The best daylight vantage over the conjoined villages was from the forested ridge above the Rushwater, looking south into the sheltered valley. There, the surrounding hillsides had been stripped bare of trees years ago now, and the strange patterns of the villages built up on the center high-ground of the valley. Foxtail had seen the settlements before from this vantage several times since first joining the word-hunters team, but she caught her breath now at the changes she saw below.
“Well, what busy little slap-tails!” she muttered to her companions, as Rainpace, Beetle and Notch crawled through the blooming gorse to join her.
She heard Notch’s low exhalation of breath, and gasps from Beetle and Rainpace. In the few, wet weeks since the arrival of spring, the human settlement below had been transformed. Gone was the neat orderliness of the calm village they had witnessed before. It had been replaced by the busy scurry of determined construction. While many humans were busy with their normal seasonal plantings, the rest of the community seemed to be involved in building a network of defense. The old stout, painted log wall surrounding the Amber Hunter village had been greatly expanded, as well as reinforced with thick, sharpened spear points at the top to impede climbers. The effort was only half-complete, but when they had finished, the humans would have doubled the barricaded area of their settlement to include the goat pens and the beast pens, and what looked like many orderly rows of what might be new housing. There were built-up watch-posts at each of the four corners of the new walls, one of which was finished and the other three only half-so. Everywhere, it seemed, raw lumber was being dragged or hoisted into place as part of the new barricades; spikes were being cut, lumber was being planed, and hammers were driving pegs into place. Woodsmoke from fires and kilns hung low and fragrant in the air. Shovels flung earth into baskets, which girls and womenfolk hauled away to be dumped in orderly fashion along the outer perimeter of the new palisade. Among the mud and dirt of the construction shone flashes of color: the Amber Hunters loved their brightly colored clothing, even if it was destined to be coated in mud by the end of the day.
“Look over there,” Rainpace whispered, pointing the way. “The Painted Faces’ village has been abandoned.”
Foxtail followed her friend’s direction, and saw that indeed — the second, younger village, settled by the Painted Faces after their more recent arrival, had been reduced to bare, muddy earth. Even the few built-wood structures which had been there had been stripped down to pieces and removed.
**That’s why we haven’t been seeing their hunting parties,** Notch sent. **They’re not hunting. Every bull and boy-cub of the Painted Faces are working down there with the Amber Hunters to build up their defenses.**
**Busy little slap-tails, indeed!** Beetle’s sending was almost scatter-shot with excitement at all of the changes they were observing below. **Those ones right there — the ones with shovels, knee-deep in the streams they’re digging — they’re digging a defensive channel around the new wall! And what are they using all of the dirt they dig out to create? Are they building up another layer of walls, but this time around their plantings?**
Foxtail watched the progress of one Painted Face woman — gender was hard to determine from such a distance, but she thought only the females wore braids like that — as the human carried a basket of mud to where, indeed, the contents of the basket were poured out with some care, not simply flung aside. **Looks like they’re piling it up with a purpose to me,** she agreed. **But dungballs — what’s that? I’m more interested in those thornwalls!**
Foxtail wasn’t sure what to call it except for a “thornwall”. Pairs of stout posts, each as tall as one of the Painted Face hunters, were being set into the ground together at perpendicular angles, their raw spearpoints facing both forward and back. Long poles were then being laid lengthwise at the point where the poles crossed. Foxtail stared and scowled, and it took her some effort to figure the strange constructs out fully. **The center poles must brace it,** she sent. **That’s really clever!**
**I wouldn’t want to charge up against that,** Notch agreed. **As dangerous getting out again as it was to get in!**
**These humans are really clever,** Rainpace agreed, shaking his head; his sending felt equally impressed and dismayed. **They’ve obviously thought a lot about how to protect themselves from the Fierce Ones.**
Notch snorted at that, and turned a narrow-eyed look on his friends. **Does this all look like sudden inspiration to you?** he sent. **Bears and foxes can share a kill when it’s fresh and seem friendly enough, but then it's down to the bare bones, and the fox that isn’t fast is who gets eaten. Look at all of that busywork down there. It looks like chaos, maybe, but someone knows what they’re doing. And me, I don’t want to get eaten. I look at all of that busywork, and I want to ask — “where-ever your ships come and go from, do you got Fierce Ones over there, too? Do you got other humans just as bad as the Fierce Ones, who we don’t even know about yet?" My father thinks these humans down there can be our good friends, and maybe fight with us against the Fierce Ones if the flesh-eaters come back again. And he's not the only one. But me — I wonder, what other friends might our new friends have, that they know so easily how to dig their false streams and put up their thornwalls?**
Foxtail knew she was staring at Notch with the same stark dismay worn on Rainpace and Beetle’s faces. **You got the twistiest mind I’ve ever known,** she sent to him.
**Darkest and twistiest,** Beetle agreed.
**Get me to thinking like that,” Rainpace sent, **and somehow, moving to Bluestone Cave isn’t far away enough.**
**Always glad to be of help,** Notch grinned, before his sharp gaze focused back on something in the valley below. **Hold on — what’s that?**
The other three refocused their attentions as well. Something was happening below. A pair of the docile, lumbering grazers were being led out of the Amber Hunter village, dragging behind them something on a wooden sledge. Foxtail scowled, trying to make sense of the contraption. It was hard to tell from such a distance what it was — only that it was made of lumber, and looked as long as one of the two Amber Hunter men who walked alongside it. One of those made a gesture, and sent a wiry Painted Face youth out scampering ahead of them, running for the far fields with a bright yellow banner in hand. A knot of brightly-clad Amber Hunters followed behind the contraption, and they seemed engaged in a busy debate that did not cease, not even when the harnessed beasts pulled their burden to a stop at a place where the secondary palisade was as yet only a straight line of stone placemarks. They stood there for a time, tiny figures engaged in animated conversation that was suspended only after the Painted Face youth had placed the yellow banner upright where the mud-walls were being laid, then scampered the long, open distance back to point the banner out to the yapping Amber Hunters.
**Is it a wooden box?** Beetle asked. **Can anyone else see it better?**
**It’s a wooden frame, like one of Moss’s drum-bodies with no drum-skin stretched over it,** Rainpace sent from his vantage.
**There’s something the middle. Rope or something,** Foxtail agreed, squinting to try and get a better view.
Work across the valley floor seemed to have been suspended. The planters and the basket-carriers retreated from their tasks, heading in to crowd around the curious device. An Amber Hunter woman on crutches had hobbled into the thick of the press and started calling orders to the rest. Others stood back, out of the way, as two did the woman’s bidding. One them was crouched at the tail end of the device, doing what, Foxtail could not tell. The other made a grand show of pulling repeatedly on a wooden arm on the device. When his companion stood, both turned expectantly to the woman, and anyone who hadn’t already stepped several steps back did so then.
She gave the two men a clear, sharp gesture.
Part of the strange device sudden sprang upright, like a sleeper bolting up from their bed furs. The two placid grazers started forward several steps, while the crowd of humans around them all cheered loud enough that their roar even reached the heights where the word-hunters were hidden. Foxtail didn’t realize at first what they were all cheering for — until she saw the banner at the far end of the field go down, flattened under the weight of a chunk of stone.
**It threw a stone!** Beetle sent.
**It threw a great big stone!** Foxtail sent with equal wonder.
**I think it threw a great big sling-pouch full of them,** Rainpace sent. **Look — there are craters in that mud now. Those weren’t there before.**
**I want me one of those!** Notch sent with glee. **I bet you could kill yourself a mess of roundhooves with just one of those, before the riders got anywhere near close to your walls!**
**Just wait until Suddendusk sees this! He’s going to do hand-stands!** Beetle laughed.
Yet the jolt of Foxtail’s own excitement was fading fast into a sick sense of dread. She glanced at Rainpace, and saw him look back her way. His expression was equally unsettled.
**I thought the Amber Hunters were peaceful,** Rainpace said, voicing Foxtail’s own thoughts. **We've always known the Painted Faces could be dangerous, but the brown-skins have always seemed harmless.**
**Harmless indeed,** Foxtail locksent to her companions. **I think maybe we’ve already seen enough for this word-hunting trip. We need to take what we’ve seen back to my father.**