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Chapter Five

Grant Pilton squinted up at the hilltop and put a hand over his eyes to shield them from the light.

“There’s a kid up there, watching us,” he called to Jake Williamson. “A little girl.”

“What?” Williamson climbed down from the truck cab. “Ms. Gilbreth’s not gonna like that. She don’t want witnesses. Where is she?”

Pilton pointed. “Right up there.”

Williamson squinted. The little girl up there looked about five or six years old. “Maybe she don’t know what she’s seeing. Let’s talk to her.”

They walked toward her. The little girl sat frozen in place, her wide blue eyes fixed on them like those of a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. They noticed that she was clutching something to her chest. It writhed, and she spoke to it, too low for them to hear her.

“She’s got her baby brother or sister with her,” Williamson said. “Let’s just go up and make friends, and I’ll give her a buck or something to go back in the house.”

Suddenly, the child sprang to her feet, and ran up the side of the hill.

“There she goes!” Pilton exclaimed. The two men broke into a run, jumping over the shallow stream and charging up the slope.

“Why are we chasing her?” Williamson asked suddenly, stopping on his heels.

Pilton paused only for a heartbeat. “Well, we don’t want her to think we’re child molesters. She knows somethin’s wrong now. We gotta catch up with her.”

“We don’t want her to get the sheriff out here,” Williamson agreed. The thought went through both their minds at once that it would be a bad idea to have anyone investigating their presence in the forest preserve at this time, for whatever reason. Williamson poured on the speed, and outdistanced his companion.

With their long strides, they crested the hill in no time. The girl was just a few lengths ahead of them, the soft soles of her green-shod feet flashing down the hill. Pilton shouted, “Hey!”

The running girl looked back at him over her shoulder. All at once, she dropped to her knees. Suddenly, for no really good reason Pilton could detect, she vanished from sight.

“Where’d she go?” he yelled. Williamson dashed to where the girl had last been visible.

So far as he could tell, Williamson was reaching for a handful of empty air, but he came up with the little girl’s upper arm clasped in his big fist. She reappeared as if a curtain was being drawn away from her, then Pilton could see there was a white scarf or something like it on the ground around her feet. The little girl wrenched her arm free to support the bundle in her other arm, and Williamson took hold of her long blond hair instead.

“Right here, you idiot. Can’t you see her?”

“I can now, but she was invisible before,” Pilton insisted. “How’d she do that?”

“She wasn’t invisible,” Williamson said, his voice scornful. “She’s wearing green, and you’ve got the sun in your eyes.”

“No, she’s magic,” Pilton said. “She disappeared, like in a trick.”

“You’re just blind, that’s your problem.”

“What do you want of me?” the girl demanded, clutching the baby protectively to her chest.

Pilton and Williamson inspected their prisoners. The girl stood about three feet high, with long, silky blond hair that was now tangled and festooned with pieces of weed. She wasn’t as young as they’d first suspected. The summing look with which she fixed them wasn’t just that of a hyper-intelligent six-year-old. She had an old, old look in her eyes. If she hadn’t been so small of stature, Pilton would have thought she was just on the early side of teenage.

“Why did you run away?” Jake asked her.

“Well, you were chasing me,” she said, her chin stuck out. She looked as though she might cry, and Pilton felt sorry for her. “Let me go. I want to go home.”

“What do you want to do, Jake?” he asked, staring at the child. She was a pretty little thing, and scared to pieces.

“No names,” Williamson snapped back, looking alarmed.

“Let her go, huh?”

“Shut up! I got to think!” The harshness of his voice alarmed the girl, who tried to take a step away. Williamson tightened his hold on her hair, and she whimpered. The baby, catching her alarm, burst out crying.

“My God, that kid has lungs!” Pilton said, taken aback by the sheer volume of noise the minute baby produced.

“Quiet! Shut it up!” Williamson thundered over the shrieking.

“I can’t!” she said, stamping her foot. Tears began to track down her cheeks. “You frightened her!”

“Shut her up or I’ll wallop you! Dammit, I can’t think with all this screaming going on. Put her in the truck,” Williamson said.

The girl’s eyes went big, and she attempted to struggle free. Her efforts had no more effect than if she had been held by a stone statue. With a gesture of impatience, Williamson thrust her toward Pilton, who wrapped his hand around her upper arm and steered her over the hilltop toward the tanker. Her bones felt as small as a bird’s. He sneaked a glance sideways at her. Through the tresses of her hair, the tip of her left ear peeked out. It was pointed, like a cat’s. The girl caught him looking, and tossed her head back. The ear was hidden again, but Pilton was certain he’d seen what he’d seen. She bent her head over the baby, talking in a low, soothing voice. The infant’s shrill cries abated about a yard from the truck, and settled into low, frightened sobbing. Her little nose was red.

Pilton relaxed as soon as the noise stopped. It had to be a very new baby. Both of his kids had sounded like that for the first few months of life.

“We’ve caught a fairy woman,” he told Williamson, when they’d stowed the girl and baby in the truck cab. The seats were so deep that only the heads of the two children were visible over the side. Both faces were streaky with tears and huge-eyed with terror.

“Don’t talk crazy,” Williamson said, turning his back on them. “She’s a midget, like those Munchkins in the Wizard of Oz movie.”

“I think there’s something weird about her,” Pilton insisted. The girl stared at them through the truck window, her expression half defiance, half-mute appeal.

“Dammit!” Williamson swore, pounding his fist on the tank wall. Pilton saw the girl jump, and her jaw set. “We can’t just trust her to keep her mouth shut, not when we’ve scared the heck out of her like that. We better take her back and let Ms. Gilbreth figure out what to do with her.”

Dola was frightened. She wanted to get out of this evil-smelling vehicle and away, but there was so much metal around her that the very air burned. The Big Folk had bundled her in here, without so much a thought for her feelings as they’d give to a package. She curled in on herself, wishing the world would go away. The only thing preventing her from becoming a little knot of acute self-pity and fear was her concern for the baby.

Thankfully, Asrai had stopped crying the moment the truck door slammed shut on them, or she’d have deafened Dola completely. It must be the presence of all that cold metal that shocked her silent. This was the first time in her young life that she’d been in a hostile environment. Dola liked it no more than Asrai, but she knew such things existed, and was better prepared.

“I’m with you, little one,” she whispered. “I’ll protect you, I swear it.” Though how she was to accomplish her vow, she had no idea.

Who could these men be? They were dressed identically in button-up coveralls of a drab color and sturdy construction. The outfit looked better on the bigger man. The other one was so skinny that only his shoulders filled out the contours of his uniform. They seemed to be disagreeing on what to do. Meanwhile the hose running from the tank was spewing foul-smelling liquid onto the ground near the source of her drinking water. The elders needed to be told at once, so they could contain the contamination.

Both the cab doors opened at once. Dola put the baby across her shoulder and prepared to climb down, but the two men got in, one on either side of them, leaving no room for her to pass. By the set of their jaws, there was no room for argument, either. She was a prisoner.

What’s going to become of us? she thought despairingly.

Without a word, the big one called Jake started up the big engine. The skinny one with hair the soft brown color of river clay kept glancing at her sideways. Jake, driving, didn’t look at them once, but Dola could tell he was acutely aware of them. She peeked up at him through her hair, trying to study his face. He didn’t look a bad man, but he was scared, too.

“I tell you, this must be a fairy woman and her baby,” the skinny one said, talking over her head, when the truck had passed out of the Forest Preserve and onto the main road.

“C’mon, you idiot,” said Jake, “there’s no such thing as fairies.”

“Well, what do you call her?” Skinny poked at Dola’s ear.

She was shocked. Incarceration was one thing, but personal assaults were another. Dola turned her head and bit him on the hand. He yelled, and she recoiled, spitting out the taste of his skin.

“Ugh, do you never wash your hands?” she asked boldly. “And it’s not my baby, it’s my cousins’ baby. You’d better let us go home, or they’ll be upset.”

It was the wrong thing to say. All of a sudden, both men grew quiet. They didn’t say another word to her. She looked from one to another, hoping for some sign of kindness or mercy. Dola felt a cold wash of terror roll down the middle of her back. These weren’t Keith Doyle and his harmless Big friends whom she knew and trusted. They were strangers, who might mean to do her harm. She might never see home again.

Dola tightened her arms around the baby and stared out the big windshield at the road, trying to memorize the sights they passed. She had to be brave, for Asrai.

In the early twilight, Maura peered into the door of her cottage. It was silent within, and none of the lanterns had been lit. She found the one closest to the doorway and blew on the pointed cotton wick mounted in the scrolled wooden candle between the carved screens. The cotton began to blaze with its bright, un-consuming fire.

There was no sound. “Dola? Where are you, child?”

Maura checked the infant’s cot. It was empty, and cool to the touch. Perhaps both girl and baby were asleep in the master bed. She smiled. That would explain why Dola hadn’t reported for kitchen duty. The day had tired them both out. Maura put on the rest of the lights in the small cottage.

“Dola?” she said, her voice gently chiding, leaning into her bedroom. “Lass, it’s nearly dinnertime.” She was astonished that Asrai wasn’t awake already. Maura was more than ready to feed the baby, and their physical alarms seemed to go off at the same time.

The cottage was empty. Well, no harm. Perhaps Dola was in the barn, or their paths had crossed, each seeking the other. Maura turned back to the house and began to seek baby and babysitter.

They were not to be found in either place. By full darkness, Maura was beside herself with worry. She had covered nearly all the farm property, calling. The girls weren’t in the fields, nor the workshop, nor visiting other children in the clan rooms of the main house. Maura had knocked on the door of all the cottages to ask her neighbors if the girls were with them. No one had seen either child for hours.

“Where can she be?” she asked Holl. “I’ve been listening for them, but I can’t hear them.”

“I am sure they are here somewhere,” Holl said, trying to be reassuring. He knew Dola to be responsible. Wherever they were, he was certain that they were safe. “Probably Dola’s become interested in some small project, or reading a book, and she has lost track of the time.”

Maura favored him with a look full of exasperation. She crossed her arms gingerly over her chest. “But Asrai would not forget. She must be very hungry. A babe’s stomach can only hold enough food for two or three hours. We ought to be able to hear her crying by now.”

“Aye, that we should,” said Ranna, not unkindly. “If we could train the babe to rise at dawn we wouldn’t need a rooster.”

“Dola wouldn’t have wandered away,” Shelogh said reasonably. “That child is responsible.”

The thought, so far kept at bay, arose inexorably in their minds, that Dola and Asrai were gone from the Farm itself. At once, the elder Folk began to suggest alternatives to the unthinkable.

“Could vun of our Big friends have come to visit and taken them away?” Rose suggested. “The good Ludmilla has said often that she vould like to treat Dola for the good work she does in caring for your babe.”

“She might have walked into town,” Marcy suggested, crouching down beside the Little Folk. She had just returned from class at Midwestern, and was concerned when the situation had been explained to her. “With all the Big People going home over these roads at this hour, she’s probably hiding out. And I’m sure she’s sorry. Holding onto an unhappy baby when you’ve missed feeding time is its own punishment.”

“Or it might be they’ve gone on a wee adventure,” Marm said, his foolish, bearded face concerned but smiling. “It’s a long way back to the Library, but she knows how to get there. Perhaps she ran out of books to read!”

Immediately, Holl wanted to dismiss Marm’s idea as foolish, but who knew what ran through the minds of almost-teenaged children? It was true. All of them did know the way back to their old home. The distance was too great to walk, but there were buses that traveled through the county road intersection only one mile away. If it were the case, she’d have arrived at the Midwestern campus within the last twenty minutes.

“But it is dark now,” the Master reasoned. “She vill have taken shelter somewhere for the night. Dola has learned basic survival. All vill be vell.”

“But Asrai needs to feed,” Maura exclaimed. “What will they do?”

“Peace, daughter,” the Master said, patting her hand. “Undoubtedly she has found that her adventure has placed her too far away at a critical point. Ve vill telephone to Ludmilla and see if she has seen them. Our good friend will aid her in dealing with an infant who has missed a meal. Our needs are similar though our sizes differ. It is too late to bring her here before she is fed, but no doubt some Big Folk equivalent vill be made to suffice.”

The suggestion made good sense, and served to calm Maura and Siobhan somewhat. Concentrating on eluding detection by either mother, Holl extended a wisp of sense, feeling outward for his daughter.

“They’ll be with her, won’t they?” Maura asked bravely, looking up at Holl for support.

“Aye,” he said, distracted. If she’d seen him concentrating, she’d know what he’d been trying to do, and worry all the more. “They won’t leave her.”

“It is I who speak, old friend,” the Master said into the telephone receiver. All the Folk who could fit into the farmhouse kitchen were crowded around. “It vould be very good to see you at the veekend, should you care to visit. No, I call for another purpose. Two of our children have gone wandering. Have they come to you? My daughter’s child, and young Dola, her caretaker.” Holl watched with dismay as the small muscles in the Master’s cheek tightened. He was disappointed. “Vill you keep watch for them, and summon us vhen they appear? I thank you.” He cradled the phone and shook his head.

“The Library,” said Siobhan desperately.

“Do you want me to go?” Marcy asked.

“It vould take too long,” the Master said. “I will ask one who is closer by.” He put in another call. Everyone held their breath while the Master counted the rings until the receiver was picked up. “Mees Londen, I haf a favor to ask of you.”

Holl was waiting by the telephone when it rang, half an hour later.

“Nothing,” Diane said. “I went through the whole village with a lantern. I checked every house, and every level of the library stacks. They aren’t there. I left a note on the wall with my phone number if Dola goes down there. She’ll call you or me when she arrives.”

“Thank you,” Holl said.

“Dunn and Barry are going over the rest of the campus on foot. They’ll call you direct if they find her.” Diane’s voice was hesitant. “I’m sure they’re all right. Probably they’re just lost. Can I do anything else to help?”

“You are doing a great deal. Just keep your eyes open for them,” Holl said.

“Please keep me posted,” Diane begged. “I’d better go. She might be trying to call you.”

“That’s right,” Holl said, and hastily hung up. He waited, hoping that the telephone would ring as soon as he put down the receiver. He stood ready with his hand on the handset to snatch it up, waiting for the bell. His eyes met Maura’s. Her lips quivered slightly, then tears over-spilled her lashes and streamed down her cheeks. Holl opened his arms. She moved close and put her head on his shoulder, closing her arms tightly against his back. Throat tight, he clasped her to his chest, his lips touching her hair. He was glad for the feeling of being enfolded. The close contact gave him a sense of security which he sorely needed.

No time for subtlety. He let his mind clear to do a full finding. His sense tripped lightly out, touching all the places on the farm that Dola liked to frequent. It met the edges of the property, feeling gently along the forest paths, and into the small pockets of air under the greater tree roots that the children liked to hide in when they played their games. His sense ranged further and further afield, touching the minds of Big Folk drivers in their cars, the metal of which burned him slightly with a freezing hot touch. Dola and his baby were nowhere nearby. He knew in his heart that they lived, but he didn’t know where. Enoch burst into the kitchen. Holl, his concentration broken again, turned to his brother-in-law.

“We’ve been out in the field. Strange Big Folk were there today,” Enoch said, his distaste evident. His face was drawn and angry. He ran a dirty hand through his tousled black hair. “Their footprints and Dola’s overlap. Bracey did a sniffing, and he says there was a scuffle, and she left with them in a truck. He can’t figure out who they are. They drove through a puddle of that muck that those fertilizer people have been dumping on our land.”

“My baby’s been taken away by the Big Ones!” Siobhan burst into hysterical tears. Tay gathered her into his arms, and sympathetic friends surrounded her.

“Hush, woman,” Tay said hoarsely. “Screeching won’t bring them back. The girl will come back if she can. All we can do is continue to look.”

Siobhan’s panic was nothing compared to the agony Maura suddenly experienced as she realized her baby was gone. She began to cry, silently, with more force until she was gasping uncontrollably. Her father stepped forward and clapped a hard hand over her mouth and nose.

“Calm. Gain control. Your next breath vill be a calm one. Concentrate.” Over his hand, her eyes cleared, and she nodded. Her mother put an arm around her shoulder, and more friends and relatives gathered close to lend their comfort.

“We must call Keith Doyle,” Holl said, holding Maura close. Both their faces were pale and drawn. “He’ll know what to do.”

The Master nodded assent. Catra snatched up the phone and began to dial.


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