Claudia’s hunter hoisted Danny by his belt and collar and flung him through the cabin door. He flew a good ten feet, hit the ground with a crunch, and rolled two or three times before stopping flat on his back.
“Underhill!” Greycoat called.
The hunter bounded after Danny. Claudia stood defiantly in the doorway.
The mist-man scooped Danny up and slammed him against a tree.
“Oof!” Danny gasped. Take it easy, you misty oaf!
“And never trouble my passengers again!” Claudia rumbled. She held her figurine aloft. The hunter dissolved into fog and wafted away.
Danny slumped to the ground.
Claudia disappeared inside the cabin. Seconds later, a parade of figures departed: Claudia, Elijah limping beside her, Betsy, and Susanna taking up the rear with a sleeping Timothy in her arms.
They made for the mushroom ring and passed out of sight.
“Underhill, dost thou hear me?”
“I hear you, Mr. Greycoat,” Danny muttered. He summoned an orb of faery fire into his hand. “That witch was…just too much for me.”
He struggled to his feet and stumbled toward his landlord, still trapped inside Claudia’s magic circle.
“So it appeareth,” Greycoat said. “Alas, those youngsters would have completed thy yearly charge. I fear thou must find me another deathling child, Underhill.”
“Another one, sir?”
“Aye. That was the favor I bespoke. Or hath the witch’s enchantments addled thy brain?”
“No, sir,” Danny said. He kept his eyes down. “It’s just—”
“Just what, Mr. Underhill? The terms of our agreement haven’t changed this past hour.”
“Of course not, sir. It’s just…”
“Well, I sort of figured you’d ask me to set you free from that circle.”
Greycoat’s mouth dropped open.
Then his eyes grew wide.
“Thou meanest to keep me trapped here?” Greycoat’s cheeks, usually pale as chalk, turned rosy pink.
“No, sir! Not at all, sir!” Danny protested, still limping forward. “I overheard the witch talking about how she…uh…inconvenienced you like she did. I’m pretty sure I can reverse it. In fact, I know I can.”
“Of course, if you’d rather have a mortal child, I can run out and find you one right quick. It shouldn’t take more than a couple days. A week at most.” Danny gestured dismissively. “There ain’t no way that spell’s gonna last that long, d’you think?”
“But it’s all up to you, Mr. Greycoat. Whatever you want. You’re the boss, after all. You want a deathling kid? You got it! I’ll get on it right away.”
“Get me out of here!”
Danny paused. He dared to look up into Greycoat’s eyes.
“Well, sir,” he began. He took a breath. “If that’s the favor you’re asking of me, I’m oath-bound to deliver.”
“And that makes us even, right? I done everything you asked.” He chuckled. “‘Cause everybody knows a fellow as close as you are with the Erlking would never go back on his word.” He laughed out loud. “Could you imagine what the Erlking would do if one of his biggest buddies made a bonehead move like that?”
Greycoat clenched and unclenched his fists, helpless behind Claudia’s magic circle.
“So…if you’d like me to set you free…and that settles our accounts…you just say the word…Sir.”
“Free me,” Greycoat whispered. “Now.”
“I’ll be right back,” Danny said. He disappeared into his cabin long enough to retrieve a pouch of powdered herbs Claudia had left for him.
He tossed a handful of the powder into the air in front of Greycoat, and the magic circle collapsed at once.
Greycoat took a step forward. Danny backed away.
“If you’re still interested in those deathling kids, I think they went that way,” Danny said.
“This is not over,” Greycoat said.
“Actually, sir,” Danny said, “I’m pretty sure you gave me your word that it was.”
Greycoat huffed. He retrieved his sword and returned it to his sheath. He stalked into the woods.
He shook his head.
He hobbled through the front door of his cabin.
“How was that?” he whispered.
“Perfect!” Claudia gushed. She held Susanna’s hand. Elijah was sitting up at Danny’s table with his arms around his children.
“But you sent Greycoat after your little friends,” she pondered. She led Danny to the table and sat him down. His back was stiff. He ached all over.
“I sent him after you—Ooo!” Claudia began massaging his shoulders. It hurt like fire at first, but the cool touch of her hands soon eased his aching muscles. “Little folks are tops when it comes to glamour tricks like that. But I expect they took off those husks as soon as they were out of sight. Even if he runs into them in the woods, he’ll never suspect they were the runaway slaves he saw leaving the cabin.”
“You’ve got a devious mind, Mr. Underhill,” Claudia said with a smile.
“I know another way back to human earth. When you’re ready to move, I’ll show you. It comes out by the Crawfords’ place. They’re Quakers, so they won’t give you no grief if they catch you sneaking around. They might even put you up for the night. And it’s Danny, if you please.”
She came around in front of him and offered her hand. “You’re too kind.”
Then she turned serious. “There’s no telling what Greycoat will ask of you next year.”
“Well, that gives me a year to make other plans. See a little bit of the world. Maybe do a favor or two for the Erlking myself—just to be on the safe side.”
“Something tells me you’ll come out on top,” Claudia said. “I’d like to think you’ll be here next time I pass through, though. We got off on the wrong foot, I know. I’d like the opportunity to show you I’m sorry.”
“It wasn’t your fault I left the blamed door open.”
“No,” Claudia agreed. “It wasn’t.”
“Seems to me I owe you something for all your trouble,” Danny said. “So if you do ever pass this way again, come on by. I’ll show you and your passengers a fine time, and that’s a promise.”
“Perhaps I’ll take you up on that, Mr. Un—Danny.”
“I’d be honored if you did, Miss Claudia.”