Return 14

Onyeka cuddled one child against each side while she spun a story for them, a legend of long ago. Together, the hero and Ejiro’s Bride had slain a dangerous spirit-creature belonging to a water-god, one that had been preying on people attempting to cross the river or even draw water or do laundry or fish. Two years later, after she’d passed on her responsibilities to her successor, the Bride had chosen the hero as her husband. No one then had questioned her faithfulness to Ejiro or accused her of inappropriate behaviour. That morning, though, outside the temple, Onyeka had heard exactly that.

Many generations of respect for Ejiro’s chosen Brides was eroding rapidly, at least in some minds. It might be a mercy that Abena’s successor had died in one of the epidemics, and there was no one to follow. Unless Ejiro recovered quickly, Abena would be the last link in a very long chain.

She was completely unprepared for all four of the Bright Ones who had been harbouring in her house to appear in a hysterical panic comparable to the one they’d been in the night Ejiro had shaken. They seized any part of her they could reach, tugging urgently.

Enitan looked up at her, even though there was little to see in the dim light. “Mama?”

“Wait. Stop! Now! Yes, I’ll come with you, but let go!”

They released her, but fidgeted nervously, taking turns darting towards the door and back towards her.

“The Bright Ones?” Nechi asked.

Onyeka nodded. “They’re extremely upset about something. Can you two put yourselves to bed?”

“We could,” Enitan said seriously, “but I think we should go with you. Maybe having someone you can send with a message would be useful.”

He had a valid point, and had done that for her before. Nearly fourteen, he’d always been thoughtful and more reflective than the other boys his age, and the recent conditions had only made it more pronounced. But would it be dangerous?

“It’s late, and I don’t know what they want.”

“If it’s going to be bad, I’ll bring Nechi home. But the Bright Ones won’t let us be hurt.”

Onyeka sighed. “I don’t have time to argue. Up, and let’s go. But if I tell you to come home, no more questions.”

“All right.”

He kept promises, and he was protective of his little sister, so she could trust in that.

The Bright Ones led them along the dark streets at such a pace that Onyeka gathered Nechi up onto her back to carry her. By the temple, she spotted Abena, similarly roused, with an escort of something like a dozen Bright Ones. Without a word, the current Bride joined them.

The Bright Ones led the small group directly to a place they’d been recently: the abandoned lot where the moons’ brighter children, in their guise as healer and servants, had been living and ministering to the people of Ilek.

The fire was out, the big soup pot overturned, and Onyeka saw scant signs of life.

“Mama?” Nechi said fearfully. “Where are the nice people? And the animals?”

“I don’t know, love,” Onyeka said worriedly. “Enitan, go check whether the donkeys are here.”

He ran for the stable tent, but his steps back towards them were slower, his shoulders slumped, and that told her everything. In the moonlight she saw his spine stiffen as he swung around to face the cart. “Hey! There’s someone over here!”

Abena strode past Onyeka in that direction. “Show yourself,” she demanded. “In Ejiro’s name, show yourself!”

The reply was a dismissive snort. “And what’s that worth?” That voice sounded male.

“Bring him,” Abena said flatly, and all the Bright Ones that had come with them, and several more besides, swarmed the cart.

“Ow! Stop… what… stop that!”

Nechi giggled. “That looks funny.”

Yes, watching the intruder being physically dragged out into sight probably would look extremely amusing if you couldn’t see the Bright Ones who were doing it.

They dumped the intruder at Abena’s feet and stepped back, watching her alertly. Part of their purpose was to obey and serve the Bride—a substantial body of absolutely loyal attendants provided to the Bride by her divine husband—but Abena had been too deep in grief to give them any directions for a long time. Until now.

“Explain,” Abena said imperiously. “Are you responsible for the healer’s absence?”

The intruder sat up, rubbing various parts of himself that had probably been pinched as well as grabbed. “Me? No. There was no one here. I figured anyone that stupid deserves to lose some food.”

“Once more people realize they aren’t here,” Onyeka said, lowering Nechi to the ground, “they’ll tear everything apart looking for every crumb.”

“Yes, they will,” Funanya said from behind them. “And that would be deeply ungrateful on Ilek’s part. Best we see to it that it doesn’t happen.”

“Leave anything you took,” Abena told the intruder. “And leave. Quickly. You can tell anyone else you see that Ejiro’s Bride and her predecessors forbid anyone from setting foot here until our guests return. Ilek will not stoop to plundering the belongings of guests in our house simply because they’ve been called away.”

The intruder looked rebellious, but a few pinches from the Bright Ones drove him off the lot, and Onyeka had no doubt they stripped him of any ill-gotten goods in the process.

“What happened here?” Abena asked the Bright Ones when some of them gathered again around her and Onyeka, elderly Funanya and young Efua.

Onyeka expected only the silence that she’d grown accustomed to, but one regarded Abena, shifting from foot to foot in agitation. “Taken.”

“Taken by whom?”

“The bad ones… took two who were here alone, the others go seeking them. Ejiro is afraid. The moons are afraid. The good ones tried to help. We saw. We told Ejiro. Ejiro needs help.” It came out staccato and rapid, the words tripping over themselves.

“Is there anything we can do to help them?” Abena asked. “So they can help Ejiro?”

The Bright One speaking drooped. “We think not. We can keep watch. The bad ones can see us. They have killed us. But we all die without Ejiro. You… no.”

“We can stay right here,” Funanya said. “So that if they make it back, they have their home intact. We can be here when they return, and help then if we can. If nothing else, we can make certain they know that there are those in Ilek who are grateful to them already and who care in return about what happens to them. And if they do not return…” She heaved a sigh. “Better us than the council. Get the fire going. This may be a long night.”

Return 13 pt2

(chapter continued from previous post)

The man who sank down on the ground offered no immediate threat, though Tyrel stayed ready. “I already did choose,” he said in clear, if somewhat accented, Enodian. “I saw Faiga above us, she’s a very large owl, and when I realized what they were doing I tried to get Kaveri under cover but Faiga attacked too quickly. Sahen wasn’t up yet, I couldn’t explain. I didn’t know they were going to, I was only supposed to watch.” Drawn in on himself as he was, he looked miserable. He certainly wasn’t local, not with that pale skin and the fair straight hair that was hiding his face. Although his frame, as near as Tyrel could estimate, suggested substantial height and breadth, his actual build was quite lean, closer to scrawny—and being entirely naked, it was easy to see what muscle he did have. “How did you know?”

“Aithre’s children see what’s there. And as well for you that I did, and that even before Aithre’s visit I persuaded Kieran that the spy we knew about was better than one we did not see, or he would have killed you in a heartbeat the instant he caught your scent. As it is, you’re fortunate the cats tend to follow his lead. I assume you’re only accustomed to hiding from humans.”

“If you actually tried to help, well, that’s a start,” Madoc said shortly. “Now, how do we trust anything you say?”

That got him a shrug. “Why would you?”

“You could,” Narcissa said, more gently, “tell us why you’re willing to help us.”

The blonde sighed heavily. “We don’t have that much time. My friend Demetrios and I saw you dance, at the abandoned farm.” That was to Lysandra. “Meyar loves you. Believing lies when they’re the only source of information, that’s one thing. Believing lies that contradict what you see in front of you, that’s another. I haven’t been able to write new music in… twelve years? Fifteen? I lost count, it doesn’t matter. Demetrios can’t paint anymore, not since before I was born. But you can still dance like that, with all that passion. There’s a lot I don’t know, but I do know that they’ve lied about everything and I need to know the truth and you have that.” Continue reading

Return 13 pt1

Kaveri, adding to her soup pot salted meat that she had diced small with some effort, watched Kieran circle the lot yet again. With only the two of them still at the camp in the dusk, he was making quite certain that any potential intruder saw him and knew he was on the alert.

That, and he was working off some of his emotional agitation. Staying here while Narcissa kept her promise of a visit, with Lysandra and Tyrel accompanying her openly and the cats keeping watch unseen, was not something he found easy to swallow. Kaveri and the others had, unanimously, forbidden him to go. His history of berserk rage when confronted with the other bloodline, though understandable, made it too dangerous.

Because the house in question was a brick-walled one where Lysandra had spotted two people glowing in the moonlight. The mistress of the house, from what Onyeka had told them, was almost certainly genuinely bored and lonely and looking for company and a new diversion, since she’d been known for that for many years. It seemed equally likely that she’d been lured into joining the other bloodline, possibly with the promise of a life of excitement. It was fortunate for her that Neoma’s bloodline had found themselves here, Kaveri thought, because once this woman’s usefulness in Ilek ended, she would have learned how little those promises were worth.

Narcissa insisted that she had to keep her side of the bargain, and it would as well potentially give them information that had been inaccessible to the scouting team. She had pointed out that she had a wealth of experience in being polite to people she loathed in order to get what she wanted, and in keeping things to herself, as did Lysandra, and she might find herself more pitying than despising this woman. As long as Tyrel could keep still and they could leave before moonrise, the chance remained of being able to do this without even giving themselves away.

If, that is, their enemies didn’t already know exactly who they were.

Though Narcissa had a point: there was no need to lure her into a trap with a pretence of friendliness. There were easier ways, when they were outnumbered and foreigners in a town where the other bloodline had a firm grip.

So off they’d gone, and Kaveri stayed behind because someone recognizable needed to be visible here, and Kieran with her… though Kaveri was growing very tired of endlessly preparing food, no matter how necessary, and would have preferred to be with her family as much as Kieran would have. Continue reading

Return 12 pt2

(chapter continued from previous post)

Back at the campsite, he found Kieran pacing warily along one stretch of the lot frontage, his attention fixed on a couple of underfed adolescent boys.

Tyrel moved up behind them quietly, and said, “The healer will see anyone, you know.”

They both started and spun around, grabbing for what he figured were weapons under the oversized shirts. He just smiled at them, arms crossed, making no move towards his own more formidable and quite visible weapons. Drawing a blade on these children would be outright murder, even though one was near his height and one a little taller already.

“She won’t tell anyone else, and she’s very good. And people who come to see her get a cup of soup without having to start a fight they can’t win. But I think maybe, even if you don’t need the healer, we could spare a bit of soup. I’m not going to make promises about the taste, mind you.” He stepped between them and crossed the street, glancing back over his shoulder. “Coming?”

They came, cautious as wild things, and devoured the soup hungrily.

Mid-afternoon, a trio of women approached, each of them carrying a basket. When they set them down near the fire, they rattled loudly.

“We noticed,” one said, rather shyly, “people are sharing cups and bowls. Feeding so many, we thought, isn’t what you’d expect.”

“So we went ’round to friends,” another said. “And brought you these.”

Kaveri peeked into the nearest basket, and the smile she turned on the women was pure relief. “Thank you so much! We don’t travel with enough dishes to keep up with this. This will make everything much easier! Is there a way we can get them back to you later?”

“Leave them at the temple,” the first suggested. “They’ll get back home. I don’t know if you know how much of a difference your lady is making, but this is a small thing in return.” Continue reading

Return 12 pt1

It turned into an extremely busy day.

Patients showed up for Narcissa in such a steady stream that she began to leave more and more of the actual treatment—cleaning and covering shallow sores and wounds, measuring out medicines—to Lysandra. Tyrel was glad they’d discussed the question of when to halt for the day. Human eyes would begin to strain to perceive necessary details after dusk, and what oil they had was better used for food. She had agreed, with mixed feelings, to stop seeing patients when the natural light dropped significantly. Otherwise, it wasn’t impossible the line would continue right through the night.

Kaveri commandeered everything they had that was fire-safe and not already in use to serve, and used it to make sure individual ingredients were cooked before being added, since the drain on the soup pot never slowed.

More than once, would-be thieves tried to slip onto the lot, headed for the cart or the wagon, which led to Tyrel and Kieran and Madoc stationing themselves in a loose triangle, taking turns patrolling the grounds for anything they might miss from there.

Mirren had less and less time to watch for intruders of any size. Keeping those waiting to see Narcissa distracted considerably reduced the squabbling over who was next, and it was quickly apparent that the lack of pets had left a deep longing in many. It was, Tyrel thought, a good thing she was more resilient than a real cat of that size, since treatment ranged from reverential gentleness to rather heavy-handed enthusiasm. She tolerated it all and made certain no one felt ignored. At busier moments, Kieran stepped in to offer himself as well, and Tyrel saw him standing patiently still while a small child steadied itself on its feet by clutching a double handful of thick frosted fur.

Tyrel did find a moment to speak to each about the subject of Onyeka, though it took him until past noon to do so. Lysandra and Narcissa had a brief and unequivocal response: Aithre would not have suggested it without good reason, and they had no reason to believe she meant them ill beneath her smiles, so ignoring it would be foolish. No one objected to the idea, though Kieran wanted to do it after moonrise—which, Tyrel had to admit, had a certain logic to it. It would be easier to offer proof, and gave them more flexibility. Continue reading