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


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The black stallion looked up wearily at the sound of approaching footsteps between the trees. His eyes were not like those of the cats - his night-vision was pitiful compared to theirs, and the sky tonight was dark and overcast with forbidding, rumbling storm-clouds. Yet, the small campfires scattered hither and yon in the forest of the thousands of warriors in the army provided enough just enough light for him to see in the gloom. The stallion's eyes narrowed. It was L'Valin. The stallion snorted weakly in disgust, then lifted the small feed-bag he'd been given again, stuffing his muzzle into it and trying to get the last of the meager amount of grain he'd been given.

L'Valin struggled to keep her emotions in check, focusing her will and suppressing the quiet sob she felt in her chest as she saw how exhausted the stallion looked. Instead, she simply turned to the wagon-driver, who also was acting as a guard to prevent the stallion's escape, and gave him the cool, detached gaze of a proper Mentalt. "Mrr... Driver, my horse looks completely exhausted. What have you been doing with him these last two days?"

The wagon driver, a brown mittened tom with green eyes, looked up from the fire over which his dinner was cooking, and shrugged. "Miao... He eats enough for four birds, I work him enough for four birds. He's strong enough to pull the wagon by himself, so I sent all four birds I had to be used by General R'Zin, and just hitched him up."

L'Valin gazed at the driver, trying to read him, focusing her will to the task of observation. Subtle clues in his expression and tone of voice stood out to her Mentalt training as the tell-tale marks of deceit. L'Valin focused her mind, mentating on the possibilities that sprang into existence once one considered his words to be a lie. She knew he was one of the mercenaries hired for this army - that could be told simply by his livery. After a long moment, L'Valin understood. Quietly, she shook her head. "Miao... You are not feeding him the fodder of four birds, driver. No, I'll wager you've sent on what fodder you had for two of your birds, to be split among the riders of the four you once had, are feeding him one part of rations, and keeping another part for yourself, to sell once this is all over - along with whatever else you've managed to steal and hide away from that wagon you've been charged with."

The driver snarled, rising to his feet and drawing a knife. "Fsst! Are you calling me a thief?!"

L'Valin controlled her sudden terror at the sight of the gleaming knife with a monumental effort of will. Lifting her eyes from his paw, L'Valin gazed calmly into his eyes, her expression not betraying the rapid pounding of her heart. "Miao... No, not quite. You steal from your employer, mercenary, and if Lady T'Zama finds out, she'll have you drawn and quartered. You draw a knife on me, knowing that you cannot kill me - I would be missed, and since several others saw me go here and are watching you even now from the nearby campfires, there would be witnesses should you kill me. No, driver. I am not calling you a thief. I am calling you an idiot."

The driver snarled again, his fur fluffing out, and glared at L'Valin, trying to dominate her. The Mentalt-witch had somehow found out, and she could not be allowed to speak. Yet, as he focused his will on her, he saw no change in her expression. She simply gazed quietly at him. More, she was right - even now he could feel the eyes of at least a dozen others scattered among the trees, watching the confrontation. Should he kill her, they could simply report the death. They might even be given a reward for turning him in to R'Zin or Lady T'Mrr. A mercenary's pay was never really enough, and a wise mercenary always looked to pad his pouch with an extra coin here or there...

Finally, the driver sheathed his knife, and looked away. "Fsst! Alright... What now, witch?" he snapped, crossing his arms.

"Miao... You will feed him the extra rations you have stolen, and I will say nothing about whatever else you have stolen. You will also allow more time for him to graze adequately from whatever grass there may be around. So long as he is well-cared for, it matters nothing to me what you do."

The driver's head snapped back to L'Valin, and he regarded her with an expression of surprise, then the narrowed eyes of suspicion. "Mrow? You care nothing for..." the driver asked, his voice trailing off as he jerked his chin to the wagon. It would not do to publicly admit the truth - there were too many ears nearby.

"Miao... No, nothing. My only concern is for him. He will be well-cared for, or I will simply tell Lady T'Mrr what I know," L'Valin replied. 'Or, more correctly, what I have guessed based on your reactions - and I now believe you've stolen quite a bit,' she thought, gazing quietly at the driver.

The driver nodded. "Mrr... Then we have an understanding."

L'Valin nodded, struggling to keep her will focused and her emotions in check. Already she could feel her knees trying to tremble from fading adrenalin - and she could not allow that. With great effort, she turned and stepped past the driver, walking over to the stallion and sitting smoothly before him. L'Valin flicked her tail along her leg, so that it might not tremble and betray her fear. The driver slowly sat at his campfire again, his tail flicking with irritation, and turned his back to her. Seeing that, L'Valin looked down to her lap and finally allowed her will to relax, her body giving in to an uncontrolled shudder of fear and fading adrenalin that lasted many moments.

When L'Valin finally had calmed down, she looked up to the stallion. He wasn't yoked or hobbled, but it was obvious from even a casual glance that he wouldn't try to escape - he was completely exhausted. He didn't eat with his fore-hooves, as L'Valin might expect, but instead simply pushed the feed bag up onto his muzzle, trying to rasp up the last of the fodder with his tongue. 'Can you hear me, my love?' L'Valin thought quietly, looking at him.

The stallion looked to her briefly over the top of the feed bag, and nodded. After a moment, he set the feed-bag down, and sighed.

'You're still hungry, I take it... Don't stop on my account, go ahead and eat,' L'Valin thought to him.

The stallion simply shook his head.

'Why not? What's the matter?'

The stallion reached to his side, to the soft grass that the two of them sat upon. He tried to curl his fore-hoof, which was really like a thick finger, about a clump of grass, but the same years of work that had thickened the muscles of his forearms to the girth of small tree-trunks also had cost him any real flexibility he may have had with his fore-hooves - he could not curl his fore-hoof tight enough to grasp the grass. He then placed a trembling fore-hoof atop the grass, then lifted it away. Holding the bare frog of his fore-hoof up to L'Valin, he sighed tiredly. He pointed to the wagon nearby, curling his arms as though holding the wagon's tongue, then sat back, his fore-hooves in his lap.

'He... He's tired,' L'Valin realized. 'Too tired to focus his will to grasp and lift with his fore-hooves, and too musclebound to gasp the grass otherwise.'

The stallion nodded.

'I am tired, too, my love,' she thought to him, and scooted in closer. L'Valin lifted the feed bag, which only had a few pawfuls of grain remaining inside, and set it in her lap. 'Lady T'Mrr has spent the last two days testing me... She has Lord R'Zin present various situations and possible ways of taking the castle, and I am to analyze and find whatever flaws there may be in each. Some are simple traps for me, to see if I can be of any use to them at all. Others are actual scenarios R'Zin is considering. I have to focus my will, and see from the subtle signs of his face, voice and body which are which. For those that are actual plans, I must Mentate further, trying to see the solution that will satisfy R'Zin... T'Zama T'Mrr knows nothing of war, and relies on his opinion completely for everything. I, unfortunately, know even less, and must guess at the answers he wants to hear, based on the subtle cues I read in his eyes, the twitch of his whiskers, his voice... So far, I have managed to keep them happy - but it is an enormous effort to keep my mind focused... So, indeed, I am tired, as well.' L'Valin reached inside the bag with both paws, carefully scooping the grain up and holding it out to the stallion. 'Here, my love,' she thought. 'Just as you once fed me, I shall try to feed you.'

The stallion paused, then finally nodded, lowering his head. L'Valin smiled at the simple pleasure of feeding him, the soft, broad lips of his muzzle fluttering in her palms as he gently lapped up the last of the grain. The touch of his broad tongue on her palms thrilled her indescribably, and when the last of the grain was gone, he smiled at her briefly, which thrilled her even more. L'Valin set the bag aside, then began pulling up the grass nearby by the pawful. She couldn't do it quite as efficiently as he could - the roots did not come, only the green parts. Still, once she'd gathered a double pawful, she held it out to him, and again thrilled at the pleasure of his touch.

L'Valin kept this up for many minutes, feeding him carefully while he rested, until finally the stallion raised a fore-hoof - he'd had enough, for the moment. L'Valin nodded, then rose to her feet, stepping behind the stallion. Reaching to his shoulders, she began to try to massage his aching muscles. The stallion snorted briefly, then held still.

L'Valin looked to his face, and nearly wept. 'You are angry with me... Angry because I failed, and now you are enslaved again.'

The stallion nodded, and L'Valin had to struggle to keep from sobbing. 'I... I'm sorry. If my mind had been sharper, my will stronger, I might have noticed their initial reaction to my story... Or perhaps thought of a better one.'

The stallion shook off L'Valin's paws with a snort. Brushing away a few small stones, he lay down on the grass, one massive arm tucked beneath his head, and closed his eyes.

'I... They gave me a small tent and a blanket... But I don't want that. I want to sleep with you... But, I cannot.' she thought, looking at him.

The stallion lifted his head, looking back at L'Valin.

'I've been so lonely these last two nights... I want to sleep with you again, to feel your strong arms around me... But they are expecting to see a Mentalt, and I cannot.' L'Valin thought to him, on the verge of tears.

The stallion gazed at L'Valin for a long moment, his eyes again filled with that same, immeasurable sadness. Finally, the stallion sighed, and sat up. He opened his arms to her, and L'Valin knelt beside him, her heart pounding with joy, receiving a soft hug from the gentle giant. L'Valin hugged him back as hard as she could. After a long moment, the stallion released her, then waved a fore-hoof to shoo her away, back to her own tent. L'Valin nodded silently, understanding. 'I love you,' she thought to him as he lay back on the ground again. The stallion looked to her quietly for a long moment, then closed his eyes to sleep.

L'Valin turned to head back to her own tent, picking her way between the trees of the forest the army had camped in. As she looked to the other nearby campfires, and saw that the warriors nearby were watching. Word would get back to Lady T'Mrr, of course - but L'Valin found she didn't care. L'Valin was certain T'Zama T'Mrr already knew that L'Valin cared for the stallion - though how much, T'Zama probably didn't realize. T'Zama would continue to use the stallion as leverage against her, of course, and nothing she did would change that. At the same time, L'Valin couldn't pretend to have lost interest in him. No, she loved him too much to even try that, particularly since she knew there was a chance he may be hurt. His continued well-being depended on her... And how well she served T'Zama T'Mrr.

And L'Valin knew, deep in her heart, that sooner or later, T'Zama would realize L'Valin was no Mentalt at all - merely the shattered remnant of one.

There was no escape for them, at the moment. They were surrounded by an army of ten thousand - they couldn't simply slip away. If they tried, even if they somehow managed it, the stallion simply couldn't out-run a djuducu-bird. He was far too muscle-bound from years of heavy labor to even consider it. They would be caught - and again, the stallion may be hurt. Yet, somehow, they had to escape.

L'Valin finally found her own tent, and slipped inside quietly, covering herself up with the thin blanket she'd been given as she curled into a tight ball. She desperately wished to feel the stallion's strong chest pressed against her back again, his strong arm pulling her close to him... Yet, it could not be. She had to maintain the deception that she still was a true Mentalt as long as possible. It was, at the moment, their only hope.

'I'll find a way... Somehow, I will find a way for us to escape... Then, we can continue on to the lands of the mus, and freedom,' she thought silently, hoping the stallion might hear her thoughts, then closed her eyes.

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