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


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"Bleah! I don't know how the mus stand this, Merle! For that matter, I don't know how you stand this!" Ayori chittered uncomfortably from beneath his helmet. It wasn't even noon yet, and already Ayori was panting in the miniature suit of armor Byarl had made. Byarl had outfitted all eight of the best rifle-shots in the village with armor, including himself, once he had learned from the mus how to make it. Byarl learned last year when a cat's dagger nearly stole his life that armor was a necessity on the battlefield, and he insisted that everyone wear it. He'd even made a suit for Merle, which allowed her to give the little suit C'dera had loaned her last year back, so it wouldn't be scratched or damaged any more than it already had been. It had been a childhood present of C'dera's late son, and quite precious to her.

Merle giggled as she glanced at Ayori, and patted the helmet she carried under her arm. "Take your helmet off, silly, and just carry it under your arm until it's time to ride, like I do! The mus have those nice long tails to keep them cool, so it doesn't bother them unless it's really hot - but as for me, I don't put on my helmet until it's time to ride. I found that really helps when it's hot. Also, it's cooler if you don't wear anything underneath your armor except the pads for the metal plates."

Ayori, who was struggling with his helmet as he listened, finally managed to get it off just as Merle finished. For a moment, he could only blink in surprise at Merle's words. "Go naked?!"

Merle burst out laughing for a long moment, and Ayori blushed deeply. He glanced about to the mus that were nearby in the courtyard of Castle Xaa, part of the dozens of vassals of Lord Xaa that would accompany him to the gathering point. Each worked diligently to pack their supplies on the backs of their birds, and paid little attention to the musties. Ayori realized after a moment that none of them could understand what he and Merle were saying, anyway, and breathed a sigh of relief about the time that Merle finally managed to control herself long enough to reply. "No, silly! You won't be naked, you'll be wearing your armor!" she giggled. "Try to think of your armor like metal clothes, okay? The skirt-plates on the front, sides and back are kind of like a dress, anyway. Just pull your pants off and put them in your pack, so we can put it on the back of my bird - that will make it lots cooler. And take off the armored boots - you won't need to wear them right now, and you can't really sneak around in them when you need to."

"But... But I've never worn a dress!" Ayori protested, grasping at straws.

Merle giggled again as Byarl walked up, and looked the two of them over. "Ayori? You're wearing your leather under that armor?" Byarl asked, and shook his head. "You'll fry in this sun! Pull your boots off, then your trousers, and I'll help you wiggle that tunic out from under the cuirass," Byarl said, and Merle burst out laughing again.

"You promise you won't look?" Ayori asked, looking at Merle.

Merle turned her back on Ayori. "I promise. Hurry up, chief, before he drops from heat stroke or something," she giggled.

Merle occupied herself scratching Brownie's itchy spots, and the enormous bird grackled happily at the attention while Merle tried to ignore the sounds behind her - though every now and then, Merle giggled again. Finally, Byarl called out to Merle. "Okay, Merle, you can turn around, now."

Merle turned to see Byarl helping Ayori by re-tying the laces that held his cuirass together. Ayori's armored boots and his green-dyed leather tunic and trousers lay beside him as he stood there, blushing furiously. "Did you practice your stealth and hunting skills in this armor like I told you?"

"Yes, chief," Ayori replied. "It's not easy, though. The green laquer you put on it is kinda shiny."

"Buff it a bit more with that piece of burlap I gave you. Make it look like the finish on Merle's armor - dull. Merle, you help him get his back and the other places he can't reach, okay?"

"Yes, chief," Merle and Ayori chorused - which caused Merle to giggle, and Ayori grinned in spite of himself.

"Okay - I'm going to go check on the others. Yell if you need me," Byarl called, and walked off between the mus warriors, heading for the other musties that would be coming along on this trip.

About the time that Merle had finished helping Ayori put a satisfactorily dull finish on his armor, Xaa rode up on his enormous black bird. "Good afternoon, Ayori - it's a pleasure to see you again. Hello, Merle," he called, bowing from the saddle to each of them. "Is everything going alright?"

"Hoyo, Xaa!" Merle called back with a grin. "So far, so good!" Merle looked to Ayori, and grinned again. "Xaa says 'hoyo', Ayori. Well, he said a bit more than that, but it basically means 'Hoyo.'"

"Hoyo, Lord Xaa," Ayori replied, grinning and bowing in return.

Xaa looked around for a moment, examining the progress of everyone nearby briefly. "Nagah, that waterskin you have there is leaking - take it to Grnargh and ask him for another, or you'll be thirsty by this afternoon," Xaa called to one of the nearby mus, pointing to the skin hanging from his saddle.

The tan mus looked, then nodded. "Ah! I see it, my lord. Thank you - I'll do that now," Nagah replied, bowing. After picking up the skin, he turned and trotted off.

"Wow - there's so much to do to get ready!" Ayori exclaimed. "Will everything be done in time?"

Xaa nodded. "Hyehs. Iz nahthing. Dohn' wuhrr'h," he replied in his atrocious accent. Xaa looked up at the sudden sound of hooves on flagstone, and Xaa turned his bird to gaze to the castle gate on the south side of the courtyard. "Hrm... I wonder what she's doing here?"

Merle looked, and saw what Xaa was looking at. Trotting towards them at an easy jog was Amani. She was wearing her pack, and had her simple garment arranged in the manner she wore it for long-distance running - tied about her chest, it supported her breasts so she could run with comfort, but left her sex bare. Merle glanced to Xaa, and stifled a giggle as she noticed him trying to keep his face smooth at the sight.

"What's she doing here, Ayori?" Merle asked.

Ayori shook his head. "I've no idea - but it looks like she intends to come along."

Xaa nodded. "Ah, I see. Well, Hragh has said she's a skilled healer, and helped save Byarl's life last year - that's good enough for me. Merle, tell her to report to Kargh, my Master Healer. I'll let him know she's coming," Xaa said, flicking the reins of his bird to turn it, then riding away to another part of the courtyard.

"Okay, Xaa!" Merle called after him, then looked to Ayori. "Ayori, Xaa says she can come. He says Healer Hragh told him about how she helped save Byarl's life last year, so that's good enough for Xaa. He says she should report to his Master Healer, Kargh. I guess you'll have to go with her so you can talk for her - I'll finish packing all your stuff for you, okay?"

"Okay, Merle, thanks," Ayori replied, though it was obvious by his voice he was distracted - and a bit annoyed. Amani stopped before Ayori, and he found he couldn't help himself - her bare sex was just at the level of his muzzle, and his gaze was drawn to it. With an effort, he wrenched his gaze from that pleasant sight and craned his neck to look up into her face - only to become even more annoyed when he saw she was grinning wryly at him. "What-" Ayori started, then stopped. He didn't want to embarrass her by arguing where Merle could hear - though, in truth, Ayori had found that very little embarrassed Amani at all. 'What are you doing here?!' he thought to her sternly.

Amani simply held out a fore-hoof, and when Ayori had taken it in his paws, she replied. *I am sorry, my little love, but I could not possibly let you go without me.*

'Why? Because Merle is going along with Xaa? That's different! She told me last year she had worked that out with him. She has a solemn duty, given to her by our chief, to guard and protect him.'

Amani shook her head, tossing her mane. *No, my little love. I am not here in imitation of Merle Mousefinder. I-*

'What, is it because you helped last year? We don't need you this year. Lord Xaa will be riding north to meet up with the rest of the army of the other mus-clans long before they turn west to enter the lands of the cats. They'll have plenty of warriors with them, and they already know where they're going - it won't be like last year, when you had to lead O'dmemet's warriors around the cats and safely to the spot they needed to be because there weren't enough of them to fight their way out if they got caught!'

Amani shook her head again. *No, that is not the reason, either. I-*

'Well, then what is it?! I don't want you here, Amani! I don't want you to get hurt! This is war, and you could get hurt - maybe die!'

Amani stomped her hoof against the flagstones of the courtyard with a loud WHOCK! Annoyed at being interrupted again, she glowered at Ayori. *No! I am here because I will not make the same mistake Naien did!* Merle, startled by the sudden sound, turned to look at the two of them.

"What mistake?" Ayori replied aloud. Merle stared curiously at the two of them, wondering what could be the matter.

*You are my mate! You are my stallion, and I am your mare! I will not allow you to go into danger alone, Ayori Treeclimber! Naien knew that Aijou could not out-run the Great Birds the cats would use to catch him. She also knew that she was more fleet of foot, and by using her abilities as a seer, would be able to easily elude the cats and simply head east, following the edge of the southern mountains until she arrived here. She could see that he might escape by following her vision, but it never occurred to her to turn her inner eye upon the question of what would happen if they both traveled through danger together! She is poorly skilled and poorly trained, Ayori Treeclimber, and had never been taught to use her inner eye in this manner - to peruse alternate nexi of possibility is something she was never taught how to do. She only knows to see the one nexus of possibility her initial vision brings, and follow it directly as far as she can - and so she allowed her mate to fall into danger. Yes, later, I will teach her the lessons she never learned due to the incomplete clan-memories she was given - but I will not make the same mistake! You are my mate, Ayori Treeclimber, and that means you had better get used to the idea that I will follow you, guide you, and help you as best I can for the rest of our days together, just as any stallion of my people should expect from his mare!* Amani replied, and snorted with anger as she stomped her hoof again.

"Is everything okay?" Merle asked, concerned.

Ayori grinned, and tugged on Amani's fore-hoof. Amani knelt, then bent down a bit, and Ayori nuzzled her lovingly for a long moment. "Yes, Merle, everything's fine. Amani was just telling me she wants Byarl to perform the mating ceremony as soon as all this is over - weren't you, Amani?"

Amani blinked in suprise, then slowly grinned. After a moment, she nodded.

"Oh - I thought you were going to wait for the winter, though? Didn't you tell her that's when we traditionally have the ceremony? Just before the beginning of the winter mating season?"

"Yes, I did, but she doesn't want to wait," Ayori replied, still grinning, and Amani nickered in amusement. "Come on, Amani - Lord Xaa says he wants you to report to his master healer. I guess you'll be working with him," Ayori said, and Amani nodded, standing again.

As they walked away, Ayori kept a paw on Amani's fore-hoof. 'You know, Amani... I still can't understand how you can go around like that. I mean... Well, I had to pull off my trousers just now because it was so hot under this armor, and now I'm finding the whole experience... A bit drafty.'

Amani snorted, then whinnied with laughter. Ayori simply looked up to her and grinned.

*I love you, Ayori,* Amani thought, and sent him a warm, mental 'horse-hug'.

Ayori grinned. 'I love you, too, Amani,' he thought silently in reply, and stroked his fingertips across the frog of her fore-hoof.

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