“Do you have to wait until the last minute to mix them together?” Ekial asked.
“It’s much too dangerous to mix them before the last minute,” Keselo explained. “One spark will set fire to the mix, so we always wait until the last possible minute.”
“You’re the expert, Keselo,” Ekial said. “To be honest with you, I don’t want to get anywhere near that concoction.”
The weather turned foul the following morning. A steady drizzle of rain mixed with snow fell out of a gloomy sky as they set out.
Rabbit came back from farther on ahead of the rest of them. “It looks to me like Dahlaine’s got the wind pretty much under control,” he told Longbow and the others. “This storm might hang over us for a day or so, because it’s not going anywhere. The rain and snow are coming straight down, and there’s not a hint of a breeze in the air.”
Then Tlantar Two-Hands came back from even farther out to the front, and there was a Malavi horseman with him. “There’s a sizeable bison herd about a mile ahead of us,” Tlantar said. “We should probably slow down and let them go past us. We don’t want to startle them.”
“I’d pay close attention to what Tlantar just told you, my friends,” the Malavi advised. “Those shaggy things out there are at least four times as big as our cows in Malavi are. I’ve never seen any animal that big.”
“This is Skarn,” Tlantar introduced his companion. “He’ll be leading the Malavi who’ll go off to Tonthakan to drag Keselo’s catapult sleds here. I’ve talked with Padan, and he tells me that it won’t take the Trogites very long to build the catapults and sleds once they reach the forests over there. Skarn will take his horsemen over there in a few days, and he tells me that it won’t take them very long to bring the sleds back here.”
“That’s unless a few more bison herds get in our way,” Skarn amended. “I don’t mind pushing cows around to make them go where I want them to, but I’m not going to start pushing those bison around. I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my past, but I’m not stupid enough to irritate animals that big.”
“They do provide the important part of our food supply,” Chief Two-Hands reminded Skarn. Then he looked at the others in the group. “Be very careful around those bison herds,” he cautioned. “There are times when almost anything can startle them, and the whole herd starts to run.”
“That sounds very familiar,” Skarn said. “Our cows do exactly the same thing. We call it a ‘stampede.’”
“So do we,” Tlantar said. “A lot of our people have been killed in those stampedes. My own father died when he couldn’t run fast enough to get out of the way when a herd of bison started to run.”
Ekial led his advance force of a hundred Malavi horsemen north the following day while the rest of the men continued their march. It was late in the following afternoon when they saw a peculiar-looking cloud that appeared to be ignoring Dahlaine’s “no wind” interdiction.
“I thought the wind had been shut off,” Rabbit said.
“It’s what we call a ‘whirlwind’ up here,” Tlantar explained, “and I don’t think that even Dahlaine could order one of those to stop blowing.”
“They’re called ‘cyclones’ in some parts of the world,” Padan said, “and you’re probably right, Chief Two-Hands. I don’t think there’s anything that can stop them once they start to spin like that. How do your people avoid them?”
“We’ve had fair luck with holes in the ground,” Tlantar replied. “Every village has a well-constructed shelter under the ground to protect the people. The whirlwinds don’t sweep across one of the villages very often, but we don’t really want to take any chances.”
The dark, cone-shaped cloud moved off to the north, and Longbow and the others all thought that was very nice of it. As evening descended, they set up camp for the night and ate a rather sparse supper. It was not long after darkness had settled over the vast meadowland when a scar-faced Malavi horseman rode in. “My name is Orgal,” the rider announced as he swung down from his sweaty horse, “and Prince Ekial sent me here to tell you what’s been going on lately off to the north. We saw the Atazak invaders, and they don’t look to me like they’ll be very much trouble. There are quite a lot of them, but when we looked closer, we saw that at least half of them were women and children. There were a few of them who were brandishing things they might believe are quite threatening, but they’ll need a lot more practice before anybody will take them seriously. I’d say that most of them don’t even know what the word ‘war’ means. Of course, we were all riding horses, and I’d say that they might believe that the horse and the man riding him are just one creature—four legs on the bottom and two arms on the top—and with two heads of course. Whenever they see us coming, they run away.”
“How far ahead of us would you say they are?” Longbow asked the Malavi.
“I’d say about sixty miles.”
“It’ll take us about three more days to get there,” Longbow mused. “Can Prince Ekial hold?”
The horseman grinned. “Since the enemy’s too ignorant to know anything about wars, Ekial might just go on and defeat them all by himself.”
“That wouldn’t be at all polite,” Longbow said with a faint smile. “Do you suppose you could send a messenger off to the west? We’ve got several tribes of bowmen coming this way and some Trogites building catapults as well. They’ll all need a guide to bring them to the place where we’ll need them. There’s a Malavi named Skarn who’s over there with Keselo, and he has quite a few horsemen who’ll be able to spread the word once they know the route.”
“Skarn’s an old friend of mine,” Orgal said. “I’ll go over there and talk with him myself.” And he wheeled his horse and rode off to the west.
It was late in the afternoon two days later, and Longbow was fairly sure that they were nearing the region of northern Matakan where Prince Ekial was holding off the invasion of the Atazaks. Unfortunately, however, Longbow and his friends wouldn’t be able to go any farther today, and probably not tomorrow either.
“It looks almost like an ocean of fur out there, doesn’t it?” Rabbit suggested as they all stood on a hilltop watching the huge herd of bison running in panic toward the west and totally blocking Longbow and his friends from any further progress. “What do you suppose frightened them this time?”