of the Last God
(Book II of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY
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R'Narr walked slowly between the ranks of what remained of his son's warriors, now under D'Lahst's command. They were exhausted, starving, and totally demoralized. Most were wounded. D'Lahst himself was on the verge of collapse, with both an arm and a leg wounded. Yet, they were smiling. Each and every one, smiling. From the moment they had met up with R'Narr's party, they suddenly had hope again. Even now, they whispered amongst each other. "It's R'Narr! He's our greatest general! He'll save us!" they whispered hopefully between themselves. R'Narr kept a tight rein on his reactions, and simply continued his inspection, walking among the ranks of warriors as he considered his situation.
Of those who remained, most were of the eastern clans - or, at least, so their livery proclaimed. Most of the warriors D'Lahst and D'Vring had brought with them from the western clans were far from home, and under the enormous pressure of The Slayer's forces, they had simply deserted. Only a few had been from the 'expansionist' clans, like the T'Mrr - clans who had few lands back west and had taken the opportunity of the war to grab large sections of lands formerly belonging to the mus. D'Lahst hobbled behind R'Narr and L'Sala as R'Narr walked between the ranks, R'Narr's experienced eye glancing over each of the warriors, giving each one the feeling that they had personally been inspected by the old general. Each time he spotted one he recognized, he paused.
"Mrr... R'Zill V'Malin, I believe, yes?" R'Narr asked, pausing again.
"Mrow... Yes, General," the gray tom before him replied, grinning.
"Mrr... I remember you. You lost that eye while we were putting down that rebellion among the T'Mrr clan... When was that, about twenty-two years ago, now?"
"Mrowr... Exactly twenty-two, General," the old tom replied, grinning.
"Mrr... Take care of that leg," R'Narr said, smiling as he glanced at the bloody bandage wrapped around R'Zill's left leg, and moved on.
R'Narr kept an iron grip on his emotions, simply walking among their ranks. 'They couldn't fight their way out of a paper box,' he thought to himself. 'If L'Sala's plan fails, we're dead.'
R'Narr suppressed a snarl, and simply smiled again as he continued moving through the ranks, L'Sala and D'Lahst in tow. The first part of her plan had already worked - when D'Zhin's messenger arrived, bearing a polite request for R'Narr to surrender that he may be publicly tortured to death and beheaded for the crime of treason, R'Narr hadn't simply killed him. Instead, he had sent a message back to D'Zhin, telling him that he and his warriors would rather die fighting the mus than fighting fellow cats.
L'Sala said that her mentation was D'Zhin would, in the end, wait and allow the mus the opportunity to crush R'Narr. With the addition of D'Lahst's troops to his own, R'Narr now had several hundred warriors from the western clans among his ranks, including D'Lahst himself, who led one of the largest clans in the west. If D'Zhin attacked, these warriors from the western clans would almost certainly die - and the death of D'Lahst in particular might spark a clan-war when it was discovered D'Zhin had ordered it. And, as it turned out, L'Sala had been right.
D'Zhin wasn't about to risk a clan-war when the mus seemed more than happy to do his dirty-work for him. No, all he had to do was attack the mus after they were finished killing R'Narr and his warriors, and defeat them to capture the Little Ones. Of course, if the mus turned and fought D'Zhin instead, he would simply defeat them, then turn to R'Narr's troops and crush them anyway, clan-war or no - the reward of the Little Ones and their knowledge was simply too great to pass up, in the end. Either way, D'Zhin would wait and see what the mus chose to do. He was not stupid enough to risk having the mus attack his rear while he was engaged with R'Narr's warriors. All R'Narr could do in return was hope that the second part of L'Sala's plan worked, and Captain D'Viall returned alive.
Finally, R'Narr was done. He stepped to the middle of the square formation, climbing atop the wagon the Little One's library was stored in, standing high above the five thousand troops where he could easily be seen. Taking a deep breath, he began.
"Mrowr! All you that rode with my son, and with D'Vring, and with D'Lahst! All you that have ridden with me these many months! Today, we face what is perhaps the most important moment in our history. For it is this day, this moment, that we finally shall face the truth!" R'Narr shouted, and swept his paw at the ranks of mus, a league away. "Mrowrrr... Those mus there are not our enemies, for what is it they have done that we would not have done in their position? Can any tom here truthfully say that if the mus had attacked our lands in large numbers, they would not have fought back?! Can any tom here honestly say that we would not have done exactly as they have done?! We have poisoned them, we have bled them, we have enslaved them - and now they fight back! But they are not our enemies!" R'Narr shouted, then pointed to the massed forces of D'Zhin, half a league away, who awaited the outcome. "Mrowrr! There is our enemy! D'Zhin, the Shazad!"
R'Narr paused for a moment while the ripple of murmurs passed through the warriors around him. Choosing his moment precisely, he began again. "Fsst! It was by his order the poisons were created, and used! Some of you are from the western clans, but even you have lived here in the eastern hinterlands most of your life, and learned what it is when we easterners speak of Honor in War - and these poisons showed D'Zhin has no honor! It was by his order that the war against the mus, who had never done a wrong to us before, was begun! I have been to the lands beyond the Southern Mountains - league after league of virgin forest, lying upon the foothills! League after league of endless, fertile grasslands! Why did D'Zhihn order this fight with the mus? He claimed we needed new lands, particularly for some of the western clans! Some of your clansmen are landless, simply because dividing what you have in the west among the heirs of each, generation after generation, would have left each of you with a plot of land barely large enough to build a house on! Yet, why did he order our people to fight and die for land, when there was endless amounts of land free for the taking to the south?!" R'Narr shouted, then paused for dramatic effect.
"Fsst! I'll tell you why! Because he wanted you to die! The fewer of you there were, the larger each plot of inheritance-land was! Yes, he would kill two birds with one stone - he would gain extra lands for our people, and at the same time kill off enough young toms so that what lands we did have went farther among each clan's inheritance!" R'Narr roared, then fell silent as the warriors around him shouted their outrage.
"Fsst! Now, each of you has lost brothers, sons, fathers - and what few sisters, mothers and daughters among you who took up the sword to follow the path of the warrior! And all for nothing! The mus are not our enemy! Our enemy is Shazad D'Zhin!"
R'Narr waited, letting the warriors vent their anger in shouts of outrage at the Shazad. It was an adept lie - and showed R'Narr again why he needed L'Sala by his side.
L'Sala had told him the real reason that D'Zhin had ordered the expansion to the east, rather than to the south - it would simply be too difficult to control the empire were it spread to the south. The mountains between the capital and the vast, virgin lands beyond were steep, with passes few and far between. Here in the east the going was less difficult across the mountains, but it still wasn't easy, and all the passes were far too close to the lands of the mus, who were not at all friendly towards the cats. If D'Zhin had ordered lands in the south be taken, it was likely that by now, a separate empire would have evolved, having been forced to learn independence from the capital simply by being cut off from it.
"Fsst! Even now, Shazad D'Zhin and his army waits there for the mus to come and kill us! But, if the gods are willing, this won't happen!" R'Narr shouted once the cries of outrage had died down. "Mrowrrr... I've sent my aide-de-camp, Captain D'Viall, to speak to the mus. We offer them peace, if they will help us against the Shazad! With luck, they may accept - thus, I call on each and every one of you to put aside your feelings about the mus! Do not raise a paw against them! Keep your eye on our real enemy, the Shazad!"
R'Narr continued in this vein for several minutes, urging his warriors to not attack the mus, but instead to keep their eyes on their real enemy, the Shazad, and how D'Zhin had betrayed them all with a wasteful, senseless war. Finally, when he was certain the message had been delivered forcefully enough and his warriors were both cheering for him and snarling at the Shazad's troops in the distance, he hopped down from the wagon. D'Lahst looked him in the eye, and nodded. "Mrr... My troops stand with you, General. We tire of fighting the mus - particularly knowing the truth of the matter."
R'Narr nodded. "Mrr... Go to them now, D'Lahst, and keep a tight hold on them - for if even a single shot is fired at the mus, or even a single arrow, we're all dead."
D'Lahst nodded, and hobbled off. L'Sala waited until he was out of earshot, then looked to R'Narr. "Miao... My lord, you did quite well. I had thought that their morale would be far too low to even try to speak to them."
"Mrr... This is why I am the general, and you are the Mentalt," R'Narr replied, and grinned. "Mrow... If I was to get them to fight the mus, they would not be able to do it. The mus would get them to break and run in perhaps a quarter of an hour. At the same time, they cannot fight the Shazad - they are simply too weak. The Shazad has at least thirty thousand troops that I can see, perhaps closer to fourty, and nearly all of D'Lahst's five thousand warriors are wounded. D'Zhin would crush what little I have here in less time than it takes to tell of it. The Slayer has done his work well - it will be months before many of these toms are in shape to fight again, and it will be at least a year before we are able to field a true army again."
"Miao... My lord, Captain D'Viall returns," L'Sala said suddenly, pointing.
R'Narr looked, spotting D'Viall as he rode through the troops making up the square, the warriors parting to let him pass. D'Viall rode up, then dismounted and bowed. "Mrowr! General, the mus have agreed - but on one condition."
"Mrr? What is it?" R'Narr asked, a furry eyebrow raised.
"Mrow... The Little Ones, General. We must release the Little Ones to them, alive and unharmed, after the battle."
"Fsst! I need them! Particularly now, with what few warriors I have left to me! Their devices and knowledge will be of inestimable value to me!"
L'Sala shook her head. "Miao... It seems we have little choice, my lord."
R'Narr simply snarled wordlessly.
"Miao... Captain, what do we do to show them we agree?" L'Sala asked.
Captain D'Viall shook his head. "Mrowr... Nothing, my lady. They say that at the conclusion of the battle, if the Little Ones are in any way harmed, they will simply kill us all."
R'Narr glanced at the rag-tag collection of walking wounded he had for an army, and snarled again. "Fsst! And they could do it, too." Suddenly, a sound came to R'Narr's ears - the faint sound of a mus-roar, far in the distance. R'Narr climbed back on top of the library wagon again, and looked out over the heads of his warriors. "Mrr... They're moving."
"Miao... May I join you up there, my lord?" L'Sala asked, holding out a paw.
R'Narr glanced at her, and smiled briefly at the tantalizing flash of thigh and abdomen her movement had revealed. "Mrr... Yes, come," R'Narr replied, holding out his paw to her and pulling her up. "Mrowrrr... Captain D'Viall, get over there to the northern side of our formation. Take our troops, and spread them among the rest. You're to make sure no one fires on the mus, no matter what - even if you have to kill to stop it, no one is to attack them."
"Mrow! It shall be as you command, General," Captain D'Viall replied, and R'Narr turned his attention to the battlefield again.
"Miao... My lord, they are outnumbered by at least three to one," L'Sala commented, looking over the two armies.
"Mrr... So I
see," R'Narr replied, watching the mus split themselves into
two groups of riders. A small group of perhaps two hundred riders
stayed behind, apparently defending the camp followers and other
non-combatants, while the remaining ten thousand riders swept out
across the green, rolling hills, towards the Shazad's army. "Mrr...
It begins," R'Narr murmured, his voice hushed.
"And back again!" Xaa roared as bullets whip-cracked past his ear.
As one, his troops wheeled and rode away, following him. The other two wings of riders waited - if the cats moved, they would sweep in while they were moving and rain arrows on them while they were unable to fire. If they held their ground, Xaa would again have the main body of his troops ride up to just beyond the range of their bows, and open fire with their guns. The rifles of the mus had twice the range of a bow, and three times the range of the cat's more primitive muskets. D'Zhin had never fought against the mus before, and he wasn't used to the tactic the mus called "Waves on the Shore." Like waves, the ranks of mus riders moved in, then moved away again, only to return crashing down upon the shore with greater force a moment later. The first few attacks were aimed solely at the cats' mounts, crippling and killing them to put as many of the cats afoot as they could, slowing their ability to reply. Afterwards, as the barrels of their rifles fouled from burnt powder and their accuracy became somewhat less, the mus concentrated on simply raining lead into the ranks of their enemies. With the advantage of greater range, the mus could keep the cats at a distance, suffer minimal casualties, and slowly erode the strength of the cats' forces.
Xaa knew R'Narr never would have fallen for this. R'Narr had fought the mus before, and this strategy, while a simple one, relied on the mus constantly moving. R'Narr would have known to use his cavalry to flank, and try to contain the approaching "waves" of mus riders, channeling them into a proper killing-zone. Failing that, he would use his cavalry to keep the mus moving constantly, instead of moving and resting in alternating waves - the constant movement would wear out the djuducu-birds of the mus cavalry, and eventually the tactic would falter from sheer exhaustion of their mounts. Yet, if what the cat D'Viall had said was true, R'Narr had no desire to fight this day. His warriors, the remnants of his son's forces, were far too weak to even consider the option.
Xaa wheeled his mount about, and saw that the cats, in frustration, were charging again. The riders to the flanks rode in immediately, raking them with arrows, then wheeled and rode away as the first disorganized shots rang out. But his own warriors hadn't had the time to reload yet.
"Ready, my lord!" Lord Y'dahk roared, the warriors under his command having finished reloading.
"At them, Y'dahk!" Xaa roared in reply.
Y'dahk roared out his orders, and his forces split, riding around Xaa's riders from behind, joining up again before them, and sweeping down at the cats. They halted, again just outside the cats' range, fired a volley, then withdrew as the cats' ranks recoiled, melting back into their main formation.
'They'll break soon. They can't hold much longer,' Xaa thought, reloading the rifle Tinker had made what seemed like a lifetime ago.
Suddenly, one of his riders surged up next to him, and tapped him on the shoulder. Xaa looked up, and saw Gnatchok. Gnatchok said nothing - his whispers would hardly be heard over the roars of battle anyway. Instead, he simply pointed urgently to the north. Xaa looked, and swore.
Three hundred riders had split off from the cat's forces, and were heading to where O'dmemet and his riders were. It was obvious - the cats meant to distract the mus, to break their rhythm, and get them to shift their focus. If they could do that, if they could get the mus to turn to face this new threat to their non-combatants, they might be able to out-flank them, pin them in a single location, and bring their forces to bear against them. With a snarl, Xaa shook his head. "No. It's a trick. The cats want us to respond - they want the waves to fall somewhere else, for the rhythm of our attacks to be broken. O'dmemet will have to hold them off himself."
"But my lord is there! He may die!" Gnatchok hissed, loud enough to be heard even over the din of the fighting.
"And my beloved is there, and she may die, but my duty is here, as is yours!" Xaa snarled in reply.
Gnatchok nodded, then bowed from
where he sat in his saddle. He knew Lord Xaa was right - and if
it was hard for Gnatchok to not ride to O'dmemet's rescue, it was
a thousand times harder for Xaa. After a moment, Gnatchok
finished reloading his rifle, and held up his paw. Xaa looked
over the ranks of riders behind him. As each finished reloading,
they raised a paw. In a moment, they were all ready. Xaa turned
to face the cats again, his face contorted beneath his helmet in
an expression of rage and sorrow. "And at them
again!" he roared, clapping his heels to his mount.
Roaring their battle-cries, his warriors followed.
Merle watched in fear from her position at the rear. The approaching cats didn't even seem real, somehow. They were like a dream - they approached swiftly, yet time seemed to dilate with the rapid pounding of her heart, slowing their movements to a crawl.
O'dmemet held his sword high as the cats approached, glancing up and down his ranks. Counting the musties, he had only fifty guns. He hoped it would be enough. "Ready!" he roared.
"Get ready!" Byarl shouted, and sighted down the barrel of his small rifle. Beside him, seven other musties knelt in the grass just before the ranks of the mus.
"Now!" O'dmemet roared, slashing down with his sword. With a noise like thunder, the mus and the musties fired their volley. Two dozen enemy riders pitched form their saddle, landing hard in the grass. Some struggled to rise afterwards, only to be trampled by the riders behind them. The rest did not move.
"Up and to the rear!" Byarl shouted, rising to his feet and springing between the riders behind him. The other musties followed immediately, and as soon as they were clear, O'dmemet raised his sword again.
"Bows to the front! Ready!" he roared, raising his sword again. In a few moments, the remainder of his forces had drawn their bows, and were waiting. "Now!"
A hail of arrows met the oncoming cats, and another fifty pitched from their saddles. Still the rest kept coming.
"Steel!" O'dmemet roared, and his warriors tossed aside their bows, drawing their swords. Then, a heartbeat later, the cats were upon them.
Merle watched in terror as the struggle raged, swords flashing, mus roaring, cats snarling, the scent of blood strongly in the air. The musties reloaded, and carefully fired into the milling crowd of struggling warriors one at a time, slowly picking off some of the cats.
Suddenly, three cats broke away from the fight. Snarling, they charged the musties, trying to stop their constant sniping. Lord Jamat roared his battle cry and clapped his heels to his bird, racing up to meet one of them. A ragged volley of three shots from the musties brought down the second of the cats, thrashing his life out with a bullet in his brain, and sent the third pitching into the dirt as his mount was shot out from under him, his sword spinning off into the grass nearby. The third cat was not dead, however - he rolled to his feet with feline grace, drawing his dagger in the same smooth motion, and leaped at the musties. Byarl and the cat went down together, both snarling with rage.
Merle didn't even pause to think about what she was doing. She simply leaped off Brownie, landing on the cat's back, and drew the longer of the two wooden swords she wore in her sash, gripping it with one paw at each end. With a sudden move, she reached over the cat's head, rammed the round wooden sword into his mouth, and held on. "SHOULDERS!" she screamed.
"TEASER!" Ayori screamed in reply, springing over to the cat and bashing him in the helmet with the butt of his rifle.
The other musties dropped their rifles, drew their knives, and leaped on the cat, grabbing for his limbs. Ayori bashed the cat repeatedly in the helmet while the other musties struggled to grip his limbs, stabbing him over and over, slashing at the tendons in his unarmored arms and legs. The cat howled in agony, struggling to throw the musties off of himself, when suddenly Byarl surged up from beneath him, both paws on the hilt of his knife. Screaming wordlessly, he rammed his knife below the cat's jaw, where his helmet did not protect. The cat spasmed violently as the knife penetrated his brain, then fell heavily back to the ground, lifeless.
"There, Merle... I told you that extra bit of blade-length would come in useful..." Byarl said, swaying.
Merle looked up, and saw to her horror that the front of Byarl's green-dyed leather tunic was soaked with red, red blood. As she watched, Byarl slowly sank to his knees, then pitched forward onto his face.
"NO!" Merle screamed, leaping to her feet. "Hragh! Help!" Merle shouted to the mus gathered in the rear. After a moment, she remembered, and tried again in their language. "Hragh! Help! Byarl's been hurt!"
A sudden shadow loomed over Merle - it was Lord Jamat. He was bloodied, gasping, but had beaten the cat he was fighting. He wiped his sword on his sash, then sheathed it after a moment. "My lady, tell the others to follow, away from the fighting!" he said, and gently slipped his enormous arms beneath Byarl's tiny, unconscious form. The musties followed as Jamat trotted to the rear, swiftly carrying Byarl to Hragh, the healer.
"Merle! What do we do?!" Ayori called as Hragh bent over Byarl, swiftly cutting away his tiny, blood-stained leather tunic.
Merle looked up to Ayori, then back to where the battle still raged. Merle didn't even stop to consider what to say - the words simply came to her, as though she had been born to lead the tribe. Reaching to her side, she drew her knife, the last mouse-knife owned by any mustie, and snarled. "Everybody get your guns, reload, and keep shooting at those cats!"
With a shout of anger, the call
for vengeance singing in their veins, the musties followed Merle
back into the battle.
"Mrr... There. And again. See how they pull back, just as D'Zhin's forces move to close the range?" R'Narr said pointing.
"Miao... Yes, my lord," L'Sala replied, her face expressionless as she watched the carnage.
"Mrow... D'Zhin is a fool. He's only now thinking to use what riders he has left to try to stop that. That little diversionary strike he made to their non-combatants was pointless. The mus aren't stupid," R'Narr said, then gazed at the mus in silence for awhile, simply watching. "Mrr... I've never had the opportunity to watch them do this from the side, like we are now. It's a beautiful tactic, and they perform it flawlessly," he said, and smiled. "Mrr... It's quite beautiful. Almost... Almost like a dance."
"Miao... A dance of death, my lord."
R'Narr chuckled. "Mrr... Indeed." R'Narr held a paw to his eyebrows, shielding his eyes from the noonday sun, and gazed at D'Zhin's troops carefully. "Mrowrrr... They can't hold much longer. They'll break soon."
"Miao... There, my lord. In their rear."
R'Narr looked, seeing the half-dozen riders racing away from the back of DiZhin's formation, and chuckled. "Mrr... D'Zhin is escaping. Once the rest of his troops find out, they'll break and run. D'Zhin will have a hard time controlling the western clans after this - and the eastern clans will abandon him completely. To be beaten by this, their most basic of tactics against us?"
"Mrowr... There, my lord. Their ranks are collapsing even now," L'Sala observed, pointing. Sure enough, the front ranks of D'Zhin's formation were collapsing, as each warrior turned and fled for their lives. "Mrow? The mus do not pursue, my lord?"
"Mrr... They're far too disciplined for that. The Slayer knows that all he had to do was drive them from the field - and that he has done," R'Narr replied, and hopped down from the wagon. Placing his paws about L'Sala's waist, he lifted her easily, then set her on the ground beside him. "Mrowrrr... Now, we prepare for them to come here and claim the Little Ones," R'Narr said sourly.
"Miao... It is necessary, my lord."
"Fsst! That doesn't mean I have to like it!" R'Narr snarled, then controlled himself with an effort. "Mrr... Your pardon, L'Sala."
L'Sala smiled, and R'Narr felt a renewed surge of love for her just at the sight of it. "Purr... I was not offended, my lord."
R'Narr grumbled. "Fsst! If only we could at least keep them from getting the Little One's library!"
L'Sala simply nodded, saying nothing.
Finally, R'Narr sighed. "Mrr... And you really think that we can ally with them?"
"Miao... I only think it is possible, my lord. If we can show them that the eastern clans are different... That here in the east, we understand the concept of honor... If we can show them that we do not think of them as enemies, but rather the Shazad... Then, my lord, it is possible," L'Sala replied, then looked into R'Narr's eyes. "Mrr... And an important part of that, my lord, is for you not to take revenge on The Slayer for the loss of your son."
R'Narr snarled wordlessly. Finally, after a long moment, he looked to L'Sala. "Mrowrrr.... You have no idea how much I want to spit that rat upon my sword."
"Miao... You must not, my lord. He is now our only hope against D'Zhin. The Shazad may have lost this day, but next spring, he will return, with an army at his back. We will need the mus, or D'Zhin will crush the eastern clans and carry your head back to the capitol on a spear," she said, then placed a paw on R'Narr's forearm. "Mrow... Please, my lord. You must forgive him. It is as you told these warriors. The Slayer did not kill your son - D'Zhin did."
R'Narr growled. "Mrowrrr... I will try, L'Sala. That is all I can promise. I will try."
L'Sala wrapped her arms gently around R'Narr, hugging him through his steel cuirass. "Miao... That is all I can ask, my lord."
R'Narr hugged her in return,
stroking her back softly, his emotions in turmoil, torn between
love for L'Sala, and hate for The Slayer, Xaa'ap'Gasha.
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