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They sky above Castle V'Nass was gray and dark, and L'Valin wrapped her cloak tighter about herself. The carriage provided by Lord D'Viall stood nearby, ready to take her back to Raldad. Yet, she waited a few moments longer. The mustelid, Ayori, had chittered that Aijou wished to speak to her, and L'Valin could not leave without at least saying goodbye to him.

The last two weeks and been a strange, almost dream-like experience to L'Valin. So much had happened - much that even a year or two ago, she would have thought was impossible. Word had arrived from the west that the Shazad was dead, and R'Narr V'Nass' victorious army now moved to take the capital, and crush what few clans that might refuse to swear their fealty to him. Word had it that it seemed unlikely there would be much resistance - most of the forces of the loyalist clans had been disposed of at Mirawa Ridge, and the thousands of corpses from that battle were probably still feeding the vultures and bears even now. And yet, there was still more.

The mustelids, those strange little carnivores, fascinated L'Valin. Where had they come from? How was it they spoke the language of the Little Ones? L'Valin did not know - and the more she studied them, the more strange, almost magical they seemed. They moved with a silent, deadly grace, yet smiled and seemed happy all the time. They had no scent - or nearly none - and could sneak up behind you without even trying to. Yet, when you suddenly turned to find one standing behind you, they almost always were smiling at you. The mus, Xaa'ap'Gasha, had simply said that they were living spirits of the forest, and allies of the mus. L'Valin had no better explanation - and that frightened her.

The first few patters of a light drizzle touched L'Valin's nose just as she saw Aijou's enormous ebon form striding towards her from the camp of the mus. Most of the mus had gone already, leaving only the fifty-odd warriors and a dozen servants that accompanied The Slayer, and a few hundred wounded mus from the various other clans who only now were healthy enough to ride. The vast camp of the mus, which had but two weeks ago nearly encircled Castle V'Nass, now was reduced to the much smaller encampment Aijou walked out of, heading towards L'Valin. The Appaloosa mare called 'Amani' walked by Aijou's side, looking positively waif-like in comparison to Aijou's massively muscled form. L'Valin gazed at Aijou as he walked towards her, sighing quietly. He was, still, very handsome to her, and she found she loved him still, despite everything.

Finally, Aijou stood before her. There was an awkward moment of silence, until L'Valin reached out and took the fore-hoof he held out to her. "Mrr... I am leaving now, Aijou. I was told you wanted to say something to me?"

*Yes,* he replied, the quiet whisper of his mind's voice echoing in her mind. *I wanted to tell you the truth.*

"Mrow? What truth?" L'Valin asked, her head tipped to the side in curiosity as she gazed up at him.

*L'Valin T'Masa, though I denied it to you, though I denied it to my mate, and though I denied it even to myself, the truth is that I love you. That is why I could not allow T'Zama T'Mrr to murder you, and slew her myself, instead. I love you, L'Valin,* he replied, then paused. *And, I am sorry that I did not tell you sooner.*

L'Valin smiled, and reached out her arms, wrapping them around Aijou's enormous chest, and hugging him tight. Aijou reached his thick arms around L'Valin, and hugged her in return, though gently. After a moment, L'Valin released Aijou, then reached up to him, pulling his head down to hers. L'Valin purred softly as she rubbed the scent glands beneath her eyes into his cheeks, and Aijou smiled, nickering quietly.

Finally, L'Valin stepped back, the slow drizzle making her blink nearly as much as the tears that started at the corners of her eyes. "Mrr... I love you, too, Aijou. And I shall never forget you," she whispered. Then, she turned swiftly, stepping to the carriage and climbing into the door the servant held open, and seated herself quickly. "Mrow! Driver! Let's go!" she called. The driver, secure in his oilskin cloak, flicked the reins to the team of djuducu-birds which drew the carriage. Slowly, the carriage rattled off down the road into the distance.

Aijou sighed as he watched the carriage slowly grow smaller, and smaller still in the distance. *I wronged her, Amani. I never meant to, but I did,* Aijou said, the slow drizzle concealing the tears on his face.

Amani nodded. *Yes, and so did Naien. Neither of you truly meant to, but you did. And yet, in the end, you have made it right. You saved her life - twice, in fact. More, when her soul was empty, you shared yours with her, and filled her up again.*

Aijou nodded, still gazing after L'Valin's carriage. *Naien and I have spoken of her often these last few days, Amani... And you were right, she does understand. I am glad for that...* he said, then turned his head to smiled down at Amani. *Naien says that because she and I both owe L'Valin so much... We shall name our first filly after her.*

Amani smiled. *That is a lovely thought, Aijou,* she replied, and together, they turned and walked back to the camp.

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Chapter One<<<<