Lou skirted the little water hole and resumed her steady trot through the woods. The morning had brought her no peace of mind about her nighttime encounter. Breakfast had been a mostly quiet affair, in part at least, because they were all watching Mami cook. She’d been able to stand up for much longer than before.
Shortly after, Lou had rushed through her chores, then slipped away, to find the little man Snowtail had spoken of.
She knew him, of course, though she’d never been around him much. He sometimes helped Daddy with the harvest, although he disliked the thresher. He worked by hand and would clear a whole field all by himself. Strange to be thinking of that now, and realize it seemed odd. Could one man really do that? Why had she never wondered before?
The hovel appeared suddenly, as if out of nowhere, as Lou hopped over a log. A strange house, settled between two trees. Almost as if they grew from it. A rambling garden of vegetables, herbs and flowers surrounded the house.
The little man crouched among the flowers, wearing his usual brown coat and wide brimmed hat. His head jerked up the second Lou’s foot touched the edge of his garden.
He stared at her with large eyes a darker green then her own. Even shadowed by his hat, Lou noticed the rough texture of his skin. Then something shimmered in the air, and he looked like an ordinary man with ordinary eyes. “Does your father need work done?” An ordinary voice too, though a bit hoarse, perhaps from lack of use.
No other word for it, thought Lou. Just ordinary. I’m no fool. She knew what she’d seen. The barn cats had talked to her. She’d healed Mami with magic that flew out of her fingers. And this man was no ordinary human. “I have to ask you something.”
He frowned at her and tilted his head almost like a bird; too quick, too stiff to be human.
“You see four days ago my Mami was dying. Then green light came out of my hands and now she ain’t. And the barn cats spoke to me. They called me a changeling and told me to find you.”
His eyes widened and what magic he’d used to hide his appearance melted away, to reveal skin like tree bark, and pinched face that struck Lou as oddly familiar.
“How did I not know,” he muttered. “Why didn’t I recognize you until now?”
Lou felt her chest clench. “They found me in the woods, fourteen years ago. Do you know who left me? My mother?” She winced, as the word seemed a betrayal against Mami.
The little’s man’s frown deepened. “She’s dead.”
The blunt words stung, but Lou blinked her tears away. “Are you like me? A … fae?”
Fear brightened his eyes, and he shook his head. “Halfling,” he whispered. “Half wilde fae, half human.”
“Wilde fae.” Lou chewed the word over in the light of day. “Fairies.” Mami used to read her stories from a book of fairy tales. But they had been mostly about princesses and evil witches. She had a vague idea about fairies, little creatures who danced around making flowers open, and playing tricks on people. Indigo had said they weren’t like humans imagined them. “Where can I find them?”
“You can’t,” the little man snapped. “Go back to your family. Stay out of the woods. Go!”
Lou startled at his command, but she wasn’t afraid of him. She braced herself and fixed him with a hard look. “I ain’t going anywhere, and you better not talk to me that way.”
His face crumpled and he turned away from her. “I can’t tell you anything about them, or help you.” His eyes darted around the trees, then returned to Lou. “Please, go back to your family.”
Lou’s heart sank. “They aren’t my family. They’re scared of what I can do.”
“They are still better than the fae.” He turned away from her, went into his little hovel and closed the door.
Lou waited for a long time for him to come out, before she turned away with a sigh of defeat.
Warren watched through a crack in his house until the girl disappeared from sight. Old memories assailed him, made him ache from misery and longing.
Beatrice. Her soft, dark skin. Her beautiful eyes, light with mischief. Almost like a fae.
But she had not been fae, and she had longed to return to the human world. Warren had promised to go with her. To help her leave the Mound. Weak as he was, Warren’s people had no use for him, nor he any for them, truth be told.
He sighed as fresh ugly memories weighed down on him. How had he not recognized the girl? Beatrice’s daughter.
With a grunt, he stood and left his house. Sealing the door behind him, he cast a web of glamour to conceal his home. Task done, he wandered into the trees.
Birds chittered about where to find the best worms, and the best material for a nest. Warren snickered over one crow determined to win the bid for stolen laundry. The trees sighed and murmured about the sun, shaking their leaves now and then to find a touch more light.
Warren reached the woven door, but did not approach. It no longer opened to his touch.
No, he had no particular use for his people. But he missed the Mound. Especially in winter, when the world outside slept. He missed the warmth of cooking fires, the bitter bite of elderberry and anise wine.
He ached to hear the songs, the trilling language of the fae. Much as he’d been no one among them, he’d still been one of them.
Faintly, perhaps only in his mind, a soft tune rose from the door. Warren called up the words to the song, a lively dance that spoke of love and sweet hearts.
Tears stinging his eyes, he fled the place, hurrying back toward home.