The second I passed the veil into the glade the world around me changed. There was this subtle shift, and the wind turned clockwise – even deep in foliage I could feel the world open up… and breathe. The worries running through my head – fear for what awaited us on the internet, concerns about my trip to Austin, Caleb’s impassive expression of what I could only assume was masked pain behind me – all of it was gone, just for a second.
A Fae glade is enchanted in a very particular way. The energy around it is bound with magick long forgotten by the ancients from whom we descended. The sphere that contains the glade has been called the veil because of the slight shimmer that is left behind moving objects within its field. The tiny bit of gold sparkle accounted for some of the Human stories I’d heard about walking in the woods and becoming distracted by something twinkly which appears and disappears so quickly that it’s written off as a trick of the light. Of course, it was never an illusion; humans have long preferred to believe in the mundane rather than take a chance on believing in the extraordinary.
Before passing the veil I could see no one, just the thick of the forest and something lake-like off in the distance. Suddenly it blossomed, and I asked myself again why I choose to live in the mundane world at all. The glade’s inhabitants were mostly tree Fae, mixed in with nymphs and the occasional leprechaun, species of Fae who only vaguely resembled the human form in comparison. The central lake itself was built up with houses for the water nymphs, while the treetops were connected by a complex series of huts and bridges making up the tribe’s home. The forest floor was the domain of cooks, makers and, of course, the ground-critters, under the command of the Leprechauns.
There was so much to take in that if pressed I would find it hard to describe to a human who had never been within a glade. It was simply life – bubbling and authentic.
My feet touched down on enchantment-soft grass. Caleb lit on the ground beside me, almost completely silent. The moment of peace I’d experienced was gone with a gripping sensation in my throat.
Caleb was a masterful flier, perfect in every stroke. It was as if he became the wind on a glide, his wings the softest I’d heard. It tugged at my theoretical soul-pieces to know that his time in the air was limited, and getting shorter every day.
Then again, that was true for all of us. A rather morbid thought.
“It’s nice,” Caleb said on half a groan, rolling his shoulders.
“I’m fine,” he glanced at me sharply, and I regretted even thinking of asking. “We’ll need to find-”
“Ah! Starhunter, I’m so happy you made it,” I heard my grandmother’s voice only a second before she appeared seemingly out of nowhere to wrap her arms around me. I smiled, breathing in her scent – she always smelled of lavender, and I never could figure out how she managed that.
I pulled away from the hug and smiled at her, tugging at my jean jacket. We were mirrors of each other in skin and hair coloring, both nut-brown with an auburn mane, yet she stood barefoot in the forest, clad in natural fabrics dyed red with rhubarb. Her long, wide-cuffed robe was traditional for the older Fae in the winter (we tended towards minimal coverings in the warm months).
She looked over me ruefully, her lips pursed in a thin line. For 112 years old, she looked a human’s 50 or 60 years, her skin still fresh and mostly-smooth. “I was so worried for you after I heard the news.”
“It’s only been an hour,” I said insistently, always the youngling in her presence. I cleared my throat, “Nan, I’d like you to meet Caleb McLain, one of my fellow bridgers. Caleb, this is my grandmother, Blackthorn.”
Caleb smiled for her – a genuine, wide smile, the likes of which I’d rarely seen on him to this point – and gave the traditional Fae symbol of greeting, two fingers swept across the air in front of him, which in the veil left a trail of gold glitter in its wake. “Lovely to meet you, Blackthorn.”
I wondered, incidentally, at what his Fae name might have been. I knew his father was Blackwing, which seemed rather obvious, but Caleb himself had never gone by his Fae name in public. It was something he kept private, it seemed. Curious.
My grandmother also smiled, but in that subtle way that told me she was thinking something about him, whether for good or ill I could never tell. Nan was awfully difficult to read at times. She returned the gesture. “Is this your first time in the Willamette, Caleb?”
“Yes it is. I wish it was under more pleasant circumstances.”
“Of course you’d like to see Landsong,” my grandmother took the hint gracefully, motioning us to follow her. “He’s in the council room waiting for you.”
She spread her wings, mottled green and brown with hints of gold, and took off into the trees with her customary grace. Tree Fae had much shorter wingspans to facilitate ducking in between the branches – something I did not inherit and wished I had many times as a youngling.
As if to prove a point, Caleb launched into the air before I even bent to get a good jump. I couldn’t help but pause, marveling at the beauty of those black wings trailing bits of gold with each soundless flap…
Get ahold of yourself, Fae-girl. Tearing my gaze away, I, too, followed them amidst the branches and the rope bridges.
Each face that turned up to see us was a face I recognized. With our long lifespans – 200 human years on average – Fae populations remained relatively stagnant. Fae rarely moved between tribes given the important-but-subtle cultural differences, and our population stuck around much longer. With the recent tide of infertility sweeping Fae society we had very few new births per year. Our numbers, which were never even close to as large as the human population, were dwindling with each failed mating cycle.
Depressing thoughts of our impending doom aside, seeing familiar faces again was nice, even comforting in spite of it all.
The council room was situated high atop the tallest fir tree. The Fae dwellings in the trees were circular, hut-like structures, each of them older than the oldest Fae in the tribe and reinforced with bits of magick to keep them strong in the face of Oregon rain. I filed in behind Caleb and Nan on the landing platform, the door to the council room covered by a simple cloth dyed in a pleasing combination of colors, similar to human tie-dye. The roof of this particular building was covered by solar panels, an addition made in the last twenty years or so. Nan whistled before pulling open the tapestry to let us in.
The inside of the council chamber was unusual, to be certain. It was about the size of my living room and kitchen combined, a sort of meeting and working area. There were comfortable seating arrangements in a circle on top of a beautifully woven multi-colored rug, all made of the best natural materials – everything in the room evoked nature with the notable exception of the outlets along the walls and the cabinet stacked with laptops, data cables, and a projector.
In the center of the room, half-lying on a loveseat with one leg hanging off the end and his robe halfway slipped off his shoulder, was Landsong. When I knew him as a youngling he had dark, thick chestnut hair; bits of gray now showed through the long beaded braids. His forest-green wings spilled over his shoulders and the couch, his tan skin creased with wrinkles that were new in the last few years. His brow was drawn in concern over warm brown eyes which would normally be alive with laughter.
Much like the misplaced technology in the otherwise primitive hut, the cell phone in Landsong’s hand stood out amongst his otherwise traditional Fae garb.
“Yes, I understand-“ he waved us into the seating opposite him. I began removing my shoes and motioned for Caleb to do the same, tossing them just outside the entrance to the chamber. Wearing shoes indoors – especially on top of a carpeted area – was considered quite rude in the Willamette Fae culture. “Alright. Yeah, sure. Anything you – mmhm. Yes, I’ll fill them in. No, no problem. Thanks.”
Landsong tapped the screen and closed his eyes on a sigh – just one breath – before straightening himself into a more distinguished position. “Sorry about all that younglings.”
A smile twitched at the edge of my lips. Oh, Landsong. I supposed I would always be a youngling in his eyes. He was near as old as Nan. “Don’t worry about it,” I told him.
Nan tapped me on the shoulder and kissed the top of my head. “I have nutcakes for you when you’re done here.” I turned to acknowledge her, but she was out the door before I could say anything.
Nan had been an activist in her younger days, which is how the other bridgers remembered her – a fierce, independent woman who went against many Fae ideals in her own way, even if she never saw herself as a revolutionary. She was still pretty active when I was very small, but she’d dropped out of the scene in the last several years and avoided anything that had to do with politics. It was clear that she wanted nothing to do with whatever was to come of our meeting with Landsong, and I couldn’t blame her. I wasn’t sure I wanted anything to do with it either.
“Well,” Landsong continued, “I haven’t seen either of you in quite some time. I wish this was a happier occasion.”
“Couldn’t be helped,” said Caleb, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees – a very human posture if I’d ever seen one. “What are we dealing with here, Landsong?”
Landsong turned away as if he couldn’t bear to look at us, moving to retrieve a laptop and the projector from the cabinet. “I was on the phone with the Tucaloosa glade Chief. We don’t have a lot of confirmation on anything yet.”
“What do the outlets know?” Caleb pressed.
“The report on the books is that a group of Elemental Fae were seen approaching the the Gowager’s Construction Company HQ just prior to an explosion which took out their campus as well as several fueling stations in the area. Their HQ is-” he paused, “-was… located in the hills surrounding Birmingham proper.”
My stomach lurched at Caleb’s question. He asked it with such disconnected authority – as if it didn’t concern him hardly at all. I eyed him sidelong, feeling myself pull away from him. Perhaps this was where I would see his true feelings. Perhaps this kind of behavior was palatable to him.
Landsong, for his part, didn’t seem concerned by Caleb’s behavior. He sat the laptop in the table at the center of the seating area, busying himself with plugging everything in and booting things up. “The media estimates 300. Our estimate is closer to two.”
“Two hundred people?” I blurted, a hand over my mouth as if to take it back – like taking it back would change anything.
Landsong nodded sullenly, eyes cast down at the laptop.
“And we’re sure this was Fae? What was the motive?”
“The construction company was instrumental in oil production efforts throughout the gulf. Recently the Tucaloosa glade has been scaling back, and several companies have been seeking their land for its… hidden resources.”
“They wanted to invade the glade?” I shook my head, “that’s not possible. No unwelcome human can set foot in a glade-”
“Except that more than half the Tucaloosa glade has faded. Several determined humans have been witnessed breaking their veil.”
“That’s… not…” I was going to repeat that’s not possible, only narrowly stopping myself before looking completely useless. My hands trembled. I knew he wouldn’t lie to me – had no reason to, certainly not about a thing like this – but this was not acceptable. Unwanted humans in a Fae glade violated every sense of our magick. I didn’t even like magick that much, didn’t practice it hardly at all, and I felt offended by the notion.
“Aye, we’d like to think that, wouldn’t we?” Landsong said softly. His gaze hadn’t shifted, but in his voice I heard the same cold sorrow that I felt in my bones.
“How do we know it was one of us?” Caleb again, cutting straight to the point.
“There was no fire.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” I asked.
Clearly Caleb knew what it meant, with the way he stood up and paced the room, running both hands through his hair. “Explain to to her,” he snapped.
“The firedancers they find in the south are able to expand pockets of our space into near earth,” Landsong said as he typed. “There was an incident we contained about a year ago where several firedancers tried to phase a skyscraper in Cleveland. We got to them before they finished the job.”
“Obviously we missed something this time,” Caleb muttered, crossing his arms over his chest. “Did the perpetrators phase as well? Have we detained them?”
“We have people on all five planes searching for them. Nothing yet.”
“We knew this was a possibility?” I choked, frozen in place on this couch. “Why wasn’t I told? Aren’t I supposed to be-”
“We thought this was under control, Amelie,” Caleb huffed swinging around in a circle. It was the first time he’d addressed me without using my last name. “Things have been getting quieter lately. It hasn’t been a project of concern. Cleveland was one group of people – one incident. If the news had gotten out to the media that the Fae can’t be trusted to police their own-” he shuddered, “well, we thought we were preventing a much bigger mess by keeping it confined to a small circle. Having the elemental problem come out in public this way… this is a gods damned disaster.”
Now he was showing some affect, finally, and it was so… angry. I didn’t have time to scrutinize his reaction against the facts. Landsong finally met my gaze, his brown eyes softening at me, the way they softened when I was a child. “Are you alright, youngling?” Landsong asked me directly.
“I’ll be fine. I just… don’t know what to do,” I told him honestly.
“It’s all about spin at this point. The facts don’t matter,” Caleb nodded at Landsong, “you have the others on a secure call?”
“Whenever the two of you are ready,” Landsong confirmed.
“Spin?” I blinked, “you mean… with the media. We have to spin the media.” I was catching on, finally, to what they were talking about. Covering up the Elemental problem was all about saving face in front of an already volatile human public; dealing with this crisis would mean even more elaborate political sleight of hand.
“We can deal with what actually happened later. What we have to do now is keep the media from linking our kind with a label.”
“You mean the terrorist label.” The look the two of them gave me could have stoned a sparrow. I shrunk under their energy. This was politics – a game I used to play on a much smaller scale. I swallowed back my initial shock. “Right. Best not say the word at all, lest I call on its power,” the snark snuck into my voice. I paused, “Should we get back to Portland, with all this going on?”
“All the calls I need to make can be made from here,” Caleb replied, finally sitting back down – further away from me than before. “Common bridgers won’t be interviewed up front. Cally, Jonathan, Paige – those are the people who will need to get seen this week. Grab a computer,” he started in giving me orders, and for whatever reason, it didn’t bother me. Having a task felt better than not knowing what on the five earths I was supposed to do. “Get to gathering as much information about the incident as you can from our internal sources. You can get a list of people to call from Cally. Landsong and I will deal with the conference call and the local media.”
This is what we do. This is how disasters are dealt with – from treehouses in obscure glades with satellite internet and bare feet. I scrambled to pick up one of the spare laptops. Infused with the power of purpose, I managed to regain the confidence in my voice; “Let’s make it happen.”