THE GODS RETURN – Snippet 25

Lord Attaper was an Ornifal noble and as good a horseman as anyone in the royal army. Places in the Blood Eagles he commanded, however, were filled by soldiers who'd proved their courage in any of the regiments, most of which were infantry. It didn't surprise Garric when a trooper in the squad trotting ahead of him and Tenoctris wobbled, grabbed his saddle horn, and fell off anyway. He hit with more of a thud than a crash of armor, since the ground was soft.

"Get up and rejoin us, Mitchin!" Attaper snarled, furious that one of his men had embarrassed him. "And quickly!"

"That seems a little unjust," said Tenoctris, riding beside Garric with ladylike grace – she was sidesaddle – and perfect skill. "This may be the first time he's ridden a horse in his life."

The wizard's family hadn't been wealthy, but they were noble; Tenoctris had learned to ride and, for that matter to drive a coach and four. That latter skill had proven useful in the past, because it certainly wasn't one people raised in a peasant village were going to have.

"I don't think 'justice' is one of the concepts Attaper dwells on when he's doing his job," Garric said.

"Which is every bloody minute he's awake," Carus said. "And I'd bet half his dreams are about guarding you, too. You don't make his life easy, lad."

Then, in what was for the warrior king a reflective tone, he added, "I don't think he's ever been as happy before."

The cornicene of the cavalry troop they were riding with blew an attention note on the horn coiled about his body. The captain wigwagged his arms in a field semaphore, signaling the ten troopers of his lead section. They spread to left and right as they disappeared over the next rise.

Lord Zettin's scouts ranged far and wide across the continent, but the army's own cavalry was responsible for its close-in reconnaissance. Garric needed to see the terrain himself if he were to dispose his troops properly in event of a battle, and there wasn't likely to be margin to cover any mistakes he made.

Trooper Mitchin thundered past on his way to rejoin his squad. His shield, a section of cylinder, banged against him every time the horse gathered its legs. The Blood Eagles were equipped as infantry. Attaper had mounted this platoon only to allow them to keep up with the prince. If they had to fight, they'd dismount.

Lord Waldron hadn't liked Garric riding off with a troop of cavalry and a platoon of Blood Eagles, but he understood the logic of the plan. More to the point, he understood that it was his duty to obey when his prince ordered. Attaper wasn't nearly as clear on the latter point. He simply would have ignored Garric telling him to stay behind, so Garric hadn't bothered.

"Tenoctris?" Garric said. "I'm here to get a feel for the country."

"So that you and I get a feel for the country, lad," Carus reminded him. The ghost smiled, but his words were true enough. Carus had been a formidable swordsman, but his armies wouldn't have won every battle they fought if he hadn't also been even more impressive as a tactician.

Grinning at the silent comment, Garric continued, "But what are you here for? Are you looking for particular places to use your art?"

Tenoctris laughed. "Not at all," she said. "In fact, this country is very peaceful. Pleasantly bland, I feel. It's unusual to be able to look from horizon to horizon and not see signs of mass slaughter or dreadful rites anywhere. Well, it's been unusual for me in the past, at any rate."

This country in general ranged from bog to marsh, though the leading section had thus far been able to find ground firm enough for horsemen. It'd be a bad place to meet an enemy, since the soft ground would channel the fighting along a series of parallel causeways.

"It'd be worse for the rats, though," Carus said judiciously. "They've got narrow feet."

"No," Tenoctris said, "I'm here because you are, Garric. I believe that whoever is ruling Palomir will sooner or later attack you personally. I want to be where the excitement is."

She laughed merrily, but Garric didn't imagine her light tone took anything away from its truth.

"I don't think I'm that important," he said carefully.

Tenoctris shrugged.

"I think you are, lad," said the ghost in Garric's mind. "If a sword and an army could've held the Isles together, I'd have done it. But that's all I had, and it wasn't enough. Nobody I've seen in this age has even that much. Nobody but you."

The main body – the Blood Eagles around Garric and Tenoctris, and the ten-man section with the cavalry commander – reached the crest of the ridge. Garric saw the troopers of the lead element halfway down the swale, proceeding very slowly. Two of the horses were in mud to their knees, and a third man was backtracking from a bog he'd decided was impenetrable. The troop commander was changing his advance section every few miles, because the picking the trail required considerably more effort than following did.

"The supply wagons are going to have the Sister's own time getting through this," Carus noted grimly.

We're using oxen, not draft horses, Garric reminded him silently. Their hooves are broader, and they spread with pressure so they won't sink in as badly.

Even as Garric's mind formed the thought, a trio of spiral-horned antelope sprang out of a willow copse and bounded across what looked like choking swamp. They made great leaps that seemed to be higher than they were long, pausing briefly between one and the next. Their feet must be adapted to the environment, though just how Garric couldn't imagine.

A pity we can't saddle them, Garric thought. That would give us an edge against the rats.

Aloud he said, "Tenoctris, if the Gods have vanished – or anyway, if They don't exist in this present . . . what does that mean for us? I mean, in the future?"

Tenoctris shrugged again. "Well, possibly nothing," she said. "After all, that's the world I lived in all my life until very recently: a world in which the Great Gods didn't exist."

"But you said you were wrong?" Garric said, frowning.

"Yes, but it's what I believed at the time," she said with a wry smile. "Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I believed it. So I have no difficultly in imagining a world in which the Gods really don't exist, rather than them simply not existing in my mind."

Garric considered a world without the Great Gods. He'd never doubted Their existence – people in Barca's Hamlet didn't doubt the Gods – but neither had They been a major part of his life.

Reise offered a crumb and a drop of ale to the Lady at family meals, but any true worship Garric had done was to the rough stone carving of Duzi on the hill overlooking the south pasture. The Shepherd Who protected the world was far too grand to worry about real shepherds, but little Duzi might find a lost sheep or deflect the lightning from the elm which sheltered the shepherd against the sudden thunderstorm.

So perhaps it really wouldn't make much difference. Garric was uncomfortable with the thought, but there was no end of more serious problems facing the kingdom.

"The difficulty is that I'm not sure the throne, so to speak, will remain empty," Tenoctris continued. The Blood Eagles had gone through this section single file, but there was room for two horses abreast, or almost so. Garric nodded and Tenoctris pulled ahead; he followed closely enough that his horse nuzzled her left thigh.

"Certainly the Gods of Palomir hope to fill the void," she said. "And we hope, of course, to disappoint them. I rather doubt that they're the only powers who wish to rule this age, however. And they may not be the worst of the possible choices."

"First things first," Garric muttered. The leading element was signaling back to his captain with what seemed cheerful enthusiasm; perhaps they'd gotten through the boggy stretch. If so, it was time to turn back and carry the intelligence to the main body of the army.

But there'd be another day, and another day; each with its own problems.

Garric rose in his stirrups to stretch his legs; his gelding whickered without enthusiasm. "First things first," he repeated.

He was just tired, he knew, but he was very tired; in body and now, thinking of the Great Gods, soul. I wonder when it stops?

"For folks like you and me, lad," Carus said, standing arms akimbo on the battlements of a dream caste, "it stops when we're dead. And it seems that for some of us, it doesn't stop even then."

The ghost of the ancient warrior-king threw his head back and laughed, but it was a moment before Garric was able to laugh also.