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


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Amani stopped in her slow walk through the forest, and pointed with a hoof to the clearing before her. She held out her other hoof to Ayori, who reached out a paw to touch it lightly. *There. In that clearing is where I sensed it.* she thought, her mind-voice a quiet whisper in Ayori's mind. *He is nearby, somewhere close... There, I believe.* At seven feet in height, typical for a mare, Amani could easily see what she was pointing at. Ayori, however, was a mustie, not a horse, and as such was only a bit over three feet tall - the grasses and bushes of the clearing were between him and what Amani was seeing.

Ayori nodded, and cast his expert gaze over the clearing. After a moment, he spotted it - a young buck, caught by a tree. It was obvious what had happened to his experienced eye, even from a casual glance. The buck had an itch on the velvet covering what was, most likely, his first pair of antlers. He went to scratch it, and got stuck, his antler trapped in the oddly-shaped crotch of an old oak. Ayori looked him over from a distance. 'He's still alert. Most likely he's been here less than a day,' he thought in reply, and slipped his hatchet from his belt. Ayori crouched, and began to silently slip up on the young, helpless buck.

Amani stood quietly, waiting. She knew where Ayori was - though if she had not kept an eye on his small, furtive movements through the bushes, he would have completely vanished to her eyes, and would only be sensed by his carnivore's mind. Such were all musties, really - in the forest, one could look at a mustie, blink, and they would be gone. Amani could sense in Ayori's mind that he had shifted to his 'hunting mode,' and was quietly creeping up on the buck without the animal ever knowing he was around. Amani was not concerned for the buck's life, however. Ayori had not come here to kill it - though even if he had, Amani would not have thought ill of him.

Amani now understood that the ways of the carnivorous musties, while not those of the herbivorous horses, were necessary for their survival. The musties could not eat soft grasses and tender leaves - they would die. Their bodies could only live on meat and organs - though a few sweet berries and fruits were palatable to them, they could not live on them. Such was the way the Last God made them, and Amani now knew that Ayori could no more change this than he could flap his arms and fly over the moon.

Suddenly, the wind shifted, and Amani held her breath. Were the buck to smell Ayori's approach, it might panic and injure itself. Ayori was, in the end, a predator - and a rather dangerous little predator, at that. Amani listened carefully with her mind, sensing the buck's mind. As an animal, not a sentient being, it's mind was tiny - a small, flickering candle compared to the brilliant flame of a sentient being. In a moment, she relaxed. The buck could not smell him. Amani scolded herself for having worried - musties had almost no scent at all (unless, of course, they were dirty). This was one of their greatest advantages in hunting. Very few larger creatures could smell them at any distance - though the keen nose of their main prey, rabbits, could, having been honed by ten millennia of mustie predation.

There was one time of year, however, when they did have a scent.

Amani smiled, remembering. During mating season, the little scent gland at the base of a mustie's tail became active. To Amani's nose, the scent of the females was unremarkable - but the scent of the males was quite interesting, indeed. Amani found it very strange that she, an herbivore, should find Ayori's male scent interesting, but she did. She supposed that it was another advantage of theirs - their musk had an attraction to nearly every mammal that smelled it (though prey animals that escaped their hunts quickly learned to avoid the scent). Amani smiled at the memory of those short two weeks last winter. She had been pleasantly surprised to learn Ayori was a marvelous lover. Even though he was not a horse, and as such did not have the ability to sense her mind, he still somehow always knew what would please her. More, the musties coupled for two or three hours at a stretch, and during mating season, often coupled three to five times a day for two weeks. It had been a thrilling, intoxicating experience - made all the more pleasant both by the fire and passion she sensed in his mind, and by the discovery that Ayori enjoyed coupling with her out-of-season, as well.

Again, as it had countless times since last fall when they first consummated their relationship in the darkness of his quiet burrow, the thought of becoming Ayori's mate crossed her mind. He was a wonderful lover, and a darling friend. True, he was less than half her size, but the fire and passion in his heart was as great as any stallion among her people. He had also led her through so much, and helped her grow so much these last six months.

Amani now could communicate with carnivores, something none of her people had succeeded at doing before. She now understood the carnivores of Oerth far better than she ever had before, and perhaps, far better than any of her people really ever had before. He even had helped her get over her fear of tiny, small places, leading her into his den, where he shared the warmth of his heart and hearth with her. While she found she had to crawl on her belly inside, and at first was so terrified it was difficult to breathe, now she found it was a lovely little place. She often wanted to help with the house-cleaning and the other details of his life inside his home, but really, there was little she could do. She simply was too large to move about in his house. So, instead, she would simply lie in his living room, the largest room in his little house, and let Ayori move about as he needed - cleaning, spending time with her, and making sweet, passionate love to her in the quiet hours of the evening. Yes, he had taught her much - and yet, there was still so much more.

The history, legends, knowledges and skills of his people he had shared with her, quietly sitting with her each day last winter, their minds linked, and recalling everything carefully under her direction. Amani's people had no books - the aphasic minds of the horse-people could not grasp either spoken or written language in any way. Speech was mere sound, a meaningless babble, and writing was mere scribbles, meaningless scratching. Instead, they communicated with each other directly, mind to mind. Thus, instead of books or oral traditions, the horses exchanged memories to pass on knowledge, handing down experiences that were, in some cases, millennia old. Amani herself knew all of her own people's history and legends, and all the skills her mother knew before she was four summers old. Still, the legends and skills of the musties was a mountain compared to the molehill of knowledge of her people, who had never needed to develop any sophisticated technology simply because they could eat anything green, and out-run nearly anything that threatened them. More, she knew from Ayori's mind that the knowledge of the mice and the mus were each even greater mountains, vast and impressive to Ayori and his people - and they had only begun to learn it all.

Yes, Ayori meant so much to Amani - lover, friend, teacher... But mate? This, she could not tell. She knew from Ayori's mind that he had thought about it, yet he had never asked. There was still one great complication, one last hurdle to cross, before such a thing might become possible - their diets.

Amani found it was almost unbearable to be near Ayori when he killed - the silent, mental death-screams of the creatures he killed chilled her to the bone, and she still found, at times, that watching him eat meat was a nauseating experience. And, because of the beliefs of her people, she sometimes found she could not eat grass anywhere near a kill site - blood, her people believed, soiled and tainted the grass, and stained the souls of those who ate of it. She knew it was an irrational belief, yet she could not shake it. Ayori, in turn, could see her reaction on her face, and he knew that she had not completely adjusted to his carnivorous habits. Yet, he could not change - his people could not eat grass and leaves and roots, they would die. By the same token, she could not live on a diet of meat - she would die. So, this remained between them. Ayori had tried hiding his diet from her, and concealing his smile as the musties once did for the mice - but Amani told him not to do that. She knew that the only possible solution was for her to see him and his people without barriers or concealment, and get used to it, if she could.

More, Amani knew she had to get used to it. Amani was a seer among her people, gifted with mental abilities an order of magnitude greater than the norm for her people. It was her seer's abilities which had allowed her to slip away from the cats a year ago, though her escape cost her brother and sister their lives. Now, her seer's vision told her that someday soon, many of her people would be in the lands of the mus. She had to learn how to adapt to living beside a carnivore, so she could share this knowledge with her people. If she failed, her people might fail, as well - and that could not be allowed. There was, in the end, nowhere else they could go.

Yes, while there were vast grasslands beyond the great mountains to the south, Amani knew her people's future did not lie there. If they did go there, then the other races of Oerth would continue to grow in knowledge and power without them. If that happened, then a few lifetimes from now, perhaps only a dozen lifetimes, her people would be mere stone-age primitives, gazing upon the glittering stars above in the ebon bowl of night, their hearts filled both with awe and regret at their lost chance as the other races of Oerth scattered their seed among the heavens.

Thus, Ayori had not asked her to be his mate, and she had not asked him. There remained still more she had to learn before that could ever happen - and when Amani turned her inner eye to the question, she knew she was on the only path that would lead to her people's future happiness.

Amani blinked at a sudden rush of movement, looking up again. In a flash, Ayori had leaped up from where he had stealthily advanced on the buck, scrambled up the tree, and began whacking the crotch of the gnarled oak with his hatchet. The buck snorted in fear, struggling mightily - and suddenly, the weakened wood gave way, sending him sprawling onto the ground. The buck scrambled to his feet as Ayori leaped to the ground, his paw flashing to his belt, the axe-blade glittering in the sunlight as it fell to the ground, forgotten. Ayori pulled out his bola, twirling it rapidly over his head, then flicking it our horizontally across the ground just as the buck turned to flee. In a moment, the buck sprawled on the ground again, his rear legs entangled. Ayori leaped upon him, and Amani blanched. She had seen him hunt deer before - this was the moment he normally would draw his knife and slit the deer's throat, then leap off it nimbly, letting it thrash out it's life in bloody agony.

Ayori did not kill the deer, however - that was not his purpose here. The musties didn't merely hunt the animals of the forest, they also counted them, watching the ebb and flow of their numbers, harvesting them carefully to maintain their populations both for their benefit, and that of the musties themselves. This buck was, by the code the musties applied to hunting larger game, too young to die. Instead, Ayori pulled out a leather thong, and in a moment, the buck's legs were tied together, and it was helpless. He then sat on it, and waited.

The buck struggled for several minutes, then finally stopped, exhausted. Amani stepped up to Ayori, and sat beside the buck, holding out her fore-hoof. Ayori reached across, the fingertips of a paw lightly resting on her extended fore-hoof, and smiled to her.

"Well, what do you think?" he asked, heedless of the gasping buck beneath him.

Amani glanced at the velvet over the buck's growing left horn. *His velvet is torn a bit, and he is bleeding freely from the wound, but the damage seems minor. He is exhausted from struggling to escape you, and both very hungry and very thirsty. He has not realized that you will not eat him - he still fears you greatly.*

Ayori grinned. "He should - if he'd been a year older, I'd have brought him home to the cookpot," Ayori replied, and reached into his pocket. "Would you hold his head, please? We usually do this with three or four musties - but I think you can manage it."

Amani nodded, smiling, and placed her fore-hooves on the buck's head. In a moment, the buck's head was held fast to the frogs of her fore-hooves, the power of her mind manifest. The buck struggled again, but Amani was a horse - a full-grown mare, in fact - and was simply stronger than him. She easily held him steady, waiting for Ayori.

Ayori slipped the jar of bloodmoss unguent from his pocket, opening it carefully, and scooped out a dollop onto his fingertips. Whistling a happy little mustie-tune, he applied it to the torn velvet on the buck's antler. "We used to just bandage things like this, and hope it didn't get infected. Now, with the bloodmoss the mus taught us how to make, we can do far better."

The buck blinked, startled, and stopped struggling - the sharp pain from his torn velvet had instantly ceased.

"There," Ayori said, capping the jar and slipping it back into his pocket again. "That should do - the bloodmoss should help the velvet heal properly, so his antler can grow properly beneath it again, without infections." Ayori then hopped to his feet, and with a practiced paw, grabbed hold of the buck's legs. "Alright - let go of his head and back away - once I finally turn him loose, he'll swing his legs around a lot, and his hooves might hurt."

Amani nodded, releasing the buck, then rose to her feet and stepped back. Ayori carefully unwrapped his bola from the buck's legs, leaving the thong restraining him, then dropped the bola back in his pockets again. Drawing his knife, he slipped it beneath the thong, then, in a swift motion, cut the thong and leaped back.

True to Ayori's warning, the buck flailed wildly with his legs, trying to scramble back to his feet, his sharp hooves whipping through the air where Ayori's head had been a moment before. Then, a heartbeat later, the buck was on it's feet, and bounding off into the forest.

"And don't catch your antler in a tree next year, you silly little twit, or I'll eat you!" Ayori shouted after the fleeing buck, and grinned, scooping his hatchet up from the ground and slipping it beneath his belt again. It took far greater skill to capture, subdue and then release the buck than it would have to simply kill it, harvesting it's meat for his tribe. Ayori was one of the greatest hunters of his tribe, an accomplishment he was rightfully proud of. Amani sensed the pride at his accomplishment glowing in his mind, and yet also sensed his gratitude towards her for her help. Amani smiled, stepping forward slightly to watch the buck's white tail bounce between the trees and vanish. She felt a light touch on the frog of her left fore-hoof, Ayori's fingers lightly stroking the tough, fleshy pad.

"Thank you for your help, Amani." he said simply, his heart filled with warmth for her.

*You are welcome, Ayori.* she thought back, and glanced over her shoulder to smile down at him.

"Well, now I have to hunt up some dinner, or I'll go hungry tonight." he said, and Amani nodded. Though Amani lived with him, sharing his life as though she was his mate, technically, she was not. That meant that he had to eat with the unmated adults from the communal cookpot in the center of the village. By the rough code the musties lived under, if he brought nothing to the cookpot, he got nothing to eat. More, the fact that Ayori had not taken Amani as his mate, and instead remained with the single musties each night by the cookpot for dinner was beginning to cause a bit of a stir. While there were a few female musties interested in Ayori, they did not approach him, simply because it was obvious that he was in love with Amani. Yet, the fact that he had not taken her as his mate was causing quite a bit of whispered speculation, and some of it at Ayori's expense. Ayori pretended to ignore it, but Amani knew from his mind that it bothered him. Yet, she had no solution, at the moment.

*I will meet you back at the village, then, my little love.* she replied, the buck finally slipping out of her mental range. She knew it would be alright - it's fear had already been fading as it put more and more distance between itself and Ayori.

Ayori glanced at Amani's rump, as it was just before his face, and grinned impishly. Her buttocks, like the rest of her cream-white hide, were covered with little brown spots - though they were most prominent on her rump. Dressed as she was in the traditional garment of her people, which left little to the imagination, Ayori found her quite stimulating to look at. "Of course, I could just take a bite of this. It looks quite delicious..." he said, and pretended to nip at her buttock.

Amani whinnied with laughter. *You'd have to catch me, first,* she replied, and flicked the long hair of her tail playfully across his muzzle, then sprinted away.

A whirling sound cut the air as Amani ran, and suddenly she found her feet were tangled. She stumbled, slipping to her knees in the soft grass, and suddenly something leaped on her from behind. In a heartbeat, her fore-hooves were tied behind her back, and her feet were firmly tied together. Amani whinnied, startled, as Ayori sat astride her back.

Amani looked over her shoulder, to see Ayori grinning impishly at her, his fangs flashing in the sunlight. She struggled for a moment nervously, and found she could not escape. This only made Ayori grin more broadly.

"My, my... Look what I caught. Why, I bet I could feed the whole village on you." he said, reaching back to pat her rump.

For a brief moment, Amani was afraid. Even though she knew he meant her no harm, Ayori was a carnivore. Amani, as an herbivore, instinctively feared him. Her people had spent countless aeons fleeing carnivores, and had spent the last several centuries in the thrall of the felines of Oerth, who also were carnivores.

Then, as she felt his mind, her fear ebbed. Ayori meant her no harm - she could tell from his thoughts. Far from it - he was just playing. He was also aroused by her, and Amani could sense the love he had for her in his mind, a sparkling, brilliant flare of emotion. She struggled again for a moment - she still could not escape. Ayori truly was a skilled hunter, and he had captured her as easily as he had the deer, without harming her in any way.

Ayori rose, slipping a paw beneath her shoulder, and helped her roll over with a gentle touch. Amani suddenly found she was inexplicably thrilled to be helpless before Ayori, helpless before a dangerous little carnivore. Ayori grinned, seeing her expression, and slowly lowered his muzzle. He nuzzled her lovingly for a moment, then grinned again. "Or, perhaps, I should eat you all myself," he said, then opening his muzzle wide. Gently, he slipped his muzzle over her throat, teasing her with his sharp teeth, his tongue flickering over her soft skin.

Amani nickered softly, and found she was powerfully aroused. She knew Ayori could smell her arousal with his sensitive, carnivore's nose, and in his mind, she sensed that he, too, was aroused by the moment. Ayori leaned back, smiling, and ran a paw over her forehead, brushing aside her mane to reveal the painted eye that marked her as being a seer among her people.

Suddenly, Amani blinked. At the edge of her range, she could sense a new mind - and a powerful one. She looked to Ayori, her expression serious. *Wait, my little love... Someone is coming.*

Ayori paused, hearing her voice as he touched her head, then nodded. Gently turning her on her side, he loosened the bola and the thongs which bound her, and helped her sit up again. He rubbed her wrists gently, waiting while she reached out with her mind.

*One of my people has entered the Laughing Wood, a mare. She is a seer, like me... And yet not. She is from another of my people's clans,* Amani said, then paused for a moment, reaching out with her mind. *She is lost in the woods, and fears the musties... She does not know them, and can only tell that they are carnivores... Her mind is troubled... There is a great sadness within her... And a great darkness... She senses me, now... We are each at the limit of the other's range... She is about three leagues from here, a league north of your village. She is calling to me... Calling for me to help her,* Amani said, then looked to Ayori. *I must meet with her.*

"I'll tell Byarl another horse is coming," Ayori replied, nodding.

*But you need to catch your dinner, my little love!*

Ayori smiled. "I've gone hungry before, it won't hurt me to do so again. And I've gone without... Other things," he said, glancing down at the thongs and bola he had set beside him, then at Amani, his eartips warming in a blush.

Amani nickered softly, then leaned forward and nuzzled Ayori lovingly as he held her fore-hooves. *As for the former, my little love, once I have met with this mare, I will fetch that little basket you made for me last fall, and see if I might gather a few berries for you before nightfall. Gooseberries are coming into season again, and you like those, yes?*

Ayori grinned. "Yes, very much, thank you."

*Good. And as for the latter... Well, we shall see what happens in your little burrow, this evening,* Amani said, then grinned wickedly at Ayori. *And bring your little thongs, Ayori Treeclimber. That was... Quite interesting.*

Ayori blinked in surprise as Amani scrambled to her feet. With a whinny of laughter, she flicked his muzzle with the long hair of her tail, and sprinted away again. Ayori stared for a moment, then grinned at the sight of her retreating buttocks, her tail held high and proud. 'I will, Amani of the Blue Wind Clan,' he thought at her back, knowing she could hear him. 'And I found it interesting, too.' With a smile, Ayori tucked his sling and thongs into his pocket again, rose to his feet, and began trotting back to the village.

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