After they'd loaded about half of Commander Narasan's army on board the remaining ships, they sailed on south under a gloomy sky, and they reached the narrow bay at the mouth of the river that had carved out Long-Pass at some time in the long-distant past. Just the notion of the eon after eon it must have taken that river to reach the sea made Keselo shudder. Time, it appeared, had no meaning for rivers and mountains.
They'd dropped anchor, and there on the beach—as they all probably should have expected—the archer Longbow was waiting for them.
"I will never understand how he can cover so much ground in so little time," Keselo muttered to himself.
Keselo was just a bit surprised when Commander Narasan included him in the group of men who knew how to build forts that Longbow would lead ahead of the rest up to the top of the pass.
"How are your legs holding out, Keselo?" Narasan had asked.
"They seem all right to me, sir," Keselo replied.
"Good. I think that maybe you should go along with the fort-builders. Gunda's just about the best fort-builder in the entire Trogite Empire. You could learn a lot by watching him."
Keselo resented that just a bit. He had taken courses in architecture at the University of Kaldacin, so he already knew all about building walls.
"I'm not trying to offend you," Narasan added. "Gunda and Andar are sort of stuck in stone when it comes to fort-building. Their minds are locked in 'the good old-fashioned way' when it comes to forts. You're intelligent enough to come up with things that won't even occur to them—and you can be diplomatic enough not to offend them with your shiny new ideas."
"I can try, I suppose, sir," Keselo agreed a bit dubiously. "I'm not sure they'll listen, though."
"Talk louder, then."
When Longbow had objected to leading so many men to the head of the pass, Keselo took him aside.
"It's a precaution, Longbow," Keselo tried to explain. "Commander Narasan doesn't like to take chances. We've had quite a few surprises here since last spring, so the commander wants to be sure that there'll be enough men up at the head of the pass to deal with anything the Vlagh throws at us."
"That's why we have the Malavi, Tonthakans, and Matans, Keselo," Longbow objected.
"I mentioned that to him," Keselo replied. Then he smiled faintly. "The commander has opinions, Longbow. He's not positive that our friends will do what they're supposed to do. That's why he overloaded us just a bit."
"Ten thousand men is his idea of 'just a bit?" Longbow asked.
The protests that had arisen when Longbow abolished the traditional "rest period" were long and loud. Keselo had long believed that those quarter-hour lounges were totally unnecessary, but the common soldiers viewed them as something on the order of a divine right. But Keselo estimated that they'd covered three times more distance than they normally would have.
"He's going too fast," Gunda grumbled.
"This is sort of an emergency, sir," Keselo suggested. "If we don't reach the head of the pass before the bug-people do, things will probably start to get ugly. Once the fort's in place, our men should be able to rest. Up until then, we don't really have much time for rest, wouldn't you say?"
"You're probably right," Gunda conceded, "but that doesn't abolish my right to complain, does it?"
"Not at all, sir, but I wouldn't complain too much when Longbow's around. He might decide to run tomorrow instead of just walk fast. I've come to know him very well during the past three seasons, and the first rule when you're dealing with Longbow is 'don't irritate him if you can possibly avoid it.'"
"I think he's right, Gunda," Andar agreed. "We want that fort in place as soon as possible." He paused. "Are you open to a suggestion?"
"I'll listen," Gunda replied.
"We've got four or five times as many men as we'll really need, right?"
"I'll know better after I've seen the ground I'll be working on," Gunda replied, "but I am just a bit overloaded with workers. Where are you going with this, Andar?"
"Why build only one fort at a time? We've got all those extra men, so why keep them all at the head of the pass? I could take maybe half of them and build a second fort a mile or so on down the pass. That should give you someplace to run to when the bug-people make your fort too hot to hold on to."
"Thanks a lot, Andar," Gunda said in a voice reeking with sarcasm. Then he squinted. "You know, if we put the men to work on other forts every mile or so on down the pass, we could probably hold back the invaders until sometime next summer."
"Brilliant," Andar said rather dryly.
"You've been thinking along the same lines, haven't you, Andar?"
"It did sort of occur to me, yes."
"Why didn't you say something?"
"I just wanted to see how long it was going to take you to get the point, Gunda," Andar replied with mock sincerity. Keselo smiled. Things seemed to be going quite well.
They were three days up from the beach when the horse-soldier Ekial came riding down the pass. He reined in his horse when he reached Longbow. "You seem to be making fairly good time, friend Longbow," he said.
"Not too bad," Longbow replied. "Have you seen any sign that the Creatures of the Wasteland are coming east yet?"
"Oh, they're coming, all right," Ekial said. "Ariga's got scouts out in that desert, and they've told us that there are thousands and thousands of the bug-people coming east."
"Have your people got any kind of idea about how much longer it's going to take them to reach the head of this pass?"
"I'd say that they're still a week or ten days away. There's a bit of a diversion that's already here, though."
"Oh? What's that?"
"When we were coming south, we saw a sizeable number of bug-people coming across the sand. Kathlak, the chief of the Tonthakans, suggested that the bugs might have realized that things can get very unpleasant for people as well as for bugs if they've got enemies above them. When we reached the head of the pass, I sent horsemen down along the rims on both sides of this pass, and sure enough, there were bug-people on those rims. If we'd left them there, they'd have been dropping boulders on Narasan's army every time they got a chance. Kathlak's archers took care of that for us. The bug-men up on those rims suddenly started sprouting arrows. There may still be a few of them up there hiding in the bushes, but they aren't likely to cause any problems."