By midafternoon, great gray-green clouds of billowing smoke roll almost lazily across open countryside, obscuring much from view. Crackling, roaring flames leap and scuttle, here darting low across-ground, there lunging upward some hundreds of feet into purple-green atmosphere.
Fire brigades double-time from village to village, attempting to form fire breaks and set backfires against the searing onslaught.
Jogging confidently in a zig-zag course, long columns of jungle bred warriors approach Central Village. Well east and north of the fire’s holocaust, they move along what appear to be abandoned trails. But no; what is this? Enemy scouts parallel Jinda’s columns; Ptolia has not been fooled. Information on invading troop movement is being relayed ahead; numerous detachments scurry here and there. Other groups slither through massive whotol stalk entanglements toward the oncoming columns. A vast funnel is formed, into which an overconfident Jinda leads his thousands. Ghian’s people have reacted with incredible swiftness.
All these thousands of little selves, scrambling to do battle with each other, bent on mutual destruction in the name of physical conquest. And there…Dwagels! Stunted island dwellers, using astral bodies to monitor the impending battle at a distance. Their limited projection method does not provide complete freedom, but enough to dart about, gathering information.
But…why do they care about this war?
Battle cries rise in a great tumult from Central Village as combat commences. Jindanian columns certain of surprise victory in their lightning strike, are met by a hail of arrows backed by sword-swinging Ptolians. Funnel sides and throat close on Jinda’s army from three sides. All is snarled, confused, a din and commotion lacking any semblance of order.
Leading from the front, Jinda falls in the first hail of arrows. Blessed Hargole, young tiger cat that he is, stands above his fallen chieftain, hewing this way and that, silent except for ragged breathing and the much repeated whistle-crunch of his slashing sword. How is it he continues to stand, beset on all sides by accursed Ptolian Clansas, he has no idea. Enemies fall about him until he is protected by their very numbers. Encircled in the bodies of opponents either dead or dying, his sword arm swings until it can swing no more; he drops his shield and changed sword hands.
Suddenly there comes a lull. Not in the general battle, but its center has shifted. Hargole looks down, love and compassion filling him at the sight beneath his feet. His fallen god reposes at peace, curled on his side, blood already drying. Jinda is dead.
It is thus the Ptolian lance finds his young back, a cowardly throw from cover snuffing the life of he who will become a legend among his people. There is an impression of shocked surprise, of seeing his own body jerk and lie still, of the thrower running to retrieve his weapon. Then nothing.
Three hundred yards west of Hargole’s last stand, Karra huddles in the hidden Nursery Pit with Ptolian children too young to either run or fight. At first, she tries to track Ghian’s wave. It is hopeless. Death patterns and more death patterns pound at her senses; waves of fear, agony, and unspeakable violence crash unceasingly against her mental shields. She has no time to herself. Plains children are not without courage; they come of good stock. But in times of war, such waves terrify them unless their shepherdess can stabilize them with her own calm serenity.
Knowing the stakes, Karra continues her efforts to maintain absolute balance; even a momentary slip will mean panic beyond recall and death to them all. Her son is much help, monitoring his mother and shoring up her own thought patterns with a delicate skill and strength beyond his years. Here will he win his name of future cycles: Hisong, he who tunes in the waves at a high level. Hisong the Supporter.
In the midst of it all, Ghian the Great’s often underestimated mate finds herself wishing for a cup of alfalfa tea, smiling at her own weakness. Perhaps she should ask the Jungle People for time out to set up tea for all! He-who-will-be-Hisong reads her thought; shortly, she has her tea. It isn’t much help. She struggles on.
Outside, Ptolian and Jindanian alike continue to die, some masking fear beneath fierce countenance and heroic deeds, others actually knowing no fear, still others panicking in the midst of battle and dying cowards’ deaths with enemy arrow, knife, or lance piercing unprotected backs as they attempt to flee. In death, there is little distinction. Hero, coward, and fool like alike together in heaps here, scattered groups there, none of the living daring to pause to count the cost or mourn a missing comrade. There is no time.
Leh Ghian the Great leans against a fruit tree, great sobbing breaths wracking his huge body. For some moments, he can find neither strength nor will to speak. Other Ptolians sprawl around him in death or total exhaustion, some wounded critically, almost none without scratches. From early afternoon has his sword arm swung, decapitating or disemboweling he knows not how many. Jindanian blood has proven as red as Ptolian, Jindanian courage and will to fight no less. As far as the eye can see, bodies of both sides litter the ground, a butcher’s bill the likes of which he had hoped to never see again. By this time tomorrow, they will begin to stink in the first stages of decomposition.
Many of the enemy have escaped, but more than half have fallen. Those who flee leave the bodies of their comrades without compunction; let Ptolia bury the dead and torture the wounded.
Sardole the Quick leans against another tree, some few paces from his leader. Hasty and impetuous this one is, prone to foolish moves where caution would be better advised, yet invaluable in open battle. He has watched Ghian’s back well, more than once leaping with incredible swiftness to stand back to back with his Spokesman. Ghian feels love and appreciation swelling in his tired breast.
It has taken the combined thrust of all Ptolian contingents to repel Jinda’s attack. Barule, leading his Thrust Troop into first contact, has suffered most in terms of dead and wounded in his unit. Lainus, bringing in the Home Guard a mark later, turned Jinda’s southeast flank. Azanus’s Scouts held the northwest flank, fighting where village buildings huddled close together and their limited numbers could be most effectrive.
Even so, Victory chose sides only when Lasin’s Mate Troop charged in from the rear at midafternoon, late to battle because their drilling point lay several marks farther north than any other. Jindanian warriors fought superbly until that time, but to have their only open side closed off by war-screaming females…Jinda’s people had faltered then, finally giving way completely. Jungle women fight, but not in seasoned, well disciplined formations like these lightning quick plains hellcats.
A key casualty is Lasin herself, a bloody bandage bound tightly about the stump of her severed sword hand. She slumps unconscious against her second in command.
Ghian himself limps, blood staining the wrappings around a deep thigh wound. A lance had caught him there, barely missing the femoral artery. He had ordered those nearest hom to push the barbed head on through, then bound his own leg and gone on fighting. Except for Lasin, he did not know how the Troop Commanders had fared. It would probably be evening before enough information could be gathered for intelligent Council. In the meantime…Karra!
“Sardole!” The Quick One straightened immediately, fatigue seeming to slough from his body at Ghian’s tone. “Sardole, Karra still maintains the Nursery Pit. Take some warriors. Go!”
Sardole went, gesturing tersely at several others. They rose wearily from the ground and straggled after him. Within a dozen paces, he managed to move into Ptolia’s familiar jog-lope. Karra and her son had shepherded those young ones for many marks; her own exhaustion could scarce be less than that of any sword-weary warrior. Concentrating on serenity, he cast forth a wave of calm, victory, reassurance. The Spokesman’s mate would feel him coming, know is his identity, use his own confidence to hold the children together just that little bit longer.
Ah. There. Contact. He felt Karra’s tired but sure wave touch his, grateful, sympathetic for his own fatigue.
Once Sardole was gone, Ghian allowed himself to slump to a sitting position, resting his wounded leg. He faced west, where nightfall brought flames from burning whotol fields into sharp relief. Ah, tragedy. What a uselessly destructive ploy these Jindanians had attempted, all to no purpose. The fire, failing as a decoy, yet blazed.
Those flames, those great columns of smoke, looked to be more than a day’s run away by now. Aged elders, half grown youngsters, and many females fought that wildfire. How many were their casualties? Did the inferno show any sign of being contained? If not, that whotol surviving the drought would now be lost in smoke and despair.
Hunger on the plains, then. Possibly even famine.
He sighed. Perhaps there was a good side to it. That fire must be closing on Garrhan’s fields. If the alfalfa burned along with everything else, perhaps anti-Outcast gossip would die down a bit. The Great One was far too tired to notice he had automatically thought the name of friendship rather than a shortened Outcast-insult.
Ghian is right about the fire’s position. It is indeed approaching Garrhan’s fields. Lines of Ptolians of all ages stumble ahead of choking smoke, retreating as hastily as possible in their wearied condition. Backfire after backfire has failed. The whotol is too tall, the trails too narrow. The front has spread, gradually changing direction as though possessed of a homing device locked in on alfalfa.
Or on Garrhan the Sure.
Garrhan is ready; the Eck has warned him. Al his preparations have been made alone, despite strong protestations from Rajee and Marna. Marna is still worn from worn from harvesting alone, bone thin and lacking reserves. Rajee is not yet recovered from his jungle ordeal; he may in fact never recover fully. Both would hinder rather than help; they are forced to remain at hutside, sensing the war, smelling smoke, visiting with each other. Fortunately, they talk better in private than they do with the Sure One. Garrhan is too intense, too single minded, to unwilling to listen to any sort of reason once he has decided on a course of action.
Having spent much time in contemplation, the lean Ptolian knows the exact course the fire will take. One mile southeast of the hut, he fires an edge of field by a narrow trail. Three foot alfalfa does not give flame much opportunity to jump; his first backfire is successful. He jogs back and forth all day, setting wider and wider strips afire to join the first one. At sunset, his task finished, he is tired, but not without reserves. He stands at the edge of his neighbor’s whotol fields and waits.
It is not long before the first Ptolians stumble warily from tangled whotol. Smoke already chases them; flame will not be far behind. As they stare with astonishment at Grrhan’s already blackened fields, he gestures firmly, “Go on across! Go on across! Go on across the firebreak and wait!”
They are on his land now and not likely to ignore his authority, even under these conditions. Bewildered, confused, defeated by the searing red monster that has claimed many lives, they gradually catch confidence from the calm certainty in Garrhan’s voice and begin moving across the mile-wide firebreak as directed.
The firefight is over. Bitter, acrid smoke rolls over them, but flame dies as it reaches this uncompromising wasteland. Some survivors are immediately and forever grateful for Garrhan’s wisdom. Others begin to wonder bitterly why he did not come to help them earlier, before so much whotol and so many lives were lost. Most are too numb to consider the matter at all.