THE MIRROR OF WORLDS — snippet 13

 

THE MIRROR OF WORLDS – snippet 13:

 

 

            "My government will deal justly with all members of the kingdom, human and Corl," Garric said when the deep-throated growling had subsided enough for him to speak over it. "We'll provide you with hogs to raise for meat, as we've done with keeps who've already accepted my authority."

 

            Something warm was sticking to the back of Garric's wrist; he glanced down, then flicked away a gobbet of skin and hair. In a melee like that, it may not have come from Barog's body. The Coerli really are beasts.

 

            "I've seen men do the same, lad," King Carus murmured. "But not all men, not that."

 

            "From this day…," Garric said. What he'd just seen had brought a new harshness to his voice. "Any Corl who eats human flesh will be killed. Any town or keep or roving band which harbors a man-eater will be destroyed to the last kit. There will be no exceptions and no mercy!"

 

            The lips of several Elders drew back to bare their fangs. There was a fresh chorus of growls from the audience, but this time no Corl protested verbally. An Elder snarled in an angry undertone to the one who'd acted as spokesman. That Corl nodded and fixed Garric with his eyes.

 

            "Chief of Animals," he said, "we have given our oath and we will keep it. But our young warriors–who can control the young, when the blood runs hot and passion rules? Are your young any different?"

 

            "There will be attacks on humans, I know that," Garric said. "And I know also that you Coerli will hunt the attackers down yourselves and slay them, though they be the children of your own blood. You will do this because of your oath, and because the kingdom's vengeance will be absolute and implacable if you do not. Is it not so, Leader of the Coerli?"

 

            The Corl spokesman had settled back on his rock after ordering Barog's slaughter. Now he looked first left, then right, meeting the eyes of his fellows in silence. At last he rose to his feet again.

 

            "I am Elphas, the Chosen of the Elders!" he said. His voice cracked when he raised it to make himself heard over the uncomfortable whine of the crowd. "Does anyone challenge my right to speak?"

 

            The whine grew louder, but no Corl dared put his dissatisfaction into words. Garric felt the hair on his neck and wrists rising instinctively at the sound.

 

            "Then I say this, Leader of the Animals!" Elphas continued. "We do not fear your threats, but we will keep our oath because we are Coerli!"

 

            "Aren't they afraid, do you think?" Carus mused. "I think I was as brave as most men, but I didn't want to die."

 

            The chieftains at least would rather die than back down, Garric decided after a moment's consideration. But they're afraid of their clans and their whole race dying. They know that'll happen if they don't accept my terms.

 

            "Very well," he said aloud to the Coerli. "Send six of your clerks–"

 

            The Corl word was closer to "counter" than "clerk" but the concept was the same. A city of ten thousand couldn't exist without some sort of administration, though the Coerli version was crude by the standards of a human village.

 

            "–into my camp to meet with Lord Tadai–"

 

            Garric paused. Tadai bowed. He'd heard his name though all the rest of Garric's oration was gibberish to him.

 

            "–and the clerks under his direction. They will explain what the kingdom requires of the Coerli and will arrange delivery of the kingdom's gifts to its new Corl subjects."

 

            He grinned. The catmen were more aware than humans of subtle shifts in expression and body language. By now all the Elders would understand the meaning of a smile. They weren't as good at making verbal connections as humans, however.

 

            "For example," Garric said, making his point explicit, "they will determine how and where we should begin delivering hogs to you."

 

            The sound of the assembled Coerli changed again, this time to a hopeful keening. It was just as unpleasant to a human's ears as the threatening growl.

 

            Tadai already employed Coerli from keeps that'd surrendered earlier. They and the human clerks they worked with were trying desperately to learn one another's language, but at present only Garric could address and understand the catmen clearly. That was a last gift from a friend, an ageless crystalline Bird, in the instants before the Change; and it had come to Garric alone.

 

            The Shepherd knew that bringing the catmen into the kingdom was going to be hugely difficult even with the best will on both sides. Garric didn't expect exceptional good will, knowing the Coerli and knowing men even better.

 

            "Aye, lad, but as scouts and skirmishers for the army…," Carus said. The king's image set its fists on its hipbones and laughed openly. "There've never been humans to match them for that. Maybe your Lady Tenoctris is right."

 

            "Coerli, you have heard my commands," Garric said. "There will be further decrees in coming days, not because of my whim but because they are necessary. Men and Coerli must stand together against the dangers that will otherwise destroy us all. Remember that!"

 

            Garric poised to step down. He'd told the truth when he said he didn't think the catmen would attack him and his companions… but the sound and smell and sight of thousands of angry warriors pressed close would've made a rock uncomfortable.

 

            "Or a dead man…," said the ghost of Carus, smiling in knowledge as well as humor.

 

            "Leader of the Animals!" said the Elder to Garric's immediate left. His fur had originally been beige but age had sloughed much of it away; the skin beneath was the clammy white of a salamander in a deep cave. "I am Keeger. Elphas speaks for me and for all, because he is the Chosen–but may I ask you a question?"

 

            "Speak, Keeger," Garric said, looking down at the Corl. Keeger hadn't risen, perhaps knowing that doing so would've further emphasized the bulk of the tall, armored human.

 

            "You talk of right and the good of all," Keeger said. "But tell me, animal: do you dictate to the Coerli by any right save that which steel and fire give you?"

 

            "In a thousand years they might get enough discipline to face a human army with sticks and nets," Carus said with a snort. "Maybe in a thousand years; not less."

 

            Garric drew his long horseman's sword and held it high; the pattern-welded blade danced in the sun like a snake writhing. "Do you wish to bow to a conqueror rather than work with an ally, Keeger?" he said. "So be it! And  Keeger?"

 

            The ancient catman stared up at him, his lips drawn back.

 

            "Never doubt that if the Coerli break their oath, they will have men for conquerors," Garric said. "But those conquerors will have no more mercy than the Coerli themselves would have. There will be nothing left of your keeps but ashes drifting over the bones of your dead!"

 

            "Garric and the Kingdom!" Waldron shouted, drawing his own sword and holding it aloft.

 

            "Garric and the Kingdom!" cried the Blood Eagles, clashing their spears against the bronze bosses of their shields. "Garric and the Kingdom!"

 

            Garric stepped down. "Lord Attaper," he said, putting his lips close to the guard commander's ear flap. "March us out!"

 

            The massed Coerli warriors stood in sullen silence, but no one objected as the human delegation stamped and splashed its way through the muck of the catmen's only city. Garric sheathed his sword as he stepped out of the Assembly Field, but the Blood Eagles continued to cheer and rattle their weapons all the way to the gate.

 

 

About Eric Flint

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