Chapter Three

Commander Narasan's tent had seen better days. It had been patched so many times that there were several areas where even the patches had been patched. Near the center there was a stove that put out small amounts of heat, but quite a bit of smoke. The commander was seated at a small table carefully examining a rudimentary map. "You made good time, Keselo," he said when Keselo entered the tent. "I sent the messenger up the pass only two days ago."

"Downhill is quite a bit easier than uphill, sir," Keselo replied.

"How's the fort coming along?"

"Which one, sir?"

Commander Narasan raised one eyebrow.

"Sub-Commanders Gunda and Andar talked things over after they'd seen how narrow the gap was at the head of the pass, sir," Keselo explained. "They agreed that they had far more men than they needed to build the fort that'd block off that gap, so Sub-Commander Andar took half of the men a mile or so on down the pass, and he's building a second fort. I wouldn't exactly call it a race, but there is a certain amount of competitiveness involved."

The commander smiled faintly. "That always seems to come floating to the surface when Gunda's involved," he said.

"He is a soldier, Commander," Keselo replied. "He fights wars, and war is the ultimate competition, wouldn't you say?"

"You're an extremely perceptive young man, Keselo. Now, then, how well do you and Sorgan get along?"

"He thinks I'm just a little stuffy, sir. That's one of the drawbacks of an extensive education. The word 'sir' seems to offend him for some reason."

"He does believe you when you tell him something, doesn't he?"

"I believe so, yes, sir. I've never had any reason to lie to him."

"I think you talked yourself into a lot of traveling, Keselo."

"Sir?" Keselo was a bit confused.

"Sorgan and I will need to pass information back and forth to each other, and we both trust you to give us the absolute truth."

"I'm honored that you feel that way about me, sir."

"I've been in touch with one of the ship-captains in the bay at the mouth of this pass, and he has a small, swift sloop that's been quite useful in the past. When you reach the bay, he'll lend you the sloop and a couple of sailors who know how to use it. They'll be able to deliver you to Sorgan in about a half a day. Then, after you've spoken with old Hook-Beak, you can come back and tell me anything he wants me to know. When you see him, tell him that Gunda's fort—and Andar's—are nearly complete. I'm sure that he'll want to send word to me about how well his hoax is coming. Now, then, can you think of anything you might need to make these journeys a bit easier—and faster?"

"Yes, sir," Keselo replied. "I think I can. It might take me a while to learn how to ride one of Prince Ekial's horses, but we might want to consider that. There may be a few times when speed will be essential, and a horse is sort of a land version of that sloop, wouldn't you say?"

"I'd say that you can think about twice as fast as anybody else in the army, Keselo. I'll send word to Prince Ekial, and there will be a horse waiting for you on the beach when you return."

"And a Malavi as well, sir?" Keselo added. "I'll need somebody there to teach me how to ride a horse, because I don't really know anything about horses."

The swift little sloop the captain of the Triumph provided for Keselo's trip down the coast to the harbor of Lady Aracia's temple made the voyage in just over a half a day, and the two skilled sailors who'd rowed her south pulled alongside the Ascension in the early afternoon.

Keselo climbed up the rope ladder and spoke with the extremely tall Maag known as Tree-Top. "I've got some information for Captain Hook-Beak," Keselo told the towering Maag. "I think it might be best if I spoke with him here on the Ascension rather than in the temple. I'm fairly sure that Commander Narasan and Captain Hook-Beak would prefer to keep the priests in Lady Aracia's temple from finding out that they're in contact with each other."

"You're probably right," Tree-Top agreed. "I'll get word to the cap'n that you're here."

"How have things been going down here?" Keselo asked.

Tree-Top laughed. "The cap'n seems to have got hisself on the good side of the crazy lady who owns this place. The other day she ordered all them fat priests of hers to go out to the west to lend the cap'n and his men some help. You could hear the screaming for miles when she said that. It quieted down some after the cap'n had several of them fat priests flogged, though."

"Did Lady Aracia actually let him do that?" Keselo was more than a little startled.

"It looked to me like it made her real happy. I'll send a man ashore to let the cap'n know that you're here, and then maybe you can tell me what's happening up there where the real war's going on."

Keselo was more than a little surprised that Sorgan had somehow managed to bring Lady Aracia over to his side. Before Veltan and Lady Zelana had pulled the Trogite army out of this temple-town, it had seemed that the priests had been making all the decisions here, and Lady Aracia had been little more than a figurehead. Sorgan had somehow managed to wake her up, though, and that might just change a lot of things.

"It was really a mistake that turned into something very useful, Captain Sorgan," Keselo admitted. "None of us knew for certain just when the servants of the Vlagh would come rushing up out of the Wasteland—or how many there'd actually be. The commander wasn't entirely sure that the Tonthakans, Matans, and the Malavi would be able to hold the bug-people off, so he sent ten thousand men up the pass with Sub-Commander Gunda—more for security than for fort-construction. When we reached the head of the pass, we saw that the opening was only fifty feet across—and the bug-people were still quite a long way out in the Wasteland. Sub-Commanders Gunda and Andar talked it over a bit, and they decided to build two forts instead of just one."

"That's the sort of thing I'd expect from Gunda," Sub-Commander Padan, who was now sporting a beard, said.

"Actually, sir, it was Sub-Commander Andar who came up with the notion. Sub-Commander Gunda was too busy inventing new swear words about then. When I left, those two forts were almost finished, and Gunda and Andar were discussing the possibility of putting the construction crews to work on four new forts."

He hesitated slightly. "When I first got here, Tree-Top was telling me that Lady Aracia might just be coming to her senses."

"She's starting to think," Sorgan replied. "Her lazy priests just got themselves put to work, and they're not too happy about that." Then Captain Hook-Beak grinned rather slyly. "What's really making them unhappy is what we're feeding them. They're used to fancy food, and beans don't sit very well with them."

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