(chapter continued from previous post)
“That is what the other earthborn fear. It is not so much for their own existence. When an earthborn dies, the land dies, and all that grows on it. All life depends on them. There are many, many earthborn, but the loss of one is a loss to all life.”
Kieran growled, hackles rising.
“Kieran says fight,” Tyrel said, probably unnecessarily. “And I’m with him. We don’t let them get away with this. They crawl out of Ilek empty-handed or, better yet, they don’t leave alive. If worst comes to worst, the rest of you go on, and Madoc and I start picking them off one at a time from the shadows every time they stick their noses out their doors.”
Madoc’s tufted ears perked forward, and he sat up straighter, clearly quite willing.
“You can only cover one or two doorways,” Kaveri pointed out. “Neither of you flies, or can run between watchers nearly as fast as Cissa, or climbs as well as me, or can get into odd places like Mirren. And I dare you to try to get Kieran to go anywhere with this particular prey in reach. ‘Worst comes to worst’ means we find a way to make sure Iole and Phaidra and Ander and our gear are safe somewhere, and then we all go after them.”
“There are approaches other than outright combat,” Narcissa said, her tone gently chiding. “And it would make us little better than them if we were to simply kill indiscriminately. One does not blame the victim of a crime, even if the victim lashes out in fear.”
“In Enodia,” Lysandra said, “as soon as it became clear that there was a discrepancy between what they had been told and what they were experiencing, there were those who surrendered. During the battle in our house, when the moons were healing us but not those who attacked us. Afterwards, when Cissa talked to Lirit while I was probably dying, and the moons gave the names of everyone of that bloodline to you,” she inclined her head to Aithre respectfully, “for the Oracles so they could all be arrested. A few, especially the ones who surrendered, were positively eager to listen, and I don’t think it’s very likely that once they’re released in a few years they’ll go back to their earlier masters. I think those ones are going to simply disappear, and there will be nothing their earlier masters can do to prevent it. Knowing that, if we’re to be different from them, better than them, we cannot make assumptions. It is very probable that at least a few, if they’re offered an alternative, would prefer not to be a part of it. We have to give them that chance. Unless, of course, they’re overtly violent, in which case, I’m perfectly willing to stay behind our warriors.”
“An eloquent summary, little sister.” Aithre, Tyrel thought, sounded amused. “A shame those who would benefit most from hearing it are not present.”
“I’ll try to remember it and share it with them.”
That made Aithre laugh.
Tyrel sighed. “You two have a way of complicating things. That isn’t necessarily bad, but it makes things much less straightforward. You could make a case that this is a war, they’re an opposing force, and the only sensible course of action is to kill as many of them as possible. The individuals in an opposing force aren’t always there willingly, but a reality of war is that lots of people die.”
“Including,” Kaveri muttered, “people who just happen to get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“One could also,” Narcissa said, “make a case that this is not a war, it is a plague, one that causes those stricken by it to lash out even against those who seek to help them. The only humane course of action is to treat them, and hope that at least some manage to recover and return to health of body and mind. The extermination of the entire population afflicted by a disease has been proposed now and then, but it would be as abhorrent an act as engineering a famine. That said, I will concede that there can be individuals in whom an illness has progressed so far that a cure is impossible and a merciful death becomes the only viable choice to make, both for their sake and those around them who will otherwise suffer.”
Madoc growled, ears flattening; Kieran echoed both.
Kaveri gave them a stern look. “Madoc. Stop that. I know you’re wanting to say something about trust and betrayal—those who betray one side might betray the other? It’s easy to trust someone with bars between? Something like that. Cissa and Lys didn’t mention trusting them or adopting them into the family. All we have to do is let them go. Individuals who just want to find a quiet den where they can lick their wounds and heal are going to be minimal threat to us. Even if a few turn out to still be sick, any local population should be able to deal with one or two. At the very least, it took centuries for this problem to develop, and we’ll probably run into them before they become more than a nuisance. Kieran, I know you want revenge on them for Neoma’s sake. But nothing you’ve ever said makes me think that she’s a vengeful kind of person. She wanted to find a quiet den where she could lick her wounds and heal, and out of that she built a peaceful life. She should have been able to do it openly and without being hunted down afterwards—by anyone. For her sake, don’t we owe others who are in more or less the same cage she was in a chance to get out and be free?”
Kieran’s glare softened as she spoke. When she finished, there was a brief pause, then he heaved an enormous sigh that trailed into a whine and laid down where he was, head on his paws, tail down.
Madoc looked less convinced.
“’Rel, you hated giving orders about attacking civilians when we were in Dunnval. You rebuilt your own identity around fighting only to protect, and only when there’s no other way. You’re right, sometimes there is no other way. But that doesn’t mean not looking for one. Or refusing to see one that’s in front of you, because it’s going to be harder.”
“Not just harder,” Tyrel said. “More dangerous. They may not know how to kill us and make us stay dead, but that doesn’t mean that killing us even for the moment won’t have consequences. If we’re gone, what happens to the donkeys and Ander and everything they’ve been so patiently pulling? What if we let some of them escape who are not as innocent as they seem and they just go somewhere else and start this sort of thing all over again like plague carriers? What happens if the other gods get more determined about our mothers finding a permanent and absolute solution because we failed to contain this particular situation, and that means the deaths of everyone touched by the plague, curable or not, along with seven people sitting here right now? It’s a wonderful and charitable approach and it doesn’t surprise me at all, but I think there’s more to it.”
“And that,” Lysandra said, with a faint smile, “is why we listen to your plans and generally follow your suggestions, because you do consider all sides, both pragmatic and compassionate. I do need to point out that it would be difficult to progress from a war-extermination model to a plague-treatment model once everyone is dead, whereas to progress from a plague-treatment model to a war-extermination model could be feasible if it turns out that there is a very poor chance of positive results and a disproportionately high level of danger.”
“I do notice,” Aithre observed, “that on the one side, what Lysandra refers to as a plague-treatment model, those of you advocating that are not ruling out the possibility of violence if it becomes necessary, and on the other, the war-extermination model, I do not believe anyone advocating that approach is suggesting that the deaths of misled recruits would a particularly desirable outcome.” She paused; no one, in any form, disagreed. “The two approaches seem to be less an issue of polar opposition and more a matter of degree.”
“Any advice?” Tyrel asked.
“I can’t see the future. The predictions of my Oracles are based on information about the present.”
“That sounds more reliable anyway.”
Aithre smiled. “My analogy of cats in a sheepfold is overly simplified. The sheepfold includes sheep, and cats, and horses and lemurs and countless others. The sheep fear the world beyond the fence. The goats have fought their way higher on the rock pile and fear to lose their status. The dogs watch all the others for any trace sign of independence or rebellion, and fall on it ruthlessly. The prognosis of a cure for sheep or goats or dogs is poor. Others, though, are within the pen still only because they have been beaten into fear, and they do not dare risk seeking a way out. If they can see that the only dogs are within the pen, then there are those who will go over the fence and under it and through it without even waiting for the gate to be opened. My advice, were I to give it through one of my Oracles, would be this: remember that what makes them fear you is not force of arms, watch for potential allies in unexpected places, and keep an open mind. Remember that we all make choices, some right, some wrong, and seeking to atone for choices one regrets can be a powerful drive. As a last and more specific suggestion which you may follow or ignore, as you please: tell Onyeka the truth. Now. I’ve been here for some time, and while I do enjoy your company, you have patients approaching and plans to make. I have complete faith in you, that Ilek and Ejiro will be on the path to recovery before much longer.”
“Thank you for the information,” Tyrel said.
“And your support,” Narcissa added.
Aithre only smiled, rose, and casually strolled off in the direction of the back of the lot, behind the wagon and tents.
Tyrel saw a narrow face with large dark eyes peeking out the door of the stable tent to watch her, then it ducked hastily back inside.
“How in hell,” Tyrel muttered, “are you expecting me to put all of that together into a single coherent plan?”
“You will,” Kaveri said affectionately. “Because that’s what you do. And we will probably even go along with it without much fussing and grumbling, under the circumstances, unless we see something you missed. But for the moment, could you go get me more water? The soup’s starting to boil itself a bit thick.”
Narcissa stood up, smiling in greeting to a woman and two small children hovering uncertainly on the road. “Come into my tent and tell me what troubles you. I will do my best to help.”
Kieran and the cats scattered to circle the lot and patrol for mice.
Tyrel, on his way to the well, was certain that he heard Lysandra say something too low for him to make out the words, as she passed the wagon—or perhaps the stable tent—to fetch something from the cart for her sister. She didn’t typically talk to herself, but this situation was enough to make anyone act oddly, so he dismissed it.