Return 2 pt2

(chapter continued from previous post)

Narcissa probably would have plans for the best use of what food they had.

But these are kids. And they definitely aren’t eating enough.

“Hold on.” He looped the reins around the pole and rummaged in the cart for a basket. Seating himself again, he untied the top. “It’s not much, but most of what we have is no use by itself. One handful each, and no pushing.” He scooped out a first handful of mixed tree nuts Kaveri, with sporadic help, had collected some way back. She’d forgive him. He hoped.

Once, Kieran growled, ears going back, gaze fixed on a larger boy a short distance from the cart who was trying to intimidate a smaller child into handing over her share.

“Hey,” Tyrel said sharply. “You got yours, leave her alone to eat hers.”

“Or what?” the larger boy asked belligerently.

Tyrel glanced at Kieran, who jumped lightly from the cart and advanced on the boy. “Or that.”

Somehow, there were no further incidents.

Miraculously, there were still a few nuts in the basket by the time he’d given them each something.

Kieran nudged Iole with his nose and started along the street. She and Phaidra followed him. After all, he’d led them to water, food, shelter, or safety at various times, and he was familiar.

Tyrel left the reins tied off and hopped down so he could approach a nearby man who was watching.

“Excuse me. Who’s in charge here? Your town’s leader?”

The man shrugged, pausing to set down the leather sack he carried; from the clanking noise, it must be metal, maybe tools. “Hall’s straight ahead. Smarter to go right through and keep going.”

“Maybe, but our lady is a healer and wants to see if she can help.”

“Not unless she can do miracles. Keep an eye on your beasts, or you’ll be leaving on foot. That’s a lot of meat on the hoof.” With a groan, he picked up the sack again. Tyrel winced. He didn’t think the man was nearly as old as his stiff movements and leathery skin suggested.

“Where are you going? Maybe we can give you a ride there?”

“Wrong direction.” The man slung the sack over his shoulder and went back on his way.

Straight ahead. Fair enough.

Though a few people were eyeing Iole and Phaidra, Kieran was, for the moment at least, sufficient deterrent to any aggressive action. Tyrel caught up, and laid a hand on Kieran’s head to get his attention. “Get out of the sun. I’ve got this.”

Kieran whuffed acknowledgement, and went back to the cart. Instead of lying down, however, he sat upright, ears swivelling at every sound and head turning to track any motion nearby. If an alert and protective watchdog that size couldn’t keep people cautious, Tyrel would be quite surprised.

He stayed on foot himself, one hand on Iole’s neck just above the collar.

The road took them to a broad paved area in front of a large three-storey square building; Tyrel wasn’t sure he’d ever seen so much glass in one building, forcing the pale stonework into insignificance and reflecting the midday sun in a blinding glare. Many cultures knew how to make it, and they’d invented many uses for it, but this was, well, a lot of rectangular panels, all the same rather substantial size.

“Whoa, that’s a bit much,” Tyrel said, wincing and shading his eyes. Blue and purple spots danced in front of his vision. Kieran whined in sympathy.

The jennies shook their heads in protest, harness chiming, and veered to one side. Tyrel was perfectly willing to let them do so, letting them guide him since his own vision was impaired, and hoped Ander would follow.

Outside of the direct glare they stopped, small hooves planted firmly on the pavement. Tyrel circled around in front of them, rubbing a hand under their bridles and behind their laid-back ears.

“I know, girls, I didn’t like that either,” he said soothingly. “Thank you for getting us out of it. You’re both very clever.”

The wagon halted beside them, and Kaveri climbed down. She’d drawn her gauzy scarf up over her face like a veil, giving her eyes some protection, but she was still muttering curses.

“That thing is a hazard,” she said, checking on Ander, who looked no more pleased by this than the jennies. “All that glass, in this climate? Why?”

“Probably the usual reason,” Tyrel said. “Someone can do something that looks flashy, but doesn’t stop to consider whether it’s smart as well. I think this is City Hall. I’ll go see if I can find someone to announce Her Ladyship to.” He glanced at the wagon, found Lysandra sitting patiently on one seat. Her creamy-coloured long-sleeved Enodian dress was partly covered by a mantle of wheat and buttercup and goldenrod in a sinuous repeating design of spirals. A pale yellow veil was secured over her simply-braided black hair with silver and currently drawn across her upper face with one hand. Striking and elegant, but their healer-princess would take care to outshine her. Narcissa was, after all, very good at being royal.

Tyrel, wincing, stayed close to the building and out of the reflection zone as he made his way to the front door.

The high-ceilinged space within had curtains of woven multi-hued grasses, or something like it, hung across much of the glass, blocking out the sun, though they were ragged at the bottoms and had scattered holes here and there allowing lances of light through. Not much surprise they needed the curtains, since it must be hot and far too bright, otherwise. While glass could be found across much of the world, truly clear and colourless glass was much more rare, and this glass had no more colour than clean water. Equally extraordinary was the quality: these large regular panels had minimal trace of ripples or bubbles or clouding. The cost of it would have been enough to beggar most cities this size.

Several conversations, multiple repetitions of his explanation of their intentions, and a few firm reiterations of policy regarding the donkeys later, he went back outside with an escort. Tyrel guessed him as being in his mid-forties, usually quite a reasonable age in this part of the world, but he moved with the deliberate care of a much older man, and he kept around him a threadbare but heavy shawl with an angular geometric pattern.

“Can Her Ladyship spare a moment?” Tyrel asked Lysandra.

“I’ll see,” Lysandra said, rising gracefully with no haste to go inside, closing the door behind her.

It was Narcissa herself who opened it. She’d changed to her best Enodian mantle, shades of expensive indigo in a repeated pattern of stylized hares, over a spotlessly white Enodian dress with long sleeves, a paler indigo-blue veil pinned over her hair with gold. Nor was that the only gold she wore. One be-ringed hand on the frame of the door, she regarded Tyrel expectantly.

“Welcome to Ilek, Your Ladyship,” Tyrel’s escort said. “On behalf of the town council, we would be grateful for any assistance you might be able to offer our people. We’ve been struck by a series of natural catastrophes over recent months, and it has been hard on everyone. Sadly, our resources are so limited that we’re unable to offer you the sort of hospitality a great lady has a right to expect.”

“Thank you,” Narcissa said graciously. “Don’t trouble yourselves regarding hospitality, my people are good at what they do and we’re accustomed to conditions being less than ideal. All we need is sufficient flat unpaved ground for the wagons and our animals and a source of clean water, in a location that will be freely accessible to anyone seeking my help.”

“I understand, Your Ladyship, and thank you. Would an abandoned lot with a well be acceptable? I can arrange for workmen to go over it and clear out anything that might be in the way.”

“My people should be able to take care of any clean-up necessary, as long as it isn’t the sort requiring heavy equipment. That should do nicely, thank you. Would you be so kind as to show us the way?”

“Of course, Your Ladyship.”

“What exactly was the nature of this series of catastrophes?”

“A sad story, Your Ladyship, of flooding ruining harvests in the low-lying croplands, and those on higher ground being plagued by vermin. One year of that we could have weathered, but not two. Our neighbours sell us even low-grade rye as though it were finest wheat, and with many of our most skilled craftsmen leaving, the economy struggles to meet the price demanded. People are not starving to death, but there is never enough food. Illness passes through Ilek in great waves, and each carries away more of our people and slows our efforts at rebuilding.”

“I see. A sad story, indeed. Your own healers?”

“Some have died. Others have abandoned us and fled. A few remain and do what they can, but they are for the most part midwives or part-time herbalists or others without the skills to manage the situation.” He did a reasonable job of not sounding completely dismissive, but Tyrel thought he had a poor opinion of them.

Died? Maybe in a major plague, but it’s unusual for a lot of healers to die, or for many to leave if they’re needed…

Narcissa nodded. “If you’ll show us to the site where we can camp?” Without waiting for a reply, she turned back inside, ending the interview quite effectively.

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