I stared up at the Erlking, and with my typical pithy brilliance said, "Uh-oh."
The Erlking chuckled, a deep sound. It echoed around the hall, resonating from the stone, amplified into subtle music. If I'd had any doubts that I was standing at the heart of the Erlking's power, that laugh and the way the hall had responded in harmony took care of them for me. "It seems, my kin, that we have guests."
More chuckles rose up from a thousand throats, and evil red eyes crinkled with amusement.
"I confess," the Erlking said, "that this is a . . . unique event. We are unaccustomed to visitors here. I trust you will be patient whilst I blow the dust from the old courtesies."
Again, the goblins laughed. The sound seemed to press directly against whatever nerve raised the hairs on my arms.
The Erlking rose, smooth and silent despite his armor and his mass, and descended from the dais. He walked around to loom over us, and I took note of the huge sword at his side, its pommel and hilt bristling with sharp metal protrusions that looked like thorns. He studied us for a moment and then did two things I hadn't really expected.
First, he took off his helmet. The horns were, evidently, fixed to the dark metal. I braced myself to view something horrible but . . . the Lord of Goblins was nothing like what I had expected.
Upon his face, the hideous asymmetries of the goblins of his hall were all reflected and somehow transformed. Though he, too, shared the irregular batch of features, upon him their fundamental repulsiveness was muted into a kind of roguish distinction. His crooked nose seemed something that might have been earned rather than gifted. Old, faint scars marred his face, but only added further grace notes to his appearance. Standing there before the Erlking, I felt as if I were looking at something handcrafted by a true master, perhaps carved from a piece of twisted drift-wood, given its own odd beauty, and then patiently refined and polished into something made lovely by its sheer, unique singularity.
There was power in that face, too, in his simple presence. You could feel it in the air around him, the tension and focus of a pure predator, and one who rarely failed to bring down his prey.
The second thing he did was to bow with inhuman elegance, take Susan's hand, and bend to brush his lips across the backs of her fingers. She stared at him with wide eyes that were more startled than actually afraid, and she kept her smile going the whole time.
"Lady huntress," he said. "The scent of fresh blood hangs upon you. Well does it become your nature."
He looked at me and smiled, showing his teeth, which were white and straight and even, and I had to fight to keep from flinching from his gaze. The Erlking had a score to settle with me. I had better come up with a plan, and fast, or I was a dead man.
"And the new Knight of Winter," he continued. "I nearly had thee at Arctis Tor, when the ogres caught up to thee upon the slopes. Hadst thou departed but threescore heartbeats later . . ." He shook his head. "Thou art an intriguing quarry, Sir Knight."
I bowed to the Erlking in what I hoped was a respectful fashion. "I do thank thee for the compliment, O King," I said. "Though it is chance, not design, that brought me hither, I am humbled by thy generosity in accepting us into thine home as guests. Mine host."
The Erlking cocked his head slightly to one side, and then his mouth turned up into another amused smile. "Ah. Caught out by mine own words, 'twould seem. Courtesy is not a close companion unto me, so perhaps it is meet that in a duel of manners, thou wouldst have the advantage. And this hall honors cleverness and wisdom as much as strength."
A murmur of goblin voices ran through the hall at his words, because I'd just done something impossibly impudent. I'd dropped myself into the dinner hall of the greatest hunter of Faerie - practically thrown myself onto a plate with an apple in my mouth, in fact - and then used an idle slip of his tongue to claim the ancient rights of protection as his guest, thus obligating him, as host, to uphold those responsibilities to me.
I've said it before. The customs of host and guest are a Big Deal to these people. It's insane, but it's who they are.
I bowed my head to him respectfully, rather than saying anything like, Gee, it's not often one of the fae gets outwitted by a lowly human, which should be proof enough for anyone that I'm not entirely devoid of diplomatic skills. "I should not wish to intrude upon your hospitality any longer than is absolutely necessary, Lord of Hunters. With your goodwill, we will depart immediately and trouble you no more."
"Do not listen to it, O Erlking," called a woman's clear soprano. It was easy to recognize Esmerelda. "It speaks honeyed words with a poisoned tongue, full intent upon deceiving you."
The Erlking turned to regard the pair of vampires, still on their feet despite the efforts of the goblins who had initially attacked them. He studied them in complete silence for several seconds and then, after a glance at the fallen goblins near them, inclined his head. "Hunters of the Red Court, I bid ye continue. I listen. Pray tell me more."
"Wiley game indeed, this wizard kin," said Esteban. "It was well treed and out of tricks but for this shameful bid to escape the rightful conclusion of the hunt. With full intent did the wizard bring us here, into your demesne, intending to use you, O Erlking, to strike down his own foes."
"When hunting a fox, one must be wary not to follow it into the great bear's lair," the Erlking replied. "This is common sense for any hunter, by my reckoning."
"Well-spoken, Goblin King," Esmerelda said. "But by this action, the wizard seeks to draw you into the war betwixt its folk and ours, for we hunt it upon the express wishes of our lord and master, as part of our rightly declared war."
The Erlking's red eyes narrowed and flicked back over to me. I could hear a low and angry undertone to his next words. "I desire naught of any other being, save to pursue my hunts in accordance with the ancient traditions without interference. I tell thee this aright, Sir Knight. Should this hunter's words prove true, I will lay a harsh penalty upon thee and thine - one which the Powers will speak of in whispers of dread for a thousand years."
I swallowed. I thought about it. Then I lifted my chin and said calmly, "I give thee my word, as Knight of the Winter Court, that I had no such intention when coming here. It was chance that brought this chase to thy hall, O Erlking. I swear it upon my power."
The ancient fae stared hard at me for several more seconds, his nostrils flaring. Then he drew back his head slowly and nodded once. "So. I am given a riddle by my most thoughtful visitors," he said, his voice rumbling. He looked from the Eebs and company back to Susan and me. "What to do with you all. For I wish not to encourage visits such as this one." His mouth twisted in distaste. "Now I am reminded why I do not indulge in courtesy as do the Sidhe. Such matters delight them. I find that they pall swiftly."
A very large, very powerful-looking goblin near the front of the hall said, "My king, render blood judgment upon them all. They are intruders in your realm. Place their heads upon your gates as a warning to any who would follow."
A rumble of agreement ran through the crowd of goblins.
The Erlking seemed to muse on the idea for a moment.
"Or," I offered, "such an act might invite more interference. The express servants of the king of the Red Court would surely be missed should they not return. The White Council of wizards would, I assure you, have very strong feelings about my own disappearance. To say nothing, of course, of Mab's reaction. I'm still quite new, and she hasn't yet tired of me."
The Erlking waved a hand. "Nay, nay. The Knight caught my words fairly. Guests they are, Lord Ordulaka, and I will not cheapen my honor by betraying that ancient compact." He narrowed his eyes. "Mmmm. Guests they are. Perhaps I should treat them most courteously. Perhaps I should insist that you remain my guests, to be cared for and entertained, for the next century." He gave me a chilly little smile. "After all, you are all but the first visitors to my realm. I could understandably find it greatly insulting were you not to allow me the opportunity to honor you appropriately."
The Eebs looked at each other and then both bowed sinuously to the Erlking. "Generous host," Esteban said, "you honor us greatly. We should be pleased to stay as your guests for whatever length of time you feel appropriate."
"Harry," Susan hissed, tensing.
She didn't need to explain it to me. A delay of even a few hours might mean Maggie's death.
"Honored host," I said. "Such a path would be no less than your due, given the . . . unanticipated nature of our visit. But I would beg you only to consider my obligations to my Lady Mab. I pursue a quest that I may not lay aside, and which she has bidden me complete. It hinges upon things that occur in mortal time, and were you to insist upon your rights as host, it could compromise my own honor. Something I know that you, as mine host, would never wish to do."
The Erlking gave me a look that blended annoyance with amusement and said, "Few Winter Knights have had swords as swift as your tongue, boy. But I warn thee: name your Lady a third time and you will not like what follows."
I hadn't even thought of that. Hell's bells, he was right. Speaking Mab's name here, in the Nevernever, could indeed summon her. At which point not only would she be an intruder in another ruler's domain, perhaps vulnerable to his power or influence, but she would be extremely annoyed with one overtaxed wizard for having brought her. The clashing of such Powers in simple proximity could prove dangerous, even deadly.
I bowed my head again and said, "Of course, mine host."
A goblin about five feet tall, and so slender that it looked like a stiff wind might blow him down, appeared from the shadows and diffidently took the Erlking's helmet. He began to turn to carry it away, paused, and suggested, in a spidery, whispering, unpleasant voice, "We are all predators here, my lord. Let it be settled in a trial of blood."
The Erlking spread his hands, as if he felt the suggestion should have been self-evident to everyone present. "Of course, Rafforut. Again, thou hast given excellent service."
The wispy goblin bowed at the waist and retreated to the shadows, his mouth curling up in a small smile.
"Oh," I said. "Oh, crap."
"What?" Susan asked.
I turned to speak quietly to her in a whisper pitched to register only to her more-than-human hearing, and hoped that the goblins didn't hear even better than that. "The Erlking can't harm us, or allow us to come to harm while we are his guests. Ditto for the Reds. But since we have competing claims that must be settled, he can establish a trial by combat to see who is correct - or at least, most committed to his version of the story."
Susan's eyes widened as she understood. "If we won't fight for our side of the story, he decides against us and for the Eebs."
I nodded. "At which point he can declare that we have abused his hospitality," I said. "And he will be free to kill us, probably without repercussion."
"But you just said - "
"M - The Winter Queen doesn't feel a thing for me," I said. "She might be annoyed. But this time next week, she'll barely remember me."
"But the Council - "
"I said they would feel strongly about it," I said. "I never said they'd be upset."
Susan's eyes got a little wider.
"A trial of skill, then," the Erlking said. "A match. The Knight and the lady huntress versus two of your own, Red hunters. Choose which will stand for your side of the issue." He clapped his hands once, a sound like a small cannon going off. "Prepare the hall."
Goblins leapt to obey, and cleared the long trestle tables outward with great energy and efficiency. Others began to rip at the stone with their bare, black-nailed hands. They tore it like wet earth, swiftly gouging out a great ring in the floor, a trench six inches wide, almost that deep, and thirty or forty yards across.
"We're hardly armed properly for such a trial, mine host," I said. "Whilst the Red hunters are fully equipped for battle as they are."
The Erlking spread his hands again. "Ah, but they are armed with what they deemed necessary to them for the hunt. And a true hunter never leaves himself unprepared for what the world may bring to face him. Do you say, perhaps, that you are no hunter after all?"
"No," Susan said at once. "Of course not."
The Erlking looked at her and gave her a nod of approval. "I am glad you find yourselves appropriately armed." He glanced over at the Eebs, who were discussing matters in furious whispers, probably employing a nonstandard use of pronouns. "Sooth, boy, you were quick enough at wordplay that I would fain feed thee and send thee on thy way, had you come here unpursued. But I will not rouse the wrath of the Lords of Outer Night lightly. A war with them would be a waste of dozens of excellent hunting moons." He shrugged. "So. Prove yourselves worthy, and you may be on your way."
I cleared my throat. "And our . . . fellow visitors?"
The Erlking didn't smile or otherwise change his expression, but I suddenly got creeped out enough to have to fight to keep from stepping away from him. "My hall is fully furnished to receive all manner of outsiders. There are rooms in these caves filled with clever devices meant for the amusement of my kin, and lacking only the appropriate . . . participants."
"What happens if we lose?" Susan asked.
"If fortune is kind, you will have clean deaths in the trial. If not . . ." He shrugged. "Certain of my kin - Rafforut, for example - are most eager to give purpose to all the rooms of my hall. You would amuse them for as long as you could respond. Which might be a very, very long time."
Susan eyed the Erlking. Then she said, "Let's do it, then. I, too, have promises to keep."
He inclined his head to her. "As you wish, lady huntress. Sir Knight, lady, please enter the circle."
I started toward it and Susan walked beside me.
"How should we do it?" she asked.
"Fast and hard."
Her voice turned wry. "How did I know you'd want it like that?"
I let out a short bark of genuine laughter. "I thought I was supposed to be the one with one thing on his mind."
"Oh, when we were younger, certainly," she replied. "Now, though, our roles have reversed."
"Meaning you want it fast and hard, too?"
She gave me a sly and very heated look with her dark eyes from beneath her dark lashes. "Let's just say that there's something to be said for that, once in a while." She spun the table leg in a few circles. I watched. She stopped and glanced at me, arching an eyebrow inquisitively.
My godmother might have tipped me off to a cure, a way to free Susan of the creature that had devoured half of her being and thirsted for me, something the Fellowship of St. Giles had been trying - and failing - to do for hundreds of years. It was possible that, with a bit more work, I could make it happen for her, give her back control of her life.
But even if I did, we couldn't be together. Not now.
Mab was bad enough . . . and Hell's bells, I hadn't even thought about it, I'd been so busy, but Mab's understudy, Maeve, the Winter Lady, was arguably more psychotic than Mab herself. And she was unarguably pet-tier, more vicious, and more likely to want to play games with anyone close to me.
I wondered how long it would take me to lose myself. Weeks? Months? Neither Mab nor Maeve would want me to remain my own man. I wondered if, when I was what they wanted me to be, it would bother me to remember what I had been. What others had meant to me.
All I said was, "I miss you."
She looked down and away, blinking. Then she gave me a rather hesitant smile as a tear fell - as if it were something she hadn't done in a while, and was still remembering how to accomplish it. "I miss joking with you."
"How could you do it?" I asked quietly. "How could you not tell me about her?"
"By tearing out a piece of myself," she said quietly. "I know it was wrong. I knew it was wrong when I did it, and that . . . that I was going to regret it someday. But I had to keep her safe. I'm not asking you to forgive. Just . . . just understand."
I thought about that moment of stillness and choice at the Stone Table.
"Yeah," I said. I lifted a hand and touched her face with my fingertips. Then I leaned over to kiss her forehead. "I do understand."
She stepped closer and we hugged. She felt surprisingly slender and fragile in my arms. We stayed that way for a little while, both of us feeling the fear of what was coming. We tried to ignore the hundreds of red eyes watching us. We more or less succeeded.
Another cannon clap of sound echoed around the vast hall, and the Erlking said, "Red hunters. Let your chosen champions enter the circle or else forfeit the trial."
"Okay," I said. "The Eebs will be tough but they're doable. They rely on stealth tactics, and this is going to be as straight up as you can get. I'm going to hit them with something that should give you enough time to close. Take whichever one is on the left. Move too far to the right and you'll be in my line of fire, so don't. You smash one, I burn the other, and we go get some custom coffee mugs to memorialize the occasion later."
Susan said, "I stopped drinking coffee. You know, the caffeine."
I looked at her with mock disgust. "You heathen."
"Fine!" Esmerelda said from the far side of the circle. She pointed a finger at one of the vampires trapped beneath the goblins' nets. "You. You do it." Impatiently, the tiny woman went to the trapped vampire, hideous and inhuman in its true form, and sliced through the odd material of the net with her nails, freeing the captive. Without ceremony, she pitched the vampire into the circle.
One of her foot soldiers? Okay. This might be easier than I'd thought.
Esteban appeared then, walking calmly forward.
The slowly accelerating lub-dub sound of the Devourer's unsettling heartbeat came with him. The Devourer loomed over Esteban, horrible and hungry-looking, and at a command from the vampire, it shambled forward into the circle, its all-black eyes staring at us with unnerving intensity. I might have been projecting or something, but it seemed to me that the Ick was spoiling for some payback.
"Oh, crap," Susan said in a very small voice.
"When the circle is closed," said the Erlking's deep baritone, "the trial begins. It will conclude when one party has been neutralized. Do the champions of the Red hunters stand ready?"
All of the vampires let out wailing shrieks, and even the Ick emitted a hissing burble, like an overfull teakettle.
"What are we going to do?" Susan whispered frantically.
I had no idea. "You take the scrub," my mouth said. "I'll handle the Devourer."
"Right," she said, her eyes wide. "Right."
The Erlking appeared, halfway between the two parties, standing outside the circle. "Sir Knight! Do you and the lady huntress stand ready?"
We both nodded sharply, though our eyes were fixed upon our opponents, not the Erlking. I began drawing in my will, and power seethed in my belly and chest and became an odd pressure behind my eyes.
The Erlking drew his sword and held it high, and every goblin in the place began roaring. Fire licked up the blade of the sword, wreathing it in green flame, and then he dropped the sword, thrusting its tip into the trough in the stone the goblins had dug.
Green goblin fire flared up with a howl and clouds of foul smoke. It raced around the exterior of the circle in both directions, until the two tongues of flame met at the point opposite where they had begun.
Susan screamed. I screamed. The vampire screamed. The Ick . . . did that teakettle thing.
And then we all started trying to kill one another.