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Disclaimer: The characters and story are based on the series BeastMaster: The Legend Continues  are property of Tribune Entertainment Company. There is no intent to infringe on their rights, this is only for pure enjoyment.

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The Last Sula
by  Laurie Allen

Dedicated to the last of a rare breed, Daniel Goddard

The Last Sula
Part 1 (Epilogue)

Soaring high above the trees, the mighty bird extended its wingspan to glide along the warm currents of the south wind. The wedgetail eagle treasured this time of year most of all for its everlasting days of sunshine—days that encouraged plant life to blossom and wildlife to procreate. In time, the season would succumb to the thick clouds rolling in from the west, filling the skies and assaulting the earth with torrential rains. As his finely honed vision scanned the surrounding lands, he observed human activity in a village farther north. Best to check it out for the safety of his two human companions. He dipped a wing to encircle the Beastmaster and his friend trudging through the thicket below. They had left their newly made camp earlier that morning and were heading north following the river.

Before the eagle could telepathically communicate with the Beastmaster, a familiar voice echoed through his mind, calling his name. "Sharak." However, it wasn’t Dar’s voice. No, definitely not. It was the voice of the Ancient One--the wizard who condemned him to the skies for an eternity as a mighty bird. "Sharak, I must speak with you immediately," the voice demanded. The Ancient One rarely called upon Sharak unless he needed help, like the time he rescued the Sorceress from the Burning Forest. Sharak swiftly altered his plans. He screeched to get the Beastmaster’s attention.

Dar looked to the skies and soon after he received Sharak’s message, he frowned. Tao didn’t care for his friend’s change of mood. "What’s wrong?"

"Sharak has something important to do. He said he may be gone a while." Hazel eyes traced the bird’s flight until he disappeared from view. "He seemed worried, Tao."

"He didn’t happen to mention why he had to leave in such a hurry, did he?" the Eiron scholar pried. When Dar responded with a shake of his head, Tao concluded, "Sharak may be wise beyond our years, but he’s very mysterious and you never probe him for more information. Why? Aren’t you curious? I mean, if I knew someone as old as the rocks, I’d be asking him question after question."

Dar scoffed at Tao’s suggestion, the Beastmaster never felt comfortable meddling in others’ affairs unless he sensed danger. "Tao, if you could communicate with the animals, I’m afraid your questions would make them as crazy as the time Ketzwayo controlled them with his magic, including Sharak." Dar chuckled to himself as he continued walking. He couldn’t make out what Tao was mumbling behind him, but he distinctively recognized the sound of someone stumbling. Dar turned around and the smirk on his face changed to that of puzzlement.

Frustrated, Tao sprang up from the ground and began kicking the culprit that tripped him. The persistent action pushed the root back into the dirt. "You know, I’m not crazy about traveling this far north without Sharak or Ruh. Just what was Ruh’s excuse for not accompanying us? Another hunt?"

Dar hid his amusement by walking ahead of Tao. "He’s a father now…Ruh has responsibilities. He has to move the cubs to higher ground before the rains come."

"Ruh, a father? Humph…this sheds new meaning to his excuses for all those hunts. You know, Dar, someday I’d like to be a father…have a family. How about—" Tao cut off his sentence when he noticed the white powder covering his boots. He turned his attention back to his friend who continued to march onward, eager to reach their destination. "Dar, wait! Look!"

Dar spun around. "What?" he asked—his voice on edge. He retraced his steps until he was a few feet away from his friend. "What now?"

Tao squatted close to the ground, examining his boots. "White dust." Dar raised his eyebrows in question while Tao, delighted by the discovery, beamed. To be certain of his find, though, he brushed his finger across the boot and smelt the sweet scent. His tongue then touched the tip of his finger--bitter. Another smile replaced his grimace. "It’s one of the ingredients comprising the white mist, the white mist used to counterbalance the effects of the black mist from Zad’s crystals. It’s extremely rare. Now where could it have come…" Tao’s sentence faded as he searched around, then it become apparent. "Of course, the root I kicked!" He began gathering his numerous packs and started back in the direction the travelers came from.

"We don’t need anymore, Tao. Zad’s crystals were destroyed. Besides, there’s no one to rescue from the crystal prison anymore…" Dar’s voice trailed off. "Tao?"

With gear bags swinging off his shoulders and belt, the man with a mission spun around to face his friend, but continued walking backwards. The Eiron scholar valued nature’s magic as much as the Beastmaster cherished his animals. He stopped short when he nearly tripped a second time. "You never know when we might need it again."

"You can get it on the way back. Afterwards."

"Dar, I’ve been thinking about that." Tao recognized his friend’s exasperation. "Hear me out, please. When we started this journey, you told me that every year before the rainy season begins, you return to the place where you underwent your test to become a beastmaster. That's when Curupira gave you the gift to communicate with the animals. I truly understand why you’ve made it a tradition." Dar’s impatience grew. Tao was stating the obvious, so the Eiron cut to the point, "Dar, this year is different. It will be the first time you’ve returned without any hope of finding Kyra. I truly believe you need this time to be alone…time to reflect on what’s happened over the past year."

Dar turned towards his destination and continued to stare north. "Ruh and Sharak have always joined me. I was hoping you—"

"No, Dar. You need to confront this alone. I can find my way back to the camp by following the river. First, I’ll collect enough of the root." Tao wondered what his friend was thinking, but Dar kept looking north, his back stiffened upon hearing the truth.

The Beastmaster finally faced Tao. Perhaps his scholarly friend was right, he needed this time to reflect. "Take Kodo and Podo then. If you get lost, they’ll find the way back to the camp." Dar lifted the suede pouch off his shoulder and handed them to his wise friend.

"What if you need their help?"

"You said I need time to be alone."

Tao hated it when Dar used his own advice against him.

The Beastmaster had a ways to travel yet, so he wouldn’t reach his destination until late afternoon. "Don’t worry about me if I don’t return ‘til morning. Sure you’ll be all right?"

A nervous chuckle escaped Tao’s throat. "With these two rats? Who wouldn’t be?" He’d have felt safer if Ruh were present. Tao bid his farewells before following his footsteps outlined by the white dust.

Dar waited until his friend vanished into the woods. "Alone," he sighed, looked down at his feet and then back up. "I’ve been alone too long, Tao."

*****

Perched atop a huge hollow log, the wedgetail eagle cocked his head as the Ancient One approached. Garbed in his usual attire of multihued brocade robes, the wizard waved his hand in front of the bird. Shudders of pain raced throughout Sharak’s body, from his beak to the tip of his feathers. In a blink of an eye, the bird transformed into a man.

"That’s better," the Ancient One mused. "How are you, Sharak?" The sorcerer smiled at the vulnerability of his once young apprentice.

Nude, Sharak despised being the focal point of the eccentric wizard’s scrutiny. He edged behind several nearby bushes. Dark eyes squinted and his head cocked curiously as he studied the Ancient One’s ever-changing appearance. Accustomed to his immortal life as a bird, Sharak’s movements remained birdlike. His fingers rubbed the residual feathers at his sideburns blending down from his dark hair. The sorcerer hadn’t made him quite human, only enough to suit his purpose. A pleasing smile formed on Sharak’s face. "Still growing younger, I see. Aren’t you worried you may reach a point where you start making mistakes…after all, the young always do. Speaking from experience of course, I, too, was young at heart and deeply regret my mistakes."

"Let’s not dwell on your mistakes. You betrayed me. I punished you. It’s over and done with." The Ancient One moved closer in front of the bushes. He plucked off one of the ripe berries and popped it into his mouth. "Amazing, sweet and tart all in one bite. Two distinct tastes, yet blended together makes them tolerable to the palate."

Impatient with the wizard’s actions and hidden meanings, Sharak demanded to know what was expected of him. The sorcerer replied that he needed his help once again. Outraged, Sharak spat, "You must be out of your egocentric mind! The last time I helped you, you tricked me by making me human until I did your bidding. After that, you rewarded me with the same curse of enduring life as a bird. I refuse to help you again. Turning younger has affected more than just your looks!"

Unraveled by Sharak’s outburst, the Ancient One replied calmly. "Refuse, do you? I may be aging backwards, Sharak; however, my wisdom and experiences remain in tact. I certainly hope yours have. I need your help…more precisely, the Beastmaster needs your help."

"The Beastmaster? What have you in store for him now?" Sharak eyed him suspiciously.

"I’ll explain the minor details in due time. At present, I must convince you to help me. I realize I would never be able to deceive you again, so I’m offering you a deal—a deal you cannot refuse."

Sharak’s expression remained skeptical as the wizard paced in front of the bushes. He could only imagine what deal the sorcerer had to offer. "A devil’s pact, no less. Don’t play me for a fool."

The Ancient One rolled his eyes. "As you know, I never go against my word. I vowed to keep you immortal in the skies. On the other hand, I never rule out fleeting alterations. Therefore, on three separate occasions, when you deem it necessary, you can wish yourself human. During those times, you’ll have a whole day in which you’ll remain human without any interference from me. This I promise."

Sharak studied the wizard.

"Think about it. Three times…whenever you choose. No matter the reason."

"What of my powers?" Sharak didn’t want to push it, but he felt he had the advantage.

"Limited."

Three times. Sharak could live with that. He smiled at the wizard.

 

The Last Sula
Part 2

Dar pulled back the overgrowth now blanketing the remnants of the shelter he built years ago. It was here where he withstood Curupira's three-day trial to see if he possessed the qualifications required of a beastmaster. Upon fulfilling the grueling ordeal, Ruh easily coerced him to the edge of the muddy river with his mighty roar. Dar backed away from the tiger and soon became victim to an alligator that tore him limb from limb. The demon herself put him back together. Without Curupira's consent, Sharak had snatched Dar's eye before surrendering it to her, granting the Beastmaster the ability to see through the eagle's eyes. Dar had earned her respect and she awarded him the gift of communicating with the beasts of nature—his only task: to protect them.

Walking next to the river, Dar reminisced how he, upon coming of age, pleaded with Curupira, insisting she make him a beastmaster like his father. Beforehand, Dar spent over four years fending for himself in the forest after the slaughter of his tribe. The Terrons massacred the Sulas, including his parents. Curupira promised the former Beastmaster she would spare his son's life if he protected her tigers. All this time, Dar believed he was the last surviving Sula, but Curupira told him otherwise. She confirmed his hopes that Kyra was alive, taken prisoner by the Terrons. Curupira made sure that on the last day of the test, Dar faced an ultimate temptation. The forest demon appeared as Kyra, hoping her ploy would break his determination. It hadn't. Through the illusion, Dar was able to see Kyra's image after all those years apart. She had grown into a beautiful young woman.

Dar closed his eyes. He ached for her smile, her touch. Had he known how lonely he'd be in the future, would he have been so eager to become a beastmaster? "Alone, I'm truly alone now…the last Sula." Dar squatted by the river and dipped his hands in the cold stream. He splashed water on his face hoping to rid the stinging in his eyes. He stood and scanned the sky—no signs of Sharak. Dar then surveyed the nearby woods, no Curupira, no Ruh. He gazed downstream and wondered how Tao was managing. He called to Kodo and Podo and discovered everything was all right. The ferrets were gorging themselves with gooseberries while Tao, according to the ferrets, busily collected tasteless underground plant growth. Satisfied with his friend's well being, Dar couldn't avoid what weighed heavily on his mind. Tao was right; he needed to face Kyra's death—alone.

Gradually, faraway shouts disturbed the tranquil moment. Dar strained to listen. The shouts intensified, blaring from the north. He remembered seeing a village during one of his trips a few years back. He never visited, but spied upon the inhabitants who seemed rather peaceful. Disturbed by the continual uproar, Dar decided to investigate. He followed the river north.

*****

Tao couldn’t possibly fit anything else in his satchel. Overstuffed with roots and herbs, he hardly had room for the fruit he picked for his evening meal. He looked inside Kodo and Podo's empty pouch, tempted to fill it. "Where are those little rats? Kodo? Podo? C'mon, you two. We have to start back soon if we want to reach camp before nightfall." He heard their playful squeaks, but couldn't see them.

Kodo's head emerged from beneath a row of bushes. He squealed, attracting Tao's attention, then withdrew back under the protection of the shrub.

Suddenly, Tao sensed he was being watched. He checked behind him, but nothing. He then concentrated on the bushes where he last saw the ferret. A figure hiding within the brush locked eyes with his. "Who's there?" he stuttered nervously.

No reply.

Wary of the unwanted guest, Tao grabbed a nearby stick. He was ready to confront the stranger when he heard shouts off in the distance. The voices were getting closer, so he ducked behind a large tree trunk keeping a guarded watch on the presence in the bushes. He strained to see what the fuss was about through the thicket. Beyond, in a small clearing, three Terron riders chased a man on foot.

"Stop! Where is he?" the first Terron demanded as he jumped off his horse. "Where's the Sula?"

"I don't know what you're talking about!" claimed the blond man. He tried avoiding the Terron's blow, but didn't move fast enough. The man collapsed to the ground.

The warrior turned to his cohorts still saddled on their horses. "Take him to Zad. I'll return with more men to search the area. No Sula escapes me." One of the other Terrons dismounted, lifted the downed man and threw him over the back of his horse. Within minutes, the two warriors rode off. The one barking orders vaulted onto his horse and galloped away in search of more men.

Tao was puzzled. How did the Terrons know Dar was this far north? How could he possibly warn him? A whimper from the bushes reminded him of his uninvited company. He realized whoever was cowering in the bushes was also hiding from the Terrons. Convinced the warriors weren't returning for the time being, Tao spoke softly, "Come out in the open. Don't be afraid, I'm not a Terron. They're gone for now and I mean you no harm."

A woman edged hesitantly from the bushes. Dressed in a simple robe cinched at the waist with a green scarf, the woman moved awkwardly as though she were hiding something behind her.

Tao hadn't noticed. Overwhelmed by her natural splendor, he absorbed her beauty--long blonde hair pulled up and pinned in a tight bun with stray tendrils falling loosely around her creamy neck. She slowly raised her eyes to meet his. Hazel eyes like a doe, full of fear. "It's all right, I'm a friend. My name is Tao. Was that your hus--"

"My brother," she interrupted. "He deliberately got captured to protect us."

"Us?"

"My son." She moved aside to reveal a small boy around ten years old. He was the spitting image of his mother. His clothes were simple like hers--a long tunic covering his leggings. Tao then realized the boy was holding Podo, stroking him, while Kodo circled his feet. He was afraid the ferret might nip the boy, but Podo seemed delighted. Tao averted his attention back to the woman as she spoke. "Please, don't turn us in to the Terrons."

"Have no fear. I despise and fear the Terrons as much as the next person. Listen, we can't stay here, they'll be back with more recruits. I have a camp further downstream. It's well hidden, so we'll be safe. We can reach it before nightfall. You're welcome to stay." Tao felt a sudden need to protect the woman and child

The woman finally smiled. "My name is Jame. I'm in your debt, Tao. That's Eiron meaning the way."

"Yes," Tao replied, surprised by her wisdom as well as her gentle charm. "How do you know of the Eirons?" He knelt by the young boy and took Podo from his arms, placing the critter headfirst into the pouch. He then picked up Kodo who followed suit. The boy grinned a familiar smile that left Tao feeling unsettled.

The woman placed both hands on her son's shoulders and pulled him closer, away from the stranger, still leery of him. "Several years ago a man came to our village. He was an Eiron scholar like you," she explained as she motioned towards his green ring. "He taught us of your people and their ways. Gie learned so much from this wondrous man. I admired him terribly. Unfortunately, he left us to continue his quest. I miss him. We both miss him," she corrected herself as she gazed down at her son and smiled. The boy returned the gesture.

That smile. "We should get going," Tao advised. "We’ll improve our chances of losing them if we wade in the river for a ways."

Jame agreed and reached for her son's hand, following Tao to the riverbank. "What will happen to my brother?"

"He’ll be questioned," Tao replied, choosing an euphemism for torture so not to upset her. He stepped into the river, cringed at the frigid temperature and then turned to help the boy. "Stay near me and walk close to shore."

Jame didn’t wait for Tao’s assistance. She lifted her robe, stepped into the icy water and exhaled in surprise as she sank knee-deep. The momentum threw her off balance and she tumbled backwards into the water.

Tao whipped around to make sure she was all right only to snicker at her clumsiness. Usually he ended up on his backside. He offered his hand, still holding back his amusement. "Are you all right?"

Embarrassed, Jame grabbed his hand. As she was being pulled up, she glanced at her son who was also giggling. A weak laugh escaped her lips. "I’m drenched…and it’s freezing." Her robe clung to her body as she shivered.

Tao appreciated the view, but didn’t want her to catch cold either. "You can warm yourself by the campfire once we’re sure it's safe. There’s no time to waste. We must hurry." He supported her arm as they waded through the river. Tao watched the boy skip in front of them, oblivious to any danger. Ah, the innocence of youth, he thought.

Jame drew closer to Tao, hoping to absorb the heat from his body. She felt safe with his arm around her…she appreciated his thoughtfulness.  The lonesome bachelor didn’t mind one bit. Feeling responsible for their safety, Tao realized how it must feel like to be a father. He could now understand Ruh's need to protect his cubs. Nonetheless, he wished the fearsome tiger roamed nearby, especially with Terrons in the area.  Tao needed answers. "The Terrons," he paused, trying to ask his question without upsetting the frail woman, "they were questioning your brother about a Sula? Did you happen to meet up with one along the way?"

"Meet up with a Sula?" Jame quipped. "They were massacred years ago, such a tragedy. It's rumored one survived...a beastmaster. It's just a legend among our people."

"The legend's true—"

Fascinated by the legend, Gie spun around and joined the conversation, interrupting the Eiron. "You know the Beastmaster? Have you seen him? I hear he's taller than the trees, stronger than an ox and has a mane as thick as a lion. He's ferocious and deadly like the cobra." The boy's eyes were wide with anticipation, eager for Tao's reply. However, the Eiron was chuckling. Gie asked, "What's so funny?"

Tao held back the truth. He dared not tell him that he not only knew the Beastmaster, but he was also his best friend. He'd rather witness the expression on the youngster's face when he introduced Dar as the Beastmaster in the morning. "Taller than the trees," Tao repeated, chuckling more.

****

Reaching the outskirts of the village, Dar crouched behind the brush to spy upon the crowd of villagers being held back by Terron soldiers. He frowned, wondering why the Terrons strayed this far north. Some bold townsfolk shouted their protests as two warriors forced a woman into the wooden corral. The spectators blocked the Beastmaster's view, so he climbed a nearby tree with the agility of a wildcat.

Dar settled onto a strong branch and from this vantagepoint noticed the cage inside the corral. It housed a huge white tiger. The Beastmaster telepathically communicated with the imprisoned beast. Infuriated and starved beyond reason, the tiger wasn't keen on listening to his advice. Its last victim had gotten away. Dar could only promise its freedom if it didn't harm the innocent.

The woman at the other end of the pen tried to climb over the wooden rail, but a guard whacked her, sending her to the ground. More protests from her relatives and friends echoed throughout the crowd. Suddenly, several Terrons parted and a familiar face appeared—Zad, king of the Territories. Dar blinked several times, his curiosity heightening.

Zad picked up a boy guarded by one of his soldiers. He studied the child at first and then asked, "What's your name, son?"

The boy was speechless, frightened no doubt. "Torok," a relative answered.

"Is that your mother, Torok?" Zad gestured to the woman sprawled on all fours. He smiled when the boy nodded. "I'm sure you love her very deeply and wouldn't want to see her ripped to shreds by a tiger, now would you?"

The boy looked the king in the eyes and shook his head.

"Then you must do as I say. Convince the beast not to attack your mother," Zad spoke softly, prodding the youngster to look at the caged animal. The white cat growled and scared the youngster. Impatient, Zad's tone changed. "Oh don't start crying, that's not going to save her!" The king's oppressive nature only made matters worse, the boy cried harder, calling for his mother. "There, there," the king softened his voice again as he wiped the boy's face. "Listen to me, Torok. If you want to see her live, tell the tiger not to attack. You best do it soon." Zad nodded to his officer who gave orders to open the cage.

The tiger vaulted from the confinement of the wooden crate. It roared at the noise from the surrounding crowd of humans. Then the beast focused on the female of the species cowered at the far end—dinner. A persistent voice kept promising freedom if it let the woman be. Over and over, the voice begged him to lie down. Although empty pangs nagged its stomach, the tiger responded to the soothing voice and settled to the ground.

A hush fell over the crowd. "By God, you've done it!" Zad spat in disbelief. Astonishment replaced the smug expression of the king. Could his search end so quickly and so easily?

"Let the boy go!" Dar ordered as he approached the gathering, retrieving the two-sectioned staff from its quiver. He twisted the pieces together, spun it in a ritual that proclaimed his expertise of the weapon. Outnumbered or not, he couldn't allow Zad to carry out his plans, whatever they may be.

"I had a feeling you'd show up. This is your doing then?" Zad surmised as he looked to the tiger and then back to the Beastmaster.

Dar smiled proudly.

Zad's warriors waited zealously for their king to say the word to overtake the intruder. No such command came.

"So, it wasn't you after all," Zad spoke to Torok. "Release the woman." He lowered the boy to the ground and then moved closer to the Beastmaster. Zad stopped suddenly and turned to behold the unresponsive actions of his stunned warriors.

"And the tiger," Dar proposed.

"Don't push your luck, Beastmaster." Zad scowled at one of his soldiers. "Do as I command, let the woman go!"

The Terron guard opened the pen and went to retrieve the wretched woman. The tiger's thoughts were dominated with the suggestion, "Run!" It sprang up and bolted towards the open gate. Without warning, the frantic villagers scattered for safety along with several Terrons. Content with the beast's liberation, Dar turned to defend himself from an impending assault.

Zad, however, blamed the negligence of his men. "You imbeciles! You let my tiger get away! Simpletons, the lot of you!" The village clearing was now vacant with the exception of ten Terron warriors, waiting for orders, fearful of their king's wrath for the day's fiasco.

Bewildered that he was being ignored, Dar cleared his throat to get the king's attention.

Zad whirled around. "That's right, why do I need that miserable creature when I have you?"

The Beastmaster stood his ground. "What is it you want with these people, Zad?"

Zad needed only to flash a look to his men. They began to encircle Dar. "I have no quarrel with you, Beastmaster. However, I may require your gift to facilitate my search. You're welcome to stay as my guest or prisoner, the choice is yours."

This was new. Could it be a trick? Dar snickered; of course, it was a trick. He had no choice though, so Dar made the less physical decision. "A guest," he replied with a hint of sarcasm.

"Wise choice. A brain besides your brawn. Unthinkable, unless you're a king like me. One might say you're king of the beasts though. Can't be king of the Sulas, now can you? No one left to rule…pity. Or could I be wrong?" Zad studied the Beastmaster's reaction.

Bitterness. It was under Zad's rule when the Sulas were massacred. Dar swallowed before answering. "You know I'm the last Sula. You made sure of that."

"So you say. I'm not so sure. I've heard rumors claiming otherwise."

Dar raised his eyebrows, uncertain of what Zad implied. "You seem to be accusing me of something. Is this how you treat your guests? It's not any different than that of a prisoner from what I can tell."

Zad smirked. He enjoyed the Beastmaster's audacity. "Forgive my manners, let's discuss this further over the evening meal."

*****

Confident they lost the Terrons, Tao built a small fire to warm his guests. He next offered them the fruit he had collected earlier.

Jame greedily drank the hot tea Tao finished brewing. "Ah, this warms the body. Thanks so much, Tao. I don't know what we would have done without you."

"You'd probably have ended up as prisoners of the Terrons." Finished with the chores, Tao sat beside his lovely guest. Her son was lying down, playing with Kodo and Podo nearby. Tao smiled. The ferrets had never been so pleasant during a meal. Gie seemed to have a way with animals similar to Zuraya, the animal trainer he and Dar met months earlier.

"You're probably right, prisoners or dinner for some wild beast." She smiled at her newfound friend. Jame rather liked Tao's smile, it lit up his whole face. "I can tell you're an honest, decent man. You are a rare man to find, Tao."

The young Eiron flushed. He didn't know how to handle compliments since he hardly ever received them. Instead, he made a joke of it. "Well, I guess you're fortunate I stumbled upon you."

"I think I took the tumble, not you."

He laughed at the recollection. "Are you warm enough?"

Jame pulled the blanket tighter around her body. "Thanks to you, yes," she whispered, mesmerized by the man's lighthearted expression. His eyes smiled as well.

Tao's dark eyes locked onto hers and the twosome were caught in a trance. He found Jame witty and charming. His attraction to her grew in just the short time it took to reach the camp. She had seemed truly interested of his past and his homeland. Now, they were both silent, staring at each other.

Her son's voice broke the spell between the two. "Night, mother. Night, Tao."

She looked over to where the boy had settled himself on the ground, curled up with the ferrets. "Night, Gie," she replied.

"Pleasant dreams," Tao wished, grateful the little rats wouldn't bother him during the night. Maybe he could get some peaceful shuteye, but then it dawned on him that he would have to stay alert in case the Terrons discovered their whereabouts. Without Dar's presence, Tao was in charge, which made him especially nervous. He'd be glad when morning arrived. Stirring the campfire with a stick, Tao looked up at Jame. She still looked scared. He needed to reassure her things would be all right. "My friend, Dar, should return by morning. We'll make sure you both reach safety."

"Tao, I can't thank you enough." Jame glanced over at her son. Gratified Gie was in a sound sleep, she started crying, her brave façade no longer needed. She released the day's tension with racks of sobs as Tao pulled her into his arms.

"There, there, there…" The Eiron held her close, rocking her until her sobs subsided. Jame was soon asleep. He kissed her forehead. Tao could easily fall for this woman…easily.

 

The Last Sula
Part 3

Escorted by two Terrons, Dar entered a large hut the villagers used as a meeting hall. He placed his quiver and staff next to the cushion on the ground and sat cross-legged at the low table—a table set for a king. Dar thanked his host with a nod. Zad sat at the head of the table while his warlord sat opposite the Beastmaster. Several village women began serving them. One filled their glasses while another offered them a variety of cheeses and fruit. It wasn't often Dar had cheese, so he took several chunks and a bunch of grapes. A man served the king first, scooping out a hefty portion from the large platter of baked fish and vegetables. The man moved next to Dar and served him next. The meal looked very appetizing. Aromas filled his nostrils and tantalized his taste buds. Never in his life had he dreamed he'd be dining with the Terron king.

"I see you like cheese," Zad concluded, "In order to truly enjoy the taste, one must wet his palate with wine. Drink up. This vintage was made specially for such occasions." It was not the intention of the king to get the Beastmaster inebriated, but he knew the drink would relax him enough to enjoy his company. He lifted his mug, toasted the air and drank greedily. Droplets moistened his lips until his tongue licked them dry. "Exquisite."

Dar savored the red nectar—sweet, not harsh like most wines he'd tasted. He doused his thirst, draining the contents and then held out his cup for more. He smiled at the woman pouring the wine in a gesture of thanks.

Zad laughed. "Maybe you do have the blood of a king in you after all. Most men don't appreciate fine wine. For example, Ratax here would rather drink a hearty ale to quench his thirst. You, on the other hand, seem to appreciate the finer things in life, as do I. In fact, we seem to have the same taste…especially in women. So, I'd dare say you're ahead of the game."

The king's comparison made Dar's blood boil, or was it the wine? He hadn't eaten since early morning. He needed nourishment, something in his stomach because the wine was already affecting his head. Dar took a bite of the baked fish. It tasted similar to the herb and seasonings Tao used to spice up his cooking. Once he swallowed the mouthful, Dar washed it down with some more wine. Time to get down to business. "What game is that, Zad? Why do you keep saying I'm a king?"

"You expect me do dine with a barbarian?" Zad sneered. "If I at least pretend you're king of the savages, then I can delight in your company. It's bad enough you dress like a beast, or do I dare say, barely dress?" Zad ridiculed his guest, spurring his warlord to laugh at his wisecrack.

"Do you always insult your guests, or just me?" Although annoyed with the jeers, Dar was actually amazed by Zad's generosity. He had even allowed him to keep his weapons.

"Forgive my manners once again, Beastmaster, but you freed my tiger, so you owe me. Without the tiger, I need your services. You're probably wondering what you could possibly do for me."

Dar grinned. "I'm wondering what's so important that you would go through so much trouble to make me feel like a guest."

"I'm a desperate man. And desperate men to desperate things. The last time I needed your services, I used tricks and threats. I thought I'd change my tactics this time and use a friendlier approach." Zad studied the Beastmaster; he seemed to be enjoying his meal, certainly the wine.

Dar looked up when the king paused. "This is definitely friendlier."

Zad lowered his voice so only Dar and his warlord could hear his confession, but he was addressing the Beastmaster. "There's an emptiness inside me and I'm hoping to fill it. Are you at least willing to hear me out?"

He obliged the king and nodded.

"I want to have a son."

Dar nearly choked on the mouthful of wine before swallowing. "I don't think I could help you with that one," he blurted. His witty insinuation even forced the stern Terron across from him to laugh.

Zad's fist slammed against the table. "I'm serious!" He glared at Ratax who quickly suppressed his laughter. Zad leaned closer to the Beastmaster. "I'm not getting any younger and I need to raise a son to rule in my footsteps. Is that so wrong? Why should you begrudge me happiness?"

"You're happiness thrives on others' misery." The wine loosened Dar's tongue. ""Why here? What's so special about these people? I'm sure you have plenty of bastards to choose from. There has to be a reason you're this far from the Territories. What have they got that you want?"

"I'm amazed at how perceptive of a man you are. That's a true sign of a leader, a king. Instead, you waste your powers, Beastmaster. If I had them I'd raise an army of beasts and conquer the Downs with ease."

Dar fought off the effects of the wine. "A beastmaster protects the animals, he doesn't use them for his own gain." He stood up. The wine went one way while his head went the other. His body tottered back and forth. "I grow tired of your games, Zad."

"I know why you're here. You're protecting him. Which one is he? I'll find him with or without your help!" the king exclaimed as he jumped up and blocked the exit. Ratax rose and moved behind his king.

"Find who?" The king's true plans still mystified Dar.

"You really don't know?"

"No," Dar shook his head. Bad mistake. The wine played havoc with his head again. His hand clutched onto Zad's arm for support.

The evil king smiled, too good to be true. Drunk men always talked. Zad yanked the Beastmaster closer and whispered, "I've heard rumors of a boy who gets along with animals."

"Lots of children get along with animals, their innocence makes them closer to nature."

"So I've heard, but this boy's extraordinary. He once befriended a wolf. The only people I know who have done so in the past are Sulas."

"You think he's a Sula?" Dar scoffed at Zad's ridiculous suggestion.

"I say he is!" Zad declared. "He's hiding here and I intend to find him, raise him as my own."

"Raise him with an iron fist like your father raised you?"

Taken aback by the Beastmaster's words, Zad sighed. "I never told that to anyone, except Kyra. I see she couldn't keep from talking about me."

Dar wouldn't give Zad the satisfaction of knowing he overheard the king's revelation while hiding on the roof of his yurt. "What gives you the right to steal someone else's child? That's not a good way to become a father."

"A king need not steal…he takes!" Zad laughed and winked at Ratax. "Think about it, Beastmaster. The boy I'm searching for has seen nine or ten years. The Sulas have been wiped out for nearly 14, with the exception of you. It doesn't take an Eiron scholar to do the math. Perhaps it is you who have sired the bastard?" Zad's turn to twist the knife, pleased he could still get the Beastmaster riled up.

Dar squeezed Zad's arm without realizing his anger. "I loved only one woman and you know it! Kyra was my life!" Dar fought back tears. The wine and anger forced hidden emotions to surface. He collected his wits before continuing. "Had I ever been a father, I would have raised the child with the same love and kindness my father showed me."

"So sure of yourself, are you?" Zad took pleasure in goading the Beastmaster; he loved the savage's wild side. "Take him away and make sure he's bound securely," Zad ordered Ratax.

Dar reached back for his staff but found nothing. His weapons were still on the ground next to the cushion. He lunged for them, but Zad swiftly kicked them aside. The Terron king easily overcame the Beastmaster whose actions were impeded by wine. With Ratax's help, Zad tied Dar's hands behind his back.

"I guess this means I'm no longer a guest." Dar had made a grave error and he knew it.

"You'll be lucky if I don't grind you up and serve you to my dogs!" Zad barked as Ratax dragged the prisoner from the hut.

Zad glared at the frightened women. He then raged on. "I'll find the Sula boy, raise him as my own. He'll be bestowed the same powers as the Beastmaster as soon as he's dead. Between my son's power and mine, we'll be invincible and rule the lands. No warrior will be able to defeat the Terrons, not with my army of beasts."

*****

Tao managed to get some rest, thanks to no disturbances during the night. He hoped the Terrons wouldn't bother searching this far down the river. What worried him most was no sign of Dar yet. It was late morning. Kodo and Podo didn't seem to miss him; they were too occupied with Gie. The boy really took to them and they to him.

"Tao?" the boy asked. He tossed another berry to Podo.

"Yes, Gie?"

"My uncle, Uncle Torm. What will those men do to him?"

Tao frowned. "Your uncle's a brave man, Gie. He let them capture him so you and your mother could escape. I'm not sure what the Terrons will do." He couldn't look the boy in the eye knowing the truth.

"Why didn't you stop them?"

Tao's heart sank. "I'm no match for three Terrons—the Beastmaster, yes, not me. If I tried to rescue your uncle, I would have risked your whereabouts and then your uncle's sacrifice would have been for not."

Feeling better, Jame sat next to Tao. "Gie, it's your turn to bathe."

"I'm not dirty," he protested.

"Now." Jame watched her son until she made sure he started cleaning his face. She then turned to Tao and smiled. "Again, I'm thanking you. It was such a pleasure to freshen up with warm water. You think of everything, Tao. Are you sure you don't have a wife and family? You'd make a wonderful husband."

Tao's cheeks reddened. Embarrassed by her words, he busied himself by chopping up the roots he'd collected yesterday. "I came close once, but things happened and we parted ways."

"Her loss." Jame picked up the strange root. "Can I help you cut these up?"

"Sure," he smiled. "We always seem to be talking about me. Tell me about yourself."

"What would you like to know?"

Tao felt like kissing her instead of interrogating her. Jame wore her hair down, the loose locks falling past her shoulders. It softened her look even more so. "Gie…he must have had a father. What can you tell me of him?"

"In my tribe, Gie means a gift. That he is…he changed my life."

"Children can do that," Tao noted.

"When I was younger, my brothers watched over me, so much so, I barely had any privacy. They were overprotective since our parents' death. Whenever I managed to escape their guard, I went wild. Sudden freedom can make one misbehave. My brothers soon caught on and my nymphomania only tightened my brothers' reign." She watched as Tao's eyes widened and she held up her hand so he'd let her continue. "Finally, one day I tricked my brothers so I could be alone. I enjoyed the solitude until Gie's father showed up. I had to have him. I only saw him that once, but soon after I was with child. My ways changed when Gie was born, I devoted my life to him. I'm a better person because of my son."

Tao was stunned. He never expected she'd divulge her deepest secrets; he only wanted to know if the father was still a part of her life.

"You think I'm wicked. I understand." Jame lowered her head in shame. She never told anyone of her wanton ways.

"No…no, Jame. You were young, experimenting. We've all been there. Yes, even gentle Tao." He snickered and moved closer. "Don't be so hard on yourself. Your brothers may have convinced you that your actions were wicked, but as you said, you've changed. Most immoral people can't change, take Zad for example. You did, however, which means you never were wicked, just misguided. Do you understand what I'm trying to say?" Tao hated to see her look so crushed. He lifted her chin and kissed her lips. He pulled back to see a glimmer of happiness return to her eyes."

"Yes, Tao, I understand. If all the world had your wisdom and gentleness, it would be paradise." Jame felt like a heavy burden had been lifted from her shoulders. She no longer felt disgraced in Tao's company. Her womanly instincts sensed something else was troubling him as he gazed off in the distance. "You're worried about your friend, Dar. If Gie and I are preventing you from searching for him, we can stay here alone."

"I won't think of it. Besides, I'd only get lost. Dar usually takes care of himself. It's just he recently lost the love of his life and I sent him off to handle it alone—something I thought he needed to do. I'm just worried with all the Terrons around…" Tao's sentence drifted off.

Jame took hold of his hand. "He must value your friendship, I know I do."

Excited, Gie ran over to show his mother his latest discovery. He held up the flat, round stone. "See, mother. This is the perfect shape to help Uncle Roog's work easier."

Jame felt like she had to explain. "Roog is my eldest brother."

Circular objects fascinated the Eiron, there were so many applications to use them. "Gie, how would you use that to make work easier for your uncle?" Tao asked, curious to the boy's imaginative mind.

"Uncle Roog has to lift heavy barrels, he's strong but he hurt his back. I figured if I attached one of these round stones to the front of the barrel, it could spin freely and roll, then, Uncle Roog can lift up the back. All the weight would be in the front making it easier for him to push."

The child was a genius according to Tao. "Brilliant! I should have thought of that…so easy. Let's see if we can build one now. I don't have a barrel, but a basket will do." Tao and the boy gathered the necessary parts they needeed to build their 'wheel-barrel.' Jame shook her head. Her heart ached for a man like Tao, a man to fill the needs of her son—a father figure. She also ached to fill her loneliness. If only it could be.

*****

Dar spent the day bound to a post in the center of the village. His parched mouth begged for moisture. The late afternoon sun and last night's wine left him dehydrated. Several townsfolk tried to bring him water, but were sent away by the Terron guards. Dar had to escape soon before he withered away and had no fight left in him. He tried calling Kodo and Podo, but he was too weak. The blows he received from Ratax stung his ribs and jawbone. He no longer had saliva in his mouth. Dar struggled against the ropes, but to no avail.

Zad rode by, followed by half a dozen warriors. He stopped in front of Dar. "Beastmaster, your services aren't required any longer. The boy's fled with his mother. His uncle was gracious enough to confess before he met an untimely death. With you dead, perhaps your powers will be passed on to my son."

"That's not how it works," Dar murmured.

"Enjoy your last minutes of life, Beastmaster, pitiful as they may be."

Zad's laughter echoed through Dar's ears as the king rode off. The Beastmaster made one last effort to contact Sharak—nothing. He closed his eyes and his head bobbed slightly as he passed out.

A strange vapor appeared and encircled the Beastmaster, unnoticed by the guards. Its moist properties wet his lips. His mouth opened as his tongue sought for more. He greedily drank the droplets that formed. Dar's eyes opened slowly as his will to live was rejuvenated. He realized someone was cutting the ropes that bound his feet and hands so tightly. His extremities tingled with numbness as blood filled them. His heart pounded fiercely, overjoyed with Tao's rescue attempt. He turned to bless his friend. "You?" Dar remarked.

Upon hearing the Beastmaster's voice, the Terron guards finally noticed what was going on. They raced over, weapons aimed to halt the rescuer's progress. The lone man looked easy enough to take.

Sharak tossed the Beastmaster his staff weapon that he hid beneath the cloak he wore. He hoped his friend had the strength to fight off the two attackers. With a section in each hand, Dar swung the club at the closest Terron, whacking him in the head. The impact knocked the guard cold. The other Terron took advantage of the timing and clubbed Dar in the side, striking his sore ribs. He cried out in pain and fell to his knees. The warrior raised his battle-axe, ready to deliver a fatal blow. He never got the chance. A stroke of lightning sent him flying backwards.

Sharak blew his scorched fingers to cool them. He hadn't done that trick in several thousands of years. He ran to aid Dar. "We should get out of here. Here, let me help you." Sharak placed Dar's arm around his neck and helped him to his feet. "Can you walk?"

Dar nodded. They headed for the woods. Zad had taken most of the warriors with him, but soon those left in the village would realize what happened and start searching for them. Once they reached cover Dar asked, "How did you know—"

"I owed you a favor ever since you helped me rescue my woman from the Burning Forest. Now I've repaid my debt. Let's call it at that." He knew the Beastmaster's weakened state would slow them down. Sharak had hoped the mist he conjured up would have strengthened him faster than it seemed to be doing.

It wasn't the fact Dar was weak that slowed him down. Instead, the Beastmaster slowed to a halt. Sharak turned to see what was the matter.

"Your woman in the Burning Forest…the Sorceress?"

Sharak looked down. "Yes."

"That makes you a—"

"A sorcerer, yes. Unfortunately, I'm a bit rusty. My concoction should have given you enough strength by now to run on your own." Sharak didn't appreciate the look of distrust in Dar's eyes. "Not all sorcerer's are evil, Dar."

Dar never got a chance to reply. The world around him came to a standstill as time was suspended. The Ancient One's form transformed out of thin air.

Irritated by Sharak's actions, the wizard's voice quivered with fury. "I changed you back to do me a favor, not obstruct fate!"

"He's a friend. I couldn't let him die. Unlike you, I believe one can alter fate." Sharak stood his ground.

"Another one! Trust me, Sharak, you should have let him die. It would have been so much easier on him. What he's about to face may crush his spirit. He's lost so much already."

"It sounds as if you really care about him. What must he face?" Sharak prodded.

"In due time."

In a flash, both Sharak and the Ancient One vanished. Dar blinked several times due to the bright light, believing he witnessed the Sorcerer's exit. He looked up and then behind him. Terrons would soon be on his trail; he didn't have time to waste—nightfall was approaching. He sprinted towards the river, bracing his sore ribcage.

*****

Tao stood at the edge of the camp and stared into darkness. He felt ill—sick with worry for his long, overdo friend. It was odd that Kodo and Podo didn’t seem upset; they were fast asleep next to Gie. Perhaps Dar had contacted them, letting them know he was on the way. He sure hoped so.

Jame placed her hand on Tao’s arm, patting it gently. "I wish there was something I could do. You’ve been so helpful to us. I feel like I’ve known you all my life, Tao. Is it in your nature to be this way with all strangers?"

Tao turned and gazed in her eyes. He couldn’t help but smile. "When I first met Dar, I’m not sure, but I believe he thought of me as a pest. I still ask too many questions for his liking and I’m always in need of his help."

"I’m sure he benefits from your friendship as much as you do from his. I couldn’t imagine otherwise," Jame assured him. She glanced to check on her son. "I can't believe it, you wore the little bugger out. He loves the rolling cart you helped him make."

Tao didn’t take his eyes off her. "You have a very smart son. Are you sure the father wasn’t an Eiron scholar?"

Jame whacked his chest playfully. "Stop it." She laughed. Her laughter subsided when she realized Tao wasn’t laughing. Jame studied him for a moment. Although his serious expression frightened her, she spoke what her heart felt. "I wish Gie’s father was an Eiron scholar, Tao. I wish he were you."

Tao pulled her close and pressed his lips against hers. Jame couldn’t believe her dream was coming true. She matched his passion with her kiss. Please don’t let me wake up, she begged silently.

 

The Last Sula
Part 4

The morning sun, tinged with red tones, broke free of the horizon restoring daylight. Dar’s journey had taken longer than he had hoped, needing a breather more often due to his injuries. Sharak’s potion strengthened him some, but not enough. Skillfully, he crept into camp so as not to disturb Tao and his guests. Kodo and Podo had kept Dar updated on Tao’s adventure. He looked around but didn’t see the mother or child. For that matter, the ferrets weren't around either. Dar moved closer to Tao and realized his friend wasn’t alone beneath the blanket. Surprised, the Beastmaster asked, "Tao?"

Hearing the disturbance, Tao bolted upright. In a sleepy stupor, he checked around and then noticed Dar smiling down at him. In a soft whisper Tao blurted, "Dar, you’re back! Thank goodness!" Tao slipped out from under the blanket and pulled on his trousers, careful not to uncover Jame. "Ah, this is a bit awkward. I can explain."

Still amused, Dar snickered. "No need. And, all this time I thought you’d be worried about me."

"I was," Tao vowed, continuing to speak softly.

Snug beneath the blanket, Jame stirred from the sound of their voices. She rolled onto her back as Tao stepped aside; he didn't wish to disturb her sleep. When he motioned Dar to do the same, he noticed a scowl replaced his friend’s smile. Tao wasn’t sure why, but surmised it had something to do with Jame since Dar was staring at her. He watched the Beastmaster shake his head in disapproval before walking away. Curious as to his friend's change of mood, Tao followed. "Dar, what is it?"

Dar turned to face his friend. "She used you, Tao. That’s what she does, uses men for her own satisfaction."

Tao’s face scrunched with annoyance. "How can you say that? You don’t even know her." He glanced back at her sleeping form and wondered aloud, "Or do you?"

"I know her type." Dar avoided answering truthfully. He remembered her as if it were yesterday. "She's a temptress who entices her prey only to devour them. How did she trick you? What did she offer?"

"Offer? I can’t believe I’m hearing this!" Tao shouted in a whispered tone. He never thought he’d have to defend Jame, especially to Dar. "Jame is a wonderful woman, very loving and giving. She and her son needed shelter from the Terrons…that’s all." He stood his ground, disappointment turning to rage. "Just because you're miserable doesn't give you the right to drag me down with you! Why are you denying me some happiness?"

Was he? Dar reflected for a moment. His life had been isolated from civilization. Those he loved were dead, with the exception of Tao. Yes, he felt disheartened, but he'd never keep others from enjoying their happiness. Zad practically accused him of the same thing. No, he merely wanted to protect his friend. He felt offended that Tao would believe otherwise. Dar lowered his voice hoping to reason with him. "She’ll only hurt you, Tao." Obviously, the Eiron wasn't thinking with his mind. Dar didn’t want to see his friend dejected the way he had been. "She thrives on her wiles. She only seduced you—"

"I advanced her!" Tao revealed. His temper seethed, his hands clenched tight, wanting Dar to stop, no matter what it took.

Wrapped in the blanket, Jame's sudden appearance prevented an altercation. "Tao? Is there something wrong?" Unsure of what to make of Tao’s friend, whom he praised so dearly, she stood her distance. His animosity seemed to stem from her presence.

Flustered, Tao exclaimed, "Jame! I’m sorry we woke you. We were…ah, I was just questioning Dar about his whereabouts. It's still early, go back to sleep." He tried turning her about, but she sidestepped and moved closer to Dar. Tao stumbled from her evasive maneuver, but easily caught his balance.

Overhearing the last part of the conversation, Jame frowned at his lie. "I thought I heard you mention my name. Aren’t you going to introduce me?"

"Of course." Tao stood by her side and glared at his friend. He usually didn't forget his manners, but Dar provoked him beyond his senses. "Jame, this is Dar. Dar, Jame."

Jame offered her hand. "Pleased to meet you."

Dar didn’t take her hand, wondering why she didn’t recognize him. Then again, it had been ten years since their encounter. Alone, the last of his tribe, Dar had pleaded with her to take him to her people but she refused. She bribed the starving stranger with food for pleasure. To top it off, Curupira had spied upon them, ridiculing him afterwards. Yes, he was bitter. Besides, there was a more important matter on his mind. "Your son, where is he?"

Tao was disappointed that his friend didn’t offer a handclasp in return. Why was Dar being so rude to Jame? There had to be reason behind his actions, but what? The questions prattled through his mind until Dar’s question finally registered. "Gie!" Tao realized the boy was missing.

Jame was way ahead of Tao and raced over to where her son had settled for the night. Kodo, Podo and the rolling cart were missing as well. "Gie? Gie! He's gone!" Tao rushed over and pointed out the tracks the wheel left and assured Jame it would be easy to follow him.

Dar was busy communicating with the ferrets. "Kodo and Podo are with him. He's okay! I'm going after him!" the Beastmaster shouted as he dashed off. Out of range, he didn't hear Tao insisting that he and Jame would tag along. Dar hastened his pace following the footprints towards the river.

"How could he know he's okay? Did he only say that for my benefit?" Jame quickly pulled her dress over her head while Tao explained.

"He's the Beastmaster. I didn't tell you because I wanted to surprise Gie."

"The Beastmaster? Then it's not a legend?" Jame received her answer with Tao's smile. "He looks strangely familiar," she pondered, cinching the scarf around her waist.

"He should," Sharak replied. The sorcerer seemed to appear out of nowhere, startling them both.

Tao yelped but relaxed as soon as he recognized the familiar face— the man Dar and he helped to rescue a woman from in the Burning Forest. "You? What are you doing here? No wait," Tao instructed, holding up his hand. Irritated by the man's overbearing demeanor the first time they met, Tao didn't care to know. More than likely, he needed another favor. He didn't trust the stranger. "I don't believe you ever told Dar or me your name."

"It's Sha—" he caught himself. He promised the Ancient One he wouldn't reveal his identity to the Beastmaster or his companion. Thinking quickly, Sharak made up a similar sounding name. "Shan."

"Listen, you came at a bad time, Shan. We were just leav—"

Jame interrupted, curious to the man's comment. "What do you mean he should look familiar? Do I know him?" She seemed drawn to this stranger. To her, he appeared gentle and trustworthy.

Whether it was a tinge of jealousy or his distrust in Shan, Tao eased himself between the two. Jame grabbed Tao's hand and squeezed it gently to reassure him she cared for only him. Tao felt foolish. He rolled his eyes and stepped aside so Shan could further explain to Jame.

Sharak smirked at Tao's absurd insecurity. The mortal was entertaining to say the least. He had no time to waste so he briskly enlightened the woman, "Years ago while you were bathing in a small pool, a hungry boy came to pass. You offered food in exchange for a kiss—a kiss which led to another and beyond. He kept his end of the bargain; however, you didn't."

Jame clutched her midriff and looked at Tao, shaking her head in disbelief. "Oh, no. Dar was the boy?"

"I don't understand." Tao looked from Shan to Jame. "You know Dar?" He reached for her arms to pull her closer, but she jerked away in shame. "What is it, Jame?" He glared at Shan, believing him to be the culprit.

In tears, Jame explained, "Oh, Tao. I was so cruel to him. He claimed he was all alone, the last of his people and had nowhere to go. I didn't realize he was the last of the Sulas. I took advantage of his misfortune and used him for my own pleasure."

"You know him then?"

"He's Gie's father. Dar is Gie's father. I didn't even recognize him. I recall the way he looked at me…treated me just now. I'm sure he knows me. Tao, the last thing I want is to come between friends. No wonder you were arguing. I don't blame you if you hate me and never want to see me again."

"Dar? The father?" Tao blurted.

Sharak stepped forward. "We haven't much time. We must find Dar and the boy. I believe he suspects Gie to be his son." Since the Ancient One made sure Sharak had only limited powers as a sorcerer, he needed to keep them in reserve in case something went wrong. He didn't want to disappoint the wizard; else, he'd lose the three spells to become human again. "This way," he urged the others as he followed the tracks.

Tao was confused. On one hand, he felt overjoyed that Dar was a father, on the other, what of Jame? He cared deeply for her, but didn't want to come between them if they shared feelings for one another.

*****

Traveling since early light, Gie needed rest. He lowered the cart and plopped down next to it. Kodo and Podo popped their heads out from under the blanket. Gie spoke to his new friends. "I'm sorry, I didn't know we were this far from home. It's taking longer than I thought. Won't Uncle Roog be overjoyed with his gift!" The ferrets squealed and jumped out of the basket, scurrying away. "Hey, come back here!"

Gie chased after them but stopped in his tracks when he noticed the figure ahead. Kodo and Podo ran over to the tall, muscular man dressed in a simple loincloth. He appeared savage, his unkempt hair streaked from sun exposure. At his side, he held a magnificent staff made of bone. At first, Gie felt intimidated until the intruder smiled, easing his nervousness. The man's smile was friendly and full of love as he picked up one of the ferrets. The stranger knelt down and placed Kodo on the ground.

Dar slowly lifted his head and looked at the boy. He lowered his staff to the ground to show he meant no harm. "Don't be afraid, I'm a friend," he assured, studying the youth. The blond youngster looked like his mother until he smiled. The boy's smile was comparable to his own. Could Zad be right? Had Dar fathered a son?

Gie stammered, "I'm not afraid. You're the Beastmaster."

"And how do you know that?"

In awe of the legend, Gie explained. "You're as tall as the trees, you look as strong as an ox and your hair is wild like a lion's mane." His description embarrassed the stranger and made him chuckle. Gie continued, "Besides, my friends ran up to you like they knew you."

"That's because Kodo and Podo are my friends too. My name is Dar."

"Dar? Tao's friend? I don't understand. Why didn't he tell me?" Gie was confused and hurt.

"I'm sure Tao had his reasons." Dar yearned to grab hold of the boy and embrace him with all his might. He needed answers first. "Why did you run off? Your mother's very worried."

"I thought I'd be back before she ever missed me. I wanted to give my uncle this present Tao helped me build. That's all. I didn't mean to worry Mother." Gie gestured behind him to show off his invention.

Dar suddenly noticed the basket with the one wheel attached to its front. He rose and walked over for a closer look. "What does it do?"

"You lift it up and roll it. You can fill it with lots of things." Gie demonstrated how his contraption worked. "I was bringing it to my uncle. He has a bad back and this will make his work easier."

"I believe it would, but you can't take it to him now. The Terrons are guarding your village. Some of them are searching for you. We're not safe here." Dar placed his hand on Gie's shoulder. "We'll have to leave that here for now."

"What do the Terrons want with me? I didn't do anything to them." Gie didn't understand his significance to the Terron king.

Dar now understood Gie's importance. He answered carefully. "King Zad heard rumors that you're a Sula, that you have a way with the animals. He wants to raise you as his son, but don't worry," Dar assured, "that will never happen."

"He's not my father, is he?"

"No, Gie, I believe I'm your father." Dar's jowls tensed in anticipation of the boy's reaction.

"Y-y-you, my father?" Gie blinked several times. Could it be possible? That would explain his ability to commune with the animals. "I don't understand?"

"I met your mother years ago when we were both young."

"If that's true, why didn't you stay?"

"At the time, your mother wouldn't take me to your village. My tribe had been slain by the Terrons, so I lived alone in the forest. Had I known she would soon be with child, I would have fought harder to stay with her. I would have gladly raised and loved you like a father should." Dar waited for a response from the boy, but he remained silent. "If it's not too late, Gie, I'd like to start now."

Gie repeated, "My father…the Beastmaster?" A hug was his answer. He wrapped his arms around Dar's neck and squeezed as hard as he could. "I could never ask for a better father!"

Dar's emptiness was suddenly filled. He hugged Gie and kissed his forehead, but the reunion would have to resume another time. "We have to move quickly." To provoke a swift departure, he proposed, "How would you like to be taller than the Beastmaster?"

Gie's eyes widened. "Would I? How?"

Dar chuckled at the boy's enthusiasm. With Kodo and Podo tucked away in the pouch, he placed it over his shoulder. "Here climb onto my shoulders." Dar knelt low to the ground until Gie straddled his legs around his neck and held onto his head. The Beastmaster grabbed his staff and then rose slowly making sure the youngster was well balanced. "All set?" Upon hearing Gie's reply, Dar walked swiftly towards the camp. He hadn't gotten too far when he spotted Tao, Jame and the Sorcerer running in their direction.

Jame caught sight of her son atop Dar's shoulders and cried out his name, relieved he'd been found. Before the others reached them, Dar stopped and lowered Gie to the ground. He held the staff out straight, pointing it at them. "Stop right there. Come no closer."

Bewildered, Tao held Jame back. "What's wrong, Dar? What are you doing?"

"What's he doing with you?"

Tao knew he meant Shan. "He's here to help, Dar." The Eiron wasn't sure why he was defending him.

"He's a sorcerer!"

Tao looked at Shan, backed up and shielded Jame. "A sorcerer?" Sharak nodded and then Tao asked, "If you have magical powers then why did you need our help to rescue your woman?"

Sharak elaborated, "Only the Apparition's powers work in the Burning Forest." Wasting no time, he turned to Dar and the boy. "Beastmaster, I mean you no harm. You must trust me...I only want to protect the child and his mother. I can take them someplace where they'll be safe."

"No!" Dar spat. "I won't let you take him! I'm his father!"

Tao protested as well. He wasn't about to let Shan take Jame and Gie from either of them. Jame glanced at Tao, her eyes twinkling nervously. She now knew Dar figured out Gie was his son. None of their lives would ever be the same.

Sharak ignored the Eiron and addressed only the Beastmaster. "You know he'll never be safe as long as he's with you. Your enemies will always use him against you. He'll forever be a target…you don't want that kind of life for him do you?"

"I'll protect him!"

"Like you protected Kyra?" Sharak hated twisting words like a knife, but it was necessary to make a point. It crushed him to see the hurt etched on his friend's face. Dar's eyes glazed with festering animosity. Perhaps Sharak crossed too far over the line.

Suddenly, Zad and six Terron warriors galloped out of the woods, surrounding the group. "Beastmaster, you have more lives than a cat. I could have sworn I left you for dead." He perceived the hostile look he received from the Beastmaster to be his doing, not realizing he interrupted something. "And what, pray tell, do we have here? A family reunion?" The king studied Dar and Gie, surely related he surmised. "Surrender the boy to me and I'll let you and the others live!"

"Never!" Dar roared.

"Much too long for a king to wait. Get me the child now!" Zad commanded his men. Once he laid eyes on the boy's mother, he added, "And, the woman. Kill the rest!"

Dar pulled the pouch containing the ferrets off his shoulder. He handed them to Gie and nudged him towards his mother. The boy responded quickly and ran to her side as the Beastmaster prepared for the battle of his life. He twirled his staff weapon, inviting the Terrons to attack.

The warrior closest to the others hurled his weapon and struck Sharak in the back. The blow knocked the wind out of him and he collapsed to the ground. Jame screamed and hid her son between herself and Tao. The Eiron was searching desperately for a weapon. Since the sorcerer lay near his feet, Tao grabbed the club, raised it in front of him and tried to look tough. Something caught Tao's eye. He had never seen Dar fight so passionately. Three Terrons had simultaneously attacked the Beastmaster. He leapt in the air, pirouetted and then kicked the largest warrior in the chest while both sections of the staff struck the other two opponents. The club end walloped a Terron's upper arm. Tao swore he heard the man's bone crack. The blade side cut bare flesh. The Terron stepped back to examine the wound to his chest. Outraged, he bolted towards Dar. To his surprise, the Terron was hoisted over the Beastmaster's head where he fell to the ground knocking him cold. A fervent rage engulfed the Beastmaster as he readied himself for more rivals.

Two more of Zad's men moved in once they realized their comrades were losing. The king was furious—his best warriors had been bested yet again. He hoped the next two would prove superior. His prayers were answered when one of the warriors managed to trip Dar.

Ratax, Zad's warlord, approached Tao, Jame and Gie. The boy tugged Tao's shirt to distract his attention from Dar's dilemma to theirs. Without delay Tao positioned the club to block Ratax's weapon. However, the force of the blow hurled Tao sideways and he plummeted to the ground. Jame and Gie screamed as the warlord kicked the downed man.

In the meantime, Dar had skillfully rolled and righted himself. His cobra reflex sent the culprit who tripped him sprawling on his back. Dar whipped around when he heard Gie and his mother scream. That was a mistake. The second Terron behind him swung his club and clobbered Dar against his head. His vision blurred. Before darkness enveloped him, he saw Ratax yanking Jame and Gie towards Zad. Tao lay motionless at their feet. Zad won. Dar had no choice but to surrender to unconsciousness.

 

The Last Sula
Part 5

Tao's eyelids fluttered until they focused on the Terron tightening the rope around his wrist. Although standing upright, he felt awkward because of the way his body leaned backwards. In this position, his ribs ached where Ratax had kicked him. He tried to wriggle free, but his feet were also bound. The guard snickered at the prisoner's feeble attempt to free himself. Once the Terron departed to join another warrior standing guard, the Eiron sensed he wasn't alone. Shan was to his right and Dar to his left. The three of them created a human pyramid tied securely to several posts.

Sharak had been awake for some time staring at the clouds, wishing he was flying free in the skies above. Life as an eagle wasn't bad compared to this. He heard a muffled sound and realized Tao finally came to. "Tao, I can't wake the Beastmaster. He's not responding."

Frantic, Tao turned to his friend. "Dar?" he whispered hoarsely, his mouth dry. "Dar?" he repeated. Tao worried when he noticed the dry blood matted in his friend's hair on the side of his head. Tao waited and then noticed his chest rise. "Oh, thank goodness, he's breathing."

A groan escaped Dar's throat as he approached a semi-awakened state. His head throbbed but when he tried to touch it, he couldn't move his hands. He slowly realized he was a prisoner. He opened his eyes trying to focus, but everything was a blur.

"Dar? Are you all right?" Tao asked

"Tao?" Dar tilted his head back in the direction of his friend's voice. A fuzzy face was all he could see. "What happened?"

Sharak answered instead. "King Zad must want the pleasure of killing us; otherwise, we'd all be dead."

Dar whipped his head to the left, surprised by the Sorcerer's presence—a painful blunder. His temple pounded and he became dizzy, provoking nausea. "Where's Gie?" he asked already knowing the answer.

"Zad has him."

"And Jame?" Tao inquired.

"They're both alive. I don't think he plans on killing them." Sharak hoped to convince his two companions.

Dar grimaced. "Zad wants to make Gie his son."

Surprised, Tao asked, "He wants a son? Why he must have dozens the way he uses women. Why Gie?"

"Because he's a Sula, Zad thinks the boy will be able to control the animals. He believes he'll be invincible."

"With an army of beasts he just may be."

"A Sula only communes with the animals, he won't have the powers of a beastmaster. When Zad finds this out, Gie will be useless to him. We have to stop him!" Dar yanked his arms, but the ropes encircling his wrists wouldn't give, cutting flesh instead.

Tired of their idle chitchat, Sharak cleared his throat. "I can stop Zad if each of you promise not to interfere and allow me to take Jame and Gie someplace safe. I'll gladly get us out of this mess—my way." Sharak soon regretted his suggestion for Tao and Dar hollered simultaneously, refusing his proposal.

Dar continued to struggle against the heavy twine. His telepathic plea to Sharak brought no results. He frowned, concerned for his feathered friend. Dar then called for Kodo and Podo. The ferrets responded, but being caged prevented them from helping. They were safe and they let the Beastmaster know Gie and his mother were safe as well. Dar relaxed until he heard Zad's gruff voice approaching.

"What a pitiful triad of prisoners I have in my clutches." He stopped in front of Sharak. "Just how do you fit in? The woman's lover perhaps? How does it feel knowing the boy's a bastard of the Beastmaster?" Receiving only a glare from the stranger, Zad shrugged and walked around closer to Tao. "Ah, the faithful slave of the Beastmaster." The king leaned close to Tao's face knowing it bothered the Eiron. Tao closed his eyes and turned his head the instant he felt Zad's hot breath upon his cheek. Amused by his captive's repulsion, Zad laughed. "What's this? Nothing witty to say?" His eyes soon focused on the Beastmaster who stared back—eyes filled with hatred. The king pushed away from Tao and deliberately took his time to reach his last prisoner. "Beastmaster. I decided to keep you alive long enough for you to hear your son call me father."

"That won't happen!" Dar spat, wrestling against the constraints. "You'll never be his father! He'll never call you by that name…never!" The Beastmaster's chest heaved heavily troubled by the shenanigans Zad used to get under his skin.

The evil king longed for moments grand as this, even if they were staged. He nodded to Ratax. The warlord disappeared in the tent. "Come here boy. You do what we told you and your mother lives. Understand?" When the child nodded, Ratax replied, "Good boy." Tear-stained eyes blurred Gie's vision as he followed Ratax over to the king and waited for his cue.

Sharak reminded the Beastmaster that his offer still stood, but Dar's concentration was devoted only to his son. The boy quickly glanced at him and then diverted his eyes, fearful of his mother's life. As instructed he gazed up at Zad. The king, however, kept a watchful eye on the Beastmaster to witness his downfall. "Oh, now who could this precious child be? Why, he's the spitting image of his mother. Be a good boy and remind these pathetic souls who I am besides the king of the Terrons. Son, I'm waiting!"

"Y-y-you're my f-father," Gie barely spoke, his voice shaky. An unearthly cry from the Beastmaster sent Gie running back to the tent to find safety in his mother's arms. Zad relished in the anguish his captive now suffered. Hearing Gie call him father sent the Beastmaster over the edge.

Tao begged Dar to stay calm, but his pleas were futile. He had never seen Dar so enraged—never, not even after Kyra's death. He turned to Shan. "Can you get us out of this?" When the sorcerer nodded, Tao gave his word he wouldn't interfere with his plans.

"You'll never be his father! Never!" Dar vowed. He suddenly quit struggling when he heard Zad order his men to kill them. With no other option, he pledged, "Sorcerer, you also have my word!"

Zad started to return to his tent, but upon hearing the Beastmaster call to a sorcerer, he stopped. He turned around in time to witness the ropes bursting into flames, the hostages untouched. Dar fell to his knees, still light-headed from his injury. Tao rushed to his side while Sharak waved his hands, propelling each of the approaching Terrons with the simple gesture. Zad couldn't budge; in fact, his body was paralyzed, unyielding to his command. "What is this?" he demanded. "Ratax! Stop them!"

The king's chief warrior was unable to move as well. "I can't!" Ratax tried again, but his body wouldn't respond. "What the—"

The men guarding the tent ran past their paralyzed king and comrade, but they, too, soared backwards when they neared the prisoners. Awestruck by the wizard's powers, Tao laughed nervously as he helped Dar to his feet. He thought he'd better be friendlier to Shan in the future. Tao supported the Beastmaster until he regained his balance, pushing free of his friend's hold to lunge towards Zad. With both hands wrapped around the king's throat, Dar's fingers pressed firmly hoping to crush his neck. Tao tried prying him off. "Dar, let go! He can't defend himself. You'll kill him!" The Beastmaster wasn't listening to Tao or Zad's pleas.

"Get…your…filthy hands…off me!" Zad barely managed to utter the words. Dar's rage had reached an all time high, leaving even Zad feeling a tinge of fear. It took only one voice to soothe the beast within.

"Father!" Gie exclaimed as he ran towards him, carrying Kodo and Podo's pouch.

The Beastmaster found it difficult to let go of Zad's neck wishing to suppress the evil grin that gleamed back at him. Deep down Dar knew who the child was calling—it wasn't Zad. He released the king just in time to catch Gie in his arms, hugging him tightly. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry you had to go through this."

Jame ran straight into Tao's arms and they held each other, grateful they were alive and now free. Sharak reminded them of the danger they were in if they stayed. Dar wasn't about to leave without his staff. Jame remembered it in the tent, so the Beastmaster dashed off to retrieve it.

Feeling less threatened, Zad warned his prisoners, "You won't get away with this! I'll find the boy!" The king choked back his words when he realized the Beastmaster was returning with his weapon.

Dar knelt, placing his hand on Gie's shoulder and looked up at the Sorcerer. "You'll take them somewhere safe?"

Sharak nodded and moved towards Zad, taunting him with a self-satisfied grin. "They will be under my wing, Beastmaster, at all times. A place where you, my good king, will never find them."

When the travelers reached a clearing away from the Terrons, Sharak turned to face them all. "We must separate here. Say your good byes, but don't worry, you'll be able to visit often. The eagle you communicate with—"

"Sharak?" Dar asked, curious to what the Sorcerer knew of him.

"Yes, that's the one. He'll let you know when it's safe to visit."

Eager to see Jame again, Tao interrupted, "How will we know where to find them?"

"The eagle will guide you." Sharak kept watch while the others bid their farewells. Feelings never used to bother him when he was the Ancient One's apprentice. However, living these thousands of years as an eagle and befriending the Beastmaster, he felt melancholy that he had to be the one to take his friend's son away.

Tao kissed Jame, longing to hold her forever, but he knew it wasn't meant to be. His hands embraced her face as their lips separated. 'I wish there was another way."

Jame looked to her son who was hugging the Beastmaster. She looked back into Tao's eyes—beautiful eyes that glistened as he fought back tears. "I do too, Tao. I'll forever hold you in my heart." She couldn't bear to say good bye, so she moved to stand behind Shan.

Dar wasn't holding back the tears…he didn't have the strength to. "This is for you," he said as he handed the boy the necklace he wore for Kyra. "If you concentrate on the one you love, their image will appear."

Gie took it carefully and closed his eyes, opening them to view the image of his father in the huge pearl. He smiled and that's when Tao realized where he had seen that smile before. It mimicked Dar's. The Eiron empathized for his friend when he watched the Beastmaster hug his son good bye. Tao's sorrow could never equal that which his friend now endured.

"I love you, son. Always remember that." Dar's heart felt as though it were being ripped from his chest when the Sorcerer led Gie away. In a glimmering flash, the three vanished. Dar closed his eyes and remained silent. He reached for the hand on his shoulder, squeezing it to affirm Tao he appreciated his friendship. The Beastmaster could only shake his head when he heard Tao suggest they leave.

 

The Last Sula
Part 6 (Epilogue)

When the travelers reached camp, Dar dropped the pouch on soft ground and plopped down next to it. Kodo and Podo poked their heads out and then scattered about happy to be home. He watched Tao unload the gear he hauled around wherever he went, but no matter how much he removed, his friend still looked burdened—no, disheartened. "Tao, I was wrong. Jame has changed—she's become a lovely woman and a wonderful mother. I'm sorry for the things I said. If Gie wasn't my son, Zad would never have bothered these people."

Tao picked up the blanket that he and Jame shared that night—a night he would never forget. For the first time, he was speechless.

Dar rose, cocked his head to the sky and listened. Sharak communicated to him telepathically. Through his eyes, Dar could see Gie's new home. The boy was running around with a couple of playful ferrets. A smile lit the Beastmaster's face. "Sharak says Jame and Gie are safe. They love their new home."

"Ruh!" Tao exclaimed as the tiger exited the woods.

Dar greeted his friend via telepathy and translated for his human friend. "Ruh's cubs are safe. He's very proud…he's a father of two healthy sons." The Beastmaster spoke to the tiger a while longer. When he was finished, Dar shook his head and closed his eyes.

"Well, did you tell him you're a father?"

Dar looked his friend in the eyes and his smile returned. "Yes, Tao. Ruh says he's known all these years. He and several other animals have watched over Gie. Curupira made him vow secrecy to the child's existence. She knew I'd meet him one day."

"It's as if your life's been prearranged for you, Dar. I wonder if it was fate that we met." Tao remembered the day as if it were yesterday.

"I'd like to think so, for there could be no friend dearer to me than the one fate chose."

The End.

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My Fanfic is based on the BeastMaster: The Legend Continues Series
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