THE GODS RETURN – snippet 3:






            Cashel carried Rasile in the crook of his arm up the last few tens of steps to the top of the fire tower, the highest point in Pandah. The old wizard's people, the Coerli–the catmen–held the physically weak and aged in contempt even if they happened to be wizards.

            Since the Change, Rasile had been helping the humans who'd conquered the Coerli; her life and health had improved a great deal. Still, the fire tower was a hollow pillar with many tens of tens of steps shaped like wedges of pie on the inside. Lots of younger people, catmen and humans both, would've had trouble climbing it.

            Cashel didn't mind. Rasile scarcely weighed anything to begin with, and besides, it made him feel useful.

            Cashel's friends were all smart and educated. Nobody'd thought that Garric would get to be king while he and Cashel were growing up together in Barca's Hamlet, but he'd gotten as good an education from his father, Reise the Innkeeper, as any nobleman's son in Valles got. Likewise Garric's sister Sharina.

            Cashel smiled at the thought of Sharina. She was so smart and so lovely. If there was wizardry in the world–and there was; Cashel had seen it often–then the greatest proof of it was the fact that Sharina loved him, as he'd loved her from childhood.

            Cashel's sister Ilna couldn't read or write any better than he could, and like Cashel she used pebbles or beans as tellers if she needed to count above the number of her fingers. But there was more to being smart than book learning, and nobody had ever doubted that Ilna was smart. She'd been the best weaver in Barca's Hamlet since she'd grown tall enough to work a loom, and the things she'd learned on her travels had made her better than any other soul.

            None of that had made her happy. Her travels had been to far places, some of them very bad places. She'd come back maybe missing parts that would've let her be happy. Still, Ilna was much of the reason that the kingdom had survived these past years; why the kingdom survived and, in surviving, had allowed mankind to survive.

            Cashel, well, he was just Cashel. He'd been a good shepherd, but nobody needed him to tend sheep any more. He was strong, though; stronger than any man he'd met this far. If he could use that strength to help people like Rasile who the kingdom depended on, then he was glad to have something to do.

            "I'm setting you down," he said, just as he'd have done if he'd been carrying a bogged sheep up to drier ground. The sheep couldn't understand him and the Corl wizard didn't need to be told. Still, a few calm words and a little explanation never hurt. "It's supposed to be the highest place in Pandah and–"

            He looked around. The top of the tower flared a little, but it was still only two double-paces in diameter.

            "–I guess the folks who said that were right."

            Rasile stepped to the railing. From a distance the catmen didn't look much different from humans, but close up you saw that their hands and feet didn't use the same bones. As for their faces, well, they were cats. Rasile was covered with light gray fur which had a nice sheen since she'd started eating properly again.

            Cashel grinned. If Rasile was a ewe, he'd have said she was healthy. Of course back in the borough she'd have been butchered years ago; there was only fodder enough to get the best and strongest through the winter before the spring crops came in.

            "I'll never get used to the cities you beast-men live in," Rasile said. She flicked the back of her right hand with the left, a gesture Cashel had learned was the same as a human being shaking her head. "All those houses together, and so many of them stone. None of the True People ever built with stone."

            "Well, you don't use fire, so you can't smelt metal," Cashel pointed out. "That makes it hard to cut stone."

            He didn't add, "And you catmen aren't much interested in hard work, either," though it'd have been true enough. The Coerli were predators. All you had to do was own a housecat to know that most of the time it'll be sleeping; and when it isn't, it's likely eating or licking itself.

            "Anyway…," Cashel continued diplomatically. Rasile didn't mean anything by "beast-men" and "True People;" it was just the way the Coerli language worked. "I don't guess I'll ever get used to cities either. I was eighteen before I left Barca's Hamlet, and it wasn't but three or four tens of houses."

            Pandah had been a good sized place when the royal army captured it back in the summer, but that was nothing to what it'd become now. All around the stone-built citadel, houses were going up the way mushrooms pop out of the ground after the spring rains. There were wood-sheathed buildings, wattle and daub huts, and on the outskirts any number of tents made of canvas or leather.

            Before the Change, travel for any distance meant travel by ship. The Isles were now the Land, a continent instead of a ring of islands about the Inner Sea, and Pandah was pretty nearly the center. It'd gotten to be an important place instead of a sleepy little island where ships put in to buy fruit and fill their water casks.

            The Corl wizard cleared her throat with a growl that had sounded threatening before Cashel got used to it. She paced slowly sideways around the tower, seeming to look out over Pandah.

            Cashel had spent his life watching animals and figuring out what was going on in their minds before they went and did something stupid. He knew Rasile hadn't asked to come up here just to view a city she disliked even more than he did. That was why he'd asked Lord Waldron, the commander of the royal army, to put a couple soldiers down at the base of the stairs to keep idlers out of the tower while Cashel and the wizard were in it.

            "Warrior Cashel," Rasile said with careful formality, though she still didn't meet his eyes. "You are a friend of Chief Garric. As you know, the wizard Tenoctris summoned me to help your spouse Sharina while Tenoctris herself was occupied with other business."

            "Yes, ma'am," Cashel said. "I know that."

            "There is no wizard as powerful as Tenoctris," Rasile said, this time speaking forcefully.

            Cashel smiled. It was a good feeling to remember a success.

            "Ma'am, I believe that's so," he said. He could've added that it hadn't been true before Tenoctris took an ancient demon into her while Cashel watched. Risky as that was, it'd worked; and because it'd worked, the kingdom had a defender like no wizard before her. "Even she says that, and Tenoctris isn't one to brag."

            "And now she has accomplished her other tasks," Rasile continued, turning at last to look at Cashel. "It may be that with a wizard of his own race present–and so powerful a wizard besides–Chief Garric may no longer wish to keep me in his council. Do you believe that is so, Warrior Cashel?"

            Cashel chuckled, glad to know what was bothering the old wizard. "No ma'am, it's not so," he said, making sure he really sounded like he meant it. He did mean it, of course, but with people–and sheep–lots of times it wasn't the words they heard but the way you said them. "Look, Garric's job is fighting against, well, evil. Right? The sort of evil that'll wipe out everybody, your folk and mine both. And the fight isn't over."

            The sound Rasile made in her throat this time really was a growl, though it wasn't a threat to him. "No, Warrior Cashel," she said, "the fight is not over."

            She gestured toward the eastern horizon. "A very great fight is coming, I believe. But–you have Tenoctris again."

            "Ma'am," Cashel said, hearing his voice drop lower because of the subject, "what with one thing and another, I've been in a lot of fights. I've never been in one where I wouldn't have welcomed help, though. I figure Garric feels the same way."

            Rasile gave a throaty laugh. "I am relieved to hear that," she said. "During the time I accompanied your spouse Sharina, Warrior Cashel, I became accustomed to not being relegated to filth and garbage. While I could return to my former life with the True People, I don't feel the need to reinforce my sense of humility to that degree. Wholesome though no doubt it would be to do so."

            The laughed together. Cashel looked down at the city, holding his quarterstaff in his left hand. There were all sorts of people below, walking and working and just idling along. They made him think of summer days in the south pasture, sitting beneath the ilex tree on the hilltop and watching his sheep go about their business.

            In the past couple years Cashel had gone a lot of places and done a lot of things, but he was still a shepherd at heart. He'd learned there were worse things than sea wolves twisting out of the surf to snatch ewes–but he'd learned also that his hickory staff would put paid to a wizard as quickly as it would to the sort of threats his sheep had faced.

            He tapped the staff lightly, clicking its iron butt-cap on the tower's stone floor. To his surprise, a sizzle of blue wizardlight spat away from the contact.

            Rasile noticed the spark also. Her grin bared a jawful of teeth that were noticeably sharper than those of a human being.

            "I told you the fight was not over, Warrior Cashel," she said. "I felt but I did not say that Chief Garric would be wise to keep me by him. I cannot do as much as his Tenoctris does, but I can do some things; and he will need many things done if he and his kingdom, our kingdom, are to survive the coming struggle."

            Cashel nodded without speaking. From this vantage he could see birds fishing the pools that now dotted the plains where the Inner Sea had rippled before the Change. Most were the white or gray of seagulls, but there were darker shapes which flashed blue when they caught the sun right: kingfishers, he was sure.

            "Would you mind staying here a little longer, Warrior Cashel?" the Corl wizard said. "I would like to work a small spell. Both our height above the ground and your presence will aid me, I believe."

            "Whatever you want, ma'am," Cashel said. "And I'd appreciate you just call me Cashel. I'm not a warrior, you know. I'm just a shepherd."

            Rasile snorted mild laughter as she squatted on her haunches. She took a handful of yarrow stalks out of a bag woven from willow withies, so fine and dense that Cashel thought it would shed water. The catmen were good at weaving; even Ilna said so.

            "You see what you see, shepherd," Rasile said. "But I see what the world sees. If you do not want me to say 'Warrior,' I will not say the word. But the truth does not change, Cashel."

            She tossed the yarrow stalks into a pattern on the stone, then began mumbling words of power. Cashel didn't pay much attention to her. He kept watching the sky and the land beneath, the directions that danger might come from.

            He was a shepherd, after all.