Return 2 pt1

With the heat down to merely annoying instead of oppressive and a faint thread of wind stirring the air into motion, the landscape here was simply boring. There was nowhere for highwaymen or large animals or other diversions to hide. Taking a turn at the reins did nothing to alleviate the monotony.

Fighting made him feel bad, unless it was unequivocally in defence, and even then, the royal sisters had an annoying tendency to speculate about what underlying conditions could have created the situation. But at least it wasn’t dull. Scenery or wildlife or other traffic or, well, something, anything, was better than boredom.

“’Veri, shouldn’t there be birds and things around? Even with the mice and all the damned bugs?”

She shrugged. “There should, normally. But those mice weren’t normal. If the mice have stripped everything edible, then there’s nothing for anything else to eat, unless it eats mice. Hawks and owls don’t have many options for perches and nesting around here, which isn’t going to lead to them being common. Even foxes and small cats might find this a tough situation. There might be some around, though, and weasels and the like. Not seeing them doesn’t mean they aren’t there. A lot of animals don’t come out in full daylight. Some are hard to see against their surroundings even when they do.”

No smells, Kieran said.

“No smells,” Tyrel translated.

“That’s a bad sign. With no predators, there’s nothing to stop the mice except their own internal pressures and the limit on food. And I bet whatever human-edible or livestock-edible food the mice didn’t get fairly quickly is probably being guarded closely. How much there is, is another question.”

“Great. Well, at least food shouldn’t be a big issue for us, if we aren’t here too long.” Talir and Lirit would be full together in less than a week, and the need of the cats for food would start to diminish rapidly as Sanur brightened; Meyar being just past full, Lysandra would be fine with limited food for the next few days. It wouldn’t take long, though, for all of that to change. If this became an extended event, things could get complicated.

“I hope Narcissa’s right and we can actually do something useful,” Kaveri said. “Bad people or rogue animals or the odd nasty spirit-creature we can fight. Earthquakes and such, we can help look for survivors and support or organize basic necessities. With Narcissa, we can even fight plagues beyond basic nursing support. But a mouse population out of control? If the nearest humans are hungry, we can’t make food out of moonlight. At least, as far as I know.”

“Probably not that would work for anyone else, anyway.”

“And we can’t do anything about the source of the problem. Well, we’ll see soon. Are those buildings up there?” The road slanted downwards at a shallow angle, and eventually began to rise again, and on what passed here for higher land, he was sure he could see the sharp vertical lines of walls.

“I think you’re right. That must be the town. How are we going to do this? Narcissa as our great lady and healer, travelling? Lysandra as her assistant or handmaid or whatever, and you and I as her servants to look after the hard work and the boring details?”

“That’s worked before, and it’ll probably work here. A big part of why Cissa’s cures work is because she impresses people and then they actually follow her instructions more closely than they might otherwise. In this situation, people paying attention to what she says might make a huge difference.”

“Then why don’t you go back with them, and make sure they’re dressed for the right roles? And without knowing what we’re going into, it might be better if there’s someone with them with more experience and who’s able to talk.”

She nodded, and hopped off the cart.

“I just hope we aren’t about to find something really grim,” Tyrel muttered. Kieran made a soft sympathetic whuff.

The first buildings they passed were abandoned and showed signs of damage. Some were round, some were square with rounded-off corners, both sorts with the remains of conical roofs that looked like thatch. The walls of the worst were, very obviously, mud brick, a material they’d encountered often in southern areas, though since it had held its structure instead of dissolving into a mud pile, it must have been fired rather than sun-baked. A few were of a pale and rather crumbly stone he figured for the local sandstone, but they didn’t look much better. They jutted up in the midst of a sea of that prickly vegetation. Tyrel could reach conclusions on neither what they were built as nor the reason they were in such poor condition.

The light caught a wall at just the right angle, and he noticed something odd: the colour changed a couple of feet from the ground.

“Do me a favour? Take a quick look at one or two of these buildings up close.”

Kieran obligingly leaped off the cart and loped to one they were about to pass, a brick one, then ran ahead to the next, which was stone, sniffing around at everything in reach until Tyrel caught up. The donkeys ignored him as he jumped back onto the cart and resumed his place.

Water.

“Seriously?”

A lot of water.

There were definitely limits to the concepts that could be expressed in canine.

“Flood?”

Kieran whuffed agreement.

“Oh, great,” Tyrel sighed. If the ground the actual town stood on was high enough, it might have been spared direct damage, but the surrounding land flooding couldn’t be good. Was that connected to the mice somehow?

Kieran echoed the sigh and laid down beside him, head on his paws.

As they got closer, the road sloping perceptibly upwards, he could see that the buildings of the town proper were in better repair than those outside, but that was only relative. The rounded-square footprint dominated here rather than the circular, one storey or two. That soft sandstone was much more common. Windows had been blocked by wood or fabric or, apparently, anything else that offered itself. Roofs, whether thatch or long thin tiles that rather resembled it, probably leaked in the rain, given the poor repair they were in. Many, as near as Tyrel could tell, had been built as a sort of double structure, of a single-storey building that crowded up close to the walkway and gutter that bordered each side of the street, with a two-storey building immediately behind it. The door of the shorter structure often had a sign over or beside the door, and the remains of large street-facing windows. Shops, perhaps, with living space behind?

Where the buildings were more dense, so were the people, in some semblance of normal town life. Its shadow, at least.

Tyrel had seen people under starvation conditions, and didn’t see the signs of it now, but he’d have been willing to bet that food was less than plentiful and had been for some time. Hair looked dull and lank, faces had a slightly hollow look. The number of shawls, wrapped scarves, and other extra layers would have been more understandable in a cooler climate. Movements seemed intended to use as little energy as possible. Some of the clothing looked like it had been expensive not long ago, strongly dyed in elaborate designs, but even the best was fraying at the edges and showed signs of heavy wear. Since male peasant styles were so unfitted, it was hard to judge; the wide belts of the women could only tighten to a limited degree, however, since they laced at either front or back, and in many cases they looked loose rather than gathering fabric snugly for both pragmatic and aesthetic reasons. Not a single woman in sight was carrying an infant slung on hip or back, though that was a common sight in this part of the world, nor was visibly expecting to bring one into the world. That was, sadly, something he’d observed far too often when food had been scarce for an extended period.

There were children playing, at least. Even in regions or parts of towns where poverty was common, children still tended to act like children; when they ceased to, it was a very bad sign.

Having a number of them crowd around the cart, begging for food and bringing the jennies to a complete halt, was therefore a mixed blessing.

(chapter continued next post!)

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