“The Law of Life is like a mighty tree; we make our nests in its branches, and its leaves add sustenance, colour, shape to our lives.”
— P'nen, Keeper of the Scrolls
The first leaf on the first branch of the Law is this:
You shall have a Race-Mother, and she shall rule and protect you, and you shall obey and be kept safe.
The second leaf follows:
The Race-Mother is she who wears the sacred robes. Disloyalty to the Race-Mother is as disloyalty to the whole race.
The creature gently licked the Mother's face, where the hood of her robes had fallen back, exposing the head. The Mother lay sprawled in the throne, where she had collapsed a moment before. The creature attending her listened for life, but she was not breathing, and the creature could feel her heart as cold and still as stone.
~ The Race-Mother is dead. But the race lives. The race needs a new Mother.
The creature shrieked, leaping backwards, and darted its head around from where it now crouched in the middle of the chamber floor, looking for the source of the voice.
~ You shall be the new Mother.
Chittering madly, the creature ran back and forth around the room, looking for any sign of the voice.
~ You are the Mother.
The words of the voice must have finally sunk in, because the creature suddenly fell silent and still. The Race-Mother? The creature approached the royal seat. The creature was not accustomed to thought—it had been trained to obey, not question—but what was passing through its mind could be voiced: how can I be Race-Mother? I am not even of the Race.
~ You are the Mother.
It seemed to be the Mother, or perhaps, yes, the robes; the voice was not audible in the usual sense, but it seemed clearer and, somehow, closer, as the creature drew near to the still body. The creature looked at the old Mother's feet—the long, gangly, taloned bird-legs of the Thirds—and looked down at her own padded, blunt-clawed hindpaws. She looked at the Mother's down-covered face, with its small beak, and touched her own face, her soft muzzle, her dark fur. Her thoughts, if they were conscious, would have been little else than: how can I possibly be Her?
~ Hurry. There is not much time.
But I can't…
The imperative landed deep in her hind-brain, and years of slave-conditioning took over. As if her limbs moved by themselves, the creature began to remove the robes from the queen's body, using her teeth on the cords that her three-fingered forepaws struggled to grip. Almost before she was aware of what she was doing, she was wrapping the robes around her own body, shivering with fear as she pulled the hood down lower over her head.
~ It is time, the voice said.
She was chittering in terror, looking blankly towards the throne, when the flax curtain at the entry was pushed aside. She froze, paralysed with fear, as a Master entered; two Low Ones flanking it.
The Master started as he saw the old Mother's stripped, still body, but his start was nothing compared to the look that crossed his face as he saw the creature trembling in the sacred robes. The Master stopped, his eyes wide, crest feathers risen almost completely vertical and held there, trembling. His throat-flap pumped in and out with a low warbling noise. Then he found his voice, brokenly: “The Law— the law is clear. The Circle must know of this.”
Guards were set on the Mother's quarters, and the High Circle was called. Such was the urgency of the matter that the meeting began even before all had arrived, and latecomers were forced to catch up with whispered questions to their neighbours as they sat in the tiers of the great cavern.
“This cannot be!” shrieked one, a younger elder with colourful plumage that marked him out as from the southern cave-system. “They are our slaves, not our rulers!”
“But the law is clear!” trilled another, “The Mother is whoever wears the robes.”
“But to be ruled by a slave—” said a greying prophet “this is clearly not what the law intended.”
“You mean to argue that the law can be explained away because we don't like it?” said one quietly. “That lies on dangerous ground.”
That caused a fresh uproar—some arguing that the law should be interpreted, others that it was already perfectly clear, and others seeming to prefer an obscure law that stayed that way. Amidst the noise P'nen, Keeper of the Scrolls, and one of the oldest of the Prophets, pulled himself to his feet, leaning heavily on a crooked stick. He waited, and as the members of the Circle noticed they fell silent one-by-one. When the shouting had fallen to a murmur, P'nen began to speak.
“It seems not so long ago, if I remember correctly, that those we call Low Ones, that we call slaves, were our friends.” This sparked another burst of outrage, but when P'nen remained standing the outrage quickly died down.
“I remember, even as I watched disaster befall our world, standing with the Low One who was my protector and teacher. The war between our races was tragic. Necessary to our survival, but tragic nonetheless, and not a day goes by that I don't look with sorrow upon those who were our closest allies. Perhaps this is an opportunity for restoration?”
Silence for a moment, then another rose to his feet.
“Prophet,” the speaker said, “I speak for all when I say we greatly respect your opinion. However, the fact remains that had we would not be here had the Low had their way. Our war was a defensive one, and had we not fought we would all be extinct. It seems to me that the punishment of the Low is fair. However” he raised his voice slightly as voices rose in agreement, “the Law is the Law, and the Law is beyond fair and unfair. The slaves wears the robes, so the slave is Race-Mother. It falls to us to accept this, and so to see that she executes her reign well, that she is guided where she needs guidance, and that she decides wisely for this race.”
“And who would do the guiding, E'gan?” said P'nen. “I expect you would choose yourself, yes? And I expect the Mother would fortuitously have a mind close to your own when it came to certain decisions, yes? Would that be fair?”
“You go too far, P'nen.” said E'gan. “We do have a responsibility. However, perhaps you have a point. It would be best if the whole of the Circle was to choose an advisor for the Mother.”