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

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Bessie sat on the bank of the Laughing River, her rifle across her lap, watching the servant-caste mus Lord Xaa had sent to build the bridge working at their task. Ostensibly, Bessie was guarding the workers in case a bear came by, but in truth, there wasn't a bear within twenty leagues of where Bessie sat, and she knew it. There wasn't even a threat of bandits or raiders - the war with the cats had ended two years ago, and what few bandits there were in the lands of the mus feared Lord Xaa to greatly to risk his lands. It was more a formality of mus custom that the workers be protected from possible danger - and for that reason, Lord Y'dahk sat on the opposite bank, his rifle across his lap. Though there was nothing to guard them against, the workers would have felt very slighted to be working out in the wilderness unprotected - as though they were not valuable enough to Lord Xaa to be guarded from harm. Thus, Lord Y'dahk was here protecting them, even though everyone knew there was nothing to protect them against. Bessie had been asked by Byarl to do the same, along with several other musties of Byarl's village, who all took turns from day to day. As the bridge was being built for Byarl and his village, for an ally of Lord Xaa, it was only proper in the eyes of the mus that Byarl send along warriors to help protect the workers from any possible danger.

The day was warm, and the sun shone brightly in the sky - but Bessie knew it was only a false summer, and a prelude to the snows that would come. By tomorrow, it would be bitterly cold, and snow would blanket the lands. Of course, by then, the mus would be done. They were very quick and skilled workers, and the bridge was a simple project for them. The massive stones they used, each far too large for a mustie to even budge, they hefted and put in place easily and swiftly. It would be a simple arch crossing the river, much like the other bridges of the mus - though the sides would be far lower, so as to allow a mustie to fish from the bridge, or simply gaze at the river. Once it was complete, the workers would pull away the wooden supports, fish them out of the river, and Pup-Chup's village would have plenty of wood to use for the winter. At the rate the mus were working, it looked like the bridge would be complete sometime this afternoon. The little rope-bridge the musties had made would no longer be necessary, of course, but it would be kept anyway - the musties were a very practical people, and saw no need of taking down something that worked perfectly well. Besides, crossing the rope-bridge was ever so much fun.

"Hoyo, Bessie!" a voice called. Bessie turned to look, and smiled. It was Pup-Chup. Bessie patted the spot of ground next to her, and Pup-Chup sat with a grin. He reached out and took her paw in his, and squeezed it gently. Bessie grinned, then nuzzled him briefly and lovingly before turning back to watch the workers complete the bridge.

They said nothing to each other as they sat there, watching the river flow by. Pup-Chup knew why Bessie was here - though it had taken a bit to explain it to him, as it involved the culture of a people Pup-Chup really wasn't familiar with yet, he eventually understood. To Pup-Chup's understanding, Bessie was on guard-duty, a job he knew required silence and vigilance. But, Pup-Chup understood that this was merely a formality of the strange, large allies of the musties, as there was nothing dangerous in these woods he knew of. The one bear they had encountered had fallen easily to a volley of poison darts, and no tracks of others of it's kind had been found anywhere around. Though swift and equipped with terrible claws and teeth, bears were, to Pup-Chup's people, no more dangerous than the Snap-Snaps, far easier to kill (as their hides could be pierced by poison darts), and far less common.

No, to Pup-Chup and his people, these lands were very peaceful, and easy hunting. It was, in truth, as though the Strange Ones of Bessie's tribe had come to lead them from the harsh life of the jungle to a virtual paradise. It was not perfect, here, by far - poisons were fewer and farther between, and though a few spiders and one weed looked promising, they had yet to find anything to replace the poisons they had once used. More, the chilling cold of the previous weeks Byarl had explained was only a prelude to winter's true strength in these parts. Already, Pup-Chup's tribe had finished making warm winter garments of rabbit and deer skin under the direction of Bessie and others of her tribe, as none of the musties of Pup-Chup's tribe had grown a proper winter coat of fur for themselves yet. Still, Bessie had described snow several times, and all the fun things one could do with it. Pup-Chup wasn't quite sure he'd ever learn to truly enjoy winter's chill, yet he was looking forward to his first snowfall, and playing in the snow with Bessie.

From across the river, Lord Y'dahk watched the two musties, and smiled. They were truly a magical people. Wise, yet child-like. Friendly and playful, yet deadly hunters and warriors. It wasn't difficult to see why Lord Xaa had fallen in love with one of their number - particularly once one got to know Lady Merle. They were, truly, like magical little forest-spirits. Y'dahk truly felt privileged to be able to call one of their number his Liege-Lady, as much as he felt privileged to call Lord Xaa his Liege-Lord.

Y'dahk looked up at a shout, and saw the workers were tugging at the ropes connected to the wooden supports for the bridge. The wooden structure, used to allow them to give the stone bridge it's arched shape, was about to be pulled away. All the musties of both tribes had been carefully warned during the construction not to cross the bridge until it was certain it would not fall - Y'dahk had been assured by Great Chief Byarl that all understood. Y'Dahk rose to his feet, watching. A shout, and a heave by all twenty of the workers - each of them stout and powerfully-built members of the servant-caste, and all highly respected for their skills at stonework. This was the moment of truth, however. Once the supports were removed, any flaw in their work would be revealed as the low-arched bridge would tumble into the river under it's own tremendous weight. Barely two yards wide and stretching twenty-five yards to cross the Laughing River, the bridge would either stand for centuries, or collapse in seconds.

Another shout, and another mighty heave - then suddenly the main support popped loose, and the whole of the wooden supports collapsed with a rumbling splash into the waters of the river, to float away to the net the workers had strung across the waters downstream minutes before.

There was a long moment of silence, as all eyes watched the bridge.

Y'dahk grinned - the bridge stood.

As the workers broke out into cheers, from across the river, Bessie and Pup-Chup stood and ululated with joy, dancing about on their side of the bank. There was still much work to be done, fishing the wooden supports out of the river, and sawing them into smaller pieces the musties of Pup-Chup's village could use for their cookfire this winter. Yet, as Y'dahk watched Pup-Chup and Bessie skip happily across the newly-finished bridge, Y'dahk couldn't help but grin broadly. All the workers also grinned at the musties as they bounced on the bridge, hugging each other. In seeing their joy, Y'dahk realized that this, truly, seemed the whole purpose of building the bridge in the first place. Not merely to connect the two mustie villages, and make life a bit easier for them. No, watching them, it seemed the true reason was just to make them happy, really - as happy as the musties themselves made the mus by their simple presence in their lives.


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