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


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"Good morning, Tlahn," Smith called, walking over to the shade of the tree in the middle of his village. When he stood next to her, he bowed politely, careful not to tip the flat wooden box he carried.

"Good morning, Little One," Tlahn replied, grinning a gummy grin as she bowed in return. "I see you have already placed the pillow for me, again. You are too kind."

Smith simply smiled, and they sat together in the shade. When Lord Jamat first brought Tlahn yesterday morning, all the village crowded around to see her. A teacher was highly respected among the mice, and old, grey Tlahn seemed very wise. Some of the younger mice had been a little miffed to learn that the enormous, ancient mus addressed all of them as "Little One," until Smith explained that in their language, it was not an insult.

"How go things at Castle Xaa?" Smith asked as he set up the little box. Smith placed the flat box before him, then opened it to reveal his paper, inkwell and quill. The box itself, a portable writing desk, fascinated Tlahn greatly - the mus had nothing like it, and they certainly didn't write using the quills of djududu-birds.

"Oh!" Tlahn replied, rolling her eyes. "Very busy, Little One. Lord Xaa received a message by carrier-pigeon the other day, and the whole castle has been abuzz with activity since. It appears the T'Mrr are attacking Castle V'Nass while the cat-lord, R'Narr, is away trying to wrest the throne from his emperor. Even now, riders travel to Castle W'Mefa to alert Lord W'mefa of what is happening - and a rider was sent yesterday to the Laughing Wood to tell the musties, as well. I do not know what will happen. Perhaps we will fight to save those in Castle V'Nass, perhaps not. It is, I think, too early to tell."

Smith nodded, listening as he worked. "Me hear from Lord Jamat yesterday. We Little Ones wait, see. Help if Lord Xaa call." After setting the inkwell and paper atop the box and moving the box into his lap, Smith dipped the quill into the inkwell, then looked up to Tlahn expectantly. Tlahn smiled, and resumed where she'd left off the day before in her explanation of etiquette among the mus.

It was not an easy task for Smith to keep up with Tlahn's words. She spoke slowly, giving him time to translate her words into the language of the Little People of the Wild Wood, but his grasp of the language wasn't quite as complete as it could have been. At times, he had to ask Tlahn to repeat something in a simpler manner, or to go over a particular point again, so that he might fully understand it. Tlahn, for her part, paused frequently, giving the little mouse time to catch up in his writing. Then, each time Smith looked up to the ancient she-mus, Tlahn would smile, and begin again.

They had been working about an hour, and Bootie was due to come out with a pot of tea for Tlahn to drink and rest her voice for a bit, when Smith looked up again, then paused in surprise. Tlahn's ancient face was drawn into an expression of confusion, and she seemed to stare past the little mouse that sat before her. "Tlahn? You alright?" Smith asked, concerned.

"I... I..." Tlahn replied, her voice suddenly feeble, her rumbling speech slurred.

Smith shoved the writing desk off his lap and to the side, heedless of the spilled ink, and hopped to his feet. Stepping up to Tlahn, he carefully examined her eyes, shading them for a moment with a paw, then lifting the paw and watching her pupils. He then placed a paw to the sides of each eye, pulling her eyelids down, then up, examining the whites of her eye carefully. Smith then nodded, gently letting her go. "You lay back, here. Rest. Don't move," Smith said, gently urging Tlahn to lean back against the trunk of the shade-tree. Tlahn complied weakly, her left paw trembling slightly, her face still a mask of confusion. Smith then suddenly turned and sprinted back towards his little house, nearly knocking Bootie down as she came out with the tea. "BOOTIE!"

Bootie jumped in surprise, badly startled, and nearly dropped the tea-tray. "What?! What?!"

"Get your herb-bag! Tlahn's had a stroke!"

Bootie blinked for a moment, then nodded. "How long ago?"

"A minute... Maybe less," Smith replied.

"Is she conscious? Can she speak?"

"Yes, she's conscious, and yes, she can speak, but it's very slurred and hesitant. Her left paw is trembling a bit, too."

"And her eyes?"

"Both clear, no blood at the sides, both responsive to light."

Without hesitation, she handed the tea-tray to Smith. "Take this over by her - I'll need the tea to feed her the proper dosages. Then, go get Carder and Potter and tell them to meet me under the tree - those two and Farrah are the best we have at gathering herbs, and Tlahn's so big, I'm going to run out very quickly," she ordered, then turned back into the house. "Farrah! Come quickly!"

A minute later, Smith and nearly two dozen other mice watched nervously as Bootie carefully mixed seven different herbs into a teacup, stirring the tea gently with a piece of willow-bark. Farrah stood nearby, watching closely, and bit her lip. "Momma, that's too much - that much thorn-berry will kill! She's only twice as big as us!"

"Yes, dear, but she's eight times as heavy. She needs eight times the dose of all the herbs to have the same effect as one dose on us. The Healing Lore of the Mice says we have to get a big dose into her quickly, or the blood clot in her brain won't dissolve in time and part of her brain will die. Now hush, dear. If this works, I'll need you, Potter and Carder to gather more herbs for me. And you'll have to hurry, because the second dose will be due in two hours."

"We'll get it, Momma, don't worry." Farrah replied, and Potter and Carder nodded.

Bootie stopped stirring the herbs in the cup and stood, holding the cup out to Tlahn's lips. "Tell her to drink, Smith."

"Drink tea, Tlahn! Good! Make you better!" Smith called, silently cursing his ineptitude with the language of the mus.

Tlahn nodded, and sipped at the cup Bootie held in her paws. Tlahn made a face - the herbs were terribly vile to the tongue of a mus - but managed to drink it all. Bootie sat back, taking Tlahn's enormous wrist in her tiny paw, and feeling the blood pulse beneath her fur. After a moment, she looked up. "Well? Get going, you three! The effect isn't instant, and you know it - there's nothing to see, right now. Go get me those herbs, and be quick about it."

Farrah nodded. "Yes, Momma," she replied, then turned to Carder and Potter. "Potter, you can run the fastest, so you check near the river for more thorn-berry because that will be the farthest away. Carder and I will search for the rest. Come on - all these herbs are only found in the woods, and it's a long run to the Laughing Wood!"

"Okay, Farrah," Carder and Potter chorused, then, as one, the three young mice turned and began running to the west, towards the Laughing Wood.

"Is there anything the rest of us can do to help, Bootie?" Smith asked, very concerned.

"Yes - shoo. Keep an eye out for Lord Jamat - he should be back around noon to take Tlahn home again. Tell him what's happened, Smith, and tell him she can't be moved just yet. Tell him also we need him to fetch Kargh, Lord Xaa's Master Healer, and someone to cook some food for her. The rest of you, shoo. You'll just make her nervous standing around, and we need her to be calm right now."

As the rest of the mice quietly dispersed, Smith delayed a moment longer. "How long until you know if it works, Bootie?"

"About an hour. If it's a clot, as I think it is, she'll start to show improvement in about an hour. If it's a broken vessel, the thorn-berry I gave her will make her bleed inside her brain, and she'll be dead in an hour." Smith gasped, and Bootie looked to her mate. "Don't worry, dear. Everything will be fine. Now pick up your writing desk, and go keep an eye out for Lord Jamat."

"Alright, Bootie," Smith replied, and stooped to clean up the mess he'd made of his writing desk.

An hour later, Smith was relieved to see that Tlahn was not dead. Her speech was still slurred, but her expression was no longer confused. Lord Jamat arrived an hour after that, and Smith told him the news, and what was needed. Jamat simply nodded, turned his bird, and rode back to the castle as fast as he could.

A few minutes after Jamat left, Farrah, Carder and Potter arrived, gasping from their run, their pockets full of herbs. Bootie simply took the herbs and began crushing them with her baked clay mortar and pestle, working quickly but calmly. "Go wash your paws, the three of you - some of these herbs are poison. Shoo. Everything is fine."

"Okay, Bootie!" Carder and Potter chorused, then trotted off to the village well to fetch a bucket of water to wash their paws in.

"Will she be alright, Momma?" Farrah asked, looking at Tlahn with deep concern.

"Your father asks the same thing every ten minutes, and I tell him the same thing I'm telling you - she'll be fine, now shoo. Go wash your paws, Farrah. Thorn-berry is poison."

"Yes, Momma!" Farrah replied, and scampered off after Potter and Carder.

Half an hour later, four birds skidded to a halt near the shade tree, their riders quickly dismounting - Merle, Kargh (Lord Xaa's Master Healer), Lord Jamat, and Lord Xaa himself. Merle, who was wearing her little green-dyed leather mustie-dress, rode 'Brownie', the bird Tinker had trained two years ago. Merle whistled, and Brownie sat on the ground, allowing Merle to dismount easily. Merle then scampered over to see what had happened. Shortly, Merle was translating everything said for Bootie and the other mice, who had gathered around again at the arrival of the mus. The Master Healer chatted at length with Bootie, Merle providing the translation as Kargh carefully examined Tlahn.

After a few minutes of examination, Kargh nodded as he knelt by Tlahn in the shade of the tree. "The Little One is correct, my lord. Tlahn has had a stroke. A fairly large one, by the symptoms."

"Damn," Xaa growled, then looked sadly at Tlahn. "Will she recover?"

"Well, my lord, had this happened four years ago, no. Then, there was little we could do. Now, we have learned the Healing Lore the Little One, Tinker, taught us, and Tlahn had the good fortune to have her stroke in the village of the Little Ones. I would say yes, there is an excellent chance she will recover completely, my lord."

"Should we take her back to the castle?"

Kargh shook his tan head. "No, my lord. There is nothing I could do for her there that the Little One, Bootie, has not already done. Also, she has administered the herb they call 'thornberry', which thins the blood. A long ride to the castle would trigger internal bleeding, and she would die. She must sit and rest while the blockage in the vessels of her brain is thinned and dissolved," Kargh replied, then stood. "My lord, so sorry, but she is already in the best paws she could possibly be in - that of the Little One, Bootie. I defer to her skill as a healer, my lord, and recommend you talk to her until she deems it wise to release Tlahn to my care. So sorry, my lord, but Tlahn is her patient, at the moment, not mine, and her word must prevail." Kargh then bowed very deeply to Bootie.

Merle translated the exchange to Bootie, and Bootie smiled and bowed in return. "Tell him I said 'thank you', Mer- err, I mean Lady Merle." Bootie replied.

Merle grinned, and did so. "It's a point of honor among their healer-caste, Bootie. They never interfere with another healer's patient, and the healer's word is law - they can even order their liege-lord around when it comes to a patient's health!" Merle explained, and grinned again. "A good healer will ask for advice, and check their thinking on everything with their peers, because after all, this is someone's body and life they're dealing with, and if they make a mistake, someone might die. Still, what Kargh is saying is that there's nothing he can do that you haven't already done, so he's deferring completely to you. It's a great honor, Bootie - he's acknowledging you as a fellow member of the healer-caste, and an equal."

Bootie blushed, the tips of her little mousie-ears turning bright pink as she looked to the enormous, carnivorous mouse who had bowed so deeply to her. "Tell him I said 'thank you' again, Lady Merle."

When Merle had finished, Smith looked to Xaa. "My lord, I'm sorry to ask this, but Tlahn will need food soon, and we have nothing here to feed her. Where's the cook we asked Lord Jamat to bring?"

Xaa simply looked to Tlahn, then thumbed his chest. "Xaa cohk fohr Tlahn," he replied, then rumbled briefly to her. "Tlahn, it would be a great kindness to me if you would allow me to prepare your dinner in this time of illness," he said, and bowed.

Merle nodded, grinning. "It's a great honor for Tlahn, Smith. Tlahn is very important to Xaa - and by cooking for her now that she is sick, he means to show her how important she is to him. Tlahn is very old, and she's outlived all her other family, so she has no one else to help her. So, even though he's not related to her, Xaa takes the role of her family to honor her, and fulfill his commitment as her liege lord to give her shelter and succor. He could just have another servant do it, of course, but Tlahn is very important to him. I wanted to help, too, because Tlahn is a good friend of mine. So," she said, reaching to the pocket of her little leather dress and producing her sling, "I get to do the hunting!"

Tlahn looked up after a moment, smiled to Xaa. "My lord, I am deeply honored by your gesture. Please forgive me for not bowing in return, but each time I attempt to move, the Little One, Bootie, chitters at me most insistently. I am afraid that soon I will have to make her chitter quite loudly, however, as I find I need to use the privy."

Merle burst into giggles while Xaa and the other mus grinned. Tlahn's speech was still slurred, but she was obviously going to recover. "It's alright, Tlahn. Merle, you explain it to the Little Ones, while I begin setting up the fire. Kargh, help Tlahn attend to her needs. Jamat, take our mounts and hobble them beneath that tree over there, at the edge of the village. Smith, please ask your mate how long it will be before we may move Tlahn back to the castle."

After Merle explained what Xaa had ordered, Smith turned to Bootie. "Bootie, Lord Xaa wants to know how long before they can take Tlahn home."

Bootie thought about it, watching Tlahn carefully as the Master Healer, Kargh, slowly led her to behind some nearby trees. "If she keeps improving, she can be taken home this evening - but slowly. A ride on one of those big ugly birds will be very bumpy. She'll need plenty of rest and food, afterwards, and she should rest for at least two weeks."

Xaa nodded. "Tell your mate that Tlahn won't be riding, Smith. I intend to carry her."

Smith blinked. "All the way back to the castle?" he squeaked. It was ten leagues to the castle - an enormous distance, to a little mouse. It wasn't that he didn't think Lord Xaa couldn't do it (for certainly the warrior-mus was as strong as a bear, and could probably manage it), it was just that to a little mouse, it was an incredible feat of strength.

Xaa simply nodded in reply, walking off to attend to the cookfire.

Merle grinned. "I told you, Smith. Tlahn is a very, very special servant. Why, without her, Johm'rouh would be just a cripple!" Merle then cast her eyes about the fields nearby, where the mice had planted wheat, milo, alfalfa, and elk-grass. "Woooo... Lots of nice places for rabbits to hide around here. See you later, Smith, Bootie!" Merle called, and scampered off into a nearby field of elk-grass, fifty paces away, the green leaves waving gently in a quiet breeze. In a moment, she ducked down beneath the top of the tall grass, and began to silently move off. A few heartbeats later, Merle was gone from Smith's sight, almost as though the lethal little predator had vanished before his eyes. Smith knew she was still out there, of course - and somehow, the knowledge that the mice once again had such a deadly race of people as their friends was far more comforting than it was unnerving.

Bootie was silent, watching the mus for a long moment. Finally, she sighed. "Such a tragedy," she muttered.

"Hmm? What is, Bootie?" Smith asked, looking to his mate.

"His compassion, dear. Tlahn is old... Merle said she had no other family. She's all alone in the world... And her liege-lord takes the time to cook for her, and honor her like this, in the twilight of her life."

"Well, yes... But what's tragic about that, Bootie?" Smith asked, scratching his head.

"This is what our ancestors could have had, Smith. Instead, they chose to follow the Old Law... And because of that, everything came to a bloody end."

Smith nodded - he'd had the same thought himself, many times. Being the vassal of Lord Xaa wasn't an unpleasant experience, as he had imagined it might be. No, it was exactly as Lord Xaa had said it would be, the day he accepted their vow of fealty - fair, just, and at times very sweet, indeed. Had his ancestors chosen similarly, joining with the mus instead of enslaving them to their technology... But, they hadn't, and as a result they lost everything eight centuries ago, in the Night of the Long Knives.

Smith reached out, hugging his mate tightly, and nuzzled her lovingly. "Yes, Bootie. But we know better, now."

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