Chapter Nineteen: Traveling
After almost four weeks of regular shren curing, Kaylo made a mistake.
"What did you do?!" Rhysel exclaimed as the copper woman under their ministrations started thrashing around. She had to duck a lash of the shren's tail. Talyn flung the shutters over his kamai senses wide to try to see what was going on. The copper's boyfriend, a jade who had yet to receive his cure, was wringing his hands at Rhysel's side and biting his lip, but not, fortunately, doing anything distracting.
"I don't know!" Kaylo cried.
"She's dying - the lifelink is under strain - Kaylo, I don't know what happens if I hold it past a few degrees, the pain could get worse than even she can take," Talyn said. "It doesn't have a limit."
"I can't figure it out in a few degrees," Kaylo snapped. "Can you stabilize her - something -"
Talyn's brain was awash in Kaylo's frantic attempts to figure out what had gone wrong, and in the jade shren's panic over his girlfriend. Maintaining a firm hold on the lifelink, he strode forward, and stoneskinned himself in case the flailing, roaring copper woman breathed fire on him or sent a claw his way. He touched a scale on her foreleg, and pushed kamai at her, turning her to living stone.
Rhysel gasped. "How do you know how to do that?" she demanded of Talyn.
"It's in A Guide to the Kamai of Stones," Talyn said honestly. That was where Revenn had learned it.
"What, pray tell, is in A Guide to the Kamai of Stones?" Kaylo asked, breathing hard and squinting through his analysis at the living statue.
"Turning living creatures into stone," Talyn said. "If I pushed a little harder it'd kill her and she'd just be solid dead rock - but there was a lifelink so I backed off a little when it put the link under extra strain. There's another way to do it safely but you need more setup. Anyway, she's not dying any more. Or conscious, which is good, because I don't think she'd like being rock. I could even let the link go, if you need more than a couple angles to figure out what went wrong."
"I might," Kaylo said. "At a guess, I didn't account enough for individual variation in compartment sizes and this is the first time it's been enough to make a difference, but..."
"Talyn, turning people to stone is forbidden kamai," Rhysel said severely.
"No," he said firmly, turning to her. "Killing people by turning them to stone is forbidden kamai. This lady isn't dead."
"You are walking a very fine line, Talyn," Rhysel said, narrowing her eyes.
"I can un-stone her if you have another way to keep her safe while Kaylo figures out the problem," Talyn said innocently.
Rhysel frowned, clearly wracking her brain. There were other things, mostly death kamai, that could have worked for a normal problem, but might not interact well with the other pressure on the copper shren to slip out of life. "What do you see, Talyn?" she asked, finally.
"Her lifeforce is paused, since she's not being a biological thing right now," Talyn said. "But through Kaylo's analysis, I can see that it's poised to leak out. I don't think a wild coma will do the trick, Rhysel, or any of the four death workings I can think of. Especially since a lot of death kamai doesn't even work here - Mendar's Ward is supposed to ward off, you know, Mendar, and he's in Barashi - I don't think a Soul Tie will -"
His Master was giving him an odd look, and he shut up, waiting for her reply.
"Fine," she said at last. "Kaylo, you're confident you'll be able to repair the problem?"
"Yes," Kaylo said. "It might take me a while, though. Maybe days. I need to invent a more precise analysis, redo all my arithmetic, maybe revise that one spell that -"
"Right," Rhysel said. She was studying wizardry a little - not in formal classes, just with her husband and friends - but she wasn't any better able to follow Kaylo's trains of thought than Talyn was. "Let us know when you're ready." She sighed, and turned to the trembling jade shren to comfort him; he seemed to be a friend of hers.
Kaylo was deep in thought, staring at the copper statue. Well, she wasn't copper anymore, she was a reddish-brown rock caught mid-convulsion with her teeth looking like smoothly curved stalactites and stalagmites. But at any rate, Kaylo was occupied with her.
Talyn, no longer needed, went to the transfer point, and brought himself home to catch up on the assignments he'd accumulated in the first third of his winter term.
That evening, when Leekath came over, Talyn said, "I think I want to go back to -"
"Ryganaav?" Leekath guessed.
"You must have met me, or something," he joked weakly.
"Why now, though?" Leekath asked.
"Because I thought of something I can do to help people there that I'm pretty sure is just plain okay," Talyn said. "If I find places where the combatants have cleared out - moved on to a front somewhere else, say - and then I help with food and water, in ways no one will notice, then the little kids and the old people and the women who aren't fighting won't starve to death."
"But you won't be gone long, will you?" Leekath asked.
"Nah, of course not," he said, pressing a kiss to her temple. "And I can only go now because Binaaralav gives Lunenik and Chenenik off, and Kaylo just botched a shren cure so I don't need to do any of those until he's fixed up the spell set. I'll be gone a little bit during the day, but I'll come home to you."
"Good," Leekath breathed against his ear, and after a perfunctory mental question, she pressed her teeth into his neck.
Pridetaal was barely inhabited. There were no businesses still running; everyone there was actively starving to death or raiding warehouses and failed farms for remaining provisions, and winter wasn't kind to either group.
Invisibly, Talyn flew over the irrigated areas. Water still flowed into most of them, as there wasn't much immediate tactical value to destroying irrigation systems over setting farms ablaze or just killing everyone who worked the land. Well-placed wild magic forced the plants that remained to bear out of season or uncommonly bountifully or both; he avoided doing it when any of the city's stragglers were looking. He concentrated on things that would be edible immediately, rather than stuff that would require cooking and time that desperate dregs of Pridetaal wouldn't have.
Someone might - someone probably would - notice the unseasonable behavior of the plants, but they didn't have to eat them. Anyway, it was a subtle sort of thing that might as easily be called a miracle as a devilish temptation.
When he found a particularly desolate area, he scooped out a hole, and made it into a mass grave for the corpses he found scattered everywhere.
Eventually, Talyn was too drained to keep working on the plants and remain invisible at the same time. He dropped the invisibility to slow the drain, but still needed a proper break, and some food. He took some of the oranges he'd forced into fruit, and peeled one while walking towards the city for drinkable river-water as opposed to the muddy rivulets that ran through farms.
There wasn't anyone around likely to waste energy trying to kill him, and he'd hear them if they decided they were going to anyway.
He's got oranges! he heard someone think, when he was halfway to the river.
He couldn't immediately see who it was - she was hiding, apparently - but he didn't need to; he could sense her lifeforce and hear her thoughts.
She went on following him while he walked, and he did catch glimpses. She was up on the rooftops, and very nimble, but she looked like she couldn't be more than twelve years old.
Deliberately, Talyn let one of the oranges drop out of his arms and roll away.
The girl leapt off a low roof and snatched it, then took off down an alley, her mind full of triumph.
"Hey!" Talyn yelled without heat.
She didn't respond, so he chased after her. She clambered up a trellis of dead grapes to the roofs again, but Talyn was capable of following even without resorting to flight. "Hey!" he called. He wanted to give her the rest of the oranges, but he was pretty sure she wouldn't believe him if he said so.
"It's mine!" she shrieked, when she looked over her shoulder and saw him gaining on her. "It's mine! You dropped it!"
"I'm not going to hurt you!" he shouted.
"It's mine! I need it!"
She was thinking about her little sister, with whom she was holed up in an abandoned house. Talyn wondered what had happened to their family - they ought to have someone left, who would have left just two girls and no one else out of a family as large as Ryganaavlan ones tended?
Talyn let her get away from him, as far as she could tell; when she wasn't looking he turned invisible again and followed her to her hideout.
Thoughts always eventually revealed a person's name, at least the one they used to think of themselves as most often. The girl was called Mekath, and when she got back to her sister, she peeled the orange and shared half.
"I said I wasn't going to hurt you," Talyn called from just outside their hiding spot. They were in a basement of a half-burnt hulk of a house, with a still-stocked wine cellar they'd been using to sterilize questionable water dragged in from the river in the dead of night. Mekath's sister had apparently been thirsty - her thoughts sounded tipsy even as she gobbled up her half of the orange.
"Go away!" Mekath yelled. Her voice floated up through a gap in the floor and an open window. She and her sister weren't getting in and out that way - there was a stairwell in the back, with a tree collapsed over it in such a way that anyone bigger than Mekath would have a hard time squirming through. It was a decent hideaway, if she wouldn't yell while in it.
"Look, I have more oranges," Talyn said. "Do you want them? You looked hungry."
"You're tryin' to trick us!" she yowled. Reading her thoughts let him understand her though the thick inner-Pridetaal accent, at least.
"I'm not trying to trick you! Look, there's lots of oranges where I got these, I can always go get more -"
"Liar!" cried Mekath bitterly. Talyn looked deeper. She and her sister hadn't personally been lured into any traps by the promise of food, but they'd seen unsavory persons talking loudly about access to reserves of beans, living herds of sheep, fruit-bearing trees, and they'd seen other kids from their part of the city follow such characters and not turn up later.
He spent a tick wondering why people might be luring vulnerable folks away to an unspecified fate and then decided to stop.
"Look, I'm just going to roll the oranges in for you," he said. "Try to catch them, or they'll get banged up. I'm not going to hurt you." He reached in through the window and dropped an orange onto the floor. It rolled towards the hole, and down onto Mekath's head.
"Hey - you - this is an orange," Mekath said, beginning at a shout and getting progressively quieter until she whispered the name of the fruit.
Talyn dropped in the two others he was carrying. Mekath caught them. She split them each in half between herself and her sister after diligently peeling them.
"Do you need more?" Talyn called. "I can bring you -"
"We're not gonna go anywhere with you!" Mekath shouted. "We belong to our uncle, not you, we don't hafta do anything you want!"
"I'm not telling you to do anything, I'm asking if you want me to get you some more fruit," Talyn said.
Mekath was obstinately silent. "Well," Talyn said. "I'm all out of oranges now. I think I'll head back to where I got them, and get some more, and come back here, and eat, and maybe I'll put down some of what I'm eating in a place where I wouldn't be able to do anything about it if a little girl ran up and snatched it away."
He walked back towards the farms he'd visited, and, as an afterthought, changed the shape of his ears under his shaggy black curls.
Talyn spent the rest of the afternoon collecting easily-rolled fruit and passing it to Mekath, trying to coax her into trusting him enough that he'd be able to get the sisters safely to their uncle without having to kidnap them. It was slow going. Eventually both of the kids fell asleep, and Talyn trudged and then flew towards his transfer point to go home for the night, eat dinner, and feed his girlfriend.
He returned early the next morning, and this time he brought his own food - he didn't expect Mekath to refuse cheese and sausage even if he had less of an explanation about where they might have come from. (He had no excuse whatsoever for bread that wasn't rock-stale. No one had been baking anywhere near Pridetaal in weeks. So he left that behind.)
Indeed the girls accepted cheese and sausage, although he refused to roll it and required Mekath to come out and gather it up and then scurry back underground with suspicion in her eyes.
"Your uncle is probably worrying about you," Talyn said. "I can try to help you get to him."
"No," Mekath said. To both the offer and the guess about her uncle. Talyn looked closer - she didn't think that uncle knew he'd inherited them. Technically, he hadn't. They had multiple uncles, and their father's youngest brother would have been next in succession after all the dead relatives, and they didn't know him to be dead. Mekath had picked their mother's brother instead because he lived farther away.
It didn't make much difference to Talyn if they wanted to shuffle around uncles to get as far away from the war zone as possible, although he didn't think it was necessarily any more peaceful with the one uncle than the other. He got up and walked away from the wine-cellar hideout, intending to locate camels.
People who owned camels had ridden them away from Pridetaal long ago, and people who didn't had probably resorted to stealing them, but the animals were native to the area, and after a while flying around in the desert he got ahold of two wild ones. Using just enough kamai to make them behave like they were domesticated, not enough to make them well-mannered, he rode one and led the other back to the city and through the streets to Mekath and her sister. "I've got camels," he called down through the window. "We can put you two on one of them and me on the other, and food and water on both of them, and get to your uncle's town in three or four days."
"We don't belong to you!" Mekath hollered.
"Yeah, I know. You want to go to your uncle, right?" Talyn said. "I'll help you get there. I've helped you so far, right?"
"You're tryin' to trick us!"
"Yeah, I always give cheese away when I want to trick somebody," Talyn said. "You and your sister will be on a separate camel from me. If I try anything awful you can run away on it. We can put most of the water on my camel so it'll be slower, if you want."
"Then if we run away we won't have any water!"
"We'll follow the river," Talyn said, "and you can bring some wine."
Mekath searched for flaws in this plan.
"You could lead us to devils!" she decided finally. "Or blasphemer armies who want us dead."
"But you know the way to your uncle's town, right?" Talyn asked, and he knew the answer to that: of course she did, it was just upstream.
"But you could have them waiting for us on the way."
"If I could communicate with devils or blasphemer armies and I wanted to give them a couple of girls, why would I want to lure you out like this, instead of just grabbing you?" Talyn asked. "That would be pretty stupid."
"Yeah, well, maybe you're pretty stupid," Mekath grumbled.
"Don't think so," Talyn said.
Mekath conferred briefly with her sister, who wanted to do anything that involved getting out of the wine cellar for good.
"We should leave tomorrow morning, before it's light," Talyn said, when he knew they were going to agree. "Be ready."
When he went home, he found Leekath, and asked her to make his excuses to his teachers when he missed a few days of classes. She wanted an explanation about what he'd found to do, but a description of the sisters placated her. "Make sure their uncle isn't awful," she said, but that was her only caveat. Besides, "Leave me some blood."
Talyn drained a pint into a bottle for her, and taught her how to expand its volume, and got her to test out the expanded blood to make sure it was the same flavor quality as ordinary blood. She sleepily confirmed that it was after she withdrew her fangs from her drinking bag.
The next morning, Talyn woke up early, and took the transfer point back to Pridetaal.
He found the camels where he'd left them - apparently no one had wandered down that street lately; Pridetaal was constantly shedding people as they reached the extent of their looting skills and moved on. He loaded one up with water and one with food, and then said, "Hey, time to go, girls."
Mekath and her sister crept out groggily, bottles of wine in their hands. He tucked the bottles onto the food-laden camel, and helped the girls up onto the animal (which spat, just missing Mekath's hair) before mounting his own and striking out in the direction of their uncle's town.
The trip was uneventful for the first two days. Talyn was able to steer them around the minor clashes of ideology that populated the riverbank - it was settled along its entire length, as the most reliable source of water in the entire country, but not every village and farm that sat next to it was actively embroiled in the civil war, and Talyn with Mekath and her sister looked like a set of three siblings traveling peaceably, and didn't stop near densely settled places enough to attract thieves.
Neither girl particularly wanted to talk to Talyn. They followed him, but spoke quietly to each other and pretended they were traveling on their own and just happened to be keeping pace with Talyn some fifty yards back. They didn't independently offer him any of the food on their camel. He took some every morning before they woke up, and every evening after they went to sleep, and found that sufficient since he was accustomed to doing a lot more kamai and feeding a vampire every day to boot on three meals a day.
The little group then came to a part of the river that wasn't inhabited. The flood plain was as green as the neighboring parts, but it didn't look like anyone was trying to farm the place or live there.
"Do you know what's up with this place?" Talyn called back towards Mekath.
"Devils must steal water here," Mekath shouted back, and she kicked her camel faster until she'd passed him and was going as quickly as she could out of the place.
It didn't fit with what Talyn knew about Ryganaavlan humans to imagine that they'd leave the place alone just because leonines wanted to visit the river and take water periodically, but maybe the leonines were more trouble than the land was worth, and conversely the humans elsewhere along the river more trouble than the water was worth, so they'd settled into some uneasy equilibrium.
He obeyed the pace Mekath set as best as he could with his more heavily burdened camel. If leonines showed up, he wouldn't be able to pick up their language instantly. He'd alarm the girls and destroy the fragile, limited trust he'd developed with them if he communicated with the lion-devils via mindspeak. And of course the leonines might not want to talk.
They traveled a few angles through the unsettled place (did leonines here not settle at all, or just not so close to humans, Talyn wondered) without incident. And then the girls, ranging far enough ahead that Talyn had to push his camel with a bit of magic to compel it to keep up, veered suddenly to the right.
Off to the left, approaching fast, were tawny-furred leonines on camels of their own.
The leonine's camels were weighed down at least as heavily as Talyn's and the girls' were, so at first Talyn thought it might be a matter of simply outrunning them. He realized his mistake when several of the lionesses dismounted and ran faster than their camels could towards his group. It might still have been a simple race if not for the way the leonine women were snarling and displaying their claws.
His camels had been magicked domestic, but it hadn't occurred to him that "domestic" would mean something different for a relatively harmless species like humans, than for an obviously predatory one like leonines. Talyn was able to get his animal under control and keep away from the part of the leonine pride that had split off to chase him, but the camel the sisters were riding was too far away - without some kind of wooden instrument to expand his wild kamai range he couldn't calm it. It went berserk, and chucked both girls and most of their food off of its back to go charging out into the desert as fast as it could.
Talyn scowled and doubled back for the girls, who were trying to scramble away from the approaching leonines. He reached them - after the leonine women did. There were four - two had been after Talyn but changed targets when he'd proven able to control his mount. Two were binding the girls up hand and foot, one was helping hold them down, and one was standing guard against Talyn. Her claws were out and she had her lips drawn back in a snarl.
Talyn had no reason to be afraid for his own safety. If there were a mage among these leonines, or a sorcerer, she probably would have used her powers earlier, and even one of those would be hard-pressed to injure an innate kama with as much knowledge as Talyn had. But he'd taken responsibility for the girls, at least until he could check out their uncle and make sure he'd be an adequate guardian for them (though he didn't know what he'd do if he judged otherwise). And they were terrified and squirming in ropes.
"Get down," ordered the leonine woman standing guard in broken Leraal.
He hadn't expected them to try to order him around. "Let the girls go," he said. If he got Mekath and her sister enough of a head start, they might be able to get the rest of the way to their uncle on their own.
"Someone buy girls, we sell," said the leonine woman. "Someone buy you, we sell. Get down. Can't sell you, we kill you. Dinner." The other women, mostly finished with their job of tying the girls up, snickered, but it wasn't really a joke; human meat (or in Talyn's case, halfblood) was just as edible as other kinds for the lion-folk.
Talyn was sorely tempted to solve the problem with magic, let the girls hate him and run off to their uncle without escort, and go home to Leekath early. But the fact that at least one of the leonines could manage some Leraal gave him the barest hope that he'd be able to talk his way out of the situation. Setting things on fire was his next best idea.
"They've got a People-calm camel," commented one of the women crouching by Mekath's shivering sister. She said this in her own language, not Leraal, so Talyn couldn't hint that he understood it without having to produce a lot of explanations. Certainly he couldn't correct her that his camel wasn't "People-calm", just magically docile.
"Only one," responded the woman who spoke Leraal, switching languages. "Probably stolen." Apparently humans didn't have much wherewithal to teach their beasts of burden to behave around leonines, and the assumption was that any human with a camel who was must have taken it from a leonine. "But it can carry the prisoners. We'll make better time." She turned back to Talyn and said, again in Leraal, "Get down. Good prisoner we sell, ransom, give back home. Bad prisoner, dinner." She licked her teeth theatrically.
Unfortunately, Talyn could clearly read Mekath's intention to be a very bad prisoner rather than comply with any instructions she got from evil devils.
He put his hands up and slowly slid down off the side of his camel.