of the Last God
(Book IV of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2001 BY
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The celebrations of the mice of the Great Cavern went on for hours and hours. Merle was surprised to learn that they did not dance in the darkness, but rather sang quite a bit, and the gloom of the caves echoed for many hours with their joyous songs. There was some mourning from those who had lost friends and family to the canids, but overall, there was much rejoicing. While the mice laughed and sang and celebrated their freedom from fear, Xaa sat down with Smith in front of the little council-building to speak to the Council of Elders, and discuss what might happen next. Xaa seemed very tired to Merle, but he pressed on, trying to help the mice come to a decision.
The council was, in the end, divided as to what they might do. Some wished to now enter the valley, and live in peace for eternity. With no predators and no dangers of any kind, the mice could easily live there forever, and be content. Being plant-eaters, they could, themselves, replace nearly all the animals killed by the canids, and the little valley could easily support thousands of them. The idea that there was a machine of the Ancient Ones there fascinated them even more, and many were eager to touch it, and to talk to it. The rest of the council, however, wanted to follow Lord Xaa to the 'Surface Lands', as they called them, and join with others of their kind - the mice of Smith's Village who had taken service with Clan Xaa. The valley, they argued, was isolated, and though their people might be happy there, they would never grow and learn. It was also small - there was an upper limit to the number of mice it could support before farming and other agricultural techniques would be necessary - and these were skills they would have to slowly re-discover, as time passed. The Watcher, they argued, was an ancient and alien machine - perhaps friendly, perhaps not. Either way, it seemed unlikely to them that the Watcher would truly help them, but would, most likely, simply observe them, and stave off it's own boredom through idle conversation. For several hours, it seemed their debate had no solution.
Finally, after listening to everyone's opinion, Lannan came to a decision. Smith translated what he was saying, so that Merle, Xaa and Kahgah could understand. Lannan ruled that all the mice who had participated in the competitions, the same contests that selected Jendara to be the one to go to the surface lands for help, would be sent to live in Smith's Village. As each of them were young, strong, and came from good bloodlines with no birth defects recorded in their lineage for over ten generations, they were the best to send along. All the rest would go to live in the Valley of the Ancient Ones, and try to adapt as best they could.
There was much wailing and weeping at Lannan's decision, as it meant that sons and daughters would be sent away, never to be seen again. Yet, Merle saw that the mice of the Great Cavern were, in many ways, just like the mice of the Wild Wood had once been. Their law was one of blind obedience, and brooked no dissent.
"Does that mean Jendara will come out of the caves, with us?" Kahgah asked, his eyes brightening in the dim light of Smith's lantern.
"Yes, Lord Kahgah," Smith replied. "She and the others will accompany Lord Xaa, Lady Merle and I back to my village on Lord Xaa's lands."
"Ah. Well, that's good, then," Kahgah said, and smiled weakly for a moment. "If you will excuse me," he said, rising to his feet and sketching a brief bow before walking off.
"I wonder what's the matter with him?" Smith said aloud, gazing after Kahgah's retreating form.
"He's in love with Jendara, Smith," Merle replied, "and I think she's in love with him, too."
"Well, perhaps Lord Xaa can make an allowance of some kind - I mean, if they truly do care for each other, certainly she could be allowed to go with him. Lord Xaa?" Smith asked, looking to Xaa, then paused, startled.
Xaa simply sat there, his expression somewhat vacant, his golden eyes looking glazed, and shivered.
"Lord Xaa, are you alright?" Smith asked, stepping nearer to him and holding up the lantern.
"I... No," Xaa rumbled, and slowly lay down on his side on the stone floor of the cave. "I am very tired. I need to sleep."
Merle, stunned, reached out to feel her mate, then looked to Smith. "Smith! He's very sick! His ears are very hot!"
"Let's get some blankets from our supplies, and cover him well, my lady," Smith replied, his expression grim.
It was difficult to get blankets beneath Xaa to separate him from the chill cave floor - by the time Smith and Merle had the blankets ready, Xaa simply could not move much, only shiver. Getting him out of his armor was even more difficult. Xaa seemed most comfortable laying on his side, so Merle rolled up a blanket tightly to use as a pillow beneath his head. Finally, Merle had finished tucking nearly all the blankets they had around him. Yet it didn't seem to help. Xaa still lay there, shivering - and now, he had become almost completely unresponsive. "Smith! What can we do?!"
Smith sat back on his heels, and said nothing.
"Smith! Can't you get out your herbs and do something?!"
Smith looked to Merle in silence for a long moment before replying. "Merle... Bootie is a far better healer than I am. I know the basics, but that is all. Still, even if she were here, there's nothing she could do. He's caught the same sickness those canids had, Merle - and our lore says it's fatal to his people. There's nothing anyone can do, Merle. He..." Smith said, then sighed. "He's dying, Merle."
Merle stared at Smith, stunned. "No! No! You can't let him die, Smith! Help me!"
"I can't, Merle! I'm sorry - there's nothing in our lore that can help him!" Smith replied, his eyes misting with tears. "All we can do is keep Kahgah away from him, and hope he doesn't come down with it, too."
"Well, then ask Lannan, or Jendara! Ask them what their lore says about healing!"
"Merle..." Smith began, trying to be comforting as he wiped his eyes. "Merle, their lore is nothing. They know of fungus and bugs and bats and spiders and caves. They know a few things that we don't, yes, but-"
"I don't care! Ask anyway!" Merle shrieked, then burst into tears.
"I..." Smith began, then sighed. "Alright, Merle. I'll ask him. I'll ask all of them. I'll do everything I can - and we'll try everything I can think of. According to our lore, what kills them is the fever. They lose all their energy shivering, trying to stay warm, then collapse and die. If you keep them warm, they don't shiver as much, but it doesn't cure them, and their temperature just keeps going up. Towards the end, they start having seizures as their temperature gets too high, then they die. Our ancestors..." he explained, then sniffled. "I'm sorry, Merle, and it shames me to have to say it, but... Our ancestors didn't really care that they died, and since we never were affected by it, we never found a way to cure this. I... I have a few herbs that can reduce a fever a bit - willow bark, comfrey, and some others. We'll try making a tea out of that. Then I'll go ask Lannan and Jendara what they might be able to do," Smith said, then turned to get his medical supplies from their packs.
Merle knelt beside her mate, nuzzling him gently, the tears streaming down her muzzle. "Don't die, Xaa... Please..."
Xaa said nothing in reply, simply
shivering silently, his eyes looking vacant and glazed.
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