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

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Byarl and Ellie were just waking up, the morning light shining through the curtains that covered the small, round window in their bedroom, when Byarl heard the first shouts of welcome. "Someone's arrived in the village, Ellie," he said, and nuzzled his yawning mate. "Come - let's see who it is."

Ellie blinked and yawned a bit more - they had stayed up very late the last four nights, playing with each other, enjoying each other's company, snuggling, and generally renewing their relationship after Byarl's long absence over the summer and fall. Now, with the first snows having fallen in the mountains to the south and more snow likely for the Laughing Woods sometime in the next few days, they both were looking forward to a long, cozy winter. Byarl's sons now had their own houses, and so Byarl and Ellie were also looking forward to their first winter alone together in many years. Still, a guest was a guest - and something new and exciting. Byarl and Ellie dressed quickly, and a few moments later, they opened their door onto the chilly winter's morning.

"Hoyo, Byarl!" Merle called from the back of Brownie, her mount.

"Good morning, Great Chief Byarl. It is a pleasure to see you again. Good morning, Ellie. You're looking quite beautiful, today," Xaa rumbled from the back of his ebon bird as it stood by Merle's side, and bowed from the saddle. The other four mus warriors in their company also bowed, as did Merle.

"Thank you, Lord Xaa," Ellie replied, blushing a bit as she bowed in return with Byarl.

Merle reached behind her, and hefted a pair of dead rabbits on a long leather thong. They had been easy prey to Merle's sling. "Look, Byarl! I got two rabbits on the way here! We can have them for breakfast!"

Byarl grinned. "A good idea, Merle. Come on inside, and Ellie can start cooking them."

A few minutes later, once Xaa had managed to crawl through the small door of Byarl's home, Xaa, Merle and Byarl sat around the table while Ellie bustled about in the kitchen, whistling a happy tune. Xaa, of course, sat on the floor - the chairs in Byarl's home were far too small to accommodate him. "So, Lord Xaa, what brings you here this morning?" Byarl asked politely in the language of the mus.

"Well, friendship, mainly. It's been awhile since I saw you last, Great Chief Byarl," Xaa said, and inclined his head politely. "And, of course, you are my ally. I was certain there were a few details of your journey we should probably discuss. I thought it was far too early in the morning to visit, but Merle assured me that it was not."

Byarl grinned at Xaa's reply - it was apparent that Merle had been, slowly, teaching him the Mustie Way. Friendship was always a good enough reason to visit, for a mustie - and, often, was the only reason. "Thank you, Lord Xaa. It's been awhile since I saw you and Merle, as well, and I wondered how your trip went."

"Ah - well, Merle tells the story much better than I do. Why don't you tell the story to Byarl, Merle?"

"Okay!" Merle replied, smiling, and began.

It was a long story, and by the time Merle was through, Ellie had served breakfast for all of them - a rabbit-stew. "And you say all the canids got sick?" Ellie asked once she'd sat down. She had been listening from the kitchen, and the story was fascinating.

Merle nodded, sipping at a spoonful of the delicious stew, then replied. "Very sick. The Watcher said that their whole civilization collapsed because so many of the canids died. The mice don't have a name for this sickness, because they never get it, but the mus call it Febrilosis," Merle explained, the last in the language of the mus. "My guess is we don't get it, either - I was right with Xaa all that time and I never even got a sniffle. But Jendara's medicine cured him. The mice say it's a dangerous medicine, though, and they try to only use it when they know nothing else will work."

"Dangerous? How, Merle?" Byarl asked around a mouthful or rabbit-meat.

"Well, Jendara says that if you don't make it exactly right, the patient can die. She also says that some patients can only take it for one sickness - if you give it to them for another one later, they choke and go into shock and die. Like an allergy, except it kills you. And there's no way to tell whether or not a patient is allergic without giving it to them - or at least, that's what Jendara says. Bootie says that she might be able to come up with some way to tell, eventually. She says the mice in the Great Cavern lived in the dark all the time, and a lot of their Healing Lore has nothing about looking at a patient. She thinks that maybe you could tell if someone was allergic by shaving a bit of fur and rubbing it on the skin and see if it gets inflamed. The mice in Smith's Village are much better at medicine than the mice of the Great Cavern - well, except for the Mold-Medicine they invented."

"That's very sad, what happened to the canids," Ellie said, and paused in sipping at her soup to sigh. "I wonder if there's anything we can do?"

Xaa shook his head. "Not at the moment, no. Our ships can't cross the ocean, yet. It's very, very big. With Merle's new designs, we've gone very far out to sea, but we've yet to find the other side, and their continent. Someday, as our ships improve, we'll be able to do it. Perhaps then, we'll send someone across the sea, and see if we can't help them. That airship they made could cross the ocean - a phenomenal feat, given what we know today. There's much we can learn from them, I think, and what with the cure the mice have discovered, much they can learn from us," Xaa said, and shrugged. "Assuming they're still alive and can be found by the time we're able to reach them, that is." Xaa then smiled, and changed the subject. "How are the Wild Musties doing in their new home, Great Chief Byarl?" he asked, then blew across his spoonful of stew to cool it a bit.

Byarl rolled his eyes as he swallowed another spoonful of stew. "Oh, you've no idea, Lord Xaa. There's so much to teach them, we'll be at it for years, I think. Language, first - that will take awhile. Then, once they've mastered that, they'll be able to learn everything else. We can't teach them how to make guns and steel knives and all the other things they want until they can speak our language, simply because there just isn't words in their language for things like 'iron' and 'steel' and 'forge' and everything else. So, they have to learn our language, first. Bessie is over in their village, teaching them our language while she learns theirs. It seemed the best thing to do at the time, and it gives Bessie and Pup-Chup a chance to be together, and see if they want to be mates."

Ellie grinned. "They will, Byarl. I can see it in their eyes."

Byarl smiled back at Ellie, nodding, then looked to Xaa again. "Well, anyway... They seem to have adjusted to everything else pretty well. We helped them build their houses so they won't freeze once the first snows come. It took them awhile to get used to living underground, but once they realized it was nice and snug and much warmer than a tree-house would be around here, they liked it. Their clothes were another adjustment. Their clothes they wore in the jungle were light, meant for warm weather. But here, it's cooler, so they're hunting the rabbits to make clothes like we wear. Ah! And a bear came down from the mountains three days ago, and wandered into the forest on their side of the river. Probably trying to fatten itself up a bit more before it hibernated. It didn't live long, I'll tell you that," Byarl said, and chuckled.

"Oh? What happened?" Xaa asked.

"Well, we'd warned them about bears, of course, so they knew what it was. They all still had quite a bit of poison left for their darts, so about twenty of them hunted it down. They peppered it with darts, and it collapsed and died while it was trying to chase down one of them. None of them even got a scratch. Pup-Chup said that I was right, though - the poisons from the snakes and frogs around here aren't strong enough to be useful. The frog-poisons, especially. Pup-Chup thinks that it's because most of the bugs around here aren't eating poisonous plants. That's what does it in the jungles, Lord Xaa - it's part of our 'Lore'," Byarl said, and grinned. "Bugs eat plants in the jungle. There's so many bugs, the plants have to make poisons in their leaves to kill off some of them, or they'd get eaten up. Frogs eat the bugs, and they get the poison from the bugs in them. They deposit the poisons in their skins, so they won't die. As they grow, their skins get so poisonous, you have to be careful how you touch them. There's one frog that's really bad - bright red, with yellow spots. You can die from just one touch, if you're not careful. Plant to bug, then bug to frog - See? The poison accumulates, the higher up you go."

Xaa chuckled, shaking his head. "I never would have guessed," he said, then looked at Byarl with a grin. "I can see that we mus still have a lot to learn from you musties. Your knowledge of the secrets of nature is vast."

Byarl grinned back. "And we still have a lot to learn from you - and a lot to teach the Wild Musties. And they probably have a lot to teach us, too. Knowing them, they'll find a way to make more poisons that my ancestors didn't think of when they came north."

"Don't forget to tell Lord Xaa about their meeting with the mice, Byarl," Ellie reminded.

"Ah! I nearly forgot, yes, thank you."

"What happened?" Xaa asked.

"Well, Smith and about ten of the mice from his village came by yesterday, and we took them across the river. The bridge your workers are building for us isn't done yet, but the rope-bridge we made worked fine. All the mice were scared they'd fall into the river, but they didn't. Pup-Chup's whole tribe gathered around and ooo'ed and aah'ed and found the mice very fascinating - almost as fascinating as the workers you have building the bridge. The mice were quite nervous, though - especially when they found out that the whole meeting was just to show the Wild Musties what they looked like, so if they ran across them, they wouldn't eat them."

Merle and Ellie giggled at that, while Byarl and Xaa chuckled. "I'm only surprised Y'dahk came back alive from his meeting with them."

Byarl chuckled again. "Well, we did try to describe all the other races of the north as best we could, Lord Xaa. Still, from what Amani said, you were right - if you'd sent a party of mus south into the jungles to look for them, they would have ended up as somebody's supper. They were not civilized - and really, they won't be for awhile yet. Give them a few years, I think."

Xaa nodded. "Do you think that they'll have mastered your language by next summer?"

Byarl thought about it for a moment, stroking his whiskers. "Maybe. Some will, at any rate. Pup-Chup, almost certainly, since he's with Bessie all the time."

"Good - then I can give them the legal title to their lands then, with all the proper ceremony. Emperor W'mefa has already approved the allocation of the lands by me, as only the warrior-caste may legally own lands, and only the Lord or Lady of a High Clan may claim empty lands as their own. No-one owned the woods across the river, so I filed the claim for them as mine. W'mefa has approved my claim in his capacity as Emperor, and come the summer, I'll hand them the title to the lands, and Chief Pup-Chup will be officially recognized as Great Chief Pup-Chup, Lord and Ruler of the Wild Musties and Leader of a High Clan, just as you are Lord and Ruler of the Musties of the Laughing Wood," Xaa rumbled, and Byarl nodded. It was no small thing, really - the ownership of the lands would confer upon Pup-Chup and his tribe the legal status of High Clan, which was no minor thing to the mus at all. Xaa suddenly grinned. "I'd to it today, but I'd rather they spoke your language and could at least be made to understand what the document means. I'd hate to see it used to plaster a hole in a wall or diaper a baby or some such."

The four friends shared a moment of laughter, and then Xaa spoke again. "Well, Great Chief Byarl, if there's nothing else, I think Merle had something she wanted to tell you, then we'll be on our way."

Byarl shook his head. "No, nothing, Lord Xaa," he said, then looked to Merle. "Go ahead, Merle."

Merle was silent for a long moment, looking to Byarl. "Well..." she said, then sighed. "Byarl, you've been more than just a chief to me - you've been like a second father. I... I really hate to disappoint you, but..."

"But what, Merle?"

"Well... I know you've been thinking of me to replace you as chief, when the time came. But, I just don't think I can. My life is with Xaa, now. I can't live in the castle and rule the tribe, and I can't live here and be his mate, either. Most of my friends are here and I visit as much as I can, but... Well, it's just not often enough to really be a chief, Byarl. I'm sorry, Byarl, but... Well, I'm Xaa's mate, now, and I have to start learning how to help him rule his clan and his lands."

Ellie giggled, and Byarl smiled. "Merle, I'm not disappointed at all. Yes, I'd planned on naming you my successor, when the time came. Still, Ellie talked to me last year after we came back from the Siege at Castle V'Nass, and she told me that she thought you'd probably not be able to do it, as your responsibilities were with your mate and his clan. I agreed, and I've been looking through the tribe since then for someone else."

"Oh?" Merle replied, brightening. "Who do you think you'll pick?"

Byarl shrugged. "Well, Ellie says I should pick Ayori. I think that's what I'll probably do."

Ellie nodded. "He's very smart, he's a good leader, and with Amani's help, there's nobody he can't understand, and nobody would ever be able to fool him. Also, she's a seer among her people - maybe the best, from what Ayori and Omoi say. That means she can see the future, and she's very good at it. That's very useful - particularly for the mate of a chief who has to make important decisions for the future, and would otherwise have to guess."

"I think that's a great choice!" Merle replied, grinning.

Xaa nodded. "I agree. Ayori is a brave warrior who has proven himself in battle twice against the cats. He will command great respect among my people as Clan-Leader, and his mate's powers are also matched by her vast influence among the horses. An excellent choice all around, in my opinion, Great Chief Byarl," Xaa rumbled, then bowed from where he sat, smiling.

Byarl bowed in return, and smiled. Then, Byarl looked to Merle. "I'll tell you something else, Merle - something important."

"What, Chief?"

"Merle, I knew your father very well. We were best friends. Your mother was Ellie's best friend, too. We knew them both very well, Merle, and we've talked about this many times over the last four years. Ellie and I both think that if they were alive today and could see you now, knowing what you've done for our people, knowing the brave and noble person you chose as your mate, they would be very, very proud of you, Merle."

Merle bowed her head, her ears hot with a blush. "Thank you, Chief."

Xaa smiled, nodding politely at the compliment to himself from Byarl, then spoke. "Well, we'll be off. It was a pleasure seeing you again, Great Chief Byarl, and you, Lady Ellie. We'll visit again, sometime soon."

"Oh!" Byarl said, and hopped to his feet. "I nearly forgot." Byarl trotted off into the bedroom for a moment, then returned with a small rabbit-skin pouch. "Here's the acorn you asked for, Merle. I could only find one - the rest were either already buried, or the jays had made off with them."

Merle took the bag, grinning. "Thanks, Chief!"

Once Xaa had managed to crawl out the door to Byarl's little house, Merle, Byarl and Ellie followed. Xaa and Merle bowed formally, as did the warriors in their company, and Byarl, Ellie and all the musties of the village who popped outside to see them off bowed in return. As all the other musties waved and shouted their farewells at the retreating riders, Byarl heard Ellie's soft sigh. "What's the matter, Ellie?"

"Oh, it's just a little sad, that's all. She's Lord Xaa's mate - and don't get me wrong, Byarl, I'm very happy for her - but... Well, she'll never have children of her own."

Byarl nodded as they walked back inside their house. "Well, perhaps not - but if Lord Xaa and Lady C'dera have a child, by their laws, Merle is the mother. By their laws, the baby would be the child of all three of them."

Ellie paused as she closed the door behind them. "But... Do you think she'll be happy with that?"

Byarl nodded again. "I think so, Ellie. You've seen her - she bows when she greets people or says goodbye without even thinking about it, now. Smith says that from everything he can tell, the mus all think she's a very proper lady. I think she's completely adapted to their culture, and she'll be quite happy with that."

Ellie stacked the bowls and spoons from their breakfast, then sighed and sat at the table. "But Byarl, I'm still worried that she might try so hard to become like a mus and be a proper mate to Lord Xaa, she'll forget where she came from, and be like a stranger to our tribe."

Byarl grinned. "That would never happen, Ellie. You can take a mustie out of the woods, but you can't take the woods out of the mustie," he said, and grinned. "I rather like that expression. I think it will be said of Merle a lot in the future," Byarl said, and Ellie giggled at him. "Well, anyway... That won't happen, Ellie. We are who we are, and despite everything Merle has learned, she will always be a mustie. We're born with a song in our hearts, and a smile on our face. Merle may have learned to bow and speak their language and all that, but she's still a mustie at heart, and always will be. No, I think that what's more likely to happen is that she'll raise any child Xaa and C'dera have with a lot of our culture, as well. After all, she's already got Lord Xaa coming over for a visit and breakfast just for friendship's sake, just like a mustie would. Why, I wouldn't be surprised if in twenty years, Lord Xaa's son or daughter, an otherwise very noble and stoic and very proper mus, snuck over to our village every now and again to sing and dance around the cookfire and play a game or two."

Ellie goggled at the mental image of a dancing mus among the musties, circling the campfire and singing - and burst out laughing. Byarl simply grinned. "Mark my words, Ellie. I know Merle - it just might happen."

Ellie only laughed harder, and soon, Byarl joined her.


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