of the Last God
(Book IV of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2001 BY
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Smith bowed politely to Lord Jamat as soon as the enormous mus had lifted him from the back of his bird and set him down gently on the flagstones of the courtyard. "I thank you, Lord Jamat," he squeaked politely in the language of the mus. Though, of course, his voice was that of a Little One and thus sounded like the puling yips of a mus-child, his words were as properly pronounced as any Little One could possibly make them.
"You're welcome, Smith," Jamat rumbled, smiling. "Ah - Tlahn is coming to lead you. I expect you'll be taken directly to Lord Xaa. Farewell for now, Smith." Jamat replied, bowing, then led his bird away by the reins.
Smith bowed again as Jamat left, then looked up to see Tlahn hobbling towards him from the central keep, a gummy grin on her muzzle. "Ah, good morning, Little One. Our lord is quite anxious to see you, as you can well imagine," Tlahn said as she drew near, and bowed in greeting.
Smith bowed in return, smiling. "I am, too. Jamat said that you found another of my people?"
"Yes, and even Lady Merle cannot speak her language - though Lord Xaa believes that you may, as your people hardly forget anything. Still, she is not much like you," T'ahn replied, and cackled with amusement. "No, she's much like the horses, in my opinion. What she calls clothing is as light as air, and conceals nothing. Why, she may as well be naked! And she uses her tail all the time, even when others are watching!"
Smith blinked. "What?! That's outrageous!" he squeaked shocked.
Tlahn nodded, still cackling. "Yes, we mus think so, as well. Perhaps as she gets to know the Little Ones of your village, she'll learn proper manners, eh?"
"I would hope so, Tlahn," Smith replied, his head still spinning at what he'd been told.
"Come, come - let's not keep our gracious lord waiting," Tlahn said, grinning, and turned to hobble back towards the castle. Smith followed, walking quickly to keep up with the old she-mus. Even though Tlahn's age-bent spine and elderly bones meant that for a mus she walked somewhat slowly, to a little mouse like Smith, Tlahn still had a longer stride and moved quite quickly indeed. As they entered the central keep and began walking through the wood-floored corridors, Tlahn resumed speaking. "Did Lord Jamat tell you she writes our language?"
"No, he didn't," Smith replied. "You mean the ideograms? The writing that's like hieroglyphs?"
"Yes. She writes them in a very old manner, but it's easily readable. Her speech, however, is terribly ancient, and none of us can understand her words."
"Hmmm... Well, her ancestors may have learned it before the Night of the Long Knives, Tlahn. A few of our scholars and historians back then had a passing interest in the culture of the mus - though far too few, in my opinion."
"Perhaps if more Little Ones had been interested in such..." Tlahn said, her voice trailing off.
Smith nodded. "Yes, we mice have had the same thought for quite some time, now. Our ancestors were wrong. They should have joined with your people when they first arrived on our shores, instead of choosing the path they did. If they had joined with you, it's likely that much of our history would be completely different - and a great deal happier to think about."
Tlahn smiled. "Well, no matter, Little One. We mus forgave your people a long, long time ago - as I'm sure you know by now," Tlahn said, then paused before the large door that was their destination. Two guards stood quietly outside the door, their gaze impassive. Tlahn looked down to Smith. "Beyond is the meeting-hall, where our lord entertains important guests. Emperor W'mefa himself is inside."
Smith looked himself over, his tail flicking nervously. "Do I look alright?"
Tlahn reached down, patting at his clothes here and there to remove a bit of dust from the ride, then looked him over again. "Quite handsome," she replied, and grinned a toothless grin.
"Thank you," Smith replied, bowing politely.
"Are we ready, Tlahn?" one of the guards asked, reaching a paw to the door.
"Yes, Lord Nagah - I believe you may announce him," Tlahn replied, bowing.
Nagah nodded in return, gesturing to Smith to follow. He then opened the door and stepped in before him. "The Little One, Smith, my lord," Nagah announced, bowing deeply.
Smith bowed very deeply, trying to hold himself perfectly still so his nervousness wouldn't show in the tremble of his tail. It was no little thing to be in the presence of the Emperor of the Mus - though, of course, Lord Nagah had announced him to Lord Xaa, as it was his castle.
"Ah, Smith. It's good to see you again," Lord Xaa called. "Come - sit here, beside Lady Merle. You've been told we need to see if you can translate for us, yes?"
"Yes, my lord," Smith replied, straightening up. Smith looked, and blinked in astonishment.
Seated at the low dining table in the room was Lord W'mefa, Lord Xaa, and Lady Merle. Beside Lord W'mefa was, perhaps, the most beautiful and shocking albino she-mouse Smith had ever seen.
She was lightly built, with snow-white fur, long whiskers, large ears, and a long, sensual tail - which she was currently using to scratch one of her ears, which shocked Smith immensely. Her eyes were large and pink, and she examined Smith with a keen, intelligent gaze. She wore a hooded robe made of silk so sheer, it concealed nothing - Smith imagined it's only real purpose was to blunt the sun's rays from her tender skin. At a guess, she appeared about Lady Merle's age, though it was truly impossible to say how old she was as she hardly even appeared to be a real, living being. No, to Smith's eyes, she looked like a living spirit, perhaps a ghost of his ancient ancestors returned from the grave - and that thought chilled him.
At that, the she-mouse spoke - and Smith was chilled again.
"Hail and well met, Gentle-mouse! I be Jendara. It be yet a pleasure unbounded in sooth to see ye. M'lord W'mefa hath writ that ye mayhap yet speak mine tongue, which indeed would do make the swift recount of mine tale a task of yet greater ease than endless writ betwixt us yet here. Speaks he yet in sooth?" Jendara squeaked, smiling.
"He... He doth yet speak in sooth," Smith replied after a moment, struggling to master himself. Jendara's words and her ethereal appearance were very much like speaking to a ghost of his ancient ancestors, and it frightened him a bit. "Thine tongue belike that of mine forebears long ago, and though thine words do yet have an air peculiar to mine ear, thou art yet easily understood. The tongue of mine people today be yet different, as both time and our ancient friendship with the musties did yet mold the words we do speak. I greet thee, Jendara. I am called Smith." Smith walked over to the table, and sat where Lord Xaa had indicated, still studying the strange she-mouse.
"You can understand her, Smith?" Merle asked.
"Yes, my lady," Smith replied, switching to the language of the Little People. "Her accent is strange and her words are very archaic, but she can be understood. We have... Well, we had many old books in our library, and the text of the Old Law was written in the manner she speaks. We don't have any plans to write down this ancient manner of speaking, however, as our language is now a blend of your people's and ours - our plan was to simply re-create our library in the language we speak today. As such, it's likely that this manner of speech will fade in a few generations, as it slips from living memory. Still, yes, I can understand her, and quite easily."
"What say ye to she?" Jendara asked.
"I did say that which I did yet say to thee, and did add that thine tongue belike that in which our Elder Law was yet writ. This manner of speech is ancient to us, howe'er, and as we do yet rebuild our library, we shall yet write our books in the tongue we do speak today, and will yet forsake that of our ancient ancestors as being a thing without need. Thus, as time and generations to yet pass, thine tongue will likewise yet pass from living memory," Smith replied.
Xaa grinned. "I do believe, old friend, that Smith can speak with our little guest quite easily."
W'mefa nodded, grinning back. "Very good! It certainly is better than writing back and forth constantly. My paw was getting a cramp," he replied, and chuckled.
Merle giggled. "That's good, because I can hardly understand her at all! I can make out some of what she's saying, but not enough."
Smith nodded. "You'd have to be a mouse, Lady Merle, raised in reading and memorizing the Old Law - which we no longer do. We have a New Law - and one that casts aside the ancient prejudices and self-important notions that twice lost us our friends."
"Library? Elder Law?" Jendara asked in her own language. "Your pardon, Gentle-mouse, but I do yet fail to comprehend. And ye do have a name which be yet strange to my ear - ye do yet have a name of a profession, not a personal name? That be yet quite strange, to me."
Smith translated her question, then chittered at Jendara for a very long moment. Once he was done, he then turned back to the others. "She asked me what I meant by our old laws, and our library, and why I'm named Smith. So, I took a moment to give her a synopsis of our history," he explained in the language of the mus.
"I've heard it, myself, W'mefa. Merle and Cooper told me some of it, Tinker filled in a bit from time to time while I was in the Wild Wood, and Smith has explained it from beginning to end since he entered my service," Xaa replied, nodding.
"Ah, but I haven't heard it," W'mefa said, looking to Smith. "Would you be so kind as to share the story briefly with me, Smith?"
"Certainly, Emperor W'mefa," Smith replied, bowing from where he sat. "Well, as you know, following the Night of the Long Knives, the survivors scattered in many directions. My ancestors were a small group of scholars employed by a university in what was once the capital of our civilization. They had seen the trouble coming for several years, but didn't know what to do about it. Our legislature, at the time, didn't believe your people would ever rebel, and repeated letters and requests to speak to them upon the matter were rebuffed. So, my ancestors gathered textbooks covering the sum total of our knowledge, and every profession that was important to our society. When the rebellion first began, they were among the first to flee. Our ancestors believed that we might keep the skills of our civilization alive in our people, and, in time, rebuild our civilization. Yet, the journey was long and hard. Many bears existed in the wilderness at that time, and many of us died to their teeth and claws. We sought shelter in the wilderness, but could not find it - we lacked the ability to defend ourselves. Well, eventually, we arrived in the Wild Wood, and met the musties. They welcomed us in peace, and our ancestors resolved that they would create a New Law that would insure our survival, and the continuation of our culture. They based what they wrote on the Law of the Mice as it had existed before, adjusting it so that we would not make the same mistake with the musties as we had with the mus. Yet, in truth, they did not learn the true lesson that the Night of the Long Knives should have taught them, which was that we should live together with our defenders in openness and sharing, and not enslave them to our technology. Instead, they thought that the rebellion was caused because we treated the mus poorly, and only used them as raw muscle to turn the wheels of our civilization. There was far more to it than that - and this was a lesson we did not learn for eight more centuries."
W'mefa nodded. "Yes, yes. Do go on."
"Well, Emperor W'mefa, I am named 'Smith' because by the Old Law of the Mice, the law my ancestors wrote eight centuries ago to preserve their knowledge and heritage, a mouse is born into the main task they will do during their adult life. Thus, I am 'Smith' because I was born to be the Village Blacksmith - just as my father was named 'Forger' for the same reason, and my son was named 'Tinker' and my daughter 'Farrah'. Bootie, my mate, was named for her life's task - that of seamstress and leatherworker. By our very names, we sought to insure that the skills of our civilization would be preserved. Yet, there was so much more... Each of us was required to learn all our knowledge and lore, which was far more than my people were required to do before the Night of the Long Knives - back then, each only had to learn the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic, and the skills needed for their profession. My ancestors, however, were determined that they would lose none of the knowledge their civilization had accumulated, and they set forth in their knew law that each and every one of their descendants had to learn all of the lore and science that they had collected."
"Everything?!" Merle asked, surprised. "That would be impossible!"
"No, my lady. My people are blessed with eidetic memories, so this was not an impossible task, merely a difficult one - and our original ancestors had been scholars, so it seemed quite doable to them. And, in fact, it was. We revere their work, in truth, because now we have the foundations of all our people's knowledge and civilization, carried down for eight centuries, within the minds of each of us. In time, we will have re-created our library, and will again be able to teach our children the same way we were taught. Yet, we also have a New Law - and that law states that the old laws of Secrecy and Silence, the old ways of treating the mus and the musties, were wrong. The New Law says that we should treat all people fairly and evenly, and obey the Laws and Traditions of the Mus. That is why Tlahn's little book was so important to us - to you, it is merely an interesting collection of traditions and etiquette. To us, it is now part of the New Law, and we will follow it."
W'mefa shook his head. "It was more than merely an interesting collection of traditions and etiquette, Smith. I used my own copy of that little book to help shore up my case when I created the proclamation naming Lady J'taash the proper heir to Lord Naash. No, I found that little book quite useful - and I'm sure all my people will find it equally useful in the future, as a formal record of what was, for the longest time, simply unwritten tradition."
"Okaaaay..." Merle said, thinking. "But if that's your story, what's hers? You came from scholars who predicted the mus rebelling against their enslavement. Where did she come from?"
"I'll ask her, my lady," Smith replied. After a moment's discussion with Jendara, she nodded, and began to speak. Smith translated what she said a bit at a time, and slowly over the course of an hour, her story emerged.
Jendara's ancestors were not like Smith's ancestors, wise and prescient scholars who had seen the social upheavals coming, had noted the rise of a rebel leader out in the wilderness, and realized the eventual fate that might befall their people. Though there were a pawful of scholars among them, for the most part Jendara's ancestors had simply been a group of ordinary mice from all walks of life who had fled once the fighting had begun and the cities were alight. They, too, wandered the wilderness, and found no shelter from the predations of bears. Where Smith's ancestors headed south and west, eventually coming to the Wild Wood, Jendara's ancestors went north and west, and eventually found a cave. It was considered a blessed cave, as it was discovered there were no fierce bears in it to eat them, and it sheltered them from the cold and the rain. As time passed, however, bears eventually did come to the cave, and Jendara's ancestors moved deeper within the caverns, learning to live off the limited food supplies that were there. Yes, they knew of their ancient lore, and the glories that once were theirs, but they knew not how to recreate these technologies themselves, and what little of their knowledge they had managed to retain was a pitiful fragment of what Smith's people knew. They were, in the end, merely ordinary little mice, caught in an extraordinary situation. More, where Smith's ancestors had established firm rules for marriage and breeding that had prevented inbreeding from producing bad stock in their children, Jendara's ancestors knew little even of breeding ordinary farm animals, as they were really a collection of simple city-dwellers from all walks of life. In the first two centuries after they entered the caves, many weak and twisted things were born to their people, and it was only through trial and error that they discovered how to protect their bloodlines from the effects of a small population.
Yet, they survived - and more, they prospered in their new environment. The Great Cavern, as they called it, was actually a connecting series of caves and tunnels that ran for leagues and leagues under the mountains to the north. Though their resources were limited, still they learned how to feed themselves, clothe themselves, and even to provide limited lights to see by, made from various flammable substances they could gather in the caves. Most of their lives were spent in darkness, with lights a rare thing, used only when necessary due to the sheer difficulty in creating candles and similar things from the limited materials of their environment. Those who could adjust to the darkness, however, did far better than others, and as such earned priority in the early days of choosing mates and producing children.
Thus it was that eight centuries later, Jendara was born. She, like all her people, was an albino, and was adjusted perfectly to life in the gloom of the Great Cavern. Yet, about the time Jendara was five, the life of the Mice of the Great Caverns changed - and changed drastically.
A tunnel was found, and followed - and it opened out into a small valley, lovely and green. There were no bears, and few other creatures aside from birds, rabbits and other harmless things. Though the sun was quite bright, at night, the valley offered endless food to the Mice of the Great Cavern. It seemed that after centuries, their people might have found a small paradise...
But then, the fanged ones came.
"The what?" asked Xaa.
Smith shook his head. "I am sorry, my lord, but she has no other words to describe them. They are unlike anything I can really explain, other than to say that they are carnivores, and intelligent. They are as tall as a mus, but more slender, and their tails are furred. That is probably the best description we will get, as Jendara has never seen them, and those of her people who have seen them and survived are unfortunately afflicted with notoriously poor vision. It's a side-effect of their albinism, my lord, combined with a lifetime in darkness. Jendara says that she competed with a hundred other young mice, and of all those, only she and two dozen others could see clearly farther than four paces in what we would consider moderate light - four of our paces, my lord, about two of yours. Her vision appears to be close to what we would consider 'normal', though she views sunlight as being amazingly bright, and wears a blindfold to protect her eyes. From what she says, there aren't many of them - perhaps no more than a dozen or so. Yet, they hunt the caves regularly, now, and what mice they capture and drag out are never seen again," Smith explained, and sighed. "My lord, they ask that you forgive our ancestors for their crimes which caused your people to revolt in the Night of the Long Knives. They ask that you help them, this one last time, to eliminate the Fanged Ones. From there, they will never bother your people again. The valley can provide all the food that their people might ever need, she says, and they wish to learn to tend it and care for it as their quiet little paradise until the end of time."
Xaa smiled. "Tell her we do forgive them, Smith. As you yourself know, we forgave your people a long, long time ago."
"Yes, my lord, we do know that - and we thank you for it," Smith replied with a grin, bowing his head, then told Jendara what Xaa had said. Jendara grinned broadly, and bowed from where she sat to W'mefa and Xaa, who each returned her bow with a polite warrior's nod.
"Well, old friend," W'mefa said, looking to Xaa, "I agreed with your thoughts before, and I still agree now. There are too few little ones in our lands - an accident or a disease could wipe them out, and they would be gone forever. It seems to me we should go and solve this problem of theirs, then offer to allow as many of them who would wish to come and live in our lands. As you are the most experienced at dealing with them, they should live here, on your lands - and probably take service with you, if they've a mind to. See to it, please."
Xaa bowed from where he sat. "Yes, my liege," he replied, and smiled. "It shouldn't be that difficult. If the Little One is right and there are only a dozen or so, I can simply take fifty riders to this little valley of theirs, and make rather short work of it. Smith, ask Jendara if she can lead myself and fifty mounted warriors to this little valley of hers?"
Smith nodded, and spoke to Jendara for several moments. He then looked back to Xaa, and shook his head. "No, my lord - she says that she could only lead you through the caves themselves, and from there to the valley. She also says many of the places you would have to traverse are far too small for a djuducu-bird."
"Hrm... Well, I doubt I'd be able to coax any bird to crawl about in the darkness of a cave, anyway. How long is the journey through the caverns, and what are the caverns like?"
Smith spoke with Jendara for a long moment, then looked back to Xaa. "My lord, she says the journey is about a week for one of her people, and from her description of the caverns, I'd say they resemble little more than a pitch-black maze, full of narrow, twisting tunnels, sudden, sheer drop-offs, and other dangers. If you tried to lead any large contingent of warriors through... Well, I'm afraid you might lose some in the darkness."
"Hmmm..." Xaa replied, stroking his whiskers. After a long moment, he shrugged. "Well, it seems there's little choice, then. I'll just go, myself. After all, whatever spends it's time terrorizing and abducting Little Ones can't be terribly dangerous. I'll take you with me, Smith, to translate for me with the Little Ones of the caves."
"Yes, my lord," Smith replied, bowing his head.
Merle bristled for a moment. "And you'll be taking me with you, too," she said, her voice calm but firm, letting Xaa know she would brook no argument. Merle wasn't about to let Xaa go off alone into some dark cave somewhere, to a place that might be very dangerous, and then never see him again - particularly when he only had the company of a mouse to rely on should things turn bad. She still had her duty, given to her by Byarl, to watch over Xaa and guide him as only a Daughter of the Wild Wood could. And more, she was his mate - she would share whatever danger may come his way.
"Of course I will, love. I wouldn't even consider going without you," Xaa replied, smiling disarmingly.
"You'd better not," Merle replied, then grinned wryly.
W'mefa chuckled at the exchange between Merle and Xaa. "Well, that's settled, then. I'll leave you to take care of the details, old friend. And be careful - you're still needed here, as well. I'll let J'taash know that we'll need her to keep Kahgah busy awhile longer - but take a few warriors with you on your way to the entrance the Little One knows, just in case J'taash isn't entirely successful," W'mefa said, rising to his feet and bowing.
Xaa rose and bowed, smiling. "I shall, old friend."
Merle and Smith rose also, and bowed as W'mefa turned to leave the room Jendara, however, simply sat, scratching her ear with her tail again.
Xaa made a moue'. "I hope if her people do decide to come live with us instead of staying in this... 'Valley' of theirs, that we'll be able to break them of that habit. It's quite embarrassing."
"I'll see to it personally, my lord," Smith replied, also making a moue'.
Merle giggled. "You could just tell her, you know. I think she only does that because her people live in darkness almost all the time - they can't see each other."
Xaa and Smith simply nodded, and smiled politely.
Jendara, not knowing what was
being said, smiled back.
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