THE ADVENTURE OF THE LION’S HEART by Kevin O’Brien
 
“The wilderness areas of the Dreamlands present many dangers. Aside from accidents and inclement weather, which can lead to serious injuries and exposure, there is the real danger of starvation, drinking tainted water or eating poisonous plants, being attacked by venomous snakes or insects, and of course predators. Among the worst are the fortunately rare but monstrous Devil-Tigers and the regrettably more common, relentless, and bloodthirsty Garou....”
 
— The Dreamlands for Dummies, by Aislinn Síle
 
 
Shadow-Stalker heard Eile and Sunny singing in harmony before she smelled or saw them:
 
“Twenty-nine bottles of beer on the wall, twenty-nine bottles of beer! Take one down and pass it around; twenty-eight bottles of beer on the wall!”
 
They finally came into view around a bend in the road, emerging from behind a stand of trees that surrounded a pond.
 
As they approached, Sunny spotted her and waved. They were headed back to Ulthar after having completed a walking tour of the lands in The South. She had been their companion since the first night they arrived in the Dreamlands, and though she could not accompany them on every adventure, she made it a point to do so as often as possible. She loved them as if they were her litter-mates, and she couldn’t have been more proud if they really had been.
 
That didn’t mean she coddled them. “It’s about time you two showed up,” she said as soon as they reached her.
 
They glanced at each other and exchanged grins. “We had ta save a band of studmuffins from bein’ ravished by a squad of lustful lady orc soldiers,” Eile said.
 
“There are no orcs in the Dreamlands.”
 
“No?!” Sunny said with mock surprise. Then she punched Eile in the arm. “See! I told you they were just milk maids.”
 
“Huh. Well, they were certainly actin’ like horny orcs, but that does explain why those guys didn’t wanna be rescued.” The two of them broke out laughing.
 
Shadow meowed in frustrated irritation. “You’re not going to embarrass me at the Hansens’ with your stupid jokes, are you?”
 
“Heh, they love our jokes,” Eile said.
 
“They’re just being polite.”
 
“Even their kids?” Sunny squealed.
 
Shadow yowled in irritation and hopped off the mileage marker. “It’s no use trying to talk sense to you two when you’re in this mood. I’ll wait for you at the gate.” And she turned and bounded down the road. Even so, she couldn’t help wondering if the Girls really had broken up an assault on a group of innocent travellers by local women desperate for sex.
 
That was just the kind of adventure they often seemed to stumble upon.
 
 
 
Eile grinned as she watched the sleek, short-haired, smoky-black cat race off into the distance.
 
“We really shouldn’t tease her like that,” Sunny said.
 
She spared her a snarky glance. “It was yer idea, ya butthead.”
 
Sunny crinkled her eyes and smiled. “That’s because she’s so funny when she gets all indignant like that.”
 
Eile chuckled. “Heh, yeah.”
 
They started down the road again, but didn’t resume singing. Eile was tired of that song, and Sunny preferred duets. Besides, they sang mostly to relive their boredom, and it wouldn’t be much longer before they reached the farm. The Hansens had established a homestead just outside the village of Gnarthok a number of Dream-years before the two of them started coming to the Dreamlands, and had built a successful enterprise raising wheat, beans, and alfalfa for local consumption.
 
Sunny stretched her arms over her head, then laid her quarterstaff on the back of her neck, balancing it on her shoulders. “Good gravy, I can’t believe how tired I am. I’ll be glad when we finally reach the farm. A nice, soft bed with clean sheets, and good wholesome meals.”
 
Eile grinned to herself, but she could sympathize. Despite their love of adventure, even they grew tired of sleeping out in the open and eating camp food, despite Sunny being a master chef. As such, especially on the return trips, they liked to seek out inns and hostels, or even just someone’s home or cottage, for a temporary respite. Medb hErenn had introduced them to the Hansens when she escorted them on their first trip into the valley of the Squros River, and they made a point of staying with them for a few days each time they travelled in that direction.
 
“I wonder if Martha’s had her baby by now?” The Hansens had five children, the oldest, a daughter, being 17.
 
Eile flashed a lopsided sarcastic smile. “Well, she was five months along when we last visited, and that was nine Dream-months ago, so I’d say, yeah, probably.”
 
Sunny giggled in an embarrassed fashion. “Yeah, probably.”
 
They continued on in silence, as the road passed between an alfalfa field on the left and a wheat field on the right. After an hour, it took a sharp dogleg turn to the right, but at the bend of the curve a gravel path led off to the left. They departed the road and after another ten minutes they approached a low dry rock wall made of undressed field stones. The path passed through a simple wooden gate, which stood open, and Shadow sat on top of the wall off to one side.
 
“Yeah, I know,” Eile said as they stopped inside the gate, “we’re takin’ too long.” She gazed across the interior yard in a casual manner. The two-story house sat in the centre some ways off. A well had been sunk in front of it, while in back stood the larger barn and various other structures, including the latrine, a bathhouse, and the above-ground shed that gave access to the root cellar.
 
“On the contrary, I’ve just arrived myself.” Like all talking cats in the Dreamlands, she sounded like a Munchkin from The Wizard of Oz. “I took the opportunity to grab something to eat.” Shadow was a skilled huntress, so Eile figured she had spoken literally.
 
Then the cat turned her head to scan the yard. “But something’s not right.”
 
Eile felt her stomach tighten as Sunny’s eyes grew so wide they looked like they would pop out of their sockets.
 
“Wha’cha mean?” Sunny asked.
 
“It’s too quiet, and no one’s moving about.”
 
Eile realized she was right, but... “Are you sure? Couldn’t they be inside doin’ somethin’? Or maybe they went inta the village?”
 
“Perhaps, but I haven’t seen any of the resident cats, and one usually greets me as soon as we arrive.”
 
That was true, and the thought made butterflies dive-bomb her gut. She laid a hand on her bowie knife as she glanced at Sunny. Her partner sported a worried expression, and she took a moment to string her composite bow.
 
Sunny nodded when she was ready, and after she leaned her quarterstaff against the inside of the wall they jogged up the path towards the house. Shadow jumped down and ranged ahead of them at a quick trot, but paused every now and then to quickly scan the surroundings or sniff at something on the ground. Eile felt apprehension at the eerie quiet and solitude, but nothing else seemed amiss. The house and the other buildings appeared undamaged, there was no smoke or other evidence of a fire, and the yard was as neat and tidy as it always looked.
 
Shadow suddenly pulled up short and screeched in shock. The two of them raced ahead to join her, but careened to a halt once they spotted what she had seen:
 
A pile of clothes lay just off the path, torn to shreds and caked with dried blood, but there was no body.
 
Eile pulled her short thick-bladed broadsword as Sunny nocked an arrow, and they both made a quick scan of the yard. Eile couldn’t see anything, but that didn’t mean there was nothing out there.
 
“Someone’s attacked the farm,” Sunny said.
 
“No shit, Sherlock.” Sunny’s penchant for stating the blindingly obvious could be annoying.
 
“Raiders maybe? Or slavers?”
 
“Nah, raiders would’ve looted the place, and burned it to the ground. They wouldn’t bother ta strip the bodies and hide ‘em, and slavers wouldn’t kill potentially valuable merchandise.”
 
“Buuuut, then who?”
 
“Beats the livin’ crap outta me, but our first priority is ta look for survivors.”
 
“Gotcha, partner.”
 
They heard Shadow yowl from some ways off. They ran in the direction of the sound, and found her by the well, sniffing at an area of bare ground turned to dried mud. In the middle lay a single canine-like footprint.
 
“Wolves?!” Sunny squeaked. “But...there aren’t any wolves in the Dreamlands!”
 
Shadow looked up at them. “It’s not a wolf; it’s a garou.”
 
“As in loup-garou? A werewolf?!”
 
“No, not that either. Do either of you know what a wolverine is?”
 
“Yeah, sure,” Eile said. “We even tangled with one once.”
 
“A wolverine can be described as a weasel that tried to become a bear, and didn’t quite make it. A garou is a weasel that tried to become a wolf, and succeeded. Imagine a wolverine the size and strength of a full-grown timber wolf.”
 
Eile felt her gut freeze. “Holy Jesus God!” She didn’t want to think about it, but she found it impossible to prevent her imagination from running wild.
 
“It’s the most dangerous and bloodthirsty predator in all of the Dreamlands. Even devil-tigers avoid them, and devil-tigers don’t fear anything, not even us cats. If a pack of garou attacked this place, there won’t be any survivors, human or feline.”
 
“Soooo, what can we do?” Sunny asked.
 
“The only thing we can do is head for Gnarthok and alert the local—”
 
A noise cut her off. She swivelled her ears, trying to catch its direction. Eile heard it as well, and looked around for the same reason. It was faint, and rose and fell in pitch on an irregular cycle, but she couldn’t identify it. It almost sounded like a cat in distress, or—
 
“That’s a baby!” Sunny squealed.
 
“Geezus! The house!”
 
They ran for the entrance. Sunny stopped just short, and raised and drew her bow. As Eile approached the door she saw it was ajar. She kicked it open and jumped to one side to give Sunny a clear shot at whatever stood just inside.
 
“Clear; go!”
 
Eile charged across the threshold, but halted a few feet inside.
 
The place was a shambles. The furniture had been overturned, with the smaller pieces destroyed. Broken crockery and dishes, shattered glass, and torn cloth and linen were strewn about. And there were several more piles of shredded bloody clothing along with mats of cat fur, with blood trails indicating to where the bodies had been dragged off.
 
Whatever happened, the family and resident farm cats must have made their last stand inside the house.
 
Sunny came in behind her and scanned the room, but when no danger presented itself she relaxed and lowered the bow. “It looks like a cyclone hit this place.”
 
Eile scowled. “Never mind that, ya spaz. I can’t hear anything now.”
 
“I’m sure it was a baby.”
 
“Okay, but where is it?”
 
Shadow stepped in front of them, paused and gazed around, and let out a yowl. A reply came from behind a pile of debris that filled a back corner. Eile and Sunny rushed over to it, and while Sunny stood guard, Eile tossed aside broken wood and larger pieces of furniture to reveal a sideboard. One of the cabinet doors had been nailed shut. She pulled out her knife and used the heavy blade as a lever to pry the panel loose. Once she had a wide enough gap, she gripped the edge of the door with her fingers, braced herself with a booted foot, and yanked it open with a strong pull and a curse. Gazing inside, she found a baby wrapped in a blanket, with a kitten no more than eight months old sitting at its feet.
 
“Sunny!”
 
She made room for her partner and watched for danger as Sunny stooped to reach inside. The kitten jumped out, and Sunny removed the baby, who began crying, though not strongly.
 
“Is it alright?”
 
Sunny laid a hand on its forehead, closed her eyes, and concentrated, but after about a minute she opened her eyes and hefted the infant to one shoulder. “She’s hungry, thirsty, and needs a change of diaper bad, but she’s not dehydrated or malnourished, so she hasn’t been in there too long.”
 
Shadow sniffed noses with the kitten, and looked up at them. “This is one of the farm cats. Her Face Name is Rock-Climber, but she answers to Rocky. She told me the garou attacked this morning before dawn. They killed the eldest daughter outside, then broke into the house, but the other farm cats were able to warn the rest of the family, and the elder Hansens managed to hide the baby before they got inside. She heard them kill everyone, human and feline, but she couldn’t see what happened afterwards.”
 
“This morning?!” Sunny squeaked. “That means they could still be around!”
 
“Yeah.” Eile felt her gut turn to ice as the hackles on the back of her neck rose, but rage also coursed through her blood. The Hansens were good, decent people; they didn’t deserve to die like that, especially the children. “We’ve gotta get out of here, before they come back. This place isn’t defendable.”
 
“What about the root cellar?”
 
She shook her head. “There’s no way outta there. We’d be trapped if they found us, and with the baby cryin’ they’d find us for sure. Our best bet’s out in the open, where we can see ‘em coming and you’ve got room ta use yer bow.”
 
Sunny smiled, crinkled her eyes, and nodded. “Sounds like a plan, partner. Here.” She handed her the baby and shrugged off her pack. “Leave your pack behind; we’ll travel faster without them.” She unwrapped the baby from the blanket and tied the latter into a sling, and Eile laid the infant inside.
 
“Rocky, what’s the baby’s name?” she asked as Eile removed her pack. She opened it long enough to remove their emergency rations and travel funds.
 
The kitten trilled, and Shadow translated. “Jasmine, because on the day she was born the jasmine bushes bloomed.”
 
“Let me carry Jasmine,” Eile said as she handed Sunny the rations and money. “You can’t be hampered usin’ yer bow.”
 
Sunny attached the food packs and coin purse to her belt, then tied the makeshift cradle around Eile’s neck and shoulders, adjusting its height so that the baby rested just above one hip. Once Eile settled the burden, Rocky leapt up and caught the blanket, crawled into the cradle-fold, and lay at Jasmine’s feet. Eile looked down at her in surprise, but then she smiled.
 
“Yeah, I suppose you’d wanna come along too.”
 
“It’s more than that,” Shadow said. “She told me that on the day Jasmine was born she swore to protect the child for as long as she lives.”
 
Eile felt a bit embarrassed by her rude thoughts and she hid it under a façade of irritation. “Whatever. Let’s get this show on the road.”
 
Sunny nocked an arrow and went outside first, and when she called out that all was clear Eile followed. They took a moment to fill their canteens at the well, then headed for the gate. Eile sheathed her sword and claimed the quarterstaff as Sunny scanned the path ahead.
 
“Shadow, watch our backs; take point, Sunny.”
 
She headed down the path at a fast walk, and Eile followed. They both scanned the surrounding landscape, but except for a few clumps of trees scattered about, the crops growing in the flat fields were still under a foot tall, leaving no places to hide for miles around.
 
When they reached the road they stopped to make sure nothing was around. Eile searched ahead of them, when she heard Sunny gasp.
 
“Behind us!”
 
She whipped around, gripping her knife. About a dozen yards back down the road she spotted three lupine creatures. Even at that distance she could see they were weasels, but with long gracile legs and more compact, stocky bodies. Their rounded ears and dark eyes made them resemble teddy bears, but their short snouts and flat faces gave them a disturbingly human appearance. She realized how they had gotten their names.
 
They just stood and watched in a manner that seemed casual, almost indifferent, but they never took their eyes off them.
 
“Shadow, you go ahead of us,” Sunny said. “Eile, follow her.”
 
Neither of them argued. Between the powerful bow and her magic, Sunny could take down the trio before they got close. Eile glanced back several times to make sure Sunny kept pace behind her, and she noticed that the garou followed them, but at a leisurely pace, as if knowing they couldn’t get away. That scared her more than if they ran straight at them.
 
The Girls and their feline companion jogged up the road as the fields gave way to short-grass prairie, maintaining an even pace that wouldn’t tire them out too soon. They went some distance before Shadow pulled up short; Eile saw the reason at almost the same instant.
 
Three garou blocked the road in front of them. Before she could say anything, three more stood up from the grass on their left. At the same moment all three trios began to advance towards them at a slow walk.
 
“Cripes! We’re surrounded.”
 
“No,” Sunny said, “they’re trying to herd us, probably into some kind of ambush.”
 
A sudden thought blossomed in her mind; it just came out of some left field she knew nothing about. It was a long shot, but they had no other choice.
 
“Then maybe we oughta set up an ambush of our own.”
 
Sunny threw her a questioning look. “What?”
 
“The Squros is near here, isn’t it?”
 
Sunny flashed a puzzled expression. “Yeah, off to our left, but how—?” Then her eyes widened as she sported a huge dumb grin. “Ooo, gotcha, partner! That’s a great idea!”
 
“I sure hope so, ‘cause we’re sittin’ ducks out here. Can you keep ‘em off our backs until we get there?”
 
She winked as she screwed her mouth into a snarky lopsided smile. “Just say the word!”
 
“Well, the word is now, ya ditz.”
 
Sunny gazed around her feet as she slipped her bow over one shoulder, and picked three palm-sized stones off the side of the road. She handed one to Eile, who put it in a pouch on her belt, and held the other two in each hand.
 
“As soon as I throw these, start running. I’ll catch up.”
 
She nodded as she pulled her knife and flipped it around into an underhand grip, but looked down at Shadow.
 
“Don’t worry about me,” the cat said. “I’ll probably reach the river before you two do.”
 
Eile grinned in response and nodded to Sunny again. “Go for it.”
 
“Hold on to your butts!” She closed her eyes and muttered under her breath for a few moments, as the stones began to glow an eerie red. Then she threw one stone towards the trailing garou, and whipped around and threw the other at the lead weasel-wolves. They hit the ground just in front of them, startling them, and in the same instant exploded like hand grenades. Eile didn’t wait to see the results, but ran for the trio on the left. They screamed shrill whines and charged, but Sunny appeared on her left, running flat out.
 
“Zap!” she shouted. All three of them collapsed to the ground as they lit up with actinic electrical current running over their bodies, shrieking and convulsing from the magically induced discharge. Eile clobbered the middle predator with the staff and slashed at the one on the right as she sped between them. Moments later, as she had predicted, Shadow streaked past them both and sprinted out ahead with long, body-length strides.
 
Eile didn’t have to look to see if any of the garou chased after them, because she could hear their whining bays from behind. She couldn’t be sure if they were excited or calling for reinforcements; she just wanted to reach the river before she found out. She couldn’t take her eyes off the terrain in any event, because while the landscape was flat, the ground was uneven with clumps of grass, and she had to watch where she stepped. If she fell, the garou would probably catch her before she could get back on her feet. That didn’t disturb her as much as the knowledge that they would also get Jasmine, and that Sunny would try to save them both and get killed as well. So for their sakes more than her own she kept her eyes locked on the way in front of her.
 
It wasn’t long before the Squros River appeared ahead of them. It was only twenty feet wide at that point, but that was still too far for the garou to jump. Also, that spot lay in the middle of a mile-long stretch of rapids that were so swift and tumultuous that she would defy anything to swim across. Once they got to the other side they would be safe until they reached the village, and the garou were unlikely to challenge a community of over a thousand armed men and women.
 
They paused when they reached the roots of an overturned tree, and glanced back. Five weasel-wolves raced after them, with three way ahead of the other two.
 
Sunny nocked an arrow. “Hurry; go, go!” She raised the bow and drew the string.
 
Eile didn’t need further encouragement. Sheathing her knife and leaning the staff against the tree, she grabbed a root above her and hauled herself up as she stepped on others lower down. An ancient oak that had grown beside the river for centuries had recently toppled over during a recent storm, when a flash flood undermined the bank beneath it. Its leafless crown lay on the opposite bank, forming a natural bridge. Once across Sunny could destroy it with a powerful spell, but it would take time for her to summon up the energy. The garou pursuing them would get across before then, so they had to kill them before any more arrived.
 
She heard the twang of Sunny’s bow and a moment later the screech of a struck garou as she reached the trunk, and she turned around in time to see Sunny loose another arrow to take down the next weasel-wolf behind it. Both arrows hit their targets in the upper chest, killing them instantly.
 
“Sunny! I’ve made it! Come on!”
 
She slipped her bow over one shoulder, handed up the staff, and scrambled up the roots like a squirrel. However, the last of the lead garou put on a burst of speed, leapt up, and grabbed her by a booted ankle. It used its weight to try to drag her back down, but she clung to a stout root, squealing in terror. The two rear garou sprinted faster to catch up.
 
Eile stood watching, feeling helpless, and torn between saving her soulmate and protecting Jasmine. Then she remembered the stone Sunny gave her.
 
She dug it out of the pouch. “Hey! Leggo of her, you asshole!” She didn’t expect it to comply, and she didn’t give it the chance: she flung the stone as hard as she could. It struck the garou in the forehead, and it released her from shock and fell backwards onto the ground. Sunny pulled herself up and Eile kneeled, offering her hand. The last two garou reached the tree and jumped to catch her, but they only tore her skirt.
 
Eile helped her climb onto the trunk, but once on her feet she hesitated as she looked at her tattered hem.
 
“They ripped my costume!”
 
“Better that than yer throat, ya butthead. Come on!”
 
They raced along the trunk towards the crown. The water in the channel beneath them had been churned into a foaming torrent from which a rock occasionally emerged only to be drowned once more. Eile tried to watch her step, but all she could do was hope she didn’t slip and fall in. She’d never get out again alive.
 
As soon as they reached the far end Eile climbed into the branches to make her way to the bank, but Sunny stopped. Eile turned and spotted her partner staring back towards the roots. The last two garou ran straight at her in single file.
 
“Keep going!” she said. “I’ll just be a moment.” She waited until the lead weasel-wolf reached the middle of the trunk. “Zap!”
 
The electrical discharge surrounded it and sent it into convulsions. It slammed backwards into its companion and they both tumbled off opposite sides of the trunk. The zapped garou fell into the river and disappeared as it was swept away, but its companion clung to the bark with its forelegs as it scrambled to get a grip with its rear paws.
 
Sunny gripped her bow, nocked an arrow, and calmly aimed and fired. It transfixed the chest and the garou dropped into the river.
 
Eile waited for her to climb up, but as she joined her she spotted six more garou sprinting across the prairie towards the tree. “Cripes! We’re too late.”
 
Sunny glanced back. “Good gravy!”
 
Eile removed the makeshift cradle from her shoulders and handed it to Sunny. “Here, take Jasmine and the cats, and make for the village. I’ll hold ‘em off as long as I can.”
 
“No! I’m not leaving you to face them alone.”
 
Both shocked and irritated, Eile threw her an angry look. “There’s no sense in all of us gettin’ killed.”
 
Sunny’s expression displayed stubborn determination. “That’s just what’ll happen if we split up; it’ll just take longer.”
 
“Geezus, but you can be such a butthead. We don’t have time to argue!”
 
“Then stop being a poopy-brain and get down there!” She tied the blanket to a branch. Rocky crawled out and stood on the bough above Jasmine, and Shadow joined her.
 
Eile sighed; Sunny was immovable when she got in that mood. “Alright, but if we all die, I’ll kick yer butt when we get back to the Waking World, you hear me, Missy?”
 
Sunny gave her a determined look as she nocked an arrow. “Sounds like a plan, partner.”
 
Eile jumped down to the trunk, removed her shield from her back and slipped it on one arm, and pulled her sword. She walked out to the middle of the trunk as the garou climbed the roots. The first to appear went down with an arrow in its throat, but the next two charged up the trunk.
 
Eile slapped her sword against her shield. “That’s it. You assholes wanna piece of me? Then come and get it!” As the first of the pair reached her, she slammed the edge of the shield down on its head, pinning it against the trunk, and drove the sword into the back of its neck. The second one made to jump over its companion, but another arrow thudded into its chest. Eile pushed both off into the river as Sunny killed another, but the last two were too close. Eile bashed the one in front in the face with the shield, knocking it off the tree, but the last leapt at her. She managed to get her shield between them, but it slammed into her and held her down on her back. Snarling and snapping, it tried to get at her throat, and she had to use both hands and all her strength to hold it back with her shield.
 
“Rocky! No!”
 
The kitten flew over the top of her and gripped the garou’s face, biting and clawing at its eyes as it hissed and screamed and spat. The weasel-wolf stumbled back, rolling Eile off to one side. She dropped her sword and scrambled for a handhold as she fell off the trunk and caught a large knobby knot, to hang over the Squros with her feet dangling just above the water. The garou continued to back down the length of the trunk, shaking its head violently to dislodge the furious feline, but Rocky held on like grim death as she continued her attack.
 
Sunny appeared above her and grabbed her wrists. “I’ve got you, partner!” She pulled her up and she got a better grip on the bark. Sunny took hold of the collar of her leather byrnie and helped her climb back onto the top of the trunk, but as she made it the garou slipped off and dropped. Rocky held on, yowling in triumph, and both disappeared under the churning water.
 
“She’s gone!”
 
Eile heard the anguish in Sunny’s voice, but she couldn’t blame her; she felt the same way.
 
Sunny hugged Eile by her shoulders. “She saved you.”
 
“I’m pretty sure she saved all of us. That asshole would’ve torn my throat out if it hadn’t been for her, and it’d’ve gone for you next.”
 
“I just wish we could’ve saved her.”
 
“Yeah, me too, but we never had a chance. Come on, let’s get back ta Shadow and Jasmine.”
 
They walked back to the crown, where Shadow still sat on the branch above the makeshift cradle.
 
“We lost Rocky,” Eile told her, “but she took that last garou with her.”
 
“I know; I witnessed her sacrifice.”
 
“There was nothing we could do ta help her; we’re sorry.”
 
“You need not recriminate yourselves. It was her choice.”
 
“But why’d she do it?!” Sunny asked.
 
“As I told you earlier, she had sworn to protect the baby for as long as she lived. She could not sit idle and watch you two get killed while she hung back. Jasmine’s best chance was with you and she knew it, so she took the offensive, even though it cost her her life.”
 
Sunny looked pensive, but she nodded her understanding. “Do cats have a special funeral ceremony for a case like this?”
 
“No. Her soul has returned to the bosom of the Great Mother Bast. The body it left behind is nothing but a shell, of no further use to anyone except scavengers. She is content. Those who knew and loved her will make private memorials in their own hearts.”
 
Eile eyed the field just beyond the crown, and watched as a gust of wind waved the flowers amid the stalks of grass. “Well, with all due respect to yer people’s beliefs, Sunny and I would prefer ta do somethin’ more substantial.”
 
Sunny followed her gaze, and smiled in a knowing fashion. “Gotcha, partner.”
 
Eile waited in the crown as Sunny and Shadow climbed down and went into the field to pick a double-handful of flowers. Sunny tied them into a bundle with a handkerchief and Shadow carried them back as she and Sunny rejoined Eile. Eile draped Jasmine’s blanket cradle over her shoulders, and they all went to the middle of the trunk and faced downstream, with Shadow sitting between them. Sunny untied the bundle and threw a flower into the river as she and Eile began to sing:
 
“Swing low, sweet chariot; comin’ for to carry me home. Swing low, sweet chariot; comin’ for to carry me home.”
 
As they continued the spiritual, Sunny tossed in a flower at the beginning of each verse, until both the flowers and the verses ran out. They then stood silent for several moments as they watched the foaming water speed off into the distance.
 
“Good bye, Little Warrior, and thank you.” Sunny spoke in an uncharacteristic quiet tone. “May you be welcomed into Sto’Vo’Kor with all honour.”
 
Eile felt tears brim her eyes. “Vaya con Dios, Companera.”
 
“May The Great Mother receive you to her bosom with warmth and affection,” Shadow trilled.
 
They fell silent one last time, as each contemplated her own feelings towards their lost comrade.
 
Finally, Shadow said, “We must go if we are to reach Gnarthok by nightfall.” And she trotted up the trunk and descended into the branches.
 
Eile and Sunny followed her in silence and headed upriver along the bank. Inside the blanket, Jasmine gurgled and gooed, oblivious to the past events of the day.
 
“So,” Eile said, “what are we gonna do about her?”
 
“We can get her fed and cleaned up in the village. After that, Martha had family in Drinen. We can take her there on our way home.”
 
“Yeah, I forgot about that. Good idea.”
 
Sunny threw her a worried glance. “What’s wrong, partner?”
 
“Nothin’, really. It’s just...well, I’ve kinda grown attached to this little lady. I almost wish we could keep her.”
 
Sunny crinkled her eyes and smiled, and took Eile’s arm in her own. “I know how you feel, but she deserves a family and a home. We can’t give her either as long as we’re Dreamers and adventurers.”
 
“Yeah, I know, but still—”
 
“Besides, as her godmothers we can visit her as often as we like.”
 
“Godmothers?”
 
“Well, don’t you think what we’ve done today entitles us to that privilege?”
 
Eile chuckled. Sunny’s logic followed its own rules, but she generally got it right in the end. “Yeah, sure; why not.”
 
“And when she’s old enough, we can tell her about Rocky.”
 
“Yeah. Ya know, if we’re godmothers, what she did should make her Jasmine’s guardian angel.”
 
“You think so?”
 
“Sure, why not? If it meant that much ta her, I can’t see bein’ dead an obstacle, can you?”
 
Sunny nestled her cheek against Eile’s face. “No, not to one with a lion’s heart like her.”
 
Jasmine giggled, as if agreeing with them. Eile looked down, and for a moment she imagined a kittenish face staring back at her from the folds of the blanket. She figured it was just an optical illusion, but in the Dreamlands one could never be sure about such things, and she grinned as she decided Rocky was already back on the job.
 
THE END

 Outcast of Venus

 

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