Someone close, someone unfamiliar...
Vixen bolted sharply out of dreams of her birth-father's house and one of the endless scoldings, instantly alert though she didn't move. Cautiously, she opened her eyes.
A well-laden tray sat on the table near one of the large windows. The maid Tylla was moving around the room, gathering up the clothes Vixen had dumped from her pack last night. Draping them over one arm, she reached for the black wool bag on the small table beside the bed.
“No! Don't touch that!”
Tylla jerked back, dropping the clothes. “Oh! I'm sorry, milady, I...”
Vixen sat up, wrapping the blankets around her. “You're Tylla, correct?”
“Yes, milady. I'm to see to you while you're here.” Hastily, she went to one knee to pick up the fallen garments.
“I realize you're doing your job. In regards to clothes and such, I appreciate your services very much, but I have things with me that I would prefer no one touched but myself. Mostly that means anything in black wool. And I... I'll probably be a bit jumpy about having someone unfamiliar around when I'm not expecting it, until I get used to you. Could you keep just those two things in mind? And I'll do my best to add as little difficulty as I can to your responsibilities.”
“Oh, milady, you're no trouble! Of course, if you want me to do that, I will. I'm sorry.”
“Forgotten already. Is that breakfast?”
“Yes, milady. His Grace asks that you join the household in the dining room for lunch. Lord Mirain will be home.”
“I'd be happy to.”
“I'll relay that to him, milady. Lady Alys sent clothes for you.” She nodded towards a mass of forest green draped over the back of a chair. “Is there anything else you'll need?”
Vixen's insistence yesterday on bathing and dressing herself must have made an impression. “No, that's... wait. Is there an herb garden here?”
“An herb garden? There's the kitchen garden, that's spices mostly, and a few simples.”
“That will do. Where would I find it?”
“At the south-west corner of the main house, milady.”
“Thank you.” She'd probably walked right past it last night, but with her attention on creating the boundary, she'd noticed very little detail.
Tylla curtsied and left.
Vixen waited until she was gone before getting out of bed, a light blanket wrapped around her, and sitting down at the table. Oatmeal, with a miniature pitcher of cream and another of sweet syrup, a small plate of cold fowl, and a cup of some sort of tea. She tasted the latter, cautiously, and identified it as a blend of mint and a common lowlands herb that was quite an effective, if mild, stimulant. It could also interfere with shamanic work, so she set it aside. The oatmeal, though, she laced with cream and syrup and started on.
She'd had only a few bites when Dayr invited himself in, closed the door behind him, and sprawled into the chair across from her. He gestured to her bowl. “How can you eat that? And what is it?”
“It's oatmeal, it's made from a kind of grain, and I can eat it because I like it and I haven't had it in a long time.” She handed him her plate of fowl. “Here, eat.” She gave him the rest of her cream, too. He ate contentedly while she finished her oatmeal.
“Don't human understand privacy?” he asked, between bites.
“Not in the same way. What did you do to whoever brought you breakfast?”
“Was it nothing or was it much?”
“He startled me. So I swatted at him.” He demonstrated, fingers hooked into claws. “I missed because he was too far away. He jumped, and the tea spilled, but I didn't want it anyway. Then I told him not to ever come in the room while I was asleep.”
“Hmm. Well enough. At least he didn't come in and find you sleeping furform.”
“If he did, he'd never do that again.”
“Dayr. We're a long way from home. Do not let yourself be caught furform. Clear?”
“Oh, I know, I'm only teasing.”
“There are times I wonder.” She smiled to take any sting from the words, scraped the last bite from her bowl, and rose to see about clothes.
Alys had provided, this time, an attractive, high-waisted gown of soft dark green wool, embroidered with varied shades of blue, and a clean shift of white linen. Vixen washed thoroughly in the bathroom before getting dressed and braiding her hair neatly. This one showed no signs at all of recent alterations, which was interesting. She rather liked how it looked, when she checked her reflection in the mirror.
“If you like, we can go to the kitchen and get you more meat,” she offered.
Dayr shrugged. “I'm not hungry now, it doesn't matter. What's next?”
“I'm going to visit the kitchen garden. Did you get the message about lunch?”
“Yes. What'll happen at that?”
“You and I will meet Mirain and anyone else Jared has invited, we'll all eat and be polite, and they'll try to overlook our eccentricities. Nothing particularly practical, just courtesy.”
“Huh. Humans are like fleas, y'know. They're irritating, they don't make any sense, and you can't get rid of them.”
Vixen laughed. “You might be right. With luck, we'll be out of here before you can start scratching. Ready to go?”
She had a reasonable idea of the layout of the house, and between that and Dayr's directional sense they found the kitchen garden fairly readily.
Within its tall thick evergreen hedge, the garden was neatly organized into small patches by borders of stone. Vixen paused to examine some of the young plants, and identified common flavourings for the most part.
“Chamomile here, feverfew there, but otherwise, I believe this is, precisely, a garden for use by the kitchen. Which is normal, really, any House this size would have a resident physician.”
“A what? Oh. What you were going to be until you learned better.”
Vixen chuckled. “Yes.”
“And you think there's one here because there's no healing herbs.” He wrinkled his nose in disgust. “Physicians make people give them things before they'll help them, and they don't want people to help themselves, because then they wouldn't get rich.” He said the last word distastefully.
“Many of them truly want to help people, the way I did. One was very kind to me, once. But they don't learn all the right things about prevention and the importance of the mind and the whole body instead of its parts separately. And, in the lowlands, they aren't just given what they need by the people they care for, the way Willow River supports Irisan and me.” She considered. “Unless they're working in a House like this, anyway. But the others need to pay for food and clothing and a place to live and the tools and medicines they use.”
Dayr just shook his head, unconvinced.
They wandered on along the stone-edged path, Vixen taking note of what was available. Maybe tomorrow she could persuade them to bring her lemon balm tea with breakfast, or mint alone.
Dayr stopped, nostrils flaring. “Something just moved... towards the kitchen door.”
Without question, Vixen lengthened her strides to match his.
A housecat lay curled under a bush, weakly licking at her wet fur.
Dayr dropped to his knees, heedless of his clothes, and made a soft mrring sound. The cat looked up, ears flattening and eyes dilating, but Dayr started to purr as he offered her a hand to sniff.
“Come on, little sister,” he murmured. “Come out and let us help you. Come, we'll protect you...”
Vixen approached slowly and knelt beside him, offering her hand as well. “We won't hurt you, little one, you'll be safe with us.”
The cat eyed them uncertainly for a moment, then wriggled out from under the bush, limping heavily on one hind leg. Vixen gathered her up gently and cuddled her close with care for her injured leg.
“Let's take her upstairs.”
Dayr nodded. His pupils were dilated, too, but in anger, not fear.
Twice, maids scuttled hastily out of their way. The cat pressed against Vixen, shivering, claws digging into her arm.
Dayr stripped a knitted blanket from Vixen's bed and made it into a nest in a sheltered corner under a table, next to a well-padded chair. Carefully, Vixen let the cat down onto the blanket. She promptly retreated against the wall.
“Can you talk to her?” Vixen asked softly.
Dayr shrugged. “Sort of. I think we need to just let her be for a little while, then you can try healing her. We'll probably get some scratches.”
“I don't care. She looks like someone poured wash-water on her. Will she let us dry her at all?”
“I doubt it. It's warm in here, she'll dry herself and feel safer. We could get her some food, though.”
“Will you stay here with her? I'll go down to the kitchen.”
He nodded again, and arranged himself leaning against the wall, purring reassuringly.
Vixen made her way down to the kitchen, and cornered a plump woman in an apron. The woman's gaze flickered down Vixen's wet and muddy dress, eyes wide in horror. “Oh, milady, what happened?”
Vixen cut her off with a gesture. “I want meat, right now, about as much as a soup-bowl will hold. Good cooked meat, not scraps, and if you have any liver or heart include that. And an empty soup bowl.”
“Do I need to repeat myself?”
“No, milady.” Obviously bewildered, she turned away to obey, calling orders.
It was readied with impressive speed, and presented to her on a bronze tray.
“Thank you,” Vixen said coolly, and returned to her room.
Dayr took the bowl of meat, and sniffed it. “Chicken, chicken liver. It's too big.” He broke each piece up into smaller bits before offering the bowl to the cat, while Vixen filled the empty bowl with cool water in the bathroom. Cautiously, the cat investigated. Dayr moved away, slowly so he wouldn't startle her, and he and Vixen sat on the couch where she could watch them while eating.
They waited patiently until she had eaten her fill; she scratched at the blanket diligently until she'd buried the remainder of her meat with a fold of it, then settled down to lick herself relatively dry. She was a beautiful cat, black and orange with a little white, her eyes a warm amber, though her long fur was badly matted. She'd be quite large, too, were she not so skinny.
Once the cat satisfied herself that she was as dry as she could manage, Vixen joined her, speaking reassuringly. The cat lay still, allowing Vixen to stroke her head and a few inches down her back, but when her hand neared hip-level, claws flashed out.
“Hush, little one, hush, I won't hurt you, I just want to see what's wrong and try to fix it. That's all.” Quietly, she began to sing her healing song. Dayr knelt beside her, purring in harmony.
Before she'd finished healing the broken hip, she and Dayr had gained a number of scratches, some deep, but they persisted until she'd done all she could.
“There, little one, does that feel better? I know, you're only scared, that's why you scratched us, it's all right. Poor baby, why didn't anyone take care of you before this?” She eyed the livid marks on her hands and forearms ruefully; Dayr started to lick his. They would take more work to fix than it was worth, but they did hurt. “It could have spared you a lot of fear and all of us some pain. Well, don't worry, you're safe now. If I have to, I'll take you back to Willow River with me. Irisan would love you. You need a name. What shall we call you?” She pondered, toying with sounds. “Anna,” she decided. “Your name is Anna, the name I give you is Anna, you are Anna.” She turned it into a singsong, playing with it, pleased when Anna gradually relaxed and curled up on her blanket.
She stayed there, singing softly, until someone tapped on the door.
Dayr rose to open it, and admitted Tylla into the room.
“Milord, milady, lunch is... oh, what happened?”
“Hush,” Dayr said. “Keep your voice down.”
Vixen eased herself to her feet. “Lunch, yes. Where, in the dining room we were in last night?”
“Yes, milady,” Tylla said faintly.
“Thank you. Dayr, stay here? I won't be long.” Vixen stepped past Tylla, and strode downstairs to the dining room.
Jared rose, smiling, as she came in; the smile turned to shock. “What... Your hands...”
“My apologies, Your Grace,” she said coldly, “but my calling takes precedence over decorum. Or, for that matter, my own comfort. I certainly hope that the rest of the living things in your Domain are better treated.”
“I'm sorry, I don't understand.”
Vaguely, Vixen realized that Alys and Lyris were there, and a young man who resembled the former, and a finely-clad man with silvery streaks in his hair. “There is a cat, now safe in my room, that has had a broken hip for the past week at least, scant food for at least that long, and no care at all. In fact, someone from your kitchen dumped greasy water on her this morning. She is not wild, she's definitely a housecat. Wild or tame, that she should be treated that way is... is... appalling! It does not speak well of your household that a vulnerable and trusting creature was abused like that. She is staying in my room, and anyone who so much as speaks loudly to her is going to answer to me!” She spun around, skirt swirling, and stormed away.
She calmed herself before entering her room. Cats could be highly sensitive to moods, and the last thing Anna needed was a temper tantrum.
She settled herself where she could both look out the window and watch Dayr, sprawled on the floor near Anna and still purring reassuringly to her.
By the time there was another knock at the door, this one decidedly tentative, Vixen felt like she had her internal balance back.
Tylla gave her a timorous smile hen Vixen opened the door. “His Grace said to bring you and milord Dayr lunch, milady. And that you're to have anything you need for your... your new friend. And Lady Alys said to bring your clothes, so you'd have something clean to wear.”
“I'm not going to bite you,” Vixen said gently, taking the tray. “You haven't done anything wrong. Leave the clothes on the bed, please.” She frowned, trying to remember what Nuriel's pet cats at Copper Springs had. “I'll need some sort of shallow box or basin with clean sand in it. And she'll need meat, twice a day, cooked lightly and cut small, it would be best if some of it could be a mixture of organ meats and ground uncooked bone.”
“Yes, milady. I can bring some at breakfast, and again after dinner.”
“That would be perfect. She only needs about half a bowlful at a time. And water, always, but I'll see to that. Thank you. If you could find a sandbox?”
“I'll think of something, milady,” Tylla said earnestly. “Milady? May I ask something?”
“My friend was in the dining room, when you, um, spoke to His Grace. What did you mean, your calling?”
“I'm a healer. And, as a healer, I was taught to honour and respect life in all forms.” She turned away, setting the tray on the table by the window where she'd had her breakfast.
“Oh. Thank you, milady.” With a quick curtsey, Tylla left and closed the door.
<-- Back Next -->