of the Last God
(Book II of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY
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"...and then, once Byarl was able to ride again, the mus put us on the backs of their birds and we rode all the way back here, momma!" Farrah said, smiling.
Bootie nodded, smiling, and hugged Farrah again in the quiet of the little room Byarl and Nellie had kindly provided in their home. Much as she was fascinated by the story, her eyes were still caught by the sight of her mate - alive, well, and cradling their infant son in his arms. Little Tinker's fur had filled out and his little black eyes were open and gazing about curiously, and he now resembled his father very strongly instead of the little pink, squirming thing Merle had seen over a month before. "I'm so glad to know you're both safe," she said, her eyes still full of tears.
When she first saw Smith, she had hugged him and nuzzled him for nearly an hour while Byarl assigned which musties would put up which family of mice for a the night, giving them a chance to rest a bit and recover from their ordeal before the mus took them back home in the morning. Nellie had screamed with joy at seeing Byarl again, though she was terribly upset to see the bandage around his chest and had fussed over him endlessly. Even now, Bootie could smell the sickening stench of a meat and organ stew that Nellie was preparing in the kitchen for Byarl while he relaxed in their room - though she was sure it smelled delicious to the nose of a mustie, to her nose, it smelled positively vile.
Now, sitting on as they were in their quiet little room, Bootie could see how much the ordeal had changed Smith. He was thinner, for one. His stained, rumpled clothes hung loosely on his frame, and Bootie guessed he had lost perhaps three-quarters of a stone when she helped him change into the a suit of Byarl's clothes Nellie had kindly provided - a large amount for a male mouse weighing perhaps only three and a half stone before.
Yet, there was more. Even now, as he smiled, nuzzling his son, Bootie could tell that more than just his body had been affected. She could see it in his eyes. The ordeal had affected him greatly, changing him all the way down to his soul. There were moments when she saw something flicker in his eyes... A haunted look, an expression of deep pain.
She had heard parts of the story, of course. It was all the mice talked about the first day they the defenders had brought them to the village of the musties to rest and recover. They didn't talk directly to her, of course. No, many already shied away from her, and acted as though the Shunning that Fannie had called for had already been passed down by the council. Yet, they talked among each other - and the horse, Amani, listened, and told Bootie what they thought. She needed to hear her mate's story, now. Yet, he seemed so tired...
Bootie sighed. In all the years they had been together, she had always been, in many ways, the one in charge of the family. Certainly, Smith had acted in the role of a proper father, but when the hard decisions needed to be made, he almost always deferred to her. It was simply his way. Bootie had learned from Amani's eavesdropping that apparently Smith had become the leader when Cooper went mad from the ordeal. Those who supported Smith saw him as strong, powerful... Even indomitable. Yet, as she looked at her mate, she realized that he was totally spent, both physically and emotionally. He simply sat there, smiling, nuzzling his son, and occasionally wiping a quiet tear from his eyes with a kerchief. Bootie knew that if she said nothing, he might sit there for the rest of his life, praying to all the gods and spirits that watched over their people that he would wake, and learn that all these last four months had all been merely a bad dream. Bootie knew that she had to say something.
"Dear, now that I've heard Farrah's story, I believe it's time for me to hear yours. What happened, Smith?"
Smith sighed, and looked down at his son again. With an expression of regret, as though he felt he wasn't even worthy of touching his son, he gave Little Tinker back to Bootie, then sat back heavily in his chair. "You don't want to know, Bootie."
"Dear, if I didn't want to know, I wouldn't have asked. I prayed every night to all the gods and spirits which watch over our people to bring you back to me, alive and safe. Now, here you are - and I want to know what happened between you and Cooper."
"Heh. You prayed for me?" Smith said, his smile strained.
"Yes. Every night, with all my heart," Bootie replied quietly.
"Didn't anyone ever tell you it's useless to pray for the damned?"
Bootie flinched slightly, but pressed on anyway. "And what makes you think you're damned, Smith?"
Smith's little face screwed up in an expression of rage and sorrow. "Why?! Why?! Because I murdered Cooper, that's why!" he shouted. "No mouse has ever killed another - until now! Until me! And now I will be Shunned, and you, my mate, who I love more than life itself, will never be able to speak to me again!"
Farrah squeaked in terror. 'My father... Shunned? The Law calls for a Shunning, even though he saved the children?'
Bootie was taken aback for a moment, and even Little Tinker squeaked in alarm. In all the years Bootie had known her mate, he had never raised his voice to her. Yet, she knew she couldn't let it rest there. Stroking Little Tinker gently to calm him, she gazed her mate firmly in the eye. "I already know that, Smith. I'm not an idiot. It's all the other mice talk about. Now, I want to hear you tell me what happened. And stop yelling, you're frightening your son."
Smith wilted before his mate's gaze. "I'm sorry, Bootie. I didn't mean-"
"I know, dear," Bootie interrupted. "Now tell me what happened."
For a long moment, Smith was silent. Bootie waited patiently, lowering the top of her blouse to nurse Little Tinker and keep him quiet. After a long moment, Smith sighed.
"He'd gone mad, Bootie. Many of us were nearly so, I think - but for Cooper, it was worse. They tore apart his shop looking for anyone that might be hiding - and they found all his family. He'd sealed them into the barrels he makes. He thought the cats were stupid, you see. All our legends said they were stupid, primitive barbarians, and Cooper could recite all the History of the Mice word for word, backwards and forwards. But that, apparently, was long ago. The barrels were the first place they looked."
"And this drove him mad?" Bootie asked, raising an eyebrow.
"No... Well, yes... Well, partially..." Smith replied, then let out an exasperated sigh. "Bootie, he was proud of putting them in barrels. 'The cats are all stupid, they'll never find any of us in barrels,' he said. He wanted us all to have barrels to hide in, if you remember - but there wasn't enough time for him to make them. Then, the cats found them anyway. Cooper was wrong. They weren't stupid. Then, there was the trip itself. The big cat... R'Narr, I think his name was. He threatened to eat us, one at a time, alive if anyone tried to escape. Cooper fainted. So did several others. After a few days, all he could do was sit in the corner and shake with terror. And when he found out that you and Farrah hadn't been captured..." Smith said, and sighed again.
"Someone had to lead. The council... The council was worthless. Even they knew it. We were trapped in their wagons with no wood to chew, little food, no water, and the latrine buckets kept spilling with every bump. The council couldn't decide on what to do. They were all too scared. So, I had everyone nibble holes so we could move around better, and relieve ourselves out the bottom of the wagons. It seemed the logical thing to do. The next thing I knew, everyone was looking to me as the leader. I just had to carry on," Smith said, and was silent for a long moment as he remembered.
"The cats were mad about the holes, but I explained it to them and they weren't mad anymore. I also got them to admit they weren't going to eat us. They said that maybe their ancestors were primitive barbarians who did disgusting things like that, but the cats today weren't. However, they said that if we tried to escape, they'd murder all our children before our eyes. When I told everyone that..." Smith said, and sighed again.
"When I told everyone that, Cooper snapped. He started screaming "Not your children, Smith!" I had to shut him up - one of the cats understood us. And... And we fought. And I won. And I hurt him to win. I bit the nape of his neck, and held on until he gave up. I didn't want to hurt him, Bootie. He was my friend. But he had to shut up! The cats would have gone back for you!"
Bootie nodded. "I know, Smith. You did right. Then what happened?"
"Well... After that, he wasn't the same. He cried a lot. I think his neck hurt a lot, too. We didn't have any medicines or healing herbs - the wound got infected. Then, one day... One day he just squirmed out the latrine hole and ran away," Smith said, and Bootie waited patiently for him to continue, shifting Little Tinker over to her other breast.
"It took them two days to catch him. The cats were furious. We all knew what would happen next. All the children would die. So, I had all the mice call for the cat that could understand us. I knew there was only one way to show them that we didn't want our children to die. I knew there was only one way to show them that we didn't approve of what Cooper had done," Smith said, and his voice became very quiet.
"So I killed him. It wasn't neat, it wasn't clean, and he died in great pain. I murdered him."
"To save the children," Bootie replied, eyeing him carefully.
Smith looked up suddenly, his expression again a mix of anger and sorrow. "Yes, to save the children! And it worked! The cats didn't kill any of them! But that's no excuse! The Law of the Mice doesn't permit murder for any reason! I've killed someone, Bootie! Don't you understand that?! I murdered my best friend! I'm a damned creature, a soulless being, condemned to hell!"
"According to the Law of the Mice," Bootie said, meeting his gaze. "But the Law is wrong, Smith."
"No! The Law of the Mice is wrong, Smith! It cost us everything! It cost us our friendship with the Defenders eight centuries ago, and that cost hundreds of thousands of our ancestors their lives! It cost us our friendship with the musties, and that left us defenseless when the cats came, and now cost Cooper his life! The Law of the Mice is wrong, my mate. You are not a damned soul, because the very Law that damns you is worthless!"
Smith blinked, shocked. "Heresy!" he squeaked.
Bootie looked Smith squarely in the eye. "Perhaps. But for my mate, I will gladly risk heresy, damnation, and even death. You're worth it. And if the gods disagree, then to hell with them!"
Smith simply stared, too stunned for words. Farrah trembled for a moment, then her jaw firmed. Unbeknownst to her parents, who weren't watching, she slipped away, towards the door.
Bootie calmly covered her breasts again, placing Little Tinker over her shoulder and patting his back to make him burp. "The Law of the Mice was not written by the gods, Smith, but by the mice. And those that wrote it are long, long dead. Perhaps it served well in their days, but no longer. You and the council worked for months to try to change the law to accommodate the loss of the musties - you know the law can be changed. Well, Farrah and I have been talking, and we've decided that all the law needs to be changed. Burn the Law, if you have to, but it all needs to be changed."
"Burn the Law?!" Smith squeaked.
"Yes. Changing it bit-by-bit as you and the council were doing simply won't work. We need to start again, and write a new law for our people. A law that will last for all time, and not hurt us and cost us our lives and our friends, as this law has," Bootie replied, then sighed. "Farrah, why don't you tell your father what you and I talked about..." Bootie said, her voice trailing off as she looked around the room.
Farrah was gone.
"Where did she-" Smith
began, but he was suddenly interrupted. From outside the house,
there was a sudden, loud, shrill scream.
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