The forest grew thick on the other side of the gates, as if the wall had been built to keep it in check. A tunnel of flowering trees and branches stretched away from me, fully in bloom, the scent so overpowering I felt light-headed.

The tunnel ended with a curtain of vines, opening up into a vast clearing surrounded by giant trees. The ancient trunks and interlocking branches made a sort of cathedral, a living palace of giant columns and a leafy vaulted ceiling. Even though I knew we were underground, and it was night outside, sunlight dappled the forest floor, slanting in through tiny cracks in the canopy. Glowing balls of light danced in the air, and a waterfall cascaded gently into a nearby pool. The colors here were dazzling.

A hundred faeries clustered around the middle of the clearing, dressed in brilliant, alien finery. By the look of it, I guessed these were the nobles of the court. Their hair hung long and flowing, or was styled in impossible fashions atop their heads. Satyrs, easily recognized by their shaggy goat legs, and furry little men padded back and forth, serving drinks and trays of food. Slender hounds with moss-green fur milled about, hoping for dropped crumbs. Elven knights in silvery chain armor stood stiffly around the room; a few held hawks or even tiny dragons.

In the center of this gathering sat a pair of thrones, seemingly grown out of the forest floor and flanked by two liveried centaurs. One of the thrones stood empty, except for a caged raven on one of the arms. The great black bird cawed and beat its wings against its prison, its beady eyes bright and green. However, in the throne on the left…

King Oberon, for I could only assume this was him, sat with his fingers steepled together, gazing out at the crowd. Like the rest of the fey nobles, he was tall and slender, with silver hair that fell to his waist and eyes like green ice. An antlered crown rested on his brow, casting a long shadow over the court, like grasping talons. Power radiated from him, as subtle as a thunderstorm.

Over the colorful sea of nobles, our gazes met. Oberon raised one eyebrow, graceful as the curve of a hawk’s wing, but no expression showed on his face. And at that moment, every faery in the room stopped what it was doing and turned to stare at me.

“Great,” muttered Grimalkin, forgotten beside me. “Now they all know we are here. Well, come on, human. Let us play nicies with the court.”

My legs felt weak, my mouth dry, but I forced myself to walk. Fey lords and ladies parted for me, but whether out of respect or disdain, I couldn’t tell. Their eyes, cold and amused, gave nothing away. A green faery hound sniffed me and growled as I passed, but other than that, the place was silent.

What was I doing here? I didn’t even know. Grimalkin was supposed to be leading me to Puck, but now Oberon wanted to see me. It seemed I was getting further and further from my goal of rescuing Ethan. Unless, of course, Oberon knew where Ethan was.

Unless Oberon was holding him hostage.

I reached the foot of the throne. Heart pounding, not knowing what else to do, I dropped to one knee and bowed. I felt the Erlking’s eyes on the back of my neck, as ancient as the forest surrounding us. Finally, he spoke.

“Rise, Meghan Chase.”

His voice was soft, yet the lilting undertone made me think of roaring oceans and savage storms. The ground trembled beneath my fingers. Controlling my fear, I stood and looked at him and saw something flicker across his masklike face. Pride? Amusement? It was gone before I could tell.

“You have trespassed in our lands,” he told me, sending a murmur down the faery court. “You were never meant to see the Nevernever, and yet you tricked a member of this court into bringing you across the barrier. Why?”

Not knowing what else to do, I told him the truth. “I’m searching for my brother, sir. Ethan Chase.”

“And you have reason to believe he is here?”

“I don’t know.” I cast a desperate look at Grimalkin, who was grooming a back leg and paying no attention to me. “My friend Robbie…Puck…he told me that Ethan was kidnapped by faeries. That they left a changeling in his place.”

“I see.” Oberon turned his head slightly, regarding the caged bird on his throne. “And that is yet another transgression, Robin.”

I gaped, my mouth dropping open. “Puck?”

The raven looked at me with bright green eyes, cawed softly, and seemed to shrug. I glared back at Oberon. “What are you doing to him?”

“He was commanded never to bring you to our land.” Oberon’s voice was calm but pitiless. “He was ordered to keep you blind to our ways, our life, our very existence. I punished him for his disobedience. Perhaps I will turn him back in a few centuries, after he has had time to think on his transgressions.”

“He was trying to help me!”

Oberon smiled, but it was cold, empty. “We immortals do not think of life in the same way as humans. Puck should have had no interest in rescuing a human child, especially if it conflicted with my direct orders. That he caved to your demands suggests he may be spending too much time with mortals, learning their ways and their capricious emotions. It is time he remembers how to be fey.”

I swallowed. “But what about Ethan?”

“I know not.” Oberon leaned back, shrugging his lean shoulders. “He is not here, within my territories. That much I can tell you.”

Despair crushed me like a ten-ton weight. Oberon didn’t know where Ethan was, and worse, didn’t care. Now I’d lost Puck as a guide, as well. It was back to square one. I’d have to find the other court—the Unseelie one—sneak in and rescue my brother, all by myself. That is, if I could get there in one piece. Maybe Grimalkin would agree to help me. I looked down at the cat, who was completely absorbed in washing his tail, and my heart sank. Probably not. Well, then. I was on my own.

The enormity of my task loomed ahead, and I fought back tears. Where would I go now? How would I even survive?

“Fine.” I didn’t mean to sound surly, but I wasn’t feeling very positive at the moment. “I’ll be leaving now. If you won’t help me, I’ll just have to keep looking.”

“I’m afraid,” said Oberon, “that I can’t let you go just yet.”

“What?” I recoiled. “Why?”

“Much of the land knows you are here,” the Erlking continued. “Outside this court, I have many enemies. Now that you are here, now that you are aware, they would use you to get to me. I’m afraid I cannot allow that.”

“I don’t get it.” I looked around at the fey nobles; many of them looked grim, unfriendly. The stares they leveled at me now glittered with dislike. I turned back to Oberon, pleading. “Why would they want me? I’m just a human. I don’t have anything to do with you people. I just want my brother back.”

“On the contrary.” Oberon sighed, and for the first time, age seemed to weigh him down. He looked old; still deadly and extremely powerful, but ancient and tired. “You are more connected to our world than you know, Meghan Chase. You see, you are my daughter.”


The Erlking’s Daughter

I stared at Oberon as the world fell away beneath me. The Erlking gazed back, his expression cool and unruffled, his eyes blank once more. The silence around us was absolute. I didn’t see anyone except Oberon; the rest of the court faded into the background, until we were the only two in the whole world.

Puck gave an indignant caw and flapped his wings against the cage.

That broke the spell. “What?” I choked out. The Erlking didn’t so much as blink, which somehow infuriated me even more. “That’s not true! Mom was married to my dad. She stayed with him until he disappeared, and she remarried Luke.”

“That is true,” Oberon nodded. “But that man is not your father, Meghan. I am.” He stood, his courtly robes billowing around him. “You are half-fey, half my blood. Why do you think I had Puck guard you, keep you from seeing our world? Because it comes naturally to you. Most mortals are blind, but you could see through the Mist from the beginning.”

I thought back to all those times I almost saw something, out of the corner of my eye, or silhouetted in the trees. Glimpses of things not quite there. I shook my head. “No, I don’t believe you. My mom loved my dad. She wouldn’t—” I broke off, not wanting to think about the implications.

“Your mother was a beautiful woman,” Oberon continued softly. “And quite extraordinary, for a mortal. Artistic people can always see a bit of the fey world around them. She would often go to the park to paint and draw. It was there, beside the pond, that we first met.”

“Stop it,” I gritted out. “You’re lying. I’m not one of you. I can’t be.”

“Only half,” Oberon said, and from the corner of my eye I caught looks of disgust and contempt from the rest of the court. “Still, that is enough for my enemies to attempt to control me through you. Or, perhaps, to turn you against me. You are more dangerous than you know, daughter. Because of the threat you represent, you must remain here.”

My world seemed to be collapsing around me. “For how long?” I whispered, thinking of Mom, Luke, school, everything I left behind in my world. Had I been missed already? Would I return to find a hundred years had passed while I was gone, and everyone I knew was long dead?

“Until I deem otherwise,” Oberon said, in the tone my mother often used when she settled the matter. Because I said so. “At the very least, until Elysium is through. The Winter Court will be arriving in a few days, and I will have you where I can see you.” He clapped, and a female satyr broke away from the crowd to bow before him. “Take my daughter to her room,” he ordered, sitting back on his throne. “See that she is made comfortable.”

“Yes, my lord,” murmured the satyr, and began to clop away, glancing back to see if I was coming. Oberon leaned back, not looking at me, his face blank and stony.

My audience with the Erlking was over.

I had stumbled back, prepared to follow the goat-girl out of the court, when Grimalkin’s voice floated up from the ground. I’d completely forgotten about the cat. “Begging your pardon, my lord,” Grimalkin said, sitting up and curling his tail around himself, “but our business is not yet complete. You see, the girl is in my debt. She promised me a favor for bringing her safely here, and that obligation has yet to be paid.”

I glared at the feline, wondering why it was bringing that up now. Oberon, however, looked at me with a grim expression. “Is this true?”

I nodded, wondering why the nobles were giving me looks of horror and pity. “Grim helped me escape the goblins,” I explained. “He saved my life. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for…” My voice trailed off as I saw the look in Oberon’s eyes.

“A life debt, then.” He sighed. “Very well, Cait Sith. What would you have of me?”

Grimalkin lowered his eyelids. It was easy to see that the cat was purring. “A small favor, great lord,” he rumbled, “to be called in at a later time.”

“Granted.” The Erlking nodded, and yet he seemed to grow bigger in his chair. His shadow loomed over the cat, who blinked and flattened his ears. Thunder growled overhead, the light in the forest dimmed, and a cold wind rattled the branches in the trees, showering us with petals. The rest of the court shrank away; some vanished from sight completely. In the sudden darkness, Oberon’s eyes glowed amber. “But be warned, feline,” he boomed, his voice making the ground quiver. “I am not to be trifled with. Do not think to make a fool out of me, for I can grant your request in insurmountably unpleasant ways.”

Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
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