of the Last God
(Book II of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY
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Xaa gazed quietly at the lone mus sitting by the fire. Of the twenty warriors under his personal command, this was the only one who had nothing to do, at the moment.
The camp had been set up in a clear spot near a crossroad, Xaa's banner prominently displayed to mark the gathering point. A week's hard ride to get here had been followed by nearly a day of waiting before the first group of warriors had arrived - ragged remnants of Lord Naash's forces who had heard of his arrival, and rode to the meeting-spot. As word had spread, carried by W'Mefa's messengers and by the word-of-muzzle of the lords and ladies of the northlands, more had slowly arrived. Now, two weeks later, there were thousands.
The first few days had been busy just trying to organize the basics - food, water, blankets and tents for those who lacked them, and so on. Xaa had nearly despaired at trying to organize it all himself, when two dozen of Lord Naash's servants had walked up from the nearby forest, their clothes and pelts showing they had spent the last few days sleeping outdoors, with only the blankets they carried in their paws. It was Grnagh, Lord Naash's old chamberlain, and Grnagh's immediate family. They had nothing, now. With Naash dead, they had no lord to provide for them - and with his castle sacked and burned, they had not merely lost everything they owned, but also had no place to go. Grnagh had bowed deeply and formally, and requested shelter and succor from Xaa, using the ancient and traditional formula for his words. Xaa had resisted the urge to grin broadly at the chocolate-brown mus with the grayed muzzle, and simply returned the bow politely, and formally accepted them as his servants. The leg of lamb Xaa had roasting over the fire for himself wasn't much, but it served well enough. He had carefully sliced off a small piece for Grnagh and each of his family, feeding each of them a mouthful in the traditional manner, gently slipping the small slice of meat into their open muzzles. The skin of water he had was dry by the time he finished giving each of them a drink, and it was nearly noon by the time he had finished grooming the head and neck of each of them, young and old, male and female, as they knelt before him, gently nibbling and lapping at their fur.
"My lord, I know you are pressed for time," Grnagh had rumbled, his voice filled with grattitude, "so please... There is no need to go through the full ceremony with us. It can wait until a more opportune moment."
Xaa had simply smiled in reply. "There is always time to satisfy the honor of one such as yourself, Grnagh, and if there is no time for tradition, there is no time for life," he replied, and resumed his careful grooming of P'jasta, Grnagh's eldest daughter, who rumbled quietly in pleasure and gratitude.
"But, my lord! You have no food or water left for yourself!" Grnagh had protested.
"Neither do half the warriors that gather here. This is something I expect you to rectify shortly."
Grnagh had nodded, understanding. "Yes, my lord," he had replied, and bowed his head.
And Grnagh had, in the end, come through. He knew the location of each nearby village, and Xaa had simply charged his vassal, Lord Y'dahk, with carrying Grnagh on the back of his bird to all the nearby villages, to round up enough food and water for everyone. As Naash's old chamberlain, he had known who to speak to, and how much each village could spare.
Alone, he could not have done it, of course. With Lord Naash dead, each of the villagers who once were his servants had perforce turned to looking after themselves in uncertain times, hoarding their food and hiding at the smallest sign of dust on the horizon. Most had simply fled, heading eastwards, away from the fighting, hoping to find a new lord or lady who might take them in. These were not warrior-caste, but servant-caste - they had never trained to fight, they had neither the will nor the desire to do so, and in the end, many were just as timid as the Mice of the Wild Wood, despite their size. Naash also had died without an heir - it was likely that even if the war went well for the mus, his family would argue (and perhaps even war) over possession of the lands, leaving the future of Naash's old vassals and servants in doubt.
But, as Grnagh was now speaking for a lord who was in need of servants, a lord who had an enormous amount of land and none to tend it in the south (as well as that lord being the famous Xaa'ap'Gasha), he was able to get the supplies Xaa's army needed. The rest of Grnagh's family lent a paw, as well - cooking, distributing the meat and water, and generally rendering themselves indispensable while building the morale of the warriors by filling their bellies. As the days passed, they had been joined by other servant-caste mus, some from Castle Naash, but many from the villages that had been on his lands, all seeking shelter and succor. The army of the cats was sweeping the lands, cleaning out the defenseless villages, killing those they found there and taking everything. Xaa accepted each of them formally as his servants, and put them to work.
Now, a week after Xaa had first planted his banner in the clearing near the crossroads, the army was nearly ready. The warriors under Xaa's personal command, sixteen of Lord W'Mefa's and four of his own, were riding among the army, passing out his final orders. The plan was a simple one, but would require perfect execution if they were to pull it off. They had limited supplies of arrows, and even less supplies of powder and shot for their guns. It was imperative that each warrior know his place in the coming battle, and understand how critical each one of them was to success. To even have a chance of driving the cats out, this plan had to succeed. Every arrow, every bullet, every stroke of sword and thrust of spear had to count. They could not lose this battle. The fate of the northlands, perhaps even of all mus, was riding on it.
Yet, there remained the one mus Xaa now watched. He sat quietly by the fire, simply waiting. There was, at this point, nothing he could do. It wasn't though lack of wit, will, or skill. It was something more basic - a loss he had experienced nearly two years ago that would haunt him the rest of his life.
Xaa strode up quietly, then sat down beside him. "And how are you this morning, my friend?" Xaa asked, smiling and bowing his head in greeting.
Gnatchok smiled, bowing his head in return. The charcoal-gray mus hissed quietly in reply, his voice barely above a whisper. "I am fine, Lord Xaa, thank you."
Xaa smiled, even though his eye caught the scar visible across the front of Gnatchok's throat - a slim white mark barely visible beneath his fur, the only remaining mark of the cat's arrow that had stolen his voice two years ago - and nearly his life. Ead'xas, Lord W'mefa's Master Healer, had been right in his prognosis. Gnatchok never did regain his voice - and this was a sad thing, for a mus. Never to roar again, and never to sing again, Xaa couldn't help but pity him. Worse was that now, when a stout voice and a strong mus-roar was needed to pass the last of his orders along, Gnatchok could do nothing.
"I'm glad to have you along with me on this, Gnatchok. Of all those W'Mefa could have picked to send along with me, you were one I was most glad to see. Your skill with the rifle will come in very useful tomorrow."
Gnatchok smiled, and bowed from where he sat. "Thank you, Lord Xaa. My only regret is that I will not be able to send your battle-cry ringing into the ears of the cats," he hissed.
"Then, my friend, I will have to roar loud enough for the both of us," Xaa replied, and they shared a smile of camaraderie for a long moment.
The sound of a djuducu-bird's rapid footsteps came to their ears, and Xaa turned to see Lord Y'dahk riding up to them. Xaa and Gnatchok rose to their feet, and returned Y'dahk's bow of greeting. "My lord, the last of the lords in charge of our divisions has been given their final orders, and our army is assembled and ready to march. Your servants are safely hidden in the woods, where they will await our return. My lord, we are ready."
Xaa nodded, and whistled to the coal-black bird that he called his own. His supplies had already been packed, and it was already saddled. Merle had named the creature 'Blackie', and Xaa had grown quite fond of it. It was the same bird that T'Vril had stolen two years ago, once Lord W'mefa's personal mount. W'mefa had presented the bird to Xaa the day he and Merle had finally been recovered from Forbidden Island, as a gift of celebration. It was well trained, and it rose from where it rested and trotted over without hesitation. Xaa swung into the saddle, and waited while Gnatchok doused the fire, then fetched and mounted his own bird.
"Then let us go,"
Xaa rumbled, and clapped his heels to Blackie's sides. The bird
broke into a trot, with Y'dahk and Gnatchok following close
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