Sprite: Norah, 77:
The way back took longer than Norah expected. First, they had to find a functioning gate on the faerie side, which involved some traveling through admittedly beautiful woodlands. It brought them out quite a distance away from the Hanan compound, in an unfamiliar section of forest.
Breyan had shrugged when Norah questioned him about it. "You wanted to find Pup, didn't you?" The fact that he asked it out loud made Norah suspect he was not being entirely truthful. Breyan shot her a wounded look, having caught her stray thought. "You misjudge me." He clapped his hands over his heart until Norah had to smile, just a little. Breyan was right. How could she think ill of him?
Laughing madly as if in direct contradiction, Breyan whirled off, throwing his arms wide. "Ah, I love the smell of mortal lands, so—fresh!" Eying Norah mischievously, he snatched at the undergrowth and pulled out a frightened rabbit by its ears. "Lunch?" he inquired, raising his eyebrows at Norah's appalled shake of the head.
"Well, come on. Let's go get him, then." Breyan pulled Norah through the heavy brush, careful not to let stray branches scratch them. She hoped he knew where he was going.
It wasn't long before Breyan motioned for Norah to stop. He put a finger on her lips, kissing it first. 'Someone is up ahead,' he sent silently.
Was it Pup? Norah wanted to plunge forward but Breyan held her with just the finger he had pressed against her lips. He shook his head slightly. Not Pup, then. Norah was disappointed.
They crept slowly forward, keeping to the tangled underbrush, until they could both see and hear what Breyan had sensed. A family of changelings went about their business in a man-made clearing. Not much different than the other hidden changeling villages except this one was barely hidden at all. Makeshift cabins stood in a cluster in the middle of the clearing, and a stretch of bare earth looked as if it had been set aside for planting.
Maybe this wasn't a changeling village at all. Maybe it was a way-station for one of Pup's patrols. Except—there were women and children. Mostly children.
She glanced at Breyan. How had he known? 'Is Pup here?' she sent.
Breyan shrugged. 'Let's watch these humans for a while. If Pup is nearby, we will know.'
They settled into the crook of a tree, far enough up that curious eyes would not think to look, yet close enough to watch the comings and goings of this curiously open village. Breyan held Norah easily, wrapping his arms around her to protect her from the elements, although the day was warm with no hint of rain. She leaned back against him because it was easier than arguing about it.
They watched two larger boys struggle with an animal—a deer—they had killed and dragged into the center of their village. They didn't seem to know quite what to do with it. For changelings, they seemed unfamiliar with the forest. Their camp bore more resemblance to a small village on the outskirts of Datro ,right down to the sturdy huts they had built right out in the open. Either they were very foolish, or Datro knew about these mutants and tolerated them.
Was that what had happened to Pup? Had he found this group of mutants and gone to help them, and been captured? Norah sat up straight. Breyan regarded her seriously. 'I fear that might have happened, too,' he sent.
There wasn't anything they could do about it even if it was the truth. They kept watch, hoping for a sign that Pup had at least been here. Around noon, they had it. A group of mutants returned from what apparently had been an overnight trip in the forest—to Datro, perhaps? They were laden with boxes of supplies. Either that, or they had raided a supply wagon.
None of the mutants were older than twenty, and many of them were young children, who now came out to help unload the boxes. Norah was right; they were filled with goods that could only have come from the City. Who were these mutants and why were they here? Finally a bedraggled mutant with a rope tied around his neck came into view carrying a final box. He put it down and wearily stretched his arms over his head, turning as he did so. Norah stifled a gasp. It was Pup!
'Wait.' Breyan put a hand on Norah's arm when she would have jumped down. "Watch."
Norah subsided, trusting in Breyan's sharper instincts. Pup entered one of the huts, coming out a few minutes later without the rope. He went over to the boys who were struggling with the deer carcass and spoke to them briefly, finally helping them to move the carcass out of the main living area. He took out his knife, which Norah only just realized he still was wearing, and began giving the boys instructions on how to dress the deer. He left them to their task and returned to the central clearing, where he accepted a drink from one of the young female changelings, smiling his thanks, before returning to enter the same hut he'd come out of earlier.
So Pup wasn't a prisoner? Why had he been wearing the rope? Why hadn't he let anyone know where he was? Norah turned to Breyan. 'What is going on?'
Breyan shrugged. 'He doesn't seem to be in any danger.'
Pup wouldn't have stayed away unless it was important. 'I want to talk to him.'
Breyan raised an eyebrow. 'All right. But not now. After dark, when everyone is asleep.'
The hardest part for Norah was waiting for hours as the light waned, cooking fires were lit, used and banked, and finally the changelings settled down for the night. Pup had sent three of the older boys to different points around their settlement, and had himself taken a fourth point to guard, making Norah wonder what the village had done before Pup got there. Finally he was alone. Norah followed Breyan from their perch in the tree through the dark woods to the spot where Pup stood guard. She wasn't as quiet as Breyan, and Pup immediately went on guard. He would have given the alarm but Breyan got to him first, catching his eyes with his gaze despite the dark night. Pup's indrawn breath hissed slowly through his teeth and the knife he had drawn slipped from his suddenly nerveless fingers.
'Let him go!' Norah sent, rushing over to Pup.
Breyan smiled wryly, but he released Pup, whose eyes widened as he beheld Norah and Breyan. "What are you doing here? How did you find me?" he whispered, drawing them both farther into the shadow of the trees, although that really wasn't necessary. Breyan had made sure they were alone.
"Pup." Norah's eyes filled with tears of relief, now that she knew Pup was all right. "You disappeared. We were all worried. What happened? Who are these people?" She stepped forward into Pup's embrace; it was natural, and he held her loosely with one arm, although she could feel the tension in it. "Pup?"
"You have to leave. Now. Before they see you." Pup released her, and bent down to retrieve his knife.
"Do you need help?" That was Breyan. He hadn't objected when Norah threw herself into Pup's arms, nor commented when he let her go again. Pup was Norah's human. He exchanged a long look with the changeling. They understood each other.
Pup shook his head. "No. Look, take Norah out of here. This whole set-up is a trap. Her grandfather isn't the villain you think he is, but there are others in Datro who have ideas of their own. These children were promised a place in Datro if they pretended they were some of us, and they believed the City leaders who arranged all this. They caught me, when I thought they were mutants who had run away from Datro and tried to help them. It took a long time, but they trust me now—don't ask me how that came about—and they need my help. They may think Datro is going to turn over a new leaf and let them live openly in the City, but that's not going to happen. They're being used. But they still are working for those corrupt old men in Datro! You're not safe here—either of you!"
Norah could guess why these poor changelings now trusted Pup. He was eminently trustworthy. "You took them to rob the supply wagons, didn't you?" she asked.
"The leaders in Datro left them out here with nothing, and they had no idea how to survive out in the wilderness. Their 'village' is a joke. They were dumped here without food or basic supplies. They were told that's how all the changelings came here, which is true, but not all at once, not a whole village of them. They captured me and then didn't know what to do with me except report me to the authorities in Datro. I talked them out of it." Pup grinned weakly. "I'm supposed to be 'bait' for the rest of you."
"I guess it worked," Breyan said. "Here we are."
"How did you find me?" Pup frowned. "We are nowhere near Hanan territory."
Breyan shrugged his shoulders. "Norah was worried about you." That didn't answer the question, but it was all the answer Breyan was willing to give.
"Go, please. If Will is back, send him to me with one of our patrols. I think if I have a chance to gain these changelings' trust, we might be able to incorporate them into our own changeling villages and leave this place to Datro. First, I have to convince them that Datro has no intention of honoring its promise to them."
"How will you do that?"
"That's why I need Will. I want to take some of the older boys here on patrol with our own groups, let them see for themselves what we see. They saw some of it when we robbed the supply wagons."
"And the rope around your neck? What was that about?"
"They didn't completely trust me. They still don't." Pup moved forward suddenly and swept Norah into a deep kiss. Then he gave her over to Breyan. "Keep her safe."
Norah didn't want to leave, but she followed Breyan anyway, away from Pup. They traveled three days before Norah spotted the metal boundary that marked the beginning of Hanan lands. From there, it was easily another day's travel to the house. She helped Breyan to cross over the fence by propping a fallen tree against it, noticing how his face paled as he neared the metal fence.
Not far into Hanan lands, they met one of the Sprite patrols who accompanied them as far as the main house. Norah looked longingly at Leane's pond, still and quiet in the early afternoon. They had had precious little time for swimming in the push to find Will and relay Pup's message. Breyan's thoughts touched her own, reassuring. She leaned against him thankfully, as they waited by the front porch for Will and her father.
Will found them first. He had returned only the day before with Roselle and the baby, happy after having visited with her parents, and anxious to begin building their own home down the road from the main house. He had been informed of Pup's disappearance, and had been coordinating search patrols even before he returned, to no avail.
Breyan looked Will up and down. 'This is him?' he asked Norah skeptically.
Will stared nervously at Breyan, wondering, no doubt, who this new sprite was and why he was with Norah. Breyan felt the stirrings of irrational jealousy in the human changeling's mind, and he grinned viciously. He slid his arm around Norah's waist to make his position very clear. "You may call me Breyan," he said. "I have a message for you from Pup."
Neistah and Lara had returned as well. They took their discussion to the kitchen and sat around the long oak table while Breyan concisely outlined what they had found. He glossed over how he had come to be with Norah in the first place; the sprites already knew, thanks to Valin, and the rest did not need to know the affairs of sprites.
"He doesn't want you to rush over there," Breyan said, after he had given directions on how to reach the fake changeling village. "The idea is not to let Datro know their plan has backfired."
"It hasn't backfired yet," muttered Neistah. The changelings from Datro still expected to be rewarded with status back in Datro for luring the forest changelings out into the open. Just because they had latched onto Pup for his forest skills didn't mean they would not eventually betray him. They were just waiting to draw more of them into their supposed trap.
"Exactly." Breyan sympathized with Neistah's point of view and would have gladly gone back to compel these traitorous changelings or get rid of them outright, but Norah wouldn't like it. Norah held the land, or close enough. He deferred to her wishes. All the while they talked, Breyan kept his hands on Norah, while Will couldn't seem to look away. In many ways, Will was overwhelmed by the presence of the sprites in the room, more so than Jim and the other humans. Will had been to faerie, albeit briefly enough that it didn't kill him and only damaged faerie a little bit, but that's something he could never forget—and never experience again. Breyan almost felt sorry for him. His nature wouldn't allow it, however. "She is not for you," he said softly, but with a touch of malice behind it.
Will blinked in startlement, glanced wildly at Norah and away.
'Breyan!' Norah admonished, but she continued to lean against him. She hadn't said much, leaving Breyan to do the talking, but now she spoke up. "Please be careful. Pup is depending on you." She made her own position clear. Breyan—and Pup. Will was no longer a contender for her affections.
Will nodded briefly, and the sprites left to go swimming, leaving the humans to make their plans. Under the cool waters of Leane's pond, the sprites made their own plans. Andy swam happily among them, the truest changeling of them all, but he was young enough that even though he could hear their thoughts, he did not truly understand them. Leane would stay, so would Neistah and Lara for at least a while. Valin, however, would return to faerie and his Anais until Norah made up her mind what she would do. Breyan, too, would return to faerie.
'What do you mean?' Norah asked, although she had a sinking feeling she knew. Already her chest ached at the thought of Breyan leaving once again. Did holding the land mean she had to stay here and take care of it? So far, she hadn't done a very good job. Her grandfather had destroyed great swaths of forest and she hadn't been able to do a thing about it. Was she supposed to do something about it? Was that what 'holding the land' meant? Norah felt bad about the way the destruction was accomplished, but she was ambivalent about the intent. What was so wrong about roads through the forest?
'Her grandfather,' Neistah sent. 'Pup said he wasn't involved?' Nobody had answered Norah's question.
'Doesn't appear so,' Breyan replied, swimming lazily around Norah. 'We may have gotten through to the old man after all.'
'Maybe,' Neistah conceded. Avery was selfish and ambitious, and his motives were shot through with guilt for his dead wife and the child whom he'd thought was mutated and now realized was something else. He'd made some mistakes with his daughter's children, but even Neistah didn't think he intended to kill them. Keep them, control them perhaps. And maybe since their 'visit,' not even that anymore.
'What now?' Norah asked. She wished she could swim with just Breyan for a little while, especially if she was going to lose him again.
'We wait and see what happens,' Neistah replied, but he arrowed for the surface, gathering up the human sprite, Andy, as he went. Valin, Leane and Lara followed him, leaving the pond to Breyan and Norah according to her unspoken wish.
They swam tightly around each other, Norah's hair wrapped around them both. 'Do you have to go too?' she asked.
'Not right now,' Breyan sent. He glanced down at their joined bodies. 'I told you, I look good in red.'