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

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Byarl reached up to the belly of the pack-bird, tightening the last strap. The bird, who was now very used to the musties, simply stood silently, waiting in the noonday sun that filtered down through the forest canopy, above. Amani tugged the pack-saddle to and fro, making sure it was secure, then nodded. "She says it's ready, Chief," Ayori said, his paw resting on Amani's hip.

Byarl nodded, then looked over to where Bessie sat, using her little helmet like a stool. He could tell just from a glance that she was very sad - but there wasn't much Byarl or anyone else could really do about it. Byarl stepped over to her, and held out his paw. "Come on, Bessie. It's time to go."

Bessie sighed, and did not take Byarl's paw. "I know, Chief. I just wish..."

Byarl nodded, reaching up to pull off his helmet, then sitting before her. "He's a Chief of his tribe, Bessie," Byarl said, reaching out to take her paws in his. "He can't just go, even if he wanted to. He has to lead his tribe, or he's no chief at all. And Pup-Chup may not be anything like me, but I can tell he's still a very good chief. The needs of his tribe come first - as they should."

"I know, Chief. I was just hoping... I mean, he spent all that week we were in the swamps talking to the other chiefs of the other tribes. I was hoping that meant he wanted to come, and that he would come."

"Well, Bessie, I - yeek!" Byarl yelped, startled by a sudden shadow above him and leaping to his feet instinctively. The musties were small people, and sudden shadows looming over them sometimes meant danger. Byarl paused, and looked - it was a very large, sturdy woven basket hanging a hundred and fifty feet above him, being lowered from the tree-lodge above by a rope.

"I wonder what they're doing?" Bessie said aloud, standing and picking up her helmet before plopping it on her head.

"I've no idea, Bessie," Byarl replied, putting his own helmet on.

Ayori grinned. "Amani says that they're going to lower the older ones down like that - in the basket. Everyone else is holding the rope, so it doesn't slip. Some of the older ones haven't been down from the trees in many, many years, and they aren't strong enough to make the climb. The passenger gets out at the bottom, then they pull the basket back up again. Once everyone's down, they'll carry the older ones in litters."

Bessie's eyes widened in realization, then she spun, waggling an accusing finger at Amani. "You mean you knew they were coming with us and you didn't tell me?!"

Amani grinned and nodded. "Yes, she's known since this morning. Amani says she thought it would be better to surprise you," Ayori replied, and burst into giggles.

"Oh, you mean, mean horsie!" Bessie replied, and stuck out her tongue. "You're just like a mustie, now!"

"Only bigger," Byarl commented, and chuckled.

Amani whinnied with laughter, and eventually, Bessie grinned, stuck out her tongue at the enormous mare, then giggled along with her.

It took an hour for all of Pup-Chup's tribe to come down from their lodge, and the basket was used even after the eight elderly musties were brought down, this time lowering backpacks - some woven, others made of leather. The older musties simply pulled the packs out of the basket, and it was raised again to be loaded with more. Eventually, the last mustie scrambled down from the tree - it was Pup-Chup, of course. Bessie slung her rifle over her shoulder, grinned and dashed over to hug him. Pup-Chup grinned and hugged her back.

It took a few more minutes for Pup-Chup to go among his people and get everything organized. There were over a hundred musties in his tribe, and there were many last-minute details to take care of. Finally, everyone seemed ready. Pup-Chup turned to Byarl, and grinned. "Go with you, we shall. Our lands to the other tribes we shall leave. Follow, some will, others, not. Matters little, it does. Leave shall we trail markers of stone along the way. Follow they can, should they choose someday. Follow they will, think I. Safe have you made the jungle - but wanting the greater knowledge, they will someday be. Medicines... Armor... Metal knives... Guns... The Words-That-Stay... All of these things and much more will they want, someday. When happens this does, and happen it will, then follow will they the markers we leave."

Byarl smiled, listening to Ayori give Amani's translation, then nodded. "Let's go, then." he said, and turned to lead the way back north. Ayori and Amani followed, with Amani leading the two birds. Behind them walked Bessie and Pup-Chup, paw-in-paw, with Pup-Chup's tribe following.

An hour later, as they walked through the jungle, Ayori reached out, taking his mate's large fore-hoof in his tiny paw. 'Byarl seems upset, somehow. I've been watching him. He smiles and all that when you talk to him, but when nobody's looking, he looks very grim,' Ayori thought silently.

*He is thinking that it will be many, many moons before we return to your village, my little love. Brave and noble though your people are, you have very short legs, and it is a very long walk. A thousand leagues is a journey of a month or two to a horse or a djuducu-bird, but to a mustie, it is a journey of a year. Because now Pup-Chup's people follow us, and we must lead them, he fears our journey will be a long one.*

'Oh - I didn't think of that,' Ayori replied silently, then sighed. 'Ellie will be very upset when we don't return by spring. She'll think something terrible has happened.'

*Do not worry, my little love. We will be back before the first snows fall in the mountains.*

Ayori blinked. "What?! How?!" he yelped aloud.

Amani smiled. *I do not know, my little love. I only know that this is so.*

Ayori grinned. "You and that 'inner eye', again. I think sometimes you do know, you just enjoy being mysterious."

Amani smiled down at her little mate, a mischievous twinkle to her eye. *If I did, would I admit it?*

Ayori burst into giggles. "Bessie's right - you're just like a mustie, now!"

Amani grinned broadly, for she knew it was true. She was, now, a true mustie, and a proper mare to her stallion, Ayori. Amani once thought she was no true warrior, and certainly no true mustie - she was merely a timid mare. Yet, now she had fought against the Dark One and the Snap-Snaps alongside her mate, her chief and a fellow member of her tribe, and won. She had not fought with a weapon in her fore-hooves, but this did not make the fight any less because of it. And more, she knew that this experience had changed her, and allowed her to truly embrace and share in the Mustie Way. She now truly understood and shared the happy, joyful spirit of her heart-bonded mate, and would forevermore be able to smile in the face of trouble and laugh in the face of death, just as he could.

*Thank you, my little love,* she replied, and with her head and tail held high and proud, Amani gazed forward not only to the trail ahead, but the glorious and happy future that lay before her.


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