Return 6

Narcissa, bounding along effortlessly in hare-form, looked back as she heard her sister mutter a curse under her breath.

They couldn’t really question Kieran’s logic, that a dance meant to honour one earthborn and invoke her blessing might be an effective way of coaxing another into coming out to talk to them and perhaps giving them further pieces to this puzzle.

Nor could they question Tyrel’s caution that they needed to do so far enough from their camp in the middle of the town that there would be no prying eyes.

And Lysandra had done a short flight herself to find a location that would offer moonlight, privacy, and a connection to the earth.

Nonetheless, the prickly vegetation that dominated the deforested lands was encroaching on the unused track they were following. Kieran, even in human form, barely seemed to notice. Lysandra certainly did. At least Narcissa had the option of staying below the level of the worst of it, and she was grateful for it.

Given the violence the prickly stuff inflicted on clothing, Lysandra was in the kind of halter and loincloth Kaveri liked, trusting to Meyar to heal scratches and insect bites immediately. Her clothes and jewellery she was carrying, wrapped protectively in moonspun. The sisters had done a slightly hasty, though careful, job of her makeup, and her hair was brushed out entirely loose. Narcissa suspected that without Meyar’s protection, this trek would have left her sister looking rather less cool and elegant.

The rest of the family remained at the campsite, guarding the animals and the food from people and vermin, and covering for the missing trio.

Narcissa did her best to scout around her companions, keeping watch in all directions with keen hearing and sensitive nose for interruptions or danger. She had no idea whether anyone in the region would care about a woman being out after midnight with an unknown man, or how they felt about modesty even under good conditions, but they couldn’t afford to be seen doing anything outside their roles. Above all, they couldn’t be seen doing anything a human could not. The world around her was clearly visible, everything picked out in faintly violet light, except her sister and Kieran, who were haloed with blue-white and yellow respectively.

The track finally climbed a slope, and the prickly vegetation fell away behind them. Narcissa did a high-speed circuit of the hilltop farm, which had probably once been prosperous, with a house of substantial size and several outbuildings. All were now dark and vacant, with no signs of human life as she zigzagged between them. No sign of foxes or owls or other wildlife, either, except for the mice, who must be feeding on whatever remained on the higher cropland.

Where are the animals? Why haven’t they begun to restore the balance? Even if the flood killed many, some can breed very quickly, and others should be following the mice. But there’s no sight, no scent, no sound… As relieved as I am not to have to watch for owls, this is wrong.

The only animal she spotted was a lone horse, which appeared to have found itself something edible in a small pasture or something behind an outbuilding, where the fence had broken down. It was a stocky-looking and unimpressive animal, with short heavy legs and a large blunt head, some drab light shade in the moonlight, both the bristly erect mane and the short tail dark. How it had escaped slaughter so far, she had no idea. Maybe it was only that no one had the energy to waste on visiting abandoned farms any more. While Kieran could bring it down easily, or Madoc in a pinch if he had adequate time and cover, and its death could mean food for a great many malnourished children, the thought of killing it on the same trip meant to open communication with the local earthborn made her distinctly uncomfortable. She could tell Kieran about it later, once the more immediate task was complete.

For just an instant, she thought she saw a flicker of aquamarine on one of the rooftops, but circling that building produced no further sightings, so she attributed it to a glimpse of Sahen, possibly reflecting from something, and dismissed it.

There were no humans around, that was the important thing.

She looped back around, and stopped to explore a stretch of ground halfway between the house and an outbuilding. Great slabs of flat stone had been fitted together in a sort of paving, though it certainly wasn’t perfect, with irregular gaps between stones. Whatever had been trying to grow between the stones had been chewed off short, presumably by hungry mice. Next to it stood three rough upright stones supporting a flat fourth as perhaps a personal altar, perhaps a very durable work table, it was impossible now to say.

In the middle of the paved area, she stood up on her hind legs, looking for her companions.

“There?” Lysandra asked.

Narcissa looked up at Lirit, and as a human, she nodded. “This is the best I can see. You’ll still have to be careful, but it’s flatter footing than anything else I can see. You were right, there’s no one here, and hasn’t been for quite some time. And still no animals, except one stray horse with extraordinary luck, which makes no sense.”

“That is what we wish to find out from Ejiro,” Kieran said. “Clearly something is wrong beyond what the human population knows.”

Lysandra investigated the paved area, sweeping sideways thoughtfully with a bare foot. “Maybe the width of a finger above any of the gaps, I’m in danger of catching a foot and tripping, but you’re right, if I’m careful, it should be fine, and better than open ground where I’m at risk of turning an ankle on a rock.” She set her bundle down on the table or altar and unwrapped it. “If this were bigger, I’d use the top of it.”

Narcissa helped her change into the Enodian saffron-dyed elaborately-styled linen skirt and top, and put on her jewellery for throat and waist, wrist and ankle, fingers and ears.

As Lysandra shook herself to make sure everything was in place, Narcissa joined Kieran, sitting on the ground at the edge of the paved area. He’d brought both her tambourine and his own pair of small drums. It should not have come as a surprise that, having lived as long as Kieran had, he had at some point explored music and had learned the fundamentals of several instruments, but then, they’d learned that before they really understood his age as more than an abstract number.

She still wasn’t certain that they’d grasped what it really meant to live for more than a human lifespan. She wasn’t sure Tyrel and the others had, either. An ability to return from violent death, or even immunity from aging and illness, weren’t quite the same thing as a genuinely indefinite life.

Lysandra chose a spot in the middle, and closed her eyes for a moment. Narcissa saw her body fall naturally into the familiar posture of dancing, as she took a few slow deep breaths.

Kieran’s hands on the drum created an Enodian rhythm, out of place so far from home and in such a barren landscape. Narcissa shifted her grip on the tambourine to add its jingle and her own fingers on the taut drumhead, and began to sing one of the songs used at major holidays when the Oracles danced for the Great Mother, each in her own home temple before a large and devout audience, to ask her blessing on Enodia’s people. With any luck, it would be seen as honouring the local earthborn, not disrespect of the Great Mother. Kieran adjusted the beat to match her song, and added a deeper harmony, wolf-wild with a trace of a howl.

Lysandra, eyes still closed, Meyar’s blue-white light shimmering faintly around her as she drew on its strength, began to dance.

Watching her sister dance was always glorious: it was an extremely pleasant sight aesthetically, and she had as well the knowledge of Lysandra’s joy in it, no longer tainted by that faint edge of sorrow and pain. They’d lost much, home and family and titles and wealth. What they’d both gained, though, was themselves, and she rather suspected that they’d both barely begun to truly explore that.

Lysandra in the moonlight was something more.

It was just as well that Lirit and Talir and Meyar were all bright, since it took some time for a response. Narcissa was midway through the third repetition of all the relevant songs she could think of when the hard earth on the far side of the paved area stirred.

First a hunched mound, gradually extending upwards and thinning in halting spurts and starts, stabilizing at last into an approximately human form. This wasn’t the handsome man they’d seen depicted in the temple, though. His body lacked definition, even clear masculinity, and his face had only an approximation of features, like a clay figure crafted by a child.

Eyes that caught the light like diamond opened, in roughly the right place.

And widened, resting on the three of them.

“Please, Earth-lord,” Kieran began. “Let us…”

Ejiro screamed, a sound raw with pain and fear, and the ground beneath them trembled. He collapsed where he stood, and in the span of two rapid heartbeats, he was gone.

“What under the moons?” Lysandra asked. “That looked like recognition. Have you ever been through here?”

“Perhaps once, in passing,” Kieran said. “Very long ago. But I did not meet Ejiro. Tyrel and the others have never come this way.” His voice hardened. “But to a god not familiar with us, we might well resemble someone else.”

“Oh dear gods,” Narcissa said, as she realized what he meant. “They are here.” The other bloodline of the moons, the ones who had tried to engineer her death to prevent her from establishing the public hospitals, who had attacked her household and injured members of it and nearly killed her beloved sister, who had spent generations infiltrating the governments of Enodia and neighbouring countries to restrict their efforts at peace and prosperity for all. As satisfied as she was with her current life, she could never forgive them for that.

“I believe so,” Kieran said grimly, and where there had been a howl in his voice while singing, there was now a snarl. “Lysandra, please, leave everything, I’ll gather it up. Get back to the others as quickly as possible and tell them.”

Lysandra swallowed hard, and nodded. Without bothering to undress, she simply looked up to Meyar, and her clothes and jewellery—and, Narcissa thought, her makeup as well—all fell through to the ground while she was between forms.

Kieran scooped up her tiny honeyfox body in one hand, and gave her a gentle toss skywards. Broad wings spread at the peak of the manoeuvre, one performed many times, and beat at the air hard to gain altitude. Narcissa watched her vanish above them, straight towards the town and their campsite.

“Could they possibly have engineered all this?” Narcissa asked, helping Kieran collect Lysandra’s costume. “Yes, I suppose they could, given enough time. Encourage destructive industry and it would be only a matter of time until catastrophe struck, and they seem to be in no hurry. Doing enough damage to do… this… to an earthborn is absolutely monstrous, but they had no hesitation about framing other gods for murder, so I think they have little sense of piety. But what can they gain?”

“A foothold,” Kieran said. “Individuals to be recruited as members, including gifted artisans. Ilek’s wealth. I don’t know. I have never understood what they want. But whatever it is, it stops. I will leave Ilek when there is no longer a single one of them here to poison it.” He wove moonspun into a larger sack, and into it put first the drums, then the bundle of clothing, then the tambourine wrapped in a length of moonspun to muffle it, and tied the whole thing off securely. He shifted to amarog-form and caught up the sack just below the heavy knot at the mouth, tossing his head to fling it across his shoulders.

Narcissa had to shift back to her hare form and race after him at a respectable fraction of her top speed in order to keep up on that run back to the rest of the family.

(chapter continued next post!)

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