THE MIRROR OF WORLDS – snippet 12:



            Garric assumed the Council of Elders was leading the delegation by the broadest way possible, but that became extremely narrow as they neared the center of the town. When Garric paused to let Waldron go ahead of him between compounds whose walls were masses of gray fungus, he heard someone retch violently behind him.


            He turned: the youngest of Lord Tadai's aides was on his knees, vomiting helplessly. Between spasms he whimpered, "Oh Lady help me, the smell. The smell!"


            "Get up, Master Loras," Tadai said harshly. "We have our duty."


            He held out his hand to Loras, but the younger man struggled to his feet. "I'm all right," he said hoarsely, but his eyes were closed. He opened them to slits and stumbled forward with the rest of them.


            Waldron had paused because Garric did. He went on with a snort.


            "I've seen young soldiers do the same on their first battlefield, milord," Garric said mildly when they had room to walk side by side again. "And he didn't drop the document case he was carrying."


            "Aye, that's so," said the old soldier. With a half smile–or at least the closest thing to a smile Garric had seen on his lips since they entered the Corl town–he added, "And the place has got a pong, I'll admit. They're cats, that's sure, these beasts."


            "Yes," agreed Garric. "They are."


            He'd had too many other things on his mind to be conscious of the smell, but the clerk was probably the son of a Valles merchant rather than a rural peasant. Now that Master Loras had called his attention to it, Garric realized that the stink was worse than the occasional summer day in Barca's Hamlet when the breeze blew from the direction of the tanyard.


            Lord Attaper at the head of the procession shouted orders to deploy his troops. Three paces on, Garric and Waldron arrived at the Gathering Field, a round of bare clay a furlong in diameter. Coerli crowded the outer edges, but a broad path remained open to the center where nine undressed rocks waited in a circle.


            The Corl Elders sprang onto eight of the rocks and squatted, facing inward. Garric put his left boot on the last, then hopped up to stand on it. His head was well above that of anyone else in the field, able to see and be seen by all.


            "Coerli whom I have conquered!" he said. "Hear my commands and obey!"


            As Garric spoke, he turned around slowly so that all the watching catmen had a direct view of him. He towered above them, his face was framed by the silvered helm and its flaring, golden wings. His words had drawn a dull growl; as his gaze swept each segment of the crowd, the timbre of the sound shifted higher.


            The Blood Eagles were in an outward-facing circle, their shields flush against the chieftains of the catmen, each of whom stood with his chosen warriors at the head of the males of his clan. The human soldiers were a black-armored wall, bulkier than the Coerli and taller even without the horsehair plumes pinned to their helmets.


            But the catmen could move the way lightning dances between summer clouds. If it came to a fight, Garric and his whole entourage would be massacred… but there wouldn't be a fight.


            The ghost in his head was silent; smiling faintly, seeing through Garric's eyes but making different calculations. The catmen were quick, to be sure; there was no defense against their speed. But a man doesn't die the instant he takes a fatal wound. He can keep hacking at his enemies for a minute and more if he's the sort who doesn't mind dying so long as he takes as many of his enemies as possible with him to the Sister. King Carus, the foremost warrior in the history of the Isles, would be directing Garric's sword if–


            But that wouldn't happen.


            Garric completed his eyes' circuit of the crowd, returning to the Council of Elders. Early in the catmen's history, a chieftain must've held power only so long as he could defeat the strongest of his warriors. If their society had never evolved beyond that, the Coerli would still live in scattered hunting bands and been animals hunting other animals.


            Greater numbers and settled communities had required a different sort of organization, leadership based on wisdom and experience instead of merely strength. Even so, the Elders facing Garric now were all former chieftains. They had the heavy bodies and shaggy manes of sexually mature males who'd lived for years on a diet of red meat rather than the fish and legumes of ordinary warriors.


            They glared balefully back at Garric; but the eldest, the Corl who'd addressed Garric from the gateway, said, "We are here for you to command, chief of the animals."


            "Then hear me," said Garric. "First, you will send all the men from the Place to my camp. From this day forth, no man will serve a Corl!"


            The problems the freed humans would cause for the kingdom were staggering. They hadn't been slaves, they'd been domesticated animals for hundreds of generations. But there wasn't any other choice that Garric was willing to accept.


            "I am Barog!" snarled a chief outside the circle of guards. "Shall a Corl chieftain eat fish?"


            The Elder who'd been speaking rose to his feet on his rock and pointed to Barog. His mane, silvery but still streaked with pure black, flared out at twice its previous length. "Kill the oathbreaker!" he said.


            "How dare–" Barog shouted.


            The chieftain to his left grabbed him by the shoulder. Barog spun, baring his fangs in defiance; the chieftain to his right, now behind him, dashed out his brains with a ball-headed wooden mace. The chief already holding Barog sank teeth into his throat. Victim and killers dropped to the ground, the latter worrying the former like dogs with a rabbit.


            Warriors whom Barog had led moments before joined in tearing the dead chieftain to bits. At a command from Attaper, the Blood Eagles at that side of the circle dropped to one knee, butting their shields on the ground; otherwise the maddened Coerli would've clawed and bitten the men's ankles as they thrashed.


            Garric kept his face set in grim lines, but he smiled in his heart. Perhaps Waldron'll believe what I've told him about Corl honor now.