Return 8

Kaveri checked out the setup within Narcissa’s tent, supported by the side of the wagon facing towards the road. A trio of folding stools to sit on, and her worktable which could, with a thick pad of white moonspun over it, double as an examination table. A clever collapsible set of shelves displayed some of her more eye-catching tonics and the like, and the baskets and boxes and chests that held more practical medicines and tools and supplies were arranged neatly out of the way.

Floor, four walls, and roof were all a single piece of moonspun, thick enough to block sight from outside, thin enough to allow some light within. There were many small ventilation holes, protected from insect invasion by fine mesh, high on the walls to allow air to circulate. It had taken Kaveri several nights to create, with suggestions from the others, but being surrounded by her own moon’s light was the most comfortable for Narcissa and this was, so far, beyond her younger moon-sister’s own skills. She’d originally made it black, in keeping with Narcissa’s role as mysterious seer, but since they’d left the travelling performers, she’d changed it to spotless white instead—it didn’t add enough light to really bother Narcissa, and it was cooler. Kaveri had been toying with whether she could make a second layer and bond it to the first, so that the outside surface could be cool white, the inside soothing dark, but experiments suggested that it would take some time to work out properly and execute.

Though it could stand free, she and Tyrel had set it up this time attached to the side of the wagon, with the wagon’s simple white canopy extended over it for extra protection from the southern sun. The wall facing towards the wagon concealed the space beneath, which led to the animals on the far side, and also the wagon’s side window. Only the entrance was vulnerable to insects or other intrusion, and even that was in part thwarted by the extra flap that lay loose over the vertical slit, but smearing the edges with Narcissa’s repellant oil should reduce it even further. Their princess had made her standards for an adequate space in which to work quite clear, though she’d adjusted more than once to whatever was available.

The possibility existed of someone showing up at any time seeking the healer; she only hoped it wasn’t until after they’d finished the experiment in calling the local earthborn.

Well, when someone did arrive, Narcissa would have anything she needed at hand, other than perhaps boiled or boiling water which could be quickly arranged.

She left the tent, the overlapped entrance flap falling shut behind her, and circled around the wagon. By the cart, she saw Tyrel sorting through the bundles and baskets, boxes and bags, that remained on it, maybe taking stock of what they had or what might be most vulnerable. The two cats were near the banked fire, washing each other after a meal of duck scraps to go with the plentiful mice, though ever-alert for small scurrying invaders.

They’d added all three sides to the makeshift stable on the opposite side of the wagon, and had rubbed the moonspun liberally with Narcissa’s anti-insect oil; it seemed to be working quite well, the interior nearly free of the nasty things despite the side facing the wagon being open at the bottom. The donkeys and mule couldn’t stand in the same place indefinitely, even if solid droppings were shovelled away: the urine smell would become uncomfortable, trickier to deal with on the hard ground, and there was the question of exercise. For a day or two, though, they were safer away from the eyes of strangers and the attentions of the insects.

She checked on their water and the limited amount of hay they were allowed—donkeys could rapidly get fat on the volume of hay essential to keep a pony healthy—and spent a few minutes with each, talking to them and petting them. She hadn’t expected to become so fond of them. Large domestic animals were foreign to her personal experience as anything but generic abstracts. They had individual personalities, though, and moods, and feelings. They trusted her and her family to look after them, and worked willingly in return, and all in all, that wasn’t a bad bargain on either side, as long as both sides lived up to it.

“We won’t be here for long,” she murmured, scratching the top of Ander’s head where the bridle strap rested, while he sighed and leaned into it, eyes half-closed. “This isn’t a nice place at all. There probably isn’t going to be very much we can do here, really, and once we start running low on hay for you and we start needing to eat more ourselves, we’ll have to leave so we can make it to healthy ground where we can restock. That might take us a while, if prices have gone up all over this area. I suppose this explains why the prices on the few things we bought at the last town were so bad. Just as well I can supplement so much by scavenging and you can graze, but we can’t do that until we reach the edge of the damage. Try to bear with it for a couple of days, and then we’ll head onward. We won’t let anything bad happen to you, I promise.”

An almost-inaudible rumble from Madoc, a sharp exclamation from Tyrel, brought her quickly back outside.

Tyrel had one hand clamped firmly around the wrist of a stranger. There was plenty of moonlight for her to clearly see: a man, age hard to judge under current conditions but she’d guess not long out of his teens, in the usual wrapped and tucked and belted local male fashion. His expression said clearly that Tyrel’s grasp was tight enough to hurt, and that he hadn’t expected that from someone slender who came only to his shoulder. Nor did he seem entirely sanguine about the bobcat glowering at him with faintly-luminescent green-gold eyes, fur fluffed to look even larger in the dark than his real thirty pounds or so. Mirren, on top of the cart, had her fur fluffed out too, and her ears back flat, her tail lashing.

“Caught a thief?” Kaveri asked, coming closer.

“Hard to imagine he has honest intentions, trying to get close to the cart at this hour without being seen. Madoc and Mirren heard him.”

“He’s not very smart, then, if he’s heard that we’re here but ignored the bit about our very large guard dog and other defences.”

“True.” Tyrel studied their uninvited guest thoughtfully. “I suppose we could give him to the guard animals to eat, and if anyone asks, point out that he did come poking around at night without announcing himself. Local laws can be odd but probably the council would go along with our lady.”

The intruder pulled frantically; Tyrel twisted, just a little, and the intruder dropped to his knees with a cry of pain. Further struggles stopped when Tyrel drew a dagger with his free hand, though dark eyes widened in fear.

“Please… I have children at home…”

“Oh, you have no such thing,” Tyrel said scornfully. “You’ve been eating better than most of the people I’ve seen in Ilek. I doubt you’re that successful a thief, which is good for you, because we don’t like people who would steal food from hungry children. So I think you were sent to investigate us. Someone who rules over one of those wealthy houses with the locked doors and enough food for the favoured and obedient is curious about us and wants to know more. Right?”

“No, I… of course not. I need to feed…”

“Your non-existent children.” Tyrel tossed the dagger in the air absently, caught it neatly. “One last chance at telling the truth.”

“I… I can’t.” The man slumped, shoulders drooping.

“Mm. Well, I suppose I can respect following orders, and have some pity for desperation driving one to a poor choice of master. Here’s what you can tell them. Our lady is, as we said, a healer and highborn lady from Enodia, and her handmaid is both her personal attendant and her assistant. The two of us look after all the day-to-day jobs that make it possible for our lady to follow her calling, and that includes defending her home and her household, on two feet or four, and the supplies for that household. The details of those supplies or what we choose to use them for are none of your master’s business. Our lady will see anyone who needs a healer, she doesn’t discriminate, and she does not get involved in local politics or feuds, ever. Anything else, your master can just come and ask about in person.” Tyrel sheathed the dagger, hidden somewhere in his clothes, and let go of the intruder’s wrist.

In seconds, he was gone.

“Healthier?” Kaveri asked.

Tyrel nodded, rubbing his hand thoughtfully. “Not fat, but not hollow like the others, and strong enough that I doubt he’s lost much muscle to inadequate food. I only held him on leverage and knowing exactly how.”

“Not much surprise, I suppose. We’re an unknown factor. Possibly one of those wealthy households is hoping Cissa will take their side in one of the endless stupid political games civilized people seem to so enjoy.”

“Or we’re a potential threat of some sort, although we couldn’t be carrying enough food to really tip any scales.” Tyrel shrugged. “It could be anything. He’s gone. Thanks, Mirren, Madoc, I didn’t hear him and I wasn’t facing the right direction.”

Madoc let out his breath in an affectionate huff, and gave Tyrel and Kaveri each a swipe with one cheek; Mirren’s ears came back up to their proper position, and she settled herself to grooming her fur smooth again.

Shadows, between them and the moons. Tiny as she was, Lysandra’s wings when fully spread had a span of something like four feet, and she looked much less small in the air. She circled hastily down, Meyar’s light shimmering faintly around her. Kaveri held up a hand, and Lysandra took her up on it as an intermediate step from air to ground. The honeyfox glanced around briefly, then up, and blue-white light splashed as she changed to human form. Entirely naked, which Kaveri hadn’t expected; she snatched up her long lightweight coat, discarded once the sun set, to toss it around Narcissa’s shoulders.

“Kieran said to come tell you,” she said, and the words came out rapidly though she couldn’t be short of breath in Meyar’s light. “They are here. The cult, or whatever they are. Ejiro finally came, but he looked like he was struggling, and as soon as he saw us, he panicked or… or something, and disappeared again. He knew us. Or, like Kieran says, mistook us for something very like us.”

Madoc growled deep in his chest. Mirren flattened her ears again and hissed.

Tyrel swore viciously. “It feels like they’re pissing all over the world, trying to claim it as their own.”

Lysandra wrapped the coat around herself. “Maybe they approached Onyeko’s husband and that’s why he warned her to stay away from the wealthy houses? It would certainly make sense, a limited number of closely-guarded households having sufficient food stored up to get through a crisis, if they were working on engineering this whole situation.”

“They engineered a flood?” Tyrel said.

“Not exactly,” Kaveri said slowly, thinking it through. “Everything exists in balance, I’ve told you that I don’t know how often. If you start changing factors, you disrupt the balance. Bogland is very good at absorbing a sudden excess of water, protecting the dryer land around it. Woodland offers wild edible plants and hunting that can supplement diet during a crop failure, and anchors the soil against erosion. No river is exactly the same year after year, the water level varies with conditions at the source. If you cut down the woodland, and allow or even encourage that useless prickly stuff to grow in its place, you take away your other food options and start to lose your soil. If you drain the bogland and turn that nice rich ground into cropland, then the first high-water year, you get flooding. Combine the two, wait for several high-water years in sequence which will happen eventually, and you turn prosperity into famine.”

“And destabilize the economy,” Lysandra said, “and with it social order and sense of community and the moons only know what other intangibles that people locally depend on psychologically. That would account for what Cissa and I observed, that the locals are suffering from deeper wounds of spirit than simply a shortage of food could cause.”

“Onyeka did say that the prickly stuff isn’t native here. They could easily have seeded it to overwhelm more useful local plants. And if you think like that, it might be logical to kill off the local pest-controlling wildlife as well, letting vermin reproduce out of control.”

“People are quite good at complicating their own lives,” Tyrel growled. “They really don’t need to be undermined like this. I have no idea how we fix the situation as far as the local environment, but I know exactly what we do about the force behind it. Once these so-called ‘reborn’ die, they stay dead. I’ll be quite happy to send as many of them as I can find off to the moonladies for good.”

“I’ve never killed anyone,” Lysandra said quietly. “But they very nearly killed Cissa and I more than once, and would have succeeded if you weren’t there. If we were attacked here, I’d certainly be willing to try.” She shrugged. “Kieran and Cissa are on their way back, both on four feet at the moment, but Kieran wanted you to know as quickly as possible. I need to find something to wear before someone sees me. Excuse me.”

“Them,” Tyrel muttered, as Lysandra, graceful even in bare feet and Kaveri’s coat, crossed the broken ground to the wagon’s doorway. “We gave them a nasty black eye once already, and made sure they’ve permanently lost their foothold in Enodia, which should weaken their grasp on the neighbouring countries. We were behind their loss of influence in one of the most culturally and technologically advanced parts of the world that even Kieran has ever seen. If they know, or find out, that we’re here, I doubt they’re going to be very welcoming.”

“They may already know,” Kaveri said. “An Enodian healer and her handmaid, with two attendants and assorted animals, isn’t a terribly subtle mix if someone is watching for us. If they have their claws into the wealthy households, they might even have sent our spy tonight. Although they may not have worked out yet that, Kieran aside and he’s special, we’re all very small animals compared to eagles and lions and stags. Oh well. There’s nothing we can do about that right now.”

“For the moment, we keep playing our parts, we hope Cissa can help a few people tomorrow.” Tyrel eyed Talir, leading the way towards the horizon, and sighed. “And tomorrow night, we go prowling to see whether we can find whatever hole they’ve wormed their way into to watch innocent people suffer.”

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