Ayre of the Last God
(Book III of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY


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L'Valin awoke to find she was lying beneath a tree by a small stream. L'Valin yawned and streeeeetched on the grass, then sat up slowly and looked around.

Just next to her, the black stallion sat, a pile of long, dry grasses nearby. He was holding something in his fore-hooves, moving his fore-hooves back and forth and reaching to the pile every now and again to pick up another strand of grass. His fore-hooves tapped together occasionally, and after a moment, L'Valin realized he was weaving the grasses together, making something.

Though the horses of Oerth lacked fingers, the telekinetic powers of their minds could be focused through their fore-hooves, allowing them to manipulate things with just as great a precision as any other being - better, at times. The felines of Oerth had no words in their language for this phenomenon - indeed, the whole concept of psi-powers was utterly absent from their language. As such, it had never occurred to them that the horse's uncanny ability to manipulate things without fingers might mean they had other abilities, as well. The Mentalts knew, but no other cat did, so far as L'Valin knew.

The late afternoon sun told L'Valin that night would soon be upon them, and she shivered slightly. She had no blankets - the night would most assuredly be very cold. "Mrowr... We need to start a fire, I think," she said, looking to the stallion.

The stallion shook his head, not pausing in his work.

"Mrow? How will I stay warm, then?"

The stallion paused, looking to L'Viall. He set his work down for a moment, then tipped his head, laying a hoof to the side and closing his eyes, as though asleep. He then reached out with his other arm, curling it across his body, and pulled it in, leaving a gap - as though he was pulling something or someone to him.

"Mrr... You mean I'll sleep with you, and stay warm by snuggling up to you?"

The stallion nodded, and resumed his weaving.

"Purr... That sounds good to me," L'Valin replied, smiling.

The stallion snorted, sensing her thoughts, and rolled his eyes.

"Mrow? What?" L'Valin asked, then paused. "Miao... Oh. You find me ugly, too," she said, and sighed.

The stallion shook his head, finishing his work and holding it up to examine. L'Vail looked - it was a broad, woven band, about eight inches wide and at least fifteen feet long. How he had managed it in the short time he'd had available to him, she had no idea. She decided to ask. "Mrowrrr... How did you finish something that long in only a few hours?"

The stallion shook his head. He pointed a fore-hoof to the sun, then looked at her, and made a half-circle in the air with his fore-hoof, then repeated the gesture.

"Mrrr... A day? I've been asleep a day?"

The stallion shook his head, and made the two half-circles again.

"Mrow! I've been asleep two days?!" she yelped, and her stomach growled loudly.

The stallion simply nodded.

"Mrow! No wonder I'm so hungry!" she yelped, and reached for her catnip bag.

To her horror, she discovered it was gone.

"Mrrrooooowrrr! My catnip! It's gone! Help me find it!" she yowled, looking hurriedly about where she had been laying on the grass.

The stallion snorted, and shook his head.

"Mrow! Come on! I have to find it!"

The stallion again shook his head. He reached out his hoof to her, between her breasts, drew his hoof over her head, then flicked his hoof over his shoulder.

"Fsst! You... You threw my catnip away?!"

The stallion nodded.

With a wordless snarl of rage, L'Valin lashed out with her paw, clouting the stallion across his broad jaw. His head snapped to his right, and the woven cloth he had made fell to the ground, forgotten.

L'Valin paused, gazing at the stallion, a growing sense of horror filling her. Blood welled from four slim gashes across the side of his face, and his dark eyes narrowed as he gazed at her. "Miao... I... I'm sorry... I didn't mean to do that... I didn't mean to claw you..."

The stallion gazed at L'Valin for a long moment, and she hung her head. "Mew... I'm very sorry... Please... Forgive me..."

The stallion snorted. L'Valin could tell there was much he wished he could say to her - but he simply couldn't. His people were mute, and so far as L'Valin knew, could only communicate with each other.

Finally, the stallion reached out to her, grabbing her by the front of her filthy, ragged dress, and yanked. The powerful muscles in his arm easily ripped the threadbare cloth from her, and she sprawled on the ground before him. "Mroooowr! What are you doing?!" L'Valin yowled. The stallion didn't respond, but instead reached to her back, and ripped the remainder of her dress from her, gathering all of it into a bundle and tossing the rags into the river. "Mrooooowrrr! Nooooo! Don't hurt me! I'm sorry!" L'Valin screamed.

The stallion simply snorted, then rose to his feet, scooped her up, and tossed her into the river.

L'Valin howled and sputtered in the chill water, flailing about wildly. "Mrowww! I can't swim!" she coughed. The stallion stepped off the bank, wading out into the water. Clopping his hoof down, he grabbed L'Valin by the scruff of her neck firmly. L'Valin could feel the tingling force holding her, the power of his mind manifest. With his other fore-hoof, he reached down, and began roughly rubbing her scarred pelt, the tingling power from his fore-hoof tugging at her skin.

After several moments of sputtering, L'Valin stopped, and simply lay there in the cold water, her head held up by the stallion's invisible grip. She knew the stallion wouldn't hurt her - his people were incapable of causing harm. Each pain they inflicted, they felt. No, it was obvious what he was doing - he was giving her a bath.

L'Valin shivered in the cold water, her tail tucked firmly between her legs, her tailtip trembling between her breasts. She wanted to say something - but found there was nothing she could say. The stallion's scrubbing didn't miss any part of her body, and he wasn't being gentle. L'Valin felt a hot flush of shame as he pulled her tail straight, scrubbing it thoroughly, then scrubbed her sex, as well. He missed nothing, exploring every inch of her body, even between her fingers and toes. Then, when he was done, he clopped a hoof over her mouth and nose and held her head under the water, scrubbing her neck, head and face just as thoroughly. L'Valin thrashed again, but in a moment, he was done, and strode out of the water, dragging her along by the scruff of the neck and dropping her onto the ground.

L'Valin shook her head, shaking the water out of her ears, then shivered, her tail flicking between her legs again. She started to speak, but the stallion simply sat next to her, clopped a hoof to her shoulder, and began dragging his fore-hoof down her arm. He paused, flicked his hoof to the side with a spray of water, then continued stroking down her arm.

L'Valin blinked - he was literally squeezing the water from her fur, somehow, using the power of his mind as focused through his fore-hoof. She could feel the tingling of his grip tugging her skin as he passed his hoof over her fur, the dampness being squeezed out of the individual hairs, then he would pause and flick away the water, and start again. Again, he spared her nothing - he stroked every inch of her scarred pelt, even her breasts and her sex, turning her over as needed.

Finally, he was done. L'Valin's shivering had stopped - her fur was somewhat damp, but it would dry in a moment in the afternoon sun. The stallion roughly shoved her to a kneeling position, then knelt before her, slowly passing a fore-hoof over her again. L'Valin again felt his tingling grip, but more gently, as though he was searching for something. He paused, and L'Valin felt a small pinch. She yelped, and the stallion flicked his hoof towards the river, then resumed. "Mew... What are you doing?"

The stallion pinched her again, then stopped, holding up his fore-hoof before her eyes. L'Valin blinked, and looked. There, trapped in his invisible grip against the frog of his enormous fore-hoof, wiggling it's tiny legs feebly, was a flea. "Mew... I'm sorry... I..."

The stallion shook his head, flicking the flea into the river. He held his hoof up, pointing to the sun, and making two semicircles. He then tipped his head, laying a hoof to the side and closing his eyes, as though asleep. Then he reached out with his other arm, curling it across his body, and pulled it in, leaving a gap - as though he was pulling something or someone to him. He straightened up and snorted angrily, making the two semicircles again. He passed his hoof rapidly over himself in several different spots, flicking it away each time, and finally snorted at her.

L'Valin hung her head. 'He... He's trying to tell me he's slept with me two days, keeping me warm, and my fleas crawled all over him,' she realized. 'He tried to keep me alive and warm, and I gave him fleas in return.'

The stallion snorted, nodding at her thoughts. Reaching out a hoof, he tapped her between the eyes gently, then waved his hoof at her body.

"Mew... I... I don't understand."

The stallion rolled his eyes in frustration. He lifted both hooves, and gestured at her broadly, forcefully. When she still didn't understand, he clopped a fore-hoof to the top of her head, and twisted her head down, forcing her to look at herself. "Miao... You want... You want me to look at myself?"

The stallion nodded, and released her, resuming his quiet search of her body for any fleas that might have escaped the washing.

L'Valin looked down at herself. It was, perhaps, the first time in a month or so she really had done so, since she began snorting catnip instead of simply smoking it. She was thin and wasted from lack of food. Her ribs could be easily counted, her pelvis jutted out sharply, and her breasts sagged like two limp bags. Her thighs were as thin as her lower legs, her arms similarly skeletal. Covering all this was a tan pelt cris-crossed by dozens of scars, the marks of the torture she had endured at the paw of R'Mang, the Shazad's Royal Torturer. The long ones across her back and shoulders, her buttocks, and the backs of her legs were from R'Mang's whip. The shorter ones across her chest, abdomen, breasts, thighs, and even on a nipple and across the mound and lips of her sex, all were from the red-hot iron R'Mang had applied repeatedly to her flesh. Even if her fur didn't have the dull, faded quality of the badly starved, the dozens of cris-crossing scars that covered it made it look revolting. "Mew... I'm sorry... I know I'm not pretty..."

The stallion rolled his eyes again. Opening his mouth, he pointed to it, then to his stomach. He then pointed to L'Valin's mouth, and tapped her stomach.

"Mew... Oh... You want me to eat. You're trying to say I'm too thin."

The stallion nodded, sighing.

"Mew... But I cannot hunt... And you cannot hunt for me. That's why I needed my catnip... For that, and to stop the pain..."

The stallion shook his head. He reached over to the pile of grass he had made for a moment, then brought his hoof back forward, holding it out to her, the frog downwards. L'Valin held out her paws, and the stallion dropped six robin's eggs into her open paws. L'Valin smiled weakly. It was spring - they would be little more than yolks with spidery blood-vessels, with no chicks inside yet. Not nearly as delicious as an unhatched chick, but still good. "Mew... Thank you," she said, and popped the first into her mouth, crunching down.

The flavor of the bloody yolk on her tongue brought her stomach to life again, and it growled loudly. L'Valin found that without her catnip, she was suddenly starving - she gobbled down the other eggs quickly, and snatched up her waterskin, which sat nearby. She started to gulp the water, but before she'd taken more than two swallows, the stallion snatched the waterskin from her paw, and shook his head. After a moment, L'Valin nodded. She hadn't eaten in weeks, and even before that, she had been eating only infrequently for months. It wouldn't do for her to simply vomit up what little he'd managed to gather for her. She needed to take it slowly.

When she was done, L'Valin reflexively licked her paws, and began washing her face. The stallion smiled at her, and it was a moment before she realized why - cleaning oneself was normal behavior for a cat, particularly after a meal. Snorting catnip in place of food was not. L'Valin suddenly stopped, hung her head, and felt ashamed.

Even she knew why she had begun snorting catnip. The nightmares. At night, in her dreams, she would relive the horror of the Shazad's torture over and over, until she woke, screaming. More, her wounds had been incredibly painful the first month. The first few days she was back at T'Masa Keep, all she could do was howl in agony until she fainted from exhaustion, and woke again to renewed pain. There was little that could be done, however - the cat's medical science was not as advanced as that of the mus or the mice, and they simply did not have anything that could effectively reduce that level of pain. Even her Mentalt training was of no use - her will had been thoroughly and completely broken by torture, and she simply could not focus her mind enough to block out the pain. Thus, L'Valin had turned to catnip, hoping the drug would at least ease the pain - and it had. But, there was a price.

Catnip was forbidden to Mentalts. There were no exceptions. L'Valin knew this before she lit her first pipe-full of it, but she had been hoping she wouldn't be caught. Unfortunately, she was. L'Valin had been cast out of T'Masa keep, and driven from their lands. Even when her scars had finally healed to the point where she no longer needed the catnip to kill the pain, she still could not return to T'Masa Keep. Her will had been broken, and she could not conquer her nightmares or the dreaded waking horror of repeated flashbacks to her torture. She was, in the end, no longer a Mentalt, but merely the broken wreckage of one. Thus, she had begun to wander, turning tricks as a simple whore to purchase the catnip she needed to conquer her inner demons, slowly traveling eastwards, where the supply of catnip was cheaper simply because it was less frequently demanded. Slowly, her addiction had progressed to it's final stages - even she knew that she would die. Yet, she could not see how she could live without her catnip. Finally, at her lowest point, she had met the stallion.

Now, her mind clear, L'Valin knew what it was she had felt in her heart when she first saw him, and she knew why she had agreed to help him make it to the lands of the mus. And now that she could feel her own emotions clearly again, she hung her head even lower. She felt ashamed. She had no right to feel that way about a horse-slave. Yet, she knew it was true.

She loved him.

Despite a life that had once been filled with reason and logic, L'Valin knew there was no reason or logic to this. She loved him from the moment she set eyes on him. Perhaps it was sparked by the catnip, perhaps not. Perhaps it was simply her need to be needed again, her desire to be desired again. Perhaps it was simply loneliness. Perhaps it was fate. Yet, the noble, gentle giant she saw that day, standing in the rain, seemed to need her...

And she knew in her heart she needed him, as well.

Any other cat would have laughed at her, if they knew. The horse-slaves were nothing - helpless, pacifist mutes, believed to be sub-intelligent because they couldn't grasp a single part of written language. Yet, L'Valin had once been a Mentalt - she knew they were not sub-intelligent. They were, in truth, as intelligent as any cat, or any other race on Oerth, for that matter. Still, only the Mentalts knew this - to the rest of the Felines of Oerth, the Equines were large, dumb beasts, only barely intelligent enough to understand normal conversation and handle ordinary tasks. L'Valin would be roundly ridiculed by any cat who heard the tale.

Yet, she knew in her heart she loved him, just the same.

L'Valin lifted her head, looking to the black stallion. He gazed back at her, his dark eyes again filled with that inestimable sadness, that sadness that seemed, somehow, to encompass all sorrows, even her own. Quietly, he reached to his side, picking up the woven cloth he had made, and then gently reached out to her.

He began by passing the cloth behind her head, placing the middle behind her neck. L'Valin felt the cloth against the fur of the back of her neck, and was surprised - she had thought it would be rough and abrasive, but it was not. It was, in fact, more like burlap - coarse and strong, but not abrasive. The stallion then gently crossed it before her, tying a knot between her limp, wasted breasts, and gently bringing it around her back to tie another knot behind her, the cloth cradling and supporting her breasts gently. His touch was caring, soft, and gentle, and L'Valin was both thrilled and moved by it.

He then brought the cloth down to her lower back, and tied another knot. Gently, he brought one end up and between her legs, covering her scarred sex softly, and took the other end and wrapped it around her waist several times. He then tied the two ends together in the front, where they draped down between her legs. Reaching behind her, he gently pulled her tail through a small slit in the part of the cloth that ran between her buttocks. When he was done, he sat back, looking her over.

"Mew... You've dressed me like a mare... One of your people," L'Valin said, looking herself over. Indeed, the stallion had done just that - the garment L'Valin wore was identical to the traditional garments of the horse-slaves, save that it was far more coarse, obviously made by one who was not as skilled as their usual weavers, and one without the supplies of carefully softened, stone-pounded grasses they used in making their garments.

The stallion nodded, then held his fore-hooves up in a helpless gesture, pointing to her and the river, and finally giving up with a sigh.

"Mew... You're trying to tell me you don't know how to make any other clothes, but you couldn't let me keep wearing my flea-ridden dress," L'Valin guessed.

The stallion smiled and nodded.

L'Valin leaned in to the stallion, reaching up with her paws, and nuzzled him quietly, rubbing the scent-glands beneath her eyes into his muzzle over and over while she purred quietly. Finally, she paused, then began delicately lapping at the scratches she'd made across his left jaw. L'Valin was weak as a kitten - her claws, even driven by rage, had merely given him four deep scratches, rather than flaying his skin. Still, she regretted them deeply - she truly had not meant to hurt him. She was simply angry.

Finally, L'Valin sat back, and looked the stallion over again. He was enormous, even by the standards of the horses. A typical mare stood about seven feet tall, and weighed about two hundred and fifty pounds. A typical stallion stood about seven and a half feet tall, and weighed about three hundred and fifty pounds. The black stallion, however, was far larger than that. Easily over eight feet, L'Valin estimated him to be about eight and a half feet tall, and weighing nearly six hundred pounds. He was, quite literally, a mountain of muscle and bone, bred for power. L'Valin guessed that the lumber-clan who originally owned him had been breeding their population of horse-slaves for size and strength for centuries. She struggled to remember, her feeble, shattered will flickering in her mind. After a long moment, she recalled. "Mrr... Clan D'Kirr... You once belonged to Clan D'Kirr," she said, and smiled as he nodded. "Mrr... They bred you for size and strength, to work the lumber... I can't remember the name of your breed, now, though."

The stallion shrugged. If he knew the name himself, it mattered little, since he could not speak. Instead, he simply moved over to the nearby tree, gesturing for L'Valin to follow. When she moved beside him, he lay down quietly, lifting his arm invitingly. L'Valin purred - the stallion thrilled her immeasurably - and lay down beside him. The stallion turned her so she was facing away from him, then tucked her bony back into himself, wrapping his arm around her. L'Valin curled into a tight little ball, as was her nature, and the stallion shifted his arm to hold her tightly curled against him.

"Mew... I love you..." she whispered quietly, watching the sun slowly set in the west, the waters of the nearby stream quietly babbling as the stars came out, one by one.

The stallion said nothing, of course. He simply tucked his free arm beneath his head, and also gazed at the setting sun. Though L'Valin could not see it, his expression was very distant, and very sad.

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