(chapter continued from previous post)
Tyrel spun around, hand automatically going to his lower back. Dagger or throwing knife?
Kieran was on his feet, though still on the cart, snapping at small somethings and tossing his head to fling them away; Kaveri had her hands full with the two jennies, who were dancing in place in agitation and shaking their heads violently.
Lysandra had the presence of mind to open the wagon door before jumping down and coming to help, leaving Ander to Narcissa. Madoc and Mirren bolted out, pausing only long enough to scan for the problem before leaping off the wagon and racing towards the cart.
Tyrel abandoned the well and ran after them.
Hundreds of little brown bodies no longer than his finger, with long naked tails the same length again, were swarming the cart.
The two cats lunged up onto the cart, clawed paws and sharp teeth making short work of the tiny invaders, but it seemed like two more replaced each one that they killed. Tyrel came quickly to the conclusion that he’d be more effective in fox-form, but with the sun high above, that wasn’t an option.
He left defence of the cart to the others and worked his way around to the front, feeling rather unsettling crunching sensations with every step. He grabbed Iole’s bridle, so Kaveri could let go and concentrate on Phaidra.
“Get them moving!”
Kaveri nodded, and between them, they coaxed the panicking jennies into starting to walk back towards the road. Mice scrambled along the traces, and Tyrel and Kaveri tossed them off, talking to the donkeys as soothingly as they could.
Once they were in motion, the wheels rolling over more tiny bodies that failed to get out of the way, it was impossible for more to climb onto the cart. That gave Kieran and the cats the chance to hunt out the ones that were already aboard. Mirren’s ears swivelled constantly, tracking by sound, and she wriggled into crevice after crack to reach the ones that thought they were hiding. Tyrel glanced back, and found that Narcissa had followed suit with Ander. Lysandra was briskly removing the few that had targeted the wagon.
But then, the cart had some hay for the animals, because they didn’t always find good forage, and a few sacks and small casks and boxes of bulky foodstuffs and raw materials for Narcissa’s medicines. Anything edible that was in the wagon proper was in pottery or glass: spices and tea and honey and the like.
“That must be why everything looks so bare,” Kaveri said, a bit breathlessly. “It isn’t because it’s the season. The mice have stripped everything edible.”
“Great, so what do we do? We can’t keep moving indefinitely. Well, we can, I suppose, but the girls and Ander can’t.”
Kieran bounded off the cart and back towards the well.
“He says stop,” Tyrel relayed, drawing Iole to a halt; Phaidra mirrored it, and behind them, Ander stopped immediately. “I hope he has an idea.”
“Me too.” Kaveri stroked Phaidra’s nose. “Don’t worry, we’ll think of something, sweet girl. We won’t let anything happen to you.”
“In all the time we’ve been wandering around, we haven’t seen anything like that outside of a besieged city.”
“I know. Something’s badly out of balance around here. Things may not be pretty in the nearest town.”
Kieran, from somewhere behind, barked.
“Come, he says,” Tyrel said. “Turning around is going to be interesting.” He listened to the second bark. “I think he wants you two now,” he added to the two cats, and then, watching Mirren kill another mouse and drop it over the edge, “Maybe just you’ll do, Madoc.”
Madoc gave him a look that said plenty, but jumped down and trotted off in Kieran’s direction. Mirren, meanwhile, sat up, absolutely still except for her ears, then spun around to start digging her way into another small space.
“Mirren, I wouldn’t do that while we’re turning,” Kaveri said. “If we hit a bump and something shifts, we might lose you for a while. And I think we’re going to need you.”
Tyrel heard a faint high-pitched squeak, and Mirren backed out carefully with another mouse. She discarded the body, and instead of looking for more, she chose a spot on top of a sack, where nothing could crush her small body.
Given how difficult it was to manoeuvre the two-wheeled cart into a turn on the rutted road and broken ground, in the midst of a distracting cloud of insects, it was just as well she was safe.
“Oh, the wagon’s going to be a nightmare to turn,” Tyrel muttered. “I hope Kieran knows what he’s doing.”
“He usually does.”
“Have you got these two? I’ll help with the wagon. Somehow.”
Kaveri nodded. “Go.”
Normally unflappable Ander was distinctly unsettled, and less cooperative than usual. By the time Tyrel and the sisters got him facing the right direction, the cart was already at the well.
“Everything looks pretty calm,” Tyrel observed, bracing himself against the edge of the doorway between the two seats. “Kieran and Madoc are prowling around, though.”
“Maybe there were fewer than we thought?” Narcissa said, but she sounded unconvinced.
Kaveri greeted them with a wave, busily unhitching the two jennies from the cart, though the harness could stay in place until they stopped that evening; she already had the prop in place that held the front of the cart level when it wasn’t in motion.
Tyrel stepped carefully past Narcissa and jumped down, urging Ander to position the wagon close to the cart, angled so the wagon’s body could cast some degree of shade. With the sun so high, they’d still need to set up the canopy, but that would take only a moment to do.
“Stay alert,” Kaveri said. “There are more, but I think the majority are dead.”
“There were so many,” Lysandra protested, accepting Tyrel’s offered hand as she gathered her skirt and dismounted. “How can they be? And what about the rest?”
“They go where there’s food,” Kaveri said. “Look around. There’s nothing left to eat. They aren’t going to live here hoping for passersby to feed them. The main concentration of them will be anywhere there’s still something to eat. We just stumbled into an outlying population.”
“The nearest town,” Narcissa said, letting Tyrel help her down in turn.
“Worse than this,” Lysandra muttered. “Oh, that’ll be such fun.”
“We do have the option of turning back,” Tyrel said. “This is the most direct road, given where we left the show, but there are others. If we lose days or even weeks, so what? The Garden will be there.”
“We might be able to help,” Narcissa said.
“With a plague of mice? I can’t think how. For right now, let’s get some sort of camp together so we can rest for a bit. I’ll get some water drawn.”
“Can you watch the girls?” Kaveri asked Lysandra. “I’m going to find the shovel.”
Given the number of small dead bodies all over, like some sort of grim mockery of a battleground, Tyrel could see why.
He filled the trough, scooping out drowned mice, and the sisters led the donkeys and Ander over. Without hesitation, all three plunged their muzzles into the water to drink thirstily. Tyrel retrieved the buckets that fit onto the side of the wagon and filled them, hooking them into place. Lysandra unrolled the large rectangle of pale moonspun that served as a canopy and fetched the poles that supported the outer corners. When Tyrel finished, he added his own hands, and in only a moment, they had a rectangle of shade along the side of the wagon. Kaveri and Narcissa led the jennies and Ander into the shelter and tethered them there, while Lysandra went to fill a trio of nets with hay for them to eat.
Living mice remained, but relatively few. With more leisure, Tyrel saw Madoc crunch the occasional mouse and swallow it. Mirren took a brief break, in the shade under the wagon, to devour one herself, leaving the intestinal tract and, for some reason, the skull. She had no idea why she always did that, and could tell them only that it felt wrong to eat it.
“Does anyone want a drink badly enough to be worth a fire?” Kaveri asked. “Probably we wouldn’t catch anything likely to kill us before moonrise, but…”
“There’s wine and water in the wagon,” Narcissa said. “And ale. I’ll get it.”
(chapter continued next post!)