of the Last God
(Book II of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY
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"Bear tracks over here, chief. Large and small - mother and cub, it looks like," Merle called from where she knelt beneath the shade of a large oak, examining the ground.
Byarl, who stood beneath the shade of another oak across the large clearing, nodded. "And scat over here. These woods are crawling with them. We'll have to be careful."
Farrah shuddered, looking down at the large tracks Merle pointed to. "Do you think they're near?" she asked fearfully.
Merle shook her head. "Not likely. There's too many of us. The first thing they would do with this many birds and carnivores coming to the area is give us room. Later, though, when they get their courage up, they'll come back."
Amani finished tugging her tail through the slit in her garment, having re-tied it in her "everyday wear" manner (which Farrah found much less embarrassing). *Do not worry, little mouse. There are bears, here, but the mustelid is right - we are so numerous, they have fled for the moment. I can sense it in their minds. They are wary of us, for now.*
Merle grinned. "You stay by Amani, Farrah. I'm going to go tell Lord O'dmemet what we've found," she said, and as Farrah nodded, Merle trotted off to where the large mus-warrior was hobbling his bird.
"How many bears are there near us?" Farrah asked nervously as she sat down by Amani.
*I sense six, but only one is truly near. The rest are distant... Barely within my range. I would say perhaps a league away,* Amani's silent voice replied, and she sat down next to Farrah.
Farrah shivered - bears terrified her. "And you're sure this is the place we have to be? I mean, we have to wait here?"
Amani nodded. *Quite sure.*
"I was afraid you'd say that."
"Alright, everyone, gather 'round," Byarl called, waving to the other musties. Once they had come near, he began to speak to each of them - including Merle. "I want each and every one of you to be particularly careful. These woods are just crawling with bears - Amani says the cats hunt bears for sport, so either the cats don't come here much, or they are really bad at hunting - I think the former's more likely. Either way, they may not attack our mus friends, but they are almost certainly going to attack us, and Farrah, and Amani - and they may try to go after the birds, as well," Byarl explained, and after pausing a moment to give everyone a chance to digest what he'd said, he resumed, pointing with a finger.
"Ayori, I want you and Bessie to take turns watching over Farrah and Amani - if a bear comes within sight, sing out so the mus know. There's two hundred of them, they can manage any bear that comes near. And yes, I know - Amani says she can sense them long before they get within sight, but she has to sleep sometime, and like the old saying goes, 'Even the Sharpest Eye can Blink.' Merle, you stay near Lord O'dmemet and Farrah, so you can translate for us. The rest of you, follow me - we're going to sweep the woods nearby, and do the usual markings, like we did back in the Wild Wood. Bring your guns. If we come across a bear, everyone aim for the heart. If one of us gets jumped, we all draw our knives and take it just like we used to in the Wild Wood - only whoever gets shoulders, don't use your knife, use your gun for a log-jam. Any questions?"
Bessie raised a paw, and Byarl nodded to her. "Yes, chief - how come I have to stay behind? I want to go with you and the rest and maybe get a bear," she said, and grinned.
Byarl shook his head. "Because you and Ayori are our two best shots. I need you two here, to help guard Farrah and Amani - and take turns, so that one of you is always rested and alert. Okay?"
"Oh, okay, chief," Bessie replied, and grinned again.
Byarl nodded, then held up his paw, making a brief gesture - one of the mustie hunting signs, a new one they had developed over the last year. The five other musties who would be going along with him nodded, checking the powder in the pans of their guns, then flicking the pan closed. Byarl gestured again, and the musties spread out, walking to his sides in a line, like they were hunting rabbits with their slings. Of course, they weren't - the line was so that they would each have a clear line of fire and not accidentally shoot each other. Silently, they walked to the edge of the forest, and vanished among the trees.
Amani watched for a moment, and shuddered.
"What's the matter?" Farrah asked.
*Carnivores,* Amani replied simply, and said nothing more.
Ayori looked to Bessie. "Okay, who gets to go first?"
"Me, I wanna sleep tonight when it gets dark," Bessie replied, making a face.
"Blah. Okay, I'll go take a nap now so I'll be awake when night comes," Ayori replied, then grinned at Amani. "See you later, Amani," he called.
Amani smiled and waved a fore-hoof, and Ayori walked off to set up his tent.
Merle, who had walked over to Lord O'dmemet to tell him what the musties were doing, came back, and sat down again. "Brr... I'm glad I get to stay behind. I don't think I could hunt bears, really."
Bessie simply grinned. "It's easy with the guns we made, Merle. We just all shoot for the heart. We had a bear come into the Laughing Woods three months ago. Six of us hunted it down and BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG! All dead! And mmm! The meat was so tasty, Merle!"
"Really?" Merle asked grinning, not noticing Amani's brief moue' of revulsion.
"Ooooo, yes! Very delicious! We roasted some, and smoked some, and jerked some, and everyone in the whole village had plenty - the bear was ten stone, dressed out!"
Bessie nodded, grinning. "The only hard part is you have to be careful hunting with guns. It's not like slings. Everybody has to know where everybody else is all the time, so nobody get hurt. Remember Bando?"
"He's got a little nick in his ear, now, right here," Bessie said, and pointed to the edge of her left ear. "His brother Bardi shot him accidentally while they were hunting. Byarl was so mad he took away Bardi's gun for a month!"
"He did?!" Merle yelped, surprised.
Bessie nodded emphatically. "Oh, yes! Then when Lord Jamat and Lord Y'dahk came by and saw the nick in Bando's ear a week later, the whole village was very embarrassed. They fussed and fretted over us like we were babies! Byarl got really mad at that, but he didn't tell them, of course. After they left, he ruled that we would only hunt with our guns if we were hunting something big, like a deer, and we had to hunt in pairs, and everyone had to be really careful and follow all these complicated rules that Lord Jamat and Lord Y'dahk said the mus use when they are hunting so they don't shoot each other. They usually hunt with bows, but the rules are pretty much the same. That was kind of upsetting, at first, but Byarl said we should treat it like anything else the mus have taught us, so we all decided to treat it like a really complicated game, and then after awhile it became fun again."
Amani simply shuddered quietly, and kept her thoughts to herself.
"Well, Lord Jamat is kind of a worry-wart. Xaa told him to watch over me on this trip, and I've finally managed to convince him I'm not going to break into a million pieces if he takes his eye off me," Merle replied, and giggled.
Farrah listened to Merle and Bessie chat for a bit, then a thought occurred to her. "Umm... Merle, can I ask a question?"
"Sure," Merle replied with a grin.
"Ummm... When Byarl said they would do the 'usual markings', what did he mean?"
Merle and Bessie burst into giggles. "Umm... Well, it's sort of..." Merle replied, then started giggling again.
"What?" Farrah asked, confused.
Bessie managed to recover herself first, and grinned. "Well, it's something that works to keep bears away - most of the time. We mark the whole area as our territory, and when the bears smell it, they generally stay away. We used to mark around your village like that a lot - and ours, too."
"Smell what? What do you mark with?"
Bessie burst into giggles again, but Merle managed to reply for her. "Umm... Well, let's just say that their water-skins will be empty when they get back to camp," Merle said, and grinned.
"You... You pee all around?" Farrah asked, shocked.
Bessie collapsed in a gigglefit, and Merle was laughing so hard tears came to her eyes. "No, no! Not all around! Nobody can pee that much!" Merle replied, whooping with laughter. When she had a bit more control over herself, she started again. "You pick the right spots - places a bear would find the mark, like the sides of trees. That's another reason Bessie had to stay behind. She... Ummm... Well, the males can pee up the side of a tree and onto bushes, but we can't," Merle replied, and burst into giggles again. Even Amani whinnied with laughter, and eventually, Farrah joined her.
"Okay, okay, I understand that. There was another thing that confused me, though - what did Byarl mean when he said if the musties had to use their knives, the one who got shoulders should use their gun as a log-jam?"
"Oh, that's easy!" Bessie exclaimed, grinning. "When we fight a bear, we all have a specific position. One of us gets on each leg, and we grab on tight and bite, and use our knives to cut the tendons. Another gets on the back, and uses their knife on the neck - that's called "shoulders". Then another stands in front and keeps the bear's attention away from everyone else - that's called "teaser". We take our knives and slash their face and try to poke out their eyes. That's the hardest job - they have to work very fast and keep at it, or the bear turns to bite the ones on its body, and at the same time they have to dodge the bear's bites. It's best with nine or ten musties - then you can have two on each leg. With only five, the bear can sling us off, so "teaser" and "shoulders" becomes very important. "Shoulders" has to take a log and jam it into the bear's mouth, then hold it there so the bear can't bite, and yet they have to stay on it's back, too."
"That's why it's called log-jam," Merle agreed, nodding. "If you work fast and everything goes well, usually only the teaser ever gets hurt. They get clawed up some. Sometimes, though, things go bad. That's how my momma and daddy died. Daddy was a "left paw", and momma was "teaser". "Shoulders" slipped, and the bear threw them off, then bit daddy in the head and killed him. Then the bear clawed momma, and she died later. That was the bear that killed Plaster, from your village - remember him?" Merle asked, and Farrah nodded. "Well, we got him anyway, though. Nito's father was "shoulders", and he picked up my momma's knife in his open paw and hopped back on and jammed both his knife and hers right into the bear's eyes. After that, everyone just kept slashing and cutting at it until it bled to death."
Amani shuddered, and Farrah found she had to agree.
Bessie sighed sadly. "That was a bad hunt. It's so sad your momma and daddy died, Merle. If we'd had the guns then, why..." Bessie said, then stopped, glancing at Farrah. Merle simply nodded, and looked at Farrah, as well. Their expressions were suddenly very grim.
Farrah blanched, and bowed her head. She didn't need Amani's ability to sense the minds of others to know what they were thinking. So many of the musties had died defending the mice from bears, all because the mice didn't deem them worthy of learning the secrets of more advanced technologies. The mice had hoarded the secrets, keeping them to themselves in accordance with the Law of the Mice, only giving the musties a pawful of technologies. Worse, what they did give them was the result of a long string of intermediate technologies the musties knew nothing of. Having the drop-forged steel knives in their paws was no help - the musties knew nothing of mining, smelting, forging and pouring molten steel, and couldn't possibly make their own blades, much less the hundreds of other things they once received from the mice in exchange for their protection. In this way, they were dependent on the mice, and had eventually become the slaves of the mice's technology, just as the mus had been, eight centuries before.
"I... I want you to know that I think the Law of the Mice was wrong. I... I think that what our people did to you was wrong, and the Law needs to change. I'm sorry," Farrah said quietly, her head still bowed.
"I think it was wrong, too," Bessie replied, and stood, picking up her gun. She then simply kept her gaze on the forest, guarding Farrah and Amani, and said nothing more.
Merle gazed at Farrah quietly, then finally smiled. "Well, what's done is done, I guess. Maybe someday your people will change. No matter - we can make our own guns and pots and pans and lots of other things, and we're happy, now," Merle said, then stood. "I'm going to go back over and see what Lord O'dmemet is up to, Bessie. I'll talk to you later, Farrah. Byebye, Amani!"
"Okie, Merle!" Bessie called after her as she sprinted away.
Amani waved a fore-hoof after Merle, then sat quietly.
Farrah sighed. 'I think they really hate me, Amani,' she thought, looking into her large friend's soft, brown eyes.
*No, they do not hate you, Farrah Smithsdaughter. That would be... Too strong a description for their feelings. They loved your people, once. You needed their protection, and they enjoyed your friendship. They fought to protect you, they lost loved ones to protect you... And now they feel betrayed. No, they do not hate you, little mouse. They are... Hurt,* Amani replied, and sent Farrah a quiet, mental, horse-hug.
Farrah sighed, leaning up against Amani. 'I wish I could make it better, somehow.'
*You will, Farrah Smithsdaughter.*
Farrah blinked in surprised. 'I will?'
Amani nodded, smiling, and lifted her forelock to again show the eye that had been painted upon her forehead - the mark of a seer, among her people. *I sense it. Somehow, you will make this right with them. Such is your destiny, little mouse.*
Farrah sat in stunned silence
after that, and Amani nickered in amusement.
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