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


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Smith had expected that the mus-healer, Kargh, would care for Tlahn once she was taken home to Castle Xaa, but that did not happen. Instead, Kargh had politely explained that he would not even consider such a thing. Even if Lord Xaa had not needed him on the campaign, he still would not have taken over Tlahn's care - to him, that would be a grave insult to Bootie, whom he considered a fellow member of the healer-caste. Of course, if Bootie specifically requested that Kargh take over for her, that would be a different matter. Yet, even that polite exchange was really impossible - Kargh would be accompanying Lord Xaa on the campaign, and simply would not be available. Thus, Bootie was taken to the castle, to live there and care for Tlahn while she recovered.

Of course, Bootie could not go alone. She couldn't leave Little Tinker behind, as he wasn't even a year old yet, so her baby had to come along. More, she could not speak the language of the mus - of all the mice, only Smith had mastered the language to any real degree. So, her mate had to come along. This left Smith in a rather unusual position - the village still needed a leader, and a blacksmith. Yet, there was only Farrah, his daughter. Bootie simply told him that Farrah could easily handle things for a few weeks, and her skills as a blacksmith were more than up to the challenge. Smith was worried that the other mice would not accept Farrah's leadership, even if only temporarily, but he found his fears groundless.

All the mice of the village knew Farrah's story, of course, and all felt indebted to her for helping to bring the news of their kidnapping last year to the musties and the mus - which, of course, resulted in their being freed. More, it was Farrah's idea for them to reject the law of the mice, and that decision had led to a life which was substantially better than what they had left behind. It was a great comfort to the mice to know that they lived under the protection of strong allies again, and an even greater comfort to know that as time passed, they were slowly learning the skills they needed to defend themselves.

Yes, the mice were more than happy to accept Farrah's temporary leadership - though Smith privately and sternly gave her some basic instructions before he left: Don't make any new rules, and if you have any problems or a major decision comes up, send a message to the castle. Bootie had to again remind Smith that his daughter was no mere girl any longer - the arduous trek on foot to reach the lands of the mus last year had hardened both her body and her spirit, and she was as much an adult as any other in the village. 'If she's ever going to learn the responsibility she needs to be a leader, Smith, you'll have to give her this opportunity,' Bootie said. 'If she makes a mistake, then she makes a mistake. You can deal with it when you return. For now, this is a lesson she needs to learn on her own.' Smith had simply nodded - he knew this, of course. He was just worrying, as was his way.

Thus it was that Bootie, Smith and Little Tinker all came to Castle Xaa the day after Lord Xaa, Chief Byarl and all the rest rode north to meet up with the other lords and their armies who would be participating in the campaign. It took Smith and Bootie a few days to settle into the guest-room they were given in the castle - it was a vast, cavernous room to a little mouse, and somewhat intimidating in the dark of night. Little Tinker, not knowing any better, adapted to the room and the castle quite readily. His only fear was, instead, the mus themselves - his sensitive little nose smelled their carnivore's scent, and he often squeaked nervously when they were around. For two days, Bootie was at a loss as to what to do - when Little Tinker was left with anyone, he squeaked and cried dreadfully in terror. Yet, Bootie could not care for him and Tlahn at the same time. Tlahn's care was not the simple matter of merely watching over her - the clot that had briefly blocked the vessel in her brain had not come from nowhere. The Lore of the Mice clearly stated that where one stroke had occurred, another could also occur, and careful medication with specific herbs as well as physical and mental exercise was prescribed for full recovery. At most, Bootie could feed her baby in the mornings and evenings - but during the day, she was simply too busy, carefully watching Tlahn for any signs of another stroke. Smith thought that perhaps he might care for Little Tinker, but that proved impossible, as well - he had to be present for Bootie so he could translate for her, and, of course, he could not feed Little Tinker, as it would be another six months before he was weaned.

It was Lady Vhross who finally came up with the solution. She sent a rider to mustie village, and had them ask Ellie Sharptooth, Byarl's mate, for help. Ellie was in charge of the tribe while Byarl was off with Lord Xaa on the campaign, and she immediately understood the problem, even though her grasp of the language of the mus was somewhat less than Smith's. A few hours later, the rider returned, carrying a mustie-female behind him on his bird, and Bootie was introduced to Missie Roundpot, Ellie's cousin. Missie had a baby of her own, but he was a year old and it was time to wean him. So, Ellie took care of Missie's baby while Missie went to the castle.

At first, Bootie had no idea what they had in mind. The scent of a mustie was almost undetectable at any distance, but not when right next to them, and certainly a baby pressed to one's breast would smell the difference, and be upset by her carnivore's scent. Missie, however, simply giggled, and told Bootie to take off her dress so she could put it on. After a few hours, Missie smelled like a mouse, and Little Tinker was no longer afraid of her - though he sometimes got a bit nervous at her breath, which smelled of a meat-eater.

In this way they passed the first few days following their arrival at the castle, and Lord Xaa's departure to join the campaign against the cats - Bootie caring for Tlahn, Smith translating for her, and Missie caring for Little Tinker during the hours of daylight. By the end of a week, Missie no longer needed to wear Bootie's dresses, as Little Tinker had completely adjusted to her, and seemed just as happy to suckle at her breast as he was his mother's. By that time, a wet-nurse had been found among the servant-caste mus by Grnargh, Xaa's Chamberlain, and Little Tinker was slowly adjusted to her so that Missie could go home to her own baby.

By the end of two weeks, Tlahn's speech had completely returned to normal, and her mind seemed sharp as ever. Bootie decided that it was time for Smith to resume his daily chats with her, writing down the etiquette and traditions of the mus as he had been before. This, Bootie said, would give Tlahn's mind exercise each day, which was necessary for her full recovery. Bootie combined this with walking up and down stairs and doing other mild physical activity, as well.

It was during one of Tlahn's daily sessions with Smith that Tlahn surprised everyone by bursting into a long, hearty cackle of amusement. Bootie, who was mixing another batch of herbal tea, looked up curiously, and Smith was flatly confused. Tlahn waved a paw towards Kasha, the wet-nurse, who was feeding Little Tinker, then grinned a gummy grin at Bootie. "You will have to watch out for that one when he grows, Little One. He has supped on the milk of a mustie, and even now sups on the milk of a mus," she cackled. "I wager that one will grow to be a fierce warrior when he's of age - though before then, he may be quite a trial to a gentle little mother as yourself." Kasha giggled at the notion, and stroked Little Tinker's head gently as he suckled at her breast.

Smith translated Tlahn's words, and Bootie grinned. "Tell her I said 'If he does grow to be a warrior, I and his father will be very, very happy - and so will all our village.'" Bootie, like all the mice, knew that there was far more to being warrior-caste than simply knowing how to fight. There was learning how to manage a fief; how to manage their relationships with their servants, their vassals, their allies, and their liege; and how to manage all the million-and-one things that could go wrong on any given day. And yet, there was still more - a warrior's heart and spirit were required, as well. The adult mice of the village simply could not learn everything that was needed now - there was too much other work to be done, building their library, building their village, and so on. Even the children were busy helping with all the myriad tasks of maintaining the village, and learning the Lore of the Mice. No, the current generations of mice simply would never have the time to master the skills necessary to be warrior-caste - but the next generation, Little Tinker's generation, might. And this, in fact, was one of the hopes the mice had: To be fully accepted into mus society, and to have true warriors of their own.

Tlahn nodded at Smith's translation of Bootie's words, and smiled. "Ah, it's only too bad that I will probably not live long enough to see a Little One become a true warrior-caste. That would be marvelous... But no, I'm already very old. I've outlived everyone in my family, Little One. It does not seem likely I will live to see that day, nor will your son ever hear of Old Tlahn."

Smith shook his head. "Him will know Tlahn. Him will respect Tlahn, and remember her always. All mice will."

Tlahn raised an eyebrow in curiosity. "Oh? How?"

Smith tapped the papers on his portable writing desk with one of his tiny claws. "All Tlahn's words go in book. All mice read book. Now and forever. Learn ways of mus. Maybe all mus read, too, so none ever forget true ways, true manners, true traditions. My son read, learn, never forget. Mice never forget Tlahn. Mice never forget anything," he explained, silently cursing his inept command of the language.

Tlahn smiled, and nodded in understanding. Their own legends of the Little Ones were very clear, in this regard - the Little Ones had prodigious memories, and they never forgot anything once it was committed to memory. Tlahn's words would be remembered, and repeated by the mice a thousand years from now, as the words of mice who lived a thousand years ago were still being repeated among their people today. "Ah, I see. That would be very nice, Little One. I thank you," Tlahn replied, and bowed from where she sat.

"You very welcome," Smith replied, bowing back. "We continue now, yes?" he asked, and Tlahn nodded. After a moment of gathering her thoughts, she picked up again where she had left off.

Bootie placed the cup of herbal tea she had made before Tlahn, then gently took her wrist and felt her pulse for a moment as she watched Kasha burp Little Tinker. It was hard to concentrate on watching Tlahn - Bootie's mind was filled with the vision of her son being accepted by the mus as a fellow warrior... And the vision made her heart sing with happiness for the future of her people. Bootie looked up to Tlahn, and the two of them gazed at each other for a long moment, smiling.

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