Ayre of the Last God
(Book III of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY


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T'Zama had never seen battle in her life, and the sight both thrilled her and sickened her at the same time.

A thousand cats with bows charged the walls, stopping at the edge of the moat, and raking the parapets with arrows. Yet, their advance was not unopposed - the defenders, though obviously far fewer in numbers, had the advantage of height, and could send their arrows farther. Hundreds lay dead or wounded when the first wave was replaced by a second, continuing the rain of arrows upon the castle walls.

All this was but a prelude to the real push - when the hail of arrows seemed to have the defenders ducking behind the crenelated stones of the wall, twenty cats rushed forward, the first ten carrying long cabers made from the trunks of nearby trees. The poles were long enough to cross the moat - each was carried by the butt, then tipped forward slightly, and the warrior ran forward with it as fast as he could. At just the right distance, they were flung with all the warrior's might, to bounce, flip, and hopefully land so as to fall across the moat, bridging it. Though each was only about three paws wide, that would form enough of a bridge to allow these warriors to nimbly dart across the moat, then climb the wooden drawbridge with the sharp claws of their fingers and toes to gain entrance to the castle. Even lifting a caber took an enormous amount of strength, much less running and tossing one - more, to toss one accurately so it landed properly and bridged the moat took an incredible amount of skill. The massive, bulky warriors who trained and specialized in this were highly respected - and now, T'Zama saw why with her own eyes.

T'Zama watched tensely as the poles were flipped across the moat. Time seemed to dilate, slowing to a crawl as the poles bounced, tipped, then fell. As each hit the narrow bank on the other side of the moat, the long shaft of the pole flexed and bounced again, the poles bounding into the air as though they were alive. Six twisted, and fell into the moat - four lay across it. With a roar of exultation, the warriors began nimbly darting across the poles with feline agility. T'Zama gasped - could it be this easy? At R'Zin's shouted command, the archers renewed their efforts, showering the walls with a near-constant hail of arrows to keep the defender's heads down and allow their comrades to breach the castle.

The first ten warriors leaped to the closed drawbridge, scrambling up the sheer, vertical surface of the wood rapidly by claw and ragged, panting breath. The drawbridge was actually tipped outwards slightly, making the climb all the more difficult, and behind it was a closed gate. Once atop the drawbridge, each would use the hatchet they carried, trying to hack the wood of the drawbridge to free the drawbridge chains, causing the drawbridge to fall.

It was incredibly dangerous work - even if they succeeded, they would have to leap from the bridge as it fell and dive into the moat. Already, though, their comrades hammered stakes into the bank by the moat, tying ropes to them and tossing the ropes in the water. This was so that when they did dive into the moat, they would be able to escape the slick, muddy sides instead of simply growing exhausted in the cold water of the river-fed moat and drowning.

T'Zama bit her lip nervously, watching. She had never seen such bravery in her life. The mere thought of even trying what her warriors were doing filled her with apprehension. It was thrilling - and terrifying. She glanced to her side for a moment, and could see by D'Main's awed expression that her son's thoughts were the same. R'Zin, however, had a face that was a mask of concentration as he observed the battle.

Finally, the first two toms had made it to the top of the drawbridge. In a flurry of activity, they pulled out the hatchets they carried at their side, and began hacking at the wooden drawbridge, trying to free the chains. The others climbed up and sat astride the top of the bridge, digging their toe-claws into the wood and drawing a hatchet in each paw to throw at any defenders that may show their heads at the top of the wall, another five yards above them. The hail of arrows slowed - with the caber-teams at the top of the bridge, there was too great a risk they would be struck by a stray arrow, and that could not be allowed.

Suddenly, a line of defenders rose from behind the crenellated wall, muskets in their paws. A brief, chilling rattle of musket fire erupted, answered by an almost simultaneous roar as those who were on watch astride the top of the bridge tossed their hatchets. Arrows from the archers below continued to fall, but now they took their toll. Yet, though some were wounded, the defenders fought on, those who already fired ducking behind the wall to reload and allowing their comrades to rise and continue firing upon the caber teams.

One thundering heartbeat, then two...

And the top of the drawbridge was clear.

T'Zama watched as the last of the warriors of the caber team slipped to fall into the moat. It was a tremendous fall from the top of the closed drawbridge, to smash into the chill waters of the moat over ten yards below - water from that height is not a simple splash, but more like a stunning blow. Some were only wounded, already trying to swim to the ropes that had been placed for them and escape. Others simply sank to the bottom, their armor weighing them down and dragging their bodies below the waters - whether they were mercifully already dead, or too wounded to swim and thus drowned horribly, T'Zama could not tell. A renewed hail of arrows kept the defenders from simply picking off those swimming in the moat. T'Zama looked at the brave toms swimming towards the ropes their comrades had prepared for them. If they survived their wounds, they would live to someday try this again. For today, however, they had failed.

"Fsst! Sound 'Regroup'!" R'Zin shouted to his musicians. The band-leader nodded, and in a moment, the booming thunder of drums and blare of trumpets announcing R'Zin's orders. The hail of arrows from R'Zin's archers paused, and the whole of the army seemed to take several steps back, moving well clear of the range of the defenders. T'Zama's eyes, however, were on those wounded toms that managed to escape the moat. Of the ten that had crossed, only three survived to be carried away by their comrades in a quick dash to the healer's tents. The rest lay at the bottom of the moat. After a moment, T'Zama cast her gaze across the rest of her army, and saw that already several hundred were dead or wounded, and being carried to the healer's tents. Most of the wounded would live, though a pawful may be short a limb for the rest of their days. The rest would die - and most in slow, agonizing deaths, as the medical knowledge of the cats was not as advanced as that of the mus.

R'Zin turned to look at T'Zama and D'Main. "Fsst! Well, I'm sorry, my lady, but that's it - those were the only caber-teams we had. It'll be a siege, now. We can try building siege towers and catapults from the woods nearby, but that will take a few weeks."

D'Main shook his head. "Mrowrrr... Can we afford a siege, my friend? Do we have that much time before R'Narr's army returns?"

R'Zin shrugged. "Miao... Possibly. It's difficult to say. If he wins, we could have as little as three months. If he loses, we have all the time in the world."

"Mrr... R'Narr will lose, Lord R'Zin," T'Zama replied. "Miao... I have confidence in the Shazad. He is a skilled warrior - he can win. And he will."

R'Zin smiled disarmingly. "Mrr... Of course, my lady. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to talk to my officers," he replied, then twitched the reins of his bird, wheeling his mount and riding towards the ranks of his troops.

"Miao... I hope you're right, mother. I hope the Shazad does win. We can't afford for him to lose," D'Main observed.

"Fsst! No, we can't," T'Zama replied. "Fsst! Nor can I afford to have R'Zin give orders without me around to at least look like they're coming from me!" she snarled, clapping her heels to the sides of her bird and riding off after R'Zin. D'Main nodded to her back, twitching the reins of his bird to follow.

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