August 8, 2016 by Lyn
Fifty years in the future:
The bell attached to the northern foxhole rang just as Diane was sitting down to dinner. It was her day to monitor them, so she slipped on her coat, grabbed her rifle and a spare jacket, and hitched the horse up to the covered buggy.
The marshy terrain was dark and desolate, the silence broken only by the hooting of owls, the gurgle and bubble of water – and now the muffled, mushy rumbling of her own progress through the mud. She’d studied her history, farther back than most cared to bother these days, and thought the Webwatcher might have chosen this location intentionally because it was used for such similar purposes some two centuries prior.
It was certainly remote enough that few chose to bother them, even the witch-hunters who saw monster faeries in every shadow and every eccentric true human. Still, they’d gotten caught before; she kept her shotgun ready as she opened the back door to the foxhole.
The girl inside the foxhole jumped, startled, as Diane came up behind her. “Oh! Oh, shit, I mean…” She was battered-looking, sporting a couple big bruises, and her stunning blue eyes kept flickering, as if she was having trouble keeping her Mask up. “The salmon struggle upstream.”
“So much pain, for their spawning,” Diane nodded, satisfied. It was an unusual code phrase, certainly, but the Webwatcher always had a private little smile when he heard it, like it meant something to him. “Come on, let’s get you to safety.”
The girl had already crumpled in relief; in a glimmer of lamplight, Diane could see lines like feathers or butterfly wings down her too-skinny back. “Thank you,” she whispered. “I thought they had me for sure.” She struggled to her feet again and took the coat the other woman offered. “I’m Eriko. Azure Dawn.”
“Diane Prybylski.” She noted the way the girl shied back, nervous, at the sudden realization. “Yes. But not every human hates the Shenera Endraae.” She pronounced the word carefully, the way the Webwatcher had taught her, and saw it relax the girl again.
Probably not a girl, she reminded herself, as the waif slipped on the spare jacket and pulled the hood up. The Webwatcher, after all, only looked to be about twenty; he’d looked that way for the ten years she’d been working with him.
It had seemed a strange arrangement when he’d first shown up, and Diane hadn’t been the only one to resent his presence in their circle. It was silly, of course, but they’d felt like the organization was devoted to rescuing fae; it shouldn’t have a fae in its midst. It hadn’t taken him long to work his way into their trust, then into their confidence. Diane wondered how many of her teammates realized how easy it had been for the Webwatcher to take over, or how much better they were for his involvement. He’d taken a rag-tag group of teenagers and turned them into an actual organization.
“Where are we going?” Azure Dawn asked softly. She was still shivering under the coat as Diane helped her into the buggy.
“To the haven.” She handed over an apple. “There will be real food there, but this will tide you over until then.”
For a few minutes, there was no conversation, as Diane got the horse headed towards home and the waif devoured the apple.
“The haven? That makes it sound like a big operation.”
“Not particularly.” There was always the chance that someone they brought in could be the enemy; there was only so much she should share with someone before they’d been vetted. But, human or no, Diane had a knack for telling the good eggs from the bad. “There’s just the Webwatcher and four others there full-time.” Not counting the children, of course. “But what we do isn’t easy; it’s not really a one-man deal.”
“The Webwatcher? One of us, then.”
Diane tch’d softly. Why did they always insist on doing that? Drawing lines, making distinctions. “He’s Shenera Endraae, yes.”
“We’re going to meet him, then? Can you tell me more about him first?”
“He’s… friendly,” Diane settled on. “Very friendly, likes to get to know people.” Never shared a lot about himself, but not everyone noticed that when he was getting chatty. “He’s very good at organizing things, pulling everything together to help people.”
“He sounds like a nice person?” the waif offered, although she sounded hesitant. “A good man?”
“He’s a good person,” Diane agreed firmly. “We’ve been working together for quite a while.” By human standards, at least, and the Webwatcher didn’t like to give much indication of his age.
“You’re sure?” She’d huddled up on herself on the seat of the buggy. “The last person who said they’d rescue me…”
“I’m sure,” Diane emphasized. “I may be just human,” she added dryly, “but I’ve been working next to this man long enough to know he’s a good person. And, my judgment of people aside, Azure Dawn, I know I’m a good person.”
“Oh,” the waif squeaked. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”
“Of course you didn’t,” she sighed. “You’ll just have to trust us. Besides, here we are.” She pulled the buggy up into the barn and helped the waif out. “Speaking of trusting, I’m going to have to blindfold you for a moment.”
She almost melted into herself. “Do I have to?”
“Just for a moment, Eriko.” She used the girl’s birth name on a guess, and it worked; she got a nervous but agreeable nod, and Azure Dawnlet her slip the blindfold over her eyes. Diane spun her around a few times, carefully; she didn’t want half-digested apple vomited on her shoes, then guided her to the secret room. “Wait here,” she told her, as she removed the blindfold. “I’ll be back in a few with the Webwatcher.”
She slipped out the side door, latched it quietly behind her, and went to find him. It wasn’t a difficult search; he was, of course, sitting in the break lounge, chatting with another member of the team. It had taken her some time to realize that this wasn’t a break for him, but an integral part of what held them together.
“Another refugee,” she told him, when he noticed her entering. “I think she’s genuine; I know that magic can fake most of the symptoms of starvation, but they never get the acting right when they do that. Eriko, Azure Dawn.”
He was nodding along, listening but having heard this before, until she said the name and he was on his feet. “Eriko, did you say?”
“Eriko. She’s slender, Asian, blue eyes and possibly feathers…”
“They aren’t actually feathers, it’s part of her hair,” he said absently as he headed for the hall.
Someone he knew, then. Diane followed him, curious to see how this played out.
The Webwatcher walked to the holding room, really just a concrete cube with two chairs and a table; it was built, by necessity, to serve double duty as an interrogation chamber. Diane walked in with him and closed the door behind them.
The girl had been pacing; when she saw them enter, she froze, and then started backpedaling hastily towards the wall. “Aviv…” she whimpered.
“Eriko,” he said, stepping forward and spreading his hands. “Be welcome in my home.”
She couldn’t back up any further, but she was trying. “I didn’t see anything, don’t know anything,” she stammered. “Just put me back where you found me, please.” She looked over the Webwatcher’s shoulder to talk directly to Diane. “You know I didn’t see anything. You blindfolded me!”
That had not been the reaction she’d been expecting, but, then, they’d never had a refugee who’d known the Webwatcher by his childhood name before, either. Diane let him do the talking for now, but she kept her eyes on the waif.
“Sit, Eriko,” he said peremptorily, taking the facing chair himself by way of example. “I extend my hospitality to you.”
The girl sat, her Mask completely gone, now, to reveal the brilliantly-colored and patterned hair; her blue tongue darted out to lick her lips. For all of the rhetoric Diane had heard spewed, she didn’t look like a monster; she looked like a scared animal, looking for an escape route. “I’ll do what you want,” Eriko whispered. “Just please, don’t sell me.”
Sell her? Diane looked between the two of them uncertainly. She knew the slave trade still existed, but the Webwatcher had never been involved in such things… had he?
“I have no intention of selling you,” he replied. “It’s been a long time, Eriko.”
“It has,” she answered quietly. “Would you… would you promise that, please?” She looked as if she expected to be hit for asking; Diane looked between the two fae uncertainly.
“I swear that I will not sell you, Eriko,” he said, the ghost of a smile on his lips.
“Thank you.” She relaxed into the chair a little bit more. “Anything else… but I couldn’t stand that again.”
Again? Diane looked between them, wondering at the story she was clearly missing
“So, what have you been up to?” he said conversationally, apparently oblivious to how awkward that seemed amidst the room’s tension. Eriko nodded, as if to some unspoken question under the spoken, and started talking.
“I was living in a little town in the outskirts of where Buffalo used to be. I had a husband, a human husband, and we had two kids, girls.” She swallowed a sob. “I thought I could just go back to being human, you know? There’d never been all that much for me in being Ellehemaei. And I was doing fine. Our girls were growing up; they probably would have Faded and never known, been fine that way. Then a nosy neighbor started asking questions about where I was born and how old I was.”
“It’s difficult,” he said sympathetically. “I’ve never tried to blend like that, but I hear it, see it all the time.”
“What do you do, then?” she asked, with some clear bitterness. “The humans hate us.”
Not all humans, but it wasn’t the time to point that out. Diane watched silently, wondering what had made this girl hate being fae so much that she wanted her children to be human.
“Not all of them.” Or, maybe it was the time. “There are good people here. Other places, too, if you know where to look. Of course, there’s always simple hiding. I did that for a long time, and I learned the difference between survival and living.”
“Hrmph.” She seemed unconvinced. “I learned that when I graduated Addergoole.”
“We all learned quite a bit from Addergoole. I suppose that was the point.”
She barked out a nervous laugh while Diane wondered what Addergoole was. “Yeah. So… what are you going to do with me?”
“You think I mean to Keep you.” It wasn’t a question.
“I’d rather you didn’t.” That, on the other hand, was.
“But you would, if I asked.”
“I’m kind of stuck.” She gestured around the concrete room. A moment later, she asked, in a very small voice, “Would you keep me safe from the hunters, then?”
“I would,” he nodded gravely. Diane looked between them. He’d keep her safe from the hunters either way; that was what they did. What was he planning?
“I… I guess I Belong to you, then,” the waif sighed.
He smiled broadly, but shook his head; Diane swallowed a sigh of relief. “I will provide you whatever assistance you need. Supplies, transportation, contacts, a home if that’s your wish. But I will not Keep you. You haven’t seen me since I was a boy, Eriko. And the funny thing about boys is… sometimes they grow up to be men.”