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

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Merle sighed at Tinker's back as he stormed away, heading back into his room. Tinker had hated the idea of taking a bath with the female mus helping him undress, but he still objected when the male mus offered to help, and ended up undressing himself after closing the door to the room the large tub was in. After numerous "Ow! Ow!" sounds came from behind the door, Tinker had come back out, a huge towel wrapped around himself. "What are they trying to do - boil me? That water was way too hot! I had to just use a washcloth and dip it in! And what is this stuff?" he squeaked, holding out a folded pile of clothes.

"Those are clean clothes for you, Tinker. They didn't have anything your size in adult clothes, so those clothes are borrowed from one of the little mus-boys who lives here," Merle had explained.

"I have to wear the clothes of a little boy?! I'm not a boy, I'm an adult! And where's my vest! I have to have my vest! I had lots of important things in my pockets!" Tinker squeaked.

"They left your vest in your room, but they took the pants and shirt to be cleaned," Merle explained.

"Fine, then! Call me when they have dinner ready!" Tinker had squeaked, and stormed off.

"What did he say? Why is he so angry?" one of the female mus who acted as the bath attendants asked Merle.

Merle was struggling to explain it with her limited ability to pronounce the words in the mus language when Xaa walked up, dressed in a loose robe. "Xaa, can you explain that Tinker is just tired and hungry and that's making him a little cranky?"

Xaa nodded, and repeated what Merle had said in his language.

"Oh? How old is he, my lord?" the female asked.

"He's fourteen, Lameh. To his people, he's an adult, but he often is as cranky as one of our own fourteen-year-olds," Xaa replied, chuckling, and Lameh giggled.

"He is terribly cute, though, Lord Xaa. Do they all look like that where he comes from?" Lameh asked.

"Yes. They're all about his size, and they look quite similar - they all have gray fur and black eyes, and look very much like mus children do. Some of them have dark gray fur, like me, but most are closer to his color. Merle's people are mostly brown, with brown eyes, but they have a wider variation in color."

"I hate to interrupt, but can I go take a bath now, please? I want to get cleaned up so we can eat, and I am starving," Merle asked politely.

"What did she say, my lord?" Lameh asked.

"Merle asks if she can be excused to take a bath now. She can understand what you say, by the way, it's just very hard for her to speak our language. The Little One, however, cannot speak our language at all."

Lameh brightened visibly. "Ah! Thank you, Lord Xaa. Well, then, Lady Merle! My name is Lameh, and I tend the baths here in the West Wing. I'm terribly sorry there is only one bath ready, but we weren't expecting anyone to need any of the baths in the west wing tonight. I would be honored to scrub your back and otherwise tend to your needs as you relax here," Lameh rumbled, and Merle smiled at the pleasing purr in her voice.

"Thank you. Me like that," Merle replied, and Lameh giggled. "I'm sorry you'll have to wait, Xaa."

"Actually, I was hoping I could join you. Lameh has clothes prepared for all of us, and if I wait for her to finish with you, I fear I'll be late for dinner," Xaa replied with a smile.

Merle's heart skipped a beat. "Umm... Bathe with me?!" she yelped.

"If that's alright, yes. In our culture, it's not uncommon - though usually unmarried couples of the opposite sex are chaperoned by the bath attendant, of course," Xaa replied, and Lameh nodded.

Merle tried to suppress her reaction - When she'd had her "facts of life" talk with Merle, Nona had said that seeming too eager to be with a potential mate was a bad idea. "Why, that will be fine," Merle replied demurely, and stepped through the door into the bath house.

Merle emptied her pockets carefully onto the bench, and Lameh helped her out of her green-dyed leather dress. Xaa simply slipped off the little woven shoes, stripped off his robe, set his swords on a small shelf within reach, then stepped into the tub without further preamble. Merle risked a peek around Lameh as he did so, and her little eyes widened. 'Oooh...' she thought to herself. Lameh caught her expression, and giggled.

"How is the water, my lord?" Lameh asked.

"A bit tepid, but that's alright - Merle may not be used to hot baths. Her people bathe in river-water," Xaa rumbled in reply.

Merle walked up to the edge of the tub nervously, but then noticed that Xaa wasn't even looking. He had his eyes closed, his arms across the sides of the tub, and was simply soaking and relaxing. She was about to ask how she would get in, when Lameh gently lifted her and set her on the side of the tub, letting her feet dangle in. "Yow! You call this tepid?" Merle yelped, jerking her feet out of the hot water.

Xaa opened an eye and chuckled, looking Merle over. 'You'll be alright. Just lower yourself in carefully, and straight where Lameh put you - that's where children sit. If you sit next to me, I'm afraid the water will be over your head," Xaa said, and closed his eyes again.

"Well...alright," Merle said at last, and with a long series of "Ow! Ooh! Eee!" noises, finally managed to get herself into the water. Merle opened her muzzle and panted for a bit. "Bleah - how do you stand it?" she asked.

"Oh, Lord Xaa, she is so cute! She is so tiny, but perfectly formed, just like one of our adult females! Like a sweet little doll," Lameh said, giggling.

"Lady Lameh, me not tiny, me normal size, you mus giants!" Merle replied, and Lameh giggled. Xaa chuckled also - Merle was getting better, but her speech still was heavily accented, her grammar was terrible, and her voice sounded a lot like that of a mus child. Not that he thought his speech sounded any better to her, naturally - he knew he could barely speak her language at all.

"Lady Merle, it's not 'Lady Lameh', it's just 'Lameh'. 'Lord' and 'Lady' are reserved for those born into the warrior-caste," Lameh corrected, giggling.

"Then why you call me Lady Merle?" Merle asked.

Xaa spoke up. "Because you're a mustie. I've explained to everyone that the musties are the chosen Defenders of the Little Ones, and that your people don't have a caste system - you're all warriors."

"Huh? How do you figure we're all warriors?" Merle asked.

"You all hunt, you all take part in defending your people from bears and other enemies. You're all warriors," Xaa explained simply, and Lameh nodded.

"Could you explain this 'caste' system to me?" Merle asked.

"Alright. It's quite simple, really. Our society is divided into two basic castes - Warriors and Servants. There are several sub-castes, such as artisans and crafts-folk and priests and healers, but they're a bit complicated, so think I'll just explain them another time. In short, however, the Warrior-caste owns the lands, and has the right to rule. In exchange for these rights, we have the responsibility to support, protect and defend the Servant-caste. If we fail to do this, or if we treat them dishonorably or with a lack of respect, they have the right to stop serving us and seek out another ruler who will treat them properly. If they fail to serve us and aid us, or if they treat us dishonorably or with a lack of respect, we have the right to cast them from our lands and tell them to seek shelter and succor elsewhere," Xaa explained, and Lameh nodded.

"Would you like me to scrub your back, Lord Xaa?" Lameh asked.

"Please," Xaa replied, leaning forward and slipping his arms into the water, but keeping his eyes closed. Lameh picked up a brush, rolled up the sleeves of her many-layered robe, dipped the brush into the water, and then began gently scrubbing Xaa's back. Xaa began to rumble quietly with pleasure.

"How can you tell the difference between the two castes?" Merle asked, fascinated.

"By the way we dress, and by the swords. The warrior-caste is allowed to bear the two swords of their caste," Xaa answered.

"Can a member of the Servant-caste become a warrior?" Merle asked, and Xaa chuckled.

"What did she say, Lord Xaa?" Lameh asked, not pausing in her gentle scrubbing. When Xaa told her, Lameh giggled. "Well, yes, we can, but why would you want to? I suppose if a young boy or girl of one caste or another wanted to become a warrior or a servant instead, they could go to their liege-lord and ask to be trained in that caste. It's happened a few times before, and there's no shame in it - sometimes destiny speaks to us and directs us to new paths that surprise everyone. Even so, it's very rare. I'm quite happy in my life - I have no desire to learn how to manage a fiefdom and control all the myriad things that could go wrong and learn how to fight and kill and die, thank you very much. That is far too much responsibility for little Lameh. To have a hundred or a thousand people all looking to me for answers? No, thank you," Lameh said, and giggled again.

Xaa chuckled. "Exactly. In our society, great power comes with great responsibility, and one who shirks that responsibility will soon find himself without any servants. It is no shame for a warrior-caste child to realize that they cannot manage the responsibilities he is being trained to accept, and ask to become an artisan or a merchant, instead. And that, by the way, is far more common than a servant wishing to become a warrior. Our life is hard, especially now that we are fighting the cats."

"Ah, a new scar, Lord Xaa?" Lameh said, running her damp fingers over Xaa's scalp.

"Yes. Cats, again," Xaa rumbled.

"Mmmm... You know, I think I can tell each of my patrons just by the feel of the scars on their pelt," Lameh said, smiling.

Xaa chuckled, and closed his eyes again as Lameh began gently massaging his shoulders. Merle looked over to him, and watched Lameh's practiced fingers work the muscles beneath his skin. Three months of travel had hardened his frame even more than it had been - Merle imagined she could see nearly each fiber in the powerful muscles that ran across his shoulders. She risked another glance beneath the water, and trembled.

"Lameh, I think that will be enough for now. I have to get ready for dinner, and I want to visit my daughter before then - I won't have the time if I let you massage me to sleep," Xaa rumbled, chuckling. Lameh nodded, and helped Xaa out of the bath. Merle tried not to stare, but it was impossible. Fortunately, Xaa didn't look to see her expression - he simply turned his back and allowed Lameh to dry him with a towel, then help him slip on clean clothes. After he'd tied the sash and slipped his swords into it, he bowed to Lameh, then to Merle. "You might want to pull Merle out and give her a full massage and grooming, though. She'd appreciate it, and I think she's had enough of the water - she's panting again," Xaa said.

"Yes, my lord," Lameh replied, bowing, and Xaa turned and left the room.

A few minutes later, Merle was laying on her tummy as Lameh massaged her shoulders and back. Merle churred in pleasure - Lameh's fingers were like golden points of warm light, easing away all the aches, pains and tensions of three months of overland travel. "Ooooooo..." was all Merle could say. Lameh then pulled out a brush, and began gently brushing Merle's pelt, removing all the hair the water had loosened, and patterning it carefully.

"You have lovely fur, my lady," Lameh commented.

"Thank you," Merle churred in reply.

When Lameh had finished every part of her back, even her legs, she asked Merle to sit up. Merle did so, and Lameh used her wonderful-feeling brush to carefully work on the fur on Merle's front side. It was like a lovely, gentle scratching over every inch of her body, and Merle loved every moment of it. "That very nice. Thank you," Merle said, grinning broadly as Lameh brushed even the fur on her little feet.

"You're very welcome, Lady Merle. Come - let's get you dressed. I have a lovely little green kimono for you that I borrowed from Lady Grahl - it belongs to her daughter, but she was more than happy to lend it to you," Lameh said. When Merle was dressed (she discovered the kimono had pockets in the sleeves where she could put all her things, and there was a very nice little pocket just inside the front that her knife fit perfectly into), she sat down again while Lameh slipped on little woven shoes for her. Finally Lameh sat next to Merle, and spoke. "And now, my lady, I presume you're ready to ask me your question?"

"Question?" Merle asked.

"Come, come, lady. These fingers know all," Lameh said, wriggling the fingers of her paws in front of her face, causing Merle to giggle. "I could tell just from the feel of you that you wanted to ask me something the moment Lord Xaa left the room. What was it?"

Merle looked at Lameh. Unlike Xaa, Lameh's eyes were blue, and her fur was golden brown. She looked into those tender blue eyes, and bit her lip. 'Should I ask?' she wondered. Finally, she decided she had to say something, after all. "Can you keep secret?" Merle asked.

"Of course, my lady. Is this 'girl-talk'?" Lameh said, smiling and guessing accurately.

Merle nodded, then struggled for a moment to both find the words, and pronounce them properly. "Me like Xaa very muchly. Me want to wait until me eighteen, then ask for to be his mate. But Xaa so... You mus so BIG!" Merle explained, gesturing, which sent Lameh into a gigglefit. Merle burst out giggling, as well.

Finally, Lameh wiped her eyes, and said "Well, Lady, how big are the babies of your people when they are born?" Merle showed her, indicating with her paws the size of a mustie pup. "Ah. Well, then it shouldn't be a problem. If you ever did mate with him, you would find him very large, but not impossibly large, like a baby. I think if you were very careful and went slowly, you would be alright. Of course, I'll have to be honest with you - it's not likely that will ever happen."

Merle looked up to Lameh in surprise. "Why not?" she yelped, then remembered to use her language. "Why not?"

Lameh sighed. "It's easier to show you, my lady. Come," she said, taking Merle's paw.

A few moments later, Lameh had snuck herself and Merle in past a sliding door, and they crept about like thieves inside Xaa's quarters. Merle was very excited - sneaking about like this was fun, to a mustie. Lameh led Merle to an open doorway, peeked out, then gestured for Merle to take a look. Merle crept over, peeking out from the edge of the doorway.

In the next room, next to a low, candle-lit table, Xaa was sitting with his daughter. She was dressed in a simple white kimono, and her fur was neatly brushed. Merle thought she was very beautiful. Her fur was snow white, and her eyes were a pale, sky blue. Her expression, though, was completely vacant, staring off into space. Xaa was carefully, quietly spooning the last of a meat-gruel from a bowl to her lips. She would taste it upon her tongue, and swallow, but that was all.

When he was done, Xaa carefully wiped up what little drops had spilled past her lips with a small towel, then set the bowl and towel aside. "There you are, my little one. And how are you this evening?" Xaa rumbled.

Xaa's daughter made no reply. She simply sat there, staring blankly.

"Ah, I see. I'm glad to hear you're doing so well, love. I missed you. Daddy loves you," Xaa said, wrapping his arms about his daughter and hugging her gently.

Tears came to Merle's eyes when she saw that the girl, a year older than her, or so Xaa had said, didn't even hug back. She simply sat there quietly.

"Yes, yes. Daddy loves his little girl. I killed another fifteen of the T'Chang since we talked last, dear. That makes two hundred and six. I'm sorry it's so few - I've been very busy this last year, trying to bring the Little Ones back."

Xaa's daughter still said nothing, nor made even any kind of sign she knew her father was even there.

"Yes, I know, dear - I only brought one. Perhaps he'll be enough, though. Only time will tell. Soon, I'll go back to raiding the T'Chang again. Did I tell you I killed D'Sparil, dear? Yes, yes, I know. I agree. Quite an honor. He was one of their captains. The cats were furious about that - they sent fifty riders to track me down for that one," Xaa rumbled, sitting back and squeezing her paws in his.

Xaa's daughter blinked slowly, then resumed staring at nothing.

'Yes, that's right. Fifty riders! Fortunately, W'mefa saw us coming to the castle, and sent your fiancee, O'dmemet, and twenty-nine warriors to intercept them. It was a glorious fight, dear. You'd have been very proud of your daddy and O'dmemet," Xaa rumbled. He then paused for a moment, picking up the towel again to wipe away a bit of drool at the corner of her mouth.

Lameh took Merle's paw and quietly led her away. Merle managed to contain herself until they were nearly back to the guest rooms, but finally she couldn't hold it in anymore. Merle sobbed.

Lameh knelt down, hugging Merle gently. "And now you know. That is his daughter, Johm'rouh. Many of the ladies want him, but he does not take a new mate. He is brave, and a powerful warrior. But so long as his daughter is there, a millstone about his neck..." Lameh said, and sighed. "The T'Chang killed his mate, T'lixca, and left Johm'rouh like that with their poisons. He will not rest until every last one of them is dead - and perhaps not even then. I think they will kill him first. He has been in more battles than any single warrior - his luck cannot hold forever. And when he does die, the noble ladies of Clan W'mefa will weep bitter tears, I think. All but one - his own daughter. She doesn't even know who he is anymore," Lameh said, and sniffled. "Then, O'dmemet, that noble soul, will have Xaa's millstone, because of their honor and their damned agreements to bind his clan to theirs, even though Xaa is the last of his clan, and he has nothing anymore - the T'Chang took everything from him. Everything. None of them even speak her name anymore for the pain it causes him - in our language, her name means 'Silver Laughter'. Now, they just say "Xaa's Daughter". Oh, spirits, how can he endure it?" Lameh sobbed, her voice barely more than a whisper, and Merle hugged Lameh back. They stood there for several minutes, sniffling and hugging in the darkened hallway, before Lameh finally let Merle go and dried Merle's eyes with a kerchief. "And now you also see why we servants do not wish to become part of the Warrior-caste. It is painful just to watch them, sometimes. We do not want to be them."

Merle nodded, and Lameh squeezed her paws gently before tucking the kerchief into Merle's sleeve. "Give up on this one, Lady Merle. His destiny isn't to marry and settle down, I think. No, I think his destiny is to die trying to avenge his wife and his daughter. He will never take a mate, my lady, though he might take a lover again before he dies. Now come - dinner is nearly ready. Xaa will be along soon to fetch the Little One and go to the dining hall. You should check on him, Lady, and make sure he is ready to go. You are his Defender, after all."

Merle watched Lameh walk away for a moment before she knocked on the door to Tinker's room. 'He will take a mate. He'll take me, in four years. He promised,' she thought at Lameh's back defiantly. But Merle had a sinking feeling that the truth was Xaa didn't expect to be alive in four years to have to live up to his part of the bargain.

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