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

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"This could be trouble," Xaa rumbled, the late afternoon sun drawing long shadows across the empty farmlands.

Merle nodded. Having Jendara lead them from Castle Naash to the tunnel was an integral part of the plan - they did not know where the entrance to Jendara's lands was, and only she could take them there. Yet, now that they had arrived at Castle Naash, there were a hundred of Lord Kahgah's warriors waiting for them, all armed and armored.

"Merle, guard Smith and Jendara. Should anything happen, see that they get away safe. Jamat, give the reins to their bird to Lady Merle," Xaa called, then shouted to the other warriors that accompanied them. "Wind in the Reeds!"

Immediately, the warriors that accompanied Xaa shifted the position of their mounts, forming a semi-circle between where Merle, Smith and Jendara were and where Lord Kahgah's troops were. The formation appeared casual and non-threatening - yet each warrior was precisely spaced so that, upon command, they could shift into any of a number of offensive or defensive formations.

"What are they doing, Mer- err, I mean Lady Merle," Smith asked nervously as Merle took the reins from Lord Jamat.

Merle watched Jamat ride into his position beside Xaa for a moment, then looked back to Smith. "Well, that's Lord Kahgah and his warriors. I think they've been guarding the castle - look, you can see at least a hundred servants working on re-building it. Xaa thinks Kagah might want to take Jendara, because she's a mouse, and he probably thinks she has lots of knowledge that could help his clan. Taking her from W'mefa was risky - he might plunge the whole land into war, and end up wiping his own clan out. Taking her from Xaa, though, wouldn't be as risky. Xaa only has W'mefa and Byarl as his formal allies. There aren't enough musties to really do anything about Kahgah, and if Kahgah can kill Xaa and conceal who did it, W'mefa might have to simply sit on his paws and do nothing. The emperor has a different set of rules he has to live with, and he can only call for war when the facts are clear. It's still a dangerous move, but..." Merle replied, her voice trailing off as she noticed a lone mus step out from a pavilion-tent and join the other warriors. He was armored, as well, though he was not wearing his helmet. Merle guessed (quite correctly) that it was Kahgah, himself.

Merle watched nervously as Kahgah rode closer, accompanied by half his warriors. Brownie, Merle's bird, shifted nervously beneath her. It was far too quiet for Brownie's liking, and she grackled softly. Merle stroked the feathers of Brownie's neck quietly, waiting.

Kahgah stopped before Xaa, bowing from his saddle, and Merle looked him over. He was young - perhaps only in his early twenties, and probably around fifteen years Xaa's junior. His fur was a glossy black, and his eyes the same yellow-gold predator's eyes of Xaa - an unusual color, for a mus, but not completely uncommon. "I greet you, Lord Xaa," he rumbled, his eyes glancing past Xaa's armored, gray-furred form to light on Jendara and Smith for a moment. Was he about to attack? Perhaps challenge Xaa to a duel over Jendara? Merle could not tell.

"I greet you, Lord Kahgah," Xaa replied calmly, returning Kahgah's bow with a curt nod. "Was there something you wanted?" Merle saw that Xaa's sword-paw was open and loose, ready for anything.

Kahgah bristled slightly, as Xaa's reply hadn't been perfectly polite. Then again, Kahgah's posture and demeanor showed he had something other than politeness on his mind, as well. Merle watched, ready at a moment's notice to turn Brownie and ride away as swiftly as she could, dragging the bird Smith and Jendara rode behind her. It wasn't what she wanted to do by any means, but this wasn't the time to argue with her mate.

"You'll forgive me, Lord Xaa, if I forgo the formalities," Kahgah snapped, slipping a scroll-case from his sash and holding it out to the warrior beside him. Kagah's warrior took it, and rode up to Lord Jamat, holding out the scroll. When Jamat had taken it, the warrior returned and resumed his position by Kahgah's side. Jamat held the scroll out to lord Xaa, who took it in his left paw and slipped it into his own sash while Kahgah continued speaking. "Yes, as I said, you'll forgive me if I forgo the formalities. I think we both know why we're here, and I never was very good at the bandying of words required to be a proper diplomat."

"Do feel quite free to say whatever is on your mind, Lord Kahgah," Xaa replied. Merle saw the slight twitch of Xaa's whiskers, and could see he was tensed, ready.

Kahgah nodded. "Alright, I'll speak plainly. My cousin, now my liege, has charged me on the honor of my clan to protect you and your warriors, and insure that no harm comes to you in our lands, and that the Little One in your care does not go missing. If anything happens to you or any in your party, I am to take full blame and responsibility - including surrendering my head to her should the events warrant it. Bah!" Kahgah snapped, then spat. "I am no idiot! J'taash thinks I mean to steal the Little One from you, and use her myself!"

"Do you?" Xaa asked, his voice one of deadly steel.

Kahgah looked to Xaa for a long moment, his own owl-like eyes meeting Xaa's hard, golden-eyed gaze. "I said I would speak plainly, and I will. Yes, the thought had crossed my mind. Several times, in fact. But as I said, I am not an idiot! I tell you now, one warrior to another - I would do no such thing. I am aware of the consequences, and I have no wish to see my family and my vassals destroyed in a stupid and hopeless war that might easily be avoided by just speaking plainly with you."

"So speak, Lord Kahgah. I am listening," Xaa replied calmly. Merle noted that he did not, in any way, relax. He was still as tensed and ready as he was before.

"Lord Xaa, I shall be blunt with you. I want the knowledges of the Little Ones. Yet, I know that those already in our lands are your servants - and if there are any more like this little one here to be found, they will most likely join the rest of their people in your lands. I will not disgrace myself by attempting to woo them away from your service, nor will I insult your intelligence by attempting to curry your favor with offers of gold or other such nonsense. I will simply ask you, one warrior to another, that when the day comes that their numbers are large enough to consider such a thing, that you let them know they are wanted and welcomed in the lands of Clan J'Taash, and if they choose to serve our clan, we will treat them with all the proper honor and respect they have experienced in your service, and we will treasure them highly. I am aware it may be several generations before such a request can even be considered - so I ask that you place the scroll I have given you among your clan documents. It is a more formal wording of what I have just said, as is proper."

Xaa raised an eyebrow. "You ask for your clan as a whole, and not for yourself?"

"Yes, I do," Kahgah replied firmly.

"And does your cousin know of this request?"

"She'll find out eventually. I wanted to speak to you about it first, plainly, and face-to-face."

"And what do I receive in exchange for this?"

"My life-long gratitude, and my pledge to be your voice in the ear of my liege-lady, J'taash. I will encourage her to make alliance with you, to support your decisions and desires, and in every way I will work to support your wishes and goals, so long as they do not conflict with the wishes of my liege-lady or the goals of our clan. That, of course, is not written on the scroll. It is simply between you and me."

Xaa nodded. "Should your cousin choose to make alliance with me, I will certainly place your request in my clan documents - alongside my own request to whatever child or grandchild of mine who may come to rule my clan in future generations that all our clan allies be considered first when it comes time for the Little Ones to spread their numbers among all our clans. As you know, currently, I only have two allies - the Musties of the Laughing Wood, and Clan W'mefa. All my other allies were destroyed in the war with the cats. I would welcome a new ally, and our clan would keep them in mind, when the time comes."

"Then we have an agreement, Lord Xaa?"

"We have an agreement, Lord Kahgah."

"Thank you," Kahgah said, and bowed from his saddle. Xaa returned the bow with a curt nod, as was appropriate for his station compared to that of Kahgah, and Kahgah straightened up again. "Oh - and welcome to the lands of Clan J'Taash, and welcome also to Castle Naash. I'm afraid there's no place in the castle that's habitable - my servants tell me we probably won't even have the stables ready for another month. The damned cats burned the whole castle, and we've only removed the last of the rubble the other week. However, I can offer you and your party dinner tonight at my camp, if you like, and then I can escort you in the morning, if you wish. I also have a sack of carrots. About a stone's worth, or so. I read in a history-book that the Little Ones enjoyed them - though I can't imagine why anyone would enjoy something from the dirt."

"Thank you, Lord Kahgah. That would be infinitely preferable to another night of jerky and soup, and I'm sure the Little Ones in my company will greatly appreciate the carrots."

Kahgah barked a brief command to his troops, and as one, they wheeled and began a slow ride back to the castle, at a walk. Xaa nodded to Jamat, and Jamat called the rest of Xaa's warriors to follow their lord.

"What happened?!" Merle asked, once she had caught up to Xaa again and returned the reins of the bird Smith and Jendara rode to Jamat. "I was sure there was going to be a fight!"

"So was I, love, but Kahgah had something far more important on his mind than the wealth he might have obtained from the Little Ones' knowledge," Xaa rumbled quietly in reply.

"Oh? What?"

"Restoring his honor."

"Ummm... Okay, explain that one to me," Merle replied, gazing at Xaa in confusion from under her helmet.

"Well, Merle, it's simple - he was thinking of taking Jendara. That was bad enough, but everyone who mattered knew his thoughts. W'mefa knew his thoughts, and J'taash, his liege, knew his thoughts - though she probably learned of them through W'mefa, it's entirely possible she saw it herself in his eyes. He considered risking everything, which could very possibly have meant annihilating his family and his vassals. His thoughts were transparent, and filled with greed - and greed, to a mus, is a detestable flaw in the character of a mus, particularly that of a warrior-caste. We are expected to live a life of humility, and greed has no place in that life. Thus, he has dishonored himself before his liege, and his emperor. He now seeks to restore his honor - if not in his lifetime, in the lifetime of his son or perhaps a grandson, when the Little Ones may, perhaps, have enough numbers to consider his offer," Xaa said, and nodded to Kahgah's back, fifty yards in front of him. "He may be a hot-headed young mus, but he is still an honorable mus, as is proper. It's entirely possible that he may even learn a little humility from this experience - though we may have to wait until he's closer to my age before it shows."

Merle giggled, and Xaa winked at her. "Well, at least that's over with, and we get to eat real food tonight!"

Xaa shook his head. "It's not quite over, love. Kahgah will almost certainly be coming with us into the caves, and beyond."

Merle blinked. "What? How do you figure?"

"Merle, he's been charged, on the honor of his clan, to insure our safety. He can't simply wait outside the cave along with my warriors. He'll have to go in. I'll have to explain to him that he can't bring his warriors with us, and he may resist that, but in the end, he's coming with us. He has no choice - his liege has ordered him. He must obey, or quit her service. And he's not about to cause a scandal for J'taash and his clan by leaving her service, Merle. That would mean losing his lands and probably most or even all his vassals and servants. As it's also quite possible no other lord or lady would ever take such a hot-head as him into their service, he has no other choice."

"Well... Look at the bright side," Merle replied, and grinned with typical mustie optimism. "After all, he might come in handy against those 'Fanged Ones' Jendara talks about."

Xaa simply nodded, gazing at Kahgah's back.

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