The night garden had a few visitors enjoying the night-blooming flowers and the nocturnal moths and the bats swooping overhead, but compared to the daytime crowd, it was pleasantly quiet.
Kieran led them to a corner bathed in moonlight, that was nonetheless sheltered by a tall wicker lattice heavily overgrown with vines bearing large white flowers like five-pointed cups. Tyrel rather liked the scent of them, even from several feet away.
“I won’t fit through the fence in either form,” Kieran said. “I’ll be here if you need me, but I can think of no reason you should. Leave the knives with me.” Long-fingered hands rapidly wove a bag out of yellow moonlight, one with a broad shoulder-strap; he held it out open, waiting.
Kaveri, her gaze on nearly-full violet Lirit already, only shook her head and sighed. A few heartbeats later, her belt and its pouch thudded to the ground, the raccoon moving adroitly out of the way to avoid being struck by the latter. She stood up on her hind feet and made the chirping chitter that was the main raccoon vocalization, clearly impatient to get moving.
Madoc and Tyrel exchanged glances and shrugs, and obeyed. They couldn’t carry them in their other forms anyway. The collection of small weapons, two daggers and three throwing knives and two sets of bronze knuckle-guards, one with claws, rattled rather forlornly in the bag—it was a lot locally, Tyrel knew logically, but it felt dangerously vulnerable, let alone handing over even that. Once they finished, depositing belts and pouches on top, Kieran gathered up the bag, retrieved Kaveri’s things, and nodded. “Best hurry, before Kaveri leaves without you.”
Changing still felt strange: that brief moment of being nothing but yellow light could have been terrifying, without the constant sense of Talir’s love and reassurance. He didn’t envy Madoc: with Sanur on the downhill side of half, there was still enough moonlight to use, but the farther from full the relevant moon was, especially when waning, the more time and discomfort came with changing. Talir, though, like Lirit, was strong and bright and approaching full, which made it quick and easy for Tyrel.
The bobcat who was his brother was half again Tyrel’s mass, an exaggeration of the size difference in their human forms, and was several inches taller at the shoulders. The black spots in the dull tawny-grey fur were a more pronounced reflection of the subtle Forester stripes in his light ash-brown hair. Kieran said he’d seen bobcats bring down prey many times their size, and Tyrel figured Madoc could tackle a human successfully if he needed to; he was much less confident of his own ability to fight anything much larger than him in fox-form, but he was fairly sure he could defend himself long enough to escape most situations, with little harm to anything but his pride.
On the other hand, Kaveri scrambled up the bronze fence and over the top effortlessly, and Tyrel slipped between the bars with no trouble at all, but Madoc had a bit more of a challenge in squeezing through.
Since they really had no specific place to begin searching, the only plan they’d come up with was to explore and keep all senses alert for anything out of place. Kaveri scurried up trees and anything else vertical to look around from there, while the brothers flanked the path, one on each side, investigating scents and anything that caught their attention
Repeatedly, all three faded hastily back into the shadows to avoid gardeners who were patrolling, quite possibly with much the same intentions. If the mischief-makers were in fact spirit creatures of some sort, though, what did the gardeners expect to be able to do? Humans might not even be able to see them, let alone affect them. Finally, they abandoned the pathways in favour of travelling in a more-or-less straight line. That took them through a wild area of banks of lilacs and streams with stepping stones, the meandering paths made up of broad stone slabs worn smooth; at the centre was a trio of cut-stone pools of varying depths, with steps into them for wading or soaking or swimming. A final bank of lilacs grew right up against a wooden fence; Tyrel slipped through, Kaveri climbed it, and Madoc cleared it in a single arched bound through a narrow gap, landing neatly on the other side next to Tyrel.
More trees, but this appeared to be an orchard of well-kept fruit trees, neatly spaced, with the ground under them flat and covered only in short fine grass.
Hm, the gardener mentioned the orchard pavilion as a recent target… maybe we can pick something up from there?
He scanned the area on all sides, wishing foxes had better distance vision. Even a few days from full moon, changing frequently back and forth was something he preferred to avoid. There was something over that way that wasn’t a tree… could that be it? Well, it was as good a direction as any, when they really didn’t know what they were looking for.
That pretty much describes life these days.
He started off towards it, recalling the attention of his companions with a sharp bark and a toss of his head when they drifted off to the sides. Both fell in with him immediately.
There were no gardeners in sight, for which Tyrel was grateful: Kaveri could go up a tree, but there was nowhere here for him or Madoc to get out of sight.
They found a building similar to the one he and Kaveri had shared a drink in, though it had walls of wickerwork with windows in it rather than only railings. Several odd box-like things encircled it, smelling of honey and wax and bees; though they were currently quiet, Tyrel gave them a wide berth. No-longer-human didn’t mean that angering a hive wouldn’t be extremely unpleasant.
Kaveri scrambled up the walls to the roof to sniff around; Madoc circled the outside, and Tyrel ventured in through the wide doorway.
Sanded wooden floor; wooden tables with benches; a single chair next to a stand that supported a triple row of baskets large enough that Tyrel could climb into one and disappear in this form. That was all. He checked for unusual scents, but found nothing, so he went back outside.
“Something up here smells strange,” Kaveri said. Lying flat on the wooden shingles, hanging over the edge so she could talk to them without raising her voice, couldn’t be comfortable, but she gave no indication of that. “I mean, it’s a smell that fits in with this place, like damp earth, but it doesn’t belong up here and I can’t find anything specific that should smell like that. On the ground, sure, but up here?”
Damp earth? There was nothing above the pavilion roof except open sky, none of the trees overhanging it and the nearest elevated path was some way off.
“Hold on.” She wriggled farther forward, intent on the edge of the roof. “There’s something caught here. Some kind of fibre, I think, but I don’t recognize it. I can’t reach it from here. Let me see if I can get it.”
Ear-splitting screams echoed off the valley walls, making it hard to work out the direction or how many voices, but Tyrel thought he recognized that sound—though it had been less deafening in human form. An extremely formal garden, all precisely manicured short grass and dense evergreen bushes trimmed into elaborate artificial shapes, had also included some large strutting birds that a gardener had said were called peafowl. The males had tails that underscored Kieran’s comment about what young males would do to attract female attention. Tyrel and Kaveri had stayed there only briefly, but it had been long enough for a shriek from one of the birds to give them both a major shock.
Kaveri, her attention fixed on Lirit, started violently and fell off the roof. Interestingly, she landed in raccoon-form and on all fours, though Tyrel had no idea whether Lirit had offered a subtle bit of assistance there. She shook herself, touched noses with Madoc when he nuzzled her, and looked around, probably orienting herself. Abruptly, she took off running. Since she had the best direction-sense, Tyrel assumed she was going the right way to reach the source of the commotion, and followed her. Raccoons weren’t really built for speed, which meant that at Kaveri’s top speed, Madoc and Tyrel were both moving at a comfortable lope. She could move faster on two legs even over some distance, Tyrel knew, Foresters having a long history of running, but he was glad she chose to stay in her more inconspicuous coon-form. At least there was enough moonlight to remove endurance as a consideration.
Given the patchwork interlocking structure of the garden, Tyrel hoped there weren’t too many other areas they had to cut through from here, or at least that they were ones that would let them move quickly. Of course, that probably meant sacrificing cover…
(chapter continued next post!)