He is seated outside the coffee shop at a small café table beneath an umbrella the color of ivy leaves. He is fair and blond and if you happen to know the word “lithe” you would use that exact word to describe him.

He is waiting, which is not something he is accustomed to doing.

As he waits a young woman from the nearby college passes and smiles. He smiles back, meeting her eyes. Inside the shop she looks to see if he is visible from her vantage point. He is the kind of handsome that makes people do things like that.
“What took you so long?”

“I refuse to speak their ridiculous lingo,” says the second man, walking up and setting an over-full porcelain cup on the table. He doesn’t seem to be paying particular attention to this action, but he doesn’t spill any. “I say large and they tell me what I should have said. So I say ‘large’ again and some days, like today, they tell me again - at which point I start speaking German.”

With a barely audible sign of exasperation he takes the seat across from the blond man.

“Too hard to just say it, Jade?”

“Actually, yes. It would be far too hard. There’s a principle involved.” He takes a sip and doesn’t say any more about it.

In fact neither of them says anything for quite some time. They sit beneath the warm Florida sun; the blond man a bit too stark, easily taken for a tourist, German or maybe Swedish, and the other one - Jade - tan and relaxed, obviously a local, sitting back in his chair, legs outstretched before him.

“Why am I here?” the lithe man finally asks.

“You tell me. I honestly didn’t think you would come. I know how busy you are.”

“You asked me to. There must be...I came because you asked me to.”

“You came because you’re afraid I’m going to do something stupid,” Jade says.

“It wouldn’t be the first time, would it?”

“Nope. And the last time I did something stupid almost certainly won’t be the last time, either.” A statement of fact. He takes a sip. “I just wanted to talk.”

“We could have spoken on the phone.”

“Naw, this is one of those conversations you need to have in person. Like asking someone if you can marry his daughter.”

“At least we know this is not about that. How are Kat and the girls, by the way?” Kari asks.

“All fine. Everyone is just fine. Dancing up a storm, creating beautiful stuff. And you? All the other faeries are well, I trust.”

This last produces the first real sign of emotion in the blond man. He winces at the word, as if someone had told an off-color joke in church.

“Is it too much to ask you not to use that particular word?”

“Yes, Kari, it is. For one thing, it’s a joke. And you need to lighten up. You’ve needed to lighten up for a really long time now. And for another thing it’s completely appropriate, because that’s basically what we are, or at least what we’re related to - assuming you’re not full of shit, of course.”

“I find it demeaning,” Kari says.

“Hey, it’s your story, not mine. I’m just telling you what kind of story it is.” Another sip of coffee, a long one. “And like I said it’s funnier than ‘elves’, and you’re not gonna get me to say “metsästäjä” - I don’t have that much time. But that is what I want to talk about; how things are going.”

“What do you mean ‘how things are going’? Since when have you cared about how things are going? For that matter, you don’t even believe most of these ‘things’, so I’m unclear about your interest in how they are going.”

“Maybe I’m getting curious in my old age.”

“You’ve been curious since the day I met you.”

“Before that even.”

“I have no doubt. But without regard to that, we can’t talk about any of this here.” Kari shifts his eyes to indicate the patrons walking in and out of the store.

“Well, you’re wrong on that point,” Jade says. “If there is one thing I’ve learned over the past couple years it’s that you can say absolutely anything in public and people will go out of their way to not believe you. The crazier the better. Even more so if they think you are working on some sort of creative project. That’s why I brought this notebook.” he pulls a composition book and pencil out of his map case and drops them on the table, “If anyone takes an interest, we’re just working on a screenplay or something. So what’s with sending Danii a confirmation?”

Kari doesn’t answer at first, and it’s obvious that he does not intend to answer ever. Then something - most likely his knowledge of just how Jade-like Jade can be - occurs to him and he shrugs an almost imperceptible shrug and prepares to speak…

“I don’t think you’ve ever lied to me,” Jade cuts in. “Assuming, that is, that every word you’ve ever spoken to me hasn’t been a lie. So don’t start now.”

“It has been long enough. Too long. She is what she is and a situation that she can deal with came up. No one else was around. You were in Texas and Feyn was dealing with something else.”

“You could have called me. Since when have you ever cared if I was doing something else? When have I ever not dropped everything when something comes up? It was obvious from the start exactly what this was. I could have dealt with it no trouble.”

“She dealt with it admirably.”

“She almost got killed.”

“We all almost get killed fairly regularly, and that does not account for those of us who do get killed.” Kari realizes that his voice has risen just slightly and he stops. And breathes. And stares hard at Jade. “I am not going to continue talking about this here.”

“OK. There’s a county park a quarter mile to the West. It borders several hundred acres of pretty much nothing. You’ll feel right at home.”

~~~( )~~~

There are still many people in the world who look askance at two grown men walking together for no good reason, especially if they are walking together in a place that affords them no opportunity to ogle women. Double that if they are walking together in a rather secluded park that borders on a large and wild preserve of Floridian scrub forest.

Even if these two men cared at all about being looked at in that way by those types of people - which they don’t - it wouldn’t have mattered, because no one can see them anyway. There is probably nothing magical in this, they just happen to be very good at not being seen or heard, especially when they are in a forest.

They walk far into the large stand of palmetto and live oak and, in truth, the degree to which they make no noise in this overgrown tangle of dried leaves and tinder-thin twigs is more than a little eerie.

Kari, the blond man, seems much more at ease than he did under the ivy-green umbrella.

“This is a good place,” Kari says. “Do you spend a great deal of time here?”

“Hell no.” Jade answers. “It smells like six-week-old socks back here. And what do you mean ‘time’? I’ve got a real life, you may have forgotten. I don’t just stroll through the freakin’ leaves all day waiting for your errand girl to show up and send me on my merry way. Which reminds me. Of two things, actually.”

“Let’s take them one at a time, if possible.”

“Cute. OK, we need to have a serious conversation about the fact that you use a courier at all in this day and age. That is, hands down, the most ridiculous thing, in terms of security and cost effectiveness, you could possibly do.”

“Tradition,” is all Kari says.

“Thank you, Tevye. Well, your tradition is going to get someone killed. What happens if she gets pulled over for something and a cop gets a look inside one of your envelopes?”

“You’re right,” Kari says.

The uncommon sound of Jade not knowing what to say fills the wood. For a moment. “Damn right, I’m right,” he finally says.

“I’ve known things had to change for a long time now. It’s been foolish, especially with the increased scrutiny of the past several years. The notes and the photographs were relics from what seems like a very long time ago now. I’ve already made the switch to encrypted files on the next generation thumb drives. The irony is that now the most secure way to move that data around IS via courier. There is nothing that Echelon or Carnivore can do to peek into a drive that is just sitting in an envelope on the front seat of her car. If it’s not connected to anything, they can’t get to it. Not unless they physically take it, and I’m far less concerned about that - especially with some of the features built into the new drives. It’s funny how big the circle is sometimes.”

“Were you planning on mentioning this to anyone?” Jade asks.

“Everyone else already knows,” Kari says. “I was going to tell you today, but you brought it up first.”

“OK, fair enough. Good call. Then what about Andi?”

“Yes? What about her?” Kari asks.

“You tell me. I’d like to know a little more about her. Since I didn’t actually snatch her for you, I don’t know much about her.”

“You don’t know much about most of the people involved in this; I believe that is because historically you have had no interest.”

“Yeah, well, she interests me.”

“She interests you, I think, because she probably would not give you the time of day,” he smiles.

“Well, no. If you really want to know, she interests me because I have never once seen her when she wasn’t wearing a pair of gloves.”

“She has her own style, doesn’t she,” Kari says.

“Yeah, it’s called extremely expensive shades of grey. She’s wealthy?”

“I think so.”

“You think so?” He gives Kari the look usually reserved for his older daughter when she says something so remarkably ridiculous that he knows she is just playing around. “Give me a break. I’m fairly confident you know my bank balances to at least three significant digits.”

Kari doesn’t deny this. “Her net worth is not anyone’s concern but her own. But yes, I do believe she inherited a substantial estate. In spite of that, or maybe because of it, she keeps a low profile and her lifestyle is such that she can travel often, all over the world, without drawing undue attention to herself. Or, I should say, without drawing attention to me.”

They stop walking. They have gone far into the wood and have reached the end of this tongue of land that is bordered on three sides by a broad loop of the Hillsborough River. They are in a clearing of sorts, just an open patch of ground, maybe 30 feet across. Kari looks around, breathes a deep breath, and sinks down to sit tailor-fashion - or perhaps you would say Indian-style - on the ground; hands behind him, leaning back to take in the sun.

Jade just leans against a tree. “Where’s she from?” he asks.

“Upstate New York.”

“Did you steal her, or was she a special case.”

Kari looks away from the sun and over at Jade, “No, I didn’t steal her. And to anticipate your next question, she has not spent any time in the Forest. She’s been doing what she does since immediately after deciding to stay with us.”

“Actually, that was going to be the question after the one where I ask if she does anything other than deliver messages.”

“No. She is a courier. That’s what she does.”

“Whatever happened to Jess?” Jade asks.

“Jess, as you know, has been traveling. We need that now, I can’t be everywhere. Where’s this going, Jade?”

“I don’t know. She’s just...I don’t know. Forget it. Back to Danii. You almost lost her.”

“As I said, I’ve almost lost all of you at some point. And I have lost more of you, one way or another, than I care to think about.”

“It’s been almost five years. To her credit she’s hung in there, but that’s a hell of a long time to hang on nothing but memories.”

“If she had doubts,” Kari says, “she obviously dealt with them well enough to do what had to be done. I agree that it would have been better for all concerned if I had been able to use her for some other work in the interim. If I had been able to build up to this over time. But that is not how the past several years have worked out. I get the feeling, though, that lack of work is not going to be a problem for the foreseeable future.”

Jade almost follows this rather obvious diversion, but decides to come back to it later. “She’s having a hard time justifying the violence. Which means that she doesn’t really buy into your story. Not consistently at any rate.”

“I think that will be far less of a problem, going forward.”

“You’re gonna keep saying stuff like that until I ask you what you’re talking about, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” Kari replies. Jade conspicuously does not ask him what he’s going on about; he just stares at Kari, directly and with no trace of amusement. Kari, in turn, stares back; a calm, sun-warmed expression on his face.

They both know from the very first moment of the standoff which of them will win. Jade knows, from years and years of study - and something like friendship - with this man that it is pointless to play out this tableau for the several hours that it could easily last. He knows that, principles aside, sooner or later he will simply get bored - but that Kari will not. Ever.

So Jade goes ahead and asks, “What are you talking about.”

“I’m not sure,” Kari says.

“Oh, for God’s sake!”

“Hold on,” Kari continues, “I’m not being a smart-ass. It’s a feeling; a strong and very real one. The Autumn is changing. It is starting to feel different than it has for a very, very long time.”

“How so?”

“It’s hard to put into words. Darker. Colder. Like a cloudy late November.”

“You think the rest of us will feel it that way this year?”

“Hard to say. It will be interesting to see if you do. When is that, down here?”

“Last couple years it’s been later than when I was younger. Mid-October…,” Jade trails off, thinking about this one, inexplicable thing that, no matter what he thinks or believes, comes to him - and to all the rest of them - one day every autumn.

It has happened for as long as he can remember; far longer than he has known Kari. It troubled him in his youth for the sheer benign oddness of it. To be taken, literally overcome, with such a powerful sense of sorrow and joy. To actually break down, tears like the end of true love, followed by exaltation bright and cold. Out of the blue. Always in the fall. Always borne on a shining Autumn wind. Always only the one time, then never again. Till the next year.

Jade had never, ever told anyone about that feeling. Then, one evening in June, almost 20 years ago, Kari showed up, unknown and unannounced, and told Jade he knew about the Autumn wind. He didn’t explain it, but he knew that Jade felt it - and that fact alone was enough to make Jade listen long enough to hear his whole story. And, for awhile, he believed.

It is the one strange thing that is common to all of them. No matter which path they follow, they all touch Autumn one day every year.

Except for Kari, who feels it every minute of every day.

“Has it ever felt like this before?” Jade finally asks.

“Yes. A very long time ago. I was young. Similar, but not exactly the same.”

“What happened then?”

“Both my parents died.”

“Do you think you were somehow feeling their approaching deaths? Like a premonition?”

“Oh no. Not specifically. How could that be? No, their deaths were just a result of what was happening to the world. As it turned out, things that had been slumbering, or were off elsewhere, were coming back. Old things.”

“My father died first. We all felt something as we passed near a forest in what was then the Electorate of Bavaria. We were traveling north from the Papal States and had passed through Venice and the western Austrian Lands on our way to the Baltic. We had been in Rome. I had cousins there, much older, who watched the southern part of Europe.

“Hold on,” Jade cuts in, “cousins like me, or actual, biological cousins?”

“Actual cousins. At that time there were still several of us left. They had asked us to come. I think they wanted to know if my family was feeling the same changes in the Wind that they were. No one had answers, but there were rumors already that strange things were abroad. I had heard Vivaldi while we were in Rome. Probably one of the first times the Four Seasons was ever performed.”

“Anyway, as we passed this Bavarian forest we all felt that there was something there. Something old and dark. I was at a loss, but my parents said it was a hiisi…”

“A troll?” Jade asks.

“Maybe. In this case it is probably more accurate to say a ‘spirit of the wood’. Perhaps ‘patron god’ is better. Since it was an evil wood, it was an evil god. I was about 15 at the time and had no idea, but my parents knew it - or at least its kind.”

“My father found a cultivated field and told me and my mother to stay there. Then he went into the wood and never came back out.”

“My mother and I had made shelter in the field. We waited, and after two days the presence of the hiisi was gone,” Kari snaps his fingers, loud in the quiet clearing, to show the suddenness of the change. “But so too, at the same time, was my father gone. We knew it instantly; they had killed each other in the forest.”

“We, my mother and I, went into the forest then - there was nothing left to fear - and found his body after not too much searching. There was a great mound of rock in the heart of the wood; a large stony hill that was surely the, what, the totem of the hiisi. My father’s body was at the base of that hill under a rock slide. It appeared as a rock slide then, of course, but those huge rocks had been the thing; in its death it had become nothing more than the elements that had made its physical form.”

“I took my father’s blade and we built a cairn over his body out of all the stones that had been his adversary. Then we went home.”

“Where was that, then?” Jade asks.

“The Forest. My Forest. My mother knew for certain now that the change was happening. That things which had not been seen for many of our generations were back in the world. She reasoned that if the hiisi were back then others of the old things might be back as well. As it turned out, she was right.”

“Thinking that all these old evils were gone, my parents had never taught me about most of them; what they were and how to hunt them. So she took me back to the Forest to teach me those stories, to learn about hunting those things.”

Kari stops abruptly, as he sometimes does. There is no sound, not even the scuttle of lizards in the warm grass. Finally Jade says, “She died too?”

“Yes. As she predicted, it got much worse. She died about 30 years later, not much time for us, outside of the town of Gévaudan in France.”

“The beast of Gévaudan?” Jade asks, surprised.

“Beasts, actually, but yes. She went to help deal with that, along with one of the last of my cousins, but there were too many of them. They both died.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s been a long, long time.”

“Did you go there? Were you able to get their blades?”

“No, I was occupied elsewhere, and for a long time thereafter. By the time I could have gone it was too late. My cousin who had died there with my mother was the last of us who could find such things.”

“The old things that had come back at that time, they went away again didn’t they?” Jade says.

“Yes,” Kari replies, “the world went back around and the Autumn went back to feeling as it had when I was a very small child.”

“And you thought those things had gone for good. That they would never come back again?”

Kari looks quizzically at Jade, starting to see where this might be going “Yes, I did. The age of reason was upon us. The enlightenment had sparked revolutions of scientific thought in the west that was banishing all the old superstitions. I thought that this change in the way humans believed had driven the old ones back to the dark. And that because of it they would never be able to return.”

“And that,” Jade says with the slightest edge to his voice, “is why you never bothered to teach us how to deal with these things, or even what these other things are.”

“That’s right. But it is not that I ‘never bothered’. It is a matter of time. There is never enough of it. It takes so long just to teach you how to be what you are. I have always felt that whatever time there is beyond that had to be spent on what I knew to be necessary.”

“Like dealing with possessed humans?”

“Yes. And the other things that never seem to go away.”

“And now you think that the world is changing again,” Jade says. A matter of fact.

“Yes.” Kari replies in much the same tone. “I do.”

Jade lets out a long, slow breath as he sits himself down on the ground. He ends up sitting tailor-fashion, like Kari. He picks up a slender blade of grass and, placing it between his two thumbs, blows a low, screeching call. Almost immediately he is answered by a red-shouldered hawk, high in a pine overlooking the river. “So that’s why you sent Danii out, all of the sudden?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know enough to teach us how to deal with these things?”

“That depends on what kinds of things show up. Assuming that anything does. I could be wrong about all this, you know.”

“I hope very much that you are.”

“But to answer your question; yes, probably. I learned much before they died.”

“Your parents?”

“All of them.”

Jade whistles on the grass leaf one more time, long and shrill, before throwing it aside. “I think you’re right,” he says, “about things changing. I guess we’ll see how it goes. But I may have some good news for you.”

“Really? What’s that?” Kari asks.

“I think Danii might be able to find your mother’s blade.”