(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.”
The random collection of vessels—glass, pottery, metal—made it possible, at least, to ensure that everyone had their own and that the vessels were cleaned between uses. Tyrel saw, after one circuit of the lot, a pair of girls of washing cups and bowls, the younger of the two chattering cheerfully to Kaveri while she splashed around, while a boy about their age lugged another pail of water from the well, and a much smaller child played with Mirren beside them. They didn’t stay long. Nor did the woman whose short curly hair was entirely white and whose dark wrinkled hands were quick and skillful with a knife as she helped Kaveri cut up ingredients. A quartet of adolescents, including the two boys he’d urged over to eat, had a low-voiced but rather intense conversation with a larger and slightly older group with a belligerent air about them; Tyrel kept an eye on the confrontation, but the larger group left, and the quartet lingered conspicuously in the area for some time after.
It wasn’t anything like a festive atmosphere, nor did it generally involve what he’d normally call high spirits… but there was something hard to define that changed, a subtle sort of loosening, like finally drawing a breath after struggling for air. It didn’t mean the next breath would be there, but this one was important right now. People, being people, responded to it in their own ways, some by visiting without fuss to get what they needed and leaving immediately to let Narcissa and her people deal with others, some by wanting to contribute something. It was inevitable that there would be some who were considering how to use Narcissa or her resources to their own ends, but other than sporadic attempts by stealth to rob them, no one was quite that brave yet. It was intriguing, he had to admit. Narcissa and Lysandra, when they had a moment, encouraged those who wanted to help, and told him and Kaveri quietly that a feeling of connection, even briefly, was a step towards healing shattered spirits.
As the sun crossed the horizon, Tyrel and Kaveri began to gently explain to new arrivals that it would soon be too dark for the healer to see properly, and she needed to rest, and she’d begin again after sunrise. There was less grumbling than Tyrel expected.
Finally, as the cooler comfort of dusk settled over them, they were alone.
They shook out the blankets and rugs and spread them a short way from the fire, shadowed by the bulk of tents and wagon and cart.
Narcissa sank down heavily. “Do you suppose Onyeka will particularly mind if I don’t look quite respectable at the moment?”
“You always look respectable,” Kaveri told her. “Weren’t you the one who said that a great lady isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, and that’s part of what makes her great?”
She did look less elegant and controlled than usual, however. Her hair was determined to straggle loose from its pins and combs, and despite washing her hands repeatedly, several medicines had left stains on her pale olive skin—to say nothing of the stains from medicines and blood and other things on her dress, though that hardly mattered since it was moonspun. Lysandra was in a similar state.
“I don’t believe she’ll care much,” Lysandra said. “We’ve all worked hard all day, without a rest or anything to eat, since Aithre left. Which feels like it happened days ago. Onyeka doesn’t seem likely to be unable to appreciate that or to have unreasonable expectations. At least, I hope so. Until after Meyar rises, I very simply do not have the energy to wash up thoroughly and change my clothes and redo my hair.”
“I think it’s very likely,” Kaveri said, “that working hard is something she respects.”
“It’s discourteous to a guest, to not make an effort,” Narcissa said meditatively. “It is, however, also discourteous to a guest to put them in an awkward position—such as making a dramatic apology of being less than well-dressed, when one’s guest has no choice save whatever she still has available. Best, I think, to say nothing of it.”
Kieran’s ears perked, and he whuffed softly, his attention on the road. Everything about his body language was welcoming, not warning.
Narcissa smiled and offered a hand. “Come join us,” she said in the local language.
Small Nechi and her brother Enitan made for the group without hesitation—or possibly for Mirren and Kieran, who bore with the energetic greetings indulgently.
Onyeka settled herself on a rug, regarding the quartet measuringly. “You look tired.”
“It has been quite a long and busy and full day,” Narcissa said, and couldn’t entirely keep the weariness from her tone.
“So I’ve heard. There’s talk of little else in this part of the town. Some are saying you must have been sent by some god or another that has taken pity on Ilek.”
“Had we been sent by a god,” Lysandra muttered, “we’d have arrived with several farm wagons full of food, and more on the way.”
“Sent by, no,” Narcissa said. “Connected to, yes. We’ve been told by a very reliable source that the nearest earthborn fear for Ejiro, and are waiting to help him, as soon as they know their actions will not lead to further harm to him. Other gods are deeply concerned as well.”
Onyeka closed her eyes briefly and whispered something under her breath. “I knew he was alive still, the land hasn’t died, but I’ve been so afraid for him…”
“That sounds,” Lysandra said gently, “like a more personal wish than simply caring about your home.”
Onyeka opened her eyes, and smiled, though Tyrel thought he saw sadness as well. “It is. Do you think Ejiro’s Bride is sacrificed at the end of her term in the temple? Every seven years, Ilek celebrates the marriage of Ejiro’s new Bride, as her predecessor steps down. Soon after, Ejiro chooses among Ilek’s girl-children, and the Bride-to-be spends the next seven years learning her upcoming responsibilities from her predecessors.”
Well, that explains quite a lot.
“Ejiro’s former Brides are much sought after as wives, since Ejiro’s blessing lingers as long as we stay within his domain, and Ejiro’s Brides are famous for beauty and intelligence and charisma—though you’d not know it by any of us now. Ejiro’s spirit-creatures remain fond of us and are often around, and we can always see them even though others rarely do. Recently, since those still alive have been weakened badly and are afraid, they have been hiding in our houses. Why are the other earthborn waiting? Are they that afraid of the others like you?”
“Pardon me?” Narcissa said, caught completely off-guard, which was something Tyrel thought he’d remember. Kieran even stopped in his careful game of tag with Enitan to look at the woman in surprise.
Onyeka made a dismissive gesture. “After seven years as the chosen favourite of an earthborn, do you think I can’t see what’s in front of me? You’re like them, and yet, you’re entirely different. They’d never waste time even visiting the temple unless they had an ulterior motive, and they wouldn’t leave an offering or be kind to Abena. They’ve certainly shown no compassion for anyone in Ilek. They’ve done something, haven’t they? Are the others afraid they’ll be attacked too?”
Lysandra burst out laughing, then pressed her fingers over her mouth. “I’m sorry. That was rude. I’m not laughing at you, or the situation. We were advised to tell you everything. I think there might be less we need to tell than we thought. Help yourselves to the food at will, and we’ll explain, and maybe you can help us fill in the missing pieces so we can find the best way to help.”
They were still explaining when Talir rose. Tyrel lost the thread of the conversation for a moment, turning his face upwards and to the east to let her yellow light wash away the fatigue.
She was pleased, he was sure of it, but with it was a sense of caution or warning. He wondered what it was about. Not Onyeka, he thought, it didn’t feel that immediate or focused.
He shook himself free of it for the moment, and reoriented on Onyeka, who was watching him warily.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Kaveri said reassuringly. “We… wear a bit thin, through some days, especially when there’s a lot of sunlight we can’t escape. Moonlight is sleep and food and water and healing all in one, when it’s bright enough. The dark part of the cycle is less pleasant and we’re less effective.”
“We get hungry and very tired,” Tyrel said. “And we can’t change shape. All of which means we’re relatively vulnerable. But with all except Meyar getting brighter, we’ll be fine for a while yet.”
“You will,” Lysandra muttered.
“We are hoping, though, to get this taken care of as quickly as we can. Once they know we’re here, they could attack us hoping to keep us from disrupting everything like we did in Enodia. Or they could scatter and get away with doing this. That would help Ilek immediately, but they could do this again to another earthborn.”
Onyeka shuddered. “And yet the moons don’t stop them or punish them?”
“That is… complicated,” Narcissa said with a sigh. “They have no direct means of controlling our actions. They are reluctant to punish those who believed lies and have suffered already. They have given us their support and abilities the other bloodline lacks, so I think at this point, we’re the moons’ best hope and strategy.”
“I think so,” Tyrel agreed. “Since we are, apparently, going to be selective instead of killing them all on sight—or scent—this is going to be more complicated. But we’re outsiders here, and we don’t know enough about the people locally, or the power structures, or any of the more human side of this.”
“And you need to know everything possible about those others and those who work with them,” Onyeka said.
Tyrel nodded. “Exactly.”
“Ejiro is suffering and in danger. You intend to remove those responsible so he can heal. Anything within my power and knowledge is yours for the asking. For anything before my memory, we can ask the others. Ejiro’s Brides find it difficult to leave Ilek and we typically have long and healthy lives—you’ve met at least four of the others, they wanted to decide for themselves about you. You have their support, too. Funanya is over eighty, she’s seen everything, and she approves of you. But for the moment, I’ll gladly tell you everything I can.”