(chapter continued from previous post)
The rest of the orchard was easy, but it got more complicated when they reached the broad lane along the edge of the orchard and turned along it. They weren’t the only ones responding to the uproar. Tyrel, shadowed by Madoc’s greater size, managed to duck into the darkness along the fence and thought he’d avoided being seen, and Kaveri scurried up the nearest tree, spiralling so she was on the far side of it. Madoc’s normally extremely effective camouflage, however, was scant use on an open lane in full bright moonlight.
Unable to discuss it, Madoc decided instantly: he spun in place and bounded back the way they’d come, and his top speed was a lot faster than any average human was going to be able to match. Four gardeners followed at a run, holding a variety of gardening implements that would probably double as weapons quite adequately, at least three of them talking over each other so badly Tyrel didn’t bother trying to understand them. Madoc could lose them easily and catch up, Tyrel had no doubt.
Meanwhile, once that quartet were gone, Kaveri climbed back down headfirst and Tyrel emerged from the deep shadows, and they went on.
The increasing density of gardeners travelling in the same direction made it more and more difficult to move without drawing attention.
Something about this doesn’t feel right. I think we’re being manipulated.
After ducking into the shadows yet again, Tyrel slunk over to the base of Kaveri’s chosen tree. As soon as she came into reach, he caught the scruff of her neck carefully and tugged her towards the fence. She chittered at him and jerked away, but went with him, under the dense hedge and out the other side into the nearest garden… which actually seemed to be a vegetable garden, from what Tyrel could smell. But that made sense: the gardeners had to eat.
At least there was nothing between them and the moons here. Tyrel shifted back to human, though he stayed crouched near the hedge, hoping not to be seen if anyone came into the garden.
Kaveri also changed, and gave him a questioning look.
“Think about this,” Tyrel said, keeping his voice low. “They’re all going to the same place to see what scared the birds. Those birds are probably one of the few things here that could make sure absolutely everyone hears them and knows they’ve been disturbed. Which means there’s probably few, if any, possible observers anywhere else in the valley. That sounds to me like a decoy.”
Kaveri considered that briefly, then nodded. “And we fell for it, too. So where should we look, then?”
“I don’t know, but if it were me, I’d look for a target a long way from the decoy, in order to have as much time as possible before being found even if someone catches on. And I’d probably have more decoys in mind that I could use in order to keep doing what I wanted without being interrupted.”
“So we go the opposite direction from anything obvious and dramatic. All right. We didn’t see anything between here and the orchard, so…” She thought for a moment. “I wish we had some idea about patterns. Whether the same place is ever a target two nights in a row. We’re near the scent garden, we could go through there and then continue in that direction?”
“It’s a place to start.” He looked up at Talir, sighed, and asked to be a fox again.
The scent garden was even more intriguing with a fox’s senses, but there was no time to linger and enjoy it. They did a cursory inspection, but found nothing out of place. The tree that had been decorated the previous night still bore the scents of the gardeners who’d been working on it. Rather unexpectedly, the stronger scent of the two, the one that had spent more time there, was female. He was sure Kieran had said that the quasi-religious order that cared for the Valley was entirely male. Well, it wasn’t really any of his business if someone wasn’t what they seemed. He could relate.
Madoc found them in the water garden. He paused to study the fish, but lost interest quickly, shifted to human-form, and perched on the edge.
“I assume there’s a reason we’re here and not there?” Absently, he cupped a hand so the greengold light pooled in it, and drank. A few good swallows of that would certainly help replenish the energy he’d spent running.
Tyrel and Kaveri both changed as well, and Tyrel explained.
“That makes sense,” Madoc said. “Should’ve seen that. Well, everything looks normal around the pasture with all the weird hoofed beasties in it, that’s where I led them to, but they’re busy checking that they haven’t missed anything so they’ll be busy for a while and that might discourage whatever’s doing this if it doesn’t like an audience.”
“What if we go up?” Kaveri suggested. “We can get a better view.”
“And be a lot more visible. Even in the right clothes, we could still have someone wanting to know why we aren’t with everyone else.”
“We thought we heard something?”
“Maybe. ‘Rel? I don’t care much, but I’ll be a lot happier if I can pick a form and stay in it.”
All three of them on high in human form could mean missing something at ground level, or that animal senses would catch, along with being more likely to draw attention. It was true, though, that the additional perspective might help.
The risk should be minimal. After all, what could happen? A fall or jump from the walkways, most of them some twenty feet above, would probably not kill, and both Lirit and Talir were strong enough for even severe damage to be only briefly painful.
“Can you change your clothes enough to not be quite so obvious?” Tyrel asked Kaveri.
She looked down thoughtfully at her current simple dress, calf-length and long-sleeved. Tyrel considered skirts to be absurd for anyone who might need to move much, but apparently a number of cultures favoured them, especially for women, and to a point, Kaveri was comfortable with them. “Hm, yes, even at a distance this doesn’t work.” She pulled it off over her head and let it dissolve back into violet moonlight in her hand, leaving her only in her preferred wrapped halter and loincloth; sitting down next to Madoc, she began to weave moonlight rapidly into a new tunic. “It’s going to feel itchy, but it’ll take too long for me to do both parts. Could you…?”
Tyrel nodded and grabbed handsful of yellow light, twisting and smoothing it. This was something that was going to take years to master. He and his friends could turn it into something that could pass for linen if one didn’t look too closely. Kieran, however, could shape it into clothing that resembled wool, or leather, and had demonstrated being able to create more substantial things; he said that doing that required an intimate knowledge of every detail of the object you were trying to make. Tyrel knew Madoc shared his ambition to learn how to create at least a basic dagger that would change with them.
Prolonged contact with something made from the wrong moonlight was uncomfortable but tolerable; Tyrel found that things Kieran made were less so, but still didn’t feel right.
Despite that, he made Kaveri a pair of the unfitted trousers that were common peasant-wear locally.
Kaveri set down her hastily-woven tunic and accepted the pants, using a simple strip of fabric as a belt to wrap and secure them. The tunic went over that, with a second length as a belt for it. The shapeless clothing did quite a good job of concealing her lithe curves.
“You go up,” Tyrel told her. “Madoc and I will stay down here and follow you. Whistle if you see anything, but try not to be noticed.”
Kaveri nodded and looked around for the nearest tower.
Tyrel changed to fox-form and waited while Madoc finished one last handful of moonlight-water before going back to being a cat. They escorted Kaveri to the tower; while she was on her way up the stairs, they circled around the base investigating, Tyrel with his nose to the ground. Nothing unusual.
They stayed more-or-less under Kaveri at all times, tracking her by sound when not watching her directly, though they spread out to cover as much ground as possible. It helped that they didn’t have to bother with pathways or gates and could simply go directly across most of the gardens.
(chapter continued next post!)