Return 18

The lock on the outbuilding door was a simple one, meant more to prevent easy access than for genuinely high security. Tyrel crouched to examine it, while Madoc and Mirren and Lysandra kept watch, and finally just used his smaller katar to dig into the wood of the frame and force the heavy blunt tongue back enough that he could pull it open.

In the trickle of moonlight, he could see Kieran in one cage, on his feet and watching the door, ears perked forward alertly… and Kaveri in another, huddled in a corner, though she raised her head in response. The side of her face was bruising rapidly, and he could see quite a lot of blood streaking her bare skin, though it was hard to make out the details.

“’Rel?” It was barely audible, might not have been to human hearing.

“Of course. Would we leave you? Madoc, watch the door? Mirren, come on.” No need to tell Lysandra to stay alert from her rooftop perch. He crossed the threshold into the oppressively dark building, Mirren a couple of steps behind him. “’Cissa and your lemur are keeping everyone busy. Let’s get you out into the moonlight.”

“Yes, please. Lock… two hands to open.”

He studied the lock on her cage, trying to figure out how to open it. No wonder they hadn’t worried much about the door lock. This mechanism appeared to involve having various fingers pressing down on the right bits at the right time in order to get it open. A quick inspection established that it wasn’t going to be possible to just pry it open, either.

“Well, this is a pain in the tail,” Mirren muttered, doing much the same at Kieran’s cage. “I have a really bad feeling this is taking time we don’t have.”

“Then kill us fast,” Kaveri said. “He has an obsidian knife.”

“A what? Oh hell.” He snatched one of his throwing knives from his back, since they were thin with little hilt, and slid it through the close mesh. “Just in case.”

She hid it under her. “Kieran?”

“Mirren, switch with me!”

Mirren transferred her efforts to the lock of Kaveri’s cage, without question, and let Tyrel focus on Kieran.

“Hey,” Tyrel said softly. “How here are you?”

Difficult. Angry. Hurt pack.

“I know. Is there any chance you can change?”

Dark.

“Then get over here close to the bars. I can’t be sure we can get the locks open, but I can make sure you aren’t here for them to kill.”

Pack. Danger.

“Yes, I know your pack is in danger, but you can’t help us right now. Get over here!”

Lysandra shrieked a warning from the roof, and the sound hadn’t even died before Madoc called, “Company!”

“Now, Kieran!”

Defend!

Kieran snarled, ears going back and lips curling back from his teeth, and he howled a challenge.

“Madoc, Mirren, go! Get out of here any way you can!”

“But…” Mirren protested.

“Go,” Kaveri echoed. “Lirit’s nearly full, I’ll be back soon.”

Reluctantly, Mirren abandoned the lock and headed for the door.

“Kieran, now,” Tyrel hissed. “Or they’ll kill you for real and you won’t come back, and I won’t be able to stop them!”

Kieran hesitated, and Tyrel could see the tension, amarog instinct battling with human reason.

Metal clashed on metal just outside the door, and Madoc cursed.

Far too many bodies around the door, blocking the moonlight, blocking Mirren’s exit, pressing Madoc in backwards through the door, and some had spears which gave them considerable reach…

He had two throwing knives left.

They were badly outnumbered, and had no moonlight in here to allow changing and a quick escape. Lysandra could probably get away… Narcissa was probably either captured or escaped already…

One knife for Mirren. One for Madoc. And at least they were in the clear. His aim was good: both throwing knives clattered to the hard-packed dirt floor amid a doubled heap of Madoc’s and Mirren’s various weapons—though Madoc had time for one more growled curse, and this time it wasn’t at their opponents.

Even if that left Tyrel standing alone. He could kill himself fast, but how could he abandon Kieran?

But then, how could he help by getting himself killed?

That moment of hesitation, the same one he’d drilled their princesses in avoiding, was fatal. Far too many swarmed him at once, pinning his wrists and removing the choice.

“That was dramatic,” one of them said scornfully, a local man who had a faintly aquamarine halo in the light from the doorway, kicking the heap of weapons carelessly aside. “And stupid.”

Tyrel shrugged. “You’re just sulking because you can’t torture them to death. You’ll have to make do with just me.”

One, not glowing at all, roughly unbuckled Tyrel’s belt and tossed his katari aside to rest on the floor against the wall, then slit his shirt with a knife so it could be stripped off. The belt that had held his throwing knives, and now only a single dagger, followed, and then the rest of his clothes.

He tried to watch how they opened the cage before they forced him into it, but it was already ajar and it snapped shut without needing to be locked.

A rather large bronze-skinned man dragged in a tall, blanket-draped, unprotesting captive. He stripped the blanket off Juro impatiently before using a length of rope as a leash to tether him to Kieran’s cage—nearly losing fingers while feeding the rope through. They cut his clothes off, too, and threw them with Tyrel’s. Juro, wrists bound behind him, shoulders hunched and eyes on the floor, sank down where he was.

“By the laws,” the bronze-skinned man said, waving to the others to leave, “you are entitled to a full day, from first light to last, to reflect on your sins and the reasons penance is necessary. I believe Gernot is currently too busy organizing a search for that lying rabbit whore to demonstrate…”

Kaveri chuckled, though it sounded hoarse. “My moon-sister fooled you? You’ll never catch her. She’s fast and small and Lirit loves her very much.”

“How much they love us,” Tyrel said, “has nothing to do with what our other forms are. They just choose what fits the best.” He wasn’t going to point out that a hare who had been trained by a fox and a wildcat in games involving escaping an amarog and a bobcat was going to know far too much about trails and cover, as long as she could keep her head and think it through.

The bronze-skinned man scowled. “Be still!”

“Or what?” Kaveri asked. “You’ll kill us? Not much threat.”

“At last light, your penance starts.” He spun around and followed the rest, slamming the door hard. Tyrel heard the lock snap shut, but he doubted it would hold securely.

“So who are you?” Kaveri asked.

“Our lemur,” Tyrel said drily. “Who tried to get you under cover before the owl hit you, but didn’t have time. Lysandra talked Kieran into letting him hang around, and while that was probably useful for us, I’m not sure it was so beneficial to Juro.”

Juro shrugged. “Then Kieran would have killed me a couple of days ago, hm?”

“True, but if you hadn’t decided to help us, you wouldn’t be here.”

“I knew it was a roll of the dice. It very nearly worked, she had them off-balance and convinced. Bad luck someone happened to see you. I’m not sure how Narcissa got away, I couldn’t see.”

“That’s easy. She changed as soon as she was out in the moonlight. We’ve spent years telling her over and over that if she’s in danger, she should change and start running.”

“She couldn’t see Lirit.”

“She wouldn’t need to. I’ve seen Kieran change in dense forest with almost no moonlight. If our mothers can touch at all and you can concentrate enough to ask, they’ll do it. It’s not impossible that under the circumstances Lirit changed her without Cissa needing to ask.”

“Our lemur,” Kaveri repeated. “Sorry. A little slow. I wasn’t bored waiting for you to rescue me.”

“I saw,” Tyrel said. “I’m sorry it didn’t work. I think we made things worse. Maybe if we’d been wiling to risk you being hurt while we made plans or something, but…”

“I know. And thank you for trying.”

“Juro, did I see blood? You were hurt?”

That wasn’t really a laugh. “It’s trivial, compared to what’s coming.”

“While they were bringing you over here?” There was just no getting comfortable in this cage.

“No. Narcissa did it.”

“Cissa… what? What exactly happened?”

Juro described events in the main house in rather impressive detail, proving his earlier claim of an excellent memory and of skills as a storyteller.

“She had a reason of some sort,” Tyrel said, puzzled. “That doesn’t sound at all like her. She wouldn’t think it was your fault. She wouldn’t have expected them to go easy on you because of it. Whatever it was, she thought it was worth giving up her own one sure escape.”

Kaveri chuckled. “I think I know, and it would be absolutely like my clever moon-sister with the huge heart. Was her blood on the knife?”

“It might have been,” Juro said. “I wasn’t thinking of it, but it’s quite possible. But her blood would have no effect on me, we’re already the same.”

“Would that work?” Tyrel asked. “Switching bloodlines?”

“It might,” Kaveri said. “A new friend in danger, with nothing at all to lose, who would die for real? Even if it’s against the odds…”

“You’re right. That’s perfect Narcissa reasoning. In this case I can actually see her point, but still… I know you love her, but that woman is going to drive me crazy.”

“I hope we’re around for her to do it.”

“There is that. I mean, I like her and I care about her and I respect her, but there are moments…”

“Excuse me,” Juro said. “What are you talking about?”

“We showed you making fabric out of moonlight,” Tyrel said. “That isn’t the only little change the moons made in Neoma and her bloodline. We’re really hard to kill permanently unless you know how. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you how often I’ve died and in how many ways. It’s quite likely that Cissa attacking you was an excuse for getting at least a little of her blood into yours. It’s probably going to be more or less up to Sahen what to do about it, if anything. She’s the only moon who hasn’t chosen anyone from our bloodline yet, but you’re already hers, and if she sees it as a loophole she can use to keep you safe, there’s decent odds she’ll take it.”

“Especially since,” Kaveri said, “they very badly want their children to be free of this nonsense, and you took a big chance.”

“So don’t give up.” There was no point telling him that no matter what Sahen did, an obsidian knife could make Narcissa’s gesture pointless. Any shred of possible comfort was worth it, at this point. “This is probably going to be intensely nasty, but dying itself isn’t really a big deal. It usually hurts, but then you go spend a bit of time with your mother, which is sort of like a very very deep sleep that you wake up from feeling like you had wonderful dreams you can’t remember, and then you’re back just like nothing ever happened. Except that you remember everything, which isn’t always much fun. But this isn’t really the time or place for discussing what actually will kill us for real, or how we come back.”

“I see,” Juro said quietly, after a moment’s thought. “The moons love Neoma’s children very much.”

“No, well, yes, but not more. Did you hear while Aithre was there?”

“Yes.”

“In Enodia, something like twelve ambushed us in Narcissa’s house. There were a lot of innocent humans around too, Cissa’s household, including Lysandra at that point. It was on the roof, actually, in the moonlight. The moons healed us but not them, but even the ones who should have died they kept barely alive until the fight was over and then healed them. They gave Aithre’s Oracles the names of all the reborn in Enodia, but added a condition that none be killed and each was to be judged fairly. They’re in prison, and in Enodia, the prisons are better than the living conditions in some other parts of the world. Even their sentences are human length.”

“They love their children,” Kaveri said. “They just don’t approve of or like what some of their children do. They do like what we do, so they’re supporting us as much as they can.” Tyrel heard a faint sound of motion, and her breath caught, then released with a small sigh. “They’ve made it quite clear that they wish all their children would just look up and talk to them and pay attention, and go live and be happy. Each had a different motivation in creating their first children. Ruling the world wasn’t one of them. Or horrible initiations. Or making yourself and everyone around you miserable.”

“What did they want?” Juro sounded intensely interested.

“Well, it’s not like we have anything else to do,” Tyrel sighed. “These cages are brutal. What sadist invented them?”

“I think Demetrios said they were based on Enodian technology. The locks, at least. He’s not the only Enodian they’ve ever trapped. But I think the size of the cages comes from somewhere in the far north where they’re normally wood, and the metalwork is a combination of several sources.”

“Figures. If you want answers, and stories, and whatever else, you can have them.”

“Sorry if I don’t talk much,” Kaveri said, and Tyrel picked up a definite note of strain in her voice. “I did lose some blood, I think I still am a little, and I’m not feeling very energetic.”

“’Veri, get out of here while you can.”

“And leave you and Kieran and a new friend?”

“What can you do?”

“For sure nothing, if I go. You wouldn’t leave Kieran. Don’t expect me to leave you.”

“If they come back, promise you will. Don’t let them get that knife without using it.”

She sighed. “All right. But only because you’re our sneaky fox who always finds a way out. On with the stories. I did that with Mirren, you know… in Galimont, when I changed her so they couldn’t kill her. She was afraid. So I told her stories and sang to her. Then you and Kieran got us away.” She sounded rather dreamy, the words slurred slightly.

“That way won’t work here,” Tyrel said. “Don’t pass out. I can’t reach you.”

“I won’t. I promise. Go ahead. I’ll tell you if I think of anything you miss.”

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