of the Last God
(Book II of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY
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Byarl slowly opened his eyes, blinking in wonder at the strange, tan fabric canopy above him. 'Am I alive?' he thought, and grimaced slightly at the pain in his side. 'I must be - I don't think it hurts in heaven.' A moment later, Merle's face loomed over his, grinning broadly.
"Chief! How do your feel?!" Merle chittered, relief and joy in her voice.
"Like I've been eaten by a bear and someone dug what was left of me out of its dung," Byarl replied weakly, and grinned wryly. Byarl heard several musties giggle nearby, and as he looked, he realized that he was in some kind of very large tent, with all the musties that had come along with Lord O'dmemet gathered inside. "What happened?"
"Well, you got the cat that jumped you, but it stabbed you good in the side. Hragh, the healer, said that you were bleeding inside, and one of your lungs had collapsed. Amani helped heal you, but you've been unconscious for over a day. Oh, Chief! We're so glad you're going to be alright!" Merle yelped, tears in her eyes, and nuzzled Byarl gently. To Merle, Byarl was more than a friend and the leader of her tribe - he had, in many ways, become like a second father to her.
Byarl smiled. "Now, now. What would Ellie say if she heard you'd nuzzled me? For that matter, what would Lord Xaa say?" Byarl asked, his voice very weak, and grinned.
The other musties burst out laughing, and Merle giggled. "Oh, you! You had us all so worried!"
Byarl grinned again. "Thank you, all - though I think the next thing we're going to learn from the mus is how to make armor like you've got, Merle. It's something I think we all should wear in battle - even if it does make you look a little like a walking teakettle."
Merle stuck her tongue out at Byarl, then giggled. The rest of the musties burst into giggles for several moments, as well. For several minutes thereafter, all the musties took turns stroking Byarl's paws and face, chittering with happiness. Byarl smiled back - he felt weak as a newborn pup and his side ached, but he was happy.
A movement caught Byarl's attention, and as he looked, he saw the tent-flap being opened, and three mus stepping in - Hragh, Lord O'dmemet, and Lord Xaa. The musties all rose, save for Byarl, and bowed, and the mus bowed in return before Hragh stepped over and knelt by Byarl.
"We heard the laughter, Merle," Xaa rumbled, and smiled. "We figured that probably meant the crisis-point had passed, and Byarl had awakened."
Hragh gently lifted the blanket from Byarl, examining the bandages carefully. "How do you feel, Great Chief Byarl?" he rumbled, his paw going to Byarl's face to examine his eyes.
Byarl grinned, and repeated the answer he'd given Merle as best he could in the language of the mus. Hragh merely smiled, but Lord O'dmemet broke into a series of snorts, and Lord Xaa guffawed.
"Musties!" Lord O'dmemet said at last, shaking his head while grinning broadly.
Xaa simply nodded, grinning, and the musties grinned back at him.
"I believe you'll be fine, Great Chief. The bloodmoss seems to be doing its job, and the wound seems to be healing nicely. You'll have to lie still for at least another day or two, however, and we'll have to move you slowly after that. It will be at least two weeks before you can ride again."
"Blah. Lie here for another day? What will we do until then? Are the cats beaten? What about the mice? Have they been freed?" Byarl replied, his irritation making him forget to speak in the language of the mus.
"The mice are free, Great Chief Byarl," Xaa replied, smiling. "As for the cats... Well, I've come to an agreement with their leader, General R'Narr," Xaa replied, and explained what R'Narr had proposed.
"An alliance? Can they be trusted?" Byarl asked, his brow furrowing.
Xaa shrugged. "Hard to say. R'Narr is an honorable warrior - but he is a cat. For now, we have agreed to a truce. The next few months will tell. We'll remain camped here until you're able to ride again, then head back to our lands. Afterwards, we'll have to wait and see. If his offer is genuine, by spring he'll have brought the trade goods we agreed upon - a thousand trained riding birds of prime breeding age and ten thousand head of cattle. In exchange, we'll give him a hundred barrels of powder for his guns and two hundred barrels of arrows for his bows. It's my guess that he is serious about wanting to ally with us to seize the throne for himself - though what he does after that is anyone's guess. Cats are unpredictable, sometimes."
"Hmm... Well, you know them better than I, Lord Xaa. I just hope you're right," Byarl replied as Hragh felt the pulse in his wrist. "How are the mice? Are they alright?"
"He asks how the mice are, Hragh," Xaa replied, nodding to Hragh. Hragh took a moment to gently cover Byarl with the blanket again before he replied.
"Well, Great Chief Byarl, they live - though they are, as Lord Xaa has put it, quite the worse for wear. Fully half of them had insufficient wood to chew upon during the trip, and I've had to file their incisors a bit as they'd grown a little long. They all are slightly malnourished, and at the limits of their physical endurance. There is plenty of grass to feed them here for now, but it will be weeks before they all will be fully recovered. There is also much muttering among them - apparently, one of them died along the trip," Hragh explained, sitting back on his heels.
Byarl blanched. "So sorry, who? Who die?" he asked in the language of the mus, his poor command of the tongue showing.
"Mayor Cooper," Merle said, and the rest of the musties nodded. "The mice are very upset. Potter says Cooper went mad on the trip, and tried to escape. The cats said that they would kill all the children if anyone tried to escape, so Smith killed Cooper to show the cats that the rest of the mice would rather that Cooper die instead of their children. But that's not what the other mice say. The other mice say that even though he probably did save their children, there's no excuse, and Smith is a murderer."
"Spirits of the forest..." Byarl whispered, shocked and saddened. "I've known both of those mice all my life. We were..." he said, and paused, sighing. "Cooper and I had been friends since we both were pups. We used to play together often, Merle, when we were young... And Smith... Why, I've known him forever. He couldn't possibly kill another mouse. He doesn't have it in him."
"He does, now, my friend," Xaa rumbled, looking down at Byarl. "He has changed. You can see it in his eyes, and in his stance. He is no longer a timid little mouse - he is a warrior, the dream of ancient Dash'Du'ragh come true. As I understand it, he had little choice. Either Cooper died, or all the children of his village died. He made the choice for the children - though at times, I think, it weighs on his soul. You can see that in his eyes, as well. And now, the Little Ones are divided as to what to do. Smith has his supporters - a group of perhaps four dozen other Little Ones, counting females and children. The rest, apparently, wish to punish Smith for what he has done."
Merle nodded. "Cooper's mate, Fannie, wants the Law of the Mice to be enforced. She is calling for the Shunning," Merle explained, and the other musties shuddered.
Byarl blinked in surprise, and found he didn't know what to say. The mice hadn't even used the Shunning on anyone in all the ages the musties had known them. It was the most serious punishment under the Law of the Mice.
"What is that?" O'dmemet rumbled curiously, after what had been said had been translated to him by Xaa.
Byarl spoke up, his voice still weak, and his expression showing hos shocked the whole situation had made him. "Very bad, Lord O'dmemet. Very bad punishment. Is to never speak again, is..." he said, then looked to Merle, exasperated over his lack of fluency in the language of the mus. "Merle, can you explain it to him?"
Merle looked to O'dmemet. "It's the worst punishment under their law, Lord O'dmemet. They cast them out of their village, and they never speak to the shunned person again. They never speak to them, they never speak about them, they don't look at them, they don't touch them, they don't help them, they never deal with them again in any way. It's like they're dead - worse, really. It's like they ceased to exist."
"So sorry, but more is there," Byarl added, frowning. "Also family punished."
Merle nodded. "Byarl is right, Lord O'dmemet. If Smith is shunned, his mate and daughter will have to shun him, as well, or they will also be shunned. Anyone who talks to or helps or even acknowledges the shunned mouse even exists is also shunned," Merle explained, then sighed. "And if they're not skilled at woodcraft, a shunned mouse will die when the first winter's snow comes."
Lord O'dmemet shook his head. "Ridiculous. Under our laws, he wouldn't be punished - he'd be honored. It's obvious he acted to save the children, and only did what honor and duty required. Even if it were decided he needed to be punished, common mercy would insist that the punishment only be applied to him, not his family, friends, and anyone who might even accidentally acknowledge his existence."
Merle nodded. "And under our traditions, he wouldn't be punished, either. We'd all be very sad that the situation came down to that, especially the person who had to actually do it, but we wouldn't punish them for doing what was necessary to save the children."
"I agree - it is ridiculous," Xaa rumbled, nodding to O'dmemet, then shrugged. "But, such is their way, my friend."
"When will the council decide, Merle?" Byarl asked.
Merle shrugged. "Not soon, that's for sure. Probably not until we at least get back to Laughing Wood, and the mice know they're safe."
Hragh rose to his feet, and bowed. "My lords, my ladies, so sorry, but I think perhaps that my patient should rest, now. You may have one mustie to watch over him and alert me if he suddenly grows worse, but he must be allowed to rest and sleep for now - no talking, please. He may have visitors again this evening, at sunset, but for no more than an hour."
Xaa and O'dmemet bowed low. "Yes, Healer Hragh," O'dmemet rumbled respectfully.
"I thank you most humbly, Healer Hragh, for having saved the life of my ally, Great Chief Byarl," Xaa rumbled with equal respect.
Hragh returned the bow as the musties stood to also bow to him. "You are welcome, Lord Xaa, but I cannot honestly claim all the credit. The mare, Amani, was greatly responsible for my success, as she was able to feel the organs beneath the skin and tell me what I needed to know to act quickly and save his life. She is, herself, a skilled healer, and though her methods may be strange to us, they do seem to work."
Xaa straightened up with the rest, and nodded. "Well, perhaps if R'Narr does end up becoming emperor of the cats and her people are freed, they will come in equally useful in the future," he replied, then turned to the musties. "Kahm. Hwe goh nahw. T'chehf B'hyahrrl slehp. Hragh sehy," he rumbled in his atrocious accent.
The musties grinned at Xaa, but managed not to giggle. Merle spoke up, cutting off their questions. "Hragh says that we have to let Byarl rest - and he's the healer, so he can even tell his own lord, Lord O'dmemet, what to do when it comes to helping sick people get better, okay?" Merle said, and the rest of the musties nodded, understanding. "Now, Hragh says one of us can watch him to make sure he doesn't have a relapse - I guess we can take turns. Sarto, you're the best of us at still-hunts, so I guess you can be first. Hragh says that Byarl has to sleep, so no talking - and since you're the least likely of us to doze off just sitting here doing nothing, that means you should be first watch. He also says Byarl can have visitors at sunset, for an hour. Okay?"
Sarto nodded, his furry face split with a grin. "Okay, Merle."
"Okay! Now, I know that all of us want to be next to be with Byarl, so the rest of us will draw twigs to see who gets next," Merle said, and knelt by Byarl to nuzzle him again for a moment. "See you later, Chief. Get some sleep, okay?"
Byarl grinned. "I will."
Merle rose, then looked at Xaa with a sudden start, worried that he might think something else of her nuzzling Byarl, as she had once thought badly of him nuzzling Lady Vhross. With relief, she saw that Xaa was simply smiling at her. "Okay, everyone - let's go."
Byarl looked at the tent flap for
a long time after everyone had left and Sarto had settled himself
nearby to watch over him. 'She'll make a fine chief,
someday,' he thought with a grin, and closed his eyes to
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