After a long moment, the door cracked open, just enough for Kaveri to see a bloodshot and bruised eye and a lock of tangled and greasy dark hair. The smell of death and human vomit and feces was partially masked by the scent of something she couldn’t quite name, a mild green fragrant sort of odour. “There’s nothing here to steal.” The inflection differed a bit, but it sounded much like the language used in the city-states; not fluent in it, Kaveri had picked up enough of it to more or less function.
“We are not here to steal anything,” Kieran said from behind Kaveri, pitching his voice to one she’d heard him use with a frightened animal. “We are travelling with two other friends. We stopped to help.”
The laugh that answered him was harsh and had a manic edge. “Then you’re mad. You’ll get sick too. Most of the village is far beyond any help.”
“And those who are not? Is there you only? Do you have food, water, medicine, firewood, bedding? Enough hands to care for the sick and prepare food? We will do what we can, but we need to know what you need most immediately so we know where to begin.”
There was no reply for so long that Kaveri began to worry the person on the other side had died or passed out standing there, eyes still open.
“You’re serious,” the other said at last. “Why? No, I don’t care why. It doesn’t matter. Even if you have ulterior motives, we have nothing left to lose.” The door opened the rest of the way.
The one speaking was a woman, her clothes hanging loose on her gaunt frame, deep bruises around her eyes and mottling much of her skin, her shoulder-length hair lank and unkempt.
Behind her, in a large room, were pallets in rows on the floor. Dozens of them. Two figures were upright, one tending to a pot hanging over the fireplace at the far end, the other leaning over someone lying flat.
“Three of you alone?” Kaveri asked.
The woman shook her head. “There are ten of us still able to move. I made a rule early on, that we have to take it in turns so we can rest.” She blinked. “We’re all so very tired. I was afraid if we did too much, we’d all collapse and there would be no one at all.”
“That was very wise,” Kieran said. “I’m Kieran. This is Kaveri, and these are Madoc and Tyrel. Are all the survivors here?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been so busy with the ones who came here when this started, and I’ve had no one to send to search. Early on, some were checking the farms, but I don’t know…”
“Do you have clean water?”
The woman gestured to the well. “We’ve been boiling it. Drawing it is difficult, but at least it’s close.”
That made her sigh. “We’ve scavenged what we can from nearby houses. We’re very low on it, though. Especially things that people can keep down.”
“I’m sorry. I’m the local apothecary, Nessa. I cleaned out everything I have for fever, vomiting, diarrhea, bruising. I’ve been out for days. It wasn’t entirely effective even when I did have it, but it was some help.”
“Low, but not out.”
Kieran nodded, and looked behind him at the pair in the doorway. In their own language he said, “Tyrel, Madoc, start searching house by house for survivors, and collect any food or anything that might be medicine, any clean bedding, and mark any house that has firewood or anything else that might be useful. Surviving livestock and pets may need to be rescued, but take care, they may be aggressive from fear or hunger. Start outside the village itself. Anything you can find that those dogs will eat, leave it out for them. They’re more dangerous if they’re hungry.” Back to the local language, he explained, “They’ll find survivors and supplies. Kaveri, let’s see what we can do.”
Nessa introduced them to her two assistants, though even that was clearly an effort. What supplies they had were all gathered near the fireplace; Kieran, very gently but with no room for refusal, sent the trio to rest.
“We need to get as much liquid as possible into these people,” Kieran said. “Vomiting and diarrhea will rob their bodies of fluids, and that will kill even those who might otherwise live.”
“We could build a couple of fires outside,” Kaveri said. “If we can find large pots, I can make soup—I can forage for ingredients if necessary. Depending on what’s around, I can try for very mild tea.”
“I want to find as much clean bedding as possible, there are a great many people lying in their own waste. They need to be bathed and have that bedding changed.” He flashed her a smile. “Do not expect a chance to rest for some time. Best we take advantage of the moonlight first. There will not be enough bedding or clothing available for the number inside. With luck, we will find enough clean straw to fill pallets with.”
As rapidly as they could, imitating the coarse local fabric as much as possible, Kieran wove yellow light into the simple unisex chemises worn under clothing locally, and Kaveri wove violet light into the large rectangular bags that were filled with straw to sleep on here. They made enough for everyone within and several extras of both, piling them neatly to one side of the door.
“That will do for the moment,” Kieran said finally. “Now, let us see what we have available that we cannot make. The tavern will have some of what we need.”
In the tavern, they found a few large pots and a pair of even larger cauldrons. The shed out back held several huge copper pots and some bronze-bound wooden barrels. Kieran sniffed at one of the coarse sacks leaning against one wall.
“Barley, good. Boiled, the water will be healthy and gentle.”
Onto a cart that was probably normally drawn by a pony, they piled cookware, mugs and bowls, spoons, barley, the scanty foodstuffs remaining, anything that could be used as firewood, every bit of household bedding and every chemise they could find. The two of them could pull it, and it made the process of scavenging from nearby buildings much more efficient. Often, they found bread that was well past anything a human would care to eat, meat and cheese that was spoiling or insect-infested, and tossed it outside where the dogs could dispose of it and make a start at filling bellies much better able to digest it.
Always, the dogs watched. The cats that would be responsible for vermin control, even if some had relatively comfortable lives in houses as companions as well, they saw only fleetingly, but there were at least a dozen dogs, all of them larger than Madoc in his bobcat form, and at any given moment, several pairs of eyes were on them. Kaveri heard squabbling behind them more than once over the food they’d left out, poor quality though it was, after they’d gone on. She ached for what they were going through, innocent victims just as much as the humans more directly stricken, but being innocent didn’t mean they weren’t potentially dangerous. So, she and Kieran both watched the dogs as intently as the dogs watched them.
They parked the cart in front of the large central building, which Kaveri presumed must be some sort of community hall or meeting place, and retrieved a second, smaller cart to toss the empty pallets onto. There was clean straw in several places they’d marked, and it would be easier to fill the pallets where the straw was than to haul loose straw here.
Under a sky beginning to pale, they constructed a rough framework to hold the cauldrons suspended, and built a fire beneath it. They drew water from the nearby well, and set it to heat in every pot they had, both in the hanging cauldrons and in pots placed around the fire’s edge. In one of the largest pots went a liberal amount of barley.
“You’re the best suited to devise something for them to eat from scarce resources,” Kieran said. “Consider that your primary responsibility.”
Not until much later did Kaveri have a chance to see what he was doing while she struggled to devise nourishing, palatable, mild fluids for the villagers. Each one he visited in turn, bathing them as best he could with a basin of fresh warm water and a clean rag, easing them out of a chemise invariably soiled with sweat and vomit and urine and feces and into a new one, lifting them gently from a fouled pallet to a clean one. Once there was barley water available, he supported each in drinking a little of it before leaving them to rest again, with a mug at hand to keep sipping. The piles grew quickly, one of the straw that had filled the pallets, one of bedding and chemises, and Kaveri wondered how they could ever hope to get them clean. Despite his piling them well away from her, and positioned so the wind wouldn’t blow from them to her, she could smell them.
Meanwhile, she searched the gardens of the closer houses for peppermint; to her delight, she found one garden that had raspberry bushes trained up the fence surrounding it. She tossed raspberry leaves, finely-chopped raspberry root, and peppermint leaves into one of the copper pots to steep to make stomach-soothing tea.
The third thing that would help would be meat broth—but though she had a few withered carrots and remembered seeing garlic in a garden, there was no usable meat at hand.
“There’s nothing else I can do at the moment,” she said reluctantly, the next time Kieran came outside. “I need meat. Grouse and the like are hard to hunt with a bola, and I’m not comfortable with snares when I don’t know the area well.”
Kieran nodded. “Our fox would do very well on those, but he’ll be human for the day, I imagine. This will do for the moment, if we can get them clean and begin to replenish the fluids they’ve lost then we’ll have made an excellent start. Come help me?”
It was heartbreaking work that she was sure would have been exhausting at a different moon-phase. Kieran left the women to her, but most of the sick were too drained and feverish to pay any heed to such niceties, or to care about her limited command of their language. They were so very grateful for the simple care that it brought tears to Kaveri’s eyes.
There were no children anywhere in the building. There were no elderly either. No pregnant women that she could tell—though whether there had been none when the plague struck or they miscarried or died, she didn’t know. Those who had made it this far had, she thought, been the strongest and healthiest adults.