The Last God
(Book I of the Oerth Cycle)

(C) 1999 BY

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Cooper, the Mayor of Mouse Village, gave Merle a look of irritation, his tail lashing. "I don't care that you've told the story a hundred times, girl. You haven't told me, yet, now have you?"

Byarl, Chief of the Musties, raised an eyebrow at Cooper, but said nothing. Merle, Byarl and Xaa were gathered in the middle of the mouse village, seated on small stools to either side of Xaa, with Cooper standing before them. They were alone otherwise, as all of the other mice had locked themselves inside their burrows and were peeking out the windows. For his part, Xaa had long since given up his bowing and rumbling to the mice. It was obvious they didn't understand him, and even his rumbling speech seemed to frighten them, so he simply knelt quietly, his one good paw in his lap.

Merle sighed, and told the story for the umpteenth time. When she was finished, Byarl spoke. "And after she left, I sent what we couldn't use to you, as per our ancient agreement. That's where the metal plates you called "armor" and the strange sticks you called "arrows" came from. I'd intended on meeting with you today to discuss the situation quietly, but..." Byarl said, letting his words trail off, and Cooper nodded. After Merle had revived Tinker, he'd sprang to his feet and run screaming back to the mouse village. Merle and Xaa had followed him, and the resulting bedlam took an hour to settle down.

Cooper looked to the enormous mouse that knelt before him, and shook his head. "Well, he's one of the Defenders, alright, but why he's here I've no idea."

"Defenders?" Merle and Byarl chorused, and Byarl smiled (his mouth politely covered with a paw for Mayor Cooper's sake) as Merle tried to stifle a giggle.

"Well, it all goes back to our ancient legends of where we came from. You see, our legends tell us that long, long ago we lived in a faraway land that was magical and peaceful. One day, from out of the west, these enormous cat-beings came, as large as he is. They scattered our people and crushed our civilization - to them, we were useful only as slaves or as food. One of our scattered tribes fled across the Great Eastern Sea, and was never heard from again. One day, many generations later, the Defenders appeared in strange ships upon the shores of the Great Eastern Sea. They drove back the Cat-People, scattering them to the four winds, and freed our people from bondage. We became their friends, and eventually became the builders and thinkers for a combined society," Cooper said, and stroked his chin, looking off to the distance.

"It was a Golden Age, or so the legends say. We made the weapons, the Defenders used them. We made the armor, they wore it. We wrote the laws, they enforced them. We mastered the skies and the seas, and they harvested the lumber and worked the mines for the raw materials we used to make ornithopters and great sailing ships," Cooper said wistfully.

"In other words, you were the brains and they were the brawn," Byarl said pointedly.

Cooper sighed. "Indeed. That was exactly the situation. And eventually, it all fell apart because of that."

"What happened?" Merle asked, fascinated by the story.

"Well, according to the legends, a leader arose among the Defenders. He showed his people how they were little more than slaves, just as we had been to the Cat-People before. While we lived lives of pampered luxury, they did all the work, suffered all the dangers, and received little in the way of reward. There was a great revolt, and rivers of blood were spilled. Most of our people died in a night of fire and blood we now call the 'Night of the Long Knives.'" Cooper explained, and Merle shuddered as he continued.

"Our people, the mice of the Wild Wood, were a small band of survivors that had fled to the southwest. After many moons of travel, we used up all our supplies of food just as we arrived here. We could go no further. We were helpless, starving, and close to death. Then, we ran across your people. We vowed that if you would protect us and help us survive, we would see that you never lacked for anything ever again. We would not make the same mistake with you as we did with the Defenders, but we were ill-equipped both physically and mentally to survive without someone defending us." Cooper gestured expansively. "The rest of our story, you know yourselves, as you were a part of it."

Byarl nodded. "For our part, our stories say our people are a band of Mustelids that came from the jungles of the far south. They migrated north back at the dawn of time, when magic was in the breath of every being and gods walked Oerth. They did so because one of their chiefs saw a bright star flare in the sky, and said it was an omen to go north. The other chiefs disagreed, and stayed in the south. Our people found that moving north was a good decision, because the food was plentiful. Unfortunately, there were many bears and other wild things, and it was many generations before our people could truly be called the Masters of the Wild Woods. When your people first came, the legends say we saw them first as possible prey. Then, just as we were gathering to begin the hunt, a raven cawed. The Great Chief Lonarr looked, and the trees nearby were full of ravens. This would be expected at an enormous hunt - the feasting for the scavengers would be very great - but the ravens weren't watching the mice. They were watching the musties, and sitting there silently. Lonarr ruled this was a Sign, and an Omen. He ordered all the musties to put away their killing-clubs, slings and other hunting tools, and instead approach the mice with the open paws of friendship. We have not regretted a moment of time since that day. We love you, revere you and respect you as our friends and bosom allies."

Cooper bowed, and Byarl bowed in return. "Thank you, my friend," Cooper said. "Now, as my friend, and as my ally, would you do myself and all the mice of the Wild Wood a favor?"

"What is it?" Byarl asked.

"Would you take him off somewhere and kill him quietly? If his people find out where we are, they may want to finish the job they started eight centuries ago," Cooper said, making a face.

"NO!" Merle shouted, startling Cooper. She wrapped her arms protectively around Xaa's enormous bulk - as far as she could reach, anyway. "Absolutely not! He's not a bad person, he's a good person!"

Xaa, for his part, didn't move. He simply remained sitting quietly, blinking his yellow-gold predator's eyes.

"I agree with Merle. If he intended you harm, he wouldn't have been bowing his head to the ground when he first met Tinker, he'd have killed him. If he meant any of you harm, he wouldn't have repeated it here in your village. Think, Cooper! This being has been trying to communicate with you in a very humble manner for over an hour. If he meant to kill you, or lead others here to kill you, he wouldn't have bothered - he'd have simply acted. If his mission was to kill you, he'd already be doing it. Merle and I couldn't stop him by ourselves. If his mission was to lead others here to kill you, he'd already have left to do it - he wouldn't have spent all that time bowing and trying to talk to you. No, he's here for some reason, and it involves your people, but it isn't to kill you, that's for certain," Byarl said.

Cooper thought about it for a moment, and finally nodded. "Alright. I acknowledge that what you say makes sense, and that you, as a mustie and Chief of the Musties, are our protectors and know more about these things than we will. So what do we do with him?"

"Can you understand anything he says to you at all?" Byarl asked.

"No, I'm afraid not. Perhaps eight centuries ago one of us might have understood him, but now our people speak your language mixed with our own, as your people speak our language mixed with yours. The words of the Little People of the Wild Woods have nothing in common with his words anymore, I'm afraid. In addition, the legends say that the Defenders came from the Great Eastern Sea speaking their own language already, and only learned the language of the Mice as a second tongue. I imagine he speaks a language derived from that, distilled by eight centuries of history we know nothing about," Cooper replied.

"What about writing? Certainly the Words-That-Stay might not have changed much, even in eight centuries," Byarl suggested.

"Ooo! What a great idea!" Merle chittered, and quickly scratched the words 'Hello, Xaa!' in the ground before Xaa with her finger.

Xaa glanced down at what she was doing, but didn't seem to understand it.

Cooper hung his head. "I am ashamed to admit that our ancestors did not teach the knowledge of the Words-That-Stay to the Defenders. They were thought to be..."

"Too stupid to learn?" Byarl suggested pointedly.

Cooper's eartips blushed bright pink. "Yes. As I said, we vowed we would not make the same mistakes with your people as we had made with his."

"And you haven't, Cooper. All of our people, starting at the age of six, learn to read the Words-That-Stay, and to understand the basics of what you call Mathematics, thanks to the tutoring of your people. And for this, we are extremely grateful - it has allowed us to record our histories instead of passing them on by word of mouth. As I said before, we love you, revere you and respect you as our friends and bosom allies," Byarl replied quietly.

Merle, however, wasn't about to give up that easily. Snatching up a small stick, she erased what she'd written with a paw, then began again, scratching 'Merle', then 'Xaa' into the dirt. Xaa watched silently as she worked. Merle then pointed to her name, then herself. "Merle." She then pointed to Xaa's name, then to him. "Xaa."

"Ah," Xaa said, realizing what she was getting at. He then looked at the words again for a moment, and shook his head. Reaching out gently to take the stick from Merle, he scratched a complicated rune by his own name in seven strokes. "Xaa," he said, hitching his thumb at his chest.

Cooper sighed and his eartips went bright crimson as his tail drooped between his legs. "The shame on my ancestors is very great. His people have their own Words-That-Stay, and I know nothing of them at all. I can only tell you they are hieroglyphic, not phonetic."

"What do you mean?" Byarl asked.

"Well, we use symbols that stand for the sounds we speak with each word. They use symbols that stand for the words they speak - the sounds, the way the words are pronounced, are not indicated. It's a symbol. Like drawing a picture of a sparrow to mean the word 'sparrow', and a picture of a bucket to mean 'bucket'. The lore of the mice tells that all simple, primitive peoples who discover writing, the 'Words-That-Stay', develop this first," Cooper replied.

"I see," Byarl said, nodding as he looked at the character Xaa had drawn in the dirt.

Merle still wasn't ready to quit. "Xaa, how would you write my name?" she asked, pointing at the bare spot in the dirt next to her name.

"Hrm?" Xaa replied.

Merle pointed to the names she'd written as she spoke, then to herself and Xaa. "Xaa... Xaa. Merle...?" she said, leaving the rest hang with a questioning look on her face.

"Ah," Xaa said, then thought a moment. He then began speaking, his deep voice rumbling on for several moments as he gestured with the stick held in his good paw.

"I think he's trying to tell Merle what I already said," Cooper commented dryly.

"Perhaps," Byarl said, watching, his face a mask.

Xaa finished his explanation (which no one understood, unfortunately), and then began carefully scribing four symbols in the dirt. "Hmmmm-urhl," he said, waving the point of the stick slowly over the symbols from right to left, the opposite of how Merle's words went.

"Then again, perhaps not," Byarl commented, causing Cooper to blush even more. "I would guess that your ancestors drastically underestimated the brains of these beings you called 'Defenders'. It appears they have both what you called 'hieroglyphic' and a 'phonetic' way of making the Words-That-Stay."

Merle held her paw out to Xaa, pointing at the stick, and he gave it back to her. She then wrote 'Mustie' and 'Mousie' in the dirt, and pointed at Herself and Byarl. "Mustie. Mustie," she said, pointing at the word on the ground. She then pointed to Cooper. "Mousie," she said. She then pointed at Xaa, and gave him a questioning look.

Xaa understood immediately, and hitched his thumb at his chest again. "Mus," he said, pronouncing it with a short, rumbling "oo" and a long hiss at the end. "Nrummm," he said, pointing at Merle and Byarl. "Rmhl," he rumbled, pointing at Cooper, then bowed deeply to him again.

Merle watched in amazement as Cooper began trembling, his little whiskers drooping. His tail was resting completely on the ground, and his eyes began to tear up. He blinked, and a big mousie-tear welled out of one eye, rolling down his cheek. Merle started to ask him what was the matter, but Byarl raised his paw and gave her the hunting-sign that musties use which meant 'hush and hold still'. Merle closed her mouth, and waited. Finally, Cooper did something that Merle didn't expect at all.

Cooper fell to his knees before Xaa, placed his face in the dirt, and wept. "I am so, so sorry! By all the gods and spirits which watch over my people, I am so, so terribly sorry and ashamed. I asked Byarl to kill you, I was just as bad as my ancestors which used your people as slaves. We rewarded your people for freeing us from slavery by turning them into our slaves and servants. I am so, so sorry."

Xaa looked startled for a moment, watching Cooper sob into the dirt. His face took on an expression which to Merle looked like he was thinking carefully. Then, slowly, gently, he reached out a paw and patted Cooper's back, rumbling softly at him. His words went on and on, and Merle desperately wished she could understand what he was saying. His voice was soft and gentle, though, a quiet rumbling from deep within his chest as he stroked Cooper's back and neck. Finally, he gently lifted Cooper's chin from the ground with a finger, and looked him in the eyes. He rumbled again, his words rolling out over the quiet of the village, and Merle's sharp ears could hear other mice inside their burrows sniffling.

"I'm sorry, I don't understand," Cooper said, still weeping.

"Mus <rumble> Rmhl. Mus <grumble> Rmhl," Xaa replied, speaking slowly and carefully as he drew his paw away. Then, he bowed deeply. When he straightened up, he sat back quietly.

"I think he's trying to say he forgives you and your people, Cooper," Byarl commented quietly.

"And more," Merle added, and Byarl nodded.

"Yes. But learning what else he meant will have to wait until he can speak our language a bit better," Byarl concluded.

"We'll teach him, then! We'll work night and day and..." Cooper began, but Byarl cut him off.

"No, Cooper. Look at your people peeking out their windows. Look," Byarl said, gesturing, and Cooper looked around at the burrows surrounding the center of the village. "They've heard every word. They're frightened, embarrassed, and humiliated. A simple smile from him would make us smile back. Your people would be afraid, because he is huge, because he is a carnivore, and because he is your darkest legends brought to life. Worse, the more he learns of your language, the more humiliated your people will be by his presence. Look at him, Cooper. He's a soft, gentle giant, not the horror of your legend that murdered your ancestors an age ago. The pain of knowing that will burn in your people's hearts, and end up hurting them," Byarl said, and Cooper nodded, wiping his eyes with the back of a paw. "Leave him with us. Let your people heal this hurt over time. Let them visit him as their hearts bid, and get to know him each in their own way. Leave us to teach him our language. When he has learned enough, he will be able to speak for himself, and tell all of us why he is here," Byarl finished, his voice gentle, but firm.

"Truly, you are the wisest of all the musties, Byarl. It shall be as you say. It shall all be as you say," Cooper replied, pulling a kerchief out of one of the many pockets in his mousie-vest and blowing his nose in it as he sat there in the dirt.

"Perhaps," Byarl said, his whiskers twitching in a mustie expression of irritation that Merle didn't understand. Byarl stood, then reached over to take Xaa's paw in one paw and Merle's in another. After they also had stood, he led them out of the mouse village without a further word.

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