of the Last God
(Book II of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY
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It had been late at night, so Byarl had invited Merle and Xaa to simply stay overnight. Xaa had hesitated for a moment, but then agreed politely, bowing formally and expressing his thanks for Byarl's generous offer. Merle could tell by the bedroll laying beside his bird that Xaa had simply planned on sleeping outdoors again, as he apparently had for two days, and was not looking forward to sleeping in what was, for him, a cramped little mustie-home. Yet, the invitation of his ally, the Chief of the Musties, could not be turned down - in Xaa's culture, that would have been quite rude. Merle smiled inwardly at that. Xaa simply didn't understand that if he had refused, Byarl would have understood the reason why, and simply smiled. The mus and the musties were, truly, two very different people, sometimes.
For Merle, it was very nice. Byarl's house was warm and snug, a very comfortable home with comfortable furniture - if one was the size of a mustie. Xaa, on the other paw, had the same problems he'd had when he had first come to live in Merle's home, two years ago. He couldn't sit in any of the chairs - they were too small, and would have been crushed under his enormous weight. Even sitting on the floor in the middle of the room where the arched ceiling was the highest, the tips of his large, pink ears brushed the ceiling slightly. While Ellie came out and began to cook some rabbit-meat over the fire, Xaa quietly slipped his two swords out of his sash, then began removing his armor, piece by piece. Knowing he couldn't move around well in the tiny house, Merle helped him, carefully piling each piece in the corner. His boots came off last, and Merle soon had helped him pull them off and piled them with his armor.
After tying his sash back on over his tunic, Xaa stretched out his legs for a moment, wiggling his clawed toes with an expression of pleasure on his face. Merle struggled to keep from bursting into giggles - he looked terribly cute doing that. Ellie and Byarl apparently thought the same thing, and they also tried to keep from giggling, as they knew Xaa probably wouldn't appreciate it. The mus were terribly stuffy, at times.
Finally, Xaa folded his legs beneath him, slipped his swords back into his sash, then sat there quietly. Byarl and Xaa began chatting about Castle Xaa, and the work being done to it. The musties were trying to help as best they could, as they were Xaa's allies. There wasn't much they could do, as most of the work at this point involved moving massively heavy stones and wooden support beams and the mus were terribly afraid one might fall and squish one of their mustie friends. Still, they still helped both with guarding the castle, and with some of the smaller work that they could do easier than the mus. The cats hadn't taken very good care of the castle walls, and the drain-spouts leading out to the moat had become clogged with roots, leaves, and other debris. The mus couldn't fit in there to clear it, and had brought along poles with sharp blades on the end in the hopes of trying to cut some of it out. Byarl had simply sent in a few of the male musties with some borrowed tools, as the drain-spouts were easily large enough for a mustie to crawl into, and they cleared the debris in a matter of hours.
As they chatted, it dawned on Merle that Xaa hadn't slipped his swords out of his sash and simply set them beside him, as he normally did when he was relaxing in his room or Merle's at Castle W'mefa. When Byarl was distracted helping Ellie set the meat on plates, Merle spoke up in his language. "Umm... Xaa? Why are you still wearing your swords?"
"Mmm?" Xaa replied, a confused expression on his face.
"Well, I mean... You're still wearing your swords. Why don't you just set them next to you and relax?"
"Ah. Well, that would be very disrespectful, Merle. It would imply that I feel Byarl, the Great Chief of the Musties, is of absolutely no threat to me," Xaa replied, and as Byarl looked over, an eyebrow raised, Xaa bowed to him from where he sat.
Merle scratched her head, confused. "Ummm... But Xaa, Byarl isn't a threat to you, he's your friend."
"Absolutely," Xaa replied, nodding. "And my ally. And I cherish both his friendship and our alliance greatly. Hence, I will not insult him so."
Byarl smiled at Merle, whose expression showed that Xaa's answer hadn't really cleared anything up for her. "Merle, I think he means that in his culture, taking his swords from his sash would mean he thinks I can't kill him. That would be an insult to an ally, I think, because it would be saying that your ally is weak," he said, setting a pot of tea on the table and four small cups.
"Exactly," Xaa replied, nodding.
"But... But you'd never even try! That would be silly! Besides - he's so much bigger, I mean..."
"Of course not, Merle," Byarl said, and smiled as he helped Nellie bring the food over and set it on the nearby table. "Still, it's a sign of respect for his people - and I appreciate it, of course." Byarl then bowed to Xaa, who bowed in return.
Merle, Ellie and Byarl then sat at the table, while Xaa simply turned to face it. As they began to eat, Merle spoke up again. "Well, still... When you first came to my house in the Wild Wood, you took your swords off and set them beside you. And I notice you do that when you eat with me or Johm'rouh in the castle, too."
"It's not the same thing, Merle," Xaa replied, smiling. "When I first met you, I had no idea who or what you were - I only knew you wanted to help me. So, I laid my swords beside me to show you I meant you no harm. Of course, I still kept them in reach, in case you... Well, in case you turned out to have other intentions," he said, then chuckled. "With my sword-arm broken and my head still very dizzy from that cat's mace, you could have taken me easily, though, so all I could do was hope you meant well," he said, and grinned at Merle. Merle simply giggled as he continued. "When I am with my daughter and you at W'mefa's castle, it is an acknowledgment that you and she are more important to me than even my life. Again, of course, I still keep them within reach, in case we are attacked."
Merle giggled again. "But we would never be attacked in Lord W'mefa's castle!"
Xaa shrugged. "Perhaps, perhaps not. The cats do have assassins, and they are quite skilled," he said, then paused, at a loss for words. Finally, he simply shrugged again. "It's tradition, Merle. It is the Way of the Warrior. The Sword is the Soul of the Warrior, Merle. If he ever loses or mislays it, he can never be forgiven. I can't explain it any better than that," Xaa finished, then took a sip of tea.
"What did he say just now, dear? And what did he say earlier about you?" Ellie asked, between bites of rabbit. Byarl, who understood Xaa's language but couldn't speak it very well yet, translated for her. When he had finished, Ellie smiled. "Oh, I see. Well, I have noticed that of all the mus, Byarl. They all are very, very polite," she said, then waggled a finger at Xaa. "Sometimes, though, your people can be quite stuffy. I think you need to learn to relax and play a bit. Life's too short to live entirely on formality, you know."
Xaa chuckled, nodding his head. "Perhaps this is something our people shall learn from you as time goes on," he replied, bowing from where he sat. Ellie grinned, and imitated his bow.
"We should all play a game after dinner. Get you started on learning to play more," Ellie continued, pouring more tea for Xaa.
"Woo! What one did you have in mind, Ellie?" Merle asked grinning.
"Oh, I don't know - Byarl, what do you think?"
"Hmmm... Nim, I think. He's too big for Hottop, Nito borrowed my Checkerboard yesterday and still has it, and it's too dark to play outside."
Xaa bowed his head. "With respect, you would beat me easily, Great Chief."
"What makes you say that? Have you never played Nim before?" Byarl asked in reply, smiling.
"Oh, yes - Merle taught it to my daughter. I swear, Johm'rouh beats me every time, and I still have yet to figure out how she does it. And as for Merle?" he said, then rolled his eyes. "She starts giggling the moment I make my first or second move, and I can tell I have already lost." Merle giggled, and Byarl translated what Xaa had said to Ellie. When he had, Ellie giggled. Xaa simply smiled and spoke again. "We do have games, you know. Perhaps someday I will come by and teach you Ch'tng, or perhaps even Dlak. Particularly Dlak - I think you would enjoy that one."
"Oh? What's that like?" Byarl asked.
"Well, it's played on a square board of nineteen by nineteen, with small holes marking the positions, using small black and white beads about as wide as my little finger. The rules are somewhat complicated, so I'll explain that another time. In short, however, the object is to capture the opponent's pieces."
Now Merle rolled her eyes. "I've played that, Byarl. He's not kidding when he says the rules are complicated. The rules include capturing pieces, and the scoring counts how much territory of the board you have captured, and on and on and on. It's very hard. Even knowing when it's over is sometimes hard - unless someone finally runs out of pieces. As much as I beat Xaa at Nim, he beats me at Dlak just as easily."
Byarl translated Xaa's part of the exchange for Ellie, then stroked his whiskers for a moment. "Hmmm... And you have to think quite a bit to win, Merle?"
"Yes, a lot. It's very hard."
Xaa chuckled. "Only when you play against me, love. You do alright against Johm'rouh."
"Well, yes, but that's because she's not as mean as you. She gives me hints," Merle replied, and stuck out her tongue. Xaa simply chuckled.
Byarl translated again for Ellie, then stroked his whiskers again, thinking. Finally, he spoke. "Lord Xaa, I would greatly appreciate it if you would come by someday to teach us that game. This is a new time for the musties, and we are in a new life, and in a new land. I think it is time we learned new games... Complicated games that challenged our minds even more. For certainly, we live in complicated times, now. The simple life of the Wild Wood is behind us."
Xaa bowed his head, smiling. "As you wish, Great Chief."
"Oh, pooh. I guess that means we can't play after dinner," Ellie said, then smiled. "Oh, well. Next time, then."
When dinner was finished, Xaa sat there and nibbled on a leg bone with his incisors. "Hrab-ut vehr' guhd. Thahnk youh," he rumbled in the language of the musties, and bowed. His accent still atrociously bad, even after two years of practice. Merle grinned - the mus simply weren't built to make the sounds of the Little People of the Wild Wood.
"Well, it wasn't luck we had some for you and Merle, Lord Xaa," Ellie replied as she and Byarl took the dishes away. "My mate is an excellent hunter. He brought in four, himself, and my sons brought in one apiece," she said, and beamed proudly.
Byarl simply smiled. "Thank you, my mate."
"You're welcome, dear," Ellie replied, then turned back to Xaa. "Well, we had some extra. I was worried it might spoil by morning, and was planning on making a stew out of the extra two my sons brought when Merle arrived."
Xaa smiled and nodded, and after Byarl and Ellie had left the room, taking the dishes to the dishpan to soak, he leaned over to Merle and whispered in her ear. "I've seen you get five or more, easily."
"Yes, but I don't have to spend most of my time managing the problems of the tribe, either," Merle whispered back, stifling a giggle.
A few minutes later, Byarl and Nellie came back, carrying several blankets and two pillows. Byarl smiled. "Well, Lord Xaa, I'm afraid I can't offer you more comfortable accommodations than our floor. None of our beds will even fit someone your size. But, at least we have a nice rabbit-fur carpet."
"Iz ahlraht. Thahnk youh," Xaa rumbled back, smiling.
"And as for you, Merle... Well, I'm afraid there isn't enough room in Ellie and my bed for you, and you certainly aren't going to sleep with my sons," he said, and smiled again. "If you like, we could wake up one of the others in the village...?"
"Ummm... Would it be okay if I slept here in the living room, with Xaa?" Merle asked, taking the blankets and pillows and setting them on the floor beside Xaa.
Byarl thought for a moment, then nodded. Merle was young and in love, but she was a proper mustie. Besides, though it was early summer, mating season had yet to begin, and Byarl's sensitive nose told him even from across the room that the scent-gland at the base of Merle's tail was not active. As she wasn't in heat, he was fairly certain that it would be alright. "If Lord Xaa agrees, I don't see why not."
Xaa hesitated, and looked at Merle. She simply smiled innocently at him. After a moment, he chuckled, dismissing his concerns with a shake of his head. "Yes, Great Chief Byarl, that would be fine."
Hours later, the fire was merely glowing embers. A slim shaft of moonlight came though the window, faintly illuminating the chill of the darkened room. Xaa lay quietly near Merle, his swords on the floor above his head, within easy reach.
"Xaa? Are you asleep?" Merle whispered.
Merle looked, and saw him gazing at her sleepily as he lay on his side, only a single yellow-gold eye open. "Are you asleep?" she whispered again.
Xaa chuckled quietly. "Not anymore."
"I'm cold. It's cold here on the floor. Can I snuggle up with you?"
Xaa simply lifted up his blanket, closing his eyes again. "Come."
Merle scooted over, snuggling up to him, and grinned. She had her own blanket over herself, and in a moment, Xaa had laid his blanket over her, as well, wrapping his arm around her. Merle tucked her muzzle into his chest, then smiled, breathing in his scent. 'He is so... Everything,' she thought, smiling quietly in the darkness. She wondered if this was what it would be like to be his mate, to sleep in his arms every night, to feel him close...
As she lay there, thinking about what it might be like, Merle remembered what Xaa had once said about the tail of a mouse - and a mus, as they were related. 'The tail of a mouse is covered with small, fine hairs. It is very sensitive to movements of air, changes in temperature, and so on. It helps cool us when it's hot, also. We can use it like a weak, clumsy paw, if we need to, but we never do in public, because... it's a social taboo, because of the other thing about our tails. They're very sensitive to being touched, and stroking or touching the tail is... a very erotic sensation for both males and females, and is often a prelude to mating. When mice do mate, they often... twine their tails together during the act. To a mouse, the length of the tail is also believed to be an indicator of how... good a sex-partner a mouse might be.'
'Oooo... That sounds like it would be fun,' Merle thought, listening to Xaa's quiet breathing. As she lay there, enjoying his nearness, very slowly, she began to grin. Carefully, so as not to awaken him, she slowly slipped her paw down his side, and around behind him. With a gentle touch, she ran the tips of her fingers very, very lightly over the base of his tail. Merle smiled. It was slightly cool to the touch, and the fine little hairs felt interesting.
"Merle, what are you doing?" Xaa rumbled quietly.
Merle looked up - he was wide awake, his golden, owl-like eyes staring at her in the darkness. Her touch, gentle though it had been, had not gone unnoticed. No, it had instantly awakened him. "Ummm... I... Err..."
"This is not the time, or the place, Merle," he rumbled, his voice soft. With a gentle but firm paw, he reached back, pulling Merle's paw around to his front again.
"But... But I wasn't... I mean, I'm not even..."
Xaa simply gazed at her quietly, holding her wrist gently, but firmly.
"Sorry," she whispered, then sighed. It was a long moment before she spoke again.
"Two more years?"
"Two more years," Xaa replied softly, and smiled. He let go her wrist, then, with a gentle touch, he slid her up closer to his face, and tucked her head beneath his chin.
"You really know how to spoil a girl's fun, you know that?" she whispered.
Xaa chuckled quietly in the
gloom, and hugged Merle gently. Merle hugged him back, and after
awhile, she joined him in a quiet grin.
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