Children of the Last God
(Book IV of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2001 BY

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Amani whickered softly as Ayori rubbed the juice from the crushed leaves into her pelt. *And this will work?* she asked, struggling to remain still and not scratch herself further.

Ayori nodded, smiling. "I guarantee it. We musties may not have lived in the jungle for a long, long, time, but we remember it well. And don't scratch!"

*I will try, my little love, but... It is truly maddening!* Amani replied, sighing.

"How is she, Ayori?" Bessie asked as she approached the campfire, carrying a double pawful of aloe-leaves, her rifle slung over her shoulder.

"The bumps look worse," Byarl commented, looking Amani over in the gloom of the jungle afternoon as he set his own aloe leaves beside Ayori.

"They are, Chief. She kept scratching," Ayori replied. At his silent thought, Amani went to her fore-hooves and knees, and he began rubbing the juice from the crushed leaves into her buttocks, where at least a dozen more insect bites marred the smooth surface of her pelt. In all, Amani was covered from head to toe in over a hundred insect bites - and they all itched terribly.

"Didn't you tell her not to scratch?"

"Yep - but she couldn't help herself, Chief. She's never had anything like this happen to her before. We don't have army-ants in the north. She's also being eaten alive by the mosquitoes. I think they're attracted to her scent."

"Hmmm..." Byarl replied, doffing his helmet and sitting on it like a stool. "It's probably her sweat. If we can smell her, the bugs probably can, too."

"Maybe that's why the horses never went this far south, Chief?" Bessie asked, sitting on her helmet likewise.

"Maybe. She's just lucky all three of us were here to help when she got bitten by the ants yesterday." Byarl replied, and looked to Amani. "You have to watch out for them, Amani. You can't just sleep anywhere in the jungle."

Amani nodded, sitting down again at the pressure of Ayori's gentle paw on her back. When she'd been awakened by the sharp pain of hundreds of bites the night before, she had been so maddened by the pain she was nearly out of her head. Ayori and Byarl had tackled her ankles to prevent her from simply running blindly through the night and perhaps hurting herself, then the three musties used their small blankets to beat the ants from her skin. It had been a terrifying experience for Amani. More, they were only two days beyond the edge of the ancient jungles that were once the ancestral home of the musties - Amani knew it could only get worse.

Amani sat quietly, struggling not to scratch herself, totally miserable. That she was helpless here in the jungles bothered and embarrassed her in the extreme. She wanted to be a good mate to Ayori, and yet she was in a situation where he was forced to care for her like some helpless foal. She had tied her horse-garment in the normal, more conservative mode of dress a mare used for simply walking about, because the closeness of the jungle trees had meant she could no longer lead the birds at a swift run, but instead had to carefully pick her way through the jungle - and as she knew little of the dangers, Amani, Ayori and Bessie led the way, not her. Amani scolded herself silently. It was her duty as Ayori's mate to be a help to him, not a hindrance. It was a poor mare indeed who was merely a dead weight on her stallion's back.

Ayori, seeing Amani's misery, stood on his tip-toes and nuzzled her softly. "Don't worry, Amani. The aloe-leaves really will help with the itching."

"I think the real problem is what you said, Ayori - her scent is attracting mosquitoes," Byarl said, stroking his whiskers.

"Isn't there anything we can do about that?" Bessie asked.

Byarl shook his head. "Not that I know of. We musties don't have much of a scent - horses do. Most of the other animals of the jungle just have thicker skins than she does, or they're used to the bugs."

Amani nickered in misery, and Ayori scratched his head, thinking. "Well, I've learned a lot of the herbal healing lore of the mice from talking with Bootie over the last two years, but I don't remember her ever talking about this problem," Ayori said, and shrugged. "All I can think of is rubbing her down with fleabane leaves."

"Fleabane?!" Bessie yelped, then made a moue'.

Byarl nodded. "That might work, if we can find some. She'll stink, of course, but if it keeps the bugs off her, it's worth a try," Byarl replied, and hopped to his feet, picking up his helmet and clapping it to his head. "Bessie, come on - let's see if we can't find some fleabane before it gets dark."

"Yes, Chief!" Bessie replied, hopping up and putting her own helmet on. In a few moments, the two musties had vanished into the jungle, leaving Amani and Ayori alone again.

After an hour, Amani began to sigh with relief. The abysmal itching had lessened - though it was still there, it was now almost tolerable. The gentle stroking of the aloe-leaves on her bites also was a good substitute for scratching. Amani gave Ayori a weak smile. *Thank you, my little love. That is much better.*

Ayori smiled, hearing his mate's mind-voice through the gentle paw he rested on her arm. "It's alright. We'll get you through this, don't worry."

*Does fleabane really smell that bad?* Amani asked, a worried note in her mind's voice.

Ayori nodded. "To a mustie, it smells very bad. The mice say it smells nice, though, so you might like it," Ayori replied, smiling reassuringly. "It's rare this far south, but if Bessie and Byarl can find some, it really does work. We rub down deer with it in the Laughing Wood when they get infested with ticks - then we rub ourselves down with it to keep from getting their ticks, too. The mice told us a long, long time ago that ticks and fleas spread disease. We didn't know that before we met them - we just knew that deer would spend more time scratching themselves against trees than eating, and they end up skinnier because of it. We musties don't just hunt the animals of the forest - we also care for them, as well. We have to - they're our food."

Suddenly, Amani froze. Now that her itching had lessened and her mind was no longer distracted by it, she could once again sense the minds around her at a greater distance without concentrating on it - and what she sensed now frightened her badly. *There is a carnivore near! A snake! A large snake! It is smelling me! It is wondering if I am small enough to eat!*

Ayori, hearing his mate's panicked thoughts through his casual touch, looked around and above. "Ah, I see it," he said calmly, and drew his knife. He paused a moment, looking at the tree above him and gaging the shot, then flicked his knife at the thick limb above.

Amani whinnied in terror as an enormous snake came crashing down to the ground, writhing in it's death throes - Ayori's knife had pierced it's head from below, the blade protruding from between and just behind it's eyes. Ayori calmly picked up his rifle, spent a few moments shoving the writhing snake's coils away from the two of them with the butt, and then set his rifle down again. "Python. Don't worry - you're far too big to be eaten by a python, even one that big. I'm more it's size. It probably would have gone after me, if I was asleep. They don't like attacking musties when we're awake, because we're faster than they are, and we usually kill them." Ayori glanced and the snake, gaging it's size, and grinned. "Well, on the bright side, there's plenty of meat, so Byarl and Bessie and I don't have to eat jerky for awhile. We can skin this snake and tan up the hide, and you'll have something better to wear by the time all those bites heal. Your old horse-garment is has the scent of your sweat on it, and that will just attract predators and more bugs until we can get it cleaned, so some new clothes are probably a good idea. That one's easily long enough to make you a new horse-garment out of it's hide." And, indeed, it was - the snake was about twenty-one feet long.

Amani watched the enormous snake's body writhe and twist, seemingly endlessly, and shuddered. *And this is what your ancestors had to survive every day?!* she asked, once Ayori had rested his little paw on her arm again.

Ayori giggled. "It's really not that bad, Amani. There aren't any bears in the jungle - the most dangerous predators are pythons. Most of the animals of the jungle are either small and fast to escape the pythons, or are just too big for them to eat. We musties pretty much ate everything, including the pythons. We're faster and meaner than they are, really, and they don't like to tangle with us unless they can catch us napping - so really, the most dangerous thing in the jungle when my ancestors lived here was my ancestors, themselves. Well, there's the Snap-Snaps, but they were legends even in my ancestor's time. I don't know if they really even exist."

*Snap-Snaps? What are they?* Amani asked, nickering fearfully, her eyes still on the writhing snake.

"Bogey-things, I think. Not real. The legends say they were very big, very fast, all teeth, and they gobbled little musties up with a snap-snap of their terrible jaws!" Ayori explained with a grin, holding his arms out before him and clapping his paws together vertically, in imitation of gigantic jaws. Ayori giggled at Amani's expression, and squeezed her arm gently where there were no itchy bites. "Oh, don't worry. Even if they are real, the legends say they lived deep in the swamps, and never came into the jungle. We'll be safe from them."

Amani nodded, her eyes still on the snake. Though she could sense that it was long since dead, it's body still writhed and twisted. *Do they always do that when they die?* she asked, nodding to the snake.

Ayori nodded. "Always. I'll get my knife from it's head after it stops. Poisonous ones are worse, though - their heads can still bite for quite awhile after you cut them off, so our ancestors had to be careful when they were gathering the poison."

*Why would you gather the poison?*

"Oh, we used to use little blow-guns that fired long thorns for darts. We'd dip the darts in a poison that was a mix of several different snake and frog extracts. There aren't any poisonous frogs way up north, though, and the snake poison there isn't strong enough to be useful. It's strong enough to kill a mustie with one bite, but not strong enough to make dart-poison from. So, we don't use blow-guns anymore. Besides - a sling has a better range, and our rifles have an even better range."

Amani gazed at Ayori quietly for a long moment, and finally sighed.

"What's the matter?" Ayori asked, his face a mask of concern.

*You are home here. The jungle, the forest... This is your natural environment, and to you, the dangers are less. My people lived on the plains, where one could out-run anything that was dangerous. To me, the jungle is a dark and dangerous place where one cannot truly run, lest one trip over a root or smash into a tree. Your eyes see well at night in the gloom beneath the trees, but I am nearly blind as soon as the sun has set. Your ears and nose know the signs of danger in the jungle, and can easily detect them, while mine cannot. I am... I am as helpless as a foal, and a burden to you. I am a poor mare to my stallion, and I am ashamed,* Amani replied, and hung her head.

"Awww... Come here," Ayori replied gently, reaching up to Amani's face with his paws. Gently, lovingly, he nuzzled his mate for a long moment. "Now, you listen to me, okay? You are not a burden. You're very helpful, in fact. Now that you know to watch out for snakes, you'll be able to keep an eye out for them with your mind, and you'll notice them a lot farther away than I ever will. Yes, in many ways, it's like you're a pup. You haven't learned what to watch out for, yet, so I have to keep an eye on you. But you will learn, okay? Byarl already said we were going to sit here for a bit and wait until you're completely ready to travel again. Both the birds are hobbled, and we've got them on a long lead that's tied to that tree over there. There's plenty enough forage for them to last, so you don't have to worry about them at all. So, while we're waiting here, I can sit down with you, and share with you what I know of the jungle. Like you showed me before, you know? The Sharing?"

Amani nodded as Ayori caressed her long face with his paws. Horses did not have books to record their history, skills and knowledges, but instead opened their minds to each other, and shared memories. Amani herself had learned all her clan's memories and everything else her mother thought she needed to know by the time she was four - and since that time, with the liberation of the horses, Amani had shared her memories with other horses of a hundred different clans, and they had shared with her. In this manner, Amani had learned most of what she knew about the healing lore of the mice, quietly spending a week of afternoons last fall sharing memories with Bootie Smithsmate. And, as time had permitted these last two years they had been together, Amani had slowly learned some the skills and knowledges of the musties through her mate, Ayori, in the same manner. Amani smiled weakly. *Yes, I can do that.*

"Good!" A sudden impish grin crossed Ayori's muzzle, and he reached up to grasp Amani's long ears in his paws, and waggled them playfully. Amani grinned back, slipping her arms behind him, then lowering her muzzle and pretending to gnaw on Ayori's muscular little neck. "Eek! Eek! Carnivorous horsie!" Ayori giggled, laughing at the little joke they sometimes shared as he pretended to struggle against her gently encircling arms. "Byarl warned me this might happen, once you became my mate! And you're so much bigger and stronger than me, I'll never escape! I'm soooo doooooomed!"

Amani nickered in amusement, the terrible itching of the insect bites nearly forgotten. After nuzzling Ayori lovingly for a long moment, she simply gazed into his eyes, sensing the love within his mind as a brilliant, sparkling star of emotion. *I love you, Ayori Treeclimber.*

"I love you, too, Amani of the Blue Wind Clan," Ayori replied, his fanged grin flashing in the fading daylight.


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