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

JIM FARRIS

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Nineteen.



L'Valin looked to the black stallion again as they walked along the rolling plains, and after a long moment, she sighed. She desperately wished there was some way to talk to him, to ask him what was wrong... But it was impossible.



The stallion had been nervous all day, since dawn. He had nickered nervously, had eaten only very lightly (for him), and his dark eyes scanned the horizon constantly, his ears pricked and nose twitching. Something had him upset - though, for the life of her, L'Valin had no idea what it might be.



L'Valin's senses, while not the same as those of the stallion, were no less keen. Where the stallion's ears could pick out soft sounds at a greater distance, L'Valin's could hear sounds of pitches beyond those the stallion could hear. Her sense of smell was nearly equal to his, and her eyes were far superior at night. Seeing the stallion was on alert for something, though L'Valin knew not what, prompted L'Valin to be equally observant - or as observant as she could be.



Once, before the Shazad's torturer had his way with her, L'Valin's senses were backed with the power of a highly trained mind, keenly skilled in the art of observation, with that mind harnessed by a titanic will. Now, her will was weak - though the strength of her will gradually was improving day by day as she used it again, mirroring the slow improvement she could see and feel in the strength of her body as she walked endless leagues by the stallion's side.



A year ago, L'Valin's mind was razor sharp, and nothing would have escaped her observation, from the simplest scents in the air to the smallest bend of a blade of grass. Now, L'Valin often found her mind wandering as her will ebbed, and it was an enormous effort to focus her will again and drag her mind back to the task of remaining observant.



And it was obvious she would have to remain observant. Something had the stallion on edge, and she couldn't simply ask him what it was. She would have to simply keep watch along with him as they traveled, and hope that she might spot any danger that lay before them.



As they paused to rest at noon, L'valin and the stallion both kept close watch around them as they ate. The stallion had gathered only three eggs today - bird's nests were few and far between in the plains, and yesterday L'Valin had to make do with a pawful of worms and beetles he had dug from the earth. She had nearly retched - but it was all there was that day. L'Valin ate the three eggs she had now quietly, crunching the unhatched chicks into bloody pulps with careful chewing, relishing their flavor. She glanced at the stallion's face, but somehow this didn't seem to bother the stallion, today. He was simply too nervous to notice the tiny mental death-screams of the unhatched chicks, instead scanning the horizon furtively with his eyes as he ate.



Suddenly, the stallion's eye caught something on the horizon. His ears pricked up, and he snorted meaningfully. L'Valin looked - a cloud of dust had formed to the south, low to the ground... An enormous cloud, stretching for leagues.



L'Valin perked up her ears, and listened carefully. Faintly, she could hear a sound... A sound unlike anything she had heard before in her life. It was a distant rumble.



"Mrowr! What is that?" L'Valin wondered aloud.



The stallion shrugged helplessly - he knew, but had no way to tell her. The stallion pushed himself to his feet, then stood, looking.



L'Valin finished washing her face, then rose to look. The cloud of dust loomed larger, stretching across the horizon, and coming nearer. The rumbling sound became more clear, and was interspersed with a metallic clinking and rattling. L'Valin focused her will, harnessing her mind to the task of observation, and in an instant, it came to her.



"Mrowr! It's an army! An army approaches us!"



The stallion simply nodded.



"Mrowrrrrr... We can't escape them - we're right in their path, and they're nearly a league wide. They'll be able to see us once they come over that ridge..." L'Valin said, then looked to the stallion. "Miao... Lift me up, and carry me. We'll try the story I thought of. With luck, it will work."



The stallion nodded, shouldering his pack, then lifting L'Valin's thin body effortlessly in his massive arms and cradling her like a child. L'Valin felt the his muscles ripple beneath his ebon pelt as he shuddered nervously. L'Valin smiled, and nuzzled him reassuringly. "Mrr... Don't worry. I'll do everything I can to protect you. I love you... More than anything."



The stallion simply nodded, and began trudging towards the rapidly approaching army. L'Valin heard his quiet sigh, and was saddened. There was no other choice. He was simply too musclebound to run, and the rolling plains they were in at the moment offered no place for them to hide. L'Valin could only hope that the story she came up with would convince whoever was in charge of the approaching army to allow them to pass unharmed. She ran over her story again in her mind... It seemed it would work - it had the ring of believability, and explained their presence here, her current condition, and her current clothing. It was an adept lie... But could she pull it off?



'A real Mentalt could do it,' L'Valin thought quietly. "I could have done it a year ago, easily... But now?'



L'Valin steeled herself as the first riders came over the ridge. 'Never doubt yourself,' her trainers had told her. 'Doubt the facts, doubt the words of others, but never doubt yourself. Lack of confidence blunts the will, and the will is all.' L'Valin summoned up her will, and banished her doubts with an effort. She would succeed. They would go on and escape to the lands of the mus, where the Black Stallion would be free...



'And from there, we will see,' L'Valin thought, a small flicker of hope in her heart, a hope that she might finally find happiness, and that the stallion might love her in return.
   

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