The Ritual of Gathering
The ritual of age would not be stopped even by the appearance of the Prophet. But Kippy had a bright idea from meeting the legendary Mouse Knight. Squibble had been a light tan - almost white. Certainly whiter than field mice. It was his robes that prevented him from becoming prey for the field predators.
The chief of the tribe resumed his speech in a new tone of voice - one quieter, more reverent. He kept glancing at the young brothers out of the side of his face, trying not to be as obvious as everyone else, who were outright staring. Kippy had gone from pariah to deeply respected in mere moments. The shock of it would take quite a while to wear off.
The ritual was begun without delay, and the mice were off. All the mice ran north - toward the fields of grain and promise of good loot to bring home. Kippy did not hesitate. He ran west.
The chief looked puzzled and the crowd gasped out loud. The new Mouse Knight candidate - fleeing in panic? His brother was after him in a flash.
"What are you doing!?" Fleeter asked, easily matching Kippy's pace.
"Something smart," answered Kippy, leaping deftly down the bank of the stream and landing square in the late season mud that rested there. His brother watched as the white mouse turned instantly dark brown. He shook his head, amazed. The field mice had the speed and the dexterity, but everyone knew the white mice had the brains.
When he was finished and dark brown, Kippy said, "Let's go - we haven't lost much time!"
They raced into the fields of grain right past the astonished village of mice, who all pretty much had the same reaction as Fleeter. The chief raised his fist and shouted, "You go, Kippy! Bring home the grain, my godson!"
After a half second pause, the village joined in the cheers for their new hero, following the lead of their chief.
Kippy had never felt so strong or so fast. The cheers quite literally gave him strength, and he felt invulnerable. For the first time in his life, he was respected. The boost to his confidence was all the little rodent needed. He passed up many other mice and a few minutes later, came to the edge of the great fields of grain. Fleeter skidded to a halt next to him.
"Once we're up in the air, don't stop moving," Fleeter reminded him, and began to climb long stalks of wheat to gather the precious tops in his mouth.
Kippy had trained for this endlessly. He balanced the stalk of wheat under his paws and wrapped his tail around it below him. Up he went, chewing off the top and dropping unceremoniously to the ground. The brothers grinned at each other, their mouths full of grain, and ran back to the village.
Once there, they paused not one second but to drop their treasure in a pile that was marked as theirs, and ran back to the field. This would repeat until dawn, and was the test of every mouse. Dexterity, endurance, hunting skills, and most of all, evasion of death. Survival.
Somewhere within the hour they heard the first dreaded noise. The shriek of a hawk. Kippy knew the language. That hawk had grabbed a mouse. One of theirs. That mouse was dead now. The sound and smell of blood would awaken the owls, the cats, and every other predator that hunted the field. It was too soon - they hadn't even gotten a few good hours in without the danger beginning. Nonetheless, they did not pause. Who had the most grain at the end of the day was almost irrelevant. Who survived was more important. Many of them would certainly not come back this night.
The deadly game was all about running and pausing at the right times. When you ran, you ran fast. When you were still, you mustn't move a whisker - literally. An owl could see such things (maybe even hear them) from a hundred feet in the air. Scary powers to any mouse. Nothing but mouse instinct told one when to run and when to stay still. Field mice had plenty of this, but white mice had been bred from lines of domestic mice far removed from their cousins for thousands of years. Kippy's upbringing had given him more than most domestic mice, but it wouldn't be enough.
Halfway through the night, Kippy had no warning of the owl that chose him. He was chosen not because of his color, or even his lack of speed. In the end it was random chance - his number just came up. He did not hear the wings. Silent death descended upon him swiftly, but not as swiftly as Fleeter.
The field mouse sped into his brother at breakneck speed and pushed him a good foot out of Harm's way as the owl landed an inch from the savior. Angry at being robbed, the owl pecked down hard with its beak at Kippy, and hit him in the very tip of his tail. Prize captured, the owl lifted off the ground and Kippy went with it. Fleeter sprang into the air and with one swift tug yanked Kippy from death's grasp. They both fell to the ground three feet below. The owl was greatly perturbed now and descended again to claim both meals, but Fleeter was gone. The mouse had vanished as swiftly as if he had teleported. And he'd taken Kippy with him. The owl frowned. They weren't supposed to make mice that fast. No matter, it thought. The field was full of them.
At a resting point, Fleeter put Kippy down. The domestic mouse was still very small, but carrying him so fast a goodly distance had tired out the fast brother. Kippy's tail was severed off at the tip, and bleeding.
"I -I'm sorry, bro," Kippy stuttered, embarrassed.
Fleeter shrugged. "Better to lose the stupid contest than have a dead brother who hasn't even gotten to enjoy his fame."
"We haven't lost yet," Kippy said. They wasted no more time on words. They were off, circling widely the landing site of the great bird. Kippy never mentioned how his tail hurt. It was not the field mouse way to complain. The wound would heal, so it was ignored. They had important work to do.
The blood leaking from his tail would have doomed them, except that the entire field smelled of it by then. Many mice had perished in the ritual. They always did. Only the strong would survive.
By the end of the night Fleeter had a reputation among the predators of the field as well as his peers. He had saved Kippy three times, and several others, himself included. Nothing could touch him, and so he became known as Fleeter the Untouchable. It was a fine title, and what pleased him most was that it included his precious new name.
Kippy and Fleeter won the contest. Not because they were the fastest (Kippy slowed Fleeter down quite a bit, and Fleeter always waited for his favorite brother) but because they had worked together. All the other mice had wanted all the glory to themselves, and thus had acted alone - seeing former friends as competition. By breaking the old rule and thinking differently, Kippy and Fleeter's pile of grain was the biggest by the end of the night.
They were proclaimed the winners to the cheers and chirps of the entire village. For the rest of their lives, that memory would remain one of their most treasured. To them, it lasted forever. In truth, it was over in a few minutes, and it was time for much needed sleep.
Kippy and Fleeter were ecstatic and not ready for bed. They begged to be allowed to go down to the creek to wash Kippy off (for all his victory, he looked abominable). Their mother, proud of her boys, told them they were men now, and did whatever they pleased. So dawn's light saw them down at the water and wet, playing in the shallows.
"What do we do now?" Fleeter asked. "We're adult mice!"
"Anything we want, like Mom said," Kippy proclaimed proudly.
Fleeter paused, his nose sniffing around. "What do we want?" he asked.
Kippy looked at him with the 'well, duh!' expression and said with a similar condescending tone, "We go to the house of the Mouse Knights to join the training, dear brother."
"Oh my," Fleeter chirped, as if he'd forgotten. "Do you think they'll take us?"
"Maybe me," Kippy said, his face pompous. "But not you. You're too slow."
Fleeter stared at his audacious brother and grinned at the unexpected challenge. Without another word, the brothers turned into blurs aimed at the village - one white, one brown. They raced with all the energy their glorious night and new names granted them, laughing all the way.
And, with no help from his astonished brother, Kippy won.