The standard procedure for erecting forts—permanent or temporary—had been in place since the war in the ravine above the village of Lattash in the spring of the current year. The Maag sailors gathered large rocks and carried them to the site, and the Trogite soldiers carefully put the rocks together to form the wall that was supposed to bring the enemy advance to a stop. It hadn’t always worked that way, but Keselo believed that it was a good way to start.
The first breastwork was nearly finished when Athlan came by to have a word with Keselo. “It isn’t working,” he reported glumly. “The water doesn’t sink down into the dirt far enough. We get wet dirt, but it doesn’t come close to being the kind of mud we want.”
“It sounds to me like another good idea just fell apart on us,” Rabbit said.
A peculiar sort of notion came to Keselo out of nowhere. “Is the wife of the farmer Omago anywhere nearby?” he asked Rabbit.
“I think I saw her back behind this fort you and your men are erecting here,” Rabbit replied. “Why do you ask? Do you think that she might be able to tell us how to make mud?”
“Maybe,” Keselo said. “Come along, Athlan. I think I know somebody who might be of some help here.”
They climbed over the partially completed breastworks and found Omago and his beautiful wife standing a few yards back.
“I’m not sure just exactly why,” Keselo said to Ara, “but for some reason I’m almost positive that you can tell us what we’re doing wrong.”
“Oh?” she said. “Just exactly what’s the problem?”
“We know that when water gets mixed with dirt, you get mud, but our friends from Tonthakan diverted several small streams into the bare dirt to the front of the breastworks, and the dirt isn’t turning to mud.”
Ara looked at the archer. “Did you stir it?” she asked him.
“Stir?” Athlan asked in a bewildered tone of voice.
“Oh, dear,” Ara sighed. “You haven’t done much cooking, have you?”
“I’ve roasted meat over open fires since I was only a boy,” Athlan said.
“Cooking meat and cooking flour aren’t at all the same,” Ara said. “I hate to tell you this, but turning dirt into mud is going to involve quite a bit of hard work.”
“When water mixes with dirt in the swamps back in Tonthakan, it turns into mud without any help from us at all,” Athlan protested.
“But it takes several years,” Ara explained. “It’s not one of those things that happens instantly. If you want mud this year, you’re going to have to stir.” She frowned slightly. “Actually, the easiest way to do this would be to dig out all the dirt and pile it up around the edge of the pit. Then let water run in until the pit’s about half full. Then shovel the dirt back in.”
“That sounds like a lot of work,” Athlan objected.
“Doesn’t it, though? Nobody ever promised you ‘easy,’ did they?”
Athlan sighed. “It seemed like such a good idea.”
“It was—and still is,” Keselo said. “You’re going to have to put in some hard work to get what we all want, though.”
“I guess you’re right,” Athlan agreed glumly.
It was just before noon on the following day when Longbow came back on down from the rim of the gorge. “The bug-people have let their fires go out, and what little smoke is still in the gorge should drift out of the upper end before the sun goes down.”
“When do you think the enemies will start to move?” Commander Narasan asked.
“They already have. They’re staying a fair distance behind the last wisps of smoke, but they are on the move.”
“Are they really carrying those weapons of ours that they stole?” Captain Sorgan asked.
“A few of them are,” Longbow replied. “Some of them have swords, and others have axes, but the only things most of them are carrying are long, pointed sticks.”
“That doesn’t pose much of a threat,” Gunda said.
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” Sorgan disagreed. “They have that venom right in their front teeth, so they won’t have to carry it around in jugs the way we do. All they’ll have to do is spit on their spear points, and their pointed sticks will be just as deadly as ours. How long would you say it’s going to take them to get up here, Longbow?”
“Not much more than a day and a half,” Longbow replied. “They will have trouble climbing up over the rock-pile that’s blocking the mouth of the gorge—particularly if Athlan’s archers are up on the rim—on both sides. They may even try to scramble over that barricade after the sun goes down. They don’t usually come out after dark, but I don’t think we should take any chances.”
The clouds Veltan and Dahlaine had used to subdue the smoke that the creatures of the Wasteland had unleashed continued to roll up the gorge for the next few days, and they were still spitting rain mixed with snow.
Commander Narasan had prudently sent several flagmen up to the rim of the gorge to keep them advised of the inevitable approach of the bug-people. Keselo was still having some trouble with the fact that “bug-men” wasn’t very appropriate, since their enemies were female.
“One of your people up there on the rim is flapping his flag, Keselo,” Rabbit said early on the morning of the third day after the smoke had been carried away by the prevailing wind.
Keselo squinted up at the rim. “He says that the enemies are coming,” he reported.
“What a surprise,” Rabbit said. “We already knew that they were coming, didn’t we?”
“A little confirmation doesn’t hurt anything,” Keselo said, still intently watching the flagman’s report. “He says that the archers have seriously reduced the number of enemies coming this way.”
Then the warrior queen Trenicia came down from the breastworks to join them. “What’s that man up there saying?” she asked Keselo.
“The enemies are on their way,” Keselo replied. “What few of them are left, anyway. The flagman up there says that the Tonthakan archers have killed hundreds so far.”
“They’re not going to kill them all, are they?” Trenicia demanded, sounding more than a little concerned.
“It wouldn’t hurt my feelings much if they did,” Rabbit declared.
Trenicia scowled, but she didn’t say anything.