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

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Merle found it quite difficult to simply wait while Smith translated between Lannan and Xaa. Aside from the fact that their conversation was, for the most part, deadly dull, it was also very embarrassing to be around Lannan. The little, elderly mouse was, in point of fact, nearly naked. But, then again, so were nearly all the other mice of the Great Cavern.

As it turned out, Jendara's original garb, the translucent spider-silk robe she wore, was the normal, 'everyday' dress of her people. Though Jendara had acquiesced weeks ago and worn the tanned bat-hide garment that her people wore for climbing about in the caves (a garment which protected them from abrasions caused by sharp rocks), the rest of her people dressed as they normally did - and Merle often blushed as she realized she could see everything. Merle wondered how the mice could possibly survive the chill of the caves, dressed as lightly as they were and being as most were quite thin, but it appeared that after many generations in the caves, Jendara's people had simply adjusted to cooler temperatures. Merle tried to resolve the problem by only looking the little mice in the eyes, but that didn't really help, either. Many had eyes that drifted off in different directions in their blindness, or eyes that were milky or glazed. It was quite disturbing to look into their faces. Finally, Merle asked if she could be excused. Xaa simply nodded, continuing to talk to Lannan the Elder through Smith.

So it was that Merle found herself strolling the enormous cavern that the mice inhabited, carrying a small candle and enjoying the wondrous colors and textures of the ancient stones. She was careful not to wander too far, of course, as she didn't want to get lost. Still, even remaining inside the main chamber, there was much beauty and majesty in the stones to be seen and appreciated.

Merle turned a corner, walking around a large and quite beautiful pillar of stone that stretched from the ceiling high above to the floor, and suddenly stopped, surprised. Lord Kahgah and Jendara sat together in a quiet little alcove before her, Jendara's tiny paws clasped in Kahgah's enormous ones. Both were looking at her silently.

"Ummm..." Merle said, embarrassed. After a moment, she tried again. "I beg your pardon, Lord Kahgah," Merle said in the language of the mus, "I didn't mean to interrupt." Merle bowed and started to turn away, but Kahgah called out to her.

"Wait, Lady Merle - if you don't mind, I'd like to ask you a favor."

Merle stopped, and looked back to the two of them in surprise. "Me? What is it you need, Lord Kahgah?"

"Well, my lady, I was hoping that you might try to translate for me, so I might talk to Jendara."

Merle smiled, though a bit wryly. "I'm sorry, Lord Kahgah, but I don't really speak their language at all, and I don't think Jendara speaks mine."

"Well, could you try, at least? Please?"

Merle nodded. "Of course, Lord Kahgah," she replied, then looked to Jendara. "Umm... Kahgah wants me to try translating to you. Has Smith taught you enough of our language to understand me, yet?"

"I beg pardon, I understand only little," Jendara replied. "Please for to speak slowly and much simple?"

Merle looked to Kahgah. "Well, she understands a little bit. What did you want to tell her?"

Kahgah paused, and Merle looked at him, waiting. She could see in his golden eyes that the ebon-furred mus was carefully considering what he might say - or, perhaps, judging by the flicking of his tail, he was considering whether or not he should tell Merle what he was thinking. Merle suppressed a grin - it seemed obvious what he really wanted to tell Jendara.

"Well, I..." Kahgah began, faltering.

"You want to tell her you care about her," Merle said, grinning.

Kahgah blinked. "Am I that easily read?"

Merle smiled wryly. "So sorry, Lord Kahgah, but yes, you are." At Kahgah's moue', Merle smiled again. "Lord Kahgah, I'm fairly certain she already understands that you care about her, please don't worry."

"Well, you're probably right, Lady Merle... Still, I... I would like to know if she cares for me in return. I would like to know what she's thinking. I would like to be able to tell her that I don't wish her to remain in these caves any longer. Lord Xaa and I plan on ridding them of these... 'Fanged Ones', whatever they are. Perhaps it will be easy. Perhaps it will be difficult. Perhaps we may even die trying. I don't know. I do know, however, that I don't want her to live the rest of her life here in darkness, and slowly go blind. That, to me, is... Just horrible. Could you tell her that, please?"

Merle nodded, and repeated what Kahgah had said in the language of the Little People of the Wild Wood. She hadn't thought about it exactly that way, and the thought that Xaa might get killed trying to help Jendara's people was upsetting. After Merle had finished, however, Jendara simply smiled, and shrugged. Merle sighed. "I'm sorry, Lord Kahgah, she doesn't really understand most of that. I think, though, you can make yourself understood. If it's obvious to me you care for her, it should be obvious to her, too. Just sit with her. Hold her paw. Show her how you feel with your touch, and your smile. That's the best advice I can give you, other than waiting and having Smith translate for you."

"Well, I thank you for trying, my lady," Kahgah replied, bowing from where he sat. "Perhaps... Perhaps I will ask Smith, later."

Merle turned and walked away quickly, her mind in turmoil. It wasn't Kahgah's attraction to Jendara that bothered her, of course. It was obvious to Merle that Jendara at least liked Kahgah in return, for if she didn't, she wouldn't be sitting with him and holding his paw. No, what bothered her was what Kahgah had said. The thought that Xaa might be injured or killed fighting these unknown enemies of the mice was not pleasant.

Merle walked back to the council-building, where Xaa and Smith still sat outside, chatting with Lannan - they had to sit outside, as the door was simply too small for Xaa to enter. All the other council-members who had been gathered around had, by now, gone home to sleep, and Xaa was simply sitting and watching, as Smith chittered on in the ancient language spoken by the mice of the Great Cavern. Xaa looked up as Merle approached. "Merle? What's the matter?"

Merle sat next to Xaa, and sighed. "I... I'm just upset."

"About what, love?"

"Well..." Merle replied, then looked to Xaa. "I ran across Kahgah and Jendara, and I got to talking to Kahgah. He... Well... We got to talking about these mysterious 'Fanged Ones', and he said 'Perhaps it will be easy. Perhaps it will be difficult. Perhaps we may even die trying. I don't know.' I don't like to think that you might be killed, Xaa."

Xaa smiled wryly, his owl-like eyes reflecting the dim light of Smith's lantern. "I assure you, love, I've no intention of getting killed, myself. That's why I've spent all this time asking Lannan and the other members of the council everything they know about their enemies. Smith, in fact, thinks he may have figured out what they are."

"Oh? What?"

"There's no word for it in my language, I'm sorry, and I can't pronounce the word for them in yours. Smith can explain it as soon as he's finished talking to Lannan. Let's be patient."

"Well... Alright," Merle replied with a sigh, and sat down beside Xaa.

After many minutes, Lannan finally nodded. He spoke what was apparently a brief farewell, then hobbled off, towards his little home in the shadows. Smith turned to Merle, and bowed. "Sorry, Lady Merle, but... Well, there was a lot of explaining I needed to do."

"About what?" Merle asked, curious.

"Well, at first, I was simply translating for Lord Xaa. He wanted to learn as much as he could about these 'Fanged Ones' before he and Lord Kahgah would have to meet them in battle. Then, I was answering Lannan's questions about the history of the mice of the Wild Wood, and the musties, and what our life in Lord Xaa's service was like, and many more things. Everything, really. They've lost the lore of their ancestors, but that doesn't mean they are completely ignorant. They have a lore of their own, and have learned things in the darkness of these caves that even we didn't know. Lannan thinks that perhaps what little they have learned would be of use to our library, and I agree. Of course, what they'll decide to do in the end isn't certain, yet. A lot of it depends on whether or not Lord Kahgah and Lord Xaa can eliminate the canids."

"Canids?" Merle asked, confused.

"Yes, Lady Merle. That's what we call the things that these mice are calling 'Fanged Ones,'" Smith explained and sat down beside Merle, pulling out another candle for his lantern. As he changed the candle, he continued his explanation. "You see, according to our legends, about a century before the Night of the Long Knives, we ran across these creatures."

Merle blinked. "You did?!"

Smith nodded. "Yes, my lady. About nine centuries or so ago, there was an enormous storm at sea, which blew onto land. An enormous amount of destruction was done, and many lives were lost. When the storm had finally passed and we began to clean up the mess, we discovered the wreckage of a ship on our shores. Scattered among the wreckage was a few bodies. They were as big as the cats, yet they were not cats, as their claws were like those of the mus. Their ears and tails were short and furry, like a mustie, but pointed, not rounded. Judging by their teeth, they were carnivores. It was the guess of our scholars back then that somewhere, on the other side of the ocean, was a nation of these creatures. Our guess from what bits and pieces we recovered from the wreck was that the ship was an exploratory vessel that was either attempting to cross the sea, or perhaps was trying to find out if the world was round or flat. Our lore, of course, says it's round, as that is verifiable by measurements of shadows at noon taken from plinths placed a thousand leagues apart, north to south. Still, they may not have struck upon this method, and decided to simply sail out across the sea and find out."

"So, you think that these creatures that have been capturing the mice here in the Great Cavern are... Canids?"

Smith nodded. "Yes, my lady. They match the descriptions recorded in our ancient legends in every detail."

"Which means, of course, that they could be quite dangerous," Xaa rumbled. "Nine centuries ago, they had the technology to build ships that could cross the sea. Today, they could easily be our superiors."

Merle shrugged. "Maybe - maybe not. There's a big difference between building a gun or an airship and building a sailing ship. They could just be really, really good at building boats. Besides - we haven't heard anything of them between then and now, so it's also possible they've gotten nowhere in nine centuries, too," Merle replied, and both Xaa and Smith nodded in agreement. "What else did you learn from Lannan about them?"

"Well," Xaa rumbled, stroking his whiskers, "they don't appear to use weapons against the Little Ones here - they simply sneak into the caverns, and hunt them down by scent and sound. They grab them, apparently either netting or bagging them, and drag them off. Of course, they don't need to use weapons against the Little Ones, as they simply don't know how to fight back. Oh, they try to fight back, of course, but most of them are very nearsighted, or simply blind. The best they can do is wrestle and bite, and the 'Fanged Ones' are simply too strong for them. After all, they aren't musties."

Merle nodded. "So what's your plan?"

Xaa shrugged. "Well, I planned on getting some rest, then Jendara could lead Kahgah and I to this cave that opens out into the valley that the Little Ones found. From there, we'll scout around, and see how many of them there are. If it looks like we can defeat them, we'll attack. Otherwise, we'll withdraw, and think of something else."

Merle glared at Xaa. "I notice you didn't include me in that plan at all!"

Xaa blinked. "But-"

"Uh-uh! Kahgah isn't sneaky at all! I've watched him for weeks, now! You are not leaving me behind! I am sneaky, and I'm a better choice to go with you than he is!"

Xaa looked down at Merle for a long moment, his golden, owl-like eyes blinking silently. Finally, he nodded. "You're right, of course. We'll have Kahgah guard Jendara in the entrance to the valley, and you and I will scout around."

Merle blinked in surprise. "You're not going to argue with me?"

"No, of course not, love. I've known you four years, now, and I've learned that it is pointless to argue with you when you are right," Xaa replied, and winked, grinning. Merle giggled, and Xaa reached out to nuzzle her for a moment. "I'm sorry, love. It's just that sometimes, I see how small you are, and I forget that you are as brave and as worthy a warrior as any she-mus. After all, your people used to slay bears in the Wild Wood with nothing but knives."

Merle giggled again. "Well, yes - but not alone!"

"My lord, my lady... What about me?" Smith asked.

"You will stay behind with Jendara, Smith. Should things go wrong, you'll need to have her lead you back to the cave where Jamat and the others are waiting. From there, tell Jamat what happened, and head home with him. C'dera will know what to do. If we do not return, she will be your liege-lady, until Johm'rouh inherits, upon C'dera's death," Xaa replied, and yawned, his fangs flashing in the candlelight. "For now, let's find a quiet place, and get some sleep. We'll need to be alert when it comes time to head to the valley."

Smith blanched at how casually Xaa spoke of the possibility of his own death - Smith and the mice of his village needed Xaa, in more ways than they could possibly count. Yet, more than that, Smith liked and respected Xaa very much, and felt deeply indebted to him for freeing himself and his people from the claws of the cats over two years ago. "My lord... Please... Do be careful. I mean... When you go."

Merle grinned. "Don't worry, Smith. I'll be watching out for him."

Smith smiled. "You be careful, too, my lady."

Merle nodded, grinning. In truth, deep in her heart, she was worried. It could be quite dangerous - perhaps none of them would return. Still, so long as she was by her mate's side, she knew she had the best chance of helping to make sure everything came out alright.

A sudden shriek interrupted Smith's reply, and in a moment, the darkness of the vast cavern was filled with the terrorized squeaks of hundreds of mice. "Smith?! What is it?! What's wrong?" Merle yelped.

"I don't know, my lady! There are too many of them shouting, it's all a confused babble with all these echoes!"

After a few moments, Lannan the Elder and a half dozen of the council-members came up, all shouting at once. Smith listened, then looked to Xaa. "My lord, they say that another of their people has been captured, just a few minutes ago! They were out gathering mushrooms with a small group, and apparently two canids grabbed them!"

Xaa nodded, rising to his feet, then took a deep breath, and roared, his wordless shout echoing for many long moments in the cavern.

The silence that followed was deafening.

"Kahgah! Are you about?!" Xaa shouted into the silence.

"Here, Lord Xaa! What's happened?!" Kahgah shouted back.

"Another of the Little Ones has been abducted! Come to the council-building in the center of the cavern, and we'll go after them! Is Jendara with you?"

There was a long pause, and Merle wondered what the delay could be - then suddenly blushed in realization. Jendara was quite an 'earthy' person, particularly for a mouse, and had made advances to Xaa with her intent being fairly obvious. It dawned on Merle that as Jendara obviously did like Kahgah, and he liked her, Jendara and Kahgah quite possibly were somewhat indisposed at the moment.

"Yes, Jendara is with me," Kahgah called back, finally. Merle grinned quietly - she could almost hear the blush in his voice.

"Alright, bring her along, as well!" Xaa shouted, then turned to Smith. "Smith, get your pack and your supplies of herbs, and pull out some blackroot for Kahgah, Merle and I. We'll need to be wide awake in a bit. Get some for yourself and Jendara, as well, and tell her how it's used."

"Yes, my lord," Smith replied, already turning to where he and Merle had set their supplies. Blackroot, true to it's name, was a long black root that, when chewed, could drive away sleep, and keep one awake for a day or two - though after that, one tended to get dizzy from lack of sleep.

Merle made a moue' just looking at the roots as Smith pulled them out - she'd tried them last year. Though she found they were harmless to musties, just like the mus, she also found the mus were right - they were very vile to the tastebuds of a carnivore. To a mouse, of course, blackroot was quite delicious, and good for tummy-aches, as well. "You'll have to tell Kahgah how to use them, Smith. I don't think he's ever tried blackroot before."

Smith nodded, a piece of blackroot already in his muzzle as he held out two more to her and Xaa. "Yes, my lady."

Xaa took the root without comment, popping it into his muzzle and chewing quietly. Merle did likewise, making a face at the awful taste. As Xaa checked the charge in the pan of his rifle, Merle slipped her sling from her pocket and began straightening out the thongs. Lannan and the other council members stood by quietly, waiting hopefully. Merle only hoped that their hopes were not in vain.

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