Sprite, 80: Neistah:

A commotion out front had Neistah scrambling for the window again. He flipped through and rolled back under the bushes between the house and the barn in time to see horses and riders approaching the farm from the front. Crouching down, Neistah blended into the greenery. Between the hunters belonging to the councilmen and these new ones who had just arrived bristling with arms, the sheer amount of iron threatened to overwhelm even Neistah's tolerance.

"Atwater! What's the meaning of this!" Alan Avery's voice boomed out as he swung down from his horse and wrenched the front door of the farmhouse open. His men pointed weapons at Atwater's men but neither side fired. The door slammed and Neistah was once again unable to hear what was going on. He inched closer to the house, but before he had time to do more than consider entering again, the front door swung open and Avery, followed by the men who had accompanied him inside, stomped back out and rode away.

Neistah decided to follow Avery since he couldn't do anything to stop what the other councilmen had put into motion already. Did this mean that Avery had made peace with the other councilmen? Avery headed away from Datro, towards the open forest. He avoided the main trade road that the wagons used, taking instead a newly-forged road, one that he had obviously built. The broken debris of burnt trees lined the sides of the raw, yellow earth which had already been packed down by repeated travel.

It led to the heart of the forest, away from Datro's river which was also its lifeline. Neistah could guess where the other end was—they had cleaned up the damage from that spot—Rellan's slaughter. There was a gate nearby, too. Neistah had thought Avery had abandoned his road-building efforts after their little 'talk.' Evidently not.

He waited until Avery was alone, seeing to his daily business, before he stepped into view. "You. Norah's grandfather. I thought I told you to stay out of the forest."

Neistah fought to keep a grin off his face as Avery lurched to his feet holding his trousers in one hand. He buttoned them unsteadily, his already pale face graying at the sight of the uncanny sprite. The man had aged in the months since Neistah and Breyan had visited him in Datro. He looked wan, and his dark hair had streaks of gray in it.

"Keep away from me!" Avery said vehemently. "Don't touch me! I haven't said anything,"

"Oh, but I think you did," Neistah purred, coming closer. Avery shrank back. Neistah tipped his chin so he could catch Avery's eyes. "Tell me, where are you going?"

Avery blinked once and then his eyes glazed over as Neistah's compulsion took hold. "I'm following Atwater's men. These are my woods, mine! I'll not have them taking what is mine."

Neistah frowned. "And Atwater just let you go to stop them?" He ignored the man's ravings about who the forest belonged to. Time to sort that out later.

Avery shook his head vehemently. "No. He laughed at me and told me I was too late. But I have my own scouts who are loyal to me. Did he really think I didn't know what he had planned? I know a shortcut to the place he thought was so well-hidden, through the woods. Atwater fears the woods. He should fear the rivers more." Avery shuddered.

Neistah doubted Avery's scouts were all that loyal. Else how would the other councilmen have heard so many disturbingly accurate details regarding the sprites? "Why should he fear the rivers?" Neistah asked softly.

Avery's eyes rolled in remembered fear. "Sprites live in the rivers. They wait for unsuspecting travelers and then they pull them under and drown them."

Neistah chuckled. It was somewhat true. "Did you do that?" he asked, wondering if Breyan's implanted suggestions had caused Avery to have more than just false memories of having webbing like a true sprite. The horror on Avery's face bore out his suspicions.

"I wanted to," Avery admitted in a rough whisper. "When I found out I wasn't—I was not a sprite—I was relieved. It was a nightmare."

It wasn't. Neistah got that clearly from Avery's head. The man had liked it, and hated himself for liking it. Served him right. "And so you left Atwater and the others there and rode off through the woods to try and stop Atwater's men from raiding the mutant village?"

Avery nodded.

"Mr. Avery, are you all right over there? We're about to get moving again!" One of Avery's men called out.

Neistah backed away, releasing Avery after one last suggestion. The man blinked again and swallowed as if his throat was very dry. He moved off through the bushes to where his men waited, swinging on to his horse without a word.

There was more to the story than Neistah had been able to get. He felt confident he would find it out shortly. In the meantime, Avery was leading him to exactly where he wanted to go anyway. He continued to shadow them through the trees on the side of the new road. Avery was right; he would have preferred doing this alongside a convenient river, but this land was crisscrossed with rivers and lakes and ponds. It wouldn't be long before he got his wish, and Avery got to witness his nightmare, or his remembered dream. Neistah might even let him experience it for himself.

X

Norah drew back from Pup when he didn't respond to her embrace. "What's wrong?" she whispered, only to see him smile suddenly and shake his head. She realized she was still undressed, and covered her embarrassment by fumbling with the faerie gown, drawing it over her head so that it fell down in waves of soft color. She'd lost the belt somewhere, but it didn't seem to matter. The material clung to her as if it were a part of her own skin. She was still slightly puzzled by Pup's reaction, though. It was not as if he hadn't seen her naked before. She—her eyes caught sight of Billy More who hovered anxiously in the background. Oh.

She hadn't even given it any thought the entire time she and Breyan had traveled with Billy. She had towed him on her back through the cool river water with only her hair as a barrier between them. Yet Pup was uncomfortable because this boy had seen her naked. Or was it because she was naked at all, and not alone with him? She gave Pup a hesitant smile. "Better?" she asked.

Pup grinned back at her. "Better," he replied, but there was something in his thoughts, something Norah could almost sense but not quite—regret? She let it go, and took his hand instead.

"Billy has something to tell you," Norah said, motioning for the boy to come forward.

Billy lowered his eyes. "I'm sorry," he mumbled. "But you have to get out of here. Datro is sending men to take you and the other mutants you brought. They're going to make you tell them where the rest are hiding. I'm sorry," he repeated.

Pup closed his eyes. "You went to them," he said quietly. "It was inevitable. I thought that was where you would go."

Billy's eyes widened. He glanced around, only just realizing that no one else was around. "You knew?"

Pup sighed. "It was a matter of time. I wish I'd had more time to convince all of you that the councilors from Datro were just using you, but what's done is done. And you!" He pointed a stern finger at Norah. "What are you doing back here? I told you it was dangerous. He should never have brought you back."

He strolled back into the village, minus one hunter. "I'll take care of her," Breyan said. "Besides, it was her idea to return to you, not mine. As she is my Lady, I could not refuse." He spoiled the solemnity with a quick grin. "We have other things to worry about—where are your people? I came across one of your lookouts scurrying this way. He didn't see me."

As if his words had brought them, the lookouts Pup had posted around the village skittered into camp, stopping suddenly as they saw Norah and Breyan standing next to Pup and the missing Billy. Their weapons came us just as Pup had taught them. Breyan curled his lip.

"They're friends," Pup said, waving for them to put down their arms. The others would be back soon, and if he had his way, Norah and Breyan both would be long gone by then.

"It's too late for that," Breyan said, uncannily picking up on his thoughts.

"Are they—Sprites?" One of the lookouts asked. He looked at Billy, who nodded.

"Yeah, real ones," Billy said. "They found me after Atwater's hunters beat me and left me in the forest. They brought me back here so I could warn you all—the hunters are coming. They're planning on capturing the other mutants and probably killing the rest of us." Billy looked down. "There's no place waiting for us back in Datro. It was all a lie."

One of the lookouts said wearily, "Then this was all for nothing."

"No," Pup said. "Not nothing. You have a place here, if you want it."

"Not for much longer unless we do something," Breyan pointed out. "Here come the rest of your villagers. Do you want to be the bearer of bad news, or shall I?"

Pup glared at him, meaning take Norah away now, but Breyan only smiled and shook his head, interpreting Pup's glare without any trouble. Norah wanted to stay, and Breyan would honor that request, with his life if need be.

The two Sprites who had come with Will recognized Breyan and Norah but the others were just as surprised as the lookouts had been to see two mutants with virtually the same mutation, one which made their bodies suitable for swimming. They, too, had heard the rumors of water sprites.

"Are you Datro's Sprite?" One of the mutants asked Breyan.

"No, she is." Breyan, grinning, gestured towards Norah. "She holds this forest. Ask her, and she will probably grant you a place in it. If that is what you want."

Norah lifted her eyebrow at him. 'Why did you say that?' Already some of the mutants were looking at her as if it were true.

"First we need to protect ourselves," Pup said. "We don't have much time. Those hunters were advance scouts. When they don't report back, the other hunters will come looking for them. We have to be ready."

"You could leave," Breyan said. "Make a new village someplace else."

"Can we make it back to my parent's house?" Norah asked, considering their options. Many of these mutants were children, and none of them were particularly skilled at navigating the often treacherous paths through the forest. But they had three Sprites and two sprites on their side. Surely they should be able to get them through.

Pup thought that was a better idea than trying to make a stand here at the mutant village. It was a risk, however. Until this moment, many of the mutants from Datro had fully expected to e welcomed back into the City by the very hunters who were on their way. Would Billy's word alone be enough to convince them the hunters meant to kill them as well? "You would be exposing Jim's people, including your mother and sister and the rest." Pup also was not so sure he wanted these new mutants to find out about the other sprites, either. Two who had the same mutations were one thing—six, and a half, counting young Andy, was too much of a coincidence.

"You don't have to protect us." Breyan spoke softly. "We are stronger than you think."

Pup knew that; he also knew the sprites shared a weakness where iron was concerned. However, Breyan knew what he was doing. Pup had no doubt Breyan would put Norah's welfare first.

Breyan smiled. "That's right," he said, uncannily answering Pup's unspoken thoughts. "Norah's welfare is paramount. She holds this land."

Norah shot him an annoyed look but otherwise kept silent.

"Let's get moving, then," Pup said. He split the mutants up into groups, directing each group to carry only the essentials they could not do without. He put a Sprite in charge of each group, which meant taking one group himself, and gave Billy over to Breyan and Norah's care, since he had traveled with them before. "We'll meet at the river where the new road ends. You know the spot." He meant the place where Rellan had killed the roadbuilders. They all knew it; Norah and Breyan because they had been there through the worst of it, the others because they had helped clean up the aftermath.