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


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T'Zama smiled as she watched the last of the catapult being wheeled into position. "Mrr... Today we begin the real work, my general?" she asked, twitching the reins of her bird to have it step closer to R'Zin.

R'Zin nodded, grinning. "Mrr... Yes, my lady. With ten catapults, we can begin the work of battering down the walls. The crews are very good - some of the best mercenaries I could find. In a week or so, we'll have a decent hole punched in one of their walls. By then, our first two siege-towers should be completed, as well as the mantlets we'll need to carry the ramp over to the moat. Then, we'll be able to launch a two-pronged attack - one at the hole we'll break in their walls, and another at the main gate. The castle should fall in a few hours after that," R'Zin replied, then looked past T'Zama. "Mrr... The Mentalt is here," he remarked, trying to keep his voice even.

T'Zama glanced to her left, spotting L'Valin and the enormous, ebon horse-slave she kept with her. "Mrr... So I see," T'Zama replied, and smiled at L'Valin. "Mrr... It appears your Mentalt-friend inside the castle is doomed, L'Valin. What have you to say about that?"

"Miao... Nothing, my lady. It appears to be her fate to die at your paw." L'Valin replied, her expression calm and impassive, then bowed her head. The horse-slave aped her actions, bowing his head, and T'Zama chuckled in amusement.

R'Zin spoke, looking around. "Mrow... My lady, where is D'Main? I haven't seen him at all this morning."

"Mrr... Off hunting, General," T'Zama replied with a smile.

"Fsst! Again? He's always hunting, it seems now," R'Zin replied, and spat.

T'Zama said nothing, simply keeping her smile on her face. She knew the real reason D'Main had been off hunting so frequently these last few days - he had reached the point where he hated R'Zin deeply for his betrayal, and he needed an hour or so every day riding and hunting with his musket to calm himself enough to be able to continue to fool R'Zin. It would not do to let R'Zin know that D'Main's love had turned to hatred - both T'Zama and D'Main still needed R'Zin too badly to have him know the truth just yet.

"Miao... He appears to be returning now, Lord R'Zin," L'Valin called, and pointed with a paw.

T'Zama looked towards the woods, and her eyes widened. R'Zin snarled - something was wrong, that much was easily seen. D'Main wasn't simply returning to the camp as he usually did, at a casual trot. No, he rode his bird at a full run - and of the six warriors who had accompanied him this morning, only three remained, one slumping badly in the saddle, obviously wounded. "Fsst! R'Zin! There are enemies in the woods!" D'Main shouted as he rode up.

"Fsst! What enemies?!" R'Zin snarled as D'Main brought his bird to a skidding halt.

"Mrowrrr! Little creatures, about a yard tall! They dress in green armor and have small muskets! They appeared from nowhere, attacked, then disappeared into the trees, like magic!" D'Main shouted, waving a paw back at the woods behind him.

R'Zin blinked. "Fsst! What in the nine hells are you talking about?! There's no such thing!"

"Fsst! Then what shot my warriors, R'Zin?!" D'Main snarled, gesturing towards the riders beside him with the paw he clutched his hunting-musket in. The wounded cat groaned, holding his belly as blood slowly leaked from between his furry fingers, then slowly slipped from the saddle, to land heavily on the ground.

"Mrr... It appears you have more to worry about than that, General," L'Valin said suddenly, gazing to the nearby ridge with an expression of absolute calm.

R'Zin wheeled his bird with a snarl, then gaped.

All along the top of the ridge were riders - and R'Zin could tell by their armor and their banners they were mus warriors, armed and armored, riding war-armored birds. As he watched in stunned surprise, the line of mus grew longer, as more rode into view, their ranks stretching farther and farther. R'Zin gasped there were tens of thousands of them. R'Zin had never seen so many mus in one place at one time. At a quick guess, there were around a hundred thousand mus warriors encircling the area - more than enough to crush his forces with ease.

"Fsst! Sound 'Assemble' and 'Form Ranks'!" R'Zin shouted to his musicians - but they were not ready. They had been told they would not be needed this day, and until the sight of all the mus surrounding them had sent them leaping to their feet, they had spent the day relaxing by their tents. A mad scramble began as the musicians rushed from their tents to saddle their birds and grab their instruments. "Fsst! Don't worry about mounting, just sound assemble, damn you!"

A sudden roar in the distance cut the air, and a hush fell over the camp as it was answered by thousands and thousands of mus. A second roar, which was again answered, and the mus drew their swords - the hiss of a hundred thousand swords being drawn from their scabbards at once was terrifyingly loud in the silence. A hundred thousand blades gleamed in the sunlight, and only the quiet rustle of the wind could be heard for many long moments.

"Fsst! Who is that?! What are they yelling?!" T'Zama snarled, her fur fluffed out in terror.

"Miao... My lady, that is The Slayer, and by my rough count there are approximately one hundred thousand warriors under his command. The first shout meant 'Who are we?', and his warriors replied 'We are mus.' His second shout was 'And why are we here?', and the reply was 'To kill.' It is my mentation, my lady, that as they have your forces so heavily outnumbered, they intend to slaughter every cat they find here in hand-to-hand combat. They're quite keen about fighting with honor, my lady, and probably believe that simply surrounding your forces and killing you all with a single massive volley of musket-balls and arrows wouldn't quite be sporting."

T'Zama's head snapped around to gaze at L'Valin, and she stared in surprise.

L'Valin was smiling.

The first few notes of 'Assemble' began, the trumpeters blowing as hard as they could, and the sound shocked R'Zin's army into action. At their movement, the mus charged, streaming down towards the lightly defended edges of the camp.

D'Kath rode up, screaming. "Fsst! General! The mus!"

"Fsst! I know! D'Main, stay here! D'Kath, come on!" R'Zin shouted back, and wheeled his bird to race towards his troops, shouting his orders out as he rode.

T'Zama turned to look to L'Valin, and hissed in anger. L'Valin was smiling. Inexplicably, horribly, chillingly smiling. "Fsst! You bitch! You knew they were coming! You knew!" T'Zama shrieked.

"Miao... Of course I did, my lady," L'Valin replied, her expression completely dispassionate again.

T'Zama dismounted, then fumbled with the sword her son had given her. Like his own sword, was merely an affectation - something worn merely for appearance's sake, like the gleaming cuirass he wore, and the similar one he had given her. Yet, it was a weapon - and for the first time in her life, T'Zama wanted a weapon in her paw. "Fsst! Then why didn't you tell me, Mentalt-witch?! Did you think they'd spare you, somehow?! To them, you're just another cat! Now you'll die, too! Why didn't you tell me?!"

L'Valin smiled slightly. "Miao... You never asked, my lady."

T'Zama sputtered with rage, then snarled. "Fsst! The mus may kill me, but if it's the last thing I ever do, I'll see you in the nine hells before me!" she shrieked, and drew the bejewelled rapier at her hip.

L'Valin did not move. She knew T'Zama meant to kill her, of course. Yet, it was likely that even if she didn't, the mus would do it for her. T'Zama was right, of course. The mus had no way of telling L'Valin from any of the others - so far as they knew, she was just another cat in the besieger's camp. L'Valin knew she could have run away - but she found she didn't want to. In the end, she found she no longer cared whether she lived or died. Aijou, her love, did not love her back. She could not return to T'Masa Keep, and she had nowhere else to go, and no-one else who cared for her. Her life was meaningless, and empty. So, L'Valin stood, and waited for T'Zama's thrust to end it all.

But that didn't happen.

Suddenly, like a surging shadow, Aijou stepped from behind L'Valin, and lashed out with his left fore-hoof, swatting T'Zama across the left side of her head with a loud WHOP! T'Zama spasmed, the jeweled rapier dropping from a nerveless paw, then she collapsed, her body twitching. The side of her head had been caved in from the force of Aijou's blow, and blood flowed freely from her mouth and nose, her left eye bulging horribly from it's socket.

At the same moment, Aijou screamed.

L'Valin jumped, startled - she had never heard such a sound from him, or any other horse.

But then again, she had never seen a horse die before, either.

Aijou dropped to his knees, his fore-hooves clutching the side of his head, then toppled over on his side, and lay still.

L'Valin howled, throwing herself upon Aijou. "Fsst! Noooo! Don't die, please!" she wailed, shaking his massive body.

Aijou, totally limp, simply rolled onto his back. He did not move.

Distantly, L'Valin heard the sounds of the battle, and the screams of the dying.

She did not care.

She saw D'Main dismount and kneel beside his mother, in shock, staring silently at her corpse as it finally ceased it's death spasms.

She did not care.

All that she cared for in the world lay before her, his eyes closed, as still as death.

L'Valin pressed her ear to Aijou's broad chest - his heart still beat, but weakly. She felt his muzzle with a paw, and a slight passage of air through her furry fingers told her he still breathed, though only slightly. Even L'Valin could see his life was fading, and she felt completely helpless to aid him.

The Mentalts knew that horses feel any pain they inflict, and if they kill, the shock of death sometimes kills them, as well. L'Valin knew that Aijou had not merely heard T'Zama T'Mrr's death-scream, he had felt it, because he had inflicted it. Now, the shock of that death had him close to death, himself. L'Valin clasped his head in her paws, rubbing the scent-glands beneath her eyes into his cheeks over and over, the tears streaming from her eyes. 'Why did you do it? Why? I am nothing to you... Nothing!' she thought to him. 'Please, Aijou... Don't die! Please!' L'Valin sobbed openly, heedless of everything around her.

* * *

D'Main knelt beside his mother, overcome with grief. All their scheming, all their plotting, had come to this. There would be no glorious revenge, no relishing the fruits of their plans as they accepted their accolades in the court of the Shazad. He wanted to lash out at her killer, but the horse-slave was still - apparently already dead. Such was the usual fate of horses who struck out and killed their masters, though none knew why. Inexplicably, the Mentalt-witch wept over him.

D'Main stared at his mother's limp form, his mind numb. He wanted to cover her, to give her at least some dignity - but he had nothing to cover her with. He wanted to weep, but found he had no tears. All he could so was simply gaze at his mother's body in shock. D'Main reached out a paw, gently stroking the fur of the undamaged side of her face.

A sudden shout came from beside him, R'Zin drew his bird to a skidding halt before D'Main. He was bloodied, and gasping with exhaustion. Tearing his battered helmet free from his head he tossed it aside. "Fsst! D'Main! We must flee! The day is lost!"

D'Main looked up from his mother's body, and gazed at R'Zin coldly.

"Fsst! D'Main! Leave her! We must flee, now! D'Kath is dead, and most of his and my troops are, as well! The day is lost, D'Main, we must flee! Come!" R'Zin shouted, holding out a paw.

Slowly, D'Main stood, picking up his hunting musket. A glance told him the pan was still closed, the charge secure beneath the frizzen. Cocking his musket, he snapped it to his shoulder, and fired.

R'Zin's bird shrieked at the blast and flare of powder by it's head. Half-blinded by burning powder and deafened by the musket's report, it reared, flapping it's stunted, flightless wings and tossing R'Zin to the ground before running away.

R'Zin lay still for a moment, stunned, then slowly pushed himself to one elbow as the sounds of battle roared nearer. He looked down to the hole in the center of his cuirass barely a paw's width below the opening for his neck. From that dark hole, his life's blood slowly leaked. R'Zin coughed - flecks of blood came to his muzzle, with droplets spraying the green grass before his eyes.

'I am dying - D'Main has killed me,' R'Zin realized, then looked up to D'Main, his eyes wide. "Mrr... Why, D'Main?" he asked, already feeling the darkness creeping in at the edges of his vision. "Mrr... I loved you, D'Main..." he said, then fell back to the ground, his eyes staring blankly at the blue sky above.

"Fsst! No! Noooo!" D'Main screamed, tossing his musket aside and leaping to R'Zin. D'Main grabbed his lover's head and shook it between his paws. "Fsst! You lie! Admit it! Tell me you lie! You never loved me, you just used me, just like my mother said! Admit it!"

But R'Zin said nothing, his eyes staring blankly in the cold embrace of death.

D'Main howled his anguish to the sky above, cradling R'Zin's body to his chest. He never heard the sounds of the battle as it raged closer, and closer still. He never saw the mus warrior that rode up behind him, bloodied sword flashing in the afternoon sun. And when that swift, slashing death finally came, it came as a relief.

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