Hsrandtuss nodded knowingly as he surveyed the forest for miles around from the top of hill his people had named Dhu-oooastu. He pointed first to the south and nodded to Tusskiqu. The great lizzie hissed in reply. Then Hsrandtuss pointed to the southeast and nodded to Slechtiss. Slechtiss placed his hand to his throat and then hurried off. A dozen brightly painted lizzies hurried after him. Others went with Tusskiqu. Still more were hurrying this way and that.
“I can’t tell what’s going on?” said the single tiny human amid the army of lizzies.
Hsrandtuss reached down and picked Terra Dechantagne up, setting her on his shoulder. Then he pointed high up into the clouds. The girl could make out little among the great fluffy masses at first. Then she saw something sapphire blue zipping across the sky at amazing speed.
“Is that it?”
“Yes,” replied the King. “That is Xecheon’s new god.”
“My eyes must be playing tricks. It doesn’t look any larger than me.”
“It is bigger than you, but not so big that I couldn’t still put it on my shoulder instead of a skinny soft-skin.” Then he gurgled loudly.
“We’re very nearly the same size,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be glorious to engage in hand-to-hand combat with a god?”
“It wouldn’t be a very long combat,” she said. “Dragon armor is essentially indestructible. They have teeth that can bit through steel, frighteningly sharp claws, and a barbed tail. They breathe fire and usually have some other breath weapon. They are extremely intelligent and are capable of magic.”
“Why did I bring you along with me?” wondered Hsrandtuss. “Was it just to depress me?”
“I will be quite honest, Great King. I have no idea why I’m here.”
“You are here to learn how to be a great warrior. Now, pay attention. The dragon is observing us for the enemy, so I have been very careful to let her see exactly where my forces are going. Tusskiqu is taking a force of four thousand to intercept their left column of war machines. Can you see their smoke?”
He pointed and the girl could make out about a dozen columns of black smoke rising above the trees in the distance.
“Slechtiss is taking a thousand riflemen and three thousand warriors to intercept the other war machines. Of course, that leaves our headquarters here completely unprotected.”
“But you have more than eight thousand warriors, Great King,” Terra pointed out.
“Yes indeed. But you see, the dragon has told their general, my old friend Tokkenttot, that I have left the bulk of my forces in Yessonarah to defend against their fearsome human machines.”
“Why would she think that?”
“It probably has something to do with the thirty thousand females painted like warriors who are even now patrolling the walls.”
“As I just pointed out, Great King,” said Terra. “Dragons are very smart. In addition, they are famed for their eyesight. They can see things that would be invisible to anyone else. They can see in complete darkness. They can see the difference in temperatures. How is this dragon going to be fooled?”
“You are only about six years old, so I am going to forgive your ignorance.”
“I am fifteen.”
“I still forgive you,” said the king. “You and Child of the Sunrise are the two smartest humans I have ever met. Perhaps you are remarkable specimens, or perhaps I have had very bad luck in the soft-skins that I have happened upon. But you are very young and sometimes intelligence does not substitute for experience. The dragon may very well notice something different among the warriors on our walls, but will she know why that difference is important? I don’t think so, and neither does Yessonar. Oh yes, little one. Do not forget that we have our own dragon.
“So where are the rest of our warriors?” whispered Terra. “I mean the real ones.”
“Ah, here is the next lesson. A great warrior plans where his battle will take place. That is how I killed so many of your people.” He paused to look for her reaction. She just shrugged. “We have carefully arranged for the war machines to ride over a series of underground caves that run in a long chain from just south of here to the west. I’ve had 20,000 males working the last 72 hours straight to weaken some of the stone supporting the cave ceilings. When the machines go over them, a few, relatively small charges will drop them down into the earth, along with all the warriors on foot that travel with them.”
“And when is this going to happen?” asked Terra.
Hsrandtuss pulled a gold pocket watch from a small pouch on his belt. Flipping open the cover, he examined it. “Assuming Tokkenttot is as foolish as I expect him to be, our counter attack will occur when the little hand is on the two stacked stones and the large hand is on the claw.”
“Eight-fifteen,” translated Terra. “In about thirty minutes.”
“Yes,” said Hsrandtuss, pulling her from his shoulder and dropping her onto a folding chair. He sat down on an identical one, and waved his hand. “Just enough time for breakfast.”
A male brought a plate full of kippers and sat it in the girl’s lap.
“Your favorite,” said the king, as another male gave him two large raw eggs and a small cooked bird. “Eat up. The battlefield usually makes one vomit their first time and it is better to have something on your stomach.”
“But we’re miles from…” Terra’s voice drifted off.
“Now you see the hole in the plan,” said Hsrandtuss, breaking an egg into his mouth.
“Um, you said we were unprotected here at the headquarters—completely unprotected. Surely that means that Tokkenttot will send a force here to attack us. It will be his best chance to kill you.”
“Yes, he will want to make sure he kills me. He really doesn’t like me. I expect him to send between two and four thousand warriors.”
“But why? Why did you make it seem we were unprotected… or wait. Are we really unprotected?”
“Well, as for why,” said the king. “Isn’t it obvious?”
“We want to be part of the battle! We want to feel the glory of victory! We can’t let Tusskiqu and Slechtiss have all the fun. Can we? Maybe… maybe Tokkenttot will have enough tail to lead the attack himself? What do you think?”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” said Terra, so off balance that she spilled all her kippers onto the dirty ground.
“Imagine it,” said Hsrandtuss, standing up. “There we are! At the top of the hill is Hsrandtuss the king, sword in hand! Next to him is Stands Up Tall With a King, her thunder weapon in one hand and her tiny but bloodied sword in the other! All alone…”
Several of the nearby males gurgled.
“All alone, but for a few sturdy warriors whose names will go down in history, they face off against one or two or ten thousand warriors of Xecheon, and Yessonar be willing, a dragon!” The great king took a deep breath. “A dragon! You could not find a better death if you searched a thousand years. I have never seen a better opportunity for my death than this. It’s not a bad death for you either, Kaetarrnaya. Your father had a fine death—as you yourself said, a good exchange, but this would be much superior. The humans can sing songs about your death—the bravest young female since… since that one that you humans admire so much.”
“Yes, that’s the one. Your death will be infinitely superior to hers.”