of the Last God
(Book II of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY
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Farrah crossed her arms, her pink tail lashing behind her in agitation, her whiskers twitching. "No, Daddy. I will not marry Potter, and that is final!"
Smith threw up his paws in frustration, casting his eyes to the ceiling for a moment as if supplicating the spirits of the forest. "Bootie, talk to your daughter!"
Farrah's mother looked up from where she was working by the fire, quietly knitting a blanket for the baby she expected in a few months, an eyebrow raised. "She's your daughter, too, you know," she replied, then looked at Farrah. "Farrah, why won't you marry Potter? He's a good boy, and he comes from a fine family. You're fourteen, now. It's time you were mated and began a family of your own. You don't want all your friends to think you're an old maid, do you?"
"But I don't love him!" Farrah replied, stamping her little mousie-foot on the floor of her family's tiny little burrow.
"You will learn to love him, dear, just as I learned to love your father," Bootie replied, placing the half-finished blanket and her knitting needles in her lap for a moment. "Farrah, when I was your age, I had misgivings about your father, too. But, after I got to know him, I found that my father and mother were right - he was a wonderful mouse, and a perfect mate."
Smith grinned at his mate. "You really think so?" he asked, puffing out his chest.
"Yes, dear - now don't let it go to your head."
"Sorry," Smith replied, the tips of his ears blushing.
"But momma I do not want to marry Potter at all! And I don't want to have to stop my schooling at fourteen to raise a family, like you did! I want to keep learning and... And maybe even take Tinker's place in the Council of Elders, when the time comes for daddy to step down!"
Farrah's father gasped, but her mother merely rolled her eyes. "Dear, wake up and smell the stewpot - what's in it has been cooking since long before you were born, and there's nothing else to eat. Before you could be accepted to the Council, the males already on the council would have to agree. And they won't. That is totally against the Law of the Mice. Perhaps you might be allowed to continue your schooling, taking the same courses your brother would have taken had he lived - spirits rest his little soul," she said, and sighed for a moment before she continued. "Still, that decision would be made by your mate, Potter. He seems a reasonable mouse. Perhaps he will agree to that - after you're married and have borne a few of his children."
"But that would still mean stopping my schooling - perhaps for years, momma!' Farrah said, and crossed her arms again. "I know just as much as my brother ever did, and I'm better in some subjects than he was. I should be allowed to continue my schooling, and to take his place on the Council when the time comes!"
Smith drew himself to his full height (such as it was, for a little mouse), and spoke. "Alright - I want you to be happy, so here's what I'll do," he said, then paused, his tail flicking nervously as he considered what he was about to say. Finally, he gathered up his resolve, and lifted a finger. "I promise, here and now, that if you will agree to marry Potter, I will make sure that the marriage contract includes a clause that allows you to continue your schooling after you are married, taking the same courses your brother would have taken. Furthermore, I will..." he said, hesitating a moment before gulping down his fears. "I will go before Mayor Cooper and ask that another change in the Law of the Mice be made, allowing you to take my place on the council when I step down, as Tinker would have. He's my friend - we've known each other since childhood, and we grew up together. There's a good chance he'll agree."
Bootie gazed at her mate in open surprise, and Farrah fell silent, simply staring at her father. Bootie had never seen Smith be so daring before in all the sixteen years of their marriage. 'Truly, the death of our son has changed him,' she thought to herself, and suppressed a quiet sigh which might have broken the moment, and affected Farrah's decision. Tinker's death had changed everything, it seemed. Their once perfectly-planned life was shattered. Two years ago, everything had been fine. They had one son to take Smith's place in the council, and one daughter to marry off to Weaver's family and cement the bonds between their two lines. Her mate had finished the first of the steel-wire rabbit cages, which in a generation or two would have insured the musties were dependent on the mice forever, which, in turn would have insured the survival of the mice. Yes, her son had a small infatuation with the mustie-girl, Merle, but Bootie had been certain that if she pressed him, he would follow the Law of the Mice and take the mate that had been chosen for him before he was even born.
Then, the Defender showed up.
Bootie remembered telling her mate that she thought Cooper had revealed too much that first day Tinker ran screaming back to the village, Merle and Xaa following behind. Cooper's fear and shame had loosened his tongue, and Byarl had discovered the truth of the relationship between the musties and the mice by reading between the lines of Cooper's sobbing, weeping confession and apology to Xaa. Bootie had gazed at him through the window of their little home that day, and seen it in his carnivore's eyes. He knew. But Smith had refused to believe it. 'They are simply not smart enough to figure it out,' he'd replied, dismissing the notion. Seven months later, she'd told him again. The bear attacking Mason's house was too coincidental. It was the strongest house in the village, and Mason often bragged to Byarl how tough he'd built the walls. Xaa's killing of the bear was too perfect, too well-timed. Her mousie-nose had told her it was a setup, and when she looked into Byarl's eyes that day as he shoveled off the bloody snow, she saw it again. He knew. He had arranged the whole scene, somehow, so that Cooper, the Council, and indeed the entire village would fear Xaa as a deadly predator, a creature of their darkest legends come to life, and reject his plea for help.
She remembered the last time she'd seen her son. He was packing to leave with Merle and the Defender, Xaa. He quoted the Law of the Mice, which stated that the Musties and the Mice were partners forever, and as such insisted he should go along to help her. Bootie knew the truth - her son was in love with the mustie, and didn't want to lose her. Bootie had argued, she'd wept, she'd even called in Mayor Cooper to interpret the law for Tinker. In short, she'd tried every trick a mother could think of to use against her son - and it might have worked, but for one thing.
Byarl came, and argued that Xaa's people were involved in a war, and as such Merle might find herself in some tight spots. As such, he said, it was likely that "Only the wisdom of the mice might save the day." It was an argument Cooper and Smith couldn't counter - to do so would be to admit to Byarl that the musties didn't really need the mice at all. Bootie had looked into his eyes again. Again, she could see the same thing she saw there before. He knew. This was all some sort of plan of his. Byarl was smarter than Smith or Cooper or any of the Council gave him credit for - far smarter. And she knew, at that moment, she'd never see her son again.
And she never did.
She tried to warn her mate, but still Smith felt the musties would never figure it out. Bootie knew in her heart he was wrong - but as the weeks dragged into months and still her son did not return, she realized that it no longer mattered. The die was cast. Even if she was wrong and Byarl didn't know, and everything that happened was merely a long string of coincidence and a mother's paranoia about her son, it wouldn't matter. Merle was bound to find out from Xaa and the other defenders, if they lived to make it back to them. And if she lived to return, then the rest of the musties would know. Then, it would all be over.
A year later, Byarl had come with the news - Xaa and Merle had returned, and her son was dead. "He died saving their lives, Bootie," Byarl had said. "He died bravely, and as a hero." Bootie found this was no consolation. Her heart broke that day. She had known it was coming. She had known it in her heart. And now, her son was dead. Then, came his hissed demand to Cooper for he and the council members to show up in the mustie village the next morning. And Bootie knew it was, at last, over. The musties knew. She could see it in Byarl's eyes. He had known for a year, but kept the secret to himself so that his people wouldn't be unhappy - after all, even if he'd told them they were the slaves of the technology of the mice, what could they do about it? They weren't like the Defenders - they wouldn't slay the mice, having discovered the truth. At the same time, they couldn't simply leave - they had no place to go, and no way to make the tools they needed to survive. No, they'd just be miserable - and so Byarl had kept the knowledge to himself. Now, they had a place to go. She knew even before her mate came back from that fateful meeting to tell her... She knew the musties would leave to join the Mus. And now, the mice were alone in the world, with none to care for them.
And yet, if someone had listened to her, perhaps it might have been prevented. Perhaps the musties would still be here to protect the mice. Perhaps her son would still live. Perhaps... Yet, it was not to be.
"I..." Farrah began, then stopped. She spent a moment smoothing her little dress, composing herself. She ran a paw over the gray fur on the top of her head and the back of her neck, smoothing it flat again from where it had stood on end in agitation. Finally, she looked into her father's eyes. "I'm sorry, Father. I appreciate everything you've said, and I know what a great effort that would be for you, but... I cannot marry Potter. I do not love him," she said, then sighed. "I'm sorry," she said with a sniffle, then turned and ran to the door of their little burrow. With a swift push, she opened the door and ran outside, sobbing.
"Farrah! You come back here!" Smith squeaked in indignation.
"Let her go, Smith," Bootie said quietly, tears welling up in her little mousie-eyes.
"What?! Why?! She needs to come back here and face reality - you told her that yourself! I... I've made every possible effort to make her happy! I've even promised to... Well, you heard what I promised!"
"Yes, I did. Now let her go," Bootie replied, sniffling. "She'll come back. She'll come back when she's hungry. Or perhaps when it grows dark. But she'll come back. There's nowhere else for her to go," Bootie finished, then sobbed.
"Oh, Bootie! I'm sorry! I didn't mean to make you cry!" Smith said, and knelt beside his mate, hugging her gently. "I love you, Bootie. I really, really do," he whispered, nuzzling her gently and lapping away her tears. "I love you with all my heart and soul. I think of you from the moment I wake to the moment I sleep. You are everything to me. Please don't cry, Bootie. I'm sorry. Didn't mean to yell at you."
"It wasn't you," Bootie sniffled, hugging back. "Well, it was, and it wasn't."
"It was and it wasn't?" Smith murmured, holding Bootie close and gently nibbling and lapping at the fur of the back of her neck, grooming her softly.
"Tinker," Bootie replied simply, and fell silent.
Smith hugged his mate gently. "Oh. He was a good boy, Bootie. I am proud of him, and his mother."
"Thank you," Bootie replied quietly, sniffling still. Her heart ached for her lost son, and from the knowledge that burned within her. She knew the Law of the Mice was wrong. Smith and Cooper and the rest of the council were struggling to change as little as possible, preserving as much as they could while adapting to their new situation. A pawful of the most trustworthy, responsible young males in the village had been designated to patrol the forest, using guns smith had made for them. Yet, Bootie knew in her heart this wouldn't be enough. Those five mice couldn't possibly stop a bear, much less the kind of terrible things that lurked beyond the Wild Woods in the vastness of the Unknown Lands. She knew that someday, something terrible would come out of the Unknown Lands - and the mice would be totally unprepared for it. The males simply weren't willing to change the Law to the degree it would take to truly accommodate their new situation. It would take a new council, a council more willing to bend the old laws, break them - or simply toss them out and come up with new laws. A council comprised of mice like her daughter.
Bootie could see it clearly. The future of the mice rested in her daughter's mind and heart, and in the minds and hearts of all those who would follow her. Bootie leaned back, looking at Smith through a veil of tears. "Swear to me you will keep your promise to our daughter. Swear it to me."
"May I die on the spot if I break my word to you or her, Bootie. I meant what I said. It's scary, and I know they will fight me on allowing her into the council, but I will not let you or her down. She will have the clause that lets her continue her education in her marriage contract, and she will take my place on the council when the time comes," Smith said, and gulped nervously. "Even if the other mice never speak to me again, she will have what I promised."
Bootie hugged her mate, and they nuzzled each other quietly. Finally, Bootie spoke. "Then I will get her to go through with it."
"How?" Smith asked glumly. "She's dead-set against it."
Bootie nodded. Still, deep in her heart, she knew she was right. In her daughter lay the seeds for a new future for the Mice of the Wild Wood. She may not be happy with the idea of marrying without love, but she would have to swallow her pride and do it. If she did, then perhaps in a few generations, the mice would be a changed people, with a Council of Elders that had thrown out the old laws that had left them in this sorry state, and written new laws that would lead them to a brighter future. Bootie knew it might not happen in her lifetime, but it still would happen. Bootie knew deep in her heart that she was right, and the future depended on it. And maybe, just maybe, she could make her daughter understand it, as well. "I'll talk to her, my mate. And if I know her, she will listen."
Smith smiled, and nuzzled his mate. "I love you, Bootie."
Bootie smiled back, her eyes
misting with tears again. "I love you, too," she
replied, because she did.
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