of the Last God
(Book II of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY
Click here to go to the most recent post!
Netscape users - click here to hear the music for this page.
Johm'rouh snarled, her pale pink, nearly hairless tail lashing in irritation and her fangs gleaming in the light, then slapped the writing-brush down on the table. "This is so hard!" she growled, pointing at the pages and pages of mathematics they had finished already. "It's even harder than trying to learn to speak your language, Merle!"
Merle giggled, and Johm'rouh stuck her tongue out at her, which made her giggle even more. "Now, now. You can do it. I'm helping you, and Lady Vhross is helping you. Between us, we should be able to teach you everything your momma would have taught you in those four years the cat's poison had you asleep." Merle replied in the growling, guttural language of the mus - though because she was a mustie, her voice sounded more like the yips of a mus-pup. Merle even wore a child-size kimono, as she was so small compared to the huge, carnivorous rodent-people that were the mus. True to her nature as a mustelid of the Wild Wood, however, Merle's kimono was dark green. "Besides - it's easier for you, because you already know how to work the 'base ten' numbers you use. We musties use 'base two', so when I'm checking your work, I have to convert everything to my numbers and then convert my answer back into your numbers to see if it's right."
Johm-rouh made a face. "I know. That just makes me feel even stupider." she growled, pointing at the sheets of paper. "Look - it takes you just a little bit of one page to do this problem, here. It too me a whole page!"
Merle simply shrugged. "Well, subtracting numbers is easy in our number system. You just take this number here, change all the zeros to ones and the ones to zeros, add it up, then change the answer back and you have it. You can do it on your fingers, if you practice."
"You're not making me feel any better, you know." Johm'rouh replied sourly, and Merle giggled again. "Sometimes I don't even know why I have to learn this."
"Well, Lady Vhross says that it's important for a mus-wife to be able to help her mate. You're warrior-caste, so that means you have to be able to help Lord O'Dmemet after you marry. That means you need to know how to do accounting and manage his books, among other things."
Johm'rouh simply made a face again. "Bleah."
Merle eyed her giant-sized friend closely. "You haven't changed your mind about that, have you? I mean... Well, Lady Vhross says that you still retain the right of refusal, even though the marriage has been arranged since you were nine. It would be somewhat embarrassing for your daddy, especially since O'dmemet is really a very nice person, but you still have the right to say 'no.' Is that what's bothering you? You don't really want to marry him?"
Johm'rouh's eyes widened. "Oh, no, Merle! That's not it at all! O'dmemet is so sweet and handsome and wonderful and brave and noble... He's everything I ever could have asked for in a mate, and I find the more and more I meet with him, the more and more I love him." she said, and waved a snow-white paw over the papers on the table the two of them knelt before. "It's just that all this is so hard, Merle! How will I ever learn it all before the wedding?!"
Merle giggled again. "You don't have to, silly. You can keep on studying with me and Lady Vhross after you're married, until you've learned all the basics and caught up to where you should be. Then you just study with the other young warrior-caste being taught here in Lord W'Mefa's Castle."
Johm'rouh rolled her eyes. "And how will I do that? I can't travel back and forth between here and Castle Xaa - it's too far! It takes days to ride there and days to ride back!"
Merle stuck out her tongue. "Now you're just being silly. You know your daddy's castle isn't finished - it'll be another year before the workers finish rebuilding it. The fire the cats set before they ran away completely gutted and destroyed it. There's nobody there except the workers who are rebuilding it and a pawful of warriors who guard it. Well, and all the musties of the Wild Wood. We help guard it, too, since Xaa gave our tribe that large forest along the Laughing River as our own and our tribe is now his allies. We're a little too small to help rebuild most of the castle, but what little we can do, we're doing. Byarl got together with the head of the work crew and took over all the small jobs that we musties could do so that the mus could concentrate on the big, heavy jobs. Even so, it will still be a year - the whole roof fell in when the timbers burned!" Merle said, and Johm'rouh nodded.
It had taken a month for the workers just to clear away the rubble of Xaa's burned out castle - but nothing was wasted. Byarl, the chief of the musties, commandeered every bit of material that couldn't be used in the new castle, and used it to help build new homes for his people. The mus simply taught the musties how to make the wooden planks they needed, along with the shovels and hammers and nails and mortar and a thousand other small things the mice of the Wild Wood had never bothered to teach them, and then let them build their homes again. Byarl chose a large, pleasant clearing to place the new village in, and all the musties were very happy with the results - especially since everything in their homes, from the wooden floors and doors to the layer of earth that covered them, had been done all by the musties themselves. They even named their new lands themselves. When they first arrived, Byarl held an open debate and a vote, and the musties ended up naming their new home The Laughing Woods, because of the Laughing River, which marked the southern boundary of their lands, and the happiness of the musties with their new home.
Johm-rouh sighed. "I'm sorry, Merle. It's just that all this is so frustrating and hard."
Merle shook her head. "No, I think you're doing okay. You just need a break." she said, and after carefully stoppering the ink bottle and washing off her and Johm-rouh's brush in the water-cup, she hopped to her feet. "Playtime!" she yelped.
"Yay!" Joum-rouh squealed, clapping. "What game will we play, today?"
"Well, Ead'xas the Master Healer says that you still need work on coordination in your legs, so we'll skip rope."
Johm-rouh made a face again. "More work caused by my sickness."
"No, playtime. Trust me - it'll be fun. I worked for hours yesterday to make the handles - they're made of wood, and let the rope spin inside them so you don't burn your paws holding it."
A few minutes later, Merle and Johm'rouh stood in the middle of the room. Merla had taken off the little woven shoes she wore, and had Johm'rouh do the same, and their toe-claws clicked quietly on the wooden floor as Merle passed Johm'rouh a rope from a nearby table. Johm'rouh examined the ropes in curiosity - each had a pair of wooden handles, one at each end, but Merle's rope was only about half the length of Johm'rouh's, since Merle only came up to about Johm'rouh's waist and simply didn't need that much. "Okay, how do I do this?" Johm'rouh asked.
"Well, start with the basics. Just watch me, and do what I do." Merle replied, and demonstrated. She started with a simple skip over the rope, then flicking it over her head and back around to rest on the wooden floor at her feet again. It took Johm'rouh a moment to master it, but eventually she had it. "That's great! Now, you just keep the rope moving, instead of letting it stop. Like this:" Merle said, and demonstrated, whirling the rope slowly and lightly skipping over it, over and over again. That was a bit harder for Johm'rouh to master, and it was several minutes before she stopped catching the rope on her foot-paws or the back of her cream-white kimono.
"This isn't easy." she commented, starting to pant a little. "And I'm waiting for the fun part."
"Well, this is the fun part. Watch:" Merle said, and began skipping rapidly in an alternating stride from one foot to the other, the rope whirling so fast it made a whoop-whoop-whoop sound as it cut the air. Merle began chanting a sing-song rhyme in her own language, grinning broadly.
"Meanie, miney, pain in the hiney, who's the one who'll stop the last? Left foot, right foot, both foot, no foot, I will be the one who's last!"
Johm'rouh watched Merle's foot-paws as she skipped first each foot alternating one at a time, then hopping on one repeatedly, then hopping on the other repeatedly, then starting over again, all quite fast. Johm'rouh grinned. "Ihz lahk dahnse." she rumbled in Merle's language, her accent as atrocious as her father's. Merle giggled - the mus simply weren't built to make the sounds of the language of the Little People of the Wild Wood. Their bodies were built to growl and rumble and roar, and their own language was shaped accordingly.
"Yes, kind of. Keep your tail down by your leg so you don't catch the rope on it - that would hurt." Merle replied in her own language, grinning. She stopped skipping, and began to resume her lesson from the beginning, teaching her enormous friend to skip rope.
A few minutes later, Tlahn came in, carrying a tray of food. She grinned a toothless grin as she watched the two girls skip rope. "Ah, a mustie-game, my lady?" she asked.
"Yes, Tlahn!" Johm'rouh replied with a giggle. "Merle says it will help me learn to use my legs better. Do you want to try?"
Tlahn laughed. "Oh, no! That is a bit much for old Tlahn to try. I might fall and break my hip. Then what would your poor father do with no-one to make his supper?" she said, and winked.
Merle and Johm'rouh burst out laughing at the thought. Xaa, of all people, wouldn't go hungry in Castle W'mefa. He was Lord W'mefa's most valued ally, and closest friend. He was also a legend in his own time, having personally slain almost three hundred of the evil cats that had warred on the mus these last six years. His exploits had helped keep the flame of hope alive in the darkest hour of the history of the mus - though that wasn't the reason he had done what he had done. No, he had acted out of sorrow and rage, engaging in a private war of revenge against the cats for killing his wife and rendering his daughter a helpless vegetable. Xaa and the pawful of warriors W'mefa could spare from time to time had raided Xaa's old lands, striking fear into the hearts of the cats again and again. No, of all people, Lord Xaa'ap'Gasha would not go hungry in Castle W'mefa.
Merle called a halt to the game, and once she and Johm'rouh had cleared off the table, Tlahn laid out the dishes of cooked meat and organs for them to eat. Both the musties and the mus were carnivores, and enjoyed tasty flesh. Merle always found this fascinating, especially since she knew the mus were descended from the same species of people that the musties had once been allied with in the Wild Wood - little mice, the size of the musties. Unlike the Mice of the Wild Wood, however, the mus were huge, and they not only had a rodent's incisors, but canine fangs. Female mus, however, were very slender compared to the males - lean and gracefully built, their bodies were more like those of the cats. Merle looked up to T'lahn, who was just settling onto a nearby pillow to sit. "Aren't you going to eat, Tlahn?"
Johm'rouh burst out giggling, but Tlahm only smiled. "No, my lady. I have already eaten." she replied.
"Servants always eat first, Merle. It's part of our traditions. If there isn't enough food to go around for the warrior-caste, then it's their fault for not managing their fief better. Servants always eat first."
"Well, not quite always, my lady. In some situations, like a siege of the castle, the warrior-caste is given priority so that they don't weaken from hunger or thirst - if that happened, we would all die, servants and warriors alike. But generally, yes, we eat first." Tlahn replied, then raised a finger. "And sometimes a shortage of food isn't the fault of the fief-lord or lady, it's the fault of their servants for poorly managing the supplies or the livestock. In that case, their lord has the right to dismiss them from his lands and tell them to seek shelter and succor elsewhere."
"Well, I don't think that's likely to happen around here." Merle replied, giggling, then changed the subject. "How are things going with the Master Healer, Tlahn?"
Tlahn grinned a gummy grin. "Well, my lady, the book I helped him write with all the techniques I used on my son and on Lady Johm'rouh has been passed about far and wide, now. There were many that managed to survive the cat's poisons over the years, and were left like she was, helpless and mindless. With what I learned and the blackroot-plant the Little One found for us, they all seem to be well on their way to recovery. Many were worse off then Lady Johm'rouh was, however, because those caring for them didn't know to move their limbs regularly, as I did for her. Still, everything we've heard so far seems to be very positive." Tlahn replied, then sighed. "It is too bad the Little One is dead. Despite what an enormous pain in the tail he was at times, his knowledge was very useful."
"Yes." Merle replied, and fell silent. Her little friend, Tinker, had died saving herself and Xaa from the power of the insane God/Machine left behind long ago by an ancient and forgotten race on the quiet and mysterious place the mus called 'Forbidden Island.' The wound the she-cat T'Vril had given Tinker with a swift lash of her clawed foot had been mortal, yet through his pain he still found the strength to exploit the God/Machine's one weakness, and destroy it. Merle still thought of Tinker in the quiet moments when she found herself alone. The immensity of the situation he found himself in, so far from home and surrounded by strange people who frightened him badly, had brought out the absolute worst in his gentle little soul. In the end, T'Vril had played up to him, manipulating him to think that she was his slave, and all the while using him for her own purposes until she no longer needed him. Still, Merle missed the quiet, gentle mousie who had been her childhood friend, and she missed the happy, innocent days they had spent together in the Wild Wood. Merle shook off her melancholy with an effort, and smiled. It was not the mustie way to dwell on unhappiness. Tinker's sacrifice had not only saved Xaa and herself, but possibly the world - and the Tinker she remembered growing up with as a child would have been proud and happy knowing that such a quiet little person like him had done such a wonderful and important thing. "Well, as you mus would say, 'He died bravely and well' - and I think he would have liked to be remembered that way, rather than for the dark aspects of his personality that came out when he was here. He really was a sweet, gentle person at heart, Tlahn."
"Yes, my lady." Tlahn replied, bowing her head briefly and smiling.
"Is there any word of my father yet, Tlahn?" Johm'rouh asked.
Tlahn shook her head. "No, my lady, so sorry. So far as anyone knows, he is still scouting deep within T'Mrr lands with nine of Lord W'mefa's best warriors."
"I don't know why he doesn't just use an airship. It would be much faster than riding a djuducu-bird. Safer, too - he could stay high up where the cats couldn't even shoot at him."
Merle giggled. "Because you can't fly the airships in bad weather, Johm'rouh. The air-bag gets wet, and not only gets a lot heavier and makes the ship go down, but the air inside cools from rain-water, and also makes it go down."
Johm'rouh persisted. "Well, you can't use bows or guns in bad weather, either - the rain wets bowstrings and powder in the pan, so both are useless. That means he would still be okay in an airship if it went down a bit from the weather." she replied.
Merle shook her head. "No, they don't just go down a bit - they often go all the way down to the ground. Sometimes they land really hard, too, and someone gets hurt. Or worse. Even if that doesn't happen, there's still the problem of lightning. A lightning-bolt can bring an airship down in one stroke."
"Oh!" Johm'rouh gasped, her paw covering her bosom in surprise. "I didn't know that! I wouldn't want my daddy to die like that! I just want him to come home safe."
"Never fear, my lady." Tlahn rumbled, reaching across the table to pat Johm'rouh's paw. "Your father is the greatest warrior I have ever seen, perhaps the greatest who ever was. He will be fine." she said, then grinned. "But don't tell him I said that - we wouldn't want it to go to his head." she finished, then winked.
Merle giggled at Tlahn for a moment, then reached over and hugged Johm'rouh. "I want him to come back safe, too, Johm'rouh. And for him, he's probably safer on the back of a riding-bird than in an airship." Johm'rouh hugged back for a moment, then Merle leaned back and grinned. "Besides... After his first airship ride, he's kind of... Well... Let's just say it's not likely he'll get into an airship again anytime soon unless I grab him by the ear and drag him." she said, and burst into giggles. Johm'rouh whooped with laughter at the mental image of little Merle dragging her enormous father by one of his pink ears, and even Tlahn chuckled.
Tlahn quietly took the lunch dishes away, and afterwards Merle resumed her teaching Johm'rouh. When it had first become apparent that Johm'rouh was several years behind in her studies, Merle had approached her friend, Lady Vhross, to see if she might help. As the only female warrior-caste mus in the castle with no living family, she had the most time available to her to help, and she and Merle had developed a close friendship over the months, exchanging songs and legends of their two people. The servant-caste instructors couldn't do it - they simply had their paws full trying to instruct the students they already had, and couldn't spare the time to begin remedial education for Johm'rouh. Lady Vhross had agreed, but only on the condition that she be allowed to become Xaa's vassal - a request Merle found very strange, but had decided not to pry about. Lord W'mefa was more than happy with the arrangement however, and Xaa accepted Lady Vhross' vow of fealty with a broad smile. Merle imagined it was another ramification of their culture she didn't quite understand yet.
Once she had formally become Xaa's vassal, Lady Vhross had laid out a very specific course of instruction for Merle to follow, playing on the skills and knowledges that Merle had. For the most part, Merle taught Johm'rouh mathematics and kept up her physical exercise during the day. In turn, Lady Vhross spent the mornings working with Johm'rouh on calligraphy and archery, and the evenings on music, poetry, art, social graces, and the other skills expected of a warrior-caste female mus. Yet, there was still much more that Johm'rouh had to work on in her spare time, such as history and geography, that not only did Merle think her own contribution was rather small, she also completely understood why Johm'rouh was sometimes frustrated. There was just so much she had to catch up on, and she needed to know it all if she was to be a proper wife to O'dmemet.
'But what about me?' Merle thought quietly to herself as she helped Johm'rouh with another mathematics problem. The more she watched Johm'rouh, the more she realized there was an enormous amount of knowledge she simply didn't have to be a proper wife to a warrior-caste mus. And she still hoped to be Xaa's mate in three years, when she turned eighteen. 'He promised... But will I even make a good mate? What if I make him miserable, simply because I don't know what I need to know?'
Merle's days were full of far more than Johm'rouh, and she couldn't spare the time to try to take the same lessons from Lady Vhross that Johm'rouh received - she simply was too busy. Of all those who knew how to pilot an airship, Merle was the most skilled. Thus, it fell to her to teach the basics to all the warrior-caste mus who came from hundreds of leagues around to learn from her. 'It's a good thing they don't have very many right now, or that's all I would be doing is flying.' she thought. And yet, there was still more. Merle had made several dozen inventions that the mus found useful, and her thoughts in design were often called upon. Her sharp little mind was highly skilled at mechanical things, and Var the blacksmith (now gunsmith, boilermaker and half a dozen other jobs) often needed to confer with her on his latest work. No, Merle was simply too busy to try to learn what Johm'rouh was learning, and that worried her. Merle tried not to fret, but instead to simply work on the mathematics before her. If nothing else, she would show him she would be a good mate by succeeding in helping Johm'rouh catch up on her studies. Perhaps that would be enough. It was a slim hope, but it was all Merle had at the moment.
Suddenly, the roar of a mus echoed in through the open door leading to the balcony, muted only by the distance. "Ten riders approach the castle!" one of the guards roared - Lord Hrasha, Merle realized by the voice.
Merle's face lit up, and Johm'rouh looked up excitedly from her work. "Oh, Merle! Do you think it could be my daddy?"
"I don't know! Let's go find out!" Merle yelped.
The two girls started to rise, but Merle looked back down at the table. "Oh! Wait, we have to wash the brushes properly and cap the ink. Otherwise the brushes might get ruined and the ink might dry out." she said, and sat back down again to clean her brush in the water-cup.
"But Merrrrle!" Johm'rouh whined.
"Oh, come on, Johm'rouh! It's hard enough for me to be this responsible all the time. If Byarl ever found out, I'd probably lose my membership in the tribe for life. I don't play hardly enough at all, and combined with this I'm surprised I'm even still considered a real mustie." Merle replied, and stuck out her tongue.
"You-you really would become an outcast?" Johm'rouh replied, shocked.
Merle burst into giggles. "No, silly! I was kidding. Come on - clean your brush and cap your ink, and we'll go out and see who's coming."
Johm'rouh giggled, then picked up her brush to
dip it into the water cup and clean it, shaking her head at her
little friend and mentor with a grin.
here to read the next chapter!
At least one new chapter will be posted every week - check back regularly.