The Last God
(Book I of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 1999 BY
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The next few weeks were very, very busy for Merle. Between hunting to provide for the two of them and teaching Xaa to speak her language, she felt both physically and mentally worn out. Fishing season was coming up, as it was fast approaching the height of summer, so she switched to taking Xaa to the river to give them both a change of pace. Fishing proved to be something Xaa could do one-pawed, so they both spent many quiet afternoons sitting by the riverbanks beneath the shade of the trees, their hooks baited with worms, angling for supper while she tried to continue the lessons.
Xaa, for his part, was trying very hard, but Merle could see that his frustration was beginning to build. It wasn't easy to learn a new language, especially one that used sounds not used in your own language. Also, the fur beneath the cast was beginning to itch Xaa terribly. Merle began carrying a small, slender stick she'd sanded smooth with a stone from the river. Whenever she noticed Xaa trying to scratch, she would pull out the stick, slip it beneath the cast and gently scratch for him. Each time he would sigh deeply, and begin rumbling with pleasure.
It took Tinker several weeks to get over his fear of Xaa and actually be able to sit with Merle and try to talk to him. Even so, all the while he was around, Merle saw that Tinker was constantly fidgeting with the many pockets of his mousie-vest, and his tail twitched nervously. One day, after Tinker had bid them both farewell, Xaa looked after his retreating form and muttered "T'nkurrr <rumble-growl-rumble>."
"No, Xaa. Say it in our language - the language of the Little People," Merle corrected, smiling.
Xaa struggled for a moment, trying to find the words as he stared at his fishing pole. "T'nkurrr naht lahk Xaa," he said at last. He poked at the trot line that dangled in the water with a clawed toe, starting the six fish they'd already caught to struggling again.
"He's afraid of you, Xaa. Give him time to get used to you. Several of the other mice have come to visit you, and they like you."
Xaa spat out a word in his own language with a snarl, then suddenly chuckled.
"Okay, what did that mean?" Merle asked.
Xaa sat there for a moment, struggling for words, then finally just shrugged. "Noh wurrrdz," he replied, then grinned.
"Uh-huh. I'll just bet you don't know the words to explain that," Merle replied, and giggled. Xaa laughed, his deep booming laugh echoing over the river. Merle, sitting next to Xaa and breathing in his scent, suddenly felt an impish urge, and set down her fishing pole. "Okay, you! Talk!" she said, reaching over and tickling Xaa's armpits.
"Ack!" Xaa replied, and then roared with laughter. "Hyouh mmbahd! Pahw fuhl! T'cheht!"
"Of course I'm cheating, silly! You're bigger and stronger than me!" Merle replied with a giggle.
"Hah! Xaa T'cheht!" he replied, and suddenly Merle felt a cold finger slip up the sleeve of her dress and tickle her armpit. With a shriek of surprise, Merle leaped away - and fell right into the river.
The cold water instantly shocked and frightened Merle. Like all musties, she was an excellent swimmer, so she was in no danger of drowning in the slow waters of the river. Before she could even bring her head above the water, however, a strong paw grabbed her by the back of the dress and lifted her out of the river, to dangle dripping in the air.
"Xaa ssahry," Xaa said. Merle looked, astounded. It wasn't that he was holding her easily with his one good arm - she already knew he was enormously strong. It was that he was holding the fishing pole with his tail. His long, almost hairless tail was wrapped around the butt of the pole several times, holding it like a third paw.
"So that's how you tied those knots with only one paw! You mousies can use your tails like another paw!" Merle exclaimed.
Xaa nodded, realizing what she was looking at, and setting her down gently. "Hyouh naht noh?" Merle shook herself, spraying Xaa with water and laughing as he yelled "Ack!" again and switched the pole back to his good paw.
"No, I didn't. I've never seen a mousie do that," she replied, grinning at him.
Xaa nodded, and rumbled on for a few moments in his own language, then sat back down again, a strange, almost sheepish look on his face.
"No, no. Try it in my language. Come on!" Merle said, grinning as she sat beside him.
"Hyou'se tahl... Naht..." he said, struggling for words and speaking very carefully. "Naht Oh-penn. T'cloh-s'd."
"You mean that you don't do it in public?"
"Ah! Pah-blik," Xaa said, trying out the word. "Hyes. Naht pah-blik fohr Mus. Xaa th'nk naht pah-blik fohr Mow-seez, tooh."
"Well, why not? Why would the your people and the mice of the Wild Wood think using their tails isn't something you do in public?" Merle asked. "I think it would be very nice having a tail you can actually use for something, instead of just one that hangs there like ours does. All I can do with mine is move it around a little - that's it."
Xaa struggled for the words to explain, and finally simply blushed, his eartips turning bright pink. "Naht pah-blik," he repeated.
'How very odd,' Merle thought. Realizing that this was embarrassing Xaa, she decided to change the subject. "You seem to have learned quite a bit of our language. Would you like to try to tell me the story of how and why you came to the Wild Wood?" she asked.
Xaa thought about it for a long while. Finally, he spoke, enunciating his words very carefully as he wracked his limited vocabulary. What he said was very difficult for Merle to understand with Xaa's rumbling, growling accent, but the gist of it went something like this: "Not enough words. Xaa, eleven Mus, look for Mice. Ride... Ground-walk-bird. No word, sorry. Cat attack - twenty, thirty cat. Hmmm... How you say...? Ah. Cat ambush Mus. Cat hit Xaa's head - POW! Xaa fall, break arm. You find Xaa later. Now we here," Xaa finished.
"Okay, but why were you looking for the mice?" Merle asked.
"Mus forgive mice. Mus need mice," Xaa explained simply - though it took Merle a few moments to understand him.
"Why do you need them?" Merle asked.
Xaa struggled for words again. After a long while, he spoke. Again, Merle struggled to understand him with his thick accent, but what he said was something like this: "Mus, Cat, fight. Big fight. Big, big, big fight. Maybe last fight. Maybe Cat win. Maybe no Mus. Maybe Cat come here. Maybe no mice. Maybe no musties. Must stop. Mus must live. Musties must live. Mice must live. Cat must die. Sorry, no words," Xaa said, sighing with frustration.
Merle was shocked. It was several minutes before she managed to collect herself and speak again. "Well, Byarl told me that your story could wait until you had mastered our language enough to explain everything completely. Now, I don't know. Can this wait? I mean, do you need the mice right now?" Merle asked.
Xaa shook his head, and rumbled again in his thickly accented speech. "Mus have... Old Saying," he replied, then rumbled something in his own language, and smiled weakly. "Not know words for it in Little-People-Talk, sorry. Not matter. Mus, Cat fight many year now." He thought for a moment. "Ten year. Fight ten year. Mus can wait one more year. Must can wait two more year. Maybe not three more year. Xaa think no Mus left three more year," he finished, then spat into the river.
Merle was going to say something, but suddenly Xaa snarled and rammed the fishing pole into the ground firmly. He stood, took a deep breath, threw his head back, then roared.
For several minutes, Xaa roared, snarled, and growled at the heavens. His ears flushed pink, his tail lashed in rage, and his teeth were bared. Merle looked at Xaa as he raged, and realized that with those canine teeth, rodent incisors and massive jaw muscles, whatever he decided to bite wouldn't live long afterwards. Finally he just kept roaring the same phrase over and over, and slapped himself in the side of the head with his good paw each time he said it.
Merle didn't know what to do. She wanted to tell him to stop, but he was like a raging bear - she wasn't sure exactly what to do. Finally, after a few minutes, he plopped himself down on the ground again and just sighed deeply for several minutes.
"Ummm... Are you alright?" Merle asked.
"Noh," Xaa replied.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Merle asked scooting over to sit by him.
Xaa snarled. "Hyes! Wahnt t'ahk! Naht noh wurrrdz! Twelfh Mus! Xaa jus' fahyt-purrr-sohn!"
"A warrior?" Merle suggested.
Xaa rumbled on for several moments. Merle struggled to understand him, but he was enraged, and his accent was terrible. What he said went something like this: "Yes! Warrior! One other Mus talk-person! Xaa smart! Xaa think Mice and Mus no can talk! Xaa bring talk-person! Cat kill! Xaa think Mus, Mice maybe get hurt when go back to Mus Lands! Xaa bring Heal-Person! Cat kill! Xaa think Mice have stories! Xaa think Mice want hear Mus stories! Xaa bring story-person! Cat kill! Cat kill all but Xaa! Xaa stupid! Why Xaa live and not talk-person?! Why Xaa live and not story-person?! Why?!" Xaa roared, and slapped the side of his head again.
Merle leapt to her feet, darted around to Xaa's left side, and grabbed his wrist with both paws. "Stop it! You are not stupid! You did the best you could, but things didn't work out exactly like you had planned. Things like that happen. It's not your fault. You are not stupid! You've been studying our language for a month, now, and you are doing very well! It takes years for mustie-children to learn to talk! You are doing very well! You are not stupid, so stop punishing yourself for things that aren't your fault!" she said firmly.
Xaa rumbled something in his language, then looked down to the grass at his feet. "Xaa ssahry."
"It's alright," Merle said, releasing his wrist and running a paw over the side of his face, smoothing the ruffled fur there. "Now don't do that again, you scared me," she said, and leaned in to groom the side of his head, nibbling and lapping at the fur to smooth it back. Xaa said nothing in reply, he simply closed his eyes, and after a moment, began rumbling quietly as she groomed him. When she was finished, she reached into her still-damp pockets, pulling out a small metal tool made by the mice. "And now, I have a surprise for you," Merle said, grinning.
"Hrm?" Xaa replied, raising an eyebrow.
Merle walked back around Xaa, then hooked the business-end of the tool into the top of his cast, and levered it down. There was a sharp crack, and a small piece of the cast at the top broke away. Merle then placed the tool at the bottom of the small notch the tool took out of the cast, and repeated the procedure - crack. Xaa grinned. Merle was taking the cast off.
Merle continued to work carefully, splitting the cast. Four weeks had passed, and by the healing-lore of the musties, that meant the bone was probably as mended as it was ever going to get. Merle hadn't needed to add powdered rabbit-bone to Xaa's food, as Musties did when they healed broken bones, because he had a habit of chewing up some of the long bones of the rabbits they cooked with those large incisors of his (aside from his love of rabbit-heads). Tinker told her once that Mice have to nibble on hard things like bone or wood to keep their incisors short, or they would continue to grow endlessly in a circle and pierce their brain, killing them. Merle figured that Xaa's people, the Mus, probably had to do the same thing. Tinker said that mice often passed the cold winter months inside their snug burrows by nibbling out intricate carvings in wood or bone. He'd even shown her a few of them.
After a few minutes, Merle had split the cast. She started to reach for the edges to pry it apart, but Xaa simply rammed his claws in and tore it off in a crackling of plaster. Xaa looked at his arm and snarled. Merle just shook her head.
The bones had healed properly and straight, and Xaa could flex the arm easily. Unfortunately, it looked terrible. The fur was matted and tangled, and it was much thinner than it used to be. Xaa started to reach to scratch the abysmal itching, but Merle grabbed his wrist again. "Wait!" she yelped. Xaa paused. Merle pulled a small brush out of her pocket, and began to brush the fur on Xaa's arm carefully, working out the tangles and the matted hairs. She cleaned the brush carefully every few minutes and put the loose fur she gathered into a pile with the broken pieces of the cast.
"Whah hyouh doo?" Xaa asked, pointing at the pile of fur and plaster Merle was making.
"Oh, we save everything we don't need. The mice use it. Old plaster like this they grind up again and make into more mouse-plaster. Hair they weave and make into thread and rope and all sorts of useful things. Bones they grind up and make into many useful things, too. Broken metal tools they can re-forge, and on and on and on. Nothing is wasted, here," Merle replied, continuing to work.
"Ah," Xaa said, nodding.
When Merle had finally finished smoothing the hair on Xaa's arm, Xaa reached over, pulled his swords out of his sash, and set them beside himself. He then did something Merle found very strange. Placing his right paw on the ground and putting his legs out behind him, he began doing push-ups with his right arm. Merle giggled. "What are you doing?" she asked.
"Ahm naht strrron'. Mahst mayk strrron' ah-gehn," Xaa replied, and continued on.
After a few minutes of this, he stopped, picking up his swords and tucking them back into his sash. Stepping over to a nearby tree that had a thick branch hanging just above his head, he began lifting himself off the ground repeatedly using just his right arm. Merle giggled - musties never did anything like this. Merle didn't realize that the rough, energetic "play" musties engaged in was part of their natural instincts, and kept them in peak physical condition. Merle only knew that after a cast came off, the first thing a mustie would do is go play. 'Well, the Mus certainly are strange people to play with trees and things - but I guess there aren't any other Mus around for him to play with. If they even do that at all,' Merle thought, still giggling.
After a few more minutes, Xaa stopped, rubbing and flexing his arm. "'Nuff," he commented, and sat down again. He reached up to the tie for his sleeve, untied it, slipped it down to his elbow, then fumbled with tying it again until Merle brushed his paw aside and tied it for him. "Thahnk hyouh," he rumbled, and pulled his pole out of the ground, resuming fishing.
An errant breeze came up, and Merle shivered. Her leather dress was still damp, and that was keeping the fur beneath damp. Merle wondered what she should do. 'I can't go naked around him!' She realized she'd have to go home and change before she caught her death of cold. She stood up, and Xaa looked at her.
"Wehrrr hyouh goh?" he asked, pronouncing his words as carefully as he could.
"My dress is soaked, and I'm starting to get chill - I need to change it. I'll just go home and change, and be right back," she replied.
Xaa shook his head. "Taykh drrres off. Puht inn suhn thehrrr. Hyouh siht inn suhn, tooh. Drah soohn," he replied, pointing.
Merle looked at Xaa, aghast. "But... You're a male!" she yelped.
Xaa raised his eyebrow, and suddenly had a look of being deeply offended. "Hyouh <rumble-growl>. Naht noh wurrrd," he said, then paused, pronouncing his words carefully. "Honor-Friend," he said, looking at Merle carefully. "Hyouh unn-duhrrr-stahnd? Xaa naht tohch. Xaa Mus, naht filth Cat," he replied, and spat in the river again.
"Oh," Merle replied, finding she was both very relieved and somehow a little bit disappointed at the same time. 'What a very strange sensation,' she thought. 'He's so incredibly nice and sweet, but I don't know whether to be grateful or unhappy about it.'
Merle stood to shuck off her dress, and Xaa politely turned his head. 'Oh, really?' Merle thought, and as she turned her back on him, she flicked her tail at him, flicking some of the water still left in her damp fur across his muzzle. Xaa yelped, and a sidelong glance over her shoulder told her that he was looking at her as she walked out of the shade and into the sunlight, her dress under her arm. Merle found she was somehow strangely pleased at that, and after giving herself a good, hard shake to get out some dampness, she sat down in the sun to dry her dress and groom her fur.
Merle ran her paws over herself, smoothing down her fur. The cool air caused her small pink nipples to crinkle, and she could see both of them poking out through her fur, atop her breasts. A strange, warm, tingling thrill crept over her. She found the thought that Xaa might be watching her to be incredibly exciting, somehow. She sat there in the sun, relaxing, enjoying the sensations but not quite sure what, if anything, she should do about them. Merle's mother had died before she could tell Merle the 'facts of life', and what to expect with her first heat as a mustie, so Merle didn't know what really was happening. Instead, she simply sat there, trembling with nervousness and excitement, not knowing exactly why she was feeling what she was feeling or what, if anything she should do about it, but enjoying the sensations nonetheless. After the front and back sides of her dress had dried in the sunlight, the turned it inside out, then laid back on the grass, her arms crossed under her head for a pillow. Afterwards, she simply lay there and relaxed, smiling without knowing what there was to smile about.
Suddenly, Merle heard a loud splash. She sat up swiftly, snatching up her almost-dry dress to cover herself, and she giggled when she saw Xaa standing in the river, soaking wet and shivering slightly in the chill of the cold water. "What happened?" she called to him.
"K'lohz durrrt," he replied. Without a further word, he stepped out of the river, picked up his swords and his knife from the ground, and walked back to the village, his tail lashing behind him as he strode away.
"Uh-huh. Your clothes were dirty. Suuure. I believe THAT," she muttered, and burst out giggling again.
When Merle returned home with the fish, already gutted and cleaned, Xaa already had a fire going in the fireplace to cook them in. But there was far more he'd done in the four hours since she saw him last, and she looked around her burrow in amazement.
Gone were the piles of inventions hither and yon. Everything was neatly stacked and organized. His armor, instead of being piled in a corner, was hanging from a wooden stand he'd apparently made, his boots neatly lain beneath it. The rugs were very clean - from its look, Xaa had taken it outside, hung it from a line, and beaten them thoroughly to get out the dust and dirt. Basically, her burrow looked like the neat, orderly little place it had been over a year ago, when her parents died. That thought brought a tear to her eye as she looked around.
Xaa crawled in from the storeroom (since he was too tall to walk in Merle's burrow) and smiled at her. "Hyouh lahk?" he asked.
Merle quickly blinked away her tear and grinned. "Sure! It's great! I think every mustie ought to have a mus to keep house for them," she replied, and giggled.
Xaa glowered at her for a moment, then realized she was only kidding, and chuckled deeply. Merle grinned while she placed the fish on a spit to roast above the fire.
Neither Merle nor Xaa really needed the fish cooked, of course. Being carnivores, they were more than capable of eating the fish raw. Cooking, however, improved the flavor of meat dramatically. For the musties, sitting and waiting for something to cook was also an important social moment - they would usually sit and chat about the day's events both while the food was cooking and while they were eating. Apparently, Xaa's people had similar customs, for both Merle and Xaa made abortive attempts at conversation, only to find Xaa's limited vocabulary to be an enormous stumbling block. Finally, they simply fell silent, and when the fish were done, they finished them quietly.
Merle sighed. She so dearly missed chatting with her parents at dinner. The conversations with the other adults around the Communal Cookpot had, to some extent, made up for this loss, but it still wasn't the same as talking with your loved ones. Now, she didn't even have that. She was stuck with Xaa. Though he may have been a kind, sweet, gentle mus, he simply couldn't hold up his end of a conversation yet. In short, Merle was lonely, and missed her parents dearly.
After they had finished eating and washed up using a bowl of water and two towels Merle brought out, Xaa pointed to one of the other doors. "Wah dohrrr naht oh-punnn?" he asked. He had apparently been through the entire house, and found the one door in it that was always locked.
Merle sighed, and answered Xaa while she finished putting the bowl of water and towels away. "That was my parent's room. They died a little over a year ago. A bear killed them. I keep it locked and have four blankets hung behind the door, because I don't want the smells of the rest of the house to get in there. Sometimes I air out the whole house really carefully, then go inside the room and close the door behind me really tight, and lay on the bed just to smell their scent. I miss them very much," Merle said, her eyes tearing again.
Xaa shuffled over, and sat next to Merle when she came back to the fire, slipping his swords out of his sash. "Xaa ssahry," he said.
Merle looked up to him, and she could see in his eyes that he wanted to say far, far more - he just didn't know the words. Merle sat down next to Xaa, and sighed. 'I am not going to cry, I am not going to cry...' she thought to herself. Merle sniffled loudly as she struggled to control herself.
Xaa leaned down and gently placed his paw on her shoulder, squeezing it. He then leaned down to very gently groom between her ears, nibbling and lapping at her headfur. Then, Merle suddenly did something Xaa didn't expect at all.
She burst into tears.
Xaa stopped, leaning back. "Xaa ssahry," he said, and growled something in his own language that Merle guessed was a complaint at his limited vocabulary.
"No, no! It's just that... Nobody has groomed me in a year. My momma and daddy used to groom me all the time, but since they died, nobody grooms me. I've missed it so! Please don't stop!" Merle sobbed.
wrapped his enormous arms around Merle, drawing her into his lap
and tucking her head into his shoulder. He then groomed her head
and neck slowly, carefully, and gently. Merle sobbed into Xaa's
shoulder all during the time he groomed her, and for several
minutes after he stopped. Xaa just hugged her gently until she
cried herself to sleep.
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