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Chapter 2

Cashel didn't understand why this was happening, but he knew fights and right now that was the main thing. His hands shifted without him having to think about it.

The first black man was in the midst of the locals, slashing with skill and amazing strength: an old fellow toppled in two parts, his hips and legs one way and his upper body the other. The victim's mouth was open to scream but the sword'd severed his diaphragm; there was nothing to force the air out of his lungs.

Cashel couldn't be sure of a clean stroke in a melee and there wasn't time to chance something that might not work. With his left hand on the shaft and his right on the butt driving it, he rammed his staff toward the chest of the swordsman poised on the curb.

The fellow got his round shield between the blow and his body. It was dull metal and no bigger across than the length of Cashel's hand and forearm.

Sparks flew from the staff's iron cap. The shield gave a tinny bang like an ill-cast bell and slammed back into the swordsman's chest, crunching his breastbone and broad ribs.

The man's mouth and nostrils spewed blood as he toppled into the pool. The sword'd wobbled pff to splash in the reeds. Cashel didn't have time to worry about the dead man or his gear, though, because he had his eyes on the surviving swordsman.

At least four of the old men were down, carved apart. Only three were running away gabbling, but Cashel thought he'd seen Hareth duck behind the stone curb. The tangle of body parts where the black man stood could as easily have added to five as four corpses, not that it mattered now.

The fellow shuffled toward Cashel in a wide stance. His sword was waist-high and close to his body, point a little above the hilt and ready to cut or stab. He held the buckler well out in front of him.

Cashel'd hit the other shield hard enough to smash the ribs of the man holding it, but his quarterstaff hadn't made a dent in the round of dull metal. He should've dimpled even a solid ball of iron.

Tenoctris continued to chant her spell like nothing was happening behind her. Maybe she didn't know that anything was happening; she was somebody who lost herself completely in what she was doing.

Cashel wasn't like that himself. It was fine for a wizard to concentrate on just one thing, but a shepherd had to know what every one of his flock was doing at the same time. Otherwise the ones you ignored were toppling over cliffs, drowning in bogs, or killing themselves in other ways only a fool sheep could come up with.

Cashel backed a step with his staff slanted crossways before him. His duty was to keep Tenoctris safe, but the best way to do that was to draw the swordsman away. If he put himself between the black man and the wizard, he'd get jointed like a chicken.

The sword must be of the same metal as the other one's buckler. It'd left a bright notch in the curb after slicing through one of the codgers, but the edge was unmarked. The only way to fight a weapon like that was to have plenty of room to dodge.

Fight with a quarterstaff, anyhow. If there'd been a pile of fist-sized rocks handy, Cashel figured he could throw them quick enough that one'd find a spot the fellow hadn't covered in time with his shield. When Cashel threw, a solid hit anywhere from scalp to ankle would put his target down sure as sure.

But there weren't any rocks. And a sword that cut through a thigh bone, even an old man's thigh, would do the same for the quarterstaff.

As Cashel continued his slow dance away, he kept the pool in the corner of his eye so he'd see if another swordsman was coming out of it. He didn't know what he'd do then—probably die, trapped between the pair of them because he wouldn't run off and leave Tenoctris—but nothing seemed to be happening there since he'd killed the second man.

The water was dark with swirls of blood, spreading slowly. The corpse floated on its face; its legs and arms hung down, but the broad torso curved above the surface like the back of a whale. The black skin gleamed in the moonlight.

Cashel prodded his staff toward the swordsman with his left hand leading. He meant it for a feint unless the black man stepped in to meet it with his shield. If that'd happened, Cashel would've put his back and shoulders into the stroke, figuring to hit hard enough to up-end the fellow before he had a chance to use his sword.

Instead the swordsman crouched low and came on like a crab, the buckler forward but a little out to his left side while the blade in his right remained low and ready. Cashel eased away but the fellow moved quick, sword swinging as part of the lunge, he was good and his blade could cut stone and the only way this would go was—

"Eulamo!" Tenoctris cried in a cracked squeal.

A sparkling azure filament, thin as spider web, twined about the black man's ankles. He pitched forward soundlessly, driving his sword hilt-deep in the turf with the suddenness of his fall.

The glitter bound the swordsman only for an instant before scattering into dust motes, but that was long enough. Cashel punched with his staff instead of swinging it: the leading ferrule drove the top of the bald skull down onto the fellow's back teeth. The arms and legs thrashed, but that was no more than a chicken kicking when you snap its neck. Whoever these black men were, they were too dangerous to take chances with.

Cashel stepped back, breathing hard as he looked around for something else to fight. Nothing moved for a moment; then Hareth poked his head up from the other side of the pool and ducked down again.

Cashel bent to the man he'd just killed, then remembered that the fellow wasn't wearing a tunic that'd serve as a rag. He took out his wool again and wiped blood and brains from the end of his staff. He hadn't expected Tenoctris to throw a loop of wizardlight around the swordsman's ankles, but this wasn't the first fight where being able to react the right way to an unexpected opportunity was the reason Cashel was standing at the end.

That reminded him of Tenoctris. Dropping the bloody wool on the body, he stepped quickly to her. She'd collapsed when she shouted the final word of her incantation but she was trying to get up again.

Cashel knelt and put his left arm under her torso. He wasn't going to lift unless she asked him to, but he'd make sure he was there to give her support for whatever she wanted.

"Cashel, cover the fountain," she said in a raspy voice. "Let me be. Make sure that starlight doesn't fall on the fountain."

Cashel pursed his lips. He withdrew his arm carefully and walked to the pool. He held the quarterstaff slanted in both hands again; excitement had washed the recent fatigue out of his blood.

The pool wasn't very big or deep either one; the body, slowly revolving, didn't leave much room. Peering in, Cashel saw the round outline of the buckler that the dying man'd dropped when his muscles spasmed for the last time.

As for covering the rest of the surface . . . .

Cashel looked down at the bodies of the old men. The ground'd been damp from the first; now it was sticky with congealing blood. A shepherd doesn't get picky about what he puts feet in, but Cashel'd tried just out of courtesy to the dead not to step on the bigger pieces.

Courtesy was fine, but sentiment didn't come before need. Rebben was wearing a short cloak; the night wasn't cold, but old men's blood gets thin. Cashel removed it—it'd been pinned with a thorn—and draped it part on the floating body and part on the curb. If he'd laid it on open water, it'd have sunk when it got waterlogged.

There was still a rim of surface gleaming on the other side; moonlight rippled and condensed as the corpse rocked gently. The tunic of the fellow who'd been cut in half was in sections, the jerkin on his torso and the skirt below. Cashel jerked both parts away from the body and covered the rest of the pool.

Rebben's body gave a sudden jerk. Cashel poised the quarterstaff, but that was just a body cooling.

I'm sorry, old man. I'll make an offering to Duzi for you when I get a chance.

Cashel believed in the Great Gods, the Lady and the Shepherd and the Sister, but in the way he'd believed in cities like Carcosa when he was growing up in Barca's Hamlet. They were real, no doubt, and people said they were important—but they didn't touch him. Cashel and other shepherds gave their offerings to Duzi, the figure scratched on a boulder in the pasture south of the hamlet.

He went back to Tenoctris. She was sitting, but she wouldn't be able to walk unaided back to the gig. When the ground got too soft for wheels they'd left the horse, still harnessed, on a feeding peg. It could easily pull up the stake and wander off, but generally it'd just walk in a circle cropping the sedges.

"The pool's covered, Tenoctris," Cashel said, squatting beside the old woman. She looked as gray as last night's corpse; partly that was moonlight, probably. "What should I do next?"

Tenoctris'd scratched a figure with five sides on the ground beside the circle she'd used for the spell she'd come to cast. The new mark was under where she'd fallen so he hadn't seen it before. It made sense that she'd have to do something completely different to tie up the swordsman, but Cashel hadn't thought about it till now. No wonder she looked gray, having worked a second spell!

"We have to get back to the palace at once," Tenoctris whispered. She closed her eyes, opened them briefly, then squeezed them firmly shut. "Cashel, I'm afraid I won't be able to drive. You'll have to."

"Ma'am, I can't drive a horse," Cashel said simply. "Here, I'll help you to the gig."

Folks brought up with horses—like Tenoctris, who was a lady by birth even though she said her family hadn't had much money—didn't realize that most folk farmed with oxen and got where they were going on their own legs. Horses were for nobles and their servants.

"I can't drive!" Tenoctris said, exhausted and frustrated. "I'm sorry, Cashel, I really can't."

Mind, put a nobleman to plowing behind a yoke of oxen and you'd be lucky if the furrows stayed in the same field as they started. Still, that was neither here nor there. Nobody needed a field plowed or sheep watched or a tree cut so it fell within a hand's breadth of where it was supposed to. Nobody wanted Cashel to do any of the things he'd learned to do in the eighteen years before he left the borough.

"That's all right, ma'am," Cashel said in the calm tone he'd have used to settle sheep for the night. "I'll lead the horse. We'll get there."

He lifted Tenoctris in the crook of his right arm, holding the staff at the balance in the same hand. There were things he'd liked about the life he lived in the borough, but he hadn't had Sharina then and he hadn't dreamed he ever would. This was better. And if it meant he kept trouble away from folks like Tenoctris and Sharina who weren't strong enough to handle it themselves—well, that was better than watching sheep, wasn't it?

The gig was only built for two, but that gave Cashel another idea. He'd have called Hareth to help him, but he saw the old man hoofing it away in the direction the other survivors had taken. Well, that was probably as well.

Cashel squatted by the man whose brains he'd battered in, gripped him by the back of the sword belt, and threw him over his left shoulder. The fellow was stiff as a statue; that could happen when you killed a sheep with a hammer, too, though mostly folks in the borough slit its throat with a knife instead.

This time the stiffness was handy because the fellow's hands had frozen on his sword and the double grips of his buckler. People at the palace, especially the soldiers, would want to see those for whatever metal they were made from.

Waddling slightly—the weight wasn't a problem, but it took some juggling to carry two people and make sure the sword in the corpse's hand didn't slice Tenoctris' ear off—Cashel reached the gig. The mare snorted at the smell of blood, but she didn't bolt the way he suddenly realized she might've done.

He tossed the corpse into the far seat, then braced Tenoctris as she climbed off his arm. "It's five miles," she murmured doubtfully. She opened her eyes but couldn't keep them that way.

"That's fine," said Cashel, taking the reins in his left hand and guiding the horse's head back in the direction of the metalled road. "We'll get there fine, ma'am."

He clucked to the animal, wondering what he'd do if it tried to fight him. Pull it till it gave up, he supposed, but the mare didn't make any trouble. Ambling along—he was used to following sheep, and though he mended his pace for this purpose the horse didn't have any trouble in following—Cashel broke into a broad smile.

He'd be seeing Sharina soon.

* * *

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.

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.

"My government will deal justly with all members of the kingdom, human and Corl," Garric said when the deep-throated growling had subsided enough for him to speak over it. "We'll provide you with hogs to raise for meat, as we've done with keeps who've already accepted my authority."

Something warm was sticking to the back of Garric's wrist; he glanced down, then flicked away a gobbet of skin and hair. In a melee like that, it may not have come from Barog's body. The Coerli really are beasts.

"I've seen men do the same, lad," King Carus murmured. "But not all men, not that."

"From this day . . .," Garric said. What he'd just seen had brought a new harshness to his voice. "Any Corl who eats human flesh will be killed. Any town or keep or roving band which harbors a man-eater will be destroyed to the last kit. There will be no exceptions and no mercy!"

The lips of several Elders drew back to bare their fangs. There was a fresh chorus of growls from the audience, but this time no Corl protested verbally. An Elder snarled in an angry undertone to the one who'd acted as spokesman. That Corl nodded and fixed Garric with his eyes.

"Chief of Animals," he said, "we have given our oath and we will keep it. But our young warriors—who can control the young, when the blood runs hot and passion rules? Are your young any different?"

"There will be attacks on humans, I know that," Garric said. "And I know also that you Coerli will hunt the attackers down yourselves and slay them, though they be the children of your own blood. You will do this because of your oath, and because the kingdom's vengeance will be absolute and implacable if you do not. Is it not so, Leader of the Coerli?"

The Corl spokesman had settled back on his rock after ordering Barog's slaughter. Now he looked first left, then right, meeting the eyes of his fellows in silence. At last he rose to his feet again.

"I am Elphas, the Chosen of the Elders!" he said. His voice cracked when he raised it to make himself heard over the uncomfortable whine of the crowd. "Does anyone challenge my right to speak?"

The whine grew louder, but no Corl dared put his dissatisfaction into words. Garric felt the hair on his neck and wrists rising instinctively at the sound.

"Then I say this, Leader of the Animals!" Elphas continued. "We do not fear your threats, but we will keep our oath because we are Coerli!"

"Aren't they afraid, do you think?" Carus mused. "I think I was as brave as most men, but I didn't want to die."

The chieftains at least would rather die than back down, Garric decided after a moment's consideration. But they're afraid of their clans and their whole race dying. They know that'll happen if they don't accept my terms.

"Very well," he said aloud to the Coerli. "Send six of your clerks—"

The Corl word was closer to "counter" than "clerk" but the concept was the same. A city of ten thousand couldn't exist without some sort of administration, though the Coerli version was crude by the standards of a human village.

"—into my camp to meet with Lord Tadai—"

Garric paused. Tadai bowed. He'd heard his name though all the rest of Garric's oration was gibberish to him.

"—and the clerks under his direction. They will explain what the kingdom requires of the Coerli and will arrange delivery of the kingdom's gifts to its new Corl subjects."

He grinned. The catmen were more aware than humans of subtle shifts in expression and body language. By now all the Elders would understand the meaning of a smile. They weren't as good at making verbal connections as humans, however.

"For example," Garric said, making his point explicit, "they will determine how and where we should begin delivering hogs to you."

The sound of the assembled Coerli changed again, this time to a hopeful keening. It was just as unpleasant to a human's ears as the threatening growl.

Tadai already employed Coerli from keeps that'd surrendered earlier. They and the human clerks they worked with were trying desperately to learn one another's language, but at present only Garric could address and understand the catmen clearly. That was a last gift from a friend, an ageless crystalline Bird, in the instants before the Change; and it had come to Garric alone.

The Shepherd knew that bringing the catmen into the kingdom was going to be hugely difficult even with the best will on both sides. Garric didn't expect exceptional good will, knowing the Coerli and knowing men even better.

"Aye, lad, but as scouts and skirmishers for the army . . .," Carus said. The king's image set its fists on its hipbones and laughed openly. "There've never been humans to match them for that. Maybe your Lady Tenoctris is right."

"Coerli, you have heard my commands," Garric said. "There will be further decrees in coming days, not because of my whim but because they are necessary. Men and Coerli must stand together against the dangers that will otherwise destroy us all. Remember that!"

Garric poised to step down. He'd told the truth when he said he didn't think the catmen would attack him and his companions . . . but the sound and smell and sight of thousands of angry warriors pressed close would've made a rock uncomfortable.

"Or a dead man . . .," said the ghost of Carus, smiling in knowledge as well as humor.

"Leader of the Animals!" said the Elder to Garric's immediate left. His fur had originally been beige but age had sloughed much of it away; the skin beneath was the clammy white of a salamander in a deep cave. "I am Keeger. Elphas speaks for me and for all, because he is the Chosen—but may I ask you a question?"

"Speak, Keeger," Garric said, looking down at the Corl. Keeger hadn't risen, perhaps knowing that doing so would've further emphasized the bulk of the tall, armored human.

"You talk of right and the good of all," Keeger said. "But tell me, animal: do you dictate to the Coerli by any right save that which steel and fire give you?"

"In a thousand years they might get enough discipline to face a human army with sticks and nets," Carus said with a snort. "Maybe in a thousand years; not less."

Garric drew his long horseman's sword and held it high; the pattern-welded blade danced in the sun like a snake writhing. "Do you wish to bow to a conqueror rather than work with an ally, Keeger?" he said. "So be it! And Keeger?"

The ancient catman stared up at him, his lips drawn back.

"Never doubt that if the Coerli break their oath, they will have men for conquerors," Garric said. "But those conquerors will have no more mercy than the Coerli themselves would have. There will be nothing left of your keeps but ashes drifting over the bones of your dead!"

"Garric and the Kingdom!" Waldron shouted, drawing his own sword and holding it aloft.

"Garric and the Kingdom!" cried the Blood Eagles, clashing their spears against the bronze bosses of their shields. "Garric and the Kingdom!"

Garric stepped down. "Lord Attaper," he said, putting his lips close to the guard commander's ear flap. "March us out!"

The massed Coerli warriors stood in sullen silence, but no one objected as the human delegation stamped and splashed its way through the muck of the catmen's only city. Garric sheathed his sword as he stepped out of the Assembly Field, but the Blood Eagles continued to cheer and rattle their weapons all the way to the gate.

* * *

"Big fella, isn't he?" Karpos said, straightening and backing against a pilaster. He hadn't drawn his bow, but the broad point of his arrow was pointed at the spine of the man on the floor.

"Yes, he is," Ilna said tartly as she knelt beside the stranger. Though there was nothing overtly threatening in Karpos' tone, Ilna knew that a big man looking at another big man is always thinking about a fight. Her brother Cashel had generally been the biggest man in a gathering . . . .

The stranger groaned again. His face was turned slightly toward her; his moustache quivered as he breathed, and he had a short black beard as well. She'd guess he was about forty—old enough for a peasant, but this one hadn't been a peasant. His hair and nails were neatly trimmed, and his skin was smooth except for the scars—a cut above the right eye, a trough in the right forearm that could've been made either by a blade or a claw, and a puckering from a sharp point below the left shoulder blade.

A hard smile touched Ilna's mouth: this one was a warrior. She guessed that if she rolled him over, she'd find the mate to the pucker somewhere in his upper chest where the point'd gone in. Why he lay here naked and unconscious while the priests outside had died fighting the catmen was a question to ask as soon as the fellow could speak.

"Karpos, get some water," Ilna said. "I don't see any injury but there's something wrong with him."

"Asion!" Karpos shouted to his partner. "We found somebody! Fetch us water!"

Ilna frowned but didn't object. The hunters were her companions, not servants. Karpos was afraid to leave her alone with the stranger. His concern was misplaced, but it was a harmless mistake.

Ilna only wished that her own mistakes had all been so harmless. If she hadn't made a particularly bad mistake, she'd have a better reason to exist now than the hope of killing every catman in the world; though killing catmen seemed to be enough.

The floor of this temple was of simple stone flags instead of the designs in tile or mosaic that she'd seen elsewhere. The stranger brushed them with his palms, feeling for a purchase. His eyes remained closed.

"Here!" said Asion, striding swiftly out of the sunlight with a dripping mass in his left hand; the knife in his right pointed toward the ground, not a threat but assuredly ready for any trouble that arose. "I didn't see a gourd around so I soaked some cloth in the fountain."

"Off one of the bodies?" his partner said. "You're no better than a dog sometimes, you know, Asion?"

"Hey, I cut off the skirt," Asion said defensively. "There wasn't any blood on that part. Who's the guy?"

Ilna took the sodden linen from the hunter. She was more than a little inclined to agree with Karpos, but Asion had done what'd been requested. Since she hadn't told him what means to use, she had no right to complain about how he did it.

While she considered whether to daub the corner of the stranger's mouth or perhaps to mop his brow, he lifted his head slightly. His eyes opened, but only a slit. Bracing his arms, he raised his torso and brought his knees up under him.

Asion backed away, wiping his left hand on his rawhide breeches. He raised the knife to his waist with the point forward.

The stranger stood and opened his eyes. He glanced at the two hunters and smiled faintly. Then he looked at Ilna; the smile vanished. He'd risen smoothly, but his body swayed for an instant after he'd found his feet.

Ilna's face tightened in slight irritation. The man couldn't have been as old as she'd thought, not and carry so little fat. She'd mistaken the flaccidity of unconsciousness for softness. Now that he was alert, the flesh was molded tightly over his bones.

She handed him the wet cloth. "What's your name?" she asked.

She sounded peevish. She smiled a flash of self-awareness: I spend most of my life in a state of slight irritation, punctuated by moments of extreme anger. It's as well that I don't like being around people, because I wouldn't be very good company.

The stranger wiped his face, squeezing out runnels of water that splashed on the floor. When he'd finished with his face, he began to rub his shoulders and chest. The rag was by now merely damp.

He smiled at Ilna. "What is your name?" he said. His words were clear and audible, but his voice had the odd, echoing intonation of a gong speaking.

Ilna glared at him. "I'm Ilna os-Kenset," she said, because it was quicker to give an answer than to argue that that she'd asked him first. "What is your name?"

"And what're you doing in this temple?" Karpos said harshly. He'd backed two steps and now had drawn back his arrow enough to spread the bowstring into a flat V. Ilna suspected the hunter wasn't aware of what his fingers were doing. He was dangerously tense.

The stranger looked at Karpos and smiled again. It wasn't an ingratiating smile, simply one of amusement. He dropped the rag on the floor and stretched, raising his arms to their full height. His fingertips came impressively close to the crossbeams of ancient timber supporting the roof trusses.

"Answer me!" Karpos shouted, drawing the bowstring a little farther.

Turning to Ilna again, the stranger said, "My name is Temple?"

She thought she heard a question in the words, but the tone might have deceived her. She glared at Karpos. She'd taken the hank of cords out of her sleeve and was knotting them without paying conscious attention to what her fingers were doing.

"Karpos, put that bow down now," she said in a voice that could've broken rocks. "Put it down or I'll leave you here! You'll be no good to me."

Asion stepped between his friend and the stranger, murmuring reassuring words. Karpos let the arrow rotate parallel to the bow-staff, holding both with the fingers of his left hand alone. "What kind of name is Temple?" he shouted to the back wall.

"What is a name?" Temple said; softly, slowly. He still sounded amused, but he looked at the two hunters with a gentleness which Ilna hadn't expected.

Ilna grimaced and began picking out the knots from the pattern in her hands. "What happened here? Why were you spared when the catmen attacked?"

"Was I spared?" Temple said, looking down at his naked body. He was certainly big—as tall as Garric and even more muscular. Temple wasn't a broad plug of a man like Cashel, but he gave the same impression of tree-like solidity. Softly, barely whispering, he went on, "It's been a long time. Very long."

"Answer me!" Ilna said.

He met her angry gaze. "The Coerli didn't attack, Ilna," he said. "Others did. I do not know them, but it was the others."

Then, scarcely audible, "Very long."

"I didn't think it was the cats neither, mistress," Asion said in a tiny voice. He was staring at his right big toe as it drew circles on the stone floor.

Ilna spat out a short, bitter laugh. The cords in her hands gave her the power to kill or compel; she could drive Temple mad or make him say anything she wanted to hear.

And none of that was the least use to her now. She didn't know what it was she wanted, and she needed a better reason to kill than the fact she was—as usual—angry and frustrated.

"All right," Ilna said to the hunters. "There's no point in our staying here. There'll be food in the huts. We can milk the goats before we leave, too. I'd like a drink of milk."

"What about the bodies, mistress?" Karpos said quietly. "Do we leave them, or . . .?"

The dead were merely meat of a sort that other men didn't eat; they didn't matter. But—

"We'll put them in one of the huts and block the door with stones," she said after a moment to consider. The cold smile touched her lips again. "I suppose that makes it a mausoleum. The sort of thing rich people have . . . when they've become dead meat."

"Ilna, you are leaving?" Temple said.

Ilna looked at him sharply. "Yes," she said. There wasn't much reason for him to remain here at that. "Do you want to come with us?"

Then, in a crisp tone, "You'll have to find clothes if you come."

"I will find clothes," Temple said. He flexed his arms and smiled at her again. "And I will come with you."

"Mistress?" said Karpos. His left hand twitched unconsciously, rotating the arrow back to nock. He caught himself, glowered, and snatched the arrow away with his free hand. "Mistress, do you think that's a good idea?"

"I think it's a humane idea, Master Karpos," Ilna snapped. "I don't insist that being humane is good, but it's how I prefer to act when I can. If Temple doesn't want to remain alone at the place his companions were massacred, then I can't say I blame him. When we arrive at a more suitable place, he can leave us."

She looked at the stranger. He was smiling again, this time very broadly. "Sorry," she muttered. "I shouldn't have talked about you as if you weren't here, Master Temple."

"Just Temple, Ilna," he said. He looked at Karpos and said, "I will not be a burden to you, sir."

"The Sister bloody knows you won't!" Karpos said in an undertone, but it was just words rather than a threat. Ilna knew—and Karpos knew as well—that if she ordered the hunters to carry Temple on a litter, they'd obey.

The chance of that happening, barring accident or serious wounds, was vanishingly small. The man was clearly as fit as the hunters and they'd spent their entire lives in the wilderness.

Asion cleared his throat. "Look, I didn't see weapons out there with the bodies," he said, "but maybe in the houses they have something for Temple. A sickle or a billhook or something. He oughta have a weapon, out where we're going."

"They should've had weapons," Karpos said. "Here in the middle of nowhere without a spear to hand when they needed one!"

"Right," said Ilna, pursing her lips as she considered. Tunics and a cloak for Temple shouldn't be difficult; he was unusually tall, but several of the dead men were fat enough that their garments should cover him adequately if in a rather different manner from the way they did the original owners. Sandals, though, or boots—

"I will have weapons, sir," Temple said. He turned and squatted, then slid his hands to midpoint on opposite sides of the stone barrel between the images of the Gods.

"Are you praying?" Asion said. Then, to his partner, "Is he praying, do you think?"

The muscles of Temple's back and shoulders sprang out in bold relief. For a moment there was silence.

"Look, buddy," Karpos said, "if that's solid, you can forget about moving it by yourself. It weighs more'n all three of us together, aye and the mistress too!"

Stone scraped though nothing seemed to move. Temple's legs straightened with the slow certainty of sunrise. The massive cylinder—it must be at least as heavy as Karpos said—rose with him. He started to turn, balancing the stone above his head.

"Get back!" Ilna cried, but the hunters were already scrambling away. Nobody could balance something that heavy for long. When the barrel tipped one way or another it'd fall to the floor with a crash that'd shatter flagstones into flying splinters.

Temple squatted with the grace of an ox settling, still holding the stone. His smile was as set as that of a bare skull, and his muscles seemed to have been chiseled from wood. He lowered the stone barrel to the floor with no more than a tock and a rasping sound.

"By the Sister," Karpos said softly. "By the Sister."

Asion's left hand gripped the amulet bag he wore around his neck. He was mouthing something, probably a prayer. He absently sheathed his long knife, though Ilna guessed he wasn't aware of what he was doing.

Temple shuddered and wheezed, drawing in deep breaths and expelling them with the violence of a surfacing porpoise. He continued to grip the cylinder, now to anchor him so that he didn't topple over backward.

After a moment he turned his head to look at Karpos. Between gasps he said, "I will . . . no-not burden . . . you. Sir!"

"I give you best," Karpos said. He sounded awestruck. "By the Sister!"

Ilna sniffed. As a general rule she disapproved of boasting, and the feat Temple had just performed was certainly a boast. Still, it'd settled his place in this community of men without a fight, and it'd opened what turned out to be a cavity beneath the stone by the simplest if not the easiest means available. She walked over to look inside.

"Ilna," Temple said firmly. He bent over the barrel again, squeezing his eyes closed. He opened them and looked at her. "I'll take care of that, if you please."

"Yes," she said, stepping back. She stood as straight as the pillars, her face set. The stranger had rebuked her courteously. She'd often rebuked those who meddled in her business, but much less courteously.

Temple stood. She'd expected him to lurch, but the motion when it came was as smooth as all his other movements had been. He nodded to the hunters, bowed slightly to her, and reached down into the cavity.

Ilna laughed; a brief sound and half-suppressed, but even so more humor than normally passed her lips. Both hunters looked at her in surprise. Even Temple, straightening with armor in one hand and a sword in the other, glanced over his shoulder with an eyebrow cocked.

"Temple," she said, honestly saying what she'd thought but not explaining why she'd found it funny, "you and my brother Cashel would get along well together. He's a strong man also."

And he, like you, she added within the amused silence of her mind, doesn't pick fights to prove how strong he is. Though if the two of you did fight, it'd be something to see.

The hunters were looking at Temple's equipment. Helmet, cuirass, and the round shield were all made of a metal Ilna didn't recognize. It had a copperish tinge, but it was too dark and had a hint almost of purple.

"So what is it, eh?" said Asion. "Is it bronze?"

"A sort of bronze," Temple said. His voice was quickly losing its odd intonation. He set the armor on the ground and, gripping the sheath at the balance with one hand, put his other on the hilt. "It's harder than most bronzes, though."

He drew the sword. The straight blade was of the same dark metal as the armor, but the edge shimmered brightly golden even in the dim light filtering through the door of the building twenty double paces behind them.

"I've never seen anything like that," Asion said, stepping closer. He moved his hand cautiously toward the sword as though he was about to pet a lion. "Where'd you get it?"

Temple lifted the sword slightly, keeping it away from the shorter man. Asion stepped back, and Temple shot the sword home in its sheath.

"I've had it a long time," he said quietly. "A very long time."

"Is there anything more you need here?" Ilna said sharply to break the mood. When Temple shook his head, smiling again, she went on, "All right, then we'll search the houses for food before we—"

She shrugged.

"—bury the dead in one of them. And we'll get you clothes."

"I will bury the Coerli also, Ilna," Temple said. "You need not help."

Ilna glared at him, then shrugged. "If you wish," she snapped as she started for the door. "If you wish, you can walk on your hands all the way to where we're going!"

Temple left the armor where it was for now, but he slung the sword belt around his naked waist as he followed the others into the bright sun.

* * *

Sharina'd managed to sleep in the carriage during much of her return from West Sesile, but she jerked awake when the iron tires began hammering on the bricks of the Main North Road running along the front of the palace compound. She rubbed her eyes. She hadn't slept well, but any sleep at all was a luxury nowadays.

She smiled. She didn't think she'd had what she'd call a good night's sleep since the Change. There was simply too much for Princess Sharina to do.

And not just Princess Sharina. Mistress Masmon in the opposite corner looked up when she saw Sharina awaken. Masmon had been annotating a parchment codex by the light of a candle sconce in the side of the compartment. She was using a small brass pen which she refilled by dipping into the ink horn dangling from the stud of her travelling cloak.

Sometimes when the pressure of work seemed unbearable, it helped Sharina to remember that others were feeling the same pressure and nonetheless continuing to do their jobs. All the people who really understood that the struggle was between Good and Evil and that Good must win if mankind were to survive—all of them were working as hard as humans could, and maybe a little harder yet.

Sharina smiled at Masmon in sudden sympathy. The clerk blinked in surprise, then managed a wan smile in reply. She closed her pen, capped and removed the ink horn, and was placing them and the book in a carrying case when the carriage pulled up at the palace gates.

The barred gates squealed open, but a discussion between the guards on the carriage and people in the roadway continued. Sharina couldn't catch the words—partly because she was still logy with sleep and lack of sleep both—so she opened the window shutter and stuck her head out to see what was happening.

Admiral Zettin stood in the gateway, his left hand gripping the headstall of the lead horse while he argued with the under-captain in command of carriage guards. When Zettin saw Sharina, he let go of the horse and strode back to the box, calling, "Your highness? May I ride to your quarters with you? There's a problem that I really need to discuss—"

"Yes, yes, of course," Sharina said, her heart sinking into a pit of shadows. She was so tired. The only thing on her mind had been having her maid help her undress—you simply couldn't get into or out of court robes by yourself—and getting into bed to sleep. Lord Zettin had been waiting at the palace entrance because he knew she'd have to pass here eventually and he didn't want to leave his problem for the morning.

Zettin opened the carriage door. He lifted himself onto the mounting step but paused with a frown when he saw Mistress Masmon.

"That's all right," said the clerk, snuffing the candle between her thumb and forefinger. "I'm getting out."

Sharina started to protest, then realized that she didn't know where Mistress Masmon's precise destination within the compound wall was; it might well be one of the buildings near the entrance. Regardless, the clerk would feel uncomfortable if the princess forced her to remain: and since Zettin obviously wouldn't discuss his business in front of an underling, the result of the whole exercise would be to keep Sharina awake that much longer.

Sharina leaned out the door by which the clerk had just left. "One of you men help Mistress Masmon with her case!" she called to the guards. "Yes, I mean you! The gate can do with one fewer man for the time it takes."

She sat down again. Zettin settled onto the opposite crossbench as the driver clucked the horses on. Leaning toward her, he said, "It's Pandah, your highness. There's a serious problem there, one that I think has to take precedence over integrating the Coerli into the kingdom."

Sharina looked at Zettin in puzzlement. Moonlight through the slatted shutters flicked across his face as the carriage rolled forward, hiding more than it revealed.

"I've stayed on Pandah," she said, trying to make sense of Zettin's words. "Pandah isn't a danger."

It's a sleepy island smelling faintly of spices, and even the breeze is mild.

Pandah was the only major island in the middle of the Inner Sea. Besides providing water and locally-raised provisions for vessels crossing the sea, it was a place where regional cargoes could be sorted for shipping to their final destinations by local traders. The people there, from the king on down, were wealthy and focused on living well rather than getting involved in military adventures.

"Yes, your highness," Zettin said, probably more harshly than he'd intended. They were all tired and becoming snappish. "That was indeed the case before the Change, but it no longer is. In the years immediately following the collapse of the Old Kingdom, Pandah was a nest of pirates. That seems to be the case now, but the situation is rather worse because the human outlaws are making common cause with catmen who refuse to become part of the kingdom."

Sharina frowned. "How are they doing that?" she asked. "Can they talk to the Coerli? I don't see . . . ."

Zettin shrugged. "They manage somehow, I gather," he said with a black scowl. "The catmen're mostly young males, warriors that is, from keeps which surrendered to the army. They and the pirates they're joining aren't very different in attitude."

He turned his head away, though inside the slowly rumbling carriage he couldn't have been able to see Sharina's face any more clearly than she could see his. "From what those who've fled the area tell us," Zettin said with a careful lack of emotion, "they've taken up eating men. The humans have, that is. If you want to call them human."

Lord Zettin had been an officer of the Blood Eagles and a protégé of Lord Attaper. When Garric had restored the fleet as the only means of enforcing royal authority over the Kingdom of the Isles, Zettin had become its commander—in part because traditional army officers led by Lord Waldron had considered the fleet command beneath them. Now that the fleet had little value to a continental kingdom, Garric had appointed the former Admiral as chief military aide to Sharina who ran the civil administration while he was absent with the army.

"Ah," Sharina said, realizing now why Zettin had been so insistent on bringing the business to her immediately instead of waiting for the morning. "That's something we'll need to deal with promptly, yes. But milord, I'm afraid my brother will make the decision as to precisely how that will happen. This is a strictly military matter, and I keep out of those except in an immediate crisis."

"But your highness—"

"Milord!" Sharina said. "Garric—Prince Garric—should return the day after tomorrow at the latest. I'll send the information to him at once, but I will not take the decision out of his hands."

"Yes, of course, your highness," Zettin said tiredly. "I see that this is . . . a proper way to proceed. But . . . ."

He let his voice trail away as the carriage halted. Sharina peered through the slats, then opened her door before one of the guards acting as footmen hopped down to get it. They'd drawn up in front of the bungalow which Sharina used as her private quarters, one of scores of separate structures within the palace compound.

When Garric became regent and the first strong leader the kingdom'd had for over a generation, half the buildings within the walls had been empty and dilapidated. Valles was again the administrative capital of a thriving kingdom, so reconstruction of the palace had necessarily kept pace with the need for office space. What would happen now that Valles was far inland—well, that was a problem for another day if not a distant day.

"Milord . . .," Sharina said. Zettin's door jerked open, and a Blood Eagle took hers as well. "The situation you describe at Pandah is not only evil but disgusting. Nevertheless it may not be in my brother's opinion the most serious threat the kingdom faces at this moment, nor the best use of the army. You and I and my brother will all put our personal feelings aside and work for the kingdom's greatest good—as we've been doing."

She got down from the carriage. She hadn't told Zettin anything he didn't already known. He was a smart man, very possibly the cleverest of the high officers in the royal army, but he'd chosen to waste her time in this fashion because he was angry and appalled on a personal basis. There wasn't any time for personal feelings!

Zettin walked around the back of the vehicle—to take his leave formally, she hoped, because the interview was closed. The door of her bungalow opened. Sharina looked from the officer to what she assumed would be the maid, her only servant, who'd stayed awake for her—

"Cashel!" she said. He stood solid as an oak in the light of the porch lantern, smiling a greeting. She'd been wrong about there not being time for personal feelings.

Sharina trotted forward as quickly as the robes permitted; they weren't tight, but they were so long and heavy that they were likely to wrap around her ankles and trip her if she weren't careful. Cashel strode down the steps to gather her in. He lifted her soul as well in a sudden flood of safety and contentment.

"Tenoctris is lying down inside," Cashel said. "She had to do some hard things. And there's a thing you need to see."

Raising his head slightly, he said to Zettin, "Sir? You'd better come look at it too. Whatever it is, it's something for soldiers to know about."

"Yes," said Sharina, squeezing Cashel once more before releasing him. She didn't know what the problem was yet, but she knew that neither Cashel nor Tenoctris overstated dangers. Over her shoulder as she mounted the steps she said, "Lord Zettin? Will you call a courier from the duty room in the next building? It sounds like we'll need to summon Prince Garric."

"I've already done that, Sharina," said Tenoctris, standing to the side in the doorway. "The officer in charge there thought Garric should be able to get back by mid-morning if all goes well."

"Fine," said Sharina, embracing the older woman lightly as they passed. It's good to have friends who'll make the right decisions before you need to. "Then we'll call a council meeting for the tenth hour. Now, let's see what you've got."

It was good to be a person who made the right decisions herself, too. Even when she was really tired.


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