The Last God
(Book I of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 1999 BY
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Tlahn, the servant assigned to Xaa's quarters, bowed. "I hope everything is to your satisfaction, Lord Xaa," she said, her aged voice creaking.
"Yes, very much so, thank you, Tlahn," Xaa rumbled in reply, bowing from his seat at the table.
Merle bowed, as well - it seemed the appropriate thing to do - then smiled. "You very nice Tlahn. Take care of Xaa's Daughter, take care of dinner, everything. You very nice."
The ancient female mustie smiled, her lips closed to hide her toothlessness. Her fur once was a golden brown, or so Xaa had said earlier, but now was completely white with age. Her green eyes still sparkled, however, and Merle saw that she was still sharp and spry even at the age of eighty. "Thank you, Lady Merle, but it was only my duty," Tlahn replied.
Only one other person seated at the small table didn't bow, but no one present thought it was rude. Xaa's daughter, Johm'rouh, simply sat there quietly, staring off into space.
Tlahn stepped back to the doorway. "I will return in a few minutes with your food, my lord," she said, then turned and walked out of the room.
Merle smiled, looking at Xaa across the small table in Xaa's quarters. "She's a wonderful person. Does she take care of your daughter all the time?" Merle asked.
Xaa nodded. "Yes. W'mefa sent her to me years ago with just that in mind. Her own son slipped and fell from a ladder many years ago, and broke his neck. Afterwards, he couldn't walk, feed himself, or really do anything except speak - and even that was hard for him, as his breathing was sometimes difficult. She fed him, bathed him, and in every way cared for him for many years until he at last caught a lung infection and died."
"That is so sad," Merle replied, sighing.
"Yes, but something good came of it, as she often reminds me. She is the best person to care for my daughter when I am not here - in fact, she provides the majority of the care she needs, which frees me to help W'mefa," Xaa said, lifting a small cloth to wipe away a bit of drool from his daughter's lips. "Ah - she can smell the food," he said, and picked up the bowl of meat-gruel.
Merle watched Xaa alternately feed Johm'rouh with a spoon, wiping her lips on occasion as he chatted with her. Not wanting to seem rude, Merle tried to hold up her end of the conversation under the pale moonlight.
"Tlahn has said on more than one occasion that taking care of my daughter is actually much easier than it was with her son. She will stand, if you help her up, and walk where you lead her. Stairs are a problem, though - you have to tap the back of her legs to get her to lift them going up, and you have to hold her by the waist when going down. Tlahn had developed exercises to try to keep her son's muscles from atrophying from disuse. They were only marginally effective with him - his paws still ended up as useless, twisted claws, and he never did learn to walk or feed himself again. With her, however, she seems to respond well. She is very thin, but her body is still functional. If she ever awakens from this sleep, she won't be a cripple, thanks to Tlahn."
"So, you think that someday, she will wake up?" Merle asked, interested and hopeful.
"I pray she will, yes. I have asked that people hold normal conversations with her - or attempt to, anyway. Sometimes, I see little signs... A blink, a twitch... Once, she even nodded. I hugged her for an hour after that, hoping she would do it again, but she didn't. You saw her drool - she could tell the food was here, she could smell it. Little things, Merle. I live on small movements and large hope. I feel that she is still in there, somewhere... As though asleep, perhaps. If she is, then perhaps someday..." Xaa said, and let his words trail off into silence as he continued to carefully spoon-feed Johm'rouh.
Merle sat and watched quietly. Her forearms felt much better than they had earlier, but they still ached, and even the slightest movement of her fingers sent renewed throbbing up her arms. Merle took her mind off the pain by talking to Xaa again. "I notice her incisors are nice and short. How do you keep them short? Will she nibble on a bone if you give it to her?" Merle asked.
"No. Once a week, Tlahn carefully files them. She uses great care, though. The healers think that breathing in the powder from that was what gave her son the lung infection."
"Oh! How terrible! She must have felt awful about that!" Merle gasped.
"Yes, she did. She went to W'mefa, her liege lord, and told him she couldn't live with the pain of knowing she'd killed her son, and asked him to take off her head. Servants are not allowed to commit suicide by our laws - but they can ask their liege to release them from life. Warriors can only commit suicide if their leige approves," Xaa explained.
"What happened?" Merle asked, a little shocked at that bit of knowledge.
"Well, that was shortly after the siege of my castle. W'mefa refused, and told her that there was another who needed the skills that she had learned in caring for her son for twenty years - my daughter. I was his ally, so he simply ordered her to go to my castle bearing a letter of explanation, and to care for my daughter if I accepted her. If I refused her, then and only then would he allow her the release of death," Xaa said, placing the empty bowl back on the table and carefully wiping his daughter's lips.
"Well, it was very hard for me to care for her at that point. None of my servants had any idea what to do. We'd never experienced anything like this before. Also, I was..." Xaa said, and his voice trailed off for a moment. He turned, and looked to Merle, his eyes showing deep sadness. "I was raging, Merle. My wife was dead, my daughter left like this, most of my vassals and my servants and all those I had known for years - all dead, with a pawful left like this. Few could even approach me, Merle. Then, this little, ancient female comes up to me, despite my servants having warned her that I was wild, uncontrollable, and said-"
"I said 'My Lord Xaa, if you don't mind, I have a petition for you to read from your ally, Lord W'mefa. If this disturbs you, please feel free to cut off my head. I find that I am quite tired of it resting upon my shoulders at the moment, anyway.'" Tlahn's voice cackled from behind Merle.
Merle looked, and Tlahn was hobbling in, bearing a tray with two plates and a small pot of tea. Xaa chuckled. "Indeed - that was what you said. Quite a slap to the face - as though I was so wild, so insane with grief, I would slay the servant of my ally in a fit of pique."
"You were, my lord, so sorry, but it's true. Your heart and mine were in the same place at that moment. Both of us were deep in mourning - I wished to die, and you wished to kill. But that little reminder of mine brought you around, I think. You accepted me, and I accepted her, and my heart was healed by caring for her. I know now that Fate took my son so that I might care for your daughter. I do not know why Fate took your wife and daughter, however. Perhaps the truth will be revealed, in time," Tlahn said, placing the plates before Merle and Xaa, then setting the teapot between them.
"Perhaps," Xaa replied quietly.
Tlahn then set the serving tray beneath the table and turned to Johm'rouh. "Come, my dear. Time for bed," she said.
Xaa leaned over and gave his daughter a gentle hug. "Goodnight, my sweet little darling."
Johm'rouh blinked slowly, but made no reply or sign she understood. Tlahn gently lifted Johm'rouh to her feet, and then began to lead her away. Merle was amazed to see that Johm'rouh would, in fact, walk. Tlahn had to have one paw on her waist and another gripping Johm'rouh's paw, half guiding, half pushing her along, but she did walk. Merle looked to Xaa, and saw that his face was quiet, and sad. 'Lameh was right,' Merle thought to herself. 'Johm'rouh is his millstone. So long as she is like that, he will be driven to fight and fight and fight until he dies, not caring what may happen - only that the cats will pay for every moment of her suffering with their blood. Spirits, help me find a way to help her!'
Merle looked down to the table as Xaa reached out across it, and blinked when she noticed that Tlahn had put only one set of utensils. "Only one set of utensils?" she asked.
"Of course - I'll be feeding you tonight, myself. Not only so you will follow the Master Healer's orders, but also because you have earned being treated with great honor," Xaa replied, and picked up the utensils.
Merle smiled in reply, and was glad that she was a mustie instead of a mouse, because she was sure she was blushing under her fur. "Thank you - but does everyone know what happened today?"
"Not quite. Tinker and the prisoner, of course, do not know. The younger servants, who might let something slip in a casual moment, do not know. Only Lord W'mefa, myself, and all the older servants of the castle were told by Ead'xas. W'mefa told his son, and a pawful of his personal retainers who he holds in great trust. He also told me, of course, but I already knew by then. The rest of the mus here in the castle have only been told that you injured your paws in a minor accident, and that W'mefa now is convinced that my assessment was correct - you are a warrior, and should be treated as such," Xaa replied, and lifted a small piece of meat to Merle's lips. Merle took it from the little tined implement with a smile, and chewed quietly before she spoke again.
"Did Var ever figure out what Tinker was trying to do?" Merle asked.
"He said he sees what he was doing, but still doesn't understand why he is doing it, even after having seen the tools he was using close up."
"Close up? How did he manage that? After we went back in, Tinker made us both vow on our Word of Honor we wouldn't touch the big leather sack he stored all his tools in. Did Var break his vow?" Merle asked as Xaa cut a piece for himself from his own plate.
"No, of course not. He simply told me about it after Tinker had left for the day, and I opened the sack, pulled out the items one at a time for him to examine carefully, and put them back exactly as they had been. Var never touched the sack, his honor is intact," Xaa replied, and grinned wickedly.
Merle laughed loudly. "That is sneaky!" she giggled.
"Thank you, Merle. Of course, it only was possible because Tinker probably is thinking that without any explanation or without seeing the items in use, their purpose is a mystery. And he'd be right - if it wasn't for you allowing him to see them in use, Var said he'd have no clue what Tinker was doing just by looking at those items," Xaa replied, smiling.
"So what was in the bag?"
"Well, he's got a shaft of wood he's spirally fluted like some kind of worm gear, a guide for it that rotated it on each stroke, and it was attached to a slimmer shaft that he stroked in and out of the barrel. Var said that judging by the metal shavings, he's scraping the inside of the barrel with something attached to the tip of the shaft, probably a high-temper steel bit. The bit wasn't in the bag - I assume it was in his pocket, probably a general-purpose tool he brought along when he came."
"Why would he do that?" Merle asked
"I've no idea, and neither does Var. Even having seen these tools in use, and having examined them closely, he still doesn't know why he's doing what he's doing. We'll have to wait and see what the end results are to find out. Var says he can duplicate the procedure, though, when and if we ever figure out what it does."
Merle nodded, and for the next several minutes simply sat and enjoyed Xaa's quiet company as he fed her. She didn't even have to ask him for tea - he watched her with the same sharp eyes he fed his daughter with, and if she even looked like she might want a drink, he would immediately reach for the teacup and lift it to her lips. 'It was worth the hurt just for this dinner alone,' Merle thought. The experience of being gently fed by Xaa, the one she loved and wanted as her mate, was a powerful one for her, and sent chills down her spine. Merle was almost disappointed when the meal was finally finished.
Merle looked at Xaa silently as he sipped at his tea. Xaa noticed her gaze, and raised an eyebrow. "What is it?"
"Nothing," Merle replied quietly. 'Spirits, I want to tell him so bad, but I know that I should just stay quiet. I know in my heart he doesn't think he'll even be alive in four years to keep his promise to me. And I know why - he's driven by his daughter. Every day he sees her like that is another day his hatred for the ones that did it to her burns in his heart.'
"My wife used to say 'It's nothing' when it was always something. It's a female thing, I think," Xaa rumbled, smiling.
"What was she like?" Merle asked, leaping at the chance to change the subject.
Xaa paused for a moment, as though debating whether or not to ask her what was really on her mind, then smiled briefly before speaking again. "T'lixca? Well, she was beautiful. Her fur was exactly like that of my daughter - as white as the driven snow. Her eyes were pale, pale gray, like fine steel. Her voice was soft, her paws gentle. She was an archer of surpassing skill - even better than I was at the time. She also was an accomplished artist. Remember the heron painting in the main dining hall you saw the first night?" Xaa asked, and Merle nodded. "She painted that for W'mefa to honor him as my friend and ally about a year after she and I were first married."
"Really? It's beautiful," Merle said, smiling.
"Do you have any other paintings she has done?"
"All the works of art she ever did were still in my castle the day it fell to the T'Chang," Xaa replied quietly.
"You mean you have nothing to remember her by?" Merle asked, saddened.
"No. I have one thing she gave me - something very beautiful and special."
"Oh? What is it?"
"My daughter," Xaa replied quietly.
Merle blanched at that answer - it wasn't what she was expecting, but as soon as he said it, she knew it was what she should have expected him to say. Merle's heart felt like it was breaking. She wanted so desperately to comfort Xaa, to hold him and make him feel better, but she couldn't. Aside from the fact that her paws were still bandaged and her arms still hurt, she knew that there was nothing she could really do. 'Johm'rouh is all he has left of his wife - and she's left like that. Oh, spirits! Lameh was right. How can he stand it? It's too much.' Merle blinked, fighting back tears. "I... I need to go to my room, now. I'm very tired. I'm sorry," she said, struggling to keep the sadness out of her voice.
"Alright. I'll lead you there now," Xaa replied, rising and helping Merle to her feet.
"I'm glad I had this dinner with you tonight."
"As am I. I'm quite glad that Ead'xas suggested I feed you tonight, since your paws were injured. Aside from honoring you for your sacrifice, it was very enjoyable for me. It made me feel very... I don't know. Closer to you, somehow," Xaa replied.
"I liked it, too. Very much so, in fact," Merle replied quietly.
"Yes. Much better than having a servant do it. That would have seemed so... Impersonal, somehow. Even so, I wonder why he picked me," Xaa said, walking beside her as he led her through his quarters, back to the hallway.
"Maybe because he knew that it would be impersonal coming from a stranger, rather than from a friend. Perhaps because he knew I'd want someone other than Tinker to talk to tonight. Or perhaps because he and everyone else around here except that little self-absorbed dummy Tinker can see that I love you with all my heart," Merle replied quietly, her tears flowing again.
Xaa stopped, then knelt beside her. He wrapped his arms around her gently, then hugged her close for a moment. Reaching up with his fingertips, he gently wiped Merle's tears away, then nuzzled her face. He said nothing, he simply looked Merle in the eyes. Merle looked back at Xaa's large, yellow-gold eyes gleaming in the dim candlelight, and nuzzled him in return, gently wrapping her aching arms around him.
They stood there like that for several moments,
until Xaa finally released Merle, and stood again. Opening the
door for her, he led her out into the darkened hallway. Merle
knew he couldn't say it back, and she knew why. 'But he will,
someday,' she thought to herself.
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