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

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Merle rested her elbows on the edge of the balcony, looking out over the rolling hills still dappled here and there with spots of melting snow that stretched out as far as the eye could see. Far in the distance, the jagged edges of the mountains they had crossed clawed at the sky silently. Merle still was amazed they had made it across there to here. It was almost as amazing as Xaa's successful plan that routed the T'Chang warriors two months ago. Merle sighed. It was too bad everything else hadn't worked out so nicely.

Oh, the cats had fled, alright. The castle was almost deserted, save for a few looters who were grabbing all they could and piling it into a cart. They died quickly beneath the swords of the warriors led by O'dmemet and Xaa. Unfortunately, the fleeing T'Chang had also set the castle ablaze. Whether it was intentional, or simply an accident caused in the confusion of the escape, no one knew. It didn't matter, though - by the time the fire finally guttered out, the castle was in ruins.

Xaa had spent hours going through the loot that was piled in the cart, and searching the ruins of the burnt-out castle the next day. O'dmemet hadn't known what he was looking for, but he was in such a rage of sorrow and despair, he'd ordered his warriors to leave Xaa alone until he finished searching for whatever it was he was searching for. Merle knew what he was looking for, however. To her, it was obvious. She told O'dmemet when he returned, and he nodded - he should have realized it at the time, but they were too busy watching the horizon, hoping that reinforcements would arrive before the cats managed to rally themselves. He was looking for something - anything - that had once belonged to his wife. But there was nothing. The cats had even destroyed the markers for the graves - though that apparently had been done when they first took the castle.

They couldn't stay at Xaa's castle - the death of one of O'dmemet's warriors in a screaming, twitching fit told them that the cats had poisoned the water before they left. Of course, it was possible that they continually poisoned it all the time they were there, since the poison they used in water that killed the mus had no effect on the cats. So, Odmemet's warriors melted snow in cooking pots they salvaged from the rubble, and when the reinforcements arrived from W'mefa's allies, they returned home. W'mefa worked together with his allies to establish regular patrols and to make sure the cats didn't come back, but they simply didn't have the warriors to spare for a permanent garrison there.

Xaa hadn't stayed long after returning - he'd visited his daughter briefly, then mounted right up again with nine of O'dmemet's warriors and a half dozen servants, escorting them and two bird-drawn wagons towards the mountain cave. They had been gone for nearly six weeks, and Merle hoped they would be back soon. She found she missed Xaa terribly while he was gone, and the melting of the snows that began last week heralded the arrival of spring. "If only I'd been awake when he came back from his castle!' she thought. "Then maybe I could have gone with him!' But she hadn't been, and he was gone. The thought that something might happen to him out there, and that she might never see him again, often left her weeping quietly at night.

"Oh, there you are - the servant said you were out here."

Merle turned, and saw Tinker behind her. Surprisingly, behind him was T'Vril and her guard. "Tinker?! What is she doing here?!" Merle yelped.

"Well, I think she wants to talk to me, but I don't understand her language, and I certainly don't understand the grunting and growling that these big lummoxes call language, so I was hoping you could translate for me. You've been learning from that blind one - what's his name? Yabbo? Jabbo?"

"Yarro. Lord Yarro," Merle replied coldly. "He's a very sweet person, too. He's been teaching me a lot of things - not just how to speak the cat's language. You should get to know him better."

"Well, I'm sorry, Merle, but I've seen what passes for leaning here, and I can't imagine that these people know anything I would even be slightly interested in. Sorry, but it's true."

Merle felt her anger rise, but remembered what Yarro had said. "Always remember that anger is a weapon you give to your enemy. You must always strip your enemy of weapons, not give them more weapons to use against you. Do not give in to anger." Merle also remembered that the mus still needed Tinker, and badly. Tinker, for his part, was working on various projects and inventions, and having a grand time ordering the mus about for various things he needed. With Merle's regular stroking of his ego, he might eventually give the mus what they needed to win this war, and drive the cats from their lands forever. Merle smiled. "Oh, Tinker, I'm sure that's true! You're so smart, and you know so much. What's the latest thing you've been working on?"

"Well, they've been rattling on about airships, so I thought I might try my paw at building one. I've got the design and the math all worked out, and I'm about half-way through the construction of the prototype," Tinker replied, puffing his chest out with pride.

"Ooo! Tinker, that's so exciting!" Merle replied truthfully, because it was. "Can I see it?"

"No, nobody can see it yet. I'm building it outside the castle, in that large shed over there I had them make for me," Tinker replied, pointing at an enormous wooden building that he'd ordered built. "When it's ready, I'll have it brought out to be tested."

"Oh, okay," Merle replied, a little disappointed.

"Well, anyway, Merle - can you translate for me? I think this cat wants to talk to me."

"Oh, alright," Merle replied, sighing, then looked to the cat. "What did you want to tell him?" Merle asked in the language of the mus. Her command of the language had improved in the last two months under Yarro's patient tutelage, and she was quite pleased with herself.

"Please tell the Great Lord Tinker that I worship him for the superior being he is, and wish to nuzzle his foot-paws to show my undying respect and adoration," T'Vril replied in her own language.

Merle blinked. "You're kidding."

"No, I am not. It was he that made the guns. I saw him test the first one. His mind towers above all of us for its genius. My people respect wisdom, as well as strength, for strength without wisdom is applied foolishly, and uselessly," T'Vril purred.

"Umm... Tinker, she says she worships you for your great intellect, and wants to nuzzle your feet to show how much she respects you," Merle said.

"You're kidding!" Tinker squeaked.

"No, really! That's what I said to her, and she said that her people respect both wisdom and strength, because strength without wisdom is wasted."

"Mmm... Okay, I guess," Tinker replied nervously.

Merle translated what T'Vril had said to the guard, and he simply rolled his eyes. "Cat, if this is some sort of trick to hurt the Little One, I should remind you that I am under strict orders to kill you instantly if you so much as harm a single whisker on him."

"I understand, Lord N'dar," T'Vril replied meekly.

T'Vril knelt before Tinker, lowering her head to the ground, and rubbed her muzzle against his furry feet, purring loudly. Tinker stood there nervously for a moment, then relaxed, his tail flicking slowly back and forth. T'Vril slowly backed away, then sat up, her head bowed. "Please tell the Great Lord Tinker that I think he has a marvelously long and handsome tail, and I only wish I knew how to speak his language so I could tell him how much I adore looking at it," she purred in her own language.

"Oh, now I KNOW you're kidding me," Merle replied, rolling her eyes.

"What is it, Merle? What did she say?"

"Some incredible nonsense about your tail. She says she thinks it's marvelously long and handsome, and she only wishes she knew how to tell you in our language how much she likes looking at it," Merle replied, and rolled her eyes again.

Tinker's face took on a look of hurt and shock. "You mean... Don't you think that too, Merle?"

Merle realized her error, but too late. "Well, yes, Tinker, but I mean, she's a cat, how can she really appreciate your handsome tail? Her tail's all fuzzy and stuff," Merle said, smiling sweetly.

"So is yours, Merle," Tinker replied quietly.

"Well, yes, but I'm a mustie. We've lived with your people for ages and ages, and we love you. We think you have very attractive tails, really. I think yours is particularly handsome. Honestly. Remember the cave? You were so good then, it felt so wonderful, your tail wrapped around mine and squeezing while you... Oooo! I can hardly wait until I come into heat again," Merle lied sweetly.

Tinker grinned, and puffed his chest out. "You really think so? You liked that?"

"Oh, yes - it was ever so delicious," Merle lied, smiling.

"Thank you, Merle. Well, I think her request isn't asking too much. She can come by every day when I am grooming Brownie, and I will try to teach her our language. Tell the guard that's what I want," Tinker replied, grinning.

"Umm... Tinker, I don't know about that. I don't trust her," Merle said, frowning.

"Oh, don't worry, Merle! She'll be guarded all the time, it won't be a problem. Why, they can double the guards, if they want. She seems very nice. And don't worry, she won't steal my heart - my heart belongs to you, Merle."

Merle wanted to spit out something nasty to T'Vril, but she didn't want Tinker to see what she was really thinking. "Thank you, Tinker. You're my very best friend. We've known each other all our lives, and you're my only contact with home," Merle replied, and hugged Tinker tight. When she let go, she turned to the guard. "Tinker says he wants to teach T'Vril his language. He asks that you bring her by each afternoon when he grooms his bird and he will spend that time teaching her."

"Would you please tell the Little One so sorry, but I think that is extremely unwise? She cannot be truly trusted. She's a cat," Lord N'dar replied.

"I already told him I think the same thing, and he says just double the guard."

"I say the cat should die. She's up to something," Lord N'dar growled.

"What is he saying, Merle?" Tinker asked.

Before Merle could reply, T'Vril tipped her head back, baring her throat. "If I offend you, my lord, please slit my throat. My lady, please tell the Great Lord Tinker I said goodbye, and thanked him for the honor of touching him."

"Now what is she saying, Merle? I recognized my name! What is she saying?!" Tinker asked excitedly.

Lord N'dar placed his paw on his sword-hilt. "I should, at that, cat. You are up to something, and I do not trust you. I can explain your death to Lord W'mefa easily," he growled.

"Merle!?!" Tinker squeaked.

"Wait, Tinker!" Merle yelped. "Wait, Lord N'dar!" Merle growled. Merle then turned back to Tinker. "I'm sorry, Tinker, it was all going too fast for me to translate. Lord N'dar thinks T'Vril is up to something. I agree, by the way - I don't trust her anymore than he does. T'Vril said that if Lord N'dar doesn't like her, he can go ahead and kill her. Lord N'dar said that he just might do that, because he thinks she is up to something."

"H-he might kill her?! Right here?! Right in front of me?!" Tinker squeaked.

"Yes, Tinker, that's what he said. They don't want her to hurt you, Tinker, and they don't trust her. Her people used to keep your people as slaves and as food, remember?"

"No! He will not kill her! Okay, maybe her people did bad things, but that was a long, long time ago! She is very nice, and-and-and I just think that you're jealous because she likes my tail better than you do!" Tinker squeaked, his tail thrashing angrily.

"No, no, Tinker, I do, it's just that she-" Merle began, but Tinker interrupted.

"I don't care! If they hurt her, I'm never working on another single thing for them!"

Merle thought furiously. 'Ack! This is terrible! What would Byarl do?' she wondered. "Tinker, if they don't hurt her, will you keep on working on your projects? I mean, after all, it would be such a shame to never see you finish the airship. Why, imagine! You could fly that airship right over Mousie-Village, and everyone would be amazed and astounded! You would be the talk of the village, and everyone would be jealous and all the mousie-girls would just beg to be your mate! Wouldn't that be marvelous?"

Tinker grumbled. "Yeah, I guess so."

"You guess so?! Why, Tinker! That would be the most thrilling moment of your life! To have the respect of all the mice! And I would be so proud of you!" Merle gushed.

"You would?" Tinker asked, smiling.

"Of course!" Merle replied, because it was true. If he could build an airship, she would be proud of him. He was still her best friend, even though she found him despicable. She would be proud of him.

Tinker grinned. "Well, okay, then. But I still want her to come by once a day. I want to see if I can teach her our language like you taught Xaa."

"Alright, Tinker, I'll tell everyone that's what you want. They need you to build these inventions for them, Tinker, they really do, and they like you very much. They don't want you to get hurt, you see? And she is one of their enemies. What her people did a long time ago to your people and what her people are doing to them right now makes them very suspicious, you see? They don't want you to get hurt - they want you and need you and like you, Tinker. So, as long as you don't take any risks with her so that she doesn't turn out to be tricking us and try to hurt you, then they'll be more than happy to do that. How does that sound?" Merle asked.

"That will be fine, Merle," Tinker replied, smiling.

Merle turned back to Lord N'dar. "Alright, I think I have it explained to him. He's not going to change his mind, though - he wants to meet her once a day when he is grooming his bird to try to teach her his language. I guess you'll just have to double the guard and keep a close eye on her, that's all I can suggest."

Lord N'dar snorted. "That's all that can be suggested, my lady. Come on, cat. I think you've made enough trouble for one day."

T'Vril bowed her head again. "Yes, Lord N'dar. Please forgive me for causing you any inconvenience," she said meekly. Lord N'dar dragged her to her feet, then led her off the balcony.

"Is it going to be okay, Merle?" Tinker asked, his whiskers twitching nervously.

Merle smiled. "Why of course, Tinker. Don't worry, everything will be just fine. Here - why don't you have a seat with me right here," Merle replied sweetly, gesturing to the table and pillows that were nearby. Tinker grinned and plopped himself down, then noticed the number of pillows.

"Four pillows?" he asked.

"Yes, Tinker. Xaa said it would take him six weeks to dig up a wagonload of dirt and bring it back here - most of the time taken up in the travel to and from that cave. Six weeks is up today - this is the first day I was expecting him back. His daughter is supposed to meet me here for lunch, and I was hoping that he would be back here to greet her and share lunch with us."

"He has a daughter? Where's his wife?" Tinker asked.

"She's dead, Tinker. The cats poisoned the water of his castle, and the poison killed her."

"Oh. That's too bad," Tinker replied.

"Here comes his daughter, now," Merle said, pointing.

From the open doorway, Tlahn was leading Johm'rouh. Tinker stared wide-eyed. "She's beautiful!" he gaped.

"Yes, I think so, too. Everyone does."

Tlahn guided Johm'rouh to her seat, then bowed. "I shall return in a moment, my lady," she said, smiling, then turned back to the doorway.

While Tlahn was gone, Tinker tried talking to Johm'rouh. "Umm... Hello! My name is Tinker. What's yours? Oh, wait - she can't possibly understand me. Merle, how do you say that in their language?"

Merle giggled, and repeated the growling, rumbling phrase which meant what Tinker had said.

"Eww. I don't think I can even say that at all. Can you say that for me?"

"Well, I can, but there's not much point," Merle replied, then turned to Johm'rouh. "Lady Johm'rouh, the Little One known as Tinker introduces himself and politely asks your name," Merle said in the language of the mus.

Johm'rouh simply sat and stared, her gaze seemingly lost in the mountain's distant embrace.

Merle turned back to Tinker. "Johm'rouh says 'Hello, my name is Johm'rouh.' Well, she would, if she could talk," Merle replied, and smiled.

"Huh? She can't talk? What's the matter with her?"

Johm'rouh blinked slowly as Merle replied. "Well, remember the poison I told you about that killed Xaa's wife? Well, it drove her crazy - she was frothing at the mouth and biting and... Well, it was very terrible, and she died of it. Johm'rouh got the same poison, but she didn't die. Instead, she got left like this. She can't talk or really understand anything - she just sits there, like a plant. She can be fed and led around, but that's about all."

Tinker blinked. "Was it little black mushrooms?"

Merle shook her head. "No, it was something the cats put in the water."

"Yes, yes, I heard you say that before - but did they put a whole lot of little black mushrooms in it?"

"I don't know," Merle shrugged.

Tinker hopped up, and waved his paw before Johm'rouh's eyes. He then tapped her right between the eyes with his finger, and she blinked. "Tinker! What are you doing?" Merle yelped.

"Oh, Merle! This looks just like Widow-Wart poisoning. It really, really does!" Tinker squeaked.

"What's that?" Merle asked.

"It's a type of little black mushroom. Sometimes toddlers whose mothers aren't watching them well or little mice who are silly and weren't listening to their lessons will eat it. When they do, the same thing happens - they go into a fit, and usually die. If they live, they end up just like this. We call this condition encephalitis lethargica - the person's brain got hurt by the poison in the mushroom, and afterwards, it's like they are sleeping all the time," Tinker explained.

"Oh. Well, she's been like that for three - I guess four years, now. Xaa said awhile ago he thought she was just asleep, and hoped she might someday wake up."

"Three or four years?!" Tinker squeaked.

"Yes. It's very sad," Merle replied, sighing.

"What, and they never gave her the anti-toxin?!" Tinker squeaked again.

"Tinker, there isn't an anti-toxin to this."

"Sure there is! I told you these people were lummoxes! Look - you stay right here - I'll see if I can't go find some blackroot," Tinker said, and dashed back inside.

Tlahn came out then, carrying a tray, and chuckled. "Oh, my lady! I was nearly knocked down by the Little One. He certainly was in a great hurry."

"Yes! He says he thinks he may know what is wrong with Johm'rouh!" Merle replied.

Tlahn cackled. "We already know what's wrong with her - the cat's poisoned her, the poor dear," she said, setting the tray on the table and sitting down next to Johm'rouh.

"No, no! I mean he thinks he may know how to cure her!" Merle yelped.

"Really? How wonderful! So he went to get the cure?"

Merle nodded. "He said it was called 'blackroot'."

"Sounds dreadfully vile, dear. Well, while it's nice to have a hope, we can't forget the important things. The little dear is probably hungry by now - it's her lunchtime," Tlahn said, and se the tray down.

"Aren't you excited?" Merle asked, incredulous as Tlahn calmly fed Johm'rouh her meat-gruel.

"Of course I am, my lady. Even so, that doesn't change the fact that this child needs to be fed. Also, there's no guarantee his cure may work. The way Fate has toyed with Lord Xaa, it seems more likely the Little One's cure will make her deathly ill, or even kill her. She's not a Little One - she's a Mus, and mus do not eat roots and grubs and things that grow in the dirt, we eat proper food like meat and organs and bones and cartilage. This...'black-root' thing sounds suspiciously like something vile that grows in the dirt. Before it comes within one pace of this little dear, old Tlahn will have eaten her fill of it to see if it kills her. This may be something that helps Little Ones, and yet makes us sick, you see - just like the poison that left Johm'rouh like this had no effect on the cats. Also, I think the Master Healer should be told of this, as well."

"Oh! I hadn't thought of any of that!" Merle said sheepishly.

"Of course not, my lady. It isn't your duty to think of these things when it comes to Johm'rouh - it is my duty. I am the one charged with caring for her. I think that perhaps the first thing we should do is call Ead'xas, the Master Healer, and have him come here to offer his advice and assistance. I'm afraid that I am rather busy with feeding this child, my lady, and I must humbly ask you to do this in my stead, so sorry," Tlahn said, then fed Johm'rouh another spoonful of gruel.

"Yes, Tlahn - I'd be happy to," Merle replied, standing, and then bowed. Tlahn bowed from where she sat, smiling, then returned her attention to Johm'rouh. Merle heard the sound of birds squawking behind her, and looked. "Oh! Tinker is leaving the castle with two warriors, all mounted."

"Then it appears we have plenty of time, my lady," Tlahn replied, smiling. Merle nodded and giggled, then walked inside from the balcony, heading for the infirmary.

Four hours later, Tinker was arguing with the Master Healer through Merle. It had only taken him an hour to find and dig up some blackroot, then return. Since then, things hadn't gone quite as smoothly as he expected. "Merle, tell him that everything will be fine, all he has to do is feed this to her and she'll be okay."

"Tinker, Ead'xas understands that, he just needs to know the effect on a mus. His people and your people may not have the same reaction to eating it, Tinker - it may make them deathly ill."

"It will not! It's very tasty, and it's good for tummy-aches, too. It also can keep you awake for a long time when you need to stay awake - though after a day or so, you get dizzy from lack of sleep."

Merle translated what Tinker had said, then turned back to him after Ead'xas nodded. "Well, Tlahn is trying it - let's see what she has to say, okay? Maybe if it doesn't hurt her, then it will be okay."

"Waste of time," grumbled Tinker, then crossed his arms and sulked.

Ead'xas was sitting there calmly, feeling the pulse in Tlahn's wrist, checking her eyes, and feeling her throat. Tlahn was gumming one end of the blackroot, which, true to it's name, was a long, black root. Tlahn had refused to even put it in her mouth until it had the dirt washed off of it. Tinker had shrugged, and after washing the roots in a bowl of water, he simply took a piece as long as his paw, popped one end of it into his mouth, and started chewing. "How to you feel, Tlahn?" Ead'xas asked.

"Nauseated. I have a dirty, nasty root in my mouth, what do you expect? If you're asking if it is making me ill by itself, however, the answer is no. I only regret I have no teeth to chew it with, as the Little One does," Tlahn replied.

'You're doing fine, Tlahn. Whatever is in that root is definitely in your system. Your pupils have contracted slightly, and your pulse rate is elevated somewhat. Of course, all of this may only be that you are growing irritated at trying to chew a root without any teeth," Ead'xas said, and chuckled.

"How it taste?" Merle asked curiously.

"Positively vile, my lady."

"Tinker, what does the Lore of the Mice say about musties eating blackroot?" Merle asked.

"Nothing - so far as we know, you don't eat it at all. Of course, since you don't eat mushrooms, we've never needed to try it on you, either. It shouldn't hurt you, though," Tinker replied sullenly.

Merle started to reach for a piece, but Ead'xas snatched it out of her paw. "Forgive me, my lady, but I know little about your physiology, and I'm not willing to experiment on you at the moment. If Tlahn grows ill, I know what to do. If you grow ill, I can only guess, based on what I know works for us."

"Oh, you're no fun," Merle replied, sticking her tongue out, then giggled. Ead'xas grinned back.

After another hour, Ead'xas called a halt to the experiment. "Well, Tlahn, As you are the oldest mus within ten leagues of here and thus your health should be rather frail compared to a young mus, I can only guess that if there was anything poisonous in this 'blackroot', you would already be ill by now. You can stop chewing on it."

"Good," Tlahn replied, pulling the mashed-up, sucked-on end of the root out of her mouth. Ead'xas took it from her, sliced off the chewed end with his knife, then slipped the unchewed end into his own mouth and began chomping on it. "You're right, Tlahn. It does taste rather vile. I suppose the little ones are predisposed to like it, as it is a root, while we are not. I would guess, however, that aside from our basic diets, we are very similar physiologically. Lady Merle, please ask the Little One how much blackroot would normally be given as a curative to Widow-Wart for a Little One who had ingested the poison accidentally, and how it would normally be given?"

Merle translated the question, and Tinker thought about it. "Well, normally it's a baby or small child that's eaten it - adults know better. After the fits pass, if they are alive, we just slip a root into their muzzle along the outside of the teeth, and wait. Sometimes they chew it, sometimes they don't. Either way, it takes a few hours to a day or so, but eventually they wake up."

Merle translated, and Ead'xas asked another question. "Tinker, he wants to know if the ones that chew it wake up faster."

Tinker thought about it, then nodded. "Yes, now that you mention it, they do. We don't make them chew it, though - we just leave it there and wait. The only thing we watch for is to make sure it's on the outside of their teeth, so they don't breathe it in and choke."

"Ah, I see," Ead'xas said when Merle had translated Tinker's reply. "So the key is getting a large enough dose of whatever curative the blackroot has into the patient's system - once the dosage is high enough, the poison's effects are broken. I'd guess that much of the absorption when used as a curative agent takes place in the membranes of the mouth. How fascinating. Well, since Tlahn is perfectly healthy, and the Little One seems fine, I see no reason to delay any longer," he said, and picked up the last piece of blackroot Tinker had brought in, then slipped it into Johm-rouh's mouth.

Nothing happened immediately, of course. She simply sat there, staring blankly, a black root hanging from her muzzle about the length of Merle's paw. Merle sighed. "Hours to a day or so, you said?" she asked, looking at Tinker. Tinker simply nodded, chewing his own blackroot sullenly. "Well, maybe you should get another one - the whole plant, this time? That way, they can find it themselves if they ever need to again."

Tinker snorted. "I already thought of that. I dug up a whole plant and gave it to one of those lummoxes. They should be able to identify it from that," Tinker replied.

"Well, that's good, since it'll be getting dark in a bit. You did very well, Tinker, and I am very proud of you. Even if this doesn't work, you tried your best," Merle said, smiling. She then leaned over and gave Tinker a hug.

"You really think so?" he asked, grinning and hugging back.

"Of course. Now, you should probably run along - I'll bet your servants are probably starting dinner, and you'll probably want to take a nice bath after grubbing around in the dirt with your paws and such."

"Pfft! They make the bath water way too hot here. I'll just wash my paws and be done with it. I'll see you later, Merle," Tinker said, standing and walking away. Merle sighed - Tinker didn't even try to bow to the others. He still hadn't learned how to be polite to these people. Of course, he probably didn't want to, either.

"And he's fourteen, you say, my lady?" Tlahn asked, looking after Tinker's retreating form.

"Fifteen, soon. Come the full of spring, he'll be fifteen," Merle replied.

"If my boy had acted like that at fifteen, I'd have paddled his bottom so hard he probably wouldn't have survived to make it to sixteen," Tlahn grumbled.

Merle giggled, and Ead'xas chuckled. Ead'xas then spoke up. "Well, Tlahn, just keep an eye on Johm'rouh tonight. Pull the root from her mouth when you put her to bed, but put it back when she wakes up and any time she isn't eating or drinking. We don't know how long this will take. She's considerably larger than one of the Little One's children, so it may take days. I'll take a look at the plant the Little One gathered, and we'll see if we can't have a few of my assistants gather some of it."

"How will you know you have the right plant? They all look alike," Tlahn asked with a snort.

"No, not quite. We have a full sample of one - roots, leaves and all. It's a simple matter for us to plant it, water it and let it grow after we have examined it closely. With luck, it will survive. Even if it doesn't, snippets of the leaves and other parts can be used to identify plants that are brought in as being the same plant or not, and the Little One can still tell us if we aren't sure. Don't worry, Tlahn. We will be able to find more of this."

Tlahn bowed. "Forgive me, Master Healer, but I am still upset at all this. To think that the solution may have lain just outside our castle, beneath our feet, all these years, and we trampled upon it in ignorance. How many other cures does the Little One know of that we do not? How many other treasures do we have in the plants around us that we blindly trample over?"

Ead'xas nodded. "I do not know, Tlahn. But I will find out. With Lady Merle's help, I will try to find out as much of their healing lore as I can. Especially since it seems to be the only information he does not give grudgingly, or hide from us tauntingly. I go now to inform Lord W'mefa of what has transpired here so far, and what we hope will transpire in the future. Good evening, Lady Merle, Tlahn," Ead'xas said, bowing after he stood. Merle and Tlahn bowed back, and he walked back inside.

Merle and Tlahn watched Johm'rouh quietly, until Merle noticed a tear slip from Tlahn's eye. "What's the matter, Tlahn?" she asked.

"Right beneath our feet. A cure for her. Maybe it will work, maybe it won't. But it was there, right beneath our feet. And we never knew. Could there have been a cure for my son? Could he have walked again? Would he still be alive today? Would I have grandchildren to cuddle and worry over? Right beneath our feet. And we never knew, because we don't eat plants," Tlahn said quietly, then sobbed.

Merle scooted over next to Tlahn, then hugged her. "It's okay. You couldn't have known. Maybe there was a cure, maybe there wasn't. Either way, it doesn't matter. We musties have a saying; 'Never weep over rabbits you didn't catch, or fish that got away. Always look ahead to the future. But next time, carry an extra slingstone and an extra fishhook'," Merle said, and giggled.

Tlahn looked at Merle, surprised by her laughter. After a moment, she grinned a toothless grin, and laughed. "Yes, my lady," she replied, and they hugged awhile in silence, watching Johm'rouh hopefully.

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