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

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"...and that," Byarl said, placing his paws on his hips as he stood by the central cook-fire, "is Lord Xaa's plan."

The other musties of the village, young and old, all sat back, thinking. It was no minor thing Lord Xaa had proposed. To go to the south, and seek out others of their kind, and invite them to the north, to join with the musties of Byarl's tribe. Their own legends said the journey north from the jungles to the Wild Wood had taken half a year - and traveling from the Wild Wood to arrive at the Laughing Wood on Lord Xaa's lands had taken nearly three months. The trip would take at least two years to complete, and that was a very long time to be away from loved ones.

"Who would be going?" Nona asked.

"Myself and two others - Ayori and Bessie, I think, would be the best choices. They're the best shots, and the best hunters."

"Woo-hoo!" Bessie yelped, grinning broadly.

There was a loud whinney, and Byarl looked over to the gentle giant, Amani. The mare sat with the musties, as for all intents and purposes, she was a part of the tribe. She was Ayori's mate, after all - and their strange and wonderful romance was both a source of smiles and songs among the musties, who found the enormous herbivore to be a wonderful and happy person, much as they were. At the moment, however, Amani was not smiling. She had Ayori in her lap, which was the way they often sat at tribal meetings, and she wrapped an arm around him and shook her head. Ayori looked up over his shoulder to his mate as she looked down to him, and there was silence for a moment as Ayori listened to her mind's voice. Like all horses, Amani was mute, and communicated with her mind. Ayori was best at hearing her, as they were heart-bonded mates, but even he could only hear her mind's voice when they touched. Ayori listened for a moment, then looked back to Byarl and grinned sheepishly. "Ummm... Amani says she doesn't want to be separated from me for maybe two years. In fact, she says she doesn't want to be separated from me for even two days. She wants to come along."

The other musties giggled, and Byarl grinned. "Alright, she can come. She's an excellent healer, and now that she knows not only her own healing lore, but she's learned that of both the mus and the mice, I think she'd be good to have along in case someone gets hurt," Byarl replied, and Amani smiled in thanks. "Still, it doesn't have to be two years. Lord Xaa says that all the mus are very interested in seeing more of our people in their lands, and if we want, they can provide riding-birds for us. The trip wouldn't take nearly as long that way - perhaps only a few months there, then a few months back."

"Can't they just use their airships and get you there and back in a few days?" Ellie asked, her voice showing that she was very concerned for her mate. The other musties echoed the same question - the airships of the mus, designed after the one Tinker had made years ago, were an infrequent sight in the skies, yet not completely uncommon. When the weather was clear and good, the mus often used them to rapidly transport important packages between castles - and, of course, they sometimes used them in war to scout out enemy positions and to occasionally rain bullets or arrows on their enemies from the safety of the sky.

Byarl shook his head. "The best airships the mus have now have a range of about six hundred leagues, one way. After they go that far, they run out of fuel and have to land, and if they don't land somewhere there's supplies and such for their airships, they can't take off again. My best estimate from our legends is that it's about a thousand leagues, Ellie. Their airships just can't go that far. They could take us as far as the edge of the Wild Wood and come back, but that's all. Then, we'd have to walk - and it would end up taking longer."

"But you don't know how to ride those big ugly birds of theirs, Byarl!" Ellie objected, hopping to her feet. "None of us does!"

Byarl nodded, stroking his whiskers. "Well, Merle does," Byarl replied, his mind immediately thinking of Merle Mousefinder. It was she who first found the mus, Lord Xaa, and helped heal him. Now, years later, she was to be his mate - and she also was the mustie's main connection to mus culture and society. Her marriage to Lord Xaa would, in effect, help bond their two people as one. "She's very busy over at the castle, but perhaps she could teach us..."

Amani shook her head, and Ayori spoke up. "Amani says she doesn't have to, Chief. If the mus will provide one gentle hen, she can simply lead it, and the three of us can ride it. She says that when she was a slave of the cats, she often lead led pack-birds around - it's how the cats used to move things around that were too bulky for a horse to carry, but not worth bothering getting out a wagon for. Amani also says that even after counting crossing the mountain, a trip as long as you say would only take her a month or so there, then another month or so back. She says the djuducu-birds run fast, and horses can run almost as fast."

"But... But..." Ellie sputtered, searching for another objection.

Amani let out a sharp whicker, and when Ellie looked to her, Ayori spoke up again. "Ellie, Amani says she understands how you feel, and you shouldn't worry - she'll be there to watch over us. She says she can sense dangerous creatures quite a ways away, and her inner eye lets her see dangerous things before they happen, and maybe avoid them. She says she'll do everything she can to make sure Byarl comes home safe to you."

"Well... Okay," Ellie replied, and smiled. "But I'm counting on you, Amani! You're one of us, now, and we musties watch out for each other, okay?"

Amani nickered in amusement, and nodded.

Ayori grinned. "Amani says she's very proud to be a member of our tribe, Ellie - even though she's a little big to be a mustie."

The musties all burst into giggles at that, gazing at Amani and Ayori. Where Ayori was of a typical size for an adult male mustie at a bit over three feet in height and about thirty pounds in weight, Amani stood about seven feet tall, and weighed about two hundred and fifty pounds - average for a female horse. Still, Ellie shook her head at the gentle giant. "No, she's a mustie, now, and part of our tribe. Right, Byarl?" Ellie asked, looking to her mate.

Byarl grinned and nodded. "The biggest mustie in history," he replied, which sent all the other musties to giggling again. Amani nickered with amusement, and nodded to Byarl. Byarl looked around to the other musties. "Alright. Are there any other questions, problems, suggestions...?" When there was no response, Byarl nodded. "Good. Now, we've got the wedding ceremony to attend - that's planned for next week, and we don't want to miss that. I want everyone in their best clothes - we want to make a good impression. And remember everything Lord Jamat explained to us about the ceremony, too - it's not like our ceremony, and we have to be very quiet until after it's over. Ayori, you and Amani go to the castle tomorrow morning to see if Lord Xaa can't provide us with the bird we'll need - tell him we'll be needing it the morning after the wedding. That gives him plenty of time to select the best one for the trip. Now is a good time to get underway - spring is ending, and it's the beginning of summer, so the mountain crossing will be easy. With luck, we'll be back sometime in the fall or early winter. We'll spend the next week sorting out what we'll need for the journey and packing, then start out the morning after the wedding."

With that, the meeting adjourned, the single musties gathering around the campfire in the center of the village to eat, and the mated musties returning to their homes with their families. Ayori opened the round little door to his house, then waited as Amani carefully crawled inside. Once she was in, Ayori followed, closing the door behind them. "Why didn't you have me tell them all of it?" he asked, sitting beside her as she lay on the living-room floor. Amani tucked an arm under her head, holding out her other fore-hoof to Ayori. Once he had taken it, she spoke, her silent mental voice echoing quietly in his mind.

*Because, my little love, this only would have upset Ellie and the others needlessly. Chief Byarl already knows it will be dangerous - the journey is long, and your own legends tell that the jungles were as full of dangers as the Wild Wood once was. This, all of them already know. Having me tell them that I see great peril when I turn my inner eye to the question of the journey would only upset everyone, and to no purpose. I cannot tell what the danger is, only that all of us must be very alert, particularly once we reach the jungles, or none of us shall return.*

"Hmm... Do you think we'll be okay?"

Amani smiled. *If I did not, I would not allow you to go, my little love. You mean far too much to me,* she replied, and nuzzled a grinning Ayori for a moment before she continued. *Between the woodscraft of three musties and my abilities as a seer, we stand a good chance of coming through this alright. Still, we must be careful - one lapse in our guard could be fatal.*

Ayori nodded, then hopped to his feet. "Well, I got a rabbit for me right off this morning, and it's already in the stew pot. So, I spent the rest of the day hunting roots for you. I found some carrots, among other things. Ready for dinner?" Ayori asked.

Amani grinned and nodded. She had, like any other horse, nibbled on grasses and leaves all day, as what Ayori could gather would hardly fill her. Still, the little treats Ayori found for her were always special, because they were gathered with love. Ayori grinned back, and went over to the little basket he'd placed by the fire.

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