If Danny never had another visit from Egil Greycoat, he wouldn’t have shed a tear. But there he was, standing outside Danny’s cabin with his arms folded, tapping his toes. His pale skin was only slightly darker than his long, platinum hair. His clothing, however, was dusky gray—topcoat, trousers, riding boots, sheathed cavalry sword at his side.
Above his head floated two blue-white will-o’-the-wisps. They flitted and flickered like living things, casting dim shadows on the ground.
The trunk of the Virginia pine at the edge of the clearing gave Danny, Claudia, and Littleberry a hiding place while they took it all in.
“Underhill!” the elf shouted. His accent was vaguely Germanic. “I would have words with thee.”
When Greycoat was born, people still said “thee.” Apparently, he never saw the need to change.
Danny gestured for Claudia to stay put. It surprised him when she obeyed.
He took a breath. There were four deathlings in his cabin with two or three little folk. One of those deathlings was injured, maybe badly. Danny figured Claudia could do something about his wound if she could get to him, but that was going to be the hard part.
The way he saw it, he had two advantages. One, the runaways were protected behind the threshold of his cabin. It wasn’t much of a threshold: it wasn’t much of a cabin! But every home generates a barrier against magical intruders. And unlike his little folk friends, Danny had never invited Greycoat in. If things went bad—and Danny didn’t see how they wouldn’t—his cabin would give everybody at least a little bit of protection.
Two, Greycoat didn’t know about Claudia. Danny didn’t know how much magic she could pull off, but she was a sight to see against those slave catchers. He’d have to keep her presence a secret if he could.
By contrast, Egil Greycoat only had one advantage: he was Egil Greycoat. He may not have been the match of a powerful sídhe, but Danny wouldn’t have bet against him. He knew too well the elf was powerful, fast, and tricky. Furthermore, he was close to the Erlking of Twear—close enough there’d be hell to pay if anything unfortunate ever happened to him.
More magic. Better connections. And Danny owed him a favor.
He didn’t want to give away Claudia and Littleberry’s position, so instead of just walking out of the woods, he blinked—disappearing and then reappearing half a second later in a flash of superheated dust. He chose a landing spot to Greycoat’s left, in clear view of the cabin door.
“Evening, Mr. Greycoat,” he said. He worked hard to keep his voice calm and light. Nope. Nothing odd going on. Not a thing.
The elf spun gracefully in his direction. His hand found a resting place on the hilt of his sword.
“Ah, Mr. Underhill,” he said. He stared at Danny with his pale blue eyes. “I feared thou hadst forgotten our appointment.”
“I ain’t forgot,” Danny said. “I been busy.”
“Of course. I trust thou hast had a pleasant All Hallow’s Eve? Oh, and happy birthday.”
Danny risked a glance toward his cabin’s door. No signs of movement. Good.
“It ain’t my birthday till tomorrow, Mr. Greycoat. And if I might say, after the last dozen years, I’d have thought you’d figure out I can’t pay the rent right now.”
Greycoat made a slashing gesture, and Danny felt a stabbing pain at his temple. He gasped and fell to one knee as the world spun around him.
“I’ll thank thee to keep a respectful tone, pooka,” the elf said.
Danny looked up at him and wiped the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. In the cabin, he heard the shuffling of feet, a stifled groan. His pointed ears instinctively pivoted toward the sound. If Greycoat heard, he didn’t give it away.
“Do not forget, child,” the elf said. “Thou wert the one who bargained with me for seisin of this valley and the mortal world beyond it. Thou wert the one who agreed to my terms: one non-negotiable favor, paid every year on or before the thirty-first of October. Thou art too young to be so forgetful.”
Yeah, I really should have thought that one through, Danny thought.
He tried again. “Be that as it may, I’m busy. Tomorrow’s November first, you understand? The Pooka’s Day. Anything the deathlings leave in their fields after tonight is rightfully mine, but it won’t last forever. If I don’t take it now, I don’t eat this winter.”
“So you keep telling me.”
There was another stifled groan from the cabin, followed by a sharp shushing noise. Another trickle of sweat snaked down Danny’s neck.
“Why can’t you come earlier?” the pooka said. “Why do you always gotta wait until the very last minute?”
“Because I can,” the elf said, and smiled.
“Yeah, that’s what I figured,” Danny muttered.
“Now, down to business,” Greycoat said. “I propose—” He stopped abruptly and whipped around.
Danny gazed at his cabin door. His heart sank.
There was the little boy, halfway outside, one of Littleberry’s friends tugging at his arm, trying to hold him in.
“Thou hast guests,” Greycoat said. His thin lips pulled back into a grin. “Thou didst not tell me.”
“That’s ‘cause it weren’t none of your business,” Danny said.
Greycoat either didn’t hear him or wasn’t paying attention. Instead, he addressed the boy.
“Hello there!” he said, his voice dripping sugar.
The little person, eyes wide with fright, kept pulling on the boy’s arm. The girl, maybe nine or ten, appeared in the doorway and set her hands on her brother’s shoulders. Neither seemed able to pull their eyes away from the elf. The will-o’-the-wisps bobbing above his head had them mesmerized.
“Betsy!” their mother called from inside.
Greycoat dropped to one knee.
“I had meant to demand of thee a mortal child,” Greycoat said. “What sayest thou, Underhill? I would forgive thy yearly debt for two fine changelings.”
“No!” Danny blurted.
“Be sensible,” Greycoat said. “‘Twould spare thee time and effort to give me these. Thou couldst spend tomorrow collecting thy bounty in peace.”
“Well, yeah, but—”
“‘Twould be to their advantage as well, yes? They’re slaves: that much is clear. What have they to hold them to human earth? I could give them their hearts’ desires. Make them great. Powerful. Thou knowest this, Underhill.”
Their mother came to the door. Danny tried to read her tear-stained expression: bewilderment, fear, awe. She’d heard everything the elf had said. She looked over her shoulder. Somewhere in there, her husband lay dying. What could she do for her kids alone in the world?
If Danny had kids, he couldn’t imagine giving them up. But if he thought it would give them a better life?
What was going on inside that head of hers?
Greycoat reached into his topcoat pocket.
“What beautiful children,” he gushed. “I have some chestnuts. Do you like chestnuts?”
He produced a paper sack and poured some nuts into his hand. Faery food. One bite, and keeping those children out of Greycoat’s claws would be a hundred times harder.
The little person grunted, but the boy was too much for him. He pulled free and stumbled onto the grass. His sister shuffled after him.
A second little person appeared in the doorway. “Danny!” he squeaked.
“Now wait right there!” Danny shouted. “Those kids are under my hospitality. You can’t just—”
Greycoat gestured again. Danny bent over and grabbed the sides of his head. Visions of torment passed before his consciousness: sheets of frigid water pouring over him, blinding lights, cold iron spikes piercing his flesh.
“Tone, Mr. Underhill,” he said coolly. “Besides, they are mere deathlings. The Law of Hospitality doth not apply to them.”
“Well, I say it does!” Danny grunted.
“Then what sayest thou to two years’ relief instead of one? Two years for two changelings. ‘Tis only fair.” His eyes never left the children.
“What is thy name, young man?” he whispered.
The little boy reached tentatively toward the treat in Greycoat’s outstretched hand.
“What sayest thou, Madam,” Greycoat asked the mother. “Shall I make thy children free? Shall I take them to a place no slaver can ever reach?”
“Don’t say anything!” A voice called from the edge of the woods.