DD – We were still at Natalie’s ranch in the late afternoon. I kept staring at the rocks in the pond. Like if Natalie re-emerged, my knowing right away would change anything!
As the sun got lower, shadows sprouted at every edge. The barn grew shadows that were ultra-black. The ranch stopped looking like a sweet world from one of Matty’s picture books.
Not many soldiers still mingled. Most of them snuck away like they didn’t want us to know which direction they were headed. But some of them left with friendly waves and traded phone numbers to keep in touch!
Those soldiers might share positive stories about changelings. Some stories might make it into Everweer family books. Which might dilute Everweer paranoia, eventually.
Out in the meadow, Lewis was leading soldiers and changelings, doing exercises. Lunges! Jumping jacks! Those had to be the sirene’s idea. Lewis’ had ripped a shirt to make sweatbands. These were pink where dried blood mixed with fresh sweat. Really, he was turning into a character from his games.
He gave me a two-thumb salute and yelled, “We sense other presence. Natalie was not alone here. Permission to search the ranch while light remains?”
“Yes. Check everywhere. Nobody go anywhere alone.” The exercisers turned into search teams and headed out. Other changelings, our animals, and the remaining soldiers joined them.
Now that Lewis had mentioned it, everybody seemed to suddenly realize that Natalie could have soldiers hiding here. I should have thought of that hours ago. War tactics are not my specialty! I was happy to let Aunt Axi and Franklin handle those.
Which made me realize – I hadn’t seen them since everything happened.
I found them in one of the buses, sitting in the aisle with the bus drivers.
“Thank goodness,” Aunt Axi greeted me, “I’ve wanted to help but did not want to remind Alcatur’s soldiers that your ranks include Everweer. I feared to undermine your mission to demonstrate that changelings mean no harm.”
The bus drivers were nodding like they wanted the changeling mission to succeed. Wow. Before today they had been typical of Aunt Axi’s war strategy team, acting like changelings were weak and silly.
“Thank you for giving us a chance. It should be okay for you to show yourselves now, the only Everweer soldiers still here have asked to join our ‘war against prejudice.'”
Franklin sighed, “War and strife. Our people know no other way.”
They had been sitting on the floor for hours and had to do flapping and stretching to stand.
A huge commotion outside. My heart twisted. Had the search parties found enemies?
We stumbled out of the bus. The bus drivers insisted on going first to make sure it was safe for the leader of the changelings.
I guess they thought differently about changelings, now they had seen some serious powers.
The commotion was coming from a crowd at the pond and the voices were happy. So. Not about Natalie.
I pushed my way to the front of the crowd and smiled so big my ears popped.
Fastidious was in the pond! Swimming to shore! His shell was dented but in one piece. His jaw was clamped on Circe’s collar. He dragged her to the meadow where she lay in a heap, unconscious, coughing more than breathing. But alive.
With his snout, Fastidious shoved her onto her belly.
A huge shadow swooped in and Sariah landed hard on Circe’s back with her talons curled like fists. Sariah rose, landed again, rose, landed again. Each time she landed, Circe gagged and water spewed from her mouth.
Franklin and Aunt Axi began doing CPR on Circe, with Fastidious so close they had to gently shove him out of the way. After a really long minute, Circe had a massive coughing and barfing attack, sat up, woozed around, and lay down on Fastidious like a pillow.
Now I got woozy. Fastidious was still her animal. Was he giving her a second chance at treating him right?
Or. In my head, an impossible little voice whispered that Fastidious had pretended to ditch Circe to draw her to Natalie’s ranch.
Someone who sounded just like me gave instructions to get Circe dry and onto a bus, and for everybody to join the teams searching the ranch for Lewis’ “presences”.
It will be dark way too soon. – sE