of the Last God
(Book III of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY
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"...and then, once the messenger came from the west to tell the cats in the castle that R'Narr had won the war, we all packed up and rode back home again!" Merle finished, grinning. A cool breeze blew gently across the balcony, making the candles flicker. Merle grinned again - it was so good to be home in Castle Xaa again. The night was clear, the stars bright, and the moon full. Everything was just perfect.
"A truly grand tale, my lady," C'dera replied, smiling as she sipped her tea. C'dera then looked over to Xaa. "May I ask, my lord, why you had to wait for their messenger? What difference would it have made?"
Xaa shrugged. "W'mefa and I discussed that before I left. If R'Narr won, it made little difference. However, if he lost, it might have made all the difference in the world. My plan was to invite all the cats of R'Narr's castle, including his mate, to come to my castle. Their emperor would almost certainly renew his war with us the following spring, so his enmity would not matter - it was already guaranteed. However, by taking in R'Narr's mate, his warriors and his servants, I would show what allies he had that survived that I was on their side - and, perhaps, a leader might rise from among them, and continue the civil war in R'Narr's name. Either way, if R'Narr lost, the war with the cats would have resumed - but, by sheltering his mate and the others, we might not have had to fight all the cats."
C'dera nodded. "Ah, I see, my lord," she said, and smiled. "And now, T'Zama T'Mrr is dead, and her line extinguished. What of the lands she stole, my lord?"
"Well, I signed a document with R'Narr's mate that would return those lands that were mine to me - as the mate of the Overlord of the East, she apparently has the legal right to sign treaties in his absence. As for the rest of the T'Mrr lands, I'm afraid that R'Narr will have to determine who gets them. All that belonged to Clan H'Bah, and their line is extinguished - the last of their clan was killed in the war with the cats, five years ago. L'Sala said that she would recommend her mate give those lands to me, as I am the only lord among the mus whose lands border them, but we'll have to wait and see if that's what happens."
C'dera gasped. "My lord! If R'Narr does grant you the old lands of Clan H'Bah, you will have the largest single fief of any of the Lords of the Mus!"
Xaa nodded. "More work for you and Grnargh, I'm afraid, though at least Johm'rouh will have a fine inheritance, someday."
C'dera blinked, then laughed. "Oh, my lord! I am not worried about the additional work. I am merely thinking that with such vast lands, you will attract many vassals and servants, and soon your treasury will be full again."
Xaa smiled. "There is that, yes - though for much of our early income, I already have a plan."
"What plan is that, my lord?"
"Finding the rest of Merle's people - and the rest of the Little Ones, as well," Xaa replied, then looked up. "Ah - here comes Tlahn with our supper," he said, and bowed from where he sat. "Good evening, Tlahn."
"Good evening, my lord. I am pleased to see you home again, safe and sound," Tlahn replied with a smile, bowing her head for a moment before she placed the tray of cooked meat on the low table.
"And I am pleased to see you well again, dear Tlahn," Xaa said, smiling in return as Tlahn placed a dish before C'dera, then Merle, then last Lord Xaa.
Merle gaped for several seconds before she recovered herself and bowed to Tlahn, as was polite. Tlahn turned and sat on the little servant's stool in the corner of the balcony in case she was needed, and Xaa picked up his utensils. C'dera and Xaa began to eat, but Merle simply stared. "Wait! What do you mean, 'find the rest of my people?'" Merle asked, forgetting in her excitement to speak in the language of the mus, so that C'dera could understand.
"Well, Merle, you told me the legends of your people long ago. As I recall, your people came from jungles far to the south of us, well beyond even the Wild Wood. A star flared in the north, and one of your ancient chiefs took it to be an omen to move north. The chiefs of the other tribes disagreed, and remained in the south. Eventually, you settled in the Wild Wood, and over the course of a few millennia, you struggled to get the upper paw over the bears that already dominated the woods. A few centuries after that, you ran across the Little Ones, as they fled from us. Thus, there are more of your people, somewhere far to the south. And, they should be found, Merle. There are only two hundred musties or so in your village - and that's not enough. A single, skilled enemy, or perhaps even a sickness we have not encountered yet, and your people would be gone. And we mus never want that to happen, Merle. Your people are very important to us, and we care for you a great deal."
C'dera nodded. "Indeed."
"Thank you," Merle replied, blushing. "And the mice?"
"Well, for the same reason, we need to find more of them. There are only fifty mice in that little village I gave to Smith, yet our ancient legends say thousands upon thousands fled the Night of the Long Knives. It doesn't seem likely that Smith's ancestors were the only ones to survive - I think they were merely the only ones that made it that far south. Somewhere out there, there must be other villages of the Little Ones. And they need to be found, as well."
Merle nodded. "Okay, but how will you do it?"
Xaa shrugged, and took another sip of tea before he replied. "I don't know yet. I'd like to ask Byarl his opinion, and Smith, as well. My general thought is that a party could be sent to the south to find the musties, and another to the north to see of any mice escaped that direction. We know that none made it who went westwards - if they had, the cats would have them by now."
"Okay, but... Ummm... Well, if you send a party after the musties to the south, they'll have to be very careful. It's likely that the musties to the south won't... Ummm... Won't be as nice as we are."
Xaa raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"
Merle nodded. "Yes. We lived with the mice for eight centuries, Xaa, and even we know that the contact changed us. Our language is a mixture of theirs and ours, and our culture has changed. You see... Ummm... When we first ran across the mice... Well... We thought they might be good to eat," Merle explained, and blushed again.
Xaa guffawed. "Well, in that case, love, we will definitely not send any mus to the south to look for them - just musties. I'd really rather not think of my vassals becoming dinner for a hungry tribe of wild musties," he said, and laughed again. C'Dera giggled along with Xaa, covering her mouth politely.
Merle made a moue'. "That wouldn't happen, Xaa, you mus are too big," she said, and stuck out her tongue.
"Oh, no? Well, those cats Byarl and his warriors killed were about our size. And the bears you used to kill in the Wild Wood were about our size - most were bigger," Xaa replied, his face showing he was quite serious. "As I said before, Merle, it's now widely known among the mus, and probably will be widely known among the cats as the word spreads - anyone who fights a mustie in the woods is either ignorant, or stupid."
Merle nodded in understanding, and after a long moment, she grinned. "Well, that's simply the truth. Like you told that she-cat, L'Valin - we're not ordinary people, we're magical forest spirits!" Merle said with a grin, then made an oooo-OOOO-oooo sound as she wiggled her fingers before her face, then burst into giggles.
Xaa and C'dera nodded - C'dera was smiling, but Xaa was not. "Yes, you are," Xaa replied, deadpan.
Merle blinked. "Ummm... Xaa, I was kidding."
Xaa nodded. "I'm not," he replied.
Merle stared at Xaa's deadpan expression for a long moment, not knowing what to say, when suddenly he winked a golden eye at her.
Merle, realizing that the
stoic-warrior she loved so dearly had been teasing her in return,
burst into giggles again. This time, Xaa and C'dera joined her in
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