“Why do you always have to make a joke out of everything you say, Red-Beard?”
“Laughter’s good for people, Trenicia,” Red-Beard said with a grin, “but I wasn’t really making a joke when I said that arrows wouldn’t be very useful if I decided to hunt bison. The Matans use spears instead of arrows, because an arrow won’t go deep enough into a bison to kill him—unless you happen to get very lucky. Matan spear-points are much bigger—and heavier—than my arrowheads are, so they go in deeper and leave much bigger wounds. My arrows will kill deer—or people—well enough, but they wouldn’t do the job on bison.”
Late the following day Trenicia was ranging out ahead of Narasan’s plodding army and she reached the top of the pass they’d been following. Then she immediately saw what Red-Beard had described as “miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles.” She’d never in her life seen any country so totally empty. The meadowland to the west was almost like an ocean of grass pushed into waves by a continual wind coming in from the west. In her entire life, Trenicia had never seen so much emptiness, and she stood there for a long time gazing out across that enormous vacancy.
Narasan joined her there after a while, and he also seemed almost stunned by that vast emptiness. “It might take a while to get used to that,” he murmured.
“Six or eight years, at least,” Trenicia agreed. “That’s a lot of empty out there. Just looking at it makes me feel terribly lonely.”
“I’ll hold your hand, if you’d like,” Narasan offered.
“We might want to talk about that,” Trenicia agreed with a fond smile. Oddly enough, the uncluttered meadow lying off to the west no longer disturbed her. Things suddenly seemed to be going along very well.
Late the following day Narasan’s army marched down out of the mountain range and moved on into the meadow.
“I think I’m going to need three or four cohorts, Narasan,” Padan said as the army continued its westward march.
“Were you planning to declare war on the grass?” Narasan asked his friend.
“Not really, O Mighty Commander,” Padan replied. “But unless you’d like to live on a steady diet of cold, uncooked beans for the next week or so, somebody’s going to have to gather up some firewood before we get too far away from these mountains, wouldn’t you say?”
“Good thinking there, Padan,” Narasan replied. “I must have had my mind on something else.” He glanced briefly at Trenicia, and then looked quickly away.
That definitely brightened Trenicia’s whole day.
It somehow seemed to Trenicia that they weren’t even moving as they pushed on out across the endless meadow for the next week or more, but then Red-Beard turned and galloped Seven back to join Narasan and the others. “If you look carefully off to the west, you’ll be able to see Mount Shrak sticking up out of the grass,” he told them. “We’ve still got quite a way to go, but at least we can see our destination now.”
Trenicia shaded her eyes with her hand and peered off to the west at what appeared to be a small, steep clump of rocks out near the western horizon.
“Well, finally,” Narasan said. “There for a while, I thought we might have to walk until the middle of winter. How far off would you say that mountain is, Red-Beard?”
“Three or four days, anyway. We still have a long way to go, I’m afraid. Dahlaine’s almost positive that his pet mountain’s the highest peak in the world, and for all I know, he could just be right. Don’t take off your boots yet, Narasan. We’ve still got a lot of miles spread out there in front of us.”
The lack of obstructions in the meadowland of the Matakan Nation had given Narasan the opportunity to spread his army out, and they were now covering much more ground each day than they had in rougher country, so it was only about two and a half days later when they reached Dahlaine’s mountain.
As Red-Beard had suggested, the fact that Mount Shrak was an isolated peak rising up out of the surrounding plain made it appear to be even higher, but it was the herd of Malavi horses grazing in the vicinity of the solitary mountain that got Trenicia’s immediate attention. Ekial, the head man of the Malavi, had told them that he would be able to field fifty thousand men, but fifty thousand horses covered much more land than their owners ever could. It seemed to Trenicia that the horse herd stretched almost from horizon to horizon.
Then Dahlaine, followed by Sorgan and Ekial, came out of a large hole in the side of Mount Shrak. Trenicia had heard about “caves” before, but this was the first time she’d ever seen one. For all she knew, however, Mount Shrak might just be an illusion that Dahlaine had conjured up to conceal a palace. Sorgan went directly to Narasan and the two of them clasped hands in that gesture of friendship that men seemed to find quite necessary.
The Malavi chieftain Ekial, however, came over to Trenicia. “Zelana told us that her sister was trying to deceive everybody and conceal her little girl’s Dream. If I understood what Zelana told us correctly, you threw all those precious jewels right back in her face and told her that you weren’t going to help her anymore.”
Trenicia smiled. “That might have been an even better way to show her that she and I were through, but it didn’t occur to me. I was just a bit angry at the time, so I wasn’t thinking too clearly. I threw them at her feet instead of right in her face.”
“You didn’t really have to just throw them away like that, Trenicia,” Ekial said with a concerned expression. “Her deception was a violation of your agreement. You could have kept the jewels and just walked away, you know. Once she’d put them in your hands, they were yours.”
“As dishonest as Aracia is, I wasn’t at all certain that what she’d given me were really all that valuable, Ekial, and I wasn’t about to start decorating myself with cheap trinkets. That’s why I threw them down on the floor and walked away.”
“I hate to see a friend get cheated the way you were, Queen Trenicia,” Ekial stubbornly declared.
“You and I are friends now, Ekial?” Trenicia asked in mock surprise.
“Of course we are,” he replied. “We’re fighting on the same side in this war, and that automatically makes us friends, doesn’t it?”
“You could be right, Ekial,” Trenicia conceded. “Let’s say that we are friends—up until we wind up on opposite sides in some war on down the line.”