(Book I of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 1999 BY
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Merle sat on the balcony to her quarters, watching the moon rise in the east over the quiet evening. The stars winked down at her like a million diamonds strewn across the ebon bowl of the heavens. Far in the distance, she could almost imagine she could see the campfires of the workmen who mined the saltpeter from the quiet little cave where she and Tinker had shared their first coupling.
The cats had come back, Xaa had said. They had come back, and in great numbers. From the lands the T'Mrr had stolen, they had launched a massive attack. And it had been driven back by the new guns of the mus, wielded by the combined forces of nine clans. The mus were more rigidly trained, more disciplined. Mounted archers supporting the gunners had meant the cats couldn't close while the guns were being reloaded. Even so, they had tried - and died. Those few that did manage to get close were cut down easily when the archers drew their swords and charged. Xaa had been among the archers, and his kill total had soared to an astounding two hundred and fifty that day. Even W'mefa's warriors, who had fought alongside Xaa for years, were amazed - the warriors of the eight other clans were in awe of him.
As the battle turned against them, the cats had tried poisons. A strange gas had wafted across the battlefield like white smoke, belched out by boiling, bubbling pots. It was then that the Master Healer's wisdom shone through. He had guessed that the poisons the cats used, which could slay an entire village while they slept and annihilate rank after rank of valiant warriors, were simply variations on the poisons they were already using. All the warriors had the vile-tasting blackroot in their mouths, which they chewed on. None of them fell to the gas - though some grew dizzy, and retired to the rear. In the end, the cats had routed and fled before the hail of bullets and arrows, and the flashing steel of the victorious mus.
Xaa told Merle that Lord W'mefa was being looked to for answers by the other clan leaders - and he was providing them. Some were already calling him a word which meant "Emperor" in the language of the mus. The mus had not had a single emperor in over two hundred years - when the last emperor died without heir, the mus fell to squabbling amongst themselves for decades, and finally an uneasy truce was formed between the hundred-odd smaller kingdoms of the land. Aside from the occasional struggle between rival clans, the mus had been at peace for almost a hundred years before the cats came. Now, it seemed that W'mefa would be declared by general consensus to be the new emperor, simply because he provided the surviving clans the means to unite and crush the cats. Tinker's contribution to this was being kept quiet - and for that, Merle was glad. The thought that future generations of mus might fondly remember Tinker in word and song made her positively ill.
Merle heard the quiet footsteps behind her, and knew who it had to be just by the sound. She didn't turn around.
"What is it, Tinker?" Merle asked quietly, her gaze on the mountains in the distance.
"Well... I just wanted to say I was sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you, I was just upset. We mice have guarded our secrets for ages and ages. We always hoped that someday, we would be able to build a new life, a new society. Our traditions say that our secrets, our wisdom, is all we have, and they must be guarded like the most precious treasures."
"I understand," Merle replied quietly.
"Merle? Please say you forgive me. Please? Nobody will talk to me now. Only the cat knows how to speak my language anyway, and... Well, there's Xaa, but he hates me. Please, Merle. Please say you forgive me, and will talk to me again. It's been a week, Merle. I'm lonely."
"Then go home, Tinker. Finish your airship, fly over the mountains and go home. Then you can be adored by your people for building one of their great inventions, and afterwards you can smile and nod to your little mustie slaves, and keep us in ignorance and bondage forever," Merle replied coldly.
Tinker was silent for a long time before he spoke again. "Then you know," he said quietly.
"Yes, Tinker. I know. My people are your slaves. Your secrets are protected so that we will always be dependent on you, and never even know. Even if we did know, we couldn't do anything about it. Byarl thinks that soon your people will begin building irrigated agriculture, and teaching us how to raise rabbits instead of hunt them. That means in a few more generations, we won't even know how to feed ourselves without your help. I can't live like that, Tinker. I can't go back there and live as your slave, and I can't go back there and keep quiet just so my people won't be miserable, knowing they are helpless. That means I can't come back with you. So, I am going to stay here. Maybe Xaa will take me as his mate. Maybe he'll get killed in this stupid war instead, and I'll just grow old and die alone. Maybe I'll throw myself off this balcony and be dashed to pieces on the flagstones below. I don't know. But I do know that I can't come with you. Go home, Tinker. Build your airship, and go home."
"Tinker, we were friends, once. We've even been lovers. Spirits, that seems like a lifetime ago, now. Just go, Tinker. Finish your airship and go. Leave me here. Tell them I died, or something. You wouldn't be far off. When you smashed my little friend I built, my little friend who could make me laugh when I was wanting to cry, I saw the true heart of your people, Tinker. A part of me did die, that day," Merle said quietly.
There was silence for a long while afterwards, then finally Tinker snarled. "It's all their fault! We would have been mated, would have been happy! Now everything is ruined, and it's all their fault! It's these damned lummoxes - Xaa in particular! Where did they come from? Giant mice that eat meat?! It's insane! Like some kind of demon-people that crawled out of the pit of hell!"
Merle snorted. "What, you don't know? Something you don't know? I'm shocked, Tinker. Truly," she replied, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "Your own legends tell where they came from. Cooper told Byarl and me that day Xaa first came to your village. He said that when the cats first came and conquered your people, enslaving most of them and scattering the rest, one of your scattered tribes fled across something you called the Great Eastern Sea, and was never heard from again. Many generations later, the people you called Defenders appeared on the shores of that same sea in strange ships. They drove off the cats, scattering them to the four winds as your people had once been, and freed your people from bondage. Of course, you rewarded then by enslaving them, the same way you enslaved my people."
"But-" Tinker began, and Merle leapt to her feet, spinning around to face him.
"Don't you get it?! Don't you understand?! These people are your "Lost Tribe"! Their own legends say that they lived on an island as small mice just like you for many, many years, then one day one of them went up into a place they called the Forbidden Cave. When he returned, he was enormous, a giant. From him and all his descendants, their race sprang! They are YOU, just GROWN UP! They aren't selfish and petty and small of spirit like you, they're GROWN UP! Why do you think one of their most common expressions when they talk about being humble is "I am merely a mouse" or "We are all, in the end, merely mice"?! Why do you think their word for your people means "Little Ones" in our language?! Why do you think everything about them, from the way they blush even to their tails, is almost exactly like YOU?! Don't you get it?! You ancestors enslaved their own people! You call them names like lummox and think they're so stupid, but they are YOU!"
"NO!" Tinker squeaked.
"YES! So you go finish your airship and go home and you try to live with that! Try to live with the knowledge that these people are you - they just aren't small, timid herbivores who rule others by being sneaky and conniving and underpawed, they're strong, they're bold, and they're carnivores, like ME!" Merle snarled, baring her fangs.
Tinker's face showed shock, fear, anger, and deep hurt before he turned and ran off the balcony back inside the castle. Merle turned her back on him, looking back at the mountain's jagged edge stabbing upwards to the dark, velvet sky, but could take no comfort in knowing that she had hurt Tinker back. The truth had hurt Tinker as much as he had hurt her, as much as the knowledge of her people's slavery had hurt her, but she still could take no comfort in it.
Deep inside, she wanted things to be back the way they were. Deep down inside, she wanted to simply sit beneath the shade of Old Gnarly again, her tummy full of nice rabbit meat, relaxing in the summer breeze, waiting for her little friend Tinker come over to ask her to help gather gooseberries. She ached to be able to go home to her quiet little burrow, open the door, and see her mother and father there, dinner waiting on the table, and hug them tight.
Merle sat on her pillow, lowered her face to her paws, and wept.
Merle didn't know how long she sat there, sobbing, but it felt like an eternity. Suddenly, from behind her, she heard the soft sounds of a mus-lute being played. Merle turned to look, surprised, and saw Lady Vhross sitting behind her, quietly strumming her instrument. "Do you remember this melody, Lady Merle?" Lady Vhross asked, and began to quietly play.
"Yes," Merle replied, sniffling.
"Sing it with me."
"I can't. All my songs are dead. My people are slaves, my best friend is a selfish bastard, the one I love thinks I'm a little child, and my Time-eater, the only thing I had that I could give your people to help them, lies in a million pieces on a garbage heap," Merle sobbed.
"Indeed. And my father is dead, my brothers are dead, husband is dead, my sons are dead, my bloodline is utterly extinguished, and I am all alone in the world. Even so, I find voice to sing. Sing, Lady Merle. Sing the song with me," Lady Vhross said, smiling.
"Wh-what happened to them?" Merle asked.
"The war," Lady Vhross answered, still strumming her mus-lute.
"Oh," Merle replied, dropping her gaze.
"Sing, Merle. Let the rest go. Sing," Lady Vhross said, then began.
She played quietly at first, just the music. Then, she began to quietly sing the verses. She played it slowly, gently, with a note of sadness and longing in her voice and her fingers. Merle wiped her eyes with her kerchief, and just listened at first. When the chorus came around, she tried. A small, small whisper, not really singing, but it was something more than a mutter. "Don't give up. Don't give up. Where there's life, there's hope, and where there's hope, there's a song."
Lady Vhross smiled, and played faster. She sang the lyrics in her own language, of course, and after a moment, Merle smiled. It really was funny how the growling and rumbling of their words turned into something soft and sweet when sung. Merle had repeated the lines of the song to Johm'rouh one day, just speaking them, and the growling, rumbling words had sounded hilarious, even to her own ears. When sung, however, they took on a life of their own. Lady Vhross smiled, lifting her face to the night sky above, and played faster, and faster, singing to the stars.
Merle couldn't help it. The memories of being with the other musties in the village, gathered around the communal cookpot, singing this very song were too strong. She closed her eyes, opened her heart, and sang.
"Don't give up! Don't give up! Where there's life, there's hope, and where there's hope, there's a song!" Merle sang to the sky above.
"Never surrender! Never give in! Where there is life, there is hope, and where there is hope, there is a song," Lady Vhross echoed in her own language.
Suddenly, Merle heard it. Their words, their languages, they fit somehow. She sang the song from the depths of her little soul, listening not to the words, but the sounds. They blended. In their two people was a shared misery, and a shared hope. In their two people were shared pain, and shared love. The mus often talked of Fate, and of Destiny - how each person had a reason for being in the world. For Tlahn's son, it had been so that Tlahn could learn the skills needed to keep Johm'rouh alive long enough to receive the cure. For Xaa, it had been to fight hard and long and viciously enough to keep the lands of Lord W'mefa free so that the inventions Tinker would bring could save their people. For Xaa's wife, T'lixca, it had been to die so as to provide Xaa with the burning hatred he needed to hurt the cats, and drive them back. The Destiny of one person was usually interwoven with the destinies of many, many others. And Merle suddenly saw her own Destiny, and the destiny of her people. Like the sun dawning in the east, she understood.
Lady Vhross finished on a bright chord, then looked to Merle. Tears were streaming down Merle's face, but she was smiling broadly. Merle reached across to Lady Vhross, and they hugged tightly. "Thank you, Lady Vhross. You have given me a wonderful gift," Merle said, sniffling.
"No, Lady Merle. I only gave back what you had given me - the gift of your song. A song of joy, and life, and hope."
Suddenly, wafted to her ears by the night breeze, Merle heard a very faint ringing sound. "What is that sound?" Merle wondered aloud.
"I do believe we should go find out," Lady Vhross said with a smile, and stood. She held out her paw to Merle, and they walked back in from the balcony, and through Merle's quarters. The sound grew fainter - it had come from outside, not inside the castle.
"Where are we going?" Merle asked.
"You'll find out, Merle,"
Lady Vhross replied with a smile, walking faster through the
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