“He was one of them, that’s for certain.”
“How?” Athlan demanded. “How in the world could a bug-man convince a chief that he’d been insulted when it really didn’t happen?”
“Let’s not throw the idea away,” Dahlaine said, frowning slightly. “Sometimes the bug-people use certain scents to set off reactions that aren’t really appropriate. It’s entirely possible that some scent made a chief of that Reindeer Hunter Tribe believe that something happened when it really hadn’t.”
“I’d say that it might be time for some of us to go up into Reindeer Land and listen for clicks and sniff the air,” Longbow suggested. “If there’s somebody smelly who clicks when he says ‘Tonthakan,’ it might just explain what’s going on up there.”
With Dahlaine in the lead, Athlan and Longbow, along with several outlanders, went north from Statha toward the border between Deer Hunter Land and the home of the Reindeer Tribes. It was a cloudy day, and for some reason that made Athlan just a bit edgy.
There weren’t any archers of the Reindeer Tribe guarding the border, and that was unusual. Since the path they were following went directly up from Statha, the border here was usually well guarded by both tribes.
“Peculiar,” Longbow observed. “If the Reindeer Tribe’s feeling belligerent, they should be watching this border very carefully.”
“Maybe they’ve come up with a plan of some kind,” the bulky sea-warrior Ox suggested. “They could have pulled back like this to lure Athlan and his bowmen into a trap. That would be very much like what Athlan here’s been doing to them lately, wouldn’t it?”
“It is possible, Lord Dahlaine,” the young Trogite Keselo agreed.
Dahlaine frowned. “There aren’t any of them in the immediate vicinity,” he said. “If they’re trying to lure us deeper into their territory, it would make sense to leave the border unprotected. The one we’re looking for is Chief Kadlar. He’s the one who was complaining about the stench coming from his dead archers a while back. He’s the one we want to track down, because he’s almost certainly the one who started all this. Let’s keep moving, gentlemen. I’ll be able to sense them if they’re hiding in the forest, and that’s probably all the warning we’ll need.”
They pushed on through the alien-looking forest. Athlan noticed that there were many more hemlock trees here than there were in the forests of Deer Hunter Land. He didn’t really care much for hemlock trees, since they gave off an unpleasant odor.
The small, wiry Rabbit moved on ahead of them, and after a while, he came scampering back out of the hemlock forest. “They’re just ahead of us,” he reported quietly to Dahlaine. “They’re gathering in a large meadow about a half mile to the north.”
“Archers?” Dahlaine asked.
“They all have bows,” Rabbit replied. “That says ‘archer’ to me. I didn’t count them, but I’d say there are a thousand or so.”
“Is there any open ground between us and that meadow?” Dahlaine asked. “I want them to see me coming so that they don’t start showering us with arrows. Kadlar may not like me all that much, but he does know that I’m the one who’s giving the orders around here.”
“There’s a dry creekbed that leads down into that meadow,” Rabbit replied. “It’s a little brushy, but I’m sure they’ll be able to see us if we stand up and walk instead of creeping through the brush.”
“Lead the way, Rabbit,” Dahlaine said. “When we get close to the normal range of a well-shot arrow, I’ll unlimber my pet thunderbolt to let Kadlar’s people know that it’s me. She’s terribly noisy, but she lets people know that I’m really who I say that I am.”
They veered off through the hemlock woods and then followed the dry streambed on down to the meadow.
“Kadlar!” Dahlaine roared in a voice people probably heard ten miles away, “I want to talk with you—now! Come here!”
The chief of the Reindeer Tribe was a large man of middle years who was fairly paunchy, and he appeared to be more than a little reluctant to obey Dahlaine. He approached warily, followed by several of his tribesmen.
“Why are you doing this, Kadlar?” Dahlaine demanded.
“The Deer Hunter Tribes insulted us, My Lord,” the paunchy chief replied. “We won’t tolerate that.”
Athlan noticed that most of Kadlar’s men were grouped up around him with their bows ready. There were two men, however, who seemed to be backing slowly away, and they were holding their bows rather awkwardly. “I think those two don’t really want to get too close to us, Longbow,” Athlan told his friend in a very quiet voice.
“You could be right,” Longbow agreed, his eyes going narrow. “Ox, why don’t you see if you can persuade those two who seem to want to leave to join us.”
Ox hefted his heavy iron axe a couple of times. “Do you think this might get their attention?” he asked.
“I’m sure it will,” Longbow said.
“Just exactly what was it that the Deer Hunter Tribe said that you found so offensive, Kadlar?” Dahlaine demanded.
“I won’t repeat it, Dahlaine. It was absolutely foul and uncalled for.”
“And who was it who used that language? Was it Chief Kathlak himself?”
Chief Kadlar frowned. “No, it wasn’t Kathlak,” he said. “It was somebody who was standing very close to him, though.”
“Give me a name, Kadlar,” Dahlaine insisted. “I can’t punish him if I don’t know his name.”
Kadlar looked a bit puzzled. “The name’s right on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t seem to remember it.”
Ox was herding the two reluctant natives back to the little group surrounding Chief Kadlar. “Here are those two bashful ones, Longbow,” he said with an evil grin.
“Good,” Longbow said. “Why don’t you have a word with them, Rabbit?” he added.
“My pleasure, Longbow,” the little fellow said. Then he walked over to the two that Ox was holding. “I seem to be all mixed up, friends,” he said with feigned confusion. “Could you tell me just exactly what part of Lord Dahlaine’s country this is?”
“I don’t understand,” one of them said.
“I’m sure that it has a name, friend,” Rabbit said. “I’m sure that I’ve heard it but I just can’t seem to remember what it is.”