Children of the Last God
(Book IV of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2001 BY

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The mus-roar rolled out over the castle, one of the guards on the walls having spotted something. "Runner from the east!"

"Look, Xaa! A messenger!" Merle chittered, pointing.

Xaa paused in his stroll with Merle, glancing off over the edge of the parapet and to the eastern horizon. Four leagues away, a horse ran down the dusty road that lay between Castle Xaa and Castle W'mefa. Xaa nodded, took a deep breath, and as Merle clapped her paws over her ears, he roared. "Ho, Y'dahk!"

"Yes, my lord?!" Y'dahk roared back after a moment. Merle guessed from the direction of his roar that he was on the southern walls checking the guards, as it was his turn as watch commander.

"Have a bucket of water brought to the gate for the messenger immediately, then have the servants prepare a cool place for them to rest with more water and a bag of rolled oats! And tell Lameh to prepare a bath!"

"Yes, my lord!" Y'dahk roared back.

"I think that messenger is going to like their visit here," Merle said, and giggled. "Horses love rolled oats!"

Xaa nodded. "It's almost certainly one of the horses in W'mefa's service. It looks like it's either Hokuhuu or Raikou, but I can't tell which from here. Still, they should be treated properly, of course, no matter whose servant they are."

Merle nodded. Politeness and courtesy were very important to the mus, particularly in relations between warrior and servant-castes. Though the warrior-caste ruled the lands, they could not rule alone. The horses, as members of the servant-caste, deserved the proper respect.

In the year since the horses had come to live in the lands of the mus and enjoy their freedom, they had sought nothing but to join with the mus, and become part of their society, following the strange and wonderful vision Amani had shared with all of them a year ago. Though they could not fight, their strength, speed, and the skills they had learned as slaves of the cats allowed them to assume many different roles among the servant-castes of the mus, particularly as laborers, messengers, healers, animal herders, and crafts-folk. The horses were very skilled at weaving in particular, being able to make intricate designs in woven fabrics with an ease that few mus-weavers could match. Thus, it had been Xaa's task to find new homes among the lords and ladies of the land who, usually through the effects of the war with the cats which ended two years ago, lacked servants. The horses did not wish to be split up, of course. The cats had divided clans without a thought six centuries ago, simply because they did not know - though, if they had known, they probably wouldn't have cared. Now, the horses wished to be together as clans again - or, at least, as together as was possible, given the circumstances. W'mefa had two clans who had sworn their fealty to him and entered his service, the Dark Flame clan and the Silver Moon clan. Xaa himself had two horse-clans serving him, the Blue Wind and the Crimson Cloud. In total, the horses in Xaa's service numbered about two thousand - most of whom were simple laborers, though many had other useful skills. Xaa had set the majority of them to clearing and weeding his old fields, and trying to restore his old farmlands to usability again. It was a monumental task, truth be known, but the horses worked with a smile, glad for their freedom. The simple joy of touching one another as they pleased, choosing their own mates, and living and working as respected members of society rather than simple slaves made them very happy. Merle had once asked Omoi, the seer and leader of the Crimson Cloud Clan, if her people were happy here, or if they would have preferred running free on the plains beyond the southern mountains. *Our destiny is here, Lady Merle, and not a return to the primitive life of the plains. We are both happy, and grateful,* Omoi had replied, then taking her fore-hoof from Merle's grasp, she had bowed very low.

Of course, everything hadn't gone perfectly smoothly in the horses' integration into mus-culture. Though some stallions and mares were more than happy with choosing a single mate (such as Aijou and Naien, the enormous black stallion and mare of the Dark Flame clan that Merle had met last year), some of the clans wished to return to the old ways, where a stallion gathered a harem of mares to himself. Yet, a simple head-count of them showed that would not be possible.

In their ancient life long ago, bears and other dangers had taken their toll of the males - the stallions of each clan were expected to shield their mares and foals from danger with their bodies, and lead bears away from their loved ones with the fleetness of their hooves. They could not attack, but they could dart about just outside the bear's reach, distracting it and leading it far from their herd, later to try to out-run it once it was safely away. Of course, such attempts were not always successful, and ended tragically. Moreover, many times there simply was no time to lure the bear away, and a stallion would simply attack - larger and stronger than the bears, a single blow from their fore-hooves could snap a spine, or crush a skull. Yet, though the bear would die of this, the stallion would often die of the psychic shock, as well.

Because of this, six centuries ago, one stallion for every six to eight mares was typical. Today, however, the ratio was closer to one stallion for every one or two mares. Though the jobs the cats had given to their horse-slaves were dangerous enough that many stallions had died (as nearly happened to Aijou), their lives had been, overall, far less dangerous than the simple, primitive existence they had once lived. Of course, this was to be expected - to the cats, the horses had been property, and had value. Unfortunately, the whole concept of having as many wives as one could attract with a smile and a silent song was something the mus found shocking in the extreme. Though the mus were, of course, polite about it, it was something that they found incredibly scandalous and nearly unbearable - and this the horses could tell almost immediately, as no thought was secret to them.

Yet, still more obstacles awaited the horses in their integration into mus society. Their diets were one - the horses themselves were herbivores, and their diet of grains and grasses were, to a mus, disgusting. Grains, grasses and roots were mere fodder for animals, and not 'proper' food. Their biologies were another obstacle - when the days were warm or they were working hard, the horses sweated profusely. This was not only completely odd to the mus, as no other creature any mus had ever seen or heard of sweated, it also smelled repulsive to their noses, and it stained the mus-style clothing the horses tried to wear. Again, of course, the mus were quite polite about it, as was their nature, but the horses knew their true feelings from their minds, anyway.

Thus it was that a year later, what the horses had ended up doing was a blend of their old culture and the "new" one of the mus. In clothing, they retained their traditional garment for "everyday" wear, but wore the clothing of the mus on "formal" occasions (a solution which, though the mus found the traditional garment of the horses to be quite scandalous, was still more satisfying to their sensibilities overall). In marriage custom, the horses chose to adopt the ways of the mus on the surface, quietly following the same ceremony the mus used, and with each stallion having only one mate and (more often than not) one courtesan - yet what determined their mates (and their courtesans) was again their ancient way, that of the stallions competing for each mare with their silent songs. The mus learned of this eventually, as the horses made no efforts to conceal how they chose their mates and courtesans, but it was acceptable to the mus, as it conformed to what they considered "proper" outward behavior. In these and a hundred other similar ways, the horses worked to fit in to the culture of their liberators, and hopefully join in the grand and glorious destiny revealed in Amani's vision.

"Let's go down and greet them, Xaa!" Merle chittered excitedly.

"Certainly, love," Xaa rumbled in reply, and together, the two headed to the nearby stair.

A few minutes later, Xaa, Merle, and two mus servants stood inside the main gate, gazing out across the short bridge that crossed the moat, and waiting. Beside them, the gate-guards watched as the messenger drew swiftly nearer. He was dressed in the simple garment of his people, the thick finger that was his right fore-hoof curled about a slender scroll-case, and running as fast as he could. "Ah - it's Raikou," Xaa rumbled, recognizing the roan stallion through the dust and sweat of his long run. Xaa glanced to the servant beside him, carrying the bucket. "Is the water cool, Gahkta?"

"Yes, my lord, fresh from the well," the servant replied, smiling and bowing her head.

Xaa nodded, and crossed his arms as he returned his gaze to the messenger. A few moments later, the stallion skidded to a halt before Xaa, then bowed, gasping with exhaustion as he held out the scroll case. Xaa took the scroll and stepped back, and Merle followed suit. The servant beside Xaa then carefully poured half the bucket over the stallion's head, soaking his mane. She then set the bucket down and dipped a sponge in it, as did the other servant, and they quickly wiped down the rest of his body in the cool water. The stallion, a slim, muscular male, bent over and placed his fore-hooves on his knees, his ribs heaving.

"Are you alright, Raikou?" Merle asked. It was a long run from Castle W'mefa to Castle Xaa - by bird, the trip took two days. A horse, though not quite as fast as a running bird, was better able to pace themselves than a rider could pace his bird, as they could feel their own bodies. Thus, they could make the journey in the same span of time - often less. Raikou, however, had been used by the cats all his life to deliver messages, and was very used to running non-stop for long distances. His endurance was only equaled by his sister, Hokuhuu, who had been used for the same purpose. Both of them could simply run flat-out almost all the way, and make the trip of sixty leagues in a few hours. Lord Xaa had a horse in his service who was nearly as fast, having lived a similar life, but Raikou and Hokuhuu were, by far, the swiftest horses in any of the neighboring provinces.

Raikou looked up to Merle and grinned broadly, nodding. He was fine, of course - simply exhausted. After a few moments, the servants finished washing him down, and everyone stepped back a bit to allow him to shake himself. Merle giggled - it was funny to watch Raikou whip his head about, sending a spray of water from his mane and tail flying as he whinnied with pleasure. Once he'd caught his breath, Raikou grinned very broadly, and bowed to Lord Xaa.

Xaa bowed in return, as was polite, then spoke. "We've more water and a meal prepared for you, Raikou, and after you've rested a bit, you can have a hot bath and a massage from Lameh. Do you think you'd be up to running back this afternoon, if this letter requires an immediate reply?"

Raikou grinned and nodded, reaching down to tug at the tie for his garment and tighten it again, as the water had soaked it and loosened it a bit. Though both the stallions and the mares wore the same garment, the stallions only tied it in one manner, rather than having one way for running, one way for swimming, and one way for walking around. For the stallions, they simply wore it passed between their legs once and wrapped about their waist many times, with the tied ends hanging down low in the front, similar to a loincloth. Merle noticed that the ends of his garment had W'mefa's clan-symbol elegantly embroidered into it, something many of the horses had begun doing as they took service with each of the various clans of the mus.

"Ah, very good. Speak to Gahkta, here, if you need anything - she's quite skilled at listening to the mind-voices of horses," Xaa said, nodding to the servant beside him.

Gahkta bowed to Raikou, and he bowed in return, then held out a fore-hoof. Gahkta took it in her paws, closing her eyes for a long moment as she cleared her mind. She then opened her eyes, and looked to Xaa. "My lord, Raikou says that he is quite grateful, and a meal, a warm bath and a massage from Lameh's magic fingers would almost certainly refresh him enough to run back this afternoon. He says that he could probably place any message you may have into Lord W'mefa's paw by an hour or so after sunset."

"Very good. Until later, then," Xaa said, bowing again.

After Raikou had returned his bow, Xaa turned and walked away, heading towards the inner keep at a slow stroll he had adopted over the years for those times he and Merle walked together. Merle followed, walking smartly, and grinned up at her mate. "What do you think it is, Xaa?"

"I've no idea. The case has W'mefa's personal seal on it, so apparently he's returned from handling the disposition of Naash's heir. Probably it's a simple notice of who the next heir is. My guess is he's selected J'taash - of all the possible candidates, she is the most capable ruler. Of course, she also has all the proper humility and politeness a leader of a High Clan should have, as one would expect."

"Ooo? Is she that nice? Have we met her?"

Xaa shrugged. "Well, as to her being 'nice' the way the word means in your language, I couldn't really say. She is humble and polite and she treats her vassals and servants quite well, which is all that matters to us in a liege-lord. From what I've heard of her, she is very beloved by her vassals and servants, as well, so it's likely she's quite nice. She's also a very wise ruler. She was the first to suggest that the issue of Naash's proper heir should be resolved by the emperor, which is quite correct from the standpoint of our laws. She was also the first to mobilize her army should the issue be one that could only be resolved through war - which is exactly what I would have done in her position. You haven't met her, but I've met her once about six years ago. Quite the proper mus, I think."

Merle nodded. 'Nice', in the language of the Little People, meant 'pleasant', 'fun', 'personable', 'enjoyable to be around', 'polite' and 'well mannered'. The equivalent mus-word, however, simply meant 'pleasant' or 'properly humble and polite', depending on context. In many ways, this was part of the differences between her people and her mate's people - whether one was actually a nice person inside was less important than being properly behaved. The mus were, in general, a very reserved and stoic people, and it was only after one had made friends with one of them that they would lower their guard and give one a peek at the true person that lay behind their mask of civility. "Well, go ahead and open the message, and we can read it as we walk!" Merle said, impatient with curiosity at what the message might be.

Xaa grinned down at his little mate. "We have plenty of time, love. Raikou won't be ready to take a reply back for at least three hours, and even if I sent my own messenger back right now, it would be several more hours before W'mefa received my reply. Let's sit down in our quarters so that if I have to compose a reply, we have brush and paper handy, and can think about what we might say."

"You're no fun," Merle replied, and stuck out her tongue. Xaa simply chuckled.

A little while later, Merle and Xaa sat beside the low table in their quarters. C'dera, who had been taking a nap, had risen from the bed and joined them, and seemed just as curious about what the message might be as Merle was. Xaa opened the cylinder and slipped out the letter, then passed the cylinder to Merle when she asked to see it. It was a rather simple affair - a slender brass tube with a cap at each end, one cap being hinged and having a slim brass chain that went down the side of the tube. W'mefa's chop had been impressed into a large blob of red wax that held the chain to the side of the tube. In this way, it could be easily seen that the message had not been opened between the time it left W'mefa's paw and arrived in Xaa's paw - a fairly standard arrangement among the mus for important messages.

"So what does it say?" Merle chittered excitedly.

"Yes, my lord, what does it say? I find I am quite curious, as well," C'dera added.

Xaa nodded, and began to read the letter to his mate and courtesan.

'My dear old friend:

As you may have realized by now, I've returned from the ceremony to establish Naash's heir. I chose J'taash, incidentally, as she seemed the best of the possible candidates.'

"Just like you thought he would, Xaa!" Merle chittered, grinning and quite proud of her mate.

Xaa nodded, and continued reading.

'I would like to say that everything went smoothly, but there was an interesting complication - and one I will be bringing to your castle personally sometime in the next few days. During the ceremony, a Little One wandered up to the castle, and was brought to me by Zhebo. She is completely unlike the Little Ones in your service, however. She's thin as a stick, and an albino. She is also as scandalous as a horse, and as beautiful as a cherry blossom, or your own daughter, Johm'rouh.'

"Really?!" Merle yelped, surprised.

"That's what W'mefa writes, love," Xaa replied.

"Do continue, my lord," C'dera asked politely, smiling, and Merle nodded, trying to be patient and listen to all of it. Xaa nodded in return, and resumed reading.

'It appears her people are another group of Little Ones, who come from a place they call the Great Cavern. I've no idea where that might be, and she has no concept of our maps, and cannot tell me. All I can tell you is that an entrance to her lands is somewhere north of the ruins of Castle Naash. A full explanation of her people's origins and her reason for being here is entirely too long to slip into this message-tube, unfortunately. However, the Little One is here because her people wish to ask us for help against an enemy of theirs, and are entirely helpless themselves to really do anything about them. They do not appear to be cats, yet I cannot tell what it is they might be from her description. There aren't many of them - if these Little Ones had half the spirit of the Little Ones in your service, particularly Smith, I'm sure they would have handled the problem long ago. Yet, they do not - and, apparently, an age in the darkness of the caves has shortened the vision of most of their people and robbed them of most of their technologies, rendering them even more helpless. I'm sure it's something that could probably be handled by four or five dozen warriors - but I'll let the Little One's words speak for themselves. She cannot speak our language, but instead speaks an archaic version of it. Fortunately, our writing has changed little in eight centuries, so she was able to write out a brief history of her people for me, which I shall bring along. I'm sure that between yourself, Lady Merle, and the Little Ones in your service, you'll be able to understand her, and determine what to do.

And, indeed, something must be done, old friend. Already, Lord Kahgah of Clan J'taash eyes the Little One, dreams of vast technologies and the wealth that might be derived from them dancing in his head, I'm sure. As word spreads of their existence, others may have similar thoughts. J'taash has managed to thwart Kahgah for the moment, but this may not last. As you've said before, it is imperative that we find as many surviving Little Ones from the Night of the Long Knives as we can, so that their people will not vanish from the face of Oerth. I agreed with your thoughts then, and I still agree with them now. Thus, we need to solve their problems by eliminating their enemies, then invite as many as might come to join our people. It is my intention to have them sent to your lands, where they will be reasonably safe until they learn our ways - which, of course, they can do from your own Little Ones. In time, as the numbers of their people grow, they can spread among our people as the horses are now doing. For now, however, what few there are must be protected as best we can. We shall speak more of this when I arrive at your castle with the Little One, old friend.

With respect,

W'mefa'ap'Hrasht, Emperor of the Mus, Lord of Clan W'mefa'

"Ooo! This sounds so exciting! How long to you think it will be before W'mefa arrives, Xaa?"

Xaa shrugged. "Probably three to four days. He's been gone from his castle for nearly a month - there's probably quite a bit of work for him to catch up on, several dozen reports to review, documents to sign, and so on. That will probably take him a day or two to complete."

C'dera nodded. "The responsibilities of a liege-lord are great, and the responsibilities of an emperor are even greater," she said, looking to Merle.

Merle nodded - she'd learned much of what it was to be a warrior-caste mus in the last four years she had lived with Xaa, yet she knew there was still a mountain of knowledge she hadn't even begun to learn yet. A warrior-caste mus was trained to rule from about age six - and, in many ways, their training never really ended until the death of their parents when they inherited the fief. "Well, I can't wait for him to get here! A new mouse to meet! Maybe even a whole bunch of mice for us to meet! That sounds so exciting!"

"And, perhaps, a new enemy for us to meet, as well," Xaa rumbled grimly, and C'dera nodded.

"Well, maybe it won't be that bad. You have to look on the bright side! You mus can be so serious, at times!" Merle scolded playfully. "Why, sometimes I think that's the only reason the Last God made us musties, was to teach you mus how to smile once in awhile!"

"We usually don't, love," Xaa replied, deadpan. "It makes our faces hurt."

C'dera snorted, covering her muzzle with a paw as she unsuccessfully attempted to stifle a giggle. Merle did a double take at Xaa's expression, then burst into giggles, herself. Xaa simply gazed back, and finally grinned.

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