Lou has always known she was a foundling, discovered in the forest by her adoptive parents. When she tries to learn more about her past, she brings dangerous creatures to her family’s doorstep. To save her parents, she must team up with someone who betrayed her long ago, in a life she barely remembers. A life she must remember, or else lose everything she holds dear.
Gnarled hands tightened around Lou’s arms and yanked her back. She bit her lip to hold in a cry of pain. Beside her, Warren groaned.
The Wilde Prince sneered at her, and Lou longed to punch him in the face. She wrenched her arms in an effort to follow through, but the fae holding her proved too strong.
They dragged her and Warren out of the great hall, and Lou took the opportunity to check on him. Anguish struck at how ashy his normally ruddy brown skin had gone. Half his shirt was soaked in blood. She’d dragged him into this.
But fear for her family quickly overshadowed her worry for Warren. As the fae led them down one twisting, dim corridor after another, she imagined Mami and Papa, farther and farther away.
They stopped at a round door set into the earthen wall as if it had grown there. At the touch of one of the fae, the door peeled open, like an unfurling leaf.
The fae shoved Lou into the confining space. For a terrified moment, she thought they would take Warren somewhere else. But he landed in a moaning heap at her feet.
She knelt beside him. “Don’t move. How bad is it?” She’d seen the knife go in.
Warren clutched his side, and his fingers glistened in the poor light. He grunted and moved to sit up.
“I said don’t move.” Lou shrugged out of her jacket, bunched it up and pressed it to his side. Warren winced, making a low noise of pain. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I wish I could use my magic better.”
Warren shook his head. “My kind is tough, little bird. I’ll be all right.” Still, he didn’t try to sit up. He touched the hand that held her coat against him. “Listen to me. You grew up here. Those memories are still inside you, and still inside the Mound. Remember.”
Lou shook her head. “I can’t. I tried, and I can’t.” Whatever life she’d had before was locked away.
Warren’s expression cleared of pain, and his dark eyes shone with an intensity Lou had not seen from him before. “You must. Or you will die here, and so will your family.”
Her family. Worry over her family was what had landed her here in the first place.
3 days earlier
Cats speak at midnight, Grammy had said long ago. And tell the secrets of magic to anyone willing to listen.
Lou stood on the porch and breathed in the hot, midsummer air; the smell of honey suckle, and mown hay. She stared across the yard toward the cow barn. Mama coughed, a faint sound from inside the house. As if the cough spurred her on, Lou walked down the porch steps.
A full moon rose, its milky light bathing the barn roof and yard. Shadows blurred the patchy grass. A breeze stirred Lou’s braids, as she walked toward the barn. A pale shape darted around the corner of the building and, with a flick of a familiar, white tail, disappeared.
Tears burned Lou’s eyes. She eased open the barn door and slipped inside. The musky-sweet scent of hay and cows comforted her and she scrubbed her eyes.
The two milk cows swayed and lowed in their stalls, disturbed by a late night arrival. Lou wandered into the empty stall, and huddled down, drawing up her knees, and wrapping her arms tightly around her legs.
She tried to think of good things. Mami finally well, walking around the house on still too thin legs, but getting stronger. Eating more in the last two days than she been able to keep down in a month before. Her skin gone from ashy-gray to the rich, rosy brown it had been before she took sick.
Fresh tears spilled. Lou remembered crying at Mami’s beside just three days earlier, Mami barely breathing. Daddy and Grammy crying quietly by the door.
She’d touched Mami’s hand, started to say good-bye.
Green light had burst from Lou’s fingers. It burned her skin and eyes, and left her too shocked to scream. Daddy and Grammy started shouting.
Now Mami was on the mend, but they spoke to Lou in cautious whispers. Asked her over and over, what she had done. Where the green light had come from. Lou didn’t know and they stared at her, like they were afraid.
Shadows moved. A tawny cat sat in front Lou’s stall, glowing eyes fixed on her. The she-cat’s white tail whipped through the scattered hay and dust as she studied Lou with the look of contempt so natural to cats.
A weight bumped Lou’s shoulder and Indigo, the other farm cat, crawled between her belly and thighs. Indigo’s purr rumbled through Lou’s middle, and she dug her fingers into the tomcat’s thick fur. “If magic is real, maybe you really can talk. Can you tell me what’s wrong with me?” She flushed at the desperation in her words and the silliness of talking to a pair of cats. She ought to go inside and straight to bed.
“Nothing wrong with you, girl.” A soft, creaky voice said, from somewhere by Lou’s knee.
Lou blinked. She was dreaming. She must have fallen asleep in the stall, or perhaps never gotten out of bed.
Indigo rose up, paws braced on Lou’s knees and touched his cold nose to Lou’s. “What you are is a changeling.”
A snort came from the front of the stall. Snowtail strolled in and spoke in a low growl. “Nonsense. Changelings are left on purpose. They found this one, abandoned in the woods.”
Lou glanced back and forth between the two talking cats and wondered if she were losing her mind. It didn’t feel like a dream.
She jerked back in sudden terror. Indigo hissed and jumped away, while Snowtail remained unmoved. She fixed Lou with that oh so arrogant gaze. “You healed your mother with magic, but cannot accept talking cats.”
Lou shook her head slowly. She remembered the stories. Mami and Daddy finding her in a ragged bundle in the forest. Like a little miracle, they said. A little green-eyed miracle. Her strange, green eyes.
With a cry, Lou stood up and stumbled out of the stall. She clutched at her arms, shaking and sick. “What am I? What’s a changeling?” But Snowtail had said she wasn’t one of those. She laughed a little hysterically. Which talking cat was she supposed to believe?
“You are half wilde fae.” Snowtail walked out of the stall, with Indigo bringing up the rear. “I assume the other half is human.”
“What’s a fae?”
Indigo answered this time, as he approached her with caution. “These days, humans call them fairies.” He shook himself, then tumbled to the floor, to wriggle on his back. He continued to talk, as if nothing was strange about rolling on the floor for a back-scratch in the middle of a conversation. “But they’re nothing like humans imagine them to be.” He paused and glanced at Snowtail. Something about his expression suggested to Lou that he was afraid to go on.
Snowtail had resumed whipping the dust. “They are … complicated creatures. Like humans, in a way.” The cat stared at Lou and tilted her head to the side. “Find the little man in the woods. The one who sometimes works for you father. He can tell you more. There’s a lot he’s never told us.”
With a halfhearted nod, Lou turned and hurried from the barn. Snowtail’s final words seemed to follow her all the way back to her bed.