Lou watched the little man run away. She’d followed because she always trusted her gut. At first, she’d been disappointed, thinking he’d only wandered deeper into the forest to stare at the side of a hill.
But as he began to sing, in words just this side of familiar, she’d seen the door.
A door like the lid of a basket, made from woven bark. So familiar, but the memory did not come to her.
Suddenly, the little man jumped up and scurried away, like he’d seen a ghost.
Lou waited a few minutes, then crept to the door and touched it.
To her surprise, it peeled away from the wall, as if the bark were soft and pliant as cloth. Beyond it lay a dark cavern.
Lou’s heart thudded in her chest. She crept forward, frightened, but intrigued by how deep the darkness was. A few feet in and she couldn’t see her hand, though daylight shone only an arm’s length away.
Answers lay in the darkness, she was certain. But Lou was suddenly afraid she would not like them. She thought of Daddy, who had hugged her that morning as he always used to. Grammy had asked Lou to knit with her again, as she’d been teaching Lou for weeks. And Mami, so bright and happy, bustling around the kitchen making eggs and bacon. She’d smiled at Lou and kissed her head as she set her plate down. She suddenly regretted telling the little man that they weren’t her family.
But they didn’t talk about what had happened. Lou needed someone to talk to. She walked further in and bumped a crumbling stone wall. Turned a corner, and suddenly, the darkness eased. A torch set in the wall flickered and crackled.
And a creature, a man, leaned against the rock.
Lou jumped back. “I’m sorry.”
He grinned, showing sharp teeth. “Nonsense child. I wondered who had opened my door.” His head tilted, in a gesture similar to the other little man.
Lou found herself thinking here was the hawk to the little man’s sparrow. The thought made her stomach drop.
“Our little Jay Bird, come home to roost.”
The name struck a chord in Lou. In her head it echoed from a different voice. A woman. “Who are you?”
“You don’t remember me, child? I am the Wilde Prince Cian, Ruler Under the Mound. Your prince, as a matter of fact. And you are Jay Bird, daughter of Beatrice, who came to us many years ago. An escaped slave.”
Lou nearly stumbled back in her shock. “The slaves were freed a hundred years ago. I’m only fourteen, so she can’t have been …”
“Time runs differently, under the Mound.” Cian held out his hand. “Come with me, and I will give you the answers you seek.”
Lou stared at the bark-rough, sharp-nailed fingers and shook her head. “No, I have to go home. They’ll be missing me.” And she had all the answers she wanted from this creature.
Cian laughed. “Silly girl. That was not a request.” He darted forward and grasped her hand. Lou screamed as claws dug into her skin.
“I won’t let you sneak away again. You are mine.”
She kicked and fought, but his thin arms were strong. He dragged her away from the door, away from freedom. From her family.
A dark shape leapt through the air, and landed on the prince with a thud. He shouted in rage, and released her.
Lou needed no prompting, and fled for the door. She escaped into sunlight, and discovered the little man outside as she ran right into his arms.
She pushed away and turned to the door. Indigo and Snowtail raced out just as Cian appeared in the doorway. Claw marks marred his face, and his bloodshot eyes fixed on Lou. “Come back to us, Jay Bird. Or you’ll regret it.”
The little man whispered behind her. “He can’t force you back in.”
Cian’s gaze shifted to a point behind Lou’s back, and his dark eyes snapped. “Warren, or shall I say traitor. I’ve felt you linger by the door many times.” He smiled, a slow, dark expression. “Have you told her, what happened to her mother?” With a final laugh, he vanished back through the doorway.
Warren’s stomach twisted. Lou jerked away from him and whirled around, eyes wary. “You knew my mother?”
He could not lie, and unlike so many of his kind, he had no cunning with words. “Yes. A long time ago.”
“What happened to her?”
Warren looked away, toward the door. “I loved her, and she loved me. I loved you as well, like my own daughter. We all three planned to escape together.” His throat tightened, and he could say nothing more.
“Why escape?” Lou glanced at the door and shuddered. “Didn’t she want to live there?”
Steadier ground for him. He didn’t have to confess his cowardice just yet. “She had escaped her human owners, and stumbled on the Mound. One of the Lords found her. She was so beautiful he took her as his mate. She agreed, because she knew she’d be safer in the Mound. Lords are fickle. After she bore you, he moved on to another. Your mother was no fool. She gained favor with her intelligence and skill. She was a wonderful cook, something our magic cannot aid in.” He closed his eyes, recalling the day he’d arrived at Cian’s Mound. A lowly servant, with less power than his kind normally possessed. They sent him to the kitchens, where he’d heard the sweetest voice.
She sang human songs of working in fields and the glory of some god. A small girl child clung to her legs, hair turned up in neat braids. The singer turned then and Warren lost himself in dark eyes that glittered with a fae’s love of mischief.
Lou’s voice broke through his memories. “What happened to her? Did the prince kill her?” Her voice caught. “How did I get away?”
Warren flinched, and swallowed. “You were much older, likely the age you are now, and well educated. You had strong magic.”
She frowned, but said nothing.
“Leaving the Mound …” Warren licked his lips. “Is tricky. Time runs oddly, and unless you’re Fae, it can get away from you. We were all to escape together, and I would get us all out the door.” He cringed. “I was scared. I did not go to meet her. I hoped she would change her mind.”
“We went anyway.” Lou murmured and gasped. “I remember that.” She closed her eyes from a few seconds, then shook her head. “It’s blurry, but I remember. How? I was a baby when they found me.”
Warren nodded. “Without me, I’m sure you tried to help your mother use the door. Half Fae, the Mound was kinder to you. Turned you back a dozen or so years. But your mother, it gave her back all the years that had not claimed her. She was an old woman.” He turned toward the trees. “She made it a few yards, left you by a tree, then crawled back to the door. That was where I found her, when I went searching.”
Lou backed up a pace, then her hand flew out. The slap took Warren by surprise.
With a hiss, he scrambled backward, and faded against a tree.
“You coward.” Lou stumbled back, nursing her hand. “She died because of you. You ruined everything.” With a ragged sob, she stormed away, back to her farm.
Warren, giving himself over to his instincts, crawled into the tree, and huddled among the branches. He sang to himself, not fae songs, but an old song about working the fields.