Tokkenoht sighed and looked at the warriors around her. She could see it in their eyes. They were all thinking the same thing: a female had no business in a scouting party. Of course none of them had said it to Hsrandtuss. The worst thing about it was that Tokkenoht agreed with them. She no more wanted to be wandering around the forest with a hundred warriors than they wanted her with them. Of course she hadn’t said anything to the king either.
“We are ready, Your Eminence,” said Szerl, the veteran warrior that was her second in command.
Tokkenoht nodded in agreement, but also in recognition. There was more in the eyes of the warriors than just the unusualness of having a female with them. There was anger at having a female in command. Hsrandtuss was clear though. With Straatin having been killed in the attempted coup, and with Slechtiss out of favor, having lost the king’s trust, Tusskiqu was needed in the city to command the mainline troops. That meant that there was no trusted battle commander to scout the area for any humans trying to sneak into the territory.
“I need you to do this, Tokkenoht,” he had said. “You and Sirris must be my eyes and ears.”
There was only one acceptable answer: “Yes, Great King.”
“We will cross the river and follow the other side,” she told Szerl.
It had been an entire month since the four human prisoners had escaped and weeks since the rest of the soft-skins had been driven out of Yessonarah’s territory. In recent days though, nearly a dozen humans had been captured sneaking back in. The lure of gold was simply too strong for them to resist.
The river was called Scizzinik, and was neither very wide nor very deep, except during the rainy season. It marked the official edge of the territory of Yessonarah. Once the party reached the bank, a quick determination was made than none of the fifty-foot-long Birmisian crocodiles was present. Neither were there any of the giant salamanders that often inhabited the still pools and shallows. Satisfied, the lizardmen, strong swimmers that they were, quickly crossed the waterway.
“Four teams, spread out following a ninety degree arc. The rest of us will make for the round hill to the northwest,” said Tokkenoht. “That is where we will rendezvous. We’ll set up camp there tonight.”
The four groups of ten warriors each set off in a pattern designed to cover all the land on the other side of the river that faced the human lands. Meanwhile the other sixty marched toward the hill. It was about five miles from their crossing space, so they arrived in short order and began setting up a semi-permanent base of operations. They had just cleared a large circle, setting up a crude fence of dead brush, when one of the four search teams returned.
“Why are you back so soon?” asked the priestess. “Did you see humans?”
“Yes,” said the warrior in charge, rolling his eyes around, “but not the ones we were looking for.”
“How many were there? Describe them.”
“There were at least two hundred. They were painted alike, and they all carried thunder weapons.”
“A war party?” questioned Tokkenoht. “How were they painted?”
“Their feathers… or whatever the humans have…”
“Cloth.” Tokkenoht used the human word. “What about it?”
“It was a sort of pale green color. Every one of them had the same color on, and they all wore hard hats.”
“All right. Take five of your men and head for Yessonarah immediately. The Great King will want to know about this.”
“What will you do, Your Eminence?”
“We will be watching the humans, to see what they are doing. As soon as we know and the other teams check in, we will follow. Szerl, your opinion?”
“You are right,” he said grudgingly. “We must wait for the other patrols. In the meantime, have the men bury their rations and anything else we don’t need. That way we can move faster.”
“Yes,” she said. “Give the order.”
By the time the others had returned, the warriors had cached their food and extra equipment, leaving each with only his sword, three small spears and his atlatl throwing stick. Tokkenoht questioned each of the returning groups. One had seen the humans.
“They are moving along the south side of the river in the general direction of our territory,” the team leader told her. “They are not in attack formation. They walk in a column, about two miles to the southwest. We need to be careful. They are observant, not like the other humans we’ve seen.”
“Did they see you?”
“No, we watched them from far away and from a screened position among the trees.”
“Good,” she said. “Let’s be on our way.”
The large party retraced their footsteps down the hill and to the river. They had barely crossed to the other side when the air suddenly echoed with the sounds of thunder weapons. Several warriors fell bleeding to the ground. Szerl grabbed Tokkenoht and dragged her to the ground as well.
“Where are they?” She shouted to be heard over what sounded like a thunderstorm from hell.
“Over there!” Szerl pointed to their left. “Although how they got there, I have no idea.”
“Spears!” he shouted.