’t even know about. That’s another old story that you probably heard when you were a child.” He smiled. “As they always say, ‘the old ones are the best.’ That should brighten up your whole day, Athlan. We’re getting so much help that we can’t possibly lose.”
Dahlaine’s sister returned to Statha the following morning with a slightly puzzled look on her beautiful face.
“Well?” Dahlaine asked her.
“Somebody’s tampering, big brother,” she replied. “The Reindeer Tribes are all convinced that the southern tribes insulted them dreadfully, but they can’t quite remember just exactly what the insult was. I browsed around a bit, and they’re all certain that the insult was dreadful, but they can’t remember a word of it. I’m fairly sure that the servants of the Vlagh have come up with a way to instill a sense of outrage in the Reindeer Tribes with no real basis in fact. If this continues the way it’s going right now, you won’t have any Tonthakan archers to help you when the creatures of the Wasteland attack.”
Then the farmer from Veltan’s Domain came forward. “Excuse me,” he said, “but I just remembered something that might be useful here. It seems that there are certain sounds that the bug-people can’t pronounce. The shepherd Nanton told me that they lisp, and they can’t correctly pronounce the sound at the beginning of the words ‘cat,’ or ‘cow,’ or ‘kill.’ It comes out as a peculiar sort of ‘click’ that sounds very much like a hiccup.”
“Now that might be the answer to our problem right there,” Longbow said. “If there just happen to be several people with hiccups standing around any of the chieftains up in Reindeer country, it might just explain what’s happening. The bug-people have been able to manipulate quite a few ordinary people in the past.”
“Like Kajak, you mean?” Rabbit suggested.