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


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Johm'rouh stood beside her mate, O'dmemet, and waited as the last of the wagons were loaded. Her slender, delicate, snow-white paw gripped his larger, callused one tightly - he had been a great comfort this last week, and she knew she would need his comfort even more, very shortly.

"It's alright, my love. Everything will be alright," O'dmemet rumbled softly, squeezing her paw gently.

Johm'rouh nodded, but said nothing in reply. She wanted desperately to hug her mate tight and nuzzle him, but such public displays were generally considered poor form by the mus. Johm'rouh also found she desperately wanted to weep - and that she would not allow herself. She and her father were the last of their clan. She would not shame him by weeping. Clan Xaa should always be remembered as being firmer... Stronger than that. Her father would want it that way.

Her clan had not always been Clan Xaa, of course. Years ago, the clan had been named for her grandfather, Gasha'ap'O'karr. And, of course, even when it was Clan Gasha, this was only the 'short' name of the clan. The full name was thirty-nine names long, reciting the full lineage from father-to-son of her entire clan, from the founder of her clan to her grandfather. Probably Johm'rouh's clan would still be named for her grandfather today... Were it not for Fate.

A single, stray arrow, fired by the enemy in a battle between mus-clans, met a gap in her grandfather's armor. He died slowly, and in great pain, and now was merely another name of the forty names that made up her full clan name. Her father became lord of his clan at age sixteen, and once the change in the clan had been announced, suddenly a world of responsibility was his.

The young Xaa had to finish what his father had started, helping his father's ally, Lord W'Mefa, in a war against Clan H'bah. It was in those battles he put the finishing touches on the lessons in the Art of War his father had taught him, and began to plant the seeds of the fearsome reputation he had today. Then, at age twenty, he was married - and, for a time, lived in peace.

Johm'rouh remembered little of her mother, now. The last she had seen her was at age eleven, and all she could recall was a tall, snow-white mus who was gentle and kind. There were moments, however... Short impressions of scenes... A birthday party - her eighth, she was nearly certain. A lesson in painting. Her first lesson in archery. Yet, it seemed her father was always out, fighting the cats. She knew now that the cats were then making light forays and raids, probing the lands, and learning the tactics of the mus. Yet, at age eleven, she knew not why her father had to leave so often, and would be gone for days or weeks at a time, and she was often upset about it.

Then, the day of the siege arrived. Johm'rouh remembered being terrified. She remembered watching her mother stand there, upon the parapet, assisting her father and his warriors, gracefully and effortlessly firing arrows down at the enemy. But that was the last she remembered. Her next memory was of taking a drink of water one morning, seeing wild sparks and fire in her vision, then suddenly having her world explode into a million fragments of color and sound and smell and sensation.

Johm'rouh remembered again her time under the influence of the widow-wart poison. It took an age, it seemed, but slowly, the world settled down again. After a long while, she recognized that someone was caring for her - someone old, soft and gentle. She thought at first it was her grandmother, come back from the Void. This seemed quite strange to her, as she vaguely remembered her funeral - everyone wept, save her father, who simply gazed quietly at the marker as the priest intoned the prayers for the dead. She had wanted to ask her grandmother how she had come back from the Void, but she couldn't - she found she couldn't speak or move of her own volition, and the world was a hazy, fogged, dream-like place.

Eventually, Johm'rouh realized her father was visiting her, and telling her how the cats were paying for their deed in rivers of blood. This, too, was like a dream - she had wanted to ask her father how the cats had transformed all of Oerth into a dream-world, but found she could not. She could do nothing.

Gradually, things became somewhat clearer, and she found she could understand what was being said around her - yet, she could not reply, or indeed, do anything. She slowly became aware of the passage of days, again - and that her father would disappear for days or weeks at a time. She wanted so badly to ask where he was, and if he was alright - yet found she still could not. On those occasions she returned, she struggled with all her might to tell him she missed him - and found she could not. Even now, the memory of being so helpless in the strange, dreamlike-world nearly brought her to tears.

Then, one day, she noticed something in her mouth - something foul, bitter, smelling and tasting of the earth. She wanted desperately to remove whatever it was from her mouth - the taste was truly vile. Then, suddenly, she found she could.

From there, Johm'rouh's world again took a sudden turn. She was surrounded by people who were all brought to tears at the simple sight of her moving and speaking again - though it was nearly a month before she could speak above a whisper. She was introduced to her fiancee, O'dmemet, again - she remembered meeting him at the age of nine, and he had looked so tall and handsome. Now, he was suddenly older - all grown up.

But then again, so was she.

That, in the end, was the hardest part to get used to. Harder even than adjusting to the thought that her mother was dead, and Johm'rouh would never see her again. Johm'rouh remembered her smile, her voice, her gentle touch... But now she was gone. She had wept hot, bitter tears alone in her bed at night, careful to hide them so Tlahn and the Ead'xas, the Master Healer, would not know. She did not want to disappoint them. Still, adjusting to her new body was even harder than adjusting to her mother's death, by far.

She was stiff, weak, and thin when she first awoke from the dream-world, her body only mobile because of Tlahn's tender but thorough care. She remembered running and playing - but suddenly, she could hardly walk. She remembered laughing - but suddenly, it was an effort to even speak. Yet, this body was more than simply thin and disused - it was also grown up.

Breasts - she had never had time to even imagine what having them might be like, and suddenly she awoke and found she had them. And the world was smaller, as well. The last she remembered, the world was a very large place, and doors she would open would yawn cavernously above her head. Now, in her new, taller body, the world seemed so much smaller - almost as though she had fallen asleep in the world of her childhood, and awakened in the strange, new world of an adult.

And the world was, indeed, a strange place, now. She learned she was in Castle W'Mefa - her family castle had been captured by the cats. A Little One - those strange, near-mythical creatures of legend, had cured her. At first she was charmed to meet him - though, as she got to know him, she found he was rather disappointing. He was a small, petty person. He had his moments, but in general, he was a disappointment - not magical at all, really, but more like a spoiled little brat. Still, her father had returned to her, and this made her happy again. He had many scars on his pelt that she didn't recall him having before, and he was shorter than she remembered - the last she remembered of him, he towered above her like a giant. Now, in her new body, she was as tall as he was - and she found he was also two inches shorter than her fiancee, O'dmemet (though far broader). Yes, Johm'rouh had awakened into a strange and different world - some things were as she remembered them, but others were so different, it often made her weep at night, for the loss of her childhood world. Yet, when she would feel so sad for the loss of everything she had known, Merle would somehow make her smile again.

Merle - that strange little mustelid female... And her best friend. Her father had brought her home with him, apparently, and she intended to be his mate. She was as tiny as a Little One, yet so completely different. She was brave and playful and happy and so full of life that simply being around her and playing a game made Johm'rouh forget all about her troubles, and the strange world she now found herself in. Yet, she was also so very, very wise - she and Lady C'dera'ap'Vhross had worked very hard with her to teach her the things her mother would have taught her, had she lived and the world not been transformed into a dreamland. And, between studying sessions to catch up on her schooling that were sometimes so hard Johm'rouh thought she might burst into tears, Merle would play with her.

The musties knew so many games, it was hard to imagine that they did anything else but play, really. Nim and Checkers and Boffin and Charades and Jump-rope and a hundred more, all fun. Yet, they did do things other than play. Merle's Time-eater, that funny little thing which rang a bell and went -POP- and was so much fun to play with, was more than just a toy - it was a steam engine, an ancient and magical thing from the legends of the mus, come to life. The Little One, Tinker, destroyed it in a fit of pique, but then Var the Blacksmith fixed it and it was ever so much fun to play with again. And more, he learned how to make many steam-powered things from it. Hammers and presses and drills and water-pumps and so many other different things that Johm'rouh's mind boggled at it all, each powered by a belt that came from a power-shaft turned by a steam-engine. The belts were dangerous - one could catch a finger or a tailtip in them, and come to grief - so they were all covered with a funny little cage that kept you safe from it. And at the heart of it all was Merle, Johm'rouh's special little friend, helping her, teaching her, playing with her, and making all the sad thoughts for what Johm'rouh had lost on that strange day the world exploded so much better.

But, now all that was ended.

Johm'rouh had finally caught up to where she should have been in her schooling, and now she simply went to Finishing-School with the other warrior-caste teenagers, and would continue to do so until she was nineteen, when she would have learned all that she really needed to know. Anything more, she would have to learn by studying the texts of the scholars of the mus, like any other adult. She had mastered much of her lessons, already - she was skilled in Archery, as any properly educated warrior-caste female should be, and was a passable hand at art and music. Her calligraphy was, according to her mate, incredibly good - and it made her happy to hear him say so. Her skill at keeping the records and accounts necessary to run a fiefdom was improving, and Johm'rouh knew that when the time came for Lord O'dmemet to inherit his father's lands, she would be able to help him as a proper mate, and keep his records and books correctly and precisely. Her lessons were over - yet, still more was over, as well.

Castle Xaa was finally ready to be occupied again. It had taken nearly two years to rebuild it after the cats destroyed it by fire, driven into fleeing with the new guns the Little One, Tinker, had invented. There were still some small details to be completed - decorations, carvings, and furnishings, primarily - but the castle was finished, stocked with supplies, and ready to be inhabited. More, her father's fame as a warrior had now attracted nearly five hundred servant-caste and their families to his service, as well as fifty warrior-caste and their families. And now, the last of the wagons was being loaded with the possessions of her father and those of his vassals and servants who lived with him in Castle W'mefa. All of Merle's possessions were loaded, as well - particularly all her little inventions, many of which had helped the mus so much in the last year. Soon, they would be on their way.

And, gazing at the wagons, Johm'rouh found she already missed her little friend, very, very deeply.

She couldn't really explain it to anyone. She'd tried to explain to her mate, O'dmemet, one night as they cuddled in the darkness of their little room, beneath the blankets of their bed, but found she simply couldn't form her thoughts into words.

At times, Johm'rouh felt like an adult, and strange world around her made sense. This was particularly true when she was by O'dmemet's side, talking to him, listening to him, nuzzling him, planning their future together, or just enjoying his company. She loved him with all her heart - he was so wonderful, so kind, and so gentle. He was also a mus of great honor. In all the years she was in her poison-induced coma, he could have simply called off the wedding. He had the right, and good reason - so far as anyone knew, she would never recover. No one would have faulted O'dmemet for doing so, not even his father, W'mefa, or Johm'rouh's father, Xaa. Yet, he did not. He vowed to go through with it, and care for her for the rest of his days. He loved her, and now that she had awakened and come to know him, Johm'rouh found she loved him, as well. Johm'rouh thought that the marriage ceremony was the happiest moment of her life - yet the gentle night that followed, a night of quiet exploration, tenderness, smiles, and even a few moments of laughter, was even happier. And yet...

And yet there were other times, times like now. Times when Johm'rouh felt like she was still that eleven year-old she-mus, having awakened to find herself in the withered, frail body of an adult, her mother dead, her father scarred from years of warfare against an implacable foe, and the whole world completely changed. Times when the only thing that kept her from bursting into tears was the happy laughter of her strange little friend, Merle.

And now, she was leaving.

As Johm'rouh watched, the last few boxes were set onto the wagons by her father's servants, and tied in place. Her father walked over to where Johm'rouh, O'dmemet, Lord W'mefa and Lady Pah (W'mefa's courtesan) stood. Many others of Castle W'mefa were there, as well - Lord Gnatchock and Var, among them. In a moment, Merle had joined Xaa, looking so terribly cute in her little green kimono. Johm'rouh struggled to hold back her tears, watching as her father and her little friend, Merle, bowed deeply to Lord W'mefa. W'mefa bowed in return, and as he bowed, all who were present bowed to Lord Xaa.

"I thank you, Lord W'mefa, for having extended your gracious hospitality to me." Xaa rumbled formally.

"It was nothing, Lord Xaa. Merely my duty to an old friend and ally," W'mefa replied, equally formally, as though Xaa's stay in Castle W'mefa had merely been a brief visit of a few days instead of nearly four years.

Everyone straightened up then, and Xaa smiled. Stepping over to his daughter, he took her paws in his, and nuzzled her gently. "Ah, my little one. I shall miss you," he said, and smiled.

"I'll miss you, too, father." Johm'rouh replied, holding back her tears with an effort. "I shall strive to uphold the honor of our clan, and make you proud of me."

Xaa shook his head. "Oh, little one... Don't you know you already make me proud?" Xaa replied, and hugged her gently.

Johm'rouh couldn't help herself - the tears started to flow, and she sniffled. "Thank you, daddy."

Xaa patted Johm'rouh's back for awhile as she sniffled. Finally, when she had controlled herself, he stepped back. He nuzzled her a final time, squeezing her paws gently, and then moved down the line.

"Gnatchok," Xaa said, and bowed to the warrior and his mate who stood before him. "You fought well at the Battle of Three Armies. I find I shall miss having you at my side, raiding the cats, my friend," he rumbled, and smiled.

Gnatchok and his mate bowed, smiling in return. "And I shall miss fighting beside you, Lord Xaa," Gnatchok hissed. The arrow that had stolen his voice two years before had not stolen his warrior's spirit, or his smile. "Though it is a warrior's fondest wish that each battle shall be the last ever fought in the world, should war come again, I would be proud to find myself fighting at your side."

And so it went, Xaa moving down the line of mus gathered to see them off. Merle did the same, bowing to W'mefa and thanking him for his hospitality, then moving down to O'dmemet, and so on. Finally, she reached Johm'rouh. They stared at each other for a moment, then Johm'rouh burst into tears. She dropped to her knees and hugged her little friend tight. "Oh, Merle! I'll miss you so much!"

Merle hugged back, and giggled. "Oh, you big silly! You can come and visit, you know. It's just two day's ride, and I'm sure your daddy would be happy to have you visit."

Johm'rouh found she couldn't say it in her language - she didn't want to embarrass her mate or her father. Still, she had to say it. "Hyehs... Baht... Ah naht hahv' sahm'hwan toh pleh wehth noh mohrr!" Johm'roun sobbed in the language of the Little People of the Wild Wood, her words difficult to understand through both her atrocious accent and her sobs.

Merle was silent for a moment, just hugging Johm'rouh as she wept. Finally, she spoke in her language. "Well... You're a mus, not a mustie, and when mus grow up, they're expected to do adult things and not play anymore. We musties aren't like that... We play all our lives. I know it's hard for you, because you never had a chance to really grow up like all the other mus. You just woke up one day, and you were big, and you had to be big from then on," she said, and paused.

Though Merle didn't see it, Xaa had heard what she said, and paused in his movement down the line, looking back at her. Xaa suppressed a quiet sigh. He could easily imagine what his daughter was experiencing. His own experience at the death of his father had, in many ways, been similar.

One day he was still young - technically an adult, but still in many ways a child, as he had no real responsibilities other than to study and learn the lessons needed for him to be a proper warrior-caste male. The next day, word that his father was dead reached the castle, and his entire life changed. He had to become an adult overnight, and accept adult responsibilities. More, he'd had to take his father's place, accept the vows of fealty of all his vassals, then lead them in war - his days of childhood had vanished overnight, and suddenly the lives of thousands were his responsibility, and the fate of his clan rested upon his shoulders. Still, Xaa had no solution - it was something that he knew Johm'rouh would simply have to adapt to on her own. Merle had done a fine job of helping her adjust, as had Lady Vhross - but the rest was still up to his daughter. She, like every adult, would have to find her own way in the world.

Finally, Merle smiled. "Well, I think I have an answer, Johm'rouh."

"You do?" Johm'rouh asked, leaning back to hold Merle's little paws and sniffling.

Merle nodded, and looked to Lord O'dmemet. O'dmemet's face was a mask of concern for his mate - he had never mastered Merle's language, and had no idea what the problem might be. "Lord O'dmemet, it's very important for Johm'rouh to keep up her exercise and her games. She still has some problems with her coordination, and other things. You can't sleep for four years and not have some lingering problems when you wake. I want her to teach you all the games I taught her, and I want you to play them with her, okay?"

O'dmemet nodded. "A good idea, my lady - I shall do so gladly," he replied, and bowed, smiling.

Johm'rouh blinked. "Murrhl! Ah cahn naht pleh wehth hehm! Heh ess mah mayt'!"

"And who do you think married musties play with most of the time, silly? For us, our mate is the first person we want to play with! Many times, that's how we choose a mate - we pick the person we want to be with and play with for the rest of our lives." Merle replied, and grinned. "Besides - if you don't tell him what we said, he won't know any better, and you'll both have a lot of fun!"

Merle looked up at a guffaw, and saw that Xaa, who was only a few yards away, was chuckling loudly at what he'd overheard. "And don't you tell him, either!"

Xaa bowed to Merle, still chuckling. "Xaa huhrrd nah'theng, soh Xaa cahn seh nah'theng."

Merle nodded, satisfied, and then grinned at Johm'rouh again. "Okay?"

Johm'rouh smiled, pulling out a kerchief from the sleeve of her kimono to dab her eyes. "Hokeh!"

Johm'rouh gazed at Merle for a moment, and as she did, the feeling of being a child trapped in the body of an adult faded, and things felt more familiar again. Johm'rouh smiled - Merle had that effect on her. Somehow, her little friend always seemed to be able to help her make the world make sense again.

Merle hugged Johm'rouh again, and once she had risen to stand by O'dmemet again, Merle moved on down the line. When she reached Var, she found that Var was holding out a small box to her. "What's that, Var?"

"My lady, this is from all of us - a parting gift, for you. Lord W'mefa allowed me to give it to you, as I made it. Yet, it is from all of us here at Castle W'mefa - we owe you so much, with everything you have given us in your inventions," he replied, and opened the box.

"Ooo! Look, Xaa! My own swords!" Merle said, reaching into the box and pulling out the two little swords. They were half the size of the pair Xaa bore, scaled down perfectly to Merle's size. Merle looked at each carefully, one at a time. The longer of the two had a blade of about eighteen inches, and a five inch grip - long enough for Merle to comfortably use with both paws. In the paws of a mus, it would have been more of a long knife, really. Yet, to Merle, they were the same proportional length as the swords of a mus, and had the same balance. The scabbards were lacquered in dark green (unusual, for a mus, but a favorite color of the musties), and the hilts were wrapped in green cord, as well. There was also a small wooden stand in the box for the swords, neatly disassembled and packed along the back, apparently for her to put them on once she had moved into Castle Xaa.

Xaa smiled, stepping over to Merle. Taking the swords gently from her paws, he slipped them into her sash, adjusting them to the proper position on her left side. Though male warrior-caste mus wore the two swords which marked their caste at all times, the females didn't wear swords at all, unless they were going to war with their mates - they were only trained in the absolute basics of their use, and they were more a tradition than a weapon, to them. Yet, at the Battle of Three Armies, Merle had shown that she was a warrior, using the little wooden swords C'dera had loaned her to help kill the cat that nearly killed her chief, Byarl. Thus, for Merle, this was a perfectly appropriate gift. Xaa reached out to lift Merle's chin with a finger, and looked into her eyes with a serious expression. "And remember, Merle - The Sword is the Soul of the Warrior. If they ever lose or mislay it, they can never be forgiven."

Merle nodded, tucking the box under one arm. "I'll remember." she replied, and smiled.

As Merle bowed her thanks to Var, Lord W'mefa and everyone else, Johm'rouh looked at her little friend. On a mus, a female in a kimono wearing the two-swords of the warrior-caste would have looked very incongruous. Yet, on Merle, somehow it looked right. Johm'rouh reached out, taking her mate's paw in hers, and squeezed quietly. "She looks perfect with them, don't you think? They fit on her, somehow," Johm'rouh whispered, smiling.

O'dmemet smiled and nodded, watching as Merle and Xaa mounted their birds, and began to lead the wagons and Xaa's mounted retainers westwards, along the road to Castle Xaa. "Yes, they do."

Johm'rouh watched as they grew smaller in the distance, and sighed. "I... I'm sorry, O'dmemet, but I find I am still sad. I shall miss her. Very, very much."

O'dmemet nuzzled Johm'rouh, and smiled. "We all shall, my love. Still, I guarantee you will be seeing her again in a year."

"Oh? What makes you say that?"

O'dmemet grinned. "Have you forgotten? Your father would be highly annoyed with me if I didn't bring you to the ceremony, to say the least of what Lady Merle might think. In a year, she will finally be eighteen, and your father will keep his vow and make her your mother - and my mother-in-law." O'dmemet whispered, and chuckled.

Johm'rouh blinked, and grinned. As she gazed at her little friend, slowly dwindling in the distance as the wagon-train headed west, her heart filled with warmth and love for her. Johm'rouh turned to look her mate in the eyes, and smiled. "And perhaps, a year or so after that, we'll present my tiny little mother with a little grandchild for her to coo over." she whispered, and grinned.

O'dmemet grinned back. "And is this one of the games you will be showing me how to play, my love?" he whispered.

Johm'rouh grinned. "No, my sweet. Judging by my experience with you, I think that is a game you are already quite familiar with," she replied, and giggled. O'dmemet squeezed her paw, and chuckled along with her.

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