Finally back! Sorry about the long delay, and if you’re still around, thank you for being understanding! “Return” is nearing completion, and I just couldn’t stand to wait any longer before starting to share it, even though I’m still working on getting everything else back to normal. I plan to do a blog post this weekend about Moonblood and thoughts about it and plans for it. ~~Steph
The donkeys Iole and Phaidra ambled along the road, drawing the cart effortlessly even with Tyrel and Kaveri’s combined weight added.
The southern summer sun was high, its light creeping under the edge of the canvas supported on four poles over the flat bed of the cart. They’d long since learned to dress to keep skin covered, adding to local styles as necessary. Currently, Kaveri had a triangular scarf wrapped around her neck to protect the skin exposed by the square neck of her dress and wore boots rather than the sandals more typical for women under her calf-length skirt; she and Tyrel each had added a lightweight coat with sleeves long enough to drape halfway over hands. Heads were bare, but that was what the shade was for, and strangers with covered faces tended to make people nervous. They took turns between holding the reins and keeping hands tucked into sleeves.
Kieran, amarog-form, was farther under the canvas roof, trying not to move, and at moments Tyrel heard him panting. Safe from the sun, his own dense fur was becoming a problem in the humid heat. Had they known what to expect, Tyrel figured he’d have changed last night, but he was always more comfortable in his own form, and they’d had no reason to anticipate this.
Behind them, in the wagon drawn by the powerful and deceptively easygoing mule Mirren had named Ander, Narcissa and Lysandra had similarly taken precautions. The wagon’s tiny porch was scant shelter when the sun was at the wrong angle. Probably they were also passing the reins back and forth, but mule and donkeys were so accustomed to being together that Ander would for the most part simply follow the cart with little effort on the part of his mistresses.
Inside, drowsy still from Sanur’s dark phase the night before last, bobcat and wildcat slept in the cubbyhole bed, with no need to force themselves back into activity before they felt like it. It was a luxury they all appreciated in turn. The plump duck Kaveri and Kieran had produced before they left last night’s riverside campsite would go first to the two cats, since Meyar was barely past full, and Talir and Lirit were both in a comfortable midway waxing phase.
The road itself was solid and no more plagued with ruts than many, but around them, there was more open ground than sheltering forest. Flat terrain stretched away on all sides as far as the eye could see, covered with low dense vegetation that was not so much green as dirt-coloured; higher rocky patches with a few scrubby trees jutted out like islands here and there. Phaidra, always ready to try anything, had snatched a mouthful only once, stirring up a cloud of insects, and now ignored it, so Tyrel concluded that it wasn’t particularly appetizing even within Phaidra’s broad definition of edibility.
The insects were a plague in themselves, but Narcissa had ways of dealing with that, and they’d all grown accustomed to the greenish-acid scent of the thin oily stuff that deterred insects from landing to bite or harassing the eyes and ears and vulnerable areas of the donkeys and mule.
The punishing sun kept making Tyrel want to turn northwards and keep going. Children of moonlight and night, the merciless sun and sultry air were at best uncomfortable, and potentially dangerous. They should be near Chimaka’s domain, though, and then it would take little time to reach the valley that was her son. In the Garden, it would be more tolerable, and it would be worth it to see how Dayo was doing and watch the trio of newer family members experience the Garden for the first time. After that visit, they could reconsider direction.
“If we don’t find a reasonable place to stop soon,” he commented to Kaveri, who currently had the reins, “we may just have to camp for a couple of hours at the edge of the road and hope for the best. I’m not sure I want to go far off the road into that stuff, it looks prickly and not very pleasant and it’s full of insects. And I’m not sure I trust that ground with wheels, it’s too rough.”
She nodded. “I don’t much care for this country at all, and I think I’d prefer to avoid it in the future. Next time, let’s stay farther north until we can cut directly south to the Garden.”
“Sounds good to me. I wonder whether this road is always this quiet, or the locals just avoid it at this time of year.”
“Smart locals, if they do,” Kaveri sighed.
“There’s something ahead of us.” Tyrel stood up, one hand on the nearest pole for balance, hoping for a better view, but it was too far away to make out any detail by sunlight. “On or by the road, I can’t tell which.” He sat back down.
“Maybe we’ll be lucky and it’ll be a public spring and a lay-by where we can stop for a bit.”
“Given our usual luck, it’ll be a collapsed bridge or a band of highwaymen too stupid to find a busier hunting ground.”
Kieran gave a soft whuff of amusement from behind them. Tyrel heard him shift position, and glanced back to see him sit up.
“Too true,” Kaveri said ruefully.
It took a while to reach what Tyrel had spotted, but as they approached it became clearer that it was a grove of what passed for trees around here. They weren’t much taller than the wagon, and the bare branches showed stark against the blindingly blue sky, so they were going to be of little use as shade, but they might indicate water.
Next to the trees was a simple structure Tyrel recognized, though he couldn’t bring the name to mind at present: a long pole had a bucket at one end, a weight at the other, and was supported on a frame much closer to the weight than the bucket. Those were built over wells and other low water sources, and were meant to make drawing water up to the surface easier through the weight providing a counterbalance to the weight of the full bucket.
“Oh good, water,” Kaveri said, with a sigh of relief, also recognizing it. “And enough clear flat ground that we can stop there for a while. The one big drawback to the cart and the wagon is that it makes people so suspicious if we travel at night. Although I’m beginning to think it might be worth it.”
Kieran whuffed agreement.
“I’ll go tell the others we’re stopping.” Tyrel dropped off the side of the cart and waited for the wagon to catch up.
Narcissa had a veil-like scarf pinned over her casually-braided hair, with a generous fold of it across her chest, and the prior night had altered the sleeves of her dress and the bottom of her skirt into greater length. Lysandra, in contrast, had simply wrapped a lightweight Enodian-style mantle over her local-style dress, arranging it to keep as much skin as possible covered. Each had a folding fan in one hand, delicate painted fabric over thin flat strips of wood; Lysandra, at the moment, had Ander’s reins in her other hand.
“We’re stopping?” Lysandra asked.
“I’m glad to hear it,” Narcissa said. “I’d give a great deal for an ocean breeze. Or at least some real greenery to offer proper shade. How can land so flat have air so still?”
“I have no idea. We’ve been in flat areas where the wind is enough to hammer you breathless. It looks like there’s a well up ahead, at least.”
“Well, that’s something,” Lysandra said philosophically.
He jogged ahead to catch up with the cart and hop back on, not a big deal with both vehicles moving at an easy pace.
The area around the well was indeed flat, pounded hard by hooves and feet. The trees, they discovered, grew at the edge of a stone-edged pit; next to the pit was a trough lined with broad flat stones fitted tightly together.
Tyrel left the others to unharness the donkeys and mule, while he investigated the well and the frame net to it. The bucket was of wood, the rope in reasonable repair though fraying in a few places, and the whole structure was sturdy. He dropped the bucket into the well and pulled down on the beam, against the counterweight, until he heard a splash below; he let go of the beam and pulled up on the rope instead, and it came up easily. The trough was positioned where the bucket could be emptied into it readily.
It wasn’t water alone that poured into the trough, but several small objects. He let go of the bucket to investigate.
Mice? Were they that desperate for water, that they fell in and drowned? Getting out past that lip of rock around the edge would…
Behind him, he heard Kaveri shout, “Madoc! Mirren! Need you now!”
(chapter continued next post!)