‘You’re an engineer,’ he said. ‘How hard can it be? You just put the bricks one on top of another until there is a wall.’
His juniors laughed, some dutifully, some who – like him – thought it was actually funny.
Often, it is that simple though, you put one brick on top of another, fit one piece of wood to another until the job is done.
But building a wall on the front line between the Empire and the Northern savages was nothing like that. Someone, one of the accountants that run the Empire’s armies these days, calculated that we lost one soldier for every hundred bricks, and they counted the bricks, and there were millions of them by the time the wall was built.
Some of those soldiers were my engineers too. They are worth more than the spear carrying brutes that fill up the ranks when there are wars to be fought or hostile villages to eradicate. Engineers have to know how to kill, of course, but they also have to know how to build and destroy, read, write and calculate.
No-one bothered to count the number of slaves that died building the wall. A lot of them were captured Northern savages who didn’t have the sense to get killed in battle. Some of them saw sense and threw themselves off the wall – once it was high enough – rather than having to live like that.
Each day was a battle, each day was a war. Not just a war against the Northern savages, but a war against the elements and the terrain. As one of my men said, ‘everywhere is uphill from everywhere else.’ He died too, so far back I forgot his name years ago. I never forgot that terrain though. I remember hills, hills and more hills all with sharp cliffs dropping down into deep valleys, or staring up from those same valleys to see the high hilltops covered in mist or snow.
The northern savages worship Ice Gods. After a while in their land, you begin to understand why.
There was the wind too. You could see it in the few trees brave and hardy enough to survive. Small stunted half-excuses for trees, all growing bent at a forty-five-degree angle. Yes, one day I did go out and measure a few trees and the angle at which they grew. My personal slave, Henga, from the lands south of the wall thought I was mad.
But I was an engineer. I was building the wall. Everyone thought I was mad.
Mad to challenge the gods by creating things – man-made things – where no man-made things had existed before. Many thought that heresy, even after we made the requisite sacrifices to whatever god ruled the local landscape. Sometimes those sacrifices were not enough. Then the angered local god would send winds, storms, floods, to destroy what I made. The locals would laugh, point at me and then call me mad as I set about rebuilding what their gods had destroyed.
They thought I was mad, even for an engineer.
I suppose that is why when the Emperor had his mad dream about building the great wall across the northernmost tip of his empire, he sent for me.
I realised I was mad too when I said that yes, it could be done.