THE GODS RETURN – snippet 9:



            Cashel had noticed long since that the actual words a wizard chanted didn't seem to matter. It was the rhythms they got into that told you what they were doing.

            Rasile had laid a pattern of yarrow stalks around the floor of the tower. She sat in the center of it, making sounds that were nothing like the words of power Tenoctris used. They weren't anything like the catmen's ordinary speech, either. Even so, Cashel would've known what was going on even if he hadn't been able to watch her.

            The air flickered. It looked a bit like heat lightning, but the only clouds today were horsetails in the high heavens. It must've been the sky itself, twisted by Rasile's power so that sunlight didn't slip through it the way it ought to.

            A deafening crackle spread outward from the star pattern. Cashel wasn't sure it was really a sound. It wasn't his ears or even the soles of his feet that noticed; it was more something that prickled inside his head. The whole world's breaking apart around us! Spreading his legs a little wider on the tower's floor and gripping his staff midway to either side of the balance, he waited to deal with whatever happened next.

            Cashel's feet didn't move. The air cleared. He hadn't known that he and the wizard were in a smoky gleam until it was gone again. They were right where they had been, but the tower was gone and the city was gone. He and Rasile were in the midst of armed civilians and a few soldiers, looking from stone battlements toward a ragtag army on the plains below.

            "Begone, you thieves and vagabonds!" cried a man not far from Cashel. He was using a megaphone. The three fellows next to him were older, fatter, and wore gold chains for ornament, so the herald was probably speaking their words. "If you're not gone in three minutes by the sand glass, we'll shoot you all down like the dogs you are!"

            They were on top of a gatehouse. There was a socket where a catapult was probably meant to pivot, but there wasn't one in place now. Several soldiers had bows, though, and the folks below were only a furlong away. That was in range of a good bowman.

            Rasile was getting to her feet. Cashel put out his arm for her to grab. A man wearing a molded breastplate meant for somebody much thinner strode through them on his way to the group around the herald. Cashel didn't feel the contact, and it didn't seem like the local fellow had either.

            "I think we're seeing something that occurred recently," Rasile said. Her tongue clucked against the side of her long jaw in a Corl equivalent of a grin. "Or perhaps something that will occur shortly. I do not know where it is, however."

            Cashel thought about the way the people around couldn't see or touch him and Rasile, but there wasn't any point in talking about something that the wizard knew a lot better than he did. He said, "We're on Ombis on Telut, I think. I've never been here, but the colors the servants of the envoys from there wore in Valles are the same as–"

            He pointed to the cloth hanging down from the herald's megaphone. It was orange around the edges and slashed green on black inside the border.

            "–that is."

            Cashel noticed shapes and patterns without having to think about them. Sheep might all look alike to city folk, but a shepherd knows each of his flock by name even if he can't count above ten without a tally stick. Heraldry was nothing at all to somebody tuned to little differences in the brown/black/gray/white markings of Haft sheep.

            "The fellow in the green robe there," he said as the tallest of the three men in fancy dress turned so Cashel could see his face, "he's the one who was the envoy himself last spring."

            There were folks on the wall as far around as Cashel could see from the gate tower. The city wall was only twice his height–the tower was half that again–but that was still a huge advantage.

            The defenders weren't well armed. Besides the soldiers, some of the better-dressed civilians had swords and maybe even metal armor, but the rest carried spears of a simple pattern that'd probably come from the city armory. They were in leather caps and breastplates.

            That was probably good enough, though, because the attackers outside the walls were just what the herald had called them: vagabonds and thieves. Some were armed with swords as good as those of Ornifal nobles. The gold inlays and ivory hilts didn't mean much in a fight, but Cashel knew that fancy touches like those were often put on the best steel by the best craftsmen.

            But there weren't many with swords, and even those few didn't go in much for armor. Some carried boat pikes, long-shafted weapons with a hook below the point to catch rigging or the rail of a ship trying to keep clear. Cashel guessed they were pirates. Even without better weapons, it would've looked hard for the city if the whole army had  been that sort.

            But all beyond a couple double handsful of pirates were escaped slaves, farm laborers, and the sort of thing you'd find if you emptied out prisons. Some had been branded or were missing hands. They had clubs, pitchforks, and poles with a knife tied to the end.

            And there were women. Cashel knew women could fight: he'd seen Sharina joint enemies with her Pewle knife, and even Garric's delicate Lady Liane carried a blade that could–and had–cut deep enough to open the big blood vessels. Some of the slatterns below would be dangerous in an alley or a crowded taproom.

            But they weren't going to batter through stone walls. There were plenty of women on the walls too, ready to throw cobblestones and pour down boiling water. Ombis shouldn't have had anything to fear from its attackers–

            But Cashel knew that Rasile wouldn't here unless there was more going on than they'd seen thus far. His hands polished his quarterstaff. He guessed that if the city folk passed through him without touching, so would a pirate sword; but just in case.

            "That's funny," Cashel said to Rasile. He pointed. "Those people down there don't have any more ranks than a flock of sheep would, but they're making sure to leave a big space back from the chief."

            The leader of the pirates was a tall man who'd braided scraps of cloth-of-gold into his blond beard. He was husky too, though not as big as Cashel; there weren't many people who were as big as Cashel. He two long swords and many daggers dangling from his cross-belts, but they were all in their scabbards while he lifted something small and shiny in his left hand.

            A city elder turned to a soldier with a bow. When he moved, his gold chains clanked. "Shoot him!" he ordered imperiously.

            "I'd waste an arrow from here," the soldier said. He was frowning toward the pirates instead of meeting the eyes of the elder.

            "I'm ordering you to shoot, Sister take you!" the elder shouted. "I want him to stop what he's doing!"

            "I got twelve arrows," the soldier said. "I'm going to keep them for better targets than that. It's our asses too, remember."

            Another soldier turned and said loudly, "If you want to cashier us now because we don't jump through silly hoops for you, Master Comian, you do that and we'll be out the back gate before you finish the words. Otherwise, pipe down and let us get on with the business of keeping these pirates on the other side of the walls."

            The pirate chief was talking, or anyway his lips were moving. He wasn't shouting to the city, though. It didn't seem to Cashel that the fellow was talking loud enough that anybody at all could hear him. His men gave him a wide berth; maybe they had more confidence in the defenders' archery than the soldiers themselves did.

            "There!" said Rasile. Disconcertingly, she balanced on her right foot and scratched herself in the middle of the back with her left; she'd become a great deal more limber than she'd been when Sharina first brought her to her first council meeting. "That must be why I was drawn here."

            "That" was the shimmer of light beside the pirate chief. It reminded Cashel of the way the sun glanced off the face of an iceberg, bright and cold and as thin as the surface of a mirror.

            A curved hugeness the color of layered shale squirmed out of the air. "A Worm," Rasile said. Her nose wrinkled. "Perhaps the Worm which devoured all its siblings after they had scoured clean their world."

            Sometimes Cashel could see beyond the creature to a waste of shingle and sluggish gray water. Violet cracklings in that background suggested momentary shapes, but they were the shapes of nightmare. The Worm shifted forward.