(chapter continued from previous post)
They lost Madoc to a miniature stone castle, complete with tower. Strange creatures lived there, rather like gangly long-limbed humans no more than two feet tall, covered with fur but no clothing, who vocalized only in screeches and chattering. Kieran assured them that they were not any type of spirit, but living animals from a bit further south and east. Nonetheless, there was something intriguing about the whole large group of them living in a castle scaled to their size, and Tyrel could understand why his brother wanted to linger to watch them longer.
From Madoc’s chosen vantage, he couldn’t really see the gardener diligently scrubbing one outer wall clean of a sloppy mess of reds and yellows and greens, but the others could as they went on. Several of the odd creatures were attempting to get involved, but whether that could be considered useful assistance or not was unclear. The gardener seemed fond of them and treated them with remarkable patience, but Tyrel had the distinct sense that he was annoyed or frustrated, possibly not with his helpers.
“Fruit?” Kaveri said, puzzled. “Someone gathered a lot of bright fruits and something green, maybe duckweed, and flung it all over the wall? Another prank?”
“I suppose it must be,” Kieran said, but Tyrel saw how thoughtful his expression grew as he regarded the soiled wall.
Within a maze of tall dense hedges, they paused to discuss which way they should go. Kaveri insisted that, according to her direction sense, they should go left; Kieran, with amusement strong in his voice, suggested that she and Tyrel go left and he’d go right and they could all see who found their way first, and that if it was them, they shouldn’t wait for him.
If any mischief had been worked in the maze, they didn’t encounter it while happily wandering around. Tyrel didn’t know whether Kieran beat them to the exit, but he wasn’t there. It didn’t seem worth worrying about him, so they went on.
They paused in a sort of building that had no sides, only a wood-shingled roof with poles supporting it and a railing around most of the circumference, to buy a cup of sweet tangy juice, and sat there in the shade to share it.
Kaveri’s eyes were bright, her gestures animated, as she spoke about what they’d seen so far and what might yet lie ahead. To Tyrel, her obvious delight was far more important than anything about the garden, but he felt enough genuine interest to at least offer more than monosyllables in response.
Without Dunnval’s attack, she wouldn’t have had to watch her mother’s brother murdered in front of her, and wouldn’t have been dragged off to a fort in chains to spend two years as a thrall. How could she not hate everything that had ever been associated with that? And yet, he was fairly sure lying didn’t come easily to Kaveri, and away from Dunnval, surely she’d have no reason to. Her current mood, as far as he could tell, was absolutely real, even though she was sitting here with him. How did that make any sense?
How long would it take for the gnawing feeling of guilt for what he’d done to her and to other civilians to go away?
“All gone,” Kaveri said, and bounded to her feet, catching his hand in hers to tug him after her. “Let’s go see what else there is!” She returned the cup to the green-clad man at the little stand, and he smiled at her as she dragged Tyrel back out into the sun.
In a garden that was devoted all to senses other than sight, Tyrel discovered that he’d lost track of Kaveri as well. In this garden, though the plants and trees for the most part looked rather unassuming, he was surrounded by enticing aromas. Carved figures of stone or wood were worn smooth by countless stroking hands exploring their shapes. Water sang soft tunes as it danced over rock-strewn beds and small waterfalls, and hummed eerie tunes as it bubbled up through a tall elaborate fountain in the centre. Even the backs and arms of the benches were carved with designs that seemed to lure the fingers onward, a subtle sensual pleasure.
Mutterings that, judging by the tone, had more in common with profanity than peaceful enjoyment of the surroundings caught Tyrel’s attention, only a moment before he spotted the ladder set up under a tree. Despite the drab uniform, this gardener was hard to miss, some distance above the top of the ladder and struggling to untangle a long brightly-coloured cord that had been wound into and around the branches with impressive thoroughness.
Tyrel stopped in the shadow of a stone pillar with a carved snake wrapped around it. Stealth seemed to come naturally these days, and worked well with the ingrained instinct to always know what was going on—though the latter frequently was frustrated.
How had any human managed this particular prank? The cord was wound around thin twigs high in the tree, forcing the gardener to edge onto precariously slender branches in an attempt to reach. Even then, he had to cut the string and carefully tug and flick the short pieces free. A bird or a squirrel might be able to do such a thing, even Kaveri in her coon form could probably do much of it, but a human? None of the elevated walkways were remotely close enough to allow access from there, so… how?
Tyrel edged back a little farther as another gardener, this one older with broader shoulders and salt-and-pepper hair, approached—fortunately, from a different direction.
“Still at this one?” There was a distinct trace of anxiety in his voice. “We need all of it set to rights, before either the public or Umako starts to complain.”
The one up in the tree looked down, pausing only that long. “Unless I grow wings, then in the interests of doing no harm to the tree, I won’t be going any faster than I am. This is the same as the one we untangled from the orchard pavilion yesterday, it snags on everything but doesn’t easily break or cut.” His voice was surprisingly light, rather boyish for an adult. He went back to his meticulous efforts.
The elder heaved a sigh. “Do you want someone to help?”
“If someone good at climbing is available, I’d be grateful. I’d be even more grateful if we had any idea how to prevent it from happening again tonight. Or even what this stuff is.”
“You and I both, there. I’ll see who I can find. Keep trying.”
Now that’s interesting.
Still reflecting on what he’d just overheard, Tyrel retraced his steps, figuring Kaveri couldn’t have gotten all that far away in the amount of time since he’d last seen her.
I probably shouldn’t be surprised, he reflected, when he found her near the valley wall where water cascaded down a complex series of terraces and channels and small pools to a pond where water-lilies flourished. A switchback stairway led upwards, with a landing at each terrace, but Kaveri was still at ground level, at least for the moment, her attention on the brightly-coloured fish that flashed in and out of sight between the broad floating leaves.
She looked up and smiled. “Sorry, by the time I realized you’d gone a different way, you were out of sight, and I could hear water. Did you find something interesting?”
“A scent garden, I think. I’ve heard of them but never seen one before. I also heard something that I think might be worth talking about. Maybe we can go find Madoc? Kieran could be anywhere, I suppose.”
“I don’t think you’d suggest leaving water and fish without a good reason,” she chuckled, and got up to join him. “If Madoc has moved, we might never find him.”
He’d moved, but not far: he was in a garden now with a fine net supported on poles over it and around the sides to contain exotic birds. There were, apparently, several places around the edge where one could enter through a two-stage doorway that prevented birds from escaping.
Within, between the lush trees, there were perches that resembled dead trees, and feeding and watering stations of a dizzying range of shapes and sizes. Birds fluttered everywhere, some of them with quite astonishing plumage in the form of crests and tails and stranger things, to say nothing of long legs or long necks or oddly-shaped bills.
Madoc greeted them with a nod. He had a handful of nuts, and was tossing them into the air for a pair of great black ravens to dive for.
“Find anything fun?”
“Lots of things,” Kaveri said happily, watching the ravens. Madoc offered her the nuts, and she took one to throw. The ravens both swooped after it instantly. Tyrel, watching them, concluded that they were having fun rather than particularly hungry, and that they were being careful not to collide with each other. “Apparently Tyrel heard something we need to know, though.”
“Well, spill it, then.”
Tyrel sat down on the bench beside Madoc, checked briefly that no one was close enough to eavesdrop on them in turn, and repeated the conversation he’d heard.
“Huh,” Madoc said. “Still nothing exactly destructive, but that sounds like it’s not being done by humans from town after all. And they’re expecting this to happen again tonight.”
“We could sneak back after everyone leaves,” Kaveri said excitedly. “Maybe we can find out what it is. Maybe we can even make it stop. This is a beautiful place, and I think they work very hard at keeping it that way. It isn’t fair they should have something else making it harder.”
“All three moons are bright enough we can change,” Madoc conceded. “Barely, in my case, so if we don’t do it tonight we’ll have to wait a while. I don’t think I’ve seen any barriers yet that we couldn’t get through. I’m rather curious as to what could be responsible.”
“I think,” Tyrel said slowly, “it might be a good idea to see whether Kieran thinks we’re going to get the local earthborn upset if we stay. That’s a complication we could live without. Otherwise, it could be fun.” It might also be a small step towards atoning for the things he now deeply regretted doing, but there was no point to mentioning that. Madoc didn’t get it, and he had no idea how to bring it up with Kaveri. “We can’t do anything about it until after dark anyway, if it happens overnight. So we might as well just keep exploring, but keep watch for anything else odd we might want to check out more closely tonight. Once we meet up with Kieran, we can decide what to do.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Madoc said. “Regroup at dusk with whatever info we can collect. That gives wandering around this place a bit more focus.” He grinned as one of the ravens did a particularly acrobatic loop-and-dive. “It can wait until I run out of nuts, though.”