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Ch. 14 - Brùnaidh

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They walked for what seemed like forever, Rhianna tried her best to listen to the forest instead of the whispers, and soon they faded to background hum. The chorus of insects was gone, leaving a deafening silence outside of her head, but there were still forest sounds, and the sounds of her friends.

Gretch crashed through the underbrush, cursing at thorns, Raisen and Jenny's stumbling, punctuated by little mewling sounds and whimpers at intervals.

Then Rhianna started hearing another sound. A sharp clack. Then another, and another. It wasn't a noise she could attribute to the forest. 

She wanted to call ahead to the others to stop so she could listen, but she continued like everything was normal.

It wouldn't do any good to stop and turn around. It would be no different from any of the other dozen times she had spun around to find nothing. Only forest noises and her imagination.

It had to be a forest noise that she was unfamiliar with. They had to be deep in by now, maybe near the center. How many of those glowing marbles had she counted? She stopped short.

How many did Gretch have in that bag? What if they ran out? She drew a breath, not quite willing to shout ahead, not quite sure she could be heard if she didn't.

Clack.

She whirled around to face the nothing.

"Whose there!" Her voice erupted in a hoarse half-whisper, half-shout. She clamped her hand over her mouth, too late.

She peered into the nothing. The Nothing. A shiver ran up her spine. Mom told a story once, about a Nothing eating away a whole fantasy world because nobody believed in magic anymore. The movie version, which she saw later, hadn't been as scary as the version mom's storytelling and her imagination had cooked up.

This was scarier.

She went along with Gretch's flights of fancy, but she hadn't really believed they were entering a fantasy world tonight—even after Kasubia, and all the strange things that happened since she came to the farm. 

She swallowed, and whispered, "I believe in magic." Her eyes were as wide as she could possibly open them, staring into the darkness, wishing she could see something rather than nothing.

After a moment she thought she saw something. A green smudge floating in the darkness. It got brighter as she watched and suddenly she wished she could see nothing again.

It dipped down then up, and she heard it again. Clack.

Then she new what it was.

Marbles.

As the realization came to her, the glow of the marbles outlined a face. A face with a swoop of black bangs across its brow like a raven's wing.

"You!" she said. Her normal speaking voice, perhaps a little louder than normal, dispelled the Nothing and turned her surroundings back into forest. It was the boy she'd seen on the edge of the forest the day the crows and the bluejays squabbled over whose babies would live and whose babies would be lunch.

"Me?" said the boy, blinking in the glow of the small hoard of marbled he cupped in one hand.

"What are you doing here? Who are you? Where did you come from?"

"Keeping track of your marbles. Teasel Pepperbug. From...here."

"What?"

"My name is Teasel Pepperbug, I am from these parts, and I am making sure you don't lose your marbles. I have to say, you are very difficult to keep up with sometimes. Perhaps now that we can speak it will make my job a little easier." He held the marbles out to her.

She ignored his offering. Where was here? Were they still in an ordinary forest or had they actually crossed into Fairyland.

"Oh yes," said the boy. "You are definitely in Fairy, as human folk name it."

"Wait, how...what are you?"

"I am Teasel Pepperbug, brùnaidh to your family." He said it matter of factly, as though she should know.

"You're a fairy?"

He sighed. "That is a complicated question. I am on of the People, which is what we are properly called. Fairy is such a human word. But I don't get involved in Tribe politics. I don't have a side, so I don't really count in the others' eyes. Mind you, I mean side as in one of theirs. Your side is my side."

He spoke so many words and so quickly that her head was spinning. Rhianna backed away until she bumped into a tree. The cool solid presence at her back gave her an inexplicable feeling of reassurance.

"I'm sorry. It's just that I haven't been able to speak to you for so long, except for that time when you came close enough to the forest. I guess I am talking a little too much."

"Would you stop doing that!"

"The thought reading? I'm sorry. I can't exactly turn it off—"

"Then could you pretend or something because you are creeping me out, even though strangely I feel this strong sense of comfort and safety—is that you?"

"Not me. The tree." He pointed behind her.

Rhianna jumped away from the tree.

"Don't worry, they don't bite." He chuckled as if he had told a very clever joke. "They are happy you have returned."

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