"What I really don't understand is why they want to drop this thing on me. If they wanted somebody who'd done more than anybody else to defeat the Vlagh, they'd have chosen Longbow. He's the one who actually won the war against the bugs, you know. Not only that, he's just about the best in the world when it comes to hugs."

"Is that all you ever think about, Little-Me?" Balacenia demanded a bit peevishly.

"Hugs are important, Big-Me." Then Eleria peered out through the blossom-covered tree-limbs. "Here comes the Beloved. Maybe she can solve this problem for us."

"What are you two up to now?" Zelana asked rather shortly.

Balacenia shrugged. "Little-Me doesn't want to be a goddess, and she definitely doesn't want to replace crazy Aracia."

"Be nice," Zelana murmured absently.

"I was just telling Big-Me here that if Omago and Ara wanted to elevate somebody to godhood, they should talk with Longbow. If anybody in the world has earned immortality, it's Longbow. If he hadn't been there, all the outlanders—and the native people as well—would have been eaten by the bugs."

Zelana sighed. "Even if Ara and Omago offered him the position, Longbow would turn them down. He doesn't really want anything. His life has been totally empty since the death of Misty-Water."

"That's the answer then," Balacenia declared.

"Revive Misty-Water, you mean," Eleria said. "We may not look very much alike, Big-Me, but we think almost exactly the same—or hadn't that come to you just yet?" Then she turned to Zelana. "Ara and Omago could do that, couldn't they, Beloved?"

Zelana frowned. "It's altogether possible, I think. They'd have to go back in time, but they do that all the time."

"And then we'd have a happy Longbow instead of the gloomy one we all know and love. I'd say that it's worth trying. If I tell Ara and Omago that Misty-Water is my price, they might decide to go pester somebody else."

Balacenia had a strong feeling that she was missing something that might be extremely important, but she just couldn't put her finger on it.

"It is theoretically possible, dear heart," Ara told her mate after Eleria had laid her demand upon them.

"I know that, yes, dear," Omago replied, "but won't it disrupt many, many things that have already come to pass?"

"They won't have come to pass way back then, will they?" Eleria disagreed.

Then several things clicked together for Balacenia, and it made everything so simple that she almost laughed. "As I understand it, you two can move events forward or backward in time, can't you?"

"It's not really all that difficult, child. In the past we've had to correct many mistakes. Worlds are not really as solid as they might appear to be," Ara explained.

Then Balacenia looked at Omago. "You recently destroyed the Vlagh, didn't you?"

"No. All I did was render all the incipient eggs she'd been bearing in her abdomen for eons and eons null and void. She might still be able to lay eggs, but they'll never come to life."

"You can move things backward or forward in time, can't you? If you'd done that a long time back, the Vlagh wouldn't have posed any threat to the Land of Dhrall, would she? And, if she wasn't a threat, the elder gods wouldn't have had any reason to go hire outlander armies to come here and fight a war, would they?"

"That's brilliant, Balacenia!" Ara exclaimed. "The way things stand now, there will always be a danger that outlander gold-seekers will invade the Land of Dhrall. But if they don't even know that it's here, they'll never even try to invade."

"And Longbow will be mated with Misty-Water," Eleria insisted, "and the world will be more beautiful."

"And you will agree to accept the Domain of the East as its goddess with no more arguments, right?" Omago asked shrewdly.

"On only one condition," Eleria answered.

"And what is that?"

"You'll give me hugs whenever I need them," Eleria insisted.

Omago smiled. "I think I can manage that, little one," he replied.

"You see how easy things are when you do them right, Big-Me?" Eleria said to Balacenia.

Chapter Three

There was never any question that the gods—both elder and younger—would attend the ceremony that would unite Longbow with Misty-Water, the daughter of Chief Old-Bear. One of the advantages of divinity was their ability to make themselves look familiar to the ordinary man-things of Old-Bear's tribe.

Balacenia found the deerskin clothing worn by the natives quite attractive, actually.

The one thing that startled Balacenia—and all the other gods as well—was the appearance of the young Longbow. The more familiar elder Longbow almost never smiled and there seemed to be perpetual grief in his eyes. The young Longbow smiled almost continually, and the first time Balacenia saw the beautiful Misty-Water, she knew exactly why. Balacenia had seen many, many beautiful women in her almost endless life, but Misty-Water was far and away the most beautiful Balacenia had ever encountered. Her hair was black and glossy, but her skin was pale white. Her eyes were very large, and they were almost permanently locked on Longbow.

"She is a pretty one, isn't she?" Zelana said between yawns. Had it not been for the upcoming ceremony that would join Longbow and Misty-Water, Zelana would almost certainly be sleeping by now.

Oddly, since this joining had been her idea, Eleria didn't seem to like Misty-Water very much. "Could you maybe put a pimple on her nose, Beloved?" she asked Zelana as the day of the ceremony grew closer.

"Why in the world would I want to do something like that, dear child?" Zelana asked mildly.

"I hate to admit it, Beloved," Balacenia said, "but I'm catching a few hints of jealousy in Little-Me's behavior."

"Does she have to be that pretty?" Eleria demanded. "Longbow's always been mine, and now she's stealing him right out from under me." Then she looked at the young Longbow. "Isn't he gorgeous?" she demanded.

"I'm not sure if 'gorgeous' is customarily used to describe male humans," Zelana replied. "He looks much nicer without that perpetual scowl on his face, though."

It was about noon when the shaman of the tribe, One-Who-Heals, came out of his lodge at about the same time that Chief Old-Bear escorted Longbow, dressed in golden deerskin, and Misty-Water, garbed in white leather, out to the open area at the center of the village. Old-Bear spoke quite formally when he addressed his friend. "These two children would be mated, Wise Shaman, and I have therefore summoned you to determine if it might be so."