THE MIRROR OF WORLDS – snippet 3:
Garric, once ruler of the Isles, faced the largest city of the Coerli. The catmen called it simply the Place, because its ten thousand residents made it unique among a race which generally grouped itself into hunting bands of a dozen or two. When the Change merged eras, it'd wrenched the Place to within twenty miles of Valles, the capital of the Isles.
"Coerli, send out your champion!" Garric shouted. He was the only human who was fluent in the catmen's language, though he'd set scores of clerks and army officers to learning the patterns of clicks and hisses. "Send him to fight me, or send your Council of Elders to surrender!"
"Or we could simply deal with the cat-beasts the way I would've in my time, lad," said the ghost sharing Garric's mind: King Carus, his ancestor and advisor. "Burn the city down and slaughter any of the animals who live through the fire. And go on to the next city and do the same."
Tenoctris says we need them, Garric thought. And if she'd said we needed to ally with apes in the trees on Shengy, I'd be down there in the jungle waving bananas and chittering.
The image of the tall, tanned king in Garric's mind threw back his head and laughed. "Aye, lad," Carus said. "And you'd be right to, of course. But sooner monkeys than cats who'd eat men if we let them."
If, Garric repeated with emphasis. His smile and the king's both widened grimly.
Ornifal and the other isles of the kingdom were now a chain of highlands surrounding a great continent. The land hadn't risen in the sense that earthquakes and volcanoes sometimes lifted an island out of the sea–or sank one to the depths with the cities upon it, leaving their doomed, screaming residents to thrash in the boiling waves. The Change had welded the Isles of Garric's day in a ring which clamped together periods in which the Inner Sea was dry land.
A better term would be fragments of periods. Tenoctris, the wizard whose arrival in the surf off Barca's Hamlet had been the first of the events rushing Garric's quiet world toward catastrophe, said she thought at least twenty eras had been thrown together, spanning at least that many thousands of years.
Tenoctris insisted she wasn't a powerful wizard, but her care and impeccable judgment had saved the kingdom repeatedly where someone with greater strength and less wisdom would've added to the looming disaster. Garric had more confidence in a guess by Tenoctris than he did in tomorrow's sunrise. There'd been times in the past two years that the sun wouldn't have risen the next day, for Garric or the kingdom or for all mankind, if it hadn't been for the old wizard's skill.
Coerli warriors shrieked from the walls of the Place as the gates shuddered outward. The trumpeters and cornicenes of the royal army brayed a brassy response, and the massed ranks of soldiers shouted and clashed spears against their shields.
"We could cut right through the beasts," Carus mused regretfully. "Cut and burn and wipe them off the face of the world. But we'll do as Tenoctris says."
And we'll kill this Corl, Garric thought. So that the rest believe me when I tell them they have no choice but to obey the laws we humans set them.
Human slaves finished pushing the gate open; they scuttled back within the walls.
The Coerli used men the way men used oxen. Garric's eyes narrowed, but six naked slaves forced to shove on gate leaves wasn't the worst injustice taking place in the world. Worse things were happening a thousand times every day in human cities and on human estates.
But the Coerli ate men, just as surely as men ate beef. That would've been sufficient reason to handle the problem in the fashion Carus wanted, if the catmen had balked at Garric's offer of trial by battle.
The Coerli shrieked louder. A Corl chieftain, the biggest catman Garric had thus far seen, swaggered out of the city. He paused just beyond the open gate leaves and, raising his maned head, bugled a menacing challenge of coughs and screams.
"I am Klagan!" the catman cried. Garric could hear the Corl even through the brazen cacophony of the royal army. "No one can stand against me!"
"Wait and see, beast," said Carus with murderous relish. "You and your Council of Elders don't know what you're in for!"
Carus'd been the ruler of Old Kingdom when it crashed into anarchy a thousand years before his distant descendant Garric was born. There'd never been a warrior the equal of Carus. If generalship and a strong sword arm could've preserved civilization, then the Old Kingdom would still be standing.
Kingship requires more than military might, though. The anger and furious drive that'd made Carus unstoppable on the battlefield were as much the cause of his kingdom's collapse as the rebels and usurpers springing up whenever the royal army was at a distance. Eventually a wizard had sucked Carus and his fleet to their doom in the depths of the Inner Sea; and because the wizard's trust in his power had been as deceiving as Carus' own, they'd drowned together in the cataclysm.
The wizard's death hadn't saved the kingdom, though. When death loosed the King's hand, chaos, blood, and burning had followed for all the islands. It'd taken a thousand years for civilization to return–and now the Change threatened to bring chaos in a different form.
The Elders know what's going to happen, Garric said silently as he stretched, feeling his mail shirt ripple like water over the suede jerkin cushioning it. I offered them an excuse to permit them to surrender, and they snapped it up. Otherwise every Corl in the Place will die, and they know that too.
He chuckled aloud, then added, Klagan may not know, of course.
"He will," said Carus. "Very soon he will."
Garric stood ahead of the front ranks of his army by a double pace, the distance from the toe of a marching soldier's right foot to where that toe came down again–five feet by civilian measurement. The timber walls of the Place were only a hundred double paces away, suicidally close if they'd have been defended by humans with bows and catapults.
The Coerli were quick enough to dodge thrown spears and even arrows, so they'd never developed missile weapons for warfare. They didn't use them in hunting either; they ran down their prey, tangled it with weighted lines, and either slaughtered it immediately or drove it back to their keeps to keep it fresh for their females and kits.
The Coerli's preferred prey had been human beings until the Change. That wouldn't be the case for the catmen whom Garric and his government permitted to live in this new world.
"I am Klagan!" the Corl repeated. "Who dares to challenge me?"
"I am Garric, King of Men and Coerli!" Garric shouted. "Bow to me or die, Klagan!"
The chiefs of the Coerli were half again as heavy as the sexually immature warriors who made up the bulk of the male population. Even the chieftains were usually no more than the size of an average human male.
Klagan was an exception; but then, so was Garric. He'd been the tallest man in Barca's Hamlet by a hand's breadth and, though rangy, would've been the strongest as well were it not for his friend Cashel. Cashel was tall by normal standards, but he was so broad that he looked squat from any distance; and even for as big as he was, Cashel was disproportionately strong.