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

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"I don't know if she'll come, Chief. She's very scared of them," Ayori replied.

Bessie giggled. "Scared of them? Why?"

Ayori sighed. "She says they're... Wild, uncivilized. They have no real concept that anything can be really intelligent, like we are, other than another mustie. She-"

"Just tell her to come, Ayori," Byarl said, interrupting with a gaze that meant 'and I mean business.' "We can't hardly understand them, most of the time. We need her to help us translate as best she can, through you."

Ayori nodded. It was true, of course. Time and their long association with the mice had changed the language Byarl and his tribe spoke, and most of the words the Wild Musties used were completely incomprehensible. They had managed to make themselves understood, after a fashion, using a combination of careful speech and mustie paw-signs (which had changed little over the centuries), but it was enormously difficult. That, and the attention-spans of the wild musties seemed limited. They were easily distracted by sounds in the forest. They had several times fallen into a guarded silence as they searched the trees at the sounds of movement, until it became plain that the sound they heard was not a hunting Snap-Snap, but was merely a deer or pig or another creature of the forest. Once, as evening approached, all three of the Wild Musties had leaped to their feet at a command from their leader, picked up their blowguns from the ground (each was nearly as long as the musties were tall), then dashed off into the forest. Byarl had worried they might never come back - but an hour later, as night was settling over the jungle, they returned, each carrying two rabbits. While it was a relief to know that they had only intended to treat their guests to dinner, it was also quite frustrating to Byarl to be so handicapped in talking to them. "Don't worry, Chief," Ayori said, and grinned. "I'll bring her out, even if I have to grab her by the tail and drag her."

Bessie giggled as she slipped another log onto the small campfire, not noticing that her laughter made the leader of the Wild Ones stare at her for a long moment in silence. "Hee! I don't think she'd like that, Ayori!"

Byarl spotted the expression on Pup-Chup, as he was apparently called, and tried speaking with him again. "Is everything alright?"

"Wha?" Pup-Chup replied around a mouthful of cooked rabbit, looking back to Byarl curiously.

"Ummm... All okie?"

Pup-Chup grinned. "Ho, ya! All okie!"

Byarl sighed.

Pup-chup looked over to Amani as she approached the fire, his eyes widening. The other Wild Ones eyed her, as well, their fangs gleaming as they glanced over her long, well-muscled legs and rump. "Oooooo... Ayori bring din-din?" Pup-chup asked.

Amani whinnied in fear, and Ayori stood between her and the chief of the Wild Ones. "No, she is not dinner, you crazy little wart!" he snarled, baring his fangs.

"Oh, okie," Pup-chup replied, sighing for a moment before grinning and resuming eating the cooked rabbit. The other Wild Ones grumbled in disappointment briefly, and then began chatting happily between each other again.

Amani nickered nervously as Ayori turned to Byarl in frustration. "I swear! Chief, were we really like them before we encountered the mice?"

Byarl nodded silently.

"Well, they are not going to eat my mate, and that is final!" Ayori snapped, and tugged on Amani's fore-hoof. Amani sat quietly, crossing her long legs, and Ayori plopped himself down in her lap very possessively. Amani smiled, hugging her little mate, and nuzzled him softly for a moment, nickering quietly.

Pup-Chup looked to Ayori and Amani for a long moment, then sighed again. He babbled something in his language for a long moment, then fell silent.

"Well? What are they saying, Ayori?"

Ayori suddenly looked sheepish. "Umm... Amani says he's trying to apologize to me. She says he doesn't understand what's going on, but it's obvious he made me mad, and he doesn't want to do that. They want to be our friends."

"Smile back to him, then," Bessie suggested, grinning. "They understand that!"

Ayori did, and after a moment, Pup-Chup smiled in return.

Byarl stroked his whiskers, thinking. "Well, about all we've managed to learn is the words for 'yes', 'no', 'rabbit' and 'fire'. I wish I could find something we have in common - maybe we could work from there."

"Amani says maybe you should try a game. All musties play games - maybe our games are the same," Ayori replied.

Byarl suddenly brightened. "Ah! That's it!" Byarl looked to Pup-Chup. "Would you like to play Hextet Questions?"

"Wha?" Pup-Chup replied, scratching his head.

"Ummm... Hextet Questions," Byarl replied, holding up his right paw with the littlest finger raised - sixteen, in the numbers of the musties.

"Hextet?" Pup-Chup asked, holding up his paw the same way.

"Well, at least the words we use for numbers didn't change!" Bessie pointed out optimistically.

"Only because the mice always thought our numbers were dumb," Byarl replied with a nod, and pressed on. "Ummm... Hextet Wha?"

Pup-Chup scratched his head, then chatted to the two other Wild Ones with him. After a moment, he turned back to Byarl, and grinned. "Hextet Pato!"

"He's got it, Chief!" Ayori interjected. "Amani says he's figured out what you meant. They play the same game."

Byarl grinned. Hextet Questions was, to his knowledge, a very old game - it was a great relief that Pup-Chup and his people knew it, as well. The game was a simple one - one person thought of something, usually an object or creature. The other player then had sixteen questions to determine what it was the other was thinking of. Byarl paused for a moment - how to let Pup-Chup know Byarl needed him to go first? Byarl tried bowing from where he sat, opening his arms wide in invitation. "Ho, Pup-Chup pato," he said, hoping Pup-Chup would understand.

"Ho! Banga," Pup-Chup replied, and stroked his whiskers for a moment, then babbled his first question.

"Amani says he's asking if it's animal, vegetable or mineral?" Ayori said after a moment.

Byarl sat up, and grinned. "Bessie, get brush, ink and paper from the supplies, and start writing down what I tell you. We've just figured out how to learn their language."

"Hee! It's a good thing we're musties, chief! I don't think you'd ever have managed it otherwise!" Bessie chittered, hopping to her feet and dashing off into the small enclosure of trees the supplies and pack-birds were hidden in.

Byarl looked to Pup-Chup, thinking carefully about the words he'd spoken a moment ago, then nodded. "Kappa," he replied.

Pup-Chup grinned in reply, and asked his next question as Bessie returned. Byarl paused to hear the meanings Amani read from his mind, then spoke rapidly to Bessie, having her write down the few words he had deciphered so far. Amani could not tell which words meant what - she only knew the meaning of what he was trying to say. Yet Byarl realized that their languages still had a similar sentence structure, and he would be able to piece out the meanings of many words though Amani's translation of the thoughts that underlay them. 'With a bit of patience, and perhaps some luck...' Byarl thought to himself, and concentrated on the task, listening to Pup-Chup's words carefully.

* * *

Pup-Chup waited quietly while the leader of the Strange Ones carefully went through the collection of strange white leaves the female had painted upon. It was obvious what they were trying to do - they were trying to learn Pup-Chup's language through the game. Yet what the markings on the strange white leaves had to do with that, Pup-Chup had no idea.

The female was asleep, now, curled up near the fire. So, too, was the strange, deer-like creature. The other, the one that apparently owned her, stood guard by her side, his eyes on the night shadows of the jungle as he clutched his strange weapon. Chi-Chi and Mo-Mo also slept, lying snuggled close to Pup-Chup for warmth. Ban-Go stood watch - though Pup-Chup knew that if a Snap-Snap came, there was little they could do about it. He could only watch for pythons and other smaller dangers, and hope that the Strange Ones would again be able to kill another Snap-Snap, should one come. Pup-Chup was exhausted, himself - but he dared not sleep. This was far too important.

"We want friend you," said the leader of the strange ones, looking down to the square white leaves for a moment. "Me Byarl. Him Ayori," Byarl said, pointing to the one on guard. "She Bessie. She Amani," he said, pointing first to the female, then to the strange, deer-like creature.

Pup-Chup grinned. "To be your friend, we want, too! Killed the Snap-Snap did you! To learn to do this, we want, too! How killed you the Snap-Snap?"

The leader of the strange ones rolled his eyes, and sighed. Turning to the one on guard, he spoke quietly for a moment. Pup-Chup waited. This had happened several times already. Pup-Chup took a moment to try to memorize their names while he waited - though why they would give an animal a personal name, he could not understand. A pet, perhaps? Pup-Chup did not know.

Ayori reached down and touched the deer-like creature on the shoulder, and after a moment, she opened her eyes sleepily. She looked to Pup-Chup for a moment, yawning (her teeth were large and flat, Pup-Chup noticed, and she was obviously an herbivore), then looked back to Ayori in silence. Byarl nodded, again painting on the strange leaves, then spoke again. "Too big. No words."

Pup-Chup nodded - he didn't think that it would be something simple and easily explained, particularly with how limited their communication was, at present. Some of the words the strangers spoke were familiar - but most were not. Strangely, when the deer-like creature was awake, Ayori seemed to understand. When she slept, he did not. That meant that while she was awake, he could make his thoughts known to the Strange Ones easily, but when she slept, he could not. It was a completely inexplicable phenomenon to Pup-Chup. Still, at least knowing that made understanding why they did not eat the creature obvious - it was incredibly useful to have around. At times, the creature acted as though it was almost intelligent...

Amani gazed at Pup-Chup intently, and as he looked back at her, in a sudden flash of insight, he understood.

Pup-Chup hung his head, covering his eyes with his paws, and sighed deeply. "Stupid, am I."

Ban-Go looked to his Chief in surprise. "What?"

"Very stupid, am I. Called Amani, the Deer-Girl is. Food she is not. A pet she is not. People, she is. Really, really big people, but still people, she is."

"What?" Ban-Go said again, scratching his head in utter confusion. "How? A mustie, she is not. A deer, she resembles."

"Look again. Feet, paws, head, tail different, yes. Same, the rest is. Look."

Ban-Go looked, then blinked. "Right you are! Like us, she is! Just... Big! Head, paws, feet, tail different - but same, the rest is!"

Though Pup-Chup did not know it, this was precisely what had happened to Byarl's ancestors eight centuries before, when their ancient Chief was startled by a the strange caw of a raven, and the odd behavior of a flock of ravens in a nearby tree. He looked again to the mice they were about to hunt for food, and in a peripeteian epiphany, realized he was looking at people, not animals. In the case of Byarl's ancestors, it had been an odd and unnerving experience that caused them to pause, their minds disturbed, and suddenly see what was before them in a completely different light. In Pup-Chup's case, it had taken exhaustion and constant observation - but once the breakthrough had been made, his mustie-mind immediately understood. He was not looking at a animal that happened to look similar to his people - he was looking at a person who happened to look different from his people.

More, once the leap of understanding had been made, all Pup-Chup needed to do was explain it to Ban-Go, and he immediately came to the same conclusion - just as the Chief of Byarl's ancestor so long ago had only needed to explain it to the rest of his tribe, and they understood, as well.

Pup-Chup sighed again, and looked up across the campfire to Amani. "Understand me, you do, yes?"

Amani smiled and nodded.

"And somehow when touching you he is, understanding is he," Pup-Chup said, waving a paw at Ayori.

Amani nodded again, smiling more broadly.

"And to him does he talk," Pup-Chup said, pointing to Byarl, "so learn to talk to us, he does."

Amani grinned broadly and sat up, clopping her fore-hooves together in imitation of mustie applause. The sound woke Bessie, Chi-Chi and Mo-Mo up, and they all yawned sleepily. Ayori chittered something briefly to Byarl, grinning, and Byarl grinned to Pup-Chup and nodded.

"Chief? What happen?" Chi-Chi asked, yawning again.

Pup-Chup turned to Chi-Chi and Mo-Mo, and explained all that he had just realized. It took them a few moments, as they were quite sleepy, but eventually, they understood. "Now come, all. Follow. To our village, we will go. Understand do I, now. Much time this will take - many days, perhaps. Maybe longer. Stay here that long, we cannot. Too close to swamp, we are. Again may the Snap-Snaps come. Maybe many. Maybe too many. Maybe die, shall we all. Come - to my lodge shall we go. Helping you all my people shall do. Faster shall you learn. More safely shall you learn. Come."

After a few moment's conversation between Ayori, Bessie and Byarl, Byarl put away his brush and ink, then folded up the papers and looked to Pup-Chup. "We come," he replied, grinning broadly.

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