“That was quick,” Sorgan said. “Where’s Narasan?”
“Up on top,” Keselo replied. “He seems rather pleased with the way it turned out.”
“I suppose I’d better go offer my congratulations.”
“I think he’d appreciate that, sir.”
“I wish you’d learn to relax, Keselo,” Sorgan told him. “You don’t have to call me ‘sir’ every time you walk past.”
“Habit, I suppose,” Keselo admitted.
The two of them went up the stairs at the back of the fort and joined Commander Narasan at the top of the front wall. The fort was fifty feet high, twenty feet thick, and it fit snugly against the walls of the gap.
“Nice job, Narasan,” Sorgan said. “I’m glad I’ll be on this side of it instead of the front side. I’d hate to have to lead an assault against it.”
“Practice, Sorgan,” Narasan replied modestly. “My men have built a lot of walls and forts over the years.” He surveyed the construction. “We were a little pushed for time on this one, but good or bad, it’ll have to do.”
“Quit worrying, Narasan. Those little holes your people put in that front wall give us a way to poke the snake-men in the bellies while they’re trying to climb up to get at us, and if Longbow’s right about how good that poison we’ve got on our spear points is, we’ll see a lot of poke-poke, die-die going on. And if the snake-men are as empty-headed as everybody claims they are, they’ll just keep coming, and we’ll be able to play poke-poke, die-die all day long for weeks on end.”
“I’ll have to remember poke-poke, die-die,” Commander Narasan said with no hint of a smile. “I think we might want to include that in the soldiers’ manual—probably someplace near parry-and-thrust.”
The bonfires had died out by the following morning, and the pall of smoke no longer obscured the view of the desert floor far below. The hordes of the Vlagh were gathering some distance back from the foot of the stairway, waiting, it appeared, for some sort of signal or command.
Keselo, Rabbit, and Longbow stood atop the wall in the early morning light. “I don’t think they like what they see very much,” Keselo said. “It must have taken them centuries to build that stairway, but we changed the top of it in about a week. It’s a stairway to no-place now. They can run up those stairs as fast as they can, but once they reach the place where the stairs end now, they’ll come face to face with a blank wall and they’ll be easy targets for the Dhrall archers, won’t they?”
“They won’t be hard to hit,” Longbow agreed, “and our outlander friends can shower rocks on them from up here. I don’t think this is going to be one of their pleasant days.”
“What a shame,” Rabbit said in mock sympathy. “This just about ends the war, doesn’t it? We might have to spend the summer here, but come fall, we’ll still be here, and what’s left of them will still be down there.”
“It looks that way to me,” Longbow agreed.
From far below there came a thunderous sound, much like the deep-throated roar of an angry bull, and the hordes of the Vlagh shrieked their response. Then, almost like an incoming wave, the enemy force surged forward.
“Enemy to the front!” Keselo reported sharply to alert the Trogite soldiers and Maag pirates stationed atop the fort.
The Maags and Trogites, their ancient enmities laid aside now, came to the front wall of the fort to watch the now futile charge of the enemy.
Longbow watched and waited as the enemy force charged up the broad stairway.
“Shouldn’t your archers be alerted, Longbow?” Keselo asked.
“They’re watching,” Longbow replied. “The enemy isn’t quite in range yet. We wouldn’t want to waste our new arrows.”
“You’ve got no idea of how much I appreciate that, Longbow,” Rabbit said with a tight grin.
The enemy charge continued to swarm up the stairway. Oddly, there were no shouts or war cries. That seemed very unnatural to Keselo.
“That should be close enough,” Longbow said. He lifted his horn and blew a long, mournful note.
A cloud of arrows arched out over the stairway from either side of the gap. The arrows seemed almost to hang in the air for an interminable moment, and Keselo saw a certain beauty in the perfect symmetry of that arch.
The enemy charge faltered as the front ranks went tumbling lifelessly back down over the top of the following ranks.
Rabbit chuckled. “I think their day just turned sour,” he said, “and the sun’s barely over the eastern horizon.”
Longbow, however, was frowning with a slightly puzzled expression. “Something isn’t right,” he said. “They rush toward the foot of the stairs by the thousands, but only hundreds come up. Where are the others going?”
Rabbit peered down toward the foot of the stairway. “It does look a bit odd, doesn’t it?” he admitted. “It’s a little hard to see from way up here, but it almost looks like better than half of that army just vanishes when it reaches the stairway. Where are they going?”
A cold certainty suddenly struck Keselo. “Could the stairway just be a diversion?” he suggested.
“A what?” Rabbit demanded.
“Something that’s supposed to attract our attention away from the real attack,” Keselo explained.
“But where’s the real attack going to come from?” Rabbit asked. “They’re down there, and we’re up here. They have to come up that stairway to get to us. As far as I can tell, most of the enemies just vanish when they reach the foot of the stairs. They’re kicking up a lot of dust down there, but that shouldn’t change the numbers, should it?”
“Burps?” Keselo mused, half to himself as he remembered Red-Beard’s humorous description.
“I didn’t quite follow that,” Rabbit admitted with a puzzled expression.
“It’s just something Red-Beard told me a few days ago,” Keselo explained. “I was asking him about those ancient ruins we saw up on the sides of the ravine, and he happened to mention the fact that there are quite a few caves running through these mountains. If he was right, isn’t it possible that the creatures of the Wasteland have been moving toward Lattash through those caves instead of down the ravine?”
“What’s that got to do with what’s happening down there at the bottom of the stairway, Keselo?”