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


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"Mrowr... Here you are, my Lord Seneschal." the sergeant said, gesturing to the rack of practice-weapons.

D'Viall passed over the foils immediately - the light, slender weapons, meant to simulate the length and balance of the rapier, were nothing he'd been trained in (though he knew General R'Narr preferred them). Equally quickly, he passed over the brands, made to simulate the length and balance of a longsword. Though preferred by many warriors, the longsword simply wasn't his style, either. Finally, he reached out a paw, slipping one of the flats from it's position on the rack, and looked it over.

Made to simulate the length and balance of the feline broadsword, the flat was a blunt, broad practice sword with a thin steel blade, it's edges and rounded tip welded to a wide, flat, 'safety' edge about a finger-width across. It was possible to break a bone with it, or knock someone unconscious, but only if they were not wearing the proper fencing armor - which, for a cat, was a padded suit that covered them from head to toe, a light helmet that had a mesh screen over the face, and a stiff leather gorget. The guard was, like all the guards of feline longswords and broadswords, a large, bell-like arrangement that protected the entire paw. The guard of the feline rapier (and that of it's practice-equivalent, the foil), was more like a cup, as it was held and manipulated differently.

There were three main swords used by the felines of Oerth, the Rapier, the Longsword, and the Broadsword. Of the three, the rapier was quite popular here in the east - a yard of finger-wide, razor-sharp double-edged steel, it was light and fast. It's opposite was the broadsword, typically twenty-eight inches in length, two inches wide, double edged and equipped with a sharp thrusting tip. It also had a diamond-shaped cross-section, making it a thick, heavy and sturdy weapon. Though slower, it's mass could shear through flesh and bone with ease, and in the hands of a skilled warrior, a fight could be ended very quickly. The rapier took longer to down an opponent, and one could inflict a dozen wounds on an enemy before they dropped from blood loss and fatigue. More, one could win a fight, only to die later from the deep punctures made to the abdomen (peritonitis killing the victim slowly and painfully), or punctures made to the chest, (internal bleeding slowly collapsing the lungs and suffocating you). This, of course, was why most warriors wore a steel cuirass - which, in itself, rendered the rapier almost useless unless wielded by a very skilled fighter. Though a highly skilled warrior (such as General R'Narr) could take down an opponent very quickly with the rapier, it was far easier with the longsword, and easier still with the broadsword. As D'Viall's father used to say, 'If you skewer a tom with a rapier, he may still be standing, but if you split a tom's skull with a broadsword and he's still standing, walk behind him and find out what's holding him up.' The longsword, of course, was the compromise between the two extremes - as long as a rapier, but wider - typically an inch across. It was faster than the broadsword, yet slower than the rapier, and in many ways shared the advantages and disadvantages of both weapons.

D'Viall made a few practice swings with the flat, then nodded, satisfied. "This will do, Sergeant. Let's begin."

L'Viall and the Sergeant stepped to the center of the salle', the eyes of two dozen of the castle guards upon the two of them. The salle' was a typical one, though well equipped, D'Viall noted. Built in a cool, shaded spot of the castle grounds, it was a small, roofed, open-air affair with the floors covered in woven mats to protect one's bones in a fall. D'Viall made a few passes with the flat and spent a few moments limbering up, noting that the sergeant did the same.

It was not unexpected that he be 'invited' to spar - indeed, D'Viall had been expecting that he would be invited to a formal duel, by now. The fat old seneschal that R'Narr had dismissed had many friends among the castle guards, and when D'Viall killed him in a duel, he knew that eventually, one of those friends would seek some kind of revenge.

D'Viall made a few practice lunges as he considered his situation. It was, perhaps, only the fact that they were in the Eastern Hinterlands that the sergeant hadn't simply challenged him to a duel. The felines of the eastern hinterlands were more honor-bound, and less likely to shed blood at the drop of a hat than the felines of the western clans. Competition for fame, renown and the lands that went with it was far more fierce in the west, and questions of honor were often muted by the more pressing issues that faced the hundreds of thousands who were the "disinherited."

D'Viall, himself, was one of the "disinherited" - those who were third or fourth sons, not entitled to inherit lands of their own upon the death of their father, destined to be poor unless the strength of their sword arm and the will of the fates deemed otherwise. He, his mate and child had emigrated to the east in the hopes of possibly doing better, and he had. D'Viall had risen quickly in General R'Narr's service, gaining a reputation as a skilled leader, an able and efficient follower, and a skilled paw with sword and bow. Then, with the discovery by L'Sala that R'Narr's exchequer had been stealing from him, R'Narr had both had the exchequer executed and dismissed his seneschal, the exchequer's cousin, telling D'Viall that he was the new seneschal, and if the old one didn't like that decision, then D'Viall should duel him. The fat old seneschal had fallen easily to D'Viall's blade - it seemed unlikely he had drawn his sword in years, judging by how easily D'Viall defeated him.

Yet, now the price of that duel loomed near - the seneschal's friends would now test this young tom, to see if he truly was worthy of leading them. It was not unusual for this to happen, by feline standards. D'Viall had been expecting something like this for six months. No, it was only unusual by the standards of the west that the sergeant had merely invited D'Viall to spar with him, rather than duel him, and that it had taken so long for him to finally get around to making the invitation.

D'Viall turned, seeing the sergeant was ready, and saluted him, bringing the hilt of his sword up to his masked chin, then down. The brown-tabby sergeant did the same, smiling. He was armed with a foil, and the grin on his face told D'Viall the sergeant fully expected to easily slip past any defense D'Viall might make with his slower flat, and score. It was not surprising that the sergeant should choose the foil - the rapier, the weapon it simulated, was considered an elegant, courtly weapon, particularly here in the east. D'Viall, however, had never trained in it's use. His family clan back in the west had preferred the shorter, more massive broadsword as a superior weapon. D'Viall nodded to the sergeant, assuming an en garde stance, his right paw holding the flat before him, his left held behind and above his head, his tail up and ready as a counter-balance. The sergeant assumed an identical stance, and they began.

D'Viall and the sergeant circled each other, sizing each other up. D'Viall saw the sergeant's tail slowly flick from side to side - he was confident of a victory, that was obvious. More, the guards who watched nearby also seemed confident the new seneschal would be humiliated. By the traditional rules, a bout continued until one opponent had received three touches. D'Viall steeled himself. He was determined the sergeant would score nothing against him, today. He could not afford to have the warriors under his command thinking that he was weak. Slowly, the two edged closer, and they crossed blades, engaged in quarte.

Suddenly, in a lightning move, the sergeant flicked his blade down, under, and around D'Viall's in a fast disengagement, making a swift thrust in tierce. D'Viall parried in third, then snapped his arm out in a quick downward slash at the sergeant's extended forearm. The sergeant parried in sixte, then leaped back, his eyes widening in surprise. D'Viall had been more skilled than he thought. The sergeant smiled again, and stepped forward, his blade extended. D'Viall smiled in return, and they again crossed swords, engaging in quarte.

The sergeant began a quick cut-over, flicking his blade back and over the tip of D'Viall's. D'Viall read his intent, and began a counter attack, flicking his blade down and under the sergeant's and lunging. The sergeant grunted as D'Viall scored, his thicker blade not bending at all as D'Viall jabbed him in the sternum. The sergeant leaped back, then nodded, saluting D'Viall with his blade.

"Mrr... Your touch, my lord Seneschal."

"Mrr... Thank you, sergeant." D'Viall replied politely, and they crossed swords again.

For the next several moments, the sergeant exchanged attacks, parries and ripostes with D'Viall. He was more careful, now - D'Viall had shown he was no mere 'hack-and-stab' broadsword fighter from the west. No, he was a skilled fencer, and the sergeant was more wary, testing his skill, seeking a weakness in his defense. After a brief flurry, the sergeant leaped back, his forearm stinging through the padded armor from a quick stop-cut. "Mrrr... Your touch again, my lord Seneschal." he called, trying to keep the irritation from his voice as he saluted D'Viall again.

"Mrr... Thank you, sergeant." D'Viall replied politely, and extended his blade again.

The sergeant did not immediately cross blades, but instead returned to circling. D'Viall could see he was thinking, trying to figure out a way past his defenses to at least score a touch. D'Viall risked a glance to the other guards as they circled, waiting for the sergeant to come to a decision. The sergeant had the faster weapon, and he was quite skilled - D'Viall knew he could not afford to attack, but had to rely on counter-attacks and ripostes. Suddenly, as he looked, he spotted Lady L'Sala standing beside the guards, watching. 'She must have walked up after we begun,' he thought.

D'Viall swore silently. Now he definitely could not lose, or even afford to allow the sergeant to score a touch. Not only was his reputation as a leader with the warriors under his command on the line, but with his lord's mate watching, his personal reputation was on the line, as well.

Suddenly, the sergeant lunged. D'Viall hastily parried in octave, then parried a renewed attack in quarte. D'Viall bared his teeth in a silent snarl as he parried another renewed attack in tierce - the sergeant had taken advantage of his momentary distraction to launch a flurry, hoping to penetrate his defenses. D'Viall leaped back, then let his blade slip down in an invitation in prime. The sergeant's tail flicked as he hopped forward in a perfect balestra, then lunged - he'd fallen for it.

D'Viall parried in first, then snapped his arm horizontally out in a vicious cut, passing over the sergeant's blade. The rounded edge of D'Viall's blade connected with the padded, steel-backed side of the sergeant's mask with a loud WHOP, the sergeant staggering back from the blow.

The sergeant blinked, momentarily stunned from the blow to the head even through the fencing mask, then looked to D'Viall. Tucking his foil under his left arm, he bowed. "Mrr... Your match, my lord Seneschal." he replied, his tail lowered.

To the sounds of applause from the guards who were watching, D'Viall tucked his flat beneath his left arm, and bowed in return. "Mrr... Thank you, sergeant. You're quite skilled, and it was a pleasure to spar with you."

The sergeant pulled his mask off, grinning broadly. D'Viall did the same, grinning back. D'Viall had not only established his position, here, but it appeared he'd won himself a new friend, judging by the sergeant's furry face.

"Miao... Well done, Lord D'Viall," Lady L'Sala called, smiling.

"Mrow... Thank you, my lady," D'Viall replied, bowing to her before stepping over to the weapons rack with the sergeant to return the flat to it's place.

"Miao... If you're done here, I need to speak to you."

"Mrow? Is it the T'Mrr, my lady?" D'Viall asked, a furry eyebrow raised.

L'Sala nodded. "Miao... Indeed, Lord D'Viall. It seems my mentation was correct - latest reports from Lord R'Narr's spies indicate that T'Zama T'Mrr is allying with some of the smaller clans, and probably intends a push against us within the month. I would like to go over their reports with you in detail, that you might plan our defenses. We need to hold out until Lord R'Narr is able to return to relieve us, since it seems likely we will be under siege within the month."

"Mrr... Yes, my lady. Shall I meet you in a few minutes, after I change?"

L'Sala nodded. "Miao... That will be fine, Lord D'Viall. Meet me in the drawing room at your earliest possible convenience," she replied, then turned and walked away.

"Mrowrrr... Alright, all the rest of you, back to your duties." D'Valin called, waving a paw at the other guards before turning to head to his quarters. His tail flicked from side to side in agitation as he strode quickly away from the salle', his mind already considering what L'Sala might tell him.

When she first mentioned this possibility a week ago, D'Viall had hoped she was wrong, and the T'Mrr would not attack. Of course, she was a Mentalt, gifted by the incomprehensible training from the Nuns of T'Masa Keep with nigh-supernatural abilities that an ordinary tom like him could hardly comprehend. He had seen her abilities in use a year ago - from the smallest, most trivial bits of information, she had correctly deduced the existence and the location of the mythical Little Ones, nearly three thousand leagues away. Fate may have snatched the Little Ones from General R'Narr's paws, but L'Sala T'Masa could not be blamed for that - indeed, she had turned that defeat into a possible victory, advising and helping R'Narr to make a peace treaty with the mus. No, though D'Viall had hoped L'Sala was wrong, he'd known she probably wasn't.

D'Viall snarled. The T'Mrr were not a large clan, and even should they ally with a few of the smaller clans, they still would not have many troops. Unfortunately, D'Valin had only the few troops lord R'Narr had left behind to guard the castle. A counter-attack was impossible, and a siege was inevitable - and from what she had just said, a siege seemed likely by the end of the month. More, D'Viall knew that unless Lady L'Sala was able to use her arcane, Mentalt powers to help him come up with some brilliant plan, it was not likely that they would be able to hold out for the six to eight months it would take before R'Narr would be through dealing with the Shazad, and seizing the throne for himself.

As such, when Lord R'Narr returned in late fall or early winter, all he would find was a burned-out castle, and scattered piles of bones.

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