of the Last God
(Book IV of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2001 BY
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Merle rode Brownie, staying close by Xaa's side as they traveled north, accompanied by fifty of Xaa's best warriors. Smith and Jendara were placed behind two of Xaa's warriors, and though Smith wasn't terribly fond of riding the enormous djuducu-birds, Jendara seemed to have gotten used to it. Merle had been very excited about the idea of this journey at first, but now, a week into the journey,she found she was utterly annoyed. The more she looked at Jendara, the more she wanted to slap the little white mouse silly.
Xaa was a mus, of course, and as such he was simply too polite to mention her near-nudity or to correct Jendara's public use of her tail - the former being tolerable, but the latter of which was extremely shocking and embarrassing to him. Smith, on the other paw, had been doing his best to ignore Jendara's eccentricities as he worked every day of the trip to teach Jendara how to speak the language of the Little People of the Wild Wood. As the mice now were trying to emulate the manners and etiquette of the mus, it wasn't proper form to publicly correct the manners of another adult, so Smith had said nothing the first few days. It was permissible to be corrected by one's parents or one's liege, or even privately by a friend, but not by a stranger, and certainly not while others were watching. 'Face', the idea of personal honor and esteem, was a very important concept to the mus - and, to a certain extent, to the mice, as well. Smith intended to try to correct her privately, once Jendara had learned more of his language and become friends with him, but at the moment, he didn't see it as being the right time. Thus, no-one said anything to Jendara during the first few days of the journey, and she continued using her tail in a very casual manner and otherwise being quite embarrassing to nearly everyone except Merle.
Finally, Merle decided something had to be done. Since she was Xaa's mate and technically could also order Smith around, she simply asked him nicely if he might take Jendara aside one night as they camped, and explain the situation to her. Smith agreed, though reluctantly, and Merle figured that would be the end of it. Unfortunately, it was not.
Oh, yes, she was thereafter properly mannered nearly all the time, particularly around Smith, and only occasionally would slip and scratch an ear or snatch a moth out of the air with her tail. She also pulled out a thin, leather garment that she explained was used when there would be a great deal of climbing about in the caverns to be done. It fit her quite closely, and was made out of tanned bat-leather, leaving her feet, arms, and head uncovered and having a little hole for her tail to pass through. Yes, Jendara was properly mannered and much more appropriately attired after Smith had spoken to her. Yet, when they were camped at night and she thought no-one was looking save for Xaa, Jendara would grin wryly, and do things that Merle could only interpret very badly.
It would start subtly, of course. Jendara would cast her eyes about, making sure they were unobserved, but Xaa's eyes were still in her direction. She would then slowly, sinuously flex her tail, eyeing the enormous mus with an impish grin. If they remained unobserved, she would slowly stroke her long whiskers, or her shoulders, or her neck with her tail. As soon as Xaa blushed or otherwise looked away, or if anyone else looked their direction, she would instantly stop, and smile innocently, with a twinkle of amusement to her eye. Yet Merle saw. Musties were quite expert at stealth and subtle observation - they had to be to survive. And what Merle often would catch out of the corner of her eye left her furious.
Merle looked over to her mate as they rode, but his own gaze was locked on the horizon, keeping an eye out for enemies. Though it was unlikely, it was still possible that Lord Kahgah might make a move to capture Jendara, thinking to gain the secrets of the mice from her. It would be a terrible risk, of course, and he would even risk plunging all the lands into war should he try - yet, as W'mefa said, Kahgah was hot-headed, and young. Xaa had said that J'taash was a skilled and able ruler, and was probably more than aware of Kahgah's failings. Kahgah, himself, was an only child, selected as heir to his clan simply because he was the only candidate. Had there been a brother or sister with a better sense of propriety and a cooler head available, almost certainly his father would have stated in his will that they were the heir, instead. Yet, such was not the case. The future of Kagah's clan rested on very shaky ground, indeed - but Xaa said he was confident J'taash would handle the matter. "Really, love," he rumbled only this morning when Merle asked about it, "you shouldn't worry. As far as W'mefa is concerned, this is her first test as the leader of a High Clan. And I'm sure J'taash is well aware of this, and will handle the matter in a manner that will show her liege she was the proper choice." Merle had wanted to then speak to him about Jendara, but there wasn't time - they still had to travel many leagues to get to Castle Naash, so that Jendara could lead them to this mysterious cave-entrance she had spoken of. There was, in truth, little time for chat in the mornings. Merle firmed her jaw - she would talk to him about Jendara tonight, in their tent, no matter what.
'But before I talk to Xaa, I am definitely going to have it out with Jendara,' Merle thought, fuming.
And so it was several hours later as Xaa's party made camp for the night, Merle stormed over to Jendara as she sat by her little tent and gave her a cold glare. "I don't know what you think you're up to, but you can stop it right now!" she hissed.
Jendara looked back to Merle in surprise. "I beg pardon, I understand you not." Though Jendara had the same eidetic memory of all the mice, it was no simple task for her to learn the language of the Little People of the Wild Wood, and a week's instruction by Smith had only sufficed to allow her to learn the basics, and a few simple phrases.
"Smith! Get over here right now and translate for me!" Merle yelled, looking up to where Smith was still setting up his tent.
Smith jumped in surprise, the tent-rope he'd been trying to tie to a stake slipping from his paw, causing his whole tent to collapse. Flustered, Smith trotted over quickly, then bowed. "Yes, Lady Merle?"
"I want to talk to her and she doesn't understand me yet. I want you to translate for me," Merle snapped, now even more angry because she would have to make her feelings known to Smith before Jendara could understand them.
"Yes, my lady. I'll do my best."
"Good. Now, you tell her that Xaa is my mate, and if I catch her doing what she's been doing again.... Spirits! I'll slap her silly!"
"Ummm... What has she been doing?" Smith asked.
"Nevermind that, just tell her!"
Smith nodded, and turned to Jendara, speaking briefly but urgently. Jendara's eyes widened, and she snapped a reply back. Shortly, the two were talking to each other, and Merle could only understand a few words and phrases out of the entire exchange. This made her even more annoyed.
"Well?! What is she saying?!"
"Umm... My lady, she says that she has no idea what you're talking about. She's just having a bit of fun, and... Well... She doesn't really believe you're Lord Xaa's mate, I'm sorry."
"Whaaaaat?!" Merle shrieked, painfully aware that the mus nearby were watching the exchange.
"I'm sorry, my lady, but that's what she says! She says she was just having a bit of fun, because she's not in heat so there's no chance that..." Smith paused, his ears blushing pink.
"Just tell me!" Merle snapped.
"Well, she says 'I don't know what she's talking about. I'm just having a bit of fun with that handsome mus-lord who leads us - he smells very nice, and smell is more important to us than looks in the Great Cavern. I know if I got pregnant I'd probably pop like a puff-ball and die, but that can't happen. I'm not in heat, so it's alright. Besides, she can't be his mate, she's not a mouse, and everyone knows the Defenders are just big mice who eat meat and they couldn't possibly be attracted to someone like her who has almost no scent at all and has a stumpy little furry tail she hides under the skirt of that armor she's wearing and not a proper tail like a proper mouse.' I'm sorry, my lady, but that's what she says. She was speaking to me, not to you, and I'm sure if she could talk to you, she'd be far more polite, and-"
Merle snarled, baring her fangs, and Jendara squeaked, shrinking away from her. "Well, you tell her that I am his mate whether she believes it or not, and she better get that through her head right now because she does not want to find out whether or not a mustie will fight for her mate!" Merle glowered at Jendara, then looked to Smith, her voice suddenly calm and icy. "Smith, I would appreciate it greatly if you would teach this little dummy proper manners, like a proper mouse. I agree with Xaa that there should be more of your people in our lands - but if they're going to all have manners like her, they can all rot as far as I'm concerned."
"Yes, my lady. I'll tell her what you said, and I'll do my best to teach her some manners," Smith replied, then looked firmly down at Jendara. Merle nodded - Smith hadn't become leader of his village by random chance, after all. His experiences during his imprisonment with the cats had hardened him, and for a mouse, he had a very strong personality. Jendara, for her part, cowered under the combined gaze of Smith and Merle, and a blush began in her large pink ears.
Merle turned and stormed off, leaving Smith to chitter scoldingly at Jendara in her ancient language. Merle plopped herself down beside the campfire Xaa was building for the two of them, using her little helmet like a stool.
Xaa nodded to Merle briefly, then returned to striking flint to the steel file he kept in his tinderbox, trying to light the fire. "Thank you very much, love. That was beginning to become a bit much."
"Well, why didn't you say something about it to her?!" Merle snapped, then as Xaa looked to her in surprise, Merle caught herself. "I'm sorry - It's just that I'm still very mad at her."
Xaa chuckled, then resumed striking sparks to the tinder. "Don't worry, love. I wasn't offended - just surprised. As to why I didn't say anything, that's why I was surprised. I thought you knew, Merle - by our culture, it's not my place to say something in a situation like that. It's yours."
Merle blinked. "Mine?"
Xaa nodded. "Of course. You are my mate. If Jendara were male and made advances to you, or if anyone else made such advances to you or C'dera, it would then be my place to respond."
"Oh? And what would you have done?" Merle asked, curious.
"If they were warrior-caste, I'd challenge them to a duel on the spot, of course. If they weren't, I'd probably have simply cut off their head."
Merle blanched. "You mean by your culture, I was supposed to kill her?!"
Xaa chuckled, shaking his head. "No, no. You asked what I would have done. Your response was perfectly appropriate. It's just that if I was in your situation, I doubt I'd be able to be as restrained as you were," Xaa replied, and paused in trying to light the fire, waving the file in his paw at his fifty vassals around the camp, most of whom were setting up tents and lighting small fires to cook their evening meals. "Look around you. Look."
Merle looked, and as she glanced into the faces of the other mus that occasionally glanced back at her, each warrior smiled and inclined his head.
"You see? Your response showed great self-control, given the situation. Making improper advances to the mate of another, particularly when the person can see those advances, is considered unbearably rude - yet, your response was not one of rage, as mine would have been, but of self-control. Self-control is something we mus value very highly. It's an important part of Zen, which is the central focus of the warrior-caste's life. Many of my vassals look up to me as a Zen-master, really. I'd have hated to disappoint them by showing I was, in fact, just an ordinary mus, after all."
Merle grinned at her large mate. "You are hardly an ordinary mus."
Xaa grinned back. "Thank you, love," he rumbled, and resumed trying to spark the fire.
"Oh, give me that!" Merle said with a giggle, hopping up and holding out her paws. Xaa shrugged and handed the file and flint to Merle, and she quickly knelt next to the fire. After taking a moment to re-arrange the tinder, Merle pressed the end of the file into the ground beside it, then quickly struck the file with the flint, very rapidly, over and over, sending a shower of sparks onto the flint. Suddenly she stopped, brought her muzzle near the tinder, and blew very gently across it. There was a small sliver of smoke for a long moment as she gently blew long puffs of air, then a flare as the tinder caught. Merle placed a couple twigs atop the tiny flame, watching it as it grew and adding more twigs. Finally, the flame had caught the small logs, and Merle handed the file and flint back to Xaa. "There! I really don't know how you got along before you met me, you know," she said, and giggled again.
"With great difficulty, of course," Xaa replied with a straight face, then grinned as Merle laughed.
Merle chatted quietly with Xaa over dinner, which was a pot of dried and powdered meats and organs boiled into a soup, just as everyone else was eating. It smelled quite delicious to a carnivore's nose, though Merle noted with some pleasure that Jendara wrinkled her nose at the scent, and made a face as she quietly shared an apple with Smith.
Xaa chuckled. "Pop like a puff-ball, eh?" he rumbled quietly, and chuckled again.
Merle made a moue'. "You heard that?"
"Of course, love. Everyone did - though only I understood it. Most of my vassals have yet to learn your language, though Lord Jamat is improving."
"Well, she would have, I guess. And it would serve her right!"
Xaa chuckled again, shaking his head. "No, she wouldn't have, love. Even if she was in heat and somehow managed to seduce one of my warriors instead of myself, she wouldn't pop. Despite what the Little Ones may think, that simply cannot happen."
"Why not? Is it... Is it because you're too different from them, and can't have babies with them?"
Xaa shook his head again. "No. It's because our infants aren't really much bigger than theirs."
Merle blinked again. "They aren't?"
"Remember Chashta? The new servant I took on the other month to help handle the pigeon coop?" Merle nodded, and Xaa smiled. "She's eight months pregnant, now."
"She is?! I thought she was just a little fat!"
Xaa laughed. "No, love. You'll see, if you ever decide to allow C'dera to bear children for you. Our infants come out much the same size and nearly identical in appearance to those of the Little Ones. That's also why it's almost unheard of for a she-mus to die in childbirth, unlike the Little Ones or even your people, who occasionally die. Unlike their infants, however, ours double in size over the course of the first three months of their life, as they suckle at their mother's breast."
Merle nodded, and was silent for a long moment before she spoke again. "Well, I suppose that makes sense. You did come from them, after all - the Last God made the mus from the mice. But do your babies really come out all hairless and blind like Bootie's baby did?"
Xaa nodded. "They've a bit more fuzz, but yes. I've seen mustie pups, however, so I can understand why that might be strange to you. Your infants come out completely furred, and their eyes open a few minutes after birth - often only a few moments. Ours, however, do not. It's as our old saying goes, Merle; Yes, we may be as big as bears, and have mastery of steel and stone and the power to strive and slay, but, in the end, we are all merely mice."
Merle scratched her head for a moment, thinking. "What would happen if a mouse coupled with a mus?"
"Mmm? What do you mean?"
"I mean, what kind of baby would you get? A mouse or a mus?"
Xaa shrugged. "Well, according to our ancient histories, it happened occasionally during the time we were the servants of the Little Ones. The child was invariably a mus, but had the prodigious memory of a Little One. They were also invariably sterile. In those days, if the child was born to a mus, we simply raised it as one of our own. However, if they were born to a Little One, they were often cast out by their society as being an obscenity, and given to us to raise. Either way, despite their heritage, they were denied the benefits of the Little One's society," Xaa explained, and took a sip of soup before he continued.
"Our ancient war-leader and the liberator of our people, Dash'du'Ragh, was such a one. That's what the 'du' of his lineage title means - an adopted child. He was a rejected one, a bastard offspring cut off from his rightful clan, and adopted by Ragh'ap'Maka, a woodcutter. Denied his inheritance by his true father, Dash'du'Ragh spent his youth honing his body in his adopted father's profession. As he grew, he also became a thief of books. He stole from the Little Ones' libraries, teaching himself to read their language from their primers. As time passed, he learned much about how their society truly functioned from their books - and in time he came to realize that the mus were the slaves of the Little Ones' technology. Eventually, he rose to become the leader of the rebellion that freed our people from their servitude, as you already know. Afterwards he defeated several rebel clans during the War of Ascendance, when he was forced to battle other mus-clans to exert his rule over them and found the First Empire on the ashes of the Little One's civilization. And he was right to do so, as well - without a single leader to unify the mus, establish a new order and try to organize efforts to build our early civilization, we probably would today be poking about the ruins of the Little One's cities and fighting each other with clubs. His contributions to our people's civilization and history were vast, perhaps immeasurable - and even in his day this was widely known, and he was publicly acclaimed for his accomplishments many times during his life. Yet, some of our historians today think he was a creature torn by two worlds. They say that though he was accepted by us, cherished by us, and greatly admired and revered, he may never have truly felt as though he were one of us, and instead yearned all his life to simply be accepted by his tiny father, and join with him as a proud and respected son in a quiet and humble life."
Merle sighed. "That's so sad."
Xaa chuckled. "It's only a scholar's theory, love. Dash'du'Ragh left no mention in his speeches or writings that he was unhappy. It is merely a guess, inferred from his heritage and the times he lived in."
Merle nodded, reaching out to take Xaa's enormous paw in her tiny one, and squeezed it softly. Merle then stroked the fur across the back of her mate's paw for a long time, thinking.
"What's the matter, love?"
Merle sighed. "Well... I..."
Xaa reached out with his other paw, lifting his little mate's chin with a finger. "Tell me," he rumbled, smiling gently.
"Well... Jendara thinks that... Well, she can't see how you could possibly be attracted to someone who doesn't have a nice long mousie-tail, but instead has a stumpy, furry little tail like mine. I know she was... She was using her tail to tease you and arouse you, and... Well, I can't do that, and it makes me unhappy," Merle replied, and felt very sad.
Xaa smiled quietly, and tugged on Merle's paw. "Come here, love," he rumbled. Gently seating Merle in his lap, he nuzzled her long and lovingly. Merle smiled a bit at that, and Xaa smiled back. Xaa then leaned down to very gently groom between Merle's ears, nibbling and lapping at her headfur.
Merle churred with pleasure, her eyes half-closed as Xaa groomed her. Jendara, who was just finishing laying out her little blankets inside the small tent she'd been given, watched Xaa groom Merle for a long moment... Then looked away, her ears blushing pink. Merle smiled at that, satisfied, then slipped her arms around Xaa (as far as they would reach, anyway), and churred again. "My mate. Mine."
"Now and forever,
love," Xaa rumbled quietly, smiling at her, then
resumed grooming her neck, holding her close.
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