(Book I of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 1999 BY
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"Well, after the airship picked us up, O'dmemet explained that it had taken the mus months to make more airships and experiment with them and figure out how to make one big enough to rescue us. They knew from the stories sent back by riders from the other mus rulers that we had sailed out over the sea, directly from their Great Spire. They also knew from the banded birds that were returned and the body of the fisherman that Tinker and T'Vril had stolen a boat. Where everyone was going wasn't that hard to figure out - the mus have always wondered what was on the island, but had never gone back there. They didn't know if they'd find us alive, but as Lord W'Mefa put it, 'He's survived where all of us thought he would die before, and I say he's probably still alive, sitting on Forbidden Island, waiting for us to come and rescue him.' So, they built a larger airship with a big boiler, and went out after us," Merle explained, and Byarl nodded as she continued, quietly putting another small log on the fire. Byarl's wife and sons were outside, chatting with Xaa along with all the other musties, and they were alone in Byarl's quiet little burrow by the fire.
"Well, when we got back, we stayed for a few weeks, figuring out what we would do. We decided that we would come here, tell you the whole story and what my plan was for saving the musties from being the slaves of the mice, and then let you decide what to do. Right now, there's fifty mus and their birds camped outside the woods on the edge of the plains, waiting for us to return. They're waiting by the cairns we erected over the graves - one of their priests is performing the proper ceremonies for them, and they are going to erect stone markers for each of them. Each one of those mus gave his life to save their race from the cats, and their sacrifice wasn't in vain - the mus are winning, and driving the cats back to their original borders. Well, that's my story, chief."
Byarl nodded again, and stroked his whiskers for several minutes before he spoke. "I see. I believe you and Xaa were right. No one must ever know what is really on that island - only that the Last God was there, he had an enormous and glorious temple, he was aloof and uncaring, and he does not want people to return to that land. In time, people's memories will fade, and their belief in gods and spirits may fade, as well. By then, the cave will be sealed over with an eon of dirt and plants, and the secret will still be protected," Byarl said, and poked at the fire with a stick for a moment before he spoke again.
"I am glad to see that my plan worked, though I am sorry to hear it cost Tinker his life," Byarl said quietly.
"Your plan?" Merle asked.
"Yes, Merle. I will tell you, but only you. You will be my successor someday. You must know the truth about what it is to be Chief, so that you will be able to make the hard decisions that being Chief requires," Byarl said, then sat back for a moment and looked Merle in the eyes. "Merle, the bear that attacked the mouse-village that day so long ago was no accident, no whim of the Spirits of the Forest. I spent weeks searching for that bear before I found his den. He was the last of them in this part of the Wild Woods. I had to find him before the first snow, and I knew that wouldn't be far off. When I found him, I could tell by the clouds that it would snow the following night. I took dried meat, and buried a piece near his den. Then, I walked a few paces, and buried another. Then, a few more paces, and buried another. And so on, leaving a trail. By the time I was done, it was well after dark, and the snow was just starting. I tossed a last piece right against my goal - the burrow he was attempting to dig into that morning. It was a great risk, as those mice might have been hurt or killed, but I was hoping that Xaa would be able to stop the bear, and thereby frighten the mice so badly they would refuse to help him. And he did, and they did. They might have refused without this demonstration of violence and blood and gore, but with it, I was certain that they would refuse, out of fear of him. And it worked."
Merle was stunned. "But-but why?!"
"For the same reason I kept him with us so you could teach him our language instead of the mice, and as such they never had a chance to see what a peaceful, gentle creature he really was. Merle, they had to turn him down. If they had accepted, they might have had the opportunity to enslave them again, as they already had enslaved us. Meanwhile, we might have simply been abandoned, doomed to die when the last of our knives broke, because we didn't know how to make our own weapons and tools anymore. I wanted them to refuse him, so he would leave. I knew that when he did, you would want to follow," Byarl said, and Merle nodded as he continued.
"Much of what I had said to you after he killed the bear when you came to meet with me was intended to get you to realize that he would leave. I knew you would follow, because I could see you loved him. I knew also that Tinker would follow you, because I could see he loved you, as well. I hoped that Tinker would be willing to help them, and that his help would allow them to win their war. From there, we would have an option we didn't have before - we could leave here, and join the mus in their lands. Not as their slaves, but as their allies and friends. It was the hardest decision I had ever made. I knew that you and Tinker might leave, and never return. I knew that there was a good chance our people would remain slaves - and I could never tell them, for even knowing the truth, we had nowhere to go, nothing we could do about it. We would just be miserable," Byarl said, and sighed as he continued.
"So, I kept the secret to myself, hoping and praying to the Spirits of the Forest to guide you, guard you and protect you, and bring you home safely to us. I felt that even if they lost their war, perhaps the mus could come here to live with us, and share what they knew with us. Perhaps that might have freed us, as well. I tried to cover every possibility with my plan, and I praise the Spirits that it worked. You came back to us, safe and sound, and our people now have a way to escape their slavery. Even so, Tinker is dead. His blood is on my paws, and I shall have to live with that until the end of my days. This is what it means to be Chief, Merle," Byarl explained, his voice quiet and sad.
Merle reached over and hugged Byarl tight. "It's alright. You did what you had to do. I learned in my travels with Xaa that many times we have to do things that we don't necessarily want to do, but must do anyway. There are always things that we simply have to do, if our dreams are ever going to come true. Besides - your plan allowed me to meet the person who fills the hole in my heart, and who has agreed to be my mate. Don't be sad, for I am happy. Yes, Tinker died, and that was very sad. But if he hadn't been there, none of the happy things would ever have happened, either," Merle said.
Byarl hugged back for a moment, then smiled as he let Merle go. "I also have listened carefully to your plan, the one you said you came up with that night when you sang on the balcony with Lady Vhross. I believe that your plan is a good one. Xaa's lands are vast and broad, and with the cats having killed off the bears for us and the mus providing new and better weapons until we learn to make our own, our people can easily survive there. Xaa has no servants or vassals, but with the victory in the war, it seems likely that many will wish to serve him. Those mus can teach us the secrets that the mice refuse to, and we will be on an equal footing with them. You say the gun Tinker designed can kill at up to two hundred paces?" Byarl asked, and Merle nodded. "Well, then smaller versions made for us would be deadly against bears. Not one, mind you, but many - like we hunt them now. A volley from eight or nine of us, all firing at the heart, would bring any bear down instantly," Byarl said, then looked Merle in the eye.
"I am glad you now know what I know, Merle. Our people are the slaves of the mice. They treat us well, yes - but we are still slaves. We cannot survive without their knives, their iron and steel tools, and the other things they give us. That ancient leader you spoke of - the mus named Dash'Du'ragh. He was right. The mice need to learn to fight their own battles, or they will forever be children," Byarl said, and stood.
"Merle, here is my ruling: You will go outside, join Xaa by the campfire, and say only that which you already agreed with him could be said. I will go and inform Tinker's parents of his death, and comfort them in their hour of tragedy. At noon tomorrow, I will have the mice meet us here in our village. I will then sever the ties that have bound our people for eight centuries, and we will follow Xaa and the mus to a life of freedom beyond the Unknown Lands. I have spoken," Byarl said, solemnly.
Merle stood and hugged Byarl. "Oh, Chief! Please, can I go with you? I want to tell Tinker's parents how wonderful and sweet he was, and how if it hadn't been for him, we all would have died, and how he was my best friend, and how I love him still," she asked, sniffling.
Byarl shook his head. "No, Merle. You're needed here. All our people have missed you. You may have thought that you were an outsider, but it seems that absence has made all our hearts grow fond of you. Also, I know the mice better than you. I have had to break this kind of news before, when we found a mouse killed by a bear. I know how to deal with it. Go, Merle. Rejoin our people, and laugh and sing again. We have missed you," Byarl said, then hugged Merle tight.
Merle sniffled, hugging back. "Yes, Chief. I've missed them, too. You, especially. So many times I wanted to tell you what I'd learned, or ask your advice."
"You know as much as I do, if not more, Merle - especially about the mus. I believe that in the future, it will be I who come to you for advice," Byarl said, grinning. "Now come - let's not keep everyone waiting any longer."
Merle smiled. "Yes, Chief."
"And stop calling me that. You are going to be my successor someday, and after everything you have been through and everything you have learned, I think you have earned the right to just call me 'Byarl,'" Byarl said, chuckling.
Merle giggled. "Yes, Byarl," she replied, following him to the door.
Cooper shuffled his feet nervously, gazing around. Not all of the mice had come, of course - just the community leaders, as Byarl had asked. But Byarl had acted very strangely, and had refused to take 'no' for an answer. Smith, Tinker's father, was wearing his mourning clothes as he stood among the ring of mice gathered in the center of the mustie village, and his sad demeanor and occasional sniffling unnerved Cooper badly. It didn't help that the other mice, himself included, felt deeply saddened by the news of Tinker's death. But, instead of presenting his body and allowing a week of mourning for Tinker, Byarl had insisted that they come to the mustie village by noon the next day. Byarl's words still echoed in Cooper's mind, sending a chill down his spine. 'He's already been buried in a peaceful, beautiful grove on a distant island no living being will ever journey to again. He's already been deeply mourned for three months by Merle - she wept over his grave every day. His body was interred by Xaa, the marker carved by his paws using Tinker's own tools. You may mourn if you wish, but it will have to wait until after tomorrow's meeting. Do not cross me on this, Cooper. Do as I say, or I will become very unhappy with you.' Now that he was here, Cooper was even more frightened than he had been last night upon hearing those chilling words.
All around the mustie village, the musties stood by their burrows. At the feet of each family, they all had knapsacks and backpacks. And they were all full. An enormous wagon was parked off to the side, and Cooper saw that it was loaded with household possessions and family treasures from the entire village, each carefully packed and marked. The wagon was drawn by four frighteningly gigantic birds which occasionally made strange cackling sounds, and seated atop it was an enormous Defender who gazed at the mice with an expression that Cooper did not like at all. Another defender sat atop a bird nearby, watching them all with an equally unfriendly expression.
The door to Merle's burrow opened, and Xaa crawled out. The last of Merle's inventions had already been loaded onto the wagon - even the smallest of her thoughts and ideas would not be discarded. Merle turned to Xaa, and spoke. "Thank you for last night. I really, really needed to just breathe in their scent one last time before I packed. I brought the quilt from their bed that my momma made. I know it's small, but I still want it for my bridal bed." Xaa rumbled something to her in reply, helping her as she passed out her packs and his. Merle grinned, and hugged the golden-eyed monster which had so badly frightened everyone in the village last year when he killed the bear. Cooper trembled. How Merle could even stand to be near someone like him, he didn't even understand.
Finally, Byarl came out of his burrow, his pack in paw. He set it beside those of his wife and sons, and strode over to Cooper. Cooper saw the expression on Byarl's face, and trembled. Byarl looked angry. In all the years Cooper had known Byarl, even when they had played together as youngsters, he had never seen Byarl angry. It frightened him. Byarl turned to address the musties, his back to Cooper.
"My people! I know you are all wondering why I have ordered you to pack, and why I have told you we are leaving. Some have wondered if the mice will be coming with us. Others have wondered where we are going. Well, we are going to the lands of the mus. Specifically, we are going to live on Xaa's lands. There is plenty of game, and no bears to worry about. Also, his people will not treat us as slaves, as the mice do."
An uproar began among the musties and the mice, and Byarl held his paw up for silence. Finally, silence was restored, and Cooper took the opportunity to speak. "Slaves?! You are not our slaves, you're our friends and allies!" He objected.
Byarl turned to face Cooper, glaring at him. "No, Cooper. The lie is ended. Your people have kept us as slaves by teaching us only that which you feel is safe for us to know. You have given us tools, but not the knowledge to make them. We now cannot survive without your tools, your help. Thus, we are dependent on you, and must obey your every wish, else you may cut off the trade in supplies we need. You will never teach us how to make these tools ourselves, or we might one day decide we no longer need you. Thus, we are your slaves - we are enslaved because you keep us in ignorance, and use us to protect you against the bears and other dangers of the Wild Wood. No longer. It is over, Cooper," Byarl replied.
"That's not true! We've treated you honorably and fairly, giving you every tool you might ever possibly need because we are your friends!" Cooper shot back, his tail lashing nervously. 'How had they found out?' he wondered.
"Oh, really? Then tell me this, Cooper!" Byarl said, drawing his knife. Cooper stepped back in alarm, but Byarl didn't attack, he only held the knife up. "How do you make this? Tell me! We want to know! My people want to make our own knives. We want to make some small alterations in the design, to make the knife more useful for a few tasks we often do. So tell me - how do we make this?" Byarl asked, holding the knife above his head.
"Yes, how do you make a knife? I've often wondered that, myself. I'd like a knife with a little longer blade," Ayori called from beside his burrow, drawing his own knife and showing it.
"Yes, and I'd like a knife that was a little straighter, here," Nito said, drawing his knife.
"Umm... Well, you can just come to our village, and we will take all your requests and make the knives any way that you want them, as soon as we can get around to it," Cooper replied.
"No, Cooper! We want to do it ourselves! When we lose a knife, we have to come to you! When we break a knife, we have to come to you! We want to know how to make our own knives, so that we don't have to wait for you to 'get around' to helping us! So tell us! How do you make this?" Byarl snarled holding his knife high above his head. The other musties nodded in agreement.
"Umm... I'm really sorry, Byarl, but I can't tell you. It's one of our secrets. We've guarded these secrets for eight hundred years - it's part of our lore, our heritage, and our traditions. I just can't tell you. I'm sorry, I hope you understand," Cooper said lamely.
The other musties began to murmur, looking at their own knives, and the mice all trembled nervously. "Silence!" Byarl shouted, and when silence had been restored, Byarl turned to Xaa. "Xaa! How do you make this?" Byarl asked, brandishing the knife.
Xaa held out his paw, and Byarl gave his knife over to him. The other musties watched, and listened. Xaa held the knife up, and rumbled on for several minutes, gesturing to various parts of the knife. When he was through, he gave it back to Byarl, then bowed. Merle spoke up, translating for him. "Xaa said this: First, you have to have a source of iron. We mus mine iron in the hills and mountains where it is found underground as ore. It's then smelted, which involves heating the ore until the iron melts out of it. This takes an enormous amount of heat to do, and those who work in the smelters wear special garments to protect them from the heat, which is hot enough to singe your fur. The end result is further smelted and combined with other things such as carbon or nickel to make various grades of iron or steel. To make your knife, iron would be smelted with the purest carbon we could get to make the blade and the tang by a process called 'drop-forging'. This is where molten steel is poured from a ladle into a form in the shape of the final knife. It would then be ground and polished, sharpened and polished again, then fitted with the leather-wrap hilt your knives all have. I can't do any of this myself, because I have never been trained in the skills necessary to do it. It takes hundreds of mus, and the separate skills and knowledges of mining, smelting, and then forging. The mus who know these skills are part of our servant class, and highly respected for their skills. Without them, we warriors would have nothing but our teeth and claws. We will teach you how to do this, if you'd like. We will teach you anything we know that you would like to know. Anything you would like to know that we don't know, we will work together with you to find out, if you wish."
This caused more murmuring among the mice, and Ayori spoke up. "Yes, but what do you get out of it? The mice give us the knives and tools and other things so that we will defend them from bears. You're talking about teaching us to make these things ourselves - but what do you want in return?"
"Yes, what do you get out of it?" Nito chimed in.
Xaa rumbled something short, then bowed. "He said 'Your friendship. We don't want anything from you. It would be nice to work together with you as friends, and there are many things you could help us with, but we don't really want anything in particular from you in return.' He means it, too. They don't need anything from us, really. They just like us. They especially like our songs, and our spirit and our ability to smile in the face of sadness and bad things," Merle translated.
"My people!" Byarl shouted, holding his paw up for silence again. When silence was restored, he spoke. "This is my ruling: The mice have held us in thrall, unbeknownst to us, by keeping us from ever learning how to make the things we need to survive. Now, we cannot survive without these things. We cannot survive without the steel knives, the iron needles, the fishing hooks, the fabrics, or any of this. We are their slaves, because we are totally dependent on them for that which we need for life. Xaa's people offer us the knowledge we need to make these things ourselves, and much, much more. I say we shall follow Xaa, and go to live on his lands, and learn that which his people shall teach us. His lands have game, and no bears to threaten us. This is better than Cooper's plan he presented last month, where they would provide steel cages for us to raise rabbits in. If we stay here, soon we will forget even how to hunt, and be totally reliant on the mice for every morsel of food we place into our mouths. If we go with Xaa and his people, the mus, we learn to be independent, and provide for ourselves. Pick up your belongings, and follow me. I have spoken," he said, then turned to Xaa. "Xaa, lead my people to freedom," he said, then bowed.
Xaa bowed in reply, shouldered his pack, and began to walk to his bird. "Wait! What about us?! We'll die without someone to protect us!" Cooper squeaked. Xaa stopped, then put his pack on the ground again. Turning to Cooper, he pulled his gun off his shoulder. "Ack! Don't kill me!" Cooper squeaked, cowering.
Byarl growled at Cooper, his eyes flashing. "So you know what that thing is? It's some kind of weapon?"
Merle looked at Byarl - she'd already told him about guns, and for an instant, she wondered what Byarl was doing. Then she realized that he was again manipulating Cooper, so that Cooper would say what needed to be said to sever the bonds between the mice and the musties. 'He plays people like Lady Vhross plays her mus-lute. Or like Lord W'mefa cowed T'Vril the night of the dinner party, or how she in turn entranced Tinker. And he's not just playing Cooper - he's playing everyone here,' Merle thought, and was awed. 'This is what it is to be Chief. Someday, I shall have to ask him to teach me,' she thought.
"Yes, it's a firearm," Cooper replied, trembling.
"Well, since you've never bothered to show any of us musties what it is, Xaa would you please demonstrate?" Byarl snarled.
Xaa turned and rumbled at the mus mounted nearby the wagon. He nodded, and dismounted, leading the bird over to Xaa by the reins. He then walked back over to the wagon, and climbed aboard the seat next to the driver. Xaa then turned and rumbled to the crowd. "He says 'Pretend this bird is a bear. It's bigger than a bear, anyway, so it's a good example of what this gun can do.'" Merle translated, then clapped her paws over her ears. Xaa then lifted the gun to his shoulder.
There was an enormous BANG which startled everyone, and the bird staggered, blood pouring from it's head. It collapsed, and thrashed on the ground for several seconds, then lay still.
Xaa snarled at the mice, and Merle translated while he reloaded his gun. "He says 'Make your own damn guns, and shoot the bears yourself. It is time the wish of Dash'Du'ragh came true. The mus have learned to sing their own songs. It is time you learned to fight your own battles.'" Xaa then shouldered his gun again, shouldered his pack, and mounted his bird. Merle whistled for Brownie to sit, and also mounted.
Byarl turned to Cooper, furious. "You mean you knew how to make weapons like this all along, and never gave them to us or taught us how to make them?!"
"Yes, Byarl, I'm sorry, but it's part of our secrets. Besides, you really didn't seem to need them - the knives you were using on the bears worked just fine," Cooper replied, trembling.
"How many of our people have died because all we had was knives, you bastard?! Yes, the knives worked just fine! And both of Merle's parents have died, my own brother died... How many of us have lost loved ones that would be alive today if you hadn't made us the slaves of your technology?!" Byarl snarled, then spat. "My people! Let us leave this place, and now!" he shouted, and the other musties nodded their assent, growling at the mice huddled in the center of the village.
Xaa looked to Cooper, who was cowering with the other mice. He rumbled for a few moments, then twitched the reins of his bird to turn it around, and began to ride away at a slow walk. Merle whistled for Brownie to stand, and once she had, Merle translated. "He says 'When your people have learned to fight your own battles instead of having others fight and die for you, contact us again. You will find us on the other side of the mountains to the northeast. Our people forgave you for what you did ages ago, and we do not hate you. Tinker has shown us that deep down, you are a gentle, kind-hearted people. We would enjoy being your friends again in the future. But neither we nor the musties will ever be your slaves again.'" Merle then flicked Brownie's reins, and turned to follow Xaa.
The musties picked up their belongings while the mice watched fearfully. In a few minutes, they had all followed Xaa, Merle and the wagon. The mice were left standing in the center of the empty village, trembling with fear. Tinker's father finally spoke.
"They found out. It finally happened, the day we dreaded would happen. They found out. Now, we are lost. My son is dead, and we are lost," Smith sobbed.
Cooper sniffled, then raised his head. "No. The Defender, Xaa, was right. We should learn to fight our own battles. The cats are far from here. The bears are driven from this part of the wild woods. We are safe. We shall use this time to build weapons, establish patrols, and do the things we know should have done, but were too timid to do ourselves. It will be hard, but he is right. We shall learn to fight our own battles, my friend. We shall write a New Law, as of this day. And someday, we shall cross the mountains and join with them. Not as their masters or their rulers, but as their friends," he said, then turned to hug Tinker's father, and several of the other mice nearby. "Now come, my friends. We have a lot of work ahead of us."
Slowly, the mice filed out of the empty village, walking away from their past, and into their future.
Chapter One of the second book in this series, "Legacy of the Last God", will be posted monday morning.