Ayre of the Last God
(Book III of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY


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Smith's tail lashed nervously as he finished dressing in the comfort of his warm little burrow. Six months of preparation had led up to this moment, this single ceremony. Everything had to be perfect. This was, perhaps, the one chance to show the mus and the musties that the mice - or at least those mice who had not returned to the Wild Wood - had, indeed, changed.

Smith and fifty of the mice of the Wild Wood had, after being rescued from the cats six months ago, split off from the rest of the mice. They had renounced the Law of the Mice as being wrong - a heretical thought, to a mouse. Yet, Smith knew in his heart that this decision had been the right one. The Law of the Mice had been the cause of their enslavement of the mus eight centuries before - and the cause of the Night of the Long Knives, where that race of giant mice finally threw off the shackles of their slavery in a night of terror, blood and death. It had been the cause of their enslavement of the musties, which lost the mice their second greatest allies. No, Smith knew that this decision was the right one. To remain with the mus, to learn their ways, to become part of their society, to show the mus and the musties that they repudiated the law... It was something that had to be done.

Yet, the last six months had not been easy. It seemed in many ways that the only thing the mice and the mus had in common was their heritage and the two virtues they both held in highest regard - humility and politeness. Everything else was completely different, from their language and diet to the way they dressed. More, the mice simply couldn't absorb everything from the mus' culture and replace their own with it - there were many things the mus did that the mice simply were not able to do. Yet, what they could do, the mice had vowed that they would do.

Still, it hadn't been easy, and some things had simply proved impossible. The houses, for example, were the first problem the mice had run across - and the problem had proved nearly insurmountable.

The mus lived in box-like houses that sat above the ground, built to their scale. To a mouse, even the smallest was an enormous, cavernous space with doors that yawned open like the entrance to a mine. The abandoned village Lord Xaa had given the mice to live in, a village emptied by the depredations of the cats and the conquest of Lord Xaa's lands years ago, had all been of that style - enormous, box-like shelters that were cavernous things to the little mice, who only stood half as tall as the mus.

The mice shortly discovered that living in a mus-sized house simply would not work for a mouse - it was too cold at night, and all the warm air produced by the steam engine and the forge and spread around the village by a vent system Smith and a half-dozen males had built didn't help. The warm air tended to accumulate near the ceilings of the enormous houses, leaving the floors chilled. Yet, when they tried making a mouse-sized version of a mus-home, they found that also didn't work - the little boxes were too hot during the day, like little ovens. So, they'd had to tear down the mus-sized houses in the abandoned village they had been given, and dig mouse-homes in their place. The musties made similar homes, since it was the mice who taught them how, eight centuries before. A small burrow, half-excavated, half built, the end result was like a low mound that rose from the ground, with a circular door, a window or two, a vent and chimney. A thick layer of earth provided insulation, keeping the house warm in winter, and cool in summer. Green, waving grass atop the mound held the dirt in place, and made it beautiful (to a mouse). Still, having to do this only hammered home to Smith that there were some things the mus did that the mice simply would not be able to do, despite how hard they tried.

Bootie, Smith's mate, looked over his mus-style clothes one last time. "I think you're ready, Smith," she said, and smiled. "Do you think you have the words down, now?"

Smith looked back to her, nodding silently. She looked radiant in the miniature kimono she had made, following the patterns they had received from the mus. As village seamstress, she had worked hard all winter to not only prepare the costumes for this ceremony, but also to make the hundreds of everyday articles that the mice would need. Smith had reasoned that one of the first things they should do if they were truly to absorb the culture of the mus was to dress like them - but even with Bootie working night and day using the sewing machine Smith had made for her, the power provided by the steam-engine he had only finished last fall, it had still taken her months to finish all the work. It was some comfort to Smith that mus clothing was much more comfortable than that the mice had worn before, and Bootie, Smith's mate, had discovered that making it was actually far easier than making clothing in the style of the Mice of the Wild Wood, once she understood how.

"Yes, I think I have it, now, though I don't know if I'll ever be as good at their language as Byarl - or Merle." Smith replied, his tail twitching as he struggled to squelch his nervousness.

Bootie nodded. "You will. Just remember what Byarl said, dear; the best way to pronounce their words is to pretend you were trying to cough up a hair stuck in the back of your throat," Bootie said, and grinned.

Smith smiled back, but didn't laugh. The ceremony that lay ahead was simply too serious, and he was very worried that he would mis-pronounce what he had to say. He had practiced for weeks and weeks, but he still wasn't confident in his ability to speak the words correctly.

The real problem was that the mice simply could not make many of the sounds an adult mus made. After six months of work, Smith had managed to learn the language to the point where he could make himself understood - but that was about all. And even he knew that his voice sounded like the yips of a mus-child, which was all the more humiliating, since that is basically what the mice looked like to the mus - immature little children, or at best, midgets. More, the mus considered the mice to be immature, in many ways. Selfish, petty, rude, and self-centered little beings who had yet to mature, by their standards. That was the whole point of the ceremony, today - to show the mus (and their allies, the musties) that the mice, or at least those who had split off from the mice of the Wild Wood and remained on Lord Xaa's lands, had changed.

Byarl had been a comfort, however. The musties also couldn't make the same sounds, and were small people like the mice. Byarl had, after a year of trying, managed to master their language fairly well - though not nearly as well as Merle, who'd had two years of practice. On those occasions he came to visit the mice and see how they were doing, Byarl continually reminded Smith that if he could master it, so could Smith and the rest of the mice. He also tried to remind Smith that the mus didn't look down on the mice because they weren't able to make the same sounds as an adult mus. Smith, each time Byarl would say this, would simply nod. He knew the mus had plenty of other reasons to look down on the mice besides the way they spoke.

"Do I... Do I look alright? I mean... I don't look like one of their children, do I?" Smith asked, his nervousness breaking through what little composure he had managed to muster.

Bootie shook her head. "No, I tailored your clothes very carefully, dear. Their children's clothes fit very loosely, like ours, so that they have room to grow. Their adult clothes are also loose, but not so much. The clothes I made for this ceremony fit very precisely. You should look like a full adult to them," she said, then smiled and poked Smith's muscular shoulder. "Besides - with all those muscles you've built working at the forge and helping to build the village, you hardly look like a child to me, dear."

Smith smiled, and nuzzled his mate for a moment. "Thank you, Bootie."

"You're welcome, dear. Now, I've got to help Farrah finish dressing, and wake Little Tinker from his nap. We've not much time before the ceremony."

"No need, momma!" Farrah's voice called from the other side of the room. Smith and Bootie turned to look, and saw that their daughter had already finished putting on her kimono, and was carrying her baby brother in her arms. "Little Tinker and I are both ready," Farra said, stepping up to Bootie and holding out her brother with a smile.

Bootie took her infant son from Farrah's arms, smiling. In the long journey to make it from the Wild Woods and alert the mus and the musties to the fact that the mice had been kidnapped by the cats, Farrah had grown substantially - not in body, for at age fourteen, she was about as large as a female mouse ever gets, standing three foot tall and weighing about twenty pounds. No, Farrah had grown in spirit, and was every much an adult as her mother and father were. She had stepped into the place her older brother would have taken, had he lived, and now was her father's assistant at the forge - though her skills were far greater than that of a mere assistant. In Farrah, the new future of the mice could be easily seen. No longer would the females be tied to a restricted life of supporting their mates - there simply wasn't enough skilled adults to divide the work by gender, as the Law of the Mice had once decreed. Besides - the mice of Smith's Village had repudiated the Old Law, and now were creating their own rules to live by, absorbing as much of the culture of the mus as they could, and using their ways and their traditions as the foundation for the New Law. Farrah would be Potter's mate, yes - not because the Law demanded it, but instead because the two had fallen in love. The same harsh captivity which had hardened Smith had also hardened Potter, and Farrah found she had fallen in love with the stronger, more mature mouse who had emerged from that ordeal. Farrah would continue to work by her father's side, and continue to learn as much as she could - and someday, Farrah would be the blacksmith of the village, and most likely the leader.

Smith rolled his shoulders back, and held up his head. His eyes flashed - gone was his earlier timidness, replaced instead by the strong gaze of the Village Leader that the other mice had come to know and respect. "Then it's time for us to go outside." he said, and stepped over to the door. Farrah grinned at seeing her father's spirit, and followed.

Bootie paused for a moment, smiling at Smith's determination, a little thrill making her tail shiver. This was the mouse that had come back to her, safe, rescued by the musties and the mus from the clutches of the cats. The cats had sought to use the knowledge and skills of the mice against the mus, forcing them to reveal the secrets of their ancient technologies so they could use them against their enemies in war. Tragically, Smith had been forced to kill his childhood friend, Cooper, to prevent the cats from taking revenge for Cooper's attempted escape and killing the children of the village. It had taken many months, but he finally seemed to have put that horrible experience behind him. The mouse that emerged during that captivity, however, was not the same mouse Bootie had married seventeen years before. Strong of limb and strong of will, Bootie often found it was like being married to a completely different mouse... Sometimes, she even wondered if this was what it would be like to be married to one of the mus, those giant, carnivorous mice who sometimes seemed to fear nothing. At night, in the quiet of their bed, Smith was still the gentle, caring partner she had known and loved over half of her life, yet he made love to her with a passion and fire that she had never known before. Bootie found that she had never been happier in all her days. Smiling, Bootie followed Smith outside the door, carrying her son in her arms.

At the sight of Smith and his family coming out of their burrow, the other mice of the village also emerged, and began to gather near the small stand that had been built. Already, the revolting smell of cooking meat was in the air, and Smith steeled himself against what he knew was to come. He had prepared himself for this moment for months. All the mice had, really. It was a necessary part of the ceremony, and to avoid it would be taken as an insult by the mus - and that could not be allowed. Smith walked up to the little stand and stood, waiting, while the rest of the village sat behind him on the ground, in four rows.

Smith looked over to where the carnivores had gathered. Lord Xaa and two of his vassals, Lord Jamat and Lord Y'dahk, stood near a small fire, over which a servant, the she-mus P'jasta, quietly finished cooking the last of the meat in a strange, bowl-like pan. Beside them stood another she-mus that Smith had not met, though he recognized her from a description of her Merle had given him months ago - Lady Vhross.

Lord W'mefa and his son, Lord O'dmemet, were present for the ceremony as well, as was Lady Johm'rouh, Xaa's daughter and O'dmemet's mate. Smith had met Johm'rouh before, when she had come by with Lord O'dmemet, Xaa and Merle to visit the village of the mice and see how they were getting along. Smith and all the mice had been amazed at her - her fur was pure white, her eyes the color of the sky, and she had a slender, delicate build. She was, to the mice of the Wild Wood, amazingly beautiful - a tall, ethereal giantess. It had been even more amazing to learn that she had spent four years rendered mindless by the widow-wart poisons of the cats, and only the intervention of Smith's son, Tinker, had cured her. The cure, blackroot, was common knowledge to the mice, but not to the mus. Smith had felt a warm glow of pride in knowing that his late son had saved such a wonderful, ethereal beauty as Johm'rouh. As Smith looked at her, the corners of Johm'rouh's mouth turned up in a small smile. Smith wondered if she was thinking about his late son, Tinker.

The servant, P'jasta, glanced over her shoulder, spotting Smith, and smiled broadly at him, her fangs gleaming in the sunlight. Smith smiled back - in six months, he had finally gotten used to the smiles of carnivores, and the sight of this enormous, carnivorous mouse smiling at him did not bother him. The other mus smiled, as well, and bowed. Smith bowed in return, then looked to the small group of musties who had come to see the ceremony.

Merle was there, of course, standing next to Lord Xaa. Near her was Byarl, the Chief of the Musties, and his mate, Ellie. Next to them were a dozen other musties, including Ayori. And, of course, next to Ayori was the mare, Amani, towering over even the enormous mus by a full head, and dressed only in the woven, wrap-around garment of her people - which, though it covered her appropriately, in truth concealed little, and was quite scandalous by the standards of the mice. Amani's brown eyes twinkled as the beautiful Appaloosa mare's mind caught Smith's thought, and she nickered softly in amusement. As Smith looked at Amani, that gentle, mute giantess who had escaped from the cats in the west and been so instrumental in securing the freedom of Smith and his people, Smith found his thoughts turning to what Byarl had told him she had done.

Amani, too, had her problems dealing with carnivores. Her people, the horses, were repulsed by the thought of killing another living creature and consuming it's flesh to survive. As such, even though she knew that Ayori Treeclimber was a sweet and gentle soul, she had rejected his love of her because of her own prejudices. Finally, she came to realize she was wrong - Ayori couldn't help the way he was born, any more than Amani could. So, before all the musties of the Laughing Woods, Amani ate a slice of boiled rabbit, to show that she now understood her prejudices against meat-eating were wrong. She was nauseous for hours afterwards, as her insides simply could not deal with it well, but she did it anyway. Now, the musties accepted her as a friend, and she and Ayori had a budding relationship. She had even learned to communicate with the musties - though only Ayori was skilled at hearing her mind-voice, as it took a bit of practice for a carnivore to hear her.

Amani nodded to Smith, smiling. *You are correct, Smith Forgersson,* she said, her silent mental voice echoing hollowly in his mind. *Your mind, and those of your people, are similar enough mine and that of my people that speaking to you comes easily. The mustelids, however, are carnivores. As such, their minds are closed, so that they will not empathize with the creatures they have to eat to survive. If they could feel the pain of the rabbits and deer and other animals they must kill to live, then they would not be able to do so, and would starve to death. I can speak to them, but only while touching, and only by doing the equivalent of a mental scream - and even then, they have to be relatively calm and listening carefully, or they hear nothing. Ayori now can hear me any time he is touching me, but only because he has practiced so much. As for the rest, speaking to them is as though they were deaf, and I was pressing my muzzle to their ear and screaming at the top of my lungs. Still, I have learned it is at least possible. I hope someday to be able to speak to the mus, as well, but I have yet to have the opportunity to try.*

'What does meat taste like, Amani?' Smith thought in reply, trying to control his nervousness. He, like all the mice, was not a telepath, yet he knew Amani was, and she could easily hear his thoughts.

Amani frowned slightly as she stood there, gazing at him. *I am sorry to say it is not pleasant. The flavor, to my tongue, was very bad, even though Ayori had boiled that little slice of meat and poured off the water so many times that to the tongue of his people, the meat would have been bland, flavorless and repulsive,* she replied, then smiled. *Still, do not worry. The mus, P'jasta, has worked very hard to try to make this symbolic meal something that you will be able to eat. I think that you will be pleasantly surprised - or, at least, you will not find it too nauseating.*

'Well, at least we don't have a vomit reflex, like you. At least we won't embarrass ourselves that way,' Smith thought gloomily in reply. 'If we can manage to swallow it, we'll be able to keep it down.'

Amani nodded, smiling slightly. *There is that.*

Finally, P'jasta was done. Placing the last of the meat upon a tray, she stood beside Lord Xaa, her liege-lord. There was also a large pitcher of water on the tray, a small jar of which Smith knew nothing about, and a small cloth P'jasta had carefully dampened with water. Smith steeled himself, and strode up the small step attached to the base of the stand the mice had made. The stand was a yard high and a yard wide, and had a small pillow placed atop it. Smith knelt, his knees atop the pillow, and waited. The purpose of the stand was simple - otherwise, Lord Xaa would have to kneel and bend over for each of the fifty members of the village, and Smith felt that was probably asking a bit much.

Clearing his throat, Smith spoke carefully and precisely the formal words he had memorized. "Lord Xaa, I, my family, and those of my village humbly request shelter and succor, according to the ancient traditions of the mus. We pledge to you in return our highest loyalty, and to serve your needs as best we can, according to the laws and traditions of the mus," Smith said, and bowed very low, touching his forehead to the stand.

Lord Xaa bowed in return, though not as deeply, of course. "I accept and welcome you and yours into my service and the service of my clan. Lift your head, my friend, and receive my succor." he rumbled.

Smith rose, sitting on his heels, and opened his mouth. This was the moment he had dreaded, the moment he had steeled himself for these last few months. The traditions of the ceremony were that the servant or vassal being accepted receive three gifts, three symbolic examples of their lord's succor. The first was meat from the paw of their lord.

No mouse had ever eaten meat. In all their long history, it simply had never happened. The mice found even the thought of eating meat disgusting, and the smell of meat even more so. Smith closed his eyes - it seemed appropriate, and he wasn't sure he wanted to watch.

While Smith sat there, Lord Xaa reached over, picking up the small jar on P'jasta's tray and opening it. A strange, sweet smell came to Smith's sensitive nose, and his whiskers twitched as he sniffed - but he still didn't open his eyes. Xaa then set the jar back on the tray, picked up a small slice of the meat P'jasta had prepared, and dipped it in the jar. Gently, he slipped it into Smith's open muzzle.

Smith blinked in surprise - the little sliver of meat was sweet, like a yam, and the sweetness completely masked any other flavor it may have had. He chewed it for a moment, then swallowed. The little slice of meat had been dipped in some kind of sweet sauce, apparently to make it more palatable to him. Smith grinned, and Lord Xaa smiled back at him, wiping his fingers clean of the sticky sauce on the damp cloth P'jasta had provided. Lord Xaa then lifted the pitcher, and Smith opened his mouth again, receiving a small drink of water. Xaa placed the pitcher back on the tray, then leaned down to Smith. Gently, he began nibbling and lapping at the fur between his ears, grooming him quietly for a moment.

Smith closed his eyes and churred as Xaa gently groomed him. It was a very pleasant sensation. In all his life, he'd only been groomed by his parents, and later, his mate - and Lord Xaa's gentle touch was, in many ways, reminiscent of his father's. The sensation brought back warm memories to Smith of his father, Forger. Learning his trade at his knee, then later at his side. Working with him at the forge... Building... Planning... Learning how to take his place one day on the Council... Forger had been a good father to Smith, and had raised him with love. Smith had many warm memories of his father, who seemed so much larger than him... Until the day he died, pneumonia from a sudden winter's chill striking him down. Smith remembered that day, as well. Looking down on his father then, he had seemed not large at all. No, lying there in his coffin, he had seemed very, very small.

Smith found that now, having gone through the ceremony, he understood it far better than he had before. It wasn't merely an acceptance of vassalage - it was a ceremony of bonding. Each servant or vassal received, from the paw of their lord or lady, food and drink. Then, they were briefly groomed. Together, the three gifts helped bond, on an emotional level, both vassal to lord, and lord to vassal. And as Smith knelt, being gently groomed by Xaa, he could feel the compassion in the touch of the giant warrior, and the respect Xaa had for him. Smith felt deeply honored, and deeply moved. 'This is what my ancestors should have done, millennia ago, when we first met the mus...' Smith thought.

Xaa slowly moved downwards to the back of Smith's neck, nibbling and lapping at his fur, smoothing it with a gentle touch. Finally, he was done, and he straightened up. Smith found his mind was awhirl with emotion. He was bursting with happiness, yet he was also saddened near to tears at the thought that his ancestors all those millennia ago had not chosen to join the mus, as he had, but instead had chosen to follow the Law of the Mice - and that decision had, in the end, cost them everything.

Finally, Smith found he couldn't help himself - he had to say something. Yet, there was so much in his head and in his heart, he didn't know what to say. Finally, it just came out. "That... That wasn't so bad at all!" he burst out, and grinned. "I thought that meat would taste very bad, but it didn't! It was actually very good!"

A chorus of sighs of relief burst from the mice behind him - apparently, they were all expecting to have to suffer something foul. This caused the musties to giggle, though the mus who were present merely smiled.

"You're welcome, Smith," Xaa replied, his deep chuckle warming Smith's heart. "Though really the thanks belong more to P'jasta. It was her thought to use yam-sauce to sweeten it. The sweet flavor is not nearly as pleasant to us, as our tongues can hardly sense it, but when she heard you Little Ones adore yams, she suggested that she could make a sugar-syrup from yams to dip the meat in. As it turned out, she was right," Xaa explained, nodding his head to P'jasta.

"Thank you, my lord, but it was merely my duty," P'jasta replied, bowing her head briefly and smiling.

Xaa then looked back to Smith, and his yellow-gold predator's eyes glanced over the mice gathered behind him, sitting on the ground. "Such is the nature of my succor, my friend. Not harsh, bitter and foul to your tongues, but fair, just and sweet."

Smith grinned again, and bowed to Lord Xaa to conclude his part of the ceremony. Lord Xaa bowed in return, and Smith rose, stepping off the platform. Bootie then rose, smiling as she held her infant son in her arms, stepping onto the stand and kneeling atop the pillow as her mate had done. With a smile, she opened her mouth wide. Xaa smiled back, and picked up the next sliver of meat, dipping it in the sauce.

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