This book should be appearing on the stands now, so this will be the last snippet from it. Eric
THE MIRROR OF WORLDS – snippet 20:
Though the aegipan stood in place, his split-hoofed feet tapped a complex rhythm on the slate flooring. The tiny motions made his body seem to tremble, but there was nothing frightened in his hairy, grinning face.
"It's up to the men of this day to pick the champion they send to the Yellow King," Shin said. "The champion must surmount all the tests facing him, though, so it behooves you to choose well."
He lifted his legs as though he were jumping, but his head didn't move; the hooves clacked down together, hammering a period to his words. Had he made a visual pun?
Shin looked from Sharina to Garric. His brown eyes, as solid as chert, changed into caves that sank infinitely far into the earth. Garric felt himself stiffen; the ghost in his mind snatched at the hilt of his ghostly sword with a curse.
"So, Prince Garric?" the aegipan said. "Aren't furry myths from the Western Continent permitted to make puns?"
"What sort of champion?" Garric said, repeating Sharina's question in a tone of command. "What sort of tests will the Yellow King put to him?"
Shin sees my thoughts! And of course he did, but there was no point in saying that or worrying about it. Garric didn't try to deceive the people he dealt with, except by the sort of softening that made human relationships possible. There were generally ways to refuse requests that didn't involve saying, "No, you're too stupid for that post," or, "You'd turn the occasion into a disaster, you overbearing shrew."
"The Yellow King will not test the champion, Prince," said the aegipan, "but the way to the cave in which the Yellow King slept will be hard. Perhaps too hard for any human, eh?"
Shin's long black tongue waggled in silent laughter. Garric felt his face harden, not at the mockery but because of the evasion.
Before he could speak, Shin continued, "The Yellow King sent the sword Lord Attaper holds for a test. Its blade is sharp enough to shave sunlight and so hard it cannot be dulled or broken. The one who takes it from its sheath is the champion whom you must send."
"Done, by the Shepherd!" cried Attaper, one hand on the sword hilt and the other gripping the scabbard. His powerful forearms bulged. Nothing else moved.
Attaper's face flashed through shock, then anger, and finally to a grim determination that an enemy would find more daunting than rage. His hands blotched with strain and the cords of his neck stood out… and still he could not draw the sword.
Carus threw his head back and laughed with the joy of a passionate man seeing his dreams answered unexpectedly. "The Sister take me if he hasn't come for us, lad!" he chortled. "They'll none of 'em see what you and I see, you know that!"
Garric had to keep his face still though he wanted to laugh along with his ancient ancestor. Attaper would think he was being mocked–
But it was nothing like that. Garric ruled because it was his duty, but nothing could make him comfortable as a king. He relished the times when the safety of the kingdom required him to be a man, as he'd shown when he defeated the Corl champion in single combat.
And Carus was right: the others in the room wouldn't see it….
Attaper's face was dark red. He swayed, and still the sword remained in its sheath. Suddenly he relaxed, bending slightly forward as he gasped for breath. His lips moved, but he couldn't manage audible words; he continued to hold the sword.
There was a chorus of pointless chatter. Several military officers tried to take the sword from Attaper; he shrugged them off angrily.
"Milord?" said Cashel. "May I try?"
Surprised, Garric glanced toward the back corner of the room and saw what he should've expected: Tenoctris was upright with Liane close by her side holding the quarterstaff. Cashel wouldn't have left his self-appointed post unless he were sure his presence was no longer necessary.
Attaper looked up, but the snarl in his eyes faded when he saw who'd spoken. It was no sign of inadequacy to own that Cashel or-Kenset was stronger than you were….
"Aye, you're the man for it," said Attaper in a ragged voice. He straightened and held the sword out to Cashel. Those closest, all but Garric himself, backed away.
The aegipan didn't move either. He looked at Cashel and said, "Oh, a strong one, a very strong one."
The words were true enough and the tone was respectful, but Garric heard laughter–or thought he did. Shin's tongue waggled again. Yes, laughter beyond a doubt.
"Garric?" said Cashel, cocking an eyebrow at his friend.
"You'll pull it out if it can be," Garric said, feeling suddenly awkward. He didn't want to embarrass his friends; but if he'd understood what the emissary meant and the others didn't, then he was the right man, wasn't he? The champion? "If there's a trick, though, give it to me and I'll try."
"What sort of trick?" said Lord Holhann peevishly. He was talking toward a corner of the ceiling, apparently speaking simply to hear his own voice. "Is there a catch in the hilt, is that it?"
"All right," said Cashel without concern. He wiped his left hand on his tunic and grasped the scabbard just below the cross-guard; then he wiped his right hand the same way and closed it on the hilt. He began to pull.
The room was so nearly still that the guard muttering to his mate, "I seen him lift a whole shipping jar of–" boomed as though he were shouting. The Blood Eagles weren't picked for their social skills, but even so the fellow shocked himself silent before Lord Attaper could deal with the intrusion.
Nothing moved. Like an ox trying to pull an old oak from the ground, Garric thought, and for a moment he wondered if Cashel would succeed after all. When they were growing up together he'd known his friend was strong, but how very strong Cashel was had become a continuing source of amazement in more recent times.
Still, nobody'd seen Garric the innkeeper's son as a likely candidate for Lord of the Isles, either.
Cashel gave up, blowing his breath out like a surfacing whale. He breathed in great sobs.
"My, you are a strong one," Shin said, this time with no hint of mockery. "Are there many like you in the world of this time, Master Cashel?"
"There's no one like Cashel," Garric said harshly. Cashel bobbed the hilt toward him, still too wrung out to speak; he took it. "No one, Master Shin!"
Garric examined the sword. The rough metal hilt felt dry and only vaguely warm. The scabbard seemed an ordinary one of stamped tin decorated with a geometric pattern in black enamel. Presumably there were laths of poplar to stiffen the metal sheathing.
"A little room, if you will," Garric said, gesturing the guards away from the door with a flick of his left index finger; they hopped aside with instant obedience. Garric strode forward, swinging the sword from left to right in a hissing upward slash.
The stroke was burdened with the weight of the scabbard as well as the blade, but Garric was a strong man and on his mettle today. The tip crushed through the leather-covered wooden door and the belly of the blade struck the stone pilaster supporting the transom.
Splinters and stone chips flew. A man cried out in surprise and Attaper snarled, "By the Sister!"
Garric drew back his arm. His hand tingled but it wasn't numb, not yet. The ruins of the scabbard dangled from the blade. He'd sheared the tin and stripped much of it away with the wood splints.
The metal of the blade was the soft blue-gray of summer twilight. Its edge was a blackness too thin to have color; it was unmarked, even where it'd gouged deeply into the stone.
Garric looked at the grinning aegipan. The simplest way to remove the smashed scabbard would be to pull it off with his left hand, but sometimes a colorful demonstration is better than quiet practicality. He backhanded the blade against the other pilaster, flinging tin and bits of wood from another crash of powdered stone.
Breathing deeply, Garric turned to face his council. Guards in the outer hall called in alarm through the shattered door, but calming them could wait. Very deliberately he raised the gray-gleaming sword high over his head.
"People of this time!" said Shin, his voice golden and surprisingly loud. "You have found your champion!"
Temple came around from the back of the house with his shield slung behind him and, under his left arm, a bundle of poles trimmed from the white shadbush fringing the fields. Ilna turned on the stool where she was working. Before she could speak, the big man tossed the poles aside. With an odd sort of shrug he slipped the shield back into his grip and drew his sword, his eyes on the head of the valley.
By instinct Ilna glanced first at the pattern she was knotting rather than to what Temple had seen. Certain there was no danger she'd missed, she raised her eyes to the distant slope and saw Karpos coming toward them with ground-devouring strides that were just short of a lope.
His apparent haste didn't mean there was a problem: that was the hunters' regular pace when they weren't stalking or adjusting themselves to Ilna's shorter legs. Asion would be watching the back trail.
Temple slipped his sword back into its sheath. "I wasn't expecting them to return by that direction," he said softly. "They'll have doubled back on our trail to mislead the Coerli if they notice that humans have observed them."
"Yes," Ilna said, resuming her work of knotting yarn to the frame of previously gathered poles. "Chances are the beasts won't realize their camp's been found. If they do, though, we don't want to lead them straight here or they might wonder what was going on."
She rolled and set beside her the section she'd completed, so that it wouldn't affect her companions by accident. After a moment's consideration, she chose three of the poles Temple had just brought and resumed her work.
It was a complex task, the more so because the front of the house would be part of the pattern against which she'd lay her skeletal fabric. The gray and russet blotches of unpainted wood allowed subtlety that she couldn't have gotten from the wool alone, but using something other than fabric stretched her skills.
Ilna smiled. She liked learning new techniques. Besides, this was in a good cause, the best cause of all: killing catmen.
Karpos joined them. Before speaking, he braced the belly of his bow against his right knee and bent the upper tip down enough to release the loop of bowstring from the bone notches holding it. Rising, he let the yew staff straighten. Left strung, an all-wood bow would crack before long.
"They're not far," he said to Ilna. Asion was on his way down the track now also. "Maybe an hour ahead. No more than that, anyway. And they didn't try to hide their trail."
"Do they still have prisoners?" Ilna asked as she worked, judging where each strand must go without bothering to look behind her at the wall. The pattern was set in her mind; all she needed to do was to execute it according to that perfect truth.
"No," Karpos said. "Unless they'd gagged them. We'd have heard people if they'd made any sound. Well, Asion would've."
The two hunters believed that Asion's senses were sharper than those of his partner. Ilna accepted their judgment–because the men said so, and because she herself could discriminate between the shades of two threads which anyone else would've claimed were identical. So far as she was concerned, anything either of them said they saw or smelled or heard was as sure as sunrise.
"All right," Ilna said. "Lay the fire then, please. I've crossed two sticks where I want it. And set out half a dozen billets of light-wood for me to use when they come."
She'd almost said, "Good," when Karpos reported the catmen had already killed their captives. If the prisoners were alive, she and the men would have to attack the beasts in their camp. That could be done, she supposed, but it'd add a further complication to the business.
So… Ilna hadn't hoped the catmen had slaughtered the children they'd carried off, but since they had–they'd be hungry and looking for further prey. She was going to offer some: herself. And if the beasts managed to kill her, then they'd have earned their meal indeed.
"There's a breeze all the way from here to where the cats're camped, mistress," Asion said as he approached. "We had to swing way wide so we didn't wake 'em up early."
"All right," said Ilna as she wove her three poles together with strands of wool she'd picked from the tunic which a woman had died in. "Help Karpos with the wood, then. I don't want a large fire for now, but I need to have plenty of sticks ready so I can feed it as the night goes on. They may take their time coming."
"Not them, mistress," said the hunter as he passed his partner returning from the wood pile. An extension of the roof overhang sheltered it at the back of the cabin. "But I'll get more wood."
"Have you further directions for me, Ilna?" Temple asked pleasantly. He rested on one knee, polishing his dagger with a swatch of suede he'd brought from the hamlet where they'd found him. He'd used the short blade to cut and trim the lengths of brush; the sap oozing from the layer of inner bark smelled faintly acid.
"No," Ilna said, but she glanced around to be sure of her statement. "I have enough poles."
"Very well," he said, rising and sheathing his dagger. "Then I'll bury the goats."
Ilna frowned. After providing her with the first bundle of poles, Temple had dug a deep trench and buried the dead family. She'd been amazed at how quickly he worked with only the tools they'd found here at the farm: a dibble of fire-hardened oak, a pick made from goat antler, and a stone adze which he'd used as a mattock.
"We'll be leaving tomorrow morning at the latest," she said. "Probably tonight. If the smell disturbs you…?"
"No, Ilna," Temple said with his familiar slight smile. "The smell does not bother me. Animals deserve courtesy too, though, if we have time to grant it to them."
"We didn't kill the goats," Ilna snapped. "They're on the catmen's conscience, or they would be if the beasts had one!"
"All life is the same, Ilna," Temple said. "And we have time. But if you'd rather I not, I will not."
"Do as you please," Ilna said. She was furious with herself for having started an argument over nothing, an insane nothing. "As you say, we have time."
Temple gathered his tools and walked toward the dead animals. Ilna wound and knotted, seething inside.
Killing catmen was the only thing that mattered now. And she was about to kill a few more of the beasts.