of the Last God
(Book IV of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2001 BY
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Byarl watched Amani running before them, leading the two birds Lord Xaa had loaned the musties for the trip. Lord Xaa was terribly wise in that regard - he told Byarl that it was possible something might go wrong, and two would be needed, not one. An injury, an accident, or perhaps a bear, and they would be afoot. Also, a second bird could be used to carry their supplies, while the first carried the musties on it's back. Still, even the pleasant knowledge of being Lord Xaa's ally and sharing in the blessings of his wisdom paled in comparison to the sight before Byarl, now - Amani, running.
She was, in a word, beautiful, both in body and in spirit. It amazed Byarl that he had once disliked her deeply - now, he could think of few other people he liked more. She was wise, kind, gentle, and willing to re-examine her most heart-felt beliefs about carnivores and accept the love Ayori had for her. In the eyes of the Musties of the Laughing Wood, Amani was a wonderful being, because of that.
But, she was also very, very beautiful in body, as well. Dressed as she was now, for running, the simple garment of her people wrapped about her breasts to support them and leaving her sex bare, she was quite scandalous by the standards of the musties (though everyone had, for the most part, become accustomed to Amani's eccentricities, by now). Byarl watched Amani's bare, dappled buttocks as she ran across the waving grasses of the vast green plains beyond the mountains, the long hair of her tail waving in the breeze of her swift pace, and grinned silently to himself. 'Ayori is truly a lucky mustie - she's nearly as pretty as my own Ellie,' he thought to himself, and briefly wondered what it would be like if his mate, Ellie, was as large as Amani. Byarl grinned again. 'I'd probably never leave my house if she was - that would be far too interesting,' he thought, and stifled a giggle. Amani glanced over her shoulder at Byarl, who sat in front just behind the bird's neck, and winked at him briefly before again turning her attention to the land ahead. Byarl giggled quietly, grinning broadly at her back.
"What is it, Chief?" Ayori asked. He sat behind Byarl, and Bessie sat behind him. Each had their paws wrapped about the armor-clad waist of the one before them, and Byarl himself gripped the large, plate-like pommel at the front of the war-saddle on their bird. They didn't expect to fight, of course, though they wore their armor in case they encountered a bear - there were, after all, only three of them, as Amani certainly couldn't fight.
"Nothing, Ayori - I was just thinking how lucky you were to be mated to someone like Amani," Byarl replied, grinning over his shoulder.
"Everybody thinks that, Chief!" Bessie chittered, and giggled.
Ayori grinned from ear to furry ear. "Thanks, Chief! Thanks, Bessie!"
As Byarl resumed looking forward, casting his gaze about occasionally to check for bears or any other dangerous things that might be around, his thoughts turned to the saddle he was gripping tightly in his paws. The saddle that was atop the broad-backed bird they rode was itself very broad to a mustie, and it was much like sitting on the ground, really, or on the curved top or a mustie-house. The war-saddles of the mus were quite similar to those of the cats. Long and nearly flat, with a slight rise in the back that the buttocks of the rider rested upon, their tail hanging loosely over. The front of the saddle had a large, curved plate, the purpose of which being to prevent the rider from sliding forward onto the bird's neck when they came to a sudden stop. Djuducu-birds, despite their enormous mass (some weighed half a ton), could stop and turn very quickly indeed. Their true strength, however, was not sprinting, but long-distance running. They could run very fast, and very far - and it was this trait that allowed them to survive against the predations of the bears that roamed the wilds, who were lightning-fast in brief-sprints, but terribly bad at running long distances.
Byarl, in all his days in the Wild Wood, had only seen the bears of the woods - never those of the plains or the mountains beyond, between the Wild Wood and the Lands of the Mus. It surprised him to learn that they were, in many ways, quite different. The bears of the Wild Wood, and those of other wooded areas he had seen or been told about since his tribe had moved to the Laughing Wood, had legs that were somewhat short. They were built for power, and short sprints. The bears of the mountains were similar, though much larger and with far longer claws, which they used to give them traction on the rocky terrain. The bears of the plains, however, had legs nearly a third again as long as those of the bears of the woods and mountains, and their bodies were slimmer, less bulky. They chased their prey down in long dashes rather than relying on ambush and short sprints, as there were few places to hide on the grassy plains for creatures their size.
Byarl was intensely curious as to why they differed. Though it was obvious these differences served them in the environment each of the three types of bears he had encountered or been told of inhabited, how these differences had come about were a mystery to him. Byarl supposed that when the Last God elevated the six races from the animals, he had altered the bears - but, somehow, that seemed unlikely. From Merle's description of him, it didn't seem likely that the insane god/machine of the mysterious Ancient Ones, their finest creation and their eventual doom, would have thought of something like that. Thus, it seemed the differences in their species must have a different origin than that - yet, what that origin might be was a mystery to Byarl.
The trip had been a long one so far, and Byarl often found his thoughts wandering, as they did now - flitting from saddles to birds to bears and other things. Amani was right, and crossing the mountains at the speed of a running horse had only taken a few days. Crossing the vast plains of the lands beyond had been even easier, and Byarl estimated that it would be only another day or two before they reached the edge of the Wild Wood. Yet, that was only a third of the journey - the greater part still lay ahead of them. Of course, Amani didn't run flat out all the way. She would walk, then jog, then run, then jog, then walk again, conserving her energy but keeping up a constant and swift pace that covered thirty to forty leagues a day. Even now, she had slowed to a jog again, and soon would slow to a walk. As it was approaching noon, Byarl knew she would stop to rest, eating the long, lush grasses that grew on the plains and drinking from their supplies of water while the musties dug into their supplies of dried meats.
Half an hour later, Amani had finally stopped - or, to be more precise, she had stopped leading the birds, at any rate. As the musties scrambled down and began to unload the water and food from the back of the pack-bird, Amani slowly strolled around, circling them, letting her muscles relax and her breathing return to normal before she finally sat in the grass. Sweat dripped off her body as she strolled, her mane plastered to her neck as though she'd stood in a rainstorm. The djuducu-birds, equally exhausted, sat as soon as they had stopped - they, apparently, either didn't need to 'cool down' as Amani did, or perhaps it was the simple spreading of their stunted wings and gaping of their enormous beaks that sufficed for their avian biologies. Though Byarl didn't understand it, it certainly made getting off the enormous birds and getting at their supplies far easier.
Ayori stood by Amani, brushing her mane, then gently drying the sweat from her with a small cloth. Byarl gazed idly at the loving couple as he and Bessie chewed at their jerky. The whole concept of sweating was very strange to Byarl. Musties didn't sweat - nor did any other creature Byarl had ever seen or heard of. Like all other creatures, even the enormous djuducu-birds, musties panted to cool themselves. It was a phenomenon unique to horses, as far as Byarl could tell - and one that was somewhat distasteful to the sharp nose of a mustie. Still, Ayori loved her, and dried her sweat with a gentle, loving paw. As he popped a piece of jerky into his muzzle, Ayori began gently kneading the tired muscles of Amani's calves and thighs, trying to help her rest. Amani whickered softly, smiling at Ayori, and nuzzled him lovingly, their minds in silent communication. Byarl and Bessie grinned quietly at the two of them, admiring the obvious love and passion in their relationship.
"Are there any bears nearby, Amani?" Byarl called, once Ayori had finished and sat quietly beside her, sipping at his water while Amani pulled up clumps of tender grasses with her fore-hoof.
Amani paused, her gaze lost in the distance, reaching out with her mind. A year of living with the mind-deaf musties and communicating with them through mental screams had strengthened the power of her mind, and her mental 'range' was now quite far, indeed. Amani smiled and shook her head, holding out her other fore-hoof to Ayori. Ayori grinned and took it, was silent for a moment, then nodded. "Amani says that she senses one about three leagues away, at the limit of her range, but it's asleep. Judging by all the rabbit-pellets around here, I'd guess it probably caught lunch, and is taking a nap. We're safe here, for now."
Byarl nodded. "Ah, good. And how are your feet doing? I know you said that your hooves wear down as you use them. Will you be able to make it?"
Amani grinned and nodded, and Ayori spoke again. "Amani says that because she isn't carrying any weight, she'll be alright. If she had to carry a pack, or carry us if we lost a bird, she'd have problems on a trip this long because the extra weight would wear her hooves down faster, but as it is, she'll be alright. I trim her fore-hooves for her, chief, so I can tell you - they grow pretty quickly when she's eating right," Ayori said, and grinned.
"How do you trim them, Ayori?" Bessie asked, curious.
"I use a red-hot knife I heat in the fire - Amani told me how, it's the way her people have done it since they first got iron and steel tools from the cats. It makes the job go fast, and leaves a smooth edge - though it stinks like burned fur when you do it," Ayori replied, making a moue', then giggled.
Bessie took a sip of water, then scratched her head. "Umm... Amani? Doesn't that hurt? And I know you said before that your people were living in the stone-age when the cats first captured you - how did your people trim your hooves before you had steel knives and such?"
Amani nickered in amusement, and after a moment of silence, Ayori grinned and spoke again. "Amani says no, it doesn't hurt. Her hooves are like our claws, kinda. And she says that before her people became slaves of the cats, they trimmed their fore-hooves by rubbing them against rocks. She also says that horses who carried a lot of weight all the time were sometimes given special shoes by the cats - they're made of forged iron, and shaped to fit the hoof. They apply them when they're still hot after hammering them into shape on the anvil, because the heat melts the edge of the hoof and makes the shoe fit better. Then, they stick them on with nails they drive through the hoof itself - and it doesn't hurt a bit. She says you can't run as fast when you're wearing them, though, because it makes your feet heavier. So, she didn't ask me or any of the other musties who are good at smithing to make some for her. Besides, she figured she didn't need them."
"Ow! That sounds so painful! Are you sure it doesn't hurt?" Bessie asked, wincing.
Amani whinnied with laughter, and nodded as Ayori giggled. "Yes, she says she's very sure - it doesn't hurt at all. Only the frog, the pad in the center, is sensitive. This part here, see?" Ayori asked, holding up Amani's fore-hoof and pointing. Bessie nodded, and Ayori continued. "Well, the rest is kinda like our claws, or like fur - it doesn't feel anything."
"Oh, okay," Bessie replied, and grinned.
Byarl nodded. "Hmmm... I wonder what the mus do to take care of the feet of their birds? We can't have either of these birds going lame on us during the trip," Byarl said, looking at the two birds. Though they had long since stopped panting, they still held their stunted wings out from their enormous bodies, relaxing in the sunlight.
"Amani says that they don't need anything - their feet are different. They have a really tough pad in the center, and the more they walk and run, the tougher it gets. She also says she can tell if they're having problems, and she'll slow down of she needs to - but neither of them seems to be having problems at the moment. She says she thinks Lord Xaa made a good choice in these two, and they'll probably make the trip without any trouble, so long as they have plenty to eat and drink," Ayori replied.
Byarl nodded again. "Well, as I remember from our trip to the Laughing Wood, there's a creek this way that we'll reach sometime around evening. They can drink their fill then," Byarl said, then paused and looked at Amani. "You know far more about these birds than we do, Amani, and are far better equipped to know when they're having a problem, so let us know if we need to slow down or stop for them. Keep an eye on them - and on yourself, as well," Byarl said, and when Amani raised an eyebrow at him, Byarl looked her in the eyes. "Yes, on yourself. You're just as important as the rest of us, here - more, really, because you're making the speed of this trip possible, and you're an excellent healer. I want you to be very careful you don't step on a stone or in a rabbit-hole while you're running, or something else like that. And if we need to slow down for you, then we slow down. Yes, we planned to be there and back before the first snows in the mountains - but we don't have to be. If necessary, we can go slower, and not be back until spring. Don't over-exert yourself, here. We still have a long way to go, and an even longer trip back."
Amani nickered, then nodded, grinning.
Ayori giggled. "Amani says 'Yes, Chief!'"
Bessie giggled, and Byarl grinned. "Good. Well, as soon as you're ready to go, we'll get moving again."
Half an hour later, Ayori nuzzled Amani a last time before climbing onto the djuducu-bird the musties would ride. Bessie giggled quietly at the two of them, and Byarl smiled. Love, true love, was highly admired and respected by the musties, and something that was cherished greatly by their people.
As they got moving again, Byarl
again returned his gaze to the lands about them, keeping an eye
out for trouble. So far, the trip had gone smoothly - he could
only hope the rest of it would go as easily. Of course, as chief,
it was his job to try to make certain it did.
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