Law had just hooked a three-foot waewaeli when her phone started to ring. She ignored it as she fought the twenty-pound fish. "Not, now, not now, go to voice mail!" Only a half-dozen people had her phone number and at the moment, she didn't want to talk to any of them. It stopped ringing for a minute, only to start again. And again. And again.
"Who the frigging hell?" She'd lost too many phones trying to cradle them on her shoulder and reel in a fish. She would need at least one hand free to answer the phone. Finally she locked the reel and jerked her phone out of her breast pocket.
"What?" she cried as her rod bent as the big fish fought the line.
"Who is this?" a female voice asked.
"Law!" she shouted. "Law Munroe." At least that was the name she was using most recently. The joy of having a mother who had been married ten times meant that even close family friends weren't sure what your real, real name was. "Who is this?"
"Oh good. You'll be a perfect match. Go to Fairywood and find snow."
"What?" Law cried. "It's in the middle of freaking June! Mid-summer eve is less than a week! There's no snow!"
"Fairywood. F. A. I. R. Y. Wood. It's next to Windgap. Just out of the Rocks—if there was still a bridge. Lots of urban prairie. You need to find snow. Collect snow up and get someplace safe. All hell is going to break loose regardless but let's not give anyone a nice little goat, shall we?"
And the connection went dead and her line snapped.
"Who? What? Hello?" She glared at her phone. Not only had she lost the fish but she lost her streamer fly, too. A Clouser deep minnow. She handmade her flies, so she wasn't out money, just time. She needed one more fish before her ice chests were full and she could visit her customers. If she didn't land another big fish, she'd have to short someone because she could only put off deliveries for so long.
"I thought there was some kind of rule against crazy people on Elfhome!" Grumble as she might, her experiences with her family confirmed it was only diagnosed crazy people who had been deported back to Earth. All the unknown crazies were free to terrorize their relatives and random people. At least with strangers, she could ignore the phone call. "Not my circus. Not my monkeys."
She was standing knee-deep in Chartiers Creek in Carnegie. It was about six miles from where the stream met the Ohio River. In the summer, that section of the Chartiers was too shallow for river shark and jumpfish to navigate the water. She took another fly from her hat and tied it to her line. She'd dropped coolers alongside of Campbells Run and Chartiers Creek every few hundred feet. Parking at the end of Glass Street before dawn, she'd walked back to Campbells Run. In the last hour, she'd worked her way down to where the smaller stream joined the larger one, slowly making her way back to her truck. She had her biggest coolers full of trout and crayfish from traps on other streams, but she enjoyed angling for the waewaeli. Summer was her favorite time to be a professional forager since she could devote much of her time to the sport of fishing. The dry hot months meant that the Chartiers was shallow enough to wade. She was too far upstream to worry about river sharks and jumpfish; they needed at least four feet of water to navigate a channel. The undergrowth lining the creek screened the ruins of the abandoned neighborhood. The play of water and singing birds masked out any distant noise of civilization. It was her and the fish, one on one, just the way she liked it.
Until her phone ran again. Same mystery number.
She sighed and answered. "What?"
"I forgot to tell you: look for the white door."
"Not a red door and paint it black?"
"Oh God no, black would make everything worse. There won't be time to paint it. Just take it with you when you leave."
She knew it was useless to argue about the lack of snow in June. Crazy people didn't listen to logic. Her parents had at least taught her that. "Okay, I'll take the door with me when I find snow."
"Good." And the mystery Crazy Lady hung up again.
She spotted a big shadow in the next deep pool. She played out line until she could feel the rod load, and casted. The morning light was still fragile with dawn, the sun not fully climbed above the hills. It was amazing that anyone was awake enough to be calling her. The woman didn't even seem to know whom she had reached. Had she just randomly punched numbers until someone actually picked up the phone?
She'd just landed the big waewaeli when the phone rang again. Same Crazy Lady. Law sighed and answered. "Yes?"
"You only have a few hours to save her. You have to go today."
"Her? Her who?"
"Snow! They're going to kill her if you don't get her to safety."
"Oh Jesus Christ! Why didn't you tell me that Snow was a person? That changes everything!"
"What did you think? It's June!"
Lawry considered just dropping her phone into the water. No. She knew from experience that didn’t really help in the long run. "Who is going to kill her?"
"Do you blame the maker of the gun or the person that pulls the trigger?"
"The person who pulls the trigger."
"Then you would be wrong." And the woman hung up again.
She waded downstream, replaying all the conversations over in her head. She'd leapt to the assumption that Snow was the name of a person but thinking back, the crazy lady hadn't actually confirmed that. It could be a white dog or cat. And for "where" all she knew was Fairywood—wherever that was—and look for a white door. She had all the fish she needed for her customers and a little time before she needed to deliver them. She could see if she could find Snow.
"Brisbane! We're leaving!" She whistled to fetch him back. Hopefully he hadn't wandered too far from the truck as the porcupine never moved faster than a waddle.
It took her five minutes just to find the bloody neighborhood on her map. Fairywood was a postage stamp of nothingness even before the first Startup, which was why she didn't recognize the name. She only found it because of the mention of Windgap and the Rocks, meaning McKees Rocks. Windgap fared little better than Fairywood after Pittsburgh shifted to Elfhome; it had lost three of its bridges in and out of the neighborhood. Far as she knew, both neighborhoods were now uninhabited. There were businesses in McKees Rocks with people clustered around them.
The bad news, it was in the wrong direction for her deliveries but the good news was that were only a handful of streets officially part of Fairywood. It wouldn't take her long to drive up and down them and see if any white doors popped out at her.
Brisbane came waddling out of the brush. Elfhome porcupines were twice the size of Earth ones and a rich red color. Nothing short of Black Willows and saurus tangled with them, not even pony-sized wargs and steel spinner spiders. As a result, they had one speed. Trying to get them to go faster usually resulted in a couple hundred quills to the face. A porcupine for a pet was the test of true friendship: love me, love my porcupine (and not as a main course for dinner.)
"Come on, Brizzy, get your spiky butt into the truck!" She opened the passenger door so he could climb in. A carrot on the seat just out of his reach was incentive to do just that. "We have some kind of damsel to save."
She wheeled the last cooler of waewaeli up into the back of her pickup with the help of the winch, strapped it down, and covered it with reflective cloth to help keep it cool. By the time she finished, Brisbane had climbed up into the cab and was chomping down his carrot, squealing with glee. Porcupines were noisy as well as slow and stubborn. She closed the passenger door and climbed in the other side.
There was a time when all the roads and bridges in Pittsburgh had been well maintained. At least, according to her grandfather, they were. The roads into Fairywood were a maze of missing bridges and broken pavement. Some of them were only passable because her Dodge had six wheels and massive ground clearance. She wasn't even sure how anyone would get out this far, unless it was a wrong turn off the misnamed Interstates onto Route 60 and then get majorly lost.
"I bet it’s a goat. Crazy Lady said 'goat.' Goats are white like snow. Or an indi, they kind of look like goats, only a hundred times cuter. They're like cotton balls with horns."
They crossed into Fairywood and the roads got rougher. Because of Chartiers Creek and the steep hillsides, there were only three streets that led into the heart of the place to do the planned neighborhood with the circling loop things. With the exception of someone's yapping dogs barking up a storm in the distance, the neighborhood seemed utterly lifeless. The houses looked like they'd been abandoned years before the first Startup. Unlike most of the places in Pittsburgh, they'd been boarded shut instead of left open to the elements. Weather had blasted all the paint from surfaces, leaving graying wood. As she drove through, it seemed to her as if life had been bleached out of the world by time.
Then on the most remote corner of the neighborhood, on a street that ended in a cul-de-sac—there was a house with a stark, freshly painted, white door.
Law pulled to a stop and stared at it. "I guess it isn't a goat."
She had a variety of weapons in her pickup. She spent too much time out in the middle of nowhere not to go armed. She had everything from an easily annoyed porcupine to an Barrett 50 caliber rifle. The question was which was appropriate for the situation. Crazy lady stated that someone was willing to use deadly force, but Law only had the mystery woman's assurances. She was going to look like the crazy one if she went in waving a gun and there was just some scared female inside.
"Come on, Brisbane, we've got a house to check out." She tugged on her Pirate's baseball cap. "And maybe a game of ball to play."
She got out a turnip and her bat and off they went.
No one answered her polite knock. The door wasn't locked. She swung it cautiously open.
The house had never been finished before the first Startup. Rough framed stairs lead upward without any nod towards safety. The ceilings were just studs. The walls were unpainted drywall. With the windows boarded over, the building was a dark cave, the sunlight from the doorway the only light.
Brisbane trundled in.
"Brizzy!" Law whispered.
The problem with a fearless pet was he went where he wanted to go, which wasn't always the same place she wanted to be. He didn't come back when she called, which meant he probably could smell something he wanted to eat.
Law hissed a curse. There didn't seem to be anyone in the house. "Hello?" And then considering she was sent to locate someone with an elf-sounding name, she added in, "Sekia?"
She should have brought a flashlight. After a morning of sun reflecting off water, she felt blind in the cave-like dark. She took out her phone and shone it into the darkness. "Sekia?" And then in English. "Is anyone here?"
Brisbane muttered from somewhere deep in the house. He'd found something to eat but couldn't get to it. There would be no calling him back.
Sighing, she crept forward, panning her phone's light left to right. The house was one of these "open floor plans" that equated into three big rooms downstairs, connected together via large archways. There seemed to be some light shining in the back of the house. "Seriously, Law, why do you keep getting mixed up in shit like this? You don't know even if there's a girl…"
A shadow crossing through the slant of light from the door made her spin around. She couldn't tell what had cast the shadow. She couldn't see anyone. She hadn't heard any footsteps.
"Hello?" she called louder in Elvish. "Snow? This place is not safe." Her high school Elvish classes never covered situations like this. She used Elvish when selling to the enclaves at the Rim but usually the conversations were limited to food, time, money and the weather. Can you get me fish tomorrow? No, you cannot eat my porcupine.
There was a whisper in the darkness to the right of the doorway. As Law stared into the darkness, her eyes slowly adjusted until she could see someone standing there. Somehow she hadn't seen the person tucked into the shadows.
"Hello? Nicadae!" Law tried for cheerful while tightening her hold on the baseball bat. "Sekia?"
"Sekia." A soft confused female voice echoed and continued in Elvish. "Who are you?"
"Law." She patted her chest. She hated her full name but elves complained that her name was way too short. "Lawry Munroe. Who are you?"
The figure moved forward into the light. The female was smaller than Law expected. Her baby doll dress of white fairy silk managed to be very demure for how stunningly short it was. Black curls spilling down her back, nothing like the impossibly straight controlled hair that Law associated with elves. Bare feet. The female pressed a hand to her chest and spilled out High Elvish in a flood.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Law cried in English. "Naekanin." The one Elvish phrase that was useful for all occasions: I don't understand. Law was fairly fluent in Low Elvish; she had to be to trade with the elves. High Elvish, though, was a whole different language. "Are you Snow?" She pretended to shiver. "Snow? You?"
That got a long, uncertain look.
"Okay." Law scratched at her back with the baseball bat. She reasoned out the logic of her problem in English. "Crazy Lady got: Fairywood, white door, female. Let's say it’s a given that someone is coming to kill any female behind the white door, regardless if you're actually Snow or not."
"Naekanin," Snow said slowly—assuming this was actually Snow.
Law simplified. "We have to go." Then realized she'd said it in English. She repeated it in Elvish and used the "come here" hand wave that elves used.
"We have to go." The female echoed the English but she turned and headed deeper into the house.
Law threw up her hands in frustration and chased after the elf.
Off the unfinished kitchen was an area that probably would have been the mudroom. A spell light illuminated the small rough area. Brisbane was rooting through a pile of travel sacks, grumbling at the fact that he couldn't get to whatever attracted him.
"Brizzy!" Law whistled and held out the turnip. "Come on. We have to go."
The elf gathered up her travel sacks. The look she gave the cavelike kitchen was clear enough—whatever the reason she was there, she didn't like the place. She was perfectly willing to pack up and abandon it, even if the ride came with a porcupine.
The elf's hair was blue black.
Out in the sun, it was really beautiful. Glossy, loose waves fell down to her hips, coal-black but with subtle dark blue highlights. Human women would either pay hundreds of dollars or sign a pact with a devil for such hair. Her skin was the flawless pale, pale white of elves, even her bare feet. She had long athletic legs. The fruffy baby doll dress of white silk covered all the naughty bits—barely. Her eyes weren't the vivid blue almost every elf Law ever met had but a deep stormy gray, the color of thunderclouds.
That said, she looked like she hadn't slept for days, and her beautiful eyes were red from crying. But far from being despondent, she explored the Dodge with great interest. She pushed all the buttons, cranked the window up and down and up and down and turned the radio on and off. When she found the maps in Law's glovebox, she gave a happy cry.
Brisbane wanted into the elf's travel sacks and wouldn't leave the sacks alone even for the turnip. Once Law explained that the porcupine stubbornness, Snow produced a saenori out of the packs. The peachlike fruit wouldn't be ripe in Pittsburgh for another month. It meant that Snow had probably recently come from the Easternlands, where Elvish settlements were farther south than those in the Westernlands.
Law's phone rang with Crazy Lady's number again. Law accepted the call and said, "I found her. I think. I found a female elf. I'm not sure what her name…"
Crazy Lady cut her off with, "Did you get the door?"
"The door?" Law echoed in confusion.
"The white door," Crazy Lady said. "Get it and take it with you."
"Really?" Law was running late and running out of patience.
"People will die if you don't get this right," Crazy Lady stated calmly. "Probably starting with you."
"I'm getting the door."
A quart of white exterior paint was just inside the door still with a Wollerton's price tag and an uncleaned paintbrush dried to a solid slab of white. Both looked brand new. The door, though, obviously had hung in place for years. Luckily she had a cordless screwdriver. Dr. Who would approve. After she stowed the door in the back of her pickup, she nabbed the paint can, too.
She wanted to shortcut through Windgap and McKees Rock to get to downtown. It turned out to be harder than she expected. After the third "fallen" tree, it was obvious that someone had recently used magic to block the streets. Anyone entering the area would be funneled straight to the house where Snow had been. But why?
She was trying to decide whether to backtrack or go cross-country, when her phone rang again. This time it was her mom. Her monkeys. Her circus.
Sighing, Law answered the call. "Hello, Mother."
"Twenty-two years I've been telling you to call me Flo."
"You're my mother—or at least, that's what my birth certificate claims."
"Multiple times." She kept hoping it was some kind of mistake. Since her mother had saddled her with a boy's name, she'd gone as far as getting a copy of her birth certificate from the city. The paperwork ruled out adoption but not switched at birth. The mirror, however, said that was impossible. The older she got, the more she looked like her paternal grandfather; a fact that made neither one of them happy since he had never approved of her mother. "What is it, Mother? I'm busy."
"People with real jobs are busy. People that play around and call it work are not."
"Mother, we are not having this discussion again."
"We will continue having this conversation until you realize that you are wasting your life. But that's not why I called."
"It's not?" Law held out the phone to eye it with suspicion. Her mother rarely passed up the opportunity to beat the job thing into the ground.
"You will never guess what just showed up at the Scheidemantles' this morning."
"The Scheidemantles. They live down the road, across from Ginny Czernowski."
"I thought she got married."
"If I said Virginia Mary Elizabeth Frankenwald, you wouldn't know who I was talking about." And people said elves had long complicated names. "She married an accountant that she met in college. They moved into the Donaldson's old place. They had a little girl last week. They named her Mercy."
With every life accomplishment that her mother listed for her classmate, Law knew that what she really was ticking off were things that Law was lacking in her life. A college education on Earth. A job as a dental hygienist. An accountant husband. Home ownership. Children.
Law had no interest in any of that—especially the whole dental hygienist thing. If you were going to school for something, why pick something that required you sticking your hands in other people's mouths all day?
"Mother, why are you calling me?"
Her mother huffed. "A moving van showed up at the Scheidemantles this morning. They're are moving back to Earth!"
"They have that lovely Cape Cod. It's a four bed—"
"You can't keep living in that drafty old barn."
"Yes, I can."
"You're going to freeze to death one of the winters."
Law knew from experience that her mother wouldn't listen to any of the sane, logical reasons why she picked the barn, starting with it was as far as possible from her mother as she could live in Pittsburgh. There was no way she would choose a house just down the street from her. "I have a Tarzan swing in my living room."
And her mother hung up on her.
"Let me get this straight." Ellen McMicking was a customer and good friend. She shared many of Law's views on how to live one's life. She owned two gypsy caravans. One was home to her and her three-legged bobcat, Rigel. (Cool, unusual home: check. Odd pet: check.) The other caravan was set up as a food truck. (Own boss: check.) Normally she parked at the Library light rail station's vast parking lot. The day before Shutdown, though, she'd moved them into an empty lot in the Strip District. "You stole an elf and a door?"
"I did not steal her!" Law set up her scales while Ellen lined up her coolers. Said elf was in Ellen's little house, eating a second round of breakfast as if she hadn't had food for week. The steel-cut hot oatmeal with warm berry compote was simply delicious but Law couldn't imagine having a second big bowl. (By now, though, Snow probably was getting the impression that all humans had very odd pets.) "You don't steal people! You steal things like—"
"Yes." Law was unrepentant about stealing the door; the house had obviously been abandoned years ago. A quick coat of paint did not establish ownership in her book.
"So you kidnapped her?"
"No! She came with me willingly enough." Still, the female seemed slightly leery, deflecting direct questions with a continuous barrage of questions of her own. The thirty-minute ride into town had been one "What's this?" after another. Yet she hadn't asked for help or to be taken any place or to anyone.
Ellen giggled, having entirely too much fun with the situation. "Only you, Lawry, would get yourself into this kind of mess."
"You didn't find it so funny when it was you that I was bailing out of trouble."
Ellen pressed both hands to her chest. "And I'm eternally grateful to you. Oh, those look lovely." She cooed at the waewaeli. "I'm going to honey-fry them."
"Fish and chips?"
Ellen sighed. "No chips. My potato supplier from stateside let me down last Shutdown and even if he gets me some this one, I won't have time to prep them. I've spent the last three days making bread. I'm going with sandwiches. I will have parmesan zucchini fries for the adventurous."
"Sounds good to me."
"Yes, but you're adventurous."
"Most Pittsburghers will eat anything that doesn't try to eat them first."
"Yes, but it’s the truck drivers from Earth whose rigs are being unloaded that have the time and cash to blow. Please tell me that I can have this whole cooler."
"It's yours." Law was glad she caught the last fish.
They weighed out the fish, transferring them to Ellen's ice chests. Ellen was buying a dozen of the waewaeli that weighed in at two hundred and thirty-two pounds. At two dollars a pound, it came out to a little under five hundred dollars. A very good morning's work once she expensed out the cost of gasoline. If she could do it every day of the year, she'd be rich. Ellen, however, could only afford to buy this much once a month for Shutdown. Any other day, she bought one or two fish. Nor could Law hope for safe fishing in the winter when the streams ran deep enough for the man-eating bigger fish to navigate.
"You don't know who it was that called you?" Ellen asked.
"I just have a number."
"You didn't think to ask?"
"I asked, she didn't say."
Ellen plunged her hands into ice water and then wiped them clean. She took out her phone. "What's the number?"
"It's on my call list." Law turned her hip toward Ellen.
"Is this your way to get me to feel you up?"
"Will that work?"
Ellen slapped her shoulder and got Law's phone out of her front pocket without unnecessary (disappointingly so) groping. (Played for the opposite team: no check.)
"You calling her?" Law asked. It was her experience that you never got direct answers from crazy people.
"No, I'm back tracing her number. The joys of having geeky friends is that they give you wonderful apps. Widget gave me a reverse number look up program when she helped me with my bookkeeping software. Oh. Gee."
"That's a payphone in Market Square."
Either Crazy Lady didn't have a phone, or she didn't want anyone to trace the call back to her. Law suspected it was the latter. "Tricky."
"What are you going to do now?"
All girls that Law helped usually asked—if not with words, with a desperate look—for Law to bail them out of trouble. As soon as the girls were tucked someplace safe, they spilled out their story. Not all the details—usually they were ashamed of their weaknesses—but at least who the hell they were running from. It was possible that the mystery caller knew something that Snow didn't. Maybe Snow didn't even know she was in trouble. (Although the fact that she had dodged all the basic questions seemed to indicate she did.)
It was possible that Snow didn't trust Law simply because she was a human. Elves came to Pittsburgh via the train. The station was downtown, surrounded by skyscrapers. The enclaves where most elves lived were at the Rim, uphill nearly three miles. The most likely scenario was that Snow had been grabbed and taken by humans before she ever gotten to the safety of the enclaves.
"I need to sell the rest of my fish. I might as well take her out to the Rim; see if she belongs out there."
It was less than twelve hours to Shutdown and the city hummed with activity. The EIA troops were heading out to the border checkpoints. The Pittsburgh Police were going into Nazi-mode and towing anyone that illegally parked. The shops downtown and the Strip District were preparing for a massive horde of trucks to pull up and deliver an entire month's worth of goods. Families wanting first dibs on rare big-ticket items were drifting in. In every abandoned lot and empty warehouse food stands like Ellen's were preparing to feed the incoming masses. Across the street, Gene Thompson had pulled in with his BBQ chicken truck, complete with trailer rigged as a wood-burning fire pit. Gene was splitting hickory with an axe and smoke already scented the air.
She checked her truck just the same as if she'd left it parked on an abandoned, weed-choked lot instead of a city block. She banged on the side panels to frighten out small mammals and heat-seeking snakes. She carefully popped the hood and scanned over the engine to make sure no rats had chewed through hoses or belts. She took a few steps back, knelt and scanned under her pickup, looking for the telltale gleam of eyes or brake fluid on the pavement. She opened the driver's door and scanned the cabin to make sure there was nothing up in the dash, under the seat, or behind it.
Bare Snow had been through the routine at Fairywood. She helped look although it wasn't clear the elf knew what they were searching for. Newly arrived humans always teased Law for her caution but they'd never found themselves suddenly sharing a cab with a two-foot wide spider while going sixty miles per hour. (Luckily the steel spinner had frightened Brisbane as badly as it scared Law and it was instantly a pincushion nailed to the dashboard.)
Brisbane ignored the precautions and climbed up into the cab with his usual disdain.
Law was not one to give credit to rumors. People liked to talk. Just because they ran out of facts didn't stop the mouth from flapping. It always amazed her that people who had never set foot in one of the elf enclaves could go on and on about what supposedly went on behind the high stone walls.
She delivered to the side door that gave access to the motor court, instead of the front door that lead to the public dining areas. Technically, the area was more enclosed than the restaurant part of the enclave. The elves, though, were less careful with the doors and what they said.
Over time it had become obvious to Law that the enclaves operated as tiny little city-states, allied but fiercely competitive. Each had an orchard within the forbidden center courtyard, extensive raised vegetable beds, greenhouses, chicken coops and small herds of indi. While humans might gossip about how the enclaves were nothing more than thinly disguised brothels, they were in fact, cutthroat restaurateurs. If Law sold trout to Caraway's enclave, she would need to sell crayfish to Poppymeadow's. It played into some odd "you're one of us" mindset that the elves had. She was "their" supplier only if she gave them exclusive stock.
Law suspected that the loudest rumormongers were the humans that failed to pick up the cultural subtly. They made the mistake of trying to peddle one type of goods to all the enclaves and found the door slammed in their face. Which was fine with Law; it meant more business for her. It also meant she was more aware that she had to walk a tightrope to stay "one of us" with everyone.
Normally, Caraway's side gate stood open all day and she could back right into the motor court. Today the big doors were shut. She backed her Dodge up so its tailgate nearly touched the inward swinging gate to make unloading easier. Snow sunk down in the seat to peer nervously over the back of the bench seat at the enclave. She had only shown curiosity to the rest of the city, so it was a little worrisome that she seemed scared of other elves.
"Stay." Law said to Snow and Brisbane. The elves thought porcupine was a delicacy and had tried to buy him for dinner more than once.
She went and knocked on the door by the spyhole. The slot slide aside immediately. Brown eyes so dark they might as well be black inspected her and then the slot shut again.
What the hell? Since when did elves come with dark brown eyes?
She stood a moment frowning at the gate. She could sell her fish elsewhere but she'd promised to deliver trout to Caraway's today. If she failed to deliver, she might lose Caraway as a customer forever. She knocked again and called out in Elvish. "Nicadae! Fish! Fresh fish! Very fresh! Very good! You buy!"
The slot opened again and a more familiar set of vivid blue eyes gazed out.
"Law!" The owner of this set of eyes cried. "Forgiveness! Wait!"
And the slot closed again.
Law glanced at her pickup. Snow's stormy gray eyes watched her with surprise and dismay. Snow's blue-black hair and gray eyes should have been a giant clue by four whacking Law upside the head. She knew that elves were very much "us" and "them" even household to household. A handful of elves in Pittsburgh didn't have straight black hair; Ginger Wine was a beautiful auburn. The elves that didn't, though, tended to wear Wind Clan Blue as if to compensate. Snow was dressed in pure white.
Maybe it was a mistake not leaving the female with Ellen.
There was a clang of bolts being thrown behind the gate, so Law focused back on the enclave.
Dark eyes belonged to a sekasha-caste warrior.
Law yelped in surprise and backed up. Sekasha were impossible to miss. They had spells tattooed on their arms, wore a special breastplate made of scales from wyvern, and carried a magically sharp, katana-style sword. They were said to be holy and were rare as hen's teeth, usually only showing up in wake of the Viceroy Windwolf. All the elves she'd ever met were scared shitless of the sekasha because the caste was legally allowed to kill anyone who pissed them off.
Caraway's majordomo for the restaurantside of things was a male by the name of Chili. He was nearly vibrating in place, trying not to get too close to the warrior and still keep her from fleeing. "Law! Law! Forgiveness. Don't leave!" He did a "come" motion with both hands even as he turned to the sekasha and launched into rapid fire High Elvish.
Law glanced back at her pickup. Snow had vanished and now only Brisbane peered out the window. The holy warrior stared at the porcupine, head tilted slightly in puzzlement. Law caught the word "trout" and the warrior's eyes went to the fish coolers and he nodded once.
Chili turned back to Law and spoke slowly in Low Elvish. "This is his holiness Galloping Storm Horse on Wind. The Viceroy is in residence along with two of his Hands." His eyes flicked sideways to indicate the warrior beside him. Chili slipped to English. "Plus one. His English name is Pony, but he speaks very, very little English. The Viceroy is here so rarely; there is no need for his people to learn it. Still, we have eleven warriors to feed for the next few days. I need all the water produce that you have."
"What?" Was this confuse-Law-with-cryptic-remarks day?
"Tomorrow is Shutdown and we will be here on Elfhome and you will be on Earth. The Holy Ones, they need meat." Chili glanced toward the truck. "Are you sure that we can not have the porcupine?"
"No!" Law sang and forced a laugh because the sekasha was right there, listening, maybe understanding. "I have trout! Lots of meat!"
She opened up the nearest cooler, which turned out to be the one with crayfish. The crustaceans raised up their large spiny claws in the sudden daylight.
Chili shook his head. "Those are tasty but they don't have lots of meat."
She lifted the lid on the next cooler. This one had trout on ice. "I have several coolers of the fish. The crayfish –" she didn't want to tell him that she had promised them to Poppymeadow. "You are right. Very little meat."
Storm Horse apparently had never seen crayfish before. He leaned forward to poke a finger at the mini-lobsters.
"They pinch." Law warned and then realized that the elf might not speak English. "He knows that they pinch, doesn't he?"
Chili had his hand pressed to his lips. He was obviously struggling with what to say himself. "I don't know." He finally murmured into his fingers. "He just made his majority in March."
It wasn't like the crayfish could actually hurt the warrior.
Snow in hiding. Holy warrior tempting fate. Time to hurry things up and leave.
Law charged the elves more than humans. She reasoned it was a slight surcharge for dealing with the cultural hurdles. Her life would be easier if she didn't have catch several different species of fish just because the elves had issues. The elves never haggled. Perhaps because haggling required you to lie about how much you wanted something and the quality of the item. At the same time, she never tried to gouge the elves so much that they would balk at her asking price.
Her heavily insulated plastic marine coolers were special ordered from Earth and top of the line. The elves used wicker baskets. She used an antique scale when working with the elves, made in the 1800s. (She was never sure if they didn't understand her digital scale or thought it was inaccurate.) The first step, though, was to establish that the ancient device was calibrated correctly and that yes, five pounds was actually five pounds. Chili used an abacus with cinnabar beads that he flicked up and down. With a hundred fifty quarts of fish, it was tedious. She felt bad that she'd trapped Snow in the front seat of her pickup the entire time. At least with the constant flow of elves carrying off baskets of fish, the sekasha was politely shooed away so everyone could work.
If anyone in Pittsburgh knew all the elf politics and skullduggery, though, it was going to be Chili.
"I found a elf out in the middle of nowhere." Law waved toward the front of her pickup. "She doesn't speak English."
"Yes, I saw." Chili didn't even look up from his abacus. "I heard about her. Thank you for taking the child in."
Law had saved enough kittens to know what Chili was actually saying was "No, I don't want it." Not that Snow was a kitten, but obviously the act of finding her someplace safe was going to be the same process. "Who is she?"
Chili clicked his tongue, which was how elves shrugged. "A mutt. Her name is something like –" He paused to think. "Ground Bare in Winter as Snow Falls in Wind. Or something ill omened like that. You humans would call her—umm—Dead Winter or Barren Ground or Bare Snow. Her father was Water Clan and she was raised in his household. Her twice-cursed mother supposedly was Wind Clan; not that you can tell."
The attitude at least explained why Bare Snow was hiding in pickup.
"Twice-cursed?" Law knew that the elves could do real magic but she was a little hazy on what all they could do with it.
"Maybe thrice cursed. To be stupid enough to leave your clan for a male. To have the idiocy to agree to give birth to a mutt that no one would want." Chili glanced nervously at the sekasha. "At least, not with a name like that. And then managing to get killed, leaving said child at the mercy of another clan. They tossed her out, of course. A child belongs with its mother's people."
Chili had called Bare Snow "child" three times now. Law knew she was a bad judge of elf ages, but she thought that the female was an adult. She was nearly as tall as Law and better endowed.
"How old is she?" Law asked.
Another click of the tongue to indicate that Chili didn't know exactly. "She's still in her doubles from what I heard." He glanced to the cab just as Bare Snow peeked over the back of the seat. The female ducked down again. "You humans would say she's a teenager or a fresh man." He meant the first year university students. The freshmen arrived in Pittsburgh eager to see real elves and made themselves pests at the enclaves. The older students knew better. "She's a little younger than Galloping Storm Horse. Maybe ninety-five. I doubt younger than ninety."
Law had grown up knowing that elves were immortal but it was kind of mind boggling to suddenly realize that someone nearly four times older than she was could still be considered a child.
"I don't know why she came to Pittsburgh," Chili stated. "We wouldn't have been able to take her in, not with the Viceroy staying with us. I heard about her making the rounds and thought I might bring it to Wolf Who Rules' attention. It isn't right to have a child wandering around in this wilderness alone. Before I could, though, she'd been turned down by everyone else and had disappeared."
"The other enclaves wouldn't let her a room?"
Chili stared at Law in confusion. "Let?"
"Rent. Stay. Sleep."
"Oh! No. She wanted to join their household. It’s a totally different thing than staying for a short period. No one wants someone from Water Clan. I have no idea why she came all this way without some guarantee that someone would take her."
They'd unloaded both the trout and the seasi. It totaled up to two hundred and eighty-one pounds of fish. Hopefully the sekasha loved fish because they were going to be eating a lot of it. Chili lifted the lid to crayfish and considered them. "Will you bring more, early Startup?"
"Yes! Certainly!" Law cried, wanting to keep her promised to Poppymeadow. As it was, she was going to disappoint Ginger Wine.
Chili closed the lid. He considered the front of the pickup. "My lord had business out at the aeroport." He meant the airport that was nearly an hour away. "I do not know when he will return. Will you keep her safe?" In other words: I still don't want the kitten, don't you dare leave her here.
"And I can't have the porcupine?"
Law sold the crayfish to Poppymeadow. Much to her relief, she remembered that she had four giant snapping turtles tucked way in the back, confined to makeshift cages out of milk crates and chicken wire. Those she sold to Ginger Wine to keep her promise of "water produce" as the elves called seafood.
Bare Snow stayed hidden in the pickup, watching, learning God knows what since most of Law's dealing was a mishmash of English and Elvish.
Traffic was starting to grow heavy as the people returning to Earth started to rush through the last minute errands. She fought her way into Hershel's Exxon on Forbes Avenue, Oakland's only gas station. During a normal, non-Shutdown day, only two of the pumps were in use at the same time. Today there was a waiting line for all twelve pumps. A frat boy in a Smart car tried to dart in and take the pump she'd been waiting for. She laid on her horn and edged her pre-historic Dodge forward until her grill protector filled his back window.
"Hoi!" She leaned out the window to shout at him. "If you want to use that car to get out of Pittsburgh in, you better move it! Your little thing won't even scratch my grill!"
His frat brother beat on his shoulder going, "Dude, what are you doing? The locals are insane! Let him use the pump first!"
They retreated to the other side of the station. Law made sure everything on her truck was locked down and then went inside to pay. It was the other drawback of Oakland. Everywhere else in town, you could pump first. Oakland had too many transients for Hershel's to risk not getting cash up front.
Bare Snow had followed her into the store and was now picking up things randomly and eyeing them closely. All the male eyes were on her. The baby doll dress showed off as much as it covered up—especially when the female bent at the hip to take things off the bottom shelf. Much as Law appreciated the view, she was going to have to get something longer for the female. (Law had shirts longer than Bare Snow's dress.)
Pat Hershel was working the register. "You've got another stray, Law? An elf this time?"
"Don't go forgetting you're just a girl yourself."
"What does that mean?"
"One of these times you're going to bite off more than you can chew. You should be more careful."
Law clenched her jaw against the first dozen things that came to mind. Pat meant well but she was like most people—they only helped people when it was easy and convenient. As soon as things got messy—usually when the girl was on the verge of drowning in her trouble—they'd back off and let nature take its course. Which was fine and good for them, but why they always felt like they have to warn her off too? Why were people more concerned about status quo than actually helping?
"I'm filling up both my tanks." Law peeled off twenties from the ones she'd earned from the enclaves. Elves traded gold among themselves, but they took in US currency from their human customers and cycled them back to Law. "And obviously I need some clothes. Shoes. A dress. You've got any in the back?"
"Maybe." The gas station also served as sort of a general store for the transients. Hershel's had a tiny assortment of basic necessities to tide newcomers over until they figured out where the real stores were. "The kids tend to take anything that says 'Pittsburgh' or 'Elfhome' back with them as souvenirs. We're normally picked clean by end of Shutdown."
That explained their stock. It had mystified Law why all their clothes had writing like "Elfhome: Nailed it" and "Saw a Saurus, Ate it!" Unlike other stores, they also only carried local snacks and drinks. Iron City Beer. Saurus jerky. Steel City Cola. Honey roasted keva beans. Because everything was locally produced, they were usually well stocked.
Pat called it correctly, though. Today the shelves looked like locusts had descended. But they were in luck. Among the leavings was a pair of cowboy boots that fit Bare Snow. Not among Law's first dozen choices for footwear but Bare Snow seemed to like them. There was also a Wind Clan blue sundress with Elvish runes spelling out something Law couldn't read. Bare Snow snickered at whatever it said. The sundress was only a few inches longer than the white baby doll, but they were important inches.
Pat added two slim packs of Juicy Fruit gum to Law's tab. "I was holding those for Stormsong but they tell me she's on Earth with the husepavua."
Bare Snow caught the one Elvish word in the mix. "What about the husepavua?"
Pat switched to Elvish as she rung up their purchases. "The Viceroy is in town because his husepavua is on Earth with one Hand of sekasha. Normally I keep this aside for the Holy One, Singing Storm Wind, but she's with the husepavua. You can have the gum."
"Who else is with her?" Bare Snow asked.
Pat clicked her tongue having lived next to elves long enough to pick up their habits. "I only know the young ones that drive the automobiles. The older elves can't wrap their brains around how to work machines. The 'babies' bring the Viceroy's automobiles here for fuel. Stormsong. Cloudwalker. Hawk Scream. Pony. Sun Lance. Oh! I know! Sparrow took Wraith Arrow too."
Bare Snow directed conversation away by picking up the gum. "What is this?"
Law showed her how to unwrap a stick and chew on it.
Bare Snow's eyes widen and she gave out a moan that sounded orgasmic. All the males in the store drifted closer.
Pat laughed. "Good luck with that, Law."
"Yeah, thanks, Pat. Can we have the restroom key?"
Law pumped gas while Bare Snow changed clothes in the restroom alone. The elf returned with a wide brim hat that she'd gotten from someplace. Law could only hope she didn't steal it. With the skimpy blue sundress, the long bare legs and the cowboy boots, she looked utterly adorable. The color of the sundress highlighted the blue of her hair. A white Ford Explorer at the far pumps caught Bare Snow's attention. One would think that there was no way anyone could miss a gorgeous leggy elf, but the four co-eds who arrived in the vehicle never seemed to notice Bare Snow drift about the SUV, peering in the windows.
The female elf scanned the lot while returning to Law's Dodge. "Your vehicle is very different from all the others."
"It’s—it's very old." In theory the 1947 Power Wagon was nearly a hundred years old, but in truth, every nut and bolt been had been restored or upgraded by her grandfather as he converted the antique truck. It had been his pride and joy and he was probably spinning in his grave that she ended up with it. The simple truth was no one else wanted a manual-transmission gas-hog. Both of parents wanted her to sell it for something more practical; it was the one thing that they agreed on. That, and she should get a dog. (Weirdly, her father was fine with her dating girls.)
"Some of them look identical to me." Bare Snow pointed at the co-eds' Explorer at the gas pump, one parked half a block down Forbes Avenue, and a third driving past. The older SUVs were popular in Pittsburgh. Most cars on Earth were electric, self-driving, and needed extensive high tech support systems that Elfhome didn't have. The Explorers were designed to be driven "off-road." They were easy to adapt to the lower technology level of Elfhome.
"The only differences are these things." Bare Snow pointed at the Dodge's license plate. "What do they mean?"
"Every automobile has a unique code that is written on these." Law simplified best she could. "They're called license plates. None of them repeat. The city uses them to track who owns the automobile, if they've paid taxes, kept the vehicle safe to drive on the roads, and things like that. Why? Did someone take you to that house in an automobile like that one?"
Bare Snow gazed at her, nervously biting at her bottom lip. After a minute of fierce study, the elf took a deep breath. "I don't understand why you took me away from there. You don't even seem to know. You've gone place to place, asking 'who is this' and 'where does she belong' and being turned away. It annoys you not because you want to be rid of me, but because it makes you angry that my people act so coldly toward me." And as if her hands had a will of their own, she reached out to catch Law's shirt and nervously twist it between her fingers. "You've given me food, and clothing, and most importantly hope, and have demanded nothing back. And I don't—I don't understand. Why?"
Law had never been asked why. Most people assumed it was simply the way that she was; like the shape of her chin and the flatness of her chest. She looked more like a knight in shining armor than a princess that needed to be saved. Some assumed that she wanted to be a boy, but she didn't. Certainly it would have made a few things easier; like going pee in the woods. Under all the dirt, though, she was as girly as the next woman. A few people thought she might have some secret past, fraught with injustices and horror. In actuality, she had lived a fairly bland childhood.
"I like feeling strong." She finally settled on an explanation that felt right. "When you're dealing with your own problems, they seem massive and set as stone." Crazy parents. Being a star-shaped peg surrounded by round and square holes. Living on the fringe and liking it except for the fact that it made her feel like the little kid, hands always pressed against the candy store window, looking in but never able to go in and get what she wanted. Not even sure what she would pick if she could get in.
"When you wade into someone else's mess, their problems seem so small and fluid. Do this and that. Hit this guy. Find a new place for her to live. Ask around and find work for her. It all seems so—" She didn't know Elvish for "easy peasy" "—so simple."
Bare Snow nodded slowly. "Instead of being lost and alone and insignificant, it feels good when you're finally able to do something. Be important."
"Yeah." The gas pump shut off as the main tank hit full. Law shifted the hose over to her reserve tank.
Bare Snow grinned. "Good! Let's find the white automobile then!" She leaned against Law to draw in the dust on the Dodge's side panel. "Its license plate looked like this."
Most native Pittsburghers were fiercely proud if their plate number started with AAA, AAB or AAC. It meant they were in Pittsburgh immediately after the EIA took charge and the city became a district separate from Pennsylvania. Law had inherited the license plate along with the Dodge. When the wave of EIA workers and other newly arrived humans applied for plates, someone in the licensing department decided to jump the numbering system to BAA. This, of course, led to nicknames like B-plate and B-hole.
Bare Snow wrote "BAD 0001" in the dust. Either some B-hole had gotten lucky in the random assigning of numbers, or they'd bowed to inevitable and gotten a vanity plate that looked like it could be random. It was a plate you'd remember, though, and Law knew she'd never seen it. She was going to have to pull in favors to find the car. How many depending on what the B-hole had done. Would she just need to kick the shit out of this guy or did she need to get the cops involved?
"Was this the person that took you to that house? Did he hurt you? Steal something from you? Tell me everything."
Bare Snow's eyes went wide. "Everything?"
Her name was Ground Bare in Winter as Killing Snow Falls in Wind. It was the root of all Bare Snow's troubles. Named within days of her birth, it was so fraught with ill omens that the temple priestess apologized to her parents even as she bestowed it upon their baby. After that, anything that went wrong was assigned to her presence. A boat lost to a storm? Bare Snow's fault. A red tide? A tsunami wave? All her fault.
Just as Law was starting to wonder if she'd accidently triggered a complete retelling of Bare Snow's life, the female leapt ahead nearly a hundred years. By then Law had finished filling up her tanks, collected her change, and nosed her way into the heavy traffic.
Five years ago, Bare Snow's mother had died while on a trip to Winter Court. At the time, the poor female had felt crushingly guilty. Had her cursed name killed her mother? Her father's death in the spring nearly broke her. Worse, the household she'd grown up in, that of her father's parents, wanted nothing more to do with her. They gave her a handful of coins and asked her to leave.
She had no other family within the Wind Clan. Unsure what else to do, she'd traveled to Summer Court. She arrived to discover that the town stood virtually empty until the Summer Solstice when the Queen was scheduled to shift residence to the northern capital. Bare Snow drifted through the vacant city, seeking a household that would take her. The Water Clan enclaves would not take her because of her name. The Wind Clan household refused her for her blue-black hair and stormy eyes.
After weeks of being rejected, a nivasa–caste male wearing Wind Clan Blue approached her in the street and quietly told her that she should go to Pittsburgh. She would find people that would accept her there.
At first it seemed as if the quest was blessed. The way to Pittsburgh was far quicker and simpler than she had imagined. She was able to board one of the cargo ships traveling the Western Ocean and then caught the train.
While she traveled she learned more about the Viceroy Windwolf and his household.
"He's of two clans, just like me. His father is Wind Clan and his mother is Fire Clan. He had the support of both clans to set up his holdings in Westernlands. He's asked a Stone Clan female to be his domi; although I've heard that has not gone well. She has yet to answer him. Despite his mixed blood, he gathers to him only the best to be his Beholden. Wraith Arrow. Dark Harvest. Killing Frost. His blade brother is the grandson of Tempered Steel and Perfection. And he holds Sword Strikes' daughter, who is mixed caste! But those are sekasha; they are perfection despite the circumstance of their birth."
She was sure that Windwolf's people would look beyond her mixed blood and cursed name. Her hopes, though, were quickly crushed. It had only taken her a day to get from the train station to the Rim and be rejected by all the enclaves, save Caraway's, which she'd been repeatedly warned not to approach.
"Why?" Law asked.
"Because of the clan wars." The answer seemed strangely condensed.
When Law was a kid with crayons, she always left the sky paper white unless she did a sunset of yellows and oranges. It was the mythical ocean that Law had never seen, the lakes and the rivers that were blue. To the elves, Bare Snow's answer probably would make as much sense as Wind Clan claiming blue as a color when there was a Water Clan. Bare Snow's last name was Wind; why shouldn't she go straight to the head of the clan in the Westernlands? How did she end up on the other side of the city?
"I had always thought that how my parents met was romantic: a chance meeting on a desolate island. I realize now that the years alone had been sheer torture for my mother. That she had been so lonely that she would risk her life to talk to another being."
Sensing that Bare Snow was about to go off into another long, long story, Law asked quickly, "So you talked with someone here in Pittsburgh? And they took you to the house?"
Just as Bare Snow was about to break down, a male approached her on the street. He claimed that there was a special area belonging to the Water Clan and that he'd been sent to take her to it. Law was fairly sure that was a complete lie. According to her high school civics class, as long as the gate was functioning, the city was to be wholly human owned. (Which always struck her as odd wording since if the gate wasn't functioning, Pittsburgh wouldn't be on Elfhome. That was the entire reason they called returning to Earth Shutdown.) Elves weren't allowed to claim anything inside the Rim. More importantly, humans couldn't settle outside of it. Newcomers liked to bitch and moan about that since it meant they couldn't go off and dig up emeralds or pan for gold in North Carolina.
"And this human, he had the Ford? The white automobile?"
"Nae. Nae human."
"It was an elf?" Law thought Bare Snow had told her it was a human.
Bare Snow considered, screwing up her face as she thought. "Looked human. But he was not human."
"I'd been to Summer Court. All the households I talked to had spoken in a very austere manner of speech. It is based on the Wyverns way of speaking, only more formalized. Here in Pittsburgh, there are only Wind Clan households, and specifically from those from the highlands. You can tell by the way they talk; it’s a very marked accent. Even the sekasha at Caraway's had it when he was using the Low Elvish. It means that the Viceroy must not use the very formal court language and thus his people feel no pressure to adapt."
Law wondered if she was ever going to find out how Bare Snow got to Fairywood. "I don't understand."
"All the humans I've talked with—Law, Ellen, Patty, Jon—they speak Low Elvish with highland accent."
Who the hell was Jon? Law didn't ask. She focused on the mystery human who wasn't a human. "This male didn't have the right accent?"
Bare Snow winced and spoke hesitantly. "It isn't that he didn't have an accent, it was he had too much of an accent. Not even the enclave elves speak as broadly. It was obvious that he was pretending. Once I started to listen closely, I picked up traces of old tongue, that no elf would ever teach a human, not even unintentionally."
"Are you sure?"
"The old ways have been rooted out. Young elves are not taught it. No old one would be so lax to use it without thinking."
"How do you know it then?" Law asked.
Bare Snow blushed and looked down at her hands. For several minutes, it seemed like she wasn't going to answer, and then she said quietly, "The gardener needs to know the weed from the flowers."
Usagi's place on Mount Washington was the kind of playful chaos that only a home with many small children and pets could achieve. The toys started halfway down the block, growing denser as Law neared the front door. She was sure that any home intruder would end up face down on the floor with a dozen Legos embedded in his feet. Certainly she needed to step over several large Tonka construction vehicles and two Big Wheels to get down the sidewalk. There was no yard to speak of; the two raised planters had given way to endless landscaping projects with said construction toys.
Bare Snow bent to examine the trucks, pushing them to and fro. She probably hadn't seen a cast-metal toy before. She was making motor noises for them just like a child would; maybe it was instinctual.
Usagi's door was painted Wind Clan blue. Law frowned at it, wondering if the white door in Fairywood had been an indication that Bare Snow was Water Clan. Why blue for Wind and white for Water? Law rang the doorbell.
After several minutes, the door opened and Moon Rabbit Warrior gazed up at Law. The little half elf was in her tweens but she looked six. She was naked except for a pair of butterfly wings strapped to her back and a pink tutu. Her long black hair was up in its customary pigtails, showing off her elf pointed ears. In the background, the commune's TV was playing a cartoon video at full volume. The sweet cinnamon smell of fire berries washed over Law; it smelt like Usagi had spilled an entire orchard of the fruit somewhere in her house.
As usual, Brisbane ignored all formalities and waddled into the house.
"Hi Moon," Law started. "Is Widget—"
"Mooooom!" Moon shouted at the top of her lungs. "It's Brizzy!"
"Is his mommy with him?" Usagi shouted from the kitchen.
"Hi, Law! We're in the kitchen!"
Usagi's was a haven to human women who had found their way to Pittsburgh one way or another. They were in love with the idea of magic, elves, and a mystical other world, or maybe just completely disenchanted with Earth. Most of them had the reputation of being "elf groupies," sneaking illegally to Elfhome just to have sex with elves.
In truth, they were taking advantage of a loophole in the treaty. Elf DNA, starting with blood samples but also including children, wasn't allowed to be taken off Elfhome. Elf tradition stated that children couldn't be forcibly taken from their mothers. It created a little known and rarely exploited way to get permanent resident status in Pittsburgh.
It didn't guarantee a living nor did elves pay child support, (and Law wasn't sure if the males even knew of their children's existence). Usagi gathered together other female illegal immigrants with marketable skills to pool resources. They'd taken over an abandoned restaurant building and set up a commune. While each woman shouldered a shift of watching the children, they all also had part-time jobs outside the commune. It was part circus act, part logistical nightmare to get any one woman alone.
Law wanted the commune's newest addition, Widget. She was a cute-as-a-button African-American teenager who wanted to be a translator. She was whiz with the computer and had learned fluent Elvish online but hadn't actually managed to graduate from high school. Locals would hire someone without a diploma; Pittsburgh had a crying need for people with Widget's skills. The EIA wanted people who had doctorates in linguistics and they controlled the work visas. Unable to legally immigrate to Pittsburgh, the teenager had risked her life to swim the Ohio River at Shutdown in the dead of winter. (Of all the insane things! The girl had thought that river shark hibernated or something stupid like that. Biology was not her strong suit.)
Law had fished Widget out of the water and brought her to Usagi's. The girl hadn't gotten pregnant yet (maybe was still a virgin) so she needed to lay low. Law had been quietly connecting her with people like Ellen who needed part-time computer help and kept their mouths shut.
Law wasn't going to find out if Widget was home by asking Moon Rabbit. The little half-elf's attention was now locked on the porcupine. Nor was it polite to stand at the door and holler like a mad woman. She was going to have to venture deeper into the chaos to find Widget. "Kitchen" meant no work shoes and the like, so Law skinned off her rubber boots.
Bare Snow made an odd noise.
Law turned to find the elf pointing at Moon Rabbit, slack jawed. "Tauntiki."
Law only knew the word for "child" because Usagi often used it to call her children. As if summoned, Shield of a Thousand Leaves came toddling in after his older sister. Leaves had on a black cape, white mask and a top hat.
"Brizzy!" he squealed in a pitch that could break glass.
The appearance of a second oddly dressed child seemed to have broken Bare Snow. She went down to her knees to examine them closer. Which was good, because the herd of other half-elf children came thundering to the door to see Brizzy. They quickly decided that a new elf was much more interesting. Bare Snow disappeared in a wave of children, babbling in squeaky voice excitement. "Oh my god, her hair is blue--" "She's Mercury--" "No, no, it's long blue hair, she's Mars--" "What does your dress say?"
Leaving Bare Snow to the children, Law picked her way to the kitchen. The restaurant had been an expensive French cuisine place with a stunning view of downtown Pittsburgh. The dining room had been done in elaborate crown moldings with massive crystal chandeliers. At one time people had had to pay a hundred dollars for a plate of fancy food and amazing views. The elegant room now acted as the commune's common area. Normally it looked as if a tornado had dumped a thrift store onto a French palace. Today, though, it looked like several toy stores had been added on top of the usual chaos.
No matter what the family-area looked like, the kitchen was always spotless. Usagi had gotten the kitchen USFDA approved. The commune made the bulk of their money selling "Elfhome jams and jellies" on Earth. A surprise inspection when the kitchen wasn't clean would sink them. Usagi had replaced the restaurant's original swinging doors between the big kitchen and the converted dining room with dutch-doors. The standing house rule was the bottom half was always, always closed to keep out pets and children.
Today obviously wasn't normal for anyone, not just Law; the kitchen was a disaster zone. The sink had wicker baskets full of rinsed fire berries. On the two big commercial grade stoves were several pots of bright red jam, a pan of boiling water with lids and a forest of thirty-three-quart water bath canners. With the exception of the stoves and sinks, every surface was covered with thousands of canning jars. The bulk were filled and labeled but scores were still empty. The heat of the kitchen was staggering. All the windows were open with box fans struggling to move the stifling humid air.
Usagi was a mini Martha Stewart: five two, blonde bob, and the business drive to make millions. Despite the chaos and heat, she wore a neatly pressed pink gingham apron and crisp matching kerchief on her head like some highly starched skull diaper. As usual, she looked like she could plow through hell while drinking tea with one pinkie raised. Just the sight of her always made Law feel like she was too tall, too awkward, and somehow all boy.
The feeling intensified as Law spotted Widget sitting in the far corner, right leg up, ankle obviously swollen by some injury, with an old fashion ice pack on it.
"Law!" Widget threw up her hands in an unvoiced demand for a hug.
Usagi was much more to the point. "Oh, thank gods you're here, we need help!"
Saving damsels in distress: the story of Law's life. "What in the world is going on, darlings?"
"Everything!" Widget smelled of Dove soap as Law gave her the demanded hug.
"It's been the week from hell," Usagi stated. "The nota inesfa were late coming in. The day before we started picking, Widget fell down the stairs."
"I'm so sorry!" Widget cried.
"It's not your fault!" Usagi waved off the apology. "I love the ferrets, and with this place we really need them to keep the rats out, but oh my gods, every time you start down the steps, there they are, wanting to play with your ankles."
A timer went off and Usagi turned off flames under the forest of canners.
"You didn't break it did you?" Law shifted the ice pack to examine the swollen ankle. If it was broken, it could be a hairline fracture.
Widget winced. "Babs thinks it's just badly sprained."
Widget didn't have the golden ticket of being a mother to a half-elf yet, so she couldn't go to Mercy Hospital for treatment. Babs was the commune's mid-wife. Qualified or not, Babs ended up treating everything from runny noses to broken fingers.
Usagi continued listing their streak of bad luck. "Clover developed edema on the first day of berry picking; her feet swelled up to soccer balls." Clover was nine months pregnant and ready to pop. "Babs ordered her into bed with air conditioning and cold compresses. Winnie has been working double shifts because two of the part-timers at the bakery got caught and are being deported." Usagi windmilled her arms in sheer frustration. "It was just me and Babs and the kids picking. It took forever! We finished two days ago and we've been canning non-stop since then. We're almost done but Clover went into labor. Babs is upstairs with her. We need to have a full pallet packed and ready to go when the truck shows up."
"I'm here for you." It got her a fierce hug that threatened to break bones. For a little thing, the woman had muscles. "Where should I start?"
"Scrub up." Usagi pointed at a clean apron hanging by the door. "Suit up. Build a shipping box, pack it with jars with labels, seal it, and stack it on the pallet on the loading dock. Lather, rinse, repeat."
"Consider it done, but I need Widget to do some database digging when she's free."
Widget threw up her hands. "I'm free right now. I've labeled everything that I can. I have to wait until the seals set up on the next set of jars."
Law knew that by "scrub" that Usagi meant under her nails and up to her elbows. Law moved berries out of the way so she could wash. "I'm looking for the owner of the license plate BAD 0001."
"Someone' s gonna get it," Widget sang as she fished her tablet out of a messenger bag. "What did this B-hole do?"
"He took a female elf out in the middle of nowhere and stranded her there." Law dried her hands and found the shipping boxes.
"Oh my gosh!" Widget cried. "Did he hurt her?"
"No." Law dried her hands and found the shipping boxes. "He might have planned on coming back later, but I found her first." And have no idea what to do with her. "She remembers his license plate. I want to find out who to keep an eye open for." Law stated her reason for wanting to identify the man. She wasn't sure why Bare Snow was keen on tracking him down.
"You should tell the police or the EIA or someone." Widget was sometimes hopelessly naïve. Which was why she had needed Law to haul her out of trouble and hook her up with Usagi.
Usagi snorted loudly as she measured jam out into jars.
"What?" Widget asked.
"I had a dickhead of an ex while going to college," Usagi explained. "He'd got me kicked out of my dorms because my 'guest' wouldn't follow rules. I got a restraining order for him, and moved into an apartment."
Usagi banged around the metal utensils, growing angry as she told her story. "I got kicked out there because I'd called the cops too many times. The landlord called it "disturbing the peace."
"You're kidding!" Widget cried.
"No. The shitty thing was that by the time I'd call the cops, I'd be so scared and angry that I'd be screaming at the world. Dickhead would be calm and smirk and do that male 'must be that time of the month' thing. Like it's unreasonable to be upset by a man who's a foot taller and eighty pounds heavier than you and just won't leave you alone. The cops would end up hassling me more than him. All he would have to say was 'she's my girlfriend' and that would be the end of it. Once upon a time, long past regretting, I'd said 'yes' to this man and that was all that mattered in the cop's head. It didn't matter than I'd been saying 'no' for months, that I given up a full scholarship and moved to the other side of the country. It didn't matter that I wanted nothing more from him. We were 'a couple.' This was 'domestic quarrel' and we were both guilty."
Usagi took a deep breath, eyes closed. "God, sorry, it's been twelve years and it still pisses me off. I finally applied to the University of Pittsburgh and moved an entire planet away from him. I had plans of doing this—" She waved her hand to take up the kitchen and the hundreds of canning jars. "But at the other end of it. I'd be the one living on Earth, calling the shots. In my senior year, he'd gotten my address and started to send me letters. He had plans. Plans that included me. And I just snapped—I was pregnant within a month."
"Wow," Widget breathed. "That sucks."
Law nodded to acknowledge the unfairness of it. Most people were good wonderful people that would give you anything you needed—time, money, patience. There were, however, one or two people who should be just taken out and shot.
Usagi was probably right for the wrong reasons. If the male that drove Bare Snow truly was an elf pretending to be a human, then neither the police nor the EIA could do anything about it. Even if he was a human (and Bare Snow was mistaken about the accent) he actually hadn't broken any laws. Yet. The man definitely had planned something hinky but the police would have their hands tied until someone was hurt or dead.
Someone like Bare Snow.
Law had built, packed, sealed, and stacked thirty boxes when Widget blew out a loud raspberry. "That doesn't sound good."
"BAA to BAZ was assigned to the EIA!" Widget cried.
"What the hell?" Law said. "The EIA doesn't have that many vehicles."
"The range numbers are reserved." Widget tapped on her tablet and shook her head. "Basically it lets the EIA generate random plates to put on their cars instead of having to go to the city for plates. Kind of independent but cooperative."
Law nodded. "Same old, same old." The City and the EIA were two huge cog-turning mechanisms, dependent on each other while trying to stay totally separate. The city was a territory of United States with elected officials and non-military police force. It maintained the infrastructure of Pittsburgh: the roads, the water, the sewage and the like. The EIA was a United Nations entity created to oversee humanity's presence on an alien world at the edge of Queen Soulful Ember's domain. It controlled access entering and leaving Elfhome and had the final word on everything related to the elves.
Widget frowned at her tablet. "It seems as if the license plate BAD 0001 is on a white Ford Explorer. It's labeled UPU. What the hell is that?"
"Unmarked, private use," Usagi said. "Most of the 'official' EIA vehicles are white with 'U.N.' painted on the hood and sides. But the staff is from all over the world and they occasionally need access to cars for personal activities like shopping. The EIA has a motor pool of unmarked cars for private use. UPU. I could have used one while I interned with the EIA but I never had the need for a car."
"So anyone that works for the EIA has access to them?" Law asked.
"Yes," Usagi said. "You're looking at about five hundred possible males. He would have had to sign for the car, so there's a paper trail. "
"Can you find out who used that car?" Law asked Widget.
Widget blew another raspberry. "The city of Pittsburgh has an ancient system. It's easy as pie to get in—actually it's easier than making pie, if you ask me. Rolling pastry is hard! EIA's systems were just updated two years ago with more firewalls than god. I can't get into their system."
"Oh my god, who is she?" Usagi pointed at the doorway. "She's gorgeous!"
Bare Snow peered into the kitchen with curious eyes. A collection of little hands and the top of heads gathered on the sill of the closed half-door.
"Tell her! Tell her!" the children whispered in Elvish.
Clearly uncertain about her mission, Bare Snow spilled out a long discussion in High Elvish, sprinkled with rote-learned English phrases of "Peanut Butter" and "Chocolate Milk" and "I'm not asking. I'm telling."
Usagi covered her mouth to keep in a surprised laugh. "That is not funny." She finally said loudly to the children. She glanced at the kitchen clock. "Oh! I didn't realize how late it was." With her back to the door, she grinned hugely. "I didn't feed them dinner but they know not to get underfoot when I'm working on a deadline."
With practiced ease, Usagi smeared scoops of peanut butter and jam onto slices of homemade bread, squished them together, poured a glass of milk, stirred in chocolate syrup, and then reached one plate and one cup down over the other side of the door to a child. "Bring me your dirty plates. Blade and Thunder, you'll have to take sandwiches up to your mothers when you're done eating."
While the children were given their dinner, Bare Snow continued to ask questions. A blush started to creep up Usagi's face even as she tried to control giggles.
"Poor thing. She wants to know where we got all the baby elves—did we steal them or just find them? Why do we have weasels running loose? Why is there a woman upstairs in a bucket of water, screaming? And why doesn’t anyone seem worried about that?"
"Bucket of water?"
The giggles won. "It's a birthing pool! Only it's tiny compared to what elves consider a proper tub." Usagi put a plate and glass in front of Law and then Bare Snow. "Here, you probably haven't eaten either."
The fire berry jam was like sweet fireworks against the rich creaminess of the peanut butter.
Bare Snow took a tentative bite of the sandwich and her eyes went wide. "Mmmm!" She took another bite, much bigger, swaying back and forth. "Mmmmm."
Usagi explained that Clover was having a baby. She added that all the children were half-elf and had been born to human mothers in the same way. This triggered dozens of questions that Law never had the courage to ask. It amazed her that Usagi actually answered them all.
The father of both Moon Rabbit and Shield was a laedin-caste warrior who belonged to the Viceroy's household and only visited Pittsburgh occasionally. Usagi had deliberately chosen a male who wouldn't be able to keep close watch on her. After having Moon Rabbit, Usagi decided that her daughter should have a sibling, so she'd never be alone. Usagi also wanted her children to be full siblings, so she'd sought the same male out a second time. She'd been afraid that he'd only been with her the first time out of curiosity and wouldn't want a reunion. The male, however, seemed eager to be with her again.
Bare Snow didn't seem surprised. "I'd heard that humans are like peanut butter, but I didn't understand until now."
Law had always wondered what the male elves saw in human females. Not to knock Usagi and her housemates, but none of them came close to Bare Snow's beauty. The elf was stunningly beautiful, the way that the sky was always perfect even when filled with rolling storm clouds. Humans, like Law, were like thistles. She supposed some people could like scruffy, but why roll in the weeds when you could have the sky?
Then again, Law did have a pet porcupine.
"I am Ground Bare in Winter as Killing Snow Falls in Wind. Please, call me, Bare Snow." She used the English words instead of the Elvish. "I like that name better. I came to Pittsburgh hoping to find a place to belong. I thought that I would be happy with anyone that offered to take a pale shadow of myself. The wind. The ground bare in winter. Now I know that I would be miserable unless I was wanted for all of me."
Widget gave Law a confused look.
Law knew what Bare Snow meant, felt an echo within herself. So many people just wanted part of the package that was Law. They didn't want her to be independent and capable. They called it "male" as if no woman could do what she did and still be a woman. They didn't want her to be gay, while ignoring the fact that they never "chose" to be straight. Or they didn't want her to work as a forager despite the fact that they hated their jobs and were envious of her freedom. Or to live in a barn despite the fact that they thought it was cool and had always dreamed about it. She was friends with the people that didn't want to change her, mold her into their idea of "good," but even they had little pieces of her that they didn't want.
Law didn't want to derail the conversation by laying bare her soul, so she looped the conversation back to the whole reason she was at the commune. "So the license plate lead is a dead end?"
Widget stared up at the ceiling, squinting, as if peering into Pittsburgh's Internet clouds. "Well, we could go at it at another angle. I can hit the city's driver license database. There's a security field on it to denote EIA employees. It also tracks gender, hair color, eye color, height and weight. We could winnow through the males to see if any match up to her perp."
"Perp? Is that Elvish?"
Widget ducked her head and blushed deep red. "Sorry, that's what they call bad guys on old cop shows."
Bare Snow described the male. Law wasn't sure she could describe her own father with as exacting details. The female had noted his height, weight, and width of his shoulders, shape of his chin, nose, and cheeks. Bare Snow could even state the exact shade of honey brown hair and green eyes that the male had. It became clear as she described the man that she'd instantly known that he was lying to her and probably meant to hurt her in some way.
"Why did you go with him?" Law asked.
Bare Snow winced and whispered, "Sometimes the only way to learn more about a trap is to trigger it." Then she shrugged and focused on making herself another sandwich. "I knew it was dangerous but it made me happy. For the first time, I felt fiercely alive. I thought I would finally matter. I waited and waited for something to happen, but nothing did, so I learned nothing. It made me so sad. Maybe I was wrong; maybe the male was just a human and this was where Water Clan belonged. I cried until I fell asleep. When you found me, I was not sure why you were there. You were not an elf and you had a porcupine. Things became clearer when you took the door."
"It did?" Law was still mystified about the door.
"That there are three forces at work in Pittsburgh. There are those that set the trap. Those that the trap was set for. And the ones that dismantled the trap before it could be triggered."
"Wait. I got there before the trap was triggered? But—but—you weren't in the trap already?"
Bare Snow shook her head vigorously. "When he left me there, I realized that the trap was not for me. I thought I was to be the bait—although I could not guess for whom. Bait should be wanted, and I am not. When you took the door, I realized that I wasn't the bait. I was the screen. When you set a trap, you seek to erase your presence. You don't want the trap to be detected until it has done its job. And, if it fails to be fatal, you don't want the trap to lead survivors to you."
"All hell is going to break loose regardless but let's not give anyone a nice little goat, shall we?" Crazy Lady meant a scapegoat, not a real goat.
"So basically you being there behind the white door was so that the Water Clan would be blamed for whatever happened?" Law said.
"Yes." Bare Snow took a big gulp of chocolate milk; it left a mustache on her upper lip. "Obviously, I needed to change my strategy. I decided to stay mobile until I could determine the players in the game. I believe now that the trap is meant for the Viceroy."
"Windwolf?" Law cried.
"Windwolf?" Bare Snow echoed back the English name in confusion.
"That's his name in English." Like all Elvish names, Windwolf's real name was impossibly long and meant Wolf Who Rules Wind. Elvish word order meant that humans ended up calling him "Rules" when they tried to shorten his name. The English nickname kept the local elves from being pissed off when the humans butchered the Viceroy's name.
"Windwolf. Windwolf." Bare Snow practiced the nickname and then nodded. "All that I learned today says Windwolf is the target."
"I've been with you all day. No one talked about killing him! He's going to have fish for dinner. That's it!"
Bare Snow tilted her head in confusion. "Oh, you don't know our history. It would not be obvious to you." She thought for a minute. "It is a very long story." She thought for a minute longer. "A very, very long story."
Law went back to building and packing boxes. "This is going to take a while."
The female did not know how to condense. Granted, it was an epic tale. Sometime in the past, God knows when because Law didn't, the Skin Clan had an empire that stretched from the Eastern Sea to the Western Sea. There were roads and aqueducts and shipping canals and great dikes built with slave labor at a horrific cost of life. Hundreds of elves died for every mile of a highway that stretched for thousands of miles. The Skin Clan had been all about flaunting its wealth while grinding its slaves into the dirt. Naturally a rebellion swept through the empire, crashing down on all central government, leaving behind ruins and memories of a golden age. An hour later, Bare Snow had painted an elegant picture of an era gone by.
"But what about the Viceroy?" Law cried finally since his name hadn't surfaced once.
"Wolf Who Rules' grandfather was Howling. He was the first real head of the Wind Clan. We had been the slaves of the King Boar Bristle, whose kingdom was in the highlands. His father—Wolf Who Rules' great-grandfather—Quick Blade had been the bastard son of Boar Bristle and started the rebellion. Quick Blade was but one of many scattered warlords. It was Howling who made an alliance with the sekasha and gathered all the Wind Clan households to him. After the fall of the Skin Clan, the Wind Clan claimed all the Mauhida as their ancestral right. It put them at odds with the Water Clan that long controlled the ports of the Dark Sea."
In other words, her parents were from feuding clans. No wonder neither clan wanted Bare Snow. This explained her situation but not why she thought Windwolf was the target.
"What does this have to do with Windwolf being attacked in Pittsburgh?"
Bare Snow gestured for Law to wait. "It all relates. The war came to the end when Pure Radiance went to Burning Mountain Temple and told the Holy Ones that we were on the brink of complete destruction. Peace must be established and maintained at any cost. So Cinder called a gathering of sekasha. Deeming that enough blood had been shed, they chose to compete in games to decide which of the clans would lead the others. Cinder won for the Fire Clan and Ashfall was deemed king of all our people."
Law sighed and glanced to Usagi who spread her hands. Still no mention of the Viceroy. "What about Windwolf?"
Bare Snow plunged on with her story. "While Wraith Arrow was attending the summit, Howling was assassinated. The leadership of clan fell to Longwind, who was barely out of his majority, but had already taken Otter Dance as his First."
"First what?" Widget asked.
"Hush!" Law cried. If they detoured Bare Snow with questions, they'd never get to the end. The damage, though, was done.
"Otter Dance's mother had been Perfection of the Wind Clan and her father Tempered Steel of the Stone Clan." Bare Snow clasped her hands over her heart and sighed. "Their love is epic. To know in a glance and word that this person shares your spirit." Another heartfelt sigh. "Their daughter, Otter Dance, she spent equal time between them, first at High Meadow Temple and then Cold Mountain. She and Longwind were childhood sweethearts. He thought his lot was like many young elves, to be unimportant in the grand sweep of things. His elders never growing old; his time never coming. He let his heart lead him to take Otter Dance as First despite the fact that her father had been Stone Clan. It was his willingness to look beyond bloodlines that made the sekasha choose him as Clan Head. Pure Radiance had stated that the only way our future could be secured was by close alliance between the clans. Ashfall's first act as king was to call together the heads of the clans and offer up his children as royal hostages, disguised as unions of alliance."
"Eww!" Usagi cried in disgust at the idea of using children as tools.
Law was losing track of who was who. "Longwind is the Viceroy's father?"
"Yes. He took King Ashfall's daughter, Flame Heart as his domi." Again with the hand clasped over the chest and the deep, heartfelt sigh. "It was love on first sight. They had ten children! Can you believe it? Most people don't even have one! The Viceroy is the youngest and the only one that can use both esva. He was given a very blessed name, Wolf Who Rules, foreseeing that he would hold all of the Westernlands."
Law thought the whole naming scheme was a load of crap if it cursed one baby and blessed another. "I still don't see how this relates to someone trying to kill him."
"The sekasha see truth like a coin; either something is true or it is a lie. Heads or tails. They do not realize that truth is like an onion—it has layers within layers. Because of that, they can be blinded to a rotten core by an unblemished shell."
Widget started to say something about onions not having a shell and Law smacked her.
"Stay on target," Law growled. "Who is trying to kill the viceroy?"
"When Howling was assassinated, the sekasha were furious that someone had gone against their decree of a truce while they were gathered at Burning Mountain. The question was: who?"
Law attempted to jump forward in time because she knew that Windwolf was several hundred years old. If Bare Snow was retelling how his parents met, she could be talking all night. She guessed that the assassination of his grandfather must be related to current events in Pittsburgh. "The same people that killed Howling are going to try to kill Windwolf?"
"Yes!" Bare Snow cried with delight.
"So—" Law tried to backtrack through the long story. If Bare Snow had named a suspect, Law lost hold of the detail in the flood of information. "Who killed Howling?"
"This is where the onion starts to peel. Rumors surfaced that a warlord by the name of Tornado might have used a Wind Clan household of trained assassins as a bid for clan head. The sekasha easily found evidence that he'd hired them. Tornado's sekasha executed him and put a warrant out on the Wind Clan assassins who had fled into hiding. They were hunted down and killed, one by one."
"But he was actually framed?" Law asked.
"Framed?" Bare Snow tilted her head in confusion.
Law winced. The word apparently only meant "surrounded with wood" in Elvish. "The evidence was false."
"In a manner of speaking. Someone lied to a laedin-caste male. After the laedin had passed on the lie as truth, he was killed so it seemed as if he was murdered to silence him. This is the rotten core: the assassins were told that under no conditions would Howling ever bow to a king put in place by the sekasha. If another clan head was raised up above him, Howling supposedly planned to kill all the Holy Ones in one massive attack. As domana, Howling had the power to do so. The sekasha's shields cannot protect them from the full brunt of a domana offensive spell. Howling would become what we fought a thousand years to wipe off the face of the planet. No sane person would allow him to go unchecked. That lie, however, was then wrapped in truths. We were in the middle of a war. The assassins could not kill Howling without someone prepared to step cleanly into the void. They chose Tornado to be his successor and then planted the seeds of ambition. He was a proud elf; it was required to make Tornado believe it was his idea. Thus, when the sekasha sought evidence of Tornado's crime, they found it. It was true. At least, on the surface."
Law packed the boxes she'd built while trying to understand Bare Snow's logic. The Wind Clan assassins had killed Howling but they'd been tricked into doing it. While they fled into hiding as wanted criminals, the mastermind remained in place.
Bare Snow's mother had been alone on a deserted island when her parents met.
And her mother had been killed when she returned to Winter Court.
This wasn't some epic story of legendary figures; it was the story of Bare Snow's family and how they were connected with the Viceroy. Elves don't lie; at least the honorable ones didn't. If it had been an utterly random Water Clan female behind the white door in Fairywood, she could honestly proclaim her innocence, and most likely be believed. Bare Snow had been sent halfway around the world to be in Pittsburgh for this Shutdown. Her cursed Wind Clan name and her Water Clan appearance would lead to questions about her parents. Once her mother's identity was known, Bare Snow's very presence would be damning. It would seem as if she was taking vengeance for her mother's household.
Her family had taken the fall once for the real killer. Obviously someone hoped that it would work again. Considering everything, yes, the trap's intended victim most likely was Howling's grandson.
Law glanced at the kitchen clock. If they left now, they could get to the Rim and warn the Viceroy before the border was closed. They only had a few hours left; Pittsburgh was returning to Earth at midnight. All the elves—and only the elves—remained on Elfhome during Shutdown.
But what would she tell Windwolf? If the assassins had known who had set them up, they would have exacted revenge.
Think, Law, don't just react. That's how you get yourself shit-deep into messes.
This was world-level politics, hundreds of years, if not thousands, in the making. She was just a forager, fishing and hunting for a living because it meant she didn't have to deal with the petty politics of a normal business. And really, the only reason she was involved was Crazy Lady had randomly dialed her phone number and sent her on a fool's errand that only Law would be stupid enough to do. Bare Snow was safe. The Viceroy was surrounded by the best warriors of Elfhome.
There was the sudden thunder of small feet.
"Law! Law! Aunt Babs says the baby—the baby has shoulders or something—she needs your help now!"
It was "shoulder dystocia" and it meant Law needed to lift Clover from the birthing pool and get her onto her knees with the baby already crowned. Emergency calm kicked in, letting Law deal with the scared Clover while Babs focused on the baby.
Usagi might be an organized general in business crisis and she could calmly deal with hordes of cranky children, but blood and pain? It rattled her. She became a little neurotic yap dog, barking out useless orders. It was not what either Babs or Clover needed.
Meanwhile, Bare Snow got an unintentional education on the whole childbirth process. Afterwards she gazed wide-eyed at the pointy-ear infant. "So that's where they get them."
"Yes, all of them," Law said.
Down in the kitchen, there was a sharp squeal.
"What the hell?" Law hurried downstairs.
Widget was sitting with hands over her mouth, as if to hold in another scream. She lifted her hands long enough to whisper, "Sorry" and then clapped them down over her mouth again. Her stare was locked onto her computer tablet.
"What's wrong?" Law leaned over her shoulder to see what was on her screen. It was a very handsome white man. His hair matched the very exact honey blonde that Bare Snow described. The database identified him as Andre Brousseau, a diplomat from France employed by the EIA as a customs inspector. Law picked up the tablet and showed it to Bare Snow. "This him?"
"Yes!" Bare Snow cried.
Law turned back to Widget. "You know him?"
"You remember I told you originally I was going to come across the border with another girl? Her screen name was Strawberrie. She never told me her real name. We'd met on this site called Jell-O Shots. It’s a forum for fans of the Adventures of Soulful Ember videos. We both wrote Prince Yardstick fan fiction—although she shipped him with Wraith Arrow and I thought that was a total eeewww…"
"We emailed back and forth for like a year, talking about how to get to Elfhome. We didn't meet up in person until I got to Cranberry. I thought it be safer to cross with someone else, but when I met her, I could tell within minutes that she had no common sense at all."
This was from someone who'd swam the Ohio River at night in the middle of winter.
"What does this have to do with Andre Brousseau?"
"She'd told me that she knew someone who knew someone who could get us across the border for a thousand dollars. When I got to Cranberry, she took me to this creepy looking house and there were these really hot looking guys there." Widget pointed at the screen. "He was the boss of the guy that Strawberrie contacted. They had these coffinlike boxes and they were going to crate us up and supposedly get us across the border. That was until Mr. Brous—Br-ous—Mr. Fancypants actually saw me. He got all prissy about the fact that I'm black. He actually used the N word! I never heard anyone actually say it before outside of history class." She must have come from an extremely well to do neighborhood then. "And Strawberrie was all 'I didn't know she was black!' instead of telling him to piss off. And what difference did it make? Unless of course he only wanted some white girl to do who knows what with. As you would say: it felt hinky. So I said I had to pee and then went out the bathroom window. I called 911 and then ditched my phone. I thought she'd be better off arrested than left alone with those guys."
Law knew some of the people that smuggled illegal immigrants across the border. They were all native-born Pittsburghers who drove delivery routes during Shutdown. There were ones she knew she could trust, but then even they risked being deported. Trust went two ways. "Do you know what happened with your friend?"
Widget shook her head. "It didn't make any of the news feed. I don't know if the police actually did anything. I never heard from her again. I was hoping that she changed her screen name and was ignoring my posts because she was pissed at me. I used the name Elderberry Wine. Elderberry. Strawberrie. Our names were why we started to chat in the first place."
Law gazed at Andre Brousseau's photo. He had that impossible beauty that all the elves had but his ears were visible. They were definitely round. "Bare Snow, are you sure he's an elf? His ears aren't pointed."
"The Skin Clan made our ears that way so they could tell at a glance who was a slave. It was the first change they made once they realized that we'd become immortal. It means he's a very old elf," Bare Snow said. "His speech pattern says he's thousands of years old. After the rebellion started, the world went into chaos. We were divided into three groups. The Skin Clan and their loyal servants. The slaves that took up arms against them. And all the others fled from both."
An ancient elf pretending to be French man. A possible kidnapper. A would-be assassin.
"How many 'men' were working for him?" Law asked Widget.
"There were like eight at the creepy house."
A call to the Cranberry police concerning people trying to cross the border illegally would have been diverted to the EIA. Andre worked for the EIA; it was possible that all Widget succeeded in doing was alerting him that she was no longer locked in the creepy house's bathroom. It also meant that Law couldn't contact the Pittsburgh Police about an attack on Windwolf. They'd turn the matter over to the EIA since it involved elves. If Andre had arranged for Bare Snow to be diverted to Pittsburgh from halfway around the world, Law was sure that he had someone covering the EIA dispatch to inception any such calls. Law would bet her Dodge on it.
The problem was that if the shit hit the fan, Brousseau could and probably would start a manhunt for Bare Snow. Enough people knew that she was in town; he'd start the search with "probable cause" and make sure that she didn't survive capture.
"We need to get a step ahead of Brousseau. We have a name now." She leaned forward to check the listing. It gave an EIA office as his address. "Bastard. Can you print me a copy of this?"
"Going to the police with it?"
"No, the elves."
"Someone in Howling's household betrayed him," Bare Snow said. "We were never sure who, but the false information that the laedin-caste male had could have only come from someone close to him. Windwolf has gathered most of his grandfather's household. Anyone of them—except the sekasha—could have betrayed Howling."
Which meant going to the enclave could take them face to face with the traitor.
"So we waylay Windwolf. Chili said he was at the… oh shit!"
"He's at the airport." Law leaned over and pulled up a Pittsburgh Map. "The only reasonable way to get to the airport is the I-376. If he took the Exit at Route 60, follow it to here, turn at Woodmere Drive and again at Roswell Drive and he's in the trap. Three turns."
"That's still really out of the way…" Widget protested.
"Route 60 is one of the few roads in that area that still has all its bridges. We're almost to Shutdown. The highways are going to be filling up as people start lining up at the checkpoints so they can be sure to get across the border this cycle."
"So this starts with him looking for an alternate route back from the airport?" Widget started to tap madly on her tablet. "Oh! Blast it all! We have to stop this! Prince Yardstick is the bomb!"
Law growled softly. "The problem is that the elves don't use phones. If I want to talk to the damn enclaves, I have to drive out there and knock on the damn door. That will take me the wrong direction through all of the Shutdown madness downtown. If I start driving around, hoping that I can run into him and then get him to stop without getting cut down by the sekasha…"
"Wait. Wait. Wait." Widget murmured and then flung her hands up into the air and wiggled her fingers. "Muhahahahaha!"
"Is that supposed to be good or bad?" Law asked.
"I have done magic!" Widget gave the evil laugh again. "It's a little known fact that all cars sold in Pittsburgh—with the exception of antique vehicles like your Dodge—still have anti-theft GPS systems. Little known because the city is stuck in the last century, technology-wise. Really—I cry at night for the Internet of Earth. I miss it so."
"What is it? This anti-theft whatever."
"My point exactly." Widget ducked, grinning. "Simply put, the United States managed to get into the treaty that they could have a handful of satellites up in Elfhome space. They're all hush-hush about it. It's all part of 'Pittsburgh is still an American city' brouhaha that they're fighting over in the UN. Since they're American, the satellites aren't under EIA-control. Nor can the local police access it."
"Why the hell not?"
"No idea. Probably politics. The University of Pittsburgh, though, has access to them and their security is full of student-made backdoors. Voila!" She held up her tablet to show off a bunch of dots moving on a map.
"And that is…?"
"Our mystery SUV! It's in… Fairywood. Where's that?" She turned the tablet back and zoomed out. "Oh, down stream, our side of the river."
"And those other dots?"
"Um." She put down her tablet to tap on it again. "This one is BAS-0002." She read off one of the identifiers and crosschecked it. "It's also EIA UPU vehicles. It looks like they have a whole fleet out in Fairywood. Four at least. Acting weird. They're like ants; crawling around aimlessly."
"They're grid searching," Law said. "Can you pull up the Viceroy's cars?"
The elves had a small fleet of the big gray luxury cars for Windwolf and Sparrow's exclusive use. Normally they were kept in Poppymeadow's coach houses when the Viceroy wasn't in town.
"Let's. See." Widget closed the window and pulled up a database. She searched for information faster than Law could follow. "Yes, they do have anti-theft systems. Oh. Oh. Blast it all!"
A lone Rolls Royce sat motionless in Fairywood, the EIA cars prowling around it like a pack of wargs. This wasn't one lone nutcase elf posing as a human; this was some secret alliance of evil. The other Rolls Royces milled about in Oakland, obviously looking for their lost leader in the wrong place.
"They screwed up their hit on the Viceroy." Law watched the markers on the screen move. It was fairly easy to read the activity on the screen since she knew the design of the trap. "He's on foot; running for his life. They probably have people chasing him." She remembered the dogs barking in Fairywood. "Or dogs. Yeah, probably dogs. They're forcing him toward the river." There were only a handful of bridges across the Ohio River and the waters were full of man-eating fish. "The cars will close in from either side, like the jaws of trap."
"Something has changed," Bare Snow whispered.
"What do you mean?" Law asked.
"They have stayed hidden for thousands of years, carefully keeping to the shadows. This is too bold a move. Something has changed."
"Well, someone has dropped a major human city onto the face of the planet."
Bare Snow was shaking her head. For the first time since Law found her, the female looked frightened. "They think they have the upper hand. They would not act so brazenly if they did not know they could quickly take control of all of the Westernlands."
Her history lesson suddenly made sense. She had laid out what it was that these hidden elves wanted: a world where lives of others meant nothing when weighed against their comforts.
Law was getting that familiar angry feeling that she got from having her nose rubbed in injustice. It was a clenching of teeth until her jaw hurt and the nails of her fingers digging into her clenched hands.
"We have to go," Bare Snow said in English.
Law nodded in agreement.
Bare Snow threw arms around Law and kissed her. It was so sudden that Law didn't really get a chance to enjoy it.
"You've got to be kidding," Widget cried. "Really?"
"Um." Law was still off-balanced by the kiss. "Yeah. I'm an expert at getting people out of shit-deep messes."
Pittsburgh had been a city of bridges; nearly five hundred just in the city proper and another thousand scattered in the hills around it. It no longer had the means to keep them all maintained. It lacked the money and the manpower and simple necessity of linking one abandoned neighborhood to another. Main roads linked the city together, but not in a short and direct method. An hour before Shutdown and those main roads were bumper to bumper with several thousand vehicles trying to get into position at the checkpoints or back home before the floodgates of Earth opened up.
Luckily the traffic kept to the main roads, leaving the side streets, backyards, and occasionally shallow streams clear for Law. (Got to love six-wheel drive.) As the crow flies (which was close to the way Law drove) it was six miles to Windgap.
"We need to be careful," Law said. "Just in case we run into the Viceroy's guard."
"They were decoyed somehow from his side. They will not know where to start looking for him."
They reached Fairywood. The Viceroy's car sat on the last dead end street, its headlights still shining on the house where Law had found Bare Snow. The driver and the back passenger doors were open. One of the sekasha warriors lay sprawled on the ground beside the big gray luxury car. He'd been dragged from the car and mauled by a large animal.
"Oh no," Law whispered. Was it the same "teenage" male that she'd met just hours ago? She crouched down beside the bloody body and shone her flashlight on the pale face. No. Stormhorse's eyes had been dark brown and this male had eyes of Wind Clan blue. He still looked impossibly young and vulnerable. Pat Hershel had said that it was the "babies" of the bodyguards who knew how to drive.
"He sacrificed himself," Bare Snow murmured sadly. "The metal within the car kept the Viceroy from using his domana spells. The Holy One drew the attackers to his side of the vehicle so the Viceroy could escape out the other way and use his magic."
"Why didn't his shield spell protect him?" Law panned her flashlight over the ground. There were four pug dogs scattered around him. Judging by the massive burn marks on the dogs and crisscrossing the pavement, they'd been killed by lightning. It looked like a thunderstorm had opened up a can of whoop-ass on twenty-square feet of Fairywood. The pugs had to be the little yap dogs she'd heard barking earlier. They were just tiny things; the heaviest might have been fifteen pounds. They couldn't have been what mauled the warrior.
Dozens of large bloody paw prints mapped the sekasha's death. They were larger than a warg's, didn't have the wolf-like X-shape arrangements of toes and pad, nor were there marks left by the non-retracting claws. They looked like mountain lion tracks, but those were normally only four inches across. These were nearly eight inches, meaning that the beast was freaking huge.
"The shield draws power from the local ambient magic. It can only afford so much protection. Wyverns. Black willows. Saurus. Wargs. If the beast can pin the warrior, its only a matter of time before the spell fails."
Beyond the abandoned car, the dead bodies, the bloody tracks, and the scorch marks, there was no sign of the Viceroy. Distantly she could hear a pack of animals howling. The cadence was wrong for a warg; it was much more the fast baying of excited, little dogs. The sound echoed loud and weirdly distorted. It nearly seemed like the dogs were at the bottom of well, the steep sides echoing and amplifying the howls. The sound was coming from Chartiers Creek, a half-mile or so off. She kept losing the sound of it under the rumble of a nearby freight train that followed the creek bottom to the Ohio River.
"Idiots," Bare Snow murmured. "They sprang the attack too soon. They should have waited. Once the city returns to Earth, Wolf Who Rules will be without magic, and defenseless."
The Chartiers Creek fed into the Ohio River at McKees Rocks a few miles away. The safety of the Rim lay just across the river. The only safe crossing was the McKees Rocks Bridge. There was a little known railroad bridge at Brunots Island, but she doubted the Viceroy—on the run for his life—would think of it. No, he'd head for the massive stone bridge, lit up for barges on the river and any random plane to see.
Law glanced at her phone. They had less than thirty minutes. "Those dogs are still hunting the Viceroy. They haven't caught him yet. We need to find him."
Bare Snow shook her head. "He has every reason not to trust me and none to believe you. He's too dangerous to approach. He'll kill anyone he thinks is part of this trap."
There was a sudden flash of lightning and immediate boom of thunder.
"Right. Keep our distance from the male throwing lightning."
Law had enough experience with traps to know all their frailties. Even brainless crayfish would escape their cage once all the bait was eaten. She and Bare Snow had the element of surprise on their side. The joy of being quirky odd was that, even when the jerks saw her coming, they had no idea how much trouble they were in. A lesbian, a porcupine, and an underage assassin. No, there was no way these guys knew what was about to hit them.
They caught up to the first SUV on Creek Road.
Law drove up out of Chartiers Creek just before the water deepened. She plowed through an old chain link fence and fishtailed onto the narrow gravel road that ran along the stream.
She knew she should be screaming scared, but the cool electric rush was settling in. A righteous fight was like hooking a big fish. There was a thrill in the battle. It was as addictive as any drug. These scumbags were out en masse hunting a young male and meant to frame an innocent female for his murder. She felt nothing but justified for any damage she dealt out.
She caught the gleam of lights off the creek; there was a car ahead on the road. She flicked off her headlights and used the part in the trees fringing the road, revealing the lighter night sky, to navigate. The road was narrow and rough, just a car-wide beaten path. Around a bend in the creek, where the channel narrowed and grew deeper, the road widened. One of the white SUVs was trying to turn around, taking advantage of the grassy bank where locals fished for river sharks. Even in the distance, Law could make out the lighted license plate. It was BAS-0002. It was one of the EIA unmarked cars.
She threw the Dodge into low gear and stomped on the gas. At the last moment, she blared her horn, seconds before ramming the SUV broadside. The Dodge's grill guard rammed into the lighter truck even as its driver instinctively steered away. The SUV rolled down the bank to vanish into the water, upside down. Only the gleam of its headlights marked it in the glittering darkness of the creek. The large dark figure of a river shark cut through the beams of light.
"That should keep them busy." Law backed up and straightened out on the road.
"Awesome possum." Bare Snow breathed a phrase that she must have learned from the half-elf babies.
Law flicked her lights back on and roared down the little dirt road. She knew the feeling racing through her like electricity. She got this every time she went snarling out to save some girl from a bad situation. There was no murky doubt or fear, just bold determination and a sense of right that made the rest of her life seem like she was barely alive.
She realized that up to this point, all the pressure to conform, to be what other people wanted her to be, was a huge mountain pressing down on her. It was only moments like this that she knew that regardless of what everyone else wanted of her, when the scales shifted so that what was at stake was someone's life, that it made her life all make sense. She didn't need to live in a house, have a dog as a pet, work nine to five with a boss telling her what to do, paint her fingernails, fuss with her hair, and lust after some male that would complete her life. All that overwhelming messy little shit didn't matter anymore. She could be herself, completely and totally, and life was good.
She laughed at the knowledge that risking her life was easier than living it.
They caught the second SUV on the bare shoulder of the road, a mile down. It sat a dozen feet from the stop sign where Creek Road branched. The graveled street changed names to Thompson Avenue as it ducked under a low-slung iron railroad bridge to continue following Chartiers Creek or turned sharply and went up the hill. The SUV's interior light was on; its driver was struggling with an actual paper map. The Earth-bound freight train was rumbling over the bridge, drowning out the Dodge's approach.
The map and the train combined to explain why the SUVs were on the odd back roads. McKees Rocks was bisected by the railroad tracks. While a person on foot could scramble between the slow moving train cars, the SUVs needed to find ways under or over the train. There were only three points were a car could cross and they were nearly a mile apart. The question became: on which side of the tracks was Windwolf? The hounds were howling nearby but the sound echoed in the river valley, making it difficult to pinpoint their direction.
Luckily, Law didn't have to find Windwolf to protect him. She only had to derail his killers. She swung in a wide half-circle and rammed the SUV into the driver's door. The Dodge shuddered at the impact, but dug with all four back tires and heaved. The SUV slid on the gravel and then on the grass creek bed beyond. It tipped beyond its center of gravity and tumbled down the bank. It splashed into the dark water.
Her grandfather must be spinning up to mach speed in his grave.
Two down. Two to go. Unfortunately, with the name change, the Creek Road turned to follow the train tracks. There would be no more ramming cars into the water.
Betting that Windwolf wouldn't know McKees Rocks any better than his attackers, Law crossed under the railroad bridge. The Viceroy had to be playing a cautious game of cat and mouse, since he had no way of knowing how many people were chasing after him or how heavily armed they were. The east side of the tracks was known as the Bottoms. It was a flat and desolate area, prone to flooding during the spring thaw. Many of the buildings had been abandoned before the first Startup; part and parcel of Pittsburgh's steel mill age. The only businesses left in the area were a large railroad yard and a sprawling junkyard. It was a maze of hiding spaces. More importantly, it was the straightest path to the McKees Rocks Bridge.
Law checked the clock again. Minutes were left before Pittsburgh returned to Earth. The hunting dogs were baying close by. They were still miles from the Rim; Windwolf was going to be stranded on the wrong world. She still didn't have a good solid plan beyond "whack them hard." It probably was a good time to start thinking of one.
Obviously she needed to nail the other SUVs before the scattered pieces realized that they were under attack.
A few blocks down she found one of the Fords sitting empty under a lone streetlamp. Law tucked the Dodge in among sumac brushes growing in an old gravel parking lot, thirty feet from the Explorer. The white SUV gleamed bright in the pool of light. Its back hatch hung open, but the SUV had sat long enough for the timer on the lights to click off.
Focused on the Explorer, Law missed Bare Snow's cowboy boots coming off. She became aware that the female was undressing as the elf shimmied off her underwear. "What are you—whoa!"
This was because Bare Snow had pulled the blue sundress up over her head. Elves apparently didn't wear bras; the female was totally naked. The harsh artificial light of the streetlight gleamed on Bare Snow's white skin, picking out a delicate, nearly invisible design on her hips and abdomen. It seemed like someone had stenciled her with Celtic knots across her torso with a concealer pencil. She would have never guessed that Bare Snow had such elaborate tattoos because of how much skin that her clothes exposed, but even if she'd flashed panties, the lines would have been covered by her dresses.
"What are you doing?" Law managed as she realized that the markings were spells like the ones tattooed down the arms of the sekasha. An ink that matched Bare Snow's skin color had been used so that they were almost invisible.
"Going hunting." Bare Snow pulled out two long wooden knives. Where had she been hiding them? They looked like the sekasha's magically sharp swords. Did this mean that that the assassins of Elfhome were some kind of holy ninjas? "Stay by the car. I'll engage them."
"By yourself? It will be safer if we tag team—holy shit!"
Bare Snow had whispered something in Elvish. The spell tattooed on her body gleamed for a second and the female vanished from sight. Even the wooden knives vanished. There was a distortion on the seat like a crystal statue sat beside Brisbane.
The crystal statue blurred and vanished as Bare Snow went out the window.
Law breathed another curse in surprise and dismay. It was one thing to know that Bare Snow's mother was a trained assassin; it was another that apparently she had taken eighty-some years to teach her daughter everything she knew before she died. Worse, even if they found Windwolf, Bare Snow's profession was written on her skin. Nothing they could say could outweigh that evidence.
"Yup, stay far, far away from the Viceroy while saving him." If they did it right, it should be easy as pie. But as Widget noted: pie really wasn't that easy.
Law cautiously opened her door and stepped out of the Dodge. It was almost midnight. Night had closed in tight. Rimfire washed in ribbons of green and red over the river, marking how close they were to the border, and yet so far. The sumac bushes had taken over the parking lot of the old wire spring and form factory. Beyond the factory's low-slung modern buildings, there were rows of brick warehouses from the 1800s. The windows were a checkerboard of broken glass, empty holes and boarded over. On the other side of the street, the long train rumbled and squealed and whined to a shuddering stop. The engine must have reached the Rim, miles down the track, and was waiting for Shutdown.
Somewhere nearby was Windwolf, his stalkers, and by the sound of it, half a dozen large dogs.
Brisbane took advantage of the open door and scrambled out of the cab, grunting and grumbling at the effort. The problem with having a porcupine as a pet was trying to stop it equaled getting dozens needle-sharp quills embedded into your hand.
"Brizzy!" Law whispered. "Shit." True to his nature of being contrary, he beelined for the white SUV, grumbling loudly as he went. "Oh Jesus Christ!" Which was both profane and a very short prayer for divine intervention. "Shhhhh!"
He wouldn't be quieted any more than he'd be stopped on his waddle to the Explorer. Porcupine's grumbles sound weirdly like a baby trying to talk. She could almost imagine him trying to explain why he was going to get them all killed for the sake of something delicious he could smell in the SUV.
Law jerked her baseball bat out from behind the seat and headed for the SUV. If she could find what was luring him to the Explorer, she could use it to get him back in the Dodge. "That's it. I'm getting a dog. A little one. One I can just pick up and run with."
There was no one in sight. Not the driver of the SUV or Bare Snow. A block or two away, the dogs were howling with frustrated excitement. They'd lost Windwolf or he'd found a perch spot out of their reach. What was Bare Snow doing? Was she heading toward the dogs or was she looking for the driver?
Brisbane scrambled into the open back. He obviously was following the scent of ripe saenori. Someone else had also recently arrived from the Easternlands. The backseats were folded down and it looked like a small armory arrayed inside. There was even a shoulder mounted rocket launcher.
"Shit." Law breathed. Andre and his people had come armed for bear. She'd suddenly felt outmatched. "Brizzy. Come on. We need to go back and get my shotgun." And maybe a Molotov cocktail.
Brisbane ignored her, digging through a travel sack tucked beside the rocket launcher. "Naaaah, nori, aaah," he muttered and as always her brain desperately wanted to translate it into something understandable. Something reasonable. Something less stupidly stupid stubborn.
Law growled. She leaned into the Explorer, carefully nudged him aside and fumbled with the fabric in the shadowed interior. "Come on. Come on." There were four of the fruits in the bag. She tossed them quickly into the weedy darkness beside the car. Complaining, Brisbane followed the fruit.
Law heard the heavy footsteps approaching; boots crunching on gravel. Bare Snow had taken off her cowboy boots. Law ducked down, gripping her baseball bat tightly. Key to a good ambush was to catch the person totally unaware and make the first hit hard as possible. It wasn't the first time she'd jumped a male with a gun, but never one this heavily armed. It wasn't the case of "a knife" or "a pistol" or "a rifle" but all of the above plus a few grenades to boot.
She rose just as he came around the back of the SUV. Bat cocked back as far as she could get it. All her strength and mass into a line drive hit. Warned by her movement, Andre started to raise the assault rifle he'd been carrying. The bat hit the rifle barrel with a crack of wood against metal. The rifle flew out of his hands, crashing into the sumacs bushes along the berm of the road.
He lashed out faster than she thought possible. She tried to roll with the punch but it was like trying to dodge lightning. His fist connected with her chin, and the night flickered to total blackness as she fell stunned to the ground. He shouted something and slapped his hand down onto her chest. There was a crinkle of paper and a flare of light and then it felt like electricity shot through her body, making her shudder.
He stomped down on her chest and pinned the paper to her as she writhed on the ground. He stared down at her like she was a pinned frog in a science class. "Who are you? You look like one of those foragers. Picking weeds and mud crabs."
"Fuck you." She snarled out between her clenched teeth.
He snorted. "Doubtful. That spell works like a taser on humans. You're not going to be doing anything until I allow it." He glanced about for his rifle. "What the hell are you doing out here in the middle of the night?"
"Going—to stop—you—from killing—Windwolf." Law forced out. Hopefully he might think she had a whole army at her back and flee.
"A little river rat like you?" A laugh slipped out before he frowned at her with worry. "How do you know what we plan? Whom have you told?"
Law thought of Widget sitting with her foot up in the air and all the children at Usagi's. "Fuck you."
He pulled out a slip of paper with a spell inscribed on it. "Who knows?"
"Everyone! Andre Brousseau. Everyone knows what you are."
He knelt to slap the paper against her cheek and spoke an Elvish word.
Pain like a hot dagger shot through her face. She screamed.
He leaned close. "Who knows?"
There was the warning rattle of Brisbane's tail. The porcupine might be slow and stubborn but he wasn't stupid. He knew that Law was being hurt. Law cried louder out to cover the noise.
Motion warned the elf again. Andre glanced up as Brisbane's spiked butt swung through the air, backed by sixty pounds of muscle. It caught Andre full in the face, driving a hundred of the long barbed quills deep into his flesh. Andre screamed. He jerked off of Law and scrambled backwards with Brisbane in pursuit. The slow moving porcupine had no hope of catching the male, but Brisbane was at least chasing him away from Law.
"Get'em, Brizzy! Sic'em." Law clawed at the spell on her chest, her body still jerking and writhing. Her hand finally obeyed her enough to rip the paper off. The spasms stopped but all her muscles continued to tremble.
She fumbled with her baseball bat, trying to get to her feet. Her hands wanted to stay tight fists. Her legs didn't want to hold her up. Andre's face was full of quills, making him look like he had a massive starched beard, but somehow Brisbane had missed his eyes. Andre backed up to the SUV and then half-fell into it.
If he picked up one of the many guns inside, she was screwed. She abandoned her attempts to pick up the baseball bat and stumbled toward the SUV as fast as she could make her wobbly legs move.
Andre fumbled in the truck's dark interior. He shouted something over and over again. On the fourth shout, she realized it was an Elvish name. He was calling for backup. He found a rifle, swung it up, aimed and pulled the trigger. The click of the hammer landing on an empty chamber was the loudest noise that Law ever heard.
He swore, snatched up a magazine, and loaded the rifle. He lifted it again.
Law slammed shut the hatch onto his legs.
He screamed and pulled the trigger. The muzzle flash brightened the interior of the SUV. The bullet smashed out the back window and grazed Law's upper arm. It felt like someone hit her in the shoulder with a lead pipe. She lifted the hatch and slammed it down on his legs again, throwing all her weight against the panel. There a muffled scream from within the Explorer and four more shots fired. Bullets whined over her head. Then there was stillness and the scent of blood filled the air.
What the hell?
Law risked glancing through the hatch's shattered window.
One of the bullets had ricocheted and tore through Andre's throat. Blood had sprayed the inside of the Explorer.
"Oh god, what a mess." She'd put men in the hospital, but she had never killed a man before. Technically she hadn't killed him; she'd just beat the snot out of him before he shot himself. She wasn't sure if the police would see it that way.
A shout and the sound of running boot steps made her realize that was the least of her worries. Andre's backup was arriving. They were going to be pissed when they saw his quill-filled dead body. There were four of them, lean and dark, racing toward like a pack of wolves.
"We're so dead, Brizzy." Law heaved the Explorer's hatch door open and pulled the assault rifle from Andre's dead fingers. Her hands were still shaking from the effects of the spell. Blood was pouring down her left arm from where the bullet cut thru her, making the rifle slick.
The lead elf suddenly went down as if clotheslined. The others jerked to a halt, weapons raised.
"It's the Death Wind!" One of them shouted. The remaining three drew swords and put their backs together. Law couldn't risk shooting until she knew where Bare Snow was.
St. John's church bells started to ring in midnight. They were seconds to Shutdown. Pittsburgh would return to Earth that had no magic. Bare Snow's invisibility spell would fail; she was about to become visible. The female elf probably didn't even know what the ringing bells meant.
Law shouldered the rifle and trained it on the males as she counted the chimes of the bell. One. Two. At twelve, she'd be able to fire.
Three. Four. Five.
It nearly seemed like time stopped as the bell rang. The swordsmen stood tense, waiting, knowing what would happen next. Their calmness infuriated Law. They had planned to murder Windwolf—perhaps already succeeded—and had lured Bare Snow halfway around the world to pin the killing on her. They were going to stand there as time ran out until Bare Snow was left helpless. They knew they had all the time in the world.
Six. Seven. Eight.
Somewhere toward the airport, someone was setting off fireworks. The distant thunder of the explosives was rolling up the river valley.
The dogs howled a block away. Windwolf hadn't made the Rim. A maze of a large junkyard was between him and the McKees Rocks Bridge.
One of the swordsmen suddenly fell as his legs had been swept out from under him. The other two leapt to defend him, furiously hacking at thin air. Law saw the distortion of air that was Bare Snow. The female was lying on the ground. Had she been hit by a sword? Law pulled the trigger. The bullet caught the tallest male in the chest.
A moment later, the other two were on the ground, bleeding, possibly dead from Bare Snow's knives.
Which was a good thing as Law's vision started to blur at the edges from blood loss.
Brisbane waddled over to her, sniffed at the blood dripping on the ground and then stood on his back legs to press his front paws against her hip.
"It's okay, Brizzy." She leaned against the SUV. "Bad guys all dead. I'm going to fall down now." She slid down the side of the Explorer to sit hard on the ground.
Next thing she knew, Bare Snow was kneeling beside her, talking to her about something while bandaging Law's arm. She struggled to pinpoint something very important that they should be doing.
"Windwolf!" Law cried when she remembered. "You should go, find him, and make sure he's okay."
Bare Snow pulled her to her feet. "I will go once you're not out in the open, where you can be easily found. You've lost a lot of blood and there is no magic for a healing spell. You're going into shock. You need to lie down and be warm."
Being in shock was kind of like being drunk but not as pleasant. There was a time of dark non-remembering and then she was lying on a floor in a dark building with no idea where and how she gotten there. At least she didn't need to vomit.
The gray of predawn was filtering through a massive multi-paned window. Brisbane crouched at her feet, muttering happily as he ate something yummy. By scent, Law guessed it was the saenori fruit from the Explorer.
As she sat up, Bare Snow ghosted out of the darkness. She was wearing the blue sundress and cowboy boots, looking too beautiful for words.
"Law! You're awake. Oh good, I was so worried."
"What happened with Windwolf?"
"He was wounded by the dogs, but he was saved by a very brave and clever young female. She's a Wood Sprite; they are very moral and resourceful."
Law scanned the auditorium-sized filthy, empty room and realized that they were in one of the empty factory buildings in the Bottoms. They were probably less than a hundred feet from where the fight taken place. Who the hell did Windwolf stumble into out in this desolated area? "You spoke with her?"
"Oh no! I was careful to keep out of sight. I kept watch until I was sure she was taking good care of him. Much better than anyone else could since we're on Earth. She lives in this little metal house with broken automobiles all stacked on top of each other."
She meant the junkyard. Now that Law thought hard, she remembered that the owner was a young woman and her older brother or cousin or something. They were said to be eccentric but good, honest people. In Law's book, eccentric was a good thing.
Bare Snow settled beside Law with a squeal. "Oh, it was wonderful! I wish you could have seen it." She clasped her hands over her heart and sighed deeply. "You should see the way that he looks at her. He sees her—all of her—and accepts her as she is. He's falling in love; I am sure of it. I wonder if he will ask her to be his domi. Wouldn't that be wonderful?"
It did sound wonderful. To be accepted as she was instead of pressured to change until she was a reflection of someone else's idea of right. Only that reflection wouldn't be her. Law would have been erased. There would be some empty shell of a person in her place.
"We can go home now?" Bare Snow whispered.
"What about those men? Those males." Elf males weren't men; assuming that all Brousseau's people were ancient elves like himself. "The ones we killed. Are they still lying out on the road?"
"I disposed of the bodies," Bare Snow whispered even softer.
"Oh." Law waited for the guilty feeling to set in and it didn't. The bastards were out for blood; they deserved it. "Good."
"So," Bare Snow barely spoke. Her hands were clenched into tight fists. "Can we go home now?"
Home. Together. Law's mind jumped to naughty thoughts and she blushed. A heartbeat later, Law realized why Bare Snow was so quiet. The female was really asking Law if she could move in with her. As much as Law felt she was alone in the world, it was nothing compared to Bare Snow's isolation. The elf was utterly and completely alone. Worse, she had bared all her secrets to Law. The tattoos. Her magical knives. Her assassin training. Everything her name hinted at. The name that made every elf that heard it turn her away. The name that made Bare Snow's grandparents disown her.
And the poor kid was afraid that now Law knew everything, that she would turn Bare Snow away too.
Law reached out for Bare Snow's hand. Part of her felt like she should warn the female about the barn and the Tarzan swing and the roof that leaked like a sieve and the winters in the cave-like milk house. But really, the ugliest, scariest part of Law's life was her inner avenging angel that liked to track down men and beat the snot out of them. Bare Snow met her and wasn't frightened by her. Crazy Lady might have randomly dialed phone numbers until Law answered, but she'd found two soul mates.
Besides, Law was fairly sure that Bare Snow was going to love the Tarzan swing.
"Yeah. We can go home."
Copyright © 2014 Wen Spencer
Wen Spencer is the author of Eight Million Gods, Endless Blue, and she is the creator of the Elfhome series in which this story is set. The series includes Tinker, Wolf Who Rules, Elfhome, and latest entry Wood Sprites.