of the Last God
(Book II of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY
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"Fsst! The Little Ones are far more trouble than they are worth, I think," R'Narr snarled, reining in his bird.
Captain D'Viall nodded, bringing his bird to a halt next to R'Narr. "Mrowrrr... I agree, General. Still, they have not escaped, so it's obvious that they still fear what we may do should they try."
R'Narr glanced ar D'Viall. The gray tabby tom before him was young - perhaps half his age. D'Viall, his mate and child had emigrated to the east as one of the many '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 had risen quickly in R'Narr's service, gaining a reputation as a skilled leader, an able and efficient follower, and a skilled paw with sword and bow. The news he had just brought was annoying, but R'Narr was glad he had brought it - and, the news also showed D'Viall was, indeed, keeping a sharp eye on the Little Ones, just as he had been ordered. R'Narr grumbled, then jerked a thumb behind him. "Mrr... Bring up L'Sala's palanquin. She should be appraised of what's happened."
"Mrow... As you command, General."
A few minutes later, R'Narr smiled at the sight of L'Sala's bare leg being extended from her palanquin. As the rest of her came out and she drew her cloak around her, L'Sala smiled back. "Miao... What is it, my lord?"
R'Narr sighed. "Mrowlll... The Little Ones have chewed a hole in each floor we installed in each of the covered wagons, even the bottom. They use the one on the bottom as a latrine for all of them, which I suppose is better than the buckets we gave them, and they have not tried to escape, but still, it's obvious they can escape easily. What do you make of this?"
"Mrr... I do not know, my lord. I know their language and I know our legends of them, but that is all - and even what I know of their language is very, very old. It is true the mus prisoners chew bones and the like with their front teeth, but I had not considered the reason. I would need to ask their leader."
"Fsst! The one with the blue tunic? You'll not get much out of that one. He cowers and whimpers most of the time."
"Miao... No, my lord - the lone male you and I captured. He seems to be their leader, now. You are correct, my lord - the other one they called 'Mayor' is fairly worthless at the moment, though he may improve once the journey is ended. The lone male, however, seems to have stepped in as their leader for now."
R'Narr jerked his chin at Captain D'Viall. "Mrow... Fetch the one in the brown leather smock."
When the Captain had returned with the Little One, L'Sala spoke with it at length. It wasn't bound - the Little Ones feared reprisal too much to attempt to escape. R'Narr waited while L'Sala made the squeaks and chitters that passed for the Little One's language, and it squeaked back, opening its muzzle and pointing to its incisors on it's upper and lower jaw, which were chisel-like. R'narr observed with interest that the Little One had only back teeth and the chisel-like front teeth - the rest was a tough expanse of gum between. 'How totally unlike the mus,' R'Narr thought, having seen many dead mus. The mus had similar incisors, but the rest of their teeth were normal, like the cats, and made for slicing, rending and tearing flesh. The long incisors combined with their fangs, however, gave the mus a dangerous, often lethal bite. Grappling with a mus was just as dangerous as grappling with a cat, even though their claws were smaller, not retractable and not nearly as sharp as a cat's.
"Miao... My lord, the Little One explains that their front teeth continually grow, and if they do not nibble on wood, bone or similar things, they will grow endlessly in a circle, pierce their brain and kill them. Having examined his teeth, I must conclude this is true. It certainly explains much of the mus, as they apparently have the same curse on their front teeth. Each individual need not nibble much, but as we have over a hundred and fifty of them, the total chewing would easily have destroyed the wagons. Their leader, here, says he decided it would be better to put it to constructive use, and make a more sanitary latrine arrangement as well as allowing all the Little Ones on each floor we installed to access the latrine."
R'Narr eyed the Little One with new respect - he may be weak, but he was very wise. His arrangement was more convenient and sanitary - rather than a bucket which would spill, their wastes simply fell onto the trail below the wagon. Stroking his whiskers, R'Narr considered the problem. Finally, he nodded. "Mrrr... Alright. Tell him we'll pause here for a few days, and send riders back to collect dead wood from the forest - there isn't a tree on these plains for leagues in the direction we're heading. Remind them, however, that we are still watching them - if even one of them escapes, their loved ones will become my dinner," R'Narr replied, and tried not to laugh as he said it. The corner of L'Sala's mouth twitched upwards in a smile for a moment before she nodded to R'Narr, then translated what he'd said to the Little One.
The Little One listened, his expression firm. He looked into R'Narr's eyes as he heard L'Sala's translation, then squeaked something back and crossed his arms. R'Narr looked into those little black eyes. There was fear there - he could see it, and he could smell it. Yet, there was also grim determination. 'We'll have to watch this one carefully,' he thought to himself.
"Miao... My lord, the Little One says to please not tell him that lie again. He says it is easily apparent to him you will not eat them, even if you were so inclined, as you obviously have another use in mind for them. He says he is no child to be frightened of ancient legends. His people will not escape because they know they have nowhere they could run that we could not catch them on our mounts, and they have no tools or supplies to survive in the wilderness even if they could escape our riders."
R'Narr gazed at the Little One for a long moment, then chuckled. Swinging down from his bird, he strode over to the Little One, grabbed him by the front of his smock and tunic, and lifted him into the air. The Little One squeaked in fear for a moment, his pink, nearly hairless tail lashing, then managed to control himself as R'Narr held him close, their noses almost touching. R'Narr grinned broadly, baring his fangs, but while the Little One trembled, he did not beg for mercy. "Mrr... Tell him he is right - our ancient ancestors did find them tasty, but they were disgustingly primitive barbarians who probably engaged in a hundred other revolting practices we don't even remember, much less approve of. Tell him that he is right - we will not eat them," R'Narr said, then snarled. "Fsst! I will, however, slaughter each and every one of the children before the eyes of their parents if even one of the Little Ones escapes. Tell him I said he is right - I do have a use for them. But only for the adults. The children are of no use to me, and are merely more drain on our limited supplies of fodder for our birds."
R'Narr held the Little One there, staring into his eyes, while L'Sala translated. Finally, he blanched, and squeaked something briefly.
"Miao... The Little One says he believes you would, my lord. He also says he will obey."
R'Narr gently set the Little One back on his feet, then jerked a thumb at Captain D'Viall. "Mrowr... Take him back with the others. See if you can't scrounge up some wood for the moment, then send out half a dozen riders to gather wood from the forest behind us. We'll pitch camp here and wait until they return. And watch that one carefully - he is far more than he appears."
"Mrowl... As you command, General."
R'Narr waited until after Captain D'Viall had led the Little One away, then smiled at L'Sala. "Mrowrrrr... Did you see that, L'Sala?"
"Miao... Yes, my lord. A definite dominance struggle. If he had been your size, I think he would have challenged you. This journey may have broken the will of their 'Mayor', but it seems to have hardened the will of that one."
"Mrrr... How firm would you say his control is over the others?"
"Miao... Very firm, in my estimation, my lord. When he speaks, they all hold their peace until he is done."
"Mrrrr... He would lose his influence if I were to break his will, most likely. I shall have to keep him as he is, and simply dominate him as though he were any one of my other underlings," R'Narr replied, then chuckled. "Mrowrrr... What did you say his name was?"
"Miao... In our language, his name translates as 'Smith', my lord - a worker of iron and steel."
R'narr chuckled again. "Mrowllll... I will have to be careful, or else by the end of this trip, I will have forged this smith into a warrior."
L'Sala simply smiled. "Mrrr... Indeed, my lord. My mentation indicates the same thing. Perhaps by the end of this journey, I will have forged a general into a Mentalt."
R'Narr grinned and winked. "Mrrr... I haven't got the legs for it," he replied, and was both surprised and pleased when L'Sala rewarded him with a brief giggle before climbing back into her palanquin.
* * *
The guard opened the long door, and simply shoved Smith into the first available space near the door on the four floors of the covered wagon. As soon as he had closed and locked it again, the other males in the wagon all began speaking at once. "What happened?!", "What did they say?!", "What did they want?!", and a few "Are they going to eat us?!" shouts rang out from the four floors.
"SHUT UP!" Smith screamed to be heard over the hubbub. "SHUT UP SO YOUR MATES AND CHILDREN CAN HEAR ME!"
After a few moments, silence had been restored. The females and children were in two wagons nearby, just a few paces on either side. Smith desperately wanted to stand, but he couldn't. The floors the cats had made were only barely tall enough for them to sit up in, if they bowed their heads a bit - and when the wagon was moving, that was a fast way to get a headache from being bashed into the floor above you, so they normally only sat up when the wagons were still. Sighing, Smith crawled over to the nearest barred window, past all the others on the floor he found himself on, lay on his back, and spoke in a loud, clear voice. "Alright. First, they're stopping for a few days to get us wood to chew on. They now understand why we did what we did, and they're not mad at us for it. Second, it turns out I was right - they aren't going to eat any of us. They said that maybe their ancient ancestors were barbarians and did that, but they also probably did a lot of other things back then that the cats today don't even remember and would probably think are disgusting if they could remember."
Shouts of joy broke out in the wagons, and Smith had to scream again to restore silence. "SHUT UP, SHUT UP, SHUT UP! I WASN'T THROUGH!"
When silence had finally been restored again, Smith took a deep breath and began the rest of his explanation. "Like I said, they aren't going to eat us. They say that they need us for something. I imagine there's something they want us to build - or maybe they just want us to build everything we possibly can for them. We know they're fighting the Defenders somewhere in the north. Maybe they're even fighting the musties by now, too - I don't know. That doesn't matter, though. What matters is that they only need the adults among us. Our children..." Smith said, then paused. It was a terrible thing the she-cat had hissed at him, but it had to be said. "Our children are useless to them. So, if any of us tries to escape, they will not merely just catch us because we have nowhere to go and no way to survive out here, they'll... They'll murder all our children before our eyes to punish us and save them the bother of feeding them."
Smith expected the screaming and wailing that followed. Mothers in the nearby wagons clutched their children tight and sobbed, fathers groaned in misery. He let it go on, instead of trying to stop it. All he could do was pray that no-one would try to escape.
"No! Not all our children!" a voice screamed from within the male's wagon.
"Shut up, Cooper!" Smith yelled.
"No, only our children! Your child and mate are fine!" Cooper shouted.
Smith swiftly crawled to the hole leading to the top floor and squirmed through. Glancing around, he spotted Cooper wedged in a corner between two other mice. "Shut up, Cooper, one of the cats can understand us!" Smith hissed.
"Your child and mate are still-" Cooper began, still shouting, but then Smith leaped on him, and the two were rolling around, struggling. The others tried to squirm back to give them room, but there wasn't much room to give. At first, Cooper had the edge. He was maddened with fear from their captivity and forced journey, and he as a child he had played with Byarl very often. Musties wrestled a lot, and Cooper still remembered a bit of what he had learned as a child wrestling his mustie friend, Byarl. Smith realized he might lose - and then Cooper would shout and scream his fear-maddened head off. If that happened, Bootie and Farrah would be searched for and found, and his one slim hope would be gone.
Desperation lent a surge of adrenalin-fueled strength to his efforts. Smith thrashed, exerting every ounce of strength in his tiny body. And, in the end, Smith was the stronger of the two. The muscles of his tiny legs had been hardened by hours and hours of working while standing, each and every day of his adult life. The muscles of his tiny arms had been forged by a life spent beating red-hot iron and steel over the anvil in his forge. He may not have been strong compared to one of the larger races, but for a mouse, Smith was very, very strong.
Suddenly, Cooper slipped, and with a mighty thrashing of his legs and tail, Smith had wrenched himself atop Cooper's back. His deepest instincts took over, and with a squeak of rage, he sank his incisors into the scruff of Cooper's neck. Cooper squealed in pain and struggled, but he couldn't escape. A moment, then two... And Cooper suddenly stopped fighting and simply started squeaking in agony. "You will say nothing, Cooper! Nothing!" Smith hissed, his voice muffled by a mouthful of fur.
"I won't say anything! I promise! Please stoooooop!" Cooper squealed, tears running down his face.
Smith slowly let Cooper go, then shoved him roughly back into the corner. Blood from the twin punctures on the back of Cooper's neck left a red smear on the wooden walls of the corner. Smith simply glared at him, his incisors bared, his deepest instincts at the fore. He was, at that moment, no longer the sweet, gentle little mouse his mate had known and loved for sixteen years. He was, for that brief moment, one with his most ancient ancestors. Not the Mouse-People who had been awakened by the God-Machine of the Ancient Ones, but what came before - the small, primitive ancestors who had survived by tooth and nail, scurrying in the darkness of the fields and forests, and in the walls of ancient buildings long since turned to dust.
"You... Will... Say... Nothing!" he hissed, crouched and tensed on his paws and knees, his bloodied incisors bared and gleaming in the slim shaft of sunlight that came through the barred window.
"Nothing, Smith. I'll say nothing at all..." Cooper whimpered. He saw the furious, feral fire burning in Smiths dark eyes, and at that moment was more terrified of him that he was any of the cats.
Smith glanced around, his incisors bared, but none of the males would meet his gaze. Finally, he spat to clear his mouth of blood, then turned and crawled back to the hole, slipping himself back down to the level below. None of the males there would meet his gaze, either. They hadn't seen the fight, but they had heard it - and the sounds were more terrifying to a mouse than the sight had been. Smith curled up near the window where it was cooler, and found the other males shuffled to give him room. Smith tried to shut his ears to the whispers, the quiet, hissed explanations of what had happened. Instead, he tried to fill his mind with the image of his mate's lovely smile, the sounds of his daughter's laughter... Even the memories of his late son's busy paws helping him at the forge. Anything but the vision of the bloody smear on the wall, and the memory of his own violent fury.
Silently, his face turned to the
barred window where only the females and children of the nearby
wagon could see, Smith wept.
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