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

JIM FARRIS

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Twenty-Four.



R'Narr snarled as he watched the enemy ranks recoil and withdraw, kneeing his mount to tell it to back up. It had been a lovely little battle - fought beside a small village between two hills, the fighting close and vicious. The enemy had struggled mightily to penetrate the ranks of his troops and kill him, as R'Narr led his troops from close to the front ranks, but their efforts were in vain - none of the enemy warriors came within sword's reach. Yes, he still had the Shazad's troops hopelessly outnumbered, and the victory was an easy one. The main body of the Shazad's army remained elsewhere. 'Another ruse,' he thought, then turned to his musicians, mounted on their birds behind him. "Fsst! Sound 'Halt and Regroup!'"



The band leader nodded, and began signaling the musicians in his charge. In a moment, the strains of 'Halt and Regroup' sounded over the battlefield, the low rumbling drums and blaring of trumpets eventually bringing R'Narr's army to a halt. As the music died, R'Narr spotted R'Marith riding from the ranks towards him. "Mrowrrrr! Another simple victory, General!" the gray tom called, grinning.



R'Narr nodded, then spat. "Fsst! Yes, it was. The Shazad toys with us, R'Marith. Soon, our warriors will have grown used to easy victories against him - and he will spring his trap," R'Narr replied, then turned to his musicians. "Fsst! Sound 'Officers Assemble'!" he snarled, then turned to ride a short distance away, behind the musicians, where the thunder of their music wouldn't make his ears ring.



R'Marith followed, his grin having vanished. As the other clan-leaders separated themselves from their troops and ride to join R'Narr behind the musicians, R'Marith spoke again. "Mrow? A trap, General? How so?"



R'Narr held up a paw for silence, and waited. When the other clan-leaders and mercenary captains who followed him on his rebel cause had finally arrived, he spoke. "Mrowwwwrrr... R'Marith, all this is a ruse. We know the Shazad has about as many troops as we do - or had, at the beginning of this war. Now, he spends them in pointless holding actions, one battalion at a time, slowly leading us west. It's a trick, my friends," R'Narr said, looking over the two-dozen clan-lords and nine mercenary captains gathered around him. "Mrr... He means to weaken us, by having our warriors get used to easy victories. Then, once we have been led to wherever it is he is trying to lead us, he will spring his trap and crush us."



D'Lang, one of the few western lords who had chosen to follow R'Narr's rebel banner, nodded in understanding. "Mrr... Such were his father's tactics, Lord R'Narr - it is not surprising he would use the same trick. We will have to keep both morale and discipline very high, or the Shazad will win," the smoke-gray tom replied, pulling off his helmet and panting for a moment. D'Lang's troops had been in the thick of the fray, and the day was warm.



"Miao... Where do you think he means to lead us, General?" D'Lasil asked. The silver tabby was one of the mercenary captains, but he was one of the better ones. R'Narr's gold had been wisely spent, buying only those mercenaries who had the best reputations he could find.



R'Narr stroked his whiskers for a moment, considering the question. "Mrr... He appears to intend to lead us out onto Sezawa Plains, but it's difficult to say. He may make a stand there, where our forces will be on even ground, but I doubt it. Certainly I wouldn't, if I rode in his saddle," R'Narr said, and paused, thinking again. R'Narr deeply wished he had his mate's ability to seemingly see into the minds of others - but, he did not. D'Zhin's plan escaped him, for the moment, and that worried him.



'Wait... Perhaps I do have a way...' he thought, his eyes glancing at the village in the distance to the north, and smiled briefly. "Mrr... D'Lasil, send your troops into the village - loot at pleasure, and gather what food and bird-fodder you may find for our army to use, but bring all of their horse-slaves, alive and unharmed."



"Mrow? You don't wish us to simply point them eastwards and let them all go, General, as we've done before?"



"Mrr... Not this time. Bring them all to me."



D'Lasil shrugged, then bowed in the saddle. "Miao... It shall be as you command, General," he replied, then turned to ride towards his troops.



R'Narr turned to the rest of his officers, and jerked a thumb to the hill behind him. "Mrr... As for the rest of you, we'll make camp on that hill. Set up the usual defenses, and make sure your troops have plenty of rest. D'Lang is right - morale and discipline are critical at this point, so see to both."



At the chorus of agreement, R'Narr turned and rode towards the hill. It was a gamble, and it might not pay off - but R'Narr was willing to take that risk.



* * *



Four hours later, the smoke from the burning village hanging heavily in the air, R'Narr looked to two dozen horses that stood before him outside his pavilion. D'Lasil had followed his orders, and to the letter - all the horses were alive and unharmed. Captain D'Lasil watched over them to make sure none escaped, but none of them made the slightest move to do so. Instead, their eyes were all on R'Narr, waiting.



"Mrowrrr... I need a volunteer from among you, to run east with a message." R'Narr called.



The horses made no move, simply standing there mutely.



'I know you can hear me,' R'Narr thought quietly, gazing upon them with his arms crossed. 'And I know you probably already know what I really want, having read my thoughts. I only need one of you - the one who can hear thoughts at the greatest distance. The rest of you may go, and head east, towards the lands of the mus.'



Several of the horses whinnied nervously, and R'Narr smiled. L'Sala had been right, as usual - they really could hear his thoughts. Yet, at the same time, the fur on the back of his neck and tail fluffed out. The thought was truly chilling - they knew what you were thinking. You had no secrets from them. Your most personal thoughts and desires were laid bare to their casual glance. R'Narr steeled himself, and looked at them again. 'Yes, I know your secret - but I'm not about to tell anyone. Now, quickly - which of you can do the task I need done?'



There was a pause as the horses gazed briefly at one another, and R'Narr realized they were discussing it with each other, with their minds - and, at the same time, each and every one of them was probably quietly probing his mind, searching out his thoughts, his true wishes. Before L'Sala had told him their secret, R'Narr would have assumed they were simply standing there, gazing quietly and stupidly at each other. Now, he knew better.



And the knowledge still chilled him.



The fact that these alien beings, seemingly harmless and pacifistic, had in truth been secretly reading the innermost thoughts of his people for centuries... And all the while, the cats used them as though they were nothing. What secrets had they stolen, these strange, sometimes beautiful creatures? What knowledge did they have hidden behind the mask of stupidity they wore before their masters, the cats? And, worse... What might they do with that knowledge, someday? R'Narr suppressed a shudder.



After a long moment, a dun mare stepped forth. Lifting a fore-hoof, she brushed aside her mane, revealing a painted, symbolic eye on her forehead. R'Narr had seen the symbol before - about one in ten mares had it. He had no idea what it meant, and before L'Sala had told him the secret of the horses, he had always just assumed it was a mark of special beauty among this mute and simple-minded people. Now, he knew better - they may have been mute, but they were far from simple-minded. After a moment, he realized the eye probably symbolized something else... Something more important... Perhaps even sinister. The mare whinnied, and tapped her chest.



R'Narr nodded, and looked to D'Lasil. "Mrr... Captain, send the rest of these horses on their way east - all but this mare, here," R'Narr ordered, and pointed. "Mrr... That one, give her a pack full of djuducu-fodder, two skins of water, and after I've given her the scroll I wish her to carry, send her west." R'Narr didn't mention the scroll would be nothing, of course, simply blank parchment. The mare's mission would be completely different - but only he and she would know.



D'Lasil blinked. "Mrr... May I ask what you have in mind, General?"



R'Narr shrugged, keeping his face even. "Miao... My mate, as you know, is a former Mentalt. She recommended this plan weeks ago, based on some esoteric Mentation of hers I can't even begin to understand or explain. Just do it, D'Lasil," R'Narr lied smoothly.



"Miao... As you command, General," D'Lasil replied, then paused. "Miao... General, before we release these horses, may I make a small request?"



"Mrr? What?"



"Miao... My warriors have been without... Female companionship for awhile now. If I'm to keep morale high, as you command, the simplest method would be to satisfy them in this regard. Before we release these horses, I'd like to turn the mares over to my warriors to be used for awhile."



R'Narr opened his muzzle to agree, then paused.



A year ago, he'd have agreed without a second thought. Keeping his mercenary troops happy this way was a brilliant move on D'Lasil's part, and showed why he was one of the most successful mercenary leaders in the lands. More, a year ago, R'Narr believed, like most cats, that the horse-slaves were sub-intelligent, and beneath consideration. To a cat, they were nothing - less than nothing, really, since they submitted to their servitude with rarely a moment's resistance. Some of them had bodies that were quite beautiful by the standards of the cats (if one could ignore the differences in head, hoof and tail), and they all submitted quietly, some with seeming willingness. Yes, a year ago, R'Narr wouldn't have considered it rape - R'Narr had even had a mare himself, once, when he was twenty-eight and bored one evening on a campaign in the west. Mares always submitted quietly, often with merely a single word. Now, he knew why - but he couldn't act as though he knew.



R'Narr looked to the horses as the mares whinnied nervously. 'I'm sorry - I've little choice. Select from among your number those who may be able to stand it, sparing the youngest and oldest. Do it now, or I'll be forced to simply agree and send you all to him,' he thought quietly, then spoke. "Mrr... Those of you willing to comply, step forth." After a long moment, six mares stepped forth from the small herd, nickering nervously. R'Narr looked to D'Lasil. "Mrr... These six, D'Lasil. Spread them carefully among your troops, rewarding those you deem worthy. Tell them that if they continue to do well, we will see about providing similar rewards like this more often, and to more of them. They have until sunset with them - but there is one condition, Captain."



"Mrow? What, General?"



"Mrr... I want none of them scratched by your warrior's claws in the throes of passion, D'Lasil. Tell your warriors that if a single drop of blood is shed from any of them, that will be the last they will see of such rewards for the duration of this campaign."



D'Lasil raised a furry eyebrow curiously, but nodded. "Miao... As you wish, General."



R'Narr looked to the dun mare with the painted eye on her forehead, crossing his arms again. 'That is all I can do, without revealing what I know of your secret,' he thought quietly.



The dun mare nodded to R'Narr, then all the horses bowed to him quietly. D'Lasil raised an eyebrow again before taking the six mares away, but made no comment.



R'Narr sighed quietly. For a brief moment, he wished for ignorance. For a brief moment, he wished L'Sala had never told him the secret of the horse-slaves. They were no simple-minded creatures who willingly and sometimes seemingly happily submitted, they were just as intelligent as he was, and only submitted because resistance would mean inflicting pain, and each pain they inflicted, they felt themselves. Yet, he had no other choice - D'Lasil's request wasn't unreasonable, from the perspective of an ordinary cat.



R'Narr looked to the dun mare again. He had originally agreed to The Slayer's request to free the horses simply because it was an expedient way to come to a truce-agreement. Later, when L'Sala told him of their secret, he had been glad he'd agreed. The thought that these people had been peering into the minds of the cats for centuries, the thought that one had no secrets from them, chilled him to the bone - and still did, even now. Yet, now, as he looked at the calm, yet saddened expression on the face of the dun mare, R'narr could see a third reason to free them.



It was just.



These people were no mere pacifist, sub-intelligent servant-race, to be used and manipulated at whim. Yet, at the same time, they were no sinister thought-thieves, either. As R'Narr gazed at the mare's face, it dawned on him that they were, in the end, a simple, primitive, yet noble people. They submitted because they had no other choice - yet, even after centuries of slavery, they still held their heads high. To a cat, this was a sign of strength, not weakness. They deserved far better - and R'Narr knew they would never receive such in the lands of the cats.



'If I win, this all comes to an end. All your people will be sent on to the east, to the lands of the mus. Help me,' he thought, looking into the mare's eyes.



The dun mare nodded quietly in reply, then sat on the grass. As one, the herd behind her sat, to wait for the sunset and the return of the six mares. R'Narr turned his back on her, his heart a strange mixture of pity and loathing, and entered his pavilion.
   

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