The Last God
(Book I of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 1999 BY

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The sun shone down warmly on Merle, and she wiggled her whiskers in delight. Darting beneath the shade of Old Gnarly, her favorite oak tree, she turned her prize over in her paws - a gleaming river stone, shaped and colored almost perfectly by the running water of the babbling brook nearby. It was a nearly perfect sphere, and she was very pleased with her find.

'I am the happiest mustie alive' she thought, and grinned otterishly to herself.

Old Gnarly had a hollow spot at the base of his roots, and Merle doffed her pack and sat down, smoothing her green-dyed leather dress quietly for a moment before she looked at her prize again. With a practiced flick of the fingers, she tossed it spinning into the air, her sharp eyes watching it for a wobble. There was none. She caught the stone, and examined it closely again.

"You are just perfect. Let's see how you fly," she said to the stone, and grinned again for a moment before reaching into her pack for Stonecatcher.

Stonecatcher was what Merle had dubbed a little invention of hers - a small box, about the size of her head, made of wood. One side had a rectangular hole in it that went all the way across its width and half way down its height. Inside was an angled plank to deflect stones she aimed at it into the bottom of the box, and another small plank kept them from bouncing back out again. The other musties had just shaken their heads when they saw it. They could never understand why Merle wasted so much time making odd things. "Touched in the head," they said, tapping their headfur and nodding to each other knowingly. "My inventions." Merle always pouted in reply, and strutted off to her burrow in a huff.

With Stonecatcher nestled snugly into Old Gnarly's hollow, Merle scampered off twenty paces. Reaching to her waist, she pulled her sling from her pocket, and slipped the stone into the sling's rounded leather pouch. Gripping the sling's leather thongs with a practiced air, she whirled it above her head for a moment, then snapped her arm down suddenly, releasing the thong pinched between her thumb and forefingers. The stone flew straight and true, smacking the bounding board in Stonecatcher with a hollow thunk and rattling about inside the box for a moment before lying still. Merle chittered in delight as she scampered back to the tree. The other musties always chided her for her technique with the sling, but none faulted her for her accuracy or the amount of succulent rabbits she brought in to the communal cookpot. "You don't use a sling like that. You twirl it at your side, like this," they said. "My sling is twice as long as yours - that won't work. I use it like this," she always replied. "Then trim the thongs to a more reasonable length," they chided again. "Longer slings hit harder and shoot farther," she always snapped in reply.

Merle understood why her sling was better than those of the other musties, but couldn't explain it to them. She understood the longer thongs allowed greater force to be developed as she whirled it - she had made the sling after she had played a game of "Crack-the-Whip" with some other musties two years ago. At first, there were only four, and Merle was easily able to hold on as the leader spun everyone around. She tripped waving to some others who bounded up to join the game, and she sat on the grass to catch her breath before grabbing onto the end of the line again. But by then, there were nine, and she could hardly hold on. As her grip slipped and she tumbled into the grass, it dawned on her that this was the same force imparted into the sling stones - and a longer sling would mean greater force. The others thought she might be hurt. They all gathered 'round her in concern, since she wasn't giggling and laughing after the fall, but then shook their heads in disgust when they saw she was fine. "Oh, she's just thinking again. That Merle. Always thinking instead of playing." Merle's reply had been little more than an enraged snarl, and she hadn't shared her discovery with her playmates. Instead, she made a new, longer sling, and spent months practicing with it until she was as good with it as she had been her old one.

Merle stood, drawing herself to her full three feet of height, and held the stone aloft. Pitching her voice low in imitation of Byarl, Chief of the Musties, she intoned "I find you fit, O Stone of the River. I dub thee..." Merle paused, then collapsed on the ground in a gigglefit when she realized she had no idea what to name the stone. She sat up again, resting her back against the tree, and regarded the stone again, still grinning. "Well, little stone, I am not Byarl, and you are not a mustie reaching their Age of Majority, but I still name all my stones. I will call you Seeker, for you fly true and seem to almost seek the target I am aiming at. I hope that I will always be able to find you after a shot, and that we will be good hunting partners," she said to the stone, and slipped it into the pouch she carried at her side. Patting the pouch to make the twelve stones inside it rattle, she smiled happily.

"Hoyo, Merle!" a small voice squeaked from the other side of the clearing. Merle looked. It was Tinker, her mouse-friend. Tinker was a little gray mouse. He was slightly shorter than Merle, like most mice, and had black eyes like twin pieces of jet. He waited until Merle smiled at him before he approached. Merle got along better with the industrious little mice than she did the musties. The mice were always thinking and working and making interesting things - most of which they traded to the musties for tanned rabbitskin and other things the musties made. Merle had two sling-stones Tinker had made, rounded glass spheres he'd created by dripping molten glass into a bucket of water. But, though Merle loved the mice dearly and enjoyed their thoughtful, industrious company, the mice themselves feared her and every other mustie as carnivores.

"Hoyo, Tinker! Whatcha got in the basket?" Merle asked, pointing at the small woven basket Tinker carried in his paws.

"Gooseberries. My mom wants to make Gooseberry pie for the family tonight, and she asked me and my sister to gather some. You'd have smelled it, but you're upwind of me," Tinker replied with a mousie-grin, walking up to Merle.

"Ooooo! Gooseberries! Can I have one?" Merle asked, eyeing the basket hungrily.

Tinker blanched at Merle's gaze, his own instincts sending a thrill of fear down his spine. "Umm... No, they're for mom," he replied nervously.

Merle saw Tinker's expression, and smoothed her own face to an apologetic look. "Sorry, Tinker. I didn't mean to scare you. I'm just a little hungry."

"That's okay," Tinker replied, his smile slowly returning. "I guess you could have a pawful if you can help me find more."

Merle opened her mouth to say 'yes', but shut it suddenly, and shook her head. "No, it's a little early in the season for gooseberries. You'll need every pawful you can find," she replied, trying to suppress her tummy's audible growl.

"Well, I do need your help - that's why I came. I also need to pay you something - the Law of the Mice demands it," Tinker said, drawing himself up to his full height and looking down at the seated Merle.

Merle giggled, covering her mouth politely with her paw. Mice were funny like that, with all their rules and regulations and their orderly lives. Tinker had once visited her burrow, and was shocked to see dozens of inventions of hers scattered about the room, piled in corners, and otherwise in disarray. "Don't you have any sense of order? How do you find anything in this mess?" he had asked. Merle had simply giggled and replied "Everything is where I put it last. That's how I find it all - I just remember where I last put it." Merle didn't have any parents to reprimand her for being messy, as they had been killed by a bear over a year ago - though even if they were alive, they wouldn't complain too loudly. Musties were all a little disorganized, anyway (or so Merle always told Tinker, at any rate). Merle had visited the snug, orderly little burrow of Tinker's family, so she understood why Tinker thought her place was messy.

"It's alright, Tinker. You're my friend. I'll help you because I like you," Merle replied, still giggling.

"No, that won't do," Tinker said, plopping himself down to sit before her, then crossing his arms firmly. "Is there anything you would like? Is there anything you need?"

Merle thought about it. What she really needed was to go hunting for some rabbits or birds so she could have something to bring home to the communal cook-pot - if she didn't bring anything back to the village, she wouldn't get to eat. Even so, she knew watching her hunt unnerved Tinker badly - asking him to help was out of the question. Sweet berries were edible to musties, and they liked the taste, but they primarily ate meat. Berries were more a snack-food that you gathered while hunting to keep yourself going. Merle shrugged. "I can't think of anything, Tinker," she replied.

Tinker's sharp eyes lit on her fingering the thongs to her sling as they hung out of her pocket. "I know. I have just the thing," he said, and fished about one of the many pockets in his leather vest for a moment, producing a small steel ring.

"What is it?" Merle asked in curiosity.

"Well, it's something I intended to give to you at your Coming of Age ceremony next week, but I can give it to you now. It's a ring for your sling," he explained, holding it out to her.

"Oh, Tinker! You were going to come!" Merle squealed, and hugged him suddenly. Tinker squeaked in fear for a moment, his pale, hairless tail lashing, but he calmed down quickly as Merle cooed into his pink, hairless ears and nuzzled him. Merle realized her mistake at moving suddenly, but had simply forgotten how instinctive her little mouse-friend's fear of carnivores was. She spent the next few minutes grooming behind his ears gently, nibbling and lapping at his fur with her tongue, until he was churring quietly with pleasure and nuzzling her neck.

"My mother is going to kill me, you know," he said, grinning.

"Huh? Why is that?" Merle asked, letting him go gently.

"She thinks I spend too much time with you - like I want to be mated to you or something - and now I'm going to come home smelling of you. She's going to throw a fit," Tinker replied, and chuckled.

Merle giggled. "Well, you and I are fourteen summers, and you had your Coming of Age ceremony last winter. You could choose a mate if you wanted to right now, though I'm sure your daddy already has one of the other mousie-girls in the village in mind, not me," Merle said, and giggled again. "Next week I will have my Coming of Age ceremony and I will be counted as an adult, too. But, I haven't even had my first heat yet, so I haven't really even thought much about picking a mate. Still, if I were going to pick a mate, I would pick someone like you, Tinker. You're smart and sweet and good with your paws, and I like you very much."

Tinker hugged Merle quietly for a moment before speaking again. "I like you, too, Merle. A whole lot. Even though sometimes you scare the tail off of me," he said, and they shared a giggle.

Merle glanced about on the ground for the forgotten ring Tinker had tried to give her, and her sharp eyes soon spotted it in the grass. She picked it up and examined it. It was easily large enough to slip over her thumb. "I don't think this would make a good stone," she commented.

"No, you tie one of the thongs to it instead of wrapping the thong around your finger before you load the sling. Then, when you use the sling, you just slip your middle finger through it. That way, you can ready the sling faster," Tinker explained.

Merle nodded, and pulled her sling from her pocket. Taking the first few finger-widths of the broader thong she usually wrapped around her finger, she tied it to the ring. Reaching into the stone-pouch at her left side, she pulled out the first missile that came to paw. "Ah. Seeker," she said, grinning. After making sure Stonecatcher was still firmly set into Old Gnarly's hollow, Merle stood to walk back a few yards. Tinker hopped to his feet and followed.

Merle tucked the sling back into her pocket, leaving only the ends of the thongs hanging out. "Okay, let's try it," she said. Tinker stepped back to give her room.

Merle shifted Seeker into her palm, relaxing as though she was simply waiting for a target. With a sudden move, Merle's right paw flashed down to her side, her middle finger easily slipping into the ring as she gripped the other thong between thumb and forefinger. Snapping her paws together for a moment to bring her left index finger and thumb around the thongs dangling below her right paw, she jerked her paws apart, snatching the sling from her pocket. As the pouch of the sling passed through her left paw, she slipped Seeker into it, so stone met pouch in one smooth motion. Releasing the loaded pouch, she flicked her right wrist, spinning the sling above her head for a few moments, then snapping down her arm as she released the thong held between thumb and forefinger. Seeker flew straight and true again, and Stonecatcher rewarded Merle with a happy thunk-rattle of success.

Merle clapped for a moment. "You were right, Tinker, it is a little faster! Thank you so much for this!"

"Y-you're welcome," he replied, pasting a smile on his face and trying to conceal his nervousness at the deadly accuracy of Merle's sling. He had to repress a shudder when Merle grinned at him, her razor-sharp teeth gleaming in the afternoon sun.

Merle quickly covered her mouth, as was the custom of the musties around the mice, but she could see it was too late. She kicked herself mentally for the slip as she put Stonecatcher back into her pack and shouldered it. All musties covered their smiles when around the mice - to do otherwise made them very nervous. "Come, Tinker - let's go find some gooseberries," she said with a sigh. Tinker nodded, then smiled weakly, holding out his paw. Merle took it, smiling with her other paw over her mouth politely, and they walked off together into the shade of the nearby trees.    


Two hours later, the sun was approaching late afternoon, and Tinker held up a paw to call a halt to the proceedings. Merle's sharp nose had ferreted out many berries for Tinker to take home. There were none to spare, however, for it Merle had been right - it was early in the season for gooseberries. Merle sat down and sipped quietly at the waterskin she kept in her pack, hoping to quiet her tummy's rumblings with some water, at least.

"We make a great team for berry-hunting, don't we, Merle?" Tinker asked, a big mousie-grin on his face.

Merle nodded, smiling behind a paw. "Yep! And with both of us keeping a watch out for bears, it's much safer."

Tinker nodded, glancing about nervously even at the mention of bears. The mice and musties only had one major enemy in the Wild Woods - bears. They weren't intelligent, but then again, they didn't need to be. Most of them were black or dark brown in color, stood about twice as tall as a mustie, and weighed many, many times more. The mice relied on the musties for protection against bears. When the musties spotted one in the vicinity, they hunted it down and killed it, in accordance with their ancient treaty with the mice. The musties would stalk a bear for days, then leap on it from ambush, overwhelming them with numbers. Seven or eight male musties ripping with their fangs and the sharp, wickedly curved knives the mice made for them usually made short work of even the largest adult bear. However, a lone mustie like Merle, even paired with a timid little mouse like Tinker, was no match for even a young bear. So, Merle and Tinker had been very careful while searching for gooseberries.

Merle's tummy growled loudly, and she spoke up again. "I'm sorry, Tinker, but I have to go. I'm starving. I have to hunt before it gets dark, or I won't get to eat tonight," she said, a small frown on her face.

Tinker nodded, struggling to keep his distaste off his face. A hunting mustie was a fearful sight to a mouse, and the thought of eating the flesh of a dumb rabbit was very disgusting to them. "Here, Merle - mom won't miss one gooseberry, and I'm sure Farrah has gathered some, too," Tinker said, mentioning his sister as he reached into the basket. "You can have it. That'll at least be something to keep your tummy from growling while you..." he said, and found he couldn't finish.

"Thanks, Tinker," Merle replied, trying to control the look on her face and take the gooseberry demurely from Tinker's outstretched paw. True to its name, it was a berry about the size of a goose egg. Merle popped it into her mouth and bit down deep, swallowing the sweet juices. "Mmm... Delicious," she murmured, her mouth mostly full of the delicious fruit. She chewed for a few moments, then swallowed the gooseberry.

"Well, I have to be heading back," Tinker commented, glancing at the sun.

"Shall I walk you back home?" Merle asked, enjoying the thought of seeing the mouse village again, if even only from a distance. The various contraptions mice built were immensely fascinating to her. Tinker's house in particular she found very fascinating. His father had made a huge thing he called a 'Steam Engine'. When it was running, it not only could warm the house in the winter, but it also turned a large wheel attached to a series of belts and axles that ran throughout the family workshop. More belts came off each axle, and through a complicated series of universal joints and spinning armatures they provided power to the various devices that Tinker's family had in their house. This let Tinker's dad use something he called a 'Power Drill' and a 'Power Sander', and Tinker's mother had a strange device she called a 'Sewing Machine' hooked up to it that allowed her to do lighting fast needlework. Other mice had made similar inventions that fascinated Merle greatly.

"What, after the last time? I don't think so. My mother would throw a fit. She probably already will, since I'll come home with your scent on me so strongly," Tinker replied, frowning.

Merle nodded sadly. It was true - the last time she had visited the village of the mice, things hadn't gone well. Merle had been so fascinated by all the interesting gadgets and inventions, she'd run around the village trying to get a close look at each, grinning broadly. This scared all the mice very badly, and she was almost asked to leave by the Village Mayor. If it hadn't been for the fact that Merle had been invited to Tinker's house for dinner, she might have been politely but firmly shown the way out of the village. Of course, the dinner itself was also a disaster. Even though the musties and the mice had been allies and friends since time immemorial, Tinker's whole family been visibly nervous at having a carnivore visit them. Worse, the only thing Tinker's mom served that Merle could really eat was berries.

Merle sighed. "You're right, Tinker. I'll see you later. Tell your momma I said hello," she replied.

Tinker started to turn, then stopped. Carefully putting the basket down and kneeling, he reached out to Merle and hugged her carefully. "I'm sorry, Merle. Sometimes I think you should have been born a mouse, too. You're more like us than you are like the musties."

Merle hugged back and sighed. "Sometimes I agree with you, Tinker," she replied quietly. Then she giggled, and covered her smile as Tinker let her go. "But I think if I was a mousie, your momma would spank me for having a messy room."

Tinker grinned in reply, and shook his head at Merle's ability to make a joke and laugh when he knew she must be terribly sad and very hungry. 'I guess she really is a mustie after all,' Tinker thought with a smile. "No, momma would take one look at your messy room and just faint," he replied, and they shared a laugh.

Suddenly, Merle's expression shifted - she looked startled. "What is that?" she yelped.

Tinker spun, his tail lashing in fear, his eyes darting about. "What is what?!" he asked fearfully, worried that the answer might involve bears.

"Listen!" Merle replied, shushing Tinker.

Tinker listened, his pink ears twitching nervously. At first, all he could hear was the whispering of the breeze between the trees. Then, after a moment, the errant breeze brought the sound to his ears. A sound unlike anything he'd heard before. It was strange - like thunder, and yet not. "What is that?" he asked, frightened.

Merle giggled. "That's what I asked you, silly!" Merle hopped to her feet and tugged at Tinker's paw. "Come on! Let's go investigate!"

Tinker shook his head firmly. "No. I have to get these gooseberries home to mom. Besides, that sounds too much like an adventure. Nasty, scary, uncomfortable things, adventures. Make you late for dinner - maybe make you never come home at all. I can't imagine what you musties see in them," Tinker replied with an air that Merle easily recognized - it was the same one she'd seen when she met Tinker's daddy.

'That's probably exactly what his father would say if he was standing here,' Merle thought to herself. Merle suppressed a sigh. When all was said and done, her friend was still a mouse - and mice were industrious and inventive and very bright, but they were not brave, playful or adventurous. "Alright, Tinker. You go on home to your momma and daddy, then. I'm going to go find something for dinner," she said, then stood, brushed off her dress, turned and walked away without another word. She could hear Tinker shuffling his feet behind her, probably struggling with finding something to say, but she didn't look back. She didn't want him to see her tears.

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