The shadows stretched across the hollow as the sun dipped toward night, and Abbie found herself time to think. Finding time to think was important, especially when you were far from home and surrounded by friendly strangers. Mostly friendly, anyway.
Charles was “getting dinner” with Foster, who had gone along just to keep an eye on the man after exacting binding promises from the woman that she would protect Abbie (and not eat her) while he was gone. The self-proclaimed werewolf Nadiene looked like she was sleeping. Sammy sat between her and Abbie at all times. He didn’t seem to like her much and would growl quietly when she shifted any closer.
Abbie put her face in her palms, squishing into a tight little ball as she sat, her knees pressed up against the back of her hands. What would her mom and dad do in this situation? Obviously her mother wouldn’t have been wandering in the woods in the first place - she was a doctor for pregnant ladies, an O-B-G-Y-N, and when she had free time she liked to curl up in the big cozy chair in the front room and read a book. Abbie sighed wistfully, picturing her mother with her nose in the latest novel, quietly turning pages until her phone would go off, calling her away to another birth. When she had vacation time they would go to a beach cottage and enjoy the coast, or perhaps up into the mountains. Mom’s time in the woods was always in the company of others.
Of course, Abbie knew what she was supposed to do if she ever got lost in the forest. Stay put. Guiltily, she remembered how she’d stormed away from the pond, trying to find her own way back home. But, she thought, I couldn’t go back the way I came, and Mom and Dad would never imagine I went through the bottom of a pond and popped out in some Otherworld. She could scarcely believe it herself, and she’d been here for at least four whole hours.
A lazy butterfly fluttered over the raspberry vines behind her, landing on her right big toe. Abbie peeked through her knees, her cheeks smushed up nearly into her eyes and her lips puckered between her hands. The butterfly was white, but as it moved through the last slivers of sunlight a riot of pearly colors washed over the tiny fibers of it’s wings. The iridescent colors changed as it slowly opened and closed it’s wings, and she got the distinct feeling that it was showing off. “Hi,” she mumbled from her scrunched up position, and the insect flew away. Abbie sighed.
Having help getting home was great, but could she really trust any of these new people? And if she couldn’t, then what was she supposed to do? Foster seemed to be the most trustworthy - he’d protected her from the Wee Folk and the wolves, and of course he’d opened up a tree for them to hide in, which was pretty much the best thing ever. However, he didn’t trust the two adults they’d run into, Abbie could tell. Of course he’d said “I don’t trust you,” to Nadiene, so you didn’t need to be a genius to figure it out.
Charles seemed second-best as far as Abbie’s options for help went. He had nice eyes, even if his big red beard was a scraggly mess and his clothes were dirty. Her clothes were dirty too, so you couldn’t judge a person by that alone. He thought going to Winter was a bad idea, but he’d also grudgingly agreed that it was Abbie’s best option if she didn’t want to live in Otherworld forever.
Forever was a long, long time.
“Why are you going to help me?” she said abruptly, looking up at Nadiene.
The dark skinned woman opened a golden eye. Not so asleep after all - or maybe she was a very light sleeper, like Abbie’s dad. “Maybe I like you.”
“Maybe,” said Abbie, doubtfully. “But why?”
“We are between jobs. You need help.” Nadiene glanced to the side as she talked, and Abbie considered what she said.
“What’s your job?” She sat up a little straighter, her arms wrapped around her knees.
The wolf looked out past the raspberry vines to where her partner and the boy had disappeared, as if she could pull them back with sheer willpower. When she looked back to Abbie, the human girl was still sitting there, knees up, face turned expectantly toward her. She resisted the urge to sigh. “We are thieftakers.”
“You take… thieves?” Abbie screwed up her face in thought. “To the police?”
“Police?” Nadiene had to think about the word for a moment. “No, there are no ‘police’ here in Otherworld. The Pack - the other wolves - are most like your world’s police, I suppose. But they do the bidding of the Queen and the high lords. Out here, in the villages of the Summer Fae, we take care of the ones who break the rules. For a price.”
Abbie lapsed into silence once more, and the woman watched her cautiously, waiting for the next round of questions. From the look on the girl’s face, it wouldn’t be a long wait.
“But where do you take them? To the… Queen?”
“No, we round them up and take them to the - it’s not really important,” Nadiene whisked past the details, Abbie’s brown eyes watching her with intense and unnerving curiosity. “If you’re a …bad guy, then a village might pay us to find you. And we would.”
“What if the Queen pays you to find me?”
“But what if she did?”
“She wouldn’t. But-” hurried Nadiene, before Abbie could open her mouth again, “If she did, Charles would rather cut off his arm than hand you over. I don’t think it would matter if she offered a vault of gold.”
“He was like me.”
“That he does, he likes you.” The wolf smiled, and Abbie frowned.
“Not ‘he likes me,’ he was like me. A kid who ended up here. And he never went home.”
Nadiene was trying to figure out a response to that when Foster and Charles returned to the hollow, a brace of conies in the big man’s hand. Sammy rose to greet them, tail wagging furiously at the sight of his new friends and their very interesting burden. Abbie’s eyes widened as she saw the dead animals, but she said nothing until Foster bounded over to her.
“Are you all right?” he demanded, looking suspiciously at Nadiene, who raised her hands in mute defense.
“Yeah, I’m OK,” she said. Abbie looked sideways at where Charles was tossing the rabbits down on the grass, and then back to Foster. “Is that… dinner?” She tried not to grimace, having been raised to be polite at what other people might offer to eat when she was at their home, but this was not a home, and actually, she was not feeling particularly polite. She wrinkled her nose up as Sammy sat beside Charles, waiting patiently for the meat to be offered to him.
“Yes, the conies will suffice for a small meal,” he said, but he read her facial expression. “Do you have them in your world?”
“We have bunnies, yeah,” Abbie said, then Charles pulled a large looking knife and she covered her face with her hands.
“They are already dead,” Foster explained helpfully. She peeked through her fingers, her curiosity getting the best of her, and by the time Charles was cleaning the second rabbit she had forgotten she’d been hiding her face.
Her stomach rumbled - still mostly empty even though she’d filled it with plenty of water and berries earlier, thanks to Foster - as Charles roasted the ‘conies’ over the fire. “Won’t the wolves smell them?” She whispered the word, as if naming them might bring the Pack down on their heads.
“The campsite is protected,” said Nadiene, her first words since the others had returned. “Earth magic can be used for stealth, or hiding. My talent is low, but sufficient for a small area. Young Foster has bolstered the wards. We are safe for the night.”
Foster blushed lightly as Abbie looked at him, the tips of his ears crimsoning. “I did not do that much,” he mumbled, sitting down near her and watching the fire. Sammy had returned to her side, his face resting on her thigh as he sighed and watched the juices run down the meat as it cooked.
Later, when dinner had been eaten, the fire stoked, and after a musty blanket had been procured for her, Abbie was snuggled up as best she could on the ground with Sammy. The stars had come out. She’d spent many clear evenings with her father in the backyard, lying in the grass staring up at the night sky, so she was passably familiar with what it was supposed to look like.
Thinking about her dad made her chin start quivering, then her eyes started to fill up with tears, so she blinked hard and tried to pick out the Big Dipper. The more she looked, the more stars she could see, hundreds, thousands of stars, and suddenly the big milky swirl of them was stretching over her in an arc, but she couldn’t see anything that looked familiar.
Turning over, she stared with bleary eyes into the coals of the fire. Sammy protested at her movement, and then settled back down behind her in the crook of her knees, his head on his paws. She was going to go home. She was going to see her dad and mom again. Even if she had to trust some people she normally wouldn’t, or go and do things she’d never done before - she was going to do it. She squeezed her eyes shut as the tears came, and Abbie buried her face into the borrowed blanket that smelled like old leather, crying silently until she fell into an exhausted sleep.
Breakfast consisted of some hard biscuits Nadiene had in her bag, and leftover rabbit from the night before. The meat was cold and gamey, but Abbie ate it without complaining. The morning air was cool, but Sammy was intent on remaining right at her side and his warmth kept the goosebumps at bay.
If she was going to travel into the other realm of the Fae, into the heart of Winter like Nadiene had said - “I’m gonna need some more clothes,” she said abruptly. “And shoes.” She looked at Foster and his leaf shirt and short pants, and shook her head. “You too.”
“What?!” Foster looked down at himself. “I am fine.”
“Not for snow,” said Abbie.
“I do not go into the snow,” said Foster. “I am a summer elf.”
“But that’s where I’m going.” She looked at him with hesitation. “Aren’t you… you’re coming with us, right?”
“I ah, that is…” the young elf looked at the wolf and the human man, but Nadiene was busy packing her bag and Charles was content to simply watch the two children talk. “Surely you do not need me to come with you into Winter.” His heart was racing simply considering it. How would his warm summer magic fare in Winter? And the other Guardians, they were waiting for his quest to be complete.
Abbie’s lower lip trembled. “But you’re responsible for me.”
He took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “I might …but I have to finish my trial. Lady Nadiene and Sir Charles,” he wasn’t sure why he was conflating their titles, “have graciously offered you companionship to Winter’s Gate where you might slip through unnoticed. The summer equinox does draw near, after all, the time of greatest weakness for the Winter elves.”
Charles grunted, drawing Sammy’s attention and making the dog sit up straight, leaving a rapidly cooling spot on Abbie’s legs. “Sounds like you know a lot about Winter elves.”
“Yes -no! No, I do not know that much,” Foster quickly tried to backtrack, but it was too late.
"We could use someone who knows what we’re getting into. I mean, we know, but we don’t know like an elf knows.”
Abbie frowned, trying to parse the sentence, but it sounded like Charles was on her side when it came to getting Foster to come along. She smiled hopefully, looking at the elf boy. “You can help! Pleeeeease?”
“The height of Summer may be the weakest time for Winter, but the border will still be closely monitored with wards and wolves, or worse. I can help with the latter - we will need your help with the former,” stated Nadiene. She looked up from her bag. “Come with us to the border, at least.”
“I… suppose that would be all right,” said Foster, but he had an unhappy feeling in his stomach as he agreed.
“Who knows, you may find a prize worthy of the Queen on the journey.” Nadiene winked at him, but her brown and gold eyes were unsettling.
“Then it’s settled,” boomed Charles, making Abbie jump, and Sammy bark. He laughed. “We should be moving on.” He looked at Abbie’s bare feet, and added, “There is a village not too far from here - we can get you boots there.”
“Not without exposing her,” snapped Nadiene, frowning.
“I have an idea,” smiled Charles.