Authors: John Ringo Jody Lynn Nye Harry Turtledove S.M. Stirling,Michael Z. Williamson
Tags: #Epic, #Fantasy, #General, #Anthologies (multiple authors), #Fiction
Now the Hollow Lands were vanished from maps and charts. Now the hunting clans and townsMrem who’d lived there were either fugitives from their homes or, most of them, vanished beneath waters Aedonniss only knew how many bowshots deep.
Rantan Taggah snarled again. Few of the Mrem had much use for water or for travel across it under any circumstances. And that said nothing of the reptilian horrors like the one he’d seen, creatures that preyed on anything they could reach. The Clan of the Claw—and the handful of survivors from the drowned Hollow Lands—would not, could not, rejoin their kind by sailing across the New Water.
The only trouble with that was, the Clan of the Claw couldn’t stay where it was, either. Rantan Taggah turned away from the New Water and toward the south: toward the Warm Lands, the lands where the Liskash flourished best. The pupils in his emerald eyes widened from slits almost to circles, as if he were confronting his folk’s foes in truth, not merely in thought.
His clan was rich, as these things went. Peering south, he saw broad herds of horned bundor and krelprep and shambling hamsticorns. The Clan of the Claw did not lack for meat or milk or leather or hair and wool.
But one clan, alone (or as near as made no difference), could not hope to stand against the Liskash nobles and the weaker but still dangerous reptiles the nobles could gather to fight at their side (or rather, under their feet). Not for nothing did the Mrem picture the demons who opposed Aedonniss as being formed in the image of the Liskash. Maybe it was the other way around: maybe the Liskash looked like demons. Priestesses and savants argued about that, too. Savants, of course, would argue about anything. It was part of what made them savants.
There were times when Rantan Taggah enjoyed arguing as much as anybody else—more than most males. What the Clan of the Claw had to do now, though, was not a matter for argument. He didn’t think so, anyhow. But he was only too certain plenty of other males—and females, too—would be ready, even eager, to argue with him about that.
* * *
Looking at Sassin, you wouldn’t think he was a god. By the standards of the Mrem, the Liskash noble was short and spindly. He looked even scrawnier than he was, because he had no hair to fluff out his silhouette.
Not, of course, that he would have cared even a scrap of shed skin’s worth about the opinions of a swarm of hairy vermin. Like all Liskash with wits above lizard level, he despised, hated, and feared the Mrem. If they had but a single neck, so he could slaughter them all with one great stroke…
But, worse luck, they didn’t. He was a god—if you didn’t believe it, you had only to ask him—but he was not so powerful a god as that. No god so powerful as that had arisen among the Liskash for lo these many years.
He thought that was a shame. A Mrem might have thought that their stupid god’s failure to destroy the Liskash was a pity. All Sassin knew about pity was what he’d heard from captured Mrem he was tormenting. He understood little of the notion. What he did understand, he thought uncommonly foolish. He had trouble believing even the Mrem really believed in the idea. By the way they often acted, so did they.
His tongue flicked out, tasting the air around him. Change was in the wind. Sprung from an ancient race, Sassin did not think well of change. He was not sorry when the barrier of the Quaxo Hills failed and the sea poured over them into the Hollow Lands. He was sorry it hadn’t drowned all the Mrem:
was a change he would have approved of.
Now the ones who had survived were all astir. He knew what they would stir up, too. Trouble. It was all they were good for.
Sassin stared out from the tower topping his castle. He could see a long way, and he was lord of all he surveyed. Were that ever to become untrue, he would find himself enslaved or slain. Such was life among the Liskash nobles. Even now, some powerful young wizard might be sneaking around out there, plotting to lay him low. Until the enemy chose to strike, he would hide himself from Sassin, lest he be struck first. Though only distantly related to poisonous serpents, the Liskash were close spiritual kin.
Herds of meat animals ambled over the sun-baked plains. Some were scaled, others hairy; when it came to meat, Sassin liked variety. Liskash herders and enslaved Mrem kept the animals moving and didn’t let them eat any one stretch of the countryside bare. Some of the Liskash were hardly more clever than the beasts in their charge. The Mrem…
An unhappy hiss escaped from Sassin’s throat. If he was a god, he was not divinely cheerful. He had the mental strength to rob Mrem of their surnames and hold them in thralldom. That was part of what being a god entailed. But it wasn’t easy, effortless, the way it was with most of his own breed. (The nearest Liskash he could not easily subdue, a noble named Hishash, ruled a domain about the size of his own off to the west, and was a god in his own right there.) If he didn’t keep a mental eye on the Mrem he’d enslaved, they were liable to recover some of their own personalities and either try to escape or try to stir up trouble inside his realm.
He hissed again, this time with purpose. “Lorssett!” The summons was mental, not oral.
His steward appeared behind him on the battlement almost at once. Lorssett was a larger, physically stronger Liskash than Sassin. He had bigger jaws, sharper teeth, and longer claws. He was, in his own way, clever—he would have been useless to Sassin if he were not. But his powers of mind were minimal. He would never be anything more than a steward; rising to godhood simply was not in him. Understanding as much (which was part of his cleverness), he made a good steward indeed.
The Mrem had rituals wherein inferiors showed their superiors deference. The Liskash neither had nor needed them. Sassin and Lorssett both knew what their status was. Sassin knew Lorssett knew; he could read it in the steward’s mind. Had Lorssett been able to conceal from his god what he knew and what he felt, he would have been a different male, and an altogether more dangerous one.
“What do you require of me?” Lorssett inquired.
“Fetch me the Mrem called Grumm,” Sassin told him. “I have a new use for the creature.”
“Just as you say, so shall it be,” Lorssett replied.
“Well, of course,” Sassin said complacently. When he said something, it was supposed to happen the way he said it. What privilege of godhood could be more enjoyable?
* * *
Enni Chennitats was irked with her fellow priestesses, irked with the Dancing because it hadn’t gone well, irked with the Quaxo Hills for not being tall enough to hold out what was now the New Water—irked with the world, in other words.
She tried not to let it show. It wasn’t the attitude a priestess of the Mrem should have had. She breathed deeply, trying to calm herself and purify her spirit of the nasty thoughts that stained it. She prayed to Assirra, begging Aedonniss’ wife to persuade the sky god himself to bring her peace.
Nothing seemed to help. Too many things had happened to the Clan of the Claw and around it for anyone to go on with an easy spirit: so it seemed to Enni Chennitats, at any rate. Some males and females had no trouble, though. They were so constituted that they could not feel the lash on someone else’s skin if it happened not to fall on theirs. Even some savants and priestesses were made that way. It disappointed Enni Chennitats, and infuriated her, too.
She walked away from the Dancing that had produced no meld of minds. One of the other priestesses called after her. With a deliberate effort of will, she kept her ears from turning in the direction of the sound. If she pretended she hadn’t heard, she wouldn’t have to answer.
“Where are you going in such a hurry, Enni Chennitats?” Rantan Taggah asked.
She couldn’t ignore the talonmaster the way she had the priestess. If she’d gone on for another couple of steps, she would have run into him. But she didn’t want to unburden herself to him, either. “I don’t know,” she answered. “Anywhere. Nowhere.”
His whiskers twitched. He was too polite to come right out and say he didn’t believe her, but he obviously didn’t. Since she hadn’t been telling more than a quarter of the truth, she couldn’t very well blame him. He pointed back toward the Dancing ground. “Things didn’t go well?”
“No,” she said before she could help herself. Then her eyes narrowed in annoyance—whether at herself or at him she wasn’t sure. The Clan of the Claw needed a clever talonmaster. The New Water and all the trouble it had stirred up meant the clan needed a talonmaster of that stripe more than ever before. But did Rantan Taggah have to go and show off his cleverness?
“Why?” he asked bluntly. “Has Assirra turned her countenance away from us? Will she not speak to Aedonniss on our behalf?”
Enni Chennitats’s claws shot out. Her finger twisted in a gesture that averted evil. A moment later, Rantan Taggah made the same gesture. But he still stood in front of the priestess, waiting for her reply. “Say not so!” she told him. “No, we have no sign of that. But magic is an uncertain business—for us, anyhow.”
He showed his teeth. “Would you rather be a Liskash?”
She made the apotropaic gesture again, more vigorously this time. “You know better than that,” she said, and waited till he dipped his proud head to show he did. Then she went on, “They
be demons. Otherwise, how could one of them hold as much magic as a whole troupe of Dancers?”
Rantan Taggah shrugged. “I don’t know anything about that. I don’t much care, either. All I know is, if you shove a spear into one of them, he’ll die. That’s the only thing I need to know.”
“If he doesn’t spell you into spearing a clansmate instead, thinking it’s him,” Enni Chennitats said.
“Yes. If.” Rantan Taggah scowled. “Well, we’ll have to figure out how to keep that from happening, because we’ll be traveling through Liskash country—through a lot of it, I’m afraid.”
“We are going to travel, then?” The priestess had known it was likely. Hearing it would actually happen still felt like a punch in the belly, though. “We had a good life here.”
“We had one, yes,” Rantan Taggah agreed. “No more, not with the New Water at our backs. We’re cut off from all the other Mrem in the world. The only reason the Scaly Ones didn’t jump on our backs before this is that they’re hatched cowards.”
It was more complicated than that. Enni Chennitats knew as much, and the talonmaster surely did as well. The Liskash rarely hurried in anything they did. She wondered if their being kin to lizards and snakes and other crawling things accounted for that. Lizards and snakes had no will to overcome their natural deliberation. The Liskash did—if Liskash nobles were anything, they were creatures of overwhelming will—but usually stayed slow all the same.
“Some of our clansfolk won’t want to travel into the unknown,” Enni Chennitats said. Liskash nobles weren’t the only ones who kept on doing what they’d always done whenever they got the chance. The Mrem also like to curl up and go to sleep in their old, familiar haunts.
“Well,” the talonmaster said, “we’ll have a clan meeting tomorrow to hash things out. The way I see it, if we don’t move when we want to, we’ll move when the Liskash force us out of here—if we can move then. Better to go on our own terms. That’s how it looks to me, anyhow.”
“What if the clan sees things differently?” Enni Chennitats asked.
He shrugged once more. “Then they’ll have a new talonmaster tomorrow night, that’s all. I won’t be sorry, or not very. If there’s anything more wearing than doing things for males and females who don’t want them done, curse me if I know what it is.”
“But you’ve done a good job,” she said. “I can’t think of any other male who’d be better. I can’t think of anyone else the whole clan would follow, either.”
“To tell you the truth, neither can I.” Rantan Taggah was not a modest male even by the modest standards of the Mrem. He turned to go, then checked himself. “Oh, and a male just came in from the southwest. A runaway Liskash slave, he says. He’ll know more about what’s going on with their nobles than we do now.”
“He says,” the priestess echoed. “How far can you trust him?”
“About as far as I can fling a mammoth,” Rantan Taggah answered cheerfully. “But we’ll want to hear him out any which way. And we’ll want your priestesses somewhere not far off—someplace where you can Dance. If he is under a spell, maybe you can draw him out of it.”
“Maybe.” Enni Chennitats knew she sounded troubled. If the Dancing today went so poorly with nothing at stake, how could she count on it to beat down whatever magic the Liskash had loaded onto this poor “escaped” Mrem? She couldn’t, and neither could Rantan Taggah. Still, it was what they had. Without it, the Liskash would have devoured the Mrem centuries before. With it…
They may devour us yet,
she thought miserably. Part of her knew that was a reaction to the failed Dance. The rest knew as much, too, but was not reassured by the knowledge. If the Dances failed, the Scaly Ones triumphed. They might triumph all the same. She had reasons for her misery, sure enough.
* * *
As Rantan Taggah had looked out over the New Water, so he stared out at the sea of Mrem faces at the clan meeting. The males of the war band looked back, some at him, some at the scepter he held. It was the length and thickness of a good mace. Instead of being topped by a head of flanged, sharpened bronze, though, it was surmounted by a Liskash noble’s skull. Those large eye sockets, the domed braincase so much like a Mrem’s, the projecting snout with the sharp teeth all just alike…
Only the male who held the scepter could address the meeting. So said ancient clan custom. Most Mrem wandering clans and city-states had similar rules. Rantan Taggah’s hand tightened on the scepter; the reddish wood was worn smooth by many generations of palm pads.
Off to one side stood males who had joined with the Clan of the Claw but had not joined it. They were refugees from the clans and small towns that had lived down in the Hollow Lands. No more, no more. Some of them had fought alongside the Clan of the Claw’s warriors and shown their own courage. Others would, when and if they got the chance. Rantan Taggah thought they would strengthen the clan if they became part of it. Another thing to decide on one of these days…