Lou ran the entire way home, her legs burning by the time she reached the house. Rounding the corner, she collided with Daddy coming the other way. He caught her shoulders, and gazed down at her with open concern.
“Lulu, where have you been, girl. We’ve been searching. We were worried sick.”
“I was …” Lou stumbled, then shook her head. “Sorry Daddy. I went for a walk and lost track of time.”
He raised an eyebrow at her, in that way he was so good at, that made her want to confess every sneaky thing she’d done. But she hadn’t stolen cookies from the kitchen, and this was a secret she could not share with him. Not when he was acting like her normal Daddy for the first time in several days. “I’ll get on with my chores.”
Daddy shook his head. “Mami’s already done ‘em. She was feeling so good this morning, she said, let that girl have her fun.” He shook his head, and half smiled at Lou. He looked like he wanted to say something, but he stayed silent, gaze turning toward the forest. He jerked his shoulder a little, and muttered something Lou couldn’t hear, still starting at the trees. “You be careful in those woods, Lulu.” With a last pat on her shoulder, he turned toward the shed.
Lou watched him walk away, and a shadow flashed by his feet. She blinked and looked again. There was nothing. She searched for Indigo or Snowtail, but neither cat appeared to be around.
Shivering, Lou went into the house.
Mami stood at the counter, mixing batter and singing. Her calico dress swept around her legs as she swayed her hips in time to her song. Lou leaned against the wall, pressing her lips together to hold back the tears that threatened.
Then Mami turned to her and grinned. “There you are, Mijita. Where have you been all morning?” She waved Lou over, gesturing toward a pot on the stove. “Why don’t you stir the cherries up for me? I’m making your Daddy’s favorite, Tres Leches cake with cherries on top.”
Lou hesitated a moment, somehow afraid that if she moved, she would break some spell that had settled over the house. Daddy and Mami were both happy, and Mami was healthy again. It all felt too good to be true.
As she crossed the kitchen to the pot of stewing cherries, a shadow darted across the floor.
Lou spotted the shadows all day. Inside the house, things toppled over. Books tumbled off shelves. The iron poker beside the fireplace clattered to the floor. Lou was certain she heard a soft cry when that happened.
Out in the garden, gathering tomatoes for supper, the leaves fluttered more than from a simple breeze. As if they were alive. And voices whispered.
By nightfall, Lou’s nerves were tight on edge as she went to milk the cows. Bess snorted and shifted, as if annoyed. When Lou tried to milk her, she found the cow dry as a bone. Confused, half wondering if Daddy had already done the milking and forgot to tell her, she went to Moll.
The milk came out sour. Curdled and smelling awful. Lou gagged, and frowned into the half-filled bucket. She checked Moll’s udder and teats. All fine, and the cow didn’t seem distressed or in pain.
“The Fae are dangerous creatures.”
Lou started, nearly overturning her milking stool.
Snowtail sat at the opening of the stall. She craned her head toward the milk, and made a cat frown, nose and whiskers twitching. “I tried to warn them off, but.” She bent her head to lick a paw. “We have something of a truce between us, so there’s only so much I can do.”
Lou’s heart clattered in her chest at the cat’s casual words. She remembered the little shadows she’d seen all day, the strange things that had happened. “They followed me home.”
The cat sighed. “I blame myself. I had hoped the little man would give you the answers you wanted, but put you off looking any further. It was better when Cian thought you were dead or well out of his reach.”
Lou stood, snatching up the bucket of spoiled milk. “What’s happening? What’s he going to do?”
Snowtail gazed up at her as if she were a fool. “Try to get you back, child,” she said slowly, as if that were obvious.
Lou blinked and looked toward the doorway. Snowtail hissed and leapt sideways at the same moment a dozen creatures swarmed into the barn. They looked like Warren; skin like bark, browns and grays, and eyes the color of moss or robin’s eggs. Hair like tree roots, or fur, and tangled and matted. The scurried over the walls like bugs, and hissed and spat at the agitated cows.
Lou pressed a hand to Moll’s warm belly to steady herself as Prince Cian appeared.
He looked rather small in the barn, compared to how he had looked inside his little hole in the ground kingdom. Lou tilted her head up and glared at him as he approached her. “You better leave my home now.”
He laughed. “Not empty handed, Jay Bird. You’re mother gave you that name. She wasn’t always a slave, you know. Her parents had escaped slavery before, and joined a native tribe. She was raised among them, until men caught her, and stole her from her family. Took her hundreds of miles away and gave her a new name.”
Lou swallowed, fighting against the pull to know such stories of her mother.
Cian held out his hand. “I can tell you many more stories. About your mother, about you. You might even remember your old life, after a time.” He made a face. “Though perhaps not. Human minds are fragile, and you are only half fae.”
Lou jerked back the hand she had started to raise. “Get out. Whatever I am, half fae, colored or Indian, I want no parts of you. I got my own family.”
The prince’s smile never wavered, even as he slowly drew back his hand. “Very well. If that’s how you insist it must be.”
With a gust of wind that set the cows stamping and swaying in their stalls, Cian and his subjects vanished.
Lou stood frozen for a few seconds, uncertain what had just happened.
Snowtail leapt down from where she hidden in the loft, tail ramrod straight, and eyes fixed on the door. “You are brave, I will give you that. I hope you’re brave enough.”
Lou blinked at the cat, then dropped her bucket of sour milk and ran to the house.
The door hung open. In the kitchen, the cake pans lay on the floor, amidst crumbs and smears of milk sauce and stewed cherries. Little red fingerprints stained the walls. Wrote words that danced on the edge of familiar to Lou. “Mami! Daddy!” She ran through the house, shouting their names. No one answered. She found only more fingerprints, more upheaval. Chairs overturned, board games spilled and scattered.
But in the living room, she found a note, scratched into the wood floor.
Come back to us, and they will go free.