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

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"Alright, Merle, tell me the story," Byarl, the Chief of the Musties said.

Merle petted and stroked Xaa's callused paw, trying to calm him as she replied to the chief. "I've already told the story a dozen times, Chief. Can't you see that the others have him upset? Tell them to relax and put away their knives," Merle said, trying to force her voice to be calm. At the moment, twenty male musties had her and Xaa surrounded in the middle of the village, near the central cooking fire, their killing knives bared in their fists, their fur all fluffed out. Xaa, for his part, growled fiercely at them in return. The rest of the village, adults and children alike, were gathered in a ring around the group, watching and waiting. Byarl's loud shout had halted the proceedings for the moment, and all were waiting to see what the chief's decision would be.

"I know, but you haven't told me yet. So tell me, please," Byarl replied calmly. Byarl was a canny mustie who was over twice Merle's age, and he knew that whatever the truth was, it was unlikely this strange creature Merle had brought with her formed an immediate threat. He was battered, bloody, and apparently had a broken arm. If necessary, the males of the village could easily overpower him in a trice and slay him.

Merle sighed, and told the story again, from the beginning. When she was finished, she stood and waited, still stroking Xaa's enormous paw. His tail lashed in anger, and he growled something in his strange language that nobody understood, but Merle guessed probably wasn't very pleasant.

Byarl thought about it for a moment, then pointed. "Nito. You and your four brothers by your side, here. Grab some shovels and go to the spot Merle mentioned and see what is there. If there are bodies, and I wager there are, strip them and bury what remains of them, pile rocks upon them to keep off the scavengers, then bring their possessions here. What we can't use ourselves, we can give to the mice. As for the rest of you, put away your weapons. Calm yourselves. Whatever this being is, he's little threat to us. Yes, he's as big as a bear. Even so, he's got a broken arm, and he looks like he's already been well-thrashed today by his enemies. We could take him easily if we needed to. Also, if he meant us any harm, Merle wouldn't be able to control him so easily. Look at his eyes. They aren't the black or brown of normal eyes. No, this is a fierce predator, and from the look of him, a skilled warrior. If he meant to fight us, we'd already be fighting, I wager."

Nito nodded, and he and his four brothers trotted off to their house to get shovels. The other males slowly sheathed their knives, but still looked highly agitated. At length, one of them spoke. "But chief! How do we know that his enemies won't follow him here?! Merle may have brought our doom upon us! The monsters of the Unknown Lands!" There were murmurs of assent from the crowd, and the chief held up his paw for silence.

"No, I don't think so, Ayori. First, his enemies believe him dead, and they could care less about him. They left him there to rot with his companions. If they had any interest in him being alive, they'd have checked, seen he was merely unconscious, and dragged him off. Second, I am looking at this being we see before us, and thinking in my mind what he would have looked like to our ancestors many centuries ago, who hadn't even mastered fire, who had no sharp mouse-knives to slay the bears, and who shivered in the cold night in fear. Would they not look at him, see an enormous being, and be afraid? Would they not call him a monster?" Byarl asked in reply.

There were more murmurs of assent, and Ayori, the male mustie who had spoken, nodded. Byarl raised his paw for silence, then spoke again. "Now, look again. Look how agitated he is, yet how gently he holds Merle's paw. This is no monster, but a being, like us. Well, perhaps not exactly like us, but he's no slavering beast out to eat our children, at any rate. Look into his eyes, my people! I am willing to bet his people have legends of us, and they are only now coming to his mind. I think that perhaps he fears us as much as we fear him. I do not know what his legends may be, however. Perhaps if he learns our language, we may yet hear them from him."

Byarl spoke in a calm, clear voice, overriding the murmurs that followed his assessment of Xaa. "This is my ruling: This being shall remain with us until he is healed, and has learned our language. Once he has, we shall speak to him and learn from him that which we can, and decide what to do from there. We also shall ask the mice to speak with him, for he appears to be at least distantly related to them, at any rate. Perhaps they will know more of him, or his people. This means that one of us must stay with this being at all times, helping him while he recovers, and teaching him our language. This person will also have to take full responsibility for this being while he is among us. I have spoken."

"I'll do it," Merle said abruptly.

Byarl blinked. "Merle, I meant an adult, not a child."

"But you didn't say that, now did you? Besides, my Coming of Age ceremony is next week. I'm close enough to an adult, at any rate," Merle objected.

Byarl looked at Merle, then laughed. His laughter was infectious, and broke the tension of the moment for the rest of the musties. "Alright, Merle. So be it. The whole village is present, now is as good a time as next week." He drew himself to his full height (which was a bit taller than Merle, at any rate), and spoke gravely. "I find you fit, O Daughter of Molippa and Noril. I dub thee Merle Mousefinder - for certainly you have found the largest, ugliest mouse any of us have ever heard of." This sent another ripple of laughter through the village. "I charge you to never do anything that would bring shame to our village, and always follow our traditions to the best of your ability. You have accepted responsibility for this being as an adult. This is your first task as an adult, then: Teach him our language, and watch him carefully, for we know nothing about him other than that he has enemies stronger than himself." The rest of the village nodded and murmured amongst themselves at that. Byarl then bowed, and all the other adults in the village bowed to Merle. "We welcome you to the community of adults, Merle," Byarl said as he straightened up.

Merle was stunned. This was not what she had expected to happen, by any means. She was also thrilled, and happy. What happened next, however, surprised her the most.

Xaa, who had been silent throughout all the proceedings, gently released her paw from his, held his injured arm against his chest with his good arm so it wouldn't move, then also bowed to Merle. Merle had no idea why he should do so, but she returned the bow politely.

"Now, Merle, I suggest you take him to your home and try to see to his needs as best you can. I know you've been eating with the other single adults from the communal cookpot, but for now, just hunt for yourself and him. I believe someone his size is probably going to eat quite a bit - and we're not quite sure yet just exactly what it is he does eat, so you'll have to work with him to find out. Bring him to me once he's learned enough of our language to be able to tell me his story," Byarl said, then turned and walked back to his burrow. His wife and two sons followed, and the rest of the crowd slowly dispersed as Merle turned back to Xaa.

"Alright, Xaa, come with me," she said, taking his good paw again. He again said something in his own language, but Merle just tugged his paw and led him to her burrow, her head spinning from both the events of the last few hours and from exhaustion. Merle hoped that she could just tuck him into bed and then get some sleep herself, and see what developed in the morning. Unfortunately, it wasn't as simple as all that.

A mustie's burrow isn't a cold, dank hole in the ground, but instead is a comfortable, snug little place - warm in the winter, cool in the summer. In construction, they were half-dug, half-built. The musties, like the mice, dug a pit into the ground, choosing a location that wasn't prone to floods or other nastiness, then build their houses out of stout oak beams and planks inside the hole, then covered it in earth for insulation. Once the grasses grew over the top of it, they were secure from winter storms and summer's heat. Of course, it was natural for their houses to be like that of the mice, since the mice built the first of them. Such was the nature of the mustie's relationship with the mice.

Merle's burrow had a lovely little round door to it that her father had asked for when the burrow was made, and it was painted a pleasant shade of red. A small window let in light from outside, and the top of the stone chimney could be seen poking out from among the grasses. The floors were wood, covered in carpets made of rabbitfur cut into little squares and sewn together to make a quilt-like pattern that was very pleasing to the eye and comfortable to the feet. Merle's mother had made the carpets. Her father had stocked the house with all manner of comfortable furniture made by the mice, and it was quite a pleasant little place.

Unfortunately, that was the first of the problems. It was, in the end, a little place. Xaa was fully twice the height of a mustie, and he literally had to crawl to get in through the door. This would be a difficult enough task were he hale and hearty, but with a broken arm, battered, sore, tired and hungry, it was a bit much for him to manage. He simply sat outside the door and shook his head. Merle had to find a length of leather rope and gently tie his injured arm to his chest so that it wouldn't flop about and further aggravate his injuries, then help him crawl inside.

Once inside, Merle quickly realized that he couldn't possibly stand up. The ceiling was at a comfortable height for Merle, but Xaa could just barely sit up without bumping his head on the oak crossbeams. Merle moved the table in the middle of the living room with some effort, then helped Xaa shuffle over there. That was the highest point in the ceiling for the entire house, and he could sit up comfortably. Once she finally had him seated reasonably comfortably and had sparked a small fire in the fireplace, she looked him over.

Gone was the fierce appearance he had before - in this little room, sitting there with the tips of his mouse-ears nearly brushing the ceiling beams, he looked ridiculous. His face and head was an utter mess. The blow he'd taken that rendered him senseless had also bled quite a bit, and the blood was matted and dried into his headfur. He would still need a proper cast on that broken arm, and he was in desperate need of grooming. It was a far cry from the fierce-looking being she'd encountered a few hours ago. Now, she only saw a mouse - and a tired, hungry, hurt mouse, at that.

Using gestures and trying to explain carefully what she wanted, she eventually got Xaa to understand. He reached to his side to point at the tie for the lacings, and with a great deal of care and effort (so as not to hurt his arm any worse), Merle eventually had him out of his armor. Beneath it, he wore loose, patterned clothing of a soft fabric Merle had never seen before, tied neatly at the elbows and knees. Since he didn't sweat, but instead panted and relied on his pale, hairless ears and his tail to cool himself, his clothes weren't soiled - just rumpled. Merle piled all the armor in a corner, not knowing what it was (but thinking it was very strange for people to wear clothes out of metal, and she must have Xaa explain it to her one day when he'd learned her language).

Unlacing and pulling off his boots was easier by far, and they went into the pile with the armor. From there, however, Merle hesitated - she had no fresh clothes to give him, and wasn't quite ready to see what he looked like beneath his garments at the moment. Besides, she was afraid that he might take such an invitation the wrong way, given how limited their communication was right now. After spending a few moments wriggling his clawed toes and relaxing, Xaa laid his swords nearby him neatly, crossed his legs in his lap, then sat quietly, waiting to see what Merle would do next.

What Merle did next was warm some water in the kettle, and get two towels. Draping one carefully over his shoulders, she wet the other and used it as a washcloth on his bloodstained fur. It was quite a chore getting the matted and dried blood out without pulling open the small cut on his head that had produced it in the first place, though Merle was pleased to see that it had already scabbed well, and didn't look too deep. She wasn't looking forward to having to stitch his skin closed, and was glad that the wound wasn't one that would require stitches. When she was done, she stepped back for a moment, and looked at him in the firelight.

"Well, that's better, but you still look a mess," Merle said, looking at his damp, ruffled headfur. Xaa rumbled something in reply, but Merle just shook her head. Seated, his head was only a bit higher than the level of her head. Gesturing to him to lean down a bit, she leaned forward and began grooming his damp fur carefully, nibbling and lapping at his fur with her tongue.

Merle was surprised at Xaa's response - a low rumbling began deep in his chest, a vibration Merle could easily feel through the corded muscles of his shoulders and neck, where her paws lightly rested. She stopped for a moment to glance at his expression, and could see he was sitting with his eyes closed, smiling. 'Well, I guess I shouldn't have expected him to churr - he is a bit different from a normal mousie, after all,' Merle thought. Merle resumed grooming him gently, and when she was done, she drew a chair up next to him and sat.

Xaa opened his mouth to say something, then closed it. Merle desperately wished they had some common language, and she could tell by his expression he did, as well. "Oh, well. You'll pick up our language soon enough," she said aloud, and smiled. Xaa smiled back, and Merle went on with the last thing she had to do - make a cast for the broken arm.

Using words and gestures again, she eventually got him to lie down on the floor, where he'd be more comfortable. Very, very carefully, she removed his arm from the sling and laid it beside him. After removing the temporary brace she had made and untying the string that held his sleeve to his elbow, she rolled the sleeve up gently, and placed another towel between his chest and his arm, and another beneath his arm. After gently wrapping his arm in a long, soft cloth strip, she filled a bowl with some powdered mouse-plaster and water and dipped in several cloth strips. Once they had absorbed enough of the plaster, she carefully wrapped his arm from just below the shoulder to nearly the wrist in several layers. The mouse-plaster would take several hours to set, but it always worked. Merle had no idea what the mice used to make the plaster. It was just another one of their fascinating inventions. The powder was a grayish white, and the musties used it for everything from mortaring stones together to making casts for broken bones. It smelled a bit of dried bone. Merle supposed that the rabbit-bones they gave the mice were ground up and used to make the powder, but other than that, she had no idea what might be in it.

Finally, she was done, and she washed her paws to clean off the plaster before it dried. "Well, that should do it - it will take several hours for that to dry, though. Afterwards, we put you to bed - though I haven't the foggiest notion where you'll sleep. You're far too large for even my parent's bed," she said.

Xaa made no reply.

Startled, Merle looked at him closely. He was already fast asleep, breathing deeply. 'Why, he must have been totally exhausted,' Merle thought to herself, and stifled a giggle. Merle gently covered him in two blankets (one for his legs, and another for the rest of him, being careful to leave his arm uncovered), then crept off quietly to her own little room to sleep.




When Merle awoke in the morning, a strange scent hit her nose, and she could hear someone moving about outside the door to her bedroom. It was several moments before she remembered there was a mouse out there, and a very large mouse, at that. Her tummy growled loudly, and she clutched at it in pain. It had been almost a full day and night since she'd eaten last, and she was starving. Merle hopped out of bed and dressed quickly, slipping one of her green-dyed leather dresses on, and spent a few moments before the little mirror in her room smoothing her fur with her paws. After making a few other preparations, such as slipping her sling into her pocket and tying her ammo pouch to the belt at her waist, she stepped out into the living room. What she saw there made her burst out into giggles.

Xaa had apparently already found the little water-closet her father built in the hall, and had apparently already figure out what it was for. Now, having gotten himself into the little room and availed himself of its services, he was apparently having trouble figuring out how to get back out of it. He had slipped, and was stuck lying on the floor halfway through the small door that led into it, his head and left shoulder crammed against the wall uncomfortably. Aside from simply being twice the size of the beings this house was originally built to shelter, having one arm in a cast and a sling wasn't helping, either. He looked up at the sound of Merle's giggles, his yellow-gold eyes flashing, and growled something in his own language. Merle giggled more as she saw his pale ears turn bright pink.

"And good morning to you, too," Merle replied with a grin. "Now, let's see if we can't get you out of there." His legs were stuck, so Merle helped him turn on his back so he could draw his knees out through the door, then helped him shuffle up into a sitting position in the hall. Finally, he was out - and none to happy about it, either. With a smile, Merle hopped into the little room. "Now that you're out, it's finally my turn," she said, and closed the door on Xaa's renewed blush with a giggle.

When she came back out, Xaa was back in the living room, sitting again with his legs crossed. He had neatly folded one of the blankets and all of the towels, and tucked his swords back into his sash, which he'd tied over his clothes as a belt. Where his knife was, Merle couldn't tell - perhaps hidden in his clothes. He had taken the other blanket and tied it into a more proper sling for his arm, and apparently had taken the sash he'd used last night as a sling to secure his arm to his chest so it wouldn't flop around. How he managed it with only one paw, Merle had no idea. Looking him over in the morning light, Merle realized that he was a very regal-looking mouse, even with his clothes all rumpled and his arm in a cast. After quickly tossing the towels in the hamper to be washed and tucking the blankets back into the closet, Merle turned back to Xaa. "Time to go get some breakfast. You can come along, if you want," she said.

Xaa replied in the same growl Merle had come to realize means 'I don't understand' in his language, and Merle giggled again. "Breakfast! Food! Yummy!" Merle said, and rubbed her tummy.

Xaa's eyes widened, and he grinned. He growled out a short reply, and chuckled. Merle smiled broadly at the sound of his chuckle - it was deep, and pleasant to the ear.

"Come on!" Merle said with a grin, and opened the door leading outside. Xaa nodded, and crawled through carefully. Merle went out with him, then closed the door behind her and looked around.

Xaa was standing outside, looking around at the other musties in the village going about their morning routines. They, in turn, looked back at him in amazement. He looked much less terrifying than he had last night, all covered in blood, and it was several moments before they responded to his bow of greeting and bowed back. Musties and mice normally only bowed as a manner of showing respect - Xaa's culture apparently bowed as a routine manner of greeting, as well. As Merle watched, Xaa closed his eyes, wriggled his clawed toes in the grass, slapped his massive chest with his good paw, then laughed a deep, booming laugh. He looked down to Merle and grinned broadly, then said a short phrase she didn't understand.

"Well, if that means 'What a nice morning', I agree with you. Come on - let's go hunting," Merle replied with a grin, taking his paw and tugging him along behind her.

At first, Xaa didn't understand where Merle was taking him. He could smell the cooking in the other burrows, and had no idea what his little benefactrix was up to leading him so far from the village. Once he saw her take out the sling, however, he nodded in understanding, and followed along behind her silently. Merle was impressed - for someone so big, he was capable of moving very quietly indeed. 'As quiet as a mouse,' Merle thought to herself, and stifled a giggle as she slowly cast about the fields for game.

After half an hour or so, Merle spotted a young buck rabbit out for breakfast. She already had Seeker held in the pouch of the sling, and with a flick of her wrist, sent the sling whirling above her head. The rabbit heard the quiet sound of the thongs cutting the air, but just as he began to sprint away, Merle snapped her wrist down. With a sharp crack, the stone caught the rabbit just behind the ear, and he went down. Merle sprinted over, her knife already in her paw to deliver the killing stroke, but it wasn't necessary. The rabbit was already trembling and flopping the spasmodic dance of a broken-necked animal. She quickly severed the head with a stroke of her blade, then went searching about in the grass for her stone while she let the carcass cease flopping and begin to drain of blood. At first, she was worried she had lost the stone after only its first cast, but eventually she found it about five paces away from the kill. Turning back to Xaa, she saw he had simply stood there and watched the whole proceedings silently. When she came back, he picked up the head by the ears, and rumbled something at her that sounded a lot like a question.

"I'm sorry, I don't understand," she said, and with a mental sigh realized she was probably going to be saying that a lot over the next few months.

He knelt by the carcass, setting the head gently on the ground, then pointed at his mouth, patted his tummy, and asked his question again.

"Oh!" Merle replied. "Well, that's a rabbit. Rab-bit. Can you say that?" Merle asked in reply.

"Hrab-ut" Xaa replied, carefully imitating her.

"Yes, and it's going to be our breakfast," Merle said, grinning.

Xaa spoke slowly, enunciating his guttural language carefully, gesturing to the little head on the ground, then his mouth. "<Rrrrumble-growl> Hrab-ut <rumble>?"

"Yes. We're going to eat that. I hope that's okay with you," Merle replied, nodding.

Xaa grinned and rumbled the short word Merle had come to realize meant 'Thank you' in his language, then did something that totally surprised her.

He picked up the little rabbit-head, popped it into his enormous maw, and crunched down on it with his molars. He then closed his eyes, an expression of pure bliss on his face as he crunched and chewed up the head.

'Well, I guess we've learned two things today,' Merle thought to herself, watching him. 'First, that huge jawbone and jaw muscles of his isn't there just for show. Second, '<Rrrrumble-growl> Hrab-ut <rumble>?' apparently means 'Excuse me, Merle, but do you mind if I eat the head? I'm rather hungry and can't wait for you to cook.' Merle giggled, and Xaa grinned back at her, his lips closed, and swallowed after a bit. "And here I was worried that you might not like rabbit!" Merle said aloud, and laughed. Mustie's jaws weren't quite that strong, nor were their back teeth designed for crushing bones, so she had never eaten a rabbit's head - she normally just buried it with the guts (except the liver, which she often snacked on when she was hungry). Xaa laughed in reply to her, licking his lips and wriggling his whiskers with a big grin on his face.

Merle guessed that Xaa would probably eat four rabbits all by himself, and so hunted four more over the next hour or so. Xaa happily crunched up the heads of each, and Merle gobbled their tiny livers with relish. 'Wouldn't Tinker be shocked,' she thought to herself. The ways of a carnivore were definitely not those of the gentle, peaceful little mice. 'Well, at least not all mice,' she thought, looking at Xaa and giggling. Merle tied the hind legs of the carcasses together with a small leather thong she carried, and Xaa obligingly grabbed the thong and carried the day's take home, following along behind Merle quietly.

By noon, they were finishing the last few nibbles of cooked rabbit in Merle's little burrow, Merle sitting at the table beside Xaa, and him just sitting on the floor in his usual cross-legged manner, his elbow resting on the table. Xaa was rumbling in satisfaction while Merle patted her full tummy. He looked up to her over the large mug of river-water Merle had served for him, and rumbled something in his own language.

"I'm sorry, I don't understand," Merle said with a sigh.

Xaa rumbled a single word, setting the mug down and waving his paw over his head, his fingers pinched together, then snapping it down. Merle realized he meant her sling.

"Yes?" she asked.

Xaa rumbled what he'd said before, and held up the five fingers of his left paw, one by one. He rumbled another short phrase, then gently patted her on the shoulder with his good paw. Merle realized he was trying to compliment her on her hunting skills. Xaa bowed from where he sat, more of a nod, really, and Merle realized she was right.

"Thank you," she said, smiling broadly, very pleased with herself.

Xaa grinned, picking up one of the bones form the plate beside him. He tapped the strange wooden case he'd brought into the house, then waggled the bone at Merle, rumbling something in his language with a grin. Afterwards, he simply gnawed on the end of the bone with his incisors, chuckling deeply.

"You know, we really have to teach you our language. And I think now is as good a time to start as any," Merle replied with a grin.

"Mmm?" Xaa replied, raising an eyebrow as he continued gnawing the bone.

"Plate," Merle replied, tapping the plate the bones sat on. "Bone," she continued, picking one up and holding it before her.

"Ah!" Xaa replied, his face showing he understood. He then set the bone aside and began listening and repeating Merle's words.

Merle found that Xaa was a fast study, and after two hours, he could repeat the name of virtually any object in the living room. Merle chittered in delight. "This is great! Let's go outside and I can tell you the names of the other things in the village!"

At first, the other musties were a bit startled to see Merle darting about, pointing at this thing or that, and Xaa's huge, lumbering form following behind, rumbling and growling his repetition of the words Merle spoke. After awhile, though, they began to see it as a fun sort of game, and they all joined in. Soon, a dozen musties were gathered around, pointing, jabbering, bringing things up to show, and all trying to help.

Suddenly, Xaa snarled and spun about, growling loudly at one of the children. The other musties all jumped back at this sudden shift in his mood, and the child cowered. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it!" he yelped. Xaa simply growled at him, his fangs bared and his fur fluffed out.

"STOP!" yelled a voice. The musties all turned their heads to see Byarl approaching. Merle realized he'd been watching from the doorway of his burrow since the beginning.

"I don't know what happened, Chief," Merle began, but Byarl cut her off with a wave of his paw.

"I do, I was watching a little more closely than you were. Tottie here tugged his tail. Tottie, you and everyone else knows that the mice of the Wild Wood hate to have their tails even touched by a stranger. Why did you think it would be alright to do this to him?"

Tottie, a nine-year-old mustie, cringed before Byarl's glare and tried to hide behind his mother. "Umm... Well... I was wondering if it was even real. I mean, Merle said he eats meat, I saw them bring in five rabbits from the hunt, but mice don't eat meat or hunt or anything, and they are our size, not humongous like him."

Byarl continued to glare at Tottie. "Well, it is real, and you have just made him very angry. Look at his face! I think the only reason he doesn't try to bite your head off is because he knows you're just a child and you haven't learned manners yet. This may not be a mouse of the Wild Wood, but he apparently is a mouse, and ALL of you will treat him with respect, like we treat all mice." Byarl then looked to Tottie's mother. "Nona, you will spank this boy right here and now before him. He can't understand our words yet, so we'll have to show him with our actions."

Nona nodded, embarrassed and flustered. Tottie's not having learned proper manners yet wasn't just a shame to him, it was a shame to her, as it was Tottie's parent's responsibility to teach him. She flopped herself down on the ground, yanked Tottie across her lap, and swatted his little bottom through his pants four times. Tottie yelped and began to bawl, and Nona pushed him to his feet. "Now you go straight home and into your room and don't come out until supper!" she shouted. Tottie ran off crying, darting into the family's burrow. Nona let out a shuddering sigh, then covered her face with her paws and began to weep.

Byarl stepped over to her, and hugged her gently. "It's alright, Nona. He may not have understood out words, but he understood our actions. Look at him," Byarl said. Nona looked, as did Merle and every other mustie present. Sure enough, Xaa was standing there, relaxed, no longer growling or snarling, but calm. When he saw Nona was looking at him, he bowed to her, and rumbled a word him his language.

"That means 'thank you', I think - he says it when I do something nice for him, so I think it means that," Merle commented.

Nona stood and bowed in return. "How do I say 'You're welcome'?" she asked.

"I don't know yet," Merle replied, frowning unhappily.

Nona nodded, then sniffled again.

"What's the matter, Nona?" Byarl asked.

"Oh, Chief, it's just that I was thinking how terrible it would be if that had happened to one of the mice instead of to him! What if they had gotten angry and never traded with us again? Then we wouldn't have the nice dyes and cloths and plasters and tools and knives and all the other things they trade to us!" Nona said between sniffles.

Byarl nodded. "Perhaps, but think of this: If we musties can become friends with his people, think of all the wonderful things they could trade to us, as well. They may be carnivorous mice, but apparently they are mice, too, and they may need something that only we can provide. By this sad thing happening today, Tottie may have allowed a happy thing to happen in the future. We have shown him we respect him, and Merle is teaching him our language. It's like the old mustie saying goes: 'Sad things follow happy things, and happy things follow sad. Life is a circle.'"

Nona nodded, then smiled and hugged Byarl. After a moment, she burst out giggling. "Well, I understand that, and you understand that, and I think everyone else here understands that, but I don't think Tottie is going to understand how a public spanking could ever lead to a good thing."

This caused all the musties gathered around to burst out laughing. Xaa, who didn't understand a word, just scratched his head for a moment in confusion, then smiled.

Two hours later, Merle and Xaa were sitting beneath the shade of Old Gnarly. Merle had just finished packing away Stonecatcher, which, when Xaa saw how it worked and saw Merle's accuracy in firing sling stones into it, he rumbled a word of apparent approval at her with a huge grin on his face. Merle gave Xaa the waterskin from her pack, and he sipped quietly at it while Merle leaned back into the hollow of the tree, relaxing. Merle had tried to point out everything she could think of around her, and give it a name. How much Xaa would remember remained to be seen, but she was sure this was the best way to teach him - just start, and keep on trying until he figured it out. She also realized that she had to try to learn as much about his language as she could, as well. The better they were able to talk to each other, the sooner he would be able to communicate by himself. Xaa passed the flask back and rumbled his thanks to her.

"Ah, that means 'Thank you', I believe. How do you say 'you're welcome'?" she asked.

"Hrm?" Xaa replied, raising an eyebrow as he settled down next to her, shifting his swords in his sash.

Merle pantomimed taking the flask from him again, pointing at him, then herself, then tried to imitate his deep rumble, putting a long pause at the end.

"Ah!" Xaa said, realizing what she was asking. He rumbled a single word, then smiled.

"Okay," Merle said, then tried out the harsh-sounding word which apparently meant 'you're welcome', then grinned.

Xaa shook his head, and rumbled briefly to her, stressing the last word again.

"Umm... <growl>?" she tried, realizing he was attempting to correct her pronunciation.

Xaa shook his head and repeated the word.

Merle suddenly heard the difference between what he was saying and what she was saying. The 'Grmmmm' at the beginning began as a with a soft click, and the 'h' and the end was almost a 'k'. She tried again. "Grmmmblhk."

Xaa grinned, then chuckled, shaking his head. He spoke to her for several seconds, then sat there quietly, smiling.

"Well, if you're trying to say you think it will be easier for you to learn my language than for me to learn yours, I think I agree with you," Merle said, and giggled.

Xaa suddenly stood, and rumbled something at her, gesturing to the side with a smile.

"I don't understand, Xaa," Merle said, a little frown on her face.

Xaa paused for a moment, thinking, then grinned. "<Rumble> hwatur-clusurht <growl>," he replied, then chuckled.

"Oh! Well, just go behind the tree, that will be alright. I won't peek," Merle said, giggling and pointing.

Xaa nodded, still smiling, and stepped around the back of the tree.

A few moments later, Merle caught a scent in the breeze, looked back in front of her and spotted Tinker. "Hoyo, Tinker!" she called, waving.

"Hoyo, Merle! What's up today?" he asked, waving back and smiling as he trotted up.

"Oh!" Merle replied, making a face of mock-exhaustion and rolling her eyes. "You would not believe what I found when I went to check out that sound we heard yesterday."

"Oh, really? What was it?" Tinker asked, standing before her, his little whiskers quivering in excitement.

"I'll show you," Merle replied, as her sharp ears could tell by the sounds behind her that Xaa was finished relieving himself. "Xaa, could you come here, please?" she called.

"Hrm?" Xaa called, stepping back around the enormous bole of Old Gnarly.

What happened next startled and surprised Merle very much.

Xaa took one look at Tinker, strode up, fell to his knees, and put his head on the ground meekly, rumbling something in his strange language that went on and on.

Tinker, for his part, shrieked, then fainted dead away.


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