An arrow whistled past, and I looked back to see the other horse pursuing us through the trees, its rider reaching back for another shot. Puck snorted and switched directions, nearly unseating me, plunging into a deeper part of the forest.

The trees here were monsters, and grew so close together that Puck had to swerve and weave around them. The hounds fell back, but I still heard their bays and occasionally caught a glimpse of their lean black bodies, hurtling through the undergrowth. The rider had disappeared, but I knew he still followed, his deadly arrows ready to pierce our hearts.

As we passed under the boughs of an enormous oak, Puck skidded to a halt, then bucked so violently that I flew off his back, my hands torn from his mane. I soared over his head, my stomach in my throat, and landed with a jarring impact in a crossbeam of connecting branches. My breath exploded from my lungs, and a stab of pain shot through my ribs, bringing tears to my eyes. With a snort, Puck galloped on, the dogs following him into the shadows.

Moments later, the black horse and rider passed under the tree.

He slowed for a chilling heartbeat, and I held my breath, sure he would look up and see me. Then the excited howl of one of the dogs rang through the air, and he spurred his horse onward, following the hunt into the trees. In a moment, the sounds had faded. Silence fell through the branches, and I was alone.

“Well,” someone said, very close by. “That was interesting.”


Of Goblins and Grimalkin

I didn’t scream this time, but came very close. As it was, I nearly fell out of the tree. Hugging a branch, I looked around wildly, trying to determine the owner of the voice, but I glimpsed nothing but leaves and sickly gray light shining through the branches.

“Where are you?” I gasped. “Show yourself.”

“I am not hiding, little girl.” The voice sounded amused. “Perhaps…if you open your eyes a bit wider. Like this.”

Directly in front of me, not five feet away, a pair of saucerlike eyes opened up out of nowhere, and I stared into the face of an enormous gray cat.

“There,” it purred, regarding me with a lazy yellow gaze. Its fur was long and wispy, blending perfectly into the tree and the entire landscape. “See me now?”

“You’re a cat,” I blurted stupidly, and I swore it arched a brow at me.

“In the crudest sense of the word, I suppose you could call me that.” The feline rose, arching its back, before sitting and curling its plumed tail around its legs. Now that my shock was fading, I realized the cat was a he, not an it. “Others have called me Cait Sith, Grimalkin, and Devil’s Cat, but since they all mean the same, I suppose you would be correct.”

I gaped at him, but the sharp throb of my ribs returned my mind to other things. Namely, that Puck had left me alone in this world that viewed me as a snack, and I had no idea how to survive.

Shock and anger came first—Puck had really left me, to save his own skin—and after that came a fear so real and terrifying it was all I could do not to hug the branch and sob. How could Puck do this to me? I’d never make it out on my own. I’d end up as dessert for a carnivorous horse monster, torn apart by a pack of wolves, or hopelessly lost for decades, because I was sure time had ceased to exist and I’d be stuck here forever.

I took a deep breath, forcing myself to be calm. No, Robbie wouldn’t do that to me. I’m sure of it. Perhaps he ditched me to lead the hunt away, to make sure the hunt followed him and left me alone. Maybe he thought he was saving my life. Maybe he had saved my life. If that was the case, I hoped he came back soon; I didn’t think I would get out of the Nevernever without him.

Grimalkin, or whatever his name was, continued to observe me as if I was a particularly interesting insect. I eyed him with new feelings of suspicion. Sure, he looked like an enormous, slightly plump house cat, but horses weren’t generally meat-eaters and normal trees did not have little men living inside. This feline could be sizing me up for its next meal. I gulped and met his eerie, intelligent gaze head-on.

“W-what do you want?” I asked, thankful that my voice only trembled a little bit.

The cat didn’t blink. “Human,” he said, and if a cat could sound patronizing, this one nailed it, “think about the absurdity of that question. I am resting in my tree, minding my own business and wondering if I should hunt today, when you come flying in like a bean sidhe and scare off every bird for miles around. Then, you have the audacity to ask what I want.” He sniffed and gave me a very catlike stare of disdain. “I am aware that mortals are rude and barbaric, but still.”

“I’m sorry,” I muttered automatically. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”

Grimalkin twitched his tail, and then turned to groom his hindquarters.

“Um,” I continued after a moment of silence, “I was wondering if, maybe…you could help me.”

Grimalkin paused midlick, then continued without looking up. “And why would I want to do that?” he asked, weaving words and grooming together without missing a beat. He still didn’t look at me.

“I’m trying to find my brother,” I replied, stung by Grimalkin’s casual refusal. “He’s been stolen by the Unseelie Court.”

“Mmm. How terribly uninteresting.”

“Please,” I begged. “Help me. Give me a hint, or just point me in the right direction. Anything. I’ll make it up to you, I swear.”

Grimalkin yawned, showing off long canines and a bright pink tongue, and finally looked at me.

“Are you suggesting I do you a favor?”

“Yes. Look, I’ll pay you back somehow, I promise.”

He twitched an ear, looking amused. “Be careful throwing those words around so casually,” he warned. “Doing this will put you in my debt. Are you sure you wish to continue?”

I didn’t think about it. I was so desperate for help, I’d agree to anything. “Yes! Please, I need to find Puck. The horse I was riding when he bucked me off. He’s not really a horse, you know. He’s a—”

“I know what he is,” Grimalkin said quietly.

“Really? Oh, that’s great. Do you know where he could’ve gone?”

He fixed me with an unblinking stare, and then lashed his tail, once. Without a word, he rose, leaped gracefully onto a lower limb, and dropped to the ground. He stretched, arching his bushy tail over his spine, and vanished into the bushes without looking back.

I yelped, scrambling to untangle myself from the branches, wincing at the shard of pain between my ribs. I more or less fell out of the tree, landing with a thump on my backside that sparked a word Mom would ground me for. Dusting off my rear, I looked around for Grimalkin.

“Human.” He appeared like a gray ghost sliding out of the bushes, big glowing eyes the only evidence he was there. “This is our agreement. I will lead you to your Puck, and you will owe me a small favor in return, yes?”

Something about the way he said agreement caused my skin to prickle, but I nodded.

“Very well, then. Follow me. And do try to keep up.”


If you’ve ever tried following a cat through a dense forest filled with briars, bushes, and tangled undergrowth, you’ll know how impossible it is. I lost track of the times Grimalkin vanished from sight, and I’d spend a few heart-pounding minutes searching for him, hoping I was going the right way. I always felt a desperate relief when I’d finally catch a glimpse of him slinking through the trees ahead, only to go through the same thing minutes later.

It didn’t help that my mind was occupied with what could’ve happened to Puck. Was he dead, shot down by the dark fey boy and ripped apart by the hounds? Or had he really fled, already resolved that he wasn’t coming back for me, and I could take my chances on my own?

Fear and anger welled, and my sullen thoughts shifted to my present guide. Grimalkin seemed to know the path we should take, but how did he know where Puck would be? Why should I trust him? What if the devious feline was leading me into some sort of trap?

As I was entertaining these bleak thoughts, Grimalkin disappeared again.

Dammit, I’m going to tie a bell around the stupid thing’s neck if it doesn’t stop that. The light was fading, and the forest was even more gray. I stopped and squinted at the bushes, searching for the elusive feline. Up ahead, the bushes rustled, which surprised me. Grimalkin had been completely silent up until now.

“Human!” whispered a familiar voice, somewhere above me. “Hide!”

“What?” I said, but it was too late. Twigs snapped, bushes parted, and a slew of creatures spilled into view.

They were short, ugly things, standing two to three feet high, with knobby yellow-green skin and bulbous noses. Their ears were large and pointed. They wore tattered clothing and carried bone-tipped spears in yellow claws. Their faces were mean and cruel, with beady eyes and mouths full of broken, jagged teeth.

For a moment, they stopped, blinking in surprise. Then the whole pack of them screeched and swarmed forward, jabbing at me with their spears.

“What is it? What is it?” snarled one, as I cringed away from the stabbing points. Laughter and jeers filled the air as they surrounded me.

“It’s an elf,” hissed another, giving me a toothy leer. “An elf what lost its ears, maybe.”

“No, a goat-girl,” cried yet a third. “Good eatin’, them.”

“She ain’t no goat, cretin! Lookit, she ain’t got no ’ooves!”

I trembled and looked around for an escape route, but wherever I turned, those sharp bony points were thrust at me.

“Take ’er to the chief,” someone suggested at last. “The chief’ll know what she is, and if she’s safe to eat.”

“Right! The chief’ll know!”

A couple of them rushed me from behind, and I felt a blow to the backs of my knees. With a shriek, I collapsed, and the whole pack of them swarmed me, hooting and hollering. I screamed and kicked, flailing my arms, thrashing under the weight of the creatures. A few went flying into the bushes, but they bounced up with shrill cries and pounced on me again. Blows rained down on me.

Then something struck me behind the head, making lights explode behind my eyes, and I knew nothing for a time.

I WOKE WITH THE MOTHER OF ALL headaches doing a jig inside my skull. I was in a sitting position, and something that felt like broom handles pressed uncomfortably into my back. Groaning, I probed around my skull, searching for anything cracked or broken. Except for a massive lump just above my hairline, everything seemed to be intact.

When I was sure I was still in one piece, I opened my eyes.

And regretted it immediately.

I was in a cage. A very small cage, made of branches lashed together with leather bindings. There was barely enough room for me to raise my head, and when I moved, something sharp poked me in the arm, drawing blood. I looked closer and saw that many of the branches were covered in thorns about an inch long.

Beyond the bars, several mud huts sat in no particular arrangement around a large fire pit. The squat, ugly little creatures scampered to and fro around the camp, fighting, arguing, or gnawing on bones. A group of them sat around my backpack, pulling things out one by one. My extra clothes they just tossed in the dirt, but the chips and bottle of aspirin they immediately ripped open, tasted, and squabbled over. One managed to open the soda can and spray fizzy liquid everywhere, to the angry shrieks of his companions.

Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
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