Ayre of the Last God
(Book III of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY


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Merle sat on the balcony of the room she'd been given in Castle Xaa, gazing out over the busy village that lay just outside the gates, and fretted.

It had been two weeks since they left Castle W'Mefa, and there had been so much to do once they arrived. Each and every one of Xaa's vassals had an enormous amount of work they had to do, and they launched themselves into their work with gusto. Grnargh, Xaa's chamberlain, had worked hard inventorying everything, making sure the castle had adequate supplies for both peace and war. Xaa didn't expect a war, of course - it was simply the way of the mus to be prepared for such things. The peace with the cats seemed to be holding (for the moment), and it seemed wisest to stock the castle, should the peace treaty fail. P'jasta, Grnargh's daughter, had her paws full cooking for everyone, and Merle was sure if it weren't for the rest of her family helping her, she'd have collapsed with exhaustion the first day. Lameh had been busy, as well - as the new Chief Bath Attendant, it had been her task to make sure the castle's single bath was ready for use. She had been completely dissatisfied with the enormous oaken tub that had already been put in place, and had spent days re-doing it's varnish before it was ready for it's first customer (Lord Xaa himself, naturally). Then, there was Lady Vhross, who was helping Lord Xaa with his bookkeeping and other matters - though she was not his courtesan yet (and wouldn't be until next year), she worked very hard to show him that she would be a valuable one, when the time came.

Even the mice and the musties had been very busy. The castle lacked anything in the way of art or decorations, so a month ago, Byarl had taken up the task of helping Xaa outfit his castle with suitably appropriate carvings and paintings. The musties had found it very fun to try to copy the artistic style of the mus, though what they ended up with was more of a blend between the traditional art of the musties and that of the mus. When Byarl saw the first efforts, he hadn't been pleased (he was hoping that the musties might duplicate the art of the mus more closely). Xaa, however, was very pleased, which made Byarl happy again. Xaa had been visiting Mustie Village as the first two carvings were completed, produced by the paws of Nito and Nona. Nito's carving was of a warrior-mus, fully armed and armored, firing his bow from the back of his djududu-bird. Xaa had been very impressed with it, and said it was quite a dramatic work. Nona, on the other paw, had carved a simple rendering of a male mus and a male mustie, walking side by side into their future. Xaa had been equally impressed with it, and he had placed the wooden carving (which was actually quite large - it stood nearly three feet tall) in a place of honor in his dining room.

The mice, for their part, spent the majority of their time simply writing down their skills and knowledges in books, building their "New Library." It was incredibly painstaking work - they had to make sure everything was written down correctly, and that they didn't miss anything. Yet, even with all this work, they still had found the time to make rifled guns for all Xaa's vassals. Xaa had been very pleased - the guns were very accurate, and only the rifle Tinker made two years ago really compared.

Still, in all of this, there was one person who had nothing to do - one person who, in the midst of all this constant bustle and activity both inside the castle and out, simply had no tasks that they needed to accomplish.

Merle herself.

Certainly, she could work on her inventions - but at the moment, she didn't have any new ideas. She no longer needed to train warriors to pilot the airships of the mus, as there were now more than enough of Lord W'Mefa's vassals who knew how that they had taken over for her months ago. And, with her part of Johm'rouh's education complete, she had nothing to fill her days anymore.

Merle sighed. Merle's mind, as with all musties, was very active and imaginative, and her instinct was to play - play was very basic to the lives of all musties, from the youngest to the oldest. Usually, a bored mustie would simply play a game with their friends - but all Merle's mustie friends were either in Mustie Village, or were very busy helping Xaa. Failing that, a bored mustie would play a game by herself. Yet, Merle didn't feel like playing by herself. She wanted to do something. Unfortunately, there was nothing for her to do, at the moment.

Merle sighed, her thoughts drifting as she turned her gaze from the castle and surrounding lands below the balcony to the blue sky above. A single, fluffy cloud slowly sailed across the sky, and to Merle's active imagination, its shape reminded her of a bird. Merle idly wondered what Tinker would think of it's shape, then sighed again.

Tinker was gone, of course. Her little friend from childhood was dead, and had been for two years, now. He had died saving everyone - but he was still dead.

Merle remembered that day, when Xaa laid him down in the quiet clearing on Forbidden Island, Tinker's life ebbing from the mortal blow T'Vril had given him with her claws. He could have saved himself. The Last God had enough power to affect the small cave they were in - indeed, Tinker had proven that by tricking the strange God/Machine of the Ancient Ones into destroying itself. Yet, he had not used the power to save himself. His first thought had not been for himself, but for the world that was at risk from the insanity of the Last God.

And that single, selfless act had, for Merle, erased all the bad things Tinker had done before. The rudeness, the spite, the anger, the hatred... All were nothing. Merle understood Tinker so much better, now. He was lonely and afraid, trapped in a land of carnivorous giants who once had genocidally slaughtered his people eight centuries before. He had followed Merle there out of love - and, in the end, he did love her, more than he loved life itself.

Merle's eyes misted as she remembered his last words. He had smiled at her, his voice fading with his life, and whispered "I love you, Merle..." Then, he was gone.

"I love you, too, Tinker..." Merle whispered to the sky above. "I always will."

"Hoyo, Merle!" a voice squeaked from behind her.

Merle nearly leaped out of her fur - the voice sounded exactly like Tinker's. Merle spun too look behind her, and saw Smith, Tinker's father, standing by the doorway to her room. Merle stared at him for several seconds, blinking, trying to tell herself this was Smith, not Tinker. Smith was older than Tinker had been, as he was in his thirties and Tinker had died at fifteen. He was also a bit taller than Tinker had been, and years of hard work at the forge had made him far broader and more muscular, as well. He was also dressed in the tunic and trousers of a mus, sized down to fit him, rather than the mousie-pants, shirt and little leather vest Tinker used to wear, the one with dozens of little pockets for all his tools and things. Yet, as she looked at the handsome, mature mouse before her, all she could see for a moment was Tinker. The thought that this is what her little friend would have become, had he lived, nearly made her weep.

Merle bowed, gazing at the floor to shut the image from her eyes and mind. "Hoyo, Smith. What brings you here, today?" she asked politely, struggling to keep her voice level.

Smith bowed in return, his smile fading somewhat. He had caught a bit of Merle's expression, and he didn't know what it meant. "Well, I've come to ask you a favor..." he replied. "Lady Vhross said you were probably here, and the door was open... I hope it's alright that I just came in, because... Well, this is something... It's a favor I really need to ask of you, I'm sorry."

"Oh?" Merle asked as they straightened up again. "What kind of favor?"

Smith walked through the room and out onto the balcony, his tail flicking from side to side nervously. "Well... It's somewhat... Somewhat personal. You don't have to, if you don't want..."

Merle smiled politely, then sat on the pillow she had placed on the balcony for herself. Patting the pillow next to her, she looked to Smith. "It's alright. Have a seat, Smith, and ask me."

Smith nodded, and sat. He then opened his mouth to say something, his whiskers twitching, but closed it again. Merle waited, wondering what was on his mind. Finally, Smith mustered his courage, and spoke.

"I... I need to ask you to tell me the story of my son. I need to know what happened," he said, his voice quiet. "We... We've heard bits of it... A whisper here, a snippet there, but little more. I need to know, Merle - Oh, sorry, Lady Merle," he said, bowing his head. "As I am always telling the mice of our village - we're in the lands of the mus, now, and we must follow their customs."

Merle smiled. "It's alright, Smith. What exactly did you want to know?"

Smith sighed. "Well... Everything. I need to hear the whole story, from beginning to end. I... I need to hear it all, so that I can know what happened, and know what to tell Bootie... And what to tell Little Tinker, when he grows up," Smith said, referring to his year-old son. By the old ways, he also had been named "Tinker," as the Law of the Mice had dictated his name before he was even born. When the mice chose to make a new law for themselves, his name was kept, even though they no longer followed this rule - they felt it would be wrong to take a child's name from them. Yet, Merle knew Smith was right - someday, he would have to tell his young son about his elder namesake. Someday, the story would have to be told.

Merle thought about it for a long moment. 'How much can I tell him?' she wondered. There were some parts of the story she did not know, and only guessed at. Other parts, she wasn't sure she should tell him at all. She knew Tinker and T'Vril had been lovers, for instance - and that knowledge might be very painful to Smith. Tinker had died after traveling to Forbidden Island to destroy the mus - that, too, might not be something Smith wanted to hear.

Smith, seeing Merle's expression, spoke. "Lady Merle... I... I know some of it may not be pleasant. Some of the things he did may not have been nice. This, I have gathered already. Tell me anyway, please. Tell me everything - the whole story, from the beginning to the end."

Merle nodded. "Well, some of the story has to remain a secret, Smith. There are some things that... Well, it involves the Ancient Ones."

Smith nodded. "We mice can keep secrets. We've had millennia of practice, after all," he replied quietly.

Merle nodded - if anyone could keep a secret, it was a mouse. Merle sighed, thinking back. "Well, I suppose it all began the day I found Seeker."

"Seeker?" Smith asked.

"Yes - it's one of my slingstones. My best, actually - almost perfectly round. Would you like to see?"

Smith smiled. "Yes, please, Lady Merle."

"Oh, just call me 'Merle', Smith," Merle said, and giggled as she reached into the sleeve of her kimono. "After all, there's no mus around, and there's no need to be formal with me right now. You mousies can be so serious, at times," she said, and giggled again as she pulled out her bag of slingstones.

Smith smiled and nodded. Though he didn't see any other weapons on her (her swords sat quietly in a rack on a low table inside her room, since Merle didn't really know how to use them yet), Smith didn't even blink at the idea that Merle would be armed - she was a mustie, after all, and a mustie without a weapon was like a mouse without a tail. After a moment, Merle produced a small river-stone from the bag, about an inch across. She was right - it was a nearly perfect sphere, and quite rare for a river-stone. "Seeker," Merle explained simply, holding the stone out. Smith took the stone in his paw, examining it for a moment.

"It's very rare, Merle. A round river stone is the exception - most are flat. It looks like it's granite - probably deposited by a glacial flow," he said, and handed it back.

Merle slipped the stone back into her bag, and then made the bag disappear again in the folds of her kimono. "Well, anyway... I guess it all started the day I found Seeker. I was in the large clearing near your old village - the one with the enormous oak Tinker and I called "Old Gnarly." I had just finished seeing how Seeker would fly when Tinker called to me from the edge of the clearing - just like you did a minute ago, in fact. I was just thinking about him just before you arrived, and your voice sounded so much like his and you remind me so much of what he looked like, that you startled me for quite a bit when you first came to see me," Merle said, and giggled again.

Smith smiled. "Do go on, please."

Merle nodded, and began.

It was a long story, and the sun was dipping towards late afternoon by the time Merle finally finished. The strange sound Merle had heard in the forest that led her to find the wounded mus, Xaa, had led her on an adventure the likes of which no mouse or mustie had known before. Merle spared Smith nothing, telling him everything she knew of what Tinker had done. Yet, she also told him why she thought he had been the way he was - and she told him how, in the end, Tinker had saved everyone from destruction at the paws of the insane God/Machine of the Ancient Ones, that long-gone race of myth and legend. Finally, Merle stopped her tale at the point where she and Xaa left Castle W'mefa with fifty mus, headed to the Wild Wood in the hope that they could bring the musties back with them onto Xaa's lands. Merle smiled. "Well, as you mice say, the rest of my tale you know yourself, as you were a part of it."

Smith sighed. "I never should have let him go. He had argued that his skills would be needed along the journey. He was right, of course, but I still should not have let him go. I should have turned his argument against him, and gone in his stead."

Merle blinked. "You?"

Smith nodded. "Yes. If I had been there, things would have been different. Tinker was young... An older mouse might have handled being alone among the mus better than he did, and not been as afraid as he was. And an older mouse might have realized, as I have, that the Law of the Mice was wrong, and freely given the mus what they needed to survive. After all, if the mus had lost, the cats might have come to the Wild Wood next. Also, an older mouse might have realized that the mus were right - the wish of Dash'du'ragh, their ancient battle-leader, had to come true. Just as the mus learned to sing their own songs, we needed to learn to fight our own battles. And, now, we are."

Merle shook her head. "Now, now. We musties have a saying; 'Never weep over rabbits you didn't catch, or fish that got away. Always look ahead to the future. But next time, carry an extra slingstone and an extra fishhook,'" Merle said, and smiled again.

Smith sighed. "Yes, yes... 'Water under the bridge,' as we mice say. Still... The mus were right... About everything. They seem to almost always be right. My son did have a dark side. All of us mice do, really. It's part of our nature. I learned that myself, as a prisoner of the cats. My own dark side is not a pleasant one. Perhaps it's from our origins... If what you say the Last God said is true, then we were all created by him from animals in the wilderness. I imagine that our own species was very small, and survived my stealth and subterfuge. Our animal forebears were probably very similar to the rabbits, back then - vicious fights among the males for dominance, yet fleeing literally everything larger than us. Yes, the light side and the dark... Two sides of the same leaf - and a bittersweet leaf it is to chew," Smith said, and sighed. "My only regret is that all the mus, even Lord Xaa, only saw his dark side. He was a sweet and gentle boy, really," Smith said, and hung his head.

Merle reached out a paw to Smith, squeezing his paw in hers. "No, Smith. Xaa knows. He was there, when Tinker destroyed the Last God. And he was there when he died. Of all the mus, Xaa understood Tinker the best. He may have gotten angry at him for some of the bad things he did, but he understood him. And he forgave him, Smith. All the mus forgive the mice. It's like Xaa told you last year, when you and your village split off from the other mice, Smith. The mus forgave the mice a long, long time ago," Merle said, then reached out and gave Smith a hug.

"Thank you, Merle." Smith replied, hugging back.

"Besides," Merle said, letting Smith go and sitting back again, "the mus have their own 'dark side,' too."

Smith blinked. "They do?"

Merle giggled. "Yes, of course! Everyone does, Smith! The history of the mus shows how they spent many, many centuries fighting each other off and on after they freed themselves from the mice that had enslaved them. It's not like they were all peaceful and happy and sweet to each other after that, you know. They even sometimes fight each other today - usually over land, when the inheritance is unclear, but sometimes over questions of honor. Everyone has a dark side, Smith."

"Well, everyone except perhaps you musties." Smith said, smiling slightly.

Merle burst out laughing. "Oh, Smith! We have a dark side, too! Everyone does! Why, our own legends tell us that when we first encountered your people in the Wild Wood eight centuries ago, our first thought was that you might be good to eat!" she said, and giggled as Smith blanched. "You see? Everyone has a dark side. Well, except for maybe the horses."

Smith nodded, thinking of the gentle mare, Amani. "Yes, except the horses. Though, I think perhaps you're right, and everyone does have a dark side - even them. We just haven't seen it yet."

Merle nodded. "And, with luck, we never will."

"So sorry, my lady, may I come in?" an alto voice rumbled from the door to Merle's room in the language of the mus.

Merle grinned, seeing C'dera peeping in at them. "Of course! Come, come! Smith is here, and we can talk and maybe play a game!" Merle called back in the same language.

Lady Vhross smiled, shaking her head as she walked towards Merle and Smith. "No, my lady, I cannot play today. I'm helping our lord get his books in order - proper bookkeeping is essential to running a fief. I'm only here to tell Smith that Lord Y'dahk has saddled his bird and is ready to take him back to his village again."

"Oh," Merle replied, crestfallen.

"Ah!" Smith replied, standing quickly and bowing to Lady Vhross. "Me thank you muchly, my lady," he squeaked to Lady Vhross, his command of the language somewhat poor, but understandable. Smith then turned to Merle, who returned his bow from where she sat. "I can find my own way out. Thank you for telling me the story. Farewell, my lady." he said, then turned and walked off the balcony, through Merle's room, and out the door.

C'dera smiled. "The Little Ones who have chosen to live on our lands are so polite, my lady. They are all quite properly mannered. Such a pleasant difference from the Little One, Tinker, don't you think?"

"Yes, they want you to have a good impression of them. Tinker... Well, he didn't know any better," Merle replied, and sighed as she again turned her gaze out off the edge of the balcony. Merle knew that C'dera had to go back to work - there was still an enormous amount of work to be done, and none of it was anything she could really help with. She had hoped that maybe C'dera might play a game with her, but that wasn't to be. C'dera was a mus, not a mustie, and she had set aside most games when she became an adult. That was their way.

C'dera paused, looking at Merle quietly. "Well, my lady, on further reflection, I do think that I can put off working on Lord Xaa's books for the moment, and play a game with you after all."

"No, it's alright. Go ahead," Merle replied, gazing at the mountains in the distance.

"No, my lady, it is not alright," C'Dera said, and sat quietly on the pillow next to Merle. With a gentle paw, she reached out to turn Merle's face towards her own, and saw that her eyes were moist with tears. "My lady, just as you have learned to adapt to us, we should also learn to adapt to you. You are a mustie, not a mus, and musties play from the day they're born to the day they die. Lord Xaa told me once that if ever I was asked to play a game by Chief Byarl, I should never refuse, because to a mustie, that might mean I did not like him."

Merle sniffled. "No, no... It's not that simple... I mean, we get busy, too, and we understand things like that, and-"

"Perhaps, my lady," C'dera interrupted, "but you are no ordinary mustie. You are to be Lord Xaa's mate, in a year from now, and I to be his courtesan, your partner in your relationship to him. As such, my duties to you are just as important as my duties to him. Unless..." she said, and paused, a worried expression on her face. "Unless you've changed your mind?"

Merle blinked in surprise. "No! I know that by your laws, I retain the right of refusal, but I would never do that to you - you're my friend, and I know you love him, too. And as for him, I will never change my mind, I love him, I will always love him," she replied, and smiled. "He is everything to me."

C'dera smiled in return. "And to me, as well. Still, you are just as important. You are my friend, as well as becoming the mate of the one I love, and allowing me to share him with you," she replied, and held her head up. "Now, we will play a game, because you are a mustie and that is the mustie way, and your ways are just as important as our ways, and that is all there is to that," C'dera said firmly, then winked.

Merle grinned. "Okay, what game did you want to play?"

"Any one that you wish, my lady," C'dera replied, smiling back.

"Well, you're too big to play Hottop... How about Nim?"

C'dera nodded. "I've been practicing that one on occasion. I think I may be able to beat you at it, this time."

"We'll see," Merle replied with a grin, and stood to get the board she had made. She paused, and gave C'dera a hug. "Thank you."

"No, thank you, my lady," C'dera replied, hugging back, "for without you, I would never have a chance to even be near the one I love. Without you, he might even have died three years ago, out there, alone in the wilderness, his arm broken... You've made everything possible - and more."

Merle smiled, and she and C'dera shared a silent moment, just gazing at each other, before Merle hugged her again and ran off to get her board.

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