Author's Note: It's laaaate. But to make up for it, this one is long. Enjoy! And for the love of everything awesome, go read Tricked Out by Aria of Light!
Happy St. Patrick's Day!
Dropkick the Baby
Ireland, late 5th century
Anna stalked through the underbrush; one arm batted away branches while the other supported the baby. She turned her lashed body to protect the little girl from the whipping foliage. Annalise was fairly sure she was heading back to the village. She could smell it. Faintly. Sheep dung. Old fish. Cooking fires and, more unfortunately, human feces. Perhaps she should have been paying more attention to the directions she was running earlier. But it wasn't exactly her fault she was lost—no, she was not lost; don't say that—in some random forest.
But it was kinda her fault she caught herself up in another stupid "deal" situation.
"A favor?" Anna had asked incredulously.
She eyed the creature, taking in its details. She noticed the crack in the side of its head, but she wasn't sure if her rock had caused it.
Wood and vine twisted within itself. Leaves grew on the creature like skin, spaced apart by older, dead foliage. The branches on its head twisted up like antlers into points that grew so sharp they disappeared into the light fog that blurred the atmosphere.
Anna caught it off guard. The element of surprise would not fare well for her again if they got into an actual fight. She didn't know how to deal with faeries. She didn't know if it could kill her. What was she supposed to do?
An animalistic growl escaped her throat. She probably picked it up from the monsters. The mismatched noise had made the faeries look more curious, but they didn't exactly look intimidated. Perhaps she shouldn't expect to try to intimidate them. These were ancient creatures. She was a frightened child, raising hackles to appear bigger.
"I'm not stupid," Anna had said. "I know a 'favor' can mean anything from an umbrella to sex. Though I don't know what you'd want with this." She gestured at herself.
"Why did I say that?" Anna muttered in disgust at the memory, rolling her eyes. She ducked around another tree branch. She knew she had been desperately stalling, but still.
She ignored the footsteps of someone following her through the woods.
"It's too vague a demand," she said, her eyes never leaving the drowsily fussing baby.
"What's an umbrella?" the changeling had muttered under the noise.
"How much is this human worth to you?" the tree creature had asked.
Anna didn't answer. Not that she didn't want to. She just didn't know on a personal level. But any answer did not matter in the slightest. At the very base of her soul, she would let nothing happen to the baby. Not because they were...related. Not because there was any connection between them. Anyone who saw a child in danger and did nothing didn't deserve to breathe. Of course, she didn't breathe anymore, but she stood by the sentiment.
The fairy had tired of waiting for an answer.
"Nothing less than a favor interests me at the moment, but make your offer, stranger."
Good. It was willing to humor her for the moment.
Anna was silent for a long time, watching the baby. "Knowledge," she said, eventually. "I'll tell you...what I am if you give me the child."
There was a small snort from the changeling. The other seemed amused too.
"You must think your kind's identity valuable."
"Perhaps I do," Anna said easily. The confidence put them off a little, and she cracked a smile.
The neutral expression of the tree finally dipped into a frown, but Anna wasn't sure if that was a good thing. Still, she would rather it uncomfortable. The second it smiled, she would really be worried.
"I don't believe the trade is fair," the fae had said.
"Well, I'm not agreeing to an exclusive 'favor'," Anna had said immediately.
"You've yet to offer anything compelling."
Anna paced for a moment, keeping all of them in view.
Fuck. Fuck fae. She was not experienced enough with...supernatural bullshit to be dealing with this. What the hell would Jack do?
"How's this?" What the hell was she doing? "I give you an answer for what I am and offer a limited favor."
The tree thing made a show of looking considerate, even shifting the baby human to its other side.
Anna swallowed, her throat feeling thick with goo but sandpaper-dry at the same time. "If you agree..." she was careful to say. "I will owe you a favor that must be met eventually, but I can refuse the first request, the next, and every single request that follows if I find the favor dangerous to myself or another or too inconvenient to my sensibilities. I just must agree to one, eventually."
The creature turned away to think over the proposition, and Anna strained to keep the baby girl in view. Vines twisted around the child while the fae thought idly.
It was stressful seen the green lines reach for the baby's neck but she just watched, ready to move.
"An indirect curse of immortality if I decide to never use the favor," the fae hummed. It seemed amused. " You would never die until you do what I want. But you aren't a mortal, so perhaps such a detail isn't a concern of yours." It turned its head to look at the corpsey spirit and watched as she stiffened, mind racing. "Ye hold yourself with an air of power, but your eyes betray you. You're very young, are ye not? You've never dealt with my kind before. Strange indeed."
Fae don't lie. They can't. That was one thing Anna learned from the books in the Town Library. It wouldn't have said anything if it wasn't sure. It asked if she was young as a question, so it wasn't sure. Okay, that was useful to know. But it knew she was inexperienced in dealing with fae. Sidhe. Whatever they were called. That was more of an issue.
"For example..." it continued before she could think of a response.
Did she need to respond?
"Are ye aware that humans have loopholes against us built into their very being? A favor held over them can be kept at bay if they wear iron to repel us for the rest of their brief lives. Or if they are re-baptized. Far more irritating, Death voids favors with mortals unless the initial deal addresses such a rule."
It put a note of emphasis on the word "death" as it spoke.
It chuckled humorlessly. "If we find a human of enough worth to tie into such servitude, occasionally we'll add the stipulation of a favor in the afterlife to cover such a loophole."
The tree's frown deepened. "It's a tricky matter. Adding such details can unbalance the deal or put mortals on guard." It looked back at Annalise with a gaze that felt like ice.
"But you aren't mortal. You're not even human. Such mercies aren't afforded to you, I suspect. Only Death can release the promises of fae but they favor humans above all else. Other beings slough through the mess of negotiations."
"Is there a point to you telling me all this?" Annalise asked. She squinted a bit while trying to ignore how sticky and strained the skin around her eyes felt. "Why would you tell me any of that anyway if I'm so clearly young to you?" She waved her hand a little vaguely and forced a smirk as the fae and changeling grimaced at the flecks of blood that landed on the grass and a couple leaves. Even in the twilight, the dark red stuck out atop the green.
"Let's call the education a courtesy." The tone nearly sounded like a threat.
"Or you're just underestimating me and being incredibly patronizing. Still, thanks for the info, though. Much appreciated."
Anna vaguely heard a voice that sounded like Jack or Helgamine or Sally or even freaking Nevermore calling her stupid for prodding the tree when they have the upper hand and were in possession of the baby. If the voice was calling her stupid, it was most likely Nevermore or one of the witches, although she didn't doubt Jack would have probably cussed her out silently. Given her few words exchanged with Arachne, she wouldn't have been surprised to hear the spider's voice in her head either.
The woman had left an impression.
What a lovely group of role models Anna was amassing.
She didn't like the laugh the fae let slip.
"Such pride. Where do you even get such pride? Can you back it up, girl?"
Anna grimaced a little. "'No,' what?"
"I reject your negotiation. I don't know what you are or what use you may be, therefore an open favor is less risky than what you are offering, even the name of your kind."
Think! Either think or go through with it. Maybe you can figure out a way out of it later.
She wasn't sure where it came from, but the confidence felt familiar. She gave the fae a wicked smile, pasting on as much glee in her eyes as she could manage.
"It's risky for you not to know what I am," she snickered.
The tree didn't squirm, but she was following through with the bluff no matter what.
"Very well," she said, going out on a limb and mimicking the tree's own voice for added measure.
She hadn't even been sure she had her Tricks here...
Her accent wasn't perfect, but the being finally looked shocked at hearing its own voice leave her mouth.
"I will offer your so wanted favor," she simpered, letting the wisp of a hiss into the voice. "However, return the child to me unharmed and mark her against ever being the victim of a changeling exchange ever again."
Fuck fuck fuck. Was that even a thing? "Marking" a kid against fae?
It didn't seem to see her panic.
"That wasn't part of the agreement," they said, and Anna had to fight the urge to whoop. They seemed bothered.
Anna smiled. "You already decided that whatever I am isn't important enough for you." She stooped down to pick up a rock. "I injured you. Should that be possible? I followed you at impossible speeds. Humor me."
"I can't believe that worked," she said to the baby.
The sleepy face stared up at her, still without an ounce of fear. Her nose and cheeks were ruddy from the cold and she kicked in her wrappings at the discomforted of being handed off and dragged around so much.
A tree branch rustled behind her, and Anna frowned without stopping.
The changeling wasn't bothering to follow her secretly. It might as well have been a moose with brain worm with all its crashing.
The tree had handed her the baby unharmed, after tracing some kind of design on the baby's forehead. Then it just left.
But now she owed some strange creature some kind of favor in the future. She had no idea how or if they would be able to cash it in, but was that really something she could afford to think about right now? Well, her attempt to make the "deal" go her way kinda failed. She'd deal with it later...
Anna did not know what to do about the changeling, so she just walked away. She wasn't exactly prepared to offer sympathy when that thing was intending to replace the kid.
However, she noticed the movements that were just not human enough. It destroyed nothing while it followed her. It never stopped on a branch or crashed through bushes. The noise came from too-soft footstep and a faint panting.
"Explain something to me." Anna suddenly halted, spinning her heel to look behind her into the forest that was getting darker every second.
The woods before her were empty. She waited.
A small head poked up over a log.
Now Anna understood why there were so many creepy kids in horror movies. The baby staring at her was its own brand of nightmare fuel and she was nearly appreciative of the creepy uncanny aesthetic, if not tired, disturbed, and irritated.
"What exactly is a changeling?"
It (she?) stared at her. "A fae that takes the place of-"
"No no I know that," Anna interrupted, adjusting the real baby. "I want to know why faeries switch kids out with yourself. What's the purpose?"
"I needn't tell the secrets of my kind."
"Didn't seem like there was a tone of 'kindredness' to me," Anna said. "I overheard some. You weren't doing this willingly.'
The creepy "baby" was quiet, looking really conflicted with itself. Then it seemed resigned. It looked over the log a little more before answering. "It's a punishment. Sidhe cannot kill one another, so execution by changeling is the only option."
"Why would it be an execution?" Anna asked. Sidhe can't kill each other. That was additional information to be a nerd over later. She hadn't read that in any book yet.
Now they looked at her in disbelief. "Because humans are simple-minded and fear anything different from themselves. They place a curse on...criminals...but it does not leave them perfect copies. Usually the humans will notice an imperfection, odd behavior or a deformity, and take action. That action is usually leaving what may be their very own child to die, if they don't kill it themselves."
Anna scoffed. "But how do they know for sure? No way every kid with a deformity is a changeling."
The changeling was silent for a moment. "Like I said. Humans are simple-minded."
Anna stiffened. History was bloody and horrific in the depths of ignorance. This was hundreds of years in the past. Memories of reading about witch hunts and the horrible treatment of those with mental illnesses more recent to her time than she thought comfortable came to mind.
"...And barbaric," the changeling continued. "You don't know much about them, do you?"
"Enough to understand you're just making humans do your dirty work. I was human," Anna said, noting how the uncanny child-looking eyes widened disturbingly. "But where I come from, killing a baby because they look odd is infanticide. Science has found that deformities and disorders do not make them less human."
"Study of the natural world beyond belief," Anna said, already feeling like she was speaking too much. She was six when her brain had rebelled against her, erasing her sense of fear and making her an outcast in small ways. But that wasn't the first someone gave up on her, intentionally or not.
What? No, I wasn't an outcast. I had friends. I had love. Some kids didn't like me, but I pranked them and went on with my life. I didn't care who called me names or not. Their opinions didn't matter.
The changeling misinterpreted her silence as an opening.
"You claim you used to be human."
Anna blinked whatever flaps of skin were left of her eyelids. "Yeah?"
"Then are you not still human?"
Am I still human? Are you an idiot? Can a human walk around with 70% of their skin sloughing off?
"I'm a..." she had to pause and was suddenly oddly aware that the words didn't pause in the right place with the right syllables. She figured she wasn't speaking English but it was still a bizarre experience. What was that word? The Irish word that had been translated for her. The thing Jack had called her. "Spirit. Taibhse."
Is taibhse mé.
Towl-sha. Is towlsha mey. Is that what she just said? She begged no one would ask her to write something in this century.
"The dead? No. Humans souls do not wander. They can't. They are tied to something, trapped by their own weak vestiges of humanity."
Anna shrugged. She had her questions answered. She turned and started walking, cautious about the creature still. But it hadn't attacked her or the baby yet. The conversation had even been pleasant enough. But it was dark and getting darker, and James and Mira were probably panicking if not grieving already. It was tempting to keep talking, but she figured she had other sources that could sate her nerdy curiosity about Fae and Sidhe back in Halloween.
"Sneak up on me, and I'll dropkick you to kingdom come, regardless of that skin you're wearing."
"Where are you going?" the changeling asked.
She heard it hesitantly move to keep following her. Its steps were slowing down. They were still more careful than Annalise.
The "skeleton" cared less about breaking branches and crushing leaves than the changeling did.
"I don't actually owe you any answers, you know," Anna said. She rocked the baby gently in her arms. "Why don't you go back to the other creepy baby-abducting weirdos?"
"You did say you were a criminal," Anna said. "What did you do that was so bad you got yourself executed?"
"I do not wish to say."
"Hmph. Well then, what do you plan to do?" Why did she care?
That made Anna jerk to a halt so fast she actually jostled the baby who fussed and started crying. Anna did her best to make her stop. They did say it was like an execution. But the utter resignation was a little shocking.
"Can't you take care of yourself?"
Anna frowned but didn't want to press. She started walking again.
"Where are you going?"
"Taking her home," Anna said. "I hoped that was obvious."
"You're home? To eat it?"
Like Anna needed another whiplash moment with all this fuckery going on. "What?! Why would you think that?"
"Many creatures feed off humans in one way or another." The changeling stealing another turn to look at her like she was stupid. "Some more literally than others."
"No! I don't need to do that!" Anna snapped.
"Your offense to the question is confusing," they admitted. "You're very young."
Anna stepped away and held the baby tighter. "Yeah, yeah. Whatever? Just keep your distance. I don't care if you follow or not, but don't think you're getting a snack."
The changeling at least looked amused at that, even if still very confused by Anna's unnatural behavior. "I assume you're trying to take her to her village."
Annalise frowned and looked at them expectantly.
"You're going the wrong way."
Anna wasn't super surprised at the news. "I can smell it," she argued, for the sake of being difficult.
There was that "is she stupid," look again. "The winds have shifted east. The valley funnels the winds down from the hills."
"How rude of him," Anna snickered. "I wouldn't mind a little help, Wind? If you don't mind, of course. I know I haven't given you much reason to."
No answer, though the air shifted a little.
"Did you just speak to the wind spirit?"
The changeling thought this "taisbhe" was a very strange mix of paradoxical information.
She knew little about sidhe, but about the Wind when many creatures can't boast that at all. This creature that spoke with a young woman's voice had power rippling under that charred skin and a lightly hungry swirl in her aura, but she did not know about the most basic truths of nature. Everything feeds on something else. And all creatures of the light and dark fed off mortals in one way or another. Blood. Life. Memories. Emotions. Even belief. Something. There are no exceptions.
So what was her sustenance? Was she a lone monster, not part of any society like the Sidhe? There were many of those, but weren't all kinds known to the people of the Sidhe Hills already? What of the other otherworlds? Could any claim her?
"What court do you belong to?" It couldn't hurt to ask again.
It was nearly amusing to see her expression twist. She seemed to understand the question, though.
"That's kinda what I was offering the other guy." She gestured behind them. "Why should I tell you?"
"Because I will take you back to the child's village if you do," they replied.
The creature squinted. Another strangeness of her. Her emotions were so hard to read when they counted. But distrust was worn on her sleeve. "Before the next sunrise of this specific night."
The changeling stared. Perhaps it was a fair point. It seemed the monstrous "ghost" knew some stories of fae stretching time in the wood. It wasn't like the changeling had the power to do anything like that anymore, however.
"Before sunrise," they agreed.
"Hm. Okay. I'm-" she cut off, unable to lie. It didn't look like she intended to lie, but the binding to a fae deal still startled her. She seemed confused, looking at the changeling. "I'm trying to tell you, but I can't."
"...Are you truly a member of the court you mean to say?"
The creature blinked.
She had an oddly simple answer...
"I haven't accepted citizenship," she mumbled, glancing away, realizing something. She huffed and adjusted the sleeping baby, gently rocking her arms. "I belong to no one, at the moment. But I already said I'd tell you where I was from, essentially. I'm a Halloween Spirit." Or I'm...trying to decide if I am.
"I'm not familiar."
"I don't expect you to be. Not for a couple centuries. It's a festival. I think it's born out of a different harvest festival. Thinning of the veil between worlds. Monsters. Human fears. That sort of thing. Don't know what you plan to do with that information, but I think I'm a little too tired to care." She adjusted the swaddle around the baby and swayed in her rocking. "There. I've given you an answer and more. Take me to the village."
The changeling stared for a moment. It seemed to be doing a lot of that. Even it couldn't decide how to process the information. But they would keep their side of the agreement, even if the fae blood was thinning while they spoke and mortality crept through their veins faster and faster...
They must have run a very long way. It shocked Anna it took them nearly an hour or so to make it back to the edge of the wood just walking. Halfway through she began to think the creepy baby thing was leading her some place dangerous, but she just kept her easy-to-run mouth shut and prepared to make a break for it or fight if she had to. She nearly bolted out of the treeline the second she saw the glint of firelight and heard the sounds of fight shouting.
"Are you simple!" the changeling snapped, catching her foot and tearing away a chunk of flesh that made Anna cry out and stumble. They both ducked and fell into the bushes. Anna frantically tried to calm the jostled baby down.
"Get the fuck off-"
"You can't just walk into a human village. You'll be seen!"
"Well, thank you for the concern," Anna snapped, bristling.
The changeling hissed, properly hissed, flashing too-pointy teeth and a glint of light in the eyes. It stunned Anna enough.
It pointed behind her before she could respond.
A group of men were coming down a path she hadn't realized was there, exiting the forest a few yards down a small slope.
Anna pressed herself into the shadows, laying down into the moss and bushes beside a tree and praying the baby wouldn't make a noise just yet.
They waited. There was an unspoken agreement to wait for a bit after the men passed by.
Anna looked at the changeling, distracted from how worried she was that the baby was behaving this well. She seemed to be sleeping peacefully, her soft breaths rising and falling. "What?"
"Samhain Eve is the winter festival. The beginning of the new year and the dark half. The last harvest for the humans. The veil is thinnest then and during Beltane."
"I think I've heard this before."
"Do you know the Puca then?"
The blank stare in the darkness was the skeletal creature's answer.
"The Puca of Samhain Eve? He leads your court?"
The creature stared. "Huh. A king it sounds like." There was a curious look in her sockets, but she turned her attention back to the village, searching for an opening.
The changeling was at a loss now. It jumped a little when the strange ghost got up and ran away, skirting around the edge of the treeline. It followed. What else was there to do?
Anna eventually had James and Mira's house in view. It wasn't the closest to the forest, but there was a small grove of trees she could make for without being spotted. Hopefully.
She ran for it. Hoping hoping hoping no human could see her. She didn't dare risk Fading with the baby in her arms. She didn't hear screams and took that as a good thing. Though maybe not as fun. She shook the thoughts away. A couple more sprints and she was in the house, checking to make sure no one was home. Empty. That old woman that was there before was nowhere now.
"Alright, there you go, sweetie," Anna muttered distractedly. She set the baby down in the rough-looking cradle and tried detangling the strips of bloody cloth from the little girl's arms.
Anna wasn't exactly "warm" to cuddle with, but the baby didn't like the chill empty air that hit her with no fire raging in the house to chase away the winter. She cried out and fussed, grasping her tiny hands to be picked up again.
"Are you seriously complaining?" Anna joked moments before she was aware of a sharp pressure. It wasn't a pain, but she had an inkling of an idea that if she was fully alive, it most certainly would hurt.
A moment later and she was on the ground, a man standing over her driving a sword through her side and into the thatched ground.
She barely avoided her skull getting smashed in by a round shield with a brass spike in the middle.
Anna kicked the man off her. Or really she pushed, having the wherewithal not to send her foot at the man at full strength. She tried to jerk up to jump to her feet, but the hilt of the sword banged agaist her ribs and she hit the ground again, more from the shock. She rolled over with a grunt while James was down; the sword tearing at her pyrolysised flesh and tilting while it pried up dirt beneath her. It actually hurt a little to pull it out, but the pain was more annoying in its existence.
"You son of a-" Anna muttered while she staggered to her feet, dropping the oversized knife. She saw a glint and ducked to avoid the sword that James picked up again without a second thought and swung at her head.
The baby was screaming now and Anna felt a little pride that she was crying at the commotion and not once before in Anna's presence. The kid liked her, apparently. Dad? Not so much...
Honestly, she would have been less surprised by a pitchfork instead of a sword. The thoughts were a bit too distracting, and the man shouted and swung again.
Anna tried to dodge again, but a wall was in the way and what was left of her arm came clean off, the sword cracking through bone when she tried to turn away from the attack . "OW! FUCK!"
That hurt! That wasn't supposed to hurt that much. It still wasn't as bad as if she was alive, but still. She stared at the dismembered arm in a little shock. She twitched her fingers and the fingers on the arm did the same. Well, that was an upside. It was still "attached," of sorts. How the hell was James able to touch her in the first place?! Wasn't she a ghost? How did they even see her, anyway? Was she supposed to do something special? Why couldn't they see her when she was last here? Except Mira, but she was dying so that didn't count.
"James! James, stop!"
Anna looked. She must have spaced out for a moment. Why did she have to be solid and visible now?
Why was there a sword three inches from her face? Oh...
Mira had caught her husband around the elbow, nearly hanging off of him as he fought her halfway through a lunge at the creature that had been looming over his missing baby.
"Mira! Get back!"
"And I tell ye stop! It be the spirit! The one I saw at my foot."
James glanced at Anna. "Move not one ordlach creature or this blade will meet that ghastly face of thine."
"Heh. Sure. Not going anywhere," Anna said, a little drier than intended.
James squinted at her. "Mira, attend to Muirgen and explain quickly. Please, love."
There was a fatherly rage in James' eye when Anna said the baby's name, trying to sound it out. "Do. Not. Speak my child's name, monster."
Anna felt like she was supposed to be terrified, but all she could think about was how familiar James seemed. Yes, she had "met" him before but that fire in his eyes was reminding her of something else.
Mira shushed the crying baby, bouncing her in her arms while she continued to try pulling her husband's sword-arm away. "Dearest, please. Things may not be as they seem."
"Our child is taken from before our very hearth mere hours ago. We shed panicked tears and comb the forest, only to find some demon dripping blood above her cradle. I shall decide how things seem when this creature is put under lock. Please call the village, Mira."
"Would ye please hear me, James! I'm telling ye, this is the spirit I saw when I was giving birth. And ask thine how our daughter would be returned unharmed instead of lost to we forever. Why return her? She is not harmed at all. See for thine own eyes!"
"I see blood."
"On her swaddle. Not on her."
There was clear pain in James' eyes when he spoke. "That may not be our child, my love."
"No, no, that's your daughter!" Anna blurted out, still awkwardly leaning against the back wall at big-fancy-knifepoint. "She almost wasn't. I ran into some Fae trying to switch her out with..."
James lifted the sword, but Anna pressed through.
"-With a changeling," she continued, "I chased them and bartered for her back. I was just returning her."
The two humans stared for a moment, maybe a bit disturbed she was talking so much. It couldn't have looked pleasant.
"Ye claim to deal with fae on our daughter's behalf?"
"And of my grandmother?" Mira asked, even when James shot her a panicked and somewhat pleading look.
Anna tilted her head. "Who?"
"My grandmother was watching her."
"Well, there was an old lady here, but the baby was crying and she wouldn't wake up. I snuck out thinking you were coming, but it was the faeries and she still didn't wake up with all my yelling. I guess she was very tired."
"Ye claim ye had nothing to do with her death, demon?" James asked.
Anna flinched at "demon," but paused. "She was dead?"
That explains it...
Mira sucked in a shaky breath.
"Uh...sorry. I didn't realise." That sounded really lame. Now Anna just felt stupid for not realizing the lady was dead that whole time. Was she dead the whole time? She didn't see a ghost.
Although...she supposed not everyone stuck around after they died...
The old woman's timing kinda sucked, if she was being honest.
"Ye didn't realize," James' said, a crack in his voice.
"...I uh..." How did she explain? "I am not around humans often. I didn't think to listen for a heartbeat." She tapped the side of her head, the hand movement startling James. "I have much better hearing than a...a mortal?"
"Ye didn't hear me enter."
"No...I didn't." Anna said, a bit embarrassed while she picked up her severed arm and shoved it into place.
"..." James resolve was wavering but his confusion was growing. "Prove thy mouth speak no lies, demon."
"I..uh...don't know how. Please stop calling me a demon..." Anna begged quietly. "I'm not."
"Demon's lie," James said over the sounds of the baby fussing. The noises seemed to stress him more, especially since his wife and child wouldn't leave.
"I'm not a..." Anna knew she could just fade and leave, but her pride wanted things straightened out. But that hope was fading fast. The logical part of her mind said it be best she just leave and let these humans believe what they want. Arguing with scared people was a losing battle.
"James," Mira's voice cut through the tension and dragged all eyes to her.
Little Muirgen, who Anna now realized was probably closer to two months rather than a few weeks (she wasn't exactly an expert on babies), had both her eyes open and was staring with awe at the inhuman spirit. One hand was reaching out grasping for Anna, babbling happily.
James just about looked like he had a stroke as his wife brushed past him and deposited their child in Anna's arms. "Mira!"
"Ah!" Anna gasped, more shocked by the willingness than anything she had seen since dying.
Mira didn't fully let go, keeping a gentle hold on one of the baby's hands and standing disturbingly close to the fleshy skeleton that looked like something out of nightmares. She cracked a smile at Anna but it was nervous. She seemed so sure about putting the baby in Anna's arms though.
"I rather think she likes ye."
Anna swallowed, and she saw Mira's gaze glance at her throat that was probably a flap of skin at the moment. She just stared at the humans in stunned silence.
What kind of person just hands a baby to a strange creature?!
"...what are you?" James asked, glancing between his crazy wife and the monster.
"In my delirium," Mira answered for Annalise while looking the ghost in the eye. "I saw Death at my bedside, love. I knew I would not see morning nor our child's sweet face even if I could gather the strength for her alone. Moment's before, this spirit, with her horrific visage, came to my bedside and offered the comfort I needed. The comfort of a stranger. The comfort of death itself telling me it wasn't my time or the child's."
"I told you I wasn't Death," Anna mumbled shyly. She stiffened when Mira raised her hand to place it against the side of Anna's face. It stung, and they both flinched, Anna at the surprise and pain, and Mira at the terrible feeling of slick death beneath her fingers.
"Mayhap. But I saw you in those last moments, though my mind and my eyes were failing. I saw you stand at my feet and stand in the way of a grey lady. If you are not Death itself, you are her equal."
"You don't know what you're saying..." Anna said, shaking her head slightly.
Ha. Death could turn me to dust in a millisecond. Anna had no doubts about that. I'm a stupid teenager, not some god or angel or reaper or whatever the heck Chakis is. I'm just a dead kid who got desperate and scared and jumped in without knowing what was going on.
"Husband, thy wife and child may not be here were not for this being."
Well, that's one thing you have right... Anna thought in the silence, glancing at the little girl that had some odd number of years that would have belonged to Anna.
"And should Muirgen have been stolen away from us as we feared, then we have this spirit, who should on this rare occasion show herself to us, to thank for our daughter's protection and safe return."
Anna shifted awkwardly as James stared, an unreadable expression on his face.
"Are you fae?" James finally asked, keeping a distrustful watch on the arms holding his baby.
"...no. I don't think so," Anna answered, a little confused as the young man's face fell.
These people aren't much older than me...
There was just something young and hopeful in James' eyes.
"My father told me stories-"
Anna stiffened at the mention of Jack. James seemed to see her reaction but didn't know what it meant. He lowered his sword, but kept it gripped.
"-of my mother," James continued hesitantly. "I have few memories of her, but before my father died every day was an attempt to help me remember. He said her voice could sing sailors in from shore. That she loved the sea as much as birds love the air. And he promised I would see the ocean one day.
It was so odd to think Jack had been married and in love before meeting Sally.
That thickness was back in her throat. She wasn't sure she could bear hearing anything about Jack, ancient past or not.
"He called her an angel. His fair queen." James paused. "I nearly drowned as a boy, my father pulling me from the icy river before I could. He warmed me by the bellows of his forge and he told me he should have expected my mother's blood to send me to the waves. I asked what he meant. He said that there was magic in my blood. That my mother had been a lady from the ocean. I knew he meant fae. My mother was a selkie or a mermaid turned human, though Father never specified."
Anna stared wide-eyed. Well shit, this is...I'm not sure how to respond to this...This feels like something I shouldn't know.
James searched the shock on her face, trying to decipher it. "He promised to tell me the whole story, but he died before he could. I ask if you knew my mother or her story. And if that's why you've saved my family, for the duty of some connection."
Anna shook her head, maybe a little too frantically. "I didn't know...any of this. And I'm not fae. Sorry." But am I? Shit.
James nodded. "My apologies. Father was fond of his stories. Perhaps they were just the fantastical tales of a grieving widower."
Somehow I doubt that.
A flash of movement caught Anna's eye, and she had barely a moment to notice a tiny head duck back out the doorway.
"Excuse me," she said abruptly, gently handing Muirgen back to her mother, the speed understandably startling.
James and Mira both yelped when the spirit disappeared into thin air, heading toward the door.
The changeling was grabbed by the scruff of the baby tunic and tossed around the far outside corner of the house. Or maybe it was kicked, neither was sure in the speed of the moment. But it did travel a good length, hitting the ground with a grunt at the abuse.
"How much did you hear?" Annalise demanded.
"Not much!" the changeling said. "That end bit, about the man's mother and all that..."
Anna was silent.
"And perhaps some part talking about you."
"Oh, so all of it."
"No. I missed the fight."
Anna glared. "Do I have to threaten you into not saying anything to your people or are you planning some blackmail because I'll tell you right now I don't know how useful any of that would be for you."
"Nay, I have no interest with something that can toe with death..." the changeling admitted, perhaps a little fearfully. It glanced at the house, looking away from her. "You have a nice family, from what I can tell."
"They're not my family," Anna said.
The changeling's gaze swiveled to her so fast she thought it gave itself whiplash. It stared for a moment. "That's the first time I've been able to tell whether anything you've said is a straight lie and I cannot fathom the reason for the lie."
"Are you the man's mother-"
The changeling was cut off when Annalise violently gagged with nothing coming up. "Oh fuck. NO! Far from it. Gah! No! Now that's in my-" she moaned and held her head. "NO! Fuck no, I'm not his mother. I'm going to be sick..."
"I owe you no answers," Anna snapped. "What are you even doing here?"
The changeling quietly thought, contemplating whether to explain a few things.
"I have until morning to live," it said.
"This changeling curse. I maintain my mind until daybreak. When the sun rises, it will lock away all my memories and the last of my power in this body and I will be weak and helpless as any babe, assuming the image of the life I was supposed to replace."
"And with me intervening, I suppose your people don't care what happens next."
"That's rough buddy."
"...it's an execution."
Anna stared. She tilted her head back and groaned a little. "You're basically just a human kid at that point. Ugh. Why do I feel bad for you?"
The changeling didn't know how to answer that. "You wanted to know."
"Yeah yea I know," Anna waved her hand. There were too many things happening at once. She stared at the changeling.
The changeling nodded. "I'd like to stay here if you don't mind."
"I can see the sun come over the hill here."
Empathy was a strange emotion and Anna didn't expect it to be something that came with the fear uncomfortably stapled to her soul. But it made sense in a weird way. When she was alive, she didn't care about some feelings she hurt in her pranks. She was considerate, but not enough to concern with many of the cultural musts of a high school, cruel teenagers and all. Looking back, she was only popular for what many probably thought was attention seeking behavior. People probably thought her uncaring attitude was "cool."
She was very lonely in life, wasn't she? Even with the desire to be around people and play around, taking amusement from her tricks.
Anna huffed and sat down in the dirt next to the changeling. "Do you want to live?"
"...I'm already dead. My life is over."
"As a Sidhe, maybe," Anna said. "Even if you gotta be human, do you want to live?"
They laughed weakly. "Changelings almost never live very long. I only hope to hope I won't succumb to the elements which was once my blood before my sentence is reversed, should it ever be."
"You're not listening," Anna muttered.
The changeling looked at her sideways. "Pardon?"
Anna didn't say anything for a moment. Wordlessly she got up and left, further confusing the changeling.
They waited a moment before turning back to the east and watching the crest of the hill. Hours later, several pairs of footsteps approached. The spirit was back, bringing the two humans with her. Everyone stared with wide eyes, save the taisbhe and the babe in the human woman's arms.
The changeling had no strength to hide from the humans eyes, shocked they could even see the bloody girl.
The humans stared with curious horror at the tiny body. The father looked livid.
"Ye meant to take my daughter's place, creature?" he spat.
The mother didn't look very pleased either, but her face shifted to a neutral expression.
The changeling didn't asnwer, looking at the taibshe in fear and confusion.
"I have a proposition," Anna said, stepping between them. "This fae, as I explained, is cursed to be essentially human at daybreak. Fae can't lie and they said that they will have no memories or magic at their disposal. They're helpless and at your mercy." Her speech was a little more formal than before. She turned to the changeling. "Will you ever get your memories back?"
"I don't know," the changeling said. It was the truth.
Anna adjusted her question. "Do you have any idea?"
Now they hesitated. Was this cursed looking creature trying to help? If so, reserving their answers would not help, even if it went against their nature to give whole truths. "I will age to a point, but the longer my magic is trapped within, the more will leak out. I am immortal but not invincible. If I live, my memories may return in many years, but I am not sure."
"Do you vow to mean no ill will to this family?" Anna asked.
Anna turned to the humans. "Your decision will be respected, and I know this is a lot to ask. But will you consider fostering this changeling and raising them alongside Muirgen as your own?"
"Inviting a Sidhe into my household?" James asked, with a touch of suspicion.
Anna just nodded.
The human parents shared a look and the changeling realised that they must have spent those past hours arguing and discussing this. These humans couldn't possibly be willing to take that risk. They couldn't be that trusting.
Utter fear twisted in the changelings chest, far worse than the moment their sentence was announced to the Courts. Why?
The man huffed out a breath and the woman cast an uneasy smile while he crouched down.
James looked at the baby that looked so much like his own, but at the same time not.
The "baby" looked terrified, their fate in his hands.
"Mercy has its rewards," James said quietly, his breath misting in the air. "I shant sentence a stranger to death."
They didn't see Anna stiffen, staring at James before casting her gaze at the distant forest.
"I don't know what laws the Sidhe follow. Based on thy crimes, are ye a danger to my family?"
"Will the Sidhe take offense should we take ye in?"
"Not...not likely. They don't care what happens after banishment."
James nodded. "What is your name?"
"I have no name. No identity. It must be given to me or traded." The changeling swallowed. "If you name me, you have ownership of me."
"Ye look like my daughter," Mira said. "Are you a girl?"
"I suppose I am..."
"Do you have a preference for a name?"
The changeling shook her head, heart pounding. This was never what she expected.
Mira smiled kindly. "How about Áine?"
Áine blinked in shock as she felt her shattered aura shift back into place. It rearranged itself into different colors, her thousands of years as a member the last race of lower gods that Sidhe were shuffling beneath the thinness of a false humanity. "I..." she choked up, nodding weakly.
The taisbhe was looking on from off to the side with a very strange expression that was hard to make sense of. She seemed very confused at the naming, seemingly able to see Áine's aura, at least partly. There was curiosity in the gaze and a nervousness that wasn't there a moment ago.
James jumped when the bloody creature who was standing at the edge of his vision suddenly disappeared between one blink and the next.
Mira and baby Áine startled too, the changeling's eyes darting around in bemused shock, looking for any trace.
Anna stumbled and shouted, dropped on the outcropping of a very steep hill, practically a cliff, her only footing a thin path and some rocks. Her arm was caught before she fell down the mountain.
"Is this a habit of yours?!" Anna gasped. Chakis pulled her back. "Why'd you...?!"
"You've seen what you've needed to see," the Reaper said calmly.
Anna moved across the small road farther away from the cliff edge.
"But I will say you made very interesting choices. You needed little prompting to get that involved."
Anna swallowed. "What's that supposed to mean?"
The angel's face was unreadable, and the slight smile did not help.
"What else was I supposed to do?! I couldn't just let them take the kid-"
"You could have."
"But..." Anna stammered. "That changeling-"
"It was interesting you were so willing to help. You don't know what that creature did to earn its fate."
Anna froze. That was true. "I just...it was just going to be an innocent kid in the morning..."
"I don't judge choices, Light," Chakis said. "That's not my duty. Come along."
Anna stared at her suspiciously while Chakis started walking. "You're not taking me home?"
"And where would that be?"
Anna bit her tongue. "When and where are we now?"
"By the calendar you know, we are in the middle of the 16th century," the Reaper answered without looking back.
Anna blinked, following. "That's a bit of a time skip. I think. I don't really know when was the time I just left."
"What do you think?"
Anna paused. "Um. Well...Christianity seemed pretty well known in Ireland, but it wasn't super popular so...er...5th or 6th?"
What was she being praised for? Anna frowned.
"A lot can change in 1000 years," Chakis said as the steep trail dipped into trees darkening the path. The grey lady just about disappeared in the gloom and Anna was suddenly incredibly annoyed with how slowly her eyes adjusted. "But it would surprise you what can stay near the same in that time."