of the Last God
(Book II of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY
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Byarl clung tight to Lord O'dmemet with both arms, his gun slung behind his back. Lord O'dmemet rode his bird hard and fast, leading his warriors in the chase. Byarl's bottom was sore from the ride, he was hot, he was tired, and he was quite irritated. For the thousand and twenty-fourth time on this long, hard ride, Byarl cursed the cats.
Somehow, they had anticipated the attack, and by the time Lord O'dmemet's warriors were in position, they discovered the camp was already empty. The warmth of the doused coals of the campfires told Byarl they had left perhaps only an hour before. It seemed obvious they would have to chase them, and hopefully catch them before the cats reached any kind of help. Yet, they couldn't - the mice might be injured in the wagons they were held in if the trip was too rough. A hundred and fifty mice was quite a few to pack into three wagons, and a hard chase might mean that the mice might be injured. Worse, the cats wouldn't be able to travel too fast with them, anyway, and might simply choose to kill them all and just keep the library, so that they could escape. So, instead, Lord O'dmemet had once again chosen to follow the horse-creature, Amani.
Byarl grimaced at the thought of Amani. Farrah said she just knew where they needed to be again, and now everyone rode hell-for-leather, following her as she ran. It was obvious to Byarl what she intended. Somehow, she knew where the cats would end up, and was leading them on a swift run around and in front of them, to catch them. With luck, the cat's wouldn't figure out what was planned, and Lord O'dmemet would be able to free the mice by simply setting up an ambush, and waiting for the cats to ride into it. Still, Byarl didn't trust Amani - at all.
It wasn't that he thought she would lead them into a trap. Byarl was certain that she wouldn't. Her concern for Farrah was obvious, and the cats might injure Farrah. No, it was simply that given what Ayori had told him, he knew that the horse was only doing all this to ingratiate herself with the mus and the musties - a sniveling little act. The act of a mouse, in fact. Amani wanted her people freed, and everything she did was to make the musties and the mus feel indebted to her, so that they would.
And Byarl knew it was impossible.
From what Farrah had said, the horse-people were all kept as slaves in the western half of the cat's empire. Few, if any, ever were brought this far east. The cats on this side of their empire apparently either didn't like them, or didn't need them. No matter, though. To get to them and free them would mean conquering all the cats - and that simply couldn't be done. The mus simply didn't have enough warriors. Perhaps in another twenty years they might, but at the moment, they simply didn't have the forces necessary to do it.
And even if they did, Byarl saw little point in trying.
Byarl had watched the relationship between Amani and Ayori carefully. It was obvious to him that it would never work - Amani simply wasn't attracted to him. Byarl didn't need Amani's strange mental powers to tell that, however. It had been obvious simply in the way she tended to ignore him. Now, having learned from Ayori why she didn't like him, Byarl simply felt disgust towards her. She and her people were as narrow-minded as the mice of the Wild Wood. Ayori was right - the horse-clans had nothing to offer the musties or the mus, even if they were freed from slavery. They couldn't even offer their friendship.
"So why should we even try?" Byarl muttered sourly.
"Mmm?" Lord O'dmemet rumbled, glancing over his shoulder as he rode. "So sorry, Great Chief Byarl?"
"Me think out loud, Lord O'dmemet, so sorry," Byarl replied, wishing he spoke the language of the mus as well as Merle did.
"About what, may I ask?"
Byarl grumbled. "Horse-girl. She only help for she want her people free. Not possible, so sorry. Too many cats, too few mus, too few musties. Her people all far in west. Must to fight all cats for to do. Too many, too far. And all for nothing."
"Nothing? So sorry, Great Chief, I do not understand."
"Horse-girl not like mus. Horse-girl not like musties. We carnivores. She, her people, not like. They think bad, so sorry. Nothing have they for to offer us, not can even friends be, so sorry. No reason to fight and die for to make her people free if they not can even be friends, yes?"
"Perhaps, Great Chief - but I can think of one reason to free them."
"Oh? What reason?"
"The cats in the west rely on the horse-people for slave labor. Free them, and this crushes the cats' economic base."
"Ah, me understand," Byarl replied, because he did. The concept of money and economy was still new to Byarl, but he had applied himself to its study, since it was obvious that if the musties were going to live and work side-by-side with their new allies, the mus, they would have to understand as much about them as they possibly could. In many ways, it was similar to the relationship the musties had with the game animals of the forest. If the musties hunted too many of them, there were too few to reproduce, and they would starve the next spring. Yet, if they hunted too few, the game animals would eat themselves out of house and home, starve, and again there would be too few the following spring. Such was the nature of an economic system, as Byarl understood it. The economy of the mus was controlled by the warrior-caste, but formed by the several hundred different sub-castes of the servant-caste. That which affected the servant-caste's ability to produce affected everyone, warrior and servant alike. Byarl realized that for the cats in the west, they had become reliant upon the horses as the equivalent of a 'servant caste' - and if anything happened to cause them to no longer be available, the cats would be in trouble. "So sorry, still... How to do?" Byarl asked.
"I've no idea, so sorry. Still, in the end, we'll free them somehow. Perhaps as time goes by, we'll think of something," O'dmemet replied, then looked ahead again. "Ah - Amani seems to be stopping. Perhaps we've arrived," O'dmemet said, reining in his bird.
Byarl looked - Amani had, indeed, stopped, and now stood bent over, her fore-hooves on her knees, gasping for breath. Sweat ran in little rivers off her body, and Byarl gazed curiously at the phenomenon. The musties didn't sweat, neither did the mus, or the mice, or any other creature Byarl had ever seen or heard of. Still, Amani did - and after running for hours non-stop, her fur gleamed with the pungent moisture and her mane was plastered to her neck, as though she had stood in a rainstorm. Byarl wrinkled his nose as the scent came to him. Yet another unpleasant thing about a people he now considered to be generally unpleasant, anyway - the horses, in the end, were little better than the mice. Certainly, they were nice and sweet and meant no harm, but they disliked the musties simply for what they ate. That was something Byarl found ridiculous, and quite revealing of the true nature of Amani's people. For someone who claimed to be able to read the thoughts of others and know their true heart, Byarl found Amani to be a remarkably self-centered individual. And self-centeredness, to a mustie, was a loathsome character flaw.
Amani glanced at Byarl, sensing his thoughts, then looked away, obviously embarrassed. Byarl knew she could read his thoughts, but found he simply didn't care. If she didn't like what he was thinking, then perhaps she needed to learn how not to listen.
Merle rode up, Farrah riding behind her on her bird, and Lord Jamat on his bird just behind them. Farrah spoke up nervously as soon as they were near. "Ummm... Lord O'dmemet, Chief Byarl? Amani says this is the place."
Byarl nodded. "I gathered as much," he replied, slipping off the bird and landing lightly on the ground as Merle translated for Lord O'dmemet. Byarl paused a moment to rub his sore bottom as Merle whistled for Brownie to sit so she and Farrah could dismount. Farrah nearly giggled at the sight of Byarl, but her own sore bottom kept her quiet.
An hour later, Lord O'Dmemet's warriors were arrayed across the green, rolling hills, waiting. Their armor gleamed in the sunlight, and Merle's as well. Byarl thought they looked rather dashing, and resolved that if he managed to survive this, he'd ask the Mus how to make armor for themselves, like Merle's little suit.
Merle, Byarl and all the rest of the musties were gathered around Amani and Farrah, freeing up all of O'dmemet's warriors for the fight that seemed imminent. Merle was mounted on Brownie, her bird, while Lord Jamat, of course, was mounted astride his bird beside her, his bow at the ready. Byarl had told Merle that she would be helping guard Farrah and Amani, but in reality, Byarl had decided that it was their highest priority to guard Merle. He knew Amani could easily pick up Farrah and run with her if things turned bad - though whether she would or not remained to be seen. Either way, if it came down to a choice between Farrah or Merle, the choice was clear to Byarl. Merle was more valuable to the musties in the long run, as she would be the mate of their ally, Xaa'ap'Gasha. Farrah, in the end, was just a mouse. Byarl knew Lord Jamat would do everything in his power to keep Merle safe - but Byarl didn't want to leave the fate of his people in anyone's paws but his own.
"There they are," O'dmemet rumbled, pointing.
Byarl looked, but the ranks of mounted mus before him blocked his view. "Bah. I can't see a thing," he grumbled. Without pause, Amani reached down and picked him up, placing him on her sweaty shoulder. Byarl yelped, then steadied himself by placing a paw on her damp head. "Thank you," he muttered, and looked again.
Coming over a distant rise to the south was the cats who had escaped - even at this distance of over a league, the wagons they had with them made it easy to tell who they were. Byarl looked again, then swore. They were not alone.
Somehow, the numbers of the cats had swelled from just under fifty riders to several thousand.
"Damn," O'dmemet swore, seeing the same thing.
"Lord O'dmemet, what we do now?" Byarl called from Amani's shoulder.
"I've no idea," O'dmemet replied, then paused. "Wait - they're not forming up against us. Look!" he called, pointing. "They're forming a square. Why would they do that? They have us easily outnumbered, now."
Sure enough, the cats were dismounting, and forming a square on a low hilltop a little over a league away.
A cloud of dust to the southwest caught Byarl's eye. "There, answer maybe? Southwest?" he called in reply.
Lord O'dmemet nodded, then waited, watching.
As the minutes passed, the cloud of dust resolved itself into an even larger army. Lord O'dmemet swore. "Damn. More cats. Looks like we'll have to run."
"Wait! Look! They not come for us!" Byarl called.
O'dmemet stared in disbelief. "They... They're forming ranks against the square?" he said aloud, surprised. Byarl heard the warriors nearby muttering in disbelief, as well. "What in the hell are they up to?"
"Maybe cat leader make for to steal Little Ones from other cats?" Byarl conjectured.
O'dmemet turned to look over his shoulder to Byarl, then did a double take, his gaze fixed beyond him. "Perhaps. If they are, they have more help coming," O'dmemet replied, pointing.
Byarl turned to look, and swore again. Thousands of riders were approaching from the north, and O'dmemet and his warriors were directly in their path. "We must run!"
O'dmemet nodded. "I agree," he rumbled, then looked down to Merle. "Lady Merle, please tell the Little One that I regret to inform her that we cannot possibly rescue her people. For now, we'll be lucky to flee with our lives," O'dmemet said, then lifted his head, taking a deep breath in preparation to roar out his orders for retreat.
"Wait, Lord O'dmemet!" Merle yelped. "Farrah says Amani is telling her the riders behind us aren't cats!"
"What?!" O'dmemet replied.
Lord Jamat squinted, then grinned. "Lord O'dmemet, look! The banner of my lord, Lord Xaa!" he called, pointing.
"Lord Xaa? What is he doing here?" O'dmemet wondered aloud.
One of O'dmemet's warriors spoke up, pointing back to the south. "My lord, the cats are sending a single rider to us from out of the square!"
Lord O'dmemet wheeled his bird around, and looked. He was a trained and highly skilled warrior, and adept at thinking quickly in a crisis. This was one of the reasons why, after years of warfare with the cats, he was still alive. After a moment, O'dmemet nodded. "Apparently, they wish to talk. Capture them, disarm them, and we'll have a chat with them. Lord Jamat, if you would be so kind as to ride to meet your lord and appraise him of our situation?"
Jamat nodded, grinning. "Certainly, Lord O'dmemet," he replied, clapping his heels to his bird.
"Put me down," Byarl said to Amani, and she complied gently. If it was Lord Xaa coming, he wasn't about to be caught sitting on the shoulders of Amani. He would stand on his own two feet when he met his sworn ally, thank you very much. Byarl looked to the rest of the musties - Merle was nearly bouncing in her saddle with joy, and he could tell that under that enormous helmet, she was probably grinning from ear to ear. "Alright - everyone listen, here's what's happening," Byarl began, and explained what was happening to the rest of the musties.
Byarl was nearly done with his
explanation when Merle suddenly flicked her reins, her bird
surging away swiftly. She already knew what was going on, and
didn't need Byarl's translation. Byarl paused, turning to look.
From the center of the swiftly-approaching ranks of Lord Xaa's
army, a single rider in black surged forth. A few heartbeats
later, the two met in the middle, Xaa's powerful arms sweeping
Merle out of her saddle and hugging her tight. As the musties
whooped and cheered, Byarl grinned broadly. He wasn't sure what
the rest of this day might bring, whether the mice would be
rescued or if they would be lost, whether any of them would live
or if everyone would die, but at least the day had brought this
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