A Note on Air, Wood, and Elementals

I’ve been doing some research about the classical elements (earth, water, air, fire) and their semi-equivalent in Chinese philosophy, the wu xing or “five changes” (wood, earth, water, fire, metal). Yes, this has something to do with a new writing project I’m considering—something with a more “Renaissance-y” feel to it: Hermetic magic, alchemy, the classical elements, etc.

My half-dozen readers may have already predicted that I’d like to expand the scope of this by including aspects of other world cultures. The classical elements are known as far east as India and even Japan, but the Chinese wu xing is notably different in some regards. The overlap between these two systems is obvious: both include earth, water, and fire. And it might be possible to consider metal as a subset of earth. But what about air and wood? Until quite recently, I wasn’t entirely convinced these two “elements” belonged together. Then I remembered my high school science classes.

Here’s what finally dawned on me (thanks to this YouTube video). Do you know what plants are made of? Mostly air, it turns out. Plants take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, combine it with hydrogen from water, and use these molecules to create carbohydrates. About 90% of a tree’s mass comes literally out of thin air!

Furthermore, what do plants do with the oxygen that’s left over after they’ve taken hydrogen from water? They expel it as a waste product into the air, where humans and other animals breathe it to live.

In short, plants are mainly made of “air,” and they cleanse the air to make it breathable.

The Perfect Beta Team

I am blessed with what is very likely the ideal team of beta readers. Though it only numbers three members (I know some authors like more; I wouldn’t turn down a serious request to be enlisted for the next go-round), they each bring something helpful and necessary to the process.

Reader 1 gets into the thick of it, finding clumsy word choices, unclear motivations, questionable characterizations, and weak pacing. She is also the reader most likely to go full fangirl when characters do something awesome or, more often, find themselves in desperate scrapes.

Reader 2 takes a more big-picture approach. He doesn’t leave me as many comments as Reader 1, but what he leaves is gold. Reader 2 is more likely to alert me to larger issues: whole scenes that just aren’t working, or that need to be placed in a different order; continuity errors; places where I may be expecting too much of my readers’ memory of previous volumes.

Reader 3 is a big-picture reader somewhat like Reader 2, but he brings an eye especially for mythological detail. Reader 3 is the one most likely to question whether what I’m writing has remained true to what I’ve already established about how magic works, for example, or about aspects of culture in the Wonder. Sometimes I think he understands my “rules” better than I do!

Mind you, I had none of this in mind when I invited these three to beta for me. I doubt I could have even predicted how they’d do what I’d asked them to do. But as The River of Night hurtles toward the finish line, I’m grateful to have (accidentally!) assembled such a team. Thanks, guys!

Technology and the Fair Folk

When I first decided to have Fair Folk in my Into the Wonder series fire elf shot from shotguns, it was purely in service of a pun. Mortals may have buckshot and birdshot, but the fae have elf shot! This one decision, however, ultimately exerted a good bit of influence over how I imagined the Fair Folk interacting with technology. Suddenly, they were not mired in medieval stasis but open—at least at some level—to later technological innovations. This was fine, of course, because much of northern European faery lore comes from a later (though still pre-industrial) stage of history, and that was where I had started in working out the “rules” for my fictional world. But shotguns strongly implied machine tooling, and that set me to thinking about other ways modern technology might impinge upon the lives of elves, pookas, goblins, and the daoine sídhe. Here, then, are some of my semi-random thoughts on the matter.

Technological innovation in the Wonder has moved more slowly than it has on human earth. In general, Wonderling society in North America operates at technological level comparable to that of late in the Age of Exploration or the earliest stages of the Industrial Revolution (roughly AD 1700–1800).

The Relative Rarity of Tech

Wonderling tech is not as prevalent in their society as it was in ours in the late 1700s, however, for a number of reasons. Most obviously, inhabitants of the Wonder are able to use magic to accomplish many of the goals for which Topsiders must rely on technology. There is little incentive to develop technological ways to enhance a farm’s yield when all one needs to do is turn a few friendly pookas or poleviks loose in the fields! Why develop technological means of transportation and long-distance communication when the ring network and a good Seeing Stone can work at least as adequately as anything mortals have devised—if not far better?

Another limiting factor is the widespread aversion to iron and steel among the true fae. (This is not a significant factor for other denizens of the Wonder such as dwarves, little folk, trolls, etc. It does, however, limit the overall demand for products made of iron or steel.)

Add to this that many inhabitants of the Wonder have a deep connection to and appreciation for the natural world. Beings who have lived for centuries in harmony with springs, fields, forests, and trees are not likely to forsake these things for technological advances that, left unchecked, may threaten to mar or even destroy them.

Furthermore, the Wonder in general lacks an economic system conducive to widespread industrialization. Inhabitants of the Wonder engage in barter with strangers or outsiders and cultivate complex networks of patronage with their associates in an intricate social hierarchy. In such an arrangement, there is little to no incentive for a young sprite to leave the farm in order to work in large urban factories. Therefore, whatever technology is available is still almost exclusively the product of small cottage industries.

The final limiting factor is purely cultural. Although the inhabitants of the Wonder benefit from eighteenth-century technology, their clothing, values, and other aspects of culture are generally closer to fifteenth–sixteenth century. Many in the Wonder are wary of technological innovations beyond this Renaissance-era horizon.

Technological Diffusion from Topside

It should be noted, however, that some Wonderlings are quite acquainted with the Topside world, both in historical times (Mara Hellebore knows of Shakespeare and Spenser) and more recent decades (Danny Underhill is familiar with Walt Disney, Janis Joplin, and Michael Jordan). It is quite possible that a well-read fae could be the equal of any Topside scientist or engineer in terms of the underlying principles of modern technology even if his or her society has not produced all the intermediate steps needed to reproduce it. Algebra and calculus, the germ theory of disease, modern genetics, atomic theory, and other advances are easily comprehended by astute Wonderlings.

Furthermore, many inhabitants of the Wonder are known to enter patronage relationships with Topsiders (“Friendlies”) which might result in the Topside client trading technological trinkets for magical favors.

I have left a number of hints about Wonderling technological capabilities here and there in the Into the Wonder series, however. Moe Fountain’s home has indoor plumbing, including a heated shower (steam pump?). A guard reads a periodical magazine (printing press), there is a clock in the dining hall of Dunhoughkey (clockworks, machine tools?), and various characters deliver elf-shot using blunderbusses, muskets, and shotguns (gunpowder, machine tools). All of these fit very well within eighteenth-century parameters.

Two Borderline Cases

There are two instances of technology more clearly associated with the early nineteenth century. In The Devil’s Due, Lawdwick Vesper carries canned foodstuffs in his pack (c. 1810), and in Children of Pride, Shanna Hellebore’s cell at Dunhoughkey is adorned with photographs (1839). I’ll admit I hadn’t nailed down the tech level in the Wonder as precisely as I since have when writing these details, so what follows may be something along the lines of a writer’s saving throw. Be that as it may, here is how I might be tempted to justify these details.

In the case of Vesper’s canned rations, (1) this innovation is so close to the AD 1800 cut-off as to be virtually negligible, and (2) Nicolas Appert first began working on his food preservation method after a chance observance that food cooked inside a jar didn’t spoil unless the seals leaked. Had the same observation been made fifty to a hundred years prior, canning would be an eighteenth-century invention. Furthermore, (3) since some inhabitants of the Wonder are aware of mortal innovations, there is nothing inherently implausible about canning foods using eighteenth-century technology—all that is really needed is a suitable canister, a pressure cooker, and a heat source.

In the case of photography, Shanna’s cell décor is perhaps best explained by appeal interactions between Wonderlings and Topsiders. Well-read inhabitants of the Wonder would know the basics of photography as it is practiced on human earth—in fact, many of the necessary technical innovations are pre-nineteenth century: the camera obscura, silver nitrate, silver chloride, and the photochemical effect. Indeed, a passage in the novel Giphantie by Tiphaigne de la Roche (1760) anticipates photography.

The first attempt to capture the image in a camera obscura on a light-sensitive substance was made by Thomas Wedgwood around 1800, and it is not inconceivable for Wonderlings to have developed a process something along the lines of a daguerreotype (1839) or perhaps even the wet collodion process (c. 1850).

What do you think? Is there room in Faery Land for gunpowder, machine tools, steam engines, and the cotton gin? Or do you prefer your fantasy races to be strictly medieval?

The Pooka’s Day 5

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…”

“Yes?”

“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.”

“Good!”

“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?”

“Underhill!”

“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.”

Greycoat growled.

“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.

Danny sighed.

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.”

The Pooka’s Day 4

Claudia rummaged through her satchel and set a jumble of tiny packets and bottles on the floor beside Elijah on a handkerchief of homespun cotton. The little folk had cut away the leg of his trousers, exposing a cleaned but very nasty bite wound.

The figurine Claudia had used to summon that “hunter” thing lay at her side.

The mother knelt beside her husband.

Littleberry and his friends huddled in the corner, trying to distract or entertain the two children. They shot Danny worried glances.

Claudia set a short, thick candle at the wounded man’s head.

“Light that candle,” she commanded.

Outside, Egil Greycoat cursed in his native tongue.

One of Littleberry’s friends squeaked with fright.

Danny pinched his brow. As if it weren’t bad enough he was caught in this mess…

“What am I gonna do?” he muttered. “I am in so much trouble!”

“Underhill!” Greycoat barked.

“I said light that candle!” Claudia rumbled. “I don’t have all day!”

Danny stooped over and produced a spark of fire in his fingers—not faery fire, but a real fire that ignited the candle’s wick when he touched it.

“He’s right,” Danny whispered. “You ain’t got much magic left.”

“Plenty to deal with the likes of you,” Claudia said. She began mixing ingredients in a wooden bowl. “Fire magic isn’t exactly my specialty—but that doesn’t mean I can’t turn you into something tasty if the mood strikes me. Understand?”

“Now listen here!” Danny said.

Claudia turned away. She stirred her mixture into a pungent salve while chanting under her breath.

“I ain’t done nothing to you!” Danny continued. “You’re the one trapping my landlord in a magic circle, barging into my house…”

She started rubbing the salve into the wound on Elijah’s leg.

“By oak, ash, and thorn, woman! Egil Greycoat is a pretty important fae in these parts! Sure, I don’t like him, but I’m stuck with him, ain’t I? I figure you and your passengers will be moving out as soon as he’s able to walk.” He gestured toward the wounded man. “But what about me?”

“Underhill!” Greycoat called from outside. “Get me out of here this instant!”

“You see?” Danny said. He shook his head and leaned back against the wall.

Elijah expelled a breath. Claudia caught his wife’s eyes and nodded. She smiled and started to weep.

“Now you listen, Mr. Underhill,” Claudia said. She rose to her feet. “You left open a portal into the Wonder. My passengers knew nothing of this world or its dangers—until now. If it wasn’t Greycoat, it might have been any number of things: ogres, water panthers… I’ll bet there are even horned serpents around here. Am I right?”

“Now, wait—”

“I’ve already told you these people are my responsibility. I promised to see them through to Canada, and I mean to do it.”

“Underhill!”

Danny sighed. The throbbing pain that had been creeping into his head finally exploded. “Miss Claudia, I understand about keeping promises. I really do. But… Egil Greycoat!”

“Underhill, come thou forth at once, or thou art a dead man!”

Danny crumbled to the floor, his head in his hands.

“What are we gonna do, Danny?” Littleberry asked. “Without you to look after us…”

“I know, buddy. Don’t worry. I’ll figure something out.”

He opened his eyes. Claudia was looking at him. Her expression had softened.

“Don’t you have passengers to look after?”

She glanced over her shoulder. Elijah had drifted off to sleep with his head in his wife’s lap.

“Underhill!” Greycoat shouted, and followed up with a string of curse words.

“I didn’t mean to be rude earlier, Mr. Underhill,” Claudia said. “I’m…rather passionate about my job.”

“Yeah,” Danny said. “I guess I can’t blame you for that. I take it you’re a runaway, too?”

She shook her head. “My mother was a slave. I was born free.”

“Your ma, she escaped up north?”

“She…escaped.”

Danny quirked an eyebrow. “You mean into the Wonder.”

She nodded. “Soon after she met my father. But that’s a story for another day.” Her gaze drifted to Littleberry, who still cowered over Danny’s shoulder.

“These little folk are your responsibility.”

“You might say that,” Danny agreed. “We look after each other. That’s what happens in farm country—you probably know something about that. Neighbors help each other out.”

“You rally together,” Claudia offered.

Danny nodded. “Anybody has a barn to raise or tobacco to cut or hogs to butcher, people are proud to chip in. It’s a point of honor.”

“We’re family,” Littleberry said, puffing out his chest.

“The little folks are the best neighbors you’d ever want, but when it comes to dealing with the likes of Greycoat—”

“You protect them,” Claudia said. “And by putting you in danger, it appears I’ve put them in danger as well. I assure you, Mr. Underhill, that was never my intention.”

“Underhill!”

Danny sighed. “You got a long hike ahead if you plan to make Salem tonight.”

Claudia stole another glance at her sleeping passenger.

“Elijah needs his rest,” she said. “And it seems I need to help you find a way out of this mess I’ve put you in.”

The Pooka’s Day 3

Greycoat was on his feet in half a second.

“He doesn’t care about your children, Susanna,” Claudia said.

She nursed a block of wood in her hands, no bigger than a brick. It had been carved into a vaguely human form, but stooped and snarling and angry like a wolf. A tiny mirror, flashing in the moonlight, was fixed to the figure’s belly.

What kind of magic is that? Danny wondered.

The mother hesitated. She opened her mouth to say something, but her words couldn’t find their way out.

“Thou doest these deathlings no service, young lady,” Greycoat said as his eyes trained on Claudia. He flexed the fingers of his right hand. His will-o’-the-wisps grew brighter and bluer.

“M-miss Claudia,” the mother whimpered, “Lige….”

She raised a hand, and the mother held her peace. “I’ve no quarrel with you, sir,” she said. “But those children are my responsibility, not his.” She gestured toward Danny with her chin. “And I mean to get them to Salem before daybreak.”

Greycoat smirked.

“Thou wouldst be wise to leave them be,” he said.

“I was about to say the same thing to you.” She began to chant.

“Thou art loyal, no doubt, and brave. Be thou not stupid. Thou canst not—”

Claudia raised her voice. A mist began to swirl around her wooden figurine.

Greycoat whipped forward his hand to unleash a faery blast.

At the same time, something shot from the figurine—a glowing white ball of mist, but it was as fast as a cannonball.

Greycoat flinched. His blast struck harmlessly high in the trees.

Danny rolled out of the way. The mist had taken form: mostly human, but stooped over like something half-bestial and with an angry scowl. It sported a shield of animal hide on its left arm, and in its right hand it held a war club. It was on Greycoat in a heartbeat, pounding at the elf and driving him back from the cabin door.

Timothy stood stunned. Danny leaped forward and scooped the boy up in his arms.

“This way!” he called to big sister. He grabbed her by the collar and hauled her to the cabin door.

Littleberry just beat him inside. The little person had Claudia’s satchel. He spied where the injured man lay on the floor and hurried to his side. Three other little folk were already gathered around him.

“Tend to your brother,” Danny told the girl. In a second, he was back outside.

By oak, ash, and thorn, he thought. What next?

Greycoat was fending off the mist-man with his sword. The side of his head was swollen and bloody, and he held his left arm close to his body.

Danny couldn’t help but enjoy the beating this strange woman was giving his landlord. Then realization set in.

I am in so much trouble!

He had no love for his landlord, but he sure didn’t need Greycoat’s buddy the Erlking as an enemy.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” he called. “There’s no need for—”

“Out of my way, pooka!” Claudia thundered. She advanced on Greycoat with steely determination in her eyes, which never left the mist-man she was controlling.

Greycoat fell to one knee.

“C-can’t we just talk about all this?”

Claudia chanted another command. The mist-man hoisted Greycoat like a sack of potatoes and caught him in a headlock. Claudia smacked him on the hand with her walking stick. He dropped his sword, and she kicked it away.

She walked around the elf and the mist-man, tracing a circle in the ground with the tip of her stick, chanting as she went. Then she reached into a pocket on her skirt, pulled out a small pouch, and strewed a fine, silvery powder around the perimeter.

As she finished her chant, the air shimmered: her magic circle came to life. The mist-man dissolved into fog and blew away. Greycoat’s orbs of faery fire vanished just as quickly.

Greycoat surged forward, but hit an invisible barrier where Claudia had drawn her circle. He recoiled as if from a hot stovetop.

“Underhill!” he spat.

“N-now… Now, Mr. Greycoat…” Danny started. “This lady, sh-she ain’t…I mean, I ain’t never seen her before…and—”

“Get me out of here!”

“Do it and face my hunter.” Claudia held up her figurine. Danny jumped back.

“She’s bluffing!” Greycoat insisted. “No deathling witch can throw that much magic. She’s spent.”

“You’re welcome to test the man’s theory, Mr. Underhill,” she said. The rumble in her voice shook Danny to the core. “I wouldn’t recommend it.”

Claudia glanced toward the cabin. “I need to see about Elijah. Invite me in.”

Danny’s eyes bounced between Claudia and Greycoat. Even injured, he was seething with anger. “M-miss Claudia, I—”

“Now.”

The Pooka’s Day 2

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.

“T-Timofy.”

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.

Claudia appeared.