"What a shame," Longbow said with no hint of a smile.
"It stops being funny right about now, Longbow," Zelana told him. "After I'd had a look at the Vlagh's scouts, I drifted farther out into the Wasteland, and from what I saw, I'd say that the Vlagh's throwing everything she's got at us this time. There are limitations on just how many eggs she can lay at any one time. She's supposed to hold enough back to maintain the population of her nest. I'd say that she's ignoring that this time. From what I was able to see, she has close to five times as many warriors as she's had during the previous wars, and they're all coming this way."
"How long would you say it's likely to take for her children to reach us up here?" Gunda asked.
"Five or six days anyway."
"That's probably all that I'm going to need," Gunda said. "We'll have the fort erected and manned before the Vlagh gets here. From what Longbow told me, the head of the pass isn't very wide, and I'm sure that our fort will be complete before the Vlagh even gets close. Once that fort's complete and well-manned, the Vlagh can stand out there beating her head against it until next summer, but she won't get past—no matter how many of her children she sends to attack."
It took the better part of two days to get Sorgan's army ashore, and then Sorgan and Padan rowed over to the Victory to speak with Brigadier Danal.
"That takes care of things here, Danal," Sorgan told the lean, stubborn officer. "Convey my thanks to Narasan, and tell him that I'll stay in touch."
"I'll do that, Captain," Danal replied.
"How long would you say it's going to take you to get the rest of his army down to the mouth of Long-Pass?"
Danal squinted. "The ships will be empty when we go north," he said, "and that should save us a day. Loading the troops on these ships will take a couple of days, and then four days to the mouth of the pass. Then two more days to unload. I make it to be twelve days to two weeks. Even if the bug-men have reached this side of the Wasteland, the Malavi and those archers from the North will be able to hold them off until Gunda's got some forts in place." Then he smiled slightly. "You don't necessarily have to tell Narasan that I said this, but your little side-trip gave me a wonderful opportunity to avoid all that tedious business of building forts."
"That's what friends are for, Danal," Sorgan said with a grin. "If you happen to meet Lady Zelana up there, tell her that I said hello."
"I'll do that, Captain Hook-Beak."
"Oh, and tell Narasan that I'll keep the Ascension here. I'm going to need a private place to confer with my men. I don't want one of Lady Aracia's fat priests eavesdropping when I'm telling my men what to do."
"I'm sure he'll understand, Captain," Danal replied. "You have a nice war now."
"I'd hardly call what we're going to do here a war, Danal. It's just going to be an imitation."
"Those are the very best kind," Danal said.
Sorgan and Padan climbed down the rope ladder to their skiff. "I like that man, Padan," Sorgan said. "We get along just fine."
"He's a very good soldier," Padan agreed.
They rowed across to the Ascension and joined several Maags in the rear cabin.
"All right, then," Sorgan said. "The Trogite fleet will sail at first light tomorrow, and they'll pick up the rest of Narasan's men and take them on down to the mouth of Long-Pass to fight the real war. In the meantime, we'll get started on the imitation war here. I don't think Aracia has any people up in that vicinity, but we'll want to make sure that no word of what's happening up there reaches her. I don't think she'd pay much attention to anything that's not going on here in the vicinity of her temple, but we should probably block off any roads or trails coming down here from up in the Long-Pass region."
"I'll send some men up there to take care of that, cousin," Torl said.
"Good," Hook-Beak said approvingly.
"Have you worked out a plan yet?" Padan asked the Maag.
Sorgan grinned. "Oh, yes," he replied. "I'm going to take some men to Aracia's throne room. I'll tell her that they're scouts, and they'll find out what they can about the upcoming invasion of the bug-people. Then I'll tell her how dangerous things are going to be for those scouts and make a big issue of how many varieties of invaders we'll come up against. Then I'll send the men on their way, and they'll march out about a mile or so and then set up camp in some fairly well-concealed place."
"Wouldn't you say that a mile is just a little too close?" Padan asked.
Sorgan shook his head. "I want them to be close enough to be able to hear the sound of a horn. I'm going to work on Aracia to build up her fright. Then, when she's filled to the brim with terror, I'll send word out to the west side of her temple, and one of the men there will toot a horn. When the imitation scouts hear it, they'll come running back and start piling 'awful' all over Aracia and the fat ones who worship her." He squinted. "Torl," he said to his cousin, "I'll send Rabbit out there with you. He's very clever, and between the two of you, you should be able to come up with stories that'll send Aracia and her fat priests screaming and searching for safe places to hide. I'd say that you two should put things together so that this nonexistent invasion by the bug-people starts out with moderately awful and then builds up to pure horror. You'll have several days to work on these stories, so use lots of imagination. Then too, I think you all might want to practice looking frightened. Bulge out your eyes, shiver like crazy, and scream once in a while. The whole idea here is to frighten everybody to the point that they'd sooner die than go outside the temple and have a look for themselves. If we can scare them enough, the notion of going north to pester Narasan will never occur to any of them. They won't know that Narasan's there anyway, but I want those priests to be so frightened that they won't even consider following an order to go anywhere away from this central temple. We'll use terror instead of bars, but this silly temple will be a prison if we do this right."
Padan was just a bit surprised by the level of sophistication Sorgan's scheme indicated. "Maags aren't supposed to be that clever," he murmured to himself.
"I think you'd better come along, Padan," Sorgan said when they went out onto the deck of the Ascension. "I'm going to be playing a game of sorts, so I might miss a few reactions of Aracia or her assorted priests. If you happen to notice any degree of skepticism, let me know immediately. We don't want any doubts floating around at this point." Then he turned to his cousin. "Gather up the men who'll be going with you and come along. I'll give you your marching orders right there in the temple. I want Aracia and her priests to see you leave so that they'll recognize you when you come back. Try to look brave and strong when I send you out, and frightened and timid when you come back. I'll make an issue of how skilled you are as warriors when you march out. Then, when you come back whimpering, Aracia will believe just about everything you tell her about all the awful-awful you've witnessed."