THE MIRROR OF WORLDS – snippet 11:



            Garric stood with his arms out at his sides while aides–the son of the Count of Blaise and a great-nephew of Lord Waldron, commander of the royal army–dressed him in helmet, gilded and engraved body armor, and his belted sword. Normally he'd have done that himself, but the fight had left him wobbly with reaction. If the Coerli suddenly attacked, Garric'd be lucky to continue standing while the army fought around him.


            King Carus snorted. Garric grinned.


            "Sir?" said Lerdain, the Count's son and a husky fifteen-year-old. He wore a hook-bladed sword, the traditional weapon of a Blaise armsman, and it wasn't just for show.


            "I was just thinking that I've never really been too tired for a fight," Garric said, giving a real answer instead of putting the boy off with, "Oh, nothing," or a similarly uninformative response. "Though I've sure felt that way before it started–as I do now."


            "You were magnificent, your highness!" said Lord Wardway as he cinched the sword belt into place. He was taller but much slimmer than Lerdain.


            "I'll have you back on my brother's estate if you don't learn to hold your tongue till you're a man, Wardway!" Lord Waldron snapped. "I'd rather have your sister here than a babbling boy!"


            The army commander was a hawk-faced man in his sixties with an obvious family resemblance to the youth. Age had neither weakened nor mellowed him from the hot-tempered cornet of horse he must've been when he was eighteen, but for all his punctilious concern for his honor, Waldron was a skilled general. His courage went without saying.


            The aides stepped back. Garric shrugged to loosen the cuirass over his shoulders.


            "All right," he called to Lord Attaper, who'd taken personal command of the detachment of the bodyguard regiment accompanying Garric today. "We'll march to the Gathering Field in the center of town. That's the Council of Elders; they'll guide us. Oh–have four men carry Klagan. That's their champion."


            "Their late champion," Carus said reflectively.


            The weight of the helmet made Garric's head throb. He'd pulled a neck muscle at some point while fighting Klagan. He wore the armor for show, not because he expected battle. Cowing the catmen with the sheen and hardness of metal was just as important now as it'd been when Garric'd planned the glittering display at leisure.


            The ghost in his mind chuckled. "Pain just means you're alive, lad," Carus said. "I haven't felt pain since the afternoon I drowned."


            In a mental whisper he added, "It's the one thing I miss, not having a body. The only thing."


            "I'm ready, your highness," said Lord Tadai, a plump, perfectly groomed man and one of the richest nobles in the kingdom. He'd become–by being present, willing, and able–the head of the civil bureaucracy accompanying Garric in the field while Chancellor Royhas had charge of the administration in Valles.


            Garric grinned at him. "I never doubted it, milord," he said as the Blood Eagles clashed forward on the left foot.


            Three aides walked behind Tadai, carrying files that might be required during negotiations with the Coerli. They looked terrified, but the nobleman himself seemed as unconcerned about walking into a city of man-eating catmen as he would've been if the meeting place were an assembly room within the palace. Though he barely knew which end of a sword to hold, Tadai gave the lie to the notion that soldiers had a monopoly on physical courage.


            The leading guards reached the Coerli delegation filling the gateway. "Chieftains!" Garric called in the catmen's snarling language. "Lead us to the Gathering Field, where you will receive my commands!"


            "We will keep our oath, Chief of Animals," an age-bent Corl replied. "We will accept your commands."


            Six human males stood at each gate leaf, ready to push them closed when ordered to. They stared at Garric without comprehension as he tramped through the gate. They were from the Coerli's own period, domestic animals from whom ruthless culling had eliminated all initiative and courage. In all truth they were more like sheep than men… but they'd be freed regardless as one of the first acts of the new administration.


            Beasts wouldn't rule men while Garric was king. Not even if the men had ceased to be human except in form.


            "You realize this could be a trap, your highness," Waldron said. The words were respectful enough, but the tone added, "You stupid puppy!"


            "Yes, milord," Garric said, "as we've discussed. But I don't think it is. Nor do I think the sun will rise in the west tomorrow, which I consider equally probable."


            He was taking only fifty soldiers into the Corl stronghold, an escort but not a threat. Attaper had of course wanted to bring the whole regiment–though that was under three hundred men: guarding Prince Garric was an extremely dangerous job, and there hadn't been time to induct sufficient volunteer replacements from the line regiments.


            Three hundred soldiers wouldn't have made any difference if it came to fighting. Though none of his advisors really believed it, Garric knew that the war had ended when he broke Klagan's neck.


            He marched under the gate arch, keeping step with his guards. The walls of the Place were timber. They'd been built with undressed tree boles, but in the ages since then the bark had sloughed away to leave the wood beneath a silky gray with black streaks. It was tinder dry and splashed with shelves of orange fungus.


            "Do you think we could fight our way out?" Waldron snapped. "I don't care about myself–I'm a soldier; it's my duty to die for my prince. But what happens to the kingdom if you're killed?"


            You've changed your tune in the years since we met, Garric thought. He didn't let the words reach his lips, but a smile did. If this stiff-necked old Ornifal nobleman had come to respect him, then Garric had gained something more important than the cheers of city rabble who'd turn out for any spectacle.


            Aloud he said, "Milord, how long would it take you to reduce this city? Using the troops assembled outside."


            Waldron frowned but glanced about him in assessment. The interior of the Place was a mass of separate wicker compounds, each circular wall enclosed a number of huts belonging to a single clan. There were no streets, just pathways; not infrequently the compounds pushed against one another like lily pads struggling for space on the surface of a pond. Catmen peered through gaps in the walls to watch their human conquerors march past.


            "A day to circle the town with earthworks and raise nets on top of them so the beasts can't run," Waldron said. "At first light, pile brushwood on the upwind side of the walls and set fire to it. Go in when the flames burn down and finish off any still alive."


            He pursed his lips, then added hopefully, "Though we wouldn't really have to wait for the earthworks–the males don't like to run, and the females won't leave their kits. Is that what you intend to do, your highness?"


            "It is not," Garric said sharply while the ghost in his mind guffawed. "But can I take it as a given that if you and I were killed, the officers remaining outside the walls would be able to put that plan into effect?"


            "You're bloody well told they would!" Waldron snapped. "There isn't a soldier in the army who wouldn't know how to do that. We've burnt half a dozen keeps already when they wouldn't surrender, and this place would burn even better."


            "Right," said Garric. "And the Coerli know the same thing. They won't kill me for that reason alone, even if you don't trust their honor. Which I assure you, milord, is just as highly developed as your own."


            Garric smiled to make his words friendlier than they otherwise might've been taken. In all truth, there was very little to choose between the ways a Corl chieftain and a nobleman from Northern Ornifal viewed the world. Garric had to hope that in the long run that'd make it easier to bring human and Coerli society together, but there'd be many sparks struck before that happened.


            "And first survive today, lad," said Carus. His image toyed with the hilt of its imaginary sword.