The Last God
(Book I of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 1999 BY
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Merle sat back down beneath Old
Gnarly's branches again, her stomach growling. It had been a
miserable hunt, and she had come up empty-pawed. By the ways of
the musties, that meant she didn't get anything to eat. She
didn't have a mother and father to provide for her, so she ate
from the communal cookpot with the other unmated adults.
Unfortunately, that meant she also had to accept the same
responsibilities as the other adults, and bring something home to
the village to toss into the pot. It wasn't that her hunting
skills were lacking, or that the game wasn't there - she'd seen
three rabbits that would have been just fine for dinner.
Unfortunately, the breeze shifted as she was closing the range,
and each of the three rabbits caught a whiff of her scent and ran
for their lives. If she'd had a little more time before the hours
of darkness, she might have resumed the hunt and been able to
bring something back. Unfortunately, the sun was now well hidden
behind the trees, and the sky was growing red as sunset
Merle sniffled for a moment, a
deep sense of loss aching in her chest. She missed her parents
deeply. The other musties sympathized, but by their own rough
code, Merle was nearly an adult. If her parents had done a good
job of raising her, then she should be able to make it without
them. Had Merle been a few years younger, one of the other mustie
couples might have taken her in, but she wasn't. Even if she was,
Merle probably wouldn't have accepted. No, all the musties, Merle
included, felt that Merle should be able to make it on her own.
That's what the Coming of Age ceremony was about for Musties - an
acknowledgment that the parents had done a good job, and the
child was ready to become an adult. And Merle felt that she was
ready. But, she was still sad. When her parent's were alive, she
had never gone hungry. Now, she sometimes did go hungry when the
hunting was bad, and the hunger always brought the pain of her
loss to the forefront of her mind, fresh and sharp. Merle was
thinking of her friend Tinker, who was probably sitting down to a
dinner with his family right now, filling his tummy with
delicious gooseberry pie.
"And probably some of that
icky acorn-bread and a salad or something like that," Merle
said aloud, making a face to no one in particular, then giggling.
'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
Merle's thoughts wandered to
the strange noise that she and Tinker had heard in the forest
earlier. She still had no idea what it could be - but her
curiosity was piqued. 'I do believe I shall go and find out
what that was,' she thought, and stood, shouldering her pack.
An hour later, Merle was
standing at the spot she and Tinker had parted company. Merle's
eyes, like that of all musties, were quite sharp and she could
see fairly well at night - unless it was pitch black with no
moon. Tonight, however, a full moon hung high in the sky,
lighting the forest clearly enough for her to spot her and
Tinker's footprints in the soft soil. Orienting herself
carefully, she carefully proceeded in the direction the sound had
After a long while, Merle began
to worry this would be a fool's errand. After all, the sound she
and Tinker had heard was hours ago - the forest was filled only
with night sounds, now. A moment later, just as she drew near the
northern edge of the Wild Wood, the shifting night breezes
brought a strange scent to her nose, and she gasped in surprise.
"Blood. A lot of
blood," she muttered to herself, and followed the scent
carefully. Whatever had spilled that much blood probably was very
dangerous, and might still be in the vicinity. Whatever it was,
though, it now was her duty to investigate. If something
dangerous had come to the Wild Woods, it would be the duty of all
musties to try to deal with it before any harm befell their
friends and allies, the mice.
The moon's shift in the sky
told her that several hours had passed since she first began
searching for the source of the sound. She was quite near the
edge of the Wild Woods - beyond were the unexplored plains that
the mice and musties just called "The Unknown Lands."
All sorts of legends were passed down about these lands. There
were stories of great birds that could snatch up a mustie and
gobble them at a single gulp, stories of giant, intelligent cats
twice the height of a mustie that would sneak in and steal
naughty mousie-children at night and eat them, and other
terrible, horrible stories that made all the mice and musties
avoid the Unknown Lands like the plague. Merle paused as she
neared the edge of the forest. Her nose was filled with the scent
of blood and slaughter, and she felt herself tremble in fear,
wondering if the legends were true.
Great events in history often
turn on the smallest moments, and those moments usually go
unnoticed by the chroniclers and sages who try to record such
things. For the Little People of the Wild Woods, the course of
history had been changed for them over eight centuries before by
the caw of a raven, and the leaders of their two tribes meeting
in peace instead of in enmity. Now, the fate of two mighty
empires hung in the balance, and the future of Oerth rested on
the unknowing shoulders of a trembling little mustie, alone in
the dark. The world would have held its breath, if it had breath
After awhile, Merle mastered
her fear. She could see nothing moving in the darkness, nor hear
anything dangerous. She reasoned that someone had to look,
and that someone may as well be her.
Stealthily creeping the last
few hundred paces, Merle looked about in the moonlight that
bathed the vast plains of the Unknown Lands in amazement. There
were bodies laying scattered about hither and yon. About a
dozen, in all. Each was far larger than a mustie - as big as a
bear, in fact. Her keen eyes easily spotted the tracks by the
moonlight. They told the tale that some of the corpses had been
gnawed at by ravens during the daylight - though with the fall of
night, the feathered scavengers had apparently wandered off,
their bellies full of meat. Other creatures had been here, though
- there were enormous, bird-like tracks if a kind Merle had never
seen before, and she shuddered at the thought of the legends
coming to life. Still, there were no great birds around here now,
Merle crept up, her curiosity
finally getting the better of her, and examined the scene. The
bodies of the fallen were those of creatures unlike any she had
seen in her life. Some had large plates of metal that covered
parts of their bodies, but the rest did not. Merle had never seen
armor before, and had no clue that was what she was looking at.
Weapons were scattered about, and many of the corpses had little
sticks thrust into them, with feathers tipping the ends. Merle
had never seen an arrow, a sword or a spear before, and had no
idea what they might be. The knives she recognized, however, and
the rest she could deduce quite readily. What had happened was
obvious - a great battle had been fought here between those who
lay on the ground and another group. The tracks on the ground
told the tale that the winners had apparently taken their own
dead and wounded away with them, leaving only their enemies
behind. In curiosity, she examined the corpses more closely, and
was surprised and amazed at what she saw.
Whoever these people were, they
were large. Their legs were as thick as Merle's waist and their
arms almost as thick as their legs. The fingers of their paws
were tipped in small, sharp claws. They looked powerful and
dangerous, even in death. Most surprising, however, was their
teeth. Though they had the canine fangs of a carnivore, they also
had large, rodentine incisors. Their ears were pale and hairless,
and when Merle rolled a mostly-intact corpse over using a broken
spear as a lever, she was shocked to see a long, pale, almost
exclaimed in surprise - though not like the mice of the Wild
Wood. These were enormous - and judging by their teeth, either
omnivorous, or carnivorous. They also had fur of several
different colors - two were brown, two were gray, and one was a
dark black. Merle found that very unusual - all the mice of the
Wild Wood were of the same color - gray, with black eyes. The
musties, likewise, were all colored very similarly. They all had
brown eyes and brown fur, though unlike the mice there were more
variations in fur shading. The musties' fur ranged from a golden
brown to a warm, dark brown, and the fur of the throat, chest and
tummy almost always was lighter than that of the head and back.
Merle looked around at these
strange beings, trying to imagine what creatures could possibly
have killed them, and shuddered in fear. These beings who lay
dead before her looked mighty enough to kill a bear empty-pawed -
whatever had slain them must have been dangerous, indeed.
Merle nearly leapt out of her
fur at a sudden sound, and looked around. It was several moments
before she realized that one of the "corpses" wasn't a
corpse at all. The sound had been a groan of pain - though the
sound had been lower-pitched than any voice of any mustie.
Trembling, she approached the lone survivor.
The enormous creature fumbled
for a bit with a strap below its chin, pulling off its helmet
using only its left paw, then letting the helmet fall. The helmet
had been dented by a mighty blow from a mace, though Merle didn't
know that. Matted blood covered the gray fur of the creature's
face, and its eyes were yellow and wild. It spotted Merle and
snarled, reaching to its armor-covered side and drawing a knife.
The creature fumbled for a bit, trying to lever itself up with
its other arm, but this only brought a renewed groan of pain and
Merle held up both her paws,
showing they were empty, and smiled in what she hoped was a
disarming manner. "It's okay. I'm not here to hurt
you," she said. 'Oops!' She thought, too late. 'This
is a mouse - a big, mean mouse, but still a mouse. What if my
smiling scares him?'
The creature before her lowered
his knife, and raised a tuft of fur above its left eye that was
its eyebrow. It then spoke, its speech harsh and growling. Merle
shook her head, not understanding a word. 'Well, apparently
smiling was the right thing to do,' she thought. "It's
alright. I'm not going to hurt you. Can you understand what I'm
The creature growled out a
short reply, then gestured for her to come closer, sheathing the
knife. Merle edged a bit closer, and the creature struggled to
right itself. Merle nervously reached over to it, grabbing its
left arm and pulling to help, and finally it was sitting on its
haunches. It groaned again, and reached over to prod its right
upper arm. It grunted, then spat out a single word.
"I'm sorry, I don't
understand," Merle said in reply.
The creature nodded, then
picked up one of the arrows that lay on the ground nearby,
holding it up against its upper arm. It then snapped the arrow in
its powerful fingers, and repeated the word.
"Ah! Broken! You're trying
to say your arm is broken!" Merle exclaimed.
The creature nodded again, and
proceeded to stretch its legs. After a moment, it put its good
paw on the ground, and levered itself to its feet. It stood there
for a moment, swaying. Merle nearly leapt away in fear when the
creature reached for her, but it only placed a callused paw on
her shoulder to steady itself.
Merle looked up at it in a
mixture of awe and fear. It was over twice as tall as she was -
the top of her head only came up to the sash it wore around its
waist, over its armor. Its armor covered its shoulders, torso,
forearms, wrists and the backs of his paws, and also draped down
over its hips in a skirt-like arrangement. Its legs were arranged
normally, Merle observed. It walked on its toes, like the musties
and mice did, but its feet were covered in hard leather boots of
a type Merle had never seen before - they went up past his ankle,
and up to his knee, covering the achilles tendon, and had a metal
plate along the back side that covered the tendon. They were also
laced up along their L-shaped side, and the toe was covered in a
steel cap. Merle looked to its face, but it wasn't looking at
her. Instead, its yellow-gold eyes were glancing about the ground
in the moonlight, looking for something. As it stood there, its
paw on her shoulder, Merle got a deep whiff of its scent. 'Well,
whatever it is, it's a carnivore, and it's a male,' she
The creature released her, then
stepped behind her, stooping to pick up two sticks from the
ground and tuck them into his sash. Merle realized they were made
in the same fashion as the knife and the scabbard that he wore,
and that they must be longer knives of some sort, in their
scabbards. She'd never seen swords before, and certainly nothing
like these. The scabbards were lacquered wood, not leather, and
the crossguard was a circle of metal, not a simple flat metal
Stooping to one of the dead,
the creature tugged loose the bloody sash about the corpse's
middle and began fumbling with it one-pawed. After a moment,
Merle realized he was trying to make a sling for his arm.
"Wait - let me do that," she said, and reached for the
sash. The creature raised an eyebrow at her again, but gave her
the sash when she smiled and repeated what she'd said. "Come
- sit," she said, gesturing.
He nodded, then knelt before
her. Merle quickly measured about his torso, then tied a simple
knot in the sash and draped it over his neck. "You'll have
to set that break, you know," Merle said, wondering if he
understood her at all.
He nodded, then rose again, and
let his broken arm hang. Leaning over to one of the other
corpses, he wrapped its sash about his wrist several times, then
straightened up, pulling his arm straight. He snarled in pain for
a moment as the bones shifted back into their proper position,
then leaned forward, relaxing. Merle hunted about until she found
the broken haft of a spear that was about the right size, then
pulled the sash off one of the corpses and neatly tied the stick
to the side of the creature's arm in three separate spots to keep
the bone from shifting. She had to lift the armor plate that
protected his shoulder to get it right, and she could hear the
creature breathing heavily in pain as she worked. Finally, she
gently lifted his wrist and placed into the loop that hung from
his neck, then stepped back. When she was finished, he gently
probed his arm for a few moments, then nodded in satisfaction.
Standing, he said a single word, then bowed, holding his injured
arm to his torso with his other arm.
"Well, if that means
'thanks', then you're welcome," Merle giggled, and bowed
He looked about for awhile
longer, stooping to pick up arrows and gather them into a bundle
in his fist. Finally, his eyes lit on a long wooden case, and he
set the arrows aside, sitting on the ground beside it. Merle
followed along with interest.
He opened the top end of the
case, then smiled, slipping the arrows inside it. He then closed
the case, and shouldered it with a leather strap attached to it,
and stood. Bowing again, he turned and began to limp away.
"Hey! Wait! Where are you
going?" Merle yelped.
The enormous mouse turned, his
tail lashing in what looked like irritation. He spoke at length
in his guttural, growling language, but Merle still didn't
understand him. He pointed off in the direction he was going
several times during this, then finally fell silent. Merle just
shook her head.
"Uh-uh. You've got a broken
arm! Broken!" she said, pointing. "Whoever or
whatever killed all your friends," she said, sweeping a paw
to encompass all the still forms around her, "might find you
out there, alone, with a broken arm, and finish you
off." Merle then crossed her arms firmly.
The mouse looked at her, looked
at the bodies strewn about them, growled for a moment, then
"Besides, you haven't even
told me your name. I think that it would at least be polite to
introduce yourself, don't you? My name is Merle. What's
yours?" she asked.
He grunted something in reply
that Merle guessed (quite correctly) meant "I don't
Merle thought for a moment,
then pointed to herself. "Merle," she said, then bowed.
The mouse's eyes lit up in
comprehension. He pointed to himself, and said "Xaa."
Then he bowed in return.
Merle reached out
and took Xaa's enormous, callused paw in her own tiny one.
"Come on, Xaa - you'll need time to rest and recover, and to
let your arm heal. You can stay at my house until you
Xaa hesitated, and
for a moment, it was as though Merle was trying to tug a tree
along behind her - he simply didn't budge. Then, he seemed to
come to a decision, and limped along behind her. Merle led him
quietly into the gloomy forest, wondering just what the response
of the village would be upon seeing him.
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