Longbow shrugged. “I’m fairly sure that she knows already, Veltan,” he said. “I don’t think that there’s very much of anything that she doesn’t know about, when you get right down to it.”

Then several things that had taken place near the Falls of Vash suddenly all fit together for Trenicia, and she stared at the wife of the stodgy farmer Omago in open astonishment.

“That was quick,” Ara’s voice came soundlessly to the warrior queen. “You’re more clever than you appear to be, Queen Trenicia. Some of the others have caught a few hints, but they haven’t quite put them together yet.”

Trenicia tried to speak, but her tongue seemed to have gone to sleep.

“Not out loud, dear,” Ara’s voice scolded. “Don’t upset the children just yet.”

“Which children?” Trenicia silently demanded.

“They’re all children, dear. Didn’t you know that? They call it ‘war,’ but it’s really just a game. Let them play, dear. It keeps them busy and out from underfoot. You and I can talk about this some other time, Trenicia. I’m going to be occupied for a while, so this can wait.”

Trenicia began to shiver and she stared at the pretty lady in astonishment.

“Don’t let your mouth gape open like that, Trenicia,” Ara’s voice chided. “It’s not very becoming.”

THE PESTILENCE

1

Tlantar was born in the village of Asmie, which was snuggled up against the south side of Mount Shrak, the home of Dahlaine of the North, the eldest of the gods of the Land of Dhrall.

Tlantar’s father, Tladan, was the chief of Asmie, and Dahlaine frequently came by Tladan’s lodge when he wanted to send word to other Matan villages, so Tlantar was perhaps much more familiar with him than were the children of the other villagers in Asmie.

The close proximity of the village to the towering Mount Shrak didn’t seem to make much sense in the summertime, but when winter came roaring in, Mount Shrak was Asmie’s dearest friend, sheltering her from howling gales and blizzards that went on for weeks at a time. The lodges of the tribe were solidly built of sod blocks and thatched roofs held in place with heavy rocks, and they were clustered tightly together with overlapping roofs. Tlantar was quite sure that winter found that to be very offensive, since there was no way she’d be able to pile her pet snowflakes in the narrow passages between the lodges. All in all, the villagers were quite smug about winter’s discontent.

There was a nice little brook that giggled down through Asmie, generously giving the tribe all the water they needed, and the endless meadow to the south of the village provided fuel for the cooking fires—if the members of the tribe had gathered up enough of the plentiful bison droppings to get them through the following winter.

Tlantar’s early childhood was a time of impatience for him. The men of Asmie spent most of their time in the hunt. There was an almost ritual quality about the hunting of the bison of Matan. They were very large animals, shaggy, humpbacked, and not really very bright. Their horns were massive, and they were joined together at the base in the center of the animal’s forehead. Many of the younger men of Asmie seemed to think that the bison was a stupid and timid animal, but Tlantar had some serious doubts about that. It seemed to him that the reaction of the bison to anything that happened in their immediate vicinity was most effective. One frightened and fleeing animal posed no threat to anyone who happened to be nearby, but the bison of Matakan were herd animals, so they ran away in groups, and Tlantar was quite certain that the flight of the bison wasn’t really a response to panic, but was a clever way to deal with anything that threatened the herd. The stampede of a herd of bison could kill almost anything—or anyone—who posed a threat. Any man with even a hint of intelligence knew that standing in the path of a thousand fleeing animals, each of which was at least ten times as heavy as a full-grown man, was an act of pure stupidity. The horns of the bison of Matakan were most impressive, but the older men of the tribe warned the boys that it was the hooves of the bison that were really deadly. The experienced hunters all seemed to have a habit of repeating the same warning to the novices. “Don’t ever stand in front of them if they start to run.”

It was when Tlantar was about ten years old that his father and several of the other experienced hunters returned to the village from the hunt and told the boys of Asmie that there was something not far away that they should see. They led the boys out across the grassland to a spot a mile or so to the west of Asmie and then pointed at a place where the grass seemed to be all mashed flat. “Go look,” Tlantar’s father commanded the boys.

When the boys reached the area of mashed-down grass, several of them began to vomit. Tlantar clenched his teeth to keep his breakfast where it was supposed to be as he stared in horror at the remains of what had probably been a hunter who hadn’t been clever enough—or agile enough—to get out from in front of a stampeding herd of bison.

The splintered pieces of a Matan spear-thrower and the scraps of what had probably been the hunter’s shirt confirmed the fact that what was scattered about in the mashed-down grass had been a man not too long ago, but what was left of him was not recognizable.

“All right, boys,” Chief Tladan called, “that’s enough. Come away from there. Now you know what’s likely to happen to you if you make a mistake when you’re hunting bison. It’s not very pretty, but it was important for you to see it.”

“Who was he, Chief Tladan?” one of the boys asked when they rejoined the older men of the tribe.

Tlantar’s father shrugged. “We can’t really be sure yet. When everybody comes home later, we’ll count noses. One of the men of the tribe won’t be among us, and that should let us know just who it is that’s scattered around out there. We’re lucky that there’s only one dead man involved. When there are four or five, it’s very difficult to keep the bits and pieces separate when you bury them, and every man should have his own grave, wouldn’t you say?”

It was about a year later when Tlantar began his training with the clever device the Matans all referred to as “the spear-thrower.” The experienced hunters told the boys that a man who knew what he was doing could cast a spear twice as far with his spear-thrower as he could if he just picked up his spear and threw it with his hand. As one wry old hunter told them, “Those extra yards can be very important. They give you just a bit more time to run away if you happen to miss on your first cast. Bison always seem to get sort of grouchy when people start throwing spears at them, and you don’t want to be too close when they come running in your direction.”

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