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


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With a loud WHAM of timber against crossbeam, the catapult fired again. L'Valin watched the stone fly, bounce ineffectually against the castle walls, then fall, to splash into the moat. A moment's pause to hook the rope to the catapult's arm, then slowly, laboriously, the six toms who manned the catapult grunted against the windlass, cocking the catapult again that it might be reloaded. With some more adjustments and a bit of luck, the next shot might, perhaps, land inside the walls of the castle. The catapult would not win the siege, of course - it was more a weapon of harassment than anything else. It might, perhaps, kill one or two of the defenders inside if they were struck with a stone - but that was unlikely. And, at this point, that wasn't even their goal, really. No, at this point, the intent was merely to harass the defenders, to shorten their patience with the siege, and perhaps wear down their will to resist. As time passed, more catapults would be finished. With ten or twenty, a serious attempt at battering down the walls might be mounted. With only one, however, it was more a tool of psychological warfare than physical warfare.

L'Valin bowed her head as Lord D'Main rode past on his bird, his hunting-musket in paw and half a dozen warriors in tow as bodyguards. There was little to hunt in the nearby woods - the simple presence of the besieging forces had driven off most of the nearby game. Still, there was some game left, and D'Main rarely came back empty-pawed, as he was an excellent hunter and crack shot.

L'Valin considered D'Main as he rode away, towards the woods. Something seemed to have happened between him and R'Zin... There seemed to have been a subtle shift in their relationship. D'Main outwardly seemed just as he had before, and certainly when she saw he and R'Zin speak a few minutes ago before R'Zin went to inspect his troops, there seemed nothing outwardly wrong. Yet, to her eyes, there was a subtle, very slight difference in his expression and tone of voice that told L'Valin something had happened. It was L'Valin's mentation that D'Main had become angry at R'Zin for some reason, yet concealed his rage behind a mask of feigned romance and passion. L'Valin had realized by R'Zin's reaction three days ago that he almost certainly knew of the quartermaster's betrayal before she mentioned it, and perhaps was even a part of some conspiracy to milk extra profits from this little war of Lady T'Zama's. It was entirely possible that D'Main had learned of the treachery, somehow, and his feelings for his erstwhile lover had soured. Even if this were true, L'Valin knew D'Main could not reveal his knowledge to R'Zin - it was obvious to L'Valin's casual glance that neither D'Main nor his mother were skilled at the Art of War, and they needed R'Zin too badly to lose him now. L'Valin realized that there would, at the end of this, be a reckoning between D'Main and his erstwhile lover... Though L'Valin hoped she and Aijou would, by then, be long gone.

A quiet yet heavy step behind her caused L'Valin to turn, and she smiled as she looked to Aijou. In his hooves, he carried a basket of the day's rations from the quartermaster - grain for himself, and a bowl of raw meat for her. Aijou had apparently gotten used to the idea of L'Valin eating raw meat, now, and his expression hardly changed when she ate. L'Valin supposed that growing up as a lumber-horse, he'd not really had the chance to get used to the diet of cats, as a household servant might have. Yet, now he seemed to have accepted this, and for that, L'Valin was glad.

They walked together over to L'Valin's small pavilion, and sat outside it on the grass. L'Valin gazed quietly at Aijou as they ate, and noticed he again sat facing southeast, and often looked to the distant ridge and beyond, as though listening to a voice she could not hear. L'Valin was very curious about that - but she was afraid to ask. Everything was so perfect between them, so wonderful. L'Valin did not wish to spoil their relationship by asking about something Aijou was not willing to tell. She knew there were no horses near - he could not possibly be talking to anyone. She also knew that he could sense her curiosity in her mind, het had not offered an explanation. Still, L'Valin did not wish to pry, not when things were going so well.

And things truly were so perfect between them. The single, tender moment Aijou had shared with her three days ago had been everything she could have imagined - and more. Aijou was a marvelous and gentle lover, and the simple memory of the event thrilled her indescribably. His soft lips nibbling lightly at her neck, his strong arms wrapped around her... L'Valin shuddered with the memory, and smiled at Aijou. Aijou turned his head to smile back at her warmly, then returned his gaze to the southeast again.

That tender moment had not been repeated, unfortunately. There was still a certain amount of propriety L'Valin had to maintain, lest she put Aijou at risk by revealing her true feelings. Aijou was right, of course - T'Zama T'Mrr considered L'Valin an interesting plaything, and if she knew L'Valin's true feelings, she would amuse herself by toying with Aijou's life. Thus, Aijou now slept outside the pavilion, while she slept inside. Still, L'Valin looked hopefully to the skies for any sign of rain, that the sounds of a storm might once again conceal the quiet sounds of passion.

L'Valin finished her meat, and as she set the bowl aside, she began quietly lapping at her paws and washing her muzzle and face. 'If only he would tell me what it is he sees in the southeast...' she thought. She did not know what it was he might be gazing towards and thinking of. A lover? A friend? The set of his eyes, the flare of his nostrils, and a hundred small cues his body gave off told her whatever it was, it was something of great importance to him. Still, L'Valin did not pry. She wanted to know, yes. Her curiosity burned in her, and she often found her thoughts occupied with Aijou's mystery. Yet, she did not ask. She knew he could sense her question in her mind, and had decided not to tell her, for now. L'Valin had decided in return that she would respect his decision, and not pry. Things were going too well between them as it was, and she did not want anything between them to change. L'Valin quietly reached inside her pavilion for a moment, retrieving her brush. Slipping behind Aijou, she began to quietly brush his mane, the fingers of her other paw lightly resting on the hard muscles of his massive shoulder. L'Valin smiled. He would tell her when he was ready, she was certain.

Aijou, hearing L'Valin's thoughts, suppressed a quiet sigh. He knew all too well that L'Valin wished to know, and yet he knew that he could not tell her.

Aijou had been put to stud several times in his life, as the cats controlled these matters, not the horses. Yet, those experiences had been different. There was no option, no ability to refuse - the cats did not understand the horses, and thought they were little more than mute beasts who could be trained to understand their words. If a stallion refused to couple, he was deemed unsuitable, and gelded. Thus, each time he had been put to stud, Aijou had taken a moment to reach out to his mate with his mind before he reached out to his partner with his arms. She, likewise, reached out to her mate, and then the two of them came together with the understanding that each truly wished to be with another, but could not. With tenderness, they would share a quiet moment, feeling the other's mind, soothing each other's sorrow, and sharing warm thoughts of their mates with their partner of the moment.

Aijou had never been used by a she-cat before in his life, though he had met a few stallions who had, and many mares who had been used by tom-cats now and again. Those experiences were different, as well. For the mares, it was a matter of submission - resistance was futile, and impossible. Though once in awhile a mare would be taken by a master who was gentle, one who tried to make the experience pleasant, normally it was merely something they learned to endure. For the stallions, the experience was somewhat different. The she-cats enjoyed the slow process of seduction and arousal necessary to complete the act, and the stallions found it was often simpler to close one's eyes and imagine it was one's mate that they were with, and not one's owner. Yet, the quiet moment three days ago that Aijou had shared with L'Valin had not been a matter of a reluctant stallion slowly being aroused by his mistress, the absolute ruler of his life. No, Aijou had to admit that there was passion in his heart, as well.

And it was that moment of passion that was slowly tearing him apart, now.

Aijou could not deny it - his feelings about L'Valin were in turmoil. Part of him was still disgusted by her. She was a carnivore, who fed on the flesh of others. Her words had been directly responsible for the murder of the quartermaster, and yet she had been completely unconcerned about his death. She was repulsive, loathesome. And yet...

And yet, her mind was beautiful, and her love for him pure.

*You must let it go, my love,* Naien said, her voice coming to him across the leagues. *Do not tear yourself apart with this.*

*I cannot,* Aijou replied, his silent voice answering hers. *My heart is in turmoil, Naien. Part of me cares for her deeply, and yet part of me despises her just as deeply. She is not evil, Naien. Perhaps by our standards, she may be - but for a cat, she is kind and gentle. I do not know what to do.*

*Do you love me?*

*Deeply, and beyond measure. You are my heart, my soul, the breath of my life, Naien,* Aijou replied, wishing they were close enough for her to simply sense his feelings in his mind, and know without asking.

*Do you love her?*

Aijou was silent for a moment before he replied. Finally, he sighed quietly, so as not to disturb L'Valin's gentle brushing of his mane. *I do not know, Naien. I do not want to love her. It is you I want, Naien. Only you.*

*Aijou, in the old ways, a stallion gathered a harem of mares to himself, competing with the other stallions to prove his wisdom, his strength, and his ability to care for and love us all, and all our foals. Once our people are free in the east, we will be able to resume our ancient traditions, my love. I would be proud to be your lead mare, Aijou, if you choose to invite the she-cat, L'Valin, to join your herd. I would even be content to be a sub-mare, my love. So long as I may spend my life with you and bear your foals, that is all that matters to me.*

*But, Naien, I do not want her! I only want you! I don't care about the ancient traditions, I don't care what may or may not be possible in the east, don't care if you can accept her or not! I don't care about anything but you! I only want you! I don't want anything or anyone else!*

"Mrow? Is something wrong?" L'Valin asked.

Aijou kicked himself mentally. L'Valin's Mentalt powers were now fully under her control, particularly when she was calmed by the act of touching him. She had easily noticed his distress by his body language, and now was worried that perhaps she had done something wrong. Aijou looked over his shoulder at L'Valin and smiled, then shook his head and patted his mane with a fore-hoof.

"Mrr... Ah, I'm pulling too hard. Well, I'll try to be more gentle when I find tangles," L'Valin replied, and resumed brushing him again.

Aijou again gazed to the southeast, and sent his thoughts to Naien. *My love... I do not want her. I only want you.*

Aijou waited, but Naien did not reply.

*Naien... Please... Do not be angry... Beloved, talk to me...*

Aijou waited again, but still there was no reply. L'Valin finished brushing his mane, and began gently running her brush over his pelt, smoothing and brushing his fur as she enjoyed the feel of his muscles beneath his skin. Finally, Naien's voice came to him, and Aijou sighed with relief.

*I am sorry, Aijou. I was not angry... I wept with joy at hearing you declare your love - and with sadness, at knowing you are still so far from me. The mustelid, Ellie Sharptooth, saw me weep. She wished to talk to me to find out what was wrong. Now, it seems the whole village is gathered around me, and I am trying to share my story with them as best I can. Aijou, all I can tell you is this: As much as you love me, I love you, in return. Follow your heart, Aijou. If you wish to follow the old ways, form a harem of mares and add the she-cat, I will accept that. If you wish to only be with me, I will accept that. Whatever you decide, my love, I will accept, so long as you promise that I will be by your side for the rest of our lives, and that you will love me so long as you may live.*

*I will always love you, Naien. Always. And once we are together, we shall never be parted again.*

A long moment of silence ensued, then finally Naien's voice came to Aijou's mind again. *Sing to me, my love... Please...*

Aijou smiled, and opened up his heart, sending his silent song to Naien, so many leagues away.

He sang of the rivers, and the grasses, and the ancient trees he once had felled. He sang of the sky and the clouds, and quiet, starry nights. He sang of the ancient ways, the herds migrating with the seasons, following the ebb and flow of the green grasses that fed them, clothed them, and gave them life. He sang of the sadness of his people's enslavement. He sang of the joy they would feel once they were free. He sang of a touch, and a moment he hoped to share with Naien, someday soon. He sang of life, and hope, and love.

Finally, Aijou's silent song ended, and he simply gazed off into the distance.

*Thank you, my love... I needed to hear your song... More than you can know," Naien's quiet voice replied. *I must speak with the musties, now. I will talk to you again, later, my love.*

*Until later, beloved. And speak to Amani again... From what you have said, she is very wise. Perhaps she will have a solution for us.*

Aijou started to turn to face L'Valin, but Naien's voice came suddenly again. *Oh! I nearly forgot! My love, I cannot speak to Amani - she is gone!*

Aijou blinked. *Gone? Gone where?*

*She has joined her mate, Ayori Treeclimber. He has followed his chief, who himself follows his ally, the mus Xaa'ap'Gasha. The armies of the mus gather in the north, from where they will strike at the forces besieging Castle V'Nass.*

L'valin looked up in surprise at Aijou's sudden whinny of exultation. "Mrow? What is it?"

Aijou did not reply, but simply sat there, grinning, as though listening to someone. He then turned to her, taking her paw in the tingling grip of a fore-hoof, his will made manifest. *The mus are coming to break the siege,* he replied, his shout of joy a quiet whisper in her mind.

L'Valin controlled her reaction. 'They are? How do you know?' she thought back to him.

Aijou paused, then shook his head. *I will explain that another time. For now, know that the mus are coming, L'Valin T'Masa - and the one called Xaa'ap'Gasha leads them.*

'The Slayer?' L'Valin thought, her eyes widening. 'When will they arrive?'

Aijou shook his head. *I do not know. A few weeks, perhaps.*

L'Valin looked to the castle, her mind racing. With an effort, she calmed herself, and focused her will. After a moment or two of thought, she knew what to do. D'Main was out hunting, R'Zin was still off inspecting his troops, and Lady T'Mrr was taking her usual afternoon nap. It was the perfect moment - and a chance like this might not come again soon. "Mrr... Come with me," she said, and rose to her feet. Aijou stood and followed quietly as L'Valin strode off towards the quartermaster.

* * *

"Fsst! Have you got it?!" the sergeant in charge of the catapult crew panted.

"Mrowr! Yes, Sergeant!" the corporal called from his position at the base of the catapult. "Mrow! It's latched, now!"

The sergeant looked, and indeed, the trigger-latch had been hooked to the ring at the base of the catapult. "Mrowrr... Good. Un-hook the windlass, and grab another rock."

"Mrr... Use this one, Sergeant," a feminine voice purred at his shoulder.

The sergeant jumped, spinning around, and saw it was only L'Valin, her horse in tow. The horse was carrying one of the stones from the catapult's supply of ammunition in it's hooves, easily hefting the thirty-pound rock. "Fsst! You startled a life out of me! I thought you were Lady T'Zama! Don't sneak up on me like that, wench!"

"Mrr... I beg your pardon, Sergeant. Still, I think this stone has the best chance of landing inside the castle. Try it."

The sergeant eyed the rock the horse-slave held dubiously. "Mrow? You've written on it?" he asked, eying the painted letters. "Fsst! What's that say? It's not in any writing I can read."

"Mrr... Nothing, Sergeant - just my notes on it's weight, and a guess at it's trajectory based on the other shots I saw you make. A Mentalt's calculations."

"Mrr... I see. Alright - have your slave load it," the sergeant replied with a nod.

The sergeant waited, and once the task was done, he waved everyone clear and picked up the trigger-rope. Standing back himself, he yanked hard to loose the arm of the catapult.

With another loud WHAM of timber against crossbeam, the catapult fired again, leaping against the ropes that held it in position. The sergeant and his crew watched as the rock sailed towards the castle, and cheered as it cleared the wall - and hopefully smashed something important beyond.

"Miao... I do believe you have the range now, Sergeant," L'Valin said, her face calm and impassive as she stroked the stallion's fore-hoof.

"Mrowr! That I do, wench!" the sergeant replied with a grin.

"Miao... If you will continue to use rocks of about two and a half stone's weight, you should hit about the same spot every time. Good afternoon, sergeant," L'Valin called, then turned and walked away, leading her horse-slave.

The sergeant nodded after her, then turned to his crew. "Mrowr... Alright, we take a rest, then load it again. We'll try what the Mentalt said, as well."

The corporal spat. "Fsst! If she is a Mentalt. She's far too familiar with that horse-slave, I'm thinking. Mentalts hate horses."

The sergeant cuffed the corporal sharply, sending him staggering. "Fsst! Idiot! Do you want to die?! She has Lady T'Zama's favor! If T'Zama says she's a Mentalt, then she's a Mentalt! By the nine hells, if T'Zama says she's a tree, you'll sit at the wench's feet and praise the lovely shade she casts!"

"Mrowrrr... Your pardon, Sergeant," the corporal replied, stifling a curse. "Mrr... And if Lady T'Zama ever decides she's not a Mentalt?"

The sergeant glowered at the corporal for a moment, then suddenly grinned. "Mrr... Then by the nine hells, let's hope she decides she's a camp-follower next, instead of a tree. I could use a bit of fluff, even if it is as ugly and scarred up as that little wench," he replied, and burst into laughter, clapping a paw to the corporal's shoulder.

The corporal chuckled, then joined the sergeant in laughter, as did the rest of the catapult-crew. Soon, the mystery of L'Valin's strange writing on the stone was forgotten.

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