As the sun rose higher and the day warmed, they threw open the shutters to air out the tainted heavy atmosphere. It made it far easier to breathe.
In fact, with bodies and bedding and air all clean, and sunlight trickling in, the building scarcely looked like the same place.
One of the ten exhausted figures sleeping near the fire woke in the afternoon with a gasp of horror, and immediately scrambled to check on the others.
“It’s all right,” Kaveri said soothingly. “We spoke to Nessa. We are here to help you. Rest there.” She collected a basin of water to wash in, a rag, a clean chemise, and a mug of tea, and brought them all to the stunned woman. A man next to her had roused in response, and she fetched the same for him, then gave them space to make use of it.
They approached her as she was finishing with another of the bedridden, and waited until she stood up.
“I don’t know who you two are,” the man said, “or why you’re here. You’ve made an enormous difference already. Whatever else happens, we thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Kaveri said. “Please, just rest and save your strength.”
“These are our family and our friends,” the woman said. “We can help, if only by encouraging them to drink. The drink you made… oh, it tastes lovely, after being so dry…”
“You need it, too. Drink. I’ll make more. There is barley water, and soup soon. Do not tire yourselves.”
“We know.” She sighed deeply. Kaveri doubted she was out of her twenties, but her sallow skin, gauntness, bruises, and lank brittle hair made her look aged. “We haven’t had even the strength to open and close the shutters.”
As the others of the relatively able-bodied roused, they helped each other get cleaned up and to drink. They made circuits through the bedridden, helping them to sip at the tea and the barley water. Shallow basins and bowls were pressed into service to help avoid re-soiling the bedding.
As the sun lowered, Kaveri and Kieran closed the shutters again to keep the interior warm.
Tyrel and Madoc returned in the deep twilight. A badly-tended but willing pony drew a small wagon for them, piled high.
“I need meat,” Kaveri told Tyrel. “Grouse, partridge, quail, something of the kind, whatever’s available here.”
He nodded. “As soon as Talir’s up. So, how’s it going here?”
“Kieran knows exactly what to do. Things are already much better.” She waved to the piles of discarded bedding and straw. “I think we’re going to have to just burn that, I can’t imagine how we could ever get it clean. How were the farms?”
“Some dead bodies,” Madoc said. “Mostly too decayed to move easily, so for now, we left them. We grabbed anything that could possibly be useful, brought the best, and left anything else piled next to the road. Living livestock we did the same as for the sheep before, and marked the place at the road. Saw some cats, let a few out of buildings. The ones already out seem to be doing better on their own than they would be otherwise, and none of them wanted to be touched, so we let them be. No surviving pets otherwise, think all the dogs have gathered together. We left a sheep that probably died yesterday by the barricade, the dogs’ll sniff it out.”
“Thanks. We’ve made a good beginning, but I think we have a long battle ahead still, and we need resources. Can you take over helping Kieran? I’ll take a look through what you found, and then go foraging. Clean up first, please, there’s plenty of hot water.”
Tyrel turned the pony loose with a bucket of water and a pile of hay; the pony ate contentedly, clearly with no desire to go anywhere anytime soon. While waiting for moonrise, he helped Kaveri sort out their finds.
Much of the food they’d found was too heavy for current use, but Kaveri organized it all, keeping it on the wagon and off the ground. The clean bedding she had Tyrel pile on the cart she and Kieran had used, nearer the door. There was more barley, though, and other grains and flour, some root vegetables, some fruit preserves in pottery jars sealed with wax, bundles of herbs, assorted jars of honey and honeycomb, jars of the local cooking oil, a basket of rather wrinkled apples, another basket with long chains of hard dry sausages and one full of rounds of cheese. It would at least be a beginning, once the villagers were able to eat again, although it wouldn’t last them long.
“There’s Talir,” Tyrel said. He unbuckled his katari and laid them on the wagon, shifted to fox, and trotted off into the shadows.
“Be careful of the dogs! Don’t do anything stupid, we need you!” Kaveri called after him, and the white tip of his tail flicked an acknowledgement.
Kaveri chose a basket, emptied it, and went foraging.
Near the barricade they’d passed on the way in, she could hear a great deal of snarling and snapping—the hungry dogs fighting over the sheep carcass, presumably. Warily, she gave them a wide berth.
Making enough tea and barley water and broth to nourish the sick, searching out clean straw for pallets and firewood to keep the fires burning, drawing water, helping to keep them clean and as comfortable as possible, removing the bodies of the handful who died, took all the time she had, and left little opening to think about anything else. Nessa and the others all worsened over the next couple of days, leaving only the four of them still functional.
Tyrel and Madoc kept Kaveri supplied with wild fowl and a few escaped domestic ones; Madoc left the innards and scraps in places he said there were concentrations of cats. They slaughtered one goat that was suffering from injuries probably caused by the inexperienced hunting attempts of the dogs, and deposited it across the village from the hall where the humans were.
That didn’t stop the dogs from approaching, closer and closer. Had she believed that they were pets looking for reassurance, Kaveri might have been more sanguine about it, but these were working animals, bred to protect property and to hunt pests—ironically enough, foxes and raccoons were probably common targets along with weasels and rats—and they’d had time to turn feral enough to form a pack. Even with some food being provided, they were probably hungry. Tyrel reported twice that he’d had narrow escapes while hunting, saved only by human strategy and the moonlight, and Madoc had one that, he said regretfully, left one dog dead.
While bathing one woman, Kaveri noticed that the fierce heat no longer radiated from her body. To her delight, the woman sipped eagerly, if warily, at the broth Kaveri brought her, and fell asleep afterwards without any sign of the delirium and fever-dreams the villagers had all suffered.
That was the first. No one else died, and gradually, others began to recover as well. Kaveri redoubled her efforts at providing gentle nourishment. Tyrel and Madoc and Kieran hunted every night, and they all wove masses of bedding and chemises to replace the soiled ones that they burned, though as the moons waned, it all became gradually more tiring to do, and they needed more sleep and a share of the food themselves.
Thinking ahead, Kaveri dried any meat she didn’t use immediately and all of the fish Madoc provided from somewhere. The peas, cabbages, turnips, onions, garlic, and carrots that comprised the bulk of the gardens would all be fine as they ripened, but she did what she could to repair the brambly hedges that protected them from wildlife; the grains were beyond her, but she asked Tyrel and Madoc to fill as many baskets with apples as they could. Rounding up abandoned or escaped livestock was an ongoing project, but gradually, they collected sheep and a few goats and ponies all onto a single farm just outside the village where they could protect and feed them.
Saving lives now would be meaningless if they all starved. Kieran said the local government would assist, once the risk of contagion had passed, but as she saw it, they didn’t know how many settlements had fallen ill or where the government would get the resources to feed everyone, so she continued her own work, and the brothers did as she asked.
The villagers, even as they recovered, remained quiet and withdrawn; all too often, Kaveri saw people weeping. They’d lost children, parents, siblings, mates, friends, and nearly died themselves, and she suspected that it would take much longer for their minds and hearts to heal than their bodies.
Tyrel returned from a hunting trip one night to report that there was a party of a dozen people, all but two in what looked like military uniforms, camped no more than half a day further down the road.
“Then I think,” Kieran said, “it is time for us to depart. Those will be government forces. Everything you are wearing that you can, unmake it and replace it. Everything else, and yourselves, wash thoroughly in hot water.”
With that done, Kaveri banked the outdoor fire to be certain it would last, and made sure there was soup and barley water and tea simmering; then they left the village, avoiding the roads, heading cross-country.
“I hope they’ll be all right,” Kaveri said softly.
“They’re through the worst,” Kieran said. “They’ll have help to pick up the pieces. Many more, possibly all, would have died without our intervention, be proud of that.”
“It makes up a bit for some civilians killed for no good reason,” Tyrel said. “So, hey-ho, off we go, noble heroes who stay for no thanks or reward. We won’t be travelling as fast as we were for weeks, until the moons come back into synch, so I guess we should get hiking.”
And that wraps up this short adventure! Feb 6 we’ll be starting a longer one. What happens when they pass through a town that’s having some serious internal problems and a lot of ordinary people are suffering as a result? Stay tuned for Convictions! As always, comments are welcome! ~Steph