8. A Pillar Assault

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Kneeling by the stream, Kadav splashed water onto his face and chest, trying to cleanse away the sweat and grime of another long day. If only the cool water could calm the raging whirlwind in his head. With every passing hour it was becoming more obvious; having barely even begun, the project was already in dire jeopardy.

The problem was time. Hours collected in his gut like sand in the bell of an hourglass. One day this person wouldn't appear; the following day it was someone else. They would turn up eventually, looking haggard and misused. Even then, their hearts weren't in the work. Kadav lectured, shouted, cajoled and promised. He reminded them of their oaths and the fiery inferno that awaited oathbreakers. In response, they gave vague excuses and swore they were upholding their end of the bargain. Most baffling of all, they seemed to be telling the truth. He saw no signs of intentional sabotage. Yet the result was much the same. With the labor-force in constant flux, the work progressed in fits and starts when it progressed at all. At this pace, they would be lucky to complete the apparatus before the leaves began to fall. The heaviness in Kadav's gut told him they didn't have that long. Either the dragon would return, or knights from Alvaron would start arriving in numbers.

He dried his face, rubbing at his bloodshot eyes until he saw spots. As his vision cleared, an apparition of the priest appeared in the pleated waters of the stream. He froze, startled, before recognizing his own reflection. The thinning hair plastered wetly against his pate and the shirt draped stole-like around his neck had created a momentary illusion. He chuckled uneasily to himself. The project must really be taking a toll on his nerves.

A vague suspicion gnawed at him as he dressed. What could possibly be undermining the resolve of his workforce? The more he mulled it over, the more obvious the answer became: the priest. The holy man must have found a way to negate the workers' oaths. Kadav wasn't sure how he had managed it, but when he found out, he would shove that holy scroll up his pontifical arse.

His ire stoked, he arrived back at the worksite just in time to see Hrago scaling the scaffolding ladder. It was the first he had seen of the cabbage farmer all morning.

"Hrago!" he shouted from across the clearing. "So nice of you to join us this fine day!"

Without returning his greeting, Hrago climbed to the topmost platform where several men were already hewing out a vertical channel in the face of the god tree.

Kadav stormed over in high dudgeon. He was still the mayor of this town, fire-breathing dragon or no, and he wasn't about to be ignored, even by a longstanding ally. "Hrago!" he called up.

"What can I do for you, mayor?" came the cabbage farmer's reply.

"I said, it's nice of you to join us this fine afternoon!"

"I heard you the first time," Hrago replied stiffly. "A nice day to you too, mayor."

"So that's it, is it? Gone for half a day and not even a hello-how-you-do?"

By way of answer, a new chok-ing sound added itself to the percussive chorus, this one deeper and louder than the rest.

Kadav rattled the ladder. "I'm talking to you, Hrago! Don't you ignore me! You've bloody well got some explaining to do!"

The other choppers took leave of their work to peer nervously over the edge. Chok! Chok! came the sound of a single ax being swung with great force into the ancient tree. "I'm a bit busy at the moment," came Hrago's voice. "Perhaps you could drop by later."

Livid now, Kadav went to scale the ladder but was forced to give way as an exodus of workers came shimmying down from above. No one wanted to get caught on the rickety scaffold if the argument came to blows. When the way was finally clear, Kadav clambered his way to the top. He started to swing a leg onto the platform, but without anyone to steady the ladder or give him a hand up, he felt his center of gravity shift precariously. On second thought, he decided to stay put. The ladder extended a couple feet above the edge, giving him a midget eye view of the farmer's broad back.

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