Kieran, four-footed, frisked puppy-like along the hard-packed dirt road, tail and ears high. His excitement would have been obvious even to someone who didn’t know him, but to the trio following the road on two feet, he might as well have been howling it to the moons above them.
In a handful of years and along hundreds of miles of road, they’d repeatedly watched Kieran convince humans that he belonged right where he was, blending into any environment they encountered. Most recently, and for quite some way, that had been through a region that was densely settled, the cultivated lands of its city states all nudging right up against one another; wilderness was scant, as was privacy for a quartet with secrets. It was a relief for all of them to have a rather awe-inspiring escarpment between them and that land, with its elaborate social structures concealing and channelling the tensions between city-states. As fascinating and educational as it had been—thus, Kieran keeping them there much longer than strictly necessary—it had in some ways been stressful.
Since Kieran had tolerated a longer period than Kaveri had previously seen without ever changing to his amarog form, he must have felt that they were learning something important. That wouldn’t keep him from enjoying, with pure animal abandon, the freedom to drop all masks and simply be himself again.
Kaveri felt much the same. Civilized people had such odd values and rules sometimes.
This late at night, they had the road to themselves. The gradually increasing frequency of houses built a short way back from the road, each with cultivated land and pens and outbuildings for livestock, suggested that they were drawing near a settlement of some kind.
They really had no need to stop; winter was some weeks off still, with its potentially fatal ice and cold, and none of their three moons had reached a phase where they needed food or sleep. If the settlement wasn’t walled, they could pass through it with no more impact than the moonlight itself; if walls and gates blocked them, it would be only a short detour in their journey. Another time, it might have been worth lingering to see if there was anything interesting about the area, but they’d had enough of that for the moment.
In deference to their sensitivity to the sun and to the cultural values of civilized humans, Kaveri had long since resigned herself to covering far more skin than she would have liked; she had settled, recently, on close-fitting trousers and a shirt with long snug sleeves under a knee-length loose open coat and calf-height boots, all in mottled deep greens that faded into a forest background, and her tawny-and-dark-striped hair was braided back with matching ribbons. Only the knife at her belt and the bola coiled around her waist under it weren’t woven of moonlight. Tyrel and Madoc wore much what they once had, except that it, too, was woven from moonlight; Tyrel had found a replacement for his lost katar, though without the golden tracery on the hilt and sheath, and neither had been able to shake the habit of having multiple concealed weapons, but at least their reflexive tendency to reach for them at the slightest hint of trouble was gradually fading.
Kieran raised his head, sniffing at the air, and whined softly.
“Something dead?” Tyrel said, puzzled. “Just now?” Fox and amarog were near enough relatives that the pair could communicate to a fair degree in either form with each other, a skill Kaveri and Madoc sometimes envied. “Dead humans? That’s worrying.”
“I know you want to keep going,” Kaveri began.
Kieran needed no translation: he shook himself all over and snorted air through his nose in disdain.
“All right,” Madoc acknowledged. “Stay alert, then, folks, until we find out what’s responsible.”
Kieran veered off the road, leading the way towards a nearby house. Buildings around here were mostly constructed of logs split in half, the flat side inward, the crevices thickly packed with a mixture of grass and mud.
On this one, the shutters of the large windows were tightly closed against the late summer breeze, and some of the sturdy rope nets that deterred inquisitive wildlife when the shutters stood open lay discarded on the ground. Kaveri picked up the nearest, running it through her fingers.
“This was torn off in a hurry, not unhooked. Why is it out here, not inside?”
“Good question,” Madoc said. “Gods, I can smell rot from here, without changing. Something is very wrong.”
Kaveri could, as well. She wove a scarf of moonlight and wrapped it across her face, hoping to filter out some of the death smell.
Typically for this area, the door of the house was on one side, away from the road. They circled towards it warily.
The door was closed—locked, in fact—and a series of unfamiliar characters were painted on it; though she didn’t recognize them, they looked uneven and sloppy, staggering down the door irregularly.
Kieran flattened his ears and shifted to human. “Plague,” he said flatly.
“Did you pick up anyone still alive?” Tyrel asked.
“The scent of rot is too strong, I could have missed it.”
Madoc, wordlessly, drew a knife and wedged it between the two leaves of the nearest set of shutters; after a moment’s jiggling, the latch popped open. Tyrel supported him as he climbed in the window.
“This is nasty,” Madoc said. “Stay there. No point to all of us potentially carrying this.” He vanished inside.
“It’s probably everyone in the area, isn’t it,” Kaveri said quietly.
“Almost certainly,” Kieran said. “It can’t do us any harm, but depending on how deadly it is, how easily it spreads, how long it has been here, and how the people here have reacted to it, we are likely to see some… unpleasant things unless we cut through the woods and avoid whatever settlement lies ahead.”
“We can’t do that,” Tyrel said. “We need to check for survivors.”
Kaveri nodded. “We can’t just leave. We’re in no danger, all it could cost us is a bit of time, but we have to see if anyone needs help.”
After a long pause, Kieran heaved a sigh. “None of you have ever seen a plague town. I would have preferred that you not do so for a very long time. You are right, though. It would be unforgivable to avoid it under the circumstances.”
“You worry a lot more about trying to protect us than you need to,” Tyrel said, but there was no real force behind it. Kieran’s vigilance had kept them all, collectively and individually, out of trouble multiple times. Tyrel especially, despite a few early attempts to circumvent it.
“Plague brings out both the best and the worst in humans,” Kieran said softly. “And you will have a long time to see it in nightmares.”
“Or smell it,” Madoc said, climbing back out the window. “I’ve never smelled anything like this. Everyone’s dead—at least a few days, long enough to really get bad in this weather.”
They checked the outbuildings, briefly. A coop for poultry was empty, no sign of the birds: probably prey for local carnivores. A split-rail pen with dense hedge around it had ample sheep droppings inside, but the trough was dry, the manger empty deep under its three-sided shelter, and the hedge had been destroyed at one spot. Kaveri found black bear tracks, which explained the damage; the rest of the sheep had probably fled through the gap.
“Why didn’t you smell death on the earlier farms we passed?” Tyrel asked Kieran.
“We may simply have been upwind, or the scent is less strong. Or they may have fled, either inward or away. If away, this could be only the beginning.”
They checked each farmstead they passed after that, but none held survivors, and Madoc’s silence grew more grim with each house he ventured into. They did find a surviving herd of sheep with a single belligerent goat, and took the time to make sure they had food and water and that their hedge was intact; Kaveri tied a bright red scarf to a bush near the road, so they’d be able to find them again.
“Poor things, they were so glad to see someone,” she said sadly. “They’re so completely dependent on human care.”
The road came to a pair of tall stone markers that looked quite old; beyond them were buildings clustered more densely together, with only small patches of garden around them. Just in front of the markers, a hasty wooden barricade had been constructed, with the same set of letters painted across it.
The stench on the night breeze made Kaveri gag and pull her scarf back up, for whatever help it might be.
They circled around the barricade, and entered the settlement.
“Scout the general size and layout first,” Kieran said. “Then we can start a thorough search, building by building.”
It wasn’t a very large place, no more than a couple of dozen houses in the cluster, some of them with shops attached or close at hand: a smithy, a bakery, a pottery, a tavern, each clearly identifiable by the brightly painted signs outside showing images of their business. Several dogs that were sniffing around, probably hoping for something to eat, scattered skittishly at their approach.
“Apothecary,” Kieran said, pointing to one building. “Possibly also the local healer, or one of them, there’s usually a midwife too.”
“I smell smoke,” Tyrel said suddenly.
All four scanned the area, and finally, Kaveri pointed. “There’s a bigger building there. I think that’s where it’s coming from.”
They made a circuit of the large building. There was a well not far in front of the largest door. The shutters were all closed. The smoke was definitely coming from the chimney.
“Kaveri,” Kieran said. “Come with me to the door. Whoever is within will probably be exhausted and afraid.”
Kaveri nodded, pulled her scarf down loosely around her neck, and left her companions in the shadows, approaching the door. There was no knocker or bell, and it was quite solid; she had to draw her knife and thump on the door with the hilt to make any kind of sound.