Taking a calming breath, Lori turned to face the youngest of the fosters.
"Go on inside, Anita." Lori took the child's shoulders in her hands and gave her a gentle push towards the house. "I need to find Andrew and Marty. You and the others need to stay inside and be safe." She looked up to the others gathered on the porch. "Inside, please," she said, more calmly than she felt.
The children quickly turned and filed inside, their faces soon reappearing in the windows. Lori turned back to where Marty and Andrew had disappeared. A sob nearly broke in her throat. Nothing made sense anymore. If the Exchange was for children who had no parents, then what was wrong with Andrew returning home? Why was Marty adamant that he had to stay?
"What am I going to do?" Lori whispered, but before she could take a step forward, a hand settled upon her shoulder.
Jumping with surprise, she turned around, the name "Marty" dyeing on her lips as she found herself looking up into the face of a tall, blue-eyed stranger. There was no doubt that he was Andrew's father. His guarded eyes held an eerie resemblance to his son's.
"H--hello," Lori stammered at a loss of what to say.
"I am looking for my son," his voice was as warm and friendly as Andrew had promised.
"Your son, Andrew?" she questioned, unconsciously signing the boy's name as she spoke.
"Yes," the man nodded, a smile slowly forming on his lips. "Is he here?"
"He was, but, I, I," Lori's hands fluttered helplessly.
Andrew's father stabbed his torch into the ground. Lori could not help but notice that the end looked as sharp as one of her sewing needles. She swallowed then looked back up. His eyes held hers, fascinating her like Andrew's did.
"We are not here to harm anyone," he spoke gently to her. "I just wish to return home with my son. That is all." He smiled at her again. "I am sure he wishes to return home."
"Oh he does," Lori smiled back. "He was excited when he saw your torches..." She stopped, realizing the man's expression hadn't changed. "I will find him."
The man stepped back with crossed arms as Lori moved in the direction she'd last seen Marty and Andrew.
"Marty?" Lori called as she ventured around the house and towards the barn.
Marty looked up and listened. Lori was still far away. He bent back to his task of tying Andrew's hand behind his back. He had finally caught the boy.
"I can't tell her," Marty muttered. "She'd be devastated."
"Marty?" Lori's voice called again.
His hands increased their pace as she came nearer.
"She'd want to save them all you see." Marty tied the knot tight. "If she knew..."
Standing and turning to face Lori, Marty tried to keep his body between her and Andrew. His efforts were in vain.
"What have you done?" she cried.
Marty grabbed hold of Lori as she tried to get to Andrew. They boy had flipped himself over, his blue eyes glittering like ice in the moonlight.
"Lori, you don't understand," he insisted.
"You're right I don't!" She struggled in his arms. "What's wrong with him going home to his family? He wants to go home, why can't you let him?"
"You don't understand." Marty spun Lori, his hand keeping a tight grip on her shoulders. Filled with panic, he shook her. "He belongs to the Exchange. He can't go home."
Lori stared into Marty's wide eyes, trembling at the anger in them. His fingers dug into her shoulders bringing tears to her eyes. "You're hurting me," she whispered her voice laced with fear.
Suddenly a shout startled them as they were tackled. Hitting the ground with a thud, Marty let go of Lori. With a cry, she rolled away into another pair of feet. A hand appeared in her vision and she took it. Andrew helped her to her feet, watching the man and Marty wrestle. Soon, a second man joined him, and before Lori could blink, Marty's hands were tied as he'd tied Andrew's.
"Father!" Andrew signed excitedly rushing forward.
Lori watched the tender reunion as Andrew's father dropped to his knee and embraced his son. After a moment, the two pulled away and Andrew's hands worked so fast that Lori could only catch a word here and there. Putting them together, she figured he was telling his father about the pirate attack and being sold to the Exchange as a slave. That still did not make sense to her. Then, Andrew's hands told of the work he'd done and Lori's heart sank as Andrew's father began to frown.
"You forced my son to work, did you?" He looked upon Marty who knelt on the ground head down between the two men who had tied him.
"We all work," Lori found herself stepping forward, "we have to, without work we can't provide enough food to last the winter after the King's cut..." she faltered. "We didn't know Andrew had family left. The Exchange, they only take orphans, and we give them a good home..." Her voice trailed off again at the furrowed brow of Andrew's father.
"The Trabian Exchange is..." he began, but Marty cut him off.
"She doesn't know." Marty raised his head. "If you take your son they will take her in his place. She doesn't know."
"She doesn't know?" Andrew's father questioned looking from Lori to Marty.
"No," Marty shook his head, "she doesn't."
Andrew gently tugged at Lori's sleeve. "What is going on?" he signed.
"I don't know," Lori signed back. She smiled slightly. "At least that's what Marty says. There is something about the Exchange that I don't know."
"Fosters are slaves," Andrew's hands jerked. "They take any children they can. I wasn't the only one the Pirates sold."
"But," Lori looked at him, "are you sure, absolutely sure?"
"Ask the others," Andrew insisted, "they will tell you."
Lori looked to the house where the children were gathered, noses pressed against the one window that looked towards the trees. She looked back to Marty, but before she could ask a single question Andrew's father spoke.
"Would you like to come with us Lori?" he spoke gently to her. "We have no exchange, but my sons could do with a sister to remind them of their manners." Andrew's father smiled, disarming her with his charm.
Lori looked to Marty, but he did not meet her eyes. "Fosters... fosters are slaves?" her voice waivered and she desperately wanted him to say no.
Marty let out a long sigh. "Yes," his head rose and his teary eyes met hers. "If Andrew leaves, then the Exchange will force you to go to the next house in his stead."
Lori stumbled back and would have fallen if someone hadn't steadied her.
Marty cringed as Lori stumbled. He had not wanted to tell her, but not telling her had gotten him into this mess. Andrew's father had offered a solution and, as much as it would tear at Marty's heart to see her go, Lori would have a better life than if the Exchange took her in Andrew's place. He had no doubt Andrew's father would do whatever it took bring his son home. The bonds fell from Marty's hands as one of the other men cut them.
"Go with them, Lori," Marty commanded as he pulled himself up straight. "I will care for the fosters here. You must go with them."
She stared at him as if he had two heads. For a moment, Marty thought she would never forgive him, until Lori barreled into his chest. Feeling tears threatening to spill from his eyes, he backed up.
"Now go on," Marty shooed her away "gather your things. You've been dreaming about leaving Trabia; here's your chance, now git!"
Spinning on his heels Marty left for the barn. He didn't go back to the house until Lori and Andrew's family were well on their way. On the porch, he stopped and looked north where a red band of light was fading into the Milky Way.