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


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"Mrowrrr... Is this what you wanted?" the driver asked, holding out a small wooden brush of boar's bristles.

"Miao... Yes, thank you," L'Valin replied coolly, taking the brush from the driver and turning her back on him. A moment later, she sat behind the stallion, a few paces away. The mercenary shrugged, then turned back to his original task of unloading supplies from the wagon. Now that they had finally arrived at the castle, several items had to be unloaded and distributed, and there was much to do. The task was too important, the driver thought, to trust to a stupid horse, so he did it himself.

L'Valin gently brushed the stallion's mane as he sat before her, grazing quietly on the grass nearby. She could hear the sounds of the beginning battle - four hundred paces away, the first bow-shots were only now being exchanged. Yet, she cared little, and did not look up. Unless by some miracle the defenders magically crushed all the warriors of T'Zama T'Mrr's army, she and the stallion would still be stuck here, unable to leave. The stallion ate quietly, unaffected by the dying going on at the front lines. L'Valin knew the range of his mind was only a bit over a hundred paces or so, at most - he could not sense the deaths of the warriors in the front ranks from here in the rear of the army. Still, after a few minutes, a gentle breeze brought the smell of blood and death, and he paused, wrinkling his nose. He finished the clump of grass he'd just pulled up with his fore-hoof, then simply sat there, and ate no more.

The caber-teams jogged by, twenty cats carrying ten long poles, two on each. L'Valin knew as they neared the castle, the bulky toms would stop, tilt the cabers vertically, and begin their assault on the moat. Yet, she found she cared not at all whether they succeeded, or whether they died. All she could think of was the stallion before her, and the simple act of brushing the tangles and bits of grass from his long, soft, ebon mane.

Thus, the battle raged, and L'Valin ignored it, her mind focusing on the quiet task of brushing the stallion. Touching him, smelling his nearness, feeling the powerful muscles beneath his pelt... She loved him deeply, and it calmed her to know he was safe and well. After a long moment, she found her mind quite naturally slipping into a meditative state, and a sense of deep calm filled her. L'Valin finished working on the stallion's mane, and began stroking the brush over the pelt of his back and shoulders. The stallion nickered quietly - the gentle scratching of the boar-bristle brush was very pleasant. As L'Valin worked, she found herself quietly humming her old mantra. Slowly, her fears and worries ebbed and vanished, leaving only her will.

'We must escape,' she thought to the stallion.

The stallion nodded quietly.

L'Valin paused, and realized her mind was in the quiescent state of a proper Mentalt. She stopped brushing the stallion, and simply rested her paws in her lap while closing her eyes. Slowly, she began to apply her will to the problem, recounting every scrap of information she had.

She recalled rumors she had heard on the street - rumors that R'Narr V'Nass was attempting to ally with the mus. She recalled R'Zin's ready agreement that the defenders of the castle may, indeed, have a trick up their sleeves. She recalled hearing that R'Narr had slain D'Larin T'Mrr in a duel last year...

Then, suddenly, L'Valin recalled something of such astounding importance, she gasped.

'L'Sala...' she thought silently, her wide, staring eyes fixed upon the castle in the distance.

Word on the streets of Raldad had it that R'Narr V'Nass had taken a Mentalt as his mate - L'Sala T'Masa. This, of course, was forbidden to a Mentalt, and L'Sala had been publicly ostracized by the nuns of T'Masa Keep. L'Valin had heard all this in passing months ago, but with her mind fogged on catnip, she simply hadn't cared. Now, she did care - for suddenly, she could see what was happening from all the hundreds of unrelated scraps of information she had in her memory, her true Mentalt's powers having reawakened.

R'Narr had slain T'Zama's son - she was almost certainly furious, humiliated, and strongly desiring revenge. Now, R'Narr was off fighting the Shazad, seeking to wrest the throne from him. It was the perfect moment to do so - the mus apparently were willing to agree to a truce with R'Narr while they waited to see the outcome of this civil war, freeing up the maximum amount of troops for R'Narr to use. However, that meant he had the minimum possible troops defending his castle.

It was obvious to L'Valin, now - T'Zama intended to take advantage of R'Narr's absence, capture his castle, loot it, burn it, and kill R'Narr's mate in revenge. If R'Narr won, it was suicidal - he would simply turn his army and the army of his allies against her, and destroy her. If he lost, however, it would gain T'Zama great prestige in the eyes of the Shazad to have at least struck back and destroyed R'Narr's castle, giving the rebel no place to flee to should he somehow manage to escape.

Yet, T'Zama T'Mrr wasn't merely up against R'Narr's seneschal (whoever that may be) and whatever pawful of troops he may have left behind to defend his castle, she was also up against the mind of a mentalt - L'Sala.

L'Valin considered the situation from L'Sala's point of view. Almost certainly, she had seen the attack coming - perhaps months ago. Logically, there were no other clans she could call upon to help defend against T'Zama's army - all those who supported R'Narr would be with him, fighting the Shazad. She would have to have turned to some other source for help. And, there seemed only one possible source she would try to call upon:

The mus.

A message requesting help had probably been sent days ago, when T'Zama's arrival became inevitable. Now, L'Sala would simply be waiting for help to come, hoping the mus would decide to help at all.

'That is their 'trick', their secret,' L'Valin realized. 'Help may be coming - and, with luck, it will arrive far sooner than R'Narr's forces ever would. If R'Zin knew this, he would deploy his forces differently, and prepare his army both to take the castle, and to defend against a possible relief force of mus. He would build ramparts and palisades. He would dig ditches. He would build his defenses so that even overwhelming numbers would not easily destroy him. He may, perhaps, be planning to do so before R'Narr's warriors arrive, but he believes he has months to go before this becomes necessary - and a relief force of Mus just might arrive far sooner than he expects.' L'Valin paused as the full implications of her Mentation occurred to her. 'I could barter with this knowledge... Perhaps obtain our freedom in exchange for it...'

The stallion shifted, turning to look at L'Valin as she considered the thought. Yet, finally, L'Valin shook her head. 'No... I couldn't do that. L'Sala is my sister-Mentalt. I couldn't betray her like that. No, if anything, I should try to help her, somehow...'

The stallion nodded, and to L'Valin's surprise, smiled approvingly.

L'Sala looked down to her lap, staring at the brush in her paws. 'And more... I am a true Mentalt again,' she thought, then looked up to the stallion. 'But only through you. My love for you... Brushing you, touching you... It calms me, it makes me happy and secure, and allows me to control my fears. My will is still weak, but with my emotions calmed by touching you, it is strong enough to allow me to mentate with ease.'

The stallion nodded, understanding. After a moment, he smiled briefly, then turned to sit facing away from her again, reaching behind him with a fore-hoof to pat his mane.

L'valin smiled. 'Yes, I will brush you some more. And I will mentate more. And, with luck, I will find a way for us to escape this situation, and be free,' L'Valin thought to his broad, muscular back, then raised the brush again. After a few moments, she found she was again quietly humming her old meditation mantra. L'Valin heard the sounds of the battle ending, and the cries of the wounded and dying - and again did not care. She had now found a way to awaken the full extent of her old mental powers, and perhaps discover a way to escape. She didn't know how much time she might have with the stallion before T'Zama, D'Main or R'Zin called her away, and she was not about to waste a single moment of their time together.

L'Valin was distantly aware of the passage of time, and the slow drop of the sun to the east. Sounds and impressions of the environment around her were quietly recorded by her mind, yet did not distract from her concentration. Mercenaries engaging in quiet conversations nearby. The movement of the warriors in making camp for the evening. The distant chopping sounds of the woodcutters, already at work on the nearby woods - obviously to build the first siege engines. All of this and more L'Valin sensed, and yet her concentration remained unbroken. Slowly, a true plan began to coalesce in her mind. Yes, it was possible... They could escape... If certain things happened in just the right way, and she was prepared to move upon these events, they could escape, and flee to the lands of the mus. And then...

L'Valin paused, her will flagging as she tired from the effort. Doubts began to creep in at the edges of her thought. Gently, she stroked her fingers over the hard muscles of the black stallion's back... But could find no comfort in the touch. She knew not what might happen if they managed to escape to the lands of the mus, because she knew not the answer to one, very important question...

Did he love her?

She didn't know - and not knowing slowly crumbled her will, until her mind filled with worry and doubt, and she could mentate no more.

The stallion obviously sensed her thoughts, as at that moment, he slowly turned where he sat until he was facing her. L'Valin looked into his dark eyes, and saw he again had that sad expression, an expression of sadness that encompassed all miseries, even her own. She didn't speak aloud, as she didn't wish her words to be overheard by the wagon-driver, who even now worked nearby to light a small fire for his dinner. Instead, L'Valin simply thought to the stallion, knowing he would hear. 'I so wish you could talk to me,' she thought, looking into his eyes.

The black stallion simply sighed, his expression one of helplessness, and frustration.

'I... I love you. I love you more than life itself. Yet... I do not even know your name,' L'Valin thought to him, then paused. 'You do have a name, yes? I mean... You horses do have names you use with each other?'

The black stallion nickered quietly in amusement, then nodded.

L'Valin sighed quietly. 'If only you could tell me what it is,' she thought, looking down to her lap. 'If only... If only you could tell me if you loved me back.'

The stallion sighed, and sat quietly for a moment, gazing at L'Valin as she looked sadly at her paws. Suddenly he snorted, then reached out with his fore-hooves, placing one to each side of L'Valin's head, lifting her face to look into her slitted, sapphire eyes. His expression was fierce, intense... L'Valin had never seen this look on his face before, and her mind was startled into quiescence, waiting to see what would happen.

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