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


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Merle walked out onto the balcony demurely with C'Dera, and they both bowed to Xaa. Xaa, who was seated on a pillow at the low table on his balcony, bowed from where he sat - more of a nod, really. "Ah - I've been waiting for you two. The servants tell me lunch is nearly ready. What kept you?" Xaa rumbled curiously.

Merle blushed guiltily. Though she loved him dearly, Xaa wasn't merely any warrior-caste male, whom one could be a few minutes late to lunch with. No, he was Lord of this castle and of these lands - effectively the king of a small kingdom. To be late when he had politely requested your presence was somewhat insulting. Merle was about to offer a stammering explanation and apology, when C'Dera cut her off. "I do beg your pardon most humbly, my lord, but it was entirely my fault. Lady Merle and I were chatting, and she so completely enchanted me the time slipped away, like magic," C'Dera said, and bowed again.

"Ah," Xaa replied, nodding, then smiled. "I've done that a time or two with Lady Merle, myself. Think nothing of it, C'dera," Xaa replied, gesturing for them to be seated. C'Dera and Merle sat quietly, and exchanged a silent smile.

"So, what were you two talking about?" Xaa asked as P'Jasta came out onto the balcony with a tray of tea.

"Oh, this and that," Merle replied, smiling innocently.

Xaa chuckled. "I know that look," he said, grinning at Merle. "I'll wager you two were talking about me."

Merle put on her best innocent face, and C'dera simply smiled as P'Jasta filled their teacups.

Xaa grinned again. "You two are as secretive as the Little Ones," he chuckled, shaking his head. "Speaking of which, did you know the Little One, Smith, came to visit me this morning?"

"Oh? What did he have to say?" Merle asked, curious.

Xaa rolled his eyes. "It wasn't so much what he said, but how he said it. The Little One, Smith, said that he has written down the story you told him, Merle - the story of Tinker, and the Last God," Xaa explained, and Merle nodded as he continued. "He reasoned that as I, his liege-lord, wished to keep parts of it secret, he would keep all of it secret. It has been added to a special collection of secret books in their library - and under lock and key. He was very nervous about telling me. I believe he feared that I might be upset to realize they still kept some secrets to themselves, as a 'collection' implies they have more than one of these 'secret books.'"

"Were you, my lord?" C'dera asked, lifting her cup for a sip of tea as P'Jasta left the balcony to bring the food.

Xaa chuckled again. "No, of course not. They are who they are. The Little Ones could no more give up all their secrets than I could suddenly live on their diet of grubs and roots."

Merle giggled. "Well, I don't think they'll hide much from you. They're very serious about trying to learn your culture, and be proper vassals to you."

Xaa nodded. "Quite serious, love. He asked if I might have any instructional books on our culture, etiquette and traditions, that they might educate their children more properly - but, of course, I did not. Such things are taught by word-of-muzzle when very young, not by rote instruction and memorization."

Merle giggled again. "Well, that's how they learn everything - by books, and by memorization. I remember one day when Tinker was explaining what their schooling is like. They repeat things over and over to memorize them - sometimes like a song," Merle explained, then switched to the language of the Little People of the Wild Wood, and sang a short song.

"Two bodies of mass Em-One and Em-Two,

with the distance Arr between the two,

exert attractive forces between the pair,

equal to Em-one times Em-Two over Arr square."

Merle then grinned. "Like that, see? It's a little song they use to memorize something. And they have terrific memories - they hardly ever forget anything."

Xaa nodded. "So our legends say, Merle," he agreed.

"It's a very interesting song, my lady," C'dera said, smiling, "but what does it mean?"

Merle shrugged. "I don't know - it doesn't really translate well. It's just a song Tinker sang for me once to show what his schooling was like. It doesn't make much sense, really. I tried it later, but I found if you hold two rocks next to each other, they don't pull together, like the song says. It's just part of their lore, I guess," Merle replied, then looked to Xaa. "So what happened when you told Smith you don't have books like that?"

"Well, we chatted a bit about what to do, and finally I decided that having them write down our culture and tradition would be useful to them. They've already learned quite a bit of it simply by asking questions, but having it formally written down would probably help them adjust to our culture faster, as apparently that's how they learn - from books. So, I asked Tlahn to go to their village each day and spend four hours each day teaching them. Jamat will take her on his bird, so she doesn't have to walk so far - she is over eighty now, after all."

"What a wonderful idea!" Merle gushed. "Why, then she'll have something to do again! Now that Johm'rouh doesn't need her anymore, she had nothing to do - and I think maybe she was getting pretty bored."

Xaa shook his head, smiling. "Tlahn, bored? Not hardly. She is always busy, cleaning and doing various small tasks for me. Merle, she's been with me several years, now, and I've never known her to let herself get bored. Of all the servants I have, I think Tlahn is probably the best one to teach our traditions to the Little Ones. She has a keen and insightful mind, and an ocean of patience."

"Oh, okay," Merle said, then grinned as P'Jasta stepped back onto the balcony with a tray of food. Once P'Jasta had laid out the plates of cooked meat and organs, Xaa, C'Dera and Merle all bowed very low to her. P'Jasta smiled and bowed in return, then left then alone to eat.

Xaa continued chatting about the progress of the various tasks that remained to be done here at his castle and the plans he had for the upcoming year, and Merle listened attentively while Xaa and C'dera discussed what was going on. There wasn't really much help or suggestions she could offer - she knew nothing about running a fief. Finally, Merle sighed. "I'm sorry - I wish I could help more, but many of the things you're talking about, I don't understand. How can you know how much fodder each acre of farm will produce before the grain is even harvested?"

Xaa simply shrugged. "Well, you have to know these things when you're warrior-caste, Merle. It's part of managing your fief."

Merle tried not to make a face.

"These are all estimates, my lady," C'dera explained. "We are trained how to estimate these things, so that we will be better able to manage our fief, should we have one, or help our liege to manage theirs."

"Oh, okay - kind of like how we estimate how much game there will be next year in the forest from how much there is this year, and what the weather has been like. Please continue," Merle said politely.

Merle tried to remain focused, hoping she could learn something, but found her attention wandering as the conversation continued over lunch. Suddenly, her eye caught upon something in the sky, and she pointed with her fork. "Ooo! Look, Xaa! Up there!"

Xaa turned his head, gazing into the sky, as C'dera spoke up. "I'm sorry, my lady, but I have yet to master your language. What is it?"

"Oh! I'm sorry, C'dera!" Merle said, switching back to the language of the mus. "There's a falcon trying to stoop on a pigeon, there," Merle explained, pointing to the sky. Sure enough, a gray pigeon with dark-brown wingtips flapped for it's life as a falcon soared high above it, trying to get into position to stoop upon it. The pigeon zig-zagged, but it's general course was towards the castle. "We musties think Falcons are pretty," Merle continued. "I just thought it was exciting, sorry."

As Xaa finally spotted what Merle was pointing at, he jumped to his feet, and swore. C'dera rose quickly, her eyes locked on the unfolding drama. "My lord, can you stop it?"

"I can try," Xaa growled, and dashed off the balcony into his room. In a moment, he returned with his bow in his paws and an arrow clenched in his teeth, and began to quickly string his bow.

"Huh? What's the matter? It's just hunting - falcons do that," Merle asked in confusion.

"That's a messenger-pigeon, my lady," C'dera replied quickly. "You can tell by the markings on the wings. If the falcon kills the pigeon, it may fly off with the remains, and the message will be lost." C'dera looked to Xaa. "Is it ours, my lord?"

"It seems so. Our coop is in the southeast tower, behind us, and it seems to be heading for it." As Merle watched, the pigeon passed over the moat and the eastern wall of the castle. In a matter of moments, it would be above them. Xaa lifted his bow, smoothly drawing his lone arrow, then swore again. The two birds were now in a direct line, and nearly overhead - Xaa couldn't shoot the falcon without hitting the pigeon. "Turn, dammit!" he growled, his bow drawn and taut.

Merle popped the forefingers of both paws into her muzzle, then made a shrill, high-pitched whistle that sounded strikingly like the shriek of a stooping falcon. Startled, the pigeon swerved to avoid what it thought might be another threat. Seeing his chance, Xaa released his arrow.

The falcon froze in mid wing-beat above their heads, emitting a shrill cry of agony as the arrow transfixed it with a solid thwop! It's body tumbled out of the sky, bouncing off the roof of the castle above their heads, then thudding onto the stones of the courtyard below a few moments later.

"Thank you, Merle," Xaa said, lowering his bow and watching as the terrified pigeon swooped over their heads, zooming off to the southeast tower of the castle, and safety. "So sorry, gentle ladies, but I must excuse myself from the rest of our lunch. I'm off to the coop - that bird came from the west, and I only have one bird I sent that direction," Xaa said, bowing quickly. Merle and C'dera bowed in return, then Xaa trotted off the balcony and into his room.

C'dera turned to Merle, her face a mask of amazement. "My lady, that was amazing! How did you know to do that?"

Merle grinned. "It's nothing, C'dera - it's a mustie hunting trick, for when we're hunting in pairs. If a rabbit is running, a falcon's shriek will sometimes freeze them in their tracks. Birds are different, though - they don't freeze, they'd fall out of the air. Instead, they turn very fast. If they're perched in a tree, though, a falcon's shriek will root them to the branch, because falcons won't stoop into a tree - they'd get hurt. Well, while they're holding still and hoping they're hidden, you can get them with a slingstone."

C'dera just shook her head. "That is still amazing."

Merle held up her chin, and pitched her voice lower, in comic imitation of Xaa's deep rumble. "Well, you have to know these things when you're a mustie, C'dera." she said, then giggled.

C'dera giggled in reply, then grinned back at Merle. "And that is what I mean about being a special, magical being, my lady. Yes, we may know things that you do not - but you know things that we do not, as well, and these things, to us, are often very much like magic."

"Thank you, C'dera. Shall we go see what the message was? Maybe it's something exciting!"

C'dera smiled. "Well, usually they are not really very exciting, my lady. Very important, yes, but not too exciting. Often they are simple notes from other lords and ladies regarding possible trade agreements or requests for various barters of one kind or another. Such arrangements are particularly important now, what with the treasury of Clan Xaa so low - but, they're not really very exciting. Still, if you wish, we'll go see," she replied, holding out her paw.

Merle nodded, rising to her feet and taking C'dera's enormous paw in her much smaller one. "Okay!" she said, grinning.

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