"This Land of Dhrall is the native home of odd, Omago," Gunda said. "We'd better pick up our pace, my friend," he suggested. "Longbow's getting a fair distance ahead of us, and if we don't keep up, he'll get very grouchy. If we keep strolling along like this, he might send us to bed without supper."
Omago laughed, and they both began to walk faster.
The sun was setting off to the west when Longbow decided that they'd gone far enough. Gunda breathed a sigh of relief at that point. He was fairly sure that he didn't have another mile left in him.
"We'll need to go a little farther tomorrow," Longbow said.
"Farther?" Gunda protested. "I'm not sure I'll be able to stand up tomorrow morning, much less walk more than a mile."
"You spend too much time lying around when you're riding on boats, Gunda," Longbow replied. "You'll be in much better shape when we reach the head of the pass." Then he looked back down the pass where the last of the Trogites were stumbling up toward where they'd soon be setting up their night's camp. "Did Narasan happen to tell you why he sent so many men?" he asked.
"Narasan doesn't explain too many things to me anymore, Longbow. All it does is confuse me."
"But ten thousand men to build one fort?"
"That might depend on just how big a fort we're talking about."
They had beans for supper, of course, but Gunda was sure that he could eat almost anything by then. He put out guards and then fell asleep almost immediately.
Longbow had been quite obviously not at all pleased when Commander Narasan designated some ten thousand of his men as "fort-builders." Andar had privately agreed with the archer, but he chose not to make an issue of it. The more he thought about it, though, the more he realized that the idea might have some merit.
He went looking for Longbow and found him still awake. "I take it that you aren't too happy with the commander's generosity, Longbow."
"I wouldn't call foisting that many people off on me 'generosity,' Andar," Longbow replied in a sour sort of voice.
"There is something we might want to consider, though," Andar said.
"About how wide would you say that the upper end of this pass is?"
"I'd say fifty feet at the most."
"That would put almost two hundred men to work on every foot of our projected fort, wouldn't it?"
"I'm not sure that building a fort out of people would be a very good idea, Andar."
"It might be just a little difficult to feed them if they're piled up on top of each other," Andar agreed. "But since we've got a surplus of people, we could put the extra ones to work building a second fort a mile or so on down the pass. That way, there'd only be five thousand standing on top of each other in each fort."
"That's still going to be badly crowded."
"If it seems that way when we get up there, we could build even more forts. If we've got four solid, well-made forts blocking off the Creatures of the Wasteland, life might start to become very unpleasant for them, wouldn't you say? We'll have archers and spear-men standing on top of those forts and Malavi horse-soldiers slashing at them from both sides. I'd say that each fort could cost them a half-million or so of their companions. If we keep on erecting new forts every mile or so, the Vlagh's likely to run out of warriors before her army even gets halfway down the pass."
"Maybe sending ten thousand fort-builders up the pass wasn't such a bad idea after all," Longbow agreed. "Do you think Gunda will go along with us on this?"
"Not right at first, maybe, but after a day or so of watching his men falling over each other, he'll probably listen to our suggestion."
Longbow looked at Andar in a speculative way. "I've noticed several times that you're more clever—and practical—than either Gunda or Padan. Why does Narasan pay so much attention to those two and ignore you?"
"It has to do with our childhood, Longbow," Andar explained. "We were all children in the army compound in Kaldacin, but we didn't all live in the same barracks. Narasan, Gunda, and Padan were childhood friends, because they all lived in the same barracks. Brigadier Danal and I lived in a different barracks, so Narasan didn't know us as well as he knew Gunda and Padan." Andar smiled briefly. "In a way I'm earning my position while Gunda and Padan get theirs for free. Narasan's perceptive enough to know that I'm not a dunce. These wars here in the Land of Dhrall have been most useful for me. It's reached the point that Narasan depends on me almost as much as he depends on Gunda and Padan." He glanced off to the east. "The sun's coming up," he noted, "the real one, I think. Dahlaine's toy might still be asleep. I think you might want to start out now, and I'll tell Gunda that it's time to go. If you step right along, you'll get farther and farther ahead of him. Gunda should get the point in an hour or so, and he'll start pushing the men. They like him, so they'll do as he tells them."
"They don't like you as much as they like Gunda, do they?" Andar shrugged. "Being liked isn't that important, Longbow. It's getting the job done that counts."
The river that had carved out Long-Pass over the extended eons was wider and more gentle than the frothy, tumbling brooks in the more rugged mountain ranges in other parts of the Land of Dhrall. In some ways the river rather closely resembled the streams in the southern region of the Trogite Empire. Andar pulled his mind back from that particular comparison, since it reminded him of the death of Commander Narasan's gifted young nephew Astal. Narasan had never come right out and admitted it, but Andar was fairly sure that he'd been secretly pleased when word reached him that Gunda and Padan had arranged to have Astal's murderers assassinated by a number of professional killers.
It seemed to Andar that the river that flowed down through Long-Pass was wider than it should be. The unseasonable warmth caused by Dahlaine's pet sun appeared to be melting ice and snow farther on up the pass. Had anyone ever told him when he'd still been living in Kaldacin that it might be possible to have a glowing little sun as a house pet, he was quite sure that he'd have had that particular informant sent off to some lunatic establishment.
Longbow, who evidently could get by on very little sleep, roused them before daybreak the following morning. It was bitterly cold, and Gunda saw something that was very rare down in the Empire. Any time somebody spoke, a cloud of steam came out of his mouth to accompany the words. "I thought we were far enough to the south that we wouldn't blow out steam when we talked," he said when he and his friends were eating breakfast.