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


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Merle panted beneath her helmet, gripping the miniature wooden practice sword tightly in her right paw as she circled her opponent. Beneath her helmet, though, her muzzle was split in a wide grin. Despite the gentle breeze blowing into the room from outside, Merle found the practice hall of the castle was hot. She knew that to a mus, with their long, nearly hairless tail to cool them, it was probably quite comfortable - but to Merle, wearing her little suit of armor, it was quite hot, indeed. She didn't have a nice mus-tail to help cool her, and the effort of dancing around in her armor had her panting heavily. After the first half hour, Merle had finally resorted to pulling off the armored boots she wore - and found that this gave her a small advantage. The woven mats that covered the floor of the practice hall of the castle gave her toe-claws some purchase, and she was quite nimble on her feet. Merle waited, ready.

Xaa gazed down at Merle, and nodded. "You're doing well, Merle..." he rumbled in the language of the mus, then took a sudden swipe at her with his own wooden sword, held in a two-handed grip.

Merle ducked, then leaped and rolled forward, her left paw lashing out as she rolled back to her feet. In a heartbeat, she had grabbed the armored skirt-plates that protected Xaa's thighs, and flipped herself onto his back. Xaa shifted to avoid her, but it was too late - in a moment, she was on his back, and already reaching up to his shoulder to scramble higher. In a moment, she would be across his shoulders, clapping her little wooden sword across the gorget that protected his throat.

Xaa snarled, loosing his left paw from his sword and lashing back behind him to grab Merle's ankle. With a sudden shake and a yank, he pulled Merle off his back.

Merle found herself dangling by one leg from Xaa's powerful grip, and was startled for a long moment. Xaa was equally startled - held upside down, the armored skirt-plates of Merle's miniature suit of armor flopped down, giving Xaa an unexpected and rather tantalizing view of her sex. He had expected perhaps to see a loincloth of some sort - but apparently Merle had decided it was too hot in her armor today to wear anything between it and her fur. The decision was understandable, given that musties didn't have a long mouse-tail to cool them and could only pant, but it was still a surprise.

After a moment, Merle took her little wooden sword and whacked Xaa across the steel cuirass that protected his belly, a small clank of wood on steel that he didn't even feel. "Meanie! That's cheating!" she called in the language of the Little People, and giggled.

Xaa let out a rumbling chuckle. Dropping his own practice sword, he reached out with his other paw to gently turn Merle upright, then set her on her feet again.

"I still say that's cheating," Merle replied, sticking her tongue out at Xaa. "Bears don't have thumbs, they can't grab you like that."

"No, but cats do," Xaa rumbled, reaching down to pick up his sword again. "That tactic may work against a bear, but you should be careful using it against a warrior - particularly one skilled at grappling, as I am. It can be countered."

Merle grinned. "Well, then I'll have to learn to keep you from doing that," she replied, and dropped into her 'ready' stance again.

"Perhaps, but not now," Xaa rumbled, and smiled. "For now, it's time for lunch," he replied, tucking the wooden sword under his arm and pulling off his helmet.

Merle followed suit, and when she had her helmet off, she grinned. An hour of sparring with Xaa had left her panting and hot, but happy. "That was fun! Can we do this again tomorrow?"

Xaa nodded, smiling. "If you wish, love. I'm sure Jamat and Y'Dahk would also like to spar against you, as well. It's good for you to learn how to fight against a warrior, rather than a dumb bear. But, for now, let's get changed for lunch."

A few minutes later, as Merle was finishing putting her kimono back on, there was a knock at the door. Merle opened it to see C'dera standing there. C'dera smiled down at Merle. "Good day, my lady. May I come in?"

"Of course!" Merle chittered, stepping back from the door.

C'dera smiled, looking at Merle's happy face. "I see you and our lord had quite an enjoyable time."

Merle blinked. "You know about that?"

C'dera smiled again. "Of course - it was I who told him that you were feeling a bit lonely, and needed someone to play with."

Merle blanched. "You told him that?!"

"Yes, my lady... Why, did I do wrong?" C'dera asked, suddenly concerned.

"No, it's just that... Well, I..." Merle paused, unable to really say what was on her mind. Play was normal for a mustie - musties played from the day they were born to the day they died. Yet, the mus did not. Upon reaching their age of majority, the mus put aside simple play as a thing of childhood. "I... I just don't want him to see me as a child, bored and needing to play," Merle finally said.

To Merle's shock and surprise, C'dera burst out laughing.

"What's so funny?!" Merle snapped.

"Oh, my lady, do forgive me, but... None of us see you as a child, nor any of your people, for that matter. And as for Lord Xaa..." she said, then smiled. "Well, he sees you completely differently, my lady - and certainly not as a child."

"What do you mean? How does he see me?" Merle asked, paws on hips.

"Come, my lady - let us sit for a moment," C'dera said, gesturing to the pillows nearby the low table in Merle's room. Merle nodded, and shortly the two friends sat opposite each other. C'dera smoothed a wrinkle in her kimono for a moment, collecting her thoughts, then began.

"Merle, my dearest little friend... Xaa sees you as being a tiny, beautiful, magical creature of the forest, come to live with him. The stuff of dreams and myths, brought to life..."

"Dreams and myths?" Merle asked.

"Oh, yes, my lady. You see, we mus have myths of forest spirits and forest sprites. Strange, magical beings of ether who live among the trees, vanishing the moment you turn to look at them. In many ways, we see your people, the musties, as being the living embodiment of these legends. Your people are uncannily familiar with the forest, and very nearly can vanish in the trees the moment you take your eyes from them."

Merle giggled. "It's not quite that easy, C'dera."

C'dera nodded. "Perhaps, but that is what we see. Yet, there is so much more than just that to your people... And far more than that to our lord's feelings for you."

"Oh?" Merle replied, trying not to look too eager to hear. The mus were, even more so than the mice, a very conservative and stoic people, and overly-large shows of emotion were considered poor form by them.

"Yes, my lady. Do you remember the day you found Xaa and I outside the tea-house in Lord W'mefa's castle?"

Merle made a face - she remembered all too well. She had seen C'dera and Xaa nuzzle, and thought that Xaa no longer loved her. She had been wrong, and foolishly led Xaa on a two-day chase after her when she fled the castle in tears, but that's what she had thought. "Yes, I do."

"Well, my lady, he told me then how he feels for you, so that I might understand. He also explained once to P'jasta, the cook, the same thing - and I have talked to her, and heard what she recalls. Yes, my lady - he loves you deeply, and dearly," C'dera said, then smiled. "For example, did you know that nearly each morning he sees you at breakfast, you surprise him anew?"

Merle blinked again. "I do? How?"

C'dera smiled. "It seems that at night, in his dreams, you grow in his mind until you are the size of one of us. And each morning, when he sees you anew, he is reminded of just how tiny you really are, my lady. You are only about three feet tall - the size of a child, to a mus. Yet, you are not in any way proportioned like a child, with a body of incomplete or immature dimensions. No, you are perfectly formed... A miniature person, actually, and quite beautiful."

Merle was again glad she was a mustie and had furry ears, so that her blushes didn't show (unless you were a mustie and knew what to look for). "Thank you."

"Oh, but there's still more, my lady. You saved his life, undoubtedly. You've proven yourself in battle twice, and have shown that you are a brave as any mus - perhaps even more. From your mind, a hundred different inventions have sprung, all useful, all helpful."

Merle felt her ears burning with a deep blush. "But..."

C'dera shook her head. "No, my lady. There are no 'buts'. He respects you as a warrior, he admires you for your wisdom and inventiveness, he loves you as a friend and future mate, and he is in awe of you as a tiny, magical forest-spirit, come to life and graciously agreeing to live with him. When I told him that you were unhappy, and why, he was his usual self - he simply said he would handle the problem. But I could see in his eyes he was utterly devastated."

"Huh? Devastated?" Merle asked, and C'dera nodded. "Why?"

"I believe it was because he feared he might lose you, my lady - you might be so unhappy here, you would leave him, return to your people, and never speak to him again."

Merle blinked again, then burst into giggles. "That would never happen, C'dera! I was just bored and lonely yesterday, that's all."

"Perhaps, Merle... But you must remember, you see yourself as a mustie, and an ordinary person. To we mus, however, you are anything but ordinary. We see you as being very a strange, magical little person, and very beautiful. To our eyes, you simply appeared one day, brought back from the deep and ancient forest you lived in by Lord Xaa... And you may simply disappear the next, vanishing back into the forest from whence you came, like one of the little forest spirits from our myths... Here now, then gone when you turn to look."

Merle sat silently for a moment, digesting what C'dera had said. Finally, she looked up to C'dera. "Okay... But why didn't he tell me this himself?"

C'dera smiled. "He is warrior-caste, my lady, as am I. There are certain proprieties. He would not gush over you and embarrass you, no matter how deeply he felt for you, until the time of the formal courtship has begun."

Merle giggled. "Well, I guess I would be a little embarrassed... But there's a time of formal courtship?"

C'dera nodded. "Yes, my lady. This is your seventeenth summer - in a year, you will be eighteen, and if you still wish, then he will take you as his mate at that time, as per your agreement with him. But, of course, it will be handled with all the usual propriety. A period of formal courtship is usual for our people."

Merle nodded. "Okay... How long does the courtship period usually last?"

"Usually a year."

Merle blinked. "A YEAR?!" she yelped in her own language, leaping to her feet. "You mean I'm going to have to wait another TWO YEARS before we can marry?!" she yelped, switching back to the language of the mus.

C'dera burst out laughing. "No, no! You asked how long it usually lasted - a year is typical. In your case, I'm sure Lord Xaa will not want to wait any longer than you - after all, by then, you'll have waited four years. He has already mentioned to Grnargh a plan of marrying on the first day of summer, when the weather would be quite pleasant."

Merle was still upset. "Why would he tell Grnargh when he plans on marrying me before he tells ME?!"

C'dera smiled again. "Because Grnargh is his chamberlain, my lady - it is his duty to plan such things. There are many preparations to be made. There will be many guests, and as such, there must be adequate food and drink for them all. Both your costume and his must be ordered - and yours, in particular, will be difficult, as you are so small. Yes, there are many, many preparations - and this is difficult, as funds are still low right now. He is only beginning to restore his fief, and there is little livestock or fodder that can be spared for sale to the other clans. No, my lady - there are an enormous amount of preparations to be made, and only Grnargh is fully equipped and skilled to handle them all. That is why he is the chamberlain, and Xaa is the liege-lord, not the other way around," C'dera said, and winked.

Merle giggled, and sat down again. "Well... Okay, I can live with that," she said, then paused. "But it's very expensive for him?" she asked.

C'dera nodded. "Yes, my lady. Our lord may be the most famous warrior in all the lands of the mus, but because he lost everything to the cats four years ago and has had to spend nearly his entire treasury re-building his castle from the fire, he is also among the poorest."

"Hmm... I wish there was something I could do to help him make more money, so it wouldn't be such a hardship on him."

"Perhaps you will think of something when the time comes, my lady. After all, it is still over a year away. For now, however, I believe our lord awaits us for lunch," C'dera replied with a smile, and stood.

Merle grinned, rising to her feet. "You're right - I have plenty of time to think of something. Let's go eat."

Paw-in-paw, the two friends walked out of Merle's room, and down the hallway, still chatting together.

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