Longbow had set off the following morning.

"What's your hurry, Longbow?" Ekial asked.

"When I reach the upper end of Long-Pass, I'll need to go on down to the mouth so that I can guide the Trogites back up to the most likely places for them to build their forts."

"You're going to wear out your shoes, Longbow. That's about four hundred miles, you know," Ekial remarked.

Longbow shrugged. "Whatever it takes."

Ekial, somewhat regretfully, sent his friend Ariga and a sizeable number of other horse-soldiers off to the south to scout the eastern edge of the Wasteland to determine if the bug-people were anywhere in sight yet. He'd have much preferred to lead that scouting party himself, but he was fairly sure that wouldn't sit too well with Kathlak and Two-Hands. It was tedious—even boring—to plod along with the foot-soldiers, but it was sort of necessary.

There was a slight cloudiness that day, and the thin clouds made the sun look sort of pale and sickly. Winter was a very depressing time of year.

Ekial was about to call a halt for the day when Two-Hands and Longbow's Tonthakan friend, Athlan, came up through the rounded foothills to join him. "There's company coming, Ekial," Chief Two-Hands reported.

"Oh? Who might that be?"

"It might be almost anybody," Athlan said. "They're still a good ways off, but we're almost positive that they aren't people-people. They look like bug-people to me."

"Where?" Ekial asked sharply.

"They're a few miles out in sand-country," Two-Hands said.

"We might have missed them, but they're kicking up a lot of dust. We can't give you any kind of details, since they're still several miles away, and the dust pretty much conceals them."

"If Long-Pass is going to be their invasion route, what are they doing a hundred and sixty miles north of that pass?" Ekial demanded.

"I haven't the foggiest idea," Two-Hands admitted. "I suppose that it might be possible that they're planning to cross over the mountains and then go south through the foothills on the other side to someplace about halfway down Long-Pass. That would put them behind the Trogites if the fort-builders are going to concentrate on blocking the pass on the west end."

"How many of them would you say there are?" Ekial asked.

"It's a little hard to tell," Athlan said. "They're quite a ways out in that desert, and the dust pretty much conceals them. I'd say several hundred thousand at least. The dust cloud's at least ten miles wide, so we aren't talking about a couple dozen or so."

Ekial started to swear.

Chapter Two

They kept a close eye on the creatures out there in the desert for the next several hours, but it didn't seem to Ekial that their enemies were in any great hurry. He mentioned that to Longbow's friend Athlan when the archer returned to report that he'd just located a sizeable meadow with lots of grass just ahead.

Athlan scratched his cheek. "From what Longbow told me a while back, this will probably be our last war with the children of the Vlagh," he said. "I asked him once a few weeks ago if we'd be fighting the bug-people for the rest of our lives. That's when he told me about the twin volcanos in Zelana's Domain, and the sudden flood in Veltan's part of the Land of Dhrall. Neither the bug-people nor anybody else will be able to attack those two regions."

"And that wall of blue fire in Crystal Gorge closes the only route up to Dahlaine's territory as well," Ekial added.

"It did that, all right," Athlan agreed. "I go cold all over when I think about that disaster. I've seen blue fire before—usually in swamps, where it's just a faint flicker dancing on top of the water. The blue fire in Crystal Gorge went way past a flicker, though." Athlan paused. "He did tell you about that 'unknown friend,' didn't he?"

"Oh, yes. I wasn't sure just how much of what he said I should believe—but that was before the blue fire went roaring down Crystal Gorge. If Longbow's got a friend who can do things like that, why does he need to hire outlander armies?"

"It wasn't Longbow who hired you, Prince Ekial. I've heard that it was Dahlaine. Longbow himself doesn't need any outside help. I'm not trying to offend you, Prince Ekial, but once Longbow told me that bringing outlander armies here to the Land of Dhrall really only had one purpose. You're here to see just how terrible the people who live here can be if somebody from another part of the world decides that he wants all the gold in the Land of Dhrall. After what happened to those idiots from the Trogite Church in Veltan's Domain, I'm sure that every outlander who's here realizes what a terrible mistake it'd be to come here with some notion of getting rich. People who offend us don't get rich. They get dead—soon—instead."

The weather turned bitterly cold that night, and Ekial didn't like that at all. "Why can't it warm up just a bit?" he complained to Chief Two-Hands.

"You don't really want that to happen, Prince Ekial," Two-Hands replied. "A brief warm spell usually means that there's a blizzard on the way, and you don't want to come up against one of those. The warm spell goes away rather quickly, and it's suddenly ten times colder than it was before—at least it seems that way. The wind cuts into you like a knife, and the snow whirling around you blots out everything more than two or three feet away."

"Longbow told me that you had to burrow down under the snow during a blizzard once," Ekial said.

"Oh, yes!" Two-Hands said. "I was wearing one of our bison-hide robes, and it still felt like I was getting frozen into a solid block of ice. I couldn't see anything beyond two feet away because the snow was so thick. I could barely see my hand in front of my face. I didn't know which way was which, and it was getting colder and colder by the minute. I knew that if I didn't get in out of that wind, I'd freeze to death. My only option at that point was to burrow down into a snow-bank. I knew that my burrow wouldn't be toasty warm, but at least it would protect me from that screaming wind. That's when I discovered that snow will pack up if you lean your back against it and push. I was finally able to open up a chamber about the same size as a small room in a very small house. There was air to breathe, and if I got thirsty, I could eat a few handfuls of snow. I happened to have a couple of slabs of smoked meat in my belt-pouch, so I had shelter, water, and food. I stayed there for a few days, and then I took a look outside. It'd stopped snowing, so I made my way back to Asmie—just in time to witness my own funeral. You wouldn't believe how upset people become when the guest of honor at a funeral shows up and he's still breathing." He smiled then. "Word of what I'd done got spread around all over the village, and the young boys of Asmie thought it might be a lot of fun to make snow tunnels around the village in the dead of winter." He shrugged. "It gives them something to do, and it keeps them in out of the weather. Last winter eight or nine boys built what amounted to a palace under the snow on the south side of Asmie. They made miles of tunnels and they had large chambers here and there. It kept them out of mischief, so I didn't scold them or anything. I did order them to mark the locations of their tunnels and meeting halls, though. It's not really safe to walk over the top of a snow-tunnel. The women of the tribe mentioned that to me fifteen or twenty times a day, as I recall."