of the Last God
(Book II of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY
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*What now, Bootie Smithsmate?* Amani asked, her soundless voice echoing in Bootie's mind. *Do we cross, or turn?*
Bootie sat on the bank and looked at the river, thinking. It was far too wide for her to swim, especially so near her term. A drifting leaf showed the water was slow, but it was still very, very wide. She didn't think she could swim across. Yet, her only directions were "northeast." She didn't think turning was necessarily wise, either. On the other side lay a vast wood - in many ways, it resembled the Wild Wood, save that there were a few pines scattered among the hardwood, because they were so near the foothills of the mountain behind them. It seemed the ideal place for the musties to have settled - assuming they didn't continue on further, following the Defenders across countless leagues. Yet, the river was simply too wide. 'Perhaps a raft...' she thought to herself.
Amani nickered quietly in mild amusement. *You would not have to swim or build a raft, little mouse. I can carry you across easily.*
"What is it, momma? Why is she laughing?" Farrah asked, sitting down next to Bootie.
"I was worried it might be too far for me to swim, and we might have to build a raft with your father's tools, but Amani says she can carry us across easily."
"Oh. It's too bad she can only talk to one of us at a time."
*All things in life have a price, Farrah Smithsdaughter,* Amani said, and smiled.
"I suppose they do," Farrah agreed.
"What?" Bootie asked.
"Oh - she said 'All things in life have a price.' I think she means she can hear others thinking, and project her thoughts farther than we can shout, but there's a price - she can only talk to one person at a time."
"That would be a terrible bother," Bootie said, frowning sympathetically. "I mean, how would you pass on information quickly if you could only tell one person at a time?" she asked, and Farrah nodded. "How do you pass on stories to your children, then? It must be incredibly time-consuming if you have more than one child," Bootie asked curiously.
Amani smiled and sat down, crossing her legs. She opened her arms wide, gesturing with her fore-hooves for Farrah and Bootie to come closer. When they had sat next to her, she pulled Farrah into her lap, Then wrapped her arm around Bootie's shoulder.
* * *
Corin scuffed his hoof in the dirt, eyeing the approaching cats with fear. *They are coming, my chief,* he called to Talani. Behind him, the four hundred and six members of the Blue Wind Clan, stallions, mares and foals, whinnied nervously.
*I see them,* the dun mare replied, but did not get up. She simply closed her eyes and waited. The three crow-feathers of her rank that were woven into her mane waved slightly in the cool fall breeze. She had spent a moon and five suns preparing herself for this moment. She had consulted with the seer of her tribe, and planned carefully. She was garbed in the finest woven robe her people had ever made, her mane and tail brushed perfectly as she sat on the grass mat she had woven with her own fore-hooves. Now, she waited, quietly hoping her plan would work.
They could not run - the Great Birds the cats rode were faster even than the fleet hooves of the Horse-clans. The black bears that hunted even out in the vast plains they could easily flee, but the Great Birds survived in the wild by the same fleetness of foot, and their stride was longer, swifter. They could not fight - several abortive, desperate attempts had shown that the psychic shock of feeling another's death was simply too much for many of her people to bear, and those that survived could only have said to have done so in body, not in spirit. Not only were their hearts pained from the memory of feeling the death of another and knowing that they were the cause, but from knowledge that they had broken the oldest and most sacred law of their people - 'Thou shalt not kill.' No, there was no other choice.
*Perhaps, if we had the weapons they do... The Long Stringed Sticks... Perhaps if they were far enough away...* Corin said, sensing her thoughts.
*Your thoughts betray you, young one,* Talani shot back, remaining perfectly still. *Put aside your thoughts of violence and blood. That is not our way. Even if we had the strange weapons they call 'bows', we could not use them.*
*But if they were far enough away, perhaps we would not feel the pain of their deaths! Perhaps we could-*
*Become like them?* Talani interrupted. *Become like them and shed the blood of others with no thought in our mind but a sudden surge of joy when our enemy falls to the ground and thrashes out his life, his blood wetting and fouling the very grass we must eat? Become like them, so distanced from the feelings of others that they cannot even sense their death-scream in their mind? Become like them, and perhaps live as they do, tearing the life from a helpless creature of the wild, devouring its flesh, staining our souls and becoming a unholy thing of darkness and death?*
Corin made no reply, his mind filled with shame and embarrassment.
*I thought not,* Talani finished with a mental snort, and fell silent. The others of the clan gathered behind Corin that were near enough to hear Talani's thoughts shuddered at the images she had called to her mind. Quiet conversations passed between the rest of the clan, as her words were shared, until all had heard her thoughts, and understood. There was no other way.
The cats drew up their riding birds before Talani, and their leader dismounted. He snarled something at length in his language, and Talani listened to his alien thoughts carefully to learn their meaning. How sad it must be, she thought, to live one's life and only communicate with sound and symbol, never to know the true feelings of another's heart. She felt the warming mind-hugs of four dozen near enough to have heard her thoughts, and sighed.
The cats wanted their surrender, of course, and if they refused and tried to flee, the cats would begin killing the old, the weak, and the young foals - those whom they had little use for. Their leader's words were meaningless noise, the snarl of a predator. Still, his thoughts were clear enough. Talani could also sense the thoughts behind the thoughts, the meanings within the meanings. She knew what was necessary to survive, even if her clan's seer had not already told her over a moon ago. No, she could sense it easily in his mind, laying beneath the words he tried to give her in his meaningless yowling.
Slowly, Talani stood, slipping the robe from her shoulders, to stand before the cat, nude. She stepped off her mat, approaching within arm's reach, then knelt, pressing her forehead to the ground. Placing her arms above her head, she crossed her wrists, her fore-hooves resting on the ground. From his mind, she knew that this was the position a slave assumed in his society, when they were giving themselves to their master completely, and willingly. In his society, it was a willing acknowledgment of submission, an acceptance of their fate, and a request to wear his collar and brand. Those who willingly submitted, accepting the metal collar and the mark, were treated far better than those who had to be forced to submit, their will broken by pain and torment. In his society, a willing slave actually received a small amount of respect - or at least, far more than those who did not bear the collar and brand, who were never trusted, always watched, and often punished with beatings, deprivation, and other torment. However alien the whole concept might be to Talani, that was what she felt in his mind. The seer had been right. This was her destiny.
*I am yours,* she thought to him, putting all the force of her mind behind it, hoping he might possibly hear, yet knowing he would not. *Only, please... Do not hurt my people.*
The others behind her heard her thoughts, and shivered.
The cat made a strange sound, which Talani recognized from his mind as a chuckle. Put up your weapons, he commanded. There would be no trouble with this herd, he told his warriors in his snarling, yowling language. No trouble at all.
Talani did not move as the other cats dismounted. She made no sound as they pulled the lengths of rope from the backs of their birds and tied her people's fore-hooves into several long lengths of rope, ready to be led back to the lands of the cats at a trot. Only when their leader slipped a noose about her own neck did she give any reaction at all.
This one will be mine, their leader snarled to the others, his thoughts holding what to him was the equivalent of a grin as he tugged the rope to indicate she was to rise. His mind was closed to hers, and he didn't even glance at her face as he mounted his bird again. Her meaning had been clear enough to him, and anything beyond that, he simply didn't care.
Thus, he never saw the quiet tears that rolled down her face.
* * *
Farrah sniffled quietly, while Bootie simply sighed. "That was... A truly sad story," Bootie said after a moment.
*Perhaps... Yet still, it is what happened. That is the memory of the event, passed down from generation to generation among we of the Blue Wind Clan. That is how we pass on our stories to our foals.*
Bootie nodded, and hugged Amani. "I thank you for sharing it with me, Amani."
"Me, too," Farrah added, wiping her eyes.
"You heard it, too?"
"Yes - when she's touching us, she can talk to both of us at once. I think that the whole problem simply never comes up with her own people. Since they can all hear each other's thoughts if they're close enough, it doesn't matter that they are only projecting to one person. But, when they're touching, they can share deep memories and feelings, if they want."
*Correct,* Amani replied, and smiled.
"But how do you have any privacy if everyone knows what everyone else nearby is thinking?" Bootie asked.
*What fascinating concepts you two have in your minds about this... 'Privacy' thing. Hiding your thoughts and feelings from others, even your friends, family and mate... Why would one want to?*
Farrah looked up to Amani's gentle face. "Why, your people don't need books!" she said in sudden realization. "You could just pass on things we take years to learn, passing knowledge and memories to your children!
*Correct again, Farrah Smithsdaughter. I knew everything my mother thought I needed to know by the time I was four summers old."
"So it would work like this?" Farrah asked, and concentrated, trying to remember all her lessons in school.
*Wait! Wait! It's too much!* Amani replied, and whinnied loudly with laughter at the confusing melange of sensations and memories. *You have to go through it slowly, Farrah Smithsdaughter - I cannot absorb all that at once. It is a thing of many, many moons of slow instruction and careful recollection, from the first moments to the last, not a matter of few heartbeats!*
"Oh, sorry," Farrah replied sheepishly, and Bootie chuckled.
*Someday, perhaps, you can begin to teach me - but it is more than simple recollection, little mouse. We join our minds, like as now, and you share your memories with me. Imagine it not as a simple sharing, but as though you were trying to teach me the same skills you know, just as you would teach your own children. The skills of your father, your brother - the skills of the smith. The skills of your mother, and grandmother - the skills of the weaver and seamstress. The Lore of the Mice... Healing, building, creating... No, there is far too much. You must start at the beginning, and take time to recall, that you do not miss any part.*
"But not today," Bootie said, and slowly pushed herself to her feet. "Today, we have to cross that river. And we have to keep on going for the rest of today, and tomorrow, and as long as we can until we find help."
Farrah nodded, and Amani helped her to her feet with a smile. Amani then rose, unwrapping the thin brown cloth she wore as clothing, and re-wrapping it about her waist several times, finally tying it tight. Bootie and Farrah gaped at her nudity, and Amani nickered in amusement. *It would just slip off in the water and be lost, otherwise. You two really do have some strange notions about your bodies.* Amani then held out her fore-hoof to Farrah. *Come - I shall place you upon my back. Carry your pack upon your back so it does not get wet, and on the next trip, your mother shall carry my pack. Wrap your arms around my neck to hang on, and I shall swim across.*
A few moments later, they were on their way, Amani paddling carefully while Farrah clung tightly to her back. 'Spirits of my ancestors!' Bootie thought, shaking her head with a chuckle as she watched Amani easily swim the river. 'If Smith saw her like that, he might never look at me again. Her breasts are as large as my head!'
*I am, for my people, of normal proportions in that area, little mouse. It is only that I am so much bigger than you, I think,* Amani sent back with a mental chuckle.
'Well, at least I still have my tail,' Bootie thought back to her with a grin, and flicked her pink, almost hairless tail for emphasis. 'Smith once said I had the longest, most attractive tail of any female in our whole village.'
Amani's wordless reply was merely a mental grin.
Bootie watched as Amani placed Farrah on the opposite bank, then dove back into the water. Slowly, she sighed. Thinking of her mate had started her to worrying again. Was he alright? Was he even alive? She didn't know - and that was the hardest part to bear.
*He alive, Bootie Smithsmate. He lives in a dark moment of his soul, but he lives.*
"How do you know?" Bootie asked as Amani finally climbed out of the water again.
Amani merely smiled, standing there with water dripping from her body. *I am a seer. I just know,* she replied, and held out a fore-hoof. *If you will carry my pack upon your back and ride as your daughter did, we shall be across shortly. I can then fetch the travois for you, and we will be on our way.*
Bootie hesitated for a long moment, her emotions awhirl at the thought that her mate was alive, yet at the same time, perhaps in torment. Finally, with an effort, she mastered her emotions. There was still the river to cross, and unknown leagues beyond that. Bootie looked to Amani and nodded, picking up Amani's pack.
The pack was leather, and made by the cats. It wasn't large, as Amani's needs on her journey were small, considering that she, like Bootie and Farrah, could eat almost anything green she ran across. Still, it contained what few belongings and tools she did require, and was just as valuable as the pack Bootie and Farrah had brought along. Bootie tightened the straps as tight as they would go, but Amani's pack still hung loose and low on Bootie's back. With a blush of embarrassment, Bootie pulled the straps together across her chest, then reached forward with her tail and wrapped her tail around the straps to hold them tight. She then held out her little arms to Amani. "I'm ready."
*Public use of your tail is a social embarrassment?* Amani said, and nickered quietly with amusement as she knelt to make it easier for Bootie to climb on. *What truly strange thoughts you mice have about your bodies.*
"Well, you, Amani, are in turn a very scandalous creature by our standards," Bootie replied, and giggled.
The water was cold, and instantly soaked Bootie's legs and dress as Amani swam. Bootie shivered, clinging tight to her large friend, and hoping they would be on the other side, soon. Suddenly, she noticed that Amani was swimming faster - almost flailing in the water to reach the other side. "What is it?! What's wrong?!"
*There is a carnivore near us... Hunting!*
"Wait! Wait! Is it a bear, or a mustie, or a Defender, or what?"
Amani whinnied in fear. *I do not know! I only know I have to get out of the water, there's a carnivore near me!*
I a moment, Amani had reached the other side. In a mad scramble, she pulled herself out of the water, then crouched, her ears perked, twitching from side to side as she listened. Her breasts heaved, her nostrils flared as she sniffed the air, and her eyes were wide, the whites showing. Bootie could see she was frightened to death.
Farrah started to speak, but her mother held a finger to her lips. "Shhh." Slipping down from Amani's back, she set the pack on the ground. "Amani, how close is it?"
*Close,* she replied, struggling to calm herself.
"Is it a bear?"
Amani shook her head. *Its mind is greater than that, and equal to our own. The mind of a bear is like a candle... A small, flickering flame. This is much larger, brighter... Stronger. More complex thought. It is hunting with a tool of some kind... A weapon. It fears nothing.*
*Nothing. I sense no fear in its mind. It is master of this domain. There is no type of animal in this forest it has not killed and eaten. And it is hungry. And it is coming this way.*
"Momma, what is it?" Farrah hissed.
"Someone is coming. Amani senses a carnivore," Bootie whispered back. "It might be a mustie or a Defender, but it might not. Now hide."
While Bootie and Farrah hid themselves in the bushes beside the river, Amani carefully untied and unwrapped the soaked cloth from around her waist, then began wrapping it about her body again. *I am too large to hide in these bushes. I will run, and draw it away from you.*
"No, don't run. It might not be a cat. I know we're getting near the lands of the Defenders - it might be one of them," Bootie whispered.
Suddenly, Amani gasped. *The wind is at our backs... I am wet from the water... He can smell me! I can sense it in his mind! He can smell me, and he is thinking I may be food! I must flee!*
"No! Just stay here!" Bootie hissed.
*I... I will try.*
'Whatever it is, it can't be a cat,' Bootie thought to herself. 'Amani said they don't eat their slaves, and a cat would be sure to know the smell of a horse.'
Amani nodded quietly, and settled back to sit on her heels. Together, the three of them waited in silence for many thudding heartbeats.
"Alright, come out of those bushes," a voice chittered angrily. "I can see your bait, now, but I'm not falling for your trap."
Bootie's heart leaped in her chest. "It's a mustie!" she yelped, recognizing her own language, which the musties also spoke. Bootie scrambled to her feet, grinning, and stepped out of the bush she was hiding behind, followed by Farrah. She looked over the mustie in green-dyed leather tunic and trousers who glared at them from beside a nearby tree, and after a long moment, she remembered. "Ayori! Your name is Ayori!"
Ayori looked her over, then spat, dropping his sling. "And yours is Bootie," he snarled, and drew his knife from its sheath. "What's the matter? Couldn't get along without your little mustie slaves?"
"No, Ayori! It's not like that! You see-"
"I made this knife myself, mouse, something your people would never have allowed me to do! Like it?!" Ayori snarled, and held up the blade before him. The afternoon sunlight gleamed on the hammer-forged blade, and it's dozens of light and dark metal layers made it look like a carved piece of wood, magically transformed to steel. "Much better than the knives your mate made for us," he said, then bared his fangs. "Shall I show you?!" he hissed, turning the blade slowly in the light.
Bootie blanched, stepping back. "Ayori, please... We need your help."
Amani's soundless voice echoed in Bootie's mind. *He does not intend to kill us. He is very angry at you and Farrah, and confused as to what I am because he has never seen anyone like me before, but he does not intend to kill us.*
Slowly, Amani lowered head and placed her fore-hooves on the ground, and crawled meekly up to Ayori. Ayori held his ground, his knife at the ready. Amani was enormous compared to him, easily over twice his size, and he had no idea what she intended. Once she had reached his feet, Amani slowly raised herself up, sitting on her heels again.
*Tell him I said that if he must kill someone, he may slit my throat, but he must promise to at least listen to your words after.*
"I can't tell him that!" Bootie squeaked.
"What? Tell me what? What are you talking about?!" Ayori snapped.
"Ummm... Ayori, this is Amani. She's one of the horse-people. They don't talk with their voice, they talk with their minds. She says..." Bootie replied, then swallowed her fear and looked him squarely in the eye. "She says that if you have to kill somebody, go ahead and slit her throat, but you have to promise you'll listen to what Farrah and I have to say afterwards."
Ayori blinked, then looked at Amani. He looked into her eyes, and could see nothing but calm. He paused. "Wait... If she talks with her mind, how come I can't hear her?"
"Because you're a carnivore, Ayori, and she's an herbivore. Your mind is too different from hers for her to talk to you."
Farrah nodded. "It's true, Ayori. She can understand what you're thinking."
Ayori paused again, the tip of his knife lowering. "Hmm... Okay, ask her what I'm thinking now."
Bootie was silent for a moment, then blushed. "Ayori! How could you think that?!"
Ayori stammered and sputtered for several moments before he could reply. "Well, I mean, look at her! She's hardly dressed! And that... That woven thing she's wearing is wet and clingy and I can see... Everything!"
Farrah burst into giggles as she realized what Ayori must have been thinking, which only made Ayori more flustered.
*Tell him my reply, please.*
"I can't tell him what you said, either!" Bootie replied, blushing even more. Farrah nearly collapsed in a gigglefit.
Amani nickered in amusement for a moment, then smiled.
"Ummm... Well, now she says to tell you that she is pleased you find her attractive, and now that your anger has faded and she can see into your mind better, she finds you to be an interesting person. She says she... She might consider what you were thinking, if she got to know you better," Bootie said, and rubbed her back. Her lower back was truly beginning to ache. 'Probably from all the standing and walking, today,' she thought.
Ayori grinned at Amani. "Alright, that's fair enough," he said, and sheathed his knife. Stooping for a moment to snatch up his sling, he looked to Bootie, and waggled a finger at her with a disapproving frown. "You, I don't trust. And you know why. But, I'll listen to what you have to say."
Bootie nodded, and sat down to rest. Quietly, she explained what had happened to the mice, and why she was here. By the end of her explanation, Ayori was scowling deeply. "I'm sorry if that makes you angry, Ayori, but we really do need your help. The life of my mate... All my people's lives are in danger."
*He is not angry at you, Bootie Smithswife. His anger for you has faded, and now he is remembering happier times. He is distrustful of you, but not angry. He is furious at the cats, however.*
Ayori shook his head. "I'm not mad at you, Bootie, I'm just mad. Come on, there's no time to waste," Ayori snapped, tucking his sling into his pocket. "We must tell Byarl what's happened, and now. Our ally, Lord Xaa, must also be told. We'll have to move quickly. With your knowledge in the paws of the cats, the mus could lose their war with them. Then, we would all die. Come - let's run."
Bootie grunted, trying to get up, and a stab of pain went though her abdomen. "Uhhh... I don't think I can."
Ayori stopped, and looked at her. "When are you due, Bootie?"
Amani turned, and reached out a fore-hoof, stroking Bootie's rounded abdomen gently. She smiled. *The time of your foaling is now.*
"Ummm... Today, apparently, Ayori," Bootie said, and frowned.
Ayori did a double-take, then burst into giggles. Farrah covered her muzzle with her paw, and joined him.
"It's not funny," Bootie said with a scowl.
Ayori shook his head, his smile fading. "You're right - it's not. But we have to get to the village. This can't wait a single moment."
Amani simply nodded, rising. Ayori stepped back reflexively - she was huge, standing at about seven feet of height to his mere three feet. Her long ears made her seem even taller, as well. After slipping on her pack, Amani bent down to Bootie, lifting her into gently into her arms. She then looked to Ayori, and nodded.
Ayori nodded in reply, then looked to Farrah. "Can you run with that pack?"
"Yes," Farrah replied. Amani's strange pressure-point healing technique had worked, despite the fact that Farrah and Bootie both had no idea how or why, and she had recovered from her exhaustion last week. And, after having walked so far, Farrah was far from the soft little mouse she had been in the Wild Wood - she was lean and strong.
"Good - let's go," Ayori replied, and began trotting off into the woods. Amani kept up with him easily with her long-legged stride, not even breathing hard as this, for her, was simply a fast walk.
Farrah trotted after them, her mind filling with worry about her mother. It was rare, but sometimes mouse-females died giving birth. She only hoped that everything would be alright - not just for her mother and the baby, but for her father, and her people.
As Farrah trotted along, following, she wondered if Amani had really been serious - could she really have been interested in Ayori?
Farrah wasn't surprised when Amani's soundless voice replied to her thoughts - she had grown used to the idea that Amani literally listened to their thoughts all the time. It had been strange, at first, and a bit embarrassing and uncomfortable, but now she had gotten used to it. *No, not at all. He is a predator, one who kills to live. I am not attracted to him. I fear him. I can sense in his mind that he is not like the cats... He is a gentle, playful soul. But he is still a carnivore, one who lives by ripping the life from a living being, and devouring its flesh.*
'But... If you aren't interested in him, then why did you want momma to say that?' Farrah thought quietly.
*It was all I could think of. Showing interest... Offering our bodies... This often was successful with the cats, particularly the males. I offered to let him kill me if only he would listen to you, knowing from his mind he would not kill. This dispersed much of his anger, for it was so strange to him - he is not a cat. Yet, he still distrusted you, and wanted only to drive all three of us back across the river, out of the lands of his people. But, in his mind, I felt the idle curiosity... He wondered what it might be like to mate with me, to squeeze my breasts which seem so large to him, to feel my legs around him. Your mother did well to not tell him my first reply - I had wanted her to say that I would be happy to lie with him there and then, if he would only listen to what you had to say. This would have been a mistake. As his anger ebbed, I could feel his mind more clearly - such an offer would have shocked and embarrassed him, not titillated and amused him, as it would a cat.*
Farrah blushed deeply at Amani's words. The casual air with which she approached nudity, the idea that she would willingly offer her body to Ayori merely to get him to listen... All was very shocking to her. And yet, Farrah could tell by Amani's mind-voice that there was no shame for her. Amani really was a scandalous creature by the standards of the mice.
*Your mother thinks the same, little mouse. She finds me quite scandalous,* Amani replied, her mind-voice carrying a note of amusement.
'I imagine,' Farrah thought quietly. 'It's like your body was just... Like a tool. Like a hammer or a saw. Just something you use, and little more. Just a tool.'
Amani's reply was suddenly very serious. *To us, it is. Thus is the legacy of our service to the cats. Our bodies no longer matter. Only our hearts,* she replied, her soundless voice echoing in Farrah's mind.
Farrah nodded, thinking that was
both very beautiful, and very sad.
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