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

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Merle entered the dining hall with Xaa, dragging Tinker behind, then stopped and stared in wonder. It wasn't the fifty or so mus at the table that caught her attention, or that the table was shaped like an inverted 'U', with W'mefa and O'dmemet seated at the head. It wasn't that the table was low to the floor, with all the mus sitting around it on small pillows atop the woven mats that covered the hardwood floor. It wasn't that the enormous chamber, lit by dozens of long candles neatly placed around the room near the table, was easily large enough to fit six or seven mustie burrows into. No, it was the lovely artwork that was hung about the walls that caught Merle's breath in her throat.

The wood-paneled walls of the room were hung with lovely paintings - some in vivid color, but most done in black ink. They were frameless, unadorned works that seemed to vibrate with life, as though the images depicted on them might leap from the soft fabric at any moment.

Seeing Merle's interest, Xaa led her and Tinker around the room to examine each one. The subjects ranged from vivid scenes of ancient battles and great heroes to quiet paintings of simple animals and ordinary life. Merle stopped at one - a gorgeous landscape that was fully as tall as she was, and twice as long as it was tall. It was made in three square panels, and painted in simple, black ink on soft white fabric. Merle stared at the intricate details and marveled. Each tree semed to have each branch carefully painted, and Merle could almost sense in the brief brush strokes the position of every leaf on every tree. A small river ran through the center panel, and a tiny fish could be seen leaping from the water. Above, high in the sky, an eagle made of three simple brush strokes soared among the clouds. It was beautiful, and Merle decided to say so. "This is a beautiful landscape - I've never seen anything like it."

"It's not a landscape. It's a self-portrait of the artist, Rhmhrl, as he traveled to the shrine at Castle Hyahch. You can see the top of the castle's roof just peeking out from the trees, here," Xaa rumbled, smiling as he indicated the top left corner of the painting with a clawtip.

"A self-portrait? But where is the artist in this painting, then?" Merle asked.

"Here," Xaa rumbled, pointing to the middle lower section of the painting. There, done with just a few brush strokes, was a tiny image of a mus traveling down the path to cross the river at the delicate little bridge. Merle could see he was robed, using a walking-staff, and wore a strange, conical hat upon his head.

"Why is he so tiny?" Merle asked, amazed.

"It is a Zen-painting, Merle. Rhmhrl was perhaps one of the greatest Zen-philosphers to ever live. You see, to us, Humility is the greatest virtue one can possess - even more important than Politeness. Zen teaches us to lead quiet, simple, humble lives, for we each are only a very tiny part of a much, much larger world, not really all that important, in the end," Xaa replied quietly.

"Some of us are more important than others, however," O'dmemet interjected, clapping his paw on Xaa's shoulder. He'd risen from the table to come over, and now grinned broadly at Xaa.

Xaa bowed, smiling. "You are too kind. I am merely a mouse."

O'dmemet bowed in return. "My father says that is the message Rhmhrl meant to give in this work. That all we mus are, in the end, only mice. Yes, we may be as big as bears, and have mastery of steel and stone and the power to strive and slay, but, in the end, we are all merely mice."

"Indeed," Xaa rumbled quietly.

Merle translated the entire exchange for Tinker, explaining the painting and what Xaa had said about it, and what Xaa and O'dmemet had said to each other. Tinker leaned in to whisper into Merle's ear. "Him? Humble? Yeah, right."

Merle suppressed her retort, which wouldn't have been nice, and just gave Tinker an icy glare.

A few minutes later, they were seated at the table, and the servants were just beginning to carry the food into the room. The delicious aroma made Merle's tummy growl - she could smell at least a dozen different types of meat and organ dishes, and it all smelled marvelous. The servants began placing the dishes before those seated at the ends of the table - apparently those in the center, meaning W'mefa, the Lord of the Castle, would be served last. Merle noticed that none of the other mus touched their food or the strange metal implements laid beside their plates, so she decided that it must be their custom to not eat until everyone was served.

Merle glanced about while she waited for the food to be served. Xaa was seated to the right of O'dmemet, who himself was seated to his father's right. Merle was seated just right of Xaa, and Tinker just to the right of Merle, at the corner of the table. Tinker still had a sour look on his face, and Merle leaned over to whisper in his ear. "What's the matter with you tonight? You're behaving terribly!"

"Nothing. Nothing's wrong," Tinker hissed back. He then sat with a pouty, sulky expression on his face, his arms firmly crossed. He looked positively ridiculous with his little leather vest over the pale blue clothes the mus had given him, and his tail lashed irritably as he sat on a pillow on the floor, like everyone else.

Merle looked around the room, and saw that all the mus were watching - though Only Xaa could understand what they were whispering, and Merle hoped he couldn't hear. Merle realized that they were trying to make a good impression on Tinker, but their efforts were going to waste. Meanwhile, Tinker was about to make a very bad impression on the mus. 'And Xaa brought him here! He'll be humiliated!' Merle realized. Merle then thought furiously, trying to come up with some way out of this dilemma. Finally, she turned to Tinker, and whispered in his ear. "You said you loved me. Now you won't talk to me and tell me what the problem is. I guess you don't love me anymore," she whispered, and pretended to pout. Merle knew it was a mean trick to play on him, but it was the only thing she could think of on short notice.

Tinker looked at Merle in shock. "No, no! I do! I'm just upset because I can smell all the food and it's yucky and I'm tired and I'm starving and I miss my momma and daddy and all these people are big and scary and my bottom is sore from riding on that toboggan and that bird all this time and this pillow is too hard!" he squeaked.

"Alright, I'll see what I can do," she whispered back. She then turned to her left. "Xaa, do you think..." she began, but Xaa interrupted her.

"I heard him, and I've already signaled one of the servants for another pillow for him. We all been watching him very closely to try to make him as happy as possible. We need his help. The servants will fetch him a softer pillow as quickly as they can. As for food, we do remember what the Little Ones ate. That has already been taken care of. Remember the cave? I wasn't just guessing at what he might like. As for him being homesick, I can't do anything about it but hope that it will pass soon, and pray he will throw himself into the task of helping us instead of sitting around and sulking. Yes, Merle. We mus remember what the Little Ones were like, and we are prepared to try to accommodate him. They were, and apparently still are, very industrious, clever, inventive, shy and peaceful little creatures. They also were, and apparently still are, timid, weak, shallow, selfish, petty and arrogant."

Merle looked around the room to all the mus smiling at Tinker. Tinker did, as well - he smiled back, having gotten used to the smiles of carnivores with his three months of travel with Merle and Xaa. He smiled even more broadly when one of the servants brought him a large, fluffy pillow to sit on, and actually clapped with joy when they placed a large, steaming bowl of oatmeal before him, full of diced carrots, apples and berries. Tinker immediately snatched up the spoon they'd provided and dug right in, not even looking up from his meal to notice that he was the only one eating. Merle looked around the room at the smiling mus, then back at Tinker. Xaa hadn't whispered. They'd heard every word he said. 'Oh, Tinker. If you only knew. I don't think these people wanted you here at all. I think that asking the mice for help was the last thing they ever wanted to do. I think they despise you, Tinker. And I think I'm beginning to, too,' she thought sadly.

After W'mefa had been served, he bowed very low to the servants, and all the mus seated at the table did the same. Merle followed suit, as it seemed the proper thing to do, and the servants smiled and bowed back. Tinker looked up for a moment, and saw everyone rise from their bowing, and had a confused expression on his face. "What's happening, Merle?" he squeaked timidly.

W'mefa then gestured, and all the mus picked up their utensils and began to eat the delicacies placed before them. "Nothing, Tinker. Everything is fine - go on and eat," Merle replied quietly. 'If I tell him, he'll be so horribly embarrassed he may end up making a scene. Best not to tell him, for now. Maybe he'll pick it up over time. At least, I hope he will,' Merle thought.

Merle had no idea how to use the utensils, but she watched Xaa and quickly picked it up. There were three utensils, and all three had a long metal shaft with a small wooden grip at the end - Merle immediately noticed that Xaa only held the utensils by the wooden part, just using his fingertips. One was a spoon, and needed no explanation. The next was strange implement that had two sharp tines at the end. Xaa used this one to delicately stab a small slice of cooked liver, and then picked up the third implement, which had a small cutting blade at the tip. He then sliced away a small piece of the liver, and lifted it to his mouth with the tined implement. 'Oh - that's not so hard,' Merle thought, and after watching carefully, she had the knack in a few minutes. There was a little ceramic pot that Xaa filled Merle's cup with, and the liquid was hot, brownish and smelled interesting. "Tea," Xaa explained, as though that explained everything. Merle tried it, and it tasted good, though somewhat strange and a tad bitter.

"So, my son. Tell me of the battle. I'm sure everyone will be pleased to hear the tale," W'mefa rumbled, smiling.

"Well, father, it was glorious. Truly glorious. We had set ourselves up in the path that they seemed to be taking - a direct line to the castle. A small valley between two hills seemed like a good killing zone for our archers. Xaa and his two companions came riding over the hill, and he shouted to me in recognition. I shouted back, and bade him lead his enemies into our welcoming arms," O'dmemet explained, and all the mus at the table shared a chuckle. "Well, after Xaa had dismounted and joined our ranks, the cats came over the opposite rise. I bid all to ready and fire. After three volleys, we had utterly broken their charge and sent them to hiding behind their birds. We took a few casualties in their return fire, but it was weak and disorganized. Surprisingly, they had few guns - only four, to be exact. We captured them at the Little One's bidding after the battle, and they currently are in his chambers," O'dmemet explained, and W'mefa nodded.

"Anyway, I bade Xaa slay the leader with our fourth volley, and he did so. This seemed to take the heart out of them, and the remainder tried to flee. We downed them with our fifth volley, then I gave the command for steel. After that, we took a single prisoner, and executed the rest. In the end, we had seven casualties. The healers told me that six will recover fine, and be fully healed in about a month. The seventh, Gnatchok, I do not know. The healers were still working on him when last I asked - he took an arrow though the windpipe, and at first, we thought he was already dead," O'dmemet then pointed his fork at one of the females at the table. "You should be proud, Lady Semma. Your mate, Hrasha, was downed in the cat's response to our third volley, but he managed ro rise and join our ranks again for the fifth volley, and I think he would have limped all the way down the hill to join us in the mop-up if I hadn't ordered him to tend to the wounded - himself included," O'dmemet said with a grin.

"I thank you, Lord O'dmemet," the chocolate brown female replied, the tips of her pale ears blushing pink as she bowed from her seat.

"Since you may wonder, Merle, these seven females seated here to the left of Lord W'mefa are the mates of those injured in the battle. It is our tradition to honor the mates of those who have been wounded or slain in battle," Xaa rumbled, gesturing to the left side of the U-shaped table.

"What happens to the ones who were hurt?" Merle asked.

"She asks, 'What happens to those injured?'" Xaa translated for the others before turning back to Merle. "They are taken and given the best healing we can give - each warrior is valuable, as there are so few of us now. The cats are many, and they spend the lives of their warriors fast and free. We are few, and we give our warriors to the void only grudgingly, now," Xaa explained, and the other mus nodded as he continued. "When they are healed, then they and their mates will be invited to return to this table and dine with their Liege Lord again."

W'mefa nodded at the conclusion of Xaa's explanation, then turned to his son. "Well, my boy, you did quite well. I am very pleased with you. I salute you," he said, and raised the little cup before him above his head. The other Mus around the table did likewise, and Merle imitated them. O'dmemet bowed, then lifted his own cup, and they all sipped at the tea silently for a moment.

It was at that point a male mus with black fur dressed all in grey came into the room. He bowed low, and W'mefa returned the bow. "What news, Ead'xas?" W'mefa rumbled.

"That is the Master Healer," Xaa whispered in Merle's ear, and she nodded.

"Good news and bad, my lord. First, the good: Gnatchok will live. The large vessels in the neck were not damaged. I managed to stitch his windpipe back together with some very delicate work, but it was quite touch-and-go at several points, as his body did not like the anaesthetic at all, lord. I have ordered complete bed-rest for no less than three weeks. A small portion of blood trickled down his windpipe and into his lungs, so we have him on a cough suppressant at present to keep him from literally coughing himself to death. I would say that he should be able to resume his normal duties in about six weeks. Now, the bad, my lord: I doubt he will regain the use of his voice again. It is possible, but very unlikely. The arrow severed the voicebox itself. I have put it back together and we have applied bloodmoss unguent to the wound, but I cannot guarantee he will be able to speak again. I am deeply sorry, my lord," Ead'xas rumbled, then bowed very low.

A gray-furred female mus among the females of the injured warriors burst out into sobs, and was comforted by the female sitting next to her. W'mefa stood, and bowed in return. "Do not be sorry, dear Ead'xas. You are the best, and I'm sure you did your best. That he is alive now and will survive to bear steel again is more than any of us could have hoped for. And you say it is possible he may regain his voice again, yes?"

"Yes, my lord, but very unlikely, so sorry."

"Never mind that. That it is possible is enough for now. We mus have survived for nearly four years on slim possibility, luck and hard work. We shall simply wait and see. And if it does not happen, we will worry about what to do then, eh?"

"Yes, my lord," Ead'xas said, smiling.

Gnatchok's mate bowed from her seat, drying her eyes with a kerchief. "Thank you, Ead'xas for saving my mate's life. I was so frightened."

"It was merely my duty, my lady," Ead'xas replied with a broad smile, bowing. He then turned and left the room, and the mus all chatted amongst themselves, congratulating Gnatchok's mate on her good fortune and discussing how marvelous it was to have killed forty-nine cats and captured one other, all with no loss of life.

"What's happening, Merle?" Tinker asked, looking up from an empty bowl and letting out a little burp.

"Everything. Here - I'll try to explain it all," Merle began, and launched into an explanation of what had transpired starting with O'dmemet's explanation of the battle and ending with the point where Tinker spoke up.

"What is bloodmoss?" Tinker asked.

"I've no idea. Do you know, Xaa?" Merle asked.

"It's a healing unguent - a type of pasty goo, really. I've no idea how it is made, sorry. I only know that the healers know how to make it and use it, and it can heal much," Xaa replied, and Merle translated his answer.

Tinker leaned in to press his muzzle to Merle's ear. "What, something he doesn't know? I'm shocked," he whispered. Merle just gave him a sour look.

W'mefa looked around, and saw that nearly everyone had finished their dinner. He grinned, and clapped his paws to get everyone's attention. "And now, for the entertainments!" he called.

There was a polite clapping, and the eyes of all the dinner guests gleamed with merriment. "What's happening, Merle?" Tinker called.

"Well, apparently they are going to have some after-dinner entertainment. But what that involves, I have no ide- oh, my!" Merle replied, seeing what was being wheeled into the room.

It was a large wooden frame, Merle guessed that it was made of oak. At the base, it had two small, wide wheels. It also had a single pole that came out from the bottom in the middle, pointing backwards, and it's purpose became apparent when the black-garbed, brown-furred mus who was wheeling it in leaned it back to rest upon that pole. From the four corners of the frame, heavy manacles were attached. To the manacles was attached a female calico cat, nude, spitting and snarling. A bandage was around her left thigh and around her head, and both had a red circle of blood in the middle.

The attendant who had pushed the frame in trotted out of the room for a moment, returning with another male dressed all in dark blue and gray, with a blue cloth strip tied over his eyes and a slim walking-staff in his paws. Tucked in his sash, Merle could see the two swords of the warrior-caste. His fur was light gray, but around his muzzle his fur was shot through with streaks of white fur. 'He must be quite old. I wonder why they have blindfolded him? Some strange custom?' Merle thought.

The black-clad mus led the second with one paw, and carried a small stool in the other. He then placed the stool on the floor, then helped the other sit on it. Afterwards, the black-garbed mus stood on the opposite side of the frame and bowed low.

W'mefa blinked, and many of the mus chuckled. "N'Char, I am very disappointed. Why is the prisoner nude?"

N'Char knelt on the floor, and placed his forehead against the woven mats. "I beg your forgiveness most humbly, my lord, but I had no other choice. The female continually produced an endless series of knives despite a very careful search. Each time we would take one from her, as if by magic, she would produce another and attempt to pick the lock with it or cut one or the other of my assistants. Finally, we had to strip her to insure we'd gotten them all. She used her claws and teeth at that point, lord, and several received minor injuries before we were able to subdue her without injuring her further. Afterwards, she continually used her claws to cut any bindings we put on her, so we were forced to manacle her. After that, she refused to walk anywhere when led and continually attempted to claw or bite anyone near, so we were forced to manacle her to the frame here to bring her to you. Again, lord, I beg your forgiveness most humbly, but this female has proven to be quite a bother. If we are to keep her in good health, it may become necessary to de-claw her and pull her teeth, so sorry."

The cat on the frame yowled at that, and snarled something that to Merle's ears sounded like it was very unpleasant, her tail lashing back and forth. The mus in blue seated on the stool next to her translated. "It appears, my lord, that she can understand us quite well, despite her feigned ignorance in the dungeon. She finds the idea of being de-clawed and de-fanged to be rather distasteful, and makes a rather imaginative suggestion about N'Char's ancestry and immediate heritage involving a drunken father and a lonely Djuducu-hen."

The mus at the table laughed at that, and even W'mefa smiled. "Thank you for translating, Yarro. N'Char, I apologize most humbly. I didn't realize you were having so much trouble with this prisoner. Please rise, my friend," W'mefa said, and N'Char did so, smiling and bowing again rapidly.

"Thank you, my lord," he said, and W'mefa nodded in reply before speaking again.

"What are they going to do to her? Are they going to torture her?" Tinker whispered fearfully to Merle. Merle had been struggling to keep up a running translation of what was being said for Tinker's benefit.

"I don't know - I'll ask Xaa," Merle replied, and whispered the question to Xaa quietly.

"No. We are not filthy cats - though they think we are capable of just about anything. Watch. If any harm comes to her, it will be all of her own doing," Xaa whispered back.

W'mefa was still speaking, though this time he spoke to the prisoner. "Cat, it seems quite unwise to be so incredibly rude in your current position, especially considering that we have present someone who can translate anything you say. Perhaps you should carefully consider your words before you speak again." W'mefa rumbled, grinning.

The cat snarled and spat some more, and Yarro spoke up again. "It seems, my lord, that the cat is quite irritated that I would translate for you, and now says that were she free, she wishes to scratch my eyes out. May I demonstrate the futility of that to her, lord?"

"Certainly, Yarro," W'mefa replied.

Yarro rose to his feet, turning so the cat could see his face. He then reached up and slipped of the cloth strip around his eyes, and Merle blanched. Yarro had four deep scars that ran across his face, one of which transecting his eyesockets. His eyes were sunken, and Merle realized that some cat already had clawed his eyes out. Even the cat seemed startled. She growled something in her language Merle didn't understand, and Yarro sat down on the stool again before he translated.

"She appears to recognize me now, my lord. She used the cat's name for me, which, loosely translated, means "Blind Talker-mouse". I, of course, am not offended by this. I find that although I originally was quite frightened of being blind, and the experience of being blinded as a joke by one of her clan was quite bad, I now have adjusted to life in permanent darkness. Perhaps she should try it, lord. It may calm her down considerably, since she seems to be quite the excitable sort," Yarro said calmly, slipping the cloth back in place over his ruined eyes.

The cat yowled loudly at that, and then yelled "Nonononononono! I'll be good, really!" in the language of the mus.

"I most humbly beg your pardon, my lord, but I must politely disagree with Lord Yarro. I believe that only de-clawing and de-fanging the female will be necessary to get her to calm down and be polite," N'Char said, bowing.

"Perhaps, My lord, the solution is to do both. The female has already injured several of your servants who work in the dungeon, when they made every effort to see that she remained uninjured, and in fact assisted the healers in treating her wounds. She does not appear to be properly honored by the fact that Fate selected her to live where all forty-nine of her other companions died under our arrows or our blades, nor does she seem to be properly appreciative of our efforts to heal her wounds. She seems a most ungrateful creature, my lord, and doing both may cause her to learn proper humility."

"NO! NO, PLEASE!" the cat wailed, her breasts heaving as she struggled in the manacles.

"Why not? Your people would do the same to us, were the situation reversed - or worse," W'mefa growled at the cat, and all the mus gathered around the table nodded.

"Perhaps we should simply turn her over to Lord Xaa, father, and let him do with her as he wills. He is, after all, a very kind and generous soul, and I'm sure he would be more than capable of teaching the cat to be quite polite," O'dmemet interjected, gesturing to his right with a smile.

Merle looked up at Xaa's face. Xaa simply stared at the cat, his paws on the table, fingers spread wide to show his claws, his eyes blazing with hatred and fury. Merle trembled.

The cat looked over, saw Xaa's yellow-gold eyes, and howled in fear. "The Slayer?! Xaa is HERE?! That is Xaa?! Oh, gods, it IS him! Oh, please! I beg of you! Mercy! I'll do anything, ANYTHING, BUT PLEASE DON'T GIVE ME TO HIM! PLEASE!" she screamed.

Merle felt pity for the cat, hanging there. Tears rolled down the cat's face, and she sobbed openly as she begged for mercy. Merle shuddered as she remembered what Xaa had yelled at the bear. "The Mercy of the Mus" was a quick death, that day.

"I will consider your request, cat. For now, we will start with the simple questions. Firstly, what is your name, please?" W'mefa asked politely.

"I am T'Vril, of the clan T'Chang," T'Vril sobbed.

"Ah, splendid. And how did you come to be in that party of fifty fools that we killed earlier today?"

"My mate, D'Sparil, was slain along with two of his warriors. He was a captain among the T'Chang, and well liked. Most of his friends and the body of the warriors under his personal command mounted up at dawn, and I took the mate's privilege and rode with the party to hunt down the killer."

"You found him," Xaa growled, and T'Vril trembled when her gaze met his.

"Indeed she did. Now: How many warriors does the T'Chang have, and what are their current dispositions?" W'mefa continued.

"Our clan has a little over two thousand warriors, counting those females who bear arms. Most reside in Castle T'Chang, though some in the village surrounding it. They are all generally healthy, though this winter game in the surrounding lands has become scarce and supplies for the domesticated animals runs low."

"Castle Xaa, you mean," W'mefa corrected quietly.

"Yes, sorry."

"And I am usually addressed as Lord W'mefa."

"I beg your pardon, Lord W'mefa," T'Vril replied meekly, her furry tail curling tight between her legs, covering her sex and trembling against her stomach and between her breasts.

"You see, my son?" W'mefa said, turning to O'dmemet and smiling. "It wasn't necessary at all to turn her over to Xaa to teach her how to be polite."

"I see, father. I stand corrected," O'dmemet replied, returning the smile while the other mus chuckled.

"We will release her, I think, and give her garments to wear, and assign guards to watch her at all hours of the day, but otherwise allow her some limited freedom to wander the castle. I think initially we shall limit her to the dungeon and the courtyard, until she proves herself. After all, we may have other questions for her, and she is such a delightful conversationalist, don't you think, my son?"

"Yes, father. Quite witty and charming - for a cat, of course," O'dmemet replied, and his chuckle was again joined by all the other mus.

"Of course, should she prove to be a rude guest, or attempt to escape, or injure anyone in any way, or in some other way violate our gentle hospitality, I believe I shall simply allow Xaa to deal with the problem."

"I agree that would be the best course, father - though we should obtain her vow that she will behave, of course."

"Well, T'Vril of the clan T'Chang? Do you vow to behave and be a polite guest of my house?" W'mefa asked.

"Yes, Lord W'Mefa. I will be good. I promise. Just please don't give me to him, please," T'Vril replied, trembling.

"Oh, my dear, you don't understand. I won't have to give you to him - that implies that I will actually have to order someone to bring you to him. No, dear. I will simply tell him that he may do with you as he will. No matter where you run, he'll find you. He's quite the expert hunter, and he is quite unhappy with your clan, as you can well imagine. I think that you really should keep your word. And perhaps, in a few months, when we have chatted several times and you have proven yourself a nice, polite guest, we may simply let you go. It's all up to you, of course. Behave, and nothing bad will happen to you, you will be treated quite well, in fact, and eventually released with a bird and a few days of food and water to see you safely homeward to your clan. We may, after all, have a message or two we wish you to bear when you do go home. On the other paw, if you misbehave..." W'mefa said, letting his words trail off.

"Then you belong to me," Xaa growled.

"I'll be good, Lord W'mefa. Really, I will. I'll be very good," T'Vril replied, trembling with fear.

"Release her, N'Char, and take her back to her cell. Get her some clothes, and some food. And have the healers look at her wounds again, the one on her leg seems to be bleeding again. We'll discuss what her limitations are and the guard arrangements in the morning."

"Yes, my lord," N'Char replied, bowing, and lifted up on the handle in the back of the frame. Kicking a pin, he slid the pole out from the back with a flick of his foot, then laid the frame down on the floor. After producing a ring of keys from his sash, he quickly unlocked T'Vril's manacles.

T'Vril groaned as she lowered her arms (Merle realized that she'd been hanging from them for quite awhile, and they must hurt quite a bit), then crawled out of the frame to kneel before it, her head on the floor and her tail tight between her legs. "Thank you, Lord W'mefa."

W'mefa smiled. "You are quite welcome, my dear," he said sweetly, then scowled. "Now get the hell out."

There was silence for several minutes as N'Char helped T'Vril to her feet, and she hobbled out of the room. The wound in her thigh was so painful for her, N'Char had to grab her arm and lift, holding her up. After they had been gone half a minute, W'mefa finally sat down.

As soon as he did, the mus gathered around began to applaud.

Merle was startled and surprised. "I don't understand," she said to Xaa.

"It's quite simple, really, Merle. The cat's don't believe it, but it's against our code to commit torture or other similar acts unless the lives of others are on the line, and it is the only way to get the necessary information. We consider torture to be totally without honor, and honor is very important to us. This was W'mefa's way of letting T'Vril know that if she behaved herself, we would simply interrogate her as needed over the next few months, then let her go to carry a message or two back to her clan - most likely a politely worded request for them to get the hell off my lands. If she misbehaves, however, she will be killed. After all, she tried to kill our people. It's only just. Everything else was simply to frighten her, and let her know we weren't about to put up with her nonsense. We really are a very civilized people, Merle."

"You mean even when you glared at her and growled at her, you were just trying to scare her? You don't really hate her?" Merle asked.

"Oh, no. I hate her, Merle. Her clan killed my wife and destroyed my daughter's life. But I'm not a cat - I won't torture her to death, or cause her unnecessary pain. If W'mefa tells me she has broken their agreement, I will simply kill her. Like the bears you deal with in the Wild Woods. You could easily make traps for them, such as digging large pits and filling them with sharpened stakes, then toss meat down in to lure the bears to their doom. Why don't you?"

"Because that would be cruel. It's better to kill cleanly and end it fast, no matter how angry we are at the bear for attacking our friends, the mice," Merle said, then nodded. "I see your point."

"Exactly. So we applaud W'mefa because he has shown consummate skill. He has taught the cat manners, and explained our position to her in a method she can understand, and obtained valuable information from her, all without having to stoop to the ignominy of torture. And they do fear torture, Merle. They use it themselves quite commonly both as a method of interrogation, and as entertainment."

"I see," Merle said, and began explaining what had happened to Tinker.

"If you will pardon me, my lord, I am in need of sleep. These old bones get tired of late, and dealing with that cat all night was quite exausting," Yarro said, standing and bowing.

"Good evening, then, my old friend. Would you like someone to lead you back to your chamber?"

"No, my lord. I can find my own way, thank you," Yarro replied, and turned. He then walked out of the room, sweeping and tapping his thin staff before his feet, his tail flicking back and forth, his whiskers twitching, slowly finding his way in his personal world of perpetual darkness. Merle glanced at him sadly as he left, thinking that it must be terrible to be blind, and that how he got that way was particularly horrible.

"They were very mean to her," Tinker whispered to Merle.

"I don't think so, Tinker. They didn't hurt a single hair of her pelt - in fact, they tried to heal her of the wounds she took in the fight, but she kept clawing and biting them. Now, she will be allowed to walk around and not be in chains and if she's nice to them, they will be nice to her," Merle whispered back.

"Well, I think they could have just explained that to her without scaring her," Tinker whispered.

"Tinker, these are the same people who long ago kept your people for slaves and food, remember? They couldn't just talk to her, they had to get her attention, first. You saw what they did to that poor old mus. They clawed his eyes out, and they did it just for fun," Merle whispered in reply, shaking her head.

Tinker nodded, shivering. "That was icky," he whispered, and then was silent for a few moments before he spoke again. "I guess you're right, Merle. I've just never seen anything like her before. At first, I was frightened of her, then later, I was frightened for her."

W'mefa's rumble interrupted Merle's reply. "Lady Vhross shall sing the Song of Nah'ap'Ghotah for us tonight." Merle looked up, and blinked.

By the time Merle had finished her explanation to Tinker, the manacled frame had been removed, and a female Mus knelt quietly in its place. Lady Vhross began playing a melody on a delicately-made stringed instrument, and singing a quiet tune. As fascinated as Merle was by the pear-shaped instrument, flat on one side with a small sound hole and a long neck the strings were drawn taut across, she was even more fascinated by the song. Merle had never heard any mus sing before - Xaa had never sung in all the months she had known him - and the sound was fascinating. It was a pleasing, dulcet tone, the rumbling and growling of the mus language turned into a sound that was gentle and mellifluous.

"Hear the voice of Nah'ap'Ghotah,

calling to us through the ages.

This is his song, passed down

through all these long centuries.

When the Night of the Long Knives was done,

and the last of the Little Ones were dead or fled,

he looked at the carnage and the blood,

and cried 'Oh, my brothers, what have you done?'

'Yes, they kept us as their slaves,

yes, they used us for our bodies,

yes, they thought of us as nothing but animals,

but did we yet have to prove them right?

Here lies one we knew as Hrangah.

See his throat has been torn out.

Yet he was no harsh master, but a poet.

Nevermore his song will be sung.

Here lies Du'koch, a carver of stone,

his statues were lovely, yet now no more.

Here a minstrel. And here, a painter.

Here a healer. Here a teacher.

All about us their bodies are strewn.

Oh, my brothers, this day is to weep, not rejoice,

this day is to mourn, not to celebrate,

for in breaking our shackles we have lost our songs.'

The mighty warlord Dash'Du'ragh raised his fist,

meaning to smite Nah'ap'Ghotah,

for his words had angered many,

But then he lowered it to his side.

'You are right, but what's done is done,

and from the loins of these gentle artists,

more masters and rulers would have sprung.

My warriors! Leave those that live to flee.

Perhaps someday, we shall meet again.

Perhaps someday, they will have learned to fight their own battles,

and we will have learned to sing our own songs.'"

Then Lady Vhross plucked her instrument pointedly, her voice silent. Merle realized she was repeating the notes of the first four verses of the song, and the mus gathered at the table were smiling and nodding to her in response. 'And they did learn to sing their own songs!' Merle thought, and then looked to Tinker. Tinker was making a face - he apparently didn't like the music, and he certainly couldn't understand the words. 'But Tinker's people never learned to fight their own battles. They found us, instead,' Merle realized.

Seeing her face, Xaa spoke. "What is it, Merle?" he rumbled quietly.

"Your people did learn to sing their own songs. And they are beautiful, and sad, and sweet. But..." Merle said, and glanced at Tinker.

"But his people never learned to fight their own battles. Yes, I know. And now you know. And I think Byarl, your chief, knows this, as well. We have sung that song for eight centuries, and hoped that someday we would meet the Little Ones again, and find that they had learned to fight their own battles. They have not. They found you, instead. Now, you are where we were, eight centuries ago."

Suddenly, Merle saw Tinker in a completely different light. He was a small person. Not small of body, for he was almost her height, but small of spirit. He wasn't evil - no mouse she had ever met could be called that. Deep inside, each was a sweet, timid little soul. Still, they were shallow, and small. Merle remembered Byarl's irritated look the day Xaa had first been introduced to Cooper, before they could speak their language, when Merle helped Xaa show Cooper that he had his own Words-That-Stay. Now, she understood it. The mice truly were tiny, petty people - and the Musties were totally dependent on them for everything. Oh, the mice were very polite to them, and they had even taught them how to make fire and how to make the Words-That-Stay and how to understand numbers and many other good things, but they hadn't taught them the things they needed to be truly equal and independent of them. The little mouse-knife Merle had tucked into her kimono was the basic tool of every mustie, critical to day-to-day survival, yet no mustie knew how to make one themselves. Only the mice knew.

Merle's eyes widened in realization. "No! It can't be!" she said in shock, her voice barely above a whisper.

"But it is," Xaa rumbled.

Tinker looked around. The room had fallen silent, and everyone was looking at him and Merle. "What? What is it?" he squeaked nervously.

Merle suddenly reached into her kimono, pulled out her knife and it's sheath, then slapped it on the table between herself and Tinker. "Tinker, how do you make that?"

"Huh?" Tinker replied, startled.

Merle drew the knife from it's sheath and set it down again. "The knife. How do you make it?"

Tinker looked at Merle, his tail twitching nervously. "Umm... Well, it's hard to explain..."

"Try anyway. Tell me how you make this," Merle said determinedly.

"Umm... Well..." Tinker stammered, his tail flicking about even more.

"It's a secret, isn't it?" Merle asked pointedly, peering at Tinker, her eyebrows furrowed.

"Well... Yes, Merle. It is. I'm sorry. It's a secret. I hope you're not mad at me for not telling you, but it's something that I was told we never talk about. How to work iron and steel is one of the greatest secrets of all our Lore, and the Law of the Mice says we should keep that secret to ourselves. Besides, Merle, it's really very complicated - you probably wouldn't understand it anyway," Tinker replied, unable to meet Merle's gaze. "Can I go back to my room, now? I'm very sleepy, Merle."

"The Little One, Tinker, wishes to retire for the night," Xaa announced.

One of the servants who had been seated on stools near the walls stood, smoothing her kimono. "I shall be more than happy to lead him back to his chambers," she said, smiling quietly.

"Tinker, this lady here will take you back to your room," Merle translated, her head still spinning.

"Okay. Thank you. Goodnight, Merle. I love you," Tinker said, and hugged Merle tight.

Merle patted Tinker's back as she hugged him, then watched him being led away by the servant. After he had left the room, she turned back to Xaa. "How do you make this?" she asked, point blank, tapping the knife with a clawtip.

"She asks me the same question she asked the Little One - a question he refused to answer, saying it was one of their secrets. Namely, how do they make the knives they trade to the musties in exchange for their protection? He says that their Law instructs him to keep it a secret, and dismisses the notion with the gentle comment that it is so complicated, she probably wouldn't be able to understand it," Xaa translated. The other mus in the room nodded to each, and a few of them snorted in derision.

Xaa looked Merle in the eyes and began to speak. "First, you have to have a source of iron. We mine iron in the hills and mountains where it is found underground as ore. It's then smelted, which involves heating the ore until the iron melts out of it. It takes an enormous amount of heat to do that, by the way - those who work in the smelters wear special garments to protect them from the heat. It can singe your fur. The end result is further smelted and combined with other things to make various grades of iron or steel. To make your knife, iron would be smelted with the purest carbon we could obtain to make the blade and the tang by a process called 'drop-forging' - molten steel is poured from a ladle into a form in the shape of the final knife. It would then be ground and polished, sharpened and polished again, then fitted with the leather-wrap hilt your knife has. I can't do any of this myself, of course - I've never been trained in the skills necessary to do it. It takes hundreds of mus, and the separate skills and knowledges of mining, smelting, and then forging. The mus who know these skills are part of our servant class, and highly respected for their skills. Without them, we warriors would have nothing but our teeth and claws."

"Then how do the mice make it? There aren't hundreds and hundreds of them - there's maybe a hundred and fifty, including the children."

"I'd guess by a combination of the recycling that your people and theirs have established between each other, recovering old or worn-out tools, and a small mine somewhere. I'd guess that somewhere in the hills nearby they've found a small source of iron, and they mine, smelt and forge small amounts of it regularly - perhaps once a year or so. Most likely, they'd do the work during the winter, where the heat from the work can be distributed among their burrows, in the same manner you explained that Tinker's father uses his steam engine to heat their burrow. This would also explain why his people never develop winter coats of fur - it's always warm for them in the winter. I'd ask him, but I have a feeling he wouldn't tell me any more than he tells you," Xaa replied.

O'dmemet spoke up. "And we don't know how to make the 'steam engine' or the 'ornithopter', or any of the marvels the Little Ones once made. Only they do. We don't even know how to make the black powder the cats use in their guns. None of them do, either - apparently, it's something they receive in barrels, shipped in from their empire to the west. Yes, we can steal their guns after a battle, but without being able to make powder of our own, it's of limited use to us. Once the powder is gone, the gun is useless. Also, our bows fire farther and shoot faster. The guns are easier to learn to use, however, and I think that's why the cats like them. The cats have other things we don't understand - poisons and other trickery they use. We hope that the Little One can help us by building new weapons and other devices. As he does so, we will learn by watching carefully and quietly, since he may be loathe to reveal to us exactly what it is he is doing."

Xaa nodded. "Exactly. Tinker will have our best craftsmen and artisans at his beck and call, ready and willing to do anything he says. We will fawn over him. We will worship him. We will satisfy his every whim. And we will learn from him." Xaa growled, and the other mus nodded.

Merle looked back at Xaa, and to O'dmemet and W'mefa. "Then, after you have learned all you can from him, then what will you do with him?"

Xaa translated, and W'mefa spoke up. "We will thank him politely, then take him home again, of course. Then, Fate willing, we'll use what we have learned to drive the cats from our lands forever."

"And my people will still remain the slaves of his people," Merle said quietly, looking down.

Xaa translated, then took Merle's paw. "They don't have to. You could tell them."

"Sure, lovely idea. I tell all my people that for the last eight hundred years, the mice we have thought of as our friends and allies have been using us for their own purposes. That we are merely tools to them. They've given us enough knowledge to make us think they were sharing with us what we needed to know, not knowing that all they were really doing was making us dependent on them for everything. Then they'll be unhappy and still be slaves. We can't live without them, and I don't think we could live with them, knowing this. The mice will never teach us what we would need to be independent, because then we would never help them again, knowing they have kept us ignorant for so long. We're not like you. We wouldn't go and kill all of them to free ourselves. We really do love them and care for them - they're our friends. But we would never be happy again. I don't know if I am ever going to be happy again, knowing this," Merle said, and sniffled. It dawned on her that before she had left home, it had been months since she had seen Byarl laugh. 'Maybe he'll never laugh again. I think he figured out what was happening the day Cooper explained their history to us. He's never laughed since that day. He knows the truth,' Merle thought, and sobbed.

Xaa translated what Merle had said, and the other mus all tried to console her, speaking at once. Xaa simply hugged Merle. "It's alright, Merle. You and your people could come live with us."

"And what could we possibly offer you?! You're huge! You can already do everything we can do, and you can make steel and build enormous castles like this and do a thousand and twenty-four other things that we can't do at all, you don't need us!" Merle sobbed.

"I don't know, Merle. I've no idea what you could offer our people in exchange." Xaa rumbled.

"You've small paws. Perhaps your people would make even better healers than our own. Small paws would be a help in delicate surgery," O'dmemet offered.

"Indeed. And Xaa says that you are absolutely deadly with your sling. Perhaps you would also make great allies in war, as well - swift of foot, and sharp of eye," W'mefa added.

Lady Vhross burst out laughing. "Forgive me, my lord, but you males! It's amazing what you overlook in others, sometimes. Merle and her people offer something more precious to us than nimble fingers and sharp eyes. Come here, Merle, please," she asked, smiling.

Merle sniffled, wiping her eyes with her kerchief, and walked around the table until she was by Lady Vhross. Lady Vhross slipped her pillow from beneath her, then patted it. "Sit here, please." Merle did so, wondering just what Lady Vhross had in mind. Lady Vhross picked up her instrument again. "Sing me a song of your people, Merle. Sing me a happy song," she asked.

For several moments, Merle couldn't think of one. She was too miserable. The mus at the table all stared at her, waiting, and Lady Vhross simply smiled. Finally, Merle looked up. 'When trouble stares you in the face, smile,' her daddy always used to say. Merle plastered a grin on her face, chuckling to herself. That was the mustie way - face adversity with a smile. "Alright. Here's one. This is one my mother used to sing to me before she died," she said, and began to sing.

"Jakay Mustie lay hungry in the snow,

her leg was broke, from a fall don't you know,

one arm was broke, too, but the other was strong,

so with that one arm she pulled herself along.

As she spied a rabbit teasing her from the forest's edge,

she said "You know, if this keeps up, I just might get discouraged."

Don't give up! Don't give up!

Where there's life, there's hope, and where there's hope, there's a song!

Don't give up! Don't give up!

Where there's life, there's hope, and where there's hope, there's a song!"

Xaa roared with laughter as Merle finished her short song. "Lovely!" he exclaimed, still laughing.

"What does it mean, Lord Xaa?" asked Lady Vhross.

"Sing it again, Merle, but pause after each part," Xaa asked. Merle nodded, and as she did so, Lady Vhross plucked the melody quietly on her instrument. Xaa gave a literal translation of the song, line for line, and the mus all chuckled.

Lady Vhross thought about it, then smiled, strumming her instrument brightly.

"Lo, the little mustie-girl Jakay lay in the snow,

hungry she was, her leg broken,

And lo, one arm was broken as well, a fall the cause of both.

Yet still with the other arm she managed to crawl.

As a fat little rabbit teases her from afar,

she exclaims "Indeed, if this persists, I may perhaps become discouraged."

Never surrender! Never give in!

Where there is life, there is hope,

and where there is hope, there is a song.

Never surrender! Never give in!

Where there is life, there is hope,

and where there is hope, there is a song."

Lady Vhross finished on a bright chord, and the mus applauded.

"Truer words were never spoken - or sung," W'mefa rumbled, chuckling.

"Yay!" Merle exclaimed, clapping. Lady Vhross's translation rhymed perfectly in her language, and fit the meter of the song like it had been written in their tongue. "Lady Vhross, we musties sing that over and over many times - round and round until all happy."

Lady Vhross nodded, and began again at the beginning. Soon, all the mus joined in, singing the lyrics that Lady Vhross had created, grinning, and Merle attempted it, as well. She found that singing their language was much easier than speaking it, for her, and it was fun to sing in another language. After ten rounds, Lady Vhross finally strummed a bright finale on her mus-lute, then clapped her paw to the strings to silence it. Everyone clapped again, and Lady Vhross bowed. Merle bowed as well, and then sat back up, grinning broadly.

"And that, my lord, is what Lady Merle and her people could offer to us. Not what they can give of their bodies or their knowledge, but their fire and spirit. Any other gifts they gave us would be secondary in importance in comparison to the gift of their songs. I thank you for your patience with me as I demonstrated my point," Lady Vhross said, and bowed to W'mefa.

"And I thank you for correcting me, Lady Vhross," W'mefa replied, then looked at Merle. "Lady Merle, should your people come to live with us, we would welcome them with open arms."

"Lord W'mefa, if you not win war, you come live with us. Me think musties be very happy to be your friends."

Lord W'mefa bowed deeply. "Thank you, Lady Merle. Perhaps that will be a 'last resort' plan for us, then." He then turned to the other mus in the room. "I thank you all most humbly for honoring me by attending, and I thank the servants again for being so kind as to prepare and serve such a marvelous repast. And, of course, my special thanks to Lady Vhross for sharing her talents with us once again."

The other mus rose, bowed politely, then quietly filed out of the room, chatting to each other. Lady Vhross gave Merle a quiet little hug before she left, and whispered "I shall add your song to my songbook, Lady Merle. I hope to add more of your people's songs as we get to know each other better, and perhaps, I can teach you some of mine."

"Me like that, thank you, Lady Vhross," Merle replied, grinning, and hugged back before Lady Vhross stodd to leave. Merle then walked back over to Xaa, who sat back down again, turning to face O'dmemet. Odmemet shifted his pillow to his father's side, then they both sat facing Xaa. 'Oops - I was going to ask him if he could lead me back to my room, but I guess they want to talk,' Merle thought. "I'll just ask one of the servants to lead me back, Xaa."

"No, Merle. Have a seat, it's quite alright," Xaa replied, pulling Merle's pillow up beside him. Merle grinned and sat down, then Xaa spoke again. "Leave these lands and go to live with the musties, eh? Well, we may come to it sooner than that, Old Friend. If what T'Vril says is true, we can expect an attack very soon."

W'mefa nodded. "I thought so myself, but I am interested in your thoughts on the matter."

"Well, I am guessing, but if they only had four guns among fifty riders, they are probably running low on powder. Combined with the shortage of food and shortage of local game she mentions, I'd say that the weather is slowing their shipments of supplies from their homelands. They're out in force, trying to make up for the shortages by hunting, and they're hunting out the local game - possibly another reason they're running short on powder. So, they can either sit there and hope that the weather westwards of them will clear and their shipments will resume, or they can try to raid us for supplies. Knowing how they've operated so far, they'd choose the latter. I'd guess they've had a raid planned for awhile, now. Of course, before they'd launch a raid, they'd want to have their best warriors scout their perimeter, to make sure we weren't planning on raiding them - it wouldn't do to have any large portion of your warriors committed to an attack when you need them for defense. Hence, I run across D'Sparil and two of his warriors patrolling the southwest perimeter. I kill them, because I need their birds, and nearly all the warriors under his personal command and his mate take off after me. They never come back alive. Given that I've killed one of their popular captains, and that O'dmemet has annihilated the force they sent in reply to that, when the cats find out, they are going to be mad as hell. They've already got a raid planned, their blood is already hot. This fires them up even further. It's likely they'll attack, and in large numbers. If they don't attack, T'Chang will lose face with his warriors. He can't let D'Sparil's death and the death of all his warriors go unanswered, and they're getting hungry," Xaa explained.

"How long do you think before they'll attack?" O'dmemet asked.

"Well, I kept them entertained chasing me for three weeks before you killed them. Most likely, they sent back one or two riders every few days to report on their progress. Riding straight from my last campsite to the castle would take about five days. I'd guess that in about three, perhaps four days the cats will realize that the chase ended in disaster. It will take them about a day to get ready, and then they'll move. Assuming they only commit their Riders, which is likely since they will want to raid for food as well as revenge, it will take them about six days before they hit our first storehouses of food in the villages to the west. I figure that they'll be there, kicking in the storehouse doors and killing anyone they find sometime in the next nine to eleven days. Most likely, they'll burn everything they run across that isn't edible. They can't lay siege to us in the winter, so they may try to poison us again. After about two, maybe three days of mayhem, they'll head back to their own lands - it's the most they will want to risk. Too great a chance a storm will roll in and catch them outdoors. That would cost them most of their birds and a good portion of their warriors - and, of course, all the food they were trying to steal. That's my assessment, W'mefa," Xaa finished.

W'mefa nodded. "And I agree with it. We can't meet them in open battle - we only have about five hundred warriors left. If I pass the orders tonight, we can have the storehouses emptied and their contents moved into the castle in about six days. We'll be wall-to-wall with dried meats and other oddments, but no one will starve. The villagers I can have moved into the castle in about the same period of time, though sheltering them all will be difficult. Many of them, I'm afraid, are going to end up sleeping and eating in the hallways, and getting about in here to fight will border on impossible. We can build temporary pens in the courtyard to house the non-expendable livestock - that should take a few days. The expendable livestock we'll just eat - if we set up the kitchen servants in the courtyard, we can simply have them cooking day and night, preparing the expendable livestock and feeding all the villagers as they come to them in a line. With luck, we'll be able to hold out until the cats retreat in a few days, and after a few more days of waiting to make sure they're gone, we can open the gates and empty the castle again. We have enough water barreled to last that long, even with keeping all the villagers in the castle, so their poisoning the water won't be a problem. After that, we can wait a few weeks for the poisons to dissipate, and we'll be fine."

"Lady Merle, is there anything that the Little One, Tinker, could make or do to help us in the next few days?" O'dmemet asked.

"Me not know. Me ask him," Merle replied.

"Well, then depending on what he comes up with, if anything, we'll modify the plan accordingly," W'mefa said.

Xaa looked at Merle. "Merle, you asked 'what could we possibly offer you?' Well, I have another answer for you. You can cajole, wheedle, and prod Tinker into working hard for us. You know him better than anyone, and you'd be the best person to get results out of him."

"Alright - I can do that," Merle replied. 'I hope,' she thought to herself.

Xaa translated her answer, and W'mefa nodded. "Good - then we'll get to work. Goodnight, Lady Merle. Goodnight, Lord Xaa. Come, son. We have a lot of work ahead of us," W'mefa said formally, standing and bowing. Merle and Xaa rose, bowing in return, and W'mefa and O'dmemet walked out of the room.

"Come, Merle. I'll walk you back to your room," Xaa rumbled, and Merle took his paw with both of hers and nuzzled it.

"Thank you, Xaa," Merle replied, smiling.

Behind them, the last servant rose from his stool in the corner. Taking a small snuffer from a pocket, he began to snuff the candles in the room, one by one.


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