(Book I of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 1999 BY
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Merle watched Xaa slowly dismount from his bird as the wagon passed through the gate behind him. He was covered head to toe in weeks of dried and caked mud, dirt, and grime, and he looked totally, utterly and completely exhausted. The servants took his bird's reins from his extended paw, and Xaa bowed to W'mefa and O'dmemet. "Sorry it took so long, old friend. There were a few cats scattered in the hills. They didn't have the food to make it home, and they were trying to hunt and gather - that brings me to two hundred fifteen, incidentally. Then, there were the mudslides in the mountains. I should have anticipated that, what with the coming of spring, but it didn't occur to me. We nearly lost a few of our party, and we did lose one wagon and two birds going up the mountain. Coming back down was nearly as hard, then crossing the Laughing River while swollen with spring runoff from the mountain... Gah. I should have planned better, but I wanted us to have as much of that dirt as we could get as fast as we could get it," Xaa said.
"It's alright, my friend. Come - we've prepared a nice, hot bath for you, and clean clothes," W'mefa said, smiling.
"Thank you, old friend. Merle, I'd hug you hello, I'm so glad to see you, but I don't want to get you dirty," Xaa said, and chuckled.
"That's alright, Xaa. I know you said it would be six weeks and it ended up being twelve, but it's alright. Come on - let's get you cleaned up," Mere replied, giggling.
An hour later, Xaa was laying on his stomach in the bathhouse, rumbling with pleasure beneath Lameh's magic fingers. Lameh kept smiling enigmatically, and when she was finally finished and Xaa sat up again, he caught her grin. "Ah - there it is again. That mysterious smile. What is it, Lameh?"
"I can't tell you, my lord. You'll have to wait and see," Lameh replied, giggling.
"Argh. A surprise, is it?" Xaa asked, and Lameh nodded. "Gah. I hate suprises. That which others think will please me and make me happy often I find merely irritating, and I have to smile and pretend I like it while I try to figure out what small part of my quarters I may hide it in where its presence doesn't constantly annoy me," Xaa growled, making a face.
Lameh burst out laughing. "Oh, Lord Xaa, I do think that this is something you will enjoy, and not be wanting to tuck away in some hidden part of your quarters. In fact, I know this is something you will like. Remember, these fingers know all," Lameh said, wriggling her fingers before her face and making Xaa chuckle.
Once Xaa was dressed again, his swords tucked neatly in his sash, Lameh accompanied him to his quarters. W'mefa, O'dmemet, Tlahn, Tinker and Merle were already there, waiting for him outside the door. "Wonderful. They are all gathered outside my quarters. That means whatever gift they plan to surprise me with is already inside, and they will be expecting to see it in the place they put it each time they visit me. Probably some horrid little carving that I will loathe," Xaa whispered to Lameh as they approached, and she giggled.
"Come on, Xaa, we have a surprise for you!" Merle giggled, running forward and taking his enormous, callused paw in her tiny one.
"Yes, and it's from me," Tinker said proudly, puffing his chest out.
Xaa smiled pleasantly as Merle dragged him along. Once inside the door, Xaa was surprised at the number of people there. His quarters were full of his close friends, and warriors who had fought beside him on many occasions. When he entered, they all bowed. Xaa bowed in return, as was only polite, and the crowd parted.
There, in the center of his quarters, was Johm'rouh. She was smiling. "Hello, daddy," she said, then laughed.
Xaa started to run forward, but was stopped by the firm paw of Ead'xas on his chest. "Gently, my lord! Her body is still very frail, as it was when you last saw her," he growled.
"Yes, Master Healer," Xaa rumbled, bowing, and then pushed past him to wrap his arms around his daughter and hug her softly. Then, Xaa did something Merle had never seen him do in all the time she'd known him.
"I've never seen him cry before," Merle whispered to Tlahn.
"No one has, dear. He hasn't wept in four years, since the day he stood above the body of his wife, raised his sword to the heavens and vowed that the cats would pay for what they had done, and pay in rivers of blood," Tlahn whispered back.
Johm'rouh gently lapped Xaa's tears away, then nuzzled him softly. "It's alright, daddy. I missed you, too," she said, smiling.
From Merle's perspective, the next few hours were very tedious. Everyone wanted to congratulate Xaa for his daughter's miraculous recovery, and thank Tinker for making it possible. Xaa bowed deeply to Tinker many times, rumbling a long speech about how he would be forever indebted to him for not only curing his daughter, but helping his people. Merle thought this was probably far more attention than Tinker deserved, as his ego was big enough already she wondered how he managed to fit his head through the doors of the castle sometimes. For his part, Tinker puffed out his chest and strutted around and chattered on about how simple it was, and how he'd be more than happy to share what he knew about healing with the mus (since it wasn't a part of his 'secret' lore). Merle was beginning to loathe translating for him by the time he finally yawned and said he needed to get some dinner and then go to bed.
Finally, all the guests had left, and only Xaa, Tlahn and Merle were sitting with Johm'rouh. Johm'rouh was explaining what the last three years had been like for her (something she'd explained to the Master Healer when she finally woke up a month ago).
"Well, daddy, at first, there was like wild sparks and fire and... It was like the world blew apart into a million different colors and sounds and I couldn't make sense of any of it. Then, slowly, it began to settle down. After awhile, I realized there was someone caring for me - someone old and soft and gentle, and I thought it was grandmother come back to life. I wanted to ask her about how she had come back - I remember her funeral from when I was very little, you see. But, I found I couldn't talk. In fact, I couldn't do anything. It was like a dream. I could hear and see, but it was all... Fogged, somehow. I couldn't really do anything back, either. I was just... There. Well, eventually I realized you were visiting me, and telling me how the cats who did this were paying for their deed, and in blood. That was like a dream, too. I wanted to ask you how they had turned the whole world into a dreamland, but I couldn't. Then, you disappeared for a long time, and there was only Tlahn. I came to realize that was her name, but I couldn't do or say anything back to her. I wanted to ask her where you went, and if you would be back, because I missed you. Well, gradually things got clearer and clearer, and I found I could understand most of what was being said around me, but I couldn't talk back. That was sometimes scary, and sometimes sad. Things were like that for a long time - it was still like a dream, but not. Oh, daddy! I could hear you, but I couldn't talk back! I'm so sorry, daddy! There were times I tried so, so hard."
"It's alright, Johm'rouh. Go on, finish your story," Xaa said, smiling.
"Yes, daddy. Well, one day, I noticed there was something in my mouth that tasted very bad. I wondered what it was, and wanted to reach up to take it out. Then, suddenly, I discovered I could. I blinked, and found I was awake, and Tlahn was hugging me and weeping. I couldn't talk, at first - only whisper. The Master Healer said that was because I hadn't spoken in four years, and my vocal chords were weak from disuse. Well, after a few weeks, my voice got stronger and stronger, and then one day Lord W'mefa came and told me that you had been sighted in the distance, daddy! I was so excited, but he said they wanted to surprise you, so I waited patiently and chatted with everyone and finally you came in and hugged me and that's my story!"
"Oh, my little darling," Xaa rumbled, hugging Johm'rouh again. "I am so glad you are alright now. I hoped and prayed every day that you would wake up, and now you have."
"Oh, yes, daddy. I am glad, too. I missed you very much," Johm'rouh replied, hugging back.
"Now, I can rest peacefully, for my task in life is complete," Tlahn said, smiling.
"Oh, no, Tlahn! I still need you, and my daddy still needs you, too. I am still very weak, and I will need help often. My daddy also needs a servant, and he's been with you so long, I think he'd be lost without you. Also, the Master Healer says he wants you to teach everything you did for me to one of his assistants, so it can be written down. Also, he says I'm not the only person to survive the cat's mushroom-poison. He says already the word of the cure is being spread by Lord W'mefa's riders, and there will be many who will need copies of the book that the Master Healer plans to write of your experience. No, Tlahn - you have much, much more ahead of you," Johm'rouh replied, smiling.
"Yes, my lady. You're right, the Master Healer has already told me that. It is just a feeling I have when I look at you - a feeling of completion," Tlahn said, smiling back.
"You sound just like your mother, now, Johm'rouh," Xaa said, chuckling.
"Thank you, daddy. But now I would like to ask you a favor," Johm'rouh replied.
"Oh?" Xaa asked, his eyebrow raised.
"Yes, daddy. We've already eaten, and I'm feeling a little restless. Can I go play with Merle? You and Tlahn probably would like to chat over tea, anyway, and I'm sure Merle will take very good care of me and make sure I am alright. She and I have been playing together almost every day since I woke up, but Tlahn was always there in case I had a relapse or something. I don't think that will happen, since it's been about a month, so can I go play, please?"
Xaa shrugged. "I don't see why not. Merle?"
"I'd love to!" Merle yelped, then stood. Johm'rouh slowly rose, then placed her paw on Merle's shoulder for balance. She was nearly as tall as her father, and that meant she easily towered above Merle - though she stood unsteadily, and still needed help getting around. "Would you like to see my room?" Merle asked Johm'rouh.
"Yes," Johm'rouh replied with a grin, and after they bowed to Tlahn and Xaa (and Tlahn and Xaa had bowed in return), Merle slowly walked before Johm'rouh, letting her balance with her paw against Merle's shoulder.
After they had walked out of the room, Xaa turned back to Tlahn. "I can't even begin to express how happy I am, Tlahn."
"And I, as well, my lord," Tlahn
replied, and refilled their teacups from the still-warm pot.
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