of the Last God
(Book II of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY
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Byarl shook his head slowly as he sat in his chair, the fire crackling in the fireplace behind him quietly. They were alone, Byarl having asked Ellie and his sons to leave the room, that he and Merle might talk privately. Now that they had, Byarl looked at her with an expression of disappointment. "Merle, for someone so terribly smart, you have done a terribly foolish thing."
Merle blanched. "But, Byarl, I-"
"No, Merle. You saw something - maybe it was something bad, maybe it wasn't. Did you ask? No. Instead, you got upset, grabbed your pack, mounted that huge bird that I'm sure is even now gobbling up every bit of grass growing on or near my house, and rode here alone. Yes, I know - Tinker trained it to cover you with its wing so you stayed nice and warm in the night, and you made it here safe and sound in just two days. But Merle, there's a war going on, here. Anything could have happened to you. What if you'd ran across a raiding party of cats? You'd be dead - and all for what? Nothing. So he nuzzled her. So what?"
Merle was aghast. "But Chief!"
"'But' nothing. They nuzzled. It doesn't mean anything, Merle. I nuzzled your mother when you were born, and your father didn't think anything of it."
"But-but that wasn't the same thing!"
"Wasn't it?" Byarl replied, peering at her. "How do you know? You never asked."
"But they... Well, he... But she..."
Byarl just stared at her quietly.
Eventually, Merle just hung her head. She had been so certain, and in two days of travel she had cried over and over until finally she had not only completely cried herself out, but she had convinced herself that Xaa didn't want her anymore. Now, she wasn't sure. "I don't know for certain, you're right. I didn't ask. I just assumed-"
"Merle, from what you've told me of Lady Vhross, she's been alone for several years, now, her mate and all her family dead, and Xaa is her closest friend. She could have just wanted to tell him she had found someone, and he was simply congratulating her."
Merle said nothing, her head dipping lower.
"On the other paw, it's possible that their society allows the males to have more than one mate, and he agreed to take her as a second mate."
Merle's head jerked up in surprise. "A second mate?!"
"Yes. Think, Merle - you've lived with them awhile, now. Have you ever asked about that?"
Merle could feel the heat in the tips of her ears. "No, I haven't. I've been... Kinda busy. I just assumed they mated like we do."
"Well, then ask yourself this: What do they do when the males of their warrior-caste die? They've been fighting this war for years, now - and they've been losing, up until very recently. You said yourself that battle was almost exclusively a male's domain, as far as they were concerned, and the females only sometimes used a bow from a castle wall when they were under siege. That means they've lost a lot of male warriors in battle after battle. So what do these widowed females do, Merle? Live the rest of their lives alone?"
"Well... I didn't ask. I don't know. I guess I kind of figured they took another mate."
"But who, Merle? Who can they take as a mate?" Byarl asked, and pointed to the eastern wall of his warm little home. "I've been to Castle W'mefa, Merle. I've looked around. The servants are about half male, half female. But, there's about two female warrior-caste for every male, because so many of their males have died in this war. So who do the warrior-caste females take as a mate, Merle? Do they pick from among the servant caste?"
Merle shook her head. "No, that much I do know. They hardly ever choose a mate from between the castes. It just usually isn't done... Well, unless there's great love, I guess."
Byarl simply steepled his fingers, gazing silently at Merle.
Merle looked to Byarl in frustration. "But that's not how we do it! The musties take one mate, for life!"
"Unless a mate is killed by a bear or a sickness we couldn't cure," Byral replied quietly.
Merle blanched. "Well, yes... Then we can take another mate."
"And our situation hasn't been the same as theirs. Yes, we lost males to the bears - but not enough to where half our females didn't have a male to pair up with."
"And they are not musties," Byarl said quietly.
"No, they're not," Merle replied, her head low.
"Their culture is completely different from ours. They are a different people."
"Yes, they are," Merle replied quietly.
"And now, you've passed judgement on something you saw using the culture of our people, the musties, and have no idea what it meant to them at all."
Merle simply sighed.
Byarl shuffled his chair next to Merle, then hugged her gently. "Merle, you've come to me for years, ever since your mother and father passed on, and asked me for advice like I wasn't just the chief of your tribe, but more like a father. Now, you come to me again. You still want my advice?"
Merle looked up, her eyes sad. "Yes, please."
"When Xaa gets here, apologize for running away and leading him on a silly chase for two days, tell him what you saw and what you thought about it, and tell him you're sorry if you thought the wrong thing but your people are different from his, and that made you see what you saw in a different light."
Merle blinked. "Xaa is coming here? How do you know?"
"Merle, do you really think he would simply sit in the castle and wait for you to come back? Does he care for you so little that he would let you dash off cross country, maybe run into a raiding party of cats and get killed, and he doesn't even think about coming after you?"
Merle shook her head. "No, you're right, I guess he would come after me. But how do you know he'll come here?"
Byarl smiled, then tapped his head. "As chief, I had to learn how to use this for more than just a lump to keep my ears from being stuck together, you know," he replied, and Merle giggled. Byarl then tapped Merle's head. "You need to learn it, too, if you intend to take my place someday. Use your head - how would I know he's coming here?"
"Ummm... Because there isn't anywhere else I would go, I guess," Merle replied, grinning wryly.
"Exactly. And if Xaa has half a brain - which I think he does - he'd know you'd come here. Perhaps not to this house, but he'd know that at least you'd come to our village, at any rate."
Merle grinned, but then suddenly gasped in realization. "But... But what if he ran across a raiding party of cats? I mean, nothing bad happened to me coming here alone, but what if something bad happened to him?"
Byarl looked at Merle quietly. "Then he'd be dead, Merle, and not only would you have lost someone you love dearly, but the musties would have lost their greatest ally, ever. That's why I said this was a foolish thing you did."
"Oh, Byarl!" Merle yelped. "I don't want that to happen, I love him!"
Byarl hugged Merle tight. "There, there. It hasn't happened yet. But if you are going to be chief someday, you have to face the hard realities. What you did was a foolish thing - don't do it again."
"Yes, Chief," Merle replied, abashed.
"And I am going to charge you with a duty, Merle - a duty to the tribe. It's very important," Byarl said, leaning back and clasping her paws in his.
"A duty? What is it, Chief?"
"Merle, Xaa'ap'Gasha is the most important ally the musties have ever had. These lands, this forest, all belong to us, now. We have a deed with his chop and my pawprint to prove it, witnessed by W'mefa and nine other nobles - just like we were a mus-clan, ourselves. We're Xaa's allies, as recognized by treaty, and we have another document with his chop that shows that, too. His servants and the servants of his ally, Lord W'mefa, have taught us many, many things. Everything you see in this house, from the boards and the nails to that gun hanging there on the wall, was all made by our paws. Even the knife here on my belt was made by our paws," Byarl said, and grinned. "I finally have that extra finger-width of blade-length I always wanted, and it fits my paw much better than my old one."
"Really?" Merle said, fascinated. "Can I see?"
Byarl smiled, releasing Merle's paws and drawing his knife. Merle looked at it in the firelight, and her eyes widened. The metal had many, many layers, alternating light and dark colors, and looked like wood somehow magically transformed into steel. "Wooooo... It's beautiful! Did you make it?"
"Thank you," Byarl replied, grinning broadly. "Ayori made it. He's the best of us at knives, and he sharpens and polishes better than anyone. See how the blade looks like wood, instead of smooth and shiny metal like our old knives?" Merle nodded, and Byarl continued. "Well, this one isn't drop-forged, like the mice made, it's hammer-forged from many layers of metal, some iron and some steel - that's what makes the wavy layers. The smith, Var, taught us how to make knives like that, because he said that a knife like this is stronger than the drop-forged blades the mice were making from us, if we do it right. We've found out he was right - they are. It's a much stronger blade than what the mice were making. And we made it ourselves," Byarl said, and grinned broadly.
"So Ayori does all the smithing?"
"No, we all work the forge, Merle, just like we all build the houses and we all help make the other things we need. Nona is the best of us at making nails, for example, and Nito is excellent at making spades. At first I was worried that perhaps our people wouldn't be able to master the skills, or that they wouldn't enjoy it - but I found that everyone loves being able to make their own things, at last. We all take turns with the forge, and we're careful with the tools. It's like a big toy, really, one that we all take turns playing with. Of course, it's not a toy, and we have to be careful because you can get hurt - the mus taught us that. With each thing they have taught us, they have been careful to teach us about the dangers. They are afraid we will hurt ourselves or something - they really look at us as being little children, Merle, because we're so small compared to them and it's our nature to play and enjoy life where they are often very serious and stoic. Still, it's a good thing they have, as our people treat everything they teach us as a game with complicated rules, and as such, nobody has been hurt. But - I haven't told you the best part."
"The best part? What's that?"
"The mus like Ayori's knives. Very much, in fact - they think they're quite beautiful. So, once a week or so, he goes to the forge and makes three or four of them, and once a month we trade them to the mus for things we can't make, like silk and supplies of iron ore."
"You mean..." Merle yelped, thrilled.
"Yes. Now we make the knives and trade for what we want," Byarl replied, grinning.
"That's wonderful, Chief!"
"Yes, it is. And that's why I am giving you this duty, now," Byarl replied, sheathing his knife and taking Merle's paws in his own again. "Merle Mousefinder, who found the biggest, ugliest mouse any mustie ever heard of, we musties now need this mouse. We need to learn more, so we can make more, and be more independent. The mus love us for our songs and our dances and our stories, but songs and dances and stories don't fill the stewpot. We need to be able to make more things they want than just knives, so that we can trade for more of what they have that we want. We want to always trade as equals, and never live off their charity. Thus, I charge you with this duty: Keep the mus, Xaa'ap'Gasha, safe. Guard him, guide him and protect him as only a Daughter of the Wild Wood can. I know you love him, but even if he never does take you as his mate, do not shirk this duty. Never again do as you did today, foolishly running away and perhaps putting him in danger chasing after you. Stay by his side, always, so that your tribe will always be able to live on these lands he has given us. Share with him the wisdom, the happiness, and the spirit of the Little People of the Wild Wood."
"I will, Chief," Merle replied solemnly.
Byarl smiled. "Good. Now, let's go outside, and wait. With luck, Xaa will be here shortly."
'I hope so,' Merle thought to herself. Byarl opened the little round door ro his home, and Merle walked out first. Brownie was where Merle had left her, sitting quietly near the little mound of grassy earth that covered Byarl's home, blinking quietly in the gloom of the moonlit night in the forest.
Suddenly, Merle sensed something watching her. With a start, she leaped away from the door, spinning around and drawing her knife. Byarl, just coming out the door, stepped to the side and drew his own knife, looking around behind him.
There, sitting quietly on top of the low mound that made up Byarl's home, was Xaa. To one side of the house, his own bird sat, nibbling the grass nearby. He was sitting in his armor, his swords tucked into his sash as always. He was simply waiting. Xaa's yellow-gold predator's eyes gleamed in the moonlight as he gazed back at Merle, his expression dark. He didn't move.
"It's good to see you haven't lost your warrior's edge, Merle," he rumbled quietly.
Merle felt her eartips warm with a blush, and she sheathed her knife. Byarl sheathed his blade, then crossed his arms, watching the two of them. Merle struggled for a moment, trying to think of how to say what was on her mind, but finally just hung her head. "I'm sorry, Xaa. I didn't mean to lead you on a wild djuducu-bird chase for two days... I just..."
Xaa blinked at her slowly, his golden eyes reminding Merle of an owl's gaze, piercing her soul in the darkness. "You didn't. I realized that if you wanted to talk to me, you wouldn't have ridden off. I knew where you'd be going. It was obvious - there's only one other place you would go. So, I rode ahead of you, and stayed ahead of you, making sure you wouldn't run across anything. It wasn't hard. I know these lands better than you - I was riding and hunting in this forest before you were born."
Merle blanched, not liking being reminded she was so much younger than him. "Well, it's just that-"
"I know. You saw C'dera'ap'Vhross and I nuzzle. And you assumed I had broken my promise to you," he replied, and shifted, raising his left knee and resting his left arm across it. "I have not. In two years, come this summer, if you still want someone who you think is so despicable he would break his tail-oath to you without even a thought... Well, then I will still take you as my mate."
Merle blinked. "I-I don't think you're despicable! Not at all!"
Xaa said nothing in reply, simply gazing at her with his golden eyes.
Merle sputtered, not knowing what to say. Finally, she turned to Byarl. "Chief! Can't you explain it to him?"
Byarl shook his head. "Probably not. I think this is something you two are going to have to work out yourselves. Besides - you know the mus better than I do, and you speak their language far better than I do. I still have trouble with that rolling grnowf, and that ch'kht sound..."
Byarl gazed at Xaa, considering him for a moment. Finally, he shook his head. "No, Merle. I think from his perspective, it's obvious why you came here - you thought he had fallen in love with Lady Vhross, and had changed his mind about his vow to you. I think that he is the kind of warrior who, once he gives his word of honor, will live up to it, even if it kills him. Thus, by running from him, you insult his honor and show that you don't trust him."
"You are correct, Great Chief Byarl," Xaa rumbled politely.
Merle knew Byarl was right. When she had tearfully begged Xaa to promise not to kill Tinker when he tried to escape from the airship, even though she knew there was no other way to stop him, Xaa had agreed - but he didn't tell her that the only way remaining to him was to leap off the castle parapet and slash the balloon with his sword as he fell, killing himself in the fall. Merle had only barely convinced him to not jump by telling him the airship wouldn't fly - and she had nearly been wrong. No, she knew in her heart that Byarl was right, and Xaa would die before he would break his word. Yet, this wasn't why she had fled the castle, and come to Byarl. "But Xaa! I do trust you, it's just that..." Merle yelped, too upset to even think to speak in the language of the mus. Finally, she simply hung her head. "I'm sorry... I love you. I was worried you didn't love me anymore... Like maybe I was too young, and she was more your age, and... Well, I know it's silly, but..."
"You were wrong. I still do love you, Merle. More than you know," Xaa replied quietly. "I have accepted that by your people's standards, you were an adult when we met. And now, even by the standards of my people, you are an adult - or, you will be, by the full of summer. Your words and deeds are not those of a child. There are many, many brave warriors among the mus who can't even bear the thought of any great height, much less being in an airship. Yet you teach our warriors how to fly with no fear in your heart. Our scholars have worked for years to discover things you think of while playing or singing a song, and they wait with bated breath to learn of your next discoveries. I am honored to have met you, and honored that you would even consider me worthy of being your mate. And, in two years, I will keep my vow to you - and proudly. It's just that I..." he replied, his quiet rumble trailing off into a sigh.
"You what?" Merle asked, glad to have heard what Xaa said so far, but worried that what might follow might be unpleasant. 'I've got Good News and Bad News...' was an old mustie cliche', and she worried it might be one of the mus, as well. "Is it that I'm too young?"
"No. Come the full of summer, you will be the same age T'lixca was when we were married," he replied, and smiled. "No, you are not too young for me, love. I simply worry that perhaps... Perhaps I am too old for you."
Merle blinked in surprise, then burst into giggles. Even Byarl had to suppress a smile. To a mustie, age was highly respected - younger, less experienced musties often fell to bears where older, more experienced musties did not. Older musties were also more skilled and experienced in the day-to-day skills required to survive. Thus, musties of both genders always sought older mates when they could, and an older mate intentionally choosing a much younger partner was a great compliment on the younger one's maturity, skill and experience. "I think you can manage this without my help, Merle. I'll be inside if you need me, however," Byarl said, then opened the door to his little burrow and slipped in quietly.
Merle grinned at Xaa, and spoke in the language of the mus. "You are not too old for me. Not hardly," she replied, and giggled again. "And everything you said about me? Well... I don't feel all that special, myself, but I'm glad that you do. Even if nobody else ever was impressed with me, it makes me feel good to know that you are," she said, then her smile dimmed somewhat. "Well... I'm sorry that I ran away, Xaa, I really am. I just needed to talk to Byarl. Ever since my parents died, he's been kinda like a father to me and... Well... When I saw you and Lady Vhross..." Merle said, then sighed. "Well, we musties only take one mate, and I thought... I thought that maybe you had changed your mind about being my mate, and decided to take her, instead."
Xaa smiled. "Not exactly."
Merle blinked again. "Not exactly?! What do you mean, 'not exactly'?!"
"Merle, C'dera is one of my oldest living friends. She was my wife's childhood friend, and we met before my wife and I were married. We have been friends since before you were born. We have, over the years, each comforted the other with our friendship as we buried our loved ones. Now, she has no one left in her life. All her family is dead, and she is all alone in the world. She asked me to be her guest for the tea-ceremony today because she had something important she wished to ask me. She has cared for me for years, and I her - yet neither of us had said anything to the other. Now, she wanted to ask if she could become my courtesan. And I agreed, pending the customary approval."
"Courtesan?! What's that?!" Merle yelped.
Xaa paused, thinking. "Hrm... There isn't a word for it in your language," he replied, then thought about it for a few moments more. "It's like... It's like a co-wife. In our culture, a male is allowed to have both wife and courtesan."
Merle sputtered for a few seconds, flustered. Byarl had been right - but that didn't make it any easier. "You mean she'll be your mate instead of me?!"
"No, not at all. You will be my wife, my mate. She will be my courtesan - pending the customary approval and the appropriate formal ceremony, of course."
"Approval?! Whose approval?!"
Xaa smiled, which infuriated Merle enormously. She was about to snap at him, when he spoke. His words brushed away her anger, as though it had never been. "Yours, of course."
Merle stared for a long moment, too surprised to speak. "M-mine? My approval?"
"Of course. You will be my mate. You have final approval, by our customs and traditions. You also retain the right of rejection - though I hope you won't reject her afterwards. It would be a great loss of face to her if you accepted her, then grew angry with her and ejected her from my hearth on a whim."
"I... I wouldn't do that to her, Xaa. She's my friend," Merle replied, staggered by the implications. She had the right to approve or disapprove of Lady Vhross, who was easily twice her age. More responsibility - and responsibility that was again awesome and a bit frightening. Yet, it was also reassuring, somehow, to know that the final decision would be hers and hers alone, and that Xaa would still be her mate, no matter what she decided. A thought occurred to Merle, and she looked up. "But she didn't even ask to be your mate, first? I mean, she only asked to be your courtesan?"
"But... But why?"
"Because she knew that you were in love with me, and planned to be my mate in a few years," Xaa replied, then chuckled. "Truth be known, I think every mus within five hundred leagues knows that. You are, to put it mildly, famous."
Merle blushed. She had never really thought of herself as being famous - or even widely known. She was, at heart, a humble little person. "So when does this all happen? I mean, when do I have to decide?"
Xaa smiled. "In two more years."
"Two more years? You mean I still have to wait?"
Xaa nodded, rising to his feet to stand before her. "Yes. Such was our agreement. If, in two more years, I am still alive and you still want to be my mate, then I will take you as my mate. Such was my tail-oath to you."
Merle's jar firmed, and she looked up at Xaa with determination. "I will still want you in two years! I love you, and I will always love you! That's what I swore on my tail!" Merle yelped, and reached beneath her green-dyed leather dress, swinging her tail over and holding the furry appendage out with her paw. It wasn't as long or as flexible as his tail, and it certainly wasn't prehensile, but she was just as serious as any mus would be.
Xaa looked back down at her quietly. He started to reply, but Merle simply interrupted. "No! I know what you're thinking! You're thinking I'm not a mus, and as such I'm not bound to my oath! A mus will cut off their tail before they break a tail-oath - that's what you told me! Well, I meant it then, and I meant it now!" she yelped, then let go of her tail and reached up to poke Xaa in his sash, the claw of her index finger tapping on the armor beneath. "And you just better make sure you stay alive until then, too! I know there's a war on, but you better be careful! If you go out and die in some silly battle, I'll... I'll... I'll never speak to you again!"
Xaa burst out laughing, his deep,
booming mus-chuckle echoing throughout the small clearing of the
village. Merle blinked, then began to giggle as she realized what
she said. Xaa reached down, slipping his paws beneath her
shoulders, and lifting her up until her head was even with his.
Gently, lovingly, he nuzzled her for many long heartbeats. Merle,
grinning broadly, threw her arms around his neck and nuzzled him
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