Tlantar nodded. “Too many times, actually,” he said glumly.
“Don’t be so sorrowful, friend Two-Hands. This might be one of the nice times. There’s that large herd of bison that was following Keselo’s sleds up that old riverbed. Now, if a fire broke out just behind them, they’d almost certainly stay down in that riverbed, wouldn’t they?”
“Not necessarily, Longbow. If one of them veered off and went on up the side of the riverbed to get away from the fire, the entire herd could scramble on up to safety.”
“Not if other fires were suddenly appearing right in front of them, they wouldn’t.”
“It’s an interesting idea, Longbow,” Two-Hands said, “but Rabbit just kicked several holes in this plan of yours. If a fire doesn’t have a wind to drive it, it won’t go very far. Were you planning to run along behind the bison with a torch and set new fires every hundred yards or so?”
“I don’t think that’ll be necessary, Chief Two-Hands,” Longbow said with a broad grin. “I have this friend called Keselo who has a way to set fire to anything—or anybody—that he wants to. He has a special tool that was made to set fires, and Keselo can set fires behind the bison, or in front of any of them that want to veer off in search of safety. If Keselo is down there with his engines, the bison will stampede up that old riverbed, and none of them will get very far if they try to leave the riverbed. Once they start, Keselo can herd them up that old dried-up riverbed until they reach the top of this ridge. Then they’ll run on toward the east with more fire snapping at their tails. They probably won’t even notice Holy Azakan or his noble but inept Guardians. They’ll just run right over the top of them without even slowing down.”
“This is likely to get just a bit tricky, Longbow,” Ekial said dubiously. “My men and I will have to peel off the common people and run them off to a safe place before Keselo starts the bison stampede, and none of us can be positive how long that’s going to take. Worse yet, we’ll probably be out of sight when we do reach that safe place. How will you and Keselo know exactly when to start setting the grass on fire?”
“It sounds to me like we’ll be going back to horns, doesn’t it, Longbow?” Rabbit suggested.
“I was sort of thinking along those lines myself,” Longbow agreed. “You were watching us during the war down in Veltan’s Domain, Ekial, and you probably heard a fair amount of toots.”
“Toots?” Ekial asked, frowning slightly.
“It’s a term Eleria used quite often,” Longbow explained. “The Maags use brass horns to communicate with each other, and the native people of Zelana’s Domain use animal horns to do much the same. If Red-Beard rides Seven and goes along with you, he can blow his horn when you’ve herded the Atazak commoners to a safe place. Keselo won’t set fire to the grass behind the bison until he hears Red-Beard’s horn.” Longbow frowned. “Just to be on the safe side, I think maybe Keselo should blow his horn when his catapults throw fire missiles into the grass behind the bison herd. When those of us standing behind the breastworks hear Keselo’s toot, we’ll kick the breastworks apart and then run away.”
“You’re going to destroy the breastworks my men and I built to protect you?” Padan protested.
“We don’t want anything to get in the way of the bison, do we? They might not know it, but they’ll be working for us. We want to make things as easy as possible for our shaggy new friends, don’t we? The bison will have a nice clear path to follow, so they’ll run right over the top of Divine—but crazy—Azakan and his devoted Guardians, and this ‘invasion’ will cease to exist along about then. ‘Holy Azakan’ will scream orders to lightning, wind, and, for all I know, to grass and dirt as well, but I don’t think they’ll listen. The nice thing about this will show up along about next spring. The grass up here will be very green, and it’ll grow much taller than usual. Atazaks that have been trampled down into mush should make excellent fertilizer, wouldn’t you say?”
“You are an evil man, Longbow,” Ekial declared, but then he burst out laughing.
At first light the following morning Longbow and several of his friends went on up to the top of a small knoll that rose at the head of the shallow riverbed and overlooked Padan’s breastworks and the gentle slope currently occupied by the Atazak invaders.
“It’s still just a bit dark to see very much,” Rabbit observed. “The days seem to be getting shorter and shorter, don’t they?”
“That’s one of the peculiarities of this time of the year,” Tladan said without smiling. “Winter doesn’t seem to like long days, for some reason.”
“I’ve never actually seen it,” Athlan said, “but I’ve heard that one of the Reindeer tribes lives so far to the north that the sun sets in the late autumn and doesn’t come back up until early spring in their territory. She makes up for it in midsummer, though. She doesn’t go down at all, so the people live out about a month or so without any nights. There’s nothing but broad daylight up there for about forty days.”
“That might make it a little hard to get any sleep,” Chief Two-Hands said.
“They catch up on their sleep the following winter, most likely,” Athlan said, peering down the riverbed. “As close as I can tell, Keselo’s set up his engines about two miles down that dry wash. They appear to be on the outer edge of the wash. Isn’t that quite a ways away from where he’ll be setting the grass on fire?”
“I think his catapults might surprise you, Athlan,” Rabbit said. “The Trogites were throwing fireballs a good half mile in Veltan-Land during the last war.” He looked at Longbow. “Did Ekial give you any idea of just when he was going to sweep in and herd the ordinary Atazaks out from in front of the ones who carry spears?” he asked.
“I think he’ll want just a little more light,” Longbow replied. “He wants to be sure that he’s got all of them. Then, too, Keselo will need to be able to see the bison before he starts his fires. We want those fires behind the herd, not right in the middle.”
The Tonthakan archers were sending their arrows over the unarmed Atazak commoners, and a fair number of the “Guardians of Divinity” had begun to sprout arrow feathers in places nobody wants penetrated.