One promise can change everything.
The fairies must never know of Nelay’s sight, for the attention of such dark and terrible creatures brings more things dark and terrible. But when Nelay's father is near death, the fairies are the only ones who can save him. All they require is a simple promise that she'll return the favor one day.
Some promises are lethal.
The blistering wind blowing in from the desert was so hot even the flies had disappeared. The only creatures still visible were the fairies Nelay had followed to the dry riverbed—fairies she was careful to never look at directly.
Sheep bleated impatiently around her as she pushed her handmade wooden shovel into the damp silt and dragged it back. She dug deeper and deeper. The sheep sniffed at the ground and crowded her. Her family’s hobbled donkey even stepped on her foot. “Asat! Move!” She rammed him with her shoulder and shouted at the sheep. They scattered like oil in water, but it wasn’t long before they turned to slowly circle Nelay, a circle that tightened with every turn.
Eventually, the dampness turned into mud, which gave way to puddles, the edges of which began to connect ever so slowly. Using her shovel, Nelay tossed clods of mud at the sheep. “Bossy! Patches! Get back!”
She managed to keep the animals off long enough to strain and drink her fill and replenish four water skins—two each for herself and her older brother, Panar. These she looped around her scrawny neck.
The water fairies flitted at the edge of her peripheral vision, but Nelay was practiced at avoiding them and didn’t turn her head to watch.
Last, she unwound her headscarf and held it in the water, keeping it out of the mud as much as possible. When it was thoroughly soaked, she draped it back around her head and shoulders, her whole body relaxing in a silent sigh of relief.
As soon as she stood, the sheep charged the long fissure she’d created, nearly knocking her over as they sucked desperately at the water. She backed up, bumping and jostling against the two dozen sheep, the water skins banging against her ribs. Finally free of the animals, she flicked water off her fingers before hooking the shovel back on Asat’s packsaddle.
She counted the sheep to make sure they were all there, starting with her favorites. Blua wore the bell. She was obedient, always the first to come when Nelay called. Her characteristic bleat—the blua sound that had inspired her name—was the loudest as she jostled with the others for access to the water.
Mag had a few blotches of black on her face that reminded Nelay of a magpie. Day was always the first one up in the mornings, and her mangled ear made her easy to find. And Farter . . . Nelay grinned.