"Aren't you just a little bit out of uniform, Padan?" Andar asked his friend as they set out early the following day.

"I'm supposed to look like a Maag," Padan explained. "Narasan suggested it to Sorgan. The Maags aren't too good at defending cities—burning, yes; defending, no. I'll stay in the background so Aracia's priesthood won't recognize me, and I'll give Sorgan details when he needs them. The idea is to have us put something together that'll look enough like a fort to deceive the priests into believing that we've come up with something impregnable. I'm not as good as Gunda when it comes to building forts, but I should be able to come up with something that looks like a fort."

"Right up until the wind starts blowing," Andar said.

"Be nice," Padan said. Then he scratched at his cheek.

"Problems?" Andar asked.

"Sorgan suggested that I should let my whiskers grow. He said that most Maags wear beards, and if I want to look Maagish, I should get a bit more shaggy. He didn't bother to tell me that the thing itches all the time."

"Maags might not notice that, Padan," Andar replied with a faint smile. "You'd think that people who live out at sea would bathe more often. I'd almost be willing to bet that the Maags are the native home of fleas and lice."

"You're in a grumpy sort of mood today, Andar."

"Homesick, I suppose," Andar admitted. "I miss Kaldacin. It's corrupt and it doesn't smell too good, but it is home."

"If Lord Dahlaine's correct, this will be the last war here in the Land of Dhrall. There's only one path left open to the Creatures of the Wasteland. Once this last one's closed off, we'll all be able to go on back home and sit around counting all the lovely money we've picked up here."

"It'll be a lot cleaner now that the Church of Amar has been eliminated," Andar added. "I don't know if you noticed the similarities between the priests of 'Holy Aracia' and the high-ranking clergymen of the Church of Amar."

"They're all fat, if that's what you mean," Padan agreed. "Did I ever get around to congratulating you for that horror story you foisted off on the fat priest called Bersla?"

"There was a certain amount of truth involved, Padan," Andar protested. "We've all heard stories about the famines that show up every so often. When people are starving, they do sometimes revert to cannibalism—except that they'll eat people who are already dead. I was fairly sure that the prospect of being eaten alive might frighten Bersla enough that he'd start paying attention to what was happening out in the real world."

"The fact that his hair was standing straight up and his eyes were bulging out of their sockets sort of hints that he was getting your point."

"We can hope, I suppose. His sense of his own superiority rubbed me the wrong way. He behaves as if the common people of Aracia's Domain were nothing more than cattle whose only purpose in life is to feed him, and Aracia's mind has slipped so far that she believes just about anything he ever tells her."

"I hate to admit this—again—" Padan said, "but I think Keselo's scheme might be the best one any of us will ever come up with. If Sorgan sends out scouts and they report back that the bug-people are coming and that they're awful, I'm fairly sure that all those fat priests will try to take cover, and they'll all be so far down in the basement that they won't have any idea of what's really happening. If they're all busy hiding, they won't even know that Sorgan's been tearing down certain parts of the temple to build that wall."

Now that Dahlaine's little toy sun was giving them much more daylight—as well as warmer weather—the combined armies were making much better time than they'd made during that first dreadful day, so they reached the low mountain range off to the east much sooner than any of them had thought possible.

The worn-down range of mountains had a familiar quality that Andar found rather pleasant. In many ways they were very much like the mountains off to the south of Kaldacin, so Andar found them to be quite beautiful. They weren't as rugged and imposing as the mountains in the Domains of Zelana, Veltan, and Dahlaine had been. The young scholar, Keselo, had told them that mountains were much like people. As they grew older, their rough edges were worn down by the passing years, and they were much gentler.

"I think this is far enough for today," Commander Narasan announced. "Put the men to work setting up camp. We'll be splitting up tomorrow, so it might not be a bad idea to talk things over before we're separated."

"Good idea," Dahlaine agreed. "Longbow told us that he was going to lead the Tonthakans, Matans, and the Malavi horse-soldiers south along this mountain range to the upper end of Long-Pass while the Trogites and Maags go over to the coast to sail south. That's the way we decided to do this back at Mount Shrak, and I don't see any reason to change things."

"You didn't tell him, I take it," Ekial the Malavi said to the bleak-faced Longbow.

"I didn't really want to alarm him—or his sister, Zelana," Longbow replied.

"Alarm?" Zelana asked the archer. "What are you up to now?"

"I will be leading the others, Zelana," Longbow replied, "but I'll be quite some distance ahead of them. Kathlak, Ekial, and Two-Hands know where they're going, so they won't need me around to keep pointing them south. I'll go on ahead and make sure that the Creatures of the Wasteland haven't reached these mountains yet. Then I'll go on down Long-Pass to the sea. I'll probably be there when the ships arrive, and I'll be able to pass along anything I've seen to our friends."

"That's too much of a risk," Zelana declared. "You can't just run around by yourself like that."

"You can come along, if you'd like," Longbow told her with a faint smile. "Somebody has to go ahead—somebody who knows enough about the servants of the Vlagh to know what he's looking for. That means me, Zelana. I know more about the Creatures of the Wasteland than anybody else does, and I know exactly what I'll have to do to stay out of their sight. I've been doing this for a long, long time, Zelana, so I won't be in any real danger."

"You're going to insist, I take it?" Zelana said.

"I thought I just did. You worry too much, Zelana. It'll make you old if you're not careful."

"I'm already old," she snapped.

"But you don't want it to show, now do you? I'll be just fine, Zelana. I know what has to be done and how to do it. Nobody else does, so I'll have to do it myself." He looked around at the others. "I know that many of you would like to help, but you'd just be in my way. I'll see you down at the mouth of Long-Pass in a few days, my friends," he said, and then he turned and ran smoothly off to the south. Andar was quite certain that Longbow's decision had grown perhaps more out of his desire to be alone. Longbow didn't really like—or need—other people around him. He was definitely the most solitary man Andar had ever encountered.


Tags: David Eddings The Dreamers Science Fiction
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