Lysandra emerged from Narcissa’s tent, escorting a woman with a child of perhaps six or seven years clinging to her hand.
“Follow what my lady told you precisely,” Tyrel heard her saying, her voice pitched to the greatest possible reassurance and calm. “And it will heal cleanly. No, she accepts no payment, use it for food instead. Come with me, and we’ll get your son a cup of soup, at least.”
That had happened over and over—part of Narcissa’s prescription, for children especially, included at least a small helping of Kaveri’s soup.
For Tyrel, the campfire offered a spot to sit for a moment before walking another circuit around the lot.
Kaveri, however, had been by the fire all day, steadily slicing or grinding or otherwise processing ingredients she then added to the pot of soup. Tyrel had no idea where she’d found anything she was using. He didn’t recognize it from the supplies on the cart, but he’d have thought the hungry locals would have left nothing edible for miles in any direction. She’d gone out for something like three or four hours in the very early dawn, and returned with… well, he assumed it was all safe to eat and nutritious. He’d given up many years ago on questioning Kaveri’s foraging skills, and once it had all been in the pot for a while, it would probably be hard to tell what any individual component had been.
Currently, she was dicing something that looked like pale stringy roots into very small bits, but she smiled at mother and son as they approached.
Lysandra picked up one of the sturdy pottery mugs, filled it from the soup pot using the copper ladle hanging to one side, and handed the cup to the child. “Drink it slowly,” she said gently. “It’s hot, and if you drink it too quickly, you might throw up. It will do you more good if it stays in you. Here, you need this too.” She filled a second mug and pressed it into the mother’s hands. “You can both sit down if you like.”
Wearily, mother and son took her up on it.
Even though she was inside much of the day, she still had a deep rose veil pinned over her braided and coiled hair. When she was outside more than briefly, she drew it at least around her upper chest and throat, and at moments across her face entirely to block out the sun. Tyrel had seen Kaveri eyeing it speculatively now and then, but it would probably be inconvenient for her while she was working. They had, at least, set up a rough lean-to and canopy that gave her a rectangle of shade near the campfire.
Tyrel got up, both to make room and to circle the lot again. Only one would-be thief had taken advantage of several patients arriving at once and tried to use the distraction to get at the cart. He’d found out, as Tyrel and Madoc had learned very long ago, that Kieran sometimes woke up grumpy. Since Tyrel suspected that Kieran’s sleep was badly disrupted by thoughts of them, he would not have wanted to be the one to disturb him. At least Talir was full enough that he’d retained the presence of mind to only threaten, not attack.
It would be better if the cats could sleep through the day in the wagon without interruption, and if Kieran could drowse and think in peace. Later, when Tyrel needed a few hours of sleep, the amarog would have to take over. And after moonrise, it would be time to go hunting.
He paced along the edge of the lot, avoiding the corner pit into which they’d tossed the mice. Even with dirt shovelled over it, in this heat there was a perceptible odour. He was fairly sure there were mice in Kaveri’s soup, but not these ones. The lot was large enough, and that corner far enough from the well and the rest of the camp, that it shouldn’t become a problem in the next couple of days.
He finished by checking on the jennies and Ander, making certain they had enough water and that they had at least a little hay to munch on.
The attention of both Iole and Phaidra was fixed on a small furry intruder, clinging to the side of the wagon between their respective water buckets and hay nets.
Tyrel had never seen anything quite like it. No larger than Mirren, the tail was quite astonishingly long and thin, marked with bold black and white bands that reminded him only superficially of Kaveri’s in her raccoon form. The body was mostly grey, with markings in black and white on the face with its delicate muzzle and enormous eyes. Possibly the most astonishing thing was that the paws on the long arms looked quite remarkably like hands, and even had a thumb of sorts, helping it cling to the rings on the side of the wagon. The two jennies seemed interested but not alarmed; Ander ignored it entirely.
The odd creature and Tyrel looked at each other for a long moment.
He went to the doorway, drew back the flap, and called to Kaveri. “Could you come here?”
Puzzled, she set down her knife and got up to join him.
“Is something wrong?”
“I don’t think so.” He waved her inside.
She paused in surprise when she saw the strange creature. “What under the moons is that?”
“I have no idea.”
Kaveri took a couple of steps towards it, cautiously, but she needn’t have worried about spooking it. It launched itself at her. She reflexively fell back a step, but it swarmed up her body to sit on her shoulder, bracing itself with a hand-paw. With a kind of crooning purr, it nuzzled against her.
Smiling, Kaveri reached up to pet it. “You’re a friendly little thing, although I haven’t the faintest idea what you are. You don’t seem to be starving, and you’re clearly familiar with humans, so… a pet from a wealthy family, perhaps? Well, I’m not inclined to toss you out on your own until I know I’m not sending you off to be made into soup. I don’t mind hunting, but eating something that trusts you is disgusting. As long as you don’t upset or attack Iole and Phaidra and Ander, I suppose you can hide out in here.”
“Are you sure?” Tyrel asked. “I don’t want to needlessly hurt it either, but we need to keep the animals we’re responsible for safe, too.”
“They don’t seem to think it’s a predator, and they’d smell blood or meat on it,” she pointed out. “It isn’t acting aggressively. I doubt it will let me get a good look at its teeth, but it looks a little like those peculiar monkey things in the Garden, and they ate fruit, given the choice. Here, hold it, I’ll be right back.” She detached the creature, deposited it unceremoniously in Tyrel’s grasp, and slipped back outside.
The creature untangled itself and shook itself all over, then sat up, its weight on Tyrel’s arm but one hand resting on his shoulder.
Kaveri returned quickly with one of the small sweet melons Lysandra liked. She split it open with her belt knife, which was probably cleaner than the one she’d been using all day, and offered half to the ring-tailed animal.
Delicately, it took it in both hand-paws and tore into it with considerable zeal, tongue and teeth making short work of the soft flesh. Tyrel set it on the ground to avoid the sticky juices.
“If it likes fruit this much,” Kaveri said, “it probably isn’t going to try to eat us or Ander and the girls while we aren’t watching.”
“You have a point,” Tyrel conceded.
“I suggest we just leave it in here. It’s cooler than outside, it can sleep under the wagon to avoid hooves, and it can get a drink from the buckets if it needs to. That melon will have to do it for a while, we only have a few. If it’s a strayed pet, which seems likely given how well-fed and how friendly it is, it might wander off towards home on its own. If not, well, it’s safe enough for the time being.”
Lysandra ducked through the flap. “Is everything all right?” When she saw their ring-tailed guest, her gaze stayed on it, her forehead furrowing perceptibly. “Where did that come from?”
“It got in here somehow without being seen,” Tyrel said. “I was only watching for humans, and the only animals we’ve seen have been mice, so I suppose I missed something this much smaller. Kaveri thinks it’s a fruit-eater that won’t hurt anyone, and if we toss it out it might end up in someone’s stew.”
“Mm, yes, I suppose that might be a possibility. Keep it out of the wagon and Cissa’s tent, please, and away from the supplies. It looks like it could be capable of causing a considerable amount of mischief and destruction.”
“Maybe that goes with ringed tails,” Tyrel chuckled, and Kaveri shook a warning finger at him, grinning. “It’s safest staying out of sight, maybe it has enough sense to want to hide through the day and that’s why it came in here? I’ll keep an eye out for it, anyway. If it goes in the wagon, Madoc will probably shred it first and worry about identifying it later, and Kieran’s not in the most receptive mood as far as anything waking him up.”
Lysandra made a dismissive gesture, as though sweeping all thought of the ring-tailed creature out of importance or relevance, though her eyes seemed to leave it only reluctantly.
“With all three of us in here,” Tyrel said, “no one’s keeping watch.”
“The soup!” Kaveri darted past Lysandra and outside.
“I don’t see any waiting patients,” Lysandra said, stepping around the ring-tailed animal to pet Ander’s soft nose for a moment. “Any more would-be thieves?”
“We seem to have a lull in the stream of patients. We did chase off yet another messenger from that woman with the incomprehensible many-syllable name. She still wants Narcissa to go to her. She keeps offering bigger gifts as payment.”
“If she wants to see the healer, she can come here, just like everyone else,” Lysandra said curtly. Ander heaved a contented sigh and leaned into her hand as she rubbed his forelock and around his ears, which made her smile briefly. “If people are dragging themselves here despite pain and with children, then Her High-and-Mightiness can stir out of her stronghold and actually see the people who are slowly starving outside her walls. Cissa isn’t her servant to come running, she is not for sale, and she’s not going to be willing to waste time travelling there and back that she can put to better use.”
“That’s essentially what we’re saying,” Tyrel said. “And it’s getting less courteous each time. Are you all right? You sound stressed.” And that was distinctly atypical for their dancer.
Lysandra sighed, closing her eyes. “I’m sorry. Not physically feeling tired isn’t protecting either of us from feeling drained. Most of these patients wouldn’t need help at all if they had adequate food. Small infections persist, and minor injuries don’t heal properly, and normal health begins to fail. Children develop poorly, and women produce little milk, which makes it a blessing when they no longer conceive. And they are all deep in a melancholy we cannot even begin to treat. It would be difficult even if the ultimate source were genuinely a natural catastrophe. Poor planning exacerbating that catastrophe would be worse. But to know that this much misery was created deliberately makes it… very hard. I cannot even begin to tell you what I think of those behind this. It’s cowardly and contemptible and obscene, and the thought of sharing Meyar’s light with any of them is enough to make me feel ill. I’m going back to Cissa to tell her she can rest. She needs it badly. If another messenger arrives and encounters my sister in person, I very much doubt that the response will be at all courteous.” She gave Ander a final pat and left the stable.
Narcissa being overtly rude would certainly be new. Well-deserved, however, since she, out of her own compassion without obligation, was doing what she could to repair damage that had been ignored by those in power within the community that should have been caring for each other.
“I’ll be checking on you,” Tyrel told the ring-tailed grey animal, which paid no attention, intent only on its melon. “I won’t guarantee your safety outside this tent, and if you attack our animals, I’ll personally add you to Kaveri’s soup pot, even if you are cute and friendly and Kaveri likes you.”
(chapter continued next post!)