Sprite, 88, All:
Marks returned to Datro with the remainder of his men and sent word back to the waiting changelings, who relayed it back to Adam.
"Norah? You can release the rest of the hunters now," he said, swinging his feet over the edge of the pond. Since they had returned, Norah rarely left the pond, leaving the arrangements to the humans. Adam had instituted the relay of scouts and it worked very well. The farmers had begun to sell their food directly to some of the changeling villages, under the supervision of the changeling Sprites, of course. The changeling villages could pick up and disappear at a moment's notice if necessary, but it was beginning to not be necessary. In time, perhaps the villages could put down roots, become actual villages.
Norah swam to the surface. Her brother still felt uneasy about her lack of attire so she didn't bother getting completely out of the water. Breyan, never far from her side, hopped up to drip beside Adam. "Have you notified Pup?" he asked.
Adam nodded. "I sent Jordy up to tell him." He tilted his head. "Will Norah be able to release them from here?"
Norah didn't think she could. She had thought about it a lot since coming back to the Hanan house, and although she had been able to maintain her enchantment on the men once it was in place, she was fairly certain she had to be near them to remove it completely. Breyan nodded his agreement. 'Otherwise we would have too much power in this world,' he sent solemnly.
Adam left them to get out of the pond on their own. He passed Neistah and Lara on his way back to the house, not surprised when the two of them decided to accompany them. Since Norah and Breyan had been monopolizing Leane's pond, Neistah wanted to swim in his own private pond with his lady-love, once the annoying hunters were removed.
Norah, Breyan, Adam, Mack, Neistah and Lara, and Will all went back to Neistah's pond. Will had moved Roselle and the baby to the new house he had constructed, now that the immediate danger was past, but he had returned to the Hanan compound to make sure that the last group of hunters did not pose any more problems.
'That's not why he came,' Breyan sent, casting Will a malicious glance.
Norah half-heartedly punched his arm. 'Stop it. Will loves his family.'
'That's not all he loves,' Neistah interjected wryly. 'He can't help himself.'
The sleeping hunters looked thinner, but then they hadn't eaten for a few days now. Pup had no intention of giving them back their weapons. He had, with Tom's help, prepared some food for when they awoke, and they had a whole pond of water just a few feet away. Neistah looked annoyed, but he folded his arms and took Lara to the far side of the pond. They planned to watch the action from beneath the surface, and Pup had little pity for the hunter who might try to escape by swimming across the pond.
Breyan stayed close to Norah's side, even when she gave Pup a hug. "Ready?" Pup asked her. He had positioned Avery's former guardsmen among the sleeping hunters. They would help convince the hunters to return to Datro. They all held guns. Will and Pup had knives. "Wake them up."
Norah sent the word softly into their minds. 'Wake.' The men on the ground stirred, blinking as they opened their sleep-encrusted eyes. A few of them lurched to their feet, feeling about themselves for their weapons. Most of them leaned up on their elbows or sat holding their hands to their heads as dizziness overcame them.
"Sprites!" One of the hunters croaked, spying Breyan and Norah, who made no effort to hide their webbing. He spied Pup standing a little to the side and his eyes widened. "You're dead!" he cried. "We killed you!"
Pup allowed himself a small smile. "You tried, but the sprites stopped you. It's over."
The hunter who had baited Pup, the one who had lost him and made up for it by trying to kill him, shoved belligerently to his feet. "What's going on?" he demanded, backing down only when one of Avery's former guards pointed a gun at him. The hunter belatedly realized he no longer had his own gun and sat back down heavily.
It took a meal and some hasty conversation before the hunters realized they had no choice but to accept what Pup was telling them. Much to Neistah's disappointment, the hunters drank cautiously from the very edge of the pond, seeming reluctant to venture further in. Norah and Breyan stayed to the back, letting Pup and Adam take the lead with the newly awakened hunters. Several of them cast uneasy glances back at the sprite pair, as they compared how they looked to Pup, who was suddenly looking much more human to the traumatized hunters.
Finally, the hunters gathered in a knot, prepared to be escorted out of the forest. The penalty for trying to do anything else would be death. Neistah shot out of the water to stand beside Pup, and the sight of him swayed even the most stubborn of the hunters. They would not give Pup any trouble.
Norah caught the edge of that thought, and came forward to take Pup's hand, ignoring the gasps that came from the hunters. "You're going with them?" she asked, gazing deeply into Pup's eyes. "I thought you would return to the house with us."
Pup ignored the staring hunters also and folded Norah into a soft embrace. "I've decided to stay in Datro. Adam will need someone he can trust by his side. Besides, I was born there." He smiled a crooked smile. "I probably have family there still. Maybe it's time they met me."
"But what about me—about us?" Distressed, Norah broke free of Pup's embrace so she could see his expression. "Adam isn't going to Datro until next week! You could go with him!" She didn't say so she could have more time with Pup, but that's what she meant. Behind her, Breyan sent amused resignation. He had had this same conversation with Pup already.
Pup stroked Norah's long red hair. "I have to go now," he murmured. "Or I won't be able to go at all. You have a destiny that is bigger than me, Norah. I can't follow where you need to go. But I will always love you."
'Give him your pendant,' Breyan sent, coming up to stand beside them. 'You have no need of it any longer. You are the Lady, and besides, I am here with you. Give it to Pup. If ever he has need of us, all he has to do is touch it and think of you.'
Norah's eyes widened but she did as Breyan suggested. She broke the strand of Breyan's hair that acted as her rope and wove it with two strands of her own, making a stronger rope of both their hair. She slid the blood-red pendant through the new rope and tied it around Pup's neck. "For remembrance," she whispered. "I will always be there if you need me."
Pup touched the pendant reverently, and glanced at Breyan as if suspecting he had something to do with it. "I'll never take it off," he promised. Then he grinned at Breyan. "I've got a weaving of her hair before you did!"
Breyan grinned back. "So you did, my friend."
Pup pulled Norah into a kiss. "It's time. Will is going to take my place as leader of the Sprites. I'm needed elsewhere."
"No," Norah whispered, but she didn't stop him when Pup gently disengaged his arms from her and stepped away. He started off, with the hunters behind him and Avery's guards bringing up the rear. He didn't look back.
Neistah had sunk beneath the pond once more, keeping uncharacteristically silent. Breyan slipped his arms around Norah, replacing Pup's. As much as she should have felt betrayed, she leaned into Breyan, accepting his support. 'Don't leave me,' she sent, and he just shook his head wordlessly.
Norah didn't want to be the Lady who had responsibility for both worlds. She didn't want to be responsible. She only wanted to go home, if only she knew where home was.
'With me,' Breyan sent, as they made their way back to the Hanan compound along with Adam, Mack and Will. Neistah had stayed behind with Lara.
'But you can't stay here,' Norah objected. Breyan was a creature of faerie. The iron of this world was deadly to him. Inevitably, he would have to leave her too. Was she fated to be always alone?
'Wherever you are, I will be,' Breyan sent firmly. 'Leane has decided to stay in this world. She has taken to the child, Andy, and to his father Tom, too. You forget that for us, a human lifetime is but a blink of the eye.'
Sprites were also capricious and flighty. Who could say if Leane got bored she would not return to faerie and forget all about her human 'family?'
Breyan shrugged. It was true. 'But she is here now,' he sent with a smile. 'I am here now, too. With you.'
That was the problem. Norah wasn't sure she wanted to be here, even though her own human family and those she cared about were in this world. Pup would not be with her. Breyan would stay, but he didn't belong here. He belonged in the serene, watery world of faerie. He only stayed in the mortal world because she was here.
'So why do you stay?'
Norah looked at Breyan in surprise.
'Why do you stay in the mortal realm if you would rather be in faerie?'
"But I have to—I'm responsible for the gates." Norah lapsed into speech.
'So? Who says you must be on this side of the gates to be responsible for them?'
'You mean I don't have to live here?'
'Not if you don't want to.'
Norah pondered that for a moment. The Lady Anais had not needed to come here to hold the land. Norah had assumed that she needed to because this is where she was born, although her heart already belonged to that other place. If it hadn't been for her family, and Pup . . . .
'Pup has already given you his blessing to go,' Breyan reminded her.
"I have to say good-bye," Norah said, thinking quickly. There were so many people she would miss. She hoped they would understand. But her heart soared with joy. Faerie! She could really live there if she chose!
Breyan laughed, swinging her around and kissing her. 'Yes!' he sent happily.
Nobody was as surprised as Norah thought. Will frowned, eyeing Breyan with suspicion, but Roselle hugged Norah and made her hold baby Clarice. "I'll never forget you," she told Norah, her eyes filling with happy tears. "You changed my life. You changed all of our lives."
Miriam took Norah for a long walk to Black Pond, just the two of them. "You're my daughter," she said finally as they sat together on the grassy bank overlooking the pond. "As much as Neistah's. My precious first child. I always loved you. Don't forget that."
"I won't," Norah said. She had spoken with Jim, who would always be her father in her mind, earlier that day. Jim had woken Norah to her true heritage when she was still a little girl, and started her down the road that had led to this moment. He'd told her how proud he was of her. Because of her, Jim had espoused the mutants' cause and opened up his lands—her lands—to them. Now her half-brother Adam would continue that cause in Datro itself, with Pup's help. She couldn't leave these lands in more capable hands.
Neistah had decided to stay, along with Lara, for the time being. 'The mortal world is changing,' he sent with an eager glint in his eyes. 'There's lots to do here.' He meant mischief, and Norah knew it. She smiled, trusting Lara to keep her sprite father in line. Lara was Breyan's twin. Eventually she would pine for faerie, and Neistah would take her home again. In the meantime, the world was changing, not only in Datro and its environs, but everywhere. Just the other day, a scouting party from a distant city on the other edge of the forest had approached Jim, wanting to trade. Trade had been sparse between the widely spread city-states due to the distances in between and the non-penetrable forests with all their inherent dangers. But if the dangers presented by the escaped mutants were easing, and the roving bands of hunters therefore disappeared as well, and if Adam continued on his grandfather's grand plan of building better roads through the heart of the forest, then perhaps steady trade was not so far off.
'I fear that all this change will only set this world on the same path of self-destruction that led to the mutants in the first place.' Norah sent her misgivings as she carefully folded her faerie gown to leave behind in her mother's care. Someday her younger sister would wear it and be reminded of her link to the faerie realm. Sitting in her bare skin at the edge of Lara's pond, Norah looked up at the three sprites who chose to remain behind.
'Change is inevitable in this place,' Neistah replied. 'That's why we are connected to it. You can't stop it even if you are the Lady of these lands.'
'And you wouldn't want to,' Breyan added, taking the gown from her. They had already said all their good-byes. Lara would see that Miriam got it. 'This is the mortal's world, after all. Ours is waiting for us, bright with promise that this world has given ours because you hold the lands.'
The sprites didn't say good-bye. They didn't need to. Because of Norah they could use the gates any time they chose. Because of Norah, their stagnant race had hope for the future, the same as the humans, who very nearly wiped themselves out of existence with their stringent rules intended to clear the mutant taint from their bloodlines, now had hope for the future. Whether some day in the far distant future, they would again foolishly destroy themselves, was a question for the ages. Norah hoped not. In a way, she was glad she was not responsible for humanity's future, just for keeping the ways between the human world and faerie open. They needed each other, and she was the link that connected them.
In the meantime, however, there wasn't much for Norah to do except to be. She stood and held Breyan's hand. She could have made a blood gate which the sprites could use at any time; she could have traveled to the nearest gate on the other side of Black Pond's underground tunnel. But she was the Lady. She could create a gate just by wishing. And so she did.
A/N: As always, thanks for reading. Thanks for sticking with me to the end. This turned out to be a lot longer than I had anticipated. One of the fun things about writing on-line like this is doing it in real-time. That means that, unless I want to go back in and heavily edit what I've already uploaded, I'm stuck with continuing on from the point I left off the previous upload. I've backed myself into corners many times, and had to write my way out. It's kind of fun to do that, though it doesn't always make for a coherent story-line. Sorry if I sounded preachy in any of this—I didn't mean to be—just wanted it to be fun and interesting. Maybe someday I'll go back in and edit the hell out of this, make it into a better flowing story. But for now, I'm okay with it. Hope you enjoyed it.