Garden 1

A good friend and loyal fan performed a different kind of creative act recently, in giving birth to her first child on December 4th. While nothing in Garden is the fault of mother or daughter, they were certainly in my thoughts while I was writing most of this. So, with my love and gratitude… I hope the little one lets you have time to read and enjoy this, Benni! :-) ~Steph


“There has to be an easier way,” Madoc muttered under his breath, but nonetheless, he continued to gather leafy stalks of the plant Kieran had pointed out, laying them neatly in the basket Kaveri had made.

Nearby, Kaveri happily splashed about in the shallow water near the wooden bridge across the narrow river. Those quick clever paws found the most astonishing things in wet mud, sometimes things she ate when Lirit’s phase meant she needed it, sometimes local coins or more interesting treasures that could be sold when they next reached civilization. A nomadic life was turning out to have complications that had never occurred to Tyrel.

Tyrel himself, fox-form, nosed around the edge of the more wooded and brushy area that bordered the river and road. Sometimes things were dropped near paths, too, not only over bridges. His memory for scents, as it turned out, was very good, so once Kaveri or Kieran had shown him a plant that had some value, he could spot it again. Either way, it was some help, sometimes.

Grass, young maple, that green plant with the white flowers and acid scent, grass, young maple, prickly brush, old scent of rabbits…

Still, Kieran’s experience and Kaveri’s various skills, from scavenging to making baskets, tended to do much better at providing goods and services they could sell than anything Tyrel or Madoc could offer, just as blatantly as they did better at providing for the quartet between settlements. It was certainly a lesson in humility. At least over the winter, when Kieran had found them a couple of rooms to rent in a town, the brothers had been able to work off some of that frustration—although basic physical labour had been new and not entirely welcome.

Squirrel cache, bird droppings, white-flowered-thing, dead branch, mouse hole under branch, old scent of weasel…

Already deeply unsettled by the changes in his life, Tyrel found his current level of dependency fed into his often morose reflections. People on this side of the Valdet River knew about the forts and cities, more than the forts knew about them. The problem was, they saw the forts as filled with belligerent thugs and the cities as amoral and avaricious, all existing in a mutually-parasitic co-dependent mire. Worse, Tyrel couldn’t really refute it. The first time someone took as a joke Tyrel’s reference to his birthplace, refusing to believe it because Tyrel was too courteous, marked the last time Tyrel admitted to it. Other people saw the forts and cities as a lesson in what not to do. They had no collective name for themselves, but others called the area Plegamond, which translated into one local language roughly as uncivilized. The term didn’t include the Forest and its forager tribes.

Owl pellets, white-flowered-thing, young maple, old human blood, linen with old human scents, mouse piss, big shiny active beetle…

Kieran kept reassuring them that they’d learn more skills, that they had plenty of time, but whether that much time was really a blessing, Tyrel hadn’t yet decided. And why Kaveri didn’t outright hate both him and Madoc was an absolute…

Wait, what?

Tyrel jerked his thoughts back to the task at hand, but it took him a moment to track down the source of the smells. The overhanging boughs of the mature maples blocked Talir’s light here; he ventured far enough towards open ground to be able to see Talir and change back to human, and returned.

The linen, carefully extricated from the dirt and leaves, turned out to be a handkerchief, very fine quality but now badly stained by exposure. He’d detected faded but still perceptible smells of a woman and, even more faintly, a man; probably Kieran could pull more detail than that from the scents.

Near it, not deliberately buried but with more leaves and dirt drifted halfway over it, was a slim metal blade. Unearthed, the gleam of gold showed through the soil covering the hilt, all the more yellow in his faintly topaz-tinted night vision. Most of the blade was harmlessly dull, but it bore a lethally sharp point with edges for a finger’s width up each side. No cross-guard at all, and the hilt was so intricately worked it didn’t even look like a hilt anymore, no good at all for grip or control. Not all the stains on the blade were from lying out here, though. Useless as it looked, he’d smelled blood traces on it quite distinctly.

He took both down to the water’s edge. Kaveri looked up and came over to investigate, chittering inquisitively as she sniffed at them.

“Found them in the trees,” Tyrel said. “Whoever owns them is probably not coming back now, they were underneath enough leaves and dirt that they’ve been here for a while.”

Kaveri changed back to human, kneeling in the shallows, currently in her preferred next-to-nothing wrapped loincloth and halter. “I think you’re right. And that’s a wonderful find. There’s always someone willing to buy rags, but that knife looks like it’s worth a lot.” She gave him a quick one-armed hug.

“It might be best to wait a town or two before we try to sell it,” Madoc said, joining them. “Just in case it’s recognized and someone wants to reclaim it. Our word that you found it won’t mean much against a local saying it was stolen. Well, clean it up, and let’s take a look. Unless you want to try to use whatever smells are on it to track down whoever left it behind?” The final question’s tone was unmistakably sardonic, and probably directed more at Kaveri than Tyrel.

“Or whoever got stabbed with it,” Tyrel said. “There’s blood on the blade. You’d probably only get one shot on sheer surprise, but I bet this little toy could put a hole in someone that’d get their attention.”

“True. It’s long enough to kill, if you hit just the right spot and had some luck on your side.”

“For someone not a fighter,” Kaveri said thoughtfully, “it might give them a chance to get away if they were attacked. You could hide the blade of that in any of a few places, especially in upper-class women’s styles around here, and it would just look like an ornament.”

“The other thing smells like a woman, mostly,” Tyrel said.

“I don’t suppose we’ll ever know what happened to whoever it used to belong to or whoever the blood belongs to.”

“At this point, who cares?” Madoc asked. “Poking around would probably get us no answers and a lot of trouble.”

Kaveri sighed. “Agreed, although it would be fascinating to understand the story behind it. Kieran said there’s a trade city associated with this garden we’re on our way to, and that should be far enough away for no questions. Well, let’s clean it up and see it properly.”

A chance find had the potential to bring them a substantial amount of ready coin, which made travelling more comfortable and more interesting than simply staying out of sight and moving steadily east. So why didn’t Tyrel feel any better?

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