of the Last God
(Book II of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY
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R'Nalas V'Nass gazed out from his position atop the hill, and snarled. It was him. It had to be.
Before him, the combined armies of himself, D'Vring and D'Lahst were arrayed, infantry to the middle, riders to the flanks. Even after the battle and siege to take Castle Naash, he still had twenty thousand riders and forty thousand infantry at his command. The loot from that assault had satisfied both D'Vring and D'Lahst, who had grown restless and irritable, unwilling to simply sit and wait for his father to return - particularly considering nobody knew where in the nine hells he had gone to, or why.
Yes, the armies of the mus had scattered before his lightning-swift strokes like chaff before the wind. Yet now, some had gathered again, and were arrayed at the foot of the opposite hill. Seven thousand riders, by R'Nalas' guess. There was only one thing he could think of that could possibly have brought them back together.
As if summoned by R'Nalas' thought, a lone mus detached himself from the center, riding out before them, to halt at twice the range of a bow from the front line of the cats. In his left paw, he carried a bow, and in his right, he carried a black banner - and R'Nalas recognized the white insignia it bore. It was him.
"Fsst! What in the nine hells is this? Some kind of joke?"
R'Nalas turned to his right, his gaze falling upon D'Vring as he stood next to the three commander's pavilions on the crest of the hill. The lean black tom was fidgeting, his tail lashing in irritation. "Mrr... It's no joke, D'Vring. That is The Slayer," R'Nalas replied, then looked around. "Mrr... Where is D'Lahst?"
D'Lahst stepped out of his pavilion at the sound of his name. "Mrow... Here." The orange tabby's sword-arm was still bandaged and in a sling - he'd been wounded in the fight to take Castle Naash, and was still healing. It had taken him this long to don his armor, hampered as he was.
D'Vring snarled. "Fsst! We should kill that one! Look - he has less than eight thousand riders behind him! We could easily crush his forces and take his head!"
"Mrr... About seven thousand, by my estimate," R'Nalas replied.
"Mrow? So what are we waiting for?" D'Lahst asked.
"Fsst! My question exactly!" D'Vring snapped.
R'Nalas, a black and white harlequin tom, stroked his whiskers. "Mrr... We are waiting because I think this may be a trap."
D'Vring snorted. "Fsst! Bah! You are waiting because it is The Slayer down there!"
R'Nalas lowered his paw, his fingers gently resting on the hilt of his rapier. "Mrr... I beg your pardon, D'Vring?"
D'Vring gazed at R'Nalas for a moment, then shook his head. This was not the time, or the place. Later, perhaps, when the mus were completely defeated, he would duel R'Nalas - but not today, when a battle was imminent. And D'Vring would gladly kill this country bumpkin from the eastern hinterlands, once the mus were taken care of. He found the eastern twang to R'Nalas' speech annoying, and his overly-polite manner of speaking even more so. Even his name was an affront. A proper name for a male began with D', and for a female T' - though priests, branded slaves and other humble individuals shed their gender-article and took L'. Yet in the east, they used the archaic R' and V', instead. 'Backwards, country bumpkins,' D'Vring thought to himself, suppressing a snarl. Yes, R'Nalas was highly educated - even more so than D'Vring. But to D'Vring's eyes, he was nothing more than a backwoods hayseed, a pretender to real feline culture. Still, this was neither the time nor the place to settle the matter. "Miao... No, R'Nalas. I beg your pardon. A slip of the tongue, not intended as an insult."
R'Nalas kept his paw on the hilt of his rapier. He had studied at the same school his father had, and was considered a master swordsman, himself - though whether his skills were as keen as his father's remained to be seen. "Mrr... I take that kind of insult from my father, D'Vring - but not from anyone else, particularly you. I withdrew at Three Creeks because I believed The Slayer had reinforcements coming. If you think I lie, if you think I am a coward, then say so, and we'll settle the matter properly," he rumbled, and glared at D'Vring, his tail flicking back and forth slowly.
D'Vring returned R'Nalas' glare firmly for a few heartbeats, but finally his will subsided, and he bowed his head. "Miao... No, Lord R'Nalas. I question neither your honor nor your bravery. It was a slip of the tongue, nothing more. I apologize."
D'Lahst said nothing, simply waiting for the test of wills to end.
R'Nalas nodded, then turned his gaze back to the lone mus between their two armies, taking his paw from the hilt of his rapier and stroking his whiskers again. 'What is he doing there?' R'Nalas wondered.
As if in answer, a mus-roar rolled out over the small valley. R'Nalas suppressed a shudder. It was the one eerie thing about fighting the mus - the mus-roar. A cat could roar, but it was not the same. No, it was a mere shout in comparison, and simply didn't match the raw volume and power of a mus-roar. The lone mus paused, and his roar was answered by the riders behind him. This was repeated, and then silence fell over the valley. R'Nalas felt a chill run up his spine, and the fur on the back of his neck fluffed out.
D'Vring turned to R'Nalas for a moment. "Mrowr... What is he saying?"
"Mrr... His first roar was 'Who are we?' and his warriors replied 'We are mus.' He then called 'And why are we here?' and they called back 'To die.'" R'Nalas replied.
D'Vring grinned. "Mrow! They know we have them completely outnumbered, and are only here to acquit themselves honorably and die, according to their stupid code of honor! Let's attack them, now!"
R'Nalas shook his head. "Mrr... I still think-"
But the roar of the lone mus at the base of the small valley interrupted his thoughts. "R'Nalas! It is I, Xaa!" he roared, his words barely understandable through his thick accent. "I have one arrow today, R'Nalas, and you know its target! Come, R'Nalas! It is a good day to die!"
R'Nalas swore silently, his tail lashing in irritation. He knew it was a trap. It had to be. Yet, if he withdrew, he would lose the support of every single warrior on the field today. He thought about treating the roar as a personal challenge, but discarded the idea. The Slayer would, most likely, shoot him as he rode up. He didn't put anything past him at this point - if he truly had come here to die a glorious death, then he would find it even more honorable to take his enemy with him. He turned to his left, cupping his paws about his muzzle, and shouted to his staff of mounted musicians. "Mrowr! Infantry Forward! Riders flank them, and sweep them to the infantry!"
As the musicians translated his commands to thunderous drum-beats and the deafening blare of trumpets, R'Nalas signaled to his aide-de-camp. In a moment, his mount had been brought up, and he swung into the saddle. He waited while D'Vring and D'Lahst were mounted, then pointed. "Mrowr! D'Vring, Get down there to the infantry - do not let them charge! Keep them advancing slowly! D'Lahst, Stay here with me, you're still too wounded to fight!"
D'Vring nodded, clapping his heels into the side of his mount and racing down the hill to the rear ranks of the infantry. D'Lahst nudged his mount slightly, and rode closer to R'Nalas, waiting for the musicians to fall silent.
When the musicians had finally finished playing, D'Lahst spoke. "Mrr... Look - they are advancing."
R'Nalas nodded. The remainder of the mus had ridden down the hill, and now waited behind The Slayer. Their lead ranks bore the deadly-accurate guns the mus had developed - but R'Nalas estimated that this was perhaps only a thousand. The remainder were armed with bows. As he watched, The Slayer drew his sword, raising it above his helmeted head, seemingly ignoring the riders sweeping in on his forces from left and right. "Ready!" he roared in his own language.
"Mrowrr... Here it comes," D'Lahst said, watching.
"Mrr... Let's hope D'Vring can hold the infantry."
"Mrow? From a single volley? Of course."
R'Nalas said nothing, simply watching.
"Now!" The Slayer roared, just as the cat's riders drew within bowshot. A long, ragged rumble of thunder erupted from their ranks as the mus in the front-ranks fired their guns into the infantry, and the quiet hisss of arrows split the air as the remainder fired to the approaching riders to their left and right.
"Mrr... First blood to them," R'Nalas muttered.
"Mrowrr... Perhaps, Lord R'Nalas - but they're dividing their attacks. Quite foolish," D'Lahst replied, watching as the first few casualties thrashed out their lives on the ground.
R'Nalas was about to reply, when something happened that startled him, and sent a chill down his spine.
As one, all the mus suddenly turned their mounts around, and began riding away as fast as they could.
With a roar of exultation, the infantry began sprinting after them, and the flanking riders of the cats began to give chase.
"Fsst! No!" he shouted, then turned to his musicians. "Mrowr! Sound 'Halt!'"
But it was too late - in a moment, the mus had ridden over the opposite hill, and R'Nalas' army was in full chase.
R'Nalas swore again. "Fsst! D'Lahst, come on!" he shouted over the sound of his musicians, then clapped his heels to the sides of his mount, riding after them. The band leader, seeing R'Nalas on the move, signaled for the musicians to stop playing and follow him - shortly, R'Nalas' musicians were behind him, riding along at top speed.
By the time R'Nalas' riders crested the ridge, they were spread out thinly, as the faster mounts sprinted to the fore while slower ones were left behind. The infantry was similarly spread, and as they passed the banner Xaa had left planted in the ground, some stopped to grab it, and rip it to shreds. This spread them even further, to the point where they no longer had ranks, but were simply a mob of armed, exultant warriors, chasing after a fleeing enemy.
As he crested the other hill, R'Nalas saw what the mus were riding for - a small forest that lay before them. He reigned his mount to a halt, and a few moments later, both D'Lahst and his musicians drew to a halt behind him, somewhat scattered and disorganized themselves. He screamed with rage as he watched his warriors stream after the mus, heading towards the forest. "Fsst! Sound 'Halt and Regroup!" he roared at his musicians. It was many heartbeats before they could comply - too many.
From the edge of the forest, hundreds upon hundreds of small puffs of pale smoke appeared. It was several seconds before the sound reached R'Nalas' ears, but he knew what it was. Mus infantry, armed with their terrible long-range guns, taking their toll of the scattered and disorganized warriors of the cats.
The leading edges of the swarming riders faltered as the hail of lead met them - yet, to R'Nalas' dismay, the firing did not stop. Still more regular puffs of smoke appeared from the edges of the forest - the mus firing rank after rank, the other ranks reloading between firings. At rough guess, they had three thousand guns in the forest.
As R'Nalas' riders withered beneath the fire and turned to run, the leading edges of the infantry came within range. The riders of the mus split in two, turning to follow the fleeing riders of the cats, while the infantry in the forest turned their deadly fire upon the infantry of the cats, as they were no longer shielded by the mus riders.
R'Nalas' musicians played the command he had given, and the sound rolled across the battlefield, mixing with the ragged thunder of firearms and now the hiss of arrows as the mus riders circled behind the infantry and began to rain attacks on them from both front and rear.
"Mrowr! You were right, R'Nalas! It was a trap!" D'Lahst shouted over the thunder of the music and the roar of the battle below.
"Fsst! Of course I was right, you idiot!" R'Nalas screamed in reply, then turned to his musicians. "Mrowr! Sound 'Regroup Here' and 'Form a Square!'" he ordered, screaming at the top of his lungs.
The band leader nodded, and signaled the change. As the musicians began to play the new orders, R'Nalas looked down the hill to the battle below. As he watched, twenty-one mus peeled off from the riders, and rode towards him.
"Mrowrrr! R'Nalas, we must flee!" D'Lahst shouted.
"Fsst! You go on, coward! This is for my father - and all of you!" he snarled in return. D'Lahst snapped his head to him, and their eyes met. D'Lahst gazed at him for a long moment, then nodded, and held his ground.
R'Nalas watched as the mus halted a mere fifty paces distant. All but one, their leader, was armed with the guns of the mus. Their leader had a bow. R'Nalas watched impotently as he slowly nocked an arrow, and drew the bow. R'Nalas' only weapons were his sword and his claws. He could do nothing but stand or flee - and he would not flee. His own forces were beginning to respond to his command and had begun to stream towards the hill he and his musicians stood upon, but they would be too late.
R'Nalas gazed in fury at the rider in their lead. "Fsst! Damn you to the nine hells, you son of a-"
R'Nalas' curse was cut off by a loud -TANK!- sound as the arrow pierced the steel of his cuirass, just left of center.
He slipped from his saddle, falling heavily to the ground. The mus did not cheer, nor did they press their attack. They simply turned and rode away, leaving D'Lahst untouched.
Blackness crept in at the edges of his vision, his torn heart fluttering in his chest, and it was a moment before R'Nalas realized that D'Lahst was kneeling beside him, trying to say something, trying to get his cuirass off. "Mrr... Leave me... I am done... Form a square, D'Lahst... Have the riders inside to hold against any breaches by the mus... When the mus pause to regroup, withdraw... And... Tell my father... Tell him I..." he gasped.
"Mrr... I will, my friend," D'Lahst replied, and bowed his head for a moment as R'Nalas' eyes slowly closed, his final breath escaping from between his clenched teeth with a quiet hiss.
D'Lahst rose, and mounted his bird again. Fumbling clumsily with his left paw, he finally managed to draw his longsword. "Mrowr! Form a square, here!" he roared at the warriors streaming up the hill. "Fsst! They haven't beaten us yet! Come on! Infantry here, riders here! Do it now!" he screamed, pointing with his sword.
D'Lahst glanced at the sun. It
wasn't quite noon yet, and it was already promising to be the
longest day of his life. He only hoped it wouldn't be his last.
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