“I thought we were going to let the bison trample those stupid Atazaks,” Chief Two-Hands said.
“Not until Ekial can get the ordinaries to a safe place,” Longbow explained. “Athlan and I talked it over, and it seemed to us that a brief arrow shower would persuade the ‘Guardians of Divinity’ to pull back. They won’t be in Ekial’s way now, so he won’t encounter any interference when he herds the ordinaries off to safety. Then, too, if the ‘Guardians’ are back down the east slope a ways, the bison will have enough time and distance ahead of them to build up their speed. A running trample should work better than a walking one. Excuse me a moment.” He lifted his horn and blew the agreed-upon signal. “Ekial will move now,” he told the others. “We’re not sure just how fast the ordinaries can move. They probably haven’t been eating too well, so they might be just a little weak.”
Prince Ekial and his men were surprisingly gentle as they escorted the unfortunate “ordinaries” out of harm’s way. Ekial frequently assumed a pose of blunt brutality, but Longbow had been quite certain that it was nothing more than a pose. Deep down where it really mattered, Ekial was anything but brutal. It did make a certain amount of sense. After all, Ekial had spent most of his life tending his cattle, and to some degree those cows were almost pets.
Prince Ekial’s pose came apart when he leaned over in his saddle and picked up a small child who’d been falling behind and carried the little boy off to safety.
“You saw that, too, didn’t you?” Rabbit said with a faint smile. “It seems that ‘big bad Ekial’ might just have a few soft spots in his nature.”
“I wouldn’t make an issue of that the next time you see him, little friend,” Longbow suggested.
“I wouldn’t think of it,” Rabbit replied. “I might try limping just a bit, though. If I limp a lot, I might even get a free ride.”
The eastern horizon had taken on a faint glow when Red-Beard’s horn announced that the unarmed Atazaks had reached safety, and Rabbit raised his horn to pass the word on to Keselo. “Just a precaution,” the little smith told Longbow and the others. “Keselo’s quite a ways on down that old riverbed, and it’s fairly important right now for him to start setting fires.”
Longbow looked off to the east and saw that the retreat of the “Guardians” had taken them only a short distance beyond the range of the arrows of the Tonthakan archers. Evidently, Holy Azakan still held a fairly firm grip on those who were supposed to protect him.
Then the sound of Keselo’s horn came up the dry riverbed, and Longbow and his friends watched as the shaggy bison were introduced to fire. Their response was very appropriate under the circumstances.
Then, after a while, Keselo’s first fire flickered and died, another one of his catapults sent fresh fire on up the riverbed, and the bison continued their flight.
“It seems to be working,” Athlan observed.
“Keselo’s a very dependable young man,” Rabbit replied.
“We’ll see,” Chief Two-Hands said. “I want to find out if he can turn back any of the bison that try to get clear of that riverbed. That’s what’s going to tell us whether this will work or not. If just one bison reaches safety, the whole herd will follow him, and this will fall apart on us.”
“You’re a gloomy sort of fellow,” Rabbit noted. “Try to look on the bright side.”
“Since that pestilence came here, there hasn’t been a bright side,” Two-Hands retorted.
“We’re just about to find out, Chief Two-Hands,” Tladak said. “Off on the south side of the riverbed—one of the bison just started up the side-slope.”
Longbow saw the fleeing bison, and he held his breath.
“Here comes Keselo’s answer,” Rabbit said.
They all watched the fleeing bison scrambling up the rock-strewn slope. Then, almost like a comet, a fireball came hurtling across the dry riverbed and smashed into the grassy upper side of the slope, splashing gobs of burning tar and tree pitch in all directions.
The fleeing bison wheeled around and ran back down to rejoin its herd-mates.
“Is everything all better now, Chief Two-Hands?” Rabbit asked with a knowing grin.
“Does he do that all the time?” Two-Hands asked Longbow.
“It’s not uncommon,” Longbow replied. “Rabbit’s very clever, and he enjoys rubbing other people’s noses in that. We’ve tried to break him of the habit, but it still pops out every so often.”
* * *
Padan’s soldiers and the Tonthakan archers began to tear the sod breastworks apart, moving as fast as they possibly could.
“Don’t take too much time, Padan!” Longbow called. “Just shove the breastworks over. You don’t have enough time to carry the sod blocks out of the way. The bison will trample them flat anyway.”
“That’s the way we’ll do ’er, Cap’n!” Padan shouted back with a broad grin.
“Clown,” Longbow muttered under his breath.
“They’re slowing just a bit, Longbow,” Rabbit called from the front side of the knoll. “It looks to me like they’re getting a little winded.”
“Is Keselo still setting his fires?”
“I think he’s just about run out of grass. He’s still dropping fire-missiles right behind the back end of the herd, though. Do you want me to sound the stop toot?”
“Maybe you’d better,” Longbow replied. “Padan’s running a bit behind.”
Rabbit raised his horn and blew two sharp notes.
Keselo’s catapults stopped hurling fireballs, and the flight of the bison gradually slowed.
Longbow looked off to the east of the knoll and saw that the cloud of dust the Malavi horsemen had stirred up during the rescue of the Atazak commoners had begun to settle back to earth, and the “Guardians of Divinity” that had fled the arrow-storm of the Tonthakans were more than a little distressed as they gradually came to realize that the ordinaries no longer stood between them and their enemies. The higher-ranking Guardians who surrounded Divine Azakan seemed to grasp that even more quickly than their comrades did, and they spread out and moved forward with their spears held threateningly to persuade the Atazakans who now formed the most forward ranks that the option of flight was no longer open to them.
“They spend more time waving their spears at each other than they do when they’re trying to frighten an enemy, don’t they?” Rabbit observed.