of the Last God
(Book II of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY
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Bootie nursed her son gently, stroking his little paw lovingly. "We'll call him Tinker, as well. Your father would want that."
Farrah nodded. As much as she knew the Law of the Mice had to change, there were some parts of it that did not need to change - and this was one of them. Her little brother's name had been determined before he was born, as by the Law of the Mice, the eldest son of a mouse named Smith would always be Tinker. "He's so beautiful, momma. How long will it be before his fur comes in? How long until his eyes open?" she asked, stroking her little brother's head.
"Well, perhaps another three weeks for his first coat to fully develop. You can feel the fuzz starting now. His eyes will open about that time."
Farrah nodded, then sighed, sitting back in her chair. Bootie heard her sigh, and looked up. "What's the matter, Farrah?"
Farrah sighed again. "Well, momma... It's really been nice of Byarl and Ellie to let us stay here, it's just..." she replied, her voice trailing off.
Farrah found it was hard to express her feelings. She was grateful to Byarl and Ellie and their two sons - Farrah and Bootie slept in the beds that Byarl's sons normally used, and their sons slept on the floor of the living room, by the fire. The last four days they had spent here while Bootie recovered from the birth had been very nice - Byarl's little home was warm and snug, and very comfortable. Still, the more she stayed here, the more she found she missed the old days, living under the protection of the musties. It had been undeniably comforting, knowing that they were safe and protected. Now, they lived without that protection - and that was not a comfortable thought at all, especially considering what had happened. "Oh, I was just thinking how nice it used to be, back when the musties were protecting us."
"Yes, it was nice... Too bad the Law of the Mice destroyed it all," Bootie replied quietly. "Now, we're alone."
"Momma, the Law-"
Suddenly, there was a tapping at the door. "Knock, knock!" Ellie called playfully. "Dinner's almost ready - can I come in?"
"Come in, Ellie," Bootie called in return.
The door opened, and Ellie bounced in, grinning. "I think you'll like what we found today. Nito and his four brothers searched the whole forest for you, and they collected almost a full game-bag of grubs and beetles. I hope you don't mind, but I boiled them to kill them - I don't want them scurrying about the house, sorry."
"Oooo! What kind of beetles?!" Farrah squeaked eagerly.
"The icky-looking black ones with the shiny green backs."
"Ooooo! Those are very tasty!"
"Well, I hope boiling them won't change the flavor for you, but... Well, I'm sorry, to us it's still very icky. The thought of having all those bugs in the house is very creepy. I'm afraid the pot I've been using to cook for you... Well, I'm afraid I probably won't be able to use it for anything else again, so I'll just give it to you when you leave," Ellie replied, still smiling.
Farrah was taken aback for a moment. "Oh... I'm sorry. Maybe if we rescue my daddy, he can make you another-"
"No, no - that won't be necessary. My mate makes very good pots and pans - he's the best in the village at kitchen implements, and I am very proud of him. The mus taught us how," Ellie replied, and smiled again. "I'll be bringing your dinner in to you in just a moment. I hope you won't mind that we don't join you, again."
"That will be fine, Ellie. Thank you. We appreciate everything you've done very, very much," Bootie replied, cutting off Farrah's stammering apology. Ellie nodded and left, closing the door behind her.
Farrah sniffled. "Oh, momma! I think they don't like us very much at all anymore."
"Can you blame them?" Bootie asked, gently moving Little Tinker over to her right breast. "After what our people did to them?"
"No, I guess I can't," Farrah replied, and sighed deeply. "I just wish..."
Bootie nodded, slipping her left breast back into her blouse as she nursed her son. "I know, Farrah. I wish that, too. But those days are gone. Maybe..." she said, and sighed. "Maybe if I hadn't been so hard on Tinker. Maybe if I'd encouraged his relationship with that mustie-girl, Merle, instead of reminding him the Law of the Mice had already decreed his mate long before he was born... Maybe..."
"I just wish I knew what they were thinking, like Amani does. Maybe then, I could find out how to make friends with them again..."
Bootie nodded. "Ask her. It can't hurt."
"I will," Farrah replied, then closed her eyes. 'Amani, can you hear me?' she thought quietly.
*I hear you,* Amani's soundless voice replied immediately, echoing in Farrah's mind.
'Where are you now?'
*Near the center of the village, sitting and listening. There is plenty of graze near here, and these mustelids were kind enough to provide me with a large bucket of water. They seem quite fascinated by how I am able to manipulate things without fingers. They are constantly asking me to play with little toys of one sort or another that they bring by. Some have even tried showing me their writings, in an effort to teach me to communicate that way - but I cannot make sense of them. You hear my thoughts as a voice in your head - but this is only your own mind's way of interpreting what I send to you. Your mind thinks in words, which contain concepts and meanings. I, however, simply think in concepts and meanings, without words - the words of your language and theirs are meaningless sounds, to me,* Amani replied, and Farrah could sense the mental shrug in Amani's thoughts. *They have stopped playing with me, for the moment, as it now approaches their time of evening-meal. The younger, un-mated ones are gathering to dance and sing while they roast the dead flesh of their helpless victims over the fire in the center of the village. The ones with families, however, now retire to their shadowy dens to devour their blood-meals unseen. I believe it has to do with this 'privacy' thing you and your mother speak of so often.*
Farra blanched. 'Ummm... No, I think they just want to spend time with their families. We do the same thing. Well, except that we don't eat meat.'
*Ah, I see. A very strange notion. We simply eat when we are hungry. Feeding the body is merely a necessary act, not a special occasion.*
Farrah paused to tell her mother what she and Amani had said so far, then resumed where she'd left off. 'Momma and I were thinking... If we knew what the musties were thinking, like you do, then maybe we could be their friends again?'
*Highly unlikely, I think.*
"Amani says it's not likely, momma," Farrah said, and sighed.
There was a knock at the door, and in a moment, Ellie had brought in a small pot of boiled grubs and beetles, with two large wooden spoons stuck in the pot. She still smiled, but Farrah had by now realized that she was forcing herself to smile - she found the idea of eating insects disgusting.
"It smells delicious, Nellie. Thank you very much," Bootie said politely.
"You're quite welcome," Nellie replied with a smile, and slipped back out the door again. As soon as Nellie had gone, Bootie reached down, pulling out a large, green backed beetle, and popped it into her muzzle, crunching down. "Mmm... And tastes delicious, too."
Farrah picked up a spoon and tried some of the grubs, then nodded. "Mmm... Yes, momma. Very good. We'll have to thank Nellie afterwards."
"Yes - if she can forgive us for ruining two good spoons and a pot," Bootie replied dryly.
"They're not ruined, though, momma. Why, she could just wash them, and-"
"Would you eat out of a pot that a mustie had boiled meat and organs in?"
Farrah paused, then finally shook her head. "No, I guess I wouldn't."
"I think it's the same for them with what we eat."
*It is, little mouse. They are thoroughly and completely disgusted by what you eat, and what I eat,* Amani replied, sensing Bootie's thoughts.
"Amani says I'm right, but she also says that what she eats disgusts them, too," Bootie said, picking up a spoon.
"Why? She doesn't eat bugs, she eats grass and leaves."
"So do we, Farrah. Nuts, grass, berries, leaves... Anything but meat."
'Why are they disgusted with what you eat, Amani?' Farrah thought quietly.
*Because it comes from the ground, little mouse, the same as what you eat. Berries and some soft fruits they find edible, but as for the rest... It is from the earth, a thing of dirt and disease, to them. It is as though we eat dung, to their eyes.*
"Eww!" Farrah yelped.
"What?" Bootie asked, lifting Little Tinker to her shoulder to pat his back gently and help him burp. Farrah explained what Amani had said, and she nodded. "I thought as much. The Lore of the Mice says the Creator made us all different, in the hopes that we at least would not fight over food. Yet, the Defiler had his say in this, as he did in all parts of creation, and made each species dislike the other for the food they ate, if nothing else," Bootie said, and lowered Little Tinker to her lap, wrapping him warm and snug in the blanket Ellie had given him the day she helped Bootie give birth to him.
Suddenly, a terrible thought struck Farrah. What if Amani looked at what she and her mother ate with the same disgust?
*Do not worry, little mouse. I do not,* Amani's wordless reply came, and Farrah sighed with relief. *While we do not eat insects, there are occasionally insects on the things we eat. This does not bother us. Insects have too small a life to matter - even the greatest of seers cannot sense the difference between an insect's mind and the plant it rests upon. They also are everywhere - one can crush a hundred ants under a hoof and never notice. No, I am not offended by anything you eat. Indeed, most of what you eat sounds interesting, to me. This... 'Carrot' thing... A root, perhaps? That sounds interesting - the impression I get from your mind is quite intriguing. I would like to try that, I think. Oh - and apples. They sound interesting, as well."
Farrah giggled. "Amani says she'd like to try a carrot sometime."
Bootie smiled briefly, lifting another spoonful of grubs. "Well, perhaps if we save our people, Farmer might be able to come up with some."
Bootie and Farrah ate in silence for awhile, each lost in their own thoughts. Amani did not interrupt, as she had learned that there were times when her little friends did not appreciate her responding as though each thought they had was completely open to her - which, of course, they were. She did not fully understand the concept of 'privacy' they had, but she could feel what it meant to them in their minds, and left them alone for the moment.
"You were going to say something about the Law, Farrah?" Bootie said, crunching the last of the beetles.
"Yes, momma. I know I've said this before, and I know you agree, but the Law really does need to change. I think..."
"I think it all needs to change."
"Burn the Law?" Bootie asked, eyeing Farrah carefully.
"Well... If necessary, yes. Some parts of it are good - or at least, they do no harm. Like the Laws of Naming. I hoped the baby would be a male, so that I would have a brother named Tinker again, and he was. Yet, other parts of it are bad, like the Law of Secrecy. If it hadn't been for that, the musties would still be our friends. But..."
Farrah sighed. "Momma, there's so much! The Law of the Mice is only a small part of the Lore of the Mice, but it's still an enormous scroll over a million words long! How do we go through it all and decide which is good, and which is bad? It would take a lifetime - maybe more."
Bootie nodded. While the Lore of the Mice was divided into many, many books, each separated by subject, the Law of the Mice which governed the Lore was a large scroll, weighing about a stone. It was printed on a single, long vellum scroll manufactured over eight centuries ago, and what few changes and additions that had been made over the centuries had been carefully written into the scroll by paw onto the long blank space at the end. The Law of the Mice covered all things, not merely the keeping of the Lore as secret, but every detail of life, from how to dress, what to name one's children, who to marry, how to revere the gods, and to how to speak to one's elders. Changing it wasn't simply a matter of Smith and the Council saying "We'll change this part, here." The Law was enormous in scope, and formed a tapestry of rules and regulations that covered every part of life. Changing even one part of it required that every other part relating to it be altered to accommodate the change. It was not simply a matter of blotting out the undesirable parts - if it was, the Council already would have done so.
"I don't think you can, Farrah. I think that's what your father and the council were trying to do, and failed. The Law isn't like a basket of berries we have gathered, where we can throw out the bad ones and keep the good. It is more like a board, with many ugly knots in it. If we knock out the knots, we end up with ugly knotholes, which look even worse than the knots did. We need to cast the whole board aside, and make a new one."
"I think you're right, momma. I think the Law has cost us more than it's helped us. It's cost us our best friends, ever," Farrah replied, and sighed again. "I don't think the musties are helping us out of kindness, momma. I think they're helping us because they don't want the Lore of the Mice turned against them."
*You are correct, Farrah Smithsdaughter. I can tell from their minds that they once loved you as their friends and allies, but now despise you as users and enslavers. They help you only because they do not wish your tools and knowledges to be turned against them or their allies. I understand what has happened from your minds and how this is all because of your Elder Laws, but I cannot explain it to them - nor can you, as I think they will not listen to anything you say in that regard. They no longer wish to be your friends, little mouse. They have new friends, who are more like they are.*
Farrah nodded, and relayed what Amani had said to Bootie. When she had finished, Bootie nodded, as well. "I wish she could come here so that we could simply touch her and all talk at once. It's quite inconvenient this way," Bootie said, putting the spoons back into the empty pot.
*Crawl on my fore-hooves and knees into a tiny little hole in the ground?* Amani replied, and sent a mental shudder of dread. *No, thank you.*
'You didn't mind the cave in the mountains,' Bootie thought in reply.
*There is an enormous difference, little mouse, between a cave large enough for me to stand in and a hole so small I would be crawling on my belly.*
Bootie chuckled, and told Farrah what she and Amani had said.
"Maybe we should just go out to her," Farrah commented.
"First things, first, dear. Take the pot and the spoons into the kitchen, wash them, dry them, and set them aside carefully so Ellie will have them to use again for us. Be very careful not to mix the pot or the spoons with her other dishes, alright?"
"Good. I'm going to change Little Tinker, then we can go outside and talk with Amani. I'm sure she's getting a bit lonely by now."
*A bit, yes...* Amani replied to Bootie's thought, then paused. *Wait... Someone is coming. Carnivores. On Great Birds. Many carnivores.*
"Wait, Farrah - someone is coming," Bootie said, placing a paw on Farrah's shoulder. 'Are they cats?' she thought at Amani.
'Then they're probably Defenders,' Bootie thought in reply. 'How far away are they?'
*Not far. Less than a league. They will be here shortly.*
Bootie looked at Farrah. "Farrah, tell Byarl that Amani says some Defenders are coming... Wait. The musties call them 'mus'. I suppose if they're their friends, we should probably get used to calling them what they want to be called. Tell them some mus are coming, alright?"
"Good - then hurry up after and wash the pan and spoons for Ellie."
A few minutes later, Bootie and Farrah stood next to Amani, waiting in the middle of the village. Byarl stood near, along with the rest of the musties, who had been alerted by his call. In a matter of moments, nearly two dozen emornous riders trotted into the clearing, their gigantic birds looking quite tired. They were all armed and armored, and looked very dangerous. To Bootie and Farrah's surprise, however, the lead rider was very small.
"Why do they have a child with them, I wonder?" Bootie muttered quietly.
*That is no child,* Amani's soundless voice replied.
The smallest one whistled, and the reddish-brown bird it was riding sat on the ground so they could dismount. As they got off, the others followed suit. One of the larger ones then strode up to Byarl and bowed low, rumbling something in his harsh, growling language. Farrah shuddered - even seeing the long, pink tail, it was hard to believe that these enormous people were in any way related to her, despite what the musties had said. Byarl had explained that as far as he knew, the mus were related to the mice - perhaps even descended from them, through the power of the Last God. Bootie looked at these enormous, carnivorous beings, and shuddered. It was just too difficult to believe.
As Byarl bowed in return, the rest of the village followed suit, as did Amani, since she could sense what was polite from their minds. Bootie tapped Farrah, then bowed herself, clutching her baby to her chest. Farrah finally sketched a small bow, thinking it was a rather strange way of greeting people. The little one then stepped up next to the one that had spoken. "Hoyo, Chief! Hoyo, everyone!" she called in the language of the Little People of the Wild Wood. "Lord O'dmemet says 'hoyo!' Well, he said a lot more than that, but it basically boils down to 'hoyo!'" she said, then tugged the chin-strap for her helmet and pulled it off.
Farrah blinked. "Merle!" she said, recognizing who it was.
Merle grinned, running a paw over her headfur to smooth it back into place. "Hoyo, Farrah! Long time no see!"
"You're wearing armor, just like the Defenders!" Farrah squeaked.
"Mus, dear," Bootie muttered, elbowing Farrah quietly.
Merle nodded. "Yup! Lady Vhross loaned it to me. Do you like it?"
Farrah nodded, not really knowing what to say. Amani simply rested a fore-hoof on both Bootie and Farrah's shoulders, so she could talk to them both at once.
"Very nice, Merle," Byarl said, walking around Merle and looking her over. "How good is it?" The other musties gathered around, looking Merle over with keen interest. They had seen armor before, of course, since their allies the mus wore it often, but had never seen any in their size.
"Well, it won't stop a bullet, but it will stop an arrow at long range, a sling-stone at any range, and it works great against melee weapons. It's awful hot, though. I think it's easier for the mus to wear, because their tail helps cool them," Merle replied, then paused to translate what had been said so far to Lord O'dmemet.
"Where's Lord Xaa?" Byarl asked after everyone had a chance to look at Merle's armor.
"He couldn't come, Chief. The cats are attacking in the northlands. The lords and ladies of the northlands asked W'mefa for help, but he doesn't have enough warriors to send to make a difference. So, Xaa volunteered to ride north and take command of their armies, and try to drive the cats back. He's the best strategist in the southlands - maybe the best ever," Merle replied, and grinned broadly.
"Ah, I see," Byarl replied, nodding.
Amani's soundless mind-voice echoed in Bootie and Farrah's mind. *There is more that she is not saying.*
'Like what?' Farrah thought in reply.
*She is terribly worried. It is very dangerous. She may never see him again, and she fears this greatly.*
'Why would she care?' Bootie wondered.
*Because she is to be his mate,* Amani replied, and smiled. *If you could only feel her mind. Her love for him shines brightly each time she thinks of him, and is wonderful to behold. Her love sparkles like a brilliant star each time his name crosses her thoughts.*
As the implications of Amani's words sunk in, Bootie looked over the musties and the mus standing before her in a new light. The musties chittered and grinned openly, not hiding their smiles from their large friends as they once did from the Mice of the Wild Wood, and asked Merle a hundred questions about her new armor. For their part, the mus simply smiled and waited, showing far greater patience than Cooper or any of the council would have, knowing that the answers to their own questions about Bootie, Farrah, and Amani would be answered shortly. There was none of the tension and nervousness between them as there had once been between the Mice of the Wild Wood and the musties. No, the mus received the same happy friendship that the musties had once offered the mice - and the mus returned that friendship with more openness and honesty than the mice ever had. As she stood there, looking at Merle dressed in the same armor as the large mus standing nearby her, Bootie realized that Merle really represented the union of the mus and the musties - a union her own people once had, but had forsaken. And now, Merle was to be the mate of one of the mus.
'She might have been my son's...' Bootie thought sadly. 'I could see he wanted her. One day he came home smelling so strongly of her, I thought they had coupled. I scolded him severely for that. It was against the Law of the Mice. His mate had been determined long before he was born. He was to marry Winnie, Farmer's daughter. Now, I wish I could take those words back. But the law...' Bootie thought, and sighed. 'Would things have been different if I had allowed it? Would my son have stayed behind with his mate, Merle, instead of following her and the Defender, Xaa? Would our people still be protected by the musties?'
*That grass has been eaten and is long gone, Bootie Smithsmate. You will starve waiting for it to grow again. You must move on to another pasture.*
'I know... Water under the Bridge, as we mice say. Still...' Bootie thought in reply, and couldn't finish, save for a sad feeling of regret. Amani sent Bootie a warming mind-hug, and eventually, Bootie managed a small smile.
Finally, Byarl held up a paw for silence. In a few moments, the musties had settled down, and Byarl began to speak. "Well, we've kept our friends waiting long enough. Lord O'dmemet, this is Bootie, the mother of Tinker. To her left is Farrah, her daughter. Between them is Amani - we know nothing of her, save that Farrah and Bootie say she is a horse, and that she talks with her mind - though apparently we carnivores can't hear her."
Merle translated Byarl's words into the growling speech of the mus, and Farrah had to stifle a giggle - Merle's voice was much higher-pitched than those of the mus, and she sounded very funny trying to speak their language.
*Be careful, little mouse. I can sense in their minds that they hold this one in great respect. Laughing at her would not help your cause,* Amani warned silently.
"Sorry," Farrah whispered, and waited quietly while the large, pale-gray mus called Lord O'dmemet stroked his whiskers. Lord O'dmemet then spoke briefly, and Merle translated again.
"Lord O'dmemet says, 'We have heard of your people from some of the cats we take prisoner. We were not aware that you spoke with your minds - the cats said that you were a race of mutes, perhaps even sub-intelligent, so sorry.'"
"Amani says that her people have concealed this from the cats, as it remains their only advantage over them," Bootie replied after a moment of listening to Amani. "She also says it would be appreciated if this information did not get back to them."
Lord O'dmemet rumbled for a moment, then smiled and bowed. "Lord O'dmemet says, 'We will, of course, keep your secrets. Any enemy of the cats is a friend of ours.'" Merle translated, and when she had finished, Lord O'dmemet spoke up again. "Lord O'dmemet says 'Now, let us sit and discuss what has happened with the Little Ones, and what may be done about it.'"
An hour later, a gibbous moon had risen into the starry sky, and the youngest musties had been put to bed by their parents. The older musties all gathered round the fire in a circle, watching and listening. Lord O'dmemet had ordered his warriors to pitch camp outside the village, and now only six of his warriors sat by his side, listening to Merle's translation. Finally, the explanation was done. Byarl added a little to the end of the story, telling Merle and Lord O'dmemet what had happened after Bootie, Farrah and Amani had arrived at the village. His grasp of the language of the mus was not as great as Merle's, however, and he finally simply resorted to speaking in his own language, and letting Merle translate. When at last the story had been told, Lord O'dmemet simply sat, stroking his whiskers and thinking. After a long while, he rumbled something to Merle, then fell silent.
"Lord O'dmemet says 'So sorry, but much as I want to catch the cats who have taken your people, I do not know how this is possible. We have no idea where they might be. As you learned walking from your village to here, the world is a very large place. I can surmise they are somewhere west of us, in the lands of the cats, but beyond that, I do not know where to even begin to look - and if they are too deep within the lands of the cats, it will take an army to retrieve them. I have twenty warriors here, and another two hundred at my camp in the next clearing, over there. That is hardly an army, so sorry.'"
*Tell them that I will lead them, Bootie Smithsmate,* Amani's soundless voice replied, echoing quietly in Bootie and Farrah's minds.
Bootie blinked in surprise. "You will? How? Do you know where they are?"
*I am a seer. I cannot explain how I know - I simply know. I cannot explain how I know that your mate is alive, though in a dark moment for his soul. I simply know. I knew the moment I met you, and looked into your eyes. I cannot explain how I can lead the mus to your people. I only know that I can.*
"What is it, Bootie?" Merle asked. Her question was apparently on the minds of everyone present, judging by their faces.
"Well... Amani says she can lead the mus to my people. She is a seer among her people - they have visions of things to come, and... Well, I know it sounds silly, but there it is. She can't explain how she knows, she simply knows."
"She can lead us to the cats who kidnapped your people?" Merle asked, surprised.
"Yes. I can't explain how, and neither can she, but she can."
"Hrm?" Lord O'dmemet rumbled, and Merle translated the exchange for him. When she was done, O'dmemet thought about it for a moment, then shook his head. He rumbled something in reply, pointing at Amani briefly, then fell silent.
Merle fidgeted for a moment. "Ummm... Lord O'dmemet says 'So sorry, but I find that difficult to believe. To be truthful, you mice are known by us as being very deceitful. For all I know, this creature here is exactly what the cats think they are - sub-intelligent - and you are, quite literally, putting words in her muzzle.' I'm sorry, Bootie, but that's what he says."
Bootie's tail drooped to the ground, and she hung her head. Farrah was flatly stunned. "But we're not! We're telling you the truth!" Farrah yelped.
Several of the musties spoke at once, and Byarl raised a paw for silence. When order was restored, he spoke. "Merle, tell Lord O'dmemet that we musties have watched Amani for the better part of four days, and we're convinced that she is not sub-intelligent, nor are Bootie and Farrah putting words in her muzzle. We don't trust the mice any more than he does, however we believe their story to be true. Why else would Bootie walk so far, so close to term, and end up nearly giving birth on my doorstep? No, their story has to be true."
Lord O'dmemet listened to Merle's translation, thought about it for a moment, then nodded. He rumbled something in his language, then bowed from where he sat.
"Lord O'dmemet says, 'I acknowledge the truth in your words, Great Chief Byarl. If you say your people have seen this, then it must be so. In the morning, we will take the horse and the Little One, Farrah, with us, and follow whither they may lead.'"
"Tell Lord O'dmemet I thank him, and I will send an octet of my best hunters along with him to scout for him. They can ride double with some of his warriors."
Merle translated, for O'dmemet, and then listened to his reply. Lord O'dmemet spoke again, then bowed, smiling. "Lord O'dmemet says, 'We thank you - we will have need of the best scouts, as Lord Xaa is otherwise occupied. With your people scouting for us, I feel as safe as a babe in its mother's arms.'"
Byarl bowed in return, grinning, then looked at the crowd of musties. "Ayori, Nito, Dromo, Kasta, Bessie, Pogo, Sarto, and me," Byarl called, pointing. "All of you be ready to leave at the crack of dawn. Bring food and water, your slings, your guns, and enough powder and shot to last awhile."
"Why bring our slings if we're going to bring our guns, chief?" Nito asked.
"The slings are for hunting - they're quieter, and we should earn our keep along the way by helping to fill the stewpot instead of just eating from it like a lazy pup. The guns are for the cats. Now get going."
"Right, chief," Nito replied with a grin, and scurried off to his house. His four brothers looked on jealously - they hadn't been picked as being among the best hunters. For that matter, Byarl had passed over his own sons. Byarl turned to his sons, seeing their faces, and smiled. "Byasta, Modi, I need you two here. Someone has to help your mother watch the village. Now stop moping."
Modi and Byasta grinned. "Okay, dad," Modi said, and looked to his mother. Ellie simply smiled quietly, keeping her thoughts to herself.
Lord O'dmemet rose, politely rumbled 'goodnight' while he bowed, then after all the musties had bowed in returned and wished him pleasant dreams (as was their custom), he nodded to the warriors behind him and walked away from the village, towards the camp his warriors had set up nearby.
"Merle, do you need a place to sleep?" Byarl asked as the rest of the musties began to file away, heading to their homes.
"No, I have my own tent and bedroll - I'll sleep with the mus in their camp, later. First, I wanna see Bootie's baby," Merle replied, and grinned.
"You-you do?" Bootie asked, surprised. In four days, nobody had asked to see her baby. The musties really weren't that interested anymore, and they really didn't like the mice anymore at all. Ellie had helped as Bootie's midwife, but after Little Tinker was born, she simply swaddled him in a blanket, gave him to Bootie and hardly glanced at him thereafter. Amani had told Bootie that part of this was that to the eyes of the musties, the newborn mouse-pup was very ugly, as it had no hair, and its eyes were fused shut - mustie-pups were born with a full coat, and their eyes usually opened and began to focus within minutes of birth.
In the old days, musties hardly ever saw baby mice - the mice were very protective of their offspring, and the first a mustie ever saw of one was usually at it's first birthday, when it was taken to mustie village to be introduced to its defenders. The little things usually shivered and cried at the smell of all the carnivores, and it really wasn't a pleasant experience for them. Now, the mustie village in the Wild Wood was empty and overgrown with weeds, and all the mice dearly missed their friends, no matter how frightening they once had thought them to be.
"It is okay, isn't it?" Merle asked.
Bootie beamed. "Yes," she replied, and as Merle stepped close, she gently unwrapped Little Tinker form the blanket Ellie had given him. Merle smiled and looked the baby over. For his part, Little Tinker felt the cold air on his skin, and shivered briefly, his little whiskers twitching. As Merle loomed over him, he could smell her carnivore's scent, and squeaked nervously.
"Ummm... When does his fur come in?" Merle asked, staring down at the naked, blind, pink thing that waved his paws nervously in the cool night air.
"It's already started. See how he has a little fuzz? In about three more weeks, he'll have a full coat," Bootie replied, smiling.
"Oh. And when do his eyes open?"
"About the same time," Bootie replied, still smiling.
"Well... He's... Ummm... He's a very pretty baby," Merle replied politely, and smiled again.
Bootie gently wrapped Little Tinker up in his blanket, then leaned forward to hug Merle, here eyes misty with tears. "Thank you. Nobody noticed how pretty he is. He's really a very pretty baby. I'm very proud of him," Bootie replied, and sniffled.
Amani lifted her fore-hooves from Bootie and Farrah, and sat down slowly in the grass, her expression strange as she watched Merle and Bootie hug quietly. Farrah reached out and Took Amani's fore-hoof in her paws. 'Amani? What is it?' she thought at her, seeing her expression.
*I... I now understand something of this 'privacy' thing you and your mother speak of so often. I have just learned this from the mustelid, Merle.*
*Your mother was very sad. Sharing and rejoicing in a birth, and praising the mother on the beauty of their foal was an important part of your social relationships. It is the same with us, but I cannot appreciate your brother's appearance - he is simply too different from my people. He has all the proper appendages in all the proper positions, but that is all I can tell. He is not ugly to me, but neither is he particularly attractive. To you, he looks perfectly marvelous - but you are only one mouse, and your mother already knew you would love your brother before you ever saw him. She... She needed to be told how beautiful her foal is. And the mustelid, Merle, could see that. So, she told her that it was beautiful.*
'Ummm... So what? I'm sorry, but I don't understand.'
*But I do,* Amani replied, looking at Merle and Bootie again.
"So what will you name him?" Merle asked.
"We'll call him Tinker, according to the Law of the Mice. The eldest son of a mouse named Smith is always called Tinker."
"Oh, Bootie! I think that's wonderful! And you know, he even has Tinker's cute little nose!" Merle replied, grinning as she looked down at Little Tinker's muzzle, just barely poking out from the swaddling blanket.
*Yes, now I begin to understand...* Amani thought to Farrah.
'Okay, but understand what?' Farrah thought in reply.
*The mustelid, Merle, does not think your brother is beautiful. Far from it - she thinks this is perhaps the ugliest creature she has ever seen in all her days. She finds it's naked, pink skin with the tiny blood vessels easily visible in it to be disgusting, and is thinking that it resembles in many ways the ugly, featherless, blind, gangly hatchlings of the Great Birds. Yet, she does not share this thought, because she knows it will hurt your mother. Deeply,* Amani replied, and paused. *Yes... I now understand some of what you mean by this 'privacy' thing. Perhaps it is not so strange, after all.*
Farrah started to glare at Merle, but stopped after only a moment. It wasn't Merle's fault she thought her brother was ugly - to a mustie, he was. Merle was, at least, trying to be nice, and that's what really mattered.
*Indeed, little mouse. Oh, from time to time, we have ill thoughts about each other. We can ignore the surface-thoughts, just as you would ignore someone speaking to you among many voices in a crowded room. To us, the surface thoughts matter little - we know that a healthy, intelligent, active mind can flit from thought to thought at random, and the thoughts at the surface of the mind often have nothing to do with the heart of the person. No, we look into the heart for the true feelings of another. Yet, you cannot do that. So, many times you keep your thoughts to yourself and remain silent, or even lie, to avoid hurting the feelings of others.*
"Now, now..." Bootie cooed, nuzzling Little Tinker lovingly in his blanket, who still squeaked nervously at Merle's scent. "That's your Auntie Merle. She thinks you're very handsome, my son. Don't be afraid. Shhhhh..."
"Auntie Merle," Merle replied, and giggled. "Well, Bootie, I have to go - hopefully I'll see you when we all get back."
Bootie looked up to Merle, her eyes suddenly pleading. "Take good care of Farrah, please... Please, Merle. Watch over her," she said, and sniffled. "I know I have no right to ask you to protect my daughter... But the Law of the Mice was wrong, Merle. What the Law required us to do to your people was wrong. Please, Merle. I... I'm sorry."
Merle smiled. "I'll watch out for Farrah, Bootie. Really," she said, then bowed reflexively - two years of living with the mus had changed her. "Goodnight," she said with a grin.
Bootie bowed back, not knowing what else to do, and Merle straightened up, then turned and walked away into the trees.
Bootie sighed. "Well, Farrah, I guess we go back in and get some sleep. You'll need it - you have a long day ahead of you."
"Not quite," a voice hissed.
Bootie and Farrah turned, and saw Ellie standing by the door to her house. "No, there's something I want to say to you, first, Bootie."
"W-what?" Bootie asked nervously.
"My mate is going along on this... Rescue. I don't think they should go at all. If it wasn't for the fact that the cats would squeeze your knowledge from your brains like juice from a berry, I think your people should all be left to rot. And this isn't going to be the end if it. Oh, no!" she snarled, and stepped up into Bootie's face, their muzzles nearly touching. "The cats won't let this go that easily, even if we do rescue you. They'll try again, and again, and again, so long as they think that they can get your secrets from you. That means you'll need someone to stop them - and you'll turn to us, or the mus. And in no time at all, you'll have us your happy little slaves again, Bootie Smithsmate!"
"No! We wouldn't do that, ever again!" Bootie squeaked.
"Oh? Then maybe you'll turn to the horses, like your big friend here?" Ellie snapped, jerking a thumb at Amani. "Maybe soon, you'll have them stepping and fetching at your slightest finger-twitch, never knowing that they are your servants forever, just like you did to us and the mus!"
"Yes, Bootie Smithsmate! I know you. We all do! I've known you all my life. And I'm telling you now..." she said, and bared her fangs. "If my mate doesn't come back from rescuing your stupid people, I'll... I'll..." she stammered at a loss for words. Finally, she stamped her foot, her fur standing on end, then turned and stormed off back into the house.
For a long moment, Bootie simply stared after Ellie in silence.
Then, quietly, she began to sob.
Amani held out her fore-hoof as she sat next to Farrah. *Come here, Bootie Smithsmate. Come. Sit with me.*
Bootie sat down next to Amani, and felt her reassuring arm drape around her shoulder, and hug her tight. Bootie was both frightened and saddened by what Ellie had said, and could only weep for a long moment, in fear of what Ellie might do.
*She would not hurt you, little mouse. She is, even now, weeping in the arms of her mate. She does not want him to go, but she knows he must. She is just upset at the thought that he may never come back - and that if he does not, he will have died to protect people she feels are no longer worth his death. But no, she would not hurt you. She does not have that in her.*
"You-you're a seer, you said. You can see the future, sometimes... Can't you tell me he will be alright, so I can tell her?" Bootie replied, sniffling.
*I could, but I would be lying, little mouse. I do not know if he will live or die. It will be dangerous - each time I turn my inner eye towards him, either possibility seems likely.*
"Oh!" Bootie wailed, and could say nothing more for awhile. She simply sat and wept.
Deep in her heart, Bootie wanted to ask about Farrah. Bootie wanted to know if Amani could see if Farrah would be alright. Yet, at the same time, she didn't dare ask. She was terrified that she would learn that Farrah would die - or worse, that Amani simply didn't know.
Amani sensed Bootie's thoughts,
but wisely held her peace, and simply hugged Bootie and Farrah
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