(chapter continued from previous post)
Kieran and Madoc and Mirren stayed on patrol around the wagon and cart; the others made sure there was a bowl of water for Madoc and Mirren under the cart, but Kieran drank from the trough. The sisters each had a cup of well-watered wine, and Tyrel and Kaveri shared a leather flask of decent ale, as they made themselves comfortable in the canopy’s shade near the animals.
Inside the wagon was an Enodian invention: a pottery box, which rested on several sturdy feet within a larger box, and the space between them was filled with water. When the lid was on, anything inside stayed, while not exactly cold, at least at a more stable temperature than the outside air. It was meant to use ice, not water, but that was hard to come by in much of the world. In this kind of heat, water and wine and ale that had been in it were rather refreshing.
“So what are we going to do?” Kaveri asked. “If we keep going, it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better. If we go back, we’ll lose some time. Tyrel’s right, there’s really not much we’re likely to be able to do to help against a massive overpopulation of mice.”
“An increase in the number of mice or rats in a town can be the cause of disease epidemics,” Narcissa said. “And it’s quite likely I can do something about that.”
“Well, that’s hard to argue with,” Tyrel conceded. “What we find might be extremely unpleasant.”
“It’s more unpleasant for the people living under whatever conditions exist,” Lysandra said calmly, “than it can be for us to come into it from outside, immune to illness and to the loss of home or livelihood or family. Do you really think Cissa and I are that delicate?”
“I know better,” Tyrel said. The places they’d been that claimed that women were inherently and categorically weaker still baffled him: evidence to the contrary was in plain sight everywhere. Their Enodian princesses were unquestionably elegant and refined, but that wasn’t at all the same thing. “And I didn’t say anything about you in particular. Watching people suffering when you can’t help isn’t much fun for anyone. But if you think there’s a chance of something we can usefully do, then fair enough. Hey!” He raised his voice. “Narcissa thinks there might be an epidemic ahead, carried by the mice. Anyone object to going on?”
Mirren pounced on a mouse with every indication of excitement, seizing it and tossing it into the air so she could jump on it again. If she’d heard at all, Tyrel could see no sign of it. But that was probably answer enough.
Madoc, watching her, glanced at Tyrel. Green-gold eyes closed in a slow blink, and he shrugged, a ripple of motion that made spotted fur shimmer all the way down to his hips.
Kieran barked from under the wagon, where he’d just snapped up and swallowed a mouse. When they looked, he emerged and touched noses with Iole, the closest to him. Protect, he told Tyrel.
“Good point. We need to keep an eye out for the girls and Ander. They need to eat, and how nasty can mice get if they’re starving?” He gave Kaveri a questioning look.
“I have no idea,” Kaveri said. “Huge numbers of starving mice aren’t something Forester lore ever covered. I don’t think it’s likely to happen without human intervention. Crops and granaries and such, I mean. Maybe the decline of natural predators. I could be wrong, because I really know nothing about this.”
“Nothing I’ve read,” Narcissa said, “has really analyzed what causes the rodent population to grow. We only established the direct causal link between that and epidemics less than three dozen years ago, and no one has worked out yet exactly how it works—bites or droppings or something else. Only that the rodents come first, then illness begins to spread. When we discovered it, we began to reinforce granaries with sheet metal or hardened tiles, and we began to encourage cats around the cropland as well as the granaries by building shelters and offering supplemental food. The difference was significant, which can reasonably be taken as confirmation. The rodent population has stayed minimal, and the reports of entire villages or towns being swept by illness have declined.”
“It’s cheaper and more effective to build the granaries the new way and to encourage the cats than it is to treat an epidemic after it takes hold,” Lysandra said. “To say nothing of the damage in terms of lost production and human suffering and lives. Even in mild epidemics there are deaths.”
“What about the population of the cats?” Kaveri asked curiously. “They can breed extremely rapidly, given the chance.”
“Male cats are even easier to castrate than male livestock,” Narcissa said. “Although admittedly it takes only a single intact male in a group. Knowledge about safe surgery has increased hugely in the past sixty years or so, and there’s a surgery that can be performed on a female cat to sterilize her. They heal from it readily. That’s quite new, though, and mostly occurs close to major towns. In most cases, the feline population does more or less stabilize in harmony with the availability of food. I meant for years to get around to investigating reports of an herb or possibly a mixture of herbs that, in rural areas, is given to the cats mixed with a small amount of bait. Many people insist that it keeps the females from conception, or possibly from coming into season. The reports come from multiple sources and aren’t always as complete as one might like. I’d still like to look into it, someday. If it works on humans, or can be modified to work on humans, it might mean another effective form of birth control. Given human variation, with some things working better for some people than others or having side effects, the more that are available the better.”
“Agreed,” Kaveri said. “That does sound interesting. Not currently relevant, I suppose.”
“We could certainly do with a dozen or so cats,” Lysandra said drily. “The mortal sort, to assist our valiant pair, who are doing such a wonderful job. If anyone’s tired after all that sun and the excitement, I can promise to stay awake. There may be something we can do when we reach the next town, but we can’t do that until the heat is less intense, and there’s nothing at all we can do here.”
“I could look for whatever I have on rodent-borne epidemics,” Narcissa said.
“Or I could while you rest.”
Tyrel and Kaveri traded glances. It was a tempting offer.
“Wake us if anything at all happens?” Kaveri said.
“A second wave invasion?” Lysandra said. “You’ll be the first to know.”
The ground was hard-packed, with embedded rocks. Tyrel decided to nap on the cart instead, which would also not add to the area the cats and Kieran guarded. The space in the centre where Kieran typically lay was good enough. The sisters and Kaveri, meanwhile, vanished into the wagon.
The addition of a breeze might have made the cart pleasant contrast to the interior of the wagon, but the still air meant that there was probably scant difference. The inside of the wagon might even be cooler, sheltered as it was. He knew he wouldn’t be able to relax there, though. Old reflexes said that with any threat in the vicinity, he needed the clearest line of sight possible.
Even if the threat was tiny and squeaky and, in his fox form, tasty.