Return 23 pt1

They found, at their camp, at least thirty or forty people other than Onyeka and, presumably, the other Brides. Tyrel saw a very young woman wearing only a skirt, her breasts bare and showing a pattern of tattooed dots, wrap a blanket around a woman who was sitting on the ground gingerly, as though it might move again. Enitan was carefully removing a pot from the fire and replacing it with a fresh one, and he took the heated one to a middle-aged woman who was cleaning a scalp injury for a man with blood masking half his face. A small horde of diminutive white figures scurried around busily, though as far as Tyrel could tell, the humans around them couldn’t see them; two added more wood to the fire and darted off. One of the white ones set a shallow bowl with what might have been rolled bandages in it close at hand for the woman who was treating the scalp wound; she glanced down, smiled, and said, “Thank you,” though her patient seemed oblivious. Tyrel concluded that she was one of the other previous Brides.

Narcissa surveyed the situation, then glanced towards Lysandra.

“I’m right here,” Lysandra said. “And not just me.”

“Just tell us what to do,” Madoc said.

Onyeka greeted them with a smile that was weary but intensely relieved. “Since you’re all here, clearly it succeeded.”

“It’s over,” Narcissa said. “Forever. The moons intervened directly, although not happily. The others are in their animal forms for the next year, unable to change, and we have all been given a lecture about what they expect of us.”

“They’ve been sent to bed like disobedient children?”

“I think that’s a very good way to see it,” Lysandra said. “The earthquake did what I hoped, and I’ll keep that promise. How bad is the damage?”

“We started spreading the word as soon as you left, warning people that there would be an earthquake. Not everyone woke and heard, not everyone could get outside in time, not everyone believed us—some mocked us, in fact. Some believed the mice. Not long before the quake, they came pouring out of everywhere into the streets, with no regard at all for humans, and ran out of the city in every direction. Many people were outside and in clear areas when it happened. From what we’ve seen, some were struck by roof tiles or the breaking of what glass we still had. We’ve heard no reports of any buildings collapsing entirely or of severe injuries, but Abena has the Bright Ones searching the town and we have a few humans doing so as well. Some of the injured who have been brought here are beyond our skills. Three of us are midwives, but this is outside their experience, and the rest of us have other callings.”

“And,” Kieran said gently, “you’re tiring.”

“That happens to humans.”

“Rest,” Narcissa said. “We’ll take care of this. That doesn’t mean we don’t need you, but you can take the time to look after yourselves as well. You’ll be able to help no one if you’re too tired and begin to make mistakes. Once you’re rested, there will still be plenty to do, I’m sure.”

Onyeka spread her hands in surrender.

The young bare-breasted woman, who was introduced as Abena, the current Bride, insisted on staying there. The Bright Ones would obey her best—they’d been fetching wood, drawing water, going for things the midwives requested. The previous Brides, though, and the three children, scattered to their various homes, to check on family and neighbours, and to sleep. Kaveri coaxed Abena into the wagon to lie down for the moment, at least, and promised to come get her immediately if they needed her direct influence.

Meanwhile, Narcissa and Lysandra and Kieran began working their way through the crowd, assessing the severity of the injuries and prioritizing.

Kaveri recruited Neoma to help her, and they set the soup pot back on the fire and investigated what remained of the food supplies.

Which left Tyrel, Madoc, and Mirren trying to keep order and keep watch, giving directions and giving warnings as necessary.

On Kieran’s instructions, Madoc left with an agitated boy, and returned helping to bear a badly injured woman on a makeshift stretcher, a man at the other end of it and the boy hovering around them.

Mid-morning, a pair of humans showed up—leading two familiar donkeys and an equally familiar mule.

All three, Tyrel noted with interest, were heavily laden.

“We were instructed to bring these animals here,” the woman said uneasily to Tyrel, who met them at the edge of the street.

“And it’s a relief to see them,” Tyrel said, stroking Phaidra’s soft nose affectionately. She nuzzled against him. “They were stolen last night.”

“And we have a message for the healer.”

“You can give it to me and I’ll pass it on.”

She regarded him doubtfully, then looked at the sheer press of bodies.

“The healer,” Tyrel said, “is extremely busy seeing to people hurt in the quake, and you’ll have to wait a while before you can see her in person. I might be able to find her handmaid more quickly, but I can’t promise. Or you can tell me and go home, and I’ll tell the healer or her handmaid as soon as either is available.”

It wasn’t a verbal message, but a written one, on a folded rough-edged rectangle of what Tyrel thought was vellum. She handed it over with visible doubts.

“Thank you.” He slipped it into his belt. “As for the animals, it’s all right, I’ll take them.” Iole’s halter was tied to Phaidra’s pack, so he took Phaidra’s halter in one hand, Ander’s in the other, and led them directly towards the stable. He saw Kaveri notice, saw her broad grin of delight.

Mirren met him near the stable. “I’m glad they’re safe. I’ll get them settled. Let’s get these packs off them. Did they say what’s in them?”

“No. Maybe it’s in the message.” Tyrel checked, just to make sure that Madoc had been able to take over his position at the road, before dropping the ropes and unstrapping Iole’s pack. Mirren started on Ander’s. A moment later, she led the three unburdened animals inside, and Tyrel heard her crooning to them.

Tyrel drew out the message and unfolded it.

Enodian characters, precisely formed and in neat rows.

We thought this might be of use to you, since the demand will be very high. For anyone in need of emergency shelter or a meal, the gates of the Great House of the Zebra, on Comet Street, are open. We go next to the Great House of the Stork, on Flint Street, and intend to open it as well. With luck this will make it possible for you to focus on the injured. Anything you need, we will try to arrange.

That fit with what he’d felt of the sacks while unloading them. He wove his way through the crowd and crouched beside Kaveri, who was slicing something greenish rapidly into a small pot. “Would extra supplies be helpful?” he asked, in Kieran’s language since he was unsure what other languages Neoma spoke and she was on Kaveri’s far side.

Kaveri looked up quickly. “Is that what they were carrying?”

“Yes. I think Juro was paying attention. And they have one great house so far offering shelter and food, and they’re starting on a second.”

“Oh, good,” she said with a sigh of relief. “Losing a full pot along with the demand and no time to forage has been making me wonder how we were going to manage. This will help enormously.”

“It sounds as though,” Neoma observed, dicing something reddish into a different small pot, “the newest members of the tribe are genuinely trying to help.”

“I think we got lucky in that,” Kaveri said. “There still could be a personality conflict or something, but at least they seem to be good people who, well, made a bad choice and got stuck.”

“I sympathize,” Neoma said ruefully. “Once we have time, I’ll actually be able to feel something about knowing no one else can make that choice.”

“As for personality conflicts,” Tyrel said, “we already have those, which is no surprise. Free and informed choice on either side hasn’t exactly been a big factor. Three of us were outright accidents, two chose because of those accidents turning everything upside-down, and Mirren would otherwise have died. As long as we get people who actually make an effort to get along with each other, I think we’ll manage. Although many more and we’re going to look like either an invading army or a travelling menagerie. Anyway, where do you want this? Here or at the cart?”

“At the cart with the rest, please,” Kaveri said. “Then we’ll know where everything is.”

“How much authority and infrastructure is still intact here?” Neoma asked. “And how much more food is still available? Distributing some of that to people who can prepare their own, or set up spaces where people can get food only, would get a lot more people fed a lot more quickly.”

“Check with Lysandra,” Kaveri suggested. “Logistics like that are the kind of thing she’d be familiar with. The town council was a mixture of corrupt and useless even before they had their strings cut, although Demetrios and Juro seem to be stepping into the vacuum for now. And I think it’s likely they can find out how much food has been squirrelled away.”

Not long after, Tyrel saw Lysandra and Abena and the oldest ex-Bride with Kaveri and Neoma near the fire. The rest of the previous Brides made an appearance, all at once so he assumed they’d been sent a message somehow, but he didn’t see them for long. Abena stayed longer than the others, and even after she left, several of the Bright Ones continued to carry out their tasks faithfully.

(chapter continued next post!)

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