"Did Lady Aracia actually accept the stories about bug-people here in the vicinity of her temple?" Keselo asked. "Nobody's ever actually seen any of them, have they?"
"Veltan's been lending us a hand," Sorgan replied. "He's been cooking up images for the entertainment of his sister and her chubby priests. I've got men out there pretending to fight off the bugs, and those priests—and even Lady Aracia herself—have been catching very brief glimpses of those images. That's the thing that brought Aracia over to our side. She suddenly woke up and realized that her priests were almost totally worthless. You should have heard the speech she made to the priests. That lady can be a tiger when it's necessary."
"You've done something here that nobody else has ever been able to do, Captain Hook-Beak," Keselo noted.
"I had Veltan's help, Keselo," Sorgan replied. "I'm positive that it was his images that brought her around."
"Tree-Top told me that you had a few of the priests flogged."
Sorgan nodded. "That definitely cut back all the complaining," he said.
"Are those priests actually working alongside your men? Wouldn't that suggest to some of them that what they've been hearing about, and catching a few glimpses of, is nothing but a hoax?"
Sorgan shook his head. "Rabbit came up with a story that sent the priests down to the south wall of the temple—bugs sneaking through the bushes and a few other all-out lies. Now the priests are tearing the southern buildings apart, and leaving my men alone here on the west side so that we can cook up more horror stories. Tell Narasan that we've got things pretty much under control down here, and you might want to tell him—and Lady Zelana and Lord Dahlaine—that Lady Aracia seems to be coming to her senses."
"That might just be the best news they've had since last spring, Captain," Keselo agreed.
Keselo was a bit startled when he saw that the Malavi waiting for him on the beach at the mouth of Long-Pass was Prince Ekial himself. The two of them had met during the war in Veltan's Domain the preceding summer, and they'd gotten along with each other quite well, but Keselo was quite certain that Ekial had more serious matters to attend to.
The sailors who'd been rowing the scruffy little skiff pulled the bow of the skiff up onto the sandy beach, and Keselo stepped out onto the sand. "What are you doing down here, Prince Ekial?" Keselo asked.
Ekial shrugged. "Friend Narasan tells me that you'd like to learn how to ride a horse," he replied. "I wasn't doing anything important, so I thought I might as well come on down here and teach you myself."
"I'm honored, Prince Ekial."
"We're friends, Keselo," Ekial replied. "We don't have to wave our titles in each other's face like that. Actually, I was starting to get just a little bored up there watching Gunda and Andar building forts."
"Have there been any signs of the Creatures of the Wasteland approaching the upper end of the pass yet?"
"A few," Ekial replied. "I'd say that the ones we've seen so far are just scouts. Let's get on with this, shall we? It's likely to take you a few days to get used to sitting on a horse's back, so we'd better get started." He reached out and put his hand on the front shoulder of a rangy horse with a saber-scar across its nose. "This is Bent-Nose, and he's a fairly sensible animal. He doesn't bite very often, and he almost never kicks somebody who walks behind him. He's old enough not to get excited every time somebody walks by, but he's not so old that he'd rather rest than run. Now, the first thing you need to do is let the horse get to know you. I brought some apples along, and horses love apples. If you give a horse an apple, he'll follow you for a day or so at least. Then you want to scratch his ears and pet his nose. He needs to be able to recognize your smell."
"I didn't realize that it was so complicated," Keselo confessed. Then he remembered something. "If horses like apples, isn't it possible that they'd like other sweet things as well?"
"They might, yes. What did you have in mind?"
Keselo reached into his pocket and took out several pieces of candy. "I've always had a sort of weakness for this," he admitted. "It might be a sign that I never really grew up. Try one, and see what you think."
Ekial took one of the lumps of candy and popped it into his mouth. "Oh, my goodness," he said. "I think you might have just made a huge jump forward in the taming of horses, friend Keselo. Let's see how Bent-Nose feels about this."
Ekial held a piece of candy out to the horse. Bent-Nose sniffed at the candy, and his ears perked up. Then he rather carefully took the candy into his mouth.
It seemed to Keselo that the horse almost shivered with delight. Then he nuzzled at Keselo's hand.
"You do have more, don't you?" Ekial asked.
"A couple of pounds, I think," Keselo replied. "I'll check my pack, but I always keep plenty of candy."
"I think you're on to a winner, friend Keselo. If things go as fast as I think they will, you'll be riding Bent-Nose before noon tomorrow."
It took Keselo a while the following day to learn the rudiments of mounting and dismounting, but Bent-Nose was most cooperative, and then Ekial said that they might as well ride on up the pass to report in to the commander. Bent-Nose and Ekial's horse Bright-Star moved on up the pass at a canter, and Keselo was quite pleased with how much easier it was to ride rather than walk—at least during the first morning of their journey. By the time they stopped for the night, however, Keselo realized that there were some drawbacks involved in riding.
"It takes a while for your backside to toughen up," Ekial explained. "Walk around a little bit, and that should ease the pain in your backside. You might want to eat standing up for a few days, though."
"How far would you say we came today?" Keselo asked.
"Forty miles or so," Ekial replied. "We haven't been pushing the horses very hard. Uphill is always a bit slower than downhill."
"We should make it up to the top of the pass in two more days, then. Have Gunda and Andar finished their forts yet?"
"As closely as I could determine, yes. Of course I'm not really all that familiar with forts."
"Have the Creatures of the Wasteland made any attacks?"
"They hadn't when I left that end of the pass. The Tonthakan archers had pretty well cleared the rims on both sides of the pass, so I'm fairly sure that friend Narasan's army has reached the top by now."