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


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L'Valin could see Aijou was upset - that was obvious just from his eyes. He continued to glance off to the clear spot the execution had been carried out in, the grass stained with the drying blood of the dead quartermaster, and would occasionally shudder deeply. But more, he hadn't eaten at all, which was highly unusual for him. His enormous body required a proportionally enormous amount of food, yet he had not eaten at all. L'Valin sat with him near her tent, and gently bid him turn around to face her. L'Valin cleared her mind with a few moments' meditation, then took his fore-hoof in her paws. 'What's the matter?' she thought to him.

Aijou simply shook his head.

'Come, come... Something's bothering you - what is it?'

Aijou looked to L'Valin, and sighed. She saw his face screw up for a moment in concentration, and then heard the silent whisper of his mind's voice. *His death-scream... I have never been so... It was unbearable.*

L'Valin nodded in understanding. 'Well... We all heard him screaming... Though I suppose you mean something else, something you sensed with your mind. Still, there's nothing that can be done. Try to put it out of your mind,' she thought in reply.

Aijou snorted, an expression that looked to be a mix of disgust and anger on his face. *I cannot,* the tiny whisper in her mind replied.

'Why not? You're just hurting yourself to dwell on it. There's nothing you can do, and it's all over, anyway. Try to put it out of your mind.'

Aijou snorted again, and turned his back on her. L'Valin started to open her muzzle to apologize, but Aijou simply reached over his shoulder, patting his mane. "Ah. Alright," L'Valin said, and smiled, reaching inside her tent for the brush.

Aijou looked up to the blue sky above, and watched the clouds slowly sail by silently. Quietly, he reached out with his mind. *Naien...*

*Yes, my love?* came Naien's silent reply, his heart-bonded mate casting her thoughts across the leagues.

Aijou felt L'Valin's mind, but she did not hear his mind's voice, despite her touching him. Aijou breathed a silent sigh of relief. The cat still could only hear him if he screamed at her - and this was certainly a moment when he simply did not want her to hear. *They have murdered someone, Naien. It was... It was the most horrible thing.*

There was a long pause, then Naien's silent voice replied. *Amani says that it is war... And in war, many die, my love. She says that when she was with the mus last year, trying to help rescue the mice, many died in a large battle. The death-screams of many rang in her mind, and chilled her to the bone. Yet, she had to carry on, and try to help the healers of the mus treat the wounded.*

*This was different. It... It was different when they assaulted the moat. The cats who died were distant, beyond the range of my mind. This... This was close. And it was brutal. They tied the victim's limbs to four of their Great Birds, then...* Aijou shuddered quietly. *I had never seen such horror... Nor heard such a howl of agony. The horror of that death, the blood... The grass here is fouled by it... Perhaps forever. The she-cat, L'Valin, says I must put it out of my mind, and eat anyway... But I cannot put this out of my mind, Naien. If I could, I would be a cat, not a horse.*

*She... She is right, my love. This is one of the lessons our people must learn, if we are to live in peace with the carnivores.*

*What lesson? That torture and murder are good?!* Aijou silently snapped.

*No, my love... That blood does not foul the grass... It makes it grow. The mustelid, Ayori, took me to a spot in the forest at Amani's bidding. On that spot, the grass was darker green than the rest around it. It was easy to see that the grass he pointed at was full, dark, and would be delicious to the tongue... Ayori explained that over a year before, a bear had entered the woods. The mustelids killed it, as bears are as much their enemies as they are ours. They then butchered the carcass for meat. The blood and what little of the carcass they had no use for were left in that spot... Feces, gall bladder, pancreas... Discarded to rot. Now, a year later, the grass grows noticeably greener, there... Aijou, our people have for countless lifetimes believed that blood and death soils the grass, staining it. It does not.*

*What, are you saying that the best plants are those stained by death?!* Aijou asked, incredulous.

*No, my love. That is not what the mustelid taught me, and it is not what I am trying to teach you, as your mate, and as a seer of our clan. I am saying that the grass, and all plants, turn death... Into life.*

Aijou was silent for a long moment before he replied. *I... I need to think on this, Naien.*

*I understand. I needed time to think on it, as well. I will be here, listening for your call, if you need to speak more on this, my love,* Naien's quiet voice replied across the leagues, then she fell silent.

Aijou sat quietly, thinking, while L'Valin gently brushed his mane. Again he realized that it was no easy thing to shake the beliefs of a lifetime. In the beliefs of the horses, the violent death of another by predation, the tearing of a life from a living breast by a carnivore, was an unholy act. Carnivores themselves were deemed soulless creatures, beasts of evil and darkness who lived by devouring the lives of others. And yet...

And yet, there was L'Valin.

L'Valin was no creature of evil - that much was obvious to Aijou, now, after having sensed and searched her mind for over two months. She was different from a horse, yes. Her sense of morality, her feelings regarding what was right or wrong, good or evil, were completely different from his. She was, at times, as alien as the stars in the sky above, and repugnant to him. L'Valin had known her words to the she-cat, T'Zama T'Mrr, would lead to the death of another - and she didn't care. That callous disregard for the death of another, a death she indirectly caused, left Aijou sickened and disgusted with L'Valin. And yet...

And yet, her love was true. Aijou could feel her love for him, even now. It flared brightly in her mind each time she thought of him, and shone brightly now, a warm and powerful glow. There was no deceit, no falsehood, no ulterior motives behind her love. Her love was pure, gleaming, and brilliant as the sun. At times, it shamed him deeply to see it, for he knew he did not love her in return. Other times, he was not shamed, as he felt warmly for her in return. It wasn't love, Aijou told himself. No, it couldn't be, for L'Valin was simply far too alien for him to truly fall in love with. Yet, it was something like it, at any rate... A tenderness. A caring. A moment of softness. Aijou tried to convince himself it was merely common horse compassion... Yet, he knew that it was more than that. Yes, Aijou knew that the scrawny, thin little she-cat was growing on him, bit by bit.

Yes, for all that he believed carnivores to be evil, unholy creatures, there was L'Valin - a creature who could not truly be called 'evil', by the standards of the horses, though she could not truly be called 'good', either. Where Aijou had been horrified and sickened by the execution, L'Valin had merely shrugged and turned her back on it. L'Valin, simply hadn't cared - to her, the death was of little importance, and her callous disregard of the death she had indirectly caused disgusted Aijou. At the same time, L'Valin could feel and express a deep love and tenderness towards Aijou, and the slightest danger to him filled her mind with panic and dread - and those feelings often shamed him for their purity and truth.

Slowly, Aijou nodded in understanding. The world-view of the horses, handed down mind-to-mind, generation after generation for countless millennia, was, in the end, too simplistic. They were a stone-age people, a people who had never developed more sophisticated technologies simply because they had never needed them. The green grass beneath their hooves fed them endlessly, and clothed them. Rains and rivers cleansed them, sun and stars lit their way, and all their needs were met by the bounty of the bosom of Oerth. By the same token, they had never developed more sophisticated philosophies simply because they had never needed them, either - the minds of the others were wide open to them. There was no great mystery to the mind of a bear, no deep question as to why it hunted them - it hunted them because it was hungry. The horses called this evil and darkness, but the fact remained the bear felt no malice towards the creatures it hunted - only the unbounded joy of the kill, and the satisfaction of gorging itself on the flesh of another. The philosophy and beliefs of the horses were those of a simple, stone-age society of herbivores who lived in fear of predation. It was, in many ways, like they were little foals, and had yet to learn the deeper lessons the other races had learned simply because they had no need of learning them. Now, their future lay to the east, with the carnivorous races of the mus and the musties... And, it seemed that now they would have to grow from foals to full adulthood, to meet the challenges of joining the vast and glorious destiny the elder races had before them.

Suddenly, from behind him, Aijou heard a small sigh. 'You are angry with me,' L'Valin thought to him, her gentle brushing of his mane stopping. 'I am sorry... I know you are not like us, and you feel the dying of others with your mind... I was too callous. I'm sorry.'

Aijou turned where he sat, and smiled at L'Valin. She understood - perhaps not completely, but in her own way, she understood. Aijou reached out his thickly muscled arms and drew her to his chest, hugging her gently. There was so much he wished to say to her - yet, he knew that he could not. As much as she needed practice to hear him, he needed practice to mentally scream at her without tiring himself. His words to her were perforce short, and he could not scream the gentle feelings he had for her at this moment. So, he simply hugged her silently. Yet even this she understood, and L'Valin began purring softly, nuzzling him gently as she realized he was not angry with her, now.

No, Aijou was no longer angry - for now he understood, as well.

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