of the Last God
(Book II of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY
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"What do you think they're doing?" Potter asked quietly, peering out into the moonlit camp through the bars of the wagon door.
Smith shook his head. "I've no idea. We heard the bawling of that beast they brought into camp, and the smell of blood is still in the air, so I suppose they've killed it, and are eating. Their leader seems to be gathered with their translator, L'Sala, and some others near the fire, there. Other than that, I'd be guessing."
"Guess anyway, Smith," Drummer whispered.
Smith paused for a moment, then nodded. "Alright. I can still smell those birds. Lots of them. And all the cats in the camp seem... Tense. On edge. I think another group of cats has come - a large group. And I think maybe they want to take us from the cats that have us. The talker-cat said 'There yet be considerations you know aught of, and if Lord R'Narr doth yet fail, thou and thine people may yet pass into the paws of ones who may yet not treat thee with nearly the kindness as hath Lord R'Narr.' Maybe he'll be able to keep all of us, but it's likely these other cats will try to take us from him, or at least force him to split us up. Either way, if we think things are bad now, they'll be worse, after. That's what I think."
"They'd split our families without a thought, and we'd never see our loved ones again," Dunlass hissed angrily.
Smith simply nodded.
"What can we do, Smith?" Carder hissed.
Smith was silent, thinking. Finally, he looked up. "Damn! I've forgotten the word for 'guard'."
"R'tlah" Potter offered, rolling the 'r' and stretching it out in a feeble imitation of the cat's language.
"That's it," Smith replied, nodding, and quietly called to the guard standing nearby.
The guard turned and stepped over to the wagon, hissing at them.
"What's he saying?" Carder asked.
"I don't know. He's probably telling us to shut up," Smith whispered in reply, and looked into the guard's alien, slitted eyes. Slowly, with a broad, deliberate gesture, he placed a forefinger over the tip of his muzzle. "Shhhh," he whispered to the cat.
The guard eyed Smith curiously, an eyebrow raised.
In the months they had been prisoner, Smith had managed to learn perhaps three dozen words and about eight short phrases of the cat's language - 'water', 'food', 'yes', 'no', 'I understand', and so on. It wasn't much, but it was a start. "Talker-cat. Quiet. Hurry," he repeated in the language of the cats, hoping the guard understood.
The guard looked at Smith, and shook his head. He snarled something, his voice hushed. Smith had no idea what it was he said, but guessed that the guard was telling him he should shut up, and L'Sala was otherwise engaged.
Smith simply nodded. "Yes, I understand. Talker-cat. Quiet. Hurry."
The guard looked at Smith for a long moment, and finally nodded. "You stay," he hissed, and turned to walk off.
"Do you think he'll get her?" Drummer asked.
"I hope so," Smith replied. At a slight muttering, he glanced to Potter, and heard him whispering a nearly-silent prayer to all the gods and spirits that watched over their people. Smith turned his attention back outside the wagon. He did not pray. He simply waited. The damned have no need of prayer.
* * *
T'Zama T'Mrr smiled at R'Narr. It had been an interesting exchange, so far, and she had quite enjoyed toying with the old fool. Oh, they had chatted about the weather, the latest goings-on at court, and other trivial matters - and all the while, she could see the old fool was fidgeting, hoping she didn't know what she knew.
Her sons had been told what she expected to find, of course. The deduction had been a trivial one. Interrogation of mus taken prisoner had revealed that the airships, the anti-toxin, and the new guns of the mus all had the same source - the Little Ones of ancient legend. Apparently, they lived somewhere in the south. Now, R'Narr V'Nass thought to slip quietly through her territory coming from the south, three covered wagons along with him? And after requesting a suspiciously large amount of grains and other djuducu-fodder for a mere four or five dozen birds, foods known to also be the preferred diet of the mythical Little Ones?
'No, General... I was born at night, yes - but not last night,' she thought, smiling at R'Narr while she chatted disarmingly. It was highly likely that was in those wagons was several of the Little Ones, captured by R'Narr at the Shazad's command - or even if there wasn't, there was almost certainly something of immense value there. T'Zama could think of no other reason for R'Narr to go south, beyond the lands of the cats and into unexplored territory. None at all.
"Mrr... Lady L'Sala returns, and our spirits are lightened by her presence," D'Main T'Mrr purred, his voice soft and sweet as he gazed at the scantily-clad she-cat that walked back into the firelight. D'Main, T'Zama's eldest son, sat to her right, his armor gleaming. His tan fur, the same shade as his mother's, was brushed immaculately, and the slim rapier by his side had, to T'Zama's knowledge, never been drawn in battle. He was called 'The Beautiful One' by all who knew him, and he was effeminate and soft. Yet, he was also T'Zama's most trusted advisor in matters of finance and power-politics. T'Zama had never had a daughter - but certainly D'Main had become as close to her as any daughter could have been, and was as skilled at Manipulation as any daughter could have been. T'Zama smiled quietly as D'Main feigned interest in L'Sala. She knew her son well, and he had no interest in females at all. No, his tastes were more rare - and this gave him the power of true Manipulation over those few tom-cats T'Zama knew who shared her son's tastes in bed partners. T'Zama had learned of her son's true preferences years ago, after an embarrassing moment at age sixteen when she intruded on him and a young friend in his quarters. From that moment on, she decided to teach him the art of Manipulation - and she had not regretted her decision.
D'Larin snorted at his brother's comment, his tail flicking slightly in irritation. 'My younger son tires of this game,' T'Zama thought to herself, gazing at the younger, smoke-gray tom who sat to her left. 'He grows more like his father each year.' D'Larin T'Mrr was, in many ways, the mirror opposite of his brother, and more like his father, whose fur-color and pattern he had inherited. Brash, short-tempered, quick to fight, quick to duel, with a will that would not be broken. He was a good leader, a skilled strategist and a fair swordsman - but the intricacies of politics were beyond him. To T'Zama, he was simply a bludgeon she applied to her enemies - just as his father had been before him. Someday, he would, most likely, get himself killed dueling over some imagined slight, just as his father had done before him. With luck and care, she'd have him married off before then, and a grandson to replace him.
"Mrr... I thank you, Lord D'Main, but I am not a noble. I am simply L'Sala," the she-cat replied, drawing her cloak demurely about herself. She had left when one of R'Narr's warriors drew near, claiming she needed to use the privy, and been escorted by that warrior off into the darkness, beyond the firelight. T'Zama had cursed the fire's bright glare that slitted her pupils tightly and kept her from seeing much beyond the edge of the fire, but consoled herself with the thought that the wench was, most likely, simply needing to urinate. She had, after all, spoken little during dinner and sipped much tea instead, and it wasn't uncommon for a she-cat to have a small bladder.
T'Zama considered L'Sala again. She had to be a serving-wench. R'Narr couldn't have simply brought along a favored concubine to couple with while on a long journey - he wouldn't have risen this high in the Shazad's favor if he was that much of a glutton for the pleasures of the flesh. Yet, she also couldn't be a camp-follower. T'Zama couldn't imagine one female servicing fifty-one males for the several months that word had it R'Narr had been on this journey without some kind of dominance struggle having broken out over possession of the wench. R'Narr's warriors showed no sign that any dominance struggles were occurring among them, but were, instead, calm and collected. And, aside from the fact that R'Narr's warriors all eyed T'Zama with the gaze of a male who had been without a bed-partner in a good while, L'Sala simply didn't have the air of a common whore about her. She had a certain poise... A certain grace about her that hinted she was something else entirely. True, her garments were scandalous, provocative... But perhaps there was a reason for this T'Zama was overlooking? T'Zama's own clothes, a pale, pink silk garment that fit closely about the wrists and ankles, yet loosely about the rest of her body, was sheer enough to reveal, yet opaque enough to retain an element of mystery suitable to her station and rank. T'Zama prided herself that at the age of forty, her body still drew interested glances from those toms she worked her will on. Yet, this paled in comparison to the provocative outfit L'Sala wore.
'Hmmm... A serving wench with noble blood, perhaps?' T'Zama wondered. Her name seemed to indicate it. Though she spoke with an western accent rather than the quaint twang of the eastern hinterlands R'Narr had, she bore the genderless "L'" before her name, rather than "T'" a she-cat of western origins would have. Only the lowest and most humble of cats debased themselves with "L'" - priests, branded slaves, and the nuns of T'Masa keep, primarily. Yet, she was no slave, that was obvious, and her clothing was far to provocative to be that of one of the nuns of T'Masa.
D'Main's words interrupted T'Zama's thoughts. "Mrow... And what is nobility but a quirk of birth... The shift of a battle... Or perhaps even the simple turn of a blade?" D'Main replied with a purr. "Mrr... No, my lady. Nobility is more than title - it is also bearing, breeding, and grace, such as can be easily seen in you."
'My son is trying to tell me he thinks as I do,' T'Zama realized. She eyed R'Narr carefully for any reaction to such blatant flattery, but he seemed to have none. Either he simply didn't care that D'Main was wooing this serving-wench, or he knew that D'Main was, in truth, a sodomite. T'Zama considered carefully. R'Narr's feelings for the wench were not truly apparent, though there were moments... The occasional glance, the shifting of his body...
T'Zama suppressed a sigh. R'Narr probably cared little for the jellicle she-cat who sat next to him, and T'Zama had simply been chasing her tail for the last hour in a vain attempt to throw R'Narr off-balance. R'Narr was a canny one - having a simple serving wench introduced with a base and humble name, yet dressed like a concubine or harem-wench would be about his style - just something to throw her off, and distract her. T'Zama suppressed a snarl of irritation. If that was indeed R'Narr's plan, it had worked. She had wasted time trying to figure out the wench's secret, and her younger son now grew annoyed with the wait. 'Time to conclude our business here, before my younger son spoils everything with his impatience,' she thought. "Miao... My lord R'Narr, while I have enjoyed our dinner with you and our conversation immensely, I find that it is time I was on my way."
"Purr... So soon, my lady T'Zama?" R'Narr replied, smiling broadly.
T'Zama smiled in reply. The old fool's relief at being rid of her was readily apparent to her. "Miao... Yes, my lord R'Narr, unfortunately, it is so. Of course, there is the small matter of recompense for the supplies we provided you with yesterday. Dinner tonight was, of course, with my compliments, but I would like to be repaid for the supplies we provided otherwise," she said smoothly, and smiled disarmingly. D'Main simply sat, completely relaxed, as usual. D'Larin's tail twitched, but he made no outward sign he knew what was coming. 'Good. Perhaps he may learn self-control after all,' T'Zama thought to herself.
R'Narr nodded. "Miao... That seems reasonable. I have little with me at the moment, however. Perhaps I could send you five silver talents once I return to my castle?"
"Purr... No, my lord R'Narr, I was thinking that you might give me half the Little Ones you have captured," she replied, and smiled again. "Mrr... Of course, this is only my opening offer. We can haggle over the exact amount, if you wish."
T'Zama suppressed a giggle, and simply smiled demurely. The expression on R'Narr's face was priceless.
R'Narr opened his muzzle to say something - a denial, T'Zama presumed, as that would most likely be his first response, when suddenly L'Sala spoke up. "Mrr? I beg your pardon most humbly, Lady T'Zama, but we have no Little Ones with us. They are creatures of ancient legend and fable - mythical beings, my lady. They do not exist," she replied, the expression on her face appearing to be a genuine one of innocence and confusion.
"Mrr... Come, come. I am no fool. What else are you carrying in those wagons my warriors reported being in your party when they delivered the supplies yesterday? What other reason could you have to head far south to unexplored territory, remaining there for months? We know from mus prisoners we have taken that the Little Ones exist, and they live somewhere far to the south. Let us not bandy about falsehoods, but rather simply begin to discuss how many of them you shall retain when you leave my lands," T'Zama replied, and smiled again.
L'Sala shook her head. "Miao... With respect, my lady, we have nothing in those wagons but a pawful of prisoners that escaped the Shazad's dungeons and fled south. If any mus prisoner told you they existed, they lied. The Little Ones are a myth, my lady."
D'Larin snarled, rising to his feet. "Fsst! Lies! Let us go see these wagons, now! Then we shall know the truth of the matter!"
T'Zama controlled herself with an effort. 'Little fool!' she thought, glaring at him. 'You force their paw now, and anything could happen! Our warriors have this camp surrounded, just out of bowshot! We could have simply left, and had them move in to capture the lot!' She flicked her tail, tossing aside her irritation at her headstrong son, then smiled again. "Mrr... If that meets with your approval, General R'Narr."
R'Narr resisted the urge to glance at L'Sala. It was apparent to him she had a plan, and it would be best to simply go along with it. "Mrowr... Certainly, Lady T'Mrr." R'Narr turned and led T'Zama, her sons and L'Sala to the wagons, hoping that he was right.
A few minutes later, they stood before the wagons. From inside each, two of his warriors peered back out - one of whom was Captain D'Viall. They had removed their armor, weapons, and even their clothes, and now pretended to be prisoners. They lay quietly on the lowest level of each wagon, and simply waited, watching. The Little Ones were nowhere to be seen. R'Narr suppressed a grin. "Miao... As you can see, my lady, we have only prisoners in here. No mythical beings of legend, sorry."
D'Main simply sniffed the wagon, then shrugged and remained silent. D'Larin, however, snarled again. "Fsst! A trick! I can smell that something was here other than cats!"
L'Sala shook her head. "Miao... Rabbits, my lord. We stored excess rabbits we caught in here. After several months, their scent was bound to cling."
"Mrr... With respect, I find I must agree with my son. The scent that comes to my nose is not that of a rabbit. Let us stop these games, and be honest with one another, shall we?" T'Zama replied, smiling at R'Narr as she silently cursed her hot-headed son.
R'Narr finally did glance to L'Sala, then. He could tell by her face she had no further answers - this was as far as her plan had been taken. The rest was, apparently, up to him.
R'Narr turned to look at T'Zama. She was shorter than him by a head, and lighter by at least seven stone. R'Narr shifted his weight slightly, his paws loose and open. He looked down at her with a glare, his lip curling slightly in a sneer that revealed his fangs. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, he tensed his fingers slightly, extending the tips of his claws. Very slightly, the fur of his neck fluffed, his pupils dilated, and his tail flicked slightly in agitation. "Mrr... There is nothing here for you, T'Zama. You have been fantasizing. There are no Little Ones - they are a myth. I suggest you leave."
T'Zama looked into his eyes, and for a moment, she was afraid.
The skill of Domination was not like the female skill of Manipulation. Domination was a thing of the senses, not of words. A shift in stance, tone of voice, and pheromones. Part bluff, part force of will, and part raw threat, it was a skill in which mastery often determined a male's status in life. While sometimes equally as subtle as the Art of Manipulation, it was something that could only be done face-to-face, and something only males were truly good at. She-cats simply lacked the proper scents and body-mass.
T'Zama raised a paw to her bosom, bowing her head slightly. Every instinct she had told her that R'Narr could and would kill her if she didn't back down - even if he died, she knew he would make certain she went into the Nine Hells before him. "Miao... Your pardon, General R'Narr. Perhaps I-"
"Fsst! You dare Dominate my mother?!" D'Larin snarled, and drew his broadsword. R'Narr's sword was at his hip, but he was unarmored. Had he paused even a heartbeat to draw his own sword, he'd have been skewered. But R'Narr did not pause. Instead, he acted.
Twisting and lashing out with a speed that belied his age, R'Narr clouted D'Larin across the ear with his left paw, sending him staggering off balance and out of sword's reach. T'Zama leaped back, startled - R'Narr had been tensed, and for a split second, she thought his sudden movement had been to claw her, instead.
D'Larin recovered his footing, only to see the old general was ready, his slim rapier drawn. "Miao... What a fascinating way you of Clan T'Mrr have of treating those you call 'guest', T'Zama. I find, however, that I cannot ignore your son's challenge, however ridiculous it may be," R'Narr said, then looked to D'Larin. "Mrr... Come, kitten. I am waiting."
"Mrowr! Brother, put away your sword! Lord R'Narr doesn't even have his armor on! It was nothing, brother! Let it go, and we'll leave," D'Main called, his effeminate voice sounding nervous. T'Zama spoke at the same time, trying to stop D'Larin.
"Mrowl! Put away your sword, my son, your brother is right! This is nothing!" T'Zama called.
If D'Larin heard, he made no sign - to him, this was an easy victory. R'Narr was renowned for his physical strength, but he was old, and had no armor on. D'Larin knew he could win. He had killed five times in duels before, and his blood was too hot to consider backing down now. He leaped forward, eager for the kill, his mind already full of the renown he would gain from having dueled and defeated the famous R'Narr V'Nass, Overlord of the East.
R'Narr stopped D'Larin's first slash with a simple parry carte', then whipped both blades around in a bind in quarte, and lunged. The tip of his rapier skidded off the steel of D'Larin's cuirass and into his upper left arm, skewering his bicep.
With a yowl of pain, D'Larin leapt back, glancing down at himself. The tip of R'Narr's rapier had scored the steel of his cuirass just over his heart - if he hadn't been wearing his armor, he'd be dead. The blood flowed freely from his wounded left arm, but his sword-arm was still fine. D'Larin snarled. He had underestimated the old general - he would not do so again.
R'Narr, seeing D'Larin's hesitation, smiled. "Mrr... What's the matter, kitten? Bitten off a bit more than you can chew?" he purred, then snarled. "Fsst! Drop your sword, D'Larin, and I may yet let you live."
"Mrowr! Do as he says, my son, please!" T'Zama begged. It was obvious to her, having watched countless duels between males in her life, both in practice and to the death. R'Narr was simply the better swordsman. D'Larin may have had youth and speed on his side, but R'Narr had years of dueling experience behind him. He was by far the better swordsman, and if D'Larin did not surrender, he would die.
"Mrowrrr! Listen to our mother, D'Larin! Drop your sword, now!" D'Main called, his own paw nowhere near the hilt of his own weapon. R'Narr didn't even glance to D'Main. He knew his reputation, and having met him for the first time tonight, he knew D'Main wouldn't draw steel - not even to save his brother. He had seen it in his eyes - D'Main was a soft, effeminate tom who was no warrior. The sword at his side was not a weapon to him, but merely an affectation - a part of his mode of dress, like his mirror-polished armor.
R'Narr simply stood calmly, waiting, his weight on his left foot, his right foot extended gracefully, almost delicately. He held his left paw above his head and behind him, his thumb and forefinger touching in an artist's afterthought. His rapier he held before him, gripping it lightly in his paw. His tail he held out behind him, curled upwards, the fur fluffed out - the only outward sign that he was tensed and ready to spring. He stood in the relaxed yet ready pose of a master swordsman, simply waiting for D'Larin to make his decision.
D'Larin looked at R'Narr's seemingly relaxed pose, and grew furious. He would not drop his sword and throw himself on R'Narr's mercy, shaming himself before his mother and allowing R'Narr to dominate her as he wished. "Fsst! No! This one dies, and now!" he snarled, and charged.
R'Narr shifted, parrying D'Larin's slash expertly, then executed a perfect stop-thrust in tierce, the hilt of his sword ramming home into D'Larin's throat. With a vicious snarl, R'Narr's grip tightened on the hilt of his sword, twisted the blade, then ripped it sideways. The razor-sharp edge of his rapier sheared through the muscle and sinew of the left side of D'Larin's neck as R'Narr tore his blade free, leaving half of D'Larin's neck a gaping wound which geysered blood.
D'Larin staggered back in shock, realizing even before he clapped his left paw to his neck that he was mortally wounded. He was going to die. He tried to howl in agony, only to find blood filling his lungs, sending him into a coughing spasm. In a last, desperate attempt, he lunged, slashing wildly with his sword. R'Narr parried the clumsy attack easily, shifted into a bind in septime, then disarmed him with a quick flick of his blade, sending D'Larin's sword spinning off to the side. With a snort of disgust, he smashed the hilt of his rapier into D'Larin's temple, sending him sprawling heavily to the ground. He did not rise again.
R'Narr slowly turned to T'Zama and D'Main. D'Main gazed in shock and horror at the twitching corpse of his brother, his ears flat against his head, tears starting from his eyes. T'Zama simply wept silently. R'Narr flicked the bloody tip of his rapier beneath D'Main's chin, and gazed at T'Zama coolly. "Mrr... Well, T'Zama? Will you lose both sons tonight, or did this one at least inherit a small portion of intelligence?"
D'Main stared at R'Narr, his eyes wide and fearful, seeing the dark spatters of his brother's blood across R'Narr's blue doublet, and shuddered. "Mrowllll... She... She will not lose another son tonight," D'Main replied, his voice quavering with tears. Slowly, deliberately, he slipped his rapier from its sheath with his left paw, then dropped it to the ground.
"Mrr... Very good, D'Main. I'm quite impressed. You have some intelligence, after all," R'Narr purred smoothly, reaching to his side to produce a kerchief. With a careful, deliberate gesture, he wiped D'Larin's blood from his blade, then sheathed it. Almost as an afterthought, he tucked the bloodied kerchief into the top of D'Main's cuirass, at the front of his neck. Then, he glared at him. "Fsst! Now pick up that trash over there, and get the hell out of my camp."
D'Main's tail flicked between his legs, his tailtip tapping fearfully against his mirror-polished curiass, and he bowed his head. "Mrowrrr... Yes, Lord R'Narr," he replied, completely dominated.
R'Narr then turned his gaze to T'Zama, who still gazed at the body of her dead son, weeping quietly. "Fsst! Your foolish notion that I somehow had possession of imaginary, mythical beings has now cost you a son, T'Zama! I suggest you leave here, and take your riders with you, before you embarrass yourself further."
T'Zama's ears flattened with shame, and for a long moment, she simply gazed at the ground in silence, weeping quietly. Finally she looked up, and suddenly her gaze caught L'Sala's expression as she stood next to the wagons, behind R'Narr - calm, impassive, and emotionless. Fear, excitement, or any number of other emotions at seeing the duel T'Zama would have understood, but to have no emotions at all...
In an instant, she realized what she had overlooked before. "Mrr... A Mentalt," she whispered.
L'Sala said nothing, simply gazing at T'Zama impassively.
T'Zama was stunned by the implications of that. It meant that the Little Ones did exist - for surely no Mentalt could be convinced to leave the safety of T'Masa Keep and travel hundreds, perhaps thousands of leagues for mere runaway prisoners. The Little Ones did exist - but were not here, now. She had overplayed her paw, and her son had compounded the error with his hotheadedness, but she had not guessed wrong.
T'Zama turned to R'Narr, and bowed her head. "Mew... I apologize, General. My son is dead, through his own foolishness and mine. We shall trouble you no more - pass through my lands in peace," she whispered, her tail tight between her legs, the tailtip trembling between her breasts.
"Mrr... Your apology is accepted. Now get out of my camp," R'Narr replied, crossing his arms.
T'Zama nodded, backing away, then followed D'Main as he carried his brother's corpse out of the camp, her tail flicking out behind her with anger and sorrow. 'Yes, R'Narr V'Nass... I leave this day. You have won this battle, and slain my son. But there will be another day, R'Narr... There will be another day...'
R'Narr waited until T'Zama and D'Main were long gone, then turned to the wagon he stood by. With a grin he looked to Captain D'Viall. "Mrr... I hope you have the keys in there with you, Captain, else I'm afraid you may have to stay there," he said, and chuckled.
Captain D'Viall grinned, and held out a paw containing the key to the lock. "Miao... With respect, my lord, please let me out."
R'Narr chuckled again, unlocking the door, then passing the key back to Captain D'Viall. "Mrr... Where are the Little Ones?"
"Miao... They are in the tents of your warriors, my lord - we placed them three, four and five to a tent. They are quite safe," L'Sala replied.
R'Narr nodded, still chuckling as a nude Captain D'Viall trotted over to the other two wagons to unlock them. "Mrr... It was a good plan, L'Sala. I thank you. And quite a delicious little duel. I thoroughly enjoyed sending that little idiot to the Nine Hells."
"Miao... I thank you, my lord, but it was not my plan at all. I merely recognized that I was needed elsewhere when I saw the guard approach, and made an excuse to leave. I-"
"Mrowr! Ah, then it was your plan, Captain D'Viall," R'Narr said, clapping the nude tom on his bare shoulder as he passed by to go to the other wagon.
"Mrr? No, my lord. I merely followed the plan L'Sala laid out, as it seemed wise. If you'll pardon me, my lord," Captain D'Viall replied, bowing briefly, his ears lowered in embarrassment at being nude before L'Sala, then trotting off to the other wagon.
"Mrowr? I don't understand," R'Narr rumbled, looking to L'Sala.
"Miao... As I was trying to tell you, my lord, I merely recognized that I was needed elsewhere when I saw the guard approach, and made an excuse to leave. The plan was not thought of by any of us, but by the leader of the Little Ones, Smith. He reasoned that the presence of T'Zama T'Mrr and her sons meant there might be a chance their people would be divided. They apparently do not wish this. They do not wish to lose their families and their children, perhaps never to see them again. Hence, he presented a strategy of hiding his people in our tents, and presenting the lie that the wagons were merely used to transport prisoners. It seemed no better than anything I had thought of on short notice, given the circumstances, so I agreed and presented the plan to Captain D'Viall as the mentation of your Mentalt. I told him we had no time to discuss the matter, only time to act, and that you had given me carte blanche' for the moment," she replied, and bowed her head. "Mrow... I deeply apologize if I overstepped my bounds by this, my lord, but I felt our options were somewhat limited, and a protracted discussion of the matter would have been counter-productive."
"Mrowr... No, no. You did as I would have wished you to, L'Sala," R'Narr replied, eyeing her with renewed respect.
A few minutes later, Captain D'Viall had managed to dress again, and he and the five other warriors who had been in the wagons were herding the Little Ones back to the wagons. L'Sala had finished explaining every detail of what had transpired, and R'Narr stood, quietly stroking his whiskers. "Mrr... Wait, Captain D'Viall," R'Narr called, just as the first wagon was being opened.
"Mrr? Yes, general?"
"Mrowrr... Two things: First, this," R'Narr replied, and gave D'Main's ornate rapier and D'Larin's sturdy broadsword to the captain. "Mrr... The rapier alone is worth a gold talent - two, really, given the engraving and the gold filigree. The broadsword is worth another gold talent. Bring them along - when we reach my castle, give them to my exchequer. I'll have him give you and all the warriors that have come along with us an equal share of three gold talents - that should be about six copper talents each."
"Mrr... A small sum, but one that will be appreciated, my lord," Captain D'Viall replied with a smile. "Mrowr... Was there anything else, General?"
R'Narr nodded. "Mrr... Yes. Don't put the Little Ones back in the wagons just yet. I wish to speak to their leader."
"Mrr... As you command, General," Captain D'Viall replied, and turned to trot over to the crowd of mice milling nervously near the wagons. In a few moments, he had led Smith over to R'Narr. Smith simply looked up at R'Narr, blinking in surprise at the spots of blood in his silk tunic. He squeaked briefly, then bowed.
"Miao... The Little One, Smith, asks what you might need from him," L'Sala translated.
"Mrr... Tell him that I reward cooperation. Indeed, he was right - families would have been split up, had T'Zama T'Mrr had her way. Instead, she is humiliated, and I have slain one of her sons in an extremely satisfying duel. As such, he and his people may have one full hour outside the wagons. Tell them they may sit there, between these two wagons, and spend time together instead of apart. When we reach my castle, similar regular arrangements will be made, so long as his people continue to cooperate," R'Narr replied, then looked to Captain D'Viall. "Mrr... See that they have a full hour together, Captain - but watch them all the same," R'Narr replied, then turned and walked away.
"Mrow... It shall be as you command, General," Captain D'Viall replied, bowing.
When L'Sala had translated R'Narr's words and received Smith's polite thanks and the squeaked cheering of the remainder of the mice, she turned to follow him back to his pavilion. There was still her own mentation to be considered, and she fully intended to follow through on it, despite the cost to herself. The first part of which was to simply be there, in his pavilion, willing to couple with him again, to show him that his confession of love to her had not changed her opinion of him. It was small, but it was a beginning. The duel was a fortunate twist of fate, and winning it had put R'Narr in a better mood. There was now hope her mentation might succeed.
* * *
The moon had long since passed midnight, and the fires of the camp now burned low. Still the mice whispered quietly to each other inside the wagons, too excited for the most part to sleep. Smith turned to look as someone shuffled near him, and saw Potter's grinning face. "I just wanted to say 'thank you.'" he said. "I got to hug my mother and sister again. Everyone was very happy, though, not just me."
Smith nodded, and turned his face back to the window as Potter shuffled away, crawling in the cramped space. Potter, Drummer, Dunlass and Carder had all expressed their thanks, as had about half a dozen others. For the most part, however, the mice simply didn't speak to him. And Smith knew why, of course.
There was, for many of them,
simply nothing they could say to him that wasn't already said in
the quiet, accusing eyes of Cooper's mate and children.
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