In the gloaming, the crows flew in to gather for the night in a stand of bare oaks. Bird by bird, they soared to the rookery, black shadows against the fading light. My kidnapping, still fresh in my mind, left me timid and battered, not trusting a soul in the woods. I missed my family, yet days and weeks passed, marked by the routine appearance of the birds. Their arrival and departure provided reas-suring continuity. By the time the trees lost their leaves and their naked limbs stretched to the sky, the crows no longer frightened me. I came to look for-ward to their graceful arrival, silhouetted against the wintry sky, a natural part of my new life.
The faeries welcomed me as their own and taught me the ways of the woods, and I grew fond of them all. In addition to Speck, Igel, Béka and On-ions, there were seven others. The three girls were inseparable—Kivi and Blomma, blonde and freckled, quiet and assured, and their tagalong, Chavisory, a chatterbox who looked no more than five years old. When she grinned, her baby teeth shone like a string of pearls, and when she laughed, her thin shoulders shook and twitched. If she found something truly funny or exciting, she took off like a skittering bat, dancing in circles and figure eights across the clearing.
Apart from the leader Igel and the loner Béka, the boys formed two pairs. Ragno and Zanzara, as I remember them, reminded me of the two sons of the Italian grocers in town. Thin and olive-skinned boys, each had a thatch of dark curls on his head and was quick to anger and quicker to forgive. The other set, Smaolach and Luchóg, behaved as brothers, though they could not be more dissimilar. Towering over everyone but Béka, Smaolach concentrated on the task at hand, as oblivious and earnest as a robin tugging up an earth-worm. His good friend Luchóg, smallest of us all, was forever pushing back an untamable lock of night-black hair that curled across his forehead like the tail of a mouse. His eyes, blue as the summer sky, gave away his fierce devotion to his friends, even when he tried to feign nonchalance.
Igel, the eldest and leader of the band, took pains to explain the ways of the forest. He showed me how to gig for frogs and fish, how to find water collected overnight in the hollow of fallen leaves, to distinguish edible mush-rooms from deadly toadstools, and dozens of other survival tricks. But even the best guide is no match for experience, and for most of my early time, I was coddled. They kept me under constant watch by at least two others, and I was forced to stay around camp, with dire warnings to hide away at any hint of other people.
"If they catch you, they will think you a devil," Igel told me. "And lock you away, or worse, they will test to see if they are right by throwing you in a fire."
"And you will burn up like kindling," said Ragno.
"And be nothing more than a puff of smoke," said Zanzara, and Chavisory demonstrated by dancing around the campfire, circling away to the edge of darkness.
When the first hard frost hit, a small party was sent away for an overnight excursion, and they came back with armloads of sweaters, jackets, and shoes. Those of us who had stayed behind were shivering beneath deerskins.