"Since you are the youngest," Igel told me, "you have first choice of the clothes and boots."
Smaolach, who stood over the pile of shoes, beckoned me. I noticed that his own feet were bare. I poked through the assortment of childrens saddle shoes, square-toed brogues, canvas tennis shoes, and the odd unmated boot, choosing at last a pair of brand new black-and-white wingtips that seemed to be my size.
"Thosell cut your ankles off."
"How about these?" I asked, holding up the tennis shoes. "I might be able to squeeze into these." My feet felt damp and chilled on the cold ground.
Smaolach rooted around and picked out the ugliest brown shoes I had ever seen. The leather creaked when he flexed the soles, and the laces looked like coiled snakes. Each toe was tipped with a small steel plate. "Trust me, these will keep you warm and toasty all winter long, and a long time in the wearing."
"But theyre too small."
"Dont you know youve been shrinking yourself?" With a sly grin, he reached into his trousers pocket and pulled out a pair of thick woolen socks. "And I found these especially for you."
The whole crowd gasped in appreciation. They gave me a cableknit sweater and an oilskin jacket, which kept me dry on the wettest days.
As the nights lengthened and grew colder, we exchanged our grass mats and solitary beds for a heap of animal skins and stolen blankets. The twelve of us slept together in a tangled clump. I rather enjoyed the comfort of the situ-ation, although most of my friends had foul breath or fetid odors about them. Part of the reason must be the change in diet, from the bounty of summer to the decay of late fall and the deprivation of winter. Several of the poor crea-tures had been in the woods for so long that they had given up all hope of human society. Indeed, a handful had no such desire at all, so they lived like animals, rarely taking a bath or cleaning their teeth with a twig. Even a fox will lick its hindquarters, but some of the faeries were the dirtiest beasts.
That first winter, I yearned to go with the hunter-gatherers on their morning forage for food and other supplies. Like the crows that convened at dusk and dawn, those thieves enjoyed freedom away from the roost. While I was left behind, I had to suffer babysitters like that toad Béka and his companion Onions, or old Zanzara and Ragno, who squabbled all day and threw nutshells and stones at the birds and squirrels poking around our hidden hoard. I was bored and cold and lonesome for adventure.
On a gray morning, Igel himself chose to stay behind to watch over me, and as luck would have it, my friend Smaolach kept him company. They brewed a pot of tea from dried bark and peppermint, and as we watched a cold rain fall, I pressed my case.
"Why wont you let me go with all the others?"
"My great fear is that youll run away and try to return whence you came, but you cannot, Aniday. You are one of us now." Igel sipped his tea and stared at a point far off. After a decent interval, letting his wisdom sink into my mind, he continued. "On the other hand, you have proved yourself a valu-able member of our clan. You gather the kindling, husk the acorns, and dig a new privy hole when asked. You are learning true obedience and deference. I have watched you, Aniday, and you are a good student of our ways."
Smaolach stared into the dying fire and said something in a secret lan-guage, all vowels and hard consonants full of phlegm. Igel pondered over that secret sentence, then chewed on his own thoughts before spitting them out. Then, as now, I was eternally puzzled over how people think, by what process they solve lifes riddles. Their consultation over, Igel resumed his study of the horizon.
"Youre to come with Luchóg and me this afternoon," Smaolach in-formed me with a conspiratorial wink. "Well show you the lay of the land around these parts as soon as the rest of them get back."
"You better dress warmly," Igel advised. "This rain will changeover soon."