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The children scampered ahead to the root cellar, along the path they had cleared with their many trips. Cerdin and Oskar had been helping Inura and Andas to learn to make shelters and fires; now, throughout the daylight hours,adults who wanted anything from the cellars had only to ask one of the children of the village; any child able to walk and understand was willing to fetch it.

Today, though, she had been invited to come see their handiwork, and would be permitted within. It was a rare honor.

Winter’s Knell was deep, nearing its midpoint, and the Tribed feasting that accompanied it. The air bit at her; she thought briefly of Kaitiiraan’s Keep, and how, when she lived there, she had seldom had reason or desire to set slippered foot outside.

Here, she wore sturdy boots such as the merchant women wore, and furs given to her as a gift by her sisters. But she did not like to have her face covered, and so the air stabbed into her throat and nose.

As soon as she gained the snug outer shelter, Inura gestured her to a fur draped rock.

“Will you sit for a halfglass, Mother, and take some tea?” She was young, but becoming a fine cook already – as Rachyl had been told Lyrin her mother had been.

“I’ll sit, and drink, and will welcome the warming.”

The other children gathered around her, and regaled her with stories and chatter while she sipped the excellent tea – it even had restorative qualities such as arytana, wakeroot, and amasberry. Rachyl had noted the bank of sensates, and now better understood why Andas had been so interested in the plants lately, and had asked for some seeds. “This is a very comfortable place,” she said. “It’s little wonder that you all so love to be here.”

When she had finished the tea, Oskar took the cup to a sand basin in the corner, washed it, and hung it back on the hook against the wall, where there were several other cups, all hung at child’s height. “Are you ready, Rachyl?”

Of all of them, Cerdin was the most reserved around her; as oldest, he’d had the most time with his own Mother, and she knew that she would never replace the person who had borne and nursed him.

“When you are.”

A babbling of young voices and all but Cerdin clutched at various parts of her, surrounding her like a cloud. She smiled, drawing as much joy from them as they drew comfort from her.

Cerdin lit a small torch for himself, and then led them, somewhat raucously, down into cellar – a hollowed space under a knot of Osiiraan’s massive roots. There was barely room for them all – but the walls were lined with shelves and hooks, and upon them were clay jars, woven baskets and bags, and large gourds and jugs. Mother would have frowned at the materials the storage containers were made of – she preferred fine ceramics and stoneware – but even she would have been able to find no fault in the cleanliness and order of the place.

Cerdin smiled at her exclamation of appreciation, and made a small Tacivaarii bow. Inura took the lead in explaining what the cellar contained – they had done more gathering than the adults had been aware of, and their additions showed a fine understanding of the needs of the village. They all beamed when she selected a few things to have brought to the village-tree, and were busily gathering them up when there was a commotion outside.

“Healer Rachyl! Are you yet within?”

“I am here, ”she answered, embracing the children, who looked up at her with wide eyes – no one had ever breeched this private space before, and they had all suffered the effects of chaos.

“It smells like fear, and maybe fury.” Cerdin scrubbed at his nose as though there was a putrid smell in it, and now he found a fold of her skirts, and half-lost himself within it.

“Shinjao has need of you, at once.”

A jolt of fear went through her. “Is it Salka?”

“No, Healer. The babe is well and bright and thriving. She has had a sending from the Trueborn, and wishes you to come as soon as you are able, to discuss it. There will be need of your services, in a pair of tendays, at most.”

“I will not leave the children.”

“No one would ask that of you, Healer. Only please come quickly.”

There was no need to tell the children that this visit was over. They grasped their prizes and led her back out of the small cellar, and sent her on ahead while they awaited the next need of their services…except for Oskar, who ran ahead and was on his way back before she reached the greatroom. He clutched the patch blanket, and his eyes were wide and serious in his pale face.

“May you find peace, small one,” she said, as he flung himself into her arms and buried his face in folds of the blanket and her shoulder. He murmured something she did not understand, and swarmed down again, and was gone three heartbeats later.

Shinjao, with Salka asleep in her soft hide sling, was waiting for her, to take her wraps and lead her to her withdrawing chamber where Rachyl had never yet been.

There were two of the comfortable wide couches the Tacivaarii preferred, the ones designed as much for their public and unreserved Matehunting, which could happen at any time and with no warning, as they were for sitting upon. There was a small hearth,  acrackle with a bright hot blaze, and a deeply padded chair that had the look of Mother’s Keep about it, and Shinjao gestured to it as she hung Rachyl’s furs on a rack where they could be warmed.

“Will you rest by the fire and talk with me, Rachyl? I have need of a plan, and more healing perhaps than even if all of Osiiraan and the Pridekeep were healers, and free to help.”

“Tell me”, Rachyl said, and noticed that Shinjao kept sensates near her tea preparation table, and that there was another small grouping in a wide wooden bowl set at the base of the table beside her. These were different than the varieties she favored; she decided to speak with Shinjao about them.

Salka whimpered softly, and stretched her tiny body,and then there was the sound of her greedy suckling, and Rachyl felt her womb and breasts clench and ache with wanting a babe of her own. Tears came to her eyes, unbidden, as she listened.

Shinjao half-turned from her herb stores and sensates, and said, softly, “Will you weave some warm clothes for Salka? She will want time on the ground, soon, I think, but she will take a chill while the earth is still cold.”

“I would be delighted,” she breathed, as she tried to make out the scents drifting to her along with stray wisps of smoke from the fire. Shinjao said, “There is a basket near your chair, on a shelf beneath the table. If you would prefer to weave while we speak, perhaps it could provide service to us both.” Rachyl was surprised that she had not yet noticed the basket, but now found in it an answer to the nervous need to be about something that almost had her going to where Shinjao was, even knowing how closely Tacivaarii held their personal spaces.

Public domain image that inspires thoughts of Rachyl weaving. Click for source.

She lifted the basket to her lap, and set to exploring the colors and textures while Shinjao finished with her adding of pinches and sprigs, then set the carved earthernware teakettle upon its swinging hook and turned it to heat over the embers.

She came to sit cross legged on one of the low couches, and met Rachyl’s eyes. “A mixed group of Canivaarii and Tacivaarii – perhaps as many as a thriceten, and likely poisoned since before the time of the Wounding – are moving into the Poisoned Lands, with the intent to kill those they find there.”

“Do they not know that the Trueborn are scouting?”

“They know. They feel that it has been too long – and they yet blame your sisters for the Woundingg – “

“And imitur poisoning does not allow them to trust.”