One of them, shorter than its fellows and wearing a muddy red vest, saw that I was awake. With a hiss, it scuttled up to the cage and thrust its spear through the bars. I cringed back, but there was nowhere to go; the thorns stung my flesh as the spear jabbed me in the thigh.

“Ouch, stop it!” I cried, which only encouraged it further. Cackling, it poked and prodded me, until I reached down and grabbed the head of the spear. Snarling and cursing, the creature tried yanking it back, and we held a ridiculous tug-of-war until another goblin saw what we were doing. It rushed up and stabbed me through the bars on the opposite side, and I released the spear with a yelp.

“Greertig, stop pokin’ the meat,” snapped the second, taller creature. “Ain’t no good if all the blood runs out.”

“Pah, I was just makin’ sure it was tender, is all.” The other snorted and spit on the ground, then glared at me with greedy red eyes. “Why we waitin’ about? Let’s just eat it already.”

“The chief ain’t back yet.” The taller creature looked at me, and to my horror, a long string of drool dripped down its chin. “He ’as to make sure this thing is safe to eat.”

They gave me a last longing glare, then stomped back to the fire pit, arguing and spitting at each other. I drew my knees to my chest and tried to control my shaking.

“If you are going to cry, please do it quietly,” murmured a familiar voice at my back. “Goblins can smell fear. They will only torment you more if you give them a reason.”

“Grimalkin?” Squirming in my cage, I glanced around to see the nearly invisible gray cat crouched by one corner. His eyes were narrowed in concentration, and his strong, sharp teeth were chewing at one of the leather bindings.

“Idiot, do not look at me!” he spat, and I quickly glanced away. The cat growled, tugging on one of the bars. “Goblins are not very smart, but even they will notice if you start talking to nobody. Just sit tight and I will have you out of here in a minute.”

“Thank you for coming back,” I whispered, watching two goblins fight over some unfortunate beast’s rib cage. The quarrel ended when one goblin bashed the other over the head with a club and scampered off with its trophy. The other goblin lay stunned for a moment, then leaped to its feet in pursuit.

Grimalkin sniffed and began chewing the bindings again. “Do not put yourself even more in debt,” he said around a mouthful of leather. “We have already made a contract. I agreed to take you to Puck, and I always keep my end of the bargain. Now, shut up so I can work.”

I nodded and fell silent, but suddenly there was a great cry in the goblin camp. Goblins leaped to their feet, hissing and scuttling about, as a large creature sauntered out of the forest into the middle of the encampment.

It was another goblin, only bigger, broader, and meaner-looking than its fellows. It wore a crimson uniform with brass buttons, the sleeves rolled up and the tails dragging along the ground. It also carried a curved blade, rusty bronze and jagged along the edge. It snarled and swaggered into the camp, the other goblins cringing away from it, and I knew this must be the chief.

“Shut up, ya pack of jabberin’ dogs,” the chief roared, aiming a blow at a couple of goblins who didn’t get out of his way quick enough. “Worthless, the lot of ya! I been hard at work, raidin’ the borderlands, an’ what have you lot got to show me, eh? Nothin’! Not even a rabbit fer the stewpot. Ya make me sick.”

“Chief, chief!” cried several goblins at once, dancing around and pointing. “Lookit, lookit! We caught something! We brought it back for you!”

“Eh?” The chief’s gaze flashed across the camp, his evil eyes fastening on me. “What’s this? Did you miserable louts actually manage to catch a high an’ mighty elf?”

He sauntered toward the cage. I couldn’t help myself and snuck a quick glance at Grimalkin, hoping the cat would flee. But Grimalkin was nowhere to be seen.

Swallowing hard, I looked up and met the chief’s beady red eyes.

“What in Pan’s privates is this?” the goblin chief snorted. “This ain’t no elf, you cretins. Not unless she bartered away her ears! Besides—” he sniffed the air, wrinkling his snotty nose “—it smells different. Ey, funny elf-thing.” He smacked the cage with the flat of his sword, making me jump. “What are ya?”

I took a deep breath as the rest of the goblin tribe crowded around the cage, watching me, some curious, most hungry-looking. “I’m a…an otaku faery,” I said, drawing a confused scowl from the chief and bewildered looks from the rest of the camp. Whispers began to erupt from the crowd, gaining strength like wildfire.

“A what?”

“Ain’t never ’erd of that before.”

“Is it tasty?”

“Can we eat it?”

The chief frowned. “I admit, I ain’t never come across no otaku faery before,” he growled, scratching his head. “Ah, but that ain’t important. Ya look young an’ juicy enough, I figure you’ll feed me crew fer several nights. So, what’s yer preference, otaku?” He grinned and raised his sword. “Boiled alive, or skewered over the fire?”

I clenched my hands to stop them from shaking. “Either way is fine with me,” I said, trying to sound casual. “Tomorrow it won’t matter at all. There’s a deadly poison running through my veins. If you swallow one bite of me, your blood will boil, your insides will melt, and you’ll dissolve into a steaming pile of muck.” Hisses went around the tribe; several goblins bared their teeth at me and snarled. I crossed my arms and raised my chin, staring down the goblin chief. “So, go ahead and eat me. Tomorrow you’ll be a big puddle of goo, sinking into the ground.”

Many of the goblins were backing away now, but the chief stood firm. “Shut up, you sniveling lot!” he snarled at the nervous goblins. Giving me a sour look, he spat on the ground. “So, we can’t eat ya.” He sounded unimpressed. “Pity, that is. But don’t think that’ll save ya, girl. If yer so deadly, I’ll just kill ya now, except I’ll bleed ya slow, so yer poison blood won’t hurt me. Then I’ll skin ya and hang yer hide on me door, and use yer bones fer arrowheads. As me grandmother always said, waste not.”

“Wait!” I cried as he stepped forward, raising his sword. “It—it would be a shame for me to go to waste like that,” I stammered as he glared at me with suspicious eyes. “There is a way to purify the poison from my blood so that I’m safe to eat. If I’m going to die anyway, I’d rather be eaten than tortured.”

The goblin chief smiled. “I knew you’d see it my way,” he gloated. Turning to his minions, he puffed out his chest. “See there, dogs? Yer chief is still lookin’ out fer ya! We feast tonight!”

A raucous cheer went up, and the chief turned to me again, leveling his sword at my face. “So then, otaku girl. What’s yer secret?”

I thought quickly. “To cleanse the poison from my blood, you have to boil me in a big pot with several purifying ingredients. Spring water from a waterfall, an acorn from the tallest oak tree, blue mushrooms, and…um…”

“Don’t tell me ya forgot,” the chief said in a menacing tone, and poked the sword tip through the bars of the cage. “Maybe I can help ya remember.”

“Pixie dust!” I blurted desperately, making him blink. “From a live pixie,” I added. “Not dead. If it dies, the recipe won’t work.” I prayed that there were pixies in this world. If not, I was as good as dead.

“Huh,” the chief grunted, and turned to the waiting tribe. “All right, louts, you heard it! I want those ingredients back here before dawn! Anyone who don’t work, don’t eat! Now, get movin’.”

The tribe scattered. Hissing, jabbering, and cursing at one another, they vanished into the forest until only one guard remained, leaning on a crooked spear.

The chief eyed me warily and pointed his sword through the bars.

“Don’t think ya can trick me by givin’ false ingredients,” he threatened. “I plan to cut off yer finger, toss it in the stew, an’ have one of me mates taste it. If he dies, or melts into a puddle, it be a long, slow death fer you. Understand?”

Chilled, I nodded. I knew none of the goblins would die, because my claim of poison and the recipe for the stew was, of course, completely bogus. Still, I wasn’t thrilled about losing one of my fingers. Terrified would be a better word.

The chief spat and looked around the near-deserted campsite. “Bah, none of them dogs will know how to catch a piskie,” he muttered, scratching his ear. “They’d probably eat the damn thing if they caught it. Arg, I’d better find one myself. Bugrat!”

A few yards away, the lone guard snapped to attention. “Chief?”

“Keep an eye on our dinner,” the chief ordered, sheathing his sword. “If it tries to escape, cut off its feet.”

“You got it, chief.”

“I’m goin’ huntin’.” The chief shot me one last warning glare, then bounded off into the undergrowth.

“That was clever,” Grimalkin murmured, sounding reluctantly impressed.

I nodded, too breathless to answer. After a moment, the sound of chewing recommenced.

It took a while, during which time I chewed my lip, wrung my hands, and tried not to ask how Grimalkin was doing every twenty seconds. As the minutes stretched, I cast anxious glances at the trees and the forest, expecting the chief or the goblin horde to come bursting through. The lone guard stalked the perimeter of the camp, shooting me an evil look as it walked by and triggering Grimalkin’s vanishing act. Finally, on the eighth or ninth circle, Grimalkin’s voice floated up after the guard had passed.

“There. I think you can get through now.”

I wiggled around as best I could. Peering at the bars, I saw that several of the bindings were chewed in half, testament to Grim’s strong jaws and sharp teeth.

“Come on, come on, let us go,” Grimalkin hissed, lashing its tail. “You can gawk later—they are coming back.”

Bushes rustled around me, and harsh laughter filled the air, getting closer. Heart pounding, I grasped the bars, being careful to avoid the thorns, and pushed. They resisted me, held in place by interlocking branches, and I shoved harder. It was like trying to push through a heavy briar patch; the bars shifted a bit, teasing me with freedom, but stubbornly gave little ground.

The goblin chief stepped out of the trees, followed by three more goblins. He clutched something small and wriggling in one fist, and his followers’ arms were filled with pale blue toadstools.

“Mushrooms were the easy part,” the chief snorted, casting a derisive glance back at the others. “Any idiot can collect plants. If I’d left these dogs ta catch a piskie, we’d be nothin’ but bones before—”

He stopped, and his gaze snapped to me. For a moment, he stood there, blinking, then his eyes narrowed and he clenched his fists. The creature in his grasp gave a high-pitched squeal as the goblin crushed the life from it and flung it to the ground. With a roar of outrage, the chief drew his sword. I screamed and shoved on the cage as hard as I could.

Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
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