of the Last God
(Book II of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY
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"Mrowrrr... There, my lord. Before us," Captain D'Viall called, pointing as he reigned in his bird.
"Mrr... I see," R'Narr replied, looking over the cairns of stones, each with a mus grave-marker beside it. They stood quietly near the edge of a vast and ancient forest at the edge of these lonely pains, and R'Narr felt a chill run down his spine, fluffing out the fur on his tail. L'Sala had been right - over three thousand leagues away in the capital, she had known these graves would be just here, like magic. She was, indeed, a true Mentalt. "Mrowl... Pitch camp there, near that rise - we'll search for water as soon as we've established a perimeter. Keep a close eye on the woods - but remind our warriors they are not to kill anything they see, we are here to capture whatever may be here, not slaughter it. If a single drop of blood is shed without my permission, I'll have the head of the one who did it. Bring up the Mentalt's palanquin, and be quick about it."
"Mrow! As you command, my lord!" the captain replied, and turned his bird to ride back to the rest of his troops, yowling orders as he went.
A few moments later, the twelve warriors R'Narr had charged with L'Sala's palanquin trotted up, halting before the general. They carried it in rotation, four lifting and carrying it where needed and eight always on guard, their bows at the ready. One of the eight who wasn't currently carrying the palanquin bowed to the general, then stepped to the left side of the palanquin and quietly opened the little door. R'Narr smiled to himself as a bare, shapely leg was extended from the inside of the palanquin. With an effort, he smoothed his expression as the Mentalt gracefully extricated herself from the palanquin, wrapping her gray cloak about her nearly-naked body. "Mrowl... There, L'Sala. Mus-made graves. It looks as if we've found the spot of the battle."
"Miao... Truly, general, your powers of observation are astounding," the jellicle she-cat replied dryly.
R'Narr nearly smiled - it was a moment before R'Narr recognized her words for the insult they were. The old general suppressed a snarl of irritation - it had taken months to travel here, giving the lands of the mus a wide berth so as not to alert their patrols. Each step of the way, the Mentalt had given directions as to the next day's travel, based on knowledge and information she kept entirely to herself. And each time he spoke to her, he'd found her tongue sharp and cutting. At first, R'Narr had attributed it to the stress of the journey, thinking that perhaps the she-cat was simply too used to the soft life of the royal palace. Later on he realized it was simply because she thought he was an idiot. "Mrowrrrr... Alright, what have I missed this time?"
In answer, the she-cat merely tipped her head and began to walk towards the cairns. With a muttered curse, R'Narr swung down from his bird and trotted to catch up to her. She stopped in the middle of the mounds of stone, looking around. "Miao... Observe, general - though each of these graves bears a mus-marker, none of them are in the style of the mus. They cremate their dead, and bury an urn of the ashes. These cairns are covering shallow graves, I wager, judging by the scrabbling here and there I see on the stones made by the claws of scavengers. Observe also how they are scattered about - it is apparent that the corpses were simply buried near where they fell. There is plenty of wood for a funeral pyre," she said, gesturing to the nearby forest which lay just outside of bowshot, "thus I must conclude whoever buried them were either mus in a hurry, or were not mus at all. Since mus in a hurry wouldn't bother to spend the weeks it would take to carve the markers, I conclude the cairns came first, and the markers were added later. Even if this is so, however, observe the stones again. These are river stones, and all of nearly the same size - I would estimate each weighs about five pounds each. Yet, there is no river near here. Thus, whoever erected the cairns had the time to gather these stones, or had already previously gathered them for other uses. A lone mus, the wounded survivor of an ambush, would hardly have the time to gather this many stones, all of the same size, from a strange river they'd never explored before that is far enough away we can neither hear nor smell nearby. It would take them years. Thus, I conjecture that whoever built these cairns was most likely a group of people who already live in the woods before us, most likely near a river, and have lived there for a long time."
"Mrowr! The Little Ones of legend?" R'Narr asked eagerly.
"Miao... Possibly, but I doubt it. It seems unlikely they would use natural stone when they should be able to make brick, if the legends were true. And certainly mortared brick would last longer than these rough heaps of stone, which to me look like nothing more than the burial efforts of a primitive, stone-age society. Hardly the efforts of the vaunted 'Little Ones' of legend - unless they've degraded to such a low state as to be totally worthless to the mus, which seems unlikely, given what we know the mus most likely recovered from these woods," L'Sala replied, then turned to look at the general. "Mrowl... I would say, general, that your warriors should be careful. Though the Little Ones may, indeed, be here, it's possible that they are not alone," she said, and turned to walk back to her palanquin.
R'Narr resisted the impulse to snarl at her and cuff her into submission - she was no mere female, and the emperor's orders regarding her had been quite specific. He followed her back, his loins admiring the gentle swaying of her buttocks beneath her cloak while his heart detested her as a sharp-tongued devil. 'Gods, I think D'Zhin saddled me with this bitch as punishment,' he thought to himself, struggling to keep his thoughts off his face.
L'Sala climbed back into her palanquin, and again R'Nar had the pleasure of a tantalizing flash of thigh as she did so - but he could take little comfort in it. The wench was simply too annoying. Just as she reached to pull the little door closed, she stopped, peering out at R'Narr. "Mrowr... Oh, I forgot to mention, general..."
"Mrr... Yes, L'Sala?" R'Narr replied, taking at least a small bit of pleasure in the fact that he didn't have to address her as a noble, act like one though she may.
"Miao... You may find it interesting to know that I was right. The markers are of three servant-caste and eight warrior-caste. The servants were all of Clan W'mefa, while the warriors were all of clans we know to have been extinguished. It appears The Slayer gathered eight landless warriors and three of his ally's servants who had skills he thought might be useful - most likely a linguist, a healer, and a historian. As they are all dead, it seems likely that he had to proceed on his mission alone. This means he may have only had limited success, and what he managed to bring back was most likely not all he could have. You, on the other paw, have me. It seems likely you will have better luck," she replied, and snapped the little door to her palanquin shut.
'Why is this not a comfort?' R'Narr thought sourly. He gestured to the warriors who bore the palanquin to take her away, then mounted his bird again. R'Narr rode among the fifty warriors he had with him, snarling his orders, cuffing a few of the slower ones, and generally venting his frustrations for the next half hour as his warriors established their base camp. When at last his troops had the camp in order, he eyed the small, tan box that had been unloaded from one of the pack-birds carrying their supplies. Within it was the key to the next phase of his plan - a dozen small throwing nets, used to capture small game. At least that part of his thinking L'Sala hadn't sneered at. 'Yet,' he thought sourly to himself.
He had his warriors pitch L'Sala's pavilion near his own, then went inside his own pavilion to groom himself from the day's ride. He didn't even bother to enjoy the sight of L'Sala exiting her palanquin - at this point, he was simply too annoyed with her. 'Bah!' he thought, running a long-handled wire-brush gently over his back-fur once he was out of his armor. 'If any other female spoke to me as she does, she'd either need to be good with her sword or good in bed or by the gods I'd run the wench through!' There were female warriors, and some were even better than the males when it came to the skills of battle - still, they had to follow certain proprieties when it came to speaking to their betters, or they would spend the majority of their time simply dueling those they had offended. R'Narr wondered idly as he lapped at the fur on his arms if all Mentalts were like this, or if it was simply L'Sala. 'Most likely the latter,' he thought, smoothing the fur on his legs with a paw. 'Even the Shazad couldn't possibly put up with this much nonsense.'
As he brushed his armor clean, R'narr thought of what he'd seen of her in D'Zhin's throne room. She seemed properly submissive then, yet... He remembered her gaze. Distant, impassive. She had closed her eyes and purred when the Shazad stroked her neck, but otherwise seemed totally aloof to everything that was going on around her. 'Perhaps that was a ruse? Another damnable female trick, a Manipulation?' he wondered. After a moment, he shook his head. 'No, if anyone could see through the tricks of females, it was D'Zhin,' he realized. This meant that either D'Zhin had well and properly dominated her, or that she simply preferred the Shazad's touch and loathed R'Narr's presence. With a quiet hiss of irritation, R'Narr realized it was probably the latter.
After he'd hung his armor on its stand, R'Narr streeeeeetched out on his bunk, yawning and flexing his claws, before catching himself with a snarl. There was still much work to do, and he couldn't afford to relax quite yet. He slipped on a light doublet and breeches, pulling his tail through the tail-hole with a flick of irritation. He then strapped on his baldrick again, tying the thin dueling-strap about his thigh to hold his sword tight to his left hip, then stepped back out of his tent.
The camp was complete, and a brief inspection-tour showed his warriors had established a proper perimeter and stood ready for any foe. R'Narr gazed at the sun, and weighed his next move carefully. It was near noon, and this time of year, that meant there was about seven hours to sunset, and there remained the problem of finding a source of water. It was apparent that it rained here on the plains regularly enough to keep the grasses long and green in the summer, but without a source of water, his troops couldn't stay here longer than another week before they'd need to turn back and head across the plains to the last little creek they'd passed.
After striding to the top of the small rise central to his camp where his pavilion was pitched, R'narr's eyes fell upon the cairns of stones over the mus-graves again, lying quietly a hundred paces distant. 'River-stones, eh? And by someone other than the mus, someone of a stone-age society...' R'Narr tried to imagine the scene. If L'Sala had guessed right, and he had no reason to imagine she was wrong, then that meant The Slayer had been wounded in the battle, then perhaps found by the same people who erected the cairns, then led by them to the Little Ones. It also might mean the river these people lived by was near, perhaps only a few leagues away, or less. If it were farther, he found couldn't imagine any people that would go to enormous efforts that the distance would require, all for a total stranger - particularly eleven dead ones. He glanced about, judging the lay of the land with the experienced eye of an old warrior and skilled hunter. 'Most likely, the river lies somewhere in that direction,' he thought, his gaze falling finally to the southeast, where the land seemed generally lower than the rest.
"Mrowl! Captain D'Viall!" R'Narr shouted.
The captain trotted up from his small tent, then bowed. "Mrr... Yes, my general?"
"Mrow... Get the scouts together, and pass out the nets to each of them. Have them probe the woods to the southeast. I believe there's a river in that direction, probably no more than five leagues away. We'll need to know it's location, so we can replenish our water supplies. And have them be careful - the Mentalt says there may be others in these woods aside from the Little Ones. And remind them - no killing! Whatever they find out there, they're to bring it back here alive."
"Miao... With respect, my lord, how shall they know what the Little Ones look like?"
"Mrr... Tell them that they are about so tall," R'Narr replied, holding a paw just below his hip, "and they resemble little mus-children. Have a care, though - if the Mentalt-witch is right, the mus received their new guns from them. They may be armed with those weapons, or better."
"Miao! Better, my lord?!" the captain replied in surprise.
"Mrowr... Indeed. Now get going. And remember - I want them alive."
"Mrowl! It shall be as you command, my general!" the captain replied, bowing, then trotted off to give his orders.
Two hours later, R'Narr was sitting on his stool outside his pavilion, eating the last of a raw rabbit carcass. The rabbit had been shot by one of the warriors on guard near the perimeter, then presented to the general with a humble bow. He'd commended the warrior on his archery, but marked him in his mind as a bootlick to be watched. He needed no toadies fawning over him, even if they were ones who were able to break the monotony of a diet of smoked and dried meat. R'Narr shuddered at the thought of more disgusting dried meat tomorrow, and banished it by chewing the last of the rabbit slowly before swallowing it, relishing the flavor of blood and flesh and the feel of the fresh bones crackling. Finally, it was gone. With a sigh, R'Narr began lapping at his paws and face to clean himself. 'I'll have to send out a hunting party in the morning,' he thought to himself. 'There may be more than just rabbit, here. With luck, those woods have deer. If I'm hating the food we've eaten so far, my warriors probably hate it more. Can't have morale slip, not when we're this close to our goal.' With a snarl, R'Narr suddenly realized he couldn't do that - a full hunting party in those woods might alert the Little Ones of their presence at the edge of the woods. 'It will have to wait until after we've ascertained their position and numbers,' he thought quietly, his warrior's mind looking at the problem as a simple military situation.
He looked up at the sound of D'Viall's call, to see the young captain trot over to him. "Mrowr! My lord, the perimeter guards report the scouts are returning!"
"Mrr... Send them directly to me," R'Narr replied, keeping his expression calm. It wouldn't do to get overly excited - aside from making his underlings think he could be easily pleased, the scouts may have found nothing. With a sigh, he realized he should probably get L'Sala, as well. Her Mentalt powers may spot something in the scout's report that he might miss. It galled him to realize that, but he knew it was true. 'Damn! How does D'Zhin even stand it? Relying on a female to interpret everything? What if she's wrong - or what if she's intentionally feeding you misinformation to serve some Manipulation she's working on?' he thought as he strode over to her pavilion. He paused, about to politely call her name, but then snarled. 'By the gods, I'm the general here, not her! I don't have to bow and scrape outside her tent!'
R'Narr swept the tent flap aside, snarling. "Fsst! L'Sala! The scouts are returning! Get out here so you can listen to their report!" He then blinked in surprise, gazing at her.
L'Sala knelt in the middle of her pavilion, wearing only the same skimpy garment she always wore beneath her cloak. Her bed was untouched, and her cloak lay neatly folded beside her, to her left. Her eyes opened slowly, and she gazed at him quietly. "Mrr... You seem quite annoyed, general. Is there something wrong?"
R'Narr narrowed his eyes. He'd been a warrior all his adult life - he could smell a trap. He had no idea what she was up to, but he wasn't going to fall for it. "Mrr... The scouts are returning. Get out here, now."
L'Sala reached to her left, and in a single, smooth motion, she rose to her feet while sweeping her cloak about her, striding to the tent entrance as though nothing was wrong. 'She moves like a harem-dancer,' R'Narr thought to himself, stepping aside to let her pass. 'What is she trying to accomplish?'
R'narr joined L'Sala before his tent just as the six scouts arrived. Each was carefully selected by R'Narr months ago as the best at stealth and infiltration among his troops. R'Narr would have preferred to hire half a dozen Nistu-assassins to do the job, but he didn't have the time to make the arrangements with any of their clans before they had to leave. "Mrowr... Your report, Sergeant D'Kith."
The sable-furred cat bowed. "Mrowr! My lord, we found a river four leagues to the southeast - the water is clear and clean, and appears abundant with fish. Nearby it, we also found what appears to be the remains of a village. It appears abandoned, my lord. It is a tiny village, my lord - not in numbers of houses, but in scale. All the doors and windows are very small, as though each house was made for someone the size of a child. A village of the Little Ones, perhaps!" he explained, his tail flicking about with excitement.
"Miao... How were the houses built, Sergeant?"
"Mrr... Each like a tiny hill, my lady... A layer of earth over each, they appeared to be partly excavated into the ground."
R'Narr's fur fluffed in irritation. L'Sala was no noble - she was a common wench, and an irritant. Yet, his warriors were now addressing her as such. The sergeant saw R'Narr's reaction and blanched, but if L'Sala noticed, she made no sign. "Miao... And aside from am absence of occupants, what made you conclude the village had been abandoned?" L'Sala asked.
"Mrrrrowww... Well, each house was empty of furniture or any other furnishings when we peered through the little windows, and an enormous amount of cobwebs were present."
"Mrr... Yet you saw fish a-plenty in the river? Why would the Little Ones abandon a village near a source of clean water and adequate food?"
L'Sala glanced at the general, her expression droll. "Miao... The legends say the Little Ones did not eat meat, general, they ate roots, berries, nuts, a few types of leaves, and insects. They may resemble mus-children, but they are not mus."
R'Narr suppressed the urge to cuff her. "Mrowl... And were such foods available nearby this village, D'Kith?"
"Mrow... We saw a few bushes with edible berries on them in the area, my lord, but we were not examining the woods for djuducu-fodder. We did see several deer in the woods, my lord, so I suppose such is available. As per your orders, however, we killed nothing."
"Miao... I will have to see the village myself in the morning to know for sure. Your report, while interesting, contains too much conflicting information and implications for me to successfully mentate upon it," she replied, then turned to R'Narr. "Miao... It appears your scouts are no more observant than you are, general. You may as well have gone yourself," she said dryly, then turned and padded back toward her tent.
R'Narr lashed out a paw, catching L'Sala by the scruff of the neck and hauling her back, spinning her around to face him. Her cloak swirled wide for a moment, but even the tantalizing flash of her body held no interest for him - he was too angry. L'Sala's eyes were wide with surprise for a moment, then calmed as R'Narr glared at her. "Fsst! No, you will not wait until morning, wench, you will ready yourself now and accompany these scouts back to that village! There's still five good hours of light left, and tonight should be a full moon. Plenty of light, plenty of time."
"Mrr... Yes, my lord. But who will accompany me and guard me from harm?" she replied politely, her expression calm.
R'Narr placed his paw beneath her chin, tilting it up and to one side, then the other. A small cut from his thumb-claw made a small damp spot of blood on the black fur of the left side of her neck, and four other cuts from his finger-claws dampened the fur on the other side. "Mrowrrr... I will. I'll don my armor and accompany you in just a few minutes. Be ready then," he said, and lowered his paw.
L'Sala bowed her head. "Mrr... I am ready now, my lord."
R'Narr turned and walked back into his pavilion without a further word, leaving L'Sala still standing there, her head bowed. 'What in the name of the nine hells is she up to?' he wondered. He knew he couldn't possibly have dominated her so easily. As he considered what had happened, R'Narr cursed himself for an old fool as he donned his armor. 'Before witnesses, even! Damn! She could have me killed when we return to the capital, with merely a word to the Shazad. And I can't kill her to prevent her from speaking - I'd simply die anyway.' The cuts on her neck were small - mere scratches, really, and they would heal without a scar. Still, the D'Zhin's word had been clear. As he glumly fastened the last strap of his armor and slung his baldrick over his shoulder again, he muttered a quiet curse. 'Well, if her plan was to get leverage on me, she has it now. Dammit.' R'Narr knew that had to be the explanation. He had been the victim of a female's Manipulation - and a grand one it was, as well. She had him completely under her claw, and could do anything she wanted with him - if he refused, she would simply tell D'Zhin what he'd done, and he would die.
R'Narr strode back outside his tent, and saw L'Sala was still standing there, her head still bowed. She lifted her eyes, and R'Nar smoothed his expression as he gazed into those slitted, emerald orbs. 'You may have won this battle, witch, but not the war,' he thought silently. 'If we do find the Little Ones, then afterwards I will personally tear your throat out. Better to serve honorably, complete my mission and die for killing you than to be your puppet and be tortured to death for being a traitor when your orders conflict with the Shazad's. Either way, I'm dead regardless - but I shall choose how and when I die. You, on the other paw, shall not.'
If L'Sala could read R'Narr's
thoughts using her fabled Mentalt powers, she made no sign. She
simply lifted her head slowly, then gazed at him quietly, her
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