of the Last God
(Book II of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY
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Bootie watched carefully as the stranger quietly worked on Farrah. Bootie had never in all her days seen or heard of anything like this person, nor had she ever even heard legends of the like - and that frightened her.
The stranger was female, of that there was little doubt. Beneath the thin brown cloth she wore wrapped around her body, her breasts were large and full. And, she was generally arranged the usual manner of all intelligent beings of Oerth - two arms, two legs, a head, a tail. When she smiled, Bootie could see she was an herbivore, as her teeth were large and flat. There, however, the similarities with anything Bootie had ever seen before ended.
First, the stranger was enormously tall - easily twice Bootie's height, and taller even than the one Defender Bootie had seen, Xaa. All the fur of her hide that Bootie could see beneath her clothes was white, with little brown spots everwhere, as though someone had taken brown paint on their fingertips, and poked her body all over, seemingly at random. The stranger's muzzle was long, and her jaws heavily muscled. Her ears were large and could be pointed in different directions, like that of a deer. Along the top of her head and down the back of her neck, she had a mane of dark brown, almost black hair that grew long and thick - locks of it strayed down across her forehead, seeming to constantly threaten to get in her sparkling brown eyes, and on her back, her mane hung down to below her ribcage. Her tail was somewhat short, by Bootie's standards - it was only as long as the creature's forearm. Still, her short tail was covered in the same long hair as her mane, which (when she stood) hung well below her knees. But the strangest part of the stranger's appearance was her paws and feet. Instead of toes and fingers, she simply had a single, solid hoof at the end of each limb. Yet, somehow, this didn't seem to affect her ability to manipulate things. She had slipped the large leather pack she carried from her back with ease, and opened it as simply as anyone with normal paws might. With equal ease, she extracted a small carved stick from the pack which somehow seemed to cling to the bottom of her hoof, as though gripped by invisible fingers.
Bootie looked to her unconscious daughter, whom the stranger was tending. The stranger had carried Farrah into the entrance of the mine, taking her quietly from Bootie (there was little Bootie could have done to stop the enormous creature) and lifting her gently into her arms. Now she knelt quietly beside Farrah, running her fore-hooves softly over her unconscious form. Bootie nearly jumped when the creature's eerie, soundless voice echoed in her mind once again. *Your daughter will be fine, but she needs to rest.*
"Who... Who are you? What are you?"
The stranger nickered in amusement. She gazed at Bootie for a moment, smiling, and again her soundless voice echoed in Bootie's mind. *As to who I am, I am myself. As to what I am, I am a friend. But I sense in your mind that this is not what you really wish to know, Bootie Smithsmate.*
"No, it isn't," Bootie replied, uncomfortable at the thought that the stranger could read her thoughts, and that she knew her name while Bootie didn't know hers.
The stranger nickered in amusement again, then spoke with her strange, voiceless voice. *Do not fear. I mean you no harm, little mouse. My people are incapable of delivering harm.* She reached down to Farrah again with the fore-hoof that bore the small, carved stick. Carefully, gently, she placed the stick over various points on Farrah's unconscious body, and pressed down into her flesh with the blunted point of stick while she continued.
*I am called Amani. Among my people, I am a seer.* She paused a moment to look at Bootie, brushing her left fore-hoof over her forehead to lift her mane. There, on her forehead, Bootie could see a symbolic third eye had been painted on her fur in black paint, or perhaps some other dye. Smiling, Amani let her mane fall back again, then turned back to Farrah. *A year ago, I sensed I needed to be in a different place. I had a vision.*
"A dream?" Bootie interrupted, not understanding.
Amani smiled. *No, a vision. An impression of That-Which-May-Yet-Be. It is not something seen with the eyes, or something dreamed when asleep. It is a feeling... A knowing. Have you never had a vision? A knowledge of That-Which-May-Yet-Be, but is not now? A knowing of the future, without knowing how you know?*
Bootie nodded, thinking of her son, and how she knew he was dead before she had been told. She could feel it in her bones for months before Byarl came with the news.
*Just so. Your son's life was linked closely to yours by blood, and by love. You knew of his passing without having seen it, or having been told of it. That is what my vision was like. I did not see or hear - I simply felt it, and knew.*
Bootie jumped, startled. "You-you know about Tinker? You know about my son?"
*No... I felt your thoughts,* Amani replied, smiling as she gently stroked Farrah's forehead with the stick that somehow clung to the frog of her fore-hoof, as though by magic.
Bootie looked at Amani, and shivered. 'It's like she can see into my mind,' she thought nervously.
Amani merely smiled quietly.
Bootie watched in silence for a moment as Amani continued gently pressing on different spots of Farrah's body. "What are you doing with that stick?"
*It is a healing technique of my people,* Amani replied, and smiled. *I press at the life-points, and help re-direct the energy of her body to healing her.*
"That's..." Bootie replied, and found she couldn't finish. It wouldn't be polite to tell Amani she thought the whole idea was ridiculous.
*The cats think the same, little mouse,* Amani replied, and nickered again.
"I'm very sorry," Bootie replied, and found she was angry. 'I can control what I say, but I can't control my thoughts! I think what I'm thinking! What if I make her angry?' Bootie wondered.
Amani smiled. *Please do not worry. I am not easily offended.*
"But... But how do you even hold onto it without fingers?" Bootie asked, flustered.
In reply, Amani reached out and placed her other fore-hoof over Bootie's paw, the frog just grazing her fur. Bootie jumped as she felt a grip around her paw. Though Amani's fore-hoof didn't move, still something was pressing Bootie's paw into the frog of Amani's hoof. It wasn't the grip of fingers, but an invisible force that tingled slightly.
*With my mind,* Amani replied, her soundless voice echoing in Bootie's consciousness, and smiled again.
Bootie tried to calm herself. "You... You were telling me your story."
Amani nodded. *Yes... A year ago, I had a vision. I sensed I needed to be in a different place. I shared my vision with my brother and my sister. They stole from our master the things I would need on my journey, for I felt it was to be a very long journey, indeed. I followed my feelings, traveling I knew not where, until I was led to this place. I have waited here for two moons, now, not knowing what it was I was waiting for. Now, you have arrived, and I know. I was waiting for you.*
"Your brother and sister? Where are they now? Are they here?"
*No. They are dead, of course. Our master killed them. The cats do not tolerate slaves who steal,* Amani replied, and Bootie could feel the sadness in her projected thoughts.
"Your family was kidnapped by the cats, too?" Bootie asked, surprised.
Amani smiled briefly, her soundless voice echoing in Bootie's mind. *No. I was born into slavery, as were my brother and sister. Our people were conquered many, many lifetimes ago, little mouse, before even my great-great grandmother was foaled. The Great Horse-clans of the Western Plains are long gone from this world, scattered among the households of the cats as slaves, all along the western half of their empire. We are sweat-laborers to them, little mouse. Though... They have another use for a few of us.*
"Another use...?" Bootie thought, the ancient legends of the cats treating the mice as a source of both slaves and food leaping to her mind unbidden.
Amani looked to Bootie, and shook her head. *No. They do not eat their slaves - I do not know if they ever did, in truth. If so, it must have been many, many lifetimes before we ever met them, because I have never heard of a story or legend of that ever happening to us. No, they do not eat us...* she said, and stopped. Slowly, she reached out with a fore-hoof, gently touching Bootie's forehead. Bootie felt the flow of wordless emotion from Amani... The pain, the humiliation, then a slow acceptance of her fate.
Bootie recoiled in horror. It was a crime unimaginable among the Mice of the Wild Wood - impossible. The word existed as a concept, but it simply had never occurred in living memory. "They-they raped you?!"
Amani removed her fore-hoof from Bootie's head, and turned back to Farrah. *Our bodies are similar to theirs, save for differences of head and hoof, and they find some among us attractive... Particularly those more slender than the norm for our race, such as myself... Those who bear a resemblance to their own standards for beauty... And our helplessness excites some of the lower-minded ones among them, as well,* she replied, then glanced at Bootie for a moment, hearing the unspoken question. *No, we do not fight back. My people are incapable of delivering harm. Even if it were not against our customs, we still could not fight back. My master used me as he wished, and I submitted, even as his mate used my brother for her amusement while my master was away, and he submitted. My sister willingly accepted my master's collar and brand to spare me this, and this made my master content. Still, he came to me from time to time, as he found me... Amusing. And I did not resist. I cannot. Our people are incapable of delivering harm.*
"But... But you're so huge! And your hooves... You could kill me with just a swat from them," Bootie replied, reaching out and taking Amani's enormous fore-hoof in her tiny paws.
*Perhaps... But there would be a price,* Amani replied, and looked down to the packed earth of the mine beneath them. Taking her other fore-hoof from Farrah and leaving the stick lying upon her chest, Amani carefully placed her hoof over a small stone on the ground at her side, then pressed down so the stone dug into the frog at the center of her hoof.
"Ow!" Bootie yelped, snatching her paws away to break the contact. Amani lifted her hoof, shaking the stone free. Bootie looked at her, and understood. "Because you'd feel it. Every bit of pain you did to them, you would feel yourself."
Amani nodded, and her soundless voice again echoed in Bootie's mind as she picked up the stick again. *Yes. I could have smashed my master's skull in the first time, and easily. But... The price. Would I have survived feeling his death? Would my heart have stopped along with his as I felt the agony of his bones breaking, his life-force ebbing...? I do not know. It has happened to others before,* she said, and sighed, pressing the stick into a spot on Farrah's leg. *No, little mouse. I was merely grateful that my master was a gentle lover, and did not claw me often - though feeling his power/joy/lust/thrill at the pleasure of taking me against my will was... Unpleasant.*
Bootie nodded, but said nothing. She didn't know what she could say. That horror was simply something no mouse had ever experienced. Finally, she took Amani's free fore-hoof in her paws again. She felt deep sympathy, but had no words to express it. Her only thought was that perhaps she could have projected the same sense of shame and humiliation to her rapist, but she couldn't bring herself to say it.
*No. Their minds are not like your mind,* came Amani's soundless reply. *They are meat-eaters, carnivores... They live on the life's blood of those they slay. I can feel their thoughts, but they are... Alien... Violent. Your mind is much like my own, and I can feel and understand your thoughts clearly, and project my thoughts to you easily. With them...* she replied, then shook her head, tossing her mane. *I can hear their thoughts, but that is all,* Amani said, then smiled. *It is to our credit that we have not revealed this to them, however, even in all the many lifetimes we have been their slaves. They think we are... Lesser beings, a race of mutes who lack a proper language of our own, but can be instructed to understand theirs,* she finished, and winked.
Bootie smiled, then looked down as Farrah stirred. "Momma...?" Farrah called weakly.
"I'm here, Farrah," Bootie replied, reaching down to wrap her arms around her daughter.
*She should rest for at least three suns,* Amani's soundless voice whispered in Bootie's mind.
"I know - but we can't. We have to keep going. The lives of my mate and all the others of our village depend on it."
"I know, momma, but I can't. I hurt all over," Farrah replied weakly, thinking Bootie was talking to her. Amani looked at her, smiling, and Farrah's eyes widened. "Momma! What is that?! I heard her talk, but not with my ears! Who is she?! And how does she do that? And where are we?"
"Shhh..." Bootie replied, holding Farrah gently. "She is a friend. Her name is Amani. She is one of the Horse-people, from far to the west of us. As to how she talks, I don't know. It is a power of her mind - a power our people do not have, though we have legends and fanciful stories of it. It is called 'telepathy' - but that is all I know of it. Her people are the slaves of the cats, Farrah - and apparently have been for a long time. She says she had a vision that led her to escape, and come here. Now, we're resting in the mine you and I found today."
"Oh..." Farrah replied. Bootie could see by her face that she was too tired to really understand, and it was all too much, too fast. 'Time enough to tell her later, when she's rested,' she thought to herself.
Bootie hugged Farrah gently, and held her quietly until she had fallen asleep with exhaustion again. In the quiet that followed, Amani looked to Bootie and gently ran a fore-hoof over her rounded abdomen. *Your child frets. It is near your foaling day, I think.*
Bootie nodded - she could feel her baby kicking. "Soon, Amani. Perhaps a week or two. But we still cannot rest. We have to get help for my people," Bootie replied, nuzzling Farrah quietly.
*What help? Where are you going?*
"That is a long story," Bootie replied with a sigh.
Amani smiled. *We appear to have time. Please... Tell me.*
Bootie shook her head. "What if whoever owns this mine comes back? What if it belongs to the cats?"
*No. This is no mine of the cats. They do not mine, we mine for them - and this mine was not made by my people. And look...* Amani replied, and pointed at the ground deeper in. *This once was a cave. Whoever made this mine has dug the soil from it, but nothing more. They were after the white crystal the cats use to make the bang-dirt, for their fire-weapons. It is a crystal we dig for the cats often - but we did not make this mine. We do not bother to shore up the roof of a natural cave when we are digging for the white crystal - something that has not collapsed in countless lifetimes is not likely to collapse while we are there, so long as we take care. But, now the crystal is exhausted. There is no longer a reason for them to come here,* Amani explained, and smiled again. *No, whoever made this place... They are gone, and shall not return. I have been here for two moons, and you were the first who approached.*
Bootie nodded, sighing. "Well, I can only hope you're right."
*Do not worry. Even if I am wrong, I will know when someone is coming,* Amani replied, and tapped her head lightly with a fore-hoof. *I will feel them.*
*Yes. It was in this manner I avoided being captured. I could sense those trying to track me, and muddle my trail. I could feel the minds of other cats in the distance, and avoid approaching them.*
"Oh! Then why don't all your people do that, and all run away?"
Amani sighed. *They cannot. They can feel the thoughts of others at a few hundred paces, perhaps more if the thought is strong and they listen carefully. I am a seer. My mind is more sensitive to the thoughts of others. If I listen carefully, I can hear the thoughts of others at a league - more, if the thoughts are strong enough or there is a bonding of hearts between myself and the one I am listening for. That is how I knew how and when my sister and brother had died, even though I was many leagues away. They said farewell to me... And then I heard their death-screams.*
Bootie shuddered. "I'm sorry," she said, and reached out a paw to Amani, taking her enormous fore-hoof in her tiny little paw. Amani simply smiled, and sent a strong, warm, thrilling feeling through their touch that Bootie realized was probably the horse equivalent of a hug. "Well, alright," Bootie replied, smiling, and began.
At first, Bootie only intended to tell her the basics - what had happened in her village with the cats, where Bootie and Farrah were going, and what they hoped to accomplish. Unfortunately, Amani had no idea what Bootie was talking about, so she had to back up and explain what the musties were, and what the Defenders were. Then, she had to back up again at more questions and explain why the musties left in the first place, and why the Defenders no longer protected the mice. By the time she was finished, Bootie had explained virtually the whole history of the mice to Amani. She then spoke about what she had hoped for their future - future generations of the mice casting off the old laws, and developing a new law to guide them, under the leadership of new minds, like Farrah's.
At last, Bootie fell silent. There was nothing more to tell, and the sky outside the mine was splashed with the red of sunset. Amani said nothing in reply. She simply sat there, thinking. Bootie looked at her face, trying to guess what she was thinking.
Amani smiled. *Do not guess, Bootie Smithsmate. I shall tell you,* she replied, and nickered quietly. *I am thinking that your people did things in the past to those you call the Defenders and those you call the musties... Things my people would not approve of. However, you are right - your people will change in the future. I can feel from your mind that your people are gentle at heart. I sense that someday, my people will be proud to call your people 'friend.' And now, I know why I was led to this spot by my vision, and why my brother and sister died.*
*Because as much as your people need the help of these carnivores, my people need them just as dearly. Yet, had I not met you, I never would have even approached them - and without you, I will not even be able to talk to them. Their minds will probably be just as closed to me as those of the cats.*
"Oh... I hadn't thought of that," Bootie replied, nodding.
Amani smiled again. *In the morning, we shall place the both of you on that travois I saw your daughter pulling. Then, I shall take you down the mountain myself.*
Bootie smiled, and reached out to hug Amani. "Thank you," she replied, and suddenly found she was weeping tears of relief. At last, someone who could help them. Perhaps they might be able to save her mate after all - if he still lived.
*You are welcome, Bootie
Smithsmate,* Amani thought back, and sent her another warm
mental hug in return.
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